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Posts Tagged ‘James Hill’

I can’t let the passing of the great Brian Clemens go without some kind of comment, or indeed a bit of a tribute. Throughout the 60s and 70s, and arguably beyond, Clemens was one of the hidden masters of British TV drama, writing dozens of episodes for many different series, many of which he created himself. As late as the launch of Bugs in 1995, other distinguished writers were attracted to projects simply by the opportunity to work with Clemens. He also did some good work in the cinema, too, writing a couple of fun late-period Hammer horrors (Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde and Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter, the latter of which he directed himself), although the less said about his involvement with Highlander 2: The Quickening the better.

In any case, it is of course The Avengers for which Clemens will be remembered above all else. He wrote the very first and very last episodes of the original run, overseeing its transformation from a gritty crime drama to something utterly eccentric and distinctive in the process, and went on to write many of the episodes of The New Avengers, which brought proceedings back down to earth somewhat. (I suppose one should also mention The Professionals, which on reflection takes The New Avengers format back into realms of slightly absurd grittiness.) Where does one start, faced with such a multitude of riches?

Well, you have to go to mid-period Avengers, of course, with one of the Diana Rigg episodes, and of these perhaps the most notorious, and almost certainly the most influential, is A Touch of Brimstone, originally broadcast in February 1966.

The story opens with, we are assured, the British government thrown into turmoil by a series of bizarre and sinister practical jokes – Russian diplomats are given exploding cigars live on TV, whoopee cushions are snuck into the House of Lords, and so on. (The Avengers quite often resembles a slightly kinky version of the 60s Batman TV show, and never more than here.) On the case are knight-errant-cum-intelligence-hard-man John Steed (Patrick Macnee, of course) and his amateur partner Mrs Peel (Diana Rigg).

As luck would have it, Steed and Mrs Peel don’t have to do a lot of that tedious investigating in order to uncover who’s behind these various outrages, as the first suspect Steed suggests – based on the fact he’s been seen hanging around all the various crime scenes – turns out to be guilty as sin, and perhaps quite literally so. He is John Cleverly Cartney (Peter Wyngarde), an aristocrat with a taste for anarchy, and one of the founders of a revived Hellfire Club. Having only really stirred things up prior to this point, Cartney and his cronies are intent on a much more spectacular coup – once again, perhaps literally so…

Brian Clemens himself would gleefully tell the tale of how A Touch of Brimstone was omitted from the series’ original run, due to the rather pronounced sado-masochistic overtones and cheerfully dwelt-upon debauchery in the latter sections of the episode. (He would also mention that the same US network chiefs who banned the episode on moral grounds organised a private viewing for themselves.) By modern standards the episode is pretty tame stuff, but even to this day one can’t deny a certain frisson when Mrs Peel makes her spiked-heeled-and-collared, corseted appearance as the Queen of Sin (Dame Diana apparently designed this, dare I say it, iconic ensemble herself), and in any case it’s hard to shake the impression that this sort of big set-piece moment is the episode’s raison d’etre – the rest of the plot is frankly pretty thin and spurious.

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Sorry, this picture is really obligatory when you write about this particular episode.

 

But then again, classic Avengers is all about big set pieces, rather than tight and innovative plotting, not to mention servicing its two leads with some properly beefy material. While it may be Diana Rigg as Mrs Peel who lingers in the memory, most likely for her climactic battles with a man in tights and a whip-cracking Wyngarde, but Steed gets a full-blooded sword-fight and lots of other good stuff too – it hardly needs saying that Macnee takes to dressing and acting like an 18th-century rake like a mallard to a particularly placid pond. Both benefit from James Hill’s direction – Hill knows exactly what this episode’s about, and takes great care to give both his stars reaction beats they can utterly nail.

In short, it doesn’t take itself remotely seriously – the tone of it all is a slightly detached, slightly tongue-in-cheek sardonicism – and while it features none of the full-on SF elements that had started to appear in Avengers scripts by this point, it’s quite clearly not set in the world as we recognise it. And it is supremely entertaining.

And, as I say, influential: somehow this little black-and-white TV episode ended up inspiring an X-Men comics storyline and a bunch of characters who went on to be popular in their own right. I’ve no idea if Brian Clemens ever knew about this, but I expect he did, and I suspect he was highly amused. We shall not see his like again, I suspect. I’ve no idea what happens to us when it’s all over, but if there is anything waiting, I hope he gets the good stuff he deserves. RIP.

 

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If you want to carve out a niche for yourself as a great Sherlock Holmes, you should probably be aware that it will be a long haul. Dozens of actors have played the great detective over the years, including some very famous ones: Roger Moore, Christopher Lee, and Charlton Heston amongst them. And yet, when the average person is asked to name a classic Sherlock, they will almost certainly – once they’ve mentioned Cumbersome Bandersnatch – go on to list Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, and Peter Cushing. All of these guys spent years or even decades playing Holmes: I suppose the fact that Rathbone and Brett didn’t really have another leading role of equal magnitude is a factor, too.

Relative obscurity doesn’t mean that some of these one-shot Sherlocks didn’t have touches of greatness about them. One candidate with definite potential, although this may be because he was primarily a theatre actor, was John Neville, a performer possibly best-known these days for the title role in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (I once heard Jon Pertwee claim that Neville’s management basically stole the role from Pertwee for their man through wily politicking, though that’s by the by) and also a recurring turn in The X-Files. He played Holmes in James Hill’s 1965 movie A Study in Terror.

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As the movie opens, the inhabitants of late-Victorian London are (as usual) quaking in their boots as a series of strange and ghastly events unfolds. Someone has taken to murdering Whitechapel prostitutes and then mutilating their corpses with surgical equipment. Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson (Donald Houston) are following the case with their usual interest, but are not actually involved – until a case of surgical instruments arrives in the post at Baker Street, postmarked Whitechapel, and with the main scalpel notable by its absence…

‘Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper’ is, when you think about it, a fairly obvious pitch for a movie, so it’s not surprising that a production like A Study in Terror eventually got made. That it took so long is probably due to taste concerns – this is, as I always say when writing about Ripper movies, a case of a brutally misogynistic serial killer being parcelled up as jolly entertainment – and, I suspect, the success of the period genre movies being made by Hammer at about the same time. A Study in Terror isn’t a Hammer movie – the budget is clearly bigger, and the cast list much starrier – but there are indications of the style here and there, especially in the set-piece killings.

Probably just as important as a point of reference for A Study in Terror is another film made a decade later, Bob Clark’s Murder by Decree. This is probably a better-known one-shot Sherlock movie, starring Christopher Plummer and a host of A-listers, but it again revolves around the ‘Holmes vs the Ripper’ idea. The main difference is that Murder by Decree was ginned up especially to put across one particular theory claiming to be a genuine solution to the Ripper murders, while A Study in Terror is essentially not much more than a piece of entertainment (please note I am studiously avoiding the ‘ripping yarn’ pun).

While there are a couple of ways in which Study seems to anticipate Decree – the ‘solution’ of the crimes involves the British aristocracy, and the film has a sort of social consciousness when it comes to the squalour of parts of London in the 1880s – it’s much less concerned with historical or forensic accuracy (the Ripper’s victims retain their real names, but are killed in the wrong order). Plus everyone is a bit too well-turned-out, everything is a bit too clean and colourful, for this to really convince in terms of the period setting: the setting and characters in Oliver! look more authentically dingy than they do here.

Not to say that this is a bad film, by any means: the plot is pleasingly convoluted, though I think I detect the odd hole here and there, and there is, as I said, a very impressive cast on hand – Frank Finlay plays Lestrade, a role he would reprise in Decree, and this is surely the only production in history for which Judi Dench and Barbara Windsor both receive an acting credit (sadly, they never share a scene together). Holmes gets to make some proper heavy-duty deductions, too, which is also very pleasing.

Actually, Neville and Houston are pretty good full stop as Holmes and Watson: they are clearly very influenced by the Rathbone and Bruce characterisations, but at least Houston’s Watson is just a little bit pompous rather than a complete turnip. Neville doesn’t really get a chance to project the obsessive darkness others have found in Holmes’ character, but in addition to Rathbone’s kind style of vigorous geniality, there is a trace of the kind of asceticism Peter Cushing brought to the part.

I suppose it is also to the film’s credit that this does feel rather authentic as a Sherlock Holmes story. Many pastiches don’t – some supposed adaptations, too, for that matter – for the simple reason that they treat the Holmes stories as though they were Classic Literature with the capitals intact, and their filming like the making of a costume drama. The original stories are genre fiction, and at times not that far removed from quite outlandish pulp fiction – it’s notable that there’s barely a reference to the actual Ripper murders in the original Conan Doyle, despite the fact they happened during the period when the first Holmes stories were originally being published.

One thing you can’t deny about A Study in Terror is that it honours the pulpy roots of Holmes, albeit in an occasionally roundabout way. Holmes gets a couple of proper action sequences and the story contains the requisite levels of the outlandish and bizarre. As I said, there are even moments of pure exploitation-horror, most notably the sequence in which Edina Ronay is killed: shot in long takes from the Ripper’s viewpoint, it’s undeniably powerful, even as it betrays the influence of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom.

So in the end I would say that A Study in Terror is a pretty successful attempt at a Holmes pastiche. It’s still obviously modestly-budgeted, rather than a major production, and it’s very clear that it was conceived of as a high-class genre movie – but these things in themselves aren’t the stuff of substantive criticism. You could perhaps express a slight demur at the very concept of the film, and there are perhaps a few minor issues with plotting and tone, but on the whole this is a very decent movie, worth checking out if you enjoy a classic-style Holmes.

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A rare collision of different blog strands tonight, as another silly old film review collides with one of my vague and unhelpful disquisitions on the playing, or not, of the ukulele. This is probably more interesting to followers of the latter than the former, simply because Tony Coleman and Margaret Meagher’s Mighty Uke is being released into the world one cinema at a time – or, to put it more accurately, the film-makers are taking it on tour.

I knew that this groundbreaking uke-umentary was only making a single appearance in Oxford. This in itself seemed uncannily well-timed as I only learned of it within hours of taking up the uke myself. While I was also aware of the events supporting the showing, I didn’t know quite what an unusual evening this was to be. I was standing in the ticket line when a disparate group in matching t-shirts arrived and introduced themselves to the Phoenix staff with cheery cries of ‘We’re the Mighty Uke people!’ You don’t get that down the local Odeon.

So I took my place in the theatre, looking around surreptitiously for ukes amongst the crowd (I had, of course, brought my own), but was interrupted by the appearance of a stocky Canadian in a cap in front of the screen. Rather to my surprise this turned out to be the film’s director, Tony Coleman: the ‘Mighty Uke people’ were not particularly rabid fans of the movie, but the actual film-makers themselves. Having the director turn up in person and thank you for coming is a very gratifying experience, and I’m surprised more movies don’t arrange something similar. With the way the evening would go having been explained, the film rolled.

Coleman and Meagher’s film is about the ukulele; partly the history of this remarkable instrument, but mainly concerned with the current boom in its popularity. They set their cards on the table from practically the first sequence, which portrays the celebrated uke soloist Jake Shimabukuro in action: suspicions that anyone involved is going to treat the ukulele as a joke or in a remotely condescending manner at utterly blown away.

From hereon the movie proceeds at a fairly brisk trot for the rest of its 80-minute running time, starting by covering the extent of the current ukulele boom (players from as far afield as Japan and Israel make an appearance), and the reasons for its popularity. The ease of starting to play is, rightly, addressed, along with the pleasingly low expectations surrounding the instrument (both reasons why I myself took up the uke).

After this there is a lengthy segment on the history of the instrument, beginning in Hawaii in 1879 and proceeding through the 20th century, and interviews with notable players both past and present (one of whom, the 103-year-old veteran Bill Tapia, died only days before the screening I went to). These run the gamut from traditional folksy performers, to singer-songwriter Uni and her Ukulele, to Jon Braman (an extraordinary hip-hop ukulele player from New York), to Scandinavian punk uker Elvira Bira, and finally to the Canadian virtuoso James Hill whose talents on the instrument almost seem to defy logic.

From hereon the movie segues again, to look at one of Canada’s most distinguished ukulele groups, the Langley Ukulele Ensemble (of which Hill is an alumnus) and their almost insanely enthusiastic teacher. Needless to say their skills are such that every summer they play a residency in Hawaii, and the film follows them on one such trip.

British audiences will no doubt have one major question: and the answer is, yes, George Formby does appear in the film – but we hardly get to hear that legendary right hand in action, doubtless for rights clearance reasons. The same presumably explains the omission of other noted performers such as the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain or Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. There’s hardly any Jake Shimabukuro in it either, really – the only modern great who gets serious screen-time is Hill, frequently described as the world’s greatest ukulele player, who was clearly heavily involved with the production behind-the-scenes.

Hill has a point when he talks about the extraordinary musical sleight-of-hand a well-played ukulele is capable of – the sounds it generates seem so far in excess of what the musician is doing to it – but I think the appeal of the instrument is far simpler. It’s impossible to listen to decent uke music without feeling just a tiny bit uplifted and cheered, and the sound of massed ukes playing together is, quite simply, absurdly joyous.

A wise man (not me) has said that a great documentary makes you interested in a topic you knew nothing about previously. As a uke player myself, I was probably always going to enjoy a film which celebrated the instrument, but even so I think this is a great little film. I don’t think it’s perfect – the structure doesn’t lend itself to much of a climax and the film seems to stop rather abruptly – but another wise man (and this time it was me) has commented on the suicide-inducing qualities of most allegedly ‘feel good’ movies: I’ve never seen Mighty Uke described in those terms, but for me this was one of the most simply enjoyable films I’ve seen all year.

And the evening did not conclude with the end of the film – following a short intermission, we moved forward to cram the front two or three rows of the theatre, as James Hill himself was accompanying the tour and performed a brief set with his accompanist, the cellist Anne Davison. When not telling fairly droll anecdotes about being interned in Singapore on suspicion of having bird flu, Hill showed off his own skills and the versatility of the uke by playing folk songs, jazz, original compositions, and then rounding off with his celebrated arrangement of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, playing percussion, rhythm and melody simultaneously on a single uke. One of the most astounding pieces of musicianship I’ve ever seen.

Finally, there was the promised ukulele jam, and it seemed that most of the crowd had brought their own ukes. (Another thing you don’t get down the Odeon – though I suspect if I turned up to the latest Twilight and started strumming along to the action I would be bodily ejected from the showing.) My Makala MK-SC seemed very humble given the distinguished instruments suddenly appearing all around, but this was no time for bashfulness. The sound of twenty-five ukuleles and a cello tuning up simultaneously is not one which is easily described, and only added to my concern that the A-string on my own uke is an octave low, but then the assembled ukes and their players launched into a couple of simple songs, led by Hill (performing a strange human semaphore to indicate chord changes). This was a strangely transcendent moment for me in my playing; the duff noises coming off the A-string and my tendency to get my strumming finger tangled on the upstroke suddenly seemed quite inconsequential (although my inability to get from G to D minor cleanly was more of an issue).

Too soon it was over and we all wafted out of the theatre in a state of elation, united by our affection for the uke. Much to my delight I made the acquaintance of a group of Oxford-based ukers and with any luck I will not be labouring in isolation for very much longer. A good movie, a great experience, and the best night out I’ve had in a long time.

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