96% Green


 From greenparty.org.uk


Recently, while I was trawling about on the Internet, I came across the website uk.isidewith.com.  It offers a questionnaire that you complete with your opinions regarding a number of topical issues, about which all the UK’s major political parties have taken a stance.  Then it compares your opinions with the policies of the parties and calculates how much, overall, you’re in agreement with them.  You end up getting your percentage of agreement with each party, which is a bit like having your political DNA tested – you find out how much of you is Labour, how much is Conservative, etc.




When my results came through I was surprised to find that the party that figured highest in my political DNA was the Green Party.  I was told that 96% of my opinions matched its policies.  I was surprised because I assumed I’d de-Greened myself when I answered a question about my view of nuclear energy.  Unlike the Green Party’s line, I’m reluctantly in favour of having nuclear-power stations.  (I agree with the Guardian’s environmental correspondent George Monbiot that generating nuclear energy is an evil necessity while humanity tries to reduce carbon emissions and limit manmade climate change.)


In joint-second place after the Greens were the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru.  I’m 95% in agreement with them, which I suppose isn’t a surprise considering how I’d answered a question about whether or not Scotland should be independent.  And just behind them was the Labour Party.  93% of my views match the policies of Ed Milliband and Ed Balls, apparently.  This is despite the fact that I’ve always thought life under a Milliband / Balls regime in Westminster would be little better than life under the current Cameron / Osborne regime.  The rhetoric would no doubt be more touchy-feely but the economic and social reality, I suspect, wouldn’t change much.


But I was really shocked when I was informed 44% of my opinions match the policies of the United Kingdom Independence Party, that ragtag gang of Little Englanders led by Nigel Farage who want to take Britain out of the European Union and change it back to its glorious, monochrome 1950s version — a Britain where everyone is white and Christian (Church of England, preferably), where the working class doff their caps before their betters, where teachers have the right to take canes and belts to naughty pupils, where smokers have the right to give other people lung cancer in public places, and where television is a Mary Whitehouse-style paragon of decency that’s devoid of bad language (although good old-fashioned non-PC terminology, such as Jeremy Clarkson uses for black people, is probably okay).  Nearly half of my mindset, I was told, was identical to the UKIP mindset.  Well, I can only assume that the 44% of me that agrees with Nigel Farage is the 44% of me that’s located closest to my arse.


At least it gives me an excuse to show a picture of Britain’s best-known right-wing buffoon being struck by an egg whilst campaigning yesterday for the forthcoming European Parliamentary elections.  Ha!


(c) The Independent


An appointment with Willow’s Song


(c) British Lion Films


It’s May 1st – which, depending on your point of view, is either International Workers’ Day or May Day, the occasion of maypoles, hobby-horses, fools, Morris dancers, the Lord of Misrule and other things with jolly, if slightly sinister, pagan overtones.  I associate May 1st with the latter, of course.  Which gives me an excuse to write yet again about Britain’s greatest horror movie, 1973’s The Wicker Man, whose memorable climax takes place during the May Day celebrations being held on the reverted-to-paganism Scottish island of Summer Isle.  If you’ve never seen The Wicker Man, I should say to you now: (1) shame on you; and (2) watch out – this entry will be full of spoilers.


Seven-and-a-half years ago I was working in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, whose small enclave of expatriates – mostly diplomats and aid workers – held a weekly cinema evening.  Noticing that the next such evening fell on October 31st, i.e. Halloween, I dusted down my DVD of The Wicker Man and persuaded Pyongyang’s little cinema society that this would be a good time to show a classic horror movie.  For most of its running time, the audience seemed pleasantly bemused by the film.  They enjoyed a good chuckle at how the pagan islanders led Edward Woodward’s Sergeant Howie on a merry dance around Summer Isle, taunting the uptight Free Presbyterian police officer with their innuendo-laden folk songs and their unconventional sense of public decency (e.g. organising mass couplings in the local graveyard, dancing naked through flames in the centre of stone circles).  But the people sitting closest to me kept leaning over and whispering, “Isn’t this supposed to be a horror film?”


Then the film’s final ten minutes arrived, Sergeant Howie had his appointment with the wicker man and the room fell silent.  The silence continued for several minutes after the film ended – broken only by the voice of a Scotswoman who worked at the British Embassy.  She kept wailing to everyone around her, “Scotland isn’t really like that!  Scotland isn’t really like that!”


Later, a Dutchwoman whose husband headed the Red Cross and Crescent’s operations in Pyongyang – she had an appropriately Earth Mother-type vibe to her – came over to me with a big smile and said, “I really liked that.  But you know, most of the film felt like a musical to me.”


And indeed, one reason why The Wicker Man is special is its music.  (Meanwhile, the lack of music is one reason why the 2006 American remake directed by Neil LaBute and starring Nicholas Cage sucks – though to be honest, there are many reasons why it sucks.)  The man responsible for the film’s music was New Yorker Paul Giovanni, who assembled a number of songs, some self-composed, some traditional folk songs, and performed them with the folk-rock band Magnet.  Clearly a renaissance man, Giovanni was also a playwright and actor during his career.  Tragically, in 1990, he died from pneumonia, a complication caused by HIV/AIDS infection.


The centrepiece of The Wicker Man’s musical soundtrack is Willow’s Song – sometimes known as How Do – the haunting ballad song by Willow Macgregor, the luscious daughter of the island’s hotel owner, while she tries to lure Howie into her room one night.  To ensure that Howie gets the message, Willow performs a nude dance as well.  Howie manages to withstand Willow’s saucy enticements – just about – only to discover later that the episode was arranged by the crafty pagan islanders to determine whether he’s a virgin or not.  Willow is played by Britt Ekland and this is probably her greatest cinematic moment.  No doubt when Britt goes to meet her maker, which hopefully won’t be for a long time yet, it’ll be the scene that they’ll show on the TV news as a tribute to her.  (Well, it’s either this or a bit from The Man with the Golden Gun – which would you choose?)


(c) Silva Screen


However, it’s not Britt Ekland we hear singing Willow’s Song – the vocals have been attributed, by different people at different times, to Rachel Verney or to Annie Ross.  Also, Ekland was pregnant during the shooting of The Wicker Man, so it isn’t her naked body that we see during the scene either.  (The filmmakers hired a stripper to act as her ‘body double’ and in at least one interview with her I’ve read Ekland has remarked cattily about the size of the double’s bum.)  Come to think of it, considering how little is really heard or seen of Britt Ekland in this scene, Britt’s greatest cinematic moment doesn’t actually have much Britt in it.


It was ignored at the time of its release but, over the years, the prestige of The Wicker Man has grown.  Much of its mystique is due to its music and Willow’s Song in particular has received a lot of attention, with a number of artists having a go at covering it.  I suspect the most famous version is the one done in the 1990s by cinematically-inspired electronica band the Sneaker Pimps – with vocals courtesy of Kelli Dayton, the female singer whom the band recruited for their most acclaimed album, 1996’s Becoming X.  (Not only does Becoming X contain Willow’s Song but if you have the right edition of the album you’ll find as a bonus track a version of Gently Johnny, the second best song that Paul Giovanni / Magnet recorded for The Wicker Man.  The scenes with Gently Johnny were chopped out of the film’s original print but years later were restored to the Director’s Cut of it.)




The Sneaker Pimps’ version is still recognisably the movie’s Willow’s Song, although it comes with a lush, synthesised sheen.  Filmmaker Eli Roth liked the Pimps’ take on it so much that he incorporated it into the soundtrack of his notorious 2006 ‘torture porn’ epic Hostel – the Wicker Man reference signifying that Something Bad is going to happen shortly to Roth’s own, hapless protagonists.  I don’t find Hostel as objectionable as many other people do, but nonetheless I feel that the delicate, pleading tone of Willow’s Song is incongruous in a movie that’s basically about dumb American backpackers getting tortured to death.  Interestingly, both The Wicker Man and Hostel go against the philosophy of conventional, conservative horror movies (like John Carpenter’s Halloween) that holds that only characters who prudishly say no to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll will escape being victims, while immoral characters will die horribly.  In The Wicker Man, it’s the only adult virgin on the island who goes up in smoke at the end.  In Hostel, the backpacker who survives the carnage is actually the most promiscuous one.


Before the Sneaker Pimps’ version, in 1991, indie band the Mock Turtles had done a take on Willow’s Song (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QlIcy5gOIuo), while 12 years later soulful British rock band the Doves attempted it too (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1NKlL6x3aIw).  Both the Turtles and the Doves’ versions are distinctive thanks to the fact that a man, not a woman, does the singing on them.  In 2006 Scottish folk singer Isobel Campbell, best known for her collaborations with Mark Lanegan, covered Willow’s Song and unsurprisingly her version followed a more traditional, folky blueprint (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHpHC54s2s0).  And a year later the indie-dance group the Go! Team – a marmite-type outfit whom you either really like or find intensely irritating; I have to say I quite like them – covered it too, although their version seems not to be available on youtube.


Definitely worth mentioning is a version by the eerie, theremin-loving combo Spacedog, who clearly decided to go for it and deconstructed the song totally.  They mixed in a sample from another classic British horror film – the ‘power of the will’ monologue delivered by actor Charles Gray while he played the villain in 1968’s The Devil Rides Out – and the results are impressively phantasmagorical.




Willow’s Song has a Wikipedia entry that lists at least eight other versions – which isn’t bad for a song that accompanies a scene in which a woman tries to seduce an older, unprepossessing man, but is rebuffed; in a film that baffled its studio, got chopped to pieces before its release and was, initially, financially unsuccessful and critically shunned.  Perhaps it’s the strange juxtaposition of elements that makes the song memorable.  Its sound is gorgeously ethereal and delicate but, when you listen to the lyrics, you realise it’s pretty bawdy too.  Willow promises Howie “a stroke as gentle as a feather,” and later boasts, “How a maid can milk a bull!  And every stroke a bucketful.”*


Come to think of it, the contrasts in the song are similar to the contrasts in The Wicker Man itself, a film packed with humour, music and cheerful lewdness but ending with a horrific act of cruelty.  These unsettling contrasts have helped the movie’s reputation to grow in the last 40 years, to the point where it’s now seen as a classic of British cinema.


*Maybe this line gave the Farrelly Brothers the idea for the gag in their 1996 movie Kingpin where Woody Harrelson milks a bull – although he’s under the impression that he’s milking a cow.


Maximum Bob


(c) Paramount Pictures


And so Bob Hoskins has passed away.  It wasn’t a surprise, as in 2012 he’d announced he was retiring from acting on account of having Parkinson’s disease and he was visibly ailing in his final film, the half-decent fairy-tale adaptation Snow White and the Huntsman.  (The half that wasn’t decent consisted of the scenes where Kirsten Stewart was prominent.)  Still, I was sad to see him go because although he was unashamedly working class, he managed – for a while at least – to become a big box-office draw not only in Britain but in Hollywood too.  Nowadays, in an era where it seems every aspiring young actor or actress needs to have wealthy parents and an address-book packed with old private-school / Oxbridge contacts, it’s doubtful whether Hoskins would have got into the acting profession at all, let alone found success.


Actually, if you’re to believe the stories Hoskins would tell interviewers, his becoming an actor was a chance-happening indeed.  After being reared in the Finsbury Park district of London, leaving school at 15 and toiling as a window-cleaner, porter, steeplejack and circus performer, a mate of his was attending an audition at an amateur theatre one day and he tagged along – the pair of them planned to go to a party immediately afterwards.  While he was waiting for his mate to reappear, a theatre staff-member mistakenly sent him into an audition too, where he read the script and landed the leading role.  The rest – Pennies from Heaven, The Long Good Friday, Mona Lisa, etc. – was history.


Here are my favourite cinematic moments involving Bob Hoskins:


Hoskins and the great Fred Gwynne (Herman Munster in the ancient Munsters TV show) playing a pair of comedy gangsters in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1984).  So amusing is the Hoskins and Gwynne double act that they steal the film from everyone else, Richard Gere and Nicholas Cage included.


The ultra-mucky scene in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) where Hoskins’ untrustworthy Central Services technician falls prey to mischief-making by Robert De Niro.  De Niro attaches a tube to Hoskins’ spacesuit-like outfit and pumps it full of sewage.


The scene in Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa (1986) where Hoskins, besotted with Cathy Tyson, discovers that the videos he’s been delivering are pornographic ones that feature her heavily.  Hoskins’ gormless mate Robbie Coltrane wanders into the room while he’s watching, in paroxysms of rage and disgust, one of these videos on TV.  “What’s this?” asks Coltrane innocently.  “Channel 4?”  Although that bit’s only funny if you can remember the 1980s.


The scene near the end of Robert Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) where Hoskins realises that the only way he can defeat Christopher Lloyd’s gang of evil cartoon weasels is to make them laugh themselves to death.  So he launches into a slapstick vaudeville routine that his character used to perform before he quit show-business and became a private eye.  No doubt the routine showed off some skills Hoskins had acquired in the circus in real life.


The scene in Luc Besson’s Enemy at the Gates (2001) where Hoskins’ Nikita Kruschev, newly-appointed by Stalin as commander of the besieged Stalingrad, gives his hapless predecessor his retirement present – a pistol and instructions to go to a backroom and kill himself.  Again, so forceful is Hoskins’ character that he lingers in the mind long after those played by Jude Law, Ed Harris and Joseph Fiennes have faded from it.


And obviously, John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday (1980) – particularly the last scene where would-be crime overlord Hoskins is held at gunpoint in the back seat of his hijacked car and driven to his doom.  (The unknown actor playing the IRA man pointing the gun is, wonderfully, a youthful Pierce Brosnan.)  Hoskins doesn’t speak but the succession of emotions that flit across his face, as it finally dawns on him that he had it all but now he’s blown it all, make this the most powerful moment in British gangster-movie history.


(c) Paramount Pictures