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The Christmas Carol (1949)
Mainly because of Vincent Price's excellent and tongue-in-cheek narration, reading the celebrated Dickens story, this works better than it should, especially given the ridiculously over the top performance of Taylor Holmes as Scrooge, acting in a way one associates more with the worst excesses of silent cinema.
However, in twenty-five minutes this production does include a scene in Scrooge's office, Jacob Marley and all the three ghosts, as well as a glimpse at Scrooge's redemption and celebration of Christmas.
As an example of early television's attempts to film the classics, it is very good indeed. There are of course better adaptations of this tale, but this one is worth seeking out even if is just the once.
The version I watched is rather muddy picture-wise, but the sound is clear and understandable, and everyone has clear voices which serve Dickens' text well.
The Arbor (2010)
Something quite different
Andrea Dunbar wrote two plays before she died tragically young at the age of 29 - 'The Arbor', of which we see snatches and scenes here, and 'Rita, Sue and Bob, Too', which was made into a well-regarded film.
This drama-documentary is rather different to the usual type because not only does it use real interview and actual footage of Dunbar from her TV appearances, but uses real interviews with her family and friends which are then lip-synched (very well) by professional actors. This sounds like a gimmick, but we very quickly forget we are not watching the real people talking about their lives - when we do get jolted out of this by associations with other work (George Costigan 'plays' Dunbar's partner but also of course was 'Bob' in the aforementioned film), it still somehow works.
Dunbar's story was a tragic one, one of wasted talent and a toxic life, to some degree, although her children - mixed-race Lorraine and Lisa - have very different stories about their childhood and the impact their mother had on them. Lorraine's story is just as tragic in its way, and we follow that following the description of Andrea Dunbar's death.
A new and dynamic way of presenting real people's issues and problems, 'The Arbor' is very possibly something Dunbar could have created herself had she lived. As it is, it stands as an interesting memorial to her talent.
Lost Christmas (2011)
The makings of a new Christmas classic
With all the hype about 'Lost Christmas' I came to it without high expectations, especially after seeing Eddie Izzard in previous dramas and not rating him that highly. However, in the role of the mysterious Anthony, a mystical man of magic without a sense of place, he seems to have found an ideal vehicle for his quirky talent.
We first meet Anthony when Frank (Jason Flemyng) comes across him on a deserted Manchester pavement where the lights mysteriously go on and off. Wearing a name badge on his coat, he has no memory of his life other than an ability to see what others have lost.
Tied in with Frank's story is that of the young thief Goose, who has still coming to terms with the horrible events of last Christmas, spending time with his dog, Mutt.
Taking some inspiration from 'The Christmas Carol' and 'It's a Wonderful Life', this drama weaves together a number of connected stories and situations over an hour and a half running time. It also has a satisfying, although not entirely joyful, twist.
This show could become an enduring classic of Christmas, and if it did, it would be deserved. Well worth a look.
A modern version of Austen's 'Emma'
As a bit of an Austen purist, my copy of 'Clueless' has been left on the shelf for quite a while until I decided to watch it this week. I was pleasantly surprised by, despite the American high school setting, the faithfulness to the original novel.
Emma Woodhouse becomes Cher (Alicia Silverstone), full of ego and a dumb blonde caricature, as insecure as those she aims to help, such as the geeky Tai = Harriet Smith (Brittany Murphy). She makes bad choices in love - throwing herself at the preening Christian (= Frank Churchill) while ignoring the steady Josh (= Mr Knightley), and this is as much a growing-up fable in the teen drama standard as it is an attempt to make a classic novel relevant to a new generation.
Although 'Clueless' is a bit dumb and squarely aimed at a younger audience, it does have some pleasures for those familiar with the book it takes as inspiration - and for those who do not know their Austen and so are ignorant of the parallels. Silverstone makes an endearing heroine and Murphy is convincing in her depiction of a girl moving from geek to glamourpuss (shades of Grease and Sandy here as well).
Like other adaptations it is worth a look simply to see how different directors and writers handle the subject.
Outstanding Christmas animation
'The Nightmare Before Christmas' has hints of A Christmas Carol about it, with its tale of The Pumpkin King (Jack Skellington) and his attempts to hijack Christmas in true Grinch-style.
It's a musical animation, beautifully realised, first as Jack discovers Christmas, and then plans to destroy it ... but will be succeed? Some lovely set pieces including the flight over a Christmas Eve sky, the Bogeyman's gambling lair, and the Edward Scissorhands-like desolation of empty spaces, work well, alongside more obviously comic pieces involving Jack's dog Zero, with the red nose to light up the sleigh.
This being a tale in the true festive spirit it does have the inevitable character development and redemption we have come to expect from versions of Scrooge over the years. But the 'Nightmare' has charm and is very well-voiced and created.
Armchair Theatre: The Hothouse (1964)
A sparkling quartet
'The Hothouse' was one of the most popular entries in the series of Armchair Theatre plays which ran on British television from 1956 to 1974, and scored very high ratings on its first transmission.
Apart from the first scene, set at the annual dance for the employees of a chain of supermarkets, there are only four characters showcased in this drama of ambition and infidelities, with four actors working at the top of their game. Diana Rigg makes her debut TV appearance (which would eventually win her the role of The Avengers' Emma Peel) as Anita Fender, twenty-eight, mother of two, a bit of lush and suspecting her marriage has gone stale. Veteran Armchair Theatre player Harry H Corbett plays her tycoon husband Harry Fender, who has built up the supermarket business from the time he was a delivery boy in his teens - he's now over forty and obsessed with developing the exotic plants in his hothouse.
Into this brew are dropped the recently married Parsleys - Gordon (Donald Churchill, who wrote this play) is assistant manager at one of the supermarket branches and hopes to be promoted to manager; his wife Charlotte (Miranda Connell) is a blonde stunner who has already attracted the eye of the boss at the annual dance, where they performed a tango together.
The main premise of the story is what happens when Anita invites the Parsleys for the weekend, and presents Miranda with a proposition which could secure her husband his promotion. But does everything go to plan? This play is a delight, funny (there's one delicious double-take between Corbett and Connell which is hilarious), spicy, and surprising. Rigg definitely makes an impression and Corbett removes thoughts of Harold Steptoe with his bored and passionate lover of blondes. Connell also shows a deft gift for comedy and Churchill doesn't disappoint in a role which he clearly relishes playing.
This lost gem can be viewed on DVD as an extra on the restored Avengers series four release. It's not to be missed.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1980)
Interesting adaptation of the classic tale
This version of 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' was made by the BBC thirty years ago, and featured Diana Dors and Toyah Wilcox in small but pivotal roles, other well-known names in the cast include Ian Bannen and Clive Swift as Dr Jekyll's oldest friends from when they were all students together.
Interestingly this version presents Dr Jekyll as other than a saintly doctor (a failing in earlier adaptations, IMO). Here, Jekyll is already visiting places of sin before he even starts taking the potions to separate his 'good' and 'evil' sides. This makes the transformation into Mr Hyde even more sinister - although in appearance he is younger and more dynamic rather than a simple monster as depicted in other adaptations of this tale.
In the dual lead roles, David Hemmings is excellent and both characters are very much given their own personalities. There are a couple of chilling moments - one involving Mr Hyde and a child prostitute, another Dr Jekyll's maid who is enticed into pleasures by Mr Hyde which leave her disgraced and desperate.
Well worth watching even if its low production values date it rather when viewing today.
Idol on Parade (1959)
Spoof of 'pop star is drafted into the Army'
Former child star Anthony Newley found his career took quite a different path once he was cast as 'Jeep Jackson' in this fun pop musical.
'Jeep' is a rising star who is drafted into the Army and spends the rest of the time trying to avoid being an 'Idol on Parade' (the original UK title was 'Idle on Parade' but either suits the subject matter perfectly). His sergeant is played by American import William Bendix (as Irish), while another 'Private Jackson' is played by comedy stooge Bernie Winters (who appeared a lot with Newley in other films and TV shows).
The best bits of the film though are the songs, the title itself, 'I've Waited So Long', and 'Saturday Night'. These make the film a feel-good romp, especially so for Newley fans - he shines in this without over-dominating the screen as he would in future years. Following 'Idol on Parade' Newley would appear in 'Jazzboat', 'The Small World of Sammy Lee', 'The Strange World of Gurney Slade' (for TV), and 'Sweet November'.
Following his pop career success in the 60s Newley moved into writing musicals and eventually appearing in cabaret shows. In many ways he became a sell-out, joke version of his earlier self, but if you want to see Newley in embryo, with evidence of how talented he was, see 'Gurney Slade' and see 'Idol on Parade'. Wonderful stuff.
The Miniver Story (1950)
Enjoyable sequel with high production values
The original Mrs Miniver was a huge international hit when released during the Second World War, teaming Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson as architect Clem Miniver and his wife Kay, characters inspired by the writings of Jan Struther.
Mrs Miniver was a fiercely patriotic film, and a reminder to the USA of what Britain was taking in rationing, nightly air raids, and bombings. This sequel though, titled The Miniver Story, takes place in peace time, and is largely concerned with troubles within the family, foreshadowed by Clem's narration at the start of the film.
This film gets a lot of bad press from those who find it weak, heavy-handed or simply sentimental. It may not have the power of its illustrious predecessor as a war film, but it simply doesn't have that agenda. Clem and Kay still have a strong marriage, Judy and Toby are fast growing up (although their eldest, Vin, is curiously absent), and if you enjoyed their characters and the teaming of Pidgeon/Garson first time around, you will like this film.
In support you will find Cathy O'Donnell, Leo Genn, a very young James Fox, and (all too briefly) John Hodiak. Jan Struther might have objected to her creation ending the way it does in The Minever Story - and the film is certainly sentimental - but it is watchable, with good points.
Fall of Eagles (1974)
Historical epic which gives time to the great Royal houses
The 'Fall of Eagles' refers to the end of three great Royal houses - the Habsburgs of Austria, the Hohenzollerns of Germany, and the Romanovs of Russia. Over a seventy year period, we follow the course of history from the marriage of the young Franz Josef through to the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Each of these great Empires became republics by the end of World War I, a war which, this series implies, could so easily have been avoided. Also there were family links with England which fell apart after the war.
With a cast that includes such familiar faces as Barry Foster as Kaiser Wilhelm, Patrick Stewart as Lenin, Charles Kay as Tsar Nicholas, Gayle Hunnicutt as Tsarina Alexandra, plus Maurice Denham, Miles Anderson, Jan Francis, Diane Keen, Rachel Gurney, Charles Gray, Michael Kitchen, and many others, plus a strong narration from Michael Hordern putting each story in context, this series moves along at a good pace and is never less than engrossing, even with a minimum of outdoor filming and with major events (such as the massacre at Winter Gardens) represented by inserted footage of the time.
'Fall of Eagles' is one of the great classic series which is worth your time if you have any interest in European history.