Review – Global Warning, University of Northampton, Final Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Isham Studio, Northampton, 31st January 2019

globalwarningClimate Change and the lethal waste in our seas are definitely up there among the world’s biggest problems at the moment – and it doesn’t help that so many of the powers that be either don’t take them seriously or, even worse, deny their existence. This group of young actors from the Final Year BA (Hons) Acting Students at Northampton University have collaborated to create their own take on the problem and ways in which some people can help (or hinder) progress.

Nafetalai TuifuaThis show is a sequence of inter-related sketches and scenes that highlight the scale of the problem from many different angles. First, we are introduced to our keen and lively cast who parade on stage and then “assume positions” of varying degrees of artistry, from which they bawl, prance, leap, moan and all sorts of other noisy actions in between; all under the masterful watch of their wonderfully posey and pompous Director, played with dazzling humour by Ryan Greendale. They’re happy, playful little performers who all eventually die due to their contaminated environment. It instantly makes a very forceful point – although if that scene had carried on much longer it might have got a little self-indulgent.

Daniel HuberyThen we meet Gwilym, with his uphill task of keeping his herd of cows in check, as they blunder all over the stage and up into the audience. These devious cattle have a plan to increase methane production by working on their farts. This was a fun sketch, primarily as a result of their having to keep their bovine secret from Gwilym, so that every time he turns up, all untrusting-like, they revert to their traditional mooing. Very nicely done! The next sketch featured some well-meaning broccoli farmers (I assume that’s what they were) being tricked out of their land by the scheming Nafetalai Tuifua and Lyric Impraim in an enjoyable exposure of how simple folk don’t have a chance against Big Business.

Samantha TurnerAnd so the show continued. I won’t go through each and every sketch – I won’t be able to remember them all at any rate! But there were some entertaining running characters who burst forward every now and then. Hannah Magrath’s Doctor keeps a constant eye on the deteriorating double-act of Louise Akroyd’s Mother Earth and Daniel Hubery’s Poseidon (lord of the sea). This somewhat abused couple fight for breath and can’t stop the coughs as their condition gets worse and worse. There’s a highlight when Poseidon, in his snorkel and speedos, leads the cast in a big number about the pollution in the seas. I enjoy and admire how Mr Hubery is not afraid to look ridiculous in order to get the laughs! By the end of the show, Poseidon (lord of the sea) and Mother Earth have frankly given up the ghost – and the future is definitely looking grim.

Ryan GreendaleAnother recurrent character is Trevor, from the Climate Change/World Ecology think tank, a seemingly well-meaning but ineffectual chap with a serious message on how to manage the future. He gets bombarded from the audience with recyclables, and eventually is bribed by Interested Parties with cash to flash to keep his ideas to himself. It’s a good, understated performance from Joseph Mattingley, who connects extremely well with the audience.

Melissa KnottOther sketches include three nature-watchers sailing out to sea in a coffin, who marvel at the destroyed world around them – lovely performances from Fiona Moreland-Belle, Samantha Turner and Simon Roseman; a Tongan hula party brought to life by the immensely watchable Nafetalai Tuifua; and the vegan thugs who beat meat-eaters up with celery sticks. Ms Turner, again, is the ringleader of this green gang and has a quietly authoritative stage presence; she reminds me a little of a younger Jessica Hynes, which is No Bad Thing.

Kieran JamesThere’s one incredible coup-de-theatre, for which everyone should be congratulated; when the stage is transported to the sea with the use of one large sheet of tarpaulin, waving and blowing in the air, being raised over our heads, with the wind rushing and the sense of sea spray on our faces, and making the detritus on the floor look even more disgusting and criminal as a contaminated sea bed. A relatively simple device, but in effect, absolutely breathtaking and beautifully carried out.

Joseph MattingleyAll members of the cast worked their socks off as part of the big ensemble and also in their individual roles. In addition to those I’ve already mentioned I really enjoyed all the contributions made by Kieran James and Melissa Knott who were both outstanding in their stage confidence and all their characterisations; but everyone played a tremendous part in creating an engrossing show. Very enjoyable all round – and plenty to make you think about too!

Review – Sandi Toksvig, National Trevor, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 29th January 2019

no73titlecardDo you remember when you first encountered Sandi Toksvig? My friend the Prince of Pontardulais and I used to watch ITV’s No. 73 when we were students, where Sandi’s (or rather Ethel’s) “daring, dazzling, death-defyingly dull, devastatingly dangerous, delectable, delicatestible, divinely decadent” Sandwich Quiz was a vital ingredient of our Saturday morning sobering up routine. I always thought she’d go on to do good things. And, blow me down, she has.

Why National Trevor? Well, I suppose it’s as close to being called a National Treasure as is decent for a self-penned epithet without becoming big-headed about it; although, apparently, it’s what her neighbour misheard one day. I’ve rarely seen the Derngate auditorium so packed, which does indeed confirm her status as a NT. But Sandi’s new touring show is all about how we’re all National Trevors in our own way; and you get a badge if you can prove it.

sandi toksvigYou couldn’t quite classify this as a stand-up comedy show. There’s light-hearted cosy chat; a comfy chair – perhaps one generation more modern than Ronnie Corbett’s, but providing the same purpose – at the back of the stage, emphasises that aspect of the evening. There are also considerable elements of comedy lecture; the lectern at the front of the stage gives us that clue. It is, of course, de rigueur to have a PowerPoint presentation to accompany one’s lecture, but sensibly she’s broken it down into not too many slides. I was almost tempted to ask for a hard copy at the end of the evening.

It was Mrs Chrisparkle who instantly noticed that her vocal tics and delivery are almost identical to those of Michael McIntyre – although she doesn’t skip about the stage like him. Who’s imitating who? With the greatest respect to Ms Toksvig, she’s (quite considerably) the older of the two, so I can only assume he’s paying tribute to her in his own way. It was also when she told an anecdote about her old friend Alan Coren, that I realised her vocal style has also influenced David Mitchell (Alan Coren’s son-in-law). Or at least they are very similar. But I digress.

sandi-toksvig 2She’s a warm and kind person on stage – and you get the feeling that she’d be awfully fun to know in real life. She’s extremely inclusive, welcomes audience participation and her reactions and interaction with the crowd are never other than extremely respectful. Her evening of comedy isn’t remotely challenging; quite the reverse. It’s warm, fluffy and life-enhancing. Her story of how she tried to get her Women’s Equality Party noticed by illegally projecting an image on to the Houses of Parliament – and the subsequent action by the police – sums up her humour in a nutshell: anything remotely dangerous or difficult will quickly yield to tea and biscuits. Talking of biscuits, who knew how dangerous they are? That’s already one reason to see her show!

You sense there’s a rebel in there, trying to get out; occasional references to being an early lesbian (her words) and her desperate challenges to us not to switch our phones on but instead to strike up an acquaintance with someone new during the interval – and indeed founding a political party – reveal someone who is prepared to go against the grain. But the truth is that the rebel is now totally an Establishment figure, a doyenne of the intellectual airwaves and unquestioning lover of books. If Sandi were a judge, and you were found guilty in her court, she’d be the only one who would literally throw the book at you – possibly Byron – whilst still calling you my darling. Wisely, she doesn’t delve into the world of politics in her humour; in fact, she must be the only comic/entertainer/stand-up we’ve seen for ages who didn’t mentioned the B word.

sandi-toksvig 3Instead her material consists of quirky facts, amusing anecdotes, recollections of her father (virtually the only person on Danmarks Radio when it started its TV service) and What do you do with a Signed Rolf Harris album? There’s a hilarious story of an embarrassing lunch at the Savoy with a Well-Known Lady Author of Romantic Fiction (Now Deceased); as well as revealing the ins and outs of the least successful leg amputation ever. Towards the end, there’s a Q&A session – I normally don’t like these, but Sandi made it fun. What language do you dream in? In whichever country’s language she finds herself. Who would you most like to have dinner with? Her children (see what I mean about not really being a rebel?) Which famous person would you like to meet? Famous people are overrated.

If there’s one message from her show, it’s simply to have fun. Being alive is the best gift any of us can have – and once it’s over, it’s over, so enjoy it, goddammit. And be nice to people. Why be anything else? The show ends with us all conducting an imaginary orchestra – a lovely idea, and I wish she’d made more of it! There are only a few dates left on her tour – but if you’re in Brighton, Birmingham, Sheffield, Nottingham or Liverpool you know what to do.

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Towards Zero (1944)

Towards ZeroIn which tennis star Nevile Strange takes his new wife Kay to stay with his late guardian’s widow, Lady Tressilian, when his first wife, Audrey, is also visiting. Tempers flare, old flames are kindled, and old scores are settled. After one apparently accidental death and another that’s definitely murder, Superintendent Battle, together with his nephew Inspector Leach, questions the suspects and gets to the bottom of what actually happened. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

robert gravesThe book is dedicated “To Robert Graves. Dear Robert, since you are kind enough to say you like my stories, I venture to dedicate this book to you. All I ask is that you should sternly restrain your critical faculties (doubtless, sharpened by your recent excesses in that line!) when reading it. This is a story for your pleasure and not a candidate for Mr. Graves’ literary pillory! Your friend, Agatha Christie.” Robert Graves was, of course, a famous and successful writer, who created works such as Goodbye to All That, I Claudius, and Claudius the God. I’m not sure what the recent excesses that Christie refers to in this dedication are. They were clearly good friends anyway! Towards Zero was first serialised in the US in Collier’s Weekly in three parts in May 1944, under the title Come and Be Hanged! The book was first published in the US in June 1944 under its usual title of Towards Zero by Dodd, Mead and Company, and in the UK by Collins Crime Club in one month later.

zeroI remember reading this book as a youngster and being frustrated that there wasn’t a nice juicy murder for me to get my teeth into right from the start. In fact, you have to wait till just over halfway through the book before anyone dies. I confess, that was my immature reaction to the book. Today, I can see that its charm and power come from all the trails that it creates in the run up to the murder taking place. Not only are you trying to identify possible motives for murder, you’re also working out who the likely victims might be as well as who is likely to have done the deed. It gets you thinking and operating your own little grey cells, even though Hercule Poirot isn’t present to supervise you – although Superintendent Battle, on this final occasion that we have dealings with him, remembers the old man at one point and gets some sleuthing inspiration from him.

old family solicitorIt’s narrated in the third person but still has quite a complicated structure. We start off with a brief prologue, dated November 19th, where old Mr Treves discusses an unrelated legal case with his colleagues and points out what he sees is a fault with crime fiction: “they begin in the wrong place! They begin with the murder. But the murder is the end. The story begins long before that – years before sometimes – with all the causes and events that bring certain people to a certain place at a certain time on a certain day […] all converging towards a given spot […] Zero Hour.” And that is the structure of this book, gathering those threads together that lead their way towards a crime being committed.

cliff edgeThe next part of the book, “Open the Door and Here are the People” introduces us to the rest of the cast of the story, in the sequence in which their involvement begins – and with each section dated, in chronological order. Thus, on January 11th, we meet Angus MacWhirter, having failed at an attempt at suicide, trying to work out how to piece his life together – as well as hiding from the law as suicide was illegal in those days. A little later we see him get a job, but then MacWhirter then disappears from the narrative for 110 pages, because he has no active role in the lead up to the crime. February 14th sees a nameless hand write a plan; presumably the murderer working out the deviousness of their plot. Come March, and Superintendent Battle hits our radar, with a domestic problem of his daughter in school. Nice to know that Battle has a family life, I don’t think that’s something that was ever addressed before. No information is wasted in this very tight book, and Battle’s experience with his daughter does play a part in his detection in due course.

women-arguingOn April 19th we see Nevile and Kay together for the first time and form a strong opinion on how they spend their daily life together. In May we meet to Audrey, and Thomas Royde, whose late brother was in love with Audrey before she married Nevile; and we become reacquainted with Mr Treves, planning to visit Lady Tressilian. By the time August comes around, we’ve met all the dramatis personae and nothing can change the eventual outcome. By this gradual introduction of characters, plots and relationships, you can see how the separate threads of this story merge together; unusual for Christie, and it keeps your attention throughout.

PoliceAs I mentioned earlier, Towards Zero marks the point where Agatha Christie and Superintendent Battle part company; and Christie takes the opportunity to fill in some gaps where it comes to Battle, his life and personality. Up till now we’ve only ever seen him as the totally solid, slightly slow, playing-by-the-book, highly traditional character. Christie has thrown out a few clues in his previous cases about his character, but nothing much. From The Secret of Chimneys: “Detective stories are mostly bunkum,” said Battle unemotionally. “But they amuse people.” From Cards on the Table, talking to Miss Burgess: “I don’t want to say anything against your sex but there’s no doubt that a woman, when she’s rattled, is apt to lash out with her tongue a bit”. Now in Towards Zero, Battle seems to have much more space to be himself. He’s very much a mentor to his nephew, Inspector Leach, who is almost pathetically grateful to his uncle for any help: “You’ll give me a hand, won’t you, Uncle, over this? First case of this kind I’ve had.”

suspiciousBattle controls the investigation with a fair hand and an open mind. But Christie is keen to point out that Battle is actually full of his own little prejudices, and whilst Inspector Leach is introducing themselves to the wider Strange family, Battle is silently judging them all from his own preconceptions: “his view of them might have surprised them had they known it. It was a sternly biased view. No matter what the law pretends as to regarding people as innocent until they are proved guilty, Superintendent Battle always regarded everyone connected with a murder case as a potential murderer […] These were Superintendent Battle’s thoughts: Suppose that’s Miss Aldin. Cool customer – competent woman, I should say. Won’t catch her off her guard easily. Man next to her is a dark horse – got a groggy arm – poker face – got an inferiority complex as likely as not. That’s one of these wives, I suppose – she’s scared to death – yes, she’s scared all right. Funny about that coffee cup. That’s Strange, I’ve seen him before somewhere. He’s got the jitters all right – nerves shot to pieces. Red-headed girl’s a tartar- devil of a temper. Brains as well as temper, though.”

PoirotBattle can’t place why he can’t stop thinking of Poirot, although he suspects it must be something to do with the psychology of the case. Leach considers Poirot to be a “comic little guy”, but Battle’s having none of that. “Comic my foot […] about as dangerous as a black mamba and a she-leopard! […] Keep a murderer talking – that’s one of his lines. Says everyone is bound to speak what’s true sooner or later – because in the end it’s easier than telling lies. And so they make some little slip they don’t think matters – and that’s when you get them.” In fact, Poirot comes into Battle’s head because of a very revealing instance of non-symmetry; following that through gives Battle a big clue as to whodunit and how.

juan les pinsRegular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see to what extent they’re genuine, or just a figment of her imagination. In this book, the majority of places are certainly made up. The book’s setting of Saltcreek, opposite Easterhead, not far from Saltington, is purely fictional. There is a Saltcreek – but it’s in Australia; there is also a River Tern, but this is a tributary of the River Severn and so never meets the sea. St. Loo is mentioned; this is the setting for Peril at End House, but it doesn’t exist – although I have read commentators who equate St Loo with Torquay. However, Hindhead, of course, where Nevile Strange lives, does exist, in Surrey; as does Juan les Pins, on the French Riviera, where Kay and Ted Latimer had met on holiday when they were young. “I see they’ve detained a man in the Kentish Town trunk case” says Mary Aldin. Kentish Town, of course, does exist, but I don’t think it’s ever seen a “trunk case”.

hanging-judgeThere are just a couple of other interesting references in the book; Mr Treves conducts a conversation about child murderers, never an easy subject, but one that inevitably stirs strong emotions. There weren’t any famous cases of child murders in the UK around the time that Christie wrote this book, but it may well be she was in part exploring the way for one of her later books where a child, indeed, is shown to be the murderer. Looking forward to re-reading that one in due course!

elegant handwritingOne lengthy section of the book is entitled “A fine Italian hand”. This phrase has often been used to describe the change of handwriting in parts of Europe away from the Gothic script of the 17th century and before. As a figure of speech, it implies a skill in a distinct field. So when Kay tells Battle that Nevile “quite honestly thinks it was his idea, but I’ve seen Audrey’s fine Italian hand behind it from the first” she means Audrey has skilfully manipulated the situation to come about.

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to convert any significant sums of money mentioned in the Christie books to what they would be worth today, in order to gain a greater understanding of quite how large or small they are – it’s not always so easy to assess otherwise. The only meaningful sums of money in this book relate to the amount of money that Nevile and Audrey might inherit. There’s £100,000 washing about in the late Sir Matthew’s trust – that was a tidy sum in 1944, and converts to the even tidier £3.1 million today.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Towards Zero:

Publication Details: 1944. Fontana paperback, 6th impression, published in April 1973, price 30p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a dead, decaying fish on some rocks in the middle of a beach, whilst a coil of rope lies nearby. The rope is key to the crime; the dead fish, I feel, is mere window-dressing.

How many pages until the first death: 89. The structure of this book is that everything hurtles towards zero hour. Don’t worry that there hasn’t been a murder yet, just wallow in all the developing possibilities.

Funny lines out of context:

“Rather late, wasn’t it, to go off to Easterhead Bay?” “Oh, it’s a gay spot – they keep it up till all hours.”

Memorable characters:

This book is textured with a number of memorable characters. Camilla, Lady Tressilian, is a grande dame of the old tradition, who enjoys ill health and its trappings. You can just imagine her demanding an audience in her boudoir with anyone she wishes to beam kindly on; and ignoring anyone she wants to put the boot in. Mr Treves is also a well-rounded character; intelligent, experienced, not afraid of upsetting people even at his grand old age; “a little malice […] adds a certain savour to life” he says at one point to Lady Tressilian. But it’s the warring factions of Kay and Audrey Strange that really sit high in your memory once the book is over; Kay, with her hot-headed over-reactions, and Audrey with her infuriating calmness.

Christie the Poison expert:

No particular references to poison in this book. Just not that kind of book!

Class/social issues of the time:

The role of women is once more shown to be precarious, particularly amongst the older characters. Lady Tressilian snobbishly looks down on Kay as being arriviste and with “no background, no roots.” “”Her mother was notorious on the Riviera. What a bringing up for the girl. Nothing but Hotel life – and that mother! Then she meets Nevile on the tennis courts, makes a dead set at him and never rests until she gets him to leave his wife – of whom he was extremely fond – and go off with her! I blame her entirely for the whole thing!” Mary smiled faintly. Lady Tressilian had the old-fashioned characteristic of always blaming the woman and being indulgent toward the man in the case.”

On another occasion, Lady Tressilian is singing the praises of her companion Mary Aldin, and, spoken as a compliment, exclaims: “she has really a first-class brain – a man’s brain.” Christie felt very comfortable with these traditional old anti-feminist viewpoints. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons she never felt comfortable writing about divorce, because it enabled a woman to go her own way and make her own decisions in life, instead of being meekly dictated to. Of course, manners and etiquette regarding divorce were in their relatively early stages. Lady Tressilian has her own views about how it should be conducted: “if husbands and wives have to advertise their difficulties in public and have recourse to divorce, then they might at least part decently. The new wife and the old wife making friends is quite disgusting in my mind. Nobody has any standards nowadays!”

There’s a lovely example of how the times they are a-changin’. In a world where people divorce and the class system is challenged, a few old habits still die hard. Mr Treves, newly arrived from a different area, is to come to dinner at Lady Tressilian’s. In preparation for this visit, he brings a letter of introduction from a mutual acquaintance. Perfectly charming. I don’t think that practice has survived into the 21st century!

There’s normally a reference or two in a Christie novel to either xenophobia or racism. I could only see one such reference in Towards Zero – when “unsympathetic old colonels were wont to say” of Ted Latimer, “touch of the Dago”.

Another more unusual social issue, that I don’t think Christie had addressed before, is that of suicide. With the character of Angus MacWhirter having attempted suicide before the book starts, but having survived it, he is faced “with the prospect of being hauled up in a police court for the crime of trying to take his own life. Curse it, it was his own life, wasn’t it?” Suicide ceased to be a criminal act in England and Wales in 1961. Interestingly, today we would consider that most people who attempt suicide have poor mental health when they do so. MacWhirter, though, proclaims that “he’d never been saner! And to commit suicide was the most logical and sensible thing that could be done by a man in his position.”

The nurse attending MacWhirter holds no sympathy for him other than her nurselike duty of getting him well again. Her phrases: “we know what’s best for you”, “it’s wrong”, “haven’t you got any relations?” “but you’ve got friends, surely?” and “you won’t kill yourself now […] they never do”, are all reactions that help the person who didn’t try to take their life, rather than the person who did. Today, they’d all be rather inadvisable things to say to someone considering suicide.

Classic denouement: Pretty much! All the suspects are gathered, and it looks very much like one person is clearly the murderer until a last-minute twist turns our attention to someone else. Christie allows Battle to finish his swansong with a bang!

Happy ending? Largely. There’s a slight element of disappointment that the murderer is only brought to justice on the grounds of causing one death, rather than two, or possibly even three. However, apart from that, there’s an engagement between one couple and the suggestion of a second with another.

Did the story ring true? On the whole, yes. The murderer was unlucky that there was, basically, an eye-witness to a major part of the crime set-up, which, had that not been the case, might never have come to light.

Overall satisfaction rating: My memory of reading this book in the past suggested that I wouldn’t be giving this more than about 6/10. But, on this re-read, I have no hesitation in giving it a 10/10, because the tension grows so deliciously.

Death Comes as the EndThanks for reading my blog of Towards Zero and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Death Comes As The End, where Christie transports us back 4,000 years to ancient Egypt. I remember this as being one of my all-time favourite Christies, and I can’t wait to get cracking on it. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Review – The Favourite, Northampton Filmhouse, 26th January 2019

tf posterAs long as I can remember I’ve been a theatre-type much more than a movie-type, so we don’t go to the films as often as most people. Surprise, surprise, we went twice last week! On Wednesday we saw the charming and enjoyable Stan & Ollie, and on Saturday night it was the turn of The Favourite.

olivia colmanI didn’t have much in the way of expectations, other than believing it to be a madcap and rather black comedy featuring Queen Anne. And of course, Olivia Colman, as the Royal Personage Herself, who was the prime reason we chose to see it. She can do no wrong in my book. And, to an extent, she continues to do no wrong as she is by far the best thing about this film; the other two good things being her co-stars, Rachel Weisz as the sinister and cruel Duchess of Marlborough and Emma Stone as the irrepressibly optimistic and ruthlessly manipulative Abigail Masham.

The plot can be summarised thus: two women vie for the attention of Queen Anne in order to gain power and status for themselves, and are not above indulging in a little sexual shenanigans to get it. Err… that’s it.

rachel weiszMany people I like, indeed love, and whose opinions I respect and admire, have told me what a jolly good film this is. Black comedy, rule breaking, innovative, savage, hilarious; toying with historical fact and historical fiction to create its own dystopian society. And, to be fair, it does achieve this very well. The one aspect of the film that amused me more than anything was how the queen made life or death decisions on the tactics of war with France at a complete whim and clearly without the first clue as to the logic of the battlefield. Because of the regal regime of terror and violence, and unctuous supplication to the crown, the politicians and the military can merely bow down, do her bidding and accept her stupidity. The queen only cares about herself, and her self-indulgences: eating and drinking too much, playing with her pet rabbits, and occasional cunnilingus provided by Abigail. The queen is a truly grotesque characterisation and Ms Colman carries it off with her usual aplomb.

I also know some people – not so many, but still significant – who didn’t rate the film at all. And I have heard of people walking out, which, as I was watching it, didn’t particularly surprise me. If you don’t “get” this film, it’s going to do nothing for you. Sadly, I am among that number. I didn’t get this film at all.

emma stoneIn fact, I got the sense all the way through that this was a film trying to shock for shock’s sake, rather than honestly and organically unfolding its story and characters. I felt like we’d gone back fifty years, and this was some creation of a wild child Ken Russell-type, perhaps with a spot of Andy Warhol or Derek Jarman thrown in. It came across as trying to push the boundaries of what would be allowed by a censor, even though those boundaries have long been established. There’s a brothel scene, so let’s have a bunch of female extras queueing up with their breasts out. There’s a shower scene (why?) so let’s have some more naked female extras having freezing buckets of water chucked over them so we can watch them suffer. Let’s see how many times we can get away with the main characters vomiting, and try to make it humorous by having flunkeys capture the puke in a silver ewer. Let’s see how uncomfortable we can make an audience by having someone tread heavily on a rabbit, for no reason other than because they can, so it cries out in pain. It strikes me that this is a director struggling with late-onset puberty.

tfEverything is done to excess in this film. Now, it may well be that it was an era of excess, so that it’s arguably a reasonable tactic to employ. But there are limits; even “doing it to excess” is done to excess. When Abigail gets off the coach at the beginning of the film, she can’t just get out of it, she has to be pushed out so that she falls face first in the midden. When she’s in conversation with the MP who wants her to spy on the queen, it can’t just end there, she has to be pushed head first so that she falls flat down a hill (same joke twice, well done.) When she has offended protocol by attending to the queen’s inflamed legs without permission, she isn’t simply dismissed, she’s punished with three savage strokes (was going to be six but it was curtailed) of the birch performed in full view for general entertainment. When anyone disapproves of something, they shout. Especially the queen. She shouts loudly, gracelessly, savagely, ear-piercingly; no filter, as the Insta crowd say. This may be all very clever but, boy, does it get on your nerves.

nicholas-houltEven the cinematography has the feel of someone who’s been let off the leash for the first time, playing with effects to see if they work. What does this button do? Oooh it’s fish-eye! Let’s start lots of the scenes fish-eye style for no apparent reason whatsoever apart from seeing what it looks like. And what’s this button? Wow, it’s widescreen! Let’s use this as another tool for disorienting the audience, yay! Have you heard about this thing where you can layer one image on top of another so that it looks really groovy? Let’s include that for no reason whatever! Oh, and have you finished doing the titles yet? Oh great, you’ve used an ornate font and centre-justified them so that they look like a block of words that’s impossible to read! A perfect symptom of a product that’s all show and no substance!

queen anneNo, I’m not buying this. 120 minutes including the occasional chuckle but many more wtf moments. Mrs Chrisparkle managed to stay awake but was severely bored. I wasn’t bored, I was just stunned by its assumption that we’d fall for old-fashioned shock tactics straight out of the late 60s. There’s probably a very good film hidden in there somewhere. Go away and do it again.

joe alwynP. S. I forgot the ducks. I did like the ducks. BAFTA nomination for Best Waterfowl in a Supporting Role.

The James Bond Challenge – Thunderball (1965)

Thunderball PosterIn which SPECTRE plan to extort £100 million in diamonds (that’s £1.35 billion in today’s money, so it’s a lot of cash) or else two atomic bombs will be dropped on either a major US or English city – later revealed to be Miami. M and his team can’t allow that to happen, so Bond is sent to the Bahamas, where he eventually finds the hidden bombs, kills a lot of SPECTRE’s henchmen underwater and the world is saved. Good man, Bond!

SPECTRE's lairAs the films got grander and longer, so did the budgets continue to increase. The budget for Thunderball was $9 million – three times that of Goldfinger – but with an overall box office take of an estimated $141 million, this was a wise investment. In the original plan, Thunderball was meant to be the first film in the series, but an extended legal wrangle made this impossible; a compromise was eventually reached that credited Kevin McClory (who had always claimed he had co-written the story of Thunderball with Jack Whittingham) as Producer of the movie, with Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman named as Executive Producers. Along with the return of Richard Maibaum as screenwriter, alongside John Hopkins, this makes for quite convoluted opening credits!

Bond and La PorteGuy Hamilton, who had directed Goldfinger, was asked back, but he was too “Bonded Out” to feel the necessary creativity, so he next went on to direct Oliver Reed in The Party’s Over. As a result, Terence Young returned to the job, having already directed Dr No and From Russia With Love. This would be his final Bond film. Once again, the cinematography was by Ted Moore, with Peter Hunt as supervising film editor (film editing credited to Ernest Hosler), and production design by Ken Adam. John Barry was, of course, again responsible for the music, all apart from Monty Norman’s James Bond Theme. Bob Simmons was the stunt choreographer and puts in an amazing performance as Mme Bouvar (not) getting thwacked to a pulp by Bond in the pre-titles scene.

Bob Simmons as Mme BouvarThunderball was published in 1961 and was the ninth in Ian Fleming’s series of James Bond novels. As outlined earlier, it was written as a collaboration between Fleming, Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, Ivar Bryce and Ernest Cuneo, as a novelisation of an earlier, unused film screenplay. As a result, it’s unsurprising that the film and the book tell very much the same story, with only a few minor changes. As an aside, this wasn’t the only film to be made from the Thunderball novel – 1983’s Never Say Never Again, which was Sean Connery’s Bond swansong, also follows the plot of this book. But that’s a matter for another time!

thunderball novelIn the novel, it is explained that M has sent Bond off to the health farm, Shrublands, because he was getting unfit through drinking and smoking too much; but the film just places Bond in the health farm without explanation. The character of Fiona doesn’t appear in the novel, and Emilio Largo is described as SPECTRE’s No 1, because the identity of No 1 kept changing for security reasons. In the film he is No 2, only Blofeld could hold that honour. Fleming liked to borrow his real-life experiences and use the names of people he knew, or knew of, throughout his stories; Blofeld is named after Tom Blofeld who was a contemporary of Fleming’s at Eton and whose son is Henry Blofeld of cricketing fame.

Odeon AylesburyThinking back, and remembering how I saw From Russia with Love, Diamonds are Forever, Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice in double-bills at the Odeon Aylesbury with my schoolfriend John, I am pretty sure that I hadn’t seen Thunderball before. It’s amazing how such a well-known film can completely escape one’s attention. Still, better late than never.

underwaterBoth book and novel received generally favourable reviews. Of the novel, the Guardian wrote: “it is a good, tough, straightforward thriller on perfectly conventional lines”; and the Financial Times called it: “an exciting story skilfully told”, with “a romantic sub-plot […] and the denouement involves great events.” Of the film, the Financial Times regretted the fact that there was much less attempt made at establishing Bond as a “connoisseur playboy”. I find myself agreeing with American film critic Danny Peary, when he said “it takes forever to get started and has too many long underwater sequences during which it’s impossible to tell what’s going on”. My own reaction to the film is that it’s as though they went and bought some underwater cameras and were going to absolutely get their money’s worth.

funeralThe opening credits appear unchanged, with Maurice Binder’s iconic glimpse of Bond walking across the screen whilst being captured by the barrel of a gun, only for him to turn around, see us, and shoot; and then for the blood to start filling up the screen. However, because this movie was filmed in widescreen Panavision, it had to be re-shot; so this is the first time that the actor playing Bond appears in the opening credits – stunt man Bob Simmons had featured in these credits in the first three films. As usual, we are taken straight into the opening scene. We witness Bond at the funeral of one Colonel Jacques Bouvar, SPECTRE’s No 6, where his widow is mourning in the grand tradition of black veils and garments. Bond, however, isn’t satisfied, and when she gets back to her grand house, she locks herself into a sumptuous room only to discover Bond is there waiting for her. She turns out to be a he; Bouvar himself has faked his death, and there follows a thoroughly extravagant fight scene between the two – Bond, cool calm and collected, Bouvar in high heels and stockings.

Aston Martin getawayEventually Bouvar is overpowered and slung into the fireplace to die, a contemptuous bunch of tulips being chucked over his head by Bond as an afterthought. Bond flees to the rooftops to make his escape, but he is followed by SPECTRE henchmen, and just when you think he’s going to get caught – up he flies into the air wearing a jetpack, safely landing beside his Aston Martin DB5 and colleague from the French service, Madame La Porte. The bullet shield emerges from the back of the Aston, and emits a water cannon to keep the henchmen at bay.

opening creditsOnce again our first sight of Bond shows him doing all those things he does best. Looking cool, fighting and killing ruthlessly, being up to date with all the best gadgets. We instantly move into the rest of the title sequence. Getting a little more daring year by year, these credits feature naked bodies for the first time, which Maurice Binder filmed, originally, in black and white. As they swim, silhouetted, Binder created a vibrant colour backdrop of reds, blues, greens and purples, and it’s a very attractive and arresting sequence. This is also our opportunity to hear the title song, Thunderball, sung by Tom Jones. In comparison to its two predecessors, this is, imho, quite an underpowered and forgettable song, which certainly made no impact on me as I was watching it. I note the single only made No 35 in the UK chart. Allegedly, Tom Jones fainted in an attempt to maintain the last big note of the song. Not sure it was worth it.

PalmyraAnd the locations? The film takes us from Paris, back to the UK, and eventually on the Bahamas. Bond’s opening-scene fight with Bouvar was filmed at the Château d’Anet, near Dreux, in North-West France; I recognised a pub in Beaconsfield as the site of the hotel where Derval was killed by Angelo. Shrublands Health Spa scenes were shot at Chalfont Park House, near Chalfont St Peter. The car chase between Bond, Lippe and Fiona was filmed at Silverstone Racing Circuit in Northamptonshire; Largo’s grand estate, Palmyra, was filmed at the exclusive Rock Point home of a Philadelphia millionaire family, the Sullivans, who liked to watch the filming and used to have friends over for drinks who mixed with the cast and crew when not working. Other elegant locations included the Café Martinique and the Coral Harbour Hotel in Nassau. The climactic underwater battle was shot at Clifton Pier, Nassau, and was choreographed by Ricou Browning, famous for his underwater stunt work – he also created the cheeky dolphin, Flipper. He also staged the cave sequence and the battle scenes beneath the Disco Volante and called in his specialist team of divers who were essentially underwater stunt extras during the underwater fights.

BondBond, James Bond. Sadly we don’t get to hear Sean Connery utter those magnificent words this time round. Connery earned a tidy $800,000 for making this film, but he became very impatient with the heavy media attention in Nassau, which may have been partly due to his marital troubles with his wife at the time, Diane Cilento. He was also very nearly eaten by a shark, when filming in the pool at Largo’s property; the Plexiglas divider that was meant to hold the sharks back from where Connery was in the pool wasn’t – to coin a phrase – watertight, and a shark snuck in to where Connery was swimming. Apparently no one has ever jumped out of a pool faster.

Home SecretaryBoo-boos. There are some continuity errors and mistakes as always, but the only one I noticed at the time of actually watching the movie was right at the beginning, where you hear Bond say “As I said, later” to Madame la Porte, his mouth is clearly saying something different! When Bond arrives at M’s office, there’s a modern white light switch by the door. When he leaves, it’s a bronze double switch; curious. Roland Culver’s character is referred to as the Home Secretary, but in the final credits he’s listed as the Foreign Secretary – now, which is it? And Leiter is sometimes in long trousers and sometimes in shorts whilst he’s piloting the helicopter – that’s an impressive quick change. Bond constantly checks his Breitling Geiger Counter watch to see if he’s near the atom bombs; on one occasion, however, it’s a Rolex – smart, but no cigar. This is not an exhaustive list – there’s plenty more for you to read about on the Internet!

PatriciaThe Bond Girl. As in Goldfinger, it takes the audience a while to work out who exactly is The Bond Girl in this film. It’s no surprise that there are a number of women who take his fancy as the film progresses. In one of his first conversations with Madame La Porte, she asks if there is anything else the French station can do for him. His reply, “later, perhaps”, accompanied by a slightly naughty grin implies he is attracted to her – but this goes no further, maybe because she’s a married Madame. Bond’s first interest is with the attractive physiotherapist at the spa, Patricia Fearing. Their banter is direct and their shower scene even more so – it almost won the film an X certificate, which would have been a box office disaster. Patricia is a nice dalliance for Bond until he leaves the spa, then she’s history. Such a cad. She was played by Molly Peters – although her voice was dubbed by Barbara Jefford – who appeared in a few films in the 60s but whose career was short-lived mainly due to legal wrangles.

PaulaThen we meet Paula Caplan, working for the CIA in Nassau, she shows a lot of early potential as a Bond girl but when she is captured by SPECTRE henchmen Vargas and Janni, she chooses suicide by cyanide capsule rather than be tortured to reveal any secrets of Operation Thunderball. Now that’s what I call a spy. She was played by Martine Beswick, who had previously appeared in From Russia with Love, as the fiery fighting gypsy girl, Zora. She had a long and varied career in TV and films, and is now semi-retired.

DominoHowever, the real Bond Girl in this film is Domino, played by Claudine Auger. She’s Largo’s mistress, and Bond convinces her to help him when he reveals that Largo killed her brother. From then on, she’s a mole in his camp. When he realises that she is working against him, he captures her with intent to torture her; luckily Largo’s nuclear physicist Kutze also decided to jump ship and frees her, just in time for her shoot her harpoon gun through Largo’s heart and save Bond. Hurrah! Claudine Auger was on holiday in Nassau when Kevin McClory spotted her and asked her to audition. Originally, the role of Domino was written as an Italian girl, but Ms Auger impressed them so much they recruited her and changed the role to a French one. Previously, she had been Miss France and was runner-up to Miss World in 1958; and she had a long and varied film career.

DominoWhat Bond Girls Are Like. From the first three films, we came to the conclusion that Bond Girls are: sexy, exotic, unpredictable, as equally likely to attack Bond as to support him, strong and self-reliant up to a point, sometimes tragic, professional and scary. Domino doesn’t throw many more attributes into the mix, apart from one: a desire for revenge.

LargoThe Villain. Of course the ultimate Villain is SPECTRE No 1, Blofeld, seen occasionally stroking his pussycat. But the “active” villain in Thunderball is No 2, Emilio Largo, played by Adolfo Celi. Largo is a rich, powerful, ruthless psychopath with a penchant for sharks and a black eye patch for no apparent reason. For me, personally, I didn’t find him as scary or intimidating as any of the previous villains we’d encountered; not that he wasn’t villainous, and he certainly looks the part, but I think by now I’m made of sterner stuff when it comes to Bond villains. Adolfo Celi was a Sicilian actor and singer, with notable performances in Von Ryan’s Express and the TV series The Borgias. His voice was dubbed by Robert Rietty who had a prolific career in the US, UK and Italy.

FionaOther memorable characters? Surprisingly few. At one stage you might even have thought that Luciana Paluzzi’s Fiona might have ended up Bond Girl – and she very nearly did. Ms Paluzzi was originally considered for the role of Domino, but missed out – and was cast as Fiona instead, which she ended up enjoying more because there was more pizzazz in the role. Strictly one of the Baddies, she’s a SPECTRE agent who becomes François Derval’s mistress and assists Largo in Nassau. Bond can be persuasive with the ladies, but not that persuasive. She too gets her come-uppance when she’s shot in the back at a dance. Luciana Paluzzi appeared in a number of films in the 60s and 70s, and in 1980 married American media mogul Michael Jay Solomon, a former president of Warner Brothers International Television. They now live in New York and Rome.

LeiterRik Van Nutter brings a livelier, more proactive characterisation to the role of Felix Leiter than we have seen in the previous films by Jack Lord (Dr No) or Cec Linder (Goldfinger), although he’s still a relatively minor figure in the story. Rik Van Nutter was married to Anita Ekberg at the time and was invited to play the role without an audition.

Moneypenny and the Old ManAs usual, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell and Desmond Llewelyn reprise their familiar roles as M, Moneypenny and Q. Once again M catches Moneypenny talking unguardedly in her reception area – I’m surprised she hasn’t learned by now. Q is even more contemptuous of Bond’s disregard for his amazing gadgets as they meet in Pinder’s shop, “out in the field”.

tom_jones_thunderballAnd what about the music? As usual, we start with the main James Bond Theme, written by Monty Norman, as part of the title sequence, and that’s the last you hear of that. The rest of the film soundtrack is pure John Barry; apart from the title song, Thunderball, whose lyrics are by Don Black. Originally the title song was to have been Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, sung by Dionne Warwick, but timing issues, legal issues and the fact that it wasn’t called Thunderball meant it was withdrawn fairly late in the day, so John Barry had to write a new theme double quick. In style, it’s very similar to Goldfinger, although it’s not as impressive or memorable as either the Goldfinger theme or Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

helicopterThe soundtrack is generally pleasant, but not much more; there’s one recurring theme that hits the dramatic spot nicely. It’s the track entitled simply 007, and you hear it when Bond escapes into the Junkanoo, when he leaves the helicopter to join the underwater battle to the death, and when he clambers aboard the Disco Volante to sort Largo out once and for all. It had been written for From Russia with Love, but this time with a much more arresting arrangement. The theme entitled Switching the Body also has a very ethereal vibe and adds to the suspense. King Errisson, and his combo, who play the Kiss Kiss Club, has had a long and successful career, supporting various luminaries such as Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Michael Jackson, the Jackson Five, and many others; he has also toured with Neil Diamond’s band since 1978.

car on fireCar chases. There’s one car chase; it’s short, brisk and full of surprises! It’s when Bond leaves the Spa in his Lincoln Continental and is pursued by Count Lippe in his Ford Fairlane Skyliner. As the Count gets closer, Bond is more than surprised to see him blown up to smithereens by the wicked Fiona, using a rocket launcher on her motorbike. And although it’s not a chase as such, there’s also Fiona’s suspenseful 100 mph plus drive to Nassau that has Bond looking more nervous than I’ve ever seen him.

BaccaratCocktails and Casinos. Whilst staying at Palmyra, Bond and Largo indulge in some Rum Collins – that’s a Tom Collins made with rum rather than gin. No need for him to ask for it to be shaken and not stirred. At the casino Bond rather extravagantly orders some Dom Perignon 55 to go with the Beluga caviar – nice. Bond’s first meeting with Largo is at a casino table, playing Baccarat I believe. His henchman Vargas is playing opposite him, so presumably Largo wins either way. Bond replaces Vargas at the table and wipes the floor with him; Domino confides that Largo “is going to be impossible tonight if his luck doesn’t change”, which I understand to be a subtle hint of some domestic abuse there.

Q and BondGadgets. It’s gadget overload right from the start! The jetpack that thrusts Bond away to safety, and the bullet shield and water cannon on the Aston Martin already take your breath away, and that’s before the opening credits! Q’s magic bundle for Bond includes a Breitling watch that acts as a Geiger counter, an underwater camera (two a penny nowadays, of course), a pill that acts as a Sat Nav device (same observation applies) and an underwater flare that is jolly useful as both a distress signal and for when you get lost and need a little light trying to find submerged atomic bombs. The cassette recorder hidden inside an old book looks rather tame by comparison – useful though it may be. The breathing mouthpiece comes into its own as Bond tries to outsmart the sharks; and there’s also the skyhook that rescues Bond and Domino at the end of the film.

In MemoriamIn Memoriam. Dr No had a death count of approximately 11 as well as all those who go up in smoke in his lair at the end; From Russia with Love notched up at least 40; Goldfinger came in at a more modest 23-ish, plus everyone who died at Fort Knox. Where does Thunderball stand on this count? Let’s briefly remember those who gave their lives so that Bond and Domino can go up, up and away in their beautiful skyhook:

1) Whoever is in the coffin that appears to be that of Jacques Bouvar.

2) No 6 – Colonel Jacques Bouvar.

3) No 9 (electrocuted by Blofeld and his body submerged underground.

4) Derval, killed by Angelo, looking like Derval.

5) Would-be assassin by the window at the spa.

6) 5 pilots gassed on board the Vulcan Bomber.

7) Angelo, his air supply cut underwater by Largo.

8) Lippe, chasing Bond, ambushed by Fiona.

9) Quist, eaten by a shark at Palmyra.

10) Underwater henchman (under the Disco Volante) with air supply cut.

11) Paula.

12) Henchman stabbed by Bond in the shark pool.

13) Fiona, shot accidentally at the Kiss Kiss Club by a henchman.

14) A shark. (They have feelings too, you know.)

15) Vargas.

16) At least 26 people harpooned underwater during the battle between the henchmen and the NATO forces.

17) Whoever dies when the back half of the Disco Volante blows up.

18) Largo.

19) And whoever was left in the front of the Disco Volante when it bursts into flames on the rocks.

That’s probably somewhere in the ballpark of 50 people (and a shark.)

flowers Humour to off-set the death count. Following his jokey remarks whenever someone died in the previous movies, here are some more throwaway lines to send some poor souls on to heaven:

After the fire during the car chase, Bond is late for the important meeting of all the “00s”. Apologising, Bond explains “Some people on the roads really burn you up these days.”

When Bond dumps the freshly shot body of Fiona at a drinks table, he apologises to the others there with: “Do you mind if my friend sits this one out? She’s just dead.”

After he harpoons Vargas, Bond says “I think he got the point.”

Plus there’s Bond’s rather dismissive chucking of the flowers all over the dead Bouvar.

sexismAny less frothy elements? So once again it’s time to consider if there are any outstanding themes or elements that don’t sit well with today’s audience. As usual, I couldn’t perceive any obvious homophobic or racist elements, but when it comes to sexism, where do you start? Let’s remember that definition of sexism, so that we know where we’re at. Sexism is: “(Behaviour, language, etc, reflecting) the assumption that one sex, esp. the female, is inferior to the other; prejudice or discrimination, esp. against women, on the grounds of sex; insistence on (esp. a woman’s) conformity to a sexually stereotyped social role.”

Kiss Kiss ClubBy now we’re used to the fact that there’ll be female bodies on display during the opening credits. This time they’re actually naked, although impossible to see due to the stylistic editing. As the images are more artistic and abstract, I don’t feel this is as sexist as in previous films. The scene that really concerns me is early on when Bond literally forces himself upon Patricia the physiotherapist. She says no, but still he persists. As this is Bond-world, naturally she was only teasing to make him even more randy. But, after he has nearly been killed by Lippe on the spine-stretching machine, and Patricia takes the responsibility for the machine having gone wrong when he knows full well it wasn’t her fault at all, when he says that his silence on the matter “could have its price” – i.e. so that they can have sex in the shower room – this really feels uncomfortable nowadays. Bond’s response to Fiona’s request when she’s in the bath for him to get her something to put on – and he brings her a pair of shoes – is probably more witty than sexist. The camera’s lingering on the performing dancer at the Kiss Kiss Club is, however, definitely suspect.

austin-powersBizarre other stuff that occurred to me and a few observations.

Basically this is the plot that’s satirised in Austin Powers!

I know that clambering over a roof is difficult at the best of times, but surely it’s unlike Bond to drop a gun?

Whilst it starts off really pacey, the film suffers, retrospectively speaking, from all those underwater scenes. Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, and your mind wanders.

The scene where the pilots in the Vulcan Bomber are gassed and Lippe takes over; this was before any commercial airline had ever been hijacked.

Lovely to see Leonard Sachs as the Group Captain, we all remember him as the host to TV’s The Good Old Days. How wonderful it would have been if he had stood up and proclaimed “Once again, good evening, ladies and gentlemen!” and thumped his gavel on M’s head.

How did Bond know how that he would meet up with Domino when he goes snorkelling? Convenient! We never find out.

Bond’s double, swimming underwater in the shark pool, doesn’t look anything like Connery.

The script between Fiona and Bond once the heavies have arrived addresses all the criticisms (almost verbatim) that had been made of the previous films. A very rewarding way of getting your own back!

Am I the only person never to have heard of a Junkanoo? Largo describes it as “our local Mardi Gras”; apparently, it’s a street parade held in the Bahamas on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. Odd that no one has any Christmas decorations up in that case.

The fifteen-minute underwater fight scene at the end was only one page of script. A lot of it wasn’t scripted – they just went with the flow of what all these paramedics and diver experts got up to.

Kutze’s change of heart, when he goes against Largo’s order and helps Domino to escape, seemed highly improbable to me.

“Codename Thunderball”, says M, introducing all the secret agents to the task of preventing the potential atomic disaster of SPECTRE’s grisly plans. But what is a thunderball anyway? What relevance does it bear to the story? I looked it up and this is what I discovered: Thunderball was a military term used by U.S. soldiers to describe the mushroom cloud seen during the testing of atomic bombs. It’s relevant because if SPECTRE’s threat to detonate the two atomic bombs, there’d be two of them. Perhaps it would have been more accurate to call it Thunderballs.

When Patricia asks Bond when she’ll see him again, he replies, Another Time Another Place, which just happened to be the name of the first film in which Sean Connery had a major role.

Whether or not he received expert health advice at his time at Shrublands, this is the first 007 where Bond doesn’t smoke.

How does Lippe escape from that steam bath?

OscarAwards: John Stears won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects; and Ken Adam was nominated for the BAFTA for Best Production Design, but I don’t suppose he minded losing as he won it for his work on The Ipcress File instead.

you_only_live_twice_-_uk_cinema_posterTo sum up. From a box office perspective, Thunderball continued Broccoli and Saltzman’s winning streak and was more successful a Bond film than any before. Whilst there are some memorable scenes and, there’s no doubt, the underwater photography was enormously advanced for its time, and probably held a huge wow factor for its contemporary audience, I don’t think it has aged well. Where I criticised Goldfinger for its remarkable silliness, at least it wasn’t boring – and I’m afraid I was bored by Thunderball at times. I realise that I would sooner have silliness by the bucketload rather than yet another scene of men being harpooned underwater. I ended up downgrading my score by 1 sparkle, simply because I think the sin of boredom is the worst thing you can impose on an audience. I’d be fascinated to hear your opinions of Thunderball – and whether you agree with me! Please leave a comment below. Next up, the film the world had to wait two years for – the first time that Bond skipped a year – and You Only Live Twice!

My rating: 2 Sparkles

4 Sparkles4 Sparkles

 

 

 

 

All photos from the film of course belong to their various copyright holders.

Review – Stan & Ollie, Northampton Filmhouse, 23rd January 2019

stan and ollieFor how many more years are we all going to remember the comedy giants of the early age of cinema? When I was a lad, the likes of Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin were shown on TV all the time. I guess they weren’t that old at the time – yikes, where does the time go?! Bob Monkhouse had a regular TV show where he indulged in the comedy nostalgia – Mad Movies – and kept alive the antics of the Keystone Cops and others. My late father was a big fan of Buster Keaton, and Fatty Arbuckle – which today is like saying you enjoy Gary Glitter – and the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle loved Laurel and Hardy. She saw them at the London Palladium in 1947; it was one of her favourite memories.

The Biograph GirlBut what do these old stars mean to today’s YouTube generation? It’s inevitable that at some point the memories will fade for good. There’s a sad and beautiful song from a long-forgotten 1980 musical, The Biograph Girl, about silent film star Mary Pickford, where the advent of the talkies meant that no one wanted to see the silent oldies anymore: “Put it in the tissue paper, they won’t want that shadow till another day, will we be reissued later, or condemned for life upon a shelf to stay?” In live theatre, my great-aunt, born in 1905, adored the old music-hall artists and would sing the songs of Marie Lloyd, Hetty King and Vesta Tilley. Even today, I still think The Boy I Love is up in the Gallery is one of the most charming songs I know – and there’s no one alive who was around when that was in the charts (so to speak). And talking of the charts, that always used to be one way of keeping old songs alive. The recent death of the much-loved Windsor Davies has reminded us how his version of Whispering Grass with Don Estelle, reached No 1 in the summer of 1975. Laurel and Hardy’s On The Trail of the Lonesome Pine spent four weeks at either No 2 or No 3 around Christmas the same year. Can’t imagine either of those happening today.

the boysBut while there are new releases like Stan and Ollie hitting our screens, maybe interest in these old characters will hang around for a few years yet. In case you didn’t know (I’m sure you must) Laurel and Hardy were box-office dynamite. Between 1921 and 1951 they made no less than 106 films, including 34 early silent films, and 27 full-length feature films – full-length in those days meant about an hour or so. They had the classic, visually hilarious double-act look, with Stan Laurel as a beanpole simpleton and Oliver Hardy as the wise-cracking fat man, which formed the basis of a number of subsequent double-acts – Little and Large, for instance, come to mind. As a kid, I found Oliver Hardy incredibly funny, but Stan Laurel something of a hanger-on, and I remember being amazed when the Dowager told me that it was Laurel who was the creative genius and comic innovator, whereas Hardy simply did what he was told; and that’s something that comes across very strongly in this new film.

Steve CooganThe film starts off with “the boys” on the set of Way Out West, where we see them shoot their famous comedy dance routine which recurs throughout this film, as they would later incorporate it into their stage act. But there’s confrontation with producer Hal Roach over Laurel’s general behaviour, and intimations that there may be problems ahead when Laurel’s contract with the studio runs out before Hardy’s. Hal Roach kept Hardy on for one more film after Laurel left the studio, Zenobia, featuring an elephant, where the actor Harry Langdon took on the Laurel role. From this awkwardness rises Stan and Ollie’s strongest theme, that of loyalty and partnership.

john c reillyFast forward to 1953, and the boys are in England, starting a tour of theatres which would culminate in a London date and then filming a new movie based on the story of Robin Hood. But their fortunes are down. In Newcastle, they check into a dismal looking pub for three nights, in preparation for their performances at the Queen’s Hall, (not the prestigious Theatre Royal). They meet producer Bernard Delfont, but he’s much more interested in promoting his new protégé Norman Wisdom. There’s little publicity, audiences are thin on the ground, and it’s painful to watch. In order to avoid cancelling shows, Delfont subtly tricks them into doing some publicity, and then the audiences start to turn up. By the time their wives arrive in the UK, Delfont has secured them two weeks at the Lyceum Theatre in London.

drinksBut the tensions in their relationship return to the surface as Laurel reminds Hardy about the elephant movie. Barely talking to each other, their tour continues to Worthing, but when they’re judging a beauty pageant for publicity, Hardy has a heart attack. He can’t work – in fact, he’s told to retire. Delfont wants Laurel to double up with comedy actor Nobby Cook for the rest of the tour, but would that mean Laurel showing the same disloyalty that he’s accused Hardy? And what’s going to happen to the film of Robin Hood?

shirley henderson and nina ariandaIt’s a well-written, frequently funny, slightly sentimental and thoroughly nostalgic story brought to life by some extremely good performances and characterisations. Steve Coogan and John C Reilly are amazingly convincing as the dynamic duo, Mr Reilly in particular becoming the spitting image of Oliver Hardy, after having to spend (apparently) four hours in make up before each shoot. Their mannerisms, their vocal tics, their walks, their facial expressions are recreated lovingly to perfection. Rufus Jones is also terrific as Bernard Delfont, persistently manipulative and with both eyes on the finances but always impeccably polite about it. There’s another superb double act in the form of Mrs Laurel and Mrs Hardy; Shirley Henderson is Hardy’s devoted wife Lucille, a mouse masquerading as a rottweiler, and highly protective of her Ollie; and Nina Arianda plays Laurel’s abrasive wife Ida, drinking his drinks, encouraging spats with Lucille, and hilariously refusing to sit next to Delfont for no apparent reason. There are some lovely minor supporting performances, with John Henshaw as the egregiously chirpy Nobby Cook, Stephanie Hyam (?) playing Miffin’s dopey receptionist and Delfont’s dreadfully hollow charity friends, whom I can’t identify from the rather under-detailed cast lists. How’s the piano? is a priceless line when you get to it.

steve coogan and john c reillyTo join a couple of metaphors, it doesn’t shake too many trees but at the same time it does exactly what it says on the can. Buoyed up by its excellent performances, you’ll enjoy this if you have happy memories of Laurel and Hardy or if you want to find out a bit more about them without sitting through some old black and white comedy.

steve coogan and nina ariandaP. S. Laurel and Hardy appearing at the Lyceum Theatre in London. Really? Are you sure? At the time, the premises were operated by Mecca and were only licensed as a ballroom from 1945 onwards. According to Mander and Mitchenson’s The Theatres of London (the bible for all things theatre-based as far as I’m concerned) there were no live performances on that particular stage from 1939 until 1963. Indeed, the London County Council (and I’m quoting from the book) “stated in 1952 that the highest offer received for use as a theatre was £11,500, as against the dance-hall offer of £20,000; but it would need £50,000 to restore it to theatrical use.” I’m not saying this is pure fiction, but if you have any definitive information on Laurel and Hardy performing at the Lyceum in 1953/4, please let me know!

at the savoyP. P. S. Not only do Messrs Coogan and Reilly perform the Way Out West dance with admirable accuracy, they also give us an immaculate performance of On The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. I defy you to walk home after the movie and not break into the chorus.

Review – Our Lady of Kibeho, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th January 2019

Our Lady of KibehoTime: 1981; Place: Kibeho, a sleepy town in the southwest of Rwanda. 17-year-old Alphonsine Mumureke, student at Kibeho College, receives the first of many visions of the Virgin Mary. Disbelieved by teachers and fellow students alike, she is ridiculed and accused of attention-seeking, or at best hallucinations, until another student, Anathalie Mukamazimpaka also has a vision. Oldest girl in the school Marie Claire Mukangango bullies and taunts the other girls until she, too, has a vision. Perplexed and confused, the local authorities cannot believe what the girls are saying is true, but nor can they account for the obviously otherworldly experiences the girls have, such as acquiring immense weight or floating above the ground in their beds.

olok10Eventually a papal representative makes the journey from Rome to Kibeho to see for himself and test the evidence of the girls. During these visitations, the Virgin Mary has apparently passed on messages to the girls for the attention of both the Rwandan President and to his Holiness the Pope. When all the townsfolk gather together on the Feast of the Assumption to witness a special visitation that the Virgin Mary has promised, she uses the girls to warn of the Rwandan Genocide and the Kibeho Massacre that would take place ten years later.

olok1This is the UK premiere of this superb play by Katori Hall that was first performed in the US in 2014. With elements of The Crucible, but very much its own play, it’s full of beautifully drawn characters, pin-drop hearing suspense, riveting drama and thorough spookiness. It also reveals the dark rivalry and incipient racism between the Tutsi and the Hutu peoples, which spills out into playground violence and of course presages the atrocities to follow. However, it’s also laced with a surprising amount of humour, with the badinage between the girls, the grumpiness of the nun, the cynicism of the bishop and the culturally contrasting Italianisms of the visiting Father Flavia.

olok9But the heart of the story is not only the extraordinary revelations and experiences of the girls, it’s also the reactions and attitudes of the very human and fallible headmaster, Father Tuyishime, who is undergoing his own questioning and misgivings about his faith. He’s the only authority figure inclined to believe the girls; so when they’re doubted and tested, by association, so is he. When the cold-hearted Father Flavia sticks his needle into Alphonsine’s chest to gauge her reaction, you feel him bleed just as much as she does. His journey (yes, it’s J-word time) is the thread that unifies the play.

olok7I don’t know whether it’s the skill of Ms Hall’s writing, James Dacre’s direction or the individual actors’ performances – probably a combination of all three – but what sets this play apart is the range of wonderfully idiosyncratic characterisations. There are so many superb performances in this production that it’s hard to know where to start. Michelle Asante’s Sister Evangelique is more battleaxe than beneficence; long used to the trying ways of teenage girls, no doubt, she shows all the signs of that nun-like cruel to be kindness that convent girls all over the world have spent their lives coming to terms with. She doesn’t care who she’s snappy with – parents, headmaster, bishop, Papal emissary, they’ve all got to do things her way or there’ll be trouble. She’s probably kind too; which makes for a fascinating character blend. Ms Asante’s performance is a total joy; menacing, sarcastic, manipulative but also vulnerable.

olok3Gabrielle Brooks’ Alphonsine is an excellent study of an ordinary girl projected into a position of greatness without seeking it. Confused, resentful even, of the attention of the Virgin Mary, she’s still working out her role in life; for example, to what extent she finds Father Tuyishime attractive, how much she needs to take control of her own situation, must she comply with the demands of the Vatican and the local authorities. Yasmin Mwanza’s Anathalie is a demure, bullyable, unassuming girl, thrust into the religious limelight, surprised by the influence she seems to have acquired. Pepter Lunkuse’s Marie-Clare is a brilliant portrayal of a young person to whom authority comes naturally but with a tendency to abuse it by bullying and hectoring; and when she, too, is visited by the Virgin Mary, she is forced to fall into line with those she has bullied, but still remains a defiant, difficult, bristly person to deal with. It’s a superb performance.

olok4Leo Wringer is outstanding as the beaming and totally untrustworthy bishop; a man with his eyes on the tourism prize, who manages to toe the Catholic line yet still go home to his wife for his creature comforts. We’ve all met authority figures who have carved out a comfortable, hypocritical niche for themselves and get away with murder, and Mr Wringer conveys this brilliantly. Ewart James Walters is also excellent as the parent whose concern is less for the wellbeing of his daughter and more for the consequences on his income, but still wants to be centre stage when the media roll into town.

olok6The ever-reliable Michael Mears is rivetingly good as Father Flavia from Rome; a controlled blend of sardonic mistrust, sadistic ruthlessness and devastated revelation when he hears the words of the Virgin through the mouth of a child. And there are some smart and strong performances from Michaela Blackburn, Ibinabo Jack and Rima Nsubuga as the other girls at the college, and a plaintive, emotional performance from the multi-talented Keenan Munn-Francis as Emmanuel, the local boy who also catches the religious mania.

olok12A big highlight for me was to see Ery Nzaramba again, mesmeric as Dionysus in The Bacchae a few years ago; once more he excels, this time as Father Tuyishime. He’s one of those actors who dominates the stage, whose emotions you can see simply by looking at his eyes. You immediately connect with his character, identify with him, and feel all the doubts, concerns, injustices, and defeats that he experiences. You connive with his backhanded comments about Sister Evangelique. You tentatively explore any sexual feelings he might have about touching Alphonsine with him. You try to talk him out of his career decision at the end. To be fair, Ms Hall has written a humdinger of a role, and Mr Nzaramba brings it to life magnificently.

olok2I have no hesitation in calling this play a Modern Classic. The riveting storyline, the dynamic characterisations, the superb writing, the dramatic wow-factor. And I haven’t even mentioned Orlando Gough’s music, Jonathan Fensom’s convincing set design or Charles Balfour’s clever and suggestive lighting. Carling don’t do stage productions, but if they did…. It’s on at the Royal and Derngate until 2nd February and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.