Deathlog 2017 – Part 2

 

© Paramount Classics

 

American Renaissance man Sam Shepard died on July 27th.  As a playwright he was responsible for Buried Child (1978), True West (1980), Fool for Love (1983), A Lie of the Mind (1985) and others; he acted in movies as varied as Days of Heaven (1978), The Right Stuff (1983), Black Hawk Down (2001) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007); he authored two novels and directed two films; and his screenwriting credits included Zabriskie Point (1970), Renaldo and Clara (1978) and of course Paris, Texas (1984), a movie I can’t think of now without hearing Ry Cooder’s elegiac slide-guitar score in my head.

 

Other casualties of July 2017 included the masterly horror-movie auteur George A. Romero, who died on July 16th; Welsh actor Hywel Bennett, one-time boyish-faced star of movies like The Family Way (1966), Twisted Nerve (1968) and Loot (1970), who died on July 25th; and Chester Bennington, singer with popular nu-metal band Linkin Park, who died on July 20th – I had little time for nu-metal music generally, but I thought Linkin Park were among the sub-genre’s least offensive practitioners.  Meanwhile, departing on July 15th was distinguished movie and TV actor Martin Landau, who first gained attention as a villain in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest back in 1959.  I’ll always remember Landau for playing Commander Koenig in the TV sci-fi show Space 1999 (1975-77) and playing a washed-up, drug-addled Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s delightful Ed Wood (1994).

 

© Toho

 

Where to start in August 2017?  Old Western movie-star Ty Hardin died on August 3rd, as did hard-working British TV and film actor Robert Hardy, who was still going strong in his eighties thanks to the Harry Potter franchise.  August 7th saw the passing of Japanese actor and stuntman Haruo Nakajima, who filled a rubber suit to play Godzilla in many a giant-monster movie for Japan’s Toho Company in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  Having played Godzilla in 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, Nakajima changed sides, donned an ape-suit and played King Kong in 1967’s King Kong Escapes.  Passing one day later was American country-and-western singer Glen Campbell, whom I’ll remember best for one of his occasional acting roles – as La Boeuf, the Texas Ranger who joins forces with Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) and Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 western True Grit.  The last day of August saw the demise of American TV actor Richard Anderson, fondly remembered by 1970s youngsters as Oscar Goldman in The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-78).

 

Another horror-movie auteur, Tobe Hooper – of Texas Chainsaw Massacre infamy – passed away on August 26th.  The great English science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss died on August 19th; while Gordon Williams, Scottish author of The Siege of Trencher’s Farm (1969), the basis for Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film Straw Dogs, died on August 20th.  And legendary Hollywood funny-man Jerry Lewis left us on August 20th.  To be honest, I found his comedy movies about as amusing as toothache, but I can’t deny an older Lewis was excellent as the cynical comedian / chat-show host Jerry Langford in Martin Scorsese’s twisted showbiz satire The King of Comedy (1982).

 

Bruce Forsyth, English TV gameshow host, entertainer and comedian – and supposedly the last person working on British television who’d first appeared on it prior to World War II – died on August 18th.  I found Forsyth’s all-singing, all-dancing, all-joking showbiz schtick hard to take, but I liked him for the guest appearance he made on The Muppet Show in 1976, when he helped Fozzie Bear stand up to those wizened, mean-spirited hecklers Statler and Waldorf.  That was definitely Bruce’s finest hour.

 

© ITC Entertainment

 

Len Wein, the great comic-book writer whose many achievements included creating the squishy half-man, half-plant Swamp Thing with the late Bernie Wrightson back in 1971, died on September 9th.  The following day saw the death of Irish-American author J.P. Donleavy.  I loved Donleavy’s 1955 novel The Ginger Man as a teenager, though I wonder if I would find it a bit juvenile if I read it again today.  Grant Hart, who manned the drumkit for the brilliant 1980s alterative-punk band Hüsker Dü, died on September 14th, and one day later yet another Twin Peaks (and Paris, Texas) alumni, the marvellous American character actor Harry Dean Stanton, passed away.  Another American actor, Bernie Casey, died on September 19th.  Casey’s roles included that of Felix Leiter in the ‘rogue’ Sean Connery / James Bond movie Never Say Never Again (1982), which made him the cinema’s first black Felix Leiter a quarter-century before Jeffrey Wright landed the part in the Daniel Craig Bond films.

 

Boxer Jake LaMotta, whose chequered career formed the basis for the classic Martin Scorsese / Robert De Niro collaboration Raging Bull (1980), died on September 20th.  A week later saw the death of Hugh Hefner, millionaire founder of Playboy magazine.  With his playmate-filled mansion and penchant for pyjamas, pipes and ship’s-captain hats, Hefner struck me as a sleazy and infantile old letch.  But I can’t belittle his literary taste – in between the nudie pictures, Playboy published work by Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Ian Fleming, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Joseph Heller, Shirley Jackson, Ursula Le Guin, Norman Mailer, Haruki Murakami, Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut and many more.

 

September 25th marked the death of English actor Tony Booth, best-known as a cast-member in the controversial but influential BBC sitcom Till Death Us Do Part (1965-75) and for being the real-life father of Cherie Booth, i.e. Mrs Tony Blair.  Here’s a fascinating fact: Booth claimed his great-great-great-uncle’s son was John Wilkes Booth, who was both an actor and the assassin of Abraham Lincoln.  I wonder if the staunchly socialist Booth felt tempted to emulate his ancestor once his son-in-law had been in office for a few years and shown his true colours.

 

The music world suffered another blow on October 3rd with the death of the agreeable American musician, singer and songwriter Tom Petty, while the comedy world said goodbye to the ground-breaking Irish comedian Sean Hughes on October 16th.  The same day saw the passing of venerable Guernsey actor Roy Dotrice, whose career stretched from The Heroes of Telemark (1965) to Hellboy II (2008), via 1984’s Amadeus where he played the title character’s father.  Like many a veteran British character actor, Doctrice got a late-career boost when he was cast in Game of Thrones (2011-present).  Other actors to die in October included Robert Guillaume – wonderful as Benson, droll butler to the chaotic Tate family in the American TV comedy Soap (1977-81) – and on October 9th the distinguished French actor Jean Rochefort.  Ironically, Rochefort may be best-known to English-speaking audiences for a role he didn’t play.  He was lined up to be Don Quixote in Terry Gilliam’s monumentally ill-fated and eventually-cancelled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.  In anticipation, Rochefort even learned to speak English.  The 2002 documentary Lost in La Manca tells the story of this epic that never happened.

 

From goseelivemusic.co

 

October 22nd saw the death of Daisy Berkowitz, one-time guitarist to Goth-metaller / shock-rocker Marilyn Manson, and on October 19th the Italian movie director Umberto Lenzi passed away.  Lenzi was prolific in several genres, but I’ll remember him chiefly for his 1974 thriller Spasmo, an elegant if not terribly sensible example of the Italian giallo genre.

 

November brought a rash of music-related deaths – Chuck Mosely, the 1980s frontman for the great American alternative / funk-metal band Faith No More, on November 9th; Michael Davis (nicknamed ‘Dik Mik’), who in the 1970s operated the appropriately futuristic-sounding ‘audio-generator’ for the legendary ‘space-rock’ band Hawkwind, on November 16th; and Australian-born TV composer Dudley Simpson, who died on November 4th.   Simpson’s career-highlights include the incidental music for Doctor Who during its creepiest phase in the 1970s and the unsettling and pulsating theme tune for The Tomorrow People (1973-79).  Saddest of all for me, however, was the passing on November 18th of Australian guitarist Malcolm Young, co-founder of AC / DC and mastermind behind that band’s mightiest guitar riffs.

 

November was also a bad month for British TV sitcom actors, witnessing the deaths of Keith Barron on November 15th and Rodney Bewes on November 21st.  In between television work, both men appeared occasionally in films – I particularly remember Barron in 1974’s movie adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot and Bewes (playing James Mason’s son) in the 1970 adaptation of Bill Naughton’s Spring and Port Wine.  Meanwhile, actor John Hillerman died on November 9th.  Hillerman played Higgins, the snotty English concierge of Tom Selleck’s building in Magnum P.I. (1980-88).  So convincing was he in the role that following his death I was surprised to learn he’d actually hailed from Texas.

 

© Universal Television

 

Finally, German actress Karin Dor died on November 9th.  In 1967’s You Only Live Twice, the villainous Dor tried unsuccessfully to kill Sean Connery’s James Bond by trapping him in a plummeting airplane.  Then her boss Ernst Stavros Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) punished her for her failure by dropping her through a trapdoor into a pool of hungry piranha fish – and lo, a cinematic cliché was born.

 

On December 6th, France mourned the death of its very own Elvis Presley, the Gallic rock-and-roller Johnny Hallyday.  I’m unfamiliar with Hallyday’s music, but fondly remember his acting performance in the 2002 movie L’Homme du Train.  In this, he starred alongside Jean Rochefort, who’d died just two months previously.  Indeed, the film’s ending, where both men die simultaneously and wind up standing together in ghost form on an ethereal railway platform, seems sadly and eerily prophetic now.  Five days later saw the death of English entertainer Keith Chegwin, whose relentlessly cheery presence was a staple of British children’s TV during the 1970s and 1980s, especially in Swap Shop (1976-82) and Cheggers Plays Pop (1978-86).  Later, self-deprecatingly and post-modernly, Chegwin played himself in Ricky Gervais’s TV comedy Life’s Too Short (2011-13) and the movie Kill Keith (2011); but I liked him best for his appearance, at the age of 14, as Fleance in Roman Polanski’s ultra-violent version of Macbeth (1971).

 

Bob Givens, the veteran American animator who designed the world’s coolest cartoon rabbit, Bugs Bunny, died on December 14th; while Christmas Eve saw the death of American actress Heather Menzies.  She was best-known for playing one of the Von Trapp children in wholesome musical blockbuster The Sound of Music (1965) but I preferred her for playing the heroine of a less wholesome movie, the Joe Dante-directed / John Sayles-scripted Piranha (1978).  Following her death, Dante called her a“lovely person who was immensely helpful and supportive as the star of Piranha, my first solo directing job.”

 

Finally, December 2017 saw the departures of two men who, in different ways, were excellent ambassadors for the world of science.  Heinz Wolff, the German-born scientist who appeared on British TV shows like Young Scientist of the Year (1966-81) and The Great Egg Race (1979-86) and who, with his bald, domed head and bowtie, looked splendidly like how you’d imagine a scientist to look, died on December 15th.  Meanwhile, space-shuttle astronaut Bruce McCandless, who in 1984 became the first human being to make an untethered flight in space, died on December 21st.  It seems dishearteningly symbolic that their deaths came at the end of a year when the most powerful man on earth was a nincompoop who didn’t just seem ignorant of science, but actively seemed to despise it.

 

From theinquirer.net

© NASA

 

TV comic genius 6: Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?

 

© BBC

 

I’ve always wanted to write about the BBC TV sitcom Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads (1973-74) but never got around to it.  However, after the death the other day of Likely Lads star Rodney Bewes, this seemed an appropriate moment to sit down at my computer and ruminate about the show.

 

The work of the excellent screenwriting partnership Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads was not only one of the funniest things broadcast by the BBC during the 1970s, but also one of the most wistful and socially observant.  It was a rarity too in that it was a sequel that was better than the original – for there’d been a previous incarnation of the show, simply entitled The Likely Lads, which ran for twenty episodes and three series from 1964 to 1966.  (Thanks to some idiotic wiping of tapes done in the BBC’s archives, twelve of those twenty episodes have been lost.  But the surviving eight can now be watched on Youtube.)

 

© BBC

 

Filmed in black and white and mostly on studio sets, the original 1960s Likely Lads looks primitive by today’s standards but remains amusing and interesting.  Its first episode begins with two working-class lads from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Bob Ferris (Bewes) and Terry Collier (James Bolam) returning from a holiday in Spain that’s been their first-ever taste of life abroad.  Bob is rhapsodising about the wine, cuisine, stylish clothes and – being a horny lad in his early 20s – exotic ladies he’s encountered.  Terry, though, has spent the holiday guzzling English beer and fish and chips and pursuing ‘English birds’ at the resort.  (He struck it lucky with one ‘Rita from Barrow-on-Furness’.)  Indeed, the first five minutes of the original Likely Lads set the tone of everything that follows.  Both Bob and Terry are working class, but Bob yearns for something more sophisticated than the factory (Ellison’s Electrical) that employs them and the pubs and dancehalls that constitute their social life.  The unreconstructed Terry has no such ambition.  He enjoys life as it is, thank you very much.  Somehow, you get the impression that Terry is going to be the happier one in the long term.

 

By the end of the Likely Lads’ third series, in 1966, Bob is so frustrated with his life in Newcastle that he joins the army, hoping to see more of the world (and, no doubt, to hook up with a few more exotic foreign ladies).  Terry pours scorn on his decision but soon realises he can’t face life at home without his old mate and he enlists too.  In the show’s last minutes, Terry discovers that Bob has just been discharged on account of having flat feet, which means he’ll have to spend the next few years in uniform alone.  It ends with a shot of Terry being whisked off into the distance in the back of an army truck while Bob watches apologetically.  And that’s it until 1973 and the advent of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads.

 

Whatever… begins with Terry finally out of the army and back in Newcastle, where Bob is about to get married to his long-term girlfriend, Thelma.  A character even more socially driven than Bob, Thelma is excellently played by Brigit Forsythe – she portrays her as a hard taskmaster, yes, but not an unlikeable shrew and even gives her a certain sassiness.  Bob has also left the factory and gone on to a better job in a building firm and he’s about to start living in a new, upmarket housing estate where, snorts Terry, “the only thing that tells you apart from your neighbours is the colour of your curtains.”

 

Thus, Bob – now sporting collar-length hair, a kipper tie and a big-lapelled pinstripe suit and looking worryingly like Laurence and Tony in Mike Leigh’s 1977 TV adaptation of Abigail’s Party – seems to have finally achieved his dream.  He’s gone up in the world.

 

© BBC

 

I’ve seen modern-day commentators describe Bob as a symbol of Thatcherism, but that theory doesn’t hold water because Whatever… aired years before Margaret Thatcher came to power.  Rather, Bob has simply been able to take advantage of the social mobility that was accessible to some working-class people at that time.  How long ago that seems now.

 

Predictably, what follows is a comedy of manners as Terry, more boorishly set-in-his-ways than ever, goes crashing about the comfortable middle-class world that Bob and Thelma are trying to build for themselves.  The night before Bob and Thelma’s wedding, for example, Terry’s antics inadvertently land him and his old mate in a police cell.  But things are more complex than that.  Despite Bob’s constant carping about Terry’s old-school attitudes and lack of finesse, he’s obviously not that happy with his new, improved situation.  He often finds middle-class life suffocating and envies Terry’s devil-may-care freedom.  And he doesn’t put up much of a fight whenever Terry tempts him to let his hair down for old times’ sake.

 

Whatever… is also imbued with poignant nostalgia.  By now Bob and Terry are in their thirties, and not only is their youth slipping away – as the world changes, so too are the things and places associated with their youth.  This inspires episodes like Storm in a Tea Chest, where the space-conscious Thelma forces Bob to chuck out all his prized childhood possessions like his scout cap and Rupert the Bear annuals, or The Great Race, where Bob and Terry try to re-enact a boyhood bicycle race from Newcastle to Berwick-on-Tweed near the Scottish Border.  (Both of them end up cheating like hell.)

 

© BBC

 

The show feels special too because it’s set in Newcastle.  Unlike most BBC sitcoms of the 1970s, it doesn’t take place in London or the Home Counties and isn’t full of characters rattling away in posh Received Pronunciation or watered-down TV-Cockney accents.  That said, while Newcastle is visually prominent in the show – which features some location filming, unlikely the studio-bound 1964-66 Likely Lads – it’s not exactly aurally prominent.  Most of the characters don’t speak with genuine Newcastle accents, but with rather generic ‘north-of-England’ ones.  This suggests 1970s British TV executives feared their viewing public weren’t ready to hear the Geordie accent in all its full-on, Viz-comic-style glory.  At least Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais rectified the situation later with their much-loved show Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (1983-84 and 2002-4).

 

Incidentally, Bewes was from the West Riding of Yorkshire, while Bolam was born in Sunderland.  And as any Makem will tell you, Sunderland might be close to Newcastle, but they definitely aren’t the same place.

 

In 1976, two years after Whatever… ended on television, a movie version was released.  The film is a hit-and-miss affair, although by the standards of cinematic spinoffs from British TV sitcoms, which are usually terrible, it’s not bad.  One memorable sequence sees Bob and Terry go for a final pint in their favourite boozer before it gets torn down by the developers.  The whole neighbourhood around it is being flattened too and they have to trudge across a near-apocalyptic wasteland to get to the pub.  The movie also contains the great lines: “In the chocolate box of life, the top layer’s already gone… And someone’s pinched the orange cream from the bottom”; and “I’d offer you a beer, but I’ve only got six cans.”  Guess which line was said by Bob and which by Terry.

 

© BBC

 

In subsequent decades, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais talked about reviving the series again with Bob and Terry now middle-aged.  They’d even worked out a scenario for a new show whereby Terry, through a lottery-win or a big compensation pay-out, has become stinking rich; whereas poor old Bob has gone bankrupt and is on the breadline.  However, James Bolam was unwilling to play Terry again and the idea never came to fruition.  (Since the 1970s, rumours have abounded about Bolam and Bewes being locked in a bitter feud.  However, in the wake of Bewes’ death, Bolam has denied that this was ever the case.)

 

Post-Likely Lads, Rodney Bewes concentrated on theatrical work and during the 1990s performed one-man stage versions of George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody (1892) and Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (1889), both of which he brought to the Edinburgh Festival.  In the late 1990s I was living in Edinburgh and during one festival I got into the habit of having lunch in a bar-restaurant downstairs from a venue where Bewes performed every morning.  A couple of times he materialised on a bar-stool a yard or two along the counter from me, where he’d sign autographs for and chat to people who’d just been to his show.  I couldn’t believe the number of people who asked him how Terry and Thelma were getting on – who seemingly didn’t grasp that this was Rodney Bewes, not Bob Ferris, sitting in front of them.

 

Then again, The Likely Lads and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads addressed themes that are significant for all of us: the frustrations of trying and failing to have fun when you’re young and, when you’re older, the frustrations of feeling stuck in a rut while the world changes mercilessly around you.  No wonder some folk confused the onscreen illusion with reality.

 

© BBC