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Theo Robertson

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The Black Stuff (1980) (TV)
Unfocused Coming Of Age Tale With All Too Brief Flashes Of Brilliance, 31 December 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Play For Today gave birth to several series . GANGSTERS was one while RUMPOLE OF THE BAILEY was another . Perhaps the most acclaimed series was BOYS FROM THE BLACKSTUFF which become so acclaimed and popular that the one off TV play that gave birth to the legend was very quickly forgotten . While the series got high profile repeats in the 1980s the original PFT did not . With hindsight one can perhaps understand why because THE BLACKSTUFF has a rather different feel to the 1982 black comedy

Before I saw this I had predictable expectations that the narrative was going to revolve around Chrissie or Yosser but this isn't how things pan out . If there's a main character it's Kevin Deans the son of Dixie a 16 year old school leaver setting out in to the bitter sweet journey of life and rather self conscious that he's not had sex . For long segments the story focuses on this character subplot which is strange because Kevin later gets relegated to a few walk on scenes in three episodes of the 1982 series

Another striking element is the fact the characters are working in legal employment , well almost . I say " almost " because with the exception of Dixie and his son the other members of the tarmac gang are what's known as cowboy builders whose standard of work leaves a lot to be desired . When they get involved in a get rich quick scheme with a couple of Irish Gypsies things go from bad to suicidal This aspect is by far the most enjoyable part of the unfocused story and found myself laughing out loud at some of the on screen action towards the end . It does however illustrate a fundamental problem with Alan Bleasdale's writing and that is there is no subtlety involved . Interesting that Yosser isn't the entirely psychotic maniac of the later show , here he's merely a violent misogynistic sociopath but enough of a streetwise sixth sense to think he and his gang might be ripped off . The ways events unravel on screen at this point leave no doubt that Yosser and the boys are getting ripped off and the audience are one step ahead of the suspicious Yosser . If only he'd trusted his instincts which the script feels the need to constantly point out

This leads to a different appreciation of the later series - much of their later problems are entirely self inflicted because the protagonists didn't quit while they were ahead . It's easy to see how all the critics and social commentators picked up on the parable of greed seeing it as a scathing attack on the ethics of Thatcher's Britain . The truth is slightly less political and the reality is that this teleplay was produced and filmed before Thatcher came to power in 1979 and it was an internal dispute that delayed its broadcast for almost two years . Indeed much of the scripts of BOYS FROM THE BLACKSTUFF were also written before the 1979 Tory election victory too

In summary it's somewhat bizarre watching this today . Bizarre in the sense that the play itself is obscure in some ways but features some of the most memorable and colourful characters British television has ever produced but these characters are often off centre and the script lacks a character focus . It's also rather unsubtle . Despite these flaws it's an often entertaining slice of social realist black comedy

An Episode Of Two Halves, 29 December 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I saw this episode a few minutes ago . Previous to this my last viewing was five years ago and previous to that 2009 viewing I saw it in the early 1990s . Watching it on BBC Four circa 2009 I was bitterly disappointed for most of the episode and found myself wondering how on earth this series gained so much critical acclaim on its initial broadcast and how the reputation remained over the following couple of decades . Everything about the episode . Everything about the episode seemed pompous , pondering and sententious along with the symbolism and politics which even in the early 1980s was probably unconvincingly idealistic and ultimately false . Then the location moved from a funeral wake to a pub then I realised why BOYS FROM THE BLACKSTUFF is still considered a masterwork of British television

Seeing it today there is no need for to revalue my opinion . Everything I wrote in the above paragraph I stand by . For much of the episode the focus is on George Patrick Malone who spends his last days in frail health but still a legendary firebrand . So legendary in fact that he has a sitting room acting as a surgery where the proles go for advice . Similar to a Doctor's surgery but where as Doctors cure physical ills Comrade George cures every social ill known to man . I can't emphasise how over done all this is and how lacking in credibility any of this is but everything revolves around heavy handed symbolism that constantly crushes any subtlety and subtext . Look carefully ad you'll see a portrait of Marx on George's wall . George is a Christian socialist and the script can't get off its marks quick enough to point out how this bizarre , contradictory type of cultism is hijacked by religion and its mortal henchmen . You could be forgiven for switching off at this point as the script effectively screams and spits in the audience's face

Director Philip Saville directed the original GANGSTERS for Play For Today . GANGSTERS started off as a gritty hard hitting one off drama along the lines of GET CARTER , but then eventually mutated in to one of the most insane pieces of television ever produced featuring self destructive meta-fiction . Somewhat shockingly Saville had nothing to do with the final series of GANGSTERS , but here in the final third of the episode what had begun as social realist drama has now changed in to a surrealist nightmare where the repressed psychotic rage of Yosser Hughes is a normal fabric of society

And so ends one of the most acclaimed dramas in British television from 32 years ago . At the time Alan Bleasdale was under heavy pressure to do a follow up series but to his credit he resisted the temptation and what we have is five episodes of impacting human drama . The disturbing thing about the dated feel is that even in the depths of Thatcher's Britain the state still had some compassion . Nowadays all benefit claimants are branded frauds and cheats and their job searching is handled by work providers . Hundreds of thousands of people are reliant food banks the 21st Century of soup kitchens . If the past is another country 1982 was a Utopian Republic

For Something That Contains So Many Great Qoutes It's Ironic .., 29 December 2014

.... That there's nothing left to say

Once in a while a television show you've no knowledge comes along and shocks you . I remember watching this on BBC 2 and not seeing any of the previous episodes I was under the impression I was going to be watching a period drama set in the midlands of 19th Century England . Blackstuff = Black Country . See my way of thinking ? From the opening of a man wading through a river clutching his children this isn't the case and an hour later I realised I'd been watching a brilliant but brutal black comedy that's every bit as disturbing as it is funny . It wasn't just me who was impressed with it because Yosser's line of " Gissa job " quickly became a national catchphrase . By accident rather than design it summed Thatcher's Britain . I even had a T-Shirt of the enraged Yosser's face smashing through a brick wall with the quote " GISSA JOB "

There's so many quotable lines and incidents that have entered television immortality that it's almost unfair to remember one particular line but one that did stick out was the ridiculous " Are you after my body " spoken by James Ellis drunken Scotsman which didn't go down very well with the readers of the Scottish rag The Daily Record who were outraged that television was playing up to the stereotype of drunken Scotsmen , especially one played by an Irishman ! I mean it's only on television you see drunken Scotsmen . interesting that after seeing this episode after a gap of many years I was struck that Ellis doesn't sound very Scottish and could very well be a Irish accent . That said The Daily Record did and still does have a rabid support of Glasgow Rangers so is probably using a whip to beat Irish Celts

One thing noticeable is just how disturbed Yosser comes across and one feels puzzled why the GP doesn't section under the mental health act , but I'm guessing that the point Bleasdale is making the worst evil in a democracy is indifference to the individual . It's a powerful piece of writing brought to vivid life by Bernard Hill in a powerhouse performance . Hill did of course get a second lease of life as the Captain of James Cameron's TITANIC and as King Thepden in LORD OF THE RINGS but Yosser is a role that became something of an albatross to the actor . That said Yosser is one of the greatest characters created for television

It Doesn't Matter If The Cat Is Black Or White - It Still Has Rabies, 29 December 2014

Chrissie and Loggo are ordered to attend the DHSS office where they are told they will be facing criminal charges , though they may have an unlikely ally who wants to prosecute Malloy By coincidence immediately after seeing this episode I chanced upon a 1980 edition of WORLD IN ACTION featuring dole cheats who have been caught , dole cheats who hadn't been caught and the people doing the catching . Apparently in 1980 a grand total of 19,000 people out of 5 million claiming supplementary benefit were prosecuted in one year or about 0.3 per cent . Interesting there's a lack of guilt from anyone . Not from those who got caught , those who didn't get caught and those who do the catching . Those who do the catching really fancy themselves as James Bond , though you replace the Aston Martin , cigars and vodka martinis with Ford capris , woodbines and pints of bitter . Nothing like James Bond in fact

You can see what Bleasdale is trying to do here . He's not trying to paint the world in straight dichotomy of black and white . He does this via Miss Sutcliffe played with flamboyance by Jean Boht best known for her role in BREAD who sees not so much as Chrissie and Loggo as villains but corrupt capitalist boss Malloy . Nice try to everyone involved but it doesn't wash . It's a bit like a defendant at Nuremberg saying he should be let off for crimes against humanity because he only gassed rich Jews and not poor ones " So I'm not all that different from the Soviets so let me off comrade " . If you're bringing politics lets not forget the sage words of Sino Socialist Deng Xioping " It doesn't matter if the cat is black or white - as long as it catches mice " Indeed you could have added " It also doesn't matter what colour the cat is - if it's got rabies it needs to be quickly put down "

Some people might be confused as to why Loggo still insists on working on the side if his benefit has been stopped but this is the irony of sanctioned benefit - you don't qualify for benefit but still have to be available for work . In 2014 anyone missing an interview , an appointment with he job centre or a myriad of other small infractions is subject to job seekers allowance being stopped for a period of no less than 4 weeks and during that time the jobseeker still has to actively look for work otherwise they're not allowed back to sign on . At anyone time there's something like 5 per cent of jobseekers subject to sanction . And if nothing else this particular episode shows the traumatic strain on family life with no income

Please Remind Yourself Of The Context When It Was Made, 26 December 2014

Dixie Dean claims unemployment benefit while working on the side as a security guard down Liverpool docks . Finding himself getting bribed to turn a blind eye while a local group of robbers steal from the ships he starts getting menacing phone calls . If none of this is bad enough he finds himself being investigated by benefit fraud officers who have recently been very successful in catching Dixie's erstwhile workmates

This seems to be the forgotten episode of the series and Dixie Dean as played by Tom Georgeson doesn't seem as well remembered as the other characters from the show . This is a pity because despite this episode never being a masterwork of social realist drama it still is a very solid piece of poignant black comedy

Unlike the character of Yosser Hughes the audience are supposed to easily relate to the characters in this show with Dixie this is very easy to do . I can see something of myself in him and I'm sure anyone who has experienced the dole can see the same . It's very easy to become bitter and Dixie is a bitter man at the hand has dealt him but still holds a modicum of self respect and pride . There does seem to be an element of unintentional irony to the narrative . Dixie is stealing from the tax payer but doesn't consider himself a thief until he's forced to take part in the thieving of boots , cigarettes and other merchandise from the docks . I doubt if writer Alan Bleasedale wrote this with any type of irony involved , at least not at the time

And this type of context has changed over the decades . Where as in 1982 the audience would have universally sided with Dixie it probably wouldn't be the case now . Dixie is defrauding the state and watch all the mainstream political parties get involved in a race to the bottom to catch and punish this type of law breaker . Indeed it seems almost laughable in 2014 that one crime that resources are put in to is benefit fraud . The fraud office operation here might seem surreal and heavy handed , resembling a SAS survillence operation in a republican ghetto of West Belfast but in the 1980s the left wing press would sometimes print stories of how far the snoopers would go to uncover benefit fraud so an intricate cover story of " I'm here to sell you some perfume " isn't as far fetched as it sounds . Another difference between then and now is that every single person claiming job seekers allowance is a suspected cheat and the simple mechanics of claiming and qualifying for benefits would make it very difficult to work on the side as seen here

Despite The Writer Siding With The Proles One Wonders If It Did More Harm Than Good ?, 26 December 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

There's nothing left to say about BOYS FROM THE BLACKSTUFF . It originally started off as a one off Play For Today in 1978 by Alan Bleasedale and the BBC spent two years trying to find a slot for it and didn't transmit until 1980 . In effect it was written before Thatcher came to power but this show is seen as the definitive voice against Thatcherism which really isn't really the point the writer was making and Alan Bleasedale is on record as saying this himself . For sure it's a heavily political series and one that instantly entered the public consciousness helped in no small part by Bernard Hill's superlative performance as the psychotic Yosser Hughes . Despite being on the side of proles I do worry with hindsight that this series might have done more harm than good . I'll come to that in a moment

What this series does brilliantly is mixing jet black humour with poignant human drama . From the opening scene we have a taste of this as Loggo points out to the DSS clerk that signing on is interfering with his golf lessons . To be fair in all my years of signing on and off at job centres I've always been treated with a modicum of respect and in those days the benefit rules were very liberal . Okay the money was hardly enough to live on but it was a case of turning up at the office every two weeks , being asked if you'd done any work and if not not signing your name and going away . There is a slight element of artistic license with this opening episode where the DSS sniffers are on the case of the dole cheats almost like the Nazis in the occupied territories hunting down the Jewish population and eventually catch Chrissie and co red handed

The moonlighter gang are beautifully drawn and you can see why they're doing what they're doing and Chrissie's conversation with Malloy does point out he'd much rather be doing legal paid employment but circumstances prevent this . He's a good guy doing what he has to do as do his colleagues . Even the police are drawn in a positive light via an ironic scene where the audience are privy to something the Trotskyite Snowy isn't and the only bad guys being the sniffers trying to catch out benefit claimants working for cash in hand

This however is what I meant by the show doing more harm than good . Politicians today must have seen this in their formative years and instantly jumped to the conclusion every single benefit claimant must be at it - doing paid work while claiming benefits . Since 1982 the rules claiming benefits have changed beyond all recognition . Nowadays if someone is out of work for a certain period hey are forced on to a job search provider such as A4e , Ingeus etc where the claimant has to turn up several times a week to meet an adviser and satisfy them they're pro-actively looking for work or else you'll be sanctioned ie benefits will be stopped . The idea behind this that you're unemployed because you don't want a job or you've already got a job working in the black economy . Add to this the utterly shameful rise of the food banks and 1982 despite all the downsides of poverty was another country . One slight difference was that people still cared about the unemployed back then where as obviously no one cares about them anymore

16 out of 25 people found the following review useful:
An Uneven Christmas Gift, 26 December 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I had rather low expectations for this story . The Christmas specials have always been very hit and miss with an attitude of " Oh well it's Christmas therefore the audience won't be expecting much " . Add to this some stunt casting with Nick Frost as Santa and my expectations weren't high , especially when the pre-title sequence seemed to go on for ever , tried and failed to be amusing and by this point I was more interested in what I was drinking rather than what I was watching on screen

To be fair once the story gets to the North Pole it does pick up greatly and becomes similar to a base under siege story meets ALIEN . For those middle aged fans this is what DOCTOR WHO has always been about , a sort of family friendly horror show that appeals to the dark , vivid imagination of children . Okay it's not original and there is a strong element of post modernism where characters name check the Ridley Scott horror movie but these are by far the most effective parts of the special and is very enjoyable

The problem is Moffat loses focus and there's a very uneven and disjointed aspect to all this and every time Santa appears he took this viewer out of the drama involving the dream crabs . In fact I often found myself thinking that the television had miraculously switched channels and one moment I was watching a childish fantasy then I was watching a horror movie . This can only be described as a failure of sorts . Some people have mentioned INCEPTION and like Nolan's film the storytelling feels the need to constantly tell the audience what is happening and why it is happening . I suppose the one thing in its defence about the dream within a dream plot is that it doesn't appear from nowhere , but at the same time it is bludgeoned over the audiences head in much the same way as the incidental music tries to tell the audience as to what they should be feeling

In conclusion this isn't the worst Christmas special the show has come up with . But by the same token it's not the best one either . It's overlong , disjointed and the tone veers all over the place . It's very good in parts but as a consistent whole it's unsatisfying

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
A Disappointing Chick Flick For Grumpy Old Men, 21 December 2014

This was on my to watch list for a while . Six years to be precise . How on Earth I never got round to seeing it I've no idea . It's highly regarded by my peers on this website and it's by Eastwood who if nothing else is an inspiration in the way he constantly churns out movies without pausing for breath . He might not be on a par with Scorsese or Aronofsky but he's definitely not some third rate journeyman hack director who thinks he's doing an MTV ident while over dosing on cocaine which seems to be the in house Hollywood directorial style these days . That said despite the praise it has received GRAN TORINO is a disappointment

The problem is that the narrative is an all too obvious redemption plot . Eastwood plays Ebeneezer Scoorge / Victor Meldrew with a dollop of bitter and twisted racist overtones thrown in to the uneasy mix . When he's referring to ethnic minorities in general and Orientals in particular with nasty racist names I kept expecting him to scream " I don't believe it " . As soon as he gets friendly with his Asiatic neighbours you understand where the story is going and there's little in the way or surprises . The tone is often a problem . The foul mouthed and racist tirades totally jar with the schmaltzt and manipulative plotting . Ask yourself if it didn't star Eastwood and didn't contain strong language would you not expect this to be a production from the Hallmark Channel ? That said it does the intelligent point if you want to survive in the American ghetto then running with the pack is probably the only option and Eastwood is always good value but I expected more considering the high praise this movie received on its release

Gritty Violent Thriller That Deserves To Be Better Known, 21 December 2014

I caught this on BBC 1 one night many years ago . I forgot the title but could vividly remember a number of scenes especially a line of dialogue where two characters describe a third one having his genitals mutilated . This type of movie would be broadcast on television 30 years ago and no one would blink an eyelid but at the same time you can understand why it wouldn't be shown on network TV today . It as also a sign of the times back then that the TV broadcast had the F word overdubbed to something less offensive but the racial slurs against both black and whites remained intact . Perhaps the fact this film is consciously insensitive and hard hitting works against it ? This is a pity because it's not some " Blaxploitation " fare but more of a New Hollywood thriller at its best

The story itself is no great shakes - a couple of black dudes rip off and kill a few members of the Mafia and the black underworld and also kill a couple of uniformed cops in the process and find if not the entire world against them then at least the law enforcers and law breakers of NYC wanting to cap their ass . It's the sort of film Tarantino has been inspired by but unlike Tarantino's work this movie is devoid of post modernism and crippling self indulgence and is a relatively tightly plotted screenplay where lots of nasty things happen to lots of nasty people . There's a subplot featuring character interaction between Anthony Quinn's nasty racist white cop and Yaphet Kotto's not very nasty by the books black cop that might have been clichéd but does seem fresh and realistic , probably down to the fact the performances and writing portraying a rather amoral relationship between the two men and the wider world . And this does feel like an exceptionally amoral film that we never see nowadays more is the pity

31 out of 63 people found the following review useful:
An Almost Satisfying Conclusion To An Often Unsatisfying Trilogy, 17 December 2014

I almost gave this a miss . I fell in love with Jackson's LOTR trilogy and found myself often underwhelmed by large segments of the other Hobbit films which often took a long time to go nowhere . Even the title THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES conjures up what to expect - big overlong battles realised by some dodgy CGI . On top of that I'm not really a great cinema goer down to the fact you have to share an auditorium with other human beings and Hell can indeed be other people . None of this is helped by certain cinema chains allowing food and drink in to the showing . The first trailer was an advert for the Odeon's Croma Pizzeria where patrons can walk in a showing guzzling their ugly fat faces on pizza and I can confirm this temptation was too good for some salad dodgers to pass up . Bad enough cinemas are full of people slurping drinks and munching on crunchy popcorn but now respectful cinema fans have to endure the stench of jalapeños wafting around . We're not allowed to smoke in public places but we're allowed to annoy innocents with junk food . Sorry Odeon cinema you've just lost a patron for life . And this conclusion had better be bloody good in order to distract me from the stench and noise of the present cinema environment

So did it ? Just about . The third part is the strongest part of the trilogy as with the previous two films less would have been much much more and you're aware of the very cynical marketing trick of making three films each lasting on average 2.5 hours when you could have had a superb film lasting three hours . One thing I did notice early on is that I'd forgotten who most of the characters were since I hadn't bothered rewatching the two previous films and if you can't remember who was who and how they fit in to the story this must be seen as a creative failure of sorts , but to be fair the plot isn't exactly taxing and it's easy to pick up what's previously happened . Perhaps even better it's easy to pick up where it's going and several scenes do overlap in to the narrative of the later LOTR trilogy . One thing the LOTR trilogy was very good at was pointing out that greed for money are ultimately self destructive and again we see the same sort of subtext which nothing else means Jackson's stream of six films are very consistent

One wishes that Jackson had kept to subtext but unfortunately he himself becomes greedy for spectacle and so has to introduce overlong battle scenes which soon outlive their welcome . To give the director some credit a few of the fight scenes do contain extras involved in intricate choreography in the fights but there's often a reliance on sweeping shots that don't entirely convince you that they're anything more than something created on computer software . Like so much of this trilogy bigger is not necessarily better

So in summary apart from the unwanted smells and sound effects emitting from the audience I don't really feel I had wasted my time and money visiting the cinema to watch the Hobbit trilogy . This conclusion is darker in tone than its two predecessors but unlike LOTR I wasn't totally blown away and one hopes Hollywood can stop all their cynicism by making a story with two hours plot in to a franchise which unfortunately is becoming more and more common as seen in the TWILIGHT and HUNGER GAMES franchise

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