The tragic, magic man

 

© Coronet Books

 

Continuing with the October / Halloween theme, here is a piece I first posted at the beginning of 2020 about a collection of spooky stories by the late, great Charles Beaumont.

 

Last year, while I was back visiting my family in Scotland, I happened to be hoking around in some boxes of books that belonged to me but that’d ended up gathering dust in a corner of my father’s attic.  Inside one of those boxes I discovered a very old paperback called The Magic Man, a collection of mostly fantasy, horror and science-fiction stories by the late American writer Charles Beaumont originally published in 1965.  Dimly, I recalled buying this for 25p, though the cover-price was a pre-decimalization 3/6, in a second-hand bookshop in the Lincolnshire town of Louth.  I worked in Louth for five months in 1983 as a volunteer classroom assistant and houseparent at a residential school for boys with severe behavioral issues – ‘maladjusted’ boys, as they were called in those unsympathetic and non-PC days.

 

I knew Beaumont’s name in 1983 because I’d seen it attached to several movies that’d had a big impact on me while I was growing up, such as The Seven Faces of Dr Lao and Masque of the Red Death (1964).  But after buying the book, I never got around to opening it and it ended up stashed away and unread among the hundreds, eventually thousands of other books I owned.

 

Anyway, 37 years later – this sentence makes me feel absolutely ancient – I’ve finally read the stories in The Magic Man.  The collection kicks off with an introduction by Beaumont’s friend and mentor Ray Bradbury, which while gracious in tone suggests that Bradbury was a hard taskmaster to have as your writing tutor.  He recalls telling the young Beaumont to write and submit one story every week: “He worked, I remember, part time at United Parcel Service, back in the early fifties, so as to spend the rest of his hours finishing that special story that must be sent off in the mail every Saturday.”  Intriguingly, Bradbury also mentions that Beaumont tried, “for years, to convince movie producers to make films out of the Ian Fleming books.”  Obviously, and sadly for Beaumont’s bank balance, someone else managed to convince Cubby Broccoli and Albert Saltzman to make films out of them first.

 

With Bradbury as his guru, it’s no surprise that several stories in The Magic Man bear the imprint of Bradbury’s own fanciful, atmospheric and wistfully nostalgic writing.  The title story, about a stage magician who travels a circuit of small American prairie towns doing magic shows and who doesn’t appreciate the importance that his ‘magic’ holds for the prairie townspeople while they go about their otherwise humdrum existences, has echoes of Bradbury’s 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes.  It also evokes Charles G. Finney’s novel The Circus of Dr Lao, which coincidentally Beaumont adapted for producer George Pal as the movie The Seven Faces of Dr Lao.  Also with a flavour of Bradbury-esque small-town America is The Hunger, although Beaumont’s tale of a lonely, frustrated spinster who feels a strange affinity for an escaped, murderous lunatic pushes the envelope further than the genteel Bradbury would have done.

 

Bradbury’s introduction notes too that Beaumont had a penchant for driving and “burning up the dirt on the nearest racetrack” and a couple of the stories reflect his love for automobiles.  A Classic Affair, about a worried woman asking a friend to follow her husband, whom she believes is in an adulterous relationship, takes a nice twist when the man discovers just what, as opposed to who, the husband is having an affair with, although the twist that follows on from that twist isn’t perhaps so surprising.  Meanwhile, the final story, A Death in the Country, convincingly details the desperate life of an aging and failing dirt-track car racer and is one of the collection’s few non-genre stories.

 

If Perchance to Dream, the story of a man with a heart condition who’s troubled by a recurrent dream where he’s lured onto a literally heart-stopping rollercoaster, sounds familiar, it’s because Beaumont adapted it into an episode of the classic TV show The Twilight Zone (1959-64).  This was one of 22 episodes of that series that he scripted or co-scripted.  (Beaumont clearly had conflicted feelings about writing for cinema and television.  According to the cult New Wave sci-fi / fantasy author Harlan Ellison, Beaumont once told him that: “Attaining success in Hollywood is like climbing a gigantic mountain of cow flop, in order to pick one perfect rose from the summit.  And you find when you’ve made that hideous climb… you’ve lost the sense of smell.”)

 

Another story that ended up as the basis for a TV episode is The New People, which became an instalment in the British anthology series Journey to the Unknown (1968-69), made by horror specialists Hammer Films in conjunction with 20th Century Fox.  Beaumont’s story features an enclave of successful professionals and their families living in a well-to-do American neighbourhood who, like the characters in Richard Yates’ novel Revolution Road (1961), are beneath the surface bored out of their wits with their situation.   But while Yates’ characters try to solve the problem of their ennui by contemplating a move to Paris, Beaumont’s characters decide to enliven things by participating in some dark activities indeed.  In the Journey to the Unknown episode, this sinister community is moved to the affluent Home Counties of England.  With a first-rate cast including Robert Reed, Adrienne Corri, Melissa Stribling, Milo O’Shea and a splendidly saturnine Patrick Allen, it’s fairly effective.  But the episode leaves out an important plot element involving the main characters’ sex lives (or lack of them) that gives the original story a satisfying and, with hindsight, logical twist ending.

 

The Magic Man has a couple of weaker entries, which tend to be science fictional.  The Last Caper suffers because it attempts to graft a Raymond Chandler / Philip Marlowe-type private-detective story onto a space-age setting, with characters speaking a futuristic version of Chandler’s famously hardboiled 1940s patois.  (“Don’t push it, rocket-jockey…”).  This sounds awfully dated now.  Similarly, The Monster Show has its characters speaking like futuristic beatniks and doesn’t fare any better.  (“It’s pictures that count.  Flap?”  “Nothing can go wrong.  Nothing-o.”)  It makes me wonder how dated the hip and cutting-edge, for the time, ‘cyberpunk’ sci-fi novels of the 1980s and 1990s will seem in a few decades’ time, if they don’t seem dated already.

 

That said, The Crooked Man, set in a future where homosexuality is the norm and heterosexuals are a persecuted minority, is a fine example of a science-fiction story that highlights a contemporary injustice by pitching its readers into a world where the tables have been turned.  It was pretty bold of Playboy magazine to publish the story when it did, back in 1955.

 

A little too varied in quality, and with some stories that show their influences a little too much – the 1955 story The Murderers, though enjoyable, pinches the premise of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and the 1929 play by John Hamilton on which it was based – The Magic Man isn’t wholly satisfying.  But it contains a lot of interesting and entertaining fiction and makes one wonder what spectacular things Beaumont might have gone on to write if he hadn’t died at the wastefully young age of 38.  Yes, Charles Beaumont was born, grew up, established himself as a writer and died in almost the same period of time that elapsed between my buying The Magic Man and my reading it.

 

The nature of his passing wasn’t pleasant.  He succumbed to a mystery illness, which his agent Forest J. Ackerman theorized was a combination of Alzheimer’s and Pick’s disease, whereby he suffered from headaches, reduced concentration, slurred speech, erratic behavior, weight loss and premature aging.  At the time of his death, one of Beaumont’s sons recalled, he “looked 95 and was, in fact, 95 by every calendar except the one on your watch.”

 

So, while the main character of the title story here styles himself as the Magic Man, I can’t help but think of the story’s author as the Tragic Man.

 

From twilightzone.fandom.com/wiki

Stop getting Bond wrong! (Part 2)

 

© Eon Productions

 

Continuing my ranking of all the James Bond films from worst to best, here are my candidates for the franchise’s top twelve.  Candidates?  No, they are the top twelve.  Don’t even try to argue with me.

 

12: The Living Daylights (1987)

Lately, The Living Daylights, Timothy Dalton’s debut as Bond, has seemingly been reappraised and now figures highly in some rankings of the franchise.  It was even placed at number 4 in a recent feature in the Independent.  Well, hold on.  It’s good, but not that good.  After 14 years of quips, raised eyebrows and safari suits, Dalton’s more serious Bond is a breath of fresh air.  While preparing for the role, he even read Ian Fleming’s original books, which no doubt helped.  He and love interest Maryam d’Abo make a likeable couple and the film begins strongly, its first act following Fleming’s 1962 short story of the same name.  Later, alas, it gets unnecessarily muddled and the two main villains, despite being played by Jeroen Krabbé and Joe Don Baker, are rather blah, although Andreas Wisniewski is memorable as the lethal hitman / henchman Necros.  The scene where Necros engages in vicious hand-to-hand combat in a kitchen, using various kitchen utensils and appliances, was evoked in last year’s Christopher Nolan epic, Tenet.  I hated Aha’s theme song at the time, but since then it’s grown on me.  (The same can’t be said for Duran Duran’s A View to a Kill.)

 

11: Dr No (1962)

I feel guilty ranking Dr No, the first entry in the series and the film that turned former Edinburgh milkman Sean Connery into a superstar, at only number 11 on this list.  However, when I saw it as a kid I was disappointed and that sense of juvenile disappointment has lingered ever since.  This was because I’d read Ian Fleming’s 1958 novel Dr No beforehand and loved the fact that (1) it had a giant squid in it and (2) Bond killed Dr No at the end by burying him alive in bird-guano.  I was looking forward to seeing these things in the film, but neither appeared – the squid presumably because of budgetary restrictions and the guano presumably because it would have grossed out the audience.  So, if Connery had got to have a scrap with a giant squid and got to drown Dr No (Joseph Wiseman) in bird-shit, I’d have enjoyed the film more and placed it higher.

 

10: Thunderball (1965)

The previous movie in the series, Goldfinger (1964), got the emerging Bond formula exactly right.  In comparison, Thunderball seems slightly askew.  It’s overlong and the copious underwater sequences slow the pace somewhat.  Still, it has much to enjoy.  Connery is at the top of his game and the film shows off its set-pieces (for example, Bond being pursued during some Bahamas Junkanoo festivities), its gadgets (for example, the jet-pack in the opening sequence) and its villains (for example, Luciana Paluzzi as Fiona Volpe) with as much brassy aplomb as big-lunged Welshman Tom Jones sings the theme song.

 

© Eon Productions

 

9: You Only Live Twice (1967)

I’ve always had a soft spot for You Only Live Twice, which has Sean Connery battling Ernst Stavro Blofeld and SPECTRE in Japan, although it’s commonly rated as one of the lesser Connery Bonds.  Maybe it’s because I lived in Japan for a good many years myself.  The theme song by Nancy Sinatra is, of course, lovely and there’s a good supporting cast, including Donald Pleasence as Blofeld and Tetsuro Tamba as Tiger Tanaka, head of Japanese intelligence and one of the great ‘Bond allies’ – up there with Pedro Armendariz’s Karim Bey in From Russia with Love (1963).  Apart from the Japanese setting, the film jettisons almost everything in Fleming’s dark, introspective 1964 novel and replaces it with an archetypically ludicrous Bond-movie scenario: Blofeld wanting to trigger World War III by nicking American and Soviet spacecraft and hiding them in his secret hollowed-out Japanese volcano-HQ.  The futuristic volcano set, courtesy of production designer Ken Adam, is amazing.  Alas, its impact is vitiated in the final scenes when we see it as an obvious model, being rocked by explosions, with little dolls (representing the casualties of the film’s climactic battle) bouncing up and down on its floor.

 

8: Casino Royale (2006)

Any half-decent movie was going to look good after the debacle of 2002’s Die Another Day, and I feel Casino Royale, which rebooted the series and introduced current 007 Daniel Craig, is slightly overrated as a result.  But it’s still pretty good.  Craig gives Bond an impressively physical exterior whilst suggesting that not all is as solid internally.  As Vesper Lynd, the sublime Eva Green is easily the best Bond girl since Michelle Yeoh.  And Mads Mikkelsen is great as the evil but harried Le Chiffre.  For once, the violence actually looks like it involves pain, stress and fear, no more so than when Bond gets his nuts whipped on a bottomless chair.  Kudos to the filmmakers for keeping the scene in which Le Chiffre gets his comeuppance as low-key as it was in Fleming’s 1953 novel, although the subsequent stuff set in Venice, where Bond has to rescue Vesper from a building sinking rapidly into the Grand Canal, seems a tad gratuitous.  It’s as if it was decided that a big, dumb action climax was necessary to keep the traditional Bond audience happy.

 

7: Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

Some Roger-Moore-sized eyebrows will be raised at my inclusion of Tomorrow Never Dies in my top dozen Bonds.  But while this film isn’t massively memorable, it doesn’t do anything wrong either.  Michelle Yeoh as Wai Lin is easily the best Bond girl during Pierce Brosnan’s four-movie tenure, Vincent Schiavelli makes a brief but memorable appearance as mordant assassin Dr. Kaufman, and the scene where Q, played by a now-octogenarian Desmond Llewelyn, gives Bond custody of a remote-controlled car is delightful.  And Jonathan Pryce has fun playing villainous media tycoon Elliot Carver, trying to trigger a war between China and Britain – aye, right, the Chinese would really be quaking in their boots at the prospect of a war with Britain.  Pryce is clearly channelling Rupert Murdoch, so what’s not to love?

 

6: The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

Among Roger Moore’s entries (ouch), The Spy Who Loved Me is the one that undeniably belongs in the premier league of Bond movies.  On paper it looks as lazy as all the other ones made in the 1970s and early 1980s – cars that travel underwater, a villain who kills people by dropping them into shark-pools, a giant henchman with steel teeth and a plot that’s been copied from 1967’s You Only Live Twice, though with stolen nuclear submarines instead of stolen spacecraft.  But it’s done with such élan that Moore, director Lewis Gilbert and writer Michael Wood get away with it.  The corking pre-titles sequence here made it a rule for all subsequent Bond movies that they had to begin with a big stunt.  No wonder that in season two of I’m Alan Partridge (2002), Steve Coogan gets upset when he discovers that Michael-the-Geordie has taped over his copy of The Spy Who Loved Me with an episode of America’s Strongest Man.  “Now you’ve got Norfolk’s maddest man!” he rages.  Quite.

 

© Eon Productions

 

5: From Russia with Love (1963)

Although the first Bond movie, Dr No, sets the template for the series – larger-than-life villain hatches grandiose, ludicrous scheme amid gorgeous locations, gorgeous ladies and exciting action sequences – and the third one, Goldfinger (1964), consolidates that template, the intervening movie From Russia with Love does something a little different, with a scaled-down plot-MacGuffin (getting a Soviet defector to the West with a valuable cryptography device) and a storyline that’s unusually gritty and realistic by Bond standards.  Mind you, From Russia with Love still has a great roster of villains – Lotte Lenya’s Rosa Klebb, Vladek Sheybal’s Kronsteen and Robert Shaw’s Red Grant.  Shaw’s vicious battle with Connery late in the film has been emulated in other Bond movies – see Brosnan vs. Sean Bean in Goldeneye (1995) or Craig vs. Dave Bautista in Spectre (2015) – but never bettered.  Also praiseworthy is Mexican actor Pedro Armendariz as Kerim Bey, the wise, wily head of British intelligence in Istanbul who takes Bond under his wing.  Tragically, this was Armendariz’s last movie – during filming, he was dying from cancer, quite possibly caused by his participation in the notorious 1956 John Wayne film The Conqueror, shot just 137 miles from the location of an atomic-bomb test in Nevada.

 

4: Skyfall (2012)

Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace (2008), the latter a direct sequel to the former, and both preoccupied with Vesper Lynd and Jesper Christensen’s villainous Mr White character, can often seem like they’re locked in their own, private, non-Bondian universe.  From the old, pre-Daniel Craig movies, only Judi Dench’s M remains.  What makes Skyfall a pleasure is that it starts to join the dots and make the series feel like the Bonds of old again, adding a new Q (Ben Wishaw) and a new Moneypenny (the divine Naomie Harris).  It also, eventually, brings in a new M to replace Dench, Ralph Fiennes, who in a gratifying bit of character-development is initially presented as an arsehole but gradually wins Bond’s respect and trust.  Javier Bardem makes a good villain and, when Bond and Dench’s M take refuge at Skyfall, the Scottish Highlands estate where Bond spent his childhood, we get a welcome appearance by Albert Finney as the estate’s irascible but handy-with-a-shotgun gamekeeper Kincaid.  It’s been said that director Sam Mendes originally wanted to cast Sean Connery as Kincaid, which would have been weird… but awesome.

 

© Eon Productions

 

3: Licence to Kill (1989)

The dark horse of the series in more ways than one, Licence to Kill got a bad rap because it underperformed at the box office, earned itself a British 15 certificate with its violence, and offended critics who, after condemning the Bond movies for years for being too silly, suddenly started carping about how they missed the loveable silliness of Roger Moore.  However, if you’re a Bond connoisseur who likes to see 007 taken seriously, it’s one of the best.  Timothy Dalton goes after drug baron Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) when Sanchez maims Bond’s best buddy Felix Leiter (David Hedison) and murders Leiter’s wife on their wedding night.  This, of course, echoes what happened to Bond after his wedding back in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), making Licence to Kill a spiritual if not direct sequel to that film.  Much mayhem ensues as Sanchez and his henchmen (Anthony Zerbe, Don Stroud, Everett McGill, Anthony Starke and a young Benicio Del Toro) meet a range of gruesome fates.  The sight of Del Toro’s sneering scumbag Dario getting fed into a grinding machine is particularly delightful.  But there’s light amid the darkness.  Carey Lowell is excellent as Pam Bouvier, a truly capable and no-bullshit Bond girl, and there’s a lovely sub-plot where Desmond Llewelyn’s Q turns up to give Bond some unofficial help, showing that however much they’ve bickered in Q-Branch over the years, the two men are actually friends.  Also, Robert Davi’s Sanchez is more than a simple thug.  Valuing friendship and loyalty, he likes Bond when he first meets him and is aggrieved later when he discovers that Bond has really come to destroy him.

 

© Eon Productions

 

2: Goldfinger (1964)

The film that ticks all the boxes in the list of things you want from a Bond movie.  Action-packed opening sequence where Bond puts a previous adventure to bed?  Tick.  Shirley Bassey booming her way through a classic John Barry composition?  Tick.  Memorable villains?  Tick.  Gadgets, gimmicks, classy cars?  Tick.  A great Bond girl?  With Honor Blackman, definitely a tick.  A great Bond?  Well, it’s Sean Connery, so definitely a tick too.  Basically, the series could have stopped here, because after Goldfinger there was nothing that could be done again any better – The Spy Who Loved Me’s refrain Nobody Does It Better might have been written about this film.  Incidentally, Auric Goldfinger’s scheme in the movie makes more sense than his scheme in Ian Fleming’s 1959 novel.  In the book, Goldfinger just wants to rob Fort Knox, which would be logistically impossible.  In the film, he cannily plans to explode a nuclear device in the fort, making the US’s gold reserves unusable and skyrocketing the value of his own gold.

 

1: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

It’s generally agreed that Australian actor George Lazenby wasn’t much cop as an actor.  Ironically, his single movie as Bond, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, is in my opinion the best one of all.  It helps, of course, that the film follows Ian Fleming’s 1963 novel closely.  The main change is an upgrading of Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s fiendish plan.  In the book, he intends to decimate Britain’s agriculture, whereas in the film it’s the world’s agriculture that he’s gunning for.  (Accordingly, the instruments of Blofeld’s plan, the disease-carrying ‘Angels of Death’, are upgraded from a group of brainwashed English schoolgirl-types in the novel to a bevy of brainwashed international glamour-pusses, including Angela Scoular, Anoushka Hempel, Jenny Hanley, Julie Ege and Joanna Lumley, in the film.)  Director Peter Hunt orchestrates some brilliant action sequences on the icy slopes around Blofeld’s Alpine lair, the theme tune possibly constitutes John Barry’s finest hour, Telly Savalas makes a formidably physical Blofeld, and Diana Rigg is splendid as the confident but simultaneously vulnerable Tracy di Vicenzo, the woman who finally wins Bond’s heart and gets him to the wedding altar – though with events taking a dark turn soon after.  It’s arguable that because it’s so different from the usual entries in the series, wistful in tone and tragic in its ending, the awkward and uncertain Lazenby actually fits in nicely.  Here, Bond appears fragile and wounded, and Lazenby is believable in terms of what the character goes through.  You couldn’t imagine Connery swaggering through the movie with his usual insouciance and having the same impact.

 

© Eon Productions

 

And now we have a new Bond movie in the cinemas.  Where will 2021’s No Time to Die figure in future rankings of the 25 Bond films, from best to worst?  Well, I see that the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw has just given it a five-star review.  So… it’s probably rubbish.

Stop getting Bond wrong! (Part 1)

 

© Eon Productions

 

When I’m browsing through a newspaper or magazine website, or a website devoted to popular culture, no headline is more likely to fill me with despair than the one ALL THE JAMES BOND FILMS RANKED FROM WORST TO BEST.  (Well, maybe except for the headline FLEETWOOD MAC TO RELEASE NEW ALBUM.)  That’s because such articles invariably get Bond wrong.  And that’s because they’re written by young, acne-pocked dipshits with zero life experience and less-than-zero knowledge of James Bond in either his cinematic or literary incarnations.  Or, worse, they’re written by someone from the older end of the Generation X demographic, i.e., they were a kid during the 1970s and believe Roger Moore was the best actor who ever lived.

 

Now that the latest Bond epic No Time to Die is being released – after a zillion Covid-19-inspired delays, which had me worried that by the time it finally was released poor Daniel Craig would be turning up at the Royal Premiere with a Zimmer frame, hearing aid and dentures – there’s been another rash of these hopelessly ill-informed articles, in the likes of the Independent and Den of Geek.

 

So, to sort out this confusion, misinformation and stupidity once and for all, here is my – and hence the correct – ranking of all the James Bond films from best to worst.  Don’t even think about arguing with me.

 

© Eon Productions

 

24: Die Another Day (2002)

Winning the unenviable title of Worst Bond Film Ever is Pierce Brosnan’s final outing as 007.  Because it was released in the 40th anniversary year of the franchise, the makers of Die Another Day packed it with homages to the previous 19 films, such as bikini-ed heroine Halle Berry rising out of the sea like Ursula Andress in Dr No (1962) or villain Toby Stephens swooping into central London with a Union Jack-emblazoned parachute à la Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).  But these homages, as well as seeming smug, highlight how inferior Die is in comparison.  And with the film’s stupid plot contrivances (an invisible car), its derivativeness (what, another killer satellite?), its Carry On-level, innuendo-ridden dialogue and Madonna’s horrible theme song, we’re talking greatly inferior.  What I hate most about it, though, is its use of Computer-Generated Imagery during the action sequences, an insult to the stuntmen in the old Bond films like Vic Armstrong, Terry Richards, Eddie Powell and Alf Joint, who did those stunts for real and made them so viscerally exciting.

 

23: Octopussy (1983)

I remember seriously not liking Octopussy when I saw it because it seemed desperate to cash in on the recent success of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and deposited Roger Moore in a version of India populated with palaces, turbaned swordsmen, fakirs and snake-charmers, which had only ever existed in the imaginations of Hollywood scriptwriters and looked ridiculously corny by 1983.  Having worked in India several times since then, I suspect I would hate it even more now.  The film’s one saving grace is the sub-plot taking place in its other main setting, Germany, which has Steven Berkoff as a deranged Soviet general wanting to knock NATO for six by engineering an ‘accident’ with a nuclear warhead.  Opposing, and in part thwarting, Berkoff’s insane plan is General Gogol (Walter Gotell), who appeared in half-a-dozen Bond films as 007’s respectful adversary and occasional ally in the KGB.  Indeed, I’d say Octopussy marks Gogol’s finest hour.

 

22: Moonraker (1979)

Moonraker also attempted to cash in on a recent hit movie, in this case Star Wars (1977).  Thus, it has Roger Moore going into outer space in search of a stolen space shuttle.  It piles silliness upon silliness: not just the far-fetched science-fictional plot, but also sequences with gondolas turning into speedboats, speedboats turning into hovercraft, speedboats turning into hang gliders, steel-toothed villain Jaws (Richard Kiel) crashing through the top of a circus tent, Jaws finding a girlfriend, and so on.  Michael Lonsdale as the big villain Hugo Drax gives Moonraker some dignity it really doesn’t deserve.  Brace yourself for the inevitable “He’s attempting re-entry!” joke at the end.

 

© Eon Productions

 

21: The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

Another entry in the series where the only thing going for it is the villain, the impeccable Christopher Lee as the super-hitman Francisco Scaramanga.  Elsewhere, Lulu warbles the cheesy, innuendo-slathered theme song (“He’s got a powerful weapon / He charges a million a shot!”), Britt Ekland is barely contained by her bikini, and redneck comedy-relief American policeman Sheriff Pepper (Clifton James), who was so annoying in the previous film Live and Let Die, makes an unwelcome reappearance even though the film’s set in East Asia.  Pepper just happens to be holidaying in Thailand with his wife when he bumps into Bond again.  (He refuses to have his picture taken with a local elephant, telling Mrs Pepper: “We’re Demy-crats, Maybelle!”  Surely not.)

 

20: Live and Let Die (1973)

And that brings me to Live and Let Die, in which Roger Moore makes his debut as Bond.  From all accounts Moore was a lovely bloke and he kept the franchise massively popular during the 1970s and 1980s, but his lightweight acting style meant the character was far removed from the one imagined by Ian Fleming in the original novels.  Even by 1973’s standards, Live and Let Die’s plot about a villainous organisation of black drug-smugglers, headed by Yaphet Kotto’s Mr Big, dallies worryingly with racism, although Moore’s presence actually defuses some of that.  His portrayal of Bond as a posh, silly-assed Englishman gives the bad guys some gravitas in comparison.  I suspect modern audiences might feel more uncomfortable with Bond’s pursuit / stalking of love interest Jane Seymour – Seymour was only 22 years at the time while Moore, already in his mid-forties, was old enough to be her dad.  The film’s spectacular speedboat chase anchors the film in most people’s memories, though it’s spoilt somewhat by the involvement of the aforementioned Sheriff Pepper.  The theme song by Paul McCartney’s Wings is, of course, great.

 

© Eon Productions

 

19: A View to a Kill (1985)

A View to a Kill, Roger Moore’s final film as Bond, is often ranked bottom in lists like this, but it at least has something most 1980s Bond movies lack – memorable villains, i.e., Christopher Walken’s Max Zorin and Grace Jones’s Mayday.  Also, Moore gets to form an agreeable double act, for a while, with Patrick Macnee and I like how General Gogol pops up at the end to give ‘Comrade Bond’ the Order of Lenin.  Still, the film contains much duff-ness.  Duran Duran do the theme song and one unkind critic once described Simon Le Bon’s vocal performance as ‘bellowing like a wounded elk.’

 

18: Quantum of Solace (2007)

Daniel Craig’s second appearance as James Bond, in which he comes up against a sinister, secret organisation called Quantum, was savaged by the critics.  When I watched the film, I remember thinking it didn’t seem as bad as everyone made out.  That said, I can hardly remember anything about it now.

 

17: The World is Not Enough (1999)

A frustrating film, The World is Not Enough has much going for it, including Sophie Marceau and Robert Carlyle as the baddies, Robbie Coltrane returning as ex-KGB man / lovable rogue Valentin Zukovsky, and a plot that anticipates Skyfall (2012) wherein Judie Dench’s M is threatened by a villain whose relationship with her is more complex than one of simple professional enmity.  And like Skyfall, it has scenes set in Scotland, the introduction of a new Q, and an explosion that rocks MI6’s London headquarters beside Vauxhall Bridge in London.  Plus, the theme song by Garbage is the best one in yonks.  But the quality stuff is cancelled out by some rubbish bits, including Denise Richards as Bond girl Christmas Jones – so-named, apparently, to allow Pierce Brosnan to crack a joke about ‘coming once a year’.  Particularly cringe-inducing is John Cleese’s debut as the replacement for Desmond Llewelyn’s Q, here making his 17th and final appearance in the franchise.  Not only does Cleese clown around to no comic effect whatever, but the scene where he’s introduced is also the one where Llewelyn bids farewell and Cleese’s slapstick robs the scene of its poignancy.

 

16: Diamonds are Forever (1971)

Diamonds are Forever features a beyond-caring Sean Connery, enticed back into 007’s shoes by a 1.25-million-pound paycheque after George Lazenby jumped ship, in a lazy film where the plot meanders nonsensically from one action set-piece to another and the visuals are packed with easy-on-the-eye spectacle and lavishness.  At least it’s pretty funny.  It depends on your tolerance level for sledgehammering 1970s political incorrectness whether or not you enjoy the banter between gay assassins Mr Kidd and Mr Wint.  (Sticking Connery into a coffin and feeding him into a crematorium furnace: “Heart-warming, Mr Kidd.”  “A glowing tribute, Mr Wint.”)  However, uber-Bond-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld is very amusingly played by Charles Gray.  While he’s wreaking havoc with a deadly laser beam mounted on a satellite, he sneers: “The satellite is now over Kansas.   Well, if we destroy Kansas, the world may not hear about it for years.”

 

© Eon Productions

 

15: For Your Eyes Only (1987)

For Your Eyes Only makes a noble attempt to bring the franchise down to earth again following the excesses of Moonraker.  Mostly, it works nicely as an action / adventure piece, although the villain Krystatos, played by the normally reliable Julian Glover, is a bit drab. More effective is the excellent Michael Gothard as the taciturn Belgian assassin Locque.  Alas, it runs out of puff towards the end.  After some exciting mountaineering stunts while Roger Moore and the good guys ascend to a mountaintop monastery / villains’ lair, the climactic battle is a damp squib.  Also, there’s an excruciating ‘comic’ final scene where Margaret Thatcher (played by impressionist Janet Brown) phones Bond to congratulate him on a job well done and ends up speaking instead to a randy parrot: “Give us a kiss!”  “Oh, Mr Bond…”

 

14: Goldeneye (1995)

Pierce Brosnan’s debut as Bond, after the franchise had endured a six-year hiatus, won a lot of praise.  I find it slightly unsatisfying, though.  It tries a bit too hard.  There’s a bit too much packed into it, a few too many twists and turns, as it tries to prove to audiences that a Bond movie can still be relevant and with-it in the 1990s.  Also, its good intentions are undone by the occasional piece of Roger Moore-style silliness and a cobwebbed plot-MacGuffin – yes, it’s another killer satellite threatening the world, or in this case, the City of London.  Sean Bean and Famke Janssen are cool as the main villains, though it’s a pity that Alan Cumming and Joe Don Baker are both allowed to act with their brakes off.

 

13: Spectre (2015)

Another Daniel Craig Bond that got a critical kicking, I think Spectre deserves a little more love.  The film brings back Ernst Stavro Blofeld, played here by Christoph Waltz as a Euro-trash scumbag who commits crimes against fashion by not wearing socks under his loafers.  Also back is Blofeld’s insidious criminal organisation SPECTRE.  (After decades of legal wrangling, the Bond producers had by 2015 won the right to use Blofeld and SPECTRE again in the franchise.)  However, Spectre’s Bond / Blofeld backstory earned hoots of derision.  Blofeld, it transpires, is the son of Hannes Oberhauser, the man who looked after the young James Bond after his parents were killed in a climbing accident.  Oberhauser much preferred little James to little Ernst, leaving his biological son with some serious personality issues.  Yes, it sounds contrived, but I didn’t have a big problem with this, since the adoptive father-figure of Hannes Oberhauser existed in the original, literary Bond universe created by Ian Fleming and Bond referred to him in the short story Octopussy, published in 1966.  The opening sequence in Mexico City, filmed by director Sam Mendes in one long, supposedly continuous take, is brilliant, but the film’s attempts to incorporate / retcon the previous Daniel Craig Bond films into its plot are clunky.  For example, we learn that the Quantum organisation in Quantum of Solace is only a subsidiary of SPECTRE.  Another negative is the comatose theme song performed by Sam Smith.

 

© Eon Productions

 

And my next blog-post will rank the remaining Bond movies from number twelve to number one.

Travellers at the bar

 

 

As I mentioned in my previous blog-entry, the latest Covid-19 lockdown in Sri Lanka, which was imposed for a good part of May and June, has recently been relaxed.  This relaxation has allowed some eating and drinking places to re-open.

 

However, one place that my partner and I have often retreated to in the past, when we’ve felt the need for calm and a touch of soothing, old-school luxury (to convey the illusion for a few hours that we’ve actually got money), remains off-limits to us.  This is the Traveller’s Bar and its lovely outdoor verandah, which overlooks the Indian Ocean, at Colombo’s Galle Face Hotel.  For now, the bar and verandah are open only for hotel guests, not outside customers.  This is a shame because few things are as good for the soul as sitting there between six and six-thirty on a clear evening and watching the sky segue from one gorgeous colour to another while the sun sinks behind the distant waves.

 

The Galle Face Hotel will soon be a venerable 120 years old and it’s prestigious enough to have featured in Patricia Schultz’s 2003 travel book 1000 Places to See Before You Die.  Predictably, during its long history, it has accommodated some very famous guests.  Many of these are commemorated by a gallery of framed photographs adorning the interior of the Traveller’s Bar, with information about the years, occasionally just the decades, when they stayed there.

 

Among the earliest people featured in the gallery are writers.  You see Anton Chekov (credited with being at the Galle Face in 1890), George Bernard Shaw (in the 1930s), W. Somerset Maugham (the 1920s), Noel Coward (1944) and Evelyn Waugh (the 1950s).  D.H. Lawrence showed up there in 1922, presumably either on his way to or from the 99-day sojourn he had in Australia that gave rise to his novel Kangaroo, published the following year.

 

 

One literary hero of mine, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, stayed at the Galle Face Hotel in 1920 and, unimpressed by its prices, described it as ‘a place where the preposterous charges are partly compensated for by the glorious rollers that break upon the beach outside.”  He was also unimpressed by the equally famous Mount Lavinia Hotel, which in those days stood beyond the southern edge of Colombo.  “There are two robbers’ castles, as the unhappy visitor calls them, facing the glorious sea, the one Galle Face, the other the Mount Lavinia Hotel.” At least he appreciated the journey between the castles: “They are connected by an eight-mile road, which has all the colour and life and variety of the East for every inch of the way.”

 

At this point Doyle was heavily into spiritualism and had been gullible enough to believe that the notoriously faked Cottingley fairies were real.  However, he retained enough of his wits not to be taken in by a display of the famous ‘mango-tree’ trick, which a Sri Lankan magician did for him just outside the hotel.  Doyle praised the magician’s skill, though: “He did it so admirably that I can well understand those who think that it is an occult process.”

 

I’m perplexed by the presence of a portrait of James Joyce, supposedly a guest of the Galle Face in 1904.  (Coincidentally, June 16th, 1904, was the date of ‘Bloomsday’, the day during which all the events of Joyce’s 1922 masterpiece Ulysses take place).  To the best of my knowledge, he never travelled outside Europe, let alone visited southern Asia.  In fact, the only connections I can dig up between Joyce and Sri Lanka are that: (1) he makes mention of the ‘Cinghalese’ in Ulysses; and (2) he was known to own a copy of Henry Olcott’s Buddhist Catechism According to the Sinhalese Canon – Olcott was the American army officer who became the first president of the Theosophical Society and was an important figure in the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, so much so that he’s honoured with a statue in front of Fort Railway Station today.

 

 

Perhaps somebody else with the name ‘James Joyce’ stayed at the hotel in 1904?

 

One writer not displayed in the Traveller’s Bar is legendary science-fiction scribe Sir Arthur C. Clarke, even though it was in the Galle Face that he supposedly wrote the last chapters of the last volume of his Space Odyssey series, 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997).  However, Clarke had lived in Sri Lanka since 1956, so he wasn’t really what you’d call a ‘visitor’ or a ‘guest’.

 

The Traveller’s Bar gallery is mostly a collection of the great and good, but it has at least one rogue in it, namely Richard Nixon.  He stayed at the hotel in the 1950s, sometime before he became the second-most crooked US president in modern history.  Other political dignitaries who were guests there include father and daughter Indian Prime Ministers Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (1950) and Indira Gandhi (1976); and iconic revolutionary Che Guevara, whose portrait says he stayed in 1958, although according to a feature in Sri Lanka’s FT his visit was actually in August 1959.  He’d come to Sri Lanka because it was one of the first countries to recognize Castro’s Cuba.

 

 

From the mid-20th century onwards, Sri Lanka began to appeal as an exotic location to Western filmmakers and so the Galle Face Hotel had Hollywood movie stars stay while on their way to or from film shoots.  These include Sir Alec Guinness (1957), in town for the making of Bridge on the River Kwai and, I have to say, looking a bit shifty in his photograph; Harrison Ford (1983), there to make Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (whose production had switched from India to Sri Lanka after the Indian government objected to the ‘thuggee’ elements in its script); and Ursula Andress, whom I trust enjoyed her stay in Sri Lanka in 1976 even though she probably prefers to forget the film she made there, the Italian horror movie The Mountain of the Cannibal God, directed by Sergio Martini and considered so offensive in Britain that it was classified as a ‘video nasty’ and banned until 2001.

 

Andress, of course, found international fame as the very first Bond girl.  Meanwhile, the man responsible for the third cinematic incarnation of James Bond, Roger Moore, appears in the Traveller’s Bar too.  He’s said to have stayed at the hotel in the 1960s, but he’s depicted in his famous 1970s Bondian bowtie and dinner-suit, so the photo obviously wasn’t taken at the time.

 

 

One star in the Traveller’s Bar who’s rather forgotten nowadays is Lex Barker, who took over the role of Tarzan from Johnny Weissmuller in 1949.  Barker’s picture says he was there in the 1950s, although the only thing I can find in his filmography that was made in Sri Lanka was a 1963 movie called Storm Over Ceylon.  While Barker’s Hollywood Tarzan movies were too low-budget to be filmed on location in a tropical country like Sri Lanka, money was not a problem for Bo Derek and her director-husband John Derek, who used Sri Lanka for the jungle scenes of their notorious, mammary-obsessed Tarzan the Ape Man (1981), while using the Maldives for its beach scenes.  For their salacious take on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Lord of the Jungle, Bo, John and their crew imported some decidedly non-native wildlife into the country.  According to an article in the New York Times, they brought with them a lion (called Dandi), an orangutan (called C.J.), three chimpanzees, two Irish wolfhounds and an 18-foot, 120-pound python.  Thus, Ms Derek is now commemorated by a portrait in the Traveller’s Bar as well.

 

A nice story is attached to Gregory Peck, who stayed in 1954 whilst making a film called The Purple Plain.  Apparently, he came down with a nasty bout of flu, but recovered with the help of a traditional local remedy of plain tea incorporating inguru and kothamalli (ginger and coriander).  In the 1950s Peck was a global heartthrob and his use of this remedy didn’t go unnoticed by his lady admirers in Sri Lanka.  As another article in the Daily FT observes: “It used to be said in lighter vein those days that many upper-class ladies of Colombo 7 began drinking ginger / coriander tea only after Gregory Peck told them about it.”

 

 

Finally, the gallery sports a picture of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, symbolically holding a white dove.  The great Russian cosmonaut came to Sri Lanka in 1961 and among the things done to mark the visit was the planting of a tree in his honour at the botanical gardens in Peradeniya, close to Kandy.  According to a piece published by the Russian Centre for Science and Culture in Colombo, the tree was said to have stopped growing at the time of Gagarin’s death in a jet crash in 1968.  However, mysteriously, it continued to live, so that it’s resembled a young tree for the past half-century.  This is contradicted by an article in Ceylon Today, which claims it merely fell ill at the time of Gagarin’s death, but recovered and kept on growing.  I was at the botanical gardens a few years ago and really wish I’d examined the Yuri Gagarin tree to find out which of these accounts was true.

 

The end of the road

 

© John Murray

 

And to conclude my short series of posts and reposts about the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, here’s something I wrote in 2017 after reading his posthumously published book The Broken Road (2013).

 

A while ago I wrote about A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water.  These were the first two instalments in a trilogy of books describing a walking journey made across Europe during 1933 and 1934 by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

 

Fermor was only in his late teens at the time.  Later, he’d make a name for himself as a soldier, decorated war hero, author and scholar though nowadays, several years after his death, I suspect he’s best known for being a possible inspiration for the character of James Bond, who was created by his friend Ian Fleming.  A man always meticulous about his research, Fleming can’t have been too pleased when, following the publication of the 1963 Bond novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Fermor mischievously pointed out an error to him.  At one point in the book 007 orders a ‘half-bottle’ of Pol Roger champagne.  But, observed Fermor, Pol Roger is never sold in half-bottles.

 

A Time of Gifts chronicled Fermor’s progress from Rotterdam to the Czechoslovakian / Hungarian border, while Between the Woods and the Water continued his journey through Hungary and Romania.  He published these two books decades afterwards, the first volume appearing in 1977 and the second in 1986.  The Broken Road, an account of the final part of his epic hike, across Bulgaria to his ultimate destination Constantinople, was published posthumously in 2013.  Fermor didn’t live to complete the third book.  The finished item was based on a draft he’d written and was edited by the travel writer Colin Thubron and Fermor’s biographer Artemis Cooper.  They used information from one of his old diaries to fill in any gaps in the text and, presumably, gave it a final polish too.

 

I read The Broken Road recently.  How does it compare with the previous two books?  And does the fact that it was still a work-in-progress in 2011, when the great man passed away, lessen its impact?

 

The simple and welcome answer is: hardly at all.  There’s one moment where Fermor’s demise leaves things noticeably unfinished, which I’ll come to later.  Otherwise, this is pleasingly on par with the tone and quality of A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water.  You may feel at times that a further edit would have tightened Fermor’s prose by trimming some of its floridity – but then you probably felt that way with the earlier books too.  A verbose chap, Fermor didn’t subscribe to the Ernest Hemmingway less-is-more approach to writing.  Indeed, his garrulousness is part of the three books’ charm.

 

One way in which The Broken Road differs from predecessors is its darker tone.  Now in the late stages of his journey, Fermor refers to fatigue and jadedness.  He’s also in a place, Bulgaria, where he feels more alien and out-of-his-depth.  Occasionally, he becomes gloomy: “…the falling depression had been hammered home by the unbroken downpour, lashed into a spiteful anti-human fury by the unrelenting north-east wind that felt as though it was blowing without let or hindrance, as it probably was, direct from Siberia…”

 

He’s more aware now of encountering duplicity and hostility and things that as an outsider make him feel uncomfortable.  During inclement weather, cart-drivers refuse to give him lifts unless he pays money that he can’t spare.  One evening at a restaurant-bar he’s disturbed when the patrons explode into frenzied celebration at the news that King Alexander I of Yugoslavia has just been assassinated in Marseilles.  (“They’ve killed the Serbian king!  Today, in France!  And it was a Bulgar that did him in!”)  And there’s a perplexing moment when, for no apparent reason, a Bulgarian youth called Gatcho whom he’s befriended turns on him, screams abuse and threatens him with a knife.

 

Afterwards, a chastened Fermor wonders about “…how much of a nuisance I might have proved to countless people during the last year: had I been a perfect pest all across Central Europe?  A deep subsidiary gloom set in…”

 

Though it can’t have been fun at the time, I actually like seeing Fermor out of his comfort zone here.  This is because in the previous books there are times when I felt he had it too easy, thanks to his privileged background, his wealthy contacts and the easy manner with which he ingratiates himself with those contacts.  As I wrote previously: “Gradually… Fermor falls in with a succession of aristocrats and moneyed folk.  Each of these gets in touch with relatives or friends further along his walking route and arranges for them to put him up.  So Fermor makes increasingly-frequent stops at big houses, where he dawdles among drawing rooms, libraries, servants, vintage motor cars, lavish family picnics and sumptuous evening balls…  Between the Woods and the Water, in particular, contains so many aristos that they start to blur into one another.”

 

In The Broken Road, Fermor even has to endure a common hazard for solitary, long-distance budget travellers: the loony who attaches himself to you.  (As someone who’s done a fair amount of travelling, I’ve had many loonies attach themselves to me.)  Here, it’s a misfit called Ivancho, “threadbare and urban and with a face like a hare’s,” who talks “at such a speed that I could scarcely understand a word – at the same time eager, confidential and ear-splitting, and without the faintest trace of punctuation, accompanied by many gestures and with a fixed smile and those hare’s eyes projecting and rolling, as though loose in their sockets.  It continued for mile after mile until my head began to swim and ache.”

 

The book isn’t all misery, of course.  Its pages are frequently lighted by moments of rhapsody, moments when the ever-curious Fermor is genuinely delighted by his discoveries.  For example, the whirlwinds of thistledown, sticks and rubbish that appear on the Dobruja steppe: “The plain was still alive with mirages; these four pillars careered across a sunset that the hanging mantle of dust refracted into a vast and tragic drama of orange and amber and blood red and violet…  There are tales of whole wagons being gathered up by these twisting demons, with sheep and buffaloes…”

 

Or the dream-like experience he has in the final chapter when he spends the night in a firelit cave by the Black Sea that “arched high overhead but did not go very deep into the cliff side” amid a mixed band of Greek fisherman and Bulgar shepherds.  They entertain themselves swigging from bottles of raki, playing music on goatskin bagpipes, gourd drums and Eastern European lutes, and dancing – first a slapstick all-male Turkish belly-dancing number and then some intriguing variations on Greek rebetiko.  The chapter is a tour de force of descriptive writing and provides the book, and the trilogy itself, with a fitting climax.

 

The cave sequence is the climax by default because a few pages later what you’d expect to be the real climax, Fermor’s long-awaited arrival in Constantinople, doesn’t materialise.  Rather, the text terminates in mid-sentence (“…and yet, in another sense, although”) and Fermor’s editors provide an apologetic note explaining that he never recorded the arrival in his draft or in his diary.  They speculate: “Perhaps the end of his journey was weighing on him with the traveller’s bewilderment of at last reaching his goal, and the uneasy question of his future.”

 

From ouranoupoli.com

 

There’s compensation, however.  We get an 80-page epilogue wherein, post-Constantinople and early in 1935, Fermor describes a three-and-a-half-week sojourn on the Greek peninsular of Mount Athos, the ‘Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain’ that’s home to twenty Eastern Orthodox monasteries and that’s off-limits to women.  Indeed, Fermor observes, the peninsula’s off-limits to most things female: “for centuries, no mares, sheep, she-goats, sheep, cats, etc., have lived there, and all the flocks that I saw cropping what grass they could among the rocks, watched by a shepherd boy with a flute, were of rams and billy-goats.”  (Things have now been relaxed, apparently.  According to Wikipedia, “female cats, female insects and female songbirds” are allowed entry to modern-day Mount Athos.)

 

So after A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water and The Broken Road, I’ve spent about 800 pages in the company of the young Patrick Leigh Fermor during his trek across 1930s Europe.  Like with any travelling companion on a long and often arduous trip, there’ve been moments when I’ve become irritated at him, at his poshness, his puppy-dog enthusiasm, his occasionally infuriating know-it-all-ness.  But at the same time, I feel I’ve formed a bond with the fellow.  And now that the journey has reached its end, you know what?  I’m going to miss him.

 

© The National Library of Scotland

Patrick’s progress

 

© John Murray

 

I’ve just finished reading a biography of one of the 20th century’s greatest travel writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor.  The biography, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, was penned by Artemis Cooper, who’d known him since her childhood, and was published in 2012, a year after his death.

 

My problem with biographies is that invariably the subjects are, or were, famous and successful.  Although I find the story of their fortunes interesting while they’re on the way up, and having to overcome hardships and obstacles, those stories become less compelling when the subjects have achieved success and settled onto a plateau of comfort, wealth and well-being.  With Fermor, at least, that secure but less interesting plateau is delayed because his success didn’t really come until when he was middle-aged.  And the first 200 pages of this biography, more than half of it, are devoted to Fermor’s youth.  Happily, these pages contain the two most dramatic events of his life: the epic trek he embarked on in 1933, at the age of 18, from the Dutch coast to Istanbul; and, while a Special Operations Executive officer during World War II, his heading of a mission in 1944 to kidnap Major General Heinrich Kreipe, commander of German forces on Nazi-occupied Crete.

 

Furthermore, the number of books Fermor had published in his lifetime barely reached double figures.  He also continued to travel.  This means that the latter part of Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, while more sedate, is still interesting because it isn’t just about the boring business of writing.

 

Cooper is clearly a fan.  She admits to once having a ‘schoolgirl crush’ on Fermor and writes early on: “Radiating a joyful enthusiasm, he was one of those people who made you feel more alive the moment he came into the room, and eager to join in whatever he was planning to do…”

 

However, she quickly acknowledges one of the controversies about Fermor, that he wasn’t adverse to embroidering reality with fantasy in his supposedly factual writing.  Sometimes, this was unintentional because he was trying to remember events from decades earlier, but sometimes it happened because, well, the fantasy made for a better yarn.  Indeed, Cooper introduces the issue with examples from the early years of Fermor’s life when he was being looked after by a family called the Martins in Northamptonshire, while his real family were in India. The setting was not as bucolic as Fermor liked to recall: “Mr Martin, whom he was later to remember as a farmer, in fact worked at the Ordnance Depot as an engineer and served in the local fire brigade.”

 

Also, Weedon Bec, the Martins’ village in Northamptonshire, provided Fermor with a startlingly gruesome anecdote that he recounted in his book, A Time of Gifts (1977).  At a community bonfire celebrating the end of World War I, “…one of the boys had been dancing around with a firework in his mouth.  It had slipped down his throat, and he had died ‘spitting stars’.” However, Cooper notes: “There is no reference to this tragedy in the Northamptonshire Chronicle, nor is it mentioned in the Weedon Deanery Parish Magazine which described the celebrations in considerable detail.”

 

Similar question marks appear during Fermor’s accounts of his journey to Istanbul in his teens, which are recorded in A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water (1986) and the posthumously published (and edited by Cooper and Colin Thubron) The Broken Road (2013).  I’d known that the material about him crossing the Great Hungarian Plain on horseback in Between the Woods and the Water was suspect – the horse was a fanciful addition to events.  However, I wasn’t aware that a memorable scene in The Broken Road was questionable too. According to Fermor in 2003: “Slogging on south, I lost my way after dark, fell into the sea, and waded soaked into a glimmering cave full of shepherds and fishermen – Bulgars and Greeks – for a strange night of dancing and song.  It was like a flickering firelit scene out of Salvator Rosa.”  Cooper suggests that this incident was really a conflation of two incidents, one of which happened at a later time on Mount Athos.  As for the period described in The Broken Road, Cooper states: “At no point in his original account did he walk down this stretch of coast alone, nor did he lose his footing and find himself floundering among freezing rock-pools after dark.”

 

Unambiguous, though, is the bravery and audacity shown by Fermor and his comrades in wartime Crete.  It reflects well on Fermor that he valued the role played by the island’s tenacious resistance fighters in the operation to abduct General Kreipe from under the nose of the German forces he commanded.  Indeed, their high-ranking captive was astonished when he found out what was going on.  “For Kreipe,” writes Cooper, “being on the other side of the occupation was an eye-opener.  He had no idea that the Cretans and the British were working so closely together.”

 

© The Rank Organisation

 

Accordingly, Fermor wasn’t pleased at how the operation was portrayed on celluloid, in the 1957 Michael Powell / Emeric Pressburger movie IllMet by Moonlight, in which he was played by Dirk Bogarde.  Writing to another of the operation’s British participants, Billy Moss, Fermor said of the film: “You and I are perfectly OK, we emerge as charming, intrepid chaps.  It’s really the Cretans I’m worried about…”  The film’s depiction of the Cretans upset him because it relegated them “to the role of picturesque and slightly absurd foreigners constantly in a state of agitation, coolly managed by these two unruffled and underacting sahibs.”

 

Thereafter, with Fermor finding his vocation – a slow, gradual progress, because he was anything but a disciplined writer – the book inevitably becomes less eventful. However, there are still some intriguing moments.  A trip to the Caribbean brings him into the orbit of James Bond creator Ian Fleming, ensconced in his Goldeneye Estate in Jamaica.  I’ve heard speculation that the dashing war-hero Fermor inspired the character of Bond, but at this point Fleming was already “bashing away at a thriller”, the first Bond novel Casino Royale (1953), so Fermor couldn’t have been the original inspiration.  However, Fermor’s writings about voodoo, something he became immersed in whilst on the island of Haiti, informed Fleming’s depiction of it in the second Bond novel, Live and Let Die (1954).

 

Then we get an account of Fermor’s involvement with the 1958 John Huston movie The Roots of Heaven, for which he was commissioned to rewrite Romain Gary’s original screenplay and had to attend several weeks of filming in Chad, Cameroon and the Central African Republic.  The film, about “a maverick loner, Morel, who is determined to stop the slaughter of elephants by big game hunters and ivory poachers,” brought Fermor into contact with Trevor Howard, who “drank nothing but whisky from morning till night,” and Errol Flynn, of whom he wrote in a letter, “Errol and I have become great buddies…  He is a tremendous shit, but a very funny one…”  In a predictable instance of Hollywood hypocrisy, Cooper notes: “Despite the fact that The Roots of Heaven was a plea to save the elephants, John Huston was very keen to shoot one…  The back of his Land Rover was an arsenal of shotguns, rifles and ammunition, and it was obvious that he lived not for the film, but to slope off into the bush with a gun.”

 

© Darryl F. Zanuck Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

We also hear about Fermor participating in 1972 in a Greek TV programme reuniting the surviving members of the 1944 Kreipe operation.  The last participant to come onstage, “to gasps of surprise and a round of applause from the audience,” was the focus of the whole operation, General Kreipe himself.  When Fermor asked him in German if he held any grudges about what’d happened, the general gamely replied, “If I had any bad feelings…  I wouldn’t be here, would I?”

 

And we get some short but melancholic accounts of him revisiting eastern Europe during, and just after, Communism.  During these visits he tried, often fruitlessly, to track down people and places he’d known during his wanderings through the region in the 1930s.  He found one, formerly aristocratic acquaintance in an old folks’ home in Budapest, physically broken and wits wandering.  This sad exchange ensues: “‘My old friend Patrick Leigh Fermor lives in Greece.’ – ‘Yes, Elemér, it’s me, it’s Paddy!’ – ‘No, no, you are much too young…  But if you go to Greece tell him I’m here, I hope he remembers me.’

 

Fermor belonged to an era when travelling (for pleasure) and, indeed, writing were largely seen as activities for the upper classes.  Thus, certain of his traits can be annoying, traits emblematic of being raised in that privileged stratum of English society: his boundless self-confidence, his shamelessness at making use of the contacts he’s accrued, the fact that he has all those contacts in the first place.  This struck me especially when I read Between the Woods and the Water, which sees him stay with a succession of posh eastern European aristocrats and enjoy lavish hospitality that, at times, he seems to think is his entitlement.

 

Cooper is at least aware of these potential criticisms. Regarding what happens in Between the Woods, she points out: “For his hosts, there was nothing unusual in having guests stay for days or even weeks at a time.” Also: “The greatest blessing that a guest can bring is the right kind of curiosity, and it bubbled out of Paddy like a natural spring…”, which must have been gratifying for his hosts, who by then probably felt like “a useless fragment of a broken empire.”  It’s worth mentioning too that Fermor never received a university education which, if it had happened, would presumably have put him among the elite in Oxford or Cambridge Universities and set the seal on him as an establishment figure.  Perhaps the fact that the system never fully processed him, and didn’t condition him entirely about what an English gentleman was and wasn’t meant to do, explains why he retained the ‘common touch’ throughout his life.  He seemed as much at home blethering with a Macedonian shepherd as he was with a Romanian Count.

 

If Fermor appears blessed with more than his fair share of luck, it’s probably more to do with Joan Raynor, who became his long-term companion and finally his wife.  The daughter of someone who was, successively, a Conservative MP, a First Lord of the Admiralty and a Viscount, she received a private income that enabled Fermor to continue with his travel writing even when he wasn’t reaping great financial rewards from it.  She was also  broadminded about their relationship, which at times could be described as an ‘open’ one, allowing Fermor to indulge in a few dalliances on the side.

 

Eventually, the Fermors built a handsome villa for themselves in a rustic part of Greece.  As I approached the biography’s last chapters, I wondered how they’d reacted to the country’s growing tourist industry in the late 20th century.  Wouldn’t they have been disgruntled at how travellers of a different pedigree from them, folk from less well-off backgrounds intent on getting a week’s break in the sun rather than on experiencing the glories of Greek culture and history, were swamping the beauty spots of their adopted home?  But the changes caused by mass-tourism seemed not to impinge on their idyll.  Neither did they object to their Greek neighbours making some money out of it.  In fact, the building of a hotel nearby seems to have come as a relief to them.  Their villa was frequently crowded with guests and now they could farm some of them out to the new establishment.

 

It must have been tempting to portray Fermor simply as an unstoppable force of nature / Renaissance man-of-action.  To her credit, Cooper admits that while he had many admirers, he didn’t charm everyone.  Turning up in Athens in 1935, he soon got an invitation from the son of the British ambassador to stay at the embassy.  But the ambassador himself proved “quite immune, if not allergic, to Paddy’s high spirits and exotic conversation”, growled at him, “You seem bloody pleased with yourself, don’t you?” and soon gave him his marching orders.  Nor was a post-war stint at the British Council in Athens a great success.  As one colleague observed, “There was a very insensitive side to Paddy…  He was very bumptious, a bit of a know-all, and his enthusiasm and noisiness could be rather wearing.”

 

While Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure is certainly no warts-and-all exposé, it doesn’t get entirely swept away by the awe-inspiring, larger-than-life aura that Fermor projected.  You’re left with the impression of someone who, yes, was remarkable but who, like all of us, sported a few imperfections too.  Which actually makes you like him more as a result.

 

Taken by Joan Leigh Fermor

Seriously Sean – ‘The Offence’

 

© Tantallon / United Artists

 

A warning – the following entry contains a lot of spoilers.

 

1973’s The Offence was the result of its star, Sean Connery, believing he could make a deal with the devil and get away with it.  The devil in question was Hollywood, always hungry for money-spinning escapist entertainment.  The deal was that he would, reluctantly, reprise his role as James Bond in Diamonds are Forever (1971).  In return, the distributor, United Artists, would support two film projects of his own choosing, budgeted at less than two million dollars.

 

What could go wrong?  Connery starring in the lazy, by-the-numbers Bondage that was Diamonds are Forever and being rewarded with two modestly budgeted but hopefully classy movies in which he could demonstrate his acting chops?  Well, the problem was that The Offence, the first film to emerge from of the deal, was a commercial flop.  Filmgoers evidently preferred to pay money to see Connery as Bond, even if by 1971 he was visibly middle-aged, wearing a toupee and merely going through the motions, rather than see him give the disturbing performance that he gave in The Offence. 

 

Connery’s second project was to have been an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which he planned to direct himself.  This became problematic when the Roman Polanski-directed Macbeth was released in 1971.  With The Offence a failure and Connery’s Macbeth looking unviable because Polanski had got to the material first, United Artists pulled the plug on the deal.  Connery’s second film didn’t see the light of day and, indeed, he never got to direct a film.  (His sole directing credit was the 1967 TV documentary The Bowler and the Bunnet.)

 

But at least we got The Offence, which features Connery in perhaps his most unsettling and least sympathetic role ever.  Viewed in 2021, it also provides a grim snapshot of life in Britain in the early 1970s.  Its story unfolds against a backdrop of brutalist architecture, anonymous municipal housing and concrete bunker-like interiors, an environment where toxic masculinity, blinkered prejudice and instinctive misogyny seem to flourish.

 

The Offence’s opening sequence takes place inside a police station.   A uniformed copper realises something is amiss in one of the interrogation rooms, raises the alarm and rushes inside with several colleagues.  Director Sidney Lumet, with whom Connery had previously made The Hill (1965) and The Anderson Tapes (1971), stages the sequence with memorable weirdness, having the characters move in slow motion, muting the dialogue, and making the soundtrack a collage of exaggerated, juddering noises and needling instrumental music courtesy of composer Harrison Birtwhistle.  At the sequence’s end, the distorted noises and music give way to the ringing of an alarm bell and we see Connery standing in the middle of the room.  He’s surrounded by the bodies of people, including policemen, whom he’s just clobbered.  What’s happened is a mystery, but Connery’s character is clearly giving off a bad vibe.

 

Then the narrative shifts back in time.  The police are shown to be out in force, keeping a close watch on a school at the edge of a non-descript English housing estate.  They are there because the area has recently seen a series of sexual assaults on young girls.  In the midst of the activity is Connery’s character, Detective Sergeant Johnson.  He struts around in a sheepskin jacket, drop-brim tweed hat and big 1970s moustache and sideburns, whilst being boorish, opinionated and self-consciously macho.

 

But the police mess up.  When the school-day ends and the kids leave, a girl goes missing.  A desperate search for her is launched in the fields and woods beyond the estate.  Lumet films this atmospherically – the daylight fading from a leaden sky, the lights of torches bobbing through the gloaming, the barking of tracker dogs and crackle of police walkie talkies pervading the air.  The girl is eventually found, brutalised and traumatised but still alive.  Johnson is the one who finds her.  As we’re aware of his bad karma from the opening sequence, there’s something disturbing in how he croons platitudes and struggles with the girl as he attempts to calm her.

 

© Tantallon / United Artists

 

Later that evening, a suspect is picked up.  This is Baxter (Ian Bannen), whom the police first spy tottering drunkenly across a serpentine pedestrian bridge in the local town centre.  Unable to give an account of what he was doing that day, he’s taken into custody.  Something about Baxter seems to push all of Johnson’s buttons and Johnson becomes convinced of his guilt.  Baxter is seedy and louche, but also well-spoken and well-educated, and he’s obviously come down in the world for some reason.  Though the script doesn’t make anything of it, there’s a hint that he’s gay, which no doubt enflames Johnson’s alpha maleness too.  This part of The Offence culminates with Johnson sneaking into the interrogation room to speak to Baxter in private.  Lumet shows a little, not all, of the emotional and physical violence that follows.  Johnson beats Baxter to a pulp, presumably the first act in the mayhem that was glimpsed in the film’s prologue.

 

Thereafter, The Offence shifts gears and three long, dialogue-heavy scenes ensue.  These scenes reveal the film’s origins on the stage, for it’s based on a theatrical play called This Story of Yours, which was first performed in 1968 and written by John Hopkins.  The playwright also wrote the film’s script.  Intriguingly, when This Story of Yours was revived in 1987, the role of Johnson went to the actor who was the screen’s finest Hercule Poirot, David Suchet.

 

First comes a scene where, after the violence, a chastened Johnson returns home.  Unsurprisingly, from what we’ve seen of the neighbourhood so far, he lives in an identikit block of flats where for a moment he tries to enter the wrong apartment by mistake.  He talks bitterly with his wife (Vivien Merchant) until two of his colleagues show up to inform him that Baxter has died of his injuries in hospital and he needs to accompany them back to the station.  The second scene takes place the next day and sees Johnson interrogated by a Detective Superintendent (Trevor Howard) who’s been sent to the town to find out what the hell is going on.  The third scene is a flashback to Johnson’s confrontation with Baxter and this time it’s shown in full.

 

The scene between Johnson and his wife, whose relationship has so deteriorated that they torment each other, intentionally and unintentionally, just by being in each other’s presence, is painful enough.  “Why aren’t you beautiful?” he growls at her. “You’re not even pretty.”  It’s made worse by the knowledge that both performers were in ugly domestic situations in real life at the time.  Connery’s marriage to actress Diane Cilento ended the year that The Offence was released and Cilento later alleged that he’d subjected her to physical and emotional abuse. Merchant, meanwhile, died of alcoholism and depression in 1982, aged only 53, following the slow and traumatic breakup of her marriage to the playwright Harold Pinter.

 

© Tantallon / United Artists

 

The scene with Trevor Howard’s Detective Superintendent, rattled by what’s happened but trying to extend some sympathy to Johnson as a fellow copper, is merely tense.  But it’s the flashback to the events in the interrogation room that gives The Offence its devastating punch.  Johnson might be Baxter’s physical superior but, despite his attempts to intimidate him, it’s Baxter who gains the upper hand.  He’s smart enough to realise how screwed up Johnson is and taunts him about his obsession with this case.  Is it because of a deep-rooted fascination with the crimes?  Is he secretly turned on by these sexual assaults on children?  “Nothing I have done,” Baxter tells him, “can be one half as bad as the thoughts in your head.”

 

It’s comes as no surprise that there is bad stuff festering inside Johnson’s head.  During the film, we’ve seen him suffer brief but harrowing recollections of the grisly crimes he’s had to deal with as a policeman – hanging corpses, murdered women tied to beds, people throwing themselves off rooftops, bloodstained children’s toys.  He’s also been haunted by images of the abused schoolgirl he found the previous day, not hysterical, but smiling at him enticingly.

 

Finally, like a penitent sinner before his priest, Johnson confesses to Baxter that what he’s said is true – just before, unhinged, he subjects him to that fatal beating.  Also, in his blind rage, he floors several of his colleagues who burst in and try to intervene.

 

I don’t think Ian Bannen ever gave a better performance than as the perceptive and manipulative Baxter, who gets the last laugh even though it costs him his life.  There are good turns too from Howard, Merchant, future sitcom-star Peter Bowles as the police station’s token posh detective, and Durham-born Ronald Radd as its token gruff, northern one.  Also in the cast is strapping character actor John Hallam, who appeared in two more British crime movies on either side of The Offence, Villain (1971) and Hennessy (1975).

 

But Connery ultimately takes the acting honours, for daring to subvert the macho-ness of Bond and the other heroic roles he’d been associated with.  Here he explores the severely damaged psyche of someone who uses a macho exterior as something to hide behind.  I’ve read speculation that The Offence’s box-office failure persuaded Connery not to play more characters like Johnson, but I wonder if that’s really the case.  Even if the film had made money, having inhabited Johnson’s skin once, did he feel any need to do it again?

 

Though after The Offence he’d stick to more sympathetic and heroic roles, there were, thankfully, several more Connery movies to come that were serious in intent and tried to engage the intellect.  Highlander (1986) and The Rock (1996) were still some way off…

 

© Tantallon / United Artists

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