Death log 2015

 

From practicingnormal.com

 

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.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dwbr9EL0UJM

 

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.

 

From lightspeedmagazine.com

 

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.

 

From ibtimes.co.uk

 

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.

 

From bowwowtimes.com

 

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…

 

The fickleness of acting fame

 

(c) Reynolds Pictures, Inc

 

The actor Gregory Walcott, who died a week ago at the age of 87, was hardly a household name.  But in a fickle profession – I’ll wager that 99.9% of all actors and actresses never win any degree of fame or recognition at all – he had a pretty good innings.

 

Between the 1960s and 1980s he made guest appearances on a slew of American TV shows that I remember well, if not always fondly, from my childhood and teens – western ones (Rawhide, Bonanza, The High Chaparral, Alias Smith and Jones, The Quest), cop ones (Kojak, McCloud, Barnaby Jones, Baretta, CHiPs, Vega$) and science-fiction ones (The Invisible Man, The Gemini Man, Land of the Lost, The Six Million Dollar Man).  He also turned up in those two big-haired, big-moneyed super-soap-operas that were an inescapable feature of Ronald Reagan-era TV, Dallas and Dynasty.

 

Cinematically, Walcott appeared in the supporting casts of several Clint Eastwood movies back when Big Clint was in his prime (and before he became better known for talking to empty chairs at Republican Party conferences).  These were Joe Kidd (1972), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), The Eiger Sanction (1975) and Every Which Way but Loose (1978).  Also, Walcott got to work with legendary director John Ford in 1955’s Mister Roberts; and in 1974 he appeared in The Sugarland Express, which was directed by a young, barely-started-shaving Steven Spielberg.

 

However, when Walcott’s obituaries appeared a few days ago, it wasn’t his extensive TV work or his associations with Eastwood, Ford and Spielberg that received attention.  No, the item in Walcott’s CV that the obituarists focused on was a low-budget science-fiction film that he’d made in 1956: a film whose script he considered to be ‘gibberish’ but which he went ahead and starred in as a favour to a friend, Ed Reynolds, who was the film’s executive producer.  Initially, Walcott wasn’t bothered about making this unpromising-sounding film and possibly damaging his acting reputation as a consequence.  He assumed it would sink without trace.  “I honestly thought,” he told an interviewer later, “it would only be shown out in the boondocks and no-one would ever see it.”

 

Walcott must have felt increasingly nervous as, during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, this particular film refused to stay in the boondocks.  Rather, it began to loom large in popular culture.  Inexorably, its fame – or infamy – grew.  Thanks largely to it being championed by movie critics like Michael Medved, filmmakers like Joe Dante and cultural commentators like Clive James, it became a contender for the title of Worst Film Ever Made.

 

By 1994, when Tim Burton made Ed Wood, a biopic of the movie’s director – with Johnny Depp in the title role of oddball, angora-obsessed and epically-incompetent filmmaker Edward D. Wood Jr – it was no longer just a contender for the title.  In the public consciousness, the movie, Plan 9 from Outer Space, now was the worst film ever made.

 

(c) Reynolds Pictures, Inc

 

These days connoisseurs of bad movies spend hours enthusing about Plan 9’s multiple shortcomings: about the cemetery headstones (obviously made of cardboard) that topple over on camera and the characters’ cars that change make from scene to scene; the flying saucers that look like they’ve been fashioned from hubcaps; the risible dialogue (“Inspector Clay is dead… murdered… and someone is responsible!”); the fact that the movie’s biggest star, Bela Lugosi, had died before filming started and his ‘performance’ was a combination of home-movie footage shot when he’d been alive and the use of a stand-in (actually Wood’s wife’s chiropractor) who looked nothing like him; the sets that’d apparently been assembled inside a cupboard, including one of an airplane cockpit with sides made out of shower-curtains and a very visible boom-microphone overhead; the barmy narration by Jerome King Criswell, a real-life, self-proclaimed psychic who intones, “Greetings my friends!  We are all interested in the future.  For that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives!”  And so on, and so forth.

 

With cruel inevitability, Plan 9 figured prominently in the headlines about Walcott’s death.  The Independent called him THE BLAMELESS ACTOR WHO COULDN’T SHAKE OFF BEING A PART OF THE WORST MOVIE EVER.  In the Times, he was the ACTOR WHO STARRED IN A FILM REGARDED AS THE WORST IN CINEMA HISTORY.  A slightly-more-circumspect New York Times declared, GREGORY WALCOTT, ACTOR IN ‘PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE’, DIES AT 87.

 

Walcott reminds me of a more famous actor who passed away in February, Leonard Nimoy.  Nimoy appeared in some classic TV shows (The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Mission Impossible) and was nominated for an Emmy for playing Golda Meir’s husband in the 1982 TV movie A Woman Called Golda.  He appeared in several acclaimed stage productions, including Fiddler on the Roof, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Equus and Twelfth Night.  He enjoyed parallel careers as a screenwriter, producer and director – he even directed and starred in a 1981 TV movie called Vincent, a biopic of Vincent Van Gogh.  And he was a photographer, poet and singer-songwriter too.  Despite all this, Nimoy went to his grave with five words etched (metaphorically) on his headstone: MR SPOCK IN STAR TREK!

 

(c) Desilu Productions 

 

No matter how much he tried to escape it – and by the mid-1970s he seemed pretty annoyed at the fact, because he penned a memoir called I am not Spock and refused for a time to be involved in the first Star Trek movie (which eventually did have him on board when it was released in 1979) – Nimoy was forever associated in people’s minds with a half-human alien who lived by the dictates of logic.  One who took orders from Captain William Shatner, incapacitated opponents using the very handy Vulcan nerve-pinch, and possessed the most famous pair of pointy ears on the planet.

 

Later, though, Nimoy seemed to make his peace with Star Trek and Mr Spock.  The second volume of his memoirs, published in 1995, was entitled I am Spock; and he continued making Star Trek movies into his old age.  He even appeared in the new, rebooted Star Trek films with Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg, Benedict Cumberbatch, etc., playing a venerable and sagacious Mr Spock from an alternative universe.

 

I have to say that, while I’m not a Star Trek fan, I think Nimoy made the right decision.  I’ve read some of his poems and heard a little of his singing.  And I like him much better as Mr Spock.

 

It must be galling for actors and actresses – trained in a profession where the goal is to become a human chameleon, to be able to step into the shoes of any character, inhabit their persona and imbue them convincingly with life onstage or onscreen – when your audience becomes fixated with one role you’ve played, or one TV show or film you’ve appeared in, and associates you with that for the rest of your career.  And very often, the role, show or film that the crass, fickle public saddles you with is something less than Shakespearean.

 

(c) De Laurentiis Entertainment Group

 

I can think of two well-known Scottish actors who’ve had to deal with this.  Craggy, Dundonian performer Brian Cox has enjoyed a distinguished career in the theatre, on TV and in films.  But in 1986 he had a supporting role in Michael Mann’s dark thriller Manhunter, based on the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris.  He played an inmate in an institution for the criminally insane who’s onscreen for only a few minutes.  But that character was Dr Hannibal Lektor who, three years later, would win mass-popularity when Anthony Hopkins played him in Silence of the Lambs (with the character’s surname re-spelt as ‘Lector’).  For a long time afterwards, Cox had to put up with countless comments and queries about his turn as the first cinematic incarnation of Harris’s suave, Nietzschean super-cannibal.  Even now, he’s probably getting letters asking him what his thoughts are on the funky new leather jacket that Mads Mikkelsen will be wearing in season three of Hannibal.

 

Then there’s Crieff-born actor Dennis Lawson, who receives more mail about his role as Wedge Antilles in the original three Star Wars movies than about everything else he’s done put together.  This is despite the fact that he’s only in each movie for about a minute.  He’s seen climbing into an X-Wing Fighter before each big space-battle, sitting in the X-Wing Fighter during each big space-battle, and climbing out of the X-Wing Fighter after each big space-battle.  (Indeed, it was only when he filmed the climbing-out scenes that Lawson realised that his character had survived yet another movie.)  Still, his association with the films may have been welcomed in certain quarters of his family – two decades later, his nephew Ewan McGregor secured the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels.

 

(c) 20th Century Fox

 

Returning to Gregory Walcott – like Nimoy and Spock, he eventually learned to live with Plan 9 from Outer Space.  In an interview with the LA Times, he said of the film that “it’s better to be remembered for something than for nothing.”  Bearing his old director no malice, he agreed to a cameo role in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, which proved to be his final film appearance.  And last year, when a pub called the Plan Nine Alehouse opened in his neighbourhood, he allowed his son to gift it his old copy of the Plan 9 script.  (The script ended up as a decoration in the pub toilets).

 

Actually, I get slightly irritated when people identify Plan 9 as the worst film ever made.  It’s badly written and technically inept to a comical degree, I admit, but I think Ed Wood deserves kudos for at least investing it with a crazed enthusiasm.  He was a desperately bad filmmaker but he shouldn’t be condemned for being ambitious – the problem was that the realisation of his ambitions fell far short of what’d been in his imagination.  Tim Burton clearly recognises and sympathises with Wood’s creative yearnings because, near the end of 1994’s Ed Wood, he inserts a hypothetical scene where Wood, pissed off at his financiers’ meddling in the making of Plan 9, bumps into and chats with Orson Welles, who’s equally pissed off at Universal’s meddling in the making of Touch of Evil.  (“They want Charlton Heston to play a Mexican!”)

 

Plan 9 even contains a speech, delivered by an alien, which denounces humanity’s obsession with building bigger and evermore-terrible weapons of mass destruction.  It’s a noble sentiment but, as usual with Wood, this well-meaning speech becomes nonsensical.  The alien (played by an actor with the eccentric name of Dudley Manlove) starts raving about exploding sunlight-particles that’ll somehow trigger a chain reaction and destroy the universe.  Then he has a hissy fit: “Your stupid minds!  Stupid!  Stupid!”  And yet, in that artless scene, there’s probably more personality than you’d find in the entirety of Michael Bay’s Transformers, Transformers 2, Transformers 3 and Transformers 4.

 

I should say that I’m supported in this opinion by no less a personage than the TV star and movie critic Jonathan Ross.  In his 1993 volume The Incredibly Strange Film Book, Ross writes that he’d far rather watch an enjoyably shonky Ed Wood movie than some ultra-bland, boring mainstream Hollywood effort like 1987’s Three Men and a Baby.

 

Three Men and a Baby, incidentally, was directed by a certain Leonard Nimoy.  Yes, Mr Spock, would you prefer to be remembered for that?

 

(c) Touchstone Pictures