Death log 2016 – part 1

 

© American International Pictures

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

© Silver Pictures / 20th Century Fox

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© BBC

 

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

 

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

 

© Hawk Films / Columbia Pictures

 

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

 

© ITC Entertainment

 

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

 

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

 

© BBC

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

From www.wantedinrome.com

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© XL

 

To be continued…  Unfortunately.

 

Cinematic heroes 10: Burt Kwouk

 

(c) United Artists

 

It was just as well for Burt Kwouk and his fellow star of the Pink Panther movies Peter Sellers that in the 1970s Britain had fewer lawyers and was a less litigious place than it is today.  Otherwise, Kwouk and Sellers would’ve surely faced a raft of lawsuits brought by furious parents whose offspring had injured themselves in primary-school playgrounds, trying to imitate Kwouk and Sellers’ kung-fu fights the morning after one of those Pink Panther movies had been shown on TV.

 

Imitating the kung-fu practised by Inspector Clouseau, the bumbling French detective played by Sellers, and his Chinese servant Cato, played by Kwouk, as they engaged in friendly but bruising combat through Clouseau’s apartment was easier than imitating the skilled, athletic and balletic kung-fu practised by the likes of Bruce Lee.  Basically, it involved doing lots of frantic foot-kicking and hand-chopping and shouting “Haaaiii-ya!” every few seconds.  It also involved doing stupid things such as attempting to jump / kick your way through the air in slow motion.  I tried this once after seeing a clip on TV of Sellers doing it – possibly from The Return of the Pink Panther (1975) – and was perturbed to discover that slow motion doesn’t occur in real life when you’re sailing through the air with your body parallel to the ground.  Luckily, I landed on something soft.  My head.

 

(c) United Artists

 

Cato is the role running through Burt Kwouk’s career like toffee lettering running through a stick of rock.  Mention him to any British person my age and that person will still probably sink into a crouched kung-fu fighting position, raise their hands combatively and go, “Haaaiii-ya!” (though they’re unlikely now to try to jump through the air in slow motion).  Yet Kwouk deserves a place in British acting history for a more general reason.  For many of the sixty-odd years that he was active in the nation’s films and television, his was probably the only British-Oriental face that the public were familiar with and could put a name to.

 

By British standards, Kwouk’s beginnings weren’t exotic – he was born to Chinese parents in the Lancashire town of Warrington, almost midway between Liverpool and Manchester – but his upbringing was.  His family took him to Shanghai, where he remained until the age of 17, and later he headed to the USA and studied at Bowdoin College in Maine.  Back in Britain in the mid-1950s, he was supposedly ‘nagged’ into the acting world by his girlfriend of the time.

 

Unfortunately, Kwouk’s roles were subject to the narrow mind-set of post-war British cinema, meaning he had to play a lot of bit-parts and (minor) villains – adding a little Oriental colour to pictures whilst conforming to the period’s common stereotypes.  One early job, though, must have given him hope of meatier roles to come.  He played a convict called Li in Mark Robson’s The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, the 1958 film-version of the real-life story of British missionary Gladys Aylward, who in 1938 saved a hundred young orphans from a Chinese town before it was overrun by invading Japanese troops.  Aylward wins Li’s respect when she intervenes to defuse a prison riot and later he helps her evacuate the orphans, although he loses his life in the process.

 

(c) 20th Century Fox

(c) 20th Century Fox

 

With an ingenuity born out of budgetary restrictions that was typical of the British film industry at the time, the filmmakers, unable to make the film anywhere near China, shot its exterior scenes in northern Wales.  The Chinese orphans, meanwhile, were played by youngsters bussed across the Welsh / English border from the Chinese community in Liverpool.  Incidentally, the real Gladys Aylward detested the film.  She was unhappy about being portrayed by Ingrid Bergman, who was altogether more Scandinavian and less Cockney than she was; and infuriated at how the filmmakers overly romanticised her character’s relationship with another character played by Curt Jürgens.

 

Around the same time, Kwouk debuted on British television – an early appearance being on Hancock’s Half Hour, perhaps the greatest of all British TV comedies, where he manifested himself before the inimitable Tony Hancock dressed as a robed Chinese mandarin.  Thereafter, Kwouk appeared in espionage and adventure shows like Danger Man (1961 and 1966), The Avengers (1964), The Saint (1965, 1967 and 1968), Callan (1967 and 1969) and Jason King (1972): sci-fi ones like The Champions (1967), The Tomorrow People (1978), Doctor Who (1982) and Space Precinct (1994); crime ones like Shoestring (1980), Minder (1980), The Bill (2003 and 2005), Judge John Deed (2005) and Silent Witness (2006); comedies like It ain’t Half Hot Mum (1977-78), Robin’s Nest (1979) and The Kenny Everett Television Show (1983-84); and populist dramas like Warship (1977), Howard’s Way (1987), Noble House (1988), The House of Eliot (1991) and Lovejoy (1993).

 

Never losing his Eastern accent, he was also useful as a voice-over artist for anything with an Oriental theme.  Thus, he lent his distinctive tones to such items as the BBC version of the Japanese-made, Chinese-set drama The Water Margin (1976-77) and the no-holds-barred spoof Japanese gameshow Banzai (2001-2003).

 

For many years, his most famous TV role was probably as Captain Yamauchi in Tenko (1981-84), the BBC wartime drama about a Japanese POW camp for women.  Poor Yamauchi is a patriotic type who’d rather be fighting for his country on the front but, due to ill-health, has to suffer the indignity of running a camp full of gobby, snotty and saucy British, Dutch and Australian females instead.  Predictably, Tenko was filmed nowhere near where it was set – it was shot in Dorset – and it wasn’t the only time that the Chinese-blooded Kwouk was cast as a Japanese.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

During the first half of his career, Kwouk was the go-to guy if your film needed an Oriental assistant, henchman or minion.  Not only was he bossed around by Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther films but he was at the beck and call of two James Bond villains, Gert Frobe in Goldfinger (1964) and Donald Pleasance in You Only Live Twice (1967).  He also took orders from two different versions of Fu Manchu, Christopher Lee in The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966) and Peter Sellers (again) in The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu (1980).  It’s telling that in both Fu Manchu films, the Oriental supervillain was played by a British Caucasian actor – at the time it was unthinkable that he could be played by a Chinese one.  (I’ve heard a story about Christopher Lee making his way to film a scene in a Fu Manchu movie when, in full make-up, he was stopped and quizzed by a genuine Chinese person.  Discovering Lee’s real ethnicity, the man remarked, “Well, at least your second name is Chinese,” and walked off.)

 

(c) Constantin Film Produktion

(c) Constantin Film Produktion

 

Some of the movies featuring Kwouk were bizarre.  He turned up as a ‘Soho youth’ in Val Guest’s take on the late 1950s music industry, Expresso Bongo (1959), in which Laurence Harvey plays a showbiz hustler trying to turn a young Cliff Richard into a star.  (Changing the name of Cliff’s character from the unappealing ‘Bert Rudge’ to the even less appealing ‘Bongo Herbert’ hardly seems the best way to do it.)  Dated in the way that only old British rock ‘n’ roll movies can be, Expresso Bongo was nicely summed up by critic Dennis Schwartz, who wrote that it “has a charm of its own, but that’s not enough to take the ringing of bongo drums out of my ears.”  Still, it’s probably a masterpiece compared to The Cool Mikado (1962), a pop-music version of the Gilbert-and-Sullivan opera directed by Michael Winner and starring comedians Frankie Howerd, Tommy Cooper and Mike and Bernie Winters, plus Lionel Blair, Dennis Price, Stubby Kaye and Kwouk (in the role of an art teacher).  I’ve never seen The Cool Mikado, but most people who have consider it a terrible film, even by Michael Winner’s standards.  The writer Christopher Fowler, for instance, noted how “(t)he crimson and green sets were emetic, the dialogue and dancing below the level of a drunken stag night.”

 

Also bizarre, and terrible, was the 1967 ‘non-official’ James Bond film Casino Royale, an all-over-the-place spoof that’s nowhere near as smart or funny as it thinks it is.  Kwouk appears in it briefly as a Chinese general; while among the big names at the top of the bill (David Niven, Ursula Andress, Woody Allen, Orson Welles) is, yet again, Peter Sellers.

 

(c) Columbia Pictures

 

Elsewhere, Kwouk’s movie CV is pleasingly varied, ranging from modest British comedies like The Sandwich Man (1966), The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977), I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle (1990) and Leon the Pig Farmer (1992) to big-budget Hollywood epics like The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968), The Chairman (1969), Rollerball (1975) and Empire of the Sun (1987).  Needless to say, though, a large part of that CV is taken up by the Pink Panther movies.

 

These days I have mixed feelings about those movies – Kwouk appeared in A Shot in the Dark (1964), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) and The Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978), and he was also on duty as Cato in three more films made after Sellers’ death in 1980, The Trail (1982), Curse (1983) and Son (1993) of the Pink Panther.  In parts, they’re very amusing, thanks largely to Peter Sellers portraying Frenchman Inspector Clouseau in a way guaranteed to appeal to British and American audiences: convinced of his own intellect, refinement and irresistibility as a lover, whilst blind to the fact that in reality he’s a clodhopping, accident-prone idiot.  Anglo-Saxons have an inferiority complex before the French when it comes to cultural and romantic matters, and they enjoy nothing more than seeing French assumptions of superiority shot down.

 

But at the same time, I find the films a bit superficial — although their mastermind, writer-director Blake Edwards, gives them a glossy, sophisticated sheen, they’re essentially just strings of slapstick and (obvious) verbal gags.  Also, post-1980, Edwards milked the franchise beyond all human decency, until its reputation was as dead as Sellers was.

 

Not that this mattered when I was a kid.  I loved the Pink Panther films then, and in particular I counted the minutes until the next set-piece battle occurred when Cato sprang out of a refrigerator, dropped from the top of a four-poster bed, etc., and assaulted Clouseau.  (Although Cato was Clouseau’s manservant, he’d been instructed to attack Clouseau at unexpected moments, thus training the detective to be eternally vigilant.)  In fact, I suspect that for my generation Cato was a more popular character than Clouseau himself was.

 

(c) United Artists

(c) United Artists

 

Interestingly, when the Pink Panther movies were rebooted in 2006 and 2009 with Steve Martin playing Clouseau, the role of Cato was offered to Jackie Chan – who supposedly turned it down because he didn’t believe it was politically correct in the 21st century.  (Instead, Cato morphed into a French sidekick called Gendarme Ponton, played by Jean Reno.)  As a kid, any evidence of political incorrectness in the Pink Panther movies sailed over my head, although there are moments in them now – I can recall Clouseau referring to Cato’s “yellow skin” on one occasion – that make me uncomfortable.

 

Thanks to Roger Lewis’s 1995 biography The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and its film version nine years later, much has been made of Sellers’ awkwardness, insecurity and volatility, both as an actor and as a human being.  Kwouk, however, has always been gracious about him.  Describing the day that Sellers’ death was announced in Britain, he said: “it seemed that the whole country came to a stop.  Everywhere you went, the fact that Peter had died seemed like an umbrella over everything.”

 

The last two decades have seen Burt Kwouk become an institution himself in Britain.  Fittingly, his last two big TV roles were in shows aimed at opposite ends of the viewing spectrum.  A younger audience enjoyed him in Channel 4’s surreal, off-the-wall Harry Hill show (1997-2000), in which he played the Chicken Catcher, who each week would offer an excuse for failing to catch a chicken before breaking into a rendition of the song Hey, Little Hen.  Hardly had he finished his stint with Harry Hill than he started an eight-year association with the gentle and seemingly never-ending BBC sitcom Last of the Summer Wine (1973-2010), whose fans tended to be of pensionable age.  Meanwhile, in 2011, the British establishment finally got around to acknowledging Kwouk’s ubiquity and popularity by awarding the actor, then 80 years old, the Order of the British Empire.

 

(c) The Press

 

The last credit on IMDb for Burt Kwouk OBE was dated 2012, meaning that the great man has spent the last three years in retirement.  I hope he’s enjoying that retirement, for he’s certainly earned it.  And now, after writing all this, I feel an unaccountable urge to practise some foot-kicking and hand-chopping kung-fu again.  Haaaiii-ya!