Seriously Sean – ‘The Hill’

 

© Seven Arts Productions / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer   

 

Social media quickly filled with tributes to Sean Connery when the venerable Scottish superstar died on October 31st.  Much, of course, was made of the fact that he’d been the cinema’s first and best James Bond.  However, I found it interesting that many people also talked about the post-Bond movies that Connery made in the 1980s and 1990s.  These were big budget, escapist and sometimes shonky, though lovable, action or fantasy films like The Time Bandits (1981), Highlander (1986), The Name of the Rose (1986), The Untouchables (1987), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), The Hunt for Red October (1990) and The Rock (1996).

 

Which is all fine and good, but I was disappointed that more attention wasn’t paid to what Connery achieved back in the 1960s and 1970s, in between his assignments as Bond, when he clearly had ambitions to be not just a movie star but a serious actor.  He made several movies back then that were critically acclaimed but generally didn’t make much money.  Perhaps it was disillusionment at their lack of success that made Connery later take the easy route and appear in the simpler, cosier fare that people reminisced about after his death.

 

Anyway, by a coincidence, a few weeks before Connery passed on, I’d felt an urge to check out some of those older, more serious movies of his. A few I hadn’t seen before. Others I’d watched at a young age and failed to appreciate at the time, probably because I’d been perplexed by Connery’s failure to breenge onscreen in a Saville Row suit and introduce himself as ‘a shhhort of lishhhensed trouble-shhhoooter’. So now, as a tribute to him, I thought I’d post my thoughts on the Connery films that I’ve recently watched or re-watched.  I’ll start with 1965’s The Hill.

 

Directed by Sidney Lumet, The Hill is a war movie.  But it’s a very different beast from the previous war movie on Connery’s CV, 1962’s star-spangled blockbuster about the D-Day landings The Longest Day, which featured Connery briefly as a comic Irishman called Private Flannagan.  (It had him sporting the unconvincing – I’m being kind here – Irish accent that he’d already trotted out in 1959’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People and would trot out again for his Oscar-winning turn as Malone in The Untouchables).

 

The Hill eschews the action, spectacle and heroism of conventional war movies because its setting is a prison for recalcitrant British soldiers – thieves, spivs, drunkards, deserters and those guilty of insubordination – in the Libyan desert during World War II.  Lumet and his cast and crew actually shot the film on the other side of the Mediterranean, in Almeria and Malaga in southern Spain.

 

Connery plays Joe Roberts, one of five new arrivals at the prison, or ‘glasshouse’ as it’s nicknamed.  Also in this batch of new inmates is young, timid George Stevens (Alfred Lynch), spiv Monty Bartlett (Roy Kinnear), gruff northerner Jock McGrath (Jack Watson) and rebellious West Indian Jacko King (Ossie Davis).  The fivesome find themselves in the custody of the hardnosed Regimental Sergeant Major Bert Wilson (Harry Andrews), who effectively runs the place.  Its Commandant is a rarely-seen and weak-willed figure, of whom Wilson says contemptuously: “The Commandant signs bits of paper.  He’d sign his own death warrant if I gave it to him.”

 

© Seven Arts Productions / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer   

 

The prison staff also include the essentially decent if somewhat effete Staff Sergeant Charlie Harris (Ian Bannon) and the weary but also decent Medical Officer (Michael Redgrave).  Unfortunately, any goodness projected by those two officers is cancelled out by the viciousness of another staff sergeant, Williams (Ian Hendry).  Williams has recently been posted to the prison and sees it as a potential step up the promotional ladder.  He intends to make this ascent by impressing Wilson and treating his charges as brutally as possible.  “Don’t talk back, you different-coloured bastard!” he screams at King.

 

And that’s basically it.  The film is an ensemble piece with nine characters, five prisoners and four staff, stuck in the sweltering confines of the prison.  “We’re all doing time,” Roberts observes of the situation.  “Even the screws.”  We can believe this when we see how Wilson and Williams spend their evening hours, which is by getting as joylessly, pointlessly and paralytically drunk as possible.

 

However, there’s a tenth character too. This is the titular hill, a fearsome, steep-sided mass of sand that’s been assembled in the prison’s yard as a punishment for inmates who chaff against Wilson and Williams’ regime.

 

Williams instinctively homes in on the new arrivals and takes a particular dislike to Roberts, perhaps because of the offence that landed him here – Roberts punched an officer who’d condemned his men to death by ordering them to carry out a suicidal attack.  Stevens’ weak temperament also attracts Williams’ ire.  “One of those shy lads, are you, Stevens…?” he demands.  “One of those cads who can’t make up his mind whether he’s a boy or a girl?”  Predictably, Roberts, Stevens and the others are soon being forced to march up and down the hill, endlessly, in the blistering heat.  This has fatal consequences for one of them, which enrages Roberts and sets him on a collision course with Williams and Wilson.  Towards the end, the film’s suspense hinges on whether or not Harris and the Medical Officer will find the courage to intervene before Roberts receives a fatal punishment as well – by this point he’s already been crippled by a beating from Williams and his goons.

 

A situation rather than a story, The Hill is driven not by plot twists but by its performances, which are excellent.  Among the prisoners, Lynch is worryingly vulnerable as the hapless Stevens, while craggy character actor Jack Watson imbues his character McGrath with a fierce but not intransigent stubbornness.  He spends most of the film wanting to keep his head down and get his incarceration over and done with and he’s unimpressed by Roberts’ attempts to stir things up.  “You’re a clever bag of tricks, you are, Roberts,” he rages. “Not inside glasshouse half an hour and you use your bloody influence to get us a ride on the hill.  Oh I bet there’s one Saturday night booze-up your father’s always regretted.”  Yet later, sickened by what’s happening, McGrath gives Roberts his support.

 

The roly-poly Roy Kinnear, better known as a comic actor, plays the least sympathetic of the inmates, the cowardly and self-serving Bartlett.  But he wins our pity at one moment when he collapses while being made to run a strenuous assault course.  “I’m fat!” he cries pathetically.

 

And Ossie Davis, who was a writer and civil rights activist as well as a distinguished actor, is wonderful as Jacko King, the prisoner most immediately sympathetic to Roberts’ cause.  As a West Indian, a citizen of the British Empire and one of His Majesty’s subjects, he’s supposedly on an equal footing with the other soldiers – but of course, because of his skin colour, he isn’t.  He’s exposed to constant racism from both the screws and the other prisoners, though the quick-witted King gives as good as he gets.  When Bartlett has a go at him (“You’ve got it downstairs, mate, but we’ve got it upstairs.  Live up trees, you blokes do.”), King casually and accurately responds by describing Bartlett as ‘white trash’.

 

Later, when things come to a head, he defies Wilson and Williams by tearing off his uniform, renouncing his British citizenship and declaring that they don’t have the jurisdiction to keep him in the prison.  Actually, watching this in 2020, I was reminded of the Windrush scandal, engineered by then-Home Secretary Theresa May, wherein the British government showed elderly and long-term UK citizens of Caribbean descent what it thought of them by stripping them of their citizenship and deporting them without support to the West Indies.

 

© Seven Arts Productions / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer   

 

Among the screws, Ian Bannon and Sir Michael Redgrave give strong performances, but they’re not as memorably forceful as those given by Ian Hendry and Harry Andrews.  Which is as it should be, because what gives The Hill its grimness is the audience’s sense that the bad outweighs the good in the penal system depicted.  Hendry essays an out-and-out bastard whose moral compass was long ago destroyed by his ambition.  It’s a little sad, retrospectively, to note how lean and mean he looks here – for as the 1960s progressed, Hendry’s well-documented alcoholism took its toll and left him increasingly frail and gaunt.  (In 1970, he lost out on the title role of the crime classic Get Carter, which of course went to Michael Caine, because the filmmakers felt he no longer had the physicality for it and cast him as the film’s weaselly villain instead.)

 

But even Hendry is outshone by Harry Andrews as Wilson.  I’ve seen Andrews in countless films playing crusty old buffers or authority figures, but I wasn’t prepared for his performance in this.  Wilson is a ruthlessly hard man, driven by his determination to repair the British Army’s errant and broken soldiers and build them back into fighting men (with tough love obviously), but he’s also intelligent.  He’s aware – as Williams isn’t – that there’s a line that they can’t be seen to cross.  After an inmate dies of exhaustion on the hill and Wilson manages to hush it up, he tells Williams angrily: “We’re not celebrating our glorious victory…  We’re patching up a bloody disaster.”  And when the death triggers a full-scale riot, Wilson defuses it with a masterclass in underhand, calculating diplomacy.  He faces down a whole prison’s worth of inmates with a mixture of threats, bribes, dark charisma and pure bloody-mindedness.

 

As for Connery, it’s impossible not to think of Bond when he first appears.  He had, after all, just played 007 in the previous year’s Goldfinger (1964).  And there’s something Bondian about how he manages to get under his enemies’ skin in The Hill, although this isn’t done with the superspy’s famous insouciance but with Roberts’ righteous perceptiveness.  He senses that Williams, despite his brutal exterior, is a coward and observes that by getting posted to a Libyan prison camp he’s managed to avoid both the front line and the Blitz in London.  Meanwhile, he neatly sums up Wilson when he shouts at him: “Oh, you crazy bastard!  You’d prop up dead men and inspect them if you was ordered to!”

 

But any suggestion of Bond’s alpha maleness in Roberts is gone by the final reel, after Williams has had him beaten to a pulp and he’s confined to a bed.  And the film’s final image, of Roberts crawling piteously across the floor and pleading with a couple of his fellow inmates to stop what they’re doing – what they’re doing, in fact, is snatching defeat from the jaws of a hard-won victory – ends the film on a note of chilling, though tonally appropriate, bleakness.

 

The Hill is a stripped-down cinematic experience.  There’s no background music and it’s shot in black and white, which gives the sand an unsettling bone-like gleam.  But its sparseness isn’t a problem because it’s so engrossing, which is due to the excellence of its cast and the unfussy but confident direction by Sidney Lumet.  It was the first, but thankfully not the last collaboration between Lumet and Connery.  Indeed, their third film together, 1972’s The Offence, would be as memorably gruelling as this one.

 

© Seven Arts Productions / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer   

All the time in the whirled

 

© Warner Bros. Pictures / Syncopy

 

A  few weeks ago Christopher Nolan’s new blockbuster movie Tenet (2020) arrived in Sri Lanka.

 

Tenet must have been welcomed by Sri Lankan cinema owners, because for months after the easing of the country’s strict Covid-19 lockdown they were able to show only a meagre selection of movies.  For example, once the Savoy Cinema in our neighbourhood in Wellawatta had reopened, it was limited to showing the Sri Lankan / Sinhala comedy drama The Newspaper (2020); and Frozen II (2019) from the previous year’s Christmas season; and something called Primal (2019), starring Nicholas Cage as a big game hunter, of which orcasound.com noted: “All you need to know is that the best scenes in the film are those between Cage and a red parrot.  They have the best on screen chemistry of any of the actors.”

 

Yet when my partner and I went to see Tenet a few afternoons ago, we had the cinema almost to ourselves.  Only one other couple was present, and they walked out two-thirds of the way through, presumably for reasons I’ll talk about in a minute.  Admittedly, we’d decided to treat ourselves for this, our first visit to the cinema in absolute ages, and booked seats in the high-end Gold Standard Theatre in the cinema complex above the swanky Colombo City Centre shopping mall.  The Gold Standard Theatre contains only a small number of seats, so that those seats can be as big and comfortable as possible.  But despite the fact that the place was designed for a small audience and despite the high price (by Sri Lankan standards) of the tickets, I’d expected to see a few more folk there.

 

The fact is, for all its spectacle and entertainment value, Tenet is not a movie with obvious mass appeal.  It’s challenging – at times, bloody bewildering.  I can imagine Hollywood bigwigs experiencing an initial burst of excitement that someone had had the balls to deliver a big-budget sci-fi movie part of the way through the Covid-19 pandemic, one that would hopefully encourage the pandemic-cowed public to venture into cinemas again – but then gnashing their teeth when they realised that Christopher Nolan had created something as likely to exhaust the viewers’ braincells as it was to get their adrenalin flowing.  No doubt those afore-mentioned Sri Lankan cinema owners have felt the same emotions recently.

 

Just how mentally taxing is Tenet, then?  Well, you need to keep your wits about you from the start.  There’s a lot going on even in the first few minutes.  An unnamed CIA agent (John David Washington) barely manages to survive a hostage-siege-rescue operation in Ukraine and then finds himself opted into a top-secret organisation called Tenet, which is grappling with the phenomenon of mysterious materials that can travel backwards through time, for example, bullets that shoot back into their guns before you fire them.  These materials are traced to arms-dealing Russian oligarch scumbag Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who seems to have established a link with unseen forces in the future, who for some nefarious reason are sending the stuff back to him in the here-and-now.

 

There follows a series of adventures in India, Britain, Italy, Norway, Estonia and Russia where Washington tries to close in on Branagh, discover what he and his futuristic allies are up to and – when it transpires that they’re up to something very bad indeed – stop them from doing it.  To this end, he has to win the trust of Branagh’s abused and disillusioned wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), and enlist her to his cause.  Also, he encounters several giant whirligig-type devices that can change the orientation by which you’re moving through time, switching you from moving forward through it to moving backwards through it, and vice versa.  And that’s when things start to get truly complicated…

 

I’ll confess that there was a period of 15 or 20 minutes (which coincidentally was when the other people in the cinema threw in the towel and left) when I hadn’t a clue what was going on.  But I kept watching and eventually, towards the movie’s end, I figured the plot out.  Well, I think I figured it out.  Though afterwards, I have to say, I tried not to discuss the intricacies of Tenet too much with my partner, for fear that she’d point out something to me that made me realise I hadn’t understood it at all.

 

Some critics have blamed the film’s sound mixing, claiming that it’s difficult to follow what’s happening because you can’t hear all the dialogue clearly.  But to be honest I don’t think there’s much exposition in the dialogue anyway.  Nolan bravely forces his audience to concentrate on events on the screen and, from those, gradually pick up the gist of things.

 

So that’s the challenging part of Tenet described.  What about the rest of it?  I’m pleased to say that it’s generally really good.  For a start, it looks magnificent, at least on a big screen.  Leave out the time-travelling element and what you have is Christopher Nolan doing his version of a James Bond movie.  Like the average Bond, Tenet features a string of glamorous locations, speeding from one to the other so that you never have time to get bored.  Ensconced on his luxury yacht and simmering with a mixture of 60% pure evilness and 40% teeth-grinding jealousy as 007, sorry, John David Washington, wins the affections of his missus, Branagh is a pure Bond villain – most closely modelled, I’d say, on Emilio Largo in 1965’s Thunderball.

 

© Warner Bros. Pictures / Syncopy

 

Several of the action set-pieces resemble turbo-powered versions of set-pieces from old Bond films too.  The bit where Washington and his accomplice Neil (Robert Pattinson) infiltrate the multi-storey stronghold of an Indian arms dealer put me in mind of the bungee-jumping sequence at the start of 1995’s Goldeneye, although here Washington and Pattinson somehow manage to bungee-jump upwards rather than downwards.  The London section sees a brief but pleasingly nasty fight in a restaurant kitchen that’s reminiscent of the kitchen fight in 1987’s The Living Daylights.  And a vehicle-chase scene has Washington trying to board a hurtling armoured truck by swinging across to it using the ladders on top of a similarly hurtling fire engine, which calls to mind a sequence in 1985’s A View to a Kill.  All right, in the 1985 movie, the person on the ladders was a 57-year-old Roger Moore and the driver of the fire engine was Tanya Roberts from TV’s Charlie’s Angels (1980), so Tenet’s version of this is rather less cheesy.

 

The new official Bond movie No Time to Die – the trailer for which was actually shown in the cinema before Tenet started – will have its work cut out to match the spectacle that Nolan offers here.  Indeed, it’s just been announced that the release of No Time to Die has been pushed back from November 2020 to April 2021, supposedly because of fears about how the pandemic will impact on box office takings.  I can’t help having a sneaking suspicion, though, that after seeing Tenet Bond producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli took fright and decided they needed more time to beef up their movie’s action sequences.

 

Tenet’s cast is also a pleasure.  Washington has received some flak from critics for playing his character as a ‘cypher’, which I can’t understand.  I find him a very personable actor, with as much charisma as his dad, and besides his character does display some humanity, largely in relation to Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat, whom he tries to protect from her oligarch husband even as he reluctantly encourages her to conspire against him.  The elegant Debicki gives a good performance too, one combining vulnerability with resilience.  I particularly like the fact that Nolan cast a tall actress here.  190 centimetres in height, Debicki looms some 15 centimetres above both Washington and Branagh, but this isn’t allowed to be an issue.  (I can think of certain temperamental, short-ass actors of yesteryear who’d probably have refused to work with her.)

 

And Robert Pattinson gives an endearing turn as the bemused, raffish Neil, shaking off memories of how he once had to play a spangly adolescent vampire in the limp Twilight movies (2008-12).  Mind you, at times, it feels like he’s channelling the Eames character played by Tom Hardy in 2010’s Inception, the movie in Nolan’s back catalogue that Tenet most resembles.

 

In conclusion, then, Tenet is an unlikely mixture, simultaneously a blockbuster homage to the James Bond movies and an enigma that’s completely unafraid to baffle its audience.  It’s half Goldfinger (1964) and half ‘go figure’.  I enjoyed both halves, although I’m glad there was plenty of action and spectacle to soothe my eyes even when my brain felt beleaguered.

 

© Warner Bros. Pictures / Syncopy

The real Princess Diana

 

© ITV / ABC / Thames

 

2020 has been a rotten year and I suspect it still has more rottenness in store.  One of the many reasons why I’ve found it so godawful has been because it’s seen the deaths of two actresses who meant a lot to me, firstly because they both had leading roles in James Bond movies and I’m a big James Bond fan, and secondly because they both starred in one of my favourite TV shows, The Avengers (1961-69).  I’m talking, of course, about Honor Blackman, who died in April, and now Diana Rigg, who died last week.

 

I never got to see Diana Rigg perform on stage, where she appeared in plays by Edward Albee, Bertolt Brecht, Anton Chekov, Noel Coward, Henrik Ibsen, Molière, Jean Racine, George Bernard Shaw, Tom Stoppard, Tennessee Williams and, obviously, William Shakespeare.  Nor did I catch her when, after becoming a Dame in the mid-1990s and being recognised as a national treasure, she appeared in prestigious TV productions like Rebecca (1997) or Victoria & Albert (2001), both of which resulted in her winning or being nominated for Emmy Awards.  I was living abroad and didn’t have access to English-language TV at the time.

 

I didn’t even watch her much-praised performance as Olenna Tyrell in the TV show Game of Thrones from 2013 to 2017, since I thought I should first read the George R.R. Martin books on which the show was based – something I’ve yet to get around to doing.

 

Despite what I’ve missed, however, I offer here a collection of Diana Rigg performances that I have seen and remember fondly.

 

Playing Tracy di Vincenzo in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is ostensibly about James Bond (George Lazenby in his one-and-only shot at the role) tangling with his arch-enemy Ernst Stavros Blofeld (Telly Savalas).  However, it also explores Bond’s emotional side and highlights his vulnerability.  Key to this is OHMSS’s sub-plot about the romance between Bond and Contessa Theresa ‘Tracy’ di Vicenzo (Rigg), daughter of the boss of the crime syndicate the Unione Corse of Corsica.  At the film’s end, Blofeld is seemingly vanquished and Bond and Tracy get married.  Then Blofeld makes a sudden reappearance in the final scene, sprays their honeymoon car with bullets, kills Tracy and leaves Bond as a babbling wreck.

 

Fascinatingly, for a film franchise that’s often accused of de-humanising the Ian Fleming novels that inspired it and emphasising big, dumb spectacle at the expense of characterisation, Tracy is a more fleshed-out character in OHMSS-the film than in OHMSS-the-novel.  She’s given more to do and, played by Rigg, has a sparkle that’s missing in the rather aloof, ambiguous character that Fleming sketches.

 

© Eon Productions

 

Particularly memorable is her appearance after Bond escapes from Blofeld’s Alpine headquarters.  Hunted by Blofeld’s henchmen, exhausted, frightened even – something that Lazenby, despite or perhaps because of his acting inexperience, conveys well – he takes refuge in a crowded Christmas market / ice rink in the local town.  Just as he thinks he not going to make it, Rigg comes to his rescue, unexpectedly skating into view in front of him like some heaven-sent angel of mercy.

 

Playing Sonya Winter in The Assassination Bureau (1969)

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service wasn’t the only instance in 1969 of Diana Rigg rubbing shoulders with Telly Savalas.  In Basil Deardon’s black comedy The Assassination Bureau (based on an unfinished Jack London novel), she plays an aspiring female journalist in Edwardian London sent by Savalas’s unscrupulous newspaper proprietor to investigate a secret criminal organisation offering assassins for hire.  Armed with a bagful of money that Savalas has provided, Rigg brazenly hires this Assassination Bureau to assassinate its own chairman, Ivan Dragomiloff, who’s played by Oliver Reed.  Admiring Rigg’s audacity, Reed accepts the commission and, with her in tow, spends the movie zigzagging around Europe dodging the efforts of his own board of directors to kill him.

 

It’s a pleasantly silly film and, admirably, doesn’t waste any time in setting up its convoluted premise and getting into the action.  Rigg is delightful as the uppity Sonya Winter, determinedly doing her job and flying the flag for women’s rights amid a world of starchy, patronising male chauvinists.  Meanwhile, Reed had only just played the brutish Bill Sikes in Oliver! (1968) and at the time was in contention to play James Bond, although his reputation for drunken offscreen hi-jinks put 007 producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman off the idea.  His pairing with Rigg in The Assassination Bureau is no beauty-and-the-beast affair, however.  He dials down the roughness and dials up the charm so that their chemistry together is actually very pleasing.

 

© Paramount Pictures

 

Playing Edwina Lionheart in Theatre of Blood (1973)

Douglas Hickox’s brilliant comedy-horror movie Theatre of Blood has Vincent Price as an insane and hammily over-the-top Shakespearean actor who starts killing the snobbish London theatre critics who’ve bad-mouthed his performances, using murders methods borrowed from the Bard’s plays.  “They’re not going to start killing critics for giving bad notices, are they?” exclaims the campest critic Meredith Merridew, played by Robert Morley, who eventually meets a grisly fate modelled on events in Titus Andronicus.  As the corpses pile up, murdered in ways suggested by Julius Caesar, Troilus and Cressida, Cymbeline, Richard III, Henry VI: Part One and even The Merchant of Venice (Price rewrites it so that he can extract a pound of flesh from Harry Andrews), the youngest and least obnoxious critic, played by Ian Hendry, and the investigating police officers, played by Milo O’Shea and Eric Sykes, turn to Lionheart’s supposedly normal daughter, Edwina (Rigg), for help.

 

Distraught about what her father is doing, yet repulsed by the critics who destroyed his career, Edwina is initially a troubled and conflicted character.  Yet as the film progresses, it transpires that Rigg is having as much fun in her role as the Bard-quoting, soliloquizing Price is in his.

 

Taking the mickey out of herself in The Morecambe and Wise Show (1975), The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and Extras (2006)

Rigg never took herself too seriously.  She teamed up with Britain’s most famous comic double-act Morecambe and Wise for their 1975 Christmas TV special, where she appeared in the inevitable Ernie Wise-penned play.  This featured Rigg as Nell Gwynne, Eric Morecambe as Charles II and Wise as Samuel Pepys.  (“Have you read Ernie’s play?” demands Morecambe.  “Yes, I have,” replies Rigg.  “And you’re still here?”)  Better still is her appearance in The Great Muppet Caper, the second movie starring Jim Henson’s much-loved puppets, in which she plays the snooty fashion designer Lady Holiday, who’s robbed of her jewellery by a gang led by her devious brother (Charles Grodin).  Predictably, Miss Piggy approaches Rigg in the hope of securing a job as a fashion model and insists on showing Rigg her portfolio: “This is me reeking grandeur!”

 

And then there’s a 2006 episode of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s comedy show Extras, which is about a struggling actor (Gervais) trying to make ends meet with bit-parts and uncredited roles in films and on television.  This scenario enables the show’s gimmick of having real, famous actors and actresses play versions of themselves – usually twisted, unpleasant versions.  In this particular episode, Gervais gets a three-day job in a new fantasy film starring the then-17-year-old Daniel Radcliffe and Dame Diana Rigg.  The joke is that Radcliffe is a randy, boorish and clueless teenager.  Whilst eating with him in the studio canteen, Radcliffe tries to convince Gervais that he’s a man of the world by whipping a condom out of his pocket – he’s unravelled it but seems to think he can still put it on – and then accidentally pings it through the air to a nearby table, where it lands on the unamused Rigg’s head.  Radcliffe asks her for his ‘johnny back’ and gets a schoolmistress-ly reply: “May I have my prophylactic back, please?”

 

Later, Radcliffe sidles up to her and inquires, “You still got that catsuit from The Avengers?”  Rigg retorts: “Go away, Daniel.”

 

© BBC / HBO

 

And that brings me nicely to…

 

Playing Emma Peel in The Avengers (1965-67)

By the time Rigg joined The Avengers in the mid-1960s, the show, under the guidance of creator Brian Clemens, had gradually mutated from being a conventional action / thriller show with Patrick Macnee’s John Steed and Ian Hendry’s Dr David Keel as a pair of crime-fighters to being a television phenomenon that did everything on its own terms, both determinedly non-realistic and restlessly inventive.

 

Rigg’s tenure on The Avengers was surely its golden era.  With her Emma Peel character partnering Macnee’s now surreally debonair Steed, and the show being broadcast in colour for the first time, it was a self-confident cocktail of the funny, the silly, the fantastical, the baroque and, occasionally, the gothic and the kinky.  (The kinkiness factor came to the fore in an episode called A Touch of Brimstone, wherein Rigg dons a costume comprising a spiked collar, whalebone corset, black leather boots and a snake.  Funnily enough, this attracted the highest viewing figures of any episode in The Avengers’ eight-year history.)

 

Rigg brought to the show a bemused, unruffled quirkiness that was the equal of Macnee’s majestic imperturbability.  She was also his equal in being proactive, having no qualms about wading into fights to show off her martial arts prowess or hurtling around in a Lotus Elan.  As a villain in one episode remarked, “She’s well and truly emancipated, is that one.”

 

Rigg wasn’t comfortable about the fact, but Emma Peel also became a sex symbol.  She couldn’t well avoid it, being ephemerally gorgeous and clad in a succession of leather catsuits, mini-skirts and mod-inspired outfits that, inevitably, ended up being sold in the ladies’ fashion shops of the real Britain.  Wisely, though, sex was off the agenda in her character’s onscreen relationship with Macnee’s Steed.  The two indulged in a relaxed, platonic flirtatiousness and left it at that.  Macnee did get a kiss from her at the end of her final episode on the show, when she left him with the parting advice: “Always keep your bowler on in times of stress, and watch out for diabolical masterminds.”

 

Appearing at the height of the swinging 1960s, but tongue-in-cheek and light-hearted rather than smug, which is how I find many productions from the time, The Avengers, and especially the Emma Peel-era Avengers, projects a charming and not-taking-itself-seriously notion of Britishness that seems light-years removed from the discredited, embittered, clapped-out Britain of 2020.  The death of Diana Rigg, who’d been one of the last links with the show, just seems to emphasise that it’s now all in the past.

 

© ITV / ABC / Thames

Britain’s number-one pub argument answered

 

© Eon Productions

 

A news story printed last week raised a few eyebrows.  It even raised some ultra-stiff, Roger Moore-style eyebrows.  It transpired that the Radio Times magazine had just announced the results of a poll in which its readers were asked to identify the best actor to have played James Bond.

 

While the overall winner of the poll was hardly a surprise, many people were shocked at who ended up in second place – and indeed, at who didn’t manage to get into the top three.  Thus, this seems an opportune time to update and re-post the following meditation, first published on this blog in June 2016, on how I’d rank the six cinematic James Bonds.

 

Sean Connery.

 

There.  That’s conclusively settled the argument that flares up regularly in pubs the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, especially after the participants have sunk a few pints.  (Well, it flares up in pubs whenever they’re allowed to open during the current Covid-19 pandemic.)  It’s Sean Connery.

 

The argument, of course, centres on the question, “Who is the best James Bond?

 

Actually, I’ll go further and offer a ranking of all the actors who’ve played James Bond over the years, from best to worst.  I’ve limited my ranking to the Bonds of the official franchise made by Eon Films, by the way.  I’ve made no mention of Bond actors from ‘rogue’ productions such as Barry Nelson, who played 007 in a 1954 adaptation of Casino Royale for the CBS TV anthology show Climax!, or David Niven, who played him in another adaptation of Casino Royale, the dire, zany, swinging-sixties comedy released by Columbia Pictures in 1967.  Or for that matter, God help us, the endearingly naff TV quiz-show host Bob Holness, who played Bond in a 1956 South African radio adaptation of the third Bond novel Moonraker (1955).

 

So in descending order, we have:

 

  1. Sean Connery
  2. Timothy Dalton
  3. Daniel Craig
  4. Pierce Brosnan
  5. George Lazenby
  6. Roger Moore

 

To be honest, in my opinion, anyone who doesn’t think that Connery is the best Bond needs his or her head examined.  He swaggered in at the start of the film series, dark and Byronic but equipped with that inimitable Scottish burr, and made the role his own.  He invested Bond with a ruthless but suave lethalness, a threatening but graceful physicality, a cruel but entertaining laconicism.  In fact, 58 years ago, Connery was such a revelation in the role that even Bond’s literary creator Ian Fleming, still alive and still writing at the time, was sufficiently inspired to put a bit of the brooding ex-Edinburgh-milkman into his spy-hero.  No doubt Fleming had Connery in mind when he ended his final Bond novel The Man with the Golden Gun, published posthumously in 1965, with Bond turning down the offer of a knighthood.  “I am a Scottish peasant,” he retorts, “and will always feel at home being a Scottish peasant.”

 

It has to be said that at the turn of the century when Connery himself was offered a knighthood, he displayed none of Bond’s reluctance.  He took it and promptly became Sir Sean.  (Or Shirrr Sean.)

 

© Eon Productions

 

Yet having just said that Connery is the best Bond, I must confess that he isn’t quite my favourite Bond.  That accolade goes to number two on my list, the Welsh actor Timothy Dalton, who played him in the movies The Living Daylights (1987) and Licenced to Kill (1989).  Mainly this is because I’d read most of Ian Fleming’s novels at an early age, before I saw any of the films; and Dalton struck me as the actor who came closest to portraying Bond in the way Fleming had imagined him and the way I’d first imagined him from the books.  (While researching the role, Dalton read the original literary canon, so this was to be expected.)  His was an edgier and more troubled 007.  It’s fitting that The Living Daylights begins by using the plot of the Fleming short story of the same name, which has Bond refusing to kill an enemy sniper – a woman – and declaring bitterly that the secret service can sack him for all he cares.

 

Alas, Dalton didn’t capture the imagination of the public, who still seemed in thrall to the jokey tone of the previous Bond movies of the 1970s and early 1980s.  He wasn’t helped either by Britain’s fickle film critics.  They’d spent years moaning that the Bond films had become ‘too silly’.  But as soon as someone tried to toughen up the films, they started moaning that the series had lost its lovable silliness.

 

Ironically, Daniel Craig has approached the role in a similar way – a minimum of silliness, a maximum of seriousness – and won much acclaim in recent years.  Today’s world just happened to more ready for Craig’s approach.  It was less ready when Dalton did the same thing 30-odd years ago.  Anyway, I’d put Craig third in my list of Bonds, while fourth place goes to that genial Irishman Pierce Brosnan.  I like Brosnan as an actor and at his best he brought a believable toughness to the role; but overall his version of Bond was a bit too bland for my tastes.   He also was unlucky with the quality of some of his films.  His swansong in the role, 2002’s Die Another Day, is a particular stinker.

 

© Eon Productions

 

Fifth, and second from the bottom, is Australian George Lazenby, who definitely wasn’t much cop as an actor.  Ironically, his single Bond movie, 1968’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, is perhaps the best one of the lot.  It’s arguable that because it’s very different from the usual entries in the series – wistful in tone and tragic in its ending – the awkward and uncertain Lazenby actually fits the bill nicely.  Here Bond appears vulnerable and wounded and Lazenby is believable in terms of what the character has to go through.  I couldn’t imagine ‘Big Sean’ breenging through the movie in his usual insouciant manner and having the same emotional impact.

 

And in last place…  Well, I’ll say one thing for the late Sir Roger Moore, which is that his Bond movies were massively popular in their day.  (In fact, I’ll say two things – offscreen, he was clearly a good guy.  He did masses of work as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF on behalf of the United Nations Children’s Fund.  He was also involved in the campaign by PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, against the gruesome processes used in the making of foie gras and he helped to persuade the department store Selfridges to stop stocking the stuff.)

 

During his reign as 007 the franchise flourished and made millions.  So even if I didn’t think much of old Roger as James Bond, or of most of the Bond films in which he appeared, vast numbers of other people evidently did.

 

© Eon Productions

 

The above-mentioned Radio Times poll saw Sean Connery secure first place in the battle of the Bonds.  Surprisingly but gratifyingly, Timothy Dalton finished in second place, while Pierce Brosnan finished in third.  (I’d ranked Daniel Craig third, but I shan’t begrudge Brosnan his success.)  So that’s Connery, Dalton and Brosnan: a Scotsman, a Welshman and an Irishman.  For the Radio Times’ readers, the Celtic Bonds are evidently the best ones.

Cinematic heroes 1: Jon Finch

 

© Goodtimes Enterprises / Anglo-EMI Film Distributors

 

The film and TV actor Jon Finch died seven-and-a-half years ago.  At the time of his passing, late on in 2012, he hadn’t worked for several years and had lived quietly in the English town of Hastings and his death had apparently gone undiscovered for some time.  Word of his funeral wasn’t announced until January 2013.  For that reason, obituaries for him in the British media were intermittent and patchy.  I decided to pen a few words of tribute on this blog and the resulting post seemed to rank high on Google searches about Finch – as I’d said, obituaries for him were intermittent and patchy.  Gratifyingly, a number of people who’d known Finch over the years came across my post and left comments on it.  In fact it was one of this blog’s most commented-on entries.  (And I’m kicking myself that, because this blog had to recently get a post-hacking reboot, those comments from Finch’s friends have now been lost.)

 

Anyway, I thought I’d revisit, rewrite and update what I originally wrote about Finch in 2013 and repost it.  Annoyingly, though, I still haven’t managed to see 1973’s The Final Programme

 

Jon Finch began his career in television, went into films and ended up back in television.  For a couple of years in the early 1970s, while he was doing film-work, he had the opportunity to become massive, but that didn’t happen.  Finch, who valued his privacy and had a low opinion of the celebrity circus, may well have preferred it that way.

 

He began acting on television in 1964, appearing in ITV’s notoriously dire soap opera Crossroads.  In 1970, like many a British TV actor at the time, he got his break in movies thanks to Hammer Films – who were always looking for cheap acting talent to appear in their low-budget but cheerfully sensationalist horror movies.  He duly provided vampire-hunting support to Peter Cushing in Roy Ward Baker’s okay The Vampire Lovers and appeared in Jimmy Sangster’s dreadful Horror of Frankenstein.  Then Roman Polanski hired him to play the title role in his version of Macbeth, released in 1971, and suddenly Finch’s career trajectory had become exponentially steep.

 

Polanski’s take on Shakespeare’s Scottish play was bloody, dark and bleak – everything that a good production of Macbeth should be, in my opinion.  In this film, what works in favour of Finch as Macbeth, and of his co-star Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth, is the fact that they’re both so young.  The audience therefore feels they have little power over their destiny.  Rather, they’re swept to their tragic ends by dark forces both political and supernatural.

 

Polanski’s Macbeth got an unsympathetic appraisal from many critics, who couldn’t see beyond the film’s high level of violence and who linked it with what Polanski had gone through in August 1969 – when his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and four others were slaughtered at his house in Beverly Hills by acolytes of hippie-cult nutcase Charles Manson.  New Yorker critic Pauline Kael even wondered if Polanski’s staging of the murder of Macduff’s family was an attempt to recreate the carnage that Manson had orchestrated.  In fact, the film’s screenwriter, celebrated theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, is reputed to have challenged Polanski about the amount of blood displayed in this scene, to which the director retorted, “You should have seen my house last summer.”

 

From Roman Polanski, Finch moved on to Alfred Hitchcock and landed the lead role in 1972’s Frenzy.  Although Frenzy hardly represents Hitchcock at the peak of his artistry, it’s by far and away the best of the director’s last clutch of films, which include Torn Curtain (1966), Topaz (1969) and Family Plot (1976).  It also shows Hitchcock at his most disturbing.  The murder sequence involving Barbara Leigh-Hunt, who plays Finch’s ex-wife, is the most brutal thing he ever did, and the potato-truck ride (where serial strangler Barry Foster tries to retrieve an incriminating piece of evidence from a corpse he’d concealed earlier inside a huge sack of potatoes) is gruelling too.

 

Playing an innocent man accused of and hunted down for Foster’s murders, Finch bravely refrains from making his character sympathetic.  Indeed, he’s something of a shit and has a violent streak, and for a period at the start of the film we think he really is the strangler.   By the time it becomes clear that Foster is actually the culprit, Hitchcock – a master manipulator of his audience’s emotions – has presented him as a chirpy, likeable chap.  Thus, we find ourselves siding more with him than we do with Finch.

 

© Universal Pictures

 

Having worked with two of the world’s greatest directors, Finch seemed destined for international fame and indeed he was soon offered the chance to replace Sean Connery in the James Bond series.  Finch, however, declined and the role went instead to the somewhat less invigorating Roger Moore.  Around this time he also turned down the role of Aramis in Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973) which, tantalisingly, would have seen him acting alongside another actor with a low opinion of movie stars and movie stardom, Oliver Reed.

 

In fact, in 1973, Finch did play a vaguely James Bond-like character when he took the role of Jerry Cornelius in Robert Fuest’s The Final Programme, which was based on the first of the four Cornelius novels written by Michael Moorcock, set in a surreal, 1960s-esque and science-fiction-tinged world where the fabric of reality is beginning to fray.  I’ve never seen The Final Programme, though from all accounts Fuest did a pretty cack-handed job of it.  In stills, though, Finch at least looks the part of Moorcock’s enigmatic hipster-cum-secret-agent hero.  Moorcock himself disapproved of the film adaptation, although he liked Finch’s performance and paid tribute to him on his website / discussion forum Moorcock’s Miscellany when he heard of his passing: “I was very fond of Jon and was sorry we lost touch…  He was genuinely modest.”

 

Towards the end of the 1970s, Ridley Scott lined Finch up to appear in his ground-breaking sci-fi horror film Alien.  Finch was supposed to play Kane, a character who doesn’t last long in the movie’s script but is certainly pivotal to it.  He’s the unfortunate crewmember who goes exploring the mysterious crashed spaceship and ends up with an alien egg inside his chest.  Two days into filming, however, Finch became too ill to work – either from bronchitis or from complications caused by his recently-diagnosed diabetes, depending on which story you believe – and was replaced by John Hurt.  Thus, he missed appearing in the infamous ‘canteen’ scene where Kane expires and the alien makes its first appearance, one of the most (literally) explosive scenes in horror-movie history.

 

From there on, it was through his television work that Finch remained in the public consciousness.  In the late 1970s, he appeared in the BBC Television Shakespeare, a series of adaptations of all the Bard’s plays.  Though they were criticised for their staginess and the generally conservative manner in which they were brought to the screen, the adaptations certainly couldn’t be faulted for the top-notch acting they contained.  In Richard II (1978), Finch played Henry Bolingbroke to Derek Jacobi’s Richard and John Gielgud’s John of Gaunt.  With Bolingbroke elevated to monarch, he then played the title role in the sequels Henry IV Part One and Part Two (1979), with Anthony Quayle as a jovial, red-cheeked Falstaff and David Gwillim as Henry’s offspring, Prince Hal.  (In reality, Gwillim was only six years younger than Finch.)

 

Still picky about his roles, he passed on the opportunity to play Doyle in Brian Clements’ hugely popular espionage / action series The Professionals (1978-81).  Ironically, the role eventually went to Martin Shaw, who’d played Banquo to Finch’s Macbeth.  On the other hand, out of loyalty to Hammer, he starred in the first episode of the studio’s 1980 anthology series The Hammer House of Horror, in which he played a modern-day composer haunted by a witch who’s popped forward through time from the 17th century (a role performed with memorable relish by Patricia Quinn).  And for a quarter century he gave guest turns in popular shows like The New Avengers, The Bill, Maigret, New Tricks and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

 

Frustratingly, Finch’s role in a 1994 episode of Sherlock Holmes, a combined adaptation of two of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone and The Adventure of the Three Garridebs, didn’t see him appear alongside Jeremy Brett, the actor widely regarded as the screen’s best-ever Holmes – Brett had to be written out of most of the episode due to health problems.  However, as a villain, Finch did get to face up to the almost-as-good Charles Gray, playing Sherlock’s brother Mycroft.

 

Finch’s final appearance was a film one, in Ridley Scott’s 2005 crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven, so at least he got to work with that director nearly three decades after his gig in Alien fell through.  Thereafter, he kept a low profile in Hastings, in declining health but seen now and again in some of the local public bars.  I wonder if the regulars in those Hastings pubs were aware that old ‘Finchy’, as he was known, had once headlined films directed by Hitchcock and Polanski and had come within a whisker of being 007.

 

© Playboy Productions / Columbia Productions