Deathlog 2017 – Part 1

 

© Eon Productions

 

The Grim Reaper seemed to cull a record number of big-name celebrities in 2016: David Bowie, Prince, Umberto Eco, Muhammed Ali, George Michael, Carrie Fisher.  2017 has seen less carnage, but nonetheless some people I admired have passed away.  Here’s a post about them.  Links are provided to those people whom I’ve already written about on Blood and Porridge.

 

January 19th and 21st saw the deaths of British writers Hilary Bailey and Emma Tennant, who by a sad coincidence were friends and occasional collaborators.  I read some of Bailey’s work in the New Worlds Quarterly paperback series that she’d edited in the 1970s – the series was a reincarnation of the famous science-fiction magazine New Worlds that her one-time husband Michael Moorcock had edited during the previous decade.  I’m unfamiliar with Tennant’s work but have a tenuous link with her.  She belonged to the aristocratic Glenconner family who owned the Glen, a mansion in the hills a few miles southeast of my Scottish hometown of Peebles.  I’ve hiked past the Glen many a time and, according to Tennant’s Wikipedia entry, she lived there as a child and remembered it as “the strangest place possible.”

 

January 27th saw a further literary demise, of novelist and filmmaker William Peter Blatty.  He authored The Exorcist (1971), which was made into the ground-breaking and massively successful horror movie of the same name two years later.  In 1990 Blatty directed the film’s second sequel, Exorcist III, which has its admirers; and in 1980 The Ninth Configuration, a movie ignored on its release but now viewed as an offbeat classic.   Film critic Mark Kermode described Configuration as “a breathtaking cocktail of philosophy, eye-popping visuals, jaw-dropping pretentiousness, rib-tickling humour and heart-stopping action.”

 

© Warner Brothers

 

Also checking out in January were American character actor Miguel Ferrer – Albert Rosenfield in Twin Peaks (1990-91, 2017) – on February 19th; acclaimed English actor John Hurt on January 25th; Scottish politician Tam Dalyell on January 26th; and, on January 25th, the American film and TV actress Mary Tyler Moore.  Through her sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77), she was instrumental in getting American television to portray women in a more proactive and empowered fashion.

 

January 26th saw the death of a more conventional American TV performer, Mike Connors, who played tough-guy private investigator Mannix from 1967 to 1975.  Mannix fans presumably included a young Quentin Tarantino, who named a character after the P.I. in 2015’s The Hateful Eight.  Two days later saw the passing of keyboardist and guitarist Geoff Nicholls, who played in legendary Brum heavy-metal band Black Sabbath from 1980 to 2004.

 

February was had a relatively low death toll, although on February 17th we said goodbye to another Twin Peaks alumni, Warren Frost, who played the kindly Doc Hayward in its first two series in 1990-91 and briefly in its 2017 revival series.  And the much-loved movie character actor Bill Paxton died on February 26th.

 

March 14th saw the death of veteran American film producer Jack H. Harris, who’ll surely be remembered as ‘Father of the Blob’.  Not only did he produce hoary sci-fi monster movie The Blob in 1958 (starring Steve McQueen as an unfeasibly old teenager) but he masterminded its 1972 sequel Beware! the Blob, which was directed by none other than J.R. Ewing himself Larry Hagman and thus became known as ‘the movie that J.R. shot.’  Furthermore, Harris produced the 1988 remake, directed by Chuck Russell, and at the time of his death was trying to get a second remake off the ground.  On March 18th seminal rock-and-roller Chuck Berry passed away, and the following day the masterly American illustrator and comic-book artist Bernie Wrightson died too.  Checking out on March 26th was actress Darlene Cates, splendid as Johnny Depp and Leonardo Di Caprio’s mother in the 1993 movie What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?

 

© MGM / United Artists

 

American funny man Don Rickles died on April 6th.  I wasn’t a fan of Rickles’ humour (“Who picks your clothes?  Stevie Wonder?”) but as an actor he was memorably nasty in Roger Corman’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) and memorably pathetic in John Landis’s Innocent Blood (1992).  One day later, the English stage, film, TV and radio actor Tim Pigott-Smith passed away.  My juvenile self will always remember Pigott-Smith for playing: (1) Hotspur (to Jon Finch’s Henry IV, David Gwillim’s Hal and Anthony Quayle’s Falstaff) in the 1979 BBC production of Henry IV Part 1, which I was made to watch at school; and (2) Thallo in 1981’s Clash of the Titans.  Meanwhile, bowing out on April 12th was Charlie Murphy, elder brother to Eddie Murphy and a distinguished comic performer in his own right.  His Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories turn on Comedy Central’s Chapelle’s Show (2003-2006) was hilarious, perhaps most of all when he described an alleged encounter with Prince, where the diminutive funky singer-musician showed an unexpected flair for basketball.

 

We also saw the departures of American blues singer and guitarist Lonnie Brooks on April 3rd; hugely influential British comics artist Leo Baxendale on April 23rd; and American guitarist John Warren Geils Jnr, mainspring of the J. Geils Band on April 11th – how I loved the Geils song Centerfold when I was a fifteen-year-old.  American director Jonathan Demme, whose CV included Caged Heat (1974), Crazy Mama (1975), Melvin and Howard (1980), Stop Making Sense (1984), Swimming to Cambodia (1987), The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Philadelphia (1993), died on April 26th.

 

And American character actor Clifton James died on April 15th.  James was best-known for playing redneck police officer Sheriff Pepper in two Roger Moore James Bond movies, 1974’s Live and Let Die and 1975’s The Man with the Golden Gun.  (In the latter film, Sheriff Pepper turns out to be less of a redneck than expected.  Holidaying with his wife in East Asia, he refuses to have his photo taken with an elephant: “Elephants!  We’re Demy-crats, Maybelle!”)  For a more nuanced Clifton James performance, however, check out his supporting role in Richard Lester’s Juggernaut (1975).

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

Another notable movie policeman passed away the following month, on May 10th: Michael Parks, who played Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in Robert Rodriguez’s From Dawn to Dust (1996), Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) and the Rodriguez / Tarantino collaboration Grindhouse (2007).   Parks also played the villainous Jean Renault in the first two series of Twin Peaks (1990-91) – so yes, he was another Twin Peaks casualty of 2017.  Another man who was no stranger to violent action-thrillers, character actor Powers Boothe, died on May 14th.  Boothe’s career saw him perform in such gritty movies as Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort (1981) and Extreme Prejudice (1987), Oliver Stone’s U-Turn (1997) and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005).

 

Other notable actors departing in May included the cinema’s longest-serving James Bond, Sir Roger Moore, who died on May 23rd; and English character actor Geoffrey Bayldon, who passed away on May 10th.  Bayldon appeared in British horror films like The House That Dripped Blood (1970), Tales from the Crypt and Asylum (both 1972) but will be remembered by British TV viewers my age for playing a medieval wizard transported by magic to the present day in the children’s fantasy show Catweazle (1970-71).  Meanwhile, the musical world took a hit on May 18th with the death of yet another grunge-band frontman, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell.

 

From Wikipedia

 

Before taking leave of May, we should raise a glass of vodka to the memory of Soviet Air Defence Forces officer Stanislav Petrov, who died on May 19th.  Petrov is credited with saving the world from nuclear destruction in 1983.  Suspicious of an early-warning report about an American missile approaching the USSR, he disobeyed an order to launch a retaliatory strike.  The initial report turned out to be false, the result of a malfunction in the satellite tracking system.  Phew.  Looking at the shitty state of international politics in the early 21st century, I suspect we’ll need a few more people of Stanislav Petrov’s calibre in the years ahead.

 

June 2017 wreaked havoc in the world of children’s TV entertainment.  On June 9th it claimed Adam West, square-jawed star of the campy old Batman TV show (1966-68); on June 19th Brian Cant, narrator of the revered British stop-motion-animation shows Camberwick Green (1966), Trumpton (1967) and Chigley (1969); and on June 5th, the venerable Peter Sallis, who provided the voice for Gromit in Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit quintet.  Sallis also played Norman Clegg in all 295 episodes of the BBC’s seemingly never-ending sitcom Last of the Summer Wine (1973-2010) and appeared in a couple of Hammer horror movies.  I love the fact that he was in both the Hammer film Curse of the Werewolf (1961) and the Wallace and Gromit epic Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005).

 

© Aardman Animations

 

Anita Pallenberg, 1960s icon, actress and muse to the Rolling Stones died on June 13th and Dave Rosser, guitarist with the reformed American alternative-rock band the Afghan Whigs, died on June 27th.  Finally, June 30th saw the passing of Barry Norman, English movie critic and host of the BBC’s long-running Film… review show from 1972 to 1998.  I disagreed with many of Norman’s opinions – he could be annoyingly conservative and prissy in his tastes – but he performed his duties with undeniable wit, charm and aplomb.  And a long time before the Internet, when the UK media didn’t seem particularly interested in films as an artform, his weekly show was an invaluable lifeline for cinephiles like myself.

 

To be continued…  Alas.

 

© BBC

 

Britain’s number-two pub argument settled

 

From camannwordsmith.com

 

Tom Baker.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

In descending order, we have:

 

Tom Baker

Matt Smith

Jon Pertwee

Patrick Troughton

Peter Capaldi

John Hurt

Christopher Eccleston

William Hartnell

Colin Baker

Paul McGann

Sylvester McCoy

David Tennant

Peter Davison

 

© BBC

 

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

 

© BBC

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© BBC

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© BBC

 

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

 

© BBC

 

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

 

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

 

© BBC

 

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

 

© BBC

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© BBC

 

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

 

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

 

Alternative Hurt

 

© Recorded Picture Company / Pandora Film

 

And so another prominent feature of the cinematic and televisual landscape that’s surrounded me since I was a kid has gone.  I’m referring to the legendary English actor John Hurt who died late last month.

 

Hurt had many famous roles and managed for six decades to keep his profile high among the film and TV-viewing public.  He played the flamboyant Quentin Crisp in Jack Gold’s TV comedy-drama The Naked Civil Servant (1975); the luckless Max in Alan Parker’s Midnight Express (1978); the even more luckless Kane, who becomes an unwilling incubator for the nightmarish H.R. Giger-designed beastie in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979); the noble but deformed John Merrick in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980); and that great everyman of dystopian fiction, Winston Smith, in Michael Radford’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 (1984 – yes!).

 

Later, while the highbrow performances kept coming – as scabrous Tory politician Alan Clark in the TV mini-series The Alan Clark Diaries (2004-2006), Quentin Crisp again in Brian Laxton’s An Englishman in New York (2009), Corkery in Rowan Jaffe’s Brighton Rock (2010), Control in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy (2011) – he also appeared in several internationally-popular franchises: as Ollivander in the Harry Potter movies; Bruttenholm in the Hellboy movies (2004 and 2008); Oxley in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008); and the War Doctor, the militarised black sheep of the Doctor’s many incarnations, in the fiftieth-anniversary special of Doctor Who (2013).

 

The role that made the biggest impression on me, though, was the very first one I saw Hurt playing – in Jack Gold’s TV mini-series I Claudius (1976), based on the novels by Robert Graves, where he was the simultaneously deranged, ludicrous and terrifying Roman emperor Caligula.  Actually, thinking now of the scenes where Hurt harasses the limping, stuttering future-emperor Claudius (Derek Jacobi), I can’t help but think of another demented tyrant who likes to mock the physically afflicted.

 

© BBC

© BBC

 

But for this tribute, I thought I’d write about some items on John Hurt’s CV that have received less attention – films he appeared in that have vanished off the radar and / or ones in which he had supporting roles.  Here’s my pick of the Alternative Hurt.

 

10 Rillington Place (1971)

Based on the case of real-life 1940s / 1950s serial killer John Christie, Richard Fleischer’s 10 Rillington Place remains a gruelling watch today.  This is largely due to a performance by the normally cuddly and loveable Richard Attenborough, who brings Christie to life in a balding, pot-bellied, cardigan-wearing, tea-sipping, lisping, ingratiating, manipulative, quietly lecherous and homicidally perverted fashion that makes your skin crawl.  What’s even worse is the knowledge that Christie evaded capture for several years by having his third and fourth murders, of neighbour Beryl Evans (Judy Geeson) and her infant daughter Geraldine, wrongly pinned on Beryl’s husband and Geraldine’s father Timothy (Hurt).  After Timothy Evans was hung for the crimes, Christie killed four more times.

 

As the thickly Welsh-accented Timothy Evans, Hurt manages an impressive balancing act.  His character is slow-witted, boastful, occasionally violent and generally unlikeable; but nonetheless he elicits enough sympathy for the audience to be shocked when he gets condemned to death through Christie’s duplicity and the police’s stupidity.  (Attenborough, it’s said, agreed to do the film because he felt it justified his abhorrence of capital punishment.)

 

The Osterman Weekend (1983)

In the final movie made by maverick director Sam Peckinpah, Hurt plays a CIA man who enlists the help of investigative reporter Rutger Hauer to bust an alleged spy ring.  Mainly, this involves rigging Hauer’s house up with surveillance equipment before the conspirators are invited over for the weekend.  The reality, though, is not what Hauer thinks it is…  A collision between a twisty, hi-tech espionage thriller and Peckinpah’s signature crash-bang-wallop, slow-motion, blood-spurting action set-pieces, The Osterman Weekend doesn’t always work.  But its cast (Hurt, Hauer, Meg Foster, Craig T. Nelson and Dennis Hopper) keeps it entertaining.

 

And a scene where Hurt, speaking to Hauer via a two-way video / audio link, suddenly has to pretend to be a TV weatherman when the wrong person appears in Hauer’s proximity, is very funny.

 

© Recorded Picture Company / Palace Films

 

The Hit (1984)

Stephen Frears’s The Hit features John Hurt as an assassin and a young Tim Roth as his apprentice.  They capture a retired gangster, played by Terence Stamp, and transport him across Spain.  Long before, it transpires, Stamp turned Queen’s evidence against some criminal associates and now it’s payback time.  What lifts this crime-drama-cum-road-movie out of the ordinary is its characterisation.  Stamp is surprising philosophical about his impending fate, Roth is endearingly gormless and Hurt gives a glorious study in world-weariness.

 

The Field (1990)

A tragic drama about an obsessed Irish farmer (Richard Harris) who gradually loses his mind when a precious piece of land slips through his fingers and into those of a rich American property developer (Tom Berenger), Jim Sheridan’s The Field ends up in King Lear territory – with Harris as the diminished monarch and Hurt as his loyal Fool.  In fact, Hurt’s performance as Bird, Harris’s daft, cackling and excitable side-kick, adds a few slivers of comedy to what is overall a powerful but grim film.

 

Rob Roy (1995)

Having played a Welshman in 10 Rillington Place and an Irishman in The Field, Hurt completed his Celtic hat-trick with his performance as an evil Scottish nobleman in Michael Caton-Jones’s Rob Roy.  The film suffers from the fact that its star, Liam Neeson, fails to convince as the Scottish Highlander Rob Roy MacGregor – every time he opens his mouth, a Ballymena accent comes out.  And excitement-wise it never quite sets the heather alight, especially compared to the same year’s barnstorming, crowd-pleasing Braveheart.  Its strongest feature is its outstanding trio of villains: Tim Roth (again) as the bastardly dandy Archibald Cunningham, Brian Cox as the venal factor Killearn and Hurt himself as the purringly malevolent Duke of Montrose.

 

© United Artists

 

Dead Man (1995)

Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man is a demented psychedelic western about an innocuous accountant who becomes the quarry of bounty hunters.  It also boasts an astonishing cult-movie cast headed by Johnny Depp.  Hurt appears as a vinegary aide to the great Robert Mitchum who, in one of his last film roles, plays the rich, powerful and barking-mad businessman who sets the bounty hunters on Depp’s trail.

 

At one point, Hurt also shares a scene with Lance Henrikson and Michael Wincott, who between them have appeared in four other Alien movies – which makes this quite an Alien-actors convention.

 

The Proposition (2005)

While Alien contains the ultimate John Hurt death scene, John Hillcoat’s violent, grubby Australian western The Proposition gives him a pretty memorable way of shuffling off the mortal coil too.  As the raddled but eloquent bounty hunter Jellon Lamb, he expires quoting some lines by the Victorian author George Borrow: “There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon and stars, all sweet things; there’s likewise a wind on a heath…”  That’s just before he gets a knife the size of a shovel-blade rammed through his chest and a bullet in the head.  Well, Nick Cave wrote the script, so what did you expect?

 

© Zentropa / Memfis Film

 

Melancholia (2011)

The Lars Von Trier-directed Melancholia is both a study of clinical depression and an account of the last days of earth before it has an apocalyptic collision with another planet.  But the mood is thankfully lightened when John Hurt makes a cameo appearance as the gregarious, party-loving old reprobate who’s father to Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

 

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

An arty, languid but likeable vampire movie, Only Lovers Left Alive sees Hurt working again with Jim Jarmusch.  While most of the film focuses on vampire lovers Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, Hurt provides good support as the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, who didn’t actually die in 1593 but – surprise! – got vampirised instead.  Four centuries later, he lives as Swinton’s avuncular and quietly blood-drinking neighbour in Tangiers.

 

Snowpiercer (2013)

Bong Joon-ho’s sci-fi epic Snowpiercer has an imaginative premise.  The earth has been decimated by a new ice age and the last human survivors live in an oppressively hierarchical society on board a super-long train, which is in perpetual movement around the snowbound globe.  Unfortunately, the film is all over the place in terms of tone, unsure whether it wants to be a gritty sci-fi actioner, a slice of Terry Gilliam-esque surrealism or a darkly humorous Roald Dahl-type fantasy.  Hurt at least brings some levity to the proceedings, playing the leader of the train’s rebellious proles.  Unsubtly, his character is called ‘Gilliam’.

 

Incidentally, one John Hurt movie I haven’t mentioned here because I’ve never seen it in its entirety is 1978’s The Shout, also starring Alan Bates, Susannah York and Robert Stephens and based on a short story by I Claudius author Robert Graves.  People whose opinion I respect say it’s very good; and from the opening minutes, which are up on Youtube, it certainly looks intriguing.

 

© First Look Pictures

 

Have I got Whos for you 3

 

(c) Royal Mail

 

In the early 2000s Russell T. Davies was well-respected in television circles as the writer of acclaimed dramas like Queer as Folk and The Second Coming.  However, Davies had a guilty secret.  He’d grown up an avid Doctor Who fan.  Indeed, since the show had left the airwaves in 1989, he’d been one of the many contributors to the spin-off media – comics, audio adventures, novels – that’d proliferated so that fans could get their continuing fix of the show.  Now that he carried weight within the BBC, what Davies wanted more than anything was to bring the show back to television.

 

In 2005 Davies got his wish and a new-look Doctor Who was launched with him as show-runner and chief scriptwriter.  I have mixed feelings about what Davies did, but his basic approach was sensible.  Aware that he needed to craft a show that appealed not just to old-time fans – most of whom had acquired some grey hairs by then – but to new viewers and especially to kids, he introduced the main human character first, Rose Tyler, and told the story through her eyes.  (Playing Rose was former pop singer Billie Piper, who despite many people’s low expectations turned out to have acting talent.)  As Rose got to know the mysterious Doctor, his character was gradually sketched in.  Thus, Davies avoided dumping too much back-story on his audiences too quickly, which had been the undoing of the Paul McGann TV movie nine years earlier.

 

In fact, Davies reduced that back-story by getting rid of the Time Lords.  It transpired that they’d fought a cataclysmic ‘Time War’ against the Daleks, which had ended with both species’ destruction.  Predictably, though, the Doctor and Rose soon discovered that not all the Daleks were extinct.  Meanwhile, the show’s other old monsters and enemies, such as the Cybermen and the Master, were brought back only gradually and were given a 21st-century makeover.  In the case of the Master, he became a manic villain in the style of Batman’s Joker, who wasn’t averse to torturing the Doctor whilst playing, loudly, songs by the Scissor Sisters – the bastard.

 

To play the Doctor, Davies brought in Christopher Ecclestone, who’d been in The Second Coming and in a number of films, including Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave, in which he’d appeared alongside the future Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ewan Macgregor.  (If a little kid ever asks you the question, “If Doctor Who had a fight with Obi-Wan Kenobi, who would win?” you could show him or her the last ten minutes of Shallow Grave.  Actually, on second thoughts, don’t.  It’s a bit unpleasant.)  This new Doctor, the ninth one, was psychologically scarred by Time War survivor’s guilt, something Ecclestone wore well on his normal acting persona, which is pretty intense and morose.  In fact, speaking with his natural, working-class Salford accent, Ecclestone’s Doctor could be described as the Ken Loach Doctor.  He certainly seemed to have been through the wringer as much as the average hero of a Loach movie.

 

I was less enamoured with some of Davies’s other decisions, especially his insistence on peppering his scripts with silly touches, such as farting aliens, talking pavement slabs, burping wheelie-bins and general slapstick.  No doubt he was aiming for a Roald Dahl-type humour that would keep kids entertained, though too often that humour tipped over into daftness.  The sometimes-juvenile tone of Davis’s scripts, which made up the bulk of the early stories of Nu-Who’s first season, might have been one reason why Ecclestone quickly announced that he’d be leaving the show at that season’s conclusion.  I suspect another reason was that Ecclestone wondered why a seasoned film actor like himself should have to put up with the BBC’s gruelling and non-stop shooting schedules.

 

But Ecclestone may have regretted his early decision to quit Nu-Who because it soon became clear that the revived show was a hit.  Restored to its traditional Saturday teatime slot, it triumphed in the ratings.  Also, in its later stories, it became good.  Particularly strong was the Rob Shearman-scripted Dalek, in which the Doctor becomes the prisoner of an American billionaire living in a bunker beneath the Utah Desert who collects alien artefacts.  Not only does he want to add the last of the Time Lords to his collection, but he’s already acquired another alien creature.  Damaged, but capable of repairing itself, this creature turns out to be – surprise! – the last of the Daleks.

 

Meanwhile, the two-part story The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances was written by Steven Moffat, another writer who, like Davies, had won acclaim for his previous work but had a secret Doctor-Who-fan skeleton lurking in his closet.  Reviving the body-horror trope that the show had done so well in the 1970s, it has a time-travelling swarm of medical nanobots arrive by accident in blitzed World War II London, where they promptly ‘fix’ a dying child, not aware that the gas-mask he’s wearing isn’t part of his natural anatomy.  Then they start carrying out the same repair-programme on every human they encounter, inadvertently creating an army of zombies with gas-masks grotesquely fused to their faces.  It’s a dark and frightening premise but Moffat manages to resolve the story with an uplifting and optimistic ending.  He won that year’s Hugo award for best dramatic presentation / short form – the first of four he would lift for the show.

 

(c) BBC

 

With Ecclestone gone, Davies hired as the next Doctor 35-year-old Scottish actor David Tennant.  Like Davies, I have mixed feelings about Tennant, and at times I’ve regarded him as the Roger Moore of Doctor Who.  As with Moore’s version of James Bond, I wasn’t happy with Tennant’s portrayal of the character; but, just as Moore’s 1979 Bond flick Moonraker was the most successful one to date, I can’t deny that he made the show massively popular.  The young, slim and telegenic Tennant proved especially popular with female viewers, i.e. teenaged girls and their mums.  Correspondingly, Davis cranked up the film’s romance factor, to the point where it seemed Tennant was incapable of getting through an episode without snogging, or at least making puppy-eyes at, whatever nubile young actress was in the guest cast that week.  Meanwhile, the relationship between Tennant and Billie Piper – who’d worked well with Ecclestone – became annoyingly lovey-dovey too.

 

Tennant is, however, a far better actor than Roger Moore and at times he managed to fashion a character whose human traits were convincingly balanced with his alien ones.  At other times, however, his Doctor was an irritating blur of tics, gimmicks and catchphrases.  Whereas Ecclestone had used his native north-of England accent, Tennant for some reason wasn’t allowed to sound Scottish and he opted instead for a grating ‘Mockney’ that made him sound like a fast-talking London street trader trying to sell a cache of dodgy watches.  Also, later, he grew increasingly self-pitying, whining about being the last of the Time Lords and about how much he missed Rose – just before the two characters could declare their love for each other, Billie Piper fell into a parallel universe at the end of Nu-Who’s second season, never to see her beloved Doctor again; or at least, not until Davies could think of a way to bring her back.  Small wonder that fans began to dub the Tennant Doctor ‘Doctor Emo’.

 

By Nu-Who’s third season – Tennant’s second – the Doctor had a new travelling companion, Martha, played by the underrated Freema Agyleman, who projected some spirit and intellect.  Sadly, though, the writers cheapened her character by having her fall in love with and then pine over the unattainable Tennant.  It was during this period that the show featured the best story of its revival, Blink, which earned writer Steven Moffat another Hugo.  It introduced Nu-Who’s smartest monsters, the Weeping Angels, creatures who exist as stone statues – in the disconcerting form of vampire-faced angels – when people are looking at them.  When nobody’s looking at them, they can come to life, move, hunt and kill.  The not-being-seen period that enables them to move can be very short indeed, even while somebody blinks or when a light-bulb flickers.  This allows Moffat to insert sequences where people see a Weeping Angel statue, blink, and then wonder why the statue seems to have edged a little closer towards them.  It was the show’s creepiest story since the Tom Baker days.

 

 

Next, Tennant acquired another travelling companion, Donna, played by Catherine Tate, who wasn’t trying to win his heart but who simply treated him as a chum.  One wonders if this was because of the fact that Tate was visibly a few years older than Tennant.  Meanwhile, during his last year or two in the role, the stories became ever-more bombastic.  Davies created ever-greater threats to the universe and the doctor came up with increasing convoluted scientific (i.e. ‘magic’ + ‘technobabble’) solutions to them.  The Daleks returned (again) with a ridiculously destructive weapon called the ‘reality bomb’, capable of destroying everything in this universe and in any other universe.  Then the Time Lords – who, it was now clear, had become as ruthless as the Daleks towards the end of the Time War – devised an ingenious (i.e. ludicrous) plan involving the Master, and humanity, to survive the final day of the Time War by escaping through time to present-day earth.  Playing the tyrannical leader of the Time Lords, incidentally, was none other than Timothy Dalton, James Bond IV, which led to some excited fan-geek speculation on the Internet that James Bond was also a Time Lord.  (He has, after all, had half-a-dozen different incarnations of his own.)

 

To be fair to Davies, he did script a couple of late-Tenant era Doctor Who stories that were very effective because they tapped into the show’s long tradition of gothic horror.  Midnight is claustrophobically set inside a small, single-chambered vessel that’s crashed on the surface of an alien planet, where a mysterious unseen ‘thing’ first stalks around outside and then stalks through the heads of the trapped passengers inside.  Waters of Mars, meanwhile, has the crew of a future base on Mars discover a water source that is in fact a sentient organism.  They get infected by it, one by one, and transform into cracked-faced ‘water-zombies’ while the creature tries to transport itself to a more conducive, watery environment – earth.

 

(c) BBC

 

By this time, 2009, it was announced that David Tennant was leaving the show and his replacement, Matt Smith, was unveiled.  My expectations were not great at this point because, at 26 years old, Smith was even younger than Peter Davison, my least favourite Doctor, when he’d taken on the role; and Smith’s costume was to be a bow tie / tweed jacket combo that made him look like a Hooray Henry.  This eleventh Doctor, it seemed, was going to be a mixture of Boris Johnson and Stewie-the-talking-baby in Family Guy.

 

However, I was pleasantly surprised because Matt Smith’s Doctor proved to be a delight.  He was an endearing creature that was ungainly and child-like, compassionate and yet plausibly alien.  Smith’s unusual physique, with a face that looked like it’d been chiselled by an Easter Island stonemason, helped him greatly, as did his decision to base some of his mannerisms on Patrick Troughton, the actor considered by many to be the greatest Doctor of all.

 

Departing from the show at the same time as Tenant was Russell T. Davies and he was replaced as show-runner by the revived show’s best writer, Steven Moffat.  Moffat’s tenure at the helm of Doctor Who has proved controversial and he’s even abandoned Twitter because he got fed up with the hectoring he was receiving from fans.  One criticism has been that he’s made the show unnecessarily complicated through the use of tangled, season-long story arcs.  Smith’s second season, for example, began with him apparently being killed.  Then the season devoted itself to showing, through plot-twists and instances of time travel (which were either ingenious or torturous, depending on your point of view), how he managed to avoid being killed.

 

Another bone of contention has been Moffat’s handling of female characters.  Firstly, he introduced as the Doctor’s new travelling companion Amy Pond, played by the flame-haired Invernessian actress Karen Gillan.  Bolshy, mercurial and contradictory, as maddening as she was lovable, Amy Pond was in other words typically Scottish – Moffat, incidentally, is also a Scot – which some fans south of the border found hard to fathom.  He also brought in River Song, a mysterious woman who eventually turned out to be an artificially created Time Lord.  Played by the sultry Alex Kingston, River Song was by turns arrogant, enigmatic, all-knowing and never short of a witty answer.  She was, basically, a female version of the Doctor, which old-school fans seemed to have trouble accepting.  She was also the one female character to have a more-than-Platonic relationship with Smith’s Doctor, who generally eschewed the flirting and snogging of his predecessor.  It says a lot for the acting abilities of Smith and Kingston (who’s two decades older than Smith) that they’ve managed to carry the relationship off without sparking a media outcry, led by the Daily Mail, about the BBC encouraging young, impressionable men to get off with older ladies.

 

Actually, I think that negative reactions to the show under Moffat have come from a sense of disappointment.  Fans assumed that because Moffat had written some brilliant episodes in the past, the show was now going to be brilliant every week, which it wasn’t – the Smith era has seen some notable clunkers, such as Vampires of Venice, Curse of the Black Spot and the dreadful Nightmare in Silver, which was written by Neil Gaiman.  (Shame on you, Neil.)  However, I still prefer the show under Moffat to how it was under Davies – mainly because, as show-runner, Moffat’s now writing a lot of the scripts and he’s a stronger writer than Davies.  Moffat’s stories tend to be ingenious, witty and fast-moving – so fast-moving that you need to keep your wits about you to follow what’s going on.  Unfortunately, such is their break-neck pace that pieces of plot and logic sometimes get lost along the way.  Also, the show now looks the best it’s ever looked, helped by some cinematic direction by the BBC’s best directors and some exotic location filming.  (This was a show, remember, once notorious for shooting all its alien-planet sequences in the same old quarry.)

 

Now the revived show’s biggest problem is that, just as the original show did, it’s built up a tremendous amount of mythology, which threatens to make it as impenetrable to new viewers as it was in the 1980s.  Since 2005, the copious new plot-elements, back-story references and recurrent characters have included Bad Wolf, Captain Jack Harkness, Torchwood, the Oncoming Storm, River Song, the Silence, the Fields of Trenzalore and the War Doctor.  The last of these, the War Doctor, is a hidden incarnation of the Doctor who occurred between the eighth and official ninth Doctors, during the Time War: a dark version of himself that the Doctor has erased from his history like a family locking a mad relative in the attic.  Played by John Hurt, it becomes clear that the War Doctor ended the Time War with an act of genocide, using a super-weapon to wipe out the Daleks and the Time Lords before their conflict destroyed any more of the universe around them.

 

Hurt’s Doctor formed the basis of the 50th-anniversary story that aired a week ago.  It ends with Moffat cheekily retconning Davies’s original concept of the Time Lords being destroyed at the end of the Time War.  He has all the Doctor’s incarnations travelling through time to shunt the planet of the Time Lords into a hidden ‘pocket universe’, so that it only looks like they were destroyed in the Time War.  This also sets the Doctor up with a new mission for his next few seasons – to find his home planet again.

 

It was announced a while ago that Matt Smith, after three years in the role, is moving on too.  His replacement will be Peter Capaldi – the same Peter Capaldi who, as a Glaswegian youngster, tried unsuccessfully to seize control of the official Doctor Who fan club back in the early 1970s.  Capaldi is now 55 years old, the age William Hartnell was when he started playing the Doctor in 1963.  However, with Capaldi being a regular marathon runner and having just spent the past few years playing the ferociously adrenalized and stunningly foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker in the political-satire TV series The Thick of It, I imagine his Doctor will be anything but the cantankerous old gentleman played by the role’s original actor.

 

I’ll be sad to see Matt Smith leave the show, which will happen in its next instalment, to be broadcast on Christmas Day, because I reckon he was the best actor to play the Doctor for a very long time.  It would have been nice to see him continue in the role for another season or two.  On the other hand, however, I can’t wait to see him regenerate into Malcolm Tucker: “F**k off, you wee spastic-voiced, kitchen-plunger-waving, pepperpot knob-end c**ts!”