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Thatcher: the early years
Originally shown as part of a season of programmes on Margaret Thatcher on BBC4, The Long Walk to Finchley presents a very different view of one of British politics most divisive figures. Here we see her not as the strident leader of the 1980s, but as an underdog, in her early years as a prospective Parliamentary candidate. Trying to gain election to Parliament in the 1950s, she is the victim of the establishment, the old boy network, and most especially of prejudice against her as a woman. The film gets across very well her tenacity in fighting for constituency after constituency before finally being selected for the safe seat of Finchley.
Tony Saint's script is actually surprisingly light hearted, full of in-jokes and random innuendo, some of which is quite funny. There are many sly references to future events in Thatcher's life - about to dance with Ted Heath, her predecessor as Conservative leader in the 1970s, she says "You Lead, I'll follow"; Mark Thatcher as a boy says to his mother "Can I go to Africa one day? I won't cause any trouble" (a reference to his becoming lost in the desert in the 1980s); Thatcher to a French waiter "I want a refund; I want my money back!" (EU rebate), etc.
The performances are generally good, especially Andrea Riseborough who successfully captures some of Thatcher's mannerisms and especially her speech, without ever sounded like a straightforward impersonation. More surprisingly, she also captures Thatcher's flirtiness as a young woman, and presents her quite sympathetically. Rory Kinnear's successfully suggest Denis Thatcher's long-suffering nature, while Samuel West is very good as Edward Heath, capturing his essential awkwardness and unsociability. Heath is seen uncomfortably standing by while Thatcher grabs the limelight during the election, or struggling to make small talk while she wins over a luncheon club meeting. The film is quite mischievous in suggesting Thatcher propositioned Heath for, we assume, some kind of political or actual marriage. But there's no evidence for this and it shouldn't be taken too seriously. Like Thatcher, Heath wasn't part of the establishment and he isn't portrayed entirely unsympathetically here, although the script does get some laughs at his expense. After Heath likens a political party to an orchestra and suggests that all elements should work together (implying that Thatcher is too dominant), one of the luncheon club ladies asks the eternal bachelor innocently, "Is that why you prefer playing with your organ alone, Mr Heath?"
The film caused a bit of controversy before it was even finished because Thatcher was apparently going to deploy the F word at one point, in frustration at not being selected for Parliament. In the end she says "Damn the establishment", rather than anything stronger, which is a wise choice. A woman of Thatcher's "respectable" middle class methodist background probably wouldn't have even heard such language in the '50s, but this is something that has cropped up in other recent BBC dramas, including BBC4's The Curse of Steptoe, where period characters don't always use period language.
The Long Walk to Finchley is actually quite entertaining, with the 1950s world of constituency meetings, chaps with pipes, open top sports cars and smoky back rooms, quite successfully evoked. The random jokes can be quite funny (even the title is a sly political reference). But it can be most easily recommended to those with a rough knowledge of, and interest in, British politics of the last 40 years or so.
Somewhere on Leave (1943)
The laughs have gone AWOL...
Somewhere on Leave is one of a serious of now-forgotten British comedies from the 1940s, starring Frank Randle, Harry Korris and Robbie Vincent. The series began with Somewhere in England in 1940 and ran until 1949 with Somewhere in Camp, Somewhere on Leave, Somewhere in Civvies and Somewhere in Politics. Although reasonably popular at the time, these films were scrappily made and probably don't hold much appeal beyond nostalgia for most viewers. As a result, they are very very rarely shown on television, unlike the contemporary films of, say, Will Hay or George Formby.
You might say these films have worn badly, but on the evidence available, they were never much good to begin with. Somewhere on Leave features the ageing stars as unlikely recruits in the army, getting involved in various slapstick sequences involving horses, a piano, a trampoline, etc, as well as the expected run-ins with the regiment's sergeant major. There are also a couple of irrelevant song and dance sequences, the opportunity for the actors to play a scene in drag, and the obligatory comedy drunk scene.
The writers intercut the comic scenes with a stilted romance between the two young leads, and even manage to shoehorn a propaganda message into the film about the breaking down of class barriers. There are a couple of old gags which almost work, but they are usually let down by the poor delivery and ham-fisted direction. The director (John E. Blakeley) has a penchant for placing his camera so that the actors are looking almost directly into it when they are supposed to be talking to each other, making the dialogue scenes even more stilted than they already are. I've seen some bad films over the years, but the opening scenes, between Toni Lupino and her friend, contain probably the worst acting I've ever seen on film. The actors are extraordinarily stilted, as they talk about Lupino's parent's death in an air raid, as if they are discussing which hat to wear tonight. The acting is bad enough to make it a strong contender for the most unintentionally funny scene in film history.
Running this scene a close second is one involving an anti-aircraft battery. The guns are shown shooting down a German bomber - cut to a shot of an open-cockpit First World War biplane being hit! In the next shot, the plane is a World War Two bomber again. You would think a 1942 audience would know the difference between a wood and string built 1915 biplane and a WWII bomber, but it's indicative of the film makers contempt for the audience, as if they think they'll accept any old rubbish.
Its tempting to make allowances and put the film's ineptitude down to the difficulties producing films in wartime. But then, the British industry also produced Thunder Rock, Colonel Blimp, Went the Day Well? and In Which We Serve within a year of this film, proving this film is more of an aberration than anything.
The fact that several reviews have now appeared for this film on IMDb suggests that the other viewers took the same opportunity to watch this as I did, on a very rare BBC2 showing. On this evidence, however, its easy to see why its shown so rarely, and I can't imagine there's much danger of another airing for quite a long time.
British Film Forever (2007)
Upmarket clip show, full of spoilers
British Film Forever is the BBC's flagship series on British cinema as part of its "Summer of British Film" season. While the season is a good excuse to show some lesser known films, this accompanying series is a bit of a disappointment.
For a series of seven episodes averaging around 90 minutes each, there's not all that much information being imparted. The selection of interviewees (mostly actors, including Michael Caine, Helen Mirren and Bob Hoskins) puts this above the average clip show, but they all cover well trodden ground and audiences are unlikely to learn much unless they are completely new to the subject. By later episodes, not very recognisable actors and comedians start to creep in as well. Interviewees tend to say things like "it was totally new" "it was a breath of fresh air" etc, but isn't all that illuminating for the audience without understanding the context of what/how/why something was new or how it compared to its contemporaries.
The series also has an irritating habit of starting with more recent films and working its way back. This may be an attempt to make it more appealing to viewers, but it hampers any attempt to place the films in context, or to show how a genre developed. The episode on thrillers, for example, starts with The Long Good Friday in 1980 - more than 70 years after the first British film thriller, while the period drama episode also starts in the 1980s, at least 50 years after British cinema became strongly associated with the genre. It does eventually get around to the earlier films, and sometimes, in the case of Bond or Get Carter, places them into a sociological context. But the films are often not placed into a cinematic context, and are rarely compared to American or European cinema This is difficult anyway when the programme tends to just flit from one film to another in no particular order.
There's also something wrong with the voice-over by Jessica Stevenson - she has a pleasant enough voice but its not authoritative and she tends to sound like a big sister telling you about her favourite films. She isn't helped much by Matthew Sweet's script, which takes a semi-jokey approach, occasionally bordering on the obtuse. Sometimes its amusing, sometimes its just irritating.
This series is also a bit of a spoiler-fest, especially the thrillers episode. The narrator explains the plot of the films in detail, almost always giving away the ending in the process, explaining who gets killed, by whom and why. The irony is that anyone who has seen these films probably won't learn much from the interviewees, while the narrator is happy to spoil them for anyone who hasn't.
Perhaps I shouldn't be too harsh. This show is a fairly harmless time-passer, but its hard to know exactly who its aimed at. I would assume that any viewers devoting more than ten hours to watching this would have a reasonably serious interest in the subject. And with seven feature length episodes and a raft of distinguished interviewees, this could have been an authoritative look at British cinema history, something enlightening for fans and scholars. But the treatment the subject gets here is largely superficial, and its hard not to see this series as something of a missed opportunity.
Hearts in Atlantis (2001)
A mostly painless experience
It's America in the fifties again, which as always in Hollywood films, means shiny cars, endless summers and spoonfed nostalgia. As the original author was Stephen King, it also means something of a return to Stand by Me territory. This time a wise, benevolent, but mysterious new lodger moves into the neighbourhood, and affects the characters lives in not particularly memorable ways. Luckily, the stranger happens to be played by Anthony Hopkins, who manages to bring a bit of superficial gravitas to this lightweight story. He befriends a young boy (Anton Yelchin) who, under his influence, gets to kiss the girl next door, duffs up the local bully, and of course, learns something about life in the process. This is all painless, harmless stuff and, at only an hour and a half long, at least its not over-stretched. But it's a thin story nonetheless, and with the likes of Hopkins, Stephen King, Scott Hicks (director of Shine) and top screenwriter William Goldman involved, you could be forgiven for expecting something a bit more memorable than a pleasant Sunday afternoon TV movie-style effort like this.
Dog Soldiers (2002)
That time of the month...
I sat down to watch Dog Soldiers with relatively low expectations, but was very pleasantly surprised. It's rare to find a film which knows its audience so well and which hits its targets to squarely. Unlike its contemporary 28 Days Later, Dog Soldiers has no pretensions to make statements about human nature or to capture impressive money shots of deserted London landmarks. Instead, we have an all-out, action-packed, if jokey, horror film based around that reliable old standby of a disparate group of characters thrown together in exceptional circumstances. The characters here are a group of British soldiers on exercise in the Scottish highlands, who end up barricading themselves into a deserted farmhouse under siege from an army of werewolves. Although ostensibly a horror film, Dog Soldiers has much in common with films like Aliens and Zulu, and even references the latter film at least once. Unlike 28 Days Later, the portrayal of British soldiers is also surprisingly believable; their banter, the way they react under pressure, even their language and army slang all seem just about right. Among the cast the stand out is Sean Pertwee, as the foul-mouthed but sympathetic sergeant in charge of the motley group. Writer/director/editor Neil Marshall has produced an enjoyable, funny and fairly gripping film on a relatively limited budget, and Dog Soldiers must rank as one of the most solidly entertaining B-movies of recent years.
Where's Jack? (1969)
Sometimes crime does pay...
Jonathan Wild was one of the most interesting characters in 18th century London. Long before the city had a police force, Wild turned himself into the capital's "thief-taker", arresting and bringing criminals to trial and making himself rich in the process. At the same time, he was also the greatest criminal mastermind in the country and had most of the city's major criminals under his control. When they became troublesome Wild would set them up for arrest, and then collect his bounty as thief taker.
In this film Wild is played, rather well, by Stanley Baker, who also produced through his production company Oakhurst, with the novelist James Clavell directing. The story focuses on Wild's relationship with another notorious 18th century criminal, Jack Shepherd, here played by the '60s singing star Tommy Steele. Shepherd is forced to work for Wild to save his brother from the hangman, but then manages to assert his independence and work for himself. Wild then sets him up, only for Shepherd to escape from one jail after another. Shepherd's exploits, especially his escapes, make him a celebrity, and Wild's attempts to capture him become increasingly important to the maintenance of his image as thief taker. Steele isn't ideal casting as Shepherd, but he does manage to acquit himself reasonably well, and his scenes with Stanley Baker are among the best in the film. Overall, the film is something of a mixed blessing, however. The story is a winner, there are some interesting character bits and, as was increasingly the fashion in the '60s, it shows the grot, grime and filth of 18th century London quite well. But it does go overboard at times with the local colour, the pace slackens a bit occasionally, and there are some decidedly cheesy 1960s songs on the soundtrack. However, it's an interesting story and is probably worth a couple of hours of your time, especially if you're interested in the period.
Sotto dieci bandiere (1960)
This ship is sinking
There were a number of good films made about the Second World War at sea in the 1950s and 60s. Sadly, this isn't one of them. Starring Van Heflin as probably the nicest and most reluctant German sea captain of the war, and a blustering Charles Laughton as the British Admiral out to sink him, this surprisingly shoddy film mixes stock footage, old bits of newsreel, obvious models and a shipload of Italian extras as British and German sailors with poorly dubbed American accents. The fact that it was made in Rome by Italian producers probably explains the film's hopelessly confused loyalties, trying to show the war from both the British and German sides. Unfortunately, being so fair to both sides renders the film's attempts at suspense completely redundant, and makes it hard for the audience to work up much interest either way. Although allegedly based on a true story, much of the film is so heavily fictionalised it often loses touch with reality altogether. At one point it even turns into a third rate James Bond rip-off, with the British getting an American soldier to undergo plastic surgery to make him the double of a German officer so he can steal top secret plans. All in all, you would be better off watching The Cruel Sea, Sink the Bismarck or Battle of the River Plate than wasting your time on this dismal offering.
Finding Forrester (2000)
In an obvious return to Good Will Hunting territory, Gus Van Sant gives us another story of a gifted young student (this time played by Rob Brown) and his aged mentor (Sean Connery).
Student Jamal Wallace (Brown) meets reclusive writer William Forrester (Connery) who wrote one successful novel decades ago, but has refused to write another, and now lives in self-enforced obscurity. Forrester lives alone, dislikes people and makes witty but insightful statements about people and the world, the way reclusive writers always do in these kind of films. As luck would have it, Wallace just happens to be studying Forrester's book at school, and the old boy is able to give him some pointers. But disaster strikes when Wallace humiliates his school tutor (F. Murray Abraham) and then submits for a literary competition a piece which unintentionally plagiarises one of Forrester's works.
Finding Forrester might strike you as intelligent if you've never picked up a book in your life, but think it might be nice to do so one day. In which case you're probably the target audience. It's one of those films where being able to quote random lines from Dickens or Mark Twain is meant to convey great literary ability. Characters supposedly have minutely-detailed recollection of great works of literature despite never apparently picking up a book, let alone reading one. The main advantage of Wallace's literary ability seems to be that it increases his pulling power. Maybe we should admire an attempt like this to convince us that literary knowledge is a sure way of picking up girls, but I thought the makers had something more serious in mind.
This whole film, sadly, is conducted on a TV movie level, which is really no more than it deserves. The plot is mechanical and predictable and the characters aren't even vaguely convincing. Connery can be a good actor, but he's given nothing to really work with and the story and character development in Finding Forrester are strictly by the numbers. Save for a star cameo towards the end there really isn't a surprise in the whole film.
Returns to Hogwarts
Harry Potter's third year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, brings the usual assorted hazards, challenges and life-threatening scrapes we've come to expect from this series. This time Potter is under threat from Sirius Black, an escapee from Azkaban Prison., who is apparently intent on murdering our hero and prematurely ending one of the most successful film series of all time. Along the way Harry must also face the frightening Dementor (the spectral guards of Azkaban Prison), get the better of Draco Malfoy, and save Hagrid's new pet from a sticky end.
Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban is as well-produced as its predecessors, and atmospherically (if gloomily) photographed by Michael Seresin, with the usual excellent set designs (by Stuart Craig), impressively-realised visual effects and another good score from John Williams. There's also the usual excellent supporting cast, and the roll-call of Potter cast members is approaching a who's-who of British acting talent. This time Gary Oldman, Emma Thompson, Michael Gambon, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis and Julie Christie join series regulars Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman and Julie Walters and others. If nothing else, these films are at least keeping half of Equity in employment.
I have to admit to being a little disappointed with Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which stuck too closely to the formula of the first film, but The Prisoner of Azkaban at least introduces some new elements in the plot department. As in the previous two films, the new Defence Against the Dark Arts master plays an important role in the story. This time, however, the plot is a bit less predictable, and the audience is kept guessing which side Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) and some of the other characters are on. But there is also some evidence of sloppy writing, particularly with the "time turner" device, which is conveniently produced to save the day at one point.
Of the new cast members, only David Thewlis really gets that much of a part. Gary Oldman is very under-used as the prisoner Sirius Black, and Julie Christie barely appears. Michael Gambon meanwhile, does a decent enough job as the late Richard Harris's replacement as Professor Dumbledore. Tom Felton (as Potter's schoolboy nemesis Draco Malfoy) is also improved. In the first couple of films he seemed hopelessly miscast, but this time the makers seem to have realised his portrayal of Malfoy is more snivelling than threatening, and he seems more convincing.
A lot has been made of the frightening nature of some of the scenes in the film, particularly the Dementors. However, if you could take the hordes of giant spiders in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets you'll probably be fine here too. More to the point is whether children will really have the patience to sit through another two hour plus Harry Potter epic. Like its predecessors, The Prisoner of Azkaban could go with cutting by about 10-15 minutes and will seem long even for adult audiences. Sometimes these films have seemed a little too faithful and reverential to their source material, hence the impressive running times. As the books The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix are twice the length of their predecessors, the film-makers will have to lose their excessive caution and do some serious cutting and refashioning of the story if the next two films are to be a manageable length.
Steptoe and Son Ride Again (1973)
Along with Dad's Army, Steptoe & Son was probably one of the top two British TV comedy series of the late '60s and early '70s. Running from 1962-1974 Ray Galton and Alan Simpson's series was an enormous hit for the BBC, and even spawned a very inferior US remake Sanford and Son. However, like many comedy series of the 1970s, Steptoe & Son barely survived the transition to the big screen.
The first film, Steptoe and Son, was just about acceptable, and was a surprisingly big hit in the UK. Steptoe and Son Ride Again, however, really scrapes the bottom of the barrel. This time Harold (Harry H. Corbett) loses a fortune buying a deaf greyhound (don't ask), and must fake his father's death to claim on the insurance money with, as they say, hilarious consequences.
Or not, in this case. Steptoe & Son was never a cosy series, but the story and scripting here are mean-spirited, and barely raise a titter. In order to provide something different from the TV shows, film versions like this often went for vulgarity over wit, and what seemed funny in a half hour episode became over-stretched at nearly three times that length. Some shows were no good anyway. It's not possible, for example, to make a silk purse out of Man About the House, but it's particularly dispiriting to see a series of the quality of Steptoe and Son descend to this level. This is not the best way to remember this series, and anyone who wants an introduction to it would be better off watching any one of the original TV episodes.