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Posts Tagged ‘drama’

There is something odd in the English mentality that sometimes makes us more enthusiastic about celebrating our narrow squeaks and mitigated disasters than commemorating our genuine national triumphs. (I’m almost tempted to suggest this because genuine English national triumphs have been thin on the ground for some time now, but I feel besieged enough right now, thanks.) Perhaps it’s just our famous national sense of fair play that makes us want to stick up for the underdog. Especially when the underdog is us. At the moment there may be very particular reasons for this sort of thing – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The latest example of someone getting nostalgic about a pretty bad day is the new movie from Christopher Nolan. Having already treated us to Insomnia, Inception, and Interstellar, Nolan’s new movie is entitled InDunkirk (in some territories – specifically the interior of my head, but I digress). Oh, all right, it may actually be called Dunkirk, but it’s set in and around the town of that name, at the back end of May 1940.

The story of Dunkirk has genuinely become a part of the British national myth, but I’m genuinely uncertain as to how well-known it is around the world. Nolan wisely takes no chances and opens the film with a set of captions filling in the story so far – with the Nazi war machine sweeping west across Europe, the British army and its allies find themselves surrounded in the French port of Dunkirk. With the enemy closing in, the need to get the men off the beaches and over the channel to England is becoming desperate. But how is the miracle to be accomplished?

Nolan’s movie focuses on a handful of different storylines, set on land, sea, and in the air. A young soldier (Fionn Whitehead) makes his way to the allied enclave, and desperately attempts to get onto one of the ships taking soldiers off the beach, as discipline begins to falter amongst the trapped men. The owner of one of the ‘little ships’ (Mark Rylance) sets off across the channel, determined to do his bit and save as many of his countrymen as he can. And a Spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy) attempts to protect the ships taking off the army from the depredations of Luftwaffe dive-bombers.

As you can perhaps discern, this is not quite a traditionally epic war movie, built around a specific narrative. Instead it seems to be trying to offer up an almost impressionistic experience of what it felt like to go through the ordeal of the Dunkirk evacuation. The storyline of the movie is quite straightforward, and there is correspondingly little exposition, just a succession of set-pieces. Nolan is, characteristically, attempting to do something clever and tricksy with the film’s handling of space and time, but it takes quite a while for this to become completely clear.

It comes as no great surprise to find regular Nolan collaborators like Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy in the movie (apparently Michael Caine also contributes a vocal cameo), nor, really, distinguished thespians like Ken Branagh or Mark Rylance. It has to be said that these gentlemen are occupying the somewhat-coveted ‘With’ and ‘And’ section of the cast list, with many of the main roles played by younger, less famous actors such as Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, and Barry Keoghan. Also making a fairly substantial appearance is the quadro-mammaried popstrel Harry Styles, who apparently used to be in some boy band or other. Styles is actually perfectly acceptable in this movie, which I fear is only going to encourage him to keep acting. You can’t have everything, I suppose. It is notable, I think, that Christopher Nolan has managed to make a major film with a cast almost exclusively composed of white men, without anyone kicking off about it – maybe he really does have magic powers. (It’s enough to gladden the heart of a thundering misogynist.)

While doing my research for this piece (quiet at the back – of course I do research), I discovered that Dunkirk is based on a script which Nolan wrote donkey’s years ago, long before his rise to prominence as a director. Apparently he put it on ice while he gathered enough experience making large-scale Hollywood blockbusters (can’t argue with a confident man, I guess), and in some ways it feels like something written in a different mode – it has some of the audacity of Nolan’s most celebrated work, but not really the narrative density or thematic strength which you associate with those films. He appears to be trying to make the film work more on a visceral level, but it is a qualified success at best in this regard.

And I have to say that, while it still feels unlikely that Nolan will ever make a film which is less than accomplished and engaging, I left this one without the same joyous sense of having had the possibilities of cinema confirmed for me that I felt after all the other Nolan films I’ve seen. Naturally, I seem to be in a tiny minority on this one (just for a change), as many professional film-watchers are announcing this is Christopher Nolan’s best film yet, and a sign of him finally realising his promise as a film-maker. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I do think it’s a bit suspicious that it’s Nolan’s first film in fifteen years that isn’t on some level a fantasy or an SF movie that has been hailed as marking his admission to the grown-up’s club. It seems you just can’t get respect making certain kinds of genre movie, even if they’re as exceptional as Inception or The Dark Knight.

Then again it may just be that this is one of those films which it is just unacceptable to give a negative review to, not just because of the director and cast, but because of the subject matter itself – slightly absurd though it sounds, giving the thumbs down to Dunkirk could be interpreted as disparaging one of the defining moments in the modern British narrative, along with everyone involved in those events. We are in the middle of a bunch of movies about the Second World War at the moment – recently we’ve had Churchill and Their Finest Hour, with yet another Churchill bio-pic (Darkest Hour) being trailed before Dunkirk itself. Is it just a coincidence that all these films about Britain heroically going it alone should be making an appearance at the moment? I’m sure Nolan is not setting out to make particular political points with Dunkirk, but I note that the film’s parting shot – a reminder that this muddled withdrawal of Britain from Europe was not a triumph, and should not be treated as one – is not one of the elements being lionised by its supporters in the media.

As I say, Christopher Nolan seems incapable of making a bad film, and watching Dunkirk should prove a memorable experience for virtually anyone: it is full of striking images, heart-felt performances, moments that stay with you. By almost anyone’s standards it is a good, if somewhat unconventional war movie and historical drama. But I have to say that of all the Nolan movies that I’ve seen, it’s the one I can least imagine myself sitting down to watch again and again, even if that says more about his exceptional track-record than anything else.

 

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Overheard in a cinema in the Earth Year 1994, prior to a revival of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver:

‘Did you see that Clint Eastwood film on telly the other night?’

‘Oh yeah – he goes into that girls’ school and has them all wrapped right round his little finger, right up until the moment when they [spoiler redacted]. Top movie.’

Overheard in a cinema in the Earth Year 2017, after a screening of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled:

‘So, what did you think?’

‘Well, I thought he was perhaps suited a bit more to the part than Clint Eastwood was…’

‘Well, Clint Eastwood’s not a very good actor, is he?’

(I had to absent myself from the vicinity of the conversation at this point, lest an eruption occur.)

Perhaps I should make clear that the people I was earwigging in 1994 were both youngish men, while my companions for the new version of The Beguiled were somewhat older ladies. Does this tell us anything about the differences between the 1971 version of the movie, directed by Don Siegel, and the remake? Well, perhaps.

Like the original, Sofia Coppola’s movie is set during the latter stages of the American Civil War, in and around a finishing school for girls in Virginia. Due to the turmoil of the conflict, only a tiny group of pupils remain, along with a couple of staff members – headmistress Martha (Nicole Kidman) and teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst).

One day, one of the girls is out picking mushrooms in the woods near the school when she comes across John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a wounded enemy soldier. She helps him back to the grand old house in which the establishment is located, at which point the question becomes one of what they should do with him. Obviously, the sensible thing to do would be to call in the authorities of their own side straight away, but somehow it doesn’t seem quite so simple – McBurney would probably die on the way to a prison camp, so the charitable thing is surely to keep him around until he feels better, isn’t it?

There is, not to put too fine a point on it, a little unrelieved tension in the air, as the presence of McBurney has an alarming effect on a group of women and girls who have apparently been living without masculine company for far too long. McBurney’s own natural charm and manipulative nature don’t help matters much. The women are soon all under his spell, and he seems to be on to a very good thing at the school. But has he underestimated the strength of the emotions his arrival has unleashed?

Being a hate-filled fanatically misogynistic crypto-fascist (apparently), I am constantly surprised by the fact that I frequently admire and enjoy films directed by and starring women, but there you go. I did not catch Sofia Coppola’s last couple of films, but I did see Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette, and had a pretty good time watching them both (even if my review of the latter does contain the suggestion ‘would have been much improved by the addition of a story and some decent dialogue’). The Beguiled is likewise not a film which anyone is likely to decry as an offence against cinema, but at the same time I can’t see it becoming as big a critical darling as some of this director’s films.

I mean, the actual carpentry of the story holds together pretty well, though it would possibly have been better if we’d got more of a sense of what life in the school was like prior to McBurney’s arrival. Creating atmosphere is one of Coppola’s strengths as a director and she duly creates a strong sense of unspoken tension between the various women as they slowly begin to compete for McBurney’s favours. The performances are universally strong, although everyone seems to be operating very much within their comfort zone as a performer. I’m sure I’ve seen Nicole Kidman do that mannered southern lady schtick before, and the same is true of Kirsten Dunst’s repressed schoolteacher. Elle Fanning perhaps does something slightly new as a somewhat out-of-control young girl. On the whole this is the kind of film you would expect it to be – atmospheric, fairly intense, and not especially light on its feet.

Then again, perhaps I’m biased, for I have seen the original Don Siegel movie on which the new one is based (although admittedly not recently). The 1971 Beguiled always seemed to me to be very much framed and marketed as a Western, although that may just be down to the presence of Eastwood and Siegel. The new movie is much more open about its identity as a drama (perhaps even a melodrama) in the Southern Gothic tradition, though perhaps this is also the result of the story being seen from a more openly feminine perspective.

Even so, this is hardly a radical new interpretation of the story – all the key plot beats survive very much intact (at one point someone is sent to fetch a book on anatomy and a saw), but I suppose the characters are drawn a little differently – McBurney is less of a sexual predator, perhaps, and the incestuous elements of the original story have been removed. The movie has also drawn flak for, would you believe it, a lack of diversity, because the character of a slave who featured in the Siegel version has likewise gone. (In her defence, Coppola has said that she felt that it would not do justice to the importance of the issue of slavery to just touch on it in passing, as would most likely have been the case had she included a single minor character in this way. Sounds reasonable to me, but, hey, I’m apparently not the best person to judge this kind of issue.)

I would imagine you are more likely to enjoy watching the new version of The Beguiled if you are not familiar with the one starring Eastwood, simply because the plot will contain a few surprises for you. This is a well-mounted, well-played, capably-directed movie, but it doesn’t really add that much to an original which was a memorably unsettling and quietly powerful psycho-drama in its own right. A moderately engaging piece of entertainment, I think: not much more than that.

 

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If you look at a typical episode of a Marvel Comics TV show nowadays, it will likely concern some sort of ninja death cult, or high-tech arms dealing, or demonically-inspired parallel world capers about evil androids. But it was not ever thus, and the most successful of Marvel’s shows from years gone by was usually a little more quotidian in its emphasis – sometimes jarringly so, from a modern perspective.

A Child in Need (written by Frank Dandridge) is an episode transmitted as part of the second season of The Incredible Hulk, late in 1978, although it was apparently intended for the first season (held back for behind the scenes reasons). The past is another country, of course, but given the subject matter of this particular episode, it seems particularly ironic that at its start perennial drifter and serial utiliser of transparent pseudonyms David Banner (Bill Bixby, of course) has managed to land a job as groundskeeper at an ordinary school in Everytown USA. Personally I would have said that dealing with dozens of children every day was not a good idea for someone with his particular anger management issues, but this is what the plot requires.

Anyway, Banner befriends Mark (Dennis Dimster), a lonely 10-year-old boy, and notices his arms are badly bruised. The school nurse (Rebecca York) casually mentions that Mark falls over and bruises himself quite a lot, which of course sets Banner with his brilliant medical brain to thinking there may be something unpleasant going on in Mark’s domestic situation – he tracks down Mark’s mother to ask her about this, only to find she shows signs of having been beaten up as well.

It is, needless to say, Mark’s dad Jack (Sandy McPeak) who is responsible (although the episode is painstaking in making it clear that responsibility is a relative thing in this situation). He comes from a rough background himself, likes a drink a bit too much, and so on. Needless to say, he does not take kindly to Banner inserting himself into his family’s business, and various confrontations ensue, some of which turn violent and conclude with Banner being pushed over fences and into closets, and generally finding himself in obscure locations from which the Hulk can emerge a few moments later, intent on doing his somewhat simple-minded bit for child welfare.

You might think the episode itself sounds rather simple-minded, but I would rather describe it as heart-felt and it is, as usual, driven along by an exemplary performance from Bixby. You do question quite why Banner finds himself so driven to help Mark with his problems – it’s not just a case of Banner’s usual incorruptible decency, he almost seems to be taking it quite personally. Anyone savvy with the later years of the comic may recall that the book’s Banner was the victim of an abusive, alcoholic father (it was suggested this was to some extent the root cause of his odd condition) and it would be tempting to speculate that Banner sees something of himself in Mark – however, a later episode focusing on Banner’s own family background would suggest otherwise.

As I say, Banner does seem to let his concerns get the better of him, rather – I’m guessing this is not the episode they show to ancillary school staff as part of their induction training. Banner admittedly has his own very good reasons for wanting to stay off the authorities’ radar, but even so, for him to be doing such a Lone Ranger act, spending so much one-on-one time with a vulnerable minor, and even taking him back to his apartment – I normally tune most of the way out during welfare training where I work, but even I know these are exceptionably unwise things to be doing.

But hey, it was the 1970s, and the episode also makes the conspiracy of silence Banner has to contend with quite clear: the school nurse doesn’t want to get involved, fearing she’ll lose her job, and nobody else in the neighbourhood wants to bring down the wrath of Jack on themselves, either. If nothing else, I suppose episodes like this did a valuable service in opening up serious issues like child abuse to general discussion.

This is a solidly written and well-played episode, with moments of directorial ambition, too (director James Parriott has a damn good go at a trick shot where the Hulk changes back into Banner actually on camera, but can’t quite make it seamless). And the Hulk-out sequences are exceptionally effective, not because they’re especially lavish or inventive, but because they work extremely well on a thematic level.

Kenneth Johnson, creator and overseer of The Incredible Hulk, always said that one of the ideas of the show was that many people have to deal with their own metaphorical Hulk – some weakness or problem that sometimes makes them lose control, with destructive results. And that’s never clearer than here – the first Hulk-out occurs when Banner realises Jack is about to start beating up his son (his alarm and frustration about this is what ultimately causes the change) and it’s just as Jack is about to turn violent with Mark that the Hulk smashes through the wall into their living room. The metaphor could not be much clearer. The same is true of the climactic Hulk-out, in which Jack eventually attacks the Hulk, and it’s clear that from his point of view the monster represents his own abusive father. Catharsis ensues; Jack gets the help he needs, McGee (who turns up for one scene, but doesn’t contribute much to the drama) doesn’t get his story, Banner walks off into the sunset with the piano tinkling mournfully.

As I say, perhaps not the kind of kick-ass thrills you get on Netflix nowadays, but (a few dubious moments excepted) it is an extremely well-made episode which sets out to cover a serious issue in a serious way. In some ways its very earnestness is what makes it so effective as a piece of drama.

The next episode, Another Path, doesn’t quite feature a ninja death cult, but it’s still likely to feel much more familiar to modern viewers. Nicholas Corea’s script gets underway with Banner finding himself locked in the back of a refrigerated truck with an elderly Asian man who is deep in a meditation trance. This is a fairly improbable situation for someone to find himself in, and Corea doesn’t bother trying to be clever about it – indeed there’s something almost admirable about the no-nonsense way he bulls through the set-up.

Well, in a bit of a deviation from the Hulk formula, being trapped in a refrigerated truck is enough to bring on one of Banner’s episodes very early in the episode, and he and the old man bust out. His companion proves to be Li Sung, a blind Chinese philosopher, teacher, and martial arts expert, who has spent the last couple of years exploring the USA. Striking up a friendship, Banner and Li Sung realise that a few meditation techniques might help no end when it comes to keeping the Hulk under control. (The elderly Chinese character is played by Mako, a Japanese actor who was only about 45 when the episode was made. But it was the 1970s, and Mako was one of those guys who seemed to spend most of his career playing much older than his actual age.)

The two men eventually end up in San Francisco, because Li Sung founded a school here some time earlier, and he wants to see how it has been getting on in his absence. However (and here the plot kicks in), Li Sung’s old pupil, Silva (Tom Lee Holland), has fallen to the dark side and the school is now a front for a protection racket. When they realise this, Banner (quite sensibly) urges Li Sung to go to the police – but this has become a matter of honour for the old man, to be settled face to face…

The slight oddness of this episode becomes apparent very early on, with one of the Hulk-outs done and dusted inside the first ten minutes or so. You almost never get more than two Hulk-outs an episode on this show (they’re the single most expensive part of the programme), so this means it’s a very long time between appearances by Lou Ferrigno. This just adds to the sense that the episode is at least as much about Li Sung as it is about Banner. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, of course – it’s a tack The Incredible Hulk goes for more than once. But it is a bit of a change of pace and tone. (A sequel to this episode was actually intended as a backdoor pilot for a martial-arts themed action-adventure show, and you wonder whether they were thinking along those lines even at this point.)

And, very unusually, the climax of the episode concludes with Li Sung himself taking on Silva and his followers, kung-fu style, with the Hulk himself in a very subordinate role. Still, the martial arts stuff is reasonably good – I’d say it works as well as the fight choreography in Iron Fist, not that this is necessarily saying much – and it’s really just a case of expectations not being met. This is a show called The Incredible Hulk, after all, not The Deadly Hands of Li Sung. In the end it’s all good knockabout fun, with no particular depth or insight to it, and a winning performance from Mako. Not quite a Hulk episode of the first rank, though.

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Does this count as a genuine coincidence or not? About six months ago I was visiting relatives when my cousin (NB to family: I am aware this is a bit of a simplification, stand down), a man of great energy and rigorous thoughtfulness, descended on me and raved about the book he was reading at the time, Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin. I’d never heard of the novel or the writer, but obviously this was not a recommendation to take lightly. Now here we are with a movie adaptation of the same (until relatively recently) slightly obscure novel enjoying what I will politely describe as a limited release.

The movie is directed by Vincent Perez, and is also called Alone in Berlin – the book has previously been adapted for German audiences under the title Everyone Dies Alone, and if that gives you the sense that there may not be a lot of laughs in this one, you are entirely with the programme.

We are currently in the midst of one of those occasional outbreaks of movies about the Second World War, with new ones appearing on a very nearly weekly basis (or so it feels, anyway). Alone in Berlin opens towards the end of the initial Nazi conquest of France, with the death in battle of a young German soldier. In most movies this would not be cause for concern, but this is not your typical film taking place in this particular setting. German soldiers have parents, too, and the next thing we see is the dead boy’s parents receiving the telegram notifying them of his death.

They are Anna and Otto Quangel (played by Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson); she is a housewife, he a factory foreman, and they live together in a slightly pokey flat in the centre of Berlin. Previously it seems they have been apolitical when it comes to their government, but the death of their son ignites something, first in Otto, then in Anna, and they decide to do something, anything, to resist what they see as the lies of the ruling regime.

This takes the form of writing seditious postcards criticising Hitler and his ideology, which they then leave in public places for others to find and (hopefully) pass on. You might think this sounds pretty small beans when it comes to insurrectionism, and I might be inclined to agree with you, but even this small act of defiance cannot be tolerated by the ruling Nazis, and a police detective is assigned to hunt down the writer of the treasonous missives. The cop on the job is Inspector Escherich (Daniel Bruhl), who nicknames his quarry ‘the Hobgoblin’ – but while not an educated man, Quangel is no fool, and the cat and mouse game between him and the authorities stretches on for years, with tensions rising on both sides…

In case you are wondering, Fallada’s novel was based on a true story, and was initially published quite shortly after the end of the war. It has been called ‘the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis’. This is not, in my admittedly very limited experience, an especially large field, but it is certainly a memorable book, although I remember it more for its tone and atmosphere than for any details of plot or writing.

Certainly this is a somewhat free adaptation of the book. Quite apart from the facts that Gleeson is far from the bird-like figure of the novel’s Quangel, and Bruhl is considerably younger than the book’s Escherich, many of the book’s profusion of subplots, dealing with a wide range of characters and situations, have either been heavily cut down or completely excised – the younger Quangel’s fiancee and her involvement with another, more active resistance cell is completely gone, for instance. This may allow the film more focus and make it easier to follow, but it means the film depicts much less of a cross-section of German society and how different people made their accommodations with living under the Nazi regime.

Instead, it is much more about the Quangels. Obviously they are well-played (Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson, for crying out loud), and the script goes to the trouble of introducing new material in order to give Thompson a bit more to work with. The moral righteousness of Otto Quangel is perfect for an actor of Gleeson’s power and gravitas, of course, and he does produce some memorable moments – but the problem is that the Quangels, apart from at the very beginning of the story, are so wholly, stoically good, that they’re not especially interesting characters. The really interesting character in this version of the story is Escherich, who begins by treating the postcards as just another case, only to realise – rather too late – that the Nazi authorities don’t respect niceties like the rule of law or the independence of the police. The inspector’s own moral journey from somewhat wry, apolitical observer, to a conflicted, guilt-ridden man is where the real dramatic meat of the film lies (and Bruhl is good in the role).

The book obviously has an axe to grind, given the context in which it was written, and I have to say I found it to be somewhat unsubtle and – in its closing stages – awkwardly sentimental. The film avoids this to some extent, but there are no particular insights here, and it skips over, to some extent, the fact that the Quangels’ quarrel with Hitler is not motivated by any particular moral concern but simply because they feel him responsible for getting their son killed. At the heart of the story there is always one very basic question – is there any real value in an act of resistance as, to be blunt, petty and ineffectual as the one carried out by the Quangels? I suppose there is something to be said for standing up to be counted, which qualifies as a moral victory of a sort, but even so. Naturally, Fallada, and also to some extent the film, is in no doubt that the Quangels (and the couple they were based on) are heroes, but I found myself wondering. They are clearly good, decent people, but their goodness takes a curiously muted form. Bereft of the epilogue of the novel, which implies their actions may have had other, wholly unintended positive consequences, you are left to wonder if the whole affair has achieved anything of real merit at all – has it just been an exercise in self-sacrificial futility?

The movie has been impressively assembled and is well-acted and competently directed, but it’s still a little unsatisfying. It doesn’t expose moral truths, it just raises questions which it never quite answers, and it comes perilously close to presenting the fact that the Nazi regime was bad as if this is some kind of important new revelation. Alone in Berlin s a watchable movie, but quite heavy-going, and less profound and moving than it seems to think it is.

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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 actor’s 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 appens 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.

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You have to admire Viggo Mortensen – not necessarily in the mouth-open, eyes-wide, posters-on-the-wall way that my mother used to demonstrate so well for a few years in the first half of the 2000s, but certainly for the guy’s integrity as an artist and a human being. I mean, there he was, suddenly – and perhaps a little improbably – elevated from jobbing actor to massive international and star and, for ladies of a certain age, heartthrob, with Hollywood beating a path to his door, and what did he decide to do? Well, he made one slightly dodgy mainstream adventure movie, 2004’s Hidalgo, but since then he has concentrated on challenging, critically-acclaimed movies that have nevertheless not exactly filled up the multiplexes on a Saturday night.

He hasn’t proven completely averse to genre movies, however, although most of the thrillers and so on he’s done have been a little bit skewed one way or another. Also John Hillcoat’s 2009 film The Road, which is not quite the film it initially appears to be. This is not a remake of the lost Nigel Kneale TV drama of that title, nor indeed a movie of Jim Cartwright’s celebrated play with a definite article added, but an adaptation of the award-winning novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy.

Something terrible has happened, and civilisation as we know it has collapsed. Most of the world’s animals have died, and the plants are gradually dying. Soon everything will be dead. Making their way through the ruins of the USA are a man (Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). They are heading for the coast, but their ultimate destination remains obscure. The boy’s mother (Charlize Theron) gave birth to him shortly after the disaster, but committed suicide when he was much younger, seeing the man’s determination to stay alive for as long as possible as foolish and futile. Yet he persists in his desperate attempts to keep the pair of them alive and raise his son well, drumming into him that they have to be good guys and ‘carriers of the fire’.

Staying positive at all is a heroic undertaking in the hellish wasteland which the duo find themselves. Food is almost impossible to procure, and bands of cannibalistic survivors are a constant menace. The duo often find themselves on the verge of starving to death. What, quite frankly, is the point of any of it?

So, as you may have surmised, not a lot of laughs in this one. It seems to me very telling that exactly what has befallen the planet is never really made clear – was it a nuclear war? An asteroid strike? Something more esoteric? – for the movie is not really concerned with the details of what has happened. The apocalypse is a necessary backdrop for the story’s concerns, which are those of paternal love and the degree to which the desire to be a good person can turn you into something quite different.

I’m not averse to something post-apocalyptic but The Road makes most films and TV shows in this kind of setting look incredibly frivolous. This is a setting in which not having enough bullets to kill everyone in your family, when the moment finally comes, is a serious problem and source of domestic strife. People just seem to be clinging on hopelessly for as long as they possibly can – and by any means necessary. The film depicts people hunting each other across country, and larders filled with human bodies. Any sense of common humanity seems to have dissipated, replaced by self-interest or the law of the pack or tribe. In short, this movie gives Grave of the Fireflies a run for its money in the bleak and depressing stakes.

As you may have figured out, it takes a fairly serious movie to be quite so downbeat, and for all that it contains moments that any horror movie would be proud of, The Road generally eschews the action-adventure stylings of films in this kind of genre for a more sober, introspective tone. This is matched by the muted, grey-brown tones of most of the movie, and the understated music provided by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. When the film jumps back to a flashback from before the catastrophe, the screen bursts into life and colour and it’s like a sudden vision of heaven – which was surely the intention of the director.

Mortensen, as you might have expected, carries the movie with another intensely committed performance, but he is well supported by Kodi Smit-McPhee (he was also notably good in the Nu-Hammer horror Let Me In, but these days seems to have become marooned in the X-Men franchise). Robert Duvall briefly appears, as does Guy Pearce (this is probably another of those movies that everyone has forgotten Pearce has been in – of course I know Pearce is a movie star, but I’ll be blowed if I can think of more than a couple of the actual films he’s made).

In the end, however, this is a very personal story, one about the precise nature of the catastrophe which the characters have suffered – the loss of security, the loss of hope, the loss of their names, even. The man has become so obsessed with doing the right thing by his son, and teaching him to be a good person, that he has it transform him into someone who has lost track of essential human decency. ‘We’re not going to eat anyone, are we?’ asks the boy, worried, but the man is quite prepared to steal from others and kill in order to protect him. Society has crumbled, but without society what morality can there be?

The movie doesn’t really attempt to answer the question, which is in keeping with the general tenor of the place. The general mood of grim awfulness is so consistently maintained that it’s those moments when the film offers up a morsel of hope which seem oddly incongruous. Nevertheless, an extremely powerful and well-made film, if not an especially easy one to watch.

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Doomwatch finds itself touched by greatness with the eleventh episode of the second series, The Inquest. One wonders how many of the themes of these episodes were handed to the writers by the production team, for the idea at the heart of this one – a rabies outbreak in England – also pops up in a late episode of Survivors, albeit realised rather differently.

A young girl has died of rabies and Quist has sent Hardcastle down to the area to try and locate the source of the infection, as there have been no reports of mad dogs. The local research institute has been implicated in the outbreak and he is checking it out when he is wounded after someone starts taking pot-shots at the place – the institute’s use of live testing has made it the target of sustained protests and sabotage from animal lovers in the vicinity. Luckily it’s only a flesh wound, but he’s still confined to hospital.

With Chantry and Ridge both away on business or leave, it falls to Quist to send Colin Bradshaw (Joby Blanshard), Doomwatch’s token Northern stereotype, into the field to take over. He soon discovers that tempers are running high, with no obvious leads on the mad dogs (no pun intended) and the local dog-lover determined to pin responsibility on a mutant virus carried by tsetse flies from the local lab…

The Inquest is the sole contribution to Doomwatch from Robert Holmes, who in 1971 was just at the start of his imperial period as the greatest writer of Doctor Who stories in the history of the world. One is so familiar with the particular tropes of Holmes’ Doctor Who work – larger than life characters, a genuine love of language, occasional signs of real political sophistication and cynicism, for instance – that it can be a little disconcerting to watch his work on another series and find these things much less evident. It’s a little difficult to discern just how good a fit Holmes and Doomwatch were for each other, for in some ways this is a very atypical episode. Ridge and Chantry aren’t in it at all, and Quist and Hardcastle play quite minor roles, leaving Bradshaw to enjoy his big moment as chief representative of the team. Even then, he’s off-screen for quite long periods, with the meat of the episode being the proceedings of the inquest for the dead girl – extremely long scenes of people talking to each other in the same room.

It’s a testament to Holmes’ talent that The Inquest remains an engaging drama despite these constraints. Before becoming the world’s greatest Doctor Who writer, and doing some other jobs in TV, Holmes was a police detective and then a newspaper journalist, and his familiarity with these kinds of proceedings shines through. The mystery of where the rabies outbreak has come from is handled well and the solution, when it comes, is logical and satisfying. None of it really qualifies as actual SF, of course, but given how different it is from the norm, this is a strong episode, at the very least (hey, they can’t all be Pyramids of Mars).

A major figure from an earlier era of Doctor Who writes the next episode, The Logicians: Dennis Spooner, script editor during the programme’s second and third seasons, and the first person to see a place for comedy in the palette of the series (you could therefore perhaps say the current tendency for S***** M***** to write the programme as a sitcom is ultimately Spooner’s fault, but that might be considered overly harsh). (Spooner had previously written Burial at Sea, one of the ‘lost’ series one episodes.) As I’ve said before, Spooner is really one of the unsung heroes of British TV SF and fantasy: he was the creator of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and a notable writer on Thunderbirds and other Gerry Anderson programmes, as well as both The Avengers and The New Avengers.

This may be why The Logicians feels distinctly like an early Avengers episode itself, and why Simon Oates seems to be having such a ball (Oates played Steed in an ill-fated Avengers stage show between seasons of Doomwatch and later appeared in The New Avengers himself). A group of schoolboys plan and execute a robbery on the pharmaceutical company which one of their fathers manages – the plan is both audacious and meticulously worked out, and the formula for a lucrative new drug is successfully stolen. What the boys have not reckoned on is the presence of Ridge, who puts together enough evidence to make Doomwatch interested in the experimental school they go to – there is little conventional discipline and the children are extensively trained in logical problem-solving. But can Quist and the others outwit such young and gifted brains?

This works quite well as a light caper drama, with Doomwatch attempting to keep up with their youthful quarry – it’s made clear that the robbery is motivated not by self-interest, but a desire to raise funds to keep the school open. (One of the boys is played by Peter Duncan, most famous as a Blue Peter presenter, but also the possessor of an interesting acting CV featuring episodes of The Tomorrow People, Space: 1999 and Survivors. This episode also features Michael Gover, another Survivors regular.) The shift away from conversation and character to plot and action is very noticeable and not at all unwelcome.

However, you do find yourself thinking that Doomwatch’s involvement in what’s arguably a police matter is somewhat contrived, and the usual note of baleful concern, when struck by Quist, feels a little forced – are experimental schools and the use of computers in education going to turn children into high-functioning amoral recidivists? I would say that was an example of the show trying to create a concern rather than reflect one – an example of ‘wouldn’t it be worrying if…’ rather than ‘isn’t it worrying that…’ But Spooner is a good enough writer to keep you watching and entertained.

The second series concludes with Public Enemy, written by Patrick Alexander (a writer, for once, with no connection to that other show which I never mention any more). This episode marks the last involvement in the series of co-creators Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler, and the temptation to assume that they were heavily involved in its scripting is very strong.

A teenage boy dies after climbing onto a factory roof to retrieve a football; this happens in a small southern town is already under investigation for an unnaturally high rate of pulmonary illness, and the new death gives the team a focus for their efforts. The factory is operated by a metallurgical company working on a potentially valuable new alloy, and the research is being overseen by Lewis, an ambitious young scientist played by Trevor Bannister (Bannister is best remembered for appearing sitcoms like Are You Being Served? and Last of the Summer Wine, but he is notably effective in more serious and antagonistic roles both here and in The Tomorrow People).

Quist’s investigation uncovers the fact that production of the new alloy creates  beryllium salts as a by-product, which are quite capable of causing lethal side-effects unless precautionary measures are significantly stepped-up. Lewis is outraged, suggesting Quist is scaremongering, but the management and the workforce are more sympathetic.

…until the parent company of the factory decides that the cost of the safety improvements involved in meeting Quist’s requirements is too great, and they’re going to close it down and shift production to their site in Leicester, many miles to the north. Everyone prepared to relocate will keep their jobs, but this is still terrible news for the rest of the town and its businesses. Quist is obliged to address a meeting of the angry principals, all of whom want him to either justify his report or (preferably) moderate its conclusions.

Up to this point the episode has been a reasonably engaging drama, but in its scene it transforms into an undisguised parable about environmentalism and social attitudes towards it. Everyone wants a cleaner, greener world, but no-one wants to pay for it – whether that means paying in cash, or in inconvenience, or in loss of potential progress. (Quist also dismisses the obsession with progress as something else impelling humanity’s zombie march towards disaster.) Tough decisions have to be made. ‘We all have a choice to make,’ Quist says, in the final words of the episode, ‘…all of us.’ By this point John Paul is looking straight down the camera lens, and the implication is obvious – it’s not just Quist speaking to the angry workers, managers, scientists and townspeople, but also the makers of the programme addressing audience at home. It’s a memorably powerful conclusion to the episode and the season, the fact that the episode’s story is left unresolved feeling very secondary.

Is it somewhat preachy? Well, maybe – but then the whole series has been motivated by the same kind of concerns. Its earnestness and willingness to be partisan may be unfashionable nowadays, but many of the issues it has touched on are as important today as they were in 1971. Regardless of how well the remains of the third series prove to have turned out, this remains a landmark series.

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