TV comic genius 6: Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?

 

© BBC

 

I’ve always wanted to write about the BBC TV sitcom Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads (1973-74) but never got around to it.  However, after the death the other day of Likely Lads star Rodney Bewes, this seemed an appropriate moment to sit down at my computer and ruminate about the show.

 

The work of the excellent screenwriting partnership Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads was not only one of the funniest things broadcast by the BBC during the 1970s, but also one of the most wistful and socially observant.  It was a rarity too in that it was a sequel that was better than the original – for there’d been a previous incarnation of the show, simply entitled The Likely Lads, which ran for twenty episodes and three series from 1964 to 1966.  (Thanks to some idiotic wiping of tapes done in the BBC’s archives, twelve of those twenty episodes have been lost.  But the surviving eight can now be watched on Youtube.)

 

© BBC

 

Filmed in black and white and mostly on studio sets, the original 1960s Likely Lads looks primitive by today’s standards but remains amusing and interesting.  Its first episode begins with two working-class lads from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Bob Ferris (Bewes) and Terry Collier (James Bolam) returning from a holiday in Spain that’s been their first-ever taste of life abroad.  Bob is rhapsodising about the wine, cuisine, stylish clothes and – being a horny lad in his early 20s – exotic ladies he’s encountered.  Terry, though, has spent the holiday guzzling English beer and fish and chips and pursuing ‘English birds’ at the resort.  (He struck it lucky with one ‘Rita from Barrow-on-Furness’.)  Indeed, the first five minutes of the original Likely Lads set the tone of everything that follows.  Both Bob and Terry are working class, but Bob yearns for something more sophisticated than the factory (Ellison’s Electrical) that employs them and the pubs and dancehalls that constitute their social life.  The unreconstructed Terry has no such ambition.  He enjoys life as it is, thank you very much.  Somehow, you get the impression that Terry is going to be the happier one in the long term.

 

By the end of the Likely Lads’ third series, in 1966, Bob is so frustrated with his life in Newcastle that he joins the army, hoping to see more of the world (and, no doubt, to hook up with a few more exotic foreign ladies).  Terry pours scorn on his decision but soon realises he can’t face life at home without his old mate and he enlists too.  In the show’s last minutes, Terry discovers that Bob has just been discharged on account of having flat feet, which means he’ll have to spend the next few years in uniform alone.  It ends with a shot of Terry being whisked off into the distance in the back of an army truck while Bob watches apologetically.  And that’s it until 1973 and the advent of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads.

 

Whatever… begins with Terry finally out of the army and back in Newcastle, where Bob is about to get married to his long-term girlfriend, Thelma.  A character even more socially driven than Bob, Thelma is excellently played by Brigit Forsythe – she portrays her as a hard taskmaster, yes, but not an unlikeable shrew and even gives her a certain sassiness.  Bob has also left the factory and gone on to a better job in a building firm and he’s about to start living in a new, upmarket housing estate where, snorts Terry, “the only thing that tells you apart from your neighbours is the colour of your curtains.”

 

Thus, Bob – now sporting collar-length hair, a kipper tie and a big-lapelled pinstripe suit and looking worryingly like Laurence and Tony in Mike Leigh’s 1977 TV adaptation of Abigail’s Party – seems to have finally achieved his dream.  He’s gone up in the world.

 

© BBC

 

I’ve seen modern-day commentators describe Bob as a symbol of Thatcherism, but that theory doesn’t hold water because Whatever… aired years before Margaret Thatcher came to power.  Rather, Bob has simply been able to take advantage of the social mobility that was accessible to some working-class people at that time.  How long ago that seems now.

 

Predictably, what follows is a comedy of manners as Terry, more boorishly set-in-his-ways than ever, goes crashing about the comfortable middle-class world that Bob and Thelma are trying to build for themselves.  The night before Bob and Thelma’s wedding, for example, Terry’s antics inadvertently land him and his old mate in a police cell.  But things are more complex than that.  Despite Bob’s constant carping about Terry’s old-school attitudes and lack of finesse, he’s obviously not that happy with his new, improved situation.  He often finds middle-class life suffocating and envies Terry’s devil-may-care freedom.  And he doesn’t put up much of a fight whenever Terry tempts him to let his hair down for old times’ sake.

 

Whatever… is also imbued with poignant nostalgia.  By now Bob and Terry are in their thirties, and not only is their youth slipping away – as the world changes, so too are the things and places associated with their youth.  This inspires episodes like Storm in a Tea Chest, where the space-conscious Thelma forces Bob to chuck out all his prized childhood possessions like his scout cap and Rupert the Bear annuals, or The Great Race, where Bob and Terry try to re-enact a boyhood bicycle race from Newcastle to Berwick-on-Tweed near the Scottish Border.  (Both of them end up cheating like hell.)

 

© BBC

 

The show feels special too because it’s set in Newcastle.  Unlike most BBC sitcoms of the 1970s, it doesn’t take place in London or the Home Counties and isn’t full of characters rattling away in posh Received Pronunciation or watered-down TV-Cockney accents.  That said, while Newcastle is visually prominent in the show – which features some location filming, unlikely the studio-bound 1964-66 Likely Lads – it’s not exactly aurally prominent.  Most of the characters don’t speak with genuine Newcastle accents, but with rather generic ‘north-of-England’ ones.  This suggests 1970s British TV executives feared their viewing public weren’t ready to hear the Geordie accent in all its full-on, Viz-comic-style glory.  At least Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais rectified the situation later with their much-loved show Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (1983-84 and 2002-4).

 

Incidentally, Bewes was from the West Riding of Yorkshire, while Bolam was born in Sunderland.  And as any Makem will tell you, Sunderland might be close to Newcastle, but they definitely aren’t the same place.

 

In 1976, two years after Whatever… ended on television, a movie version was released.  The film is a hit-and-miss affair, although by the standards of cinematic spinoffs from British TV sitcoms, which are usually terrible, it’s not bad.  One memorable sequence sees Bob and Terry go for a final pint in their favourite boozer before it gets torn down by the developers.  The whole neighbourhood around it is being flattened too and they have to trudge across a near-apocalyptic wasteland to get to the pub.  The movie also contains the great lines: “In the chocolate box of life, the top layer’s already gone… And someone’s pinched the orange cream from the bottom”; and “I’d offer you a beer, but I’ve only got six cans.”  Guess which line was said by Bob and which by Terry.

 

© BBC

 

In subsequent decades, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais talked about reviving the series again with Bob and Terry now middle-aged.  They’d even worked out a scenario for a new show whereby Terry, through a lottery-win or a big compensation pay-out, has become stinking rich; whereas poor old Bob has gone bankrupt and is on the breadline.  However, James Bolam was unwilling to play Terry again and the idea never came to fruition.  (Since the 1970s, rumours have abounded about Bolam and Bewes being locked in a bitter feud.  However, in the wake of Bewes’ death, Bolam has denied that this was ever the case.)

 

Post-Likely Lads, Rodney Bewes concentrated on theatrical work and during the 1990s performed one-man stage versions of George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody (1892) and Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (1889), both of which he brought to the Edinburgh Festival.  In the late 1990s I was living in Edinburgh and during one festival I got into the habit of having lunch in a bar-restaurant downstairs from a venue where Bewes performed every morning.  A couple of times he materialised on a bar-stool a yard or two along the counter from me, where he’d sign autographs for and chat to people who’d just been to his show.  I couldn’t believe the number of people who asked him how Terry and Thelma were getting on – who seemingly didn’t grasp that this was Rodney Bewes, not Bob Ferris, sitting in front of them.

 

Then again, The Likely Lads and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads addressed themes that are significant for all of us: the frustrations of trying and failing to have fun when you’re young and, when you’re older, the frustrations of feeling stuck in a rut while the world changes mercilessly around you.  No wonder some folk confused the onscreen illusion with reality.

 

© BBC

 

Lynch mob

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

I’ve now spent a week trying to digest the third season of Twin Peaks, which ended its eighteen-episode run on September 3rd.

 

It would be an understatement to call this third season long-awaited.  Fans of Twin Peaks, the always oddball, sometimes barmy, occasionally confounding TV crime series (when it wasn’t being a soap opera, or comedy, or horror story, or science-fiction drama) have spent a quarter-century desperately waiting for it.  Twin Peaks originally aired in 1990 and 1991, created by David Lynch and Mark Frost and sporadically directed by Lynch.  For this 2017 revival, Lynch directed all the episodes himself.

 

One phrase that’s appeared in many reviews of Twin Peaks 3 has been “like nothing else on television.”  And for once I find myself in agreement with the critics.  This new season has been different from anything else you’ve seen on your TV or are likely to see on it – except, perhaps, when that TV is showing a movie by David Lynch.

 

Here is a list of reasons why Twin Peaks 3 has been so remarkable.  If you haven’t seen the show, I should warn you that many spoilers lie ahead.  Mind you, if you haven’t seen it, you also won’t understand a word I’m talking about.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

The Evolution of the Arm

Part of the weird flora and fauna of the Black Lodge – the Twin Peaks netherworld – the Evolution of the Arm is a tree that crackles with electricity, has a talking brain-like bulb at the top and barks unilluminating things like “253, time and time again!” and “Non-existent!” at Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), who’s trapped in the Lodge.  Later, after Coop returns to the human world, the Arm sprouts up from a pavement to help him fight off diminutive assassin Ike the Spike (Christophe Zajac-Denek) and gives more coherent advice: “Squeeze his hand off!  Squeeze his hand off!”

 

The thing in the glass box

In an early indication that Twin Peaks 3 was going to be less cosy than the original TV series – and closer to the visceral tone of the movie-cum-prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) – the first two episodes feature a strange experiment involving a big glass box and a mass of surveillance equipment that eventually conjures up a phantom thing.  Unfortunately for the guy monitoring the experiment – who’s inopportunely chosen this moment to have it off with his girlfriend – the thing is apparently equipped with kitchen-blender fingers.  It proceeds to reduce their heads to bloody confetti.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

The giant tin can in space

Episode three sees Coop out of the Black Lodge and in pursuit of his evil doppelganger, Bad Coop, who’s back on earth.  But it begins with a phantasmagorical, dialogue-free twenty-minute sequence where he ends up in what appears to be a giant tin can floating through space.  Crewing the tin can is a strange Asian lady who doesn’t have any eyes; and later someone called the American Girl, played by Phoebe Augustine, who was Ronette Pulanski in the original series.  The Girl holds up her watch to show it’s 2:53, which sheds light – not a lot of light, admittedly – on that statement by the Evolution of the Arm.

 

Mr Jackpots

It transpires that there’s a third version of Coop on the go, Dougie Jones, who’s a replica created by Bad Coop (presumably as a decoy to throw people off his scent).  Good Coop replaces Dougie when he arrives back on earth and the replacement process is so traumatic that Coop / Dougie subsequently spends several episodes with his brain practically wiped clean.  The scene where he shambles into a casino and, thanks to some lingering Black Lodge voodoo, wins jackpot after jackpot on the fruit machines whilst shouting the one word of human language he’s retained – “Hellooo!” – is hilarious.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

Deputy Hawk and the Log Lady

In a season where most of the old Twin Peaks cast seem embittered, enfeebled or unhinged, the still wise and resolute Deputy Hawk (Michael Horse) is a reassuring presence.  It’s fitting that Lynch and Frost use him in the scenes featuring actress Catherine Coulson, who passed away early in the season’s production.  As the ailing Margaret Lanterman, aka the Log Lady, she phones him several times to relay some last messages from her trusty log.  Hawk’s words at the end of their final conversation – a simple “Goodbye, Margaret” – are quietly heart-breaking.

 

Dr Jacoby’s shovels

Dr Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn) is now a shock jock broadcasting nightly rants from his caravan to an audience of, well, two – crazy one-eyed Nadine Hurley (Wendy Robey) and permanently-stoned Jerry Horne (David Patrick Kelly).  When not ranting, Jacoby advertises gold-painted shovels which can be yours for $29.99 and are ideal for shovelling yourself “out of the shit and into the truth.”

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

Janey-E

Janey-E is the wife of Dougie Jones.  Amusingly, when Good Coop replaces Dougie and becomes catatonic, Janey-E – played by the marvellous Naomi Watts – seems not to notice anything wrong with her husband.  Or she simply turns a blind to eye to it, since the almost-magical aura of goodness surrounding Coop and the powers of the Black Lodge cause money to pour into her household for the first time ever.  And unlike virtually everyone else, she gets closure at the end of Twin Peaks 3 because Good Coop thoughtfully makes another copy of himself and sends him to be Janey-E’s beau for good.

 

The Mitchum Brothers and Candie, Mandie and Sandie

Good Coop’s superhuman decency also manages to rub off on brutal / comical mobsters Bradley and Rodney Mitchum (Robert Knepper and Jim Belushi).  The casino-owning pair start off wanting to murder his ass – see ‘Mr Jackpots’ above – but end up totally enamoured with him, treating him like their long-lost third brother.  Further hilarity is provided by their trio of pink-clad molls Candie, Mandie and Sandie, who are always on hand – even after a holocaustic face-off between good and evil – to serve up platters of expensive finger-food.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

The Nine Inch Nails

As a diversion from the narrative weirdness, Lynch and Frost have the Roadhouse, the bar / concert venue in the town of Twin Peaks, host a musical act late in every episode.  Given its remote location, the place attracts some unfeasibly big names: Julee Cruise, the Cactus Blossoms, Rebekah Del Rio (who has Moby on guitar) and one Edward Louis Severson – Eddie Vedder to you and me.  Best of all is the performance in Episode 8 by fearsome electro-metal juggernaut Nine Inch Nails, who are introduced by the MC as the Nine Inch Nails, no less.

 

The puking zombie car-passenger

Deputy Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) tries to calm a hysterical woman at the wheel of a stalled car and a convulsing, vomiting zombie-like creature slowly rises out of the seat beside her.  This is never explained and never referred to again.  A perfect Lynchian moment in other words.

 

Harry Dean Stanton sings

Well, he does.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

David Bowie is now a teapot

Yes.  David Bowie is now a teapot.  Those are six words I never thought I’d find myself writing.

 

Wally Brando

Modelling himself on Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953), the motorbiking, leather-clad and free-spirited Wally Brando (Michael Cera) is the offspring of lovable dolts Andy and Lucy Brennan (Harry Goaz and Kimmy Robertson).  Wally’s utterances about life on the road are not as profound as he thinks they are.  “My shadow is always with me.  Sometimes ahead.  Sometimes behind.  Sometimes to the left.  Sometimes to the right.  Except on cloudy days.  And at night.”

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

Audrey’s dance

Once young and sultry, now middle-aged and deeply unhappy, Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) is glimpsed in several episodes pleading with her strange husband to be taken to the Roadhouse.  When they finally get there, in Episode 16, there’s a sublimely eerie scene where the crowd clears from the floor, an orchestra break into the spooky Audrey’s Dance from the original series and Audrey, appropriately, starts dancing to it…  What happens next is, shall we say, mysterious.

 

Freddie versus Bob

Only in Twin Peaks could you see a cataclysmic battle between good and evil where a Cockney ragamuffin called Freddie (Jake Wardle), wearing a strength-enhancing green gardening glove, has a slugfest with a giant bubble containing the demonic spirit of Killer Bob (Frank Silva).  It’s not exactly Thor versus Loki or Superman versus General Zod.  But that’s probably the point.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

The long bits where nothing much happens

Whole minutes pass while Good Coop / Dougie does nothing but draw ladders and zigzags on a sheet of paper…  Or while a Roadhouse staff-member does nothing but sweep the floor…  Or while Dr Jacoby does nothing but spray-paint his shovels.  In this modern era where everything on film and TV has to move fast, where narratives have to be urgent, where audiences’ attention spans are assumed to be tiny, this seems like heresy.  But in fact, it feels oddly soothing.

 

The final episode

I had a suspicion that Twin Peaks 3 was going to end on a downer and, yip, Lynch and Frost rose – or descended – to the occasion.  I didn’t massively enjoy the way it finished, with Coop going back in time to right the original terrible wrong at the heart of the Twin Peaks universe and prevent the killing of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), only to find himself trapped with an older, careworn and apparently murderous version of Laura in some chilly alternative universe where people aren’t who they’re supposed to be.  But with its air of existential sadness and clammy menace, I certainly won’t forget it for a long time.  Another result for David Lynch, then.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

No call to get snippy with Fargo

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

If I had one problem with Fargo (1996), the crime / thriller / comedy / drama movie written, produced and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, it was that it was over too soon.  Fargo creates a strange, mesmerizing world that’s set amid the white winter wastes of North Dakota and Minnesota and that rings with the music of the inhabitants’ whimsical speech patterns (“Yah, you betcha!”).  It’s a bleak and cruel world where a hapless shmuck with no aptitude for criminality (William H. Macy) tries his hand at criminality anyway and gets mercilessly punished for it, with bad luck and his own incompetence landing him in an ever-deepening morass of violence and bloodshed.  But it’s simultaneously a cozy and life-affirming world where the whole vicious mess is sorted out by a resourceful and heavily pregnant policewoman (Francis McDormand) whose most aggressive line is a schoolmarm-ish “You’ve no call to get snippy with me!”

 

I found Fargo’s world so captivating that I felt disappointed when after 98 minutes it ended – though admittedly it ended spectacularly, with Steve Buscemi being force-fed into a wood-chipping machine.

 

When it was announced a few years ago that author, screenwriter and producer Noah Hawley was masterminding a ten-episode, ten-hour TV version of Fargo, I should’ve been pleased at the prospect of getting six times the dose of Fargo-the-movie.  But I felt wary.  For one thing, I thought, surely even the best TV programme-maker in the world would struggle to capture the peculiar spirit of a Coen Brothers movie.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

And I had mixed feelings when I watched the first episodes of the first season of Fargo in 2014.  It was enjoyable, yes, but I was dissatisfied at how it took key character-types from the movie – the bungling loser becoming a criminal (Martin Freeman instead of Macy), the shrewd but gentle-natured police-lady (Allison Tolman instead of McDormand) – and simply tweaked their situations a bit.  Hence, Freeman goes through the same vortex of panic and misery that Macy goes through, but unlike his movie counterpart he apparently emerges from it stronger and richer; while Tolman isn’t pregnant, but the wife of one of her police colleagues is.  The show wasn’t a carbon-copy of the original, then, but it felt like a considerable imitation.

 

However, what makes a difference in season one of Fargo, from the off, is Billy Bob Thornton’s performance as Lorne Malvo.  A fearsome hitman, Malvo doesn’t just kill folk.  He also enjoys manipulating and corrupting people whom he comes across, as he does early on with Lester Nygaard, Freeman’s character.  It’s no surprise when at one point he mentions himself being in the Garden of Eden.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

In fact, after a few episodes Fargo season one seemed to escape from the shadow of its cinematic predecessor.  It became unafraid to take risks and do its own thing and generally grew more confident and rewarding.  I particularly liked how in episode 8 it suddenly hopped forward a year or so from its original setting of 2006 and the characters and their circumstances were suddenly transformed – Tolman’s character, Molly, becoming a wife and expectant mother, Lester Nygaard ceasing to be a sniveling weasel and morphing into a successful salesman who seems to have it made.  Though inevitably, fate intervenes when Nygaard pops off to a Las Vegas awards ceremony to pick up a prize and inadvertently crosses paths with Malvo again.

 

Fargo season one became pretty good, then, but it was never perfect.  As the cringing Nygaard, Freeman met the bill physically but faltered somewhat with the Minnesota accent.  Also, the script’s fondness for introducing character duos – not only a pair of other hitmen called Mr Wrench and Mr Numbers, but also a pair of bumbling FBI agents called Agent Pepper and Agent Budge – made me wonder what other duos might appear before the show was over.  Maybe Mr Kidd and Mr Wint from Diamonds are Forever (1971)?

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

Season one was boosted by the presence of Keith Carradine in the role of Lou, Molly’s dad and a former policeman.  In one scene, he describes a violent case he experienced in 1979 where there were dead bodies “one after another… probably if you stacked ’em high, you could’ve climbed to the second floor.”  Fargo season two, shown in 2015, tells the story of that case with Patrick Wilson playing a younger version of Lou.  The reason for the multitude of corpses is that 1979 sees gang warfare break out in North Dakota, triggered when the Kansas City syndicate decides to muscle in on a gangster family who’ve been running Fargo city’s underworld for generations.  In a typical twist, these gangsters aren’t Italian in origin but German.  They’re the Gerhardts, fond of eating schnitzel and reminiscing about their forefathers’ exploits on the losing side in World War I.

 

The Gerhardts contain wise heads (Jean Smart, Angus Sampson) and less wise heads (Jeffrey Donovan, Kieran Culkan), though predictably it’s the less wise heads who have the biggest influence on events and bullets are soon flying.  Complicating the situation is a giddy beautician called Peggy, played by Kirsten Dunst – this season’s variation on the hapless-schmuck-getting-mired-in-criminality-and-chaos.  She accidentally smashes her car into a key member of the Gerhardt family one night and instead of driving to the nearest hospital drives home with his bloodied body still sprawled across the bonnet.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

While the first season poked fun at the American Dream, thanks to Lester Nygaard going from zero to hero in his profession after he’s murdered one person and been an accomplice in the murder of a couple of others, season two is explicit in its satirical target.  It’s set at the dawn of the Reagan era, when big corporate businesses got carte blanche to stomp the life out of their smaller competitors, something symbolized by the unequal battle between the Kansas City syndicate and Fargo’s Gerhardts.  Underlining the satire is an appearance in episode 5 by the soon-to-be president Ronald Reagan (played by Bruce Campbell – yay!) who’s campaigning in the neighbourhood.  Lou, who’s a Vietnam veteran, is assigned to Reagan’s security detail and the pair of them start chatting and swapping war memories, though Lou soon realizes that his befuddled charge is talking about the war movies he made as an actor.

 

While the ruthless, corporate way the world is heading sounds the death-knell for the Gerhardts, Fargo season two is not without optimism.  Hope for the future is embodied in Lou’s family unit – his ailing but loving wife (Cristin Milioti), his kindly father-in-law (Ted Danson) and his little daughter, whom we know will grow up to be the heroine of season one.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

Fargo’s second season is splendid television – as good as Hannibal (2013-15), True Detective (2014-15) or anything else I’ve seen in recent years.  It’s not, I should say, a straightforward gangster thriller because it’s peppered with strange Coen-esque moments.  Along the way we’re treated to black-and-white clips from fictional Ronald Reagan movies and – in a nod to that late-1970s blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – a giant UFO that appears at crucial moments in the plot.  If you love the whacked-out whimsy of the Coen-verse, as I do, you’ll find the visitations of this UFO delightful.  If you don’t, you may feel like putting your foot through your TV set.

 

Season three of Fargo aired earlier this year and I’ve just finished watching a box-set of it.  Obviously, it had a lot to live up to.  Noah Hawley bravely doesn’t try to emulate the slap-bang action of the previous season and dials things down – even when mass bloodshed occurs in season three, it largely does so offscreen.  The result is a lower-key variation on the Fargo formula, with more bleakness and ambiguity and a suggestion that even the very best characters may not be living happily ever after.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

Set in 2010, the third season starts with two business partners, Emmit (Ewan McGregor, whose Minnesota accent is more convincing than Martin Freeman’s) and Sy (Michael Stuhlbarg), discovering that the contract they signed with a shady company that lent them money and bailed them out during the economic crisis two years earlier has some troubling small-print.  One day, an emissary from the shady company called V.M. Varga (David Thewlis) turns up out of the blue and informs them that he’s their new partner.  He’ll be making changes to their operations and expanding them into some new and unorthodox areas.

 

Emmit also has to deal with his brother Ray, who’s played too by McGregor.  Jacob-and-Esau-style, Ray blames Emmit for cheating him out of his birthright (a collection of valuable stamps) and dooming him to a deadbeat existence as a parole officer.   Ray is urged on in this sibling quarrel by his girlfriend Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an ex-felon who’s actually one of his parolees.  When the embittered Ray blackmails another of his parolees into burgling Emmit’s house for him, we enter that now-familiar Fargo territory where Things Start to Go Wrong.

 

There are some hilarious early scenes where Emmit and Sy watch helplessly while their company is taken over by the mysterious but clearly criminal Varga – whom Thewlis basically plays as the devil, though a devil with the manner of a world-weary, disheveled schoolmaster who’s constantly having to explain things in very simple terms to very stupid schoolchildren.  But the humour rapidly sours.  Although they’re a pair of self-satisfied and not-very-bright shysters, neither Emmit nor Sy are that bad and neither of them deserve the tribulations that are soon visited upon them, Job-like.  Sy, a Coen-esque character with the demeanor (and effectiveness) of an angry chihuahua, is touchingly loyal to Emmit and you feel quite upset at his eventual fate.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

Similar ambiguity exists elsewhere.  Ray is an oaf whose petulant actions result in misery and death, but he at least shows genuine love for Nikki.  Meanwhile, Nikki is capable of resorting to murder to have her way, but when Varga gets forcefully involved in the Ray-Emmit feud and she declares war against him – she even enlists the help of the hitman Mr Wrench from season one – we find ourselves cheering her on.

 

Representing the forces of goodness this time is Carrie Coon as police chief Gloria Burgle.  Compared with Alison Tolman and Patrick Wilson in the previous seasons, she has a smaller support base – a 13-year-old son and a policewoman buddy (Olivia Sandoval) and that’s about it.  Her husband has left her and her stepfather is dead before the end of episode one.  And what she’s up against is frightening.  While the Kansas City syndicate in season two represented big business, Thewlis’s Varga, a man apparently without identity or history but able to commandeer computers and the Internet to do whatever he wants, is symbolic of the vast, practically-omnipotent multinationals that exist today and are richer and more powerful than most countries.

 

Hawley pushes the envelope with season three.  One episode contains animated segments involving a wandering robot – Gloria discovers that her late stepfather once wrote science-fiction stories under another name, belatedly reads one of his novels and visualises its plot in cartoon form.  At other points, the show approaches the supernatural weirdness of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990-91, 2017) with Ray Wise (who was in Twin Peaks) turning up as a character who might be God to David Thewlis’s devil.  In this morally-unstable universe, however, God’s appearances are less frequent and consistent than those of his adversary.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

The early episodes of Fargo season three suffer from pacing problems, when more could be happening and happening more quickly.  But it does build to a suspenseful climax and the scene where Gloria and Varga finally come face to face is quietly brilliant.  It’s not as great as season two, but it’s great in parts.

 

And near the end of the final episode, after so many hours of Fargo-related TV, when Jeff Russo’s melancholic but majestic theme music swirled up on the soundtrack, do you know what?  I thought, shit.  It’s still over too soon.

 

Britain’s number-two pub argument settled

 

From camannwordsmith.com

 

Tom Baker.

 

There.  That’s conclusively settled an argument that flares up regularly in pubs the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, especially after the participants have sunk a few pints.  And after they’ve had their first big argument, about who is the best James Bond.  (I sorted that one out a few months ago.  It’s Sean Connery.  See here: http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6620.)

 

The argument this time, of course, is: who is the best Doctor Who?  Incidentally, I suspect it’s been raging a lot lately, stoked up by news that the most recent incumbent in the role, Peter Capaldi, has decided to call it a day and the BBC have started looking for a replacement to play the much-loved TV Time Lord.

 

It’s a tricky question.  There are essentially three types of Doctor: the crazy, eccentric ones (Patrick Troughton, Tom Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Matt Smith), the stern, grumpy ones (William Hartnell, Jon Pertwee, Colin Baker, Christopher Eccleston, John Hurt, Capaldi) and the swoon-some pretty-boy ones (Peter Davison, Paul McGann, David Tennant).  And as people are naturally inclined towards one of the three groups, the crazy, the stern or the swoon-some, it’s difficult to judge all 13 contenders without bias.

 

Anyway, here’s my ranking of the actors who’ve played Doctor Who, from best to worst.  This is strictly an official list and I’ve avoided folk who’ve played the Doctor in projects outside the TV-show canon like Peter Cushing, Trevor Martin, Richard E. Grant, David Warner, Geoffrey Bayldon and Rowan Atkinson.

 

In descending order, we have:

 

Tom Baker

Matt Smith

Jon Pertwee

Patrick Troughton

Peter Capaldi

John Hurt

Christopher Eccleston

William Hartnell

Colin Baker

Paul McGann

Sylvester McCoy

David Tennant

Peter Davison

 

© BBC

 

To be honest, in my opinion, anyone who doesn’t think that Tom Baker is the best Doctor Who needs his or her head examined.  He came crashing into the series in 1975, with his mellifluous voice, wide eyes, curly hair, toothy grin, wide-brimmed hat and super-long scarf, and made the role his own.  When The Simpsons do a Doctor Who gag these days, it invariably features Baker’s fourth Doctor.  And when the show celebrated its 50th anniversary in November 2013 with a feature-length episode called Day of the Doctor, it was Baker who appeared as the show’s sole representative from the old days.  Actually, there was no way they could not have got the mighty Tom involved in the show’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

 

© BBC

 

Number two in my list is the second-most-recent Doctor, Matt Smith.  I have to say that back in 2009, when it was announced that Matt Smith would take the role over from David Tennant, my expectations weren’t high.  Largely this was because Smith was only 26 years old at the time, which seemed ridiculously young for any actor attempting to play the Doctor.  However, I was pleasantly surprised because I thought Matt Smith’s Doctor was delightful.  He managed to be endearingly clumsy and child-like, yet also serene and wise; compassionate and yet plausibly alien.  Smith’s unusual physique, with a face that looked like it’d been chiselled by an Easter Island stonemason, helped greatly.

 

The third actor in the list is also the third actor to play the Doctor chronologically, Jon Pertwee.  Among Who fans today Pertwee is a divisive figure.  His detractors accuse him of turning the cerebral and pacifistic Doctor into a swanky action hero.  He attired himself flamboyantly in a velvet smoking jacket, frilly shirt and cape.  He had a Jeremy Clarkson-like predilection for driving fast, if vintage, motor cars.  And he had no qualms about thumping anyone who antagonised him – which was Jeremy Clarkson-like too, come to think of it.

 

To those allegations I can only reply, who cares?  When I was a kid during Pertwee’s tenure in the early 1970s, his impact was immense.  For me and my school-mates and probably everyone else in Britain under the age of the twelve at the time, he was the Greatest Bloke in the Universe.  Not only was he unafraid of alien monsters, but he karate-chopped the bastards – wow!  (Though technically speaking, the martial art he was adept in was really an alien one called Vensuvian Aikido.)

 

He was also equipped with marvellous eyebrows that became prominent at the point in each serial when the latest, hideous alien monster revealed itself.  Pertwee would customarily respond to it with a splendid reaction shot, eyebrows climbing off the top of his forehead.  Like so:

 

© BBC

 

Next comes Patrick Troughton, who as well as being the much-admired second Doctor was also a long-serving character actor, often in British horror films like The Curse of Frankenstein (1956), The Phantom of the Opera (1963), The Black Torment (1964), Scars of Dracula (1970), Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973) and The Omen (1976).  In that last one he played a priest who got skewered by a lightning rod falling off a church, a moment that still chills me.  Movies where Doctor Who gets killed I always find hard-core.

 

Troughton’s Doctor was impish and dishevelled, part hobo and part hippy, with a fleeting resemblance to Mo in the Three Stooges.  His influence on subsequent doctors (especially Matt Smith) has been considerable and it’s just a pity that many of the episodes featuring him have been lost.  Before 1978 the BBC had no policy about archiving the tapes of its old shows and as a result they wiped much of the early Doctor Who.  Stupid sods.

 

Then we have the current but soon-to-depart Doctor, Glaswegian Peter Capaldi.  At first I struggled to accept Capaldi in the role.  His abrasively Scottish take on it put me in mind of Malcolm Tucker, the ferocious and spectacularly foul-mouthed spin doctor he played in the satirical comedy show The Thick of It (2005-2012).  Indeed, it was difficult to think of him as anyone other than Tucker.  However, in 2015, I saw him give a tour-de-force performance in an episode called Heaven Sent.  It was so good it finally purged me of all memories of psychotic profanity-spewing Caledonian spin doctors.  And on the strength of that I’ve bumped him up to number five in the list.

 

© BBC

 

Long-term fans of the show often grump about how the modern, revived version of it has cast younger actors in the title role.  But Nu-Who, as it’s nicknamed, has actually featured two older Doctors: the 58-year-old Capaldi and my sixth-favourite Doctor, John Hurt, who alas passed away last month at the age of 77.  In 2013 he turned up as a surprise version of the character called the War Doctor whom nobody had known about.  Until then, the Doctor had kept this incarnation of himself secret because the War Doctor had done something very un-Doctorly.  He’d saved the universe by ending the most cataclysmic war it’d ever known, between the Daleks and Time Lords – but in doing so he’d had to commit genocide and wipe both the Daleks and Time Lords out.  As well as being a bad-ass Doctor, Hurt, who appeared in 2013’s Day of the Doctor alongside Matt Smith and David Tenant, was amusingly curmudgeonly and he kept berating the modern Doctors Smith and Tenant for being young, silly, flirty and frivolous.  In other words, writer / showrunner Stephen Moffat made Hurt the mouthpiece of all those grumpy long-term Doctor Who fans.

 

© BBC

 

The next-best Doctors, in my view, are the two who kick-started the show in its modern and original forms: Christopher Eccleston, who took on the role when the series was revived in 2005; and the venerable William Hartnell, who played the Doctor when it debuted in 1963.  Dour, northern, working class, basically the Ken Loach Doctor, Eccleston gave the character some much-needed street cred and it’s a pity he didn’t remain with the show for more than one season.  That said, he never looked comfortable with the comedic elements of his scripts.

 

Hartnell’s Doctor was starchy, cranky, patriarchal and hard to like.  Yet there are moments from his grainy black-and-white tenure, such as the farewell speech he gives to his granddaughter Susan – “Yes, I shall come back.  Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties.  Just go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine” – that still raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

 

© BBC

 

And now it’s time to take a deep breath.  For I’ve put Colin Baker at number nine in the list, and not last at number thirteen as most people would – just as George Lazenby regularly finishes last in lists of favourite James Bonds.  I’ve always felt the second Baker, and sixth Doctor, had an unfair rap.  When he arrived in the mid-1980s he had some dire scripts to contend with, but those weren’t his fault; and he deserved credit for trying to steer the character back to the irascible one played by William Hartnell.  Unfortunately, for many fans, Colin Baker’s Doctor was a non-starter because of his costume.  For some unfathomable reason the then-producer, John Nathan-Turner, decided to tog him out in an awesomely repulsive multi-coloured coat – probably the worst decision in the show’s history.  Adding insult to injury, poor old Baker then had to suffer the fallout of the second-worst decision in its history, again made by Nathan-Turner, which was casting the ghastly Bonnie Langford as his travelling companion.

 

© BBC

 

Next comes Paul McGann, who played an agreeably Byronic Doctor.  Alas, with only two appearances in the official show – the lame 1996 TV movie that tried to relaunch the series for an American audience, and the 2013 ‘minisode’ Night of the Doctor, a taster for Day of the Doctor, which showed how McGann’s eighth Doctor turned into Hurt’s War Doctor – he didn’t get much chance to make an impression.

 

After McGann comes his predecessor in the role, Sylvester McCoy.  I like McCoy as an actor, but his efforts with Doctor Who in the late 1980s were scuppered by the scripts he got, which were the show’s worst ever.  Indeed, it was around then that I gave up hope and stopped watching it.

 

And now many female Doctor Who fans will shriek in horror because at a lowly twelfth place in my list I’ve put… the gorgeous David Tennant!  Yes, I know that when Tennant played the Doctor the show reached levels of popularity it’d never reached before (and probably won’t ever reach again).  Not only did he have every teenaged girl in Britain tuning in to watch, but he probably had all their mums tuning in too.  But I found much of Tennant’s portrayal annoying – not just the lovey-dovey stuff that he indulged in with his travelling companion Billie Piper (and seemingly with the main female guest star in every other episode), but also the self-pitying whininess that increased the longer he was in the role.  No wonder cynical fans started referring to him as ‘Doctor Emo’.  It’s telling how the episodes of the show that got most acclaim during his reign were the ones he was hardly in (Blink) or the ones where he played the Doctor out of his usual character (Human Nature and The Waters of Mars).

 

© BBC

 

In bottom place I have Peter Davison, the fifth, early-1980s Doctor, whom I just found young, bland and ineffectual.  At the time he was best known for playing Tristan Farnon, one of the vets in the wholesome Sunday-evening drama All Creatures Great and Small, and once he stepped into the Doctor’s shoes he sneeringly became known as ‘the Vet in Space’.   No offence to Davison – I’ve seen him, middle-aged, in more recent shows like The Last Detective (2003-2007) and Matt Berry’s hilarious Toast of London (2012-present), and thought he was good.  Back then, though, Davison was simply too young to give the role much gravity.

 

And there ends my ranking of the 13 Doctors, which has been scrupulously fair and unbiased.  Even if I did stick all the pretty-boy ones at the bottom. 

 

The FBI guys

 

© CIBY Pictures / New Line Cinema

 

Ask me at least two days of the week what my all-time favourite TV show is and I’ll say Twin Peaks, the weird, whacky and wonderful crime drama / mystery / soap opera / offbeat comedy / horror series created by David Lynch and Mark Frost and sometimes directed by Lynch that ran for two seasons from 1990 to 1991.

 

Admittedly, I agree with the consensus opinion that the show dropped in quality during its second season after the big question that’d propelled its plot until then was answered – i.e. we found out who’d murdered Laura Palmer back at the start of episode one.  But I’m still awfully excited about the news that Lynch and Frost have recently been working on a third season of Twin Peaks, set a quarter-century after the events of the original, which is scheduled for broadcast in May this year.

 

I’m saddened, though, by the recent death of actor Miguel Ferrer, who appeared regularly in the 1990-1991 Twins Peaks and was one of many old cast members recruited again for this year’s revival.  It now looks like Ferrer’s return appearance in the new Twin Peaks, filmed last year, will prove his swansong.

 

© Lynch/Frost Productions / ABC

 

The son of the legendary Hispanic-American stage, film and TV actor José Ferrer and the American singer Rosemary Clooney (George’s aunt), Miguel Ferrer played a character called Albert Rosenfield in the show and made his debut in its second episode.  Albert is an FBI forensic expert summoned to the town of Twin Peaks by his colleague Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) to help him investigate the murder of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee).  The testy, cynical and frequently obnoxious Albert is the yin to the yang of Cooper, who’s a decent, honest and almost psychotically cheerful fellow.  Cooper also seems the only person on the planet who’s capable not only of tolerating Albert but of treating him as a friend.

 

Still, Cooper is mindful enough to advise town sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) about Albert being an acquired taste: “I gotta warn you.  Albert’s lacking in some of the social niceties.”

 

Initially, those social niceties aren’t so much lacking in Albert as non-existent.  He denounces the town as a “slipshod backwater burg” and a “forgotten sinkhole”, to which he’s “travelled thousands of miles and apparently several centuries”, and one that’s full of “morons and halfwits, dolts, dunces, dullards and dumbbells”.  He calls Truman to his face a “chowder-head yokel” and “blistering hayseed.”  Truman responds by punching him so hard that he ends up sprawled on top of the mortuary slab bearing Laura Palmer’s corpse.

 

But, as the show progresses, Albert is allowed some character development.  By the second season, when Truman’s ready to punch him again following another jibe – “You might practise walking without dragging your knuckles on the floor” – he responds to the threat of violence with an impassioned speech explaining that he’s happy to be a knob-end if it helps him in the greater scheme of things, i.e. in the struggle against evil.  And by the way, he’s a committed pacifist.  “While I will admit to a certain cynicism, the fact is that I’m a naysayer and hatchet-man in the fight against violence.  I pride myself in taking a punch and I’ll gladly take another because I choose to live my life in the company of Gandhi and King.  My concerns are global.  I reject absolutely revenge, aggression and retaliation.  The foundation of such a method is love.  I love you, Sheriff Truman.”  No wonder Cooper tells the dumfounded Truman afterwards, “Albert’s path is a strange and difficult one.”

 

Actually, the FBI as it’s portrayed in Twin Peaks is a strange and difficult thing too.  Apparently, it’s staffed by eccentrics and oddballs, admittedly ones with impeccable codes of conduct.  The abrasive-but-idealistic Albert seems almost normal compared to Cooper, with his compulsive habit of talking into a tape recorder, obsession with coffee and cherry pie, predilection for seeking clues in his dreams and generally bizarre investigation techniques, such as ‘the Tibetan Method’ (basically throwing rocks at bottles).

 

© Lynch/Frost Productions / ABC

 

There’s also Gordon Cole, Albert and Cooper’s Regional Bureau Chief, who’s played by David Lynch himself.  He’s partially deaf, with the unfortunate side effect that he himself speaks much too loudly, which when you think about it isn’t a helpful characteristic for an employee of an intelligence agency.  In addition, Gordon is given to such odd behaviour as writing epic poems in honour of meals he’s just eaten and making obtuse statements like, “Cooper, you remind me today of a small Mexican Chihuahua.”

 

And then there’s Agent Denise Bryson (actually from the Drug Enforcement Agency rather than the FBI) who’s played by none other than David Duchovny and who turns up in Twin Peaks after having what we’d call today a ‘gender reassignment’.  Denise, who not-so-long-ago was called Dennis, explains to Cooper that she first donned woman’s clothing whilst working undercover on a sting operation and enjoyed the sensation so much that she decided to go the whole way and become female.

 

© Lynch/Frost Productions / ABC

 

As a transgender character entering the remote, rural town of Twin Peaks, Lynch and Mark Frost can’t resist wringing a few laughs out of Denise’s situation – for instance, stunned expressions when Duchovny first trots into the sheriff’s office in high heels, stockings, skirt and long hair.  But overall, she’s depicted with surprising empathy and respect by the standards of an early 1990s TV show.  She’s shown to be smart, likeable and professional and Cooper and the others immediately accept her as a member of the team.   And she saves Cooper’s neck when he’s being held hostage by the villainous Jean Renault (Michael Parks).  Disguised as a waitress, she smuggles to Cooper a gun that she’s hidden up her skirt.

 

Let’s not forget the additional agents we meet in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, the Lynch-directed movie prequel to the TV show that appeared in cinemas in 1992.  We get Phillip Jeffries, an FBI man who’s been mysteriously missing for two years but who one morning suddenly pops out of a lift at FBI headquarters.  He proceeds to babble gibberish at Cooper, Gordon and Albert: “Who do you think this is, there…?  I found something.  And then there they were!”  Then he narrates a surreal dream montage involving dwarves, killers, masks, disembodied mouths and long-nosed spectres.  And then he vanishes into thin air again.  Making the experience even stranger for the audience is the fact that Phillip Jeffries is played by David Bowie, in the movie for all of three minutes.

 

© CIBY Pictures / New Line Cinema

 

Another musical talent playing an FBI agent and disappearing mysteriously in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is Chris Isaak, who had a big hit with the song Wicked Game.  Early in the sequel, Isaak’s character Chester Desmond is sent to another small town to investigate the murder of another young woman.  We last see Isaak reaching under a trailer to retrieve what looks like the murdered woman’s ring – and then, spookily, he fades out of view.  I find it unsettling that Isaak’s musical career seemed to vanish off the radar about the same time he vanished off the screen in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.  Maybe Lynch knows something about Isaak he hasn’t told the rest of us?

 

The reputation of America’s intelligence, security and law enforcement agencies isn’t exactly spotless.  Indeed, the FBI’s image was severely tarnished by the many years when it had the unsavoury J. Edgar Hoover as its director.  I can’t help but wish that David Lynch had been allowed to run the FBI in real life and he’d hired the likes of Dale Cooper, Albert Rosenfield and Denise Bryson.  It would have meant some very peculiar characters investigating crime in America.  But they’d have been both entertaining and ethical while they did it.

 

© Lynch/Frost Productions / ABC

 

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

 

Death log 2016 – part 1

 

© American International Pictures

 

You may have noticed that one or two people died in 2016.  Here are some folk who passed away this year who’ll be particularly missed at Blood and Porridge.

 

January 10th saw the departure of musical legend and stylistic chameleon David Bowie, who was commemorated in no fewer than three postings on this blog:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6104

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6114

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6130

 

Die Hard (1988)
Directed by John McTiernan
Shown: Alan Rickman

© Silver Pictures / 20th Century Fox

 

The British actor Alan Rickman died four days later.  Rickman’s career, and especially his talent for playing delightfully fiendish villains in movies like Die Hard (1988) and Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (1991), was also celebrated at Blood and Porridge:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6183

 

January 9th saw the passing of American actor Angus Scrimm, who’ll be fondly remembered by horror-film fans for playing the Tall Man in Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm movies.  And Scottish writer Robert Banks Stewart died on January 15th.  Banks Stewart was well-known for creating the TV detective shows Shoestring (1979-80) and Bergerac (1981-91) and he also scripted two of the scariest stories of Tom Baker-era Doctor Who, 1975’s Terror of the Zygons and 1976’s The Seeds of Doom.  The alien monsters in the former adventure, the repulsively slimy and sucker-covered Zygons, proved so popular that forty years later they’re still menacing Peter Capaldi in the revived Doctor Who.

 

© BBC

 

Another British actor to depart in January 2016 was actor Frank Finlay, who passed away on the 30th.  Finlay played Porthos in the classic trilogy of Musketeers films directed by Richard Lester in 1973, 1974 and 1989; Van Helsing in the BBC’s stately adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1977; and Dr Fallada in a less reputable vampire epic, Tobe Hooper’s hilarious Lifeforce (1985).  He also had the curious distinction of playing Inspector Lestrade in two different films where Sherlock Holmes investigates the Jack the Ripper killings, 1965’s A Study in Terror and 1979’s Murder by Decree.  The final day of January saw the death of Irish broadcaster Terry Wogan, whose twinkly-eyed, possibly toupee-bearing visage seemed to symbolise the BBC during the 1980s as much as Ronald McDonald did McDonald’s or Colonel Sanders did the KFC.  Equipped with a soft brogue, gentle wit and inability to take himself or anyone else too seriously, the ubiquitous Wogan could host any ropey old chat-show or game-show and make it entertaining.

 

Italian author Umberto Eco died on February 19th.  I always thought his acclaimed novel The Name of the Rose (1980) was overrated, but at least the film version six years later gave Sean Connery one of his last good film roles.  On February 22nd, the British cinematographer Douglas Slocombe passed away at the venerable age of 103.  Slocombe’s half-century career included such highlights as Dead of Night (1945), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Servant (1963), The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), The Italian Job (1969), The Great Gatsby (1974) and the first three Indiana Jones movies (1981, 84 and 89).  Another great behind-the-scenes man of British cinema, production designer Ken Adam, died on March 10th.  Not only was Adam responsible for the spectacular and now iconic sets of seven James Bond movies between Dr No (1961) and Moonraker (1979), but he designed the War Room in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964), reckoned by Steven Spielberg to be the greatest movie-set ever.

 

© Hawk Films / Columbia Pictures

 

Another Kubrick veteran, the actress Adrienne Corri who appeared in 1971’s A Clockwork Orange, died on March 13th.  Among her other credits was a role in the bloody but fairy tale-like Hammer horror movie Vampire Circus (1972).  Two days later saw the death of Sylvia Anderson, the one-time Mrs Gerry Anderson, co-producer of such classic kid’s puppet TV shows as Stingray (1964-65), Thunderbirds (1965-66), Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-68) and Joe 90 (1968-69) and such adult sci-fi TV shows as UFO (1970)  and Space 1999 (1975-77).  In Thunderbirds, she also provided the voice for the gorgeous and glamorous, though frankly plastic, Lady Penelope.  Author Barry Hines died on March 18th.  His most famous work was A Kestrel for a Knave (1968), which a year after its publication was filmed as Kes by mighty British director Ken Loach.

 

© ITC Entertainment

 

The comedy world took a treble hit in spring 2016.  The English comedienne, actress, writer and director Victoria Wood died on March 24th; the Scottish comedian and comic performer Ronnie Corbett on March 31st; and the great American stand-up, actor, writer and producer Gary Shandling on April 20th.  The passing of the impish and fruity-toned Corbett prompted this tribute from Blood and Porridge:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6367

 

© BBC

 

Welsh actor Gareth Thomas, who played intergalactic freedom-fighter Roj Blake in the BBC’s downbeat 1970s space opera Blake’s Seven, died on April 13th.  Surely the most traumatic TV moment ever came at the end of Blake’s Seven’s final episode, which sees Blake bloodily gunned down by his second-in-command Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) who wrongly suspects him of treachery.  (“Have you betrayed us?  Have you betrayed… me?!”)  A week later, on April 20th, film director Guy Hamilton passed away.  Hamilton was another James Bond alumni with four 007 movies under his belt, most notably 1964’s Goldfinger.  And April 21st was a day when another great musical talent was snuffed out: Prince.  Blood and Porridge paid its respects to the saucy purple one here:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6441

 

On April 24th we bid adieu to two character actors who’d enlivened many an old British B-movie: Australian Lewis Fiander, who’d had supporting roles in the horror movies Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) and Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972) and was the leading man in Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s splendidly creepy Spanish film Who Can Kill a Child? (1976); and British-Chinese actor Burt Kwouk, who was best known for playing Inspector Clouseau’s manservant Cato in the Pink Panther movies, though he’d appeared in a lot of movies and TV shows besides.  Kwouk was a big favourite at Blood and Porridge, which published this tribute to him a year ago:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=5707

 

By June, the month when the United Kingdom voted for Brexit, it was clear that 2016 was going to be remembered as a monumentally shite year.  This unhappy fact seemed to be reinforced by the passing of the great Muhammad Ali on June 3rd, which was recorded on this blog here:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6607

 

From www.wantedinrome.com

 

June 12th saw the death of one of Scotland’s more outré eccentrics, Tom Leppard, aka the Leopard Man, who was reckoned by the Guinness Book of Records to be the world’s most tattooed man.  A former soldier, Leppard had his body covered in a leopard-skin pattern of spots and spent much of his later life living in a remote bothy on the Isle of Skye.  On June 19th, the American-Russian actor Anton Yelchin died in a tragic freak accident.  Aged just 27 at the time of his death, Yelchin had made a name for himself in impressive movies like Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) and Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room (2015), as well as in the rebooted Star Trek movies where he played Chekov.  And Bud Spencer, the burly Italian Olympian swimmer and comic actor, died on June 27th.  In partnership with Terence Hill, Spencer made 20 movies of rumbustious and destructive slapstick that regularly turned up as supporting features in British cinemas during the 1970s.  Watch Out, We’re Mad (1974) and Crime Busters (1977) are particularly fondly remembered at Blood and Porridge.

 

Finally, June ended and July began with what Blood and Porridge dubbed ‘the curse of the Radiohead video.’  No sooner had the avant-garde British rock band released a video for their new song Burn the Witch, which combined the look and the Claymation animation style of the classic British TV children’s shows Camberwick Green (1966), Trumpton (1967) and Chigley (1969) with the plot of the classic British folk-horror movie The Wicker Man (1974), than: (1) Gordon Murray, producer and animator of those children’s shows died on June 30th; and (2) The Wicker Man’s director Robin Hardy died on July 1st.  Here’s what Blood and Porridge had to say about Hardy:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6706

 

© XL

 

To be continued…  Unfortunately.

 

Grouty’s greatest hits

 

© BBC

 

I suppose I shouldn’t feel too upset about the passing of the great British character actor Peter Vaughan.  He’d enjoyed an excellent innings – he was 93 when he died three days ago – and his seven-decade acting career had lasted right up to the present with his performance as Maester Aemon in the blockbusting HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones.  But I’m still sorry to see him go, primarily because he was one of those thespians who’d seemed so enduring and ubiquitous that I fancied he was going to continue popping up in films and on TV shows until the end of time.

 

Here’s a selection of my favourite moments from Peter Vaughan’s acting CV.  I haven’t picked his acclaimed performance in the award-winning 1996 BBC TV series Our Friends in the North because I haven’t seen it – I wasn’t living in the UK when it was broadcast.  And I haven’t mentioned Game of Thrones because, believe it or not, I’ve never watched it either.  (Though someday I’ll take half-a-year off and devote it to a seven-season Game of Thrones boxset binge.)

 

Fanatic (1965)

When the famous British studio Hammer Films wasn’t making gothic horror movies in the 1960s, it was making small-scale psychological thrillers.  These included Taste of Fear (1961), Paranoiac (1963) and this film, which despite some predictability and a disappointing ending is a lot of fun.  It benefits from a great little cast and from deft low-budget direction by Canadian filmmaker Silvio Narizzano, who’d later direct 1966’s classic Georgy Girl and the 1970 movie version of the Joe Orton play Loot.

 

Fanatic has Stephanie Powers crossing paths with and being imprisoned by a rich, elderly and demented religious fanatic, played with scenery-chewing gusto by Tallulah Bankhead.  In the roles of Bankhead’s husband-and-wife servants – who do her bidding because they hope to get a generous inheritance after her death – are Vaughan and the formidable actress Yootha Joyce.  By the late 1970s Joyce would be Britain’s indisputable Sitcom Queen, thanks to playing the dragon-ish Mildred Roper in Man about the House (1973-76) and George and Mildred (1976-1980).

 

© Hammer Films

 

The pleasure of Vaughan’s performance in Fanatic is what a total scum-bucket he is.  His character is by turns shifty, scheming, greedy, sadistic, thuggish, lecherous and cowardly.  You can’t help but cheer when near the end Bankhead shoots him in the face.

 

An additional bonus is that playing the household’s mentally subnormal handyman is a young and before-he-was-famous Donald Sutherland.  Yay!

 

Straw Dogs (1971)

Set in rural Cornwall, dealing notoriously with vigilantism, violence and rape, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs sees Vaughan essaying another scummy character.  He’s local patriarch, boozer and brute Tom Hedden, who leads the climactic assault on Dustin Hoffman and Susan George’s house after the village idiot accidentally kills his daughter, flees and takes refuge there.

 

© ABC Pictures / Talent Associates

 

When the village magistrate, played by T.P. McKenna, arrives at the house to try to defuse the situation, Vaughan blasts him apart with his shotgun.  Then Vaughan starts climbing in through one of Hoffman’s windows.  Hoffman tackles him and things don’t end well for him when his shotgun goes off again during the struggle.

 

After viewing Straw Dogs, one sick-minded friend of mine was prompted to quip, “Peter Vaughan never really found his feet in that movie, did he?”

 

Symptoms (1974)

Spanish director Jose Ramon Larraz’s British-made horror film is a languid, dreamy and quietly effective piece of work that’s regarded now as a minor classic.  Little seen for many years, it was finally scheduled for DVD release this year with the help of the British Film Institute.  Lorna Heilbron plays a young woman invited by a new, slightly-odd friend (Angela Pleasence) to spend time with her on her remote country estate.  However, Vaughan – playing yet another unsavoury character, the creepy groundsman – is soon dropping hints to her that she isn’t the first young woman to have been invited to the estate; and the previous one may not have left it.

 

© Finiton Productions

 

In the supporting cast is Mike Grady, who along with Vaughan would later become a regular in the BBC sitcom Citizen Smith.  About which, more in a minute.

 

Porridge (1974-1977 & 1979)

I can understand why Vaughan was bemused at how a generation of Britons identified him completely with Harry Grout in the BBC’s classic prison-set sitcom Porridge.  He was in Porridge for only a couple of episodes and the 1979 movie adaptation.  However, he certainly made an impression.

 

Usually funny, occasionally serious, Porridge follows the adventures of a cynical old lag (Ronnie Barker) and his naïve young cellmate (Richard Beckinsdale) as they try to keep their heads down, serve their time with a minimum of trouble and navigate a safe path between the prison authorities on one hand and the prison’s more criminal elements on the other.  Representing those criminal elements is the prison’s Mr Big, the fearsome Harry Grout – Grouty as he’s referred to, under whispered breath.

 

Despite being a convict, Grouty lives a life of luxury with his every need attended to by obsequious fellow-inmates and crooked warders.  He’s clearly inspired by Mr Bridger, the character played by Noel Coward in the popular 1969 caper movie The Italian Job.  But while Coward plays Bridger for laughs, swanning about his lavish cell like a member of the Royal Family, the bear-like and quietly-intense Vaughn imbues Grouty with genuine menace.  You have no doubt that if you cross him, he’ll arrange for someone to break your legs.  And if nobody’s available to do it, he’ll break those legs himself.

 

© BBC

 

Citizen Smith (1977-78)

A BBC sitcom scripted by John Sullivan, Citizen Smith was a political satire starring Robert Lindsay and set in 1970s south London.  Lindsay plays Wolfie Smith, a hopeless Che Guevara wannabe and leader of a revolutionary, but equally hopeless organisation called the Tooting Popular Front.

 

Peter Vaughan would have been a shoo-in for the role of local gangster Harry Fenning (actually played by Stephen Greif), whom Wolfie frequently rubs up the wrong way while he tries to engineer a people’s uprising.  Instead, however, Vaughan landed the slightly milder role of Charlie Johnson, the father of Wolfie’s comparatively-sensible girlfriend Shirley (Cheryl Hall).

 

Much of the show’s charm came from the bickering between Wolfie and the conservative, no-nonsense, old-fashioned Charlie.  The latter’s sarcastic tones as he repeatedly refers to his prospective son-in-law as ‘Trotsky’, ‘Chairman Mao’ and ‘the yeti’ are a joy.   Citizen Smith lasted for four seasons, but it was never quite the same after Vaughan left at the end of season two.

 

The Time Bandits (1981)

Director / writer Terry Gilliam’s fantasy The Time Bandits is a lovely film with a lovely cast – and I don’t just mean the various Hollywood stars in (mostly) cameo roles, but also Craig Warnock as eleven-year-old hero Kevin and David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, Jack Purves and co. as the time-travelling dwarves.  Vaughan appears as a cantankerous, feeling-his-age and self-pitying ogre called Winston: “You try being beastly and terrifying… you can only get one hour’s sleep a night because your back hurts, and you daren’t cough unless you want to pull a muscle.”  He shares a houseboat with his wife, Mrs Ogre, who’s coincidentally played by another Sitcom Queen – Katherine Helmond, who was Jessica Tate in the legendary American comedy Soap (1977-81).

 

© Handmade Films

 

When Winston catches Kevin and the dwarves in his fishing net, he and Mrs Ogre make plans to eat them – “Aren’t they lovely?  We can have them for breakfast!” – but the dwarves turn the tables on him after he unwisely agrees to let them massage his sore back.

 

Terry Gilliam liked Vaughan so much that he cast him in his next movie, Brazil (1985).  Writing on Facebook the other day, Gilliam urged his followers to “put on Brazil or Time Bandits and lift a glass to him.  Farewell, Peter!”

 

The Remains of the Day (1993)

James Ivory’s The Remains of the Day is much admired but I’m not a huge fan of it.  Perhaps this is because before I saw it I’d read the Kazuo Ishiguro novel on which it’s based; and I prefer the book to the film.

 

Vaughan plays Stevens Sr., father of the main character played by Anthony Hopkins – James Stevens, a duty-obsessed and unthinkingly loyal butler to a 1930s aristocrat.   Stevens Sr. was once a distinguished butler himself, equally dutiful and loyal.  As his health and abilities fail, however, he loses his standing and dignity in the household and ends up a lowly cleaner.  His plight becomes a warning to his son about what lies ahead.  An added tragedy is that the son is too self-consciously reserved to show his emotions at the old man’s decline.

 

And for me, the most memorable thing in the movie version of The Remains of the Day is Peter Vaughan’s poignant performance.

 

© Merchant-Ivory Productions

 

TV comic genius 5: Steptoe and Son

 

(c) BBC

 

In the UK in the early 1970s, all young kids – like me – loved the BBC sitcom Steptoe and Son.  We particularly loved the irascible and wily old rag-and-bone man Albert Steptoe, played by Wilfred Brambell, who seemed so grotesque that he could have been created by Roald Dahl.  With his skull-like head, contorted features, mangled dentures, slobbering voice, spiteful cackle, stick-thin limbs, revolting habits and total disregard for personal hygiene, how could kids not have found him fascinating?

 

Those youngsters in the playground unlucky enough to be a bit sallow or thin-faced or to have a propensity for scratching themselves were doomed to live out their schooldays branded with the unglamorous nickname ‘Steptoe’.  And when we weren’t tormenting other kids for looking like Albert Steptoe, we tried our best to impersonate him: backs hunched, eyes leering, noses screwed up, teeth bared, voices gargling, “’Aaa-rold!  ’Aaa-rold!”

 

Harold Steptoe – Albert’s son and reluctant partner in the rag-and-bone trade, played by Harry H. Corbett – seemed a more conventional character to us young ’uns and was therefore less interesting.  But we did impersonations of him too, from the moment that frequently arose in the show when Harold would glare at Albert, his expression suggesting someone who’d just had a rhinoceros fart into his face, and contemptuously intone, “You dir-ty old man!”

 

We loved watching Steptoe and Son, which we managed somehow to do despite it being shown past our official bedtimes – after the Nine O’Clock News if I remember correctly.  We loved the yelling matches between Albert and Harold and the occasional slapstick: Harold pouring a bottle of surgical spirit over Albert’s bare arse in the 1974 episode Upstairs, Downstairs, Upstairs, Downstairs, or Albert trying to take a bath in the kitchen sink in the 1972 movie spin-off, only to have the curtains collapse and his emaciated nakedness revealed to a neighbour-lady outside.  We loved the ramshackle squalor of the Steptoe living room, as junk-filled as their front yard, with its anatomical skeleton, stuffed bear, gramophone, non-working grandfather clock and dusty old boxes containing Albert’s long-lost false teeth.  And we loved the sight-gags about the dung that regularly tumbled out of the Steptoes’ carthorse.

 

(c) BBC

 

For years my favourite Steptoe episode was 1974’s The Seven Steptoerai, which saw Harold and Albert’s livelihood under threat from a protection racket run by loathsome local gangster Frankie Barrow (deliciously played by character actor Henry Woolf).  Improbably, Albert assembles a ‘team’ consisting of his pension-age cronies who take on Barrow’s goons in the Steptoe yard and defeat them in vicious hand-to-hand combat.  The old fellows have somehow become adept at kung-fu fighting through watching lots of Bruce Lee movies at the local fleapit.  In the supporting cast for this episode is the legendary stuntman Vic Armstrong, whom I assume played one of the gangsters.  I love the idea that Harrison Ford’s stunt double in the Indiana Jones movies once had the crap beaten out of him by Old Man Steptoe and his mates.

 

It’s a shock, then, to watch the show on Youtube forty years later and realise how bleak it is.  There’s a tragedy to it that sailed over my head when I was nine years old.  It’s still hilarious at times, but there are also moments when it definitely feels not funny because the depiction of Albert and Harold, and the relationship between them, is so painful.  (The Seven Steptoerai is actually a rare thing in the Steptoe world, a crowd-pleaser.)

 

Tellingly, my better half – who’s American – finds Steptoe and Son difficult to watch.  She admires the writing and acting, but to her the show just seems too depressing to be enjoyable.  It probably didn’t help that the episode with which I tried to introduce her to Steptoe and Son was 1972’s The Desperate Hours.  This has a pair of escaped convicts – a young one played by Leonard Rossiter and an old one played by J.G. Devlin – invade the Steptoe residence and demand food, warmth and shelter.  “First of all,” says Rossiter, “we want some grub.  We’re starving!”  “So are we,” stammers Harold.  It transpires that financially the Steptoes have been going through a bad patch, with the result that their electricity keeps getting cut off, the house is freezing and the only sustenance in the kitchen is some cold lumpy porridge, a rock-hard piece of bread and some ancient cheese.  “You can scrape the green bits off,” says Albert helpfully.

 

Rossiter and Devlin soon realise they were better off in prison – which, predictably, is where they are again at the episode’s end, though not before the Steptoes have cadged off them some cigarettes and some money to stick in the electricity coin-meter.  Meanwhile, it’s clear that Harold and Albert are equally imprisoned, in poverty.

 

(c) BBC

 

The Desperate Hours also highlights a different type of imprisonment – a spiritual type – that’s a strong theme throughout Steptoe and Son.  Harold befriends Rossiter’s convict after hearing how his career in crime was hobbled by his partnership with the elderly Devlin.  It was Devlin whose geriatric incompetence got the pair of them caught in the first place.  And it’s likely that his slowness and frailty will get them caught again following their escape.  The convicts’ relationship, Harold realises, parallels his own relationship with his dad; because Harold has spent years trying to better himself and escape from the lowly life of a rag-and-bone man, only to have every attempt thwarted by the exasperating but crafty and manipulative Albert.

 

It’s more complicated than that, though.  Harold’s aspirations for better things aren’t always noble.  Sometimes they’re fueled by pure snobbery.  In another 1972 episode, Porn Yesterday, Harold finds an antique What the Butler Saw machine during his rounds and is horrified to learn that one of the naked performers cavorting on the naughty film-reel inside is his own father – during hard times in the 1920s, Albert was forced to eke a living acting in vintage porn movies.  One of Harold’s first thoughts is that if this revelation gets out in the local community, it’ll scupper his chances of joining the golf club.

 

And Harold can be callous.  In an earlier episode, 1964’s Home Fit for Heroes, he joins a yacht-crew who intend to voyage around the world for two years and he has no qualms about abandoning Albert to a miserable existence in an old folks’ home.  The plan falls through eventually, but not because Harold suffers a crisis-of-conscience about his father.  It’s because the bright young things crewing the yacht change their mind about having Harold on board.  They decide – irony! – he’s too old to travel with them.

 

Meanwhile, the reason for Albert’s deviousness towards Harold isn’t that he’s a bastard who wants to keep his son in a life of penury.  It’s that he knows, deep down, that if Harold leaves him he’ll die a sad and lonely old man.  In Home Fit for Heroes there’s a scene where Harold bids Albert farewell at the old folks’ home.  Then the camera lingers on Albert, sitting silently and alone on the bed of his bare new room.  And it lingers… and lingers… and lingers.  That’s another disconcerting example of Steptoe and Son ceasing to be funny.

 

(c) BBC

 

Steptoe and Son was the brainchild of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, the writing partnership who’d previously penned radio and TV scripts for the celebrated Tony Hancock.  It was born out of an episode called The Offer that Galton and Simpson wrote for the anthology series Comedy Playhouse and, subsequently, it ran for eight seasons: four black-and-white ones broadcast from 1962 to 1965 and four colour ones broadcast from 1970 to 1974, with Galton and Simpson providing all the scripts.  There were also two movie versions, Steptoe and Son in 1972 and Steptoe and Son Ride Again in 1975, but they weren’t up to much (though the second one at least featured the welcome return of the delightfully scummy Frankie Barrow).  Meanwhile, American TV producer Norman Lear borrowed the premise for the African-American sitcom Sanford and Son, which ran from 1972 to 1977 and was set in the Watts district of Los Angeles.  Among the writers contributing scripts to Sanford and Son, incidentally, was the late, lamented Gary Shandling.

 

In recent years, the comic excellence of Steptoe and Son has been overshadowed by speculation about what went on behind the scenes.  It’s been claimed that the relationship between stars Wilfred Brambell and Harry H. Corbett was as antagonistic as the relationship between their characters.  Brambell was a gay man at a time in Britain when being a practising homosexual could land you in prison and, supposedly, his paranoia about this led to him drinking too much and regularly fluffing his lines – much to the anger of Corbett, a serious method-actor who’d once been touted as Britain’s answer to Marlon Brando.  That Corbett’s career as the British Brando never materialised, due to him being typecast as Harold Steptoe, allegedly embittered him further about the show and about Brambell.  In 2008, this unhappy narrative became the basis for a BBC Four play called The Curse of Steptoe, starring Jason Isaacs as Corbett, Phil Davis as Brambell, Burn Gorman as Galton and Rory Kinnear as Simpson.

 

By 2008, both Corbett and Brambell were long dead and couldn’t give their side of the story.  But Galton and Simpson were still around – and are still around – and made no bones about how they thought The Curse of Steptoe’s version of events was rubbish.  The two actors, they argued, had “worked beautifully together.”  My own suspicion is that the stuff about Corbett and Brambell being at each other’s throats was indeed a myth.  Partly it was fuelled by people’s tendency to confuse what they see onscreen with what they assume is the case off it.  And partly it was because Galton and Simpson’s careers were already associated with one tragedy – after breaking with them in 1961, Tony Hancock lost his comedic magic touch, saw his career decline, succumbed to alcoholism and died of an overdose in 1968 – which I suppose made it tempting to cook up another tragedy to associate with them.  Hence, The Curse of Steptoe.

 

Steptoe and Son is for my money the best situation comedy that British telly ever produced.  As I said, Galton and Simpson are still with us – both now a venerable 86 – and in May this year they were awarded a Fellowship by the British Academy of Film and Television Awards, which was long overdue.  Harold and Albert, meanwhile, bowed out with a 1974 Christmas special wherein Harold, for once, manages to rid himself of Albert.  Temporarily, at least – tricking the old codger into going off on holiday so that he can spend some quality time at home with a (hitherto-unmentioned) girlfriend.  And I think that was an appropriate time to bid adios to the duo.

 

I’d really prefer not to know what happened to Albert, Harold and their rag-and-bone business during the cutthroat Thatcherite 1980s.

 

(c) BBC

 

The last Ronnie

 

(c) BBC

 

The death the other day of the diminutive comedian and comic performer Ronnie Corbett dominated Britain’s TV news broadcasts, which prompted one truculent commentator to complain on Twitter about the media’s ongoing trivialisation of current affairs.  (Yes, Gerry Hassan, I’m looking at you.)

 

Well, I’m as against the trivialisation of current affairs as much as the next humourless curmudgeon.  But in the case of Ronnie Corbett I’ll make an exception.  I’m glad that he dominated the news.  He deserved to.

 

By his life’s end, Ronnie Corbett occupied a unique position in the British comedy world.  He was part of the old-fashioned, golf-playing light-entertainment establishment that includes such venerable personalities as Bruce ‘Brucie’ Forsyth, Jimmy ‘Tarby’ Tarbuck and Michael ‘Parky’ Parkinson.  But he was adored by younger and more anarchic comedians too.  (Though I use those adjectives subjectively.  I’m referring to any British comedian who became famous after about 1980.  And come to think of it, some of them aren’t so young, nor so anarchic, anymore.)

 

What’s often forgotten is that Corbett and his long-term comic partner Ronnie Barker (who died in 2005) were involved with another strand of British humour, the Monty Python one.  Both men worked with John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Graham Chapman on The Frost Report, hosted by journalistic legend David Frost from 1966 to 1967.  And various Pythons wrote sketches for them in subsequent years.  Indeed, I’ve read that Corbett and Barker first gravitated towards one another because they felt slightly out-of-place among Frost and the Pythons, who’d all been educated at Cambridge University.  Although Corbett and Barker had grown up in big university towns, Edinburgh and Oxford respectively, neither of them had attended university.

 

(c) BBC

 

That maybe fed into The Frost Report’s most celebrated moment, the Class Sketch, which has the towering John Cleese, the average-height Barker and the tiny Corbett standing in a row, respectively representing the upper, middle and working classes.  The three of them extol the advantages and disadvantages of their social positions, whilst physically reinforcing what they say by turning to look down on, or up at, their neighbours.  Of course, Cleese has all the advantages and does all the looking down; whereas Corbett is confined to delivering the regular punchline: “I know my place.”

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4VxkltwS9g0

 

Corbett and Barker revived the sketch for the BBC’s Millennium Show in 2000, with Stephen Fry standing in for Cleese.  It sounded like it was going to be pants, but given a charming historical twist – now Fry is Modern Man, Barker is Renaissance Man and Corbett is Medieval Man – it works rather nicely.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0JSahEDRjvw

 

It was in the 1970s and 1980s that Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker made waves, with their comedy sketch show The Two Ronnies becoming a mainstay of the BBC’s Saturday-night schedule – a schedule already packed with massively popular shows like Doctor Who, The Generation Game and Match of the Day.  Okay, it also included Jim’ll Fix It, but let’s not talk about that just now.

 

Though The Two Ronnies sometimes got astronomical ratings – 17 million on one occasion – the duo never received the critical acclaim they deserved.  The critics of the time seemed to consider them a tad too bland and showbizy in comparison with the era’s other big TV comedy double-act, the more character-based and idiosyncratic Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise.  It wasn’t until 1987, when the show was shelved because of Barker’s failing health, that, belatedly, people realised how good it’d been.

 

While Morecambe and Wise had fixed personas – Morecambe was the anarchic buffoon and Wise the harassed straight man – the Ronnies were malleable.  Both men could play funny or straight and during those 16 years they essayed many different characters.  And like another Saturday-night BBC staple, Doctor Who, I think I appreciated The Two Ronnies so much because it was, at heart, a writers’ show.  Among The Two Ronnies’ writing talent were Cleese, Idle, Palin, Jones, John Sullivan, Barry Cryer, David Renwick, the brilliant but deranged Spike Milligan, and David Nobbs, author of the sublime and subversive sitcom The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.

 

Because they didn’t have to create their sketches around established personalities, the writers were able to experiment – and they and their two performers had a lot of fun playing with the English language and exploiting its paradoxes and absurdities.  (They also, it has to be said, crammed in a lot of good-natured smut.)

 

(c) BBC

 

The most famous example of Two Ronnies-style wordplay was the Four Candles sketch, which was written by Ronnie Barker.  (Nobly, Barker kept his writing identity secret and submitted scripts to the show under the pseudonym Gerald Wiley, wanting his work to be considered by its own merits and not by who he was.)  Four Candles has the proprietor of a hardware store – though for joke purposes it also sells peas – being driven mad by a series of misunderstandings with a near-monosyllabic customer.  It revels in the peculiarities of English pronunciation and their potential for misinterpretation: for example, H-dropping (‘o’s’ mistaken for ‘hoes’), homophones (‘p’s’ mistaken for ‘peas’) and juncture (‘fork handles’ mistaken for the titular ‘four candles’).

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cz2-ukrd2VQ

 

Also clever was the Mastermind sketch, a piss-take of the BBC’s relentlessly-interrogative quiz show.  Corbett plays a contestant whose chosen subject is “answering the question before last each time”.  This leads to such surreal exchanges as: “What is palaeontology?”  “Yes, absolutely correct.”  “What’s the name of the directory that lists members of the peerage?”  “A study of old fossils.”  Although the cultural references (Dean Martin, Len Murray, Sir Geoffrey Howe, Bernard Manning) have dated, it’s still very amusing.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y0C59pI_ypQ

 

The format of The Two Ronnies also allowed both Ronnies to perform individually.  Critical opinion once had it that Barker was the more talented of the duo, but time has proven kind to Corbett.  There’s now much admiration for the technical skill he showed during his regular solo slots when he’d sit on an armchair and tell the audience a long and rambling joke.

 

Admittedly, you’d normally see the punchlines to those jokes on the horizon, five minutes before they arrived; but their telling was glorious.  Corbett delivered masterclasses in cadence, digression, self-deprecation, innuendo, comic timing and mutual performer-audience conspiracy.  (You know that the joke’s going to be rubbish.  He knows that you know that it’s going to be rubbish.  You know that he knows that you know…  Etc.)  All came in the inimitable Corbett package of chortles and catchphrases: invariably, “Now I know what you’re thinking…” and “I was having a round of golf with the producer the other day…”

 

Come to think of it, he was probably the closest thing Britain had to a practitioner of rakugo, the venerable Japanese art of comic story-telling.

 

A decade after The Two Ronnies, and at a time when Ronnie Corbett’s profile was much lower than it’d been, Ben Elton – one-time doyen of Britain’s alternative comedians – persuaded him to dust down the armchair and appear in a regular guest-slot on 1998’s Ben Elton Show.  Prior to his first performance, Corbett was dreading how Elton’s young and racy audience would react to an old fogey like him.  But, needless to say, when he materialised onstage on the armchair and in the trademark glasses and golfing sweater, a cheer went up; and lo, a star was reborn.

 

Of course, it transpired that the younger generation loved him too – having watched The Two Ronnies as kids.  So started the Ronnie Corbett revival, which probably peaked on Christmas Day 2010 when the BBC aired a special called The One Ronnie, which had Corbett appearing in a series of sketches alongside such modish comic talent as Miranda Hart, Catherine Tate, Matt Lucas, David Walliams, Harry Enfield and Rob Brydon.  Incidentally, Brydon is something of a Ronnie-obsessive: he seems to have spent half his career doing impersonations of him.

 

The same year, he appeared in the comedy-horror film Burke and Hare alongside another slew of modern comedians and comic performers, including Simon Pegg, Reece Shearsmith, Bill Bailey and Jessica Hynes.  (And the other day, both Pegg and Shearsmith showed their respects by tweeting pictures of themselves posing with him during the movie’s making.)  Directed by John Landis, Burke and Hare was set in Corbett’s native Edinburgh and had him playing the head of the city’s early-19th-century militia.  The American-but-Anglophile Landis is a big Two Ronnies fan, by the way.  He’d even wanted to cast Ronnie Barker in An American Werewolf in London back in 1982.

 

(c) BBC

 

But Corbett’s greatest late-career moment surely came in 2006, when Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant had him cameo in their showbiz satire Extras.  The show depicts him as an unlikely drugs fiend who entices Gervais and Merchant into a toilet cubicle backstage at the BAFTA Awards Ceremony to snort cocaine.  They’re caught by security.  The ensuing scene has the three of them lined up in front of a disgruntled security chief: “Corbett…  It’s always bloody Corbett!”  With Corbett standing next to the medium-height Gervais and the gangly Merchant (who looms over him like Chewbacca looming over R2D2), it’s reminiscent of the Class Sketch with Barker and Cleese forty years earlier.

 

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2qzdkd