Friday, 30 November 2012

A Phantasmagoria Of Fright

Billed as a ‘phantasmagoria of fright’, ‘Fragment of Fear’ (1970) doesn't quite live up to the hyperbole of that statement but is, nonetheless, a solid and intriguing thriller with an interesting premise, a great cast, and a fantastic soundtrack.

Tim Brett (David Hemmings) is a reformed heroin addict turned best selling confessional author who is pitched into danger when his newly discovered Aunt Lucy (Flora Robson), a kindly old woman known for her selfless work in reforming criminals is found murdered in the ruins of Pompeii. Eager to make some sense of the seemingly random killing (and with one eye to his next book) Tim sets out to find the truth, but soon finds himself the victim of those who want their secrets kept secret, and are prepared to use any means necessary to effect his silence.

Directed by Richard C. Sarafin (his next film would be ‘Vanishing Point’), ‘Fragment of Fear’ is actually really rather good, with appearances from British acting institutions like Mona Washbourne, Arthur Lowe, Wilfrid Hyde-Whyte and Dave from ‘Minder’. The screenplay (by Paul Dehn, writer of the four ‘Planet of the Apes’ sequels and, therefore, some sort of God in my eyes) is clever and literate, methodically setting out the steps by which the already edgy Tim is pushed to his very limits, and creating a paranoid world where appearances can not only be deceptive, but deadly.

An eminently watchable actor, Hemmings is in possession of a gravitas that belies his boyish face and small, slight frame, and has a calm, sonorous voice that veers between Received Pronunciation and Estuary English. He plays the brittle Tim to perfection here, making him insecure and naïve, but with more than a touch of petulance and arrogance, and a tendency towards the withering putdown and sudden burst of anger. He is particularly good when trawling the Late Night Chemists and dirty alleys where he served his junkie time, his expression a mix of disgust and longing as he joins a crowd gawking at a hapless junkie shooting up.

Ironically, it is the character’s most defining characteristic: his addiction, recovery and subsequent success as a writer, that proves to be his downfall: he is too well-known as an ex-junkie to be taken seriously, and his reports of the intimidation he is subjected to are written off as the hallucinatory ravings of a drug fiend.

A few loose ends aside, it's a cool little film with lots of cool little people and performances (Hemmings and co-star Gayle Hunnicutt were married at the time, and have an obvious chemistry), and the music (by Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey musical director Johnny Harris) is ace.

Fragment Of Fear

Thursday, 29 November 2012

I Spy

How many of these will you see today? 

The Tao Of How!

'How!' is a programme from an era when TV presenters knew stuff and told you things, rather than knowing nothing and getting on your tits, a bygone golden age that spanned the sixties to the early eighties where people smoked pipes on screen and a twenty five minute programme would provide an equivalent value of information and entertainment.

This is the rather splendid title sequence -

- and here's a clip featuring my two favourite presenters.

First, Island favourite Major Jack Hargreaves, country know it all and man of the world. JH is, as usual, slightly bossy, slightly gruff, cool as a cucumber and completely in control. There are never any questions when Jack finishes talking. Here, he puts a ship in a bottle.

In stark contrast, he's followed by ITV playboy Fred Dineage, your favourite Teacher, your wacky Uncle, the life and soul of the swinger's party. Fred doesn't take anything too seriously, and he likes to show off something rotten if there's a lady in the room. Here, he throws a pot, badly. There's always been something about wonky pottery that makes me laugh.

'How!' originally ran from 1966 to 1981, when Southern TV lost their franchise. In 1990, the format returned as 'How 2' and ran intermittently for another 13 years. Fred Dineage was again present and, happily, still had an eye for the ladies and a penchant for messing about. God bless you, Fred!*

* My wife and her family call him Fred Drainholes, one of those odd in jokes the origin of which was forgotten long ago. She loves Fred, and has about twenty thousand of his 'Murder Casebook' programmes clogging up our HD box which, apparently, cannot be deleted.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Valerie Leon, Nose Holder

Valerie Leon is the link between several venerable British entertainment institutions, including Hammer films, the Carry On series, the James Bond franchise and dear old Morecambe and Wise.

Here she is in part of their 1977 Xmas special, a Cyrano De Bergerac skit also featuring Penelope Keith and Francis Matthews. Val has little to do apart from to show a bit of cleavage and hold Eric's false nose, but she seems to be enjoying herself.

The Trouble With Tributes

Morecambe and Wise are firmly established as the nation’s favourite double act, remembered lovingly every year in tribute programmes and repeats of their most famous shows. They are also commemorated with individual statues in their home towns, although they are of wildly variable quality.

Eric was a keen bird watcher, hence the binoculars
Eric, who died in 1984, was born in Morecambe, and his statue is brilliantly placed at the top of a set of steps leading up to the sea front, allowing for some fantastic sunsets and sunrises to backlight his iconic silhouette. Unveiled in 1999 by The Queen, it was sculpted by Graham Ibbeson, and is an effective and affectionate tribute to a much loved figure, as well as an accurate portrait, but then Ibbeson has form: his other works include statues of Eric-lookalike Phillip Larkin and Cary Grant, as well as one of Les Dawson in Lytham-St. Annes.

Ernie died in 1999, a few months before Eric’s statue was put in place. Eleven years later, in March 2010, his own statue was unveiled in his home town of Morley in West Yorkshire. It’s terrible. Little Ern looks rough and unfinished, and is unsympathetically situated in a busy street, shoved in a flower bed like an upturned ice cream cone. It's difficult to recognise the subject, especially as it puts him in the less familiar (but not inaccurate) pose of a song and dance man, albeit one whose legs are glued together with concrete. At seven feet tall, however, it's considerably larger than the real thing, which Ernie may very well have appreciated. Whereas Eric’s statue attracts tourists, Ernie’s statue simply upsets passers-by. One Morley resident said: "It doesn't look like him. It looks as if he’s falling over. It’s frightening people".
'It's frightening people' 
Is that a crease on the right hand side, or a tear track?
I’d like to see a statue celebrating these friends and colleagues at their very best and most recognisable, i.e. together, perhaps with Eric smacking Ernie about the chops. I'll go as far to suggest that it should take up permanent residence on the vacant fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. The tourists won’t necessarily get it, but it isn’t for them, it’s for us, and is every bit as relevant as, say, Major General Sir Henry Havelock.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Interesting Postcards

Municipal Offices and Royal Parade
Plymouth, Devon

What a fantastic, colourful place Plymouth seems to be! A Technicolor wonderland where there's a bus for every single person in the town. Even the Ministry of Love looks light and modern and friendly, no wonder that lady is taking a moment to soak it up before she flings herself to her death.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Captain Pyjamas

Scarlet is a cool colour, isn't it? In fact, as long as you're not Captain Shit, sorry, Ochre, or Captain Magenta, all SPECTRUM uniforms are really cool, especially if you accessorise with a pair of hip sunglasses. So, yep, Captain Scarlet is cool. Really cool. Until he gets ready for bed, then he just looks like a twat.

I don't care if you're dead, a clone or merely recovering after being shot and falling a thousand foot from some fancy car park, there is no excuse for those pj's. Happily, as they seem to be made out of 100% flammable nylon, I'm pretty sure they're destructible.

It's A Small World

I wonder how welcome those little gypsies would be in the real world?

Tiny little wedding. It won't last.

The safest street in Great Yarmouth. 

Merrivale Model Village,
Marine Parade
Great Yarmouth,

Merrivale (fantastic mid-century name) is a thriving model village on Great Yarmouth's marvellous 'golden mile' of sea front amusement, entertainment, sea food and cheap tat. It was the first model village I ever visited. As a child, my favourite non-Dr. Who book was 'Gullivers Travels', so a trip to Merrivale always felt especially exciting, even more so after I saw my first 'Godzilla' film.

God bless Merrivale!

Saturday, 24 November 2012

The World Of The Nightmare

David Greene seemed like one of Britain’s most promising directors in 1969. After a decade in TV, Greene had made the transition to films with odd horror thriller 'The Shuttered Room' in 1967, rapidly following up with brilliant espionage romance 'Sebastian' and policier 'The Strange Affair' (see yesterday) in 1968. Although none of his films could be called masterpieces, he definitely had something, a way of taking standard, even clichéd, genre material and giving it a Carnaby Street paint job and a fresh and trendy cast of pretty semi-freaks: a sort of psychedelic-lite approach to film making.

‘I Start Counting’ (1969) was his last British film, and its critical and commercial failure drove him to America, where he stayed working in TV until his death in 2003. The film itself has a mixed reputation, is not available on DVD, and has not been shown on telly for many years, but is hardly the disaster Greene thought at the time.

Wynne (Jenny Agutter) is a 15 year old school girl with a desperate crush on her older foster brother George. Their family is pleasant, but slightly dysfunctional: fatherless, and crammed together in a small flat on a featureless new estate. In her spare time, Wynne goes back to their old, abandoned family home in a nearby wood and happily reverts to early childhood, playing house and swinging aimlesly on the rusty swing.  A series of small incidents lead Wynne to suspect that George might be the perpetrator of violent sex crimes that have taken place in the area and, desperate to show him her maturity, and heedless of the danger, she sets out to investigate.

An odd little film that ultimately appears not to have a point, ‘I Start Counting’ meanders from scene to scene at a sombulant pace, throwing up lots of dead ends and unanswered questions. The script was adapted from a moderately successful novel of the same name, but the nuances and psychological twists and turns of the written word seem to have been lost in the journey from page to screen. It’s a well-made film, but gives very little to the viewer in terms of genuine suspense or insight, although historians and sociologists and mid-century enthusiasts like me may value its portrayal of New Town Britain* in the late 1960’s, and record enthusiasts (like me) enjoy the scenes set in a groovy disc emporium, complete with West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band LP’s and space age plastic bubble listening posts.

The most notable feature of the whole venture is the star, Jenny Agutter, although it’s also the most problematic. Agutter was 17 during filming but, in school uniform, she looks considerably younger than even the 15 year old character she is playing, and the emphasis on her sexual attractiveness in both the film and its attendant publicity material seems unacceptable today.

Island Idol Basil Kirchin provided music for three out of the four films Greene made before he relocated to the states, including 'I Start Counting', and here's the opening sequence with its beautiful, wispy title song, as sung by Lindsey Moore.

* It was filmed in Bracknell in Hertfordshire, like 'I Want What I Want' and 'The Offence' from a few years later. Part Utopia, part work in progress, everything seems to be under construction, a new world in the making. The church that Wynne attends looks more like a space age bachelor pad than a place of worship, and it's slap bang in the middle of a building site. See 'Bracknell' tab at the bottom of this post for more stuff about the place.

I Start Counting

Friday, 23 November 2012

His Name Is P.C Strange

'The Strange Affair' (1968) is a fairly standard police drama, enlivened by director David Greene’s gentle counter cultural flourishes and a great score of noodling guitars and polite free jazz from the incredible Basil Kirchin.

The story concerns new police constable Tom Strange (fresh-faced Michael York, resembling a less pustulent Cristiano Ronaldo) who, in the course of about two weeks, goes from being an optimistic and principled young copper ("I believe in principles of order; the inevitability of justice") to a disgraced criminal with a scabby hole in either cheek after getting embroiled in cover-ups and fit-ups and impaled on the wrong end of a gangster’s electric drill.

The film begins by portraying a lost ‘Blue Lamp’ world of friendly bobbies strolling around bombsite London, chuckling at naughty kids (and, at one point, helping someone to flytip an old mattress!) before ramping up the violence and corruption levels to ‘Sweeney’ proportions. Interestingly, corruption is shown from both angles: police officers that take bribes to turn a blind eye to crime; police officers that bend the law to punish criminals – with the latter seemingly turning out to be the less acceptable of the two evils.

Strange’s love interest is played by young, toothy Susan George, a promiscuous, underage, face-painted hippy called Fred who follows a hairy group called The Hieronymus Bosch, and isn’t satisfied until she’s shared a bath, a bed and a giant inflatable ball (you’ll need to see the clip below) with the idealistic new recruit. To her credit, she sticks with him, even after his impromptu face drilling, but that may be motivated by guilt after finding out that their bath, bed and ball session was secretly filmed by her permissive, immoral Aunt and Uncle, and is now doing the rounds in every porn pit in Soho.

Throw an obsessive Sergeant into the mix (the ridiculously over-expressive Jeremy Kemp) and an ex-bent-copper turned gang lord running a drugs ring out of Battersea Heliport with the aid of a his two grinning, psychotic Mod sons, a sexy air hostess and a Maharishi clone with an army of white clad followers, then you have just enough elements to keep you occupied for ninety minutes, even if you’re never quite on the edge of your seat. Still, a nice spin on a familiar theme and nice music, too, here
serving as a slinky soundtrack to the aforementioned ‘big ball’ scene.

The Strange Affair

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Interesting Postcards

Colchester and Essex Museum
Conjectural reconstruction of the Temple of Claudius
c. A.D 50-60
Photo: Dennis Mansell

A childhood obsession of mine, I nearly had a heart attack when I visited Colchester Castle with my son last year and this model wasn't in the place it should have been. Happily, it had just been moved somewhere else. Not much of a story, I know, but it's all I've got on the subject.

The Temple of Claudius was razed to the ground along with the rest of Camulodunum circa AD 60 by a very angry Boudica and her Icenic Army. That's a much better story, I should have gone with that.

The British Private Press

If I see a UK Private Press LP, I have to buy it. The good ones are few and far between, but, as the majority of them cost about twenty five pence, they find their way home with me regardless.

Up here in my adopted home of the North, most of them are either by brass bands or acts which played the working man's club circuit. The LP's would be recorded in a day, pressed in small quantities and sold out of a box or the back of a car after a show. They are almost always autographed*.

'They Call Us...Aloma and Jones' features a piano / keyboards and harp (!) duo and bland little girl vocals. The best track is probably their slightly souped up version of 'Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow', but that doesn't mean it's any bloody good. The label doesn't have a date on it, but, judging by the presence of a cover of the Demis Roussos hit 'Forever and Ever', I'd estimate 1977.

The sleeve notes are more interesting than the record itself:

'It was all meant to be so different. At the time of our first acquaintance we were both about to embark on classical careers at colleges of music. However, we drifted apart and so did our musical tastes. Aloma took her harp back to the folk and country and western influence of Wales and I and my piano entered the scene of Liverpool pop groups and a particularly outrageous rock and roll band.

Strangely we came together again and this LP is the result. We hope you like it...they call us...ALOMA and JONES'. 

I expect that you might want to hear Aloma and Jones but, honestly, I wouldn't waste your time. It's played well, but it's extremely boring, and it is simply not worth the effort of me ripping and posting their version of, say, 'Amazing Grace' or 'Island In The Sun', for you to find that out for yourself.

I do like the cover though, where do you think it was taken - Southport, Lytham or Caister?

* The laminated sleeve was grubby on this LP, so I gave it a quick going over with a wet wipe, accidentally obliterating the felt tipped signatures that had clung to its surface for over thirty years. Oops. I hope it doesn't affect the resale price - in fact, I've probably made it rarer. 

Panic On The Streets Of London

Given its long time prominence as a major world city, it is perhaps surprising to realise that London has been menaced by Giant Apes only twice in its near two thousand year history, as well as slightly chilling to think what could have happened - and might very well happen again...
In 1961, Konga, a chimpanzee from the Congo transformed into a 300 foot tall killer ape by bad science, terrorised the streets of the capitol, eventually ending up at Westminster, as if he were on his way to deliver a petition bearing ten thousand signatures asking that he not be massacred by a platoon of machine gun and mortar wielding soldiers.

Unlike the astronaut / alien hybrid attack on Westminster Abbey in 1953 (a mere two months after the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in the same building) there is, unfortunately, no live documentary footage of Konga's rampage, but the incident did immediately inspire a film version which contains my favourite line in any language from any time: ‘there's a huge monster gorilla that's constantly growing to outlandish proportions loose in the streets!’ As in real life, the filmic response to this poetic statement was, sadly, 'KILL IT!' and poor, sweet Konga was shot to bits by unsympathetic squaddies. Poignantly, Konga reverted to his original form on death: a rather sad little chimp - with five hundred holes in its tattered carcass.

Less than twenty years later, the city once again trembled at the mercies of a prodigious primate, this time of the female gender. The curvaceous Queen Kong was the unofficial ruler of the island of Lazanga until she was snatched away by a British expedition and brought back to London as a tourist attraction, never a good idea. 

Understandably pretty miffed, Her Majesty the Monkey escaped her captivity and, of course, made her way to the Houses of Parliament where, happily, the situation was resolved without fatalities because of her love for a squat, unfunny ape man hybrid,  although an Action Man helicopter was badly damaged. Queen Kong returned to Lazonga by barge and London breathed a sigh of relief, shrugged its shoulders and went back to thinking itself cooler and far more important than the rest of the UK.

Curiously, the city authorities continue to be remarkably complacent about the dangers of another giant ape attack. In the thirty five years since Queen Kong’s short reign of terror, the Thames Flood Barrier has been completed and stringent anti-terrorism measures introduced, yet London remains frighteningly vulnerable to the savage fury of a massive runaway killer monkey. It's bananas.