Death log 2015, part 2


(c) Eon Productions


Continuing my tribute to people I liked who didn’t make it past 2015…


In January, the theatre, film and TV actress Geraldine McEwan passed away.  Prim and forthright, wry and twinkling, McEwan’s persona made her perfect for playing two of the greatest Misses in British literature.  In the 1970s she played the titular, self-assured but too-fond-of-Mussolini Edinburgh school-mistress in a TV adaptation of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  Spark reckoned McEwan best captured the essence of Jean Brodie, an accomplishment considering that Vanessa Redgrave had already played her on stage and Maggie Smith had played her on screen.  And later, from 2004 to 2007, she played Agatha Christie’s deceptively spinsterish and demure-looking sleuth in a dozen instalments of Miss Marple.


July saw the departure of the great Egyptian actor Omar Sharif.  Though he was famous for his performances in David Lean’s epics Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) and also for being the world’s most prominent bridge player, I’ll cherish Sharif most for playing the beleaguered Captain Brunel in Richard Lester’s 1974 thriller Juggernaut, which for my money is the best of the 1970s disaster movies.  Sharif’s calm and charm are put to the test when a psychotic criminal places six powerful bombs on board his passenger-stuffed cruise liner and – worse – the best the British government can do to help is send in a boozed-up bomb disposal expert played by the (at the time) boozed-up Richard Harris.


(c) United Artists


Writer Christopher Wood died in May, although his death wasn’t reported in the media until months later.  As well as co-writing the scripts for Roger Moore’s best James Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), and for his worst one, Moonraker (1979), Wood was responsible for those oh-so-British, oh-so-1970s sex-comedy Confessions of… books and films, which he wrote / scripted under the pseudonym Timothy Lea.  In an interview with Penthouse magazine, Wood opined, “They were funny then, and they’re funny now.  Then again, I always did like smut.”  I’ve written about Wood before on Blood and Porridge, here:


In September, the American actress Catherine Coulson died.  In her supporting role as the Log Lady in David Lynch’s much-loved Twin Peaks (1990-91), she provided that TV series with some of its funniest and most bizarre moments.  Before that, she’d helped to fund and served as assistant director and camera operator on Lynch’s breakthrough movie Eraserhead (1977); and she’d been married for a time to the late Jack Nance, who played the spectacularly bouffant-ed Henry Spencer in Eraserhead and the easy-going but henpecked Pete Martell in Twin Peaks.


(c) Lynch/Frost Productions


October saw the death of Denis Healey, British Defence Minister under Harold Wilson in the 1960s and Chancellor of the Exchequer under Wilson and James Callaghan in the 1970s.  He was described as ‘the best Labour Prime Minister Britain never had’ so often that I’m sure he was heartily sick of the phrase.  Still, it’s surely true that if the Labour Party had made the pugnacious and rambunctious Healey its leader in the 1980s, he’d have had a better chance than anyone else of ousting Margaret Thatcher from Number 10.  Instead, though, Healey ended up as deputy leader only, under the hapless Michael Foot.  Foot was a gentle, intelligent and very well-read man, but he belonged to a different political era; and the right-wing British press of the 1980s tore him to pieces.  (Mind you, Foot’s treatment seems mild compared to the abuse that’s been hurled at left-winger Jeremy Corbyn since he became Labour leader in September this year.)


British film critic Philip French died in October too.  A reviewer for the Observer for a half-century, French was one of the few ‘establishment’ film critics whose opinions I could stomach during my youth in the 1970s and 1980s.  Unlike, say, Alexander Walker in the Evening Standard, or the BBC’s Barry Norman, or the ubiquitous Leslie Halliwell, French wasn’t a prude and didn’t allow his tastes to be boxed in by what was deemed ‘respectable’.  Actually, unlike a lot of his peers, he seemed to genuinely like films.  He loved Western movies in particular; and he was about the only major British critic to laud Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner – now seen as one of the classics – when it was released in 1982.


In 2008, French identified his all-time favourite movies.  His list included such worthy choices as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970), Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006).  I’m not so sure about his inclusion of Gandhi (1982) or Ratatouille (2007), though…


Gunnar Hansen died in November.  In 1974, this Icelandic-born actor played Leatherface, the most memorable of the serial-killing and cannibalistic Sawyer family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Masked, able to converse only in mewls and gibbers, and wielding the buzzing chainsaw of the title, Leatherface was initially one of the most terrifying characters in horror-movie history.  It’s a pity that his fearsomeness has gradually been lessened by familiarity, with successive sequels and remakes trying to turn him into a money-spinning franchise.




Phil ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor, who also passed away in November, was drummer with the great heavy metal band Motörhead during its glory years of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  He thumped the tubs, as they say, on 1977’s Motörhead, 1979’s Overkill, 1979’s Bomber, 1980’s Ace of Spades, 1982’s Iron Fist and 1983’s Another Perfect Day; although he played with them again from 1987 to 1992.  Devotees regard him as part of the band’s greatest line-up, alongside front-man and bassist Lemmy and guitarist ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke.  Alas, he wasn’t the only member of that line-up to succumb to the Grim Reaper during 2015:


Another hard-rocking fatality of 2015 was Scott Weiland, one-time vocalist with grunge band the Stone Temple Pilots.   I was sniffy about the Stone Temple Pilots when they appeared, seemingly riding on the coat-tails of Nirvana and Pearl Jam; but I suspect if I listened to their 1992 breakthrough album Core now, it would seem much better in retrospect – compared to the dross that’s clogged up the charts in the 23 years since.  Actually, I prefer the five years (2003-2008) that Weiland spent as vocalist with the super-group Velvet Revolver, whose line-up included three Guns N’ Roses alumni, Slash, Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum.  I’ll always remember Velvet Revolver for their performance during the Hyde Part component of the Live 8 concerts in July 2005.  Swaggering onstage and promptly unleashing a sonic assault of heavy metal, Weiland, Slash and chums blew away a whole park-ful of cocoa-sipping Elton John fans and tofu-munching Coldplay fans.


In November, Jonah Lomu – the 1.96-metre-tall Tongan-New Zealand rugby player once described as ‘the first true global superstar of rugby union’ – died at the tragically young age of 40.  Lomu will live on in my memory for his performance during the semi-final between New Zealand and England in the 1995 Rugby World Cup.  He laid waste to Will Carling, Rob Andrew, Rory Underwood, Mike Catt, Dean Richards and co. and helped his side knock 45 points past them.  Afterwards the Daily Telegraph described Lomu as “a runaway potting shed in boots” and said of the game generally: “If it had not added so much to English doom and despondency, it would have been permissible to laugh.”  To be honest, not being English, I laughed.


(c) The Guardian


Late 2015 was not a good time for old British character actors.  Warren Mitchell died in November.  Although Mitchell appeared in many low-budget British horror movies – The Trollenberg Terror (1958), Curse of the Werewolf (1961), Night Caller from Outer Space (1965) and Terry Gilliam’s medieval monster-fantasy Jabberwocky (1977) – and comedy movies – Postman’s Knock (1962), The Intelligence Men (1965), The Sandwich Man (1966) and The Assassination Bureau (1969) – he’ll be chiefly remembered for playing the reactionary loudmouth Alf Garnett in Johnny Speight’s 1960s / 1970s TV sitcom Till Death Us Do Part.  Speight intended Alf to embody the horribleness of right-wing bigotry.  Alf detested everyone outside his little bubble of white, Protestant, Conservative-voting southern Englishness, constantly insulted blacks, Pakistanis, Jews, Catholics, Scots, Welsh people and northerners, and at the same time was a hideous human being: selfish, cowardly, pig-ignorant and bullying.


It must have been galling for Speight (and Mitchell) when it became clear that many of the show’s fans hadn’t seen the irony.  They thought Alf was a hero for ‘speaking the truth’ and ‘telling it like it is’.  Mind you, that didn’t stop the two of them reviving Alf for further series in the 1980s, by which time he’d become a frail, pathetic old-age pensioner dependent on a home-help from the local social services, who happened to be – horror! – black; and for a final hurrah in 1997 with An Audience with Alf Garnett, which was broadcast on the eve of the general election that saw 18 years of Conservative rule come to an end and Labour sweep back to power under Tony Blair.  This was sly timing indeed, slice Tony Blair’s father-in-law was the actor Tony Booth, who’d played Alf’s layabout son-in-law in the original Till Death Us Do Part.


Also in November, British-Indian actor Saeed Jaffrey died.  The multilingual Jaffrey made over 150 movies in Britain, India and the States.  For me his finest hour was his supporting role as Ghurka soldier Billy Fish in John Huston’s epic adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling story, The Man Who Would Be King (1975).  The film is regarded as a major entry in the CVs of its two stars, Sean Connery and Michael Caine; but Jaffrey’s delightful performance as the quirky, loyal, courageous and ultimately self-sacrificing Billy Fish comes close to stealing the show from the two leads.


(c) Columbia Pictures


And in December Anthony Valentine died.  I’ll remember Valentine for appearing in every second TV show I watched as a kid – as a regular in Callan (1967-72), Colditz (1974) and Raffles (1975-77) and as a guest star in Department S (1970), Budgie (1971), Z Cars (1972), Thriller (1975), Space 1999 (1975), Minder (1979, 1980 and 1983), Hammer House of Horror (1980), Tales of the Unexpected (1980 and 1982) and Bergerac (1983).  But the biggest impression he made on me was in the 1976 Hammer horror movie To the Devil a Daughter, during which satanic forces caused him to spontaneously and explosively combust inside a church – a dangerous ‘full body burn’ stunt that was actually carried out by Hammer’s main stuntman Eddie Powell.


Finally, December saw the death of respected Scottish journalist Ian Bell, who for as long as I can remember penned columns for the Scotsman, Daily Record and Herald – it’s for his work in that last publication that he was probably most celebrated.  In a journalistic / political era of soundbites, platitudes and simplifications, Bell was admirably unfashionable.  His writing was cerebral and ruminative and required concentration but, if you persevered, you’d have a hard time disagreeing with his arguments by the time you reached its end.   


If I’m not mistaken, his final column was a critique of the speech given recently in the House of Commons by Labour MP Hilary Benn (though it was cheered to the rafters by his Conservative counterparts) that called on Britain to join the bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria.  “The great, acclaimed speech managed to say very little…” noted Bell.  “He did not explain why, having been wrong about three previous interventions, he had a remote chance of being right on this occasion.  He did not spare much of his passion on the risk of civilian casualties, despite all we know of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.”  Spot on, Ian.  And farewell.


(c) The Herald


The crossroads pagoda



You’ll find Sule Pagoda at the intersection of Maha Bandula and Sule Pagoda Road in downtown Yangon.  Its lower part squats in the middle of the crossroads while its upper part tapers above it, from a distance looking like a giant golden party hat.  I’ve been in taxis approaching the pagoda and seen the taxi-drivers lift both hands off their steering wheels and clasp them in a gesture of prayer.  “Don’t pray,” I’ve felt like shouting at them.  “Just steer!”


As well as occupying a geographical crossroads, Sule Pagoda has in the recent past been at a metaphorical crossroads.  It became a rallying place for anti-government protestors during 2007’s Saffron Revolution, named after the colour of the robes of the monks who, alongside students and political activists, led the demonstrations.  Although that episode seemed to end in victory for the ruling military junta and the man in charge at the time, General Than Shwe, was able to remain in power until his retirement four years later, it may have nudged Myanmar down the road to reform that it’s (hopefully) travelling on today.



The pagoda has four entrances, each facing one of the four stretches of road that form a compass around it.  Apart from those four entrances, the pagoda’s circumference is used for commercial purposes – as you walk along the circular pavement that rings the outside of the structure, you pass dozens of identically-sized, identically-styled shop-fronts, one separated from the next by narrow strips of yellow-tiled wall, and all possessing metal grills that close over their doors in the evenings.



The businesses in most of those shops seem rather mundane, for instance, selling phones and sim-cards.  There is, though, a music shop with a guitar-shaped sign outside it.  Also, there are a couple of fortune-tellers and astrologers – including one that sports a sign with a hand whose lines are charted and annotated according to the ‘science’ of palmistry: ‘head’, ‘heart’, ‘life’, ‘balance’, ‘intuition’ and so on.



Another feature of the pagoda’s exterior is the pigeons that seem to permanently cluster on the road in front of one entrance.  At times there’s so many of them they resemble a grey, feathery carpet.  The pedlars operating at that entrance keep them fed and somehow they all manage to survive the wheels of the passing traffic.



Many of the pedlars are ladies crouching at the entrances with bell-shaped cages that are packed with little birds.  I presume what they’re doing is similar to a practice I’ve seen in other Buddhist countries – they sell you a bird at some holy spot, then you say a prayer and release it for good luck.  Inside the entrances, meanwhile, vendors at counters sell big shiny bouquets of artificial flowers.  You also (foreigners at least) need to pay an entrance fee and remove your shoes.


Standing at the top of each flight of entrance-stairs is a huddle of Buddha statues, their heads haloed by psychedelic whirls of coloured lights.  However, while I wandered along the tiled concourse encircling the building’s golden spire, the most interesting feature I saw was this pair of dragons whose criss-crossing bodies form an ‘X’ shape.



Their two curling tails form frames that contain two pictures.  One shows a green peacock with golden-eyed feathers – according to, “(i)n Buddhism, the ‘eyes’ in the peacock’s tail is a symbol of watchfulness.”  The other shows a big and rather alarmed-looking white hare.  On www.what’, I’ve read that “it’s said that the Buddha, disguised as a hare, threw himself in a fire as a sacrifice to the god Indra.  His reward was to live an eternal life as the moon.”  So I wonder if the pale disc against which this hare is depicted represents the moon.



Something I’ve noticed in this and in other temples in Myanmar is that people come to them, sit down, close their eyes and spend periods of time actually meditating.  They seem to visit with a genuine desire to become attuned with what’s represented by the symbolism and imagery around them.  This is a contrast to similar holy sites I’ve visited in certain other Buddhist countries, where I get the impression that visitors come, make a quick offering, say a quick prayer and hurry off again – presumably in the hope that so long as they’ve shown their faces and gone through a few motions, they’ll be rewarded with happiness and fortune.



Lemmy killed by death


Courtesy of Keith Sanderson


In my previous post I made a lame joke about death being ‘all around’ in 2015.  Unfortunately, even though we’re just a few days short of the year’s end, the Grim Reaper shows no sign of slackening.  For he has just claimed Lemmy, front-man with one of heavy metal’s most brilliant bands Motörhead and a general all-round role model for how to live your life (i.e. loudly, always disreputably and occasionally downright badly).


In his long and varied career, he managed the remarkable feat of being thrown out of Hawkwind for taking too many drugs.  He shared a flat with Sid Vicious and once said memorably of Nancy Spungen, “If he hadn’t stabbed her, I would have strangled her — she was the Courtney Love of her day.”  He composed the greatest rock ‘n’ roll song ever, Ace of Spades.  He also gave rise to the greatest rock ‘n’ roll joke ever – “If Lemmy had a fight with God, who would win?”  “It’s a trick question: Lemmy is God.” – which was so funny because it was true.


Here as a tribute to the great man is a review of a Motörhead concert that I wrote back in 2008 for the University of East Anglia’s student newspaper, Concrete.  It’s an excitable and breathless piece of writing but, hey, I’d just been at a Motörhead concert.  My only regret is that the prediction made in the final sentence didn’t come true.



UEA, 21st November


If the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm ever creates a Nobel Prize for Heavy Metal, surely its first recipient will be Lemmy, singer, bassist and general driving force of Motörhead. 


Founded in the 1970s, a decade when heavy metal consisted of strutting spandex-clad idiots singing songs about elves and wizards (e.g. Rainbow) or about their abilities in making vigorous love to the ladies (e.g. Whitesnake), Motörhead were a revelation. 


Lemmy’s hoarse roar was stuck onto a racket of guitars played at the loudest possible volume and at the fastest possible speed, a sound that helped to spawn the speed and thrash metal sub-genres and supplied Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and co. with at least 666 tons of inspiration.


Lemmy was also an early and crucial champion of Girlschool, the groundbreaking all-female metal band who helped the music to shed some of its reputation for sexism.  And in the segregated pre-grunge era, when heavy metal and punk fans weren’t supposed to associate with each other, Motörhead was the one metal band it was okay for punks to like.  Lemmy and the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious were good mates and he even tried to teach Sid how to play bass guitar – unsuccessfully, it must be said.


Taking the stage tonight after a short-but-well-received set from Toronto band Danko Jones and a ludicrous-but-loveable one from Saxon – ironically one of those hoary old-style metal bands that Motorhead helped to make obsolete – Lemmy, guitarist Phil Campbell and drummer Mikkey Dee went to work with their usual, blistering single-mindedness.  Old favourites like Bomber, Born to Lose and Killed by Death got blasted out alongside items from their new album Motörizer – though unsurprisingly the new stuff didn’t sound entirely different from the old stuff.


Apart from a blues pastiche where Lemmy displayed some unexpected harmonica-playing skills, this was business-as-usual in the best sense of the phrase.  Rounding off a perfect evening for the head-grinding crowd was an encore containing Ace of Spades, surely the most brain-batteringly brilliant song in heavy metal – and possibly in 7000 years of human civilisation as well.


The big heavy-metal news this week was that Guns N’ Roses had finally put out Chinese Democracy – an album so named because it’d taken so long to record that democracy could have feasibly come to China by the time of its release.   From tonight’s showing, however, Motörhead will be going strong long after China has taken over Wall Street, bought up Coca Cola and put a man on the moon.




Death log 2015




The Troggs may have sung that “Love is all around”, but in 2015 I got the impression that another major component of human existence (or non-existence) was all around.  Death, not love, seemed to be ubiquitous.


During the year, so many people I admired were kicking the bucket that this blog was in danger of turning into a full-time obituary column.  While I wrote about a few people whom I was sad to see go – B.B. King, Christopher Lee, Patrick Macnee and William McIlvanney, for example – I had to exercise real willpower to ignore some of the other deaths of 2015 so that I wouldn’t spend all my time penning tributes to the departed.


So here, just before the year’s end, is a quick mention of some other people who went to meet their maker in 2015 and who’ll be missed by Blood and Porridge.


Hefty kaftan-wearing Greek crooner Demis Roussos died in January.  Now I certainly wasn’t a fan of Demis’s output (most famously, Forever and Ever in 1973) but I liked how he was the favourite singer of Beverly, the suburban housewife / heroine / monster in Mike Leigh’s masterful satirical play of 1977, Abigail’s Party.  There were many naff musical acts around in the 1970s, but somehow Abigail’s Party wouldn’t have been the same if a singer other than Demis had been warbling in the background at Beverly’s ghastly, chintzy London flat.


And actually, there is a Demis Roussos song in my record collection.  He appears on Tales of the Future, the ninth track on the Blade Runner soundtrack album composed by his fellow Greek, Vangelis.  Weird, unsettling and occasionally spine-chilling, Tales of the Future is a million miles removed from Forever and Ever.  It’s surely Demis’s finest hour.


February saw the death of Leonard Nimoy, who of course played Mr Spock on Star Trek.  I wasn’t a Star Trek fan either, but I always liked Nimoy.  He was willing to make fun of himself by, for instance, guest-appearing in one of the best episodes of The Simpsons, 1993’s Marge vs. the Monorail.  Also, he managed to spend half-a-century hanging out with the dreadful William Shatner without surrendering to the urge to give him the Vulcan Death Grip, which suggests he was a man of saintly patience.


(c) 20th Century Fox


Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld novels, died in March at the age of 66.  I’ve never read any of Pratchett’s fiction, which must make me a rarity.  But he always seemed a decent bloke who faced up to the disease that finally killed him, early-onset Alzheimer’s, with admirable courage and good humour.  (He contemptuously referred to his Alzheimer’s as the ‘the embuggerance’.)


Another fantasy writer, Tanith Lee, died in May.  I enjoyed her macabre fiction when I was a teenager – I came across short stories of hers like Eustace (in 1968’s Ninth Pan Book of Horror Stories) and A Room with a Vie (in 1980’s New Terrors 1).  In later years, I heard that she had difficulty getting her books into print – though when I looked at her Wikipedia entry after her death, I was surprised at how extensive her published work was.  Presumably, though, the bulk of the titles were put out by small publishers and so had passed below my radar.




Charles Kennedy, former MP and the Liberal Democrat Party leader for seven years until 2006, died in June.  In 2003, he was the only major political leader with the gumption to oppose British participation in the disastrous invasion of Iraq.  And in the 2005 general election, his party won 62 seats, its highest total since 1923.  However, the Liberal Democrats dumped him as leader when rumours surfaced about him being overly fond of a drink and he was replaced by Menzies ‘Ming’ Campbell.  Ming was himself dumped a year later because his party feared he was too old to appeal to the voters.


The Liberal Democrats finally chose to be led by the young, sober and uncomfortably Blair-esque Nick Clegg.  He formed a coalition government with the Conservatives in 2010, ensuring that David Cameron became Prime Minister – and alienating so many of the Liberal Democrats’ previous supporters that they were slaughtered in the 2015 general election and ended up with just eight MPs.  A clear illustration of the old adage about being careful about what you wish for.


Charlie Kennedy was affable, amusing and generally in possession of something that most politicians lack, a personality.  I just wish he’d reacted to the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition (which he wasn’t happy about) by quitting the party and becoming an independent.  If he’d done that, I suspect he’d have had a better chance of hanging onto his constituency of Ross, Skye and Lochaber, which he lost to the SNP in the 2015 election.




Venerable British character actor Ron Moody died in June at the age of 91.  Moody is best-known for playing Fagin in Oliver! (1968), Sir Carol Reed’s film adaptation of the Lionel Bart musical that itself was an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.  I have to say, though, that I find the glorified Cockney singalong that is Oliver! annoying.  Instead, I prefer Moody’s appearances in various low-budget British comedy, crime, horror and children’s films, for example, The Mouse on the Moon (1963), Murder Most Foul (1964), Legend of the Werewolf (1975) and the UK Disney movie The Spaceman and King Arthur (1979), in which he played Merlin to Kenneth More’s King Arthur, John Le Mesurier’s Sir Gawain and Jim Dale’s Sir Mordred.


Cecil the Lion was slain just outside Hwange National Park in Matabeleland in Zimbabwe at the start of July.  His killer was American dentist and would-be big-game hunter Walter Palmer.  I can only surmise that Palmer carried out this pointlessly cruel deed in the belief that it would increase his penis size.  And maybe it’s worked.  Maybe now Palmer’s penis is no longer two millimetres long.  Maybe now it’s three millimetres long.


(c) The Daily Telegraph


American wrestler and actor Roddy Piper died in July.  I’ll cherish Piper for his performance in the 1988 science-fiction movie They Live, directed by John Carpenter.  Piper plays a down-at-heels labourer who finds a mysterious pair of glasses that show the world as it really is – run by skull-faced capitalist aliens who, in league with earth’s yuppie classes, are stripping the planet of its resources whilst keeping the general population docile by bombarding them with subliminal messages telling them to consume, watch TV and not ask questions.  Carpenter meant They Live as a satire of Ronald Reagan-era America; but nowadays, in this era of multinationals, oligarchs and law-onto-themselves banks, the film seems ten times more relevant than it was then.


July also saw the passing of another British character actor, Aubrey Morris.  Morris popped up in various British horror movies that made an impression on my teenaged self: 1971’s Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (in which he perishes in a blast of malevolent, ancient-Egyptian psychic energy directed at him by Valerie Leon), 1973’s The Wicker Man (in which he plays an eccentric gravedigger who winds up Edward Woodward) and 1985’s bonkers Lifeforce (in which he, Peter Firth and Frank Finlay try to deal with a brazenly naked space-vampire lady played by Mathilda May).  Morris had a wonderful screen persona – he resembled an even twitchier and more sinister version of Freddie Jones.


(c) British Lion Films


In August actor George Cole died.  Book-ending Cole’s career were two famous performances as Cockney wheeler-dealers.  In the St Trinian’s film comedies from 1954 to 1966, he played the pencil-moustached spiv Flash Harry who skulks about St Trinian’s School and schemes with its unruly female pupils – bottling the gin they’ve cooked up in the chemistry lab and placing their bets on the horse-races.  Rationing ended in Britain the same year as the first St Trinian’s film; so the spiv, with his black-market connections, was a familiar figure to British cinema audiences at the time.


Three decades later Cole played Arthur Daley, used-car salesman, would-be importer / exporter and general dealer in dodgy goods, in the 1980s TV comedy-drama Minder.  This chimed with the times as well – the 1980s being the era that Margaret Thatcher supposedly gave free rein to Britain’s entrepreneurial instincts.  (One Minder episode sees Arthur’s long-suffering sidekick Terry, played by Dennis Waterman, accusing Arthur of fancying Mrs T – his boss has her portrait hanging on his office wall.  Arthur retorts that he admires certain of her ‘womanly attributes’.  Yuck.)


August was also the month that American horror-film director Wes Craven died.  I have mixed feelings about Craven’s films and I consider The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and even A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) overrated.  But I loved his Scream movies – the first two of them (1996 and 1997) anyway – and I’m fond of his neglected 1991 film The People under the Stairs which, like They Live, has a few things to say about Ronald Reagan-era America.




And alas, 2015 was when we said goodbye to Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier who stole the show from his human co-stars Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo and John Goodman in the Oscar-winning 2011 movie The Artist.  Uggie shuffled, or snuffled, off this mortal coil on August 7th.


More deaths to follow…


Full moon over Princes Street



“It’s Chriii-iiistmaaa-aaas!” Noddy Holder of the 1970s glam-rock band Slade famously bellows during the ubiquitous-at-this-time-of-year song Merry Christmas Everybody.


Actually, Noddy, I don’t need you to tell me it’s Christmas.  I knew it was Christmas when I woke this morning with my head and body suffering the effects of a lengthy alcohol and food binge the day before on December 25th.  This morning I had that particularly Christmassy feeling of never, ever wanting to see another glass of red wine again.


And what Christmas presents had I just received from my family?  Why, no fewer than five bottles of red wine.


Anyway, a few evenings ago, I found myself wandering along Edinburgh’s Princes Street and admiring the sight of its Christmas attractions; which formed an bright, colourful and, as the evening darkened, an ever-more jewelled and phantasmagorical spectacle across Princes Street Gardens below.  These included a Ferris wheel, carousel, maze, helter-skelter, rollercoaster, ice rink and miniature train.  Mind you, the most gorgeous feature of the scene was the full moon that hovered above North Bridge, to the right of the Balmoral Hotel’s Victorian clock-tower.  I managed finally to snap a picture of it all, although it was difficult to find a good vantage spot – the best places for taking photos seemed to be crowded with Chinese tourists taking selfies.


It feels far removed from how Christmas was regarded in Scotland just a couple of generations ago.  From the 16th century, Christmas’s celebration had been discouraged by the Scottish Presbyterian Church on the grounds that there was no basis for it in the scriptures.  This lack of church approval, it’s said, was what helped to make Hogmanay so popular in Scotland – as there wasn’t really a Christian festival going on in the middle of winter that provided an excuse to knock back a few drinks, you could at least knock them back at the secular end of the old year / beginning of the new one.  Indeed, Christmas Day didn’t become a national holiday in Scotland until 1958 and Boxing Day, so necessary for sleeping off the effects of that Christmas-Day over-indulgence, didn’t become one until 1974.


Well, now that the influence of Presbyterianism has waned, it’s all different.  I’m sure the sight of these glitzy and downright bacchanalian Christmas festivities in Princes Street Gardens would send John Knox, the Scottish Kirk’s beardy, frowny old founder, birling in his grave.  Indeed, he’d probably have drilled his way to China by now.


Incidentally, I also noticed that, just in time for the release of the new Star Wars movie, the Walter Scott Monument seems to have acquired its own light-sabre.



Surrender — to Surender


(c) Blaft Publications


A while ago I was in a bookshop wondering if now was finally the time to buy Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy and manfully plod through all 6000 pages (or whatever) of it.  I’d always assumed that this awesomely hefty classic of modern Indian literature was one of those books that You Ought To Read Before You Die.


But then my eye was caught by two nearby paperbacks, Daylight Robbery and The 65 Lakh Heist.  Both of them were 1970s / 1980s pulp crime novels written by Surender Mohan Pathuk, who was billed on their covers as ‘the grandmaster of Hindi crime fiction’.  The covers also showed guys in ski-masks pointing guns, and scantily-clad Indian ladies looking sultry and treacherous, and armoured security vans being blasted, and large turban-wearing crime-lords scowling evilly.  So I thought, “Nah!” and bought those two books instead.


Sorry, Vikram, but your 9,000-page (or whatever) magnum opus would have to wait until another day.


Surender Mohan Pathuk began his literary career translating works by Ian Fleming and James Hadley Chase into Hindi, but since the 1960s he’s been pumping out his own thrillers – close to 300 of them according to his Wikipedia page.  (In fact, his earliest stories included some copyright-busting ones he wrote about James Bond, and his Wikipedia entry notes that “(t)he author has written in his memoirs that he is not happy about copying James Bond: at the time he did this he was not aware that what he was doing was ethically wrong.”)




Huge and diverse though Pathuk’s output is, much of it can be categorised into three series of books that he’s written about three recurring characters: about an investigative newspaper reporter called Sunil; about a philosophical police detective called Sudhir; and about a young man called Vimal who, unlike Sunil and Sudhir, operates on the wrong side of the law.  Vimal, the hero of Daylight Robbery and The 65 Lakh Heist, is a criminal, albeit an unwilling one who possesses a sense of decency.  He tries to maintain his integrity even as the police pursue him and even as other members of the Indian underworld pressgang him into taking part in robberies.


Both Daylight Robbery and The 65 Lakh Heist start with Vimal trying, and failing, to escape the attention of criminal gangs who need his talents for some illegal operations.  (Vimal’s normal mode of disguise is as a 1970s Indian hippy – a “shirt with a wide collar” and on its back “a picture of a closed fist with the middle finger pointing upwards, with the words UP YOURS emblazoned in an arc below it”, “a cap with PEACE embroidered in a circle”, “a brass pendant that read MAKE LOVE NOT WAR” and “wire-framed clear glass spectacles” – but since it never seems to fool anyone, you wonder why he bothers.)  In Daylight Robbery the operation involves hijacking a security van carrying the payroll for a steel mill, while in The 65 Lakh Heist the gang intends to stage a night-time raid on a vault in the basement of a heavily-guarded bank in Punjab.


There are tense, lengthy set-pieces describing the robberies themselves.  Then, in the aftermaths of the crimes, inevitably, slowly and deliciously, the villains’ plans unravel thanks to greed, duplicity, stupidity and plain bad luck.  The suspense lies in whether or not Vimal, as things collapse around him, can reach the end of the novels alive, remain a free man and, if possible, do the right thing for the innocent parties who’ve been affected.


In both novels, the crimes are masterminded by ageing villains desperate to secure enough money to let them retire from their hazardous lives of crime – Vimal forms uneasy alliances with them and we have to wait to find out how much or how little they can be trusted.  There are henchmen of various levels of competence or incompetence – the most spectacular example of the latter being the hulking Matar-Paneer in The 65 Lakh Heist, nicknamed after his love for the cottage-cheese-and-pea-curry of the same name.  (“He can eat an entire goat or half-a-dozen chickens, but he won’t be satisfied until he gets matar-paneer.”)  And of course, there are various beautiful ladies who sashay in and out of the action, sometimes as venal and untrustworthy as the men-folk.


But interestingly, at the end of both books, it’s the wives of two minor, innocent male characters who’d died as a result of the robberies – wives who’d seemed like paragons of quiet, law-abiding domesticity – who go seeking revenge and dispense final justice on the villains.


As in all good pulp thrillers, the prose is taut and un-showy.  The words are subservient to the plot, which moves from A to B and then to C, D and E as swiftly and excitingly as you’d want.  You shouldn’t expect the dialogue to contain any droll, deadpan Raymond Chandler-isms or Elmore Leonard-isms, but it’s pleasingly flavoured with Indian-English.  There are glossaries at the backs of both books to explain any words or phrases that might puzzle a Western reader – utterances like balle (“A Punjabi exclamation, roughly meaning “Wow!” or “Wonderful”) and chaloye (“Come on!”), forms of address like babuji (“Respectful address, to a man considered to be of higher status”) and yaar (“Friend”), and odd words like chamcha (“Literally, spoon; a suck-up or sycophantic  follower”), dada (“a don or gang leader”), dickey (“The trunk or boot of a car”) and filmi (“Film-like, Bollywood-esque, often used as a derogatory term for garish costumes”).


Daylight Robbery and The 65 Lakh Heist were translated into English in 2009 by Sudarshan Purohit at Blaft Publications in Chennai.  Let’s hope he gets around to translating a few more into English.  Any time I have a spare afternoon, I’d be happy to surrender to another of Surender Mohan Pathak’s splendid crime novels.


(c) Blaft Publications


Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue in Yangon



In the period before World War II, Myanmar was home to 2,500 Jews, most of whose forefathers had arrived in the country from India and the Middle East.  But after that, their numbers shrank.  They left Myanmar because of, firstly, the Japanese occupation; and then because of the military seizing power in the 1960s, which soon led to nearly all the country’s businesses being nationalised.


Now very few Jews remain.  According to one estimate I saw, the country has ‘fewer than 20’.


There’s still, however, a synagogue in Myanmar.  Located in a back-street in central Yangon, the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue is a charming monument to the country’s once-thriving Jewish community and it’s now listed as one of the capital city’s ‘Heritage Buildings’.  It was built between 1893 and 1896, to replace a wooden synagogue that’d been erected on the site 40 years previously.  Small, tidy and strangely serene (given the bustle of the street outside), visiting it is a pleasant way to spend a half-hour.  And, as you read the information on display about the community that the building served and that has now all-but-disappeared, it’s a rather moving way to spend the time as well.



I read on Wikipedia that at one time Myanmar’s Jews possessed 129 Sifrei Torah, i.e. copies of the Torah that are written on scrolls and used during services in Torah-reading rituals.  Now only two of these seem to be left.  They’re kept in a curtained-off section at the back of the synagogue, which is presumably the end of the building that faces Jerusalem.



As though to underline the sense of decline and loss that the synagogue can’t help but evoke, I read later that Moses Samuels, the man who for 35 years had acted both as the synagogue’s caretaker and as the leader of the tiny remaining Jewish population in Myanmar, had died on May 29th, 2015 – just a week before I made my visit.  Still, on a more positive note, his son Sammy has now taken on the role of synagogue caretaker from his late father.  Let’s hope that this is one family tradition that continues to survive.



TV comic genius 4: Peep Show


(c) Channel 4


Now seems an opportune time to write some words in praise of Channel 4’s long-running situation comedy Peep Show, which last night aired its final episode.


Peep Show has, over twelve years and nine seasons, been a hilarious and compelling saga of male loser-dom.  It’s charted the progress, from their late-twenties to the beginning of their forties, of two misfits who seem totally dissimilar – apart from the hopelessness that pervades both their existences and especially pervades their dealings with the opposite sex – but who have a symbiotic relationship nonetheless.


There’s the cerebral, conservative, timid and endlessly self-torturing Mark Corrigan, the sort of bloke who muses when he spies a women he once went to school with: “I should speak to her, but what the hell should I say…?  Anything that doesn’t mention I masturbate over her memory is probably good.”  And there’s the dim, carnally-obsessed, self-deluding and relentlessly naïve Jez Usbourne, whose love-life seems to be a mantra of: “Oh God, I think I love her.  I think I’m falling in love.  Or getting a bone-on, which is basically the same thing when you get rid of all the Valentine cards and bullshit.”


While Jez is an unrepentant slacker, Mark has resigned himself to a weary and dreary lifetime of office-work, tax returns, mortgages and bills; and the former spends the show as the latter’s lodger and co-habitant in his pad in the unglamorous southern-London district of Croydon.  Inevitably, there’s friction between the two: “You’re a posh spaz,” Jez accuses Mark at one point.  “Really?  Well, I’d love to know in what way I’m a posh spaz.”  “In the way that you do posh, spazzy things…  Like tidying up and… ironing your socks.”  Or as Jez describes Mark another time: a “fusty, sweater wearing, spirit-crushing no-fly-zone with a ten-foot carrot up his ass.”  But there’s a real sense that neither would survive without the other.


(c) Channel 4


Playing Mark and Jez are the comedy duo David Mitchell and Robert Webb and such is the impact they’ve had in these roles that I find it difficult to accept them doing anything else.  Their BBC2 sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Look, for example, doesn’t quite work for me – because no matter who they’re playing, I keep expecting there to be a flash of lightning and a puff of smoke, and suddenly the pair of them have reverted to being two neurotics from Croydon.


Sitcoms about people living in flats together are ten-a-penny – ranging from the charming old 1970s show The Odd Couple with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman to that 1990s / 2000s epic of smug yuppie ghastliness Friends.  But Peep Show has two distinguishing traits.  Firstly, the audience is frequently treated to point-of-view shots where Mark and Jez peer wearily / cynically at the world around them and their inner thoughts play as voice-overs.  Needless to say, these thoughts are usually angst-ridden in Mark’s case (“How do I feel?  Empty?  Check.  Scared?  Check.  Alone?  Check.  Just another ordinary day…”) and delusional in Jez’s (“I’m definitely the alpha-est male here…  I’m definitely king of the hippie jungle!”)


The other distinguishing trait is the show’s dark tone – and during its nine-season run there’ve been moments when I’ve wondered, queasily, just how dark it can get.  Season 4 alone, for instance, had Mark lying at Jez’s behest about being touched inappropriately in the gym, so that a gym-worker who is Jez’s love rival loses his job.  (“Please don’t do this!  This is my career!”  “You should have thought about that when you were touching his cock.”)  It has Jez peeing his pants in the middle of a wedding ceremony.  (“Am I actually going to piss on the church…?  Richard Dawkins walks the walk but does he actually follow through with an actual act of piss?”)  And it has the infamous episode Holiday, which climaxes with Jez eating bits of someone’s pet dog – which he’s accidentally driven over and then tried to dispose of by setting on fire – pretending that it’s barbecued turkey.  (“I’m eating dog leg!  This is definitely a new low.”)


(c) Channel 4


Thankfully, when the antics of the two main characters become too disturbing, Peep Show has an entertaining supporting cast to divert one’s attention.  This includes the various women who, over the years, have had the misfortune to become involved with Mark and Jez: the increasingly unhinged Sophie (Olivia Coleman), Mark’s ex-wife and mother of his child, who by Season 9 has become a shambling alcoholic; the eccentric Dobby (Isy Suttie) who replaces Sophie in Mark’s affections when he discovers that Dobby is as much of a misfit as he is – the problem being that she’s a cool, bohemian misfit, whereas he’s truly the misfit’s misfit; Jez’s posh ex-girlfriend, Big Suze (played by Sophie Winkleman, who in real life has a properly posh pedigree – she’s married to Lord Frederick Windsor, son of Prince Michael of Kent, the Queen’s first cousin); and the vacuous and fickle Russian bisexual Elena (Vera Filatova), with whom Jez becomes infatuated in Season 6.


Inevitably, the male supporting characters get entangled in this web of relationships and become rivals to Mark and Jez.  There’s Alan Johnson (Paterson Joseph), Mark’s frighteningly focused alpha-male boss who eventually ends up with Big Suze, though not before Mark discovers to his alarm that he’s developed a ‘man-crush’ on him.  There’s the annoying Jeff (Neil Fitzpatrick) who delights in tormenting Mark about his lack of virility whilst also pursuing Sophie.  And there’s the mouse-like, perpetually unhealthy Gerrard (Jim Howick), who becomes Mark’s main competitor when he’s trying to woo Dobby and who often seems to have the upper hand because Dobby feels sorry for him – having a tube up his nose helps.  In a typically dark Peep Show twist, Gerrard dies at the start of Season 8, but even then he manages to get in the way of Mark and Dobby: “Well played, Gerrard.  You couldn’t beat me on earth, so now you’re shitting on me from heaven, like a dead jealous person.”


(c) Channel 4


But Peep Show’s greatest supporting character is the substance-addled Super Hans, played by the excellent Matt King.  As well as being Jez’s not-to-be-trusted partner in his attempts to crack the music business, a drug-fiend and a liability to all who know him, Super Hans has a predilection for snakes – though his knowledge of which ones are poisonous and which ones aren’t is a little shaky.  “Red next to black, jump the f*** back,” he assures Mark and Jez when he turns up at a party draped in one lethal-looking serpent.  “Red and yella, cuddly fella.”  “But red is next to black,” points out Mark.  “Yeah, I dunno…  He’s been milked, I should think.”


(c) Channel 4


I suspect that the show’s writers, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, have had a dilemma with Super Hans – wanting to limit his appearances so that the character remains fresh and funny, whilst also having him in the limelight long enough to keep the audience happy.  Come to think of it, the worst thing that Channel 4 could do now would be to give him his own spin-off series.  Meanwhile, I’ve no doubt that there’s a clothing company somewhere churning out T-shirts emblazoned with Super Hans’ endlessly-quotable and usually drug-inspired one-liners.  (Most memorable of all: “People like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis.  You can’t trust people.”  I think that’s the Peep Show quote I could live my life by.)


It’s probably just as well that Peep Show ended last night, before it stopped being a comedy altogether and turned into something bleaker.  I imagine that if Mark grew a little more of a backbone and Jez developed a little more of a brain, they’d become like the Brandon and Philip characters in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 thriller Rope – and end up murdering someone just for the hell of it.


(c) Channel 4


Spectres at the feast


(c) Eon Productions


At last I’ve managed to catch Spectre, the latest James Bond movie, on a big screen and in English.  (I’ve spent the last few weeks in a Francophone country and it took me a while to track down an English-language showing of it at a cinema.  Nothing against the French language, by the way – but somehow the line, “Je m’appelle Bond, James Bond…  Autorisé à tuer…” doesn’t do it for me.  Especially not when you try saying it in a Sean Connery accent.)


So here, belatedly, are my thoughts about the film.  Be warned.  If you haven’t already seen Spectre, brace yourself for a load of spoilers.


Since 2006’s Casino Royale, the Bond movies have been quietly rebooting themselves.  Casino Royale (appropriately based on the first of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, which was published way back in 1953) saw Daniel Craig debut as James Bond and began with his ‘blooding’ as a double-O agent – he kills a man for the first time ever and acquires his licence-to-kill status.  At a stroke, this relaunches Bond’s whole timeline and dumps the back-story of the previous 20 movies with Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan.


It wasn’t until two films later, 2012’s Skyfall, that the rebooted series got around to introducing a new Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), a new Q (Ben Wishaw) and finally a new M (Ralph Fiennes) – previously, Craig’s version of Bond had taken orders from Judi Dench, who’d played M since 1995’s Goldeneye and constituted the series’ only link with the old days.  Thus, Spectre has Craig start the film with something he’d lacked in his previous three outings – a team comprised of all the stalwart supporting characters from the old Bond movies, though played by new actors.


It’s seems apt, then, that of Craig’s films so far, Spectre is the one that feels most like the preceding Bond movies.  It has scenes, characters and plot-elements that echo various things in the 1962-2002 cycle of films.  Actually, I found this slightly disconcerting because I’d got used to the Craig era’s way of doing things – ignoring traditional Bond continuity whilst showing a dour, gritty seriousness that was the antithesis of how, say, Roger Moore sashayed his way through proceedings in the late 1970s and early 1980s armed with nothing more than a nudge, a wink, a quip and a raised eyebrow.


But this isn’t a major criticism of Spectre.  I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as I enjoyed Skyfall; but I liked it better than the overrated, but still good, Casino Royale and the underrated, but still not very good, Quantum of Solace (2008).


So, what are those echoes of previous movies in Spectre – the spectres at the feast, so to speak?  Here are a few that I noticed.


Spectre begins, in fact, with a nod to a film that has nothing to do with James Bond.  The pre-credits sequence has Bond stalk a villain through the streets of Mexico City whist thousands of revellers celebrate the Day of the Dead; and then there’s a huge explosion.  Up until the moment of the explosion, director Sam Mendes films everything in a wonderfully-fluid single take.  This mirrors the opening minutes of Orson Welles’ 1958 film-noir masterpiece Touch of Evil, which is also shot in a single take and features Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh weaving through the streets of a Mexican town – until a similar explosion intervenes.  Actually, the single-take effect in Spectre was acquired with the help of some computer trickery.  Poor old Orson Welles, no doubt, had to achieve the same effect in his movie with nothing but hard work, ingenuity and willpower.


Immediately afterwards, because of the blast, the building Craig is standing on collapses and he plunges into a maelstrom of falling masonry, furniture and dust – before landing, almost comically, on a sofa.  This stunt, and Craig’s look of mingled disgruntlement and bemusement, recalls a scene in Diamonds are Forever (1970) where Sean Connery gains entry to a penthouse by climbing through a window, only to drop and land, arse first, on the seat of a toilet.


(c) Eon Productions


Actually, a later moment when Craig ejects from the seat of his Aston Martin DB10, parachutes down onto a nearby street and, not missing a beat, strolls briskly and smartly away is also reminiscent of Connery – for instance, the famous scene at the beginning of Goldfinger (1964) when he strips off his frogman’s outfit and reveals himself to be wearing a tuxedo underneath.  Like Connery, Craig is able to carry off such scenes, which are inherently ridiculous, with an elegant and insolent swagger.


But meanwhile, the pre-credits sequence still isn’t over.  It leads up to a scene where Bond finds himself in the cockpit of an out-of-control helicopter while it crazily climbs and swoops above a city square.  This echoes the opening sequence of 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, which has Roger Moore trapped in the back of a pilot-less helicopter that’s being flown by remote control, very recklessly, by a mysterious and malevolent bald man wearing a neck-brace, sitting in a wheelchair and nursing a white cat.  The bald man is clearly Bond’s old nemesis Ernst Stavros Blofeld.  However, because the Bond filmmakers had at that time lost the right to use Blofeld, thanks to a legal battle with producer Kevin McClory, they coyly refrained from stating who he was – the character is unnamed and uncredited and is referred to in For Your Eyes Only’s promotional literature as simply the ‘bald villain in a wheelchair’.


(c) Eon Productions


More on Blofeld in a little while…


It transpires that Bond has been on a final mission for his old boss, Judi Dench’s M – although she died at the end of Skyfall, she’d left some posthumous orders in a recording – and for a time, as the plot grows murkier, it seems that Spectre is more interested in examining the back story of the last three Daniel Craig films.  It becomes apparent that Quantum, the secret criminal organisation featured in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, is really just a subsidiary of a bigger, more secret and more criminal organisation, while Quantum’s boss, Mr White (Jesper Christiensen) – whom Bond captured at the end of Casino Royale but then let escape in Quantum of Solace – is only a branch manager for someone even bigger and badder than he is.  This amounts to a retcon of events in the earlier Craig movies and it feels a tad clumsy.  Also, I found the scene where Bond tracks down Mr White again a bit confusing because I’d forgotten who Mr White was.  (Well, I hadn’t seen him since 2008.)


(c) Eon Productions


After a final and admittedly-chilling encounter with Mr White, Bond goes in search of White’s innocent daughter, Madelaine Swann (Léa Seydoux), who unwittingly holds a clue to the identity of the puppet-master behind Quantum.  Swann works as a doctor at a secluded luxury clinic on an Alpine mountaintop and as Craig approaches it from the air, I found myself thinking: “Hello, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service!”  For this Alpine mountaintop clinic is very reminiscent of Blofeld’s headquarters in that 1968 Bond movie with George Lazenby.


While he’s at the clinic, Bond is unexpectedly joined by Ben Wishaw’s Q, who gives him a hand when Madelaine is abducted by some villains led by David Bautista’s Mr Hinx.  Silent, surly and vicious, Hinx comes across like a combination of Harold Sakata’s Oddjob in Goldfinger and Richard Kiel’s Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).  This is the first time that Q has worked properly ‘in the field’ since 1989’s Licence to Kill when, played by the charming and avuncular Desmond Llewelyn, he nipped off to Isthmus City in South America to help Timothy Dalton battle the brutal drugs baron Franz Sanchez.


(c) Eon Productions


Bond gets the necessary information from Madelaine and travels with her to Morocco.  And it’s here that we get the next Bond trope – a Big Fight on a Train.  This is against Mr Hinx again and it’s a more brutal affair than the fights-on-trains seen in Live and Let Die (1974) (in which Roger Moore defeated the hulking henchman Tee-Hee with the help of some handy wire-clippers) or The Spy Who Loved Me (in which Roger Moore defeated the hulking henchman Jaws with the help of a handy table-lamp).  Indeed, it evokes the savage brawl-to-the-death that occurred between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw’s Red Grant in From Russia with Love (1963).  And in the midst of the action, Daniel Craig manages to land on Mr Hinx a very satisfying, Dalton-esque head-butt.


Eventually, Bond and Madelaine find their way to a secret base in the desert that’s run by the dastardly Spectre organisation – for Spectre, which featured so prominently in the 1960s Bond movies, is back.  Although unlike the old Spectre, which was an acronym for ‘Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion’, this organisation seems to be called Spectre because, well, it’s a snazzy-sounding name.  And in charge of it is – yes! – Ernst Stavros Blofeld.


(The reason why Spectre and Blofeld have returned now is because MGM and Kevin McClory’s estate finally settled the afore-mentioned legal row in 2013.)


The new Blofeld is played by Christoph Waltz as a charismatic but psychotic Euro-scumbag.  Unlike Blofelds of old, such as Donald Pleasence and Telly Savalas, he sports a full head of hair and he likes to wear his loafers without socks – the cad.  At least he still has a white cat.  Actually, Waltz’s character also goes by another name, Franz Oberhauser; and we discover that he and Bond have a history.  For it was Oberhauser’s father, Hannes Oberhauser, who took care of the young James Bond after his parents died in a climbing accident.  The young Franz believed that Bond displaced him in his father’s affections and has borne a grudge ever since.  For that reason, when he first comes face to face with Bond in Spectre, he taunts him with a disconcerting cry of “Cuckoo!”  He regards Bond as a cuckoo who invaded his family’s nest.


Many movie critics reacted with derision to this plot revelation – how corny!  Bond and Blofeld are long-lost brothers!  (Well, long-lost adoptive brothers.)  But I didn’t have much of a problem with it because Hannes Oberhauser did exist in the original, literary Bond universe created by Ian Fleming.  In the short story Octopussy, published in 1966, Bond says of Oberhauser: “He was a wonderful man.  He was something of a father to me at a time when I needed one.”  So the possibility that Oberhauser might have an embittered son who later turned to villainy didn’t seem such a stretch.  Mind you, it’s unfortunate that this revelation is similar to the revelation at the end of Goldmember (2002), the third Austin Powers movie, about Austin Powers and Dr Evil being long-lost brothers sired by Michael Caine.


Bond and Madelaine escape from and destroy Blofeld’s desert base – and I think it’s one of the film’s shortcomings that the place seems to blow up so fast.  Bond explodes a modest bomb in Blofeld’s torture chamber and then shoots a few bullets into a pipe, and about two minutes later the entire installation has vanished in a giant fireball.  He might be fiendishly clever, but Blofeld has clearly shown an unwise disregard for Health and Safety regulations.  This section of the film contains some wonderful touches, though.  I love the idea that the base has been constructed within a crater caused by a meteorite collision and, indeed, Blofeld keeps the remains of the meteorite on display.  Also, Blofeld has a nifty torture device – a sort of dentist’s chair from hell – that he uses on Bond.  I’m sure that Ian Fleming, whose fondness for a spot of S and M is well-documented, would have approved.


But the film isn’t yet over – because it turns out that Spectre is the evil silent partner in an Edward Snowden-esque global intelligence / security initiative called Nine Eyes, for which the British government has unwittingly signed up.  When Nine Eyes goes online, Spectre will have access to a raft of countries’ intelligence data and will be able to manipulate their intelligence agencies.  Masterminding Nine Eyes in Britain is the slimy and treacherous civil servant Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), who’s been waging a turf war against M.  Bond, meanwhile, is so contemptuous of Denbigh that he’s nicknamed him ‘C’.  For a while, I thought this was going to be the first Bond movie where the ‘C’ word is uttered, but alas, it wasn’t.


Back in London, Bond hooks up with M, Q, Moneypenny and Bill Tanner – Tanner being M16’s Chief of Staff and a character from Fleming’s novels who was played by Michael Goodlife in the 1970s, James Villiers in the 1980s and Michael Kitchen in the 1990s and is played in the 21st century by the dependable Rory Kinnear – and they launch a night-time operation to stop Denbigh and thwart the launch of Nine Eyes.  In another nod to Fleming’s books, the safe-house where they meet is called ‘Hildebrand Rarities and Antiques’ – The Hildebrand Rarity is the name of one of Fleming’s short stories in the collection For Your Eyes Only (1960).


(c) Eon Productions


M has a showdown with Denbigh – played robustly by Ralph Fiennes, this M makes a perfectly capable action hero himself – and Q performs the required computerised jiggery-pokery to hack into Nine Eyes and stop it functioning.  And in a surprise twist that will surprise no one, Blofeld pops up again to have a final crack at Bond.  (He hasn’t survived the explosion at his Moroccan base unscathed and he now has a facial scar as ghastly as that sported by Donald Pleasence in 1967’s You Only Live Twice.)  And there’s a nocturnal speedboat chase along the River Thames that, while exciting, is a wee bit too close to the River-Thames speedboat chase that graced the beginning of Pierce Brosnan’s third Bond outing, The World is Not Enough (1999).


Spectre isn’t the best James Bond movie.  It isn’t even the best Daniel Craig James Bond movie.  But I found it reassuringly solid and, on a scale of 1 to 10, I’d probably give it 008.  I just hope that the series now doesn’t shift any further to the style of the old movies.  With Spectre it seems to have found an appealing balance between the knowingness of the 20th-century Bonds and the no-nonsense tone of the 21st-century ones – and I think that’s good enough.


But for the next Bond movie, could we please get a decent theme song?  The few minutes where Sam Smith caterwauls Writing’s on the Wall over the opening credits almost turned my stomach and easily constituted the worst part of the film.  Thank God that Spectre’s last scene plays out to the brassy, booming strains of Monty Norman’s original James Bond Theme – a tune that half-a-century on is still capable of raising the hairs on the back of my neck.


(c) Eon Productions


Carmichael escapes the vole


(c) The Scotsman


In the news this week was Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat MP for the Orkney and Shetland Islands and the former Secretary of State of Scotland in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government of 2010-2015.  His party’s decision to share power with the Conservatives and help David Cameron into Number 10 is widely seen as the reason why it endured a bloodbath in this year’s general election, which saw its number of MPs reduced from 57 to eight and left Carmichael as its only surviving MP in Scotland.


Carmichael has just managed another feat of survival.  He’s survived a case brought against him in an ‘election court’ by four of his constituents.  These four constituents – the ‘Orkney Four’ as they’re now know – argued that because Carmichael had misled the public about something shortly before the general election in May, and only admitted to misleading them after the general election and after he’d been safely re-elected, his re-election was unsound and he should be unseated.


You may remember that Carmichael, back in April, found himself at the centre of a stushie that was dubbed ‘French-gate’.  A memo was leaked to the press about Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon telling the UK’s French ambassador Sylvie Bermann that she wanted David Cameron to win the next general election.  This supposed revelation, which got splashed across the right-wing Daily Telegraph, came at a time when Sturgeon was riding high after a strong performance in a pre-election party-leaders’ debate, during which she’d made a point of denouncing Cameron, his government and his policies.  So if the story had been true, it would’ve made Sturgeon to look a right old hypocrite at a time when she wanted to win votes.


It was, however, quickly discredited – denied not just by Sturgeon, but by Madame Bermann and by Pierre-Alain Coffinier, the French consul general in Edinburgh.  Meanwhile, the memo had originated in the Scotland Office, the UK government department that at the time had Carmichael at its head.  Had he anything to do with the leaking of this dodgy memo, journalists asked him.  Oh no, he replied.  Oh no, no, no, no


At least not until after the general election – when Carmichael managed to hold onto his parliamentary seat in the Orkney and Shetlands Islands by a much-reduced majority of 800 – and he belatedly admitted: yes.


So outraged were the Orkney Four that their MP hadn’t owned up to lying his arse off before the election, and allowed voters in the islands to pass judgement on whether or not he was fit to remain their MP in light of this, that they raised £165,000 in a crowd-funding operation.  This enabled them to take the case to an election court in the hope that Carmichael would be found guilty of breaching 1983’s Representation of the People Act and would lose his seat.


I presume that if this had happened, he would’ve had the option of running for parliament again in the ensuing by-election – but of course he’d then be facing an electorate who knew rather more about his character that they did before the general election.


Well, that’s all academic because this week two judges in Edinburgh cleared Carmichael under a certain Section 106 of the act.  I won’t go into the legal technicalities of it here.  If you’re interested, you can check out the opinion of the learned Scottish political-and-legal-affairs blogger Lallands Peat Worrier (who describes himself as being interested in “public and constitutional law, European human rights law and institutions, and sociology, with the odd dod of criminology for that recidivistic frisson”) here:


But it’s plain that the judges, Lord Matthews and Lady Paton, felt little pity for the beleaguered MP.  In their conclusion to the case, they spoke of his “unimpressive response to the inquiry” and said the affair had shown him “in a bad light” and had resulted in his constituents “being initially misled and then justifiably shocked and dismayed on discovering that they had been so misled.”  One of the Orkney Four, Tim Morrison, was quoted in the Guardian as saying that “Carmichael has been demonstrated, by two judges in a court, to have lied to manipulate the results of an election here.”  He added, “That’s unacceptable, he must resign now.  Who’s going to trust that man?”




Now actually, this Tim Morrison is the same Tim Morrison who was Vice President of the Students Representative Council at Aberdeen University in 1986-1987, while I was a student there and while I was involved with the university students’ newspaper.  Tim is one of the founders of The Orkney Vole (, the online newsletter for the Scottish independence movement in the Orkney Islands and only a couple of weeks ago he posted a message here on Blood and Porridge.


Back then, I recall him being a decent, hard-working and principled fellow, unlike at least a few of his colleagues in the SRC at the time.  In my capacity as a student-newspaper correspondent, I can remember him doing at least one courageous thing during his tenure as vice-president, which I doubt most other student politicians would’ve been willing to do at the time.  And though I know that people’s characters change over the years, I somehow can’t imagine Tim metamorphosizing into Doctor Evil in the intervening three decades.  I’m sure he’s still one of the good guys.


So all power to him and his mates for taking on the Liberal Democratic and liberal-with-the-truth dough-ball that is Carmichael.


Incidentally, Caron Lindsay, the Liberal Democrats’ main PR person in Scotland and the editor of the party’s UK-wide weblog Liberal Democrat Voice, was also a member of the Aberdeen University SRC in the mid-1980s.  She must have known Tim well and known that he was a virtuous type, but she’s stayed strangely schtum about this during the whole Frenchgate / Orkney Four affair.  Other than to retweet a few choice comments about the bid to oust Carmichael being the work of “the SNP mob and nasty cyber-nats.”


Carmichael, meanwhile, seems to have viewed the judgement not as the nearest of near misses for his political career and as a severe lesson to be learned about the folly of telling lies – or as he bravely described them last month, “acts of untruthfulness” – but as a vindication of his behaviour.  After the verdict he was barking that he’d been victim of “a deliberate attempt by nationalists to remove the last Scottish Liberal voice at Westminster”, which was “a mark of the unhealthy polarisation of Scottish politics since the referendum.”  He vowed to “continue to represent Orkney and Shetland as a member of parliament to the best of my ability.”  There are also rumours that he now intends to pursue the Orkney Four for over £150,000 in legal costs.  (“And so he should,” squawked Caron Lindsay on her twitter-stream.)


To be honest, I had my doubts that Scotland’s legal establishment would find Carmichael properly guilty of wrongdoing.  But after the verbal pasting they gave him, and in the light of the upset and ill-feeling he’s caused over the past half-year, I would’ve expected him to at least show some humility and offer some sort of belated apology.  But he didn’t.


What a big turd.


(c) Stewart Bremner