A Lee-centennial

 

© British Lion Films

 

The British actor Sir Christopher Lee, who was born on this day exactly 100 years ago, was a man who embodied evil to generations of film-goers.  He played Lord Summerisle, Dracula, Fu Manchu, Rasputin, Scaramanga, Comte de Rochefort, Frankenstein’s monster, the mummy, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Blind Pew, Saruman, Count Dooku, the Jabberwocky, the Devil and, in the 2008 adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, Death himself.  But up until his passing in 2015, I didn’t so much regard him as the embodiment of evil as one of the coolest people on the planet.

 

Lee did a lot during his 93 years and not just in terms of acting – though his movie resume was awesome, with some 275 titles to his name by the time he entered his tenth decade.

 

He was, incidentally, an incredibly literary actor too, because his massive film and television CV contained adaptations of stories by Lewis Carroll, Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Roald Dahl, Alexandre Dumas, Rider Haggard, Washington Irving, H.P. Lovecraft, Mervyn Peake, Edgar Allan Poe, Sax Rohmer, Sir Walter Scott, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker and Jules Verne.  In real life, he was step-cousin of James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming; and by the time Peter Jackson got around to filming the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2002-2004), he could boast that he was the only member of the movies’ cast and crew who’d actually met J.R.R. Tolkien.  He was also good friends with Robert Bloch, author of Psycho (1959), the fabulous Ray Bradbury, and posh occult-thriller-writer Dennis Wheatley, whose potboiler The Devil Rides Out Lee would persuade Hammer Films to adapt to celluloid in 1968.  And he was one of the last people alive who could claim to have met M.R. James, the greatest ghost story writer in English literature.  As a lad Lee encountered James, who was then Provost of Eton College, when his family tried, unsuccessfully, to enrol him there.  Lee obviously didn’t hold his failure to get into Eton against James because in 2000 he played the writer in the BBC miniseries Ghost Stories for Christmas.

 

Before getting into acting in the late 1940s, Lee did military service during World War II, which included attachments with the Special Operations Executive and the Long Range Desert Patrol , the forerunner to the SAS.  He kept schtum about what he actually did with them.  Decades later, though, he may have unintentionally dropped a hint about his secret wartime activities to Peter Jackson when, on set, he discreetly advised the Kiwi director about the sound a dying man would really make if he’d just had a knife planted in his back.

 

His first years as an actor did not see much success, due to his being too tall (six-foot-four) and too foreign-looking (he had Italian ancestry).  During this period he at least learned how to swordfight, a skill he drew on when appearing in various low-budget swashbucklers.  During the making of one such film, 1955’s The Dark Avenger, the famously sozzled Errol Flynn nearly hacked off Lee’s little finger; although later Lee got revenge when, during a TV shoot with the same actor, a slightly-misaimed sword-thrust knocked off Flynn’s toupee, much to the Hollywood star’s mortification and no doubt to everyone else’s amusement.  Incidentally, I love the fact that Lee could boast of being the only actor in history who’d conducted sword fights with Errol Flynn and Yoda.

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

And I’ve read somewhere that when he made the swashbuckler The Scarlet Blade for Hammer Films in 1963, Lee taught a young Oliver Reed the basics of sword-fighting.  I’m sure fight-choreographer William Hobbs and the stunt crew who worked on The Three Musketeers a decade later quietly cursed Lee for this.  (Lee starred alongside Reed in the film, playing the memorably eye-patched Comte de Rochefort.)  From all accounts, the ever-enthusiastic Ollie threw himself into the Musketeers’ sword-fights like a whirling dervish, and eventually one stuntman had to ‘accidentally’ stab him in the hand and put him out of action before he killed someone.

 

In 1956 and 1957 Lee got two gigs for Hammer films that’d change his fortunes and make him a star – playing the monster in The Curse of Frankenstein and then, on the strength of that, Bram Stoker’s famous vampire count in Dracula.  Apparently, Hammer wanted originally to hire the hulking comedic actor Bernard Bresslaw to play Frankenstein’s monster.  I suppose there’s a parallel universe out there somewhere where Bresslaw actually got the job; so that the man we know as Little Heap in Carry On Cowboy (1965), Bernie Lugg in Carry On Camping (1969) and Peter Potter in Carry On Girls (1973) went on in that universe to play Count Dooku in the Star Wars movies and Saruman the White in the Lord of the Rings ones.

 

Playing Baron Frankenstein in The Curse of Frankenstein and Van Helsing in Dracula was the legendary Peter Cushing and he and Lee would hit it off immediately, become best mates and make another 18 films together, in which for much of the time they did bad things to each other.  As a mad-scientist-cum-asylum-keeper in The Creeping Flesh (1972), Lee brought a monster to life and then, after the monster had attacked Cushing and driven him insane with terror, he coolly incarcerated Cushing in his asylum.  Whereas in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) Cushing chased him, as Dracula, through a prickly hawthorn bush – hawthorns are apparently harmful to vampires and the experience, Lee recalled in his autobiography Tall, Dark and Gruesome (1977), left him ‘shedding genuine Lee blood like a garden sprinkler’ – before impaling him on a sharp, uprooted fence-post.  Meanwhile, the 1972 British-Spanish movie Horror Express featured a decomposing ape-man fossil that’d come back to life, was possessed by an alien force and had the power to suck people’s brains out through their eyeballs.  It was such an evil motherf***er that Lee and Cushing had to join forces, for once, to defeat it.

 

© Granada Films

 

Lee was famously uncomfortable about being branded a horror-movie star and about being associated with Dracula, an association that might thwart his ambitions for a serious acting career.  He did, though, play the character another six times for Hammer, and an eighth time in the Spanish production El Conde Dracula.  Tweeting a tribute to him when he passed away, Stephen King said, “He was the King of the Vampires.”  So sorry, Sir Christopher, but when the man who wrote Salem’s Lot (1975) says you’re the King of the Vampires, you’re the King of the Vampires.

 

As Dracula, he got to bite Barbara Shelley, Barbara Ewing, Linda Hayden, Anouska Hempel, Marcia Hunt, Caroline Munro and Valerie Van Ost.  Last-minute interventions by Peter Cushing in Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) prevented him from biting Stephanie Beacham and Joanna Lumley, which must have been frustrating.  Meanwhile, the 1965 movie Dracula, Prince of Darkness was the first really scary horror movie I ever saw, on TV, back when I was eight or nine years old.  I’d watched old horror films made by Universal Studios in the 1940s, like House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), in which everything was discreetly black-and-white and bloodless, so I wasn’t prepared for an early scene in Dracula, Prince of Darkness where Lee / the count is revived during a ceremony that involves a luckless traveller (Charles Tingwell) being suspended upside-down over a coffin and having his throat cut.  The sight and sound of the blood splattering noisily onto the supposedly dead vampire’s ashes traumatised me.

 

© Warner Pathé / Hammer Films

 

Thanks to Hammer’s success in the horror genre, the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s saw a boom in British, usually gothic, horror filmmaking.  And during that boom, Lee did many memorable, often evil, things.  He drove his car into Michael Gough and squidged off Gough’s hand in Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors (1965).  He forced Vincent Price to immerse himself in a vat of acid in Scream and Scream Again (1969).  He turned up as a snobbish senior-civil-servant type and tormented Donald Pleasance in Deathline (1972).

 

Lee was probably Britain’s most linguistic actor, speaking German, French, Italian and Spanish and also knowing a bit of Swedish, Russian and Greek.  Thus, he also found it easy to find employment making horror movies on mainland Europe, where the gothic tradition was raunchier, more lurid and looser in its plot logic than its counterpart in Britain.  He worked with the Italian maestro Mario Bava in 1963’s The Whip and the Body and on several occasions with the fascinatingly prolific, but erratic, Spanish director Jess Franco.  Despite Franco’s cheeky habit of shooting scenes with Lee and then inserting them into a totally different and usually pornographic movie – something Lee would only discover later, when he strolled past a blue-movie theatre in Soho and noticed that he was starring in something like Eugenie and the Story of her Journey into Perversion (1970) – Lee held the Spaniard in esteem and championed his work at a time it wasn’t fashionable to do so.  Since his death in 2013, Franco’s reputation has improved and art-house director Peter Strickland’s movie The Duke of Burgundy (2014) is a tribute, in part, to him.

 

Franco directed the later entries in a series of movies about Fu Manchu that Lee made in the 1960s, in which he played Sax Rohmer’s supervillain in un-PC Oriental makeup and spent his time barking orders at Chinese minions, who were usually played by Burt Kwouk.  As well as retaining some of the racism that was prominent in Rohmer’s books, the series generally wasn’t up to much in terms of quality.  However, the film’s endings have always haunted me.  Invariably, Fu Manchu’s secret headquarters would blow up and then Lee’s voice would boom imperiously through the smoke, “The world will hear of me again!”

 

© Eon Productions

 

In the early 1970s, Lee finally got opportunities to make the sort of films he wanted to make, including Richard Lester’s two Musketeers movies (1974 and 1975); the ninth official Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun (1975), in which he taunted Roger Moore, “You work for peanuts – a hearty well-done from Her Majesty the Queen and a pittance of a pension.  Apart from that, we are the same.  To us, Mr Bond.  We are the best…  Oh come, come, Mr Bond.  You get as much fulfilment out of killing as I do, so why don’t you admit it?”; and Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), regarded by many as the best attempt at bringing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s deerstalker-wearing super-sleuth to the screen.

 

In that latter film, Lee played Holmes’s snooty brother Mycroft.  Lee also played Sherlock Holmes himself several times, including in a couple of early-1990s TV movies with Dr Watson played by the impeccable Patrick Macnee, whom decades earlier had been Lee’s schoolmate at Summer Fields School in Oxford.  And he played Henry Baskerville in the 1959 Hammer adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which had Peter Cushing in the role of Holmes.  But for some strange reason, nobody ever thought of casting Lee as Professor Moriarty.

 

In 1973, he also played Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, a film that needs no introduction from me.  Actually, next year is the film’s fiftieth anniversary.  I trust the Scottish Tourist Board will celebrate this fact on May 1st, 2023, by lighting lots of wicker men, with lots of sanctimonious, virginal, Free Presbyterian policemen inside them, along the coasts of Scotland.

 

Later in the 1970s, no longer so typecast in horror movies and with the British film industry on its deathbed, Lee decamped to Hollywood.  He ended up appearing in some big-budget puddings like dire 1977 disaster movie Airport 77 and Steven Spielberg’s supposed comedy 1941 (1979), but at least he was able to rub shoulders with icons such as Muhammad Ali and John Belushi.  And he didn’t, strictly speaking, stop appearing in horror movies.  He was in the likes of House of the Long Shadows (1982), The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (1985), The Funny Man (1994) and Talos the Mummy (1998).  Amusingly, Lee usually explained this by arguing that these weren’t really horror films.  The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf wasn’t a horror film?  Aye, right.

 

© New Line Cinema / WingNut Films

 

Though he never relented in his workload, it wasn’t until the 1990s that Lee experienced a late-term career renaissance – no doubt because many of the nerdish kids who’d sneaked into cinemas or stayed up late in front of the TV to watch his old horror movies had now grown up, become major players in the film industry and were only too happy to cast him in their movies: Joe Dante, John Landis, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Peter Jackson and Tim Burton.  Hence his roles in two of the biggest franchises in cinematic history, the Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings / Hobbit ones, plus five movies directed by Burton.

 

When he was in his eighties, Lee must have wondered if there were any territories left for him to conquer – and he realised that yes, there was one.  Heavy metal!  He had a fine baritone singing voice but only occasionally in his film career, for example, in The Wicker Man and The Return of Captain Invincible (1983), did he get a chance to show it off.  In the mid-noughties, however, he started recording with symphonic / power-metal bands Rhapsody of Fire and Manowar and soon after he was releasing his own metal albums such as Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross and Charlemagne: The Omens of Death, which had contributions by guitarist Hedras Ramos and Judas Priest’s Richie Faulkner.  He also released two collections of Christmas songs, done heavy-metal style.  The festive season will never seem the same after you’ve heard Lee thundering his way through The Little Drummer Boy with electric guitars caterwauling in the background.

 

© Charlemagne Productions Ltd

 

Obviously, the heavy metal community, which sees itself as a crowd of badasses, was flattered when the cinema’s supreme badass – Lord Summerisle, Dracula, Fu Manchu, Rasputin, etc. – elected to join them and they welcomed Lee with open arms.  They even gave him, as the genre’s oldest practitioner, the Spirit of Metal Award at the Metal Hammer Golden Gods ceremony in 2010.

 

So: singing heavy metal, speaking eight languages, being perhaps the 20th century’s greatest screen villain and, probably, bayoneting Nazis to death.  Was there anything this man couldn’t do?  Well, it seems the only thing he couldn’t quite manage was to live forever.  Mind you, for someone who spent his cinema career dying – even when he penned his autobiography in his mid-fifties, he reckoned he’d been killed onscreen more than any other actor in history – but kept coming back, it feels a bit odd to be writing about Christopher Lee in the past tense.

 

Actually, if anybody wants to congregate in a Carpathian castle after dark and perform a blood-soaked ritual to resurrect the great man, I’m up for it.

 

From the Independent

Great British crime movies of the 1970s

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer

 

I’ve been busy lately and unable to post much on this blog.  Here’s a reposting of something that first appeared here in 2019.

 

During the 1970s, when I was a kid and when I absorbed cultural influences like a sponge, crime movies made in the United Kingdom were rarer than hen’s teeth.  That’s hardly surprising.  During that decade, the British film industry practically died on its arse.

 

And yet, as a kid, I got the impression that 1970s Britain was so crime-ridden it was dystopian.  It was a place where every bank and security van was in constant danger of being attacked by beefy men with sawn-off shotguns and stockings pulled over their heads.  Where every street was the potential scene of a violent punch-up and every road was the potential scene of a destructive car chase.  Where the police force scarcely seemed any better than the villains, its ranks composed of hard-boozing, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed thugs wearing kipper ties.  Really, at times, I must’ve been too afraid to leave my house.

 

This is because 1970s British television was awash with crime and cop shows, often violent and populated by low-life characters on both sides of the law: for example, Special Branch (1969-74), Villains (1972), New Scotland Yard (1972-74), The Sweeney (1975-78), Gangsters (1975-78), The XYY Man (1976-77), Target (1977-78), Out (1978), Hazell (1978-79) and Strangers (1978-82).  Impressionable kids like me would act out things we’d seen on TV the night before, so that at breaktimes school playgrounds reverberated with shouts of “You’re nicked, sunshine!” and “You grassed me off, you slag!” and “We’re the Sweeney, son, and we haven’t had any dinner!”  My parents were happy to let me watch such programmes.  As long as I wasn’t watching that horror rubbish, which had been scientifically proven to be bad for you.

 

I suppose that many British directors, writers and actors who would have plied their trade on the big screen, if Britain’s film industry hadn’t been moribund, found themselves plying it on the small screen instead.  This helped inject some uncompromising cinematic rawness into the domestic TV crime genre.  But the cinematic counterpart of that genre seemed non-existent.

 

Well, almost non-existent.  A few crime movies did get made in 1970s Britain and these exert a fascination for me today.  Only two of them ever achieved a degree of fame and the rest are virtually forgotten, but I find all of them cherish-able.  Here are my favourites.

 

© MGM EMI

 

Get Carter (1970)

Everyone knows this 1970s British crime film, although I don’t recall it getting much attention until the 1990s, when thanks to Britpop, Damien Hirst, etc., the ‘cool Britannia’ scene took off and Get Carter’s star Michael Caine suddenly became a retro-style icon.  Ironically, Caine’s nattily dressed Jack Carter and Roy Budd’s edgy jazz score aside, there isn’t much in the Mike Hodges-directed Get Carter that feels stylish.  The drab, monochrome terraced streets of Newcastle-upon-Tyne – if the film’s premise is that Michael Caine has returned to his hometown to sort out trouble, whatever happened to Caine’s Geordie accent? – the shabby pubs, the seedy racecourses, the shit clothes and haircuts, the Neanderthal attitudes…  It’s depressing, actually.  It’s a provincial Britain where the Swinging Sixties have truly burned themselves out – if the Swinging Sixties ever reached provincial Britain in the first place.

 

Caine gets all the acting accolades for Get Carter but the film wouldn’t be what it is without its excellent supporting cast: Alun Armstrong, Britt Ekland, George Sewell, Tony Beckley and playwright and occasional actor John Osborne.  Best of all, there’s Ian Hendry as the film’s weasly villain, Eric Paice.  “Do you know,” Carter tells Paice at one point, “I’d almost forgotten what your eyes look like.  They’re still the same.  Piss-holes in the snow.”  Hendry was originally meant to play the virile Carter, but by 1970 his fondness for the booze had taken its toll and he was demoted to the secondary role of Paice, which supposedly caused tension and resentment during filming.  Thus, Caine may have enjoyed the irony of the film’s climax, which sees Carter force-feed Paice a bottle of whisky before clubbing him to death with a shotgun.

 

Villain (1971)

Villain has Richard Burton, no less, in the role of a gay, mother-fixated and paranoidly violent gang-boss who, against the counsel of wiser heads, gets himself involved in a raid on a factory’s wages van that ultimately causes his downfall.  Meanwhile, trying to stay in one piece is Ian McShane, playing a smooth but unimportant pimp who has the unenviable job of being both the object of Burton’s affections and the victim of his sadistic rages.

 

Villain also has a wonderful supporting cast – T.P. McKenna and Joss Ackland as fellow gang-bosses, Del Henney, John Hallam and (alas, the recently-departed) Tony Selby as henchmen, and Nigel Davenport and Colin Welland as the coppers doggedly trying to bring Burton to justice.  (Interestingly, McKenna, Henney and Welland all turned up in the cast of Sam Peckinpah’s troubling Straw Dogs, made the following year.)  The film suffers from having too many sub-plots, though the one where McShane helps Burton escape the law by getting a sleazy Member of Parliament who’s used his pimping services to testify for him is memorably believable and nauseating.  Played by Donald Sinden, you never hear which political party the MP belongs to, but you can guess.

 

Sitting Target (1972)

Ian McShane had to suffer some dysfunctional relationships in early 1970s British crime movies.  No sooner had he finished being Richard Burton’s lover / punchbag in Villain than he had to cope with being best friend to a psychotic Oliver Reed in Sitting Target, directed by the underrated Douglas Hickox.  With McShane in tow, Reed escapes from prison early in the film, determined to catch up with his wife Jill St John and give her what’s coming to her.  Reed doesn’t want revenge on St John, as you might expect, for her terrible performance as Tiffany Case in Diamonds are Forever (1971).  No, it’s because he’s discovered she’s betrayed him for another man.  The film’s big twist, when we find out who that other man is, isn’t altogether a surprise.

 

Sitting Target has many pleasures, including Edward Woodward playing a policeman assigned to protect St John against the marauding Ollie.  But nothing quite matches the thrilling early sequence where our two anti-heroes, plus a third convict played by the always-entertaining character actor Freddie Jones, bust out of prison in desperate, skin-of-the-teeth fashion.

 

The Offence (1972)

Okay, Sidney Lumet’s The Offence (which I’ve previously devoted a whole blog-entry to) isn’t really a crime movie.  It’s a psychological study of a macho but troubled police officer (Sean Connery) going over the edge when a hunt for a child-killer, and the provocations of the suspect the police have pulled in for questioning (Ian Bannon), push too many buttons on his damaged psyche.  But the film has that grim 1970s aesthetic that more conventional British crime movies of the period are so fond of – drab housing estates, anonymous tower blocks, serpentine pedestrian bridges.  Its supporting cast also includes strapping character actor John Hallam who, although he’s probably best remembered as Brian Blessed’s Hawkman sidekick in 1980’s Flash Gordon, was a fixture in crime movies at this time.  So, I’m putting The Offence on my list.

 

© American International Pictures

 

Hennessy (1975)

I’m also conflicted about adding Don Sharpe’s Hennessy to this list because it’s about terrorism rather than crime.  Indeed, its story of a former IRA explosive expert (Rod Steiger) who decides to destroy the British government and the Queen by blowing up the state opening of parliament after his wife and child are killed by the British Army, makes it the first movie to tackle the issue of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.  However, as the final film on the list is choc-a-bloc with IRA men, and as Richard Johnson gives a lovely performance as the weary, dishevelled, cynical copper – is there any other type in British crime movies? – trying to thwart Steiger’s plan, I thought I’d give it a mention.

 

The film is admittedly patchy but it has a top-notch cast that also includes Lee Remick, Trevor Howard, Eric Porter, John Hallam (again), Patrick Stewart (bald as a coot even then) and a super-young Patsy Kensit playing Steiger’s ill-fated daughter.  The climactic scenes set in the House of Commons, involving the Queen, landed the filmmakers in hot water because they used real footage that Buckingham Palace had approved without knowing it was going to end up in a film.  Also, the film’s subject, an incredibly touchy one at the time, meant that Hennessy scarcely saw the light of day in British cinemas.

 

Brannigan (1975)

Brannigan – also directed by Douglas Hickox – is the joker in this pack.  It features John Wayne as a tough American cop who arrives in a London of bowler hats, brollies and historic landmarks that exists only in the imagination of Hollywood scriptwriters, and who then causes mayhem as he behaves like a Wild West sheriff dealing with an unruly frontier town.  This involves such memorable sequences as Wayne doing an Evel Knievel-style car stunt where he hops across Tower Bridge while it parts to let  a ship pass below.  And Wayne triggering a cowboy-style brawl in a pub near Leadenhall Market.  And Wayne roughing up a minor villain played by the cinema’s greatest Yorkshireman, Brian Glover.  (“Now would you like to try for England’s free dental care or answer my question?”)  If you’re in the wrong mood, Brannigan is the worst film ever made.  If you’re in the right mood, it’s the best one.

 

© United Artists

 

The Squeeze (1977)

Barely had John Wayne swaggered through the London underworld than another Hollywood star did too in Michael Apted’s The Squeeze – Stacy Keach, although playing an English private eye with an industrial-strength drink problem. During occasional moments of sobriety, Keach investigates the kidnapping of his ex-wife (Carol White).  She’s remarried a posh security officer (Edward Fox) tasked with overseeing the delivery of large sums of money.  Keach finds himself tangling with a kidnap gang planning to force Fox to help them mount an armed robbery.

 

The Squeeze suffers from being overlong, with too much time spent wallowing in Keach’s alcoholism. But its good points outweigh this.  I like its depiction of late 1970s multicultural London and its sympathetic portrayal of Keach’s Jamaican neighbours.  Also, Stephen Boyd (who died soon after the film’s completion, aged just 45) and David Hemmings give good turns as the villains.  Allowed to use his native Northern Irish accent for a change, Boyd disturbingly plays a well-heeled crime-lord who dotes over his own family whilst having zero empathy for the family he’s threatening to destroy with his kidnapping scheme.  Meanwhile, Hemmings is good as a pragmatic career criminal who doesn’t share his boss’s sunny optimism about things.

 

And connoisseurs of 1970s British popular culture will be fascinated to see anarchic comedian Freddie Starr play Keach’s best mate, a reformed criminal trying to make a living as a taxi driver. Indeed, such is Starr’s loyalty to Keach that he saves his neck three times at the end of the film, including by running the villains off the road in his taxi.  Starr, who died in 2019, was from all accounts an unreconstructed arsehole in real life.  Therefore, remember him this way.

 

© Warner Bros. Pictures

 

Sweeney II (1978)

The greatest of all 1970s British cop shows, The Sweeney got two movie spin-offs, Sweeney! In 1977 and Sweeney II.  I don’t think Sweeney!, which involved Flying Squad heroes Jack Regan (John Thaw) and George Carter (Dennis Waterman) in an espionage plot, is much cop, but Sweeney II captures the spirit of the TV series.  It has Regan and Carter on the trail of a gang who spend most of their time living it up in Malta as wealthy British ex-pats, but who return to Britain from time to time to stage vicious, take-no-prisoners bank robberies.  As well as marrying bloody, sawn-off-shotgun-powered violence with some off-the-wall humour, Sweeney II manages to be topical too.  London’s real Metropolitan Police force was investigated for corruption in the late 1970s.  The film reflects this with the character of Regan’s commanding officer, played by the excellent Denholm Elliot, who’s facing a long stretch in prison on account of being “so bent it’s been impossible to hang his pictures straight on the office wall for the past twelve months.”

 

The Long Good Friday (1980)

Although it was released at the start of the 1980s, John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday was made in 1979 and so I’m classifying it as a 1970s film.  It definitely feels the end of a particular era with its tale of an old school London gangster (Bob Hoskins) convinced he’s about to make a mint in the brave new world of Thatcherite London where everything is up for sale to the corporations and developers.  That’s until one day when he suddenly finds himself tangling with a ruthless foe, the IRA, who make him look hopelessly out of his depth.

 

The final scene sees Hoskins become a prisoner in his own, hijacked car and get driven to his doom – an IRA man played by a youthful Pierce Brosnan snakes up from behind the front passenger seat to hold him at gunpoint.  Although Hoskins doesn’t speak, the succession of emotions that flit across his face as it dawns on him that he had it all, but now he’s blown it all, make this the most powerful moment in British crime-movie history.

 

© Black Lion Films / Handmade Films / Paramount British Pictures

The holiest relic in Peebles

 

 

I’ve not had time to write much on this blog recently because of my current work commitments.  Unfortunately, in this era of Covid-19-imposed confinement, none of this work involves me moving away from the laptop on the desk in a corner of my bedroom.  Moreover, because I’ve had quite a few short stories published recently under the pseudonyms of Jim Mountfield and Rab Foster, I’m also trying to keep momentum going with those and am devoting additional time to writing, revising and submitting short fiction.

 

In the meantime, in the absence of new blog entries, here’s a reposting of something I wrote for this blog in 2014.  It seemed to get an enthusiastic response at the time and, indeed, I think someone made the entry into a poster that was put on the wall of – where else? – the Pub in Valetta.  Alas, since this was written, Peter Cassidy, the then-owner of the Crown Hotel, has passed away.  Meanwhile, I assume that the chair is still there.

 

Certain towns and cities around the world can boast of having ancient and holy relics.  In the Christian world, for example, Sienna has the mummified head of Saint Catherine in its Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico.  Paris has what is alleged to be the crown of thorns worn by Christ at his crucifixion in its Notre Dame Cathedral.  And in Rome’s Basilica di Santa Croce, you can see part of the index finger of Saint Thomas, the finger that as a sceptical disciple he poked into the wound in the side of the resurrected Christ to check if it was real.  Some places have relics so special that they are said to have healing or protective powers.  Naples, for instance, is lucky enough to have in its city cathedral the dried blood of St Januarius, which protects it from disasters like earthquakes and plagues.

 

However, my hometown of Peebles in the south of Scotland contains surely the most powerful holy relic of all.  Because in the public bar of the Crown Hotel on Peebles High Street you’ll find the armchair of Oliver Reed.

 

This hallowed item of furniture, on which the legendary hell-raising star of movies such as Hannibal Brooks (1969), Women in Love (1969), The Devils (1971), The Three and Four Musketeers (1973-74) and Tommy (1975) once rested his butt, is rumoured to have healing powers too.  A pilgrim who reposes against its upholstery will, with time, be cured of certain pernicious ailments.  He or she will be cured of sobriety, for instance.  And common sense.  And dignity.

 

The story behind the chair is that, in the middle of the 1990s, Oliver Reed found himself staying in Peebles whilst doing some location filming for a Scottish movie called The Bruce (1996), a quick, cheap cash-in on Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995), which had recently been cleaning up at the box office.  I’ve never seen The Bruce, but from all accounts it’s terrible.  Reed being Reed, of course, he soon managed to sniff out the pub in town containing the biggest number of what are euphemistically known as ‘local characters’, which was the Crown’s public bar.  He then set up camp there for several days, much to the joy of the Scottish tabloid press.

 

At one point, the Scottish edition of the Sun published on its front page a photo of an inebriated Reed passed out against the inside of the Crown’s entrance door, while someone outside tried to push his way in.  No doubt he was thinking, “What the hell’s blocking the door…?  Oh…  It’s Oliver Reed.”  For some reason Reed was clutching a toy sheep at the time so the Sun’s headline was, inevitably, SHAME ON EWE.

 

During his sojourn in the Crown, Reed complained to the hotel owner Peter Cassidy about the hardness of his seats and then thrust a bundle of notes into the hand of a regular called Davie Lees and ordered him to go to the local furniture store, the Castle Warehouse, and buy the pub a properly upholstered, properly comfortable armchair.  Davie obliged, and the armchair now resides against a back wall of the public bar, under a framed photo of a well-refreshed Reed posing with Cassidy outside the hotel.

 

Reed departed for the great pub in the sky back in 1999, when he expired during the filming of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (1999) in Malta.  He keeled over and breathed his last in, appropriately enough, a Valetta bar called the Pub, after he’d taken on a squad of British sailors in a series of drinking and arm-wrestling contests.  However, I have a feeling that the great man’s psychic residue lives on in that armchair in the Crown.

 

Just a few days ago, I’d arranged to meet my Dad for a meal in the Crown’s restaurant.  As the Oliver Reed armchair is aligned with the pub’s front door, I sat down in it so that I could watch the door and spot my Dad as soon as he walked in.

 

Immediately after sitting down, I found myself possessed by strange urges – to drink 104 pints in one sitting and then climb up the nearest chimneystack naked whilst roaring, “I’m Santa Claus!”; to indulge in a nude fireside wrestling match with Alan Bates; to vomit over Steve McQueen; to smuggle an elephant over the Alps; to take the local rugby club on a drinking spree and then organise a naked cross-country run with them through the surrounding moonlit fields; to film a Musketeers movie and stab several stunt-swordsmen during the fight scenes; to insult Jack Nicholson about his height, Richard Harris about his toupee and Raquel Welch about the thickness of her ankles; to arrive drunk at Galway Airport lying on the baggage conveyor; to chase ace snooker player Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins around a house with an axe; and to get a bird-claw tattoo done on my willie, which I’d subsequently threaten to whip out and display to the cameras every time I did a TV chat-show interview.

 

But then my Dad came into the hotel, I rose from the seat and the strange spell was broken.  So instead I ordered a half-pint of lager shandy and a plate of supreme-of-chicken with honey-and-mustard sauce, and later washed everything down with a nice cup of coffee.  And then went home to my bed.

 

© 20th Century Fox

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