Posts Tagged ‘censorship’

Due to the unique way the BBC managed its archives in the early 1970s (it involved a furnace), the vast majority of the third series of Doomwatch is gone – missing, presumed burned or wiped. It’s easy to give the corporation a hard time for its short-sightedness in this respect, as it completely failed to foresee the rise of the market for home entertainment, but I’ve heard it argued that Equity should shoulder some of the blame too – the actors’ union imposed strict limits on the number of repeats the TV networks were allowed to run, meaning that the majority of programmes in the archives were never likely to be shown again, making the costs of their preservation unjustifiable.

Well, either way, we’re left with only three episodes of the twelve – a small irony being that one of these episodes was never shown on TV in the first place. The first survivor, Terence Dudley’s Waiting for a Knighthood, is the fourth episode of the series, and watching it now one gets a distinct sense of arriving late to a party – developments have clearly, um, developed in the early episodes of the season.

Ridge has gone nuts, for one thing, and this has taken the form of more than just dressing up as Luke Cage now and then – apparently in the first episode he stole some anthrax and attempted to hold the government to ransom with it. By the time of this episode, he is safely ensconced in a rubber facility and has apparently made a full recovery. Replacing him at Doomwatch is a new character, Stafford, who may in fact be a mole for the Minister. Or not. Chantry has also been banished to the outer darkness, but at least Barbara the secretary is still there, and also apparently making regular appearances is Anne Tarrant, Quist’s shrink from the start of season two – the two of them appear to have shacked up together, in an unexpected move towards a more domestic Doomwatch.

Waiting for a Knighthood features Ridge and does, to some extent, focus on the reasons for his peculiar behaviour. It opens with a vicar going full-on bonkers mid-sermon, collapsing in the aisle of his church, and needing to be rushed off to hospital. This happens at Tarrant’s local church and so Quist gets wind of it. A little investigation reveals the hapless clergyman was a keen mechanic who was regularly exposed to fumes from organic lead in his petrol, and that his breakdown may have been caused by lead poisoning of the brain.

At this point someone remembers that Ridge was also a keen mechanic and welder (oh, really?) and that lead poisoning may have been a factor in his episode of atypical behaviour as well. However, the issue of whether or not to fully exonerate Ridge and get him back on the team (never going to happen; Simon Oates didn’t want to be in the show full time any more) becomes rather secondary, when a woman whose young son died of lead poisoning gets wind of what’s been happening and kidnaps the young son of a wealthy oil man whom she blames for the pollution of the environment.

Doing an episode about lead poisoning is clearly within Doomwatch‘s mission statement, especially when you consider the long-term environmental damage done by lead in petrol (the life story of Thomas Midgley, pioneer of this development, and also CFCs in fridges, is a real eye-opener). But this script never quite seems to come to grips with it. It revisits a couple of the classic themes – particularly how everyone wants a cleaner world but nobody wants to actually be the one to pay for it – but on the whole the sense of driving anger which characterised the Davis-Pedler seasons is absent, perhaps epitomised by the way Quist himself has become a more human figure, less of a voice of morality. It seems much more interested in the various political goings-on between Doomwatch and the ministry, and the somewhat underpowered kidnapping plot. Terence Dudley clearly seems to have found no shame in nepotism, for once again he casts his own son Stephen Dudley in a crucial role (he was previously Rat Attack Victim in season one, and would be a regular for most of the run of Survivors).

I’d hesitate to call this episode actively bad, but it’s very bland and unengaging stuff, with the new characters and emphasis making the show a more comfortable and mainstream drama – which surely was never the point in the first place. One gets a definite sense of a shark having been jumped.

Episode six is better, but not quite good enough to dispel this impression. This is Hair Trigger, by Brian Hayles, who (the attentive will recall) wrote The Iron Doctor, one of the best second series episodes. Things get underway at a secure research facility under the auspices of the DHSS, which sounds like a joke but isn’t. Dr Tarrant is visiting the place in her professional capacity as a psychiatrist attached to the civil service. She discovers that patients with serious psychological disorders are being given computer-controlled therapy, to the extent that they have electrodes implanted in their brains which can both monitor and control their behaviour. A violent psychopath, Beavis (Michael Watkins) has a homicidal episode artificially triggered and then controlled for her benefit.

Naturally, Tarrant is disturbed by this, and (in another lengthy domestic scene between her and Quist) she explains why – it’s not just that the line between treating patients and experimenting on them seems to have become rather blurred, but that the focus of the procedure is not really to treat at all. The emphasis is on controlling dangerously violent individuals rather than addressing their problems on a human level.

There are various scenes of civil servants and scientists discussing this all in a rather clubbable manner, with Quist and the rest of the Doomwatchers somewhat peripheral figures. Tarrant decides to speak in more detail with Beavis himself, to get a better idea of how he feels about this. Beavis is twitchy about the prospect of the conversation, only wanting to talk about the treatment he’s received, not his own past, and as they talk in the unit’s grounds he becomes agitated and there is a struggle. Tarrant is knocked unconscious and the receiver which controls Beavis’ brain function is damaged. He flees the scene and takes a young woman in a nearby farmhouse hostage…

The ethics of how to treat the criminally insane was one of those issues which many people weighed in on in the early 70s, one way or another. This episode was broadcast in 1972, and it’s hard not to see it as being in some way influenced by the previous year’s A Clockwork Orange, which similarly suggested the solution was to artificially condition the brains of contenders, or possibly even the Doctor Who story The Mind of Evil, which took the more radical step of suggesting hardened recidivists should be fed to alien mind parasites. Much of it is good solid humanistic stuff, arguing that people should be treated as people, rather than malfunctioning machines, even if they are a danger to themselves and others. The implications of computers directly controlling human behaviour are not overlooked, either, although the more loved-up season three Quist is less outraged by this than the original version would have been, I’d suggest.

The problem is that once the suspense-thriller element of the episode kicks off, about half way through, and Beavis goes on the run, all the more thoughtful aspects of the story are essentially dropped in favour of this. The resolution is dealt with solely in terms of characters and personalities, with the big ideas of the story completely forgotten about. This is still a watchable episode of a reasonably good thriller series, but it is largely lacking in the moral and intellectual power of the best offerings from seasons one and two.

And so to Stuart Douglass’ Sex and Violence, the final completed episode of the series, which may have survived simply because it was never broadcast as planned – nor has it ever been shown on British TV, as far as I have been able to determine. Exactly why this is the case remains somewhat obscure, and watching the episode itself is not especially illuminating.

The episode opens with a public meeting led by a moral campaigner, decrying the so-called permissive society of the day and the ‘filth’ permeating all levels of the media. No sooner have the pre-titles concluded and the credits got underway than you find yourself thinking ‘this is an odd topic for a Doomwatch episode’. Quist agrees, when Doomwatch is tasked with assisting an inquiry into whether censorship laws should be tightened or not – chemical pollution, certainly, but moral pollution?

He shifts his position a little when Anne Travers is co-opted onto the inquiry committee, which includes a morality campaigner, a bishop, a sociologist, an educationalist, and a pop star (playing some of these are Brian Wilde and Bernard Horsfall, so at least the performances are good). As part of her duties Travers goes to see a controversial play and is attacked by a protester. What motivates these self-styled guardians of public morality? And what motivates the shadowy figures who are funding their crusade?

Well, this is very definitely another for the ‘they don’t make ’em like this any more’, for much of Sex and Violence is a very talky discussion of some rather abstruse topics – the work of Wilhelm Reich is casually debated, which doesn’t happen on BBC1 very much nowadays. It’s very different to any other episode of Doomwatch – when Quist does attend the committee, all he does is sit quietly in the corner.

So why has the episode never been broadcast? The popular theory seems to be that it’s because it includes documentary footage of a public execution taking place in Lagos, Nigeria, but this seems a little implausible since the same footage has been shown on TV since. It seems to me to be more likely that concerns were raised about the fact that at least one of the characters is a thinly-disguised caricature of a significant public figure of the period. Whether the pop star is intended to be Cliff Richard or not, I’m not sure; but it seems a dead cert that ‘Mrs Catchpole’, scourge of the permissive society, is based on Mary Whitehouse. Whitehouse and the National Viewers And Listeners Association which she founded were a power in the land in the 1970s (managing to get Philip Hinchcliffe effectively sacked from Doctor Who in 1977, for example), and you can imagine the BBC getting a little nervous about an episode in which she is explicitly depicted as a fanatical extreme-right bigot (the fact she is played by June Brown, best known nowadays as Dot Cotton, is just one of those historical quirks), especially given her litigiousness.

Then again, none of this is exactly rigorously impartial: Quist tracks down the financier of the anti-permissiveness campaign, and finds a right-wing millionaire with political aspirations. Persuade people to give up their freedom to decide what they watch, read, and listen, runs the argument, and in the fullness of time they will happily hand over their other freedoms to the state – when the right leader comes along. Given the BBC very much had a dog in this fight, this would have been touchy stuff even back in the 1970s (quite how far back the routine Tory-press whine about ‘left wing bias’ at the BBC goes is not something I’ve been able to discover, but political bias may well have been another issue).

In the end the episode concludes with the status quo unchanged, and Quist musing on the rise of Hitler from joke to despot in less than a decade, while Bradshaw informs him the computer has suggested sex and violence in the media have no effect on people’s behaviour. (It is at least somewhat appropriate that the final scene features the two remaining original characters.) ‘No change… no change…’ says Quist. This may not be a particularly strong episode of Doomwatch, but like the best of the series, it deals with issues which are alive and kicking today. No change, indeed.

Read Full Post »

JMS’s philosophy when putting together every season of B5 but the first was something he would happily discuss on the internet and elsewhere: at the beginning of a series B5 was likely to get more new and casual viewers, and so to encourage them to stick around and become regular viewers, those parts of the season included more standalone episodes and stuff designed to bring people up-to-speed with what was going on. Conversely, fewer people were likely to watch the show for the first time towards the end of a season, and so the overall story was much more prominent.

This is certainly the case with season 3, with most of the final five episodes comprising one ongoing story, namely the planning and execution of a counter-attack against the forces of the Shadows and its ultimate consequences for all concerned.

Walkabout, episode 18, has the testing of a new weapon as its B-story. This part of the episode is competently done with some decent special effects sequences, even if some of the drama leading up to the climax feels a bit contrived (G’Kar has to be wrangled into sending a Narn ship to help in the test). My problem with the episode is the A story from which it gets its name: it’s just terribly, terribly dull, concerned with Dr Franklin (still coming to grips with his drug problem) getting involved with a cabaret singer played by a former Kid From Fame. (Her songs are JMS compositions, and all I will say is that the music of the 2250s seems to be looking over its shoulder to that of the 1980s.)

Hey ho. There’s a bit of a tangent in Grey 17 is Missing, which is partly concerned with the aftermath of Sinclair’s departure – apparently War Without End and Walkabout swapped places in the running order, which would have made this flow a little more smoothly.

With Sinclair gone, Delenn is taking on some of his responsibilities, including the leadership of a Human-Minbari paramilitary organisation, the Rangers. As she is a member of the religious caste, the warrior caste want one of their own people installed instead, and so recurring nuisance Neroon turns up making various dark threats against her person. Having been made to promise not to warn any of the station staff about the danger, Lennier gets round this by telling (oh dear) Marcus, who resolves to delay Neroon long enough to complete the transfer of power by challenging him to a duel.

It turns out you *can* get the staff after all.

It turns out you *can* get the staff after all.

At the time this episode originally aired, B5 was still running in a teatime slot on Channel 4 and, as such, was occasionally savagely edited to fit the timeslot. This occasion was the first time I’ve seen it uncut (the same is true of Shadow Dancing), and I’m not completely sure what the fuss was about. All right, so there’s a prolonged action sequence in which Marcus gets beaten half to death (I’m tempted to say ‘pity about the half’), but not what you’d call buckets of blood. Some dialogue about broken ribs is fairly on-the-nose, I suppose. Anyway all is resolved in the stately manner one would expect of an episode about Minbari politics.

Except all this is the B-story! The A-story is a frankly rotten and silly one about a religious cult living in a hidden level of the station, complete with their own pet monster. Garibaldi – who’s never had much to do this year – discovers their existence, and, well, nothing much happens. The premise strains credibility, the dialogue is JMS-waffle, and the conclusion is nonsensical. I don’t think season 3 comes close to the heights of season 2, but it only contains one real stinker of an episode – and, mainly due to the A-story, this is it.

Centauri politics get some screentime in And The Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place, a neat little political thriller which is basically setting up locations and plotlines for early in season 4. Peter Jurasik, Stephen Furst and Andreas Katsulas all get lots to do, which is always a sign of a good episode. The B-story about a convention of religious leaders visiting the station – complete with a gospel service – is a little clunky but on the whole this is strong.

Shadow Dancing is very much akin to Walkabout, featuring big space battles against the Shadows and Dr Franklin and his drug problem – though thankfully that gets resolved in this episode. The battle with the Shadows looks good, but doesn’t have the same emotional clout as the assault on Babylon 5 from earlier in the season. It leads very smoothly into the climax of the season, Z’Ha’Dum.

The lesson we learn from this story is that Sheridan makes a very bad houseguest. More than that? Hum, well, to me I don’t think this story is doing what JMS wants it to – the audience is so invested in the characters by now that it’d take more than a philosophical debate to make the Shadows’ point of view seem reasonable. JMS-waffle obscuring the identity of their key spokesman is also arguably counterproductive.

But if nothing else it’s a strong end to a reasonable season which is possibly the last one to show Babylon 5 as a consistently good TV series. Seasons 4 and 5, mainly for behind-the-scenes reasons, have – how shall we put it? – specific issues of their own, which will probably become apparent quite soon.

Read Full Post »

Quite a few years ago now we had an awkward moment in our house around Christmas time: the tube in the TV blew late on Christmas night, forcing us to spend the latter part of the holiday using the portable set from the kitchen. This was merely inconvenient; what made it actually awkward was the following conversation I had with my brother-in-law:

Him: ‘The TV set blew up?’

Me: ‘Yeah.’

Him: (already knowing the answer) ‘And you were watching at the time…?’

Me: (sinking feeling) ‘The Omen.’

(A quite brilliant choice of film for Christmas Day on Channel 4’s part, I have to say.)

Him: ‘Don’t you think that you’ve been sent a bit of a message?’

Me: ‘I think we’ve been sent a message that we should start renting better-quality TV sets.’

Obviously, that wasn’t what he was thinking of. As regular readers may recall, my brother-in-law is a man of strong religious beliefs. I am not (and even if I was I hope I would still think that the Creator of the Universe had better ways of passing the time on Christmas Day than randomly causing TV tubes to blow up). My brother-in-law refuses to have anything to do with films of the ilk of The Omen, while I rather enjoy them (which is why I didn’t tell him when I watched the complete trilogy while staying at his house last week).

On the face of it this is rather odd, surely – I’d have thought, given the materialistic desert in which so much modern entertainment takes place, that anything presenting spiritual reality as a concrete fact would present a welcome change. In this respect The Omen and its various progeny are deeply religious films, albeit in a rather lurid and dark way. (And anyway, you’re hardly cheering on the Antichrist – certainly not in the first film, at least.)

Even so, why do I derive such pleasure from movies which exist in a universe so at odds with the one which I believe I inhabit? Hmm. It can’t simply be because they’re just well-crafted pieces of escapist entertainment – there’s a distinct frisson, admittedly faint, of something I can only describe as awe, which isn’t there when watching a Bond movie or whatever.

It was there again the other night watching Raiders of the Lost Ark for what must be the umpteenth time. (Showing, incidentally, virtually uncut on BBC1 pre-watershed – something I thoroughly appreciated. Given that complaining to the networks about their savagely hacking films about – The Living Daylights was on the receiving end of the scissors last week – doesn’t seem to have any effect, maybe it would be worthwhile to send the Beeb a quick note of appreciation in this case. Hmm.)

When I was younger my estimation of the quality of this film was based solely on the quality of the action sequences, which are still unsurpassed. There is, obviously, no CGI in this movie (made in 1981), and relatively little model-work – and yet it out-thrills any number of modern action movies, simply by virtue of its verve and skill and inventiveness. But the performances are also perfectly-judged – this film operates by sticking characters you care about into a succession of increasingly outrageous situations in fairly quick succession, and Harrison Ford and Karen Allen are terrific.

While the plot has a gajillion holes and implausible coincidences in it, it’s also a model of economy and wit, with every bit supporting every other bit. John Williams’ famous soundtrack is also key to the success of the movie – it’s impossible to imagine certain sequences (the one in the map room, for instance) having any impact whatsoever without the score being there to accompany them.

All this is surely fairly obvious, but what I’d never really noticed before is the extent to which this is a film about belief, and particularly the beliefs of the central character. I’m not claiming this is a major theme of the movie – it’s presented quite discreetly – but it’s there, and it does place this film even more firmly in the same lineage as two other classic fantasies from the same makers, Star Wars and Close Encounters.

Both of these films are about faith to some extent – Star Wars concludes with the decision to put technology briefly to one side in favour of faith in one’s own instincts, while Close Encounters is essentially about people on a pilgrimage to encounter the objects of their belief – but in Raiders these things are rather more subtle and ambiguous, to begin with at least.

As befits a film this light-footed and arch, Indiana Jones himself is a rather shadier character here than he becomes in subsequent movies – he’s obliquely compared to a mercenary at one point, and it’s clear that some of his associates are happy to turn a blind eye to his methods. He is, famously, wholly willing to bring a gun to a sword fight. And he also seems to be a sceptic – both his boss and his sidekick express their unease about the quest for the Ark, and he laughingly dismisses both of them.

Yet as the film goes on – and this isn’t lingered upon at all amidst all the burning buildings, crashing trucks and exploding planes – Jones’s attitude seems to change, even as the narrative itself makes it increasingly explicit that the Ark is more than simply just another ancient relic. For whatever reason, he cannot bring himself to destroy it, as his great rival guesses – and by the climax he has become a believer, averting his eyes from the presence of God.

A little touch of that old-time religion...

I think it’s fairly obvious that it’s the element of fantasy that allows the Indiana Jones movies to transcend the action genre, comparatively minor though it is. But what makes Raiders a classic, as opposed to merely a great piece of entertainment like the others, is surely the way that element is presented. On paper the climax is almost literally an example of deus ex machina – the power of God is invoked, only to rebound savagely on the villains in their moment of triumph. To that extent, this film is as essentially religious as The Omen or The Ten Commandments. But it’s by no means a cosy or comforting view of the divine, in stark contrast to that given in The Last Crusade – the power of God as depicted in Raiders is something inscrutable and immense, inhuman and terrifying. In short, it’s a very Old Testament kind of God who puts in an appearance, which seems entirely appropriate in the cirumstances – and this may explain why the religious elements of this film are so seldom commented upon.

I would still say they are crucial to its success. The inclusion of Indian mysticism, Christian legend, and hackneyed UFOlogy in the sequels are all obvious attempts to recapture the sense of wonder present in the original film – but none of them quite succeed. Maybe this is something personal to me, and my own particular ideas about the nature of God – but the fact remains that a journey to the presence of the divine is at the heart of this famous, wonderful movie, and we ought to at least acknowledge as much.

Read Full Post »

Crikey, it’s only the Second of Jan and already we’re enjoying brand new realms of stupidity courtesy of the nation’s TV program planners. I refer, of course, to the crack lemurs employed by ITV and Channel 4 who, brilliantly, decided to schedule the network premieres of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk at exactly the same time.

This is outstanding because, of course, both these movies appeal to exactly the same audience. But what makes it particularly special is that not only are they both from the same studio, but they also have many of the same creative personnel even down to members of the cast: in a possibly unprecedented feat, for a few seconds today Robert Downey Jr. was appearing as the same character in two different films on different networks.

Artist's impression of the ITV and Channel 4 schedules.

However, this run of form did not stop there, as the ITV guys have pioneered a strange and rather astonishing new variant on censorship. Regular censorship, of which I am not a great fan, generally consists of hacking bits out of films to make them less overtly violent or sexual. Much to my amazement, The Incredible Hulk was actually edited to make it look more violent and sexiful than was originally the case.

For instance – in the version I saw at the cinema, the Hulk kicks Tim Roth’s character, who flies back about fifty feet and splats into a tree. In the ITV version, you see the big guy start to swing his leg, then there’s the crunching noise of Roth hitting the tree and a crumpled limb flopping into shot. The original is kinetic and overblown in that unique Louis Leterrier way, but not actually nasty – the ITV cut just makes it look like the Hulk’s stomped him into paste.

Moving on to sex (how infrequently I get to use those words in that order), in the theatrical release Ed Norton and Liv Tyler rekindle their old romance, but are forced to abandon things mid-foreplay as Norton’s heart-rate is becoming dangerously elevated and he’s about to turn green and level the place. It’s a poignant moment (and illustrates yet another drawback to being the Hulk). Now, I thought the foreplay was very mild, but still enough to get ITV flustered – they’ve snipped everything after their initial kiss. So a scene of which the original point was that they don’t have sex has been re-edited to imply that they do. Good work at maintaining the moral standards of the nation, guys.

Read Full Post »

It really must be getting round to Christmastime – nearly everything I see or hear fills me with deep and implacable despair and occasional contempt for the human race. More than usually, this year, I see the signs of my own impending collapse into dusty irrelevance and obscurity growing larger and larger. I honestly don’t care about most of things that the media seem to think are important, and when there is a story that piques my interest I find myself lodged somewhat uncomfortably on the fence.

But before I talk about a couple of those things, something which seems to me to be a genuine curiosity. I am no great fan of bi-curious popstrel motormouth Katy Perry, for all that I found Hot and Cold to be a pleasantly strident piece of disco. I don’t dislike her as a person, but then I don’t know her as a person. She seems to be one of those artists whose career revolves around the styling and the marketing and her personality and lifestyle as much as what happens when she opens her mouth to sing. All the shenanigans about her recent nuptials to also-not-my-cup-of-tea comedian Russell Brand really weren’t of much interest either.

However, being the traditionally-minded, quiet and home-loving young lady that her publicity tries to make her out as (in almost direct contradiction to her lyrics, videos, and general demeanour), Katy Perry has announced she will soon be adopting her husband’s surname as be styling herself as Katy Brand.

Normally I would say that if that sort of thing makes a difference to you then by all means go ahead, but what makes this interesting (to me if nobody else) is that here in the UK we already have a celebrity named Katy Brand. She is obviously not in the same league of global celebrity as Russell’s missus, but she’s had two TV series and a live tour of her own show with her name in the title. Once again (as you could have predicted) I’m not that impressed by her stuff (her main schtick revolves around it being apparently hilarious for slim popstars to be impersonated by an older woman who’s a bit on the chunky side) but the fact remains she is a celebrity, and deserves the title rather more than many of the parasites and non-entities who pass as one in a lot of TV shows and magazines.

I'm getting them confused already.

So what’s going to happen? I suspect that no-one is going to turn up to see the wrong Katy Brand by mistake and kick up a fuss, but I can’t imagine two high-profile performers yomping around the UK mediascape under identical names. I rather suspect the real Katy Brand’s representation do not have the same kind of muscle as Mrs Russell Brand’s people and pressure will be exerted for the big-boned comedienne to (apologies in advance) re-brand herself. I feel rather sorry for Katy Brand the comedian – she was Katy Brand first, after all and it’s her actual name. I suggest she contrive a whirlwind entanglement with (for example) rugby player Matt Perry or comedy legend Jimmy Perry and take his name. Well, it’s an idea.

Onto one of those situations where two people who come across as equally objectionable are at loggerheads. In this case it’s my so-called lookee-likee Frankie Boyle (can’t see it myself) and – to recycle one of my old lines – mouthy national embarrassment Jordan (I’m going to keep calling her Jordan despite her herculean attempts to de-brand herself and be Katy Price again, partly because there have been too many Katys in this piece already but mainly because I hope it’ll wind her up).

Boyle’s in trouble for making jokes about Jordan’s disabled son. Gags about disabled kids don’t make me laugh (not unless they’re really good ones, anyway), and while Jordan’s one of those people I always hope to find myself in disagreement with, the kid can’t help who his mum is. However – we’re talking about a joke that was made on a late-night show after a warning about the extremity of the content, and told by a comic notorious for his lack of familiarity with anything approaching taste. It’s not exactly man bites dog (except in the most broadly metaphorical sense).

And let’s not forget that Jordan has relentlessly exploited her children, along with the rest of her private life, in her unstoppable pursuit of the oxygen of publicity. If she hadn’t been so keen to stick young Harvey on the front of so many magazines and feature him in her God-awful reality TV shows then the lad wouldn’t have had enough of the name-recognition factor for Boyle to be worth targetting.

It’s all a bit dismally reminiscent of Sachsgate (oh God, we’re back to Russell Brand again), with a media furore eagerly being whipped up despite the comparatively tiny number of complaints from people who heard the ‘joke’ when it was initially broadcast. The shade of Mary Whitehouse must be looking down and smiling: this isn’t just people insisting that everything they watch is unobjectionable. They’re demanding that everything anyone watches should be unobjectionable. I’m not arguing in favour of a total abolition of any standards of good taste and decency in the media, and jokes against specific disabled minors would surely be near the knuckle under any reasonable set of guidelines, but freedom of speech means the freedom to say things people aren’t going to like or find funny. It’s difficult to see what else Channel 4 could have done to warn people off from Boyle’s act. Hmm. I seem to have worked out where I stand on this issue after all, and it’s with my so-called lookalike. Who’d have thought it?

Please God let there be no Russell Brand and no-one called Katy in the final chunk of this tri-lobed ramble. Initially all seems hopeful as the final topic to lodge in my brain concerns the student riots in London. Just as serious debate on the Wikileaks issue seems to have been rather sidelined by Julian Assange’s arrest, so all the media coverage of yesterday’s unrest and the vote appears to have revolved around Charles and Camilla being attacked in their car.

Flicking around trying to find something other than Jeremy Kyle to watch this morning I came across an actual discussion of this that extended beyond ‘isn’t it awful?’ – someone made the pertinent point that half a million people marched peacefully against the invasion of Iraq, to no avail, while half that number of people rioting in protest about the Poll Tax led to the abandonment of the policy and the fall of Thatcher.

No matter what you think about the tuition fees issue – and as you could probably have guessed my own sympathies are much more with the protestors than the government – you surely can’t be all in favour of violence, though. And even if you are going to get a bit rowdy, why have a go at Charles and Camilla? It’s not as though they’re involved in the process. I suppose one could argue that if your family are going to be the figureheads of the establishment in a nation, you have to take the rough with the smooth and accept people will express their dissatisfaction with that establishment by venting their ire on you, but I’m not convinced.

I rather think this is simply the product of everything that happened back in May after the election: the whole ‘vote Lib Dem, get a Tory government’ situation which I suspect will devastate Lib Dem support for a generation. People feel betrayed and that the exercise of their democratic rights has had no meaningful result whatsoever. Then again, that’s the nature of the democratic beast. I suppose it’s a bit pessimistic to say that a mob attacking blameless (and quite probably clueless) couples in late-middle-age is an inevitable consequence of the democratic process, but at this moment in time I can’t draw any other conclusion.

Read Full Post »

Lover as I am of pretty much all of Hammer Films’ horror and fantasy output, I still have to admit that I can’t see these films appealing much to a youthful modern audience, lest it be due to their perceived ‘campness’. Well, I suppose that’s okay; I have no time for most modern horror films – never seen a Saw, never seen a Hostel, the closest I came was a quite frankly appalling film called Captivity, which… well, that’s another story.

Having said that, I watched Witchfinder General (1968) again the other night, and I can see the glimmerings of a connection there between the Gothic horrors of the 1960s and the torture porn befouling modern cinemas. Witchfinder General isn’t, of course, a Hammer production, nor does it feature any of the famous Hammer faces: but it does feature a period setting and a very distinguished leading actor in the title role – Vincent Price, in case you’ve never heard of this film.

If you don’t know this movie the plot is as follows: Matthew Hopkins (Price) and his torturer assistant (Robert Russell) roam an England in the throes of civil war, claiming to do God’s work but really just getting rich and indulging their appetites as they persecute anyone unlucky enough to even come under the suspicion of being a witch. This includes a Catholic priest, whom they eventually hang, despite his comely niece (Hilary Dwyer)’s attempts to save him. Learning what has transpired, a young soldier engaged to the niece (Ian Ogilvy) vows revenge on the self-styled Witchfinder General.

Witchfinder General tends to get mentioned in the same breath as The Wicker Man, a film with which it doesn’t really have that many similarities – this is a movie about the collapse of all morality, whereas The Wicker Man is about a clash of different social codes. But one thing they do have in common, which makes them fairly unusual for horror films of their period, is that neither of them is really a fantasy. Basically, Witchfinder General doesn’t feature any witches, and the villain of the piece is an establishment figure. Price gives a remarkable performance, and is utterly unrecognisable from the Poe movies he was best known for at the time – there’s no trace of the charm he displayed in most of those. Here, he is just a nasty, nasty piece of work.

An uncharitable reviewer might say the same about the whole movie, to be honest. The BBFC’s report on an early draft of the script described it as ‘a study in sadism in which every detail of cruelty and suffering is lovingly dwelt on‘ and this really survives into the final version. Compared to the kind of thing Hammer and Amicus were making at around the same time, Witchfinder General is startlingly explicit, even disturbingly so – the print the BBC showed has clearly been reconstructed from a heavily-censored earlier edit, restoring various graphic stabbings, beatings, eye-gougings and women being burnt alive.

I did actually think to myself at one point ‘This is just torture porn – being in period dress and having Vincent Price in it doesn’t excuse anything’. And it does lack the gentility of other British horror films of this time, their (mostly) high production values, and their reassuringly strong moral framework (basically, you always know who the bad guy is and that the young lovers will escape at the end). Witchfinder General has a good guy and a bad guy, true, but it’s certainly not reassuring – rather than the restoration of the status quo, with virtue triumphant, this movie ends with a crescendo of frenzied violence, gore, and madness.

And one does sense that the script by Reeves and (not the) Tom Baker is trying to say something about the nature of human beings and society, even if it’s not something particularly optimistic – in other words, the film isn’t quite just a string of torture sequences strung together. I can’t quite work out what that is beyond the rather obvious ‘left to their own devices, people will behave like animals’, and I certainly can’t detect any sense of what the film thinks could be done about this – but it’s enough to elevate the film above the level of just being a splatter nasty graced by one of the greatest performances of one of horror’s greatest actors.

Read Full Post »

Lots of newsy stuff this week about the situation in Chile. I can’t help thinking that this whole situation could have been better managed had Gerry Anderson been put in charge of the whole thing (it was, after all, a somewhat similar accident-and-rescue in Germany in the 1960s that inspired Thunderbirds in the first place). The combination of drama, politics, and lashings of gloopy human interest, together with the fact that even the climax of the whole affair played out over a period of a day or so, meant that the rolling news channels were in hog heaven. I could now tell you all about the guy who got engaged while he was down t’pit, the guy whose wife and mistress both turned up to the pit head, and the fellow in charge of rationing the tuna who is apparently the key figure in the whole story. I’m just not sure how it would benefit either of us.

Some good gags on the subject on Have I Got News, which has worryingly been shifted to a Thursday night (I am aware this may have been the case for a bit, but what follows is still valid). I’m the kind of person who still automatically assumes it’s on BBC2 at 10pm on Fridays, but even so. Shunting long-running shows around like this is never a good idea. Watching HIGNFY on a Friday night has been a part of my life for, well, over half of it. Moving it’s like moving a soap, and I bet the BBC wouldn’t do that without a very good reason. (God, I’ve just realised what I must sound like. Hey ho.)

I hope to be able to work out the ITV networks’ thinking behind which Bond movies turn up on which channel, when, and why. After Never Say Never Again popping up on ITV1 last Saturday and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service appearing on ITV4 on Wednesday and Thursday evenings, this week in roughly the same slots we were able to enjoy Dr No and Licence to Kill. So I’m getting a strong sense that ITV1’s getting first dibs. Licence to Kill (15-rated back in 1989) was hacked to pieces for its mid-evening slot, obviously. Can we expect Death Wish 3 to make a similarly truncated prime-time appearance? What about a cut-down Dawn of the Dead at 6pm? Presumably ITV considers the Bond franchise to be a priori family-friendly stuff, in which case it’s clearly Eon’s fault for choosing to make the movie they did. Bad Eon!

Currently oddly fascinated by BBC4’s Only Connect, possibly the most shamelessly elitist gameshow on TV. I mean, ostentatiously so. The opportunities for feeling smug when you know the answers are amazing. Less amazing is presenter Victoria Coren’s belief that she can deliver a snappy one-liner, coz she can’t. Next to Not as funny as she thinks she is in the Dictionary of Useful Phrases is a photo of ol’ Vic. (I am aware I’m on fairly thin ice here.) Last week’s episode engendered enormous amounts of yelling at the screen as Paul Cornell (who I met twice at a convention and have been passing off as an old mate ever since) and two fellow fantasy writers royally bogged up their appearance to a possibly embarrassing degree. (That said I did try the on-line version on the BBC website and it’s not quite as easy as it looks.)

And lastly, BBC3 launched Lip Service, their lifestyle drama (i.e. This Life knock-off) about a group of lesbians (not sure of the collective noun – answers on a postcard, please). This ticked all the boxes for Three as it was brash, stylish, contemporary, witty, and had just a whiff of naughtiness about it. The whole thing’s set in Glasgow, which is slightly ironic given that most of the characters spend a lot of their time heading south of the border. As you may have assumed, I tuned in mainly for the girl-on-girl action, but this was rather engaging for non-prurient reasons, too – I particularly warmed to Kate Button’s clutzy wannabe actress. Sadly, however, the whole enterprise is built around moody Frankie (played by Vitas Gerulaitis – I think, my handwriting’s awful), who I think is supposed to an edgy outsider (which she demonstrates by (ohhhhh!!!!) lighting up in front of a No Smoking sign) who doesn’t mince her words, doesn’t take any… oh, you know how it goes. I’m probably lamentably out of touch with modern times but I find this sort of character irritating rather than alluring, and actually less interesting than somebody who’s thoughtful, responsible, and so on. Nevertheless, circumstances permitting I will be back for episode two next week.

Read Full Post »