Stand-ups, stand up and avoid Hollywood


Here are some words I thought I’d never write.  I find myself in agreement with Barry Norman.


For those of you unfamiliar with the name, Barry Norman was the best-known and no doubt most influential film critic in Britain for a quarter-century.  From 1972 until 1998 – a period when, for much of the time, most British people had access to only a handful of terrestrial TV channels, the Internet didn’t exist and newspaper coverage of new cinema releases was limited to one page of reviews on a Friday – he presented a weekly film-review programme, as well as occasional cinematically-themed documentary shows like The Hollywood Greats, on the BBC.  Thanks to his regular telly appearances, he was for a long time Mr Movies as far as the British public was concerned.


For me, however, he was a conservative, prudish, play-it-safe old fart who seemed to epitomise everything I hated about the British film-critic establishment of the era.  British films were only seen to be good if they were either socialistic kitchen-sink dramas set on housing estates or expensive costume epics set in the glory days of the British Empire – everything had to follow in the slipstream of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or Lawrence of Arabia.  Anything, British or otherwise, that tried to be unusual or different or fantastical was treated with the sort of benign condescension that adults usually bestow on small children who are babbling nonsense.  Anything that pushed the boundaries of acceptability was distasteful.  Horror films – one of my favourite genres, Barry’s least favourite one – were detestable.  I sometimes got the impression that Barry and his counterparts in the British press didn’t actually like films very much.  They thought far too many movies were immature and childish, and they could be unsavoury or even dangerous if they weren’t kept firmly in their place.


(c) BBC


This past week, poor old Barry – who keeps his oar in both with the film world and with the BBC by writing a column for the Radio Times – has found himself at the centre of a shit-storm.    He wrote a column in which he opined that the recently, tragically-departed comedian and comic actor Robin Williams had an “enormous talent which, if not exactly unfulfilled, could sometimes be spread so thinly as to be almost invisible.”  Williams, he conceded, had made some good films but also “a plenitude of bad ones.  Well, every actor makes bad films occasionally but what was remarkable about Williams was not that he was good in the good ones but that he was so very bad in the bad ones.”  And he attributed this problem to the fact that Williams seemed addicted to making unrelentingly feel-good movies, to peddling “saccharine, tooth-rotting sentimentality.”


The column promptly drew a flurry of angry responses from people who thought he was wantonly despoiling Williams’ memory.  It was considered so newsworthy that it was soon being reported in newspapers like the Guardian and the Telegraph – whose comments threads quickly filled with equally-angry posts.  “F**k off Barry Norman” was one measured reaction in the Guardian.  In a cinematic context, I don’t think I’ve seen so much opprobrium and disgust heaped on someone or something since, oh, old Barry himself reviewed David Cronenberg’s The Brood in 1979.


Well, I suppose one could argue that Barry, although he’s entitled to his opinion, was out of order to harp on about the weaknesses in Robin Williams’ back catalogue so soon after the man’s death.  Then again, when creative people die and obituaries appear in newspapers – including the Guardian and the Telegraph – it’s usually considered fair play for obituarists to point out the deceased’s failures as well as his or her successes.  When Michael Winner – a filmmaker about whom the kindest thing that can be said is that much of his oeuvre was not terribly good – popped his clogs early last year, nobody tried to claim that Winner’s films were brilliant out of consideration for the feelings of his family and friends.


It grieves me to say so but, in my opinion, Barry Norman was right about Robin William’s film output.  There came a time in the 1990s when his output seemed to consist of nothing but toe-curlingly sugary, openly manipulative schmaltz-fests and / or juvenile fantasies in which he played naïve, lovable man-children: Hook (1991), Toys (1992), Jumanji (1995), Jack (1996), What Dreams May Come (1998), Patch Adams (1998), Bicentennial Man (1999) Even in more acclaimed films, like Good Morning Vietnam (1987), Awakenings (1990) and Mrs Doubtfire (1993), I sensed there was a huge reservoir of sentimentality lurking nearby, ready to swamp proceedings if the slush-gates suddenly burst open.  Mrs Doubtfire, in fact, captures the Williams dichotomy perfectly.  Playing the title character, the eccentric nanny with the prim Scottish accent – this being a Hollywood movie, of course, everyone assumes she’s from England – he’s a comic delight.  When he’s playing the despondent dad who wants to be near his kids, the ‘power of family’ message and the sentimentality generally are cranked up to eleven.


I find What Dreams May Come, a fantasy-weepie about the soul of a dead man searching heaven and hell for his wife, particularly depressing.  As well as squandering Williams’ talents, it’s based on a 1983 novel by Richard Matheson, who’d once been one of the sharpest and most innovative horror and fantasy writers around.  However, by 1983, Matheson had lost his grit and this novel is the new-age literary equivalent of comfort food.  Meanwhile, it’s no surprise that in Cecil B. Demented, the anti-Hollywood satire that John Waters made in 2000, there’s a scene where the independent-film-loving terrorists led by Stephen Dorff attack a cinema that’s showing Patch Adams: The Director’s Cut.


(c) TriStar


I think one problem was that too often Williams got partnered with directors like Steven Spielberg, Penny Marshall and Chris Columbus, who didn’t always seem aware that ‘feel-good’ didn’t necessarily equal ‘good’.  And it’s interesting that when Williams worked with Terry Gilliam in 1991 – Gilliam had had his fair share of strife from the big studios with films like Brazil (1985) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and no doubt by then took a more cynical view of things – the result was a genuinely endearing and special movie, The Fisher King.


By the late 1990s, I’d formed a film-going rule.  If I was approaching a cinema and saw a film-poster that had Robin Williams’ name on it, I’d immediately give that cinema a body-swerve.  (I’d developed a similar rule about Hugh Grant.)  However, I was glad that in 2002 I forced myself into a cinema to watch Christopher Nolan’s excellent thriller Insomnia.  In it, Williams plays against type and is surprisingly effective as a murderous psycho, up against Al Pacino’s sleep-deprived cop in Alaska.  By this time, Williams must’ve realised that his career was drowning in a vat of schmaltz and he needed to drastically change direction, for in the same year he played another deranged character in the psychological thriller One Hour Photo.


Anyway, the real villain here isn’t Barry Norman.  It’s a Hollywood studio system that, for most of the time, proved itself clueless about how to properly harness and package William’s talents as a stand-up comedian for the big screen – and if you’ve seen footage of Williams doing stand-up, you’ll agree that those talents were prodigious.  Alas, Williams was not alone in this predicament.  After he’d swapped the stage for the film studio, Steve Martin got a decent string of movies during the 1980s – The Man with Two Brains (1982), Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), All of Me (1984), Roxanne (1987), Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) – but you’d have to be a masochist to find pleasure in most of the Martin films that’ve come since.  Father of the Bride (1991)?  Sergeant Bilko (1995)?  Cheaper by the Dozen (2003)?  The Pink Panther (2006)?  Such movies are pain on a stick.  Eddie Murphy’s period of grace was even briefer.  He was great in 48 Hours (1982) and Trading Places (1983), but even by 1984 and Beverley Hills Cop the rot was starting to set in.  And many unfunny, formulaic duds ensued.


Perhaps the best a stand-up comic can hope for is to do what Billy Connolly has done – he’s kept his stage career going whilst making the occasional movie on the side.  Mind you, I can think of one person who’s bucked the stand-up-comic-good / movie-actor-bad trend.  I thought Andrew Dice Clay was an odious, racist knob-end when he struck gold with his stand-up career in the 1980s.  However, I saw him in a supporting role in last year’s Woody Allen-directed movie Blue Jasmine and found myself, to my astonishment, quite liking him.


But returning to Robin Williams – the best thing you can do to honour his memory is throw those DVDs of various dodgy 1990s comedy movies into the bin and, instead, watch some of his great, vintage stand-up material on youtube.   (The moments where his unhinged comedy genius erupts during a 2001 interview on the American cable show Inside the Actor’s Studio are remarkable too.)  Yes, screw Patch Adams and Mrs Doubtfire.  Remember the man this way.


Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 3



Just as the High Street of Peebles, my hometown in Scotland, is haunted by the melancholy sight of the Playhouse Cinema, which ceased trading as a cinema in 1977 and now hosts beneath its art-deco façade a branch of the discount ‘health and beauty’ retailer Semi-chem, so Galle Road in the Colombo neighbourhood I now live in has its own former cinema.  This is the Roxy, which appears on the right as you head south from the city centre, shortly before the Dehiwala Canal.


Unlike the old Playhouse, the shell of the Roxy has yet to be converted into a new business, although the ground around it seems to have been commandeered as a car-park.  In fact, it can’t be that long ago since the cinema shut its doors – for the grass and weeds have only recently begun to sprout alongside its walls and it still bears a reasonably healthy skin of white paint.  And the name ROXY remains visible, stamped in flowing letters on the wall above its entrance.  The foyer, sealed off behind concertina gates, is a bit of a mess now, but you can still see the ticket booth and stairs on either side, climbing to the balcony.



I did a Google search to try to find out more about the Roxy but its name mostly came up in relation to a few news stories about the street in front of it.  In May 2007, the Asian Tribune reported that a gaping sink hole some fifteen feet in diameter had appeared in the road there following torrential rain, which had seemingly caused a collapse in the hundred-year-old sewer system underneath.  In December 2010, the Sri Lankan Daily Mirror reported that a smaller sink hole, just over a metre in diameter, had appeared in the same location.


More seriously, between these two occurrences, in March 2008, a bomb contained within a flowerpot and set in the middle of the same stretch of road exploded early one morning, killing one person and injuring six others, including four children who’d been making their way to school.  The bomb was attributed to the Tamil rebel group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, even though, in the words of the Indo-Asian News Service, the neighbourhood was “a predominantly Tamil area, with a concentration of Tamils from the island’s war-torn Tamil-speaking northeastern districts.  And (the) Roxy Cinema specialises in showing Tamil films.”


Perhaps the Roxy’s days were numbered with the opening of the flashier Savoy Cinema further north along Galle Road, which as I write this is showing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Guardians of the Galaxy.  (When the Savoy got a refurbishment in 2013, the city’s social life / what’s on website raved: “It’s huge, the seats aren’t falling apart and the screen is HD.  That’s right, no more trembling, blurry projections.  Just a crystal clear, blazingly vibrant, enormous screen.”)  The Roxy with its elegant, joined-up logo, its old-worldly art-deco lines and its quaint accordion gates just couldn’t compete.


As late as December 2011, Minolma Fenandiz, a writer on the online Colombo City Guide, reported that the Roxy was still in business and showing ‘a good range of English movies’ (as opposed to the Tamil ones mentioned above).  My guess is that sometime between then and now, the final strip of celluloid threaded through the Roxy’s projector.  Would anyone out there like to clarify?



Nowt as queer as folk-horror 2


(c) Film 4 / Rook Films


This is my second post about British folk-horror movies – i.e. movies that don’t rely on generic and usually-imported plot-elements like serial killers, vampires, werewolves or zombies for their scares, but instead use things lurking in the darker corners of Britain’s indigenous folklore and legends.  Previously, I wrote about this sub-genre up until the end of the 1980s and Ken Russell’s 1988 epic The Lair of the White Worm, a film so ludicrous I’m surprised it didn’t convince filmmakers that British folklore could never be the source of anything scary.


Actually, there’s another 1980s film that I forgot to mention.  1986 saw a British-Irish co-production called Rawhead Rex, based on a short story that’d appeared in the third volume of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood anthology series.  Often, Barker devises his own mythologies for his stories and screenplays, as he would with the later Hellraiser films, but in Rawhead Rex he borrows from old tales found in various European cultures about ‘wild men of the woods’ – wodwos is the term for them that appears in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that famous alliterative romance of the late 14th century.


Rawhead Rex has an alliterative title, all right, but there’s nothing romantic about it.  The story features a hulking, hairy, humanoid and utterly bloodthirsty monster who since pagan times has been magically imprisoned under a huge rock in rural Kent.  In the present day, a farmer uproots the rock and unwittingly releases the beast, who runs amok, killing and eating people.  He’s only stopped with the discovery (in a church) of an ancient talisman, shaped like a pregnant woman, which drains him of his strength.  Like most of Barker’s early writing, Rawhead Rex is full-on in its gore and brutality – two of the torn-apart victims are young children – and I suspect he was less interested in exploring themes of nature, fertility and death in British folklore and more interested in creating a Jaws-type juxtaposition between the creature’s primordial savagery and the picture-postcard serenity of the modern Home Counties countryside.


Unfortunately, when Rawhead Rex was filmed, the moviemakers shifted the setting from Kent in England to County Wicklow in Ireland.  This gives the film a more old-worldly and Celtic-y feel but removes the jarring contrast between monster and environment that Barker created in the original story.  Meanwhile, though the basic plot elements are still there, director George Pavlou doesn’t make much of them – there’s a pagan monster on the loose, it can only be defeated by a strange altar-stone that shoots out magic energy beams and well, that’s it.  A third problem is the appearance of the monster.  I didn’t think it looked too bad in stills from the film – though Barker hated the filmmakers’ depiction of it and likened it to a “nine-foot-tall phallus with teeth” – but when I caught up with Rawhead Rex on TV a while ago I had to admit, yes, it looked very much like a man in a crap monster-suit.  In fact, I was reminded again of my old friend, the monster in the 1970s advertisements for Chewits – “Chewits!  Even chewier than a 15-storey block of flats!”


(c) Alpine Pictures



By the late 1990s, a new generation of British filmmakers with a fondness for the macabre had appeared and the second wave of British horror movies was underway, a wave that’s continued to this day.  One of the first films out of the blocks was Darklands, a folk-horror one about a conspiracy involving human-sacrificing Welsh pagans and Welsh nationalist politicians.  (It’s probably not a favourite movie among members of Plaid Cymru.)  Directed by Julian Richards and filmed in Swansea, Newport and at Port Talbot’s imposing steelworks, the 1998-released Darklands is a bit duff, although I like how it features the late, great Jon Finch in a supporting role.  Playing the hero, a Welshman with a suspiciously Cockney accent, is Craig Fairbrass, who at the time was enjoying a Jason-Statham-type career roll as an action hero.  As critic Kim Newman noted in Empire magazine, “Craig Fairbrass isn’t quite right for a role that asks him to spend more time running away from people than nutting them.”


Newman was also narked by Darklands’ predictability.  Not wanting to give too much away, he wrote that the plot was “so clearly patterned on a specific early 1970s horror classic that it soon becomes obvious where it is headed.”  The website British Horror Films was blunter in its appraisal of this Welsh folk-horror movie: “it’s The Wicker Man, boyo, but with buckets of blood and lots of swearing.”


Once the second British horror-movie boom got going, it became clear that filmmakers were mostly looking in the same old places for their ideas: zombies (28 Days and 28 Months Later, Shaun of the Dead, Colin), werewolves (Dog Soldiers), aliens (Monsters, Attack the Block, The World’s End), serial killers (The Last Horror Movie, Mum and Dad, Tony), etc.  Occasionally, though, films have tapped into something more eerily and mysteriously British for their chills and some of these films have been very good indeed.  Here are half-a-dozen of my favourites.


The Last Great Wilderness (2002)

Scottish director David Mackenzie’s first film is a strange but endearing hybrid that hovers on the fringes of being a horror film, thanks to a scene of shocking violence near its end, a sub-plot involving a ghost and the way that its script flirts with The Wicker Man – yes, it’s that movie again.  Alastair Mackenzie and Jonathan Philips play a pair of eccentrics, one on the run from some gangsters and the other planning an arson attack on the Scottish home of a rock star who’s eloped with his wife, who get lost in the Scottish Highlands.  They end up at a mysterious lodge run by the mighty Scottish character actor David Hayman, where people suffering from various psychological disorders (agoraphobia, nymphomania, etc.) are receiving treatment.  Hayman’s group-therapy methods seem to include paganism, for everybody there is preparing for an upcoming celebration that involves an ominously big bonfire…  Actually, the pagan element in The Last Great Wilderness doesn’t really add up to much, but it gives an opportunity for Glaswegian indie band The Pastels (who provide the celebration, and the film, with its music) to make an appearance wearing dresses.


(c) Geographic / Domino


In 2012 Hayman appeared in another film inspired by British, more specifically Scottish, folklore, Sawney – Flesh of Man.  In this he played a modern-day descendant of the legendary Sawney Bean, who in the 15th or 16th centuries supposedly lived in a cave at Bennane Head on the southwest Scottish coast, waylaid and devoured travellers and managed to sire a clan of 48 hungry cannibals.  Apart from Hayman’s performance, alas, the film is poor.


Wake Wood (2009)

Hammer Films was the studio most closely associated with the original British horror-film boom, but it wasn’t until the late noughties, after the studio had been re-established, that it got around to making a proper folk-horror movie, the Irish-set Wake Wood.  Although the story, about a vet and his wife moving to a rural village after the death of their young daughter and encountering a pagan cult who claim they can safely bring the dead back to life if certain rules are followed – needless to say, the rules aren’t followed – is no great shakes and borrows from Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, director David Keating captures the Irish countryside well.  Wake Wood was filmed around the village of Pettigo on the County Donegal / County Fermanagh border and the melancholic landscapes there, of autumnal trees, rain, stone dykes, thorny hedgerows and, in the distance, funereally-turning wind-turbines, form an effective backdrop to the grisly events in the plot.  (The blood and grue that the hero encounters during his veterinarian work is particularly hard to watch.)


Unfortunately, Wake Wood snuck out between two more hyped releases by Hammer, Let Me In and The Woman in Black, and received little attention from critics and audiences.  Which is a pity – it’s not great but it’s certainly better than the crude 1989 movie adaptation of Pet Sematary.  And the eerie, pulsing music by Michael Convertino is good too.


(c) Hammer Films


Outcast (2009)

Another unfairly neglected British-Irish film, Outcast is the story of a pair of travelling people, a mother and son with magical powers, being pursued from Ireland to Scotland, where they try to keep a low profile in the housing schemes of Sighthill in western Edinburgh.  On their trail is a mysterious hunter / hitman called Cathal and an equally-mysterious, bestial something that rips its victims to pieces.  As Cathal has magical powers of his own, these two pursuers may be one and the same thing.  Unfortunately, the film has a botched ending – it never makes clear what exactly has been going on and it shows too much of the killer beast, which was scarier when it was hiding in the shadows.  At least this one doesn’t look like the Chewits monster.


That said, Outcast has some lovely moments.  When the hunter and hunted use their magical powers to try to outwit one another, the film goes off into a weird, ritualistic and lore-ridden world of its own.  It also manages to convey the idea of supernatural forces from an older, stranger, rural world creeping into a modern, urban one; even into the concrete alleyways and apartment-blocks of Sighthill.  This is underlined by a sequence where the film’s young hero and heroine sit on a revolving roundabout in a playground at the city’s edge, so that behind them the concrete cityscape alternates with the twilit countryside.


And Outcast has a great cast.  Sci-fi and fantasy nerds will drool over it because it features James Cosmo, Kate Dickie and Daniel Portman, all of whom would later appear in Game of Thrones; and also it features Karen Gillan just before she became the splendiferous Amy Pond in Doctor Who.  But the real acting revelation – especially if you only know him for playing Bofur the Dwarf in The Hobbit movies or for his appearances in a string of annoyingly laddish commercials – is James Nesbitt as the brutal and driven hunter, Cathal.  He’s so single-minded that he’ll happily disembowel a pigeon or saw off pieces of his own tattooed skin in order to conduct a gruesome divination ritual that’ll bring him closer to his quarry.  I just wish Nesbitt would do stuff like this in his Thomas Cook adverts.


(c) Vertigo Films


Black Death (2010)

Directed by Chris Smith, Black Death is also an international co-production (Britain and Germany this time) with a strong cast: Sean Bean, John Lynch, Andy Nyman, Tim McInnery and David Warner.  It feels a little out-of-place on this list, although it’s set in medieval England and the plot – during the time of the great plague, a young monk has to escort some church-employed warriors to a remote village where, it’s rumoured, the villagers have reverted to paganism – clearly channels that of The Wicker Man.  However, it was filmed in Saxony-Anholt and Brandenburg in Germany and its forested and marshy landscapes look too wild and desolate to pass for the British countryside.  Mind you, it’s set at a time before that humans had tamed much of that countryside with agriculture, so I suppose Britain looked much wilder then than it does now.


Bravely, Smith gives the film a bleak ending that echoes that of the old folk-horror classic, 1968’s Witchfinder General – in which the hero grows so obsessed with destroying the villains that he loses his own goodness and becomes indistinguishable from what he’s fighting against.


(c) Egoli Tossell Films


Kill List (2011)

A Field in England (2013)


With Kill List and A Field in England on his CV, director Ben Wheatley is the Orson Welles of modern British folk-horror.  However, clues to how his filmmaking career would develop are present in his first film, 2009’s Down TerraceDown Terrace is ostensibly a crime movie, but its story of a melancholic old gangster in Brighton who’s more interested in playing folk music and studying his local genealogy than in whacking his rivals make it seem in a sub-genre of its own: folk-gangster.


Kill List begins in gangster territory with two hit-men, played by Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley, undertaking a job with a mysterious crime syndicate that has them travelling around the country and eliminating various people on the titular ‘kill-list’.  But unexpected things occur – their victims, instead of fleeing or begging for mercy, greet them with open arms.  Also, there are suggestions of crimes being secretly committed that are so unspeakable that Maskell flies into a homicidal rage when he glimpses them on a video recording.  Then for their final assignment Maskell and Smiley find themselves entering the grounds of a country mansion, and they find themselves too on the grounds of a certain, much-loved British folk-horror movie from 1973.  You know which one it is.


Actually, the blog A Year in the Country pointed out recently that Kill List “felt like the true sequel to The Wicker Man, not The Wicker Tree.  More in keeping with the themes of that film but through a modern-day filter of a corruption that feels total and also curiously banal.”  I wrote about The Wicker Tree, Robin Hardy’s disappointing 2010 sequel to The Wicker Man, a little while ago and I can safely say that Kill List blows it out of the water.


(c) Film 4 / Rook Films


If Kill List is Wheatley’s take on The Wicker Man, then A Field in England is his riff on Witchfinder General.  Sharing that film’s English-Civil-War setting, it has a handful of exhausted soldiers (including one played by Reece Shearsmith) fleeing from a battle by breaking through a thick hedge on the battleground’s edge.  When they emerge on the hedge’s far side, they find themselves in a vast, overgrown field where they soon fall under the spell of a sorcerer, played by Wheatley regular Michael Smiley, who sets them to work digging holes for some obscure and presumably nefarious purpose.  Even by the standards of Wheatley, who doesn’t like giving his films much plot exposition, A Field in England is a baffling, if beguiling, film; and things take a further swing towards the outlandish when the characters ingest some magic mushrooms and experience kaleidoscopic hallucinations.  Incidentally, the field that appears here is actually at Hampton Estate, which specialises in ‘traditional agriculture’, between Guildford and Farnham in Surrey.


The film is weird rather than horrific, although a scene where Shearsmith emerges, transformed, from Smiley’s tent after something unseen but hideous has happened to him there – we’ve heard him screaming – is about the most disturbing thing Shearsmith has ever done.  (And this is the man who used to play Papa Lazarou in The League of Gentlemen.)


The Borderlands (2013)

Finally, there’s this film directed by Elliot Goldner, which made a stir recently.  I hadn’t been that interested in seeing it, as its plot synopsis – it’s a found-footage movie about some Vatican-assigned investigators checking out a remote English chapel where it’s claimed a miracle has taken place, only to discover dark forces at work – made it sound like The Blair Witch Project meets The Exorcist.  And I hate found-footage horror movies.  It always bugs me that the guy holding the camera never thinks of dropping it and running like hell, like any normal person would, when something horrible appears in front of him.


Actually, The Borderlands gets around the found-footage credibility problem by having the clerics wear camera-and-microphone headsets at all times as part of their investigative procedure; so they can’t drop the cameras.  Meanwhile, the film’s religious elements get subverted as it becomes apparent that the spooky chapel – which in real life stands at Denbury in Devon – is on a site of ancient pagan worship, where something older and more malevolent than Christianity might be lurking.  Some have likened the path the film goes down to the works of HP Lovecraft, although it reminded me more of the Welsh occult writer Arthur Machen.


The film also gets a big boost from its two main actors, Robin Hill (a long-time collaborator with Ben Wheatley) and Scottish comic performer Gordon Kennedy.  The characters they play have their faults – Hill is a motor-mouth who isn’t as funny as he thinks he is while Kennedy is surly and overly fond of the bottle – but they become likeable and end up forming an engaging double-act.  Which makes the claustrophobic ending (filmed in Chislehurst Caves in southeast London, which last saw British horror-movie location-duty in 1980 in Norman J. Warren’s dire Alien rip-off, Inseminoid) all the more horrifying.  We’ve enjoyed being in Hill and Kennedy’s company and don’t want bad stuff to happen to them.  But it does.  Bugger.


(c) Metrodome


Nowt as queer as folk-horror


(c) British Lion


Establishment film critics and film historians in this country may find it an uncomfortable truth – a source of embarrassment and dismay, even – but for long periods a sizeable section of the British film industry has been dedicated to cranking out horror movies.


Specifically, there are two periods when British horror filmmakers have been prolific.  The first was from the late 1950s until the mid-1970s,  This was when studios like Hammer, Amicus, Tigon and the British wing of American International Pictures (AIP) knocked out macabre products, some of them full-blooded gothic fantasies, others more downbeat, psychological and set in the urban present.  The directors who made such fare ranged from the critically acclaimed (Michael Powell, Jack Clayton and Roman Polanski) to the – at the time, at least – critically derided (Pete Walker, Michael Armstrong and Norman J. Warren).


The second period has run from the late-1990s until today and again the directors involved have ranged from the critically applauded (Danny Boyle, Edgar Wright and Gareth Edwards) to the critically frowned-upon (Alex Chandon and Jake West, whom I’m sure are bothered not one jot that most critics don’t like their films).  This time, though, the emphasis has definitely been on the downbeat, modern and urban – and indeed, grungy, nasty and nihilistic.  Even at the moment, while reports appear in the media about the British film industry being, yet again, in deep shit, these usually-unheralded and beneath-the-radar British horror movies just keep on coming.  In the past two years, off the top of my head, I can think of Before Dawn, Byzantium, Cockneys vs Zombies, Berberian Sound Studio, Sightseers, A Field in England, The World’s End, The Seasoning House, In Fear, Borderlands, The Quiet Ones, Stalled, Scar Tissue, Soulmate, Blackwood, The Last Showing,  Following the Wicca Man, White Settlers and Monsters: Dark Continent.  (Okay, I haven’t mentioned Strippers vs Werewolves, but who’d want to?)


Curiously, what British horror films in the past and nowadays have seemed reluctant to do is to embrace the macabre folklore, traditions and history of the British Isles themselves.  When they haven’t been dealing with deranged killers in contemporary settings – Carl Boehm as the crazy photographer stalking models and dancers in Michael Powell’s notorious 1960 movie Peeping Tom, Sheila Keith as a cannibalistic granny drilling people’s heads open in Peter Walker’s grim 1972 epic Frightmare, feral kids and / or psychotic hoodies running amok in James Watkins’ 2007 movie Eden Lake and in a dozen other modern British horrors – they’ve dealt with tropes that’ve been borrowed en masse from Hollywood and from continental Europe: vampires, werewolves, zombies (a lot of zombies recently).


To be fair, even before the cinematic era when Britain – and Ireland – had a burgeoning gothic literary tradition, writers like Matthew Lewis, Mary Shelley,  Charles Maturin, J. Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker often used the European mainland for both the settings and the inspiration of their most famous stories.


And when the first wave of British horror-filmmakers did mine Britain’s past for ideas, they often didn’t look beyond the days of the British Empire (which admittedly loomed large in recent British history at the time).  Hence, you get a strain of ‘colonial horror’ films like The Reptile (1966), The Oblong Box (1969) and The Ghoul (1974), in which upper-class Brits went abroad, behaved badly, got cursed by the natives and then returned home with guilty, horrible secrets as their punishments.


(c) BFI


Nonetheless, over the years, critics and cultural commentators have come to identify a British-horror-movie sub-genre known as ‘folk-horror’, wherein the horror springs from sinister things that, to paraphrase Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, bustle in the hedgerows of eerie, mysterious and rural old Britain.  In August 2010 even the ultra-prestigious British film journal Sight and Sound saw fit to devote an issue to ‘the films of old, weird Britain’.  So in this post, and in a later one, I’d like to write about what I consider to be the best ten (or so) British folk-horror movies of all time.


Night of the Demon (1957)

“It’s in the trees!  It’s coming!”  Fans of Kate Bush will recognise this line from the opening of her 1985 song Hounds of Love.  It’s sampled from Night of the Demon, an appropriate choice with which to start this list because it appeared just as the first British horror-movie boom was kicking off in the late 1950s.  Furthermore, it’s based on the short story Casting the Runes by M.R. James, one British writer who wasn’t reluctant to dig into homespun folklore and legends for scary ideas.


The druidic runes in question are those inscribed on some parchment given to investigator Dana Andrews by black-magic cult leader Niall McGinnis, after Andrews has antagonised him with his scepticism.  Not only does the parchment foretell Andrews’ death at a particular point in the near-future, but it also seems to be bait for something big and diabolical, presumably pagan in origin, which has begun to stalk him – and it’s going to catch up with him, fatally, at the time predicted.  If the plot sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because Sam Raimi quietly borrowed it for his 2008 horror opus Drag Me to Hell.


With filming locations that include Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, the British Museum and – where better? – Stonehenge, Night of the Demon is an atmospheric and intelligent movie.  It has a wealth of lovely little details.  Reference is made to the celebrated lines from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “Like one that on a lonesome road / doth walk in fear and dread / and having once turn’d round, walks on / and turns no more his head / because he knows a frightful fiend / doth close behind him tread.”  Disconcertingly, McGinnis makes his first appearance performing magic tricks at a children’s party.  And it’s creepy – up to a point.  The sequences where Andrews notices something trailing after him, getting ever closer, signified by a weird rattling sound and an odd-looking ball of smoke floating in the distance behind him, are wonderfully unsettling.


Alas, producer Hal E. Chester didn’t believe that the scariest things are those left to the imagination.  Overruling the wishes of Andrews, director Jacques Tourneur and writer Charles Bennett, he insisted on inserting, into the movie’s climax, footage of a big, scaly, warty monster.  (The bloody thing has always reminded me of the clay-motion creature featured in 1970s TV advertisements for the British sweets, Chewits – “Chewits!  Even chewier than a 15-storey block of flats!”)  Needless to say, this wrecks the suspense that Tourneur has built up during the preceding movie.  Bennett was particularly incensed and once claimed that if Chester “walked up my driveway right now, I’d shoot him dead.”


(c) BFI



Witchfinder General (1968)

East Anglia is one of my favourite parts of England and 1968’s Witchfinder General, which starred Vincent Price and was directed by Michael Reeves (who died shortly afterwards at the age of 25), is possibly the most East Anglian movie ever.  It deals with a figure from local history, the notorious 17th century ‘witch-finder’ Matthew Hopkins, and it turns the County Suffolk countryside into an unsettlingly pretty backdrop for Hopkins’ brutal activities.  Among the movie’s locations were Brandeston Village, St John’s Church near Thetford, and Dunwich and Orford on the Suffolk coast.  Also used in the area were two aircraft hangars near Bury St Edmunds, which were converted into studios for filming the interior scenes.


Witchfinder General’s climax was shot inside the castle at Orford and locals old enough to remember it recall how screams emanated from the castle dungeon for three days solid.  Orford Castle belongs to English Heritage and I’ve heard that originally the film was supposed to finish with a deadly conflagration.  However, when Reeves realised he couldn’t set fire to an English Heritage property, he toned things down slightly in his script – instead, he had hero Ian Ogilvy hack Price bloodily to death with an axe and gouge out another villain’s eyeball with the spur on his boot.  As you do.


(c) Tigon Films


Price and Reeves didn’t get on at all during Witchfinder General’s production.  Reeves considered Price too showy an actor for the role, but the star had been forced on him by the movie’s producers.  Nonetheless, Price ended up giving a low-key but chilling portrayal of villainy, which is now considered as one of his best performances.


Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970)

Tigon Films, the studio responsible for Witchfinder General, made this movie two years later.  It’s also set in rural England in the 17th century and comes across at times like a particularly phlegmy BBC costume drama, one where actors and actresses clad in wigs, cloaks, stockings and buckled shoes tramp through the mud between thatched cottages and address one another in heavy accents as ‘Master Gower’, ‘Mistress Vespers’ and ‘Squire Middleton’.  However, it’s suffused with far more blood, nudity and paganism than you’ll ever get in a BBC costume drama.


The film begins with a farmhand accidentally turning up a hideous something from the soil whilst ploughing.  Before long, there’s an outbreak of devil-worship, human sacrifice and general debauchery among the local youngsters as they come under the spell of a supernatural entity – presumably the thing unearthed in the field.  Blood on Satan’s Claw seemed particularly freaky to me as a kid because it contained a number of young actors and actresses whom I knew from watching various innocuous comedy and drama shows on 1970s TV: Simon Williams (from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), Michele Dotrice (from Some Mothers do ’ave ’em) and, playing the spectacularly ill-fated Cathy Vespers, Wendy Padbury, who’d just finished a stint as Patrick Troughton’s companion in Doctor Who.


(c) Tigon Films


The best performance, though, is given by Linda Hayden as Angel Blake, the local minx who becomes the entity’s voluptuous high priestess and worships it in a ruined and deconsecrated church.  In real life, the church is to be found at Bix Bottom in Oxfordshire.


Directed by Piers Haggard, who filmed many of the outdoor scenes at low angles to give the impression of something looking up at the human world, out of the soil, Blood on Satan’s Claw is distinguished too by a lovely, folky but sinister score by the Australian composer Marc Wilkinson.  Wilkinson uses a cimbalom (an East European hammered dulcimer, once popular with gypsy musicians) to great effect and I’ve heard that he later gave advice to composer, singer and musician Paul Giovanni – who’d be responsible for the equally beguiling folk music featured in the next film on my list.  Which of course is…


The Wicker Man (1973)

However, I’ve written enough posts about this film in the past, so I won’t go on about it here.  Except to mention the locations it was filmed at in Scotland: Anwoth, Burrow Head, Castle Kennedy, Creetown, Gatehouse of Fleet, Kirkcudbright, Port Logan and St Ninian’s Cave in Dumfries and Galloway region; Culzean Castle in Ayrshire; Plockton on the Highland coast; and the Isle of Skye, which provides the view of the Old Man of Storr rock formations in the movie’s credits sequence, seen while the doomed Edward Woodward flies his seaplane to the island of Summerisle.


(c) British Lion


And that was really it as far as folk-horror was concerned in the UK’s first horror-movie boom.  A few other films used the idea that witchcraft was being practised behind the curtains of rural Britain’s cottages and farmhouses – for example, the 1964 black-and-white movie Witchcraft, directed by Don Sharp and starring an ailing (at times visibly drunk) Lon Chaney Jnr; the 1966 Hammer movie The Witches, with a script by Nigel Kneale based on Norah Lofts’ novel The Devil’s Own; and 1976’s Satan’s Slave, directed by Norman J. Warren, scripted by film critic David McGillivray and starring Michael Gough with an unfeasibly bushy moustache.  However, I don’t consider any of them to be much good.


(c) AIP


In 1970, after Witchfinder General, director Gordon Hessler and scriptwriters Tim Kelly and Christopher Wicking mounted an Elizabethan-set horror movie called Cry of the Banshee, wherein a witch-hunter, again played by Vincent Price, is punished by a witches’ coven who summon up a Celtic faerie demon called an aos sis – not the banshee of the title – and send it after him and his family.  However, the film was low-budgeted and interfered with by its producers and the result was disappointing.  Still, the credits sequence, animated by a very young Terry Gilliam, is worth seeing.  Some movie fans, meanwhile, have expressed love for another Don Sharp movie, 1973’s Psychomania, which incorporates witchcraft and a pagan stone circle into a plot about English Hell’s Angels becoming indestructible zombies.  I like Psychomania, though it falls into the ‘so bad it’s good’ category rather than into the ‘actually good’ category.


‘So bad it’s good’ is the only way to describe 1988’s Lair of the White Worm, directed by the once-great Ken Russell, and of which the Guardian once said: “Badly shot, clumsily edited and seemingly scored by a teenage boy who has just taken delivery of his first synthesiser and then pressed the buttons one by one…”  It stars Hugh Grant as Lord James D’Ampton, a languid aristocrat living in the remote English countryside who finds himself having to do battle with a monstrous worm-snake-dragon creature that’s inhabited a local cave since prehistory – the film’s cave scenes were shot in Thor’s Cavern in the Derbyshire Peak District.  Grant also comes up against one of his neighbours, played by the sultry Amanda Donohoe, who’s actually a snake-vampire creature in human form and who acts as the beast’s high priestess.  Yes, I bet these days Hugh Grant doesn’t advertise the fact that he has this movie on his CV.


Helping Grant out is Peter Capaldi, playing a resourceful but very stereotypical Scottish archaeologist who discovers that the snake-vampires can be hypnotised by the sound of the bagpipes, just as real snakes are by snake-charmers.  Meanwhile, the scene where the fanged Donohoe bites Capaldi under his kilt makes Lair of the White Worm worth its DVD rental price alone.


(c) Vestron Pictures


The film has a chaotic script.  When Ken Russell isn’t loading on the psychedelic flashback scenes that see early-Christian nuns being raped by Roman legionaries and crucified Christ-figures being crushed by giant snakes, he goes to town on worm / snake / phallus imagery – the shot where a vacuum-cleaner tube entwines itself around Catherine Oxenberg’s ankle is just one of many.  Still, if you look hard enough, you’ll find some interesting references to British legends about monstrous ‘worms’ – eel-like dragons – terrorising the countryside, such as the one about the Lambton Worm that supposedly took place by the River Wear in north-east England at the time of the Crusades.


The legend of the Lambton Worm was commemorated in a lusty folk ballad written by Clarence M. Leumane in 1867 and the song gets an airing here – with its title changed to The D’Ampton Worm, in acknowledgement of the name of Grant’s character.  Unfortunately, its performance by Emilio Perez Machado and Stephen Powys, who show more enthusiasm than subtlety, makes it the most clodhopping folk song ever to grace a British folk-horror movie: “John D’Ampton went a-fishing once, a-fishing in the Wear / He caught a fish upon his hook he thought looked mighty queer…”  Paul Giovanni it is not.   (


There were, thankfully, better things to come…  (To be continued.)


Sri Lanka’s master of puppets



The Traditional Puppet Art Museum of Sri Lanka was a difficult place to find.  Indeed, after spending an interminable time wandering through the back streets of Colombo’s Dehiwala district, I’d given up hope of finding it.  But then I trudged around a corner and – hey presto! – there it was.  The building it’s housed in isn’t a particularly striking one and if it hadn’t been for the narrow, painted metal sign rising in front, I would have missed it.



Maybe that’s why the museum wasn’t busy.  For the time I was there, in fact, I was the sole visitor.   My only company – puppets not constituting real company – was an eccentric lady who appeared in the entrance corridor when I strolled in and attempted, for a time, to show me around.  This involved her telling me about the folk stories that inspired the puppet displays by reading aloud from some pages printed in English.  Unfortunately, her English pronunciation was so garbled that she might have been telling me the stories in Swahili.  To make matters worse, she also turned on an English-language recording that played over the museum’s PA system.  This was slightly more understandable, but with it intoning at me from above and with her gibbering at me from the side, the result was a lot of incomprehensible noise.


I can’t complain about the lack of clear English in the museum – it’s my fault for not knowing any Sinhalese – but because the museum’s website has an English version, I’d hoped the information provided about the exhibits might be a little more comprehensible for me.


Here’s the website, by the way:


Finally the building was stricken by a power cut and the recording died with the PA system.  A couple of minutes later, the eccentric lady gave up her attempts at narration and I was left to study the remainder of the puppets in peace.



The puppets are arranged in four large rooms on either side of the entrance corridor.  Among the traditional stories – seven in all, I’m told – that the puppets represent characters from are ones involving matrimonial betrayal (an ugly, dwarfish man called Kalagola loses his wife to a charmer who offers to carry her across a flooded river); martyrdom (a boy called Madduma Bandara sacrifices himself to save his father from a vengeful king); and illicit love (Prince Saliya forfeits his right to his father’s throne because of his love for the low-caste Ashokamala).  More than a few of the exhibits are sinister, if not disturbing – a monk is attacked by a fanged, long-haired, goggle-eyed demon, a woman is about to be beheaded by a brigand wielding a sword the size of an ironing board and a hirsute man who has been beheaded holds his severed head out in front of him.  Alas, because of the power cut, the rooms were dim and most of the photographs I took didn’t come out particularly well.  Still, I’ve attached a few of the better ones to this post.



Further back in the museum is a room containing a collection of masks.  I’m told they were made by craftsmen in the coastal town of Ambalangola in southwest Sri Lanka and some of them are wonderfully weird and grotesque.  There were also two larger puppets, bizarre, shaggy, black-furred things that look a little like Bingo and Drooper from The Banana Splits after a century in hell, and you’re allowed to play puppeteer and have a shot at operating them yourself.



I was charged 500 rupees for my tour of the museum and another 200 rupees for the privilege of taking photographs.  This was a lot more than the prices quoted in the reviews of the museum I’d read online and I strongly suspect I was ripped off by the lady in question.  Nonetheless, 700 rupees is equivalent to the price of a pint-and-a-half of beer in a posh Colombo hotel or restaurant and as the puppet museum was pleasant and interesting enough, I still felt it was money well spent.


In addition to its regular displays, the museum stages puppet-shows, hosts seminars and lectures and carries out research work.  It was founded by and is run by Sarath Abegunawardana, a gentleman whose mission has been to preserve puppetry as an important strand of Sri Lanka’s artistic heritage.  So, to borrow the title from an old song and album by Metallica, I suppose you could say he’s Sri Lanka’s Master of Puppets.



Saddest scene ever


(c) NBC


There were many reasons to cherish the great Hollywood actor James Garner, who passed away last month at the age of 86.


When I was a kid in the 1970s he was arguably the coolest man on TV, thanks to his turn as the easy-going, smooth-talking though financially hard-pressed private investigator Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files.  In his youth he served in the Korean War and was awarded two Purple Hearts, although to get the second one he suffered the ignominy of being strafed in the bum by friendly fire from a US fighter jet – a somehow Rockford-esque thing to happen.  He was a staunch liberal and on August 28th, 1963, sat in the third row from the front while Martin Luther King gave his ‘I have a Dream’ speech in Washington DC.  Also, some Californian Democrats pushed him, unsuccessfully, to run for the post of state governor in 1990.  Somehow, I can’t imagine Jim Rockford doing any worse as Governor of California than the Terminator did.


One position he did hold was as vice-president of the Screen Actors’ Guild, back in the days when the guild-president was a certain Ronald Reagan.  “Ronnie never had an original thought,” Garner recalled in his 2011 autobiography, “and we had to tell him what to say.”  Some would say that the situation hadn’t changed any by the time Reagan was elevated a higher presidency in the 1980s.


He was also an unapologetic pot-smoker for much of his life, partly, I’m sure, because it had a soothing effect on the pain that was a legacy of his war injuries and the stunt-work he’d done in his film and TV work.  (In fact, the sorry condition of Garner’s knee and back was one reason why The Rockford Files ended its run in 1980.)


And he was one of the very last actors to be associated with that once-mighty genre, the western.  Thanks no doubt to his starring in the TV western series Maverick, which ran from 1957 to 1962, he was cast in a string of western movies, including Shoot-out at Medicine Bend (1957), Duel at Diablo (1966), Hour of the Gun (1967), Support Your Local Sheriff (1969), Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971), Skin Game (1971), One Little Indian (1973), The Castaway Cowboy (1974), Sunset (1988) and, inevitably, the cinematic update of his old TV show, Maverick (1994), which had Mel Gibson in the title role and Garner bumped up one generation to play his dad.  In both Hour of the Gun and Sunset, meanwhile, he filled the boots of Wyatt Earp.


Actually, with Garner’s passing and the recent death of Eli Wallach, the only great western actors I can think of who are still with us are Clint Eastwood and L.Q. Jones – though if you’re loose with your definition of ‘western actor’, I suppose you could include Kirk Douglas and Sam Elliott as well.  Which is sad.


(c) United Artists


For me, though, Garner’s finest hour came in 1963 with the John Sturges-directed prisoner-of-war epic The Great Escape – what else?  The film’s nonsense, of course, but it’s brilliant nonsense.  As Time magazine said of it: “There is no sermonising, no soul-probing, no sex.  The Great Escape is just great escapism.”  Garner excels in the role of the captured American pilot Hendley, a devious and manipulative type who fools and bribes the German guards, such as the hapless Werner-the-Ferret, into supplying him with equipment needed for the mass break-out planned at Stalag Luft III.  Later, Hendley develops a conscience when his affable fellow-prisoner Colin Blythe goes blind.  (Blythe is played by Donald Pleasence, just before Donald turned all goggle-eyed and sinister and started playing madmen and criminal super-geniuses hell-bent on destroying the world.)  Selflessly, he offers to take the ailing Blythe with him when he makes his escape-attempt from the camp.


Garner and Pleasence do get out of the camp and they almost make it to freedom.  In fact, they’re mere yards away from the Swiss border when that pesky German airplane they’ve commandeered develops an engine fault and crashes.  (Vorsprung durch Technik?  Not in this film.)  Then while the bloodied Garner tried to compose himself amid the plane wreckage, the sightless Pleasence goes stumbling off in the direction of an approaching German patrol, and one of the German soldiers raises his rifle…  Only a brute would fail to have a lump in his or her throat at what happens next.


I end up watching The Great Escape about once a year – usually around Christmas or New Year, because it’s guaranteed to turn up on the festive schedule of some TV channel or other.  And every time I see this sequence, I find myself hoping against hope that somehow, this time, things will turn out differently and that plane will limp on a little further and carry its two passengers to Switzerland, where they can live happily ever after.  But the bastard thing never does.



Probably amazing



The Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque is the eighth largest mosque in the world.  It has a main prayer hall that can hold 40,000 worshippers and is surfaced by the world’s biggest carpet.  The hall also contains the world’s third-largest chandelier and 96 columns that are encased in marble and ornamented with mother-of-pearl.  Its gleaming white opulence looms up from a site at the eastern end of Abu Dhabi’s main island and is a striking sight to see while you drive towards the city-centre from the airport – resembling a peculiarly Moorish take on the Taj Mahal.


What the Grand Mosque doesn’t have, though, is antiquity.  It was built between 1996 and 2007, by a workforce of more than 3000.  However, that certainly isn’t a reason not to visit.  After all, I’ve been to the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, which was only completed in 1993, and I found it breath-taking.  That mosque incorporated the artwork and craftsmanship of thousands of contemporary Moroccan artisans and it seemed as much as anything else to be a defiant statement by those artisans to the modern world: “Look – we’ve still got it!”


Predictably, everyone kept telling me that the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque was the place I absolutely had to visit during my four-week sojourn in Abu Dhabi.  But for all but one day of that sojourn – the last day, just before I took an evening flight out of the United Arab Emirates – the holy month of Ramadan was in progress.  And during Ramadan the Grand Mosque was open from Saturday to Thursday only from 9.00 AM to noon, and then for a single lunchtime hour between 1.00 and 2.00.  As the only days when I wasn’t working were Friday and Saturday, my opportunities to visit the mosque during Ramadan were limited to the first half of each Saturday.  And on Saturday, by the time I’d crawled out of bed, showered, made myself vaguely human-looking and enjoyed a hotel buffet-breakfast that wasn’t devoured at the normal, working-morning speed (i.e. one likely to give me a stomach ulcer), I didn’t actually have much time left to pay a worthwhile visit to the much-talked-about mosque.


However, there was that final day I had in Abu Dhabi.  Ramadan ended the evening before, as did the month-long job I was doing.  Thus, the whole day was at my disposal.  And when I checked with the information desk in the hotel lobby, I was told, yes, the visiting hours at the Grand Mosque were back to their usual timetable, which was all day long.


When I climbed into a taxi on my final morning in Abu Dhabi and told the driver of my destination, he chuckled and said, “Ramadan has just finished, you know.  It will be very busy with visitors today.”


“No doubt,” I said.  “But this is my only chance to see it.”


The taxi driver dropped me off close to the steps leading up to the mosque’s entrance.  Its gorgeous white domes seemed to bubble up against the hot, steely-blue sky.  On either side, its minarets rose in narrowing segments so that they looked like giant ivory telescopes.  By now I was very excited.  As a city of concrete skyscrapers, hulking shopping malls and endless highways, Abu Dhabi had little appeal for me.  Being confronted with this now was like spending a month wandering around a giant parking lot and then discovering the Crown Jewels sitting in the middle of the acres of asphalt.


But as I set a foot on the very lowest of the entrance steps, an Indian guard came hurrying towards me.  “No!” he shouted.  “No!  Closed today!  Closed!”


The Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque, it transpired, was open only to worshippers on this, the day immediately following Ramadan.  Nobody else was allowed in at all, morning, afternoon or evening.  Normal visiting hours would only resume tomorrow – after I’d jetted out of the city.


There was a crowd of Chinese tourists standing on the paving stones below the steps, all of whom, understandably, looked a bit glum.  So I did what they were doing, which was to snap a few photos of the mosque outside its perimeter.  And that was the extent of my Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque experience.


A few days after returning to Sri Lanka, I got talking to a guy who’d visited Abu Dhabi’s Grand Mosque in the past and he assured me that its interior was ‘amazing’.  I’m afraid that’s all my verdict can be: probably amazing.






Although it was only recently that I moved to Sri Lanka, I’ve just spent the past four weeks doing a temporary job in Abu Dhabi, the second-biggest city in the United Arab Emirates.


Two years ago I was in Dubai, the UAE’s biggest city, and hated every moment of my sojourn there.  Afterwards I wrote a blog-entry about the experience, in which I quoted the journalist Johann Hari, who once likened Dubai to ‘a motorway punctuated by shopping centres’.  I also made some disparaging comments of my own: “It was the first city I’ve been in where the airport terminal, the hotel I was staying in and everything between and around those two places seemed to constitute a single, uniform entity – as if the city had been replicated endlessly from the same, simple scraps of architectural DNA.  It presented a soulless urban landscape of lobbies, malls, overpriced restaurants, personality-free ‘theme’ bars and acres of concrete, asphalt and glass.  In fact, I could have spent my couple of days there without leaving the airport and had pretty much the same intellectual and aesthetic experience.”


So I expected Abu Dhabi to be more of the same, though on a slightly smaller scale.  My hopes of Abu Dhabi being better than Dubai were not increased by knowing that the 2010 movie Sex and the City 2 had been set there.  Sex and the City 2 has been famously described by the Observer and Radio 5 film critic Mark Kermode as “ghastly, putrid and vomit-inducing” and “vacuous and shallow and horrible and consumerist-obsessed” – indeed, he summed it up as being “an orgy of dripping, just dripping wealth that made me want to be sick”, populated by “imperialist American pig-dogs of the highest order”.  Although in a rare display of good taste, the Emirati authorities forbade Sarah Jessica Parker and co. from filming in Abu Dhabi and production of the movie actually took place in Morocco.


As it turned out, Abu Dhabi was no better and no worse that I’d expected.  To be fair, I wasn’t in the city during its most visitor-friendly time of year – the July temperatures were usually in the forties and my stay there coincided with Ramadan, meaning that everything was closed for much of the day and the city only came to life after dark and after the breaking of the Muslim population’s daily fast.


In fact, when I wasn’t working, I spent nearly all my time in my hotel, which was of a considerable size and generous in its allocation of facilities, although again, most of these were closed most of the time because of Ramadan.  I’m sure that, gradually, my confinement to this hotel began to have some odd psychological effects on me.  If the hotel didn’t, in my perceptions, become the entire world, then it certainly came to constitute the whole of Abu Dhabi for me.


I eventually felt like an inhabitant of one of those gleaming science-fiction city utopias you’d see in movies like William Cameron Menzies’ Things to Come (1936), or George Lucas’s THX 1138 (1971), or Michael Anderson’s Logan’s Run (1976), which are seemingly composed of endless, sterile, plasticky corridors and concourses and elevator tubes.  (Despite being supposedly perfect societies, these sci-fi-movie utopias always seemed to harbour a good number of dissidents, rebels and fugitives.  That might be because what was one generation’s notion of a perfect utopian city usually ended up looking like a later generation’s notion of a giant shopping mall.)


Most science-fictional of all was the hotel’s lobby, at the bottom of a huge shaft of space 35 storeys high.  Two sides of this shaft were notched almost the whole way up to the glass ceiling by balconies, behind which were doors to countless hotel-rooms.  On the side opposite the entrance doors, meanwhile, two glass elevator-cars constantly shuttled up and down between the floors.  As they climbed towards the hooded cavity 35 storeys up where the system’s pulleys and motors were housed, they resembled two pucks whizzing up the towers and towards the bells of a pair of strength-testing fairground high-strikers.



Behind the lobby was a two-storey plaza.  Lining the upper floor of this were shop and restaurant fronts, including those of a beauty salon, a Thai restaurant, a cigar shop and, tucked furtively in a far corner, a bar-restaurant that quietly served breakfast to Western guests on the mornings of Ramadan and served alcohol to them in the evenings.  These were closed for much of the time and frequently the plaza was deserted, so that its air was more like that of a tourist hotel in the middle of North Korea than one in the middle of the UAE.  The lower floor sometimes livened up in the evenings when it became the site of an ‘Iftar’ banquet, i.e. a meal celebrating the end of the day’s fasting.  In readiness for that, during the day, it was populated silently by serving tables that supported chafers with domed stainless-steel lids, and stacks of white plates, and tight, geometrical columns of white cups and saucers.  It also contained, for the sake of local ‘colour’, some ornamental miniature camels and a supposed Bedouin tent that looked like it’d been assembled from sofas and curtains bought at Homebase.



Also on the premises were a mini-market, a swimming pool and a gym.  I spent much of my free time in the gym, using its exercise bikes and treadmills to fight off an Abu Dhabi-induced urge to give up on everything and lapse into becoming an immobile, barely-sentient blob.  All the walking, pedalling and running machines had mini-TVs mounted at their ends so that you could watch BBC World, Al Jazeera, CNN, etc. while you perspired.  There were also bigger screens mounted on the walls in front of the machines that were permanently tuned into some MTV-type channel and that broadcast non-stop horribleness by the likes of Justin Beiber, Ed Sheeran, J-Lo, One Direction, the Vamps, Smiley Virus and Coldplay.  If only they’d put these screens, emitting their vile drone, behind the machines.  Surely that would’ve inspired their users to pedal and run even harder, in a desperate if futile effort to get away from them.  At least the gym, on the 23rd-floor, had glass outer walls and allowed you a spectacular, if hazy, view of the local cityscape.



Drinking in the hotel bar – whenever I’d got so desperate that I could willingly part with seven pounds for a pint of draft Heineken – I gradually came to know some of the regular customers there.  And eventually I discovered that a few of these were long-term residents of the hotel.  For not only did it contain temporary rooms, but at the rear it also had permanent apartments.  Folk actually lived here, with the lobby, plaza, restaurants, mini-market, gym, swimming pool, etc., constituting their neighbourhood, their district, their local living space.  I discovered too that they could get a bit ratty if I slagged off Abu Dhabi.  What, they’d exclaim, didn’t I know what a good lifestyle you could have here, how much money you could make here, what a good education your kids could receive here, how safe it was here, how all-around wonderful it was here?  Well, each to their own, I suppose.


By a coincidence, one day after returning from Abu Dhabi, I took a look at the blog of the distinguished English novelist Christopher Priest and discovered that he’d just posted an enthusiastic review of a newly-published book called The Way Inn, by Will Wiles.  The Way Inn tells the story of a “professional conference-goer” called Neil Double.  He stands in for “middle-grade executives who either do not want to go to the conference, or cannot.  He attends the symposia on their behalf, takes notes and reports back.  This is his job, and he moves from one hotel, and conference, to the next.”


The Way Inn takes place in a milieu of big corporate hotels where such business conferences are held.  During his review, Priest goes to great lengths to evoke the overwhelming blandness and the sinister sterility of such places.  He talks of “the abstract paintings, the cuboid armchairs, the TV screen that displays an electronic welcome, the hum of the air-con, the room-service pan-seared salmon, the electronic door-key that stops working if you carry it next to your mobile phones…  the adjacent motorway, the half-constructed buildings next door and the muddy areas which will be developed next, the vast parking lots, the nearby airport and its lights, the attached conference centre that can only be reached by courtesy bus…  the endless corridors, the mile after mile of corporate carpet, the soundproofed windows, the view from those windows across concrete…  the ease with which you can get lost in the identical corridors and landings and the concomitant habit of always taking the same, safely memorised route to your room…”


Holy shit.  I’ve just spent a month living there.