The James Bond Challenge – Casino Royale (1967)

Casino RoyaleIn which Sir James Bond is coaxed out of retirement after M has been assassinated (by himself) and Agent Mimi has taken the place of M’s widow and fallen in love with Bond’s robust strength and physical magnificence. In order to defeat SMERSH, all British agents take on the name James Bond, but the real Bond finally meets his love child from his relationship with superspy Mata Hari (Mata Bond), and, with assistance from more Bond girls than you can shake a stick at, overthrows the evil plans of Dr Noah, before each and every one of them dies in a massive conflagration. And to think that some of the actors involved in this film actually thought it was going to be serious.

Charles K FeldmanBut no. This is the spoof Casino Royale, and not to be confused with the Eon Casino Royale that hit the screens in 2006. Back in 1955, Ian Fleming sold the film rights to producer Gregory Ratoff, but Ratoff failed to secure the funding before he died in 1960. Charles K Feldman then obtained the rights from Ratoff’s widow. Cubby Broccoli offered to buy the rights from him, but Feldman refused, as he had plans to make the film, with Howard Hawks directing and starring Cary Grant as Bond. But with the great success of Dr No, Feldman realised he couldn’t compete with the Eon/Connery/Broccoli/Saltzman team and had to think again. In 1964 further negotiations were underway with Eon Productions to make the film but personal disagreements between the producers made things difficult and, anyway, Connery was looking for a million dollars to make the film – which was outside Feldman’s budget. Eventually Feldman offered it to Columbia, and, as the Bond movies had made the whole idea of spy films popular, decided to make it as a satirical, comedy spoof.

Ben HechtThe screenplay was to be written by Ben Hecht, of Scarface and The Front Page fame. However, he died two days before his final version was ready to be presented to Feldman. It was subsequently re-written by Billy Wilder, and then re-worked by the credited writers, Wolf Mankowitz, John Law and Michael Sayers. In addition, and for reasons that will become clear, it is said that Peter Sellers commissioned Terry Southern (with whom he had worked on Dr Strangelove) to re-write all the scenes in which Sellers appeared. So, clearly, the script went through several hands before achieving its final version. If that wasn’t confusing enough, the film eventually benefited (if that’s the word) from having no fewer than six directors. Val Guest directed the scenes with Woody Allen and David Niven, and was in charge of stitching the whole thing together at the end. Kenneth Hughes directed the Berlin scenes, John Huston directed the early scenes at Bond’s mansion and the Scottish castle, Joseph McGrath directed the scenes with Peter Sellers, Orson Welles and Ursula Andress, Robert Parrish directed other scenes with Sellers and Welles, and finally, Richard Talmadge, with his speciality in stunt work, directed the final scenes at the casino. Too many cooks? If you watch the film and think it’s unconnected, episodic, bitty and completely out of control, that’s why.

Val GuestIt doesn’t stop there though. Peter Sellers and Orson Welles had a huge on-set falling-out, primarily because Princess Margaret (a friend of Sellers) visited the set and Sellers expected to bathe in her glamour and attention; however, by all accounts she cut Sellers and spent the whole time fangirling Welles. Not for the first time, nor the last, Sellers stomped off the set. That’s why he engaged Terry Southern to write his lines, in order to get the better of Welles and make himself look more important. Sellers refused to be in Welles’ presence, so their baccarat game scenes were filmed separately, with a double standing in for Sellers. There are two versions of the following tale; one is that, eventually, Sellers walked off the set, never to return; the other is that he was fired by Val Guest before the end of filming for being so unreasonable. Either way, it left a whole number of unresolved plot lines hanging, requiring some imaginative deep thinking from the directors as to what to do. No wonder the end of the film just feels like a mindless mish-mash of ideas and lines.

Woody AllenCasino Royale’s original budget was a relatively modest $6 million, but after the rewrites, the stormings-out and all the other tensions and costs, the eventual cost to make it more than doubled to over $12 million. That made it unquestionably the most expensive Bond movie at the time. Its box office take of $41.7 million was nothing like as much as the regular Eon Production films – but at least it was still a profit. Apparently, there was a lot of wastage. Woody Allen spoke of being brought over from America way ahead of when he was required on set, spending weeks in luxury hotels totally needlessly; although, whilst he was waiting, it did give him the time to write the screenplay for Take the Money and Run. And, despite his leaving the production in the lurch a few times, Peter Sellers had negotiated a resounding 3% of gross profits. That’s quite some fee.

Casino Royale bookThe book of Casino Royale was published in 1953 and was the first in Ian Fleming’s series of James Bond novels. There’s very little crossover between the content of the book and this film. In the book, Bond plays baccarat with SMERSH agent Le Chiffre in order to deprive the enemy of funds. Eventually, with a little help from Felix Leiter, he wins, and Le Chiffre is murdered by one of his own agents. Bond and his Soviet assistant Vesper Lynd become lovers; but she takes her own life when it’s revealed she’s a Russian double agent. In the film, of course, it’s Evelyn Tremble who plays baccarat with Le Chiffre, and it’s Tremble with whom Vesper becomes enamoured. Leiter doesn’t appear in the film – and all the other film characters don’t appear in the book!

Milk vanDespite its very obvious failings, I have a very soft spot for this film. It was one of the first times that I was taken to the cinema as a child – I would have been seven or eight – and of course most of it would have gone completely over my head. However, I do remember laughing at some of the slapstick elements – particularly the out of control milk van. And I absolutely loved the score – more of which later.

stupid endingMost of the critics at the time weren’t impressed. The Chicago Sun-Times said “this is possibly the most indulgent film ever made”; Variety said it was “a conglomeration of frenzied situations, ‘in’ gags and special effects, lacking discipline and cohesion”, and the New York Times called the ending “reckless, disconnected nonsense”. With the benefit of hindsight, some of today’s commentators have been a little kinder. Cinema historian Robert von Dassanowsky said “like Casablanca, Casino Royale is a film of momentary vision, collaboration, adaption, pastiche, and accident. It is the anti-auteur work of all time, a film shaped by the very zeitgeist it took on.” AllMovie called it “the original ultimate spy spoof”, and “a satire to the highest degree”. My own personal opinion is that it is crammed with excess, a delightful sense of parody, some extremely funny scenes and lines, and it’s 60s Retro of the highest order. Sadly, nothing can cover up its immensely manic, tedious and stupid ending, but you can’t have everything.

Parisian pissoirAs this is nothing to do with the Eon Production films, don’t expect the opening credits to begin with Maurice Binder’s iconic glimpse of Bond walking across the screen. This is pure parody, so we start with a saucy visual joke. Bond – as played by Peter Sellers – meets Mathis of the Special Police in a Parisian pissoir. We can only see them from the chest up. “These are my credentials”, says Mathis, as Bond gazes down towards his nether regions. “They appear to be in order” replies Bond. And it’s straight into the opening titles and the magnificent Casino Royale theme, written by Burt Bacharach and performed by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.

titlesThe titles feature the names of the lead performers with an embellished (and animated) capital letter at the beginning of their first name – rather like one might see in a lavish old book. However, the animation that we can see inside the letter shows many of the characters strumming on a heavenly lyre – so we know, before it starts, that they die! Peter Sellers, of course, gets top billing, followed by Ursula Andress and David Niven; so, interestingly, James Bond is given third billing in this film. The anarchic animation of the opening credits is pure swinging sixties.

Mereworth CastleAnd the locations? Unlike the other Bond films so far, this is a very British-based story. The scenes depicting Trafalgar Square and 10 Downing Street were indeed shot at those esteemed locations. Sir James Bond’s stately pile was filmed at Mereworth Castle in Kent, M’s Scottish castle was filmed at Killeen Castle in Co Meath, in Ireland; other scenes were shot in Killin in Perthshire and Windsor in Berkshire. In the book, the Casino Royale itself is located in the fictional French town of Royale-les-Eaux. However, I can only presume that the casino in the film was on the set of Pinewood, Shepperton or Twickenham Studios, where the majority of the film was shot.

David NivenBond, James Bond. David Niven has a damn good stab at creating what James Bond might have become in retirement (tongue firmly in cheek, of course). Prudish, dedicated to Debussy, and with a disconcerting stammer, all that womanising is way behind him now, and he loves to live a comfortable but reclusive life, with lions on his front drive and a black rose in his garden. Once he’s back in the saddle as head of MI6, he’s self-assured, debonair and really quite mischievous. I haven’t really seen David Niven in many films, but I think he’s terrific in this. He was, of course, a much lauded and experienced actor, having appeared in almost one hundred films between 1932 and his death in 1983. His two volumes of autobiography, The Moon’s a Balloon, and Bring on the Empty Horses were massively successful, and he was something of a war hero too, joining the army on the day the Second World War started, attaining the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

steel barBoo-boos. Continuity errors and mistakes don’t feel quite so important in an anarchic comedy like this, but there are a few moments worth noting. In the scene where Le Chiffre, who is obsessed with magic, levitates a woman over the baccarat table, you can actually see the steel bar that’s holding her up; and when M’s widow enters Bond’s bedroom, you can see the reflection of the cameraman in a mirror on the wall. When the remotely operated milk van is chugging its merry way around the roads of Berkshire, in one scene it swerves and loses half its milk crates into the street; seconds later, it’s fully laden again. Maybe Le Chiffre was working his magic.

Deborah KerrThe Bond Girl. If it’s a Bond film, it’s got to have a Bond girl, right? This one, as befits its excessive status, has at least four. Agent Mimi is first up – she’s a SMERSH agent pretending to be M’s widow, the Lady Fiona McTarry. She’s desperate to seduce and discredit the very upright Bond – and encourages all M’s “daughters” (eleven of them, aged between 16 and 19 – we are on very shaky ground here) to do the same. But when she sees how successfully Bond “pays the piper” by handling those cannonballs, she can’t hide her genuine love for the man. Superbe! Formidable! Splendide! Bravo! Magnifique!!!! she moans. Agent Mimi was played by Deborah Kerr, a fine, experienced actress, best known for her appearances in The King and I, and on stage in many plays.

Joanna PettetThen there’s Mata Bond, his estranged daughter following an intimate liaison with the famous spy Mata Hari. She’s full of spirit but a bit annoyed with him for being an absentee father. But she’s up for a fine piece of espionage as she’s driven to Berlin to infiltrate International Mothers’ Help, an au pair service that is a cover for a SMERSH training centre. Later, she’s captured in a giant flying saucer – it happens; and it’s while on their mission to rescue her that the Bonds all get trapped in the Casino Royale. Mata was played by Joanna Pettet, whose film career started promisingly with a number of good roles in the 1960s, and then she migrated to small roles in dozens of TV series.

Barbara BouchetAnother Bond Girl that Bond really oughtn’t to be attracted by is Miss Moneypenny – in fact, she’s Miss Moneypenny’s daughter, and we probably oughtn’t to ask who her father is. Unlike the traditional Moneypenny, this one’s more prepared to get her hands dirty out in the field. Her finest hour is when she samples all the contenders for a new Bond to be trained to resist the attractions of women; as I say, getting dirty in the field. Moneypenny was played by Barbara Bouchet, who has appeared in dozens of films, mainly in Italy, and who branched out into fitness books and videos and still has a successful fitness studio in Rome.

Daliah LaviCertainly not to go unmentioned is The Detainer; the British spy who tricks Dr Noah into taking his own atomic pill. She’s not really a Bond Girl though – because she hardly has anything to do with Bond. She was played by Daliah Lavi, an Israeli actress, singer and model, who appeared in a few films and also found fame as a Schlager singer in Germany. She died in 2017 at the age of 74. Also not to go unmentioned, and also not a Bond Girl, is Miss Goodthighs. She’s a SMERSH agent who attempts to kill Evelyn Tremble at the Casino; so as she’s not working with Bond, but working against him, she’s a baddie. She was played by Jacqueline Bisset, whose film career hasn’t stopped since she appeared in her first movie in 1965.

Ursula AndressBut we definitely have to include Ursula Andress as Vesper Lynd. Ms Andress, of course, played Honey Ryder in Dr No, and so was already a Bond Girl before Casino Royale came along. Vesper Lynd has been tempted back into espionage in return for writing off her tax arrears. She approaches Evelyn Tremble to get him to play baccarat against Le Chiffre (almost a part of the original novel emerging there!) Whilst she and Tremble have a definite dalliance, at the end she betrays him because she is a double agent after all. But, anyway, everyone dies, so what’s the difference?

Dr NoahThe Villain. Dr Noah – no real clue necessary to guess where his name came from – has a plan to use biological warfare to make all women beautiful and kill all men over 4 foot 6 inches tall. Much to everyone’s dismay, Dr Noah turns out to be little Jimmy Bond, James’ nephew, who cannot speak in his presence because he’s so overawed. But he is hoist by his own petard when he’s tricked into swallowing his own atomic pill – which causes the grand explosion at Casino Royale and the subsequent death of all and sundry. He was played by Woody Allen, who needs no introduction in the world of cinema. It is said, though, that he was so aghast at the awful management of this film – the on-set arguments, the wasted time, the six directors, and so on – that he vowed never to let anyone else direct a film that he was involved in. So it did contribute something significant to the world of cinema!

Orson WellesOther memorable characters? Casino Royale is so full of tiny roles played by significant actors, that, to be honest, I don’t know where to begin? I suppose first up must be Orson Welles’ Le Chiffre, the SMERSH agent who loves his baccarat not quite as much as his magic. Orson Welles, of course, had an extraordinary career in all the arts – and I believe the feelings between him and Peter Sellers were mutual.

Peter SellersAh yes, Peter Sellers, who played Evelyn Tremble. A man of amazing talent, and some (obviously) difficult problems. He punched director Joseph McGrath who said he would never work with him again. Some of the frustration in making the film must have come from the fact that Sellers thought this was going to be a relatively straight film, and that he would take a relatively straight and serious role. This was never going to happen.

Jean-Paul BelmondoI doubt if I’ll name all the significant performers in this film. Peter O’Toole, Jean-Paul Belmondo (at the time, Ursula Andress’ other half) and George Raft all make brief cameo appearances with a couple of lines at the most. Racing Driver Stirling Moss doesn’t say a word, nor does M’s driver, John le Mesurier. Flavour of the month at the time, Anna Quayle is a terrifying Frau Hoffner, accompanied by the battery-driven, sex-mad Polo played by Ronnie Corbett. John Huston directed himself playing M; Charles Boyer and William Holden are the other two Intelligence Men in the opening scene. Bernard Cribbins drives a taxi all the way to Berlin; Derek Nimmo is Bond’s new office assistant, Hadley; Geoffrey Bayldon (aka Catweazle) is Q, with John Wells as his simpering assistant, Fordyce. Alexandra Bastedo, she of The Champions, features as M’s “daughter” Meg. Richard Wattis is the British Army officer present at the auction that was to be chaired by Vladek Sheybal (Kronsteen in From Russia with Love). The list goes on, but I’ll stop there.

Dusty Springfield Look of LoveAnd what about the music? Now we’re talking. Burt Bacharach’s soundtrack is a sheer joy throughout – and the CD has long been one of my favourite Easy Listening collections. Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass’ rendition of the main theme was a smash hit single, reaching No 1 in the United States, although only No 27 in the UK. Dusty Springfield’s exquisite performance of The Look of Love, whilst never a single success by itself, remains one of her finest recordings and it’s impossible to hear it without all your extremities tingling with joy. The remainder of the incidental music is full of hilarious motifs, sexy arrangements, period pastiches and sheer musical madness. Although they’re not on the soundtrack album, it’s also fun to hear the musical salutes in the film – a brief snatch of Born Free (written by regular Bond composer John Barry) when M is driving past Bond’s lions; a moment from the theme to Moulin Rouge when Peter Sellers’ Evelyn Tremble is pretending to be Toulouse-Lautrec; even the echo of What’s New Pussycat emerging from a manhole cover, a 1965 film which had previously united the talents of Sellers, Allen, O’Toole, Andress, Bacharach and producer Charles Feldman.

GrouseThere are plenty of opportunities for comedy from the complicated and unlikely gadgets in use – the scene with Q and his assistant is a perfect parody of all those genuine Bond scenes, where army types are trying out the new gadgets, some with greater success than others. And as Sir James points out, early in the film, as he’s discrediting his guests with their feeble spy accoutrements: “You, Ransome, with your trick carnation that spits cyanide. You ought to be ashamed. And you, Smernov, with an armoury concealed in your grotesque boots. Listen to them tinkle. And you, Le Grand, with a different deadly poison in each of your fly buttons. And you, M, with your flame-throwing fountain pens. You’re joke-shop spies, gentlemen.” However, I do like the magnetic buttons that attract the artificial grouse with their built-in machine guns. Very clever.

Vesper's OutfitThere’s no point examining the death count on this film as it’s all pure pantomime, everyone dies and, in a sense, no one dies, as we see them in Heaven. However, I do want to share with you some of my favourite lines from the film.

“I present you with the levitation of the Princess Ayisha, an illusion taught to me by an ancient vegetarian in the mountain fastnesses of Tibet.”

“It’s the first john I’ve ever gone around with.”

“Which side do you dress, sir?” “I usually dress away from the window”.

“Listen. You can’t shoot me. I have a very low threshold of death. My doctor says I can’t have bullets enter my body at any time. What if I said I was pregnant?”

“I’m the new secret weapon. I’ve just been perfected.” “Yes, haven’t you?” “They’ve kept me under wraps.” “Lucky them.” “What do you do that’s so secret?” “I don’t do anything. But unless you’re one of them, you do […] You’re really learning to put up quite a resistance.” “It goes against my nature.” “I sense that too. What are you doing after the exercise?” “Getting my head examined.”

“Call me Coop.” “Like something for keeping birds.” “That’s me.”

“What a charming outfit that is. Do you often wear that in the office?” “If I wore it in the street, people might stare.”

“Just how personal is a toupee?” “It can only be regarded as a “hairloom”.

In the BathIffy Material: There’s no doubt that there’s quite a lot of material that has dated badly in a post-Operation Yewtree world. A man of David Niven’s age getting into the bath with a girl of (allegedly) 17 years makes one feel a little squeamish today. And consider this conversation between Agent Mimi masquerading as Lady Fiona and James Bond, describing a portrait hanging on the wall: “To your right, Sir James – Lady Mary, daughter of Lord Douglas McTarry, raped by the Campbells in 1662, in retaliation of which, Lord Douglas sent his only son Hamish out to rape twa Campbell lassies.” “At the same time?” “Eldest first, of course. As prescribed by scripture.” It has an Ortonesque naughtiness to it, but it’s really not acceptable in this day and age.

BAFTA_awardAwards: The Look of Love was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song, losing to Talk to the Animals from Doctor Dolittle. Burt Bacharach’s score also earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or Television Show. Julie Harris was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Costume Design.

you_only_live_twice_-_uk_cinema_posterTo sum up:
In so many ways, this film is a complete oddity; one of those star-strangled indulgences that no doubt looked great on paper but had a lot of difficulty reaching the screen. For me it has some serious highlights but also a lot of longueurs; but it’s part of my childhood and I love it for that. I’d be fascinated to hear your opinions of Casino Royale – and whether you agree with me! Please leave a comment below. Next, we’re going to be returning to the classic Bond films and You Only Live Twice, released just two months after Casino Royale. I’m sure the diehard fans couldn’t wait!

My rating: 4 Sparkles

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

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 – Mamma Mia 2, Here We Go Again, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 30th July 2018

Donna and the DynamosWe all know what a worldwide phenomenon Mamma Mia! has become. The stage show is still running in London and no doubt hundreds of other cities; the touring production comes around again and again faster than you can say Chiquitita tell me what’s wrong. The original movie made over $550 million profit at the box office. The only surprise is that it’s taken ten years for this second film to arrive.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go AgainYou’ll remember that Donna Sheridan made her way to a remote Greek Island and converted a ramshackle old farm building into a rather charming hotel. You’ll also remember that over the course of a rather wild few days, she had managed to sleep with three different guys, one of whom won the Lucky Sperm award and helped create little Sophie nine months later. The original Mamma Mia is Sophie’s story of inviting all the potential fathers to her wedding to Sky (Murdoch gets everywhere) in the expectation that she would instantly “know” which was her dad – and of course she can’t identify which one it is, so they all become her dad. Add Donna’s two pals (who made up the group Donna and the Dynamos), sun, sea, sex, and the best of Abba, and it was a dream hit.

Rosie Sophie and TanyaSo Mamma Mia – Here We Go Again is a sequel; yet it’s also a prequel, by employing the cunning tactic of running the story of Donna’s journey from finishing university to chancing upon the farmhouse, alongside the story of Sophie organising a relaunch of the hotel which has gone to rack and ruin, presumably because a year ago Donna died; we don’t know why. Did you know Donna died? By the end you’ll have it drummed into you. Mamma Mia 2 is set in both 1979 and 2018; and with Mamma Mia (the stage show) having been launched in 1999, you basically have reference points to the same story and the same people in the same places over three generations.

Ruby and SophieI know this film has had some great reviews and all my friends who have seen it have been knocked over by its brilliance, several having seen it twice already. So, I ask myself, have I turned into a true Mr Grumpypants – and if so, is Mrs Chrisparkle even more of a Mrs Grumpypants, because she’s more critical of it than me – or has everyone else been drinking from the waters of Lethe and simply lost their senses? I just couldn’t help myself from constantly checking my watch throughout the film, primarily because I was wondering, what is the point of this film and where is it going? The answer, incidentally, as we eventually find out, is the Christening of Sophie’s baby. But basically it tells us a story that we already know, and I’m afraid I didn’t find that particularly interesting. Reconfirming the original tale is like simply baking the same cake all over again. And I have to say, considering Screen 1 of the Errol Flynn was sold out, largely to all female parties who were quaffing plenty of vino, the atmosphere in the room was totally flat. No audible reactions, very few laughs, minimal “seat dancing” – just a bit reserved for Super Trouper at the finale.

Sophie and DonnaDon’t get me wrong – I don’t think it’s a bad film. There are many enjoyable sequences, a few laugh out loud moments, and the music is exceptionally good. In particular, the musical arrangements are superb, and the way some of the songs dovetail into the story and, especially, the setting, is really creative. Hugh Skinner as Young Harry (inspired casting) serenading Young Donna (Lily James) at a Napoleon-themed Parisian restaurant with an outrageous Waterloo routine is very funny. Jeremy Irvine, as Young Sam, singing Knowing Me Knowing You: “Walking through an empty house, tears in my eyes, here is where the story ends, this is goodbye” as he sadly picks his way through the decrepit old building, is a true highlight. Young Donna singing I Have a Dream as she first encounters the old farmhouse, almost bumping into the modern-day occupants as she walks around, was also very impressive. Young Donna and Young BillLily James, again, singing my favourite Abba song The Name of the Game, as Young Sam lies in bed beside her. I’d happily watch all those performances again, although preferably as individual pop videos, rather than sit through the film once more. The boats full of partygoers arriving at the island, all singing Dancing Queen, makes for a spectacular visual image, although I did find it a little old-fashioned. I’m sure there’s a similar scene in The Song of Norway. Mrs C’s reaction was that it merely emphasised what a good song Dancing Queen is. She wasn’t so convinced by the young singers in the film, and felt that they just showed how much better Agnetha and Anna-Frid were than any of them. She wasn’t at all impressed with what she calls Lily James’ X-Factor style singing. Ouch.

Young Donna and Young SamMind you, the film started off badly for me. The first scene: New College, Oxford, 1979 (the caption told us so) and recently graduated Donna Sheridan is invited to give the valedictory address to all her newly graduated colleagues, including her two Dynamo pals, Tanya and Rosie. The setting was, clearly, New College; the girls were larking about in New College Lane; the graduates were all bedecked in their Oxford B. A. gowns (white fur – absolutely accurate), the masters all wearing gowns representing more advanced degrees. Such attention to detail. What a shame, then, that they overlooked the simple fact that 1979 was the first year that women undergraduates were admitted into most of the previously all-male colleges – and New College was among them. If Donna and all her female graduates had undertaken three-year courses then they would have gone up in 1976, when they wouldn’t have been eligible to study at New College. Did nobody realise this? Did nobody question it? As a second-year Oxford undergraduate at the time, all these extra women in town was Big News, believe me. This basic error had me tutting all the way through When I Kissed the Teacher, and prevented me from enjoying it. Even Bjorn’s uncomfortable looks at being sashayed round by the performing girls didn’t make me crack a smile.

Young DonnaI’m going to be even more controversial here. I know a lot of people found the film very moving, and I expect the scene that really did it for them was the Christening scene at the end (I’ll say no more, because I don’t want to spoil it for you). My reaction was that it was sweet, but nothing more. Mrs C’s and my pre-prepared packs of Travel Kleenexes stayed firmly in our pockets. But then, I must say, I found the constant references to the now dead Donna rather wearing. It was funny when the references were just designed to make Julie Walters’ character cry (sounds cruel, but this is Julie Walters we’re talking about, she knows precisely how to make a script work). But as the film progressed, Donna’s death, and Pierce Brosnan’s suitably morose expression because of it, just became mawkish. Maybe it would have brought a bit of a spark to the piece if they’d managed to give Harry some gay romance on the island – if you remember, he was outed at the end of the first film – but instead they have him safely dancing alongside women in the big numbers, which I think was probably an opportunity missed.

Young DynamosThe relentless tying together of the 1979 account and the 2018 account of the tale becomes tiresome. It’s fine (I think) to have Tanya just as man-hungry today as she was forty years ago, and for Rosie to be as equally unsuccessful with men now as she was then; those are true character traits. But – for example – the sheer staginess of the repetition of a “wise local” anticipating an unexpected great storm forty years later was too much for Mrs C, who shrank further down into her cinema seat with her head in her hands.

Young Harry and Young DonnaThe only real difference to the sequel element from the prequel element – and I guess you could call it progress – is the sudden unforeseen appearance of Cher as Ruby Sheridan, Sophie’s absentee grandmother, who’s never done anything to forge a bond between her and her granddaughter. She looks immaculate; Mrs C thought it was a shame that as she’d had so much Botox she couldn’t visually emote. But I rather thought that worked in an ironic way; Cher can’t show emotion, and nor can Ruby, so in one respect it’s perfect casting. And I have to say, even though I would never count myself as a Cher fan, I really enjoyed her performance of Fernando.

Harry Bill and SamThe performances are all perfectly good: Lily James looks great and has just the right amount of carefree enthusiasm for a life of adventures to be particularly convincing. Julie Walters and Christine Baranski renew their comedy double act as the two remaining Dynamos and brighten up the screen whenever they’re on. The scenes with the three young suitors are all played with a great sense of holiday romance, and did indeed flesh out (if that’s not an unwise expression) the bare bones of Donna’s fanciful flings across Europe. And there’s a fun cameo from Omid Djalili as a Greek Customs Officer – remember to stay watching right until the very end, after the credits.

DonnaBut the film didn’t move me in any way; it didn’t make me want to dance a sirtaki through the streets of Northampton, I didn’t feel anything “life-enhancing” about it, in the same way that everyone else seems to. It was just there; I watched it; it was fine; and then it finished. And now I don’t need to think about it again. For all you people who loved it, I’m jealous!

Review of the Year 2017 – The Eighth Annual Chrisparkle Awards

Once again the world of the arts is holding its bated breath to hear the results of who has won this year’s annual Chrisparkle Awards. The whole team has scurried away to a dark place (my study) to determine the identities of the chosen few. Eligibility for the awards means a) they were performed in the UK and b) I have to have seen the shows and blogged about them in the period 14th January 2017 to 11th January 2018.

Are you all sitting comfortably?

The first award is for Best Dance Production (Contemporary and Classical)

So we start off with a slight problem. Apart from at the Edinburgh Fringe, we only saw one dance production all year. One measly production! Not that it was a measly production but only seeing one is definitely measly. For a time the Committee wondered if, for this year, the award should be temporarily withdrawn, but that didn’t seem fair. So we have compromised, and included the two dance shows we saw in Edinburgh as well as the one, non-Fringe show we saw elsewhere. At least that gives us three shows to consider, and this is how they place:

In 3rd place, the honest and daring piece for two, Together Alone, from the Taiwan Season at Dance Base at the Edinburgh Fringe in August.

In 2nd place, Really Nice Theatre Company’s funny and acrobatic production of Two Little Boxes at Greenside at Nicolson Square, at the Edinburgh Fringe in August.

In 1st place, for the fifth time in six years, the skilful creativity of the impeccable Richard Alston Dance Company that we saw at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in October.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

We saw six classical concerts in 2017 and they were all excellent, so it was extremely difficult to whittle it down to a top three. Nevertheless, the impossible has been achieved, so they are:

In 3rd place, Christian Kluxen Conducts Tchaikovsky, with a brilliant programme of Italian, German and Russian music including Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6 and Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No 1 played by Martin Roscoe, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in May.

In 2nd place, Francesca Dego Performs Bruch, including wonderful performances of Brahms’ Symphony No 4 and Bruch’s Violin Concerto No 1 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mathieu Herzog, at the Royal and Derngate, in November.

In 1st place, Jan Mráček Performs Mendelssohn, a stunning performance of the Violin Concerto together with a great rendition of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony with Martyn Brabbins conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Royal and Derngate, in June.

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

This means anything that doesn’t fall into any other categories – for example pantos, circuses, revues and anything else hard to classify. Not so many contenders this year so we’ll stick with a top three:

In 3rd place, the inimitable Damian Williams starring as Mother Goose in the panto of the same name at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield in January 2018.

In 2nd place, the beautiful and hilarious combination of acts that make up the Burlesque Show at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in January 2017.

In 1st place, the start to finish riot of near-knuckle hilarity that was Dick Whittington the panto at the London Palladium in December.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

We saw ten big-name stand-up comics this year, and I think it’s fair to say they were a varied bunch with a few disappointments. I listed a top five last year but this time a top three will suffice:

In 3rd place, the extraordinary experience of spending a late night 90 minutes in the company of the one and only Miss Whoopi Goldberg, at the London Palladium in February.

In 2nd place, the irrepressible silliness of Jimeoin in his Renonsense Man Tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February.

In 1st place, by a whisker – or maybe two, a shared award; Tez Ilyas’ Made in Britain Tour, together with his fantastic support act Guz Khan, Underground at the Royal and Derngate in May.

Best Stand-up at the Screaming Blue Murder nights in Northampton.

Lots of great acts with a fighting chance of winning this award, but the winner was never in doubt. From a very, very long shortlist, here are the top five:

In 5th place, the parody musical magic of Christian Reilly (12th May)

In 4th place, for his amazing ability to make so much off the cuff humour from an audience member throwing up, Paul Thorne (3rd November)

In 3rd place, the mischievous intelligence of Markus Birdman (3rd February)

In 2nd place, seen many times but on this occasion absolutely on fire, Robert White (3rd March)

In 1st place, a new star is born, and receiving possibly the best reception in eight years of watching Screaming Blue Murders, Daliso Chaponda (28th April)

And now, a new category; as we have seen so many stand-up comedy acts in other clubs, such as the Leicester Comedy Festival, Bluelight Comedy, Upfront Comedy Shows and Edinburgh Try-outs in various locations, here’s the Best of the Rest Stand-up Award.

In 5th place, the larger than life unpredictability of Aurie Styla (Upfront Comedy – Comedy Summerslam), at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in June.

In 4th place, the thought-provoking, hard-hitting material in the Edinburgh Try-out of his show Your Wrong, Phil Nichol (Comedy Crate Festival) at the Black Prince, Northampton, in July.

In 3rd place, the challenging, calculating material and presence of Mickey Sharma (Upfront Comedy – Comedy Summerslam), at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in June.

In 2nd place, a hit from the previous year’s Edinburgh Fringe, the extraordinarily personal and moving show by Richard Gadd – Monkey See, Monkey Do (Leicester Comedy Festival at The Cookie, Leicester) in February.

In 1st place, for getting on for four hours of solid hilarity, Just The Tonic Comedy Club with Johnny Vegas, and guests Kevin Dewsbury, Guz Khan and Paul McCaffrey (Leicester Comedy Festival, Hansom Hall, Leicester) in February.

Best Musical.

Here’s where it gets really difficult. I saw fourteen musicals this year, mainly revivals but a few new shows as well. Competition is very fierce and some superb shows don’t get a mention. Here are the top five:

In 5th place, so good I saw it twice on consecutive days, the touring revival of the Kinks Musical Sunny Afternoon at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in January.

In 4th place, the breath of fresh air with its heart absolutely in the right place, the feelgood Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, at the Apollo Theatre, London, in December.

In 3rd place, the beautiful and emotional revival of Fiddler on the Roof, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, that we saw in July.

In 2nd place, one of my favourite shows of all time, in a dynamic and exciting revival, Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at the National Theatre Olivier, in September.

In 1st place, with incredible impact and maybe because I’ve never seen it before, and it really took my breath away, the revival of Miss Saigon at the Curve Theatre Leicester in July.

Best New Play.

Just to clarify, this is my definition of a new play, which is something that’s new to me and to most of its audience – so it might have been around before but on its first UK tour, or a new adaptation of a work originally in another format. I’ve seen 21 new plays this year, and only a handful of them disappointed. So this is an extremely difficult decision, as you have to compare such different genres; but somehow I chose a top five from a shortlist of ten:

In 5th place, the funny and sad life laundry drama, The House They Grew Up In, at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in July.

In 4th place, how to make a riveting play out of dry subject matter, Oslo at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in December.

In 3rd place, the gripping and exciting thriller based in 1980s Northern Ireland, The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre, London, in December.

In 2nd place, the emotional turmoil of The Kite Runner, at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, in February.

In 1st place, the extraordinary combination of political intrigue and carefree humour that forms both parts of the RSC’s Imperium, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford, in December.

Best Revival of a Play.

Saw twenty revivals, almost all of which were worthy of consideration. Nine made the shortlist; here’s the top five:

In 5th place, the high energy testosterone-fest that is Glengarry Glen Ross at the Playhouse Theatre, in November.

In 4th place, a feat of great stamina and a beautiful revival, The Norman Conquests at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in October.

In 3rd place, the vividly re-imagined and exciting new production of Julius Caesar at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in May.

In 2nd place, the spellbinding new production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London in April.

In 1st place, the production I’d been looking forward to all year and it was every bit as remarkable as one would have hoped, King Lear at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in October.

As always, in the post-Christmas season, time to consider the turkey of the year – the one that missed the mark the most was the Royal and Derngate’s confused production of The Grapes of Wrath in May.

Now we come on to our four categories specifically for the Edinburgh Fringe. The first is:

Best play – Edinburgh

We saw 17 plays in Edinburgh, and here are the top 5:

In 5th place, the eerie and suspenseful psychological thriller Black Mountain produced by Paines Plough (Roundabout @ Summerhall)

In 4th place, the totally convincing portrayal of a relationship irreconcilably broken down with the snappy title The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People, written by Rosalind Blessed (Studio @ Space Triplex)

In 3rd place, the thought-provoking and opinion changing Bin Laden: The One Man Show produced by Knaive Theatre (C venues – C, Chambers Street)

In 2nd place, the riveting Gypsy Queen, written by Rob Ward (Front Room @ Assembly Rooms)

In 1st place, the play that taps into the Zeitgeist and doesn’t feel like a play, the horrifying, hilarious and brain-teasing Losers, produced by Tit4Twat Theatre (Underbelly, Cowgate)

Best Individual Performance in a Play – Edinburgh

One of the hardest categories to decide as so many Edinburgh plays are true ensemble efforts. Nevertheless, here are the top three:

In 3rd place, Rosalind Blessed for The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People (Studio @ Space Triplex)
In 2nd place, Rob Ward for Gypsy Queen (Front Room @ Assembly Rooms)
In 1st place, Sam Redway for Bin Laden: The One Man Show (C venues – C, Chambers Street)

Best stand-up comedy show – Edinburgh

Eleven shows and a shortlist of five gives this top three (which is very similar to last year’s!):

In 3rd place, for his intelligent observations and creative thinking, Dane Baptiste’s G. O. D. show (Pleasance Courtyard)
In 2nd place, for getting the political climate fully understood, with I Hope I Die Before I Start Voting Conservative, Joe Wells (Sneaky Pete’s)
In 1st place, yet again, the unmissable late night laughter line-up that is Spank! (Underbelly Cowgate)

Best of the rest – Edinburgh

Yet another really hard choice but I’ve managed to come up with a top five:

In 5th place, the superbly constructed and brilliantly characterised Bitchelors with Anna Morris (Voodoo Rooms)
In 4th place, dropping down a place from last year but still incredibly funny and audience members really have to be alert to stay safe! Foil Arms and Hog – Oink! (Underbelly George Square)
In 3rd place, the very racey acts – including the unforgettable Betty Grumble – that made up the burlesque extravaganza, Sweatshop (Assembly George Square Gardens)
In 2nd place, as last year, worth getting up early for a bizarre version of Macbeth with Shakespeare for Breakfast (C Venues, Chambers Street)
In 1st place, the brilliant material and voices of Jan Ravens in her Difficult Woman show (Gilded Balloon Teviot)

This year’s Edinburgh turkey, which was so clever-clever and up itself that you could hardly see it, was the pretentious immersive show about throwing a surprise party, Party Game.

Best Local Production

This includes the productions by the University of Northampton students, the Royal and Derngate Actors’ Company, the Youth Companies, local theatre groups and the National Theatre Connections.

In 5th place, from the Flash Festival, Can’t Stop Theatre’s untitled one-man play with Ben Sullivan
In 4th place, the Royal and Derngate’s Actors’ Company’s production of Great Expectations at the Royal Theatre
In 3rd place, Milton Keynes College’s National Theatre Connections production of Extremism
In 2nd place, the University’s production of Vinegar Tom at the Royal Theatre.
In 1st place, again from the Flash Festival, Out of Mind Theatre Company’s production of Broken

Best film

I saw seven films last year, which must be some kind of record! Two films that have received great general acclaim I really didn’t like at all – Manchester By The Sea and Blade Runner 2049. The Snowman just about limped home, both La La Land and Victoria and Abdul were entertaining and beautifully made, and Call Me By Your Name really ought to get the award for being outstanding in so many ways. However, the film I enjoyed the most and have no hesitation in naming as the recipient of this year’s award is – Paddington 2!

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

Time to get personal. Fifteen contenders in the shortlist, so here are the top five:

In 5th place, Lyn Paul as Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in November.
In 4th place, Lucie Jones as Elle in Legally Blonde at the Royal and Derngate in October.
In 3rd place, Sooha Kim as Kim in Miss Saigon at the Curve Theatre Leicester in July.
In 2nd place, Janie Dee as Phyllis in Follies at the National Theatre Olivier in September.
In 1st place, Imelda Staunton as Sally in Follies at the National Theatre Olivier in September.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Seven performances in the shortlist, producing this top three:

In 3rd place, Red Concepcion as The Engineer in Miss Saigon at the Curve Theatre Leicester in July.
In 2nd place, John McCrea as Jamie in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, at the Apollo Theatre, London, in December.
In 1st place, John Partridge as Albin/Zaza in La Cage Aux Folles at the Milton Keynes Theatre in August.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

Very tough one, this one. Eight in the shortlist, but here’s the top five:

In 5th place, Samantha Spiro as Peppy in The House They Grew Up In, at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in July.
In 4th place, Eve Best as Olivia in Love in Idleness, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, in April.
In 3rd place, Zoe Waites as Cassius in Julius Caesar at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in May.
In 2nd place, Imelda Staunton as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London in April.
In 1st place, Olivia Colman as Jenny in Mosquitoes at the National Theatre Dorfman, in September.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

A very hotly fought for award, with eighteen contenders in my shortlist, and I whittled it down to this:

In 5th place, Ben Turner as Amir in The Kite Runner, at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, in February.
In 4th place, Peter Polycarpou as Ahmed Qurie in Oslo, at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in December.
In 3rd place, Adrian Scarborough as Stan in Don Juan in Soho, at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, in May.
In 2nd place, Sir Ian McKellen as King Lear in King Lear at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in October.
In 1st place, Richard McCabe as Cicero in the RSC’s Imperium, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford in December.

Theatre of the Year.

For the third year running there’s no change in the Number one and Number two theatres! Presenting an extraordinary range of drama and entertainment, this year’s Theatre of the Year is the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, with the Festival Theatre/Minerva Theatre in Chichester as runner-up.

It’s been another fantastic year, and I’ve seen more productions this year than I’ve ever seen in one year before – 190 productions in all. Thanks to you gentle reader for continuing to read my theatre reviews. Let’s look forward to another wonderful year of theatre in 2018!

Review – Paddington 2, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 24th November 2017

Paddington 2It’s 9pm on a Friday. You’ve had a pre-prandial G&T, you’ve enjoyed your dinner; you want a little pre-weekend escapism and a good laugh. Bottle of Malbec and two glasses in hand, we took our seats at the plush Errol Flynn Filmhouse, along with 89 other adults and one child, bless her. You can keep your Blade Runners and your Star Wars…. Paddington 2 is just sheer joy from start to finish.

Paddington the bear himselfI should point out that we didn’t see the original Paddington film three years ago, but my guess is that you don’t have to have seen the first to be able to appreciate any subtle nuances of the second. The story is relatively slight, but bear with me (geddit?) Paddington is searching for a birthday present for his Aunt Lucy because she brought him up well and he’s a decent, kind-hearted animal. He finds the perfect item in an antiques shop – an old pop-up book of London scenes. Paddington falls in love with it. But the price! Where’s he going to get £500 from? So he vows to work for the money and save it.

BuchananSo far so good. Being a trusting and honest bear, he lets slip to Phoenix Buchanan, a narcissistic actor who opens the local carnival, that he’s saving for this book. Unbeknownst to Paddington, Buchanan is also after this book and he decides to steal it from the shop. Paddington is on the scene in no time and runs after the thief – Buchanan in disguise – to catch him. Unfortunately, Buchanan gives him the slip and it is Paddington whom the police arrest and who is sent to prison in one of the greatest legal travesties in the annals of justice. But, as it’s Paddington, everything turns out alright in the end!

Paddington the window cleanerThis is simply one of the funniest films I’ve seen in years. The blend of animation and reality is just perfect. Take the whole hairdresser shop scene as a typical example of its brilliance. When the inexperienced Paddington clings hold of the barber’s erratically over-powered electric razor for dear life, the sight of the rippling, fluttering fur caused by the vibrations brings the house down. The computer that creates Paddington definitely has a grand sense of humour.

paddington 2 palsThere’s a star-studded cast that most other film makers would die for, and a few absolutely brilliant performances. Hugh Grant camps it up out of all proportion as the despicable Buchanan, in a hilarious assortment of disguises, no greater moment than in the finale (don’t leave at the beginning of the credits, whatever you do) when he gets his chance to present a showstopper (choreographed by Craig Revel Horwood, I noticed). You’ll never think of FolliesRain on the Roof in the same way again. Hugh Bonneville, as Mr Brown, is also fantastic as he blunders from situation to situation, such as when he badmouths the other prisoners whilst they can still hear him, or when he’s caught red-handed breaking and entering Buchanan’s house. Brendan Gleeson is superb as the intimidating inmate Knuckles, who, it turns out, has a heart of gold after all.

The BrownsDelightful vignettes are scattered through the film, with Jessica Hynes, Ben Miller, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Peter Capaldi, Tom Conti, Meera Syal, Richard Ayoade, Tom Davis, Eileen Atkins, Joanna Lumley and many more taking tiny roles that just keep the whole thing constantly topped-up with surprise and enjoyment. Giving the bears a voice, there are vocal contributions by Michael Gambon and Imelda Staunton as Uncle Pastuzo and Aunt Lucy, and a star performance from Ben Whishaw as the voice of Paddington; the epitome of decorum and politeness, honesty and decency – but not without a dash of daftness and a measure of mischief. Paul King and Simon Furnaby’s screenplay is marmalade-packed with visual humour and funny lines, including some great set pieces like the barber’s scene, Paddington’s laundry mishap and the steam train chase.

Paddington in the pinkDon’t think you have to have kids to go and see and enjoy this film. It appeals to the child in all of us – and also, in part, to the naughty grown-up as well. We were still laughing about this film 48 hours later. No wonder it’s proving to be a box-office hit. This’ll come back again and again to entertain us during Christmases Future for decades to come. A pure delight!