The Modern Babylon : “The Strange Third Meaning”

Julien Temple’s extraordinary film, London : The Modern Babylon was broadcast last week .  It was glorious and irreverent, juxtaposing Edwardian footage with the Sex Pistols, keen to draw connecting lines between the large, multi-faith, multi-racial London of today with the London of a hundred years ago.  It was chaos, but it tasted of a distinctly familiar ordered chaos. The slums of the 1920s were depressingly sliced up with footage from present day sink estates, slum children with the same hungry eyes and sullen mouths echoing, unaltered throughout the long twentieth century.  It seemed also keen to present London as a riotous, constantly jumping, dancing, slapping, exotic whirlwind, pushing through and destroying any echo of the stiff upper lip or cold English placidity.  The title was a nod to the “Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”, an exposing series of articles regarding London’s thriving child prostitution market which appeared in The Pall Mall Gazette in 1885.  These articles were sensationalist, highly coloured by imagination and hardly faithful news reporting.  The magazine’s editor, W T Stead, was sent to prison for 3 months for his unlawful journalistic methods, thereby starting another rich tradition of the British tabloid journalist using underhand methods to exploit members of the public and then write a lot of made-up things in a newspaper.  But what the “Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon” tale concerns itself with is the space between the image or the story, and the mode of reportage that it elicits.  Julien Temple’s film of London : The Modern Babylon  took this space and magnificently exploited it.  The London we know, the London we see every day on our way to work was hardly evident, instead we saw a magical – yet real – city,  a feverish – yet not joyous – flurry of fast-paced dancing, a plain – yet not defeated – man standing with his two children in a one room home, a homesick Jamaican being turned away – again – from a boarding house, as the landlord tells him he would simply love to let him in, but the other 14 English boarders would immediately leave. 

The press, for a change, seemed to be in agreement : Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian: “London is where the dense swirl of creativity, energy and violence is to be found. In comparison, the rest of the country is placid and dull”.  Bradshaw goes on, rightly, to point out the punk spirit of Temple’s film, describing what he felt was the vitally “pugnacious,  bloody-minded…” spirit of the city and those who inhabit it.  Over at The Independent, Jonathan Romney writes : “London has always been a vortex of changing social and racial identity – one of the liveliest (if not always the happiest) places on earth […] The result is a joyous, yet often also rueful, commemoration of one of the most multiple and uncontainable cities on earth.”  The Telegraph‘s Mike McCahill commented: “It’s a tale of two cities – where the best of times coexists with the worst – and the film-maker doesn’t so much mind the gap between them as plunge, frenziedly and triumphantly, into it.”  Over at the FT, Nigel Andrews was not at all charmed: “The film is as awesome as a Taj Mahal built of matchsticks, and some detractors might say as pointless. Documentarist Temple… has no evident viewpoint.”    What a cow, eh?

It is an extraordinary piece of film making.  What there is is movement, unceasing, fast-paced, jolting movement.  It was like a peculiar mode of jaunty time-travel.  Temple began with 6,000 hours of BFI archive material.  His favourite technique seems to be juxtaposing time zones: a slim woman in a cloche hat in 1923 turns to the camera with an alert, slightly startled expression and an image of a coffee-cup carrying woman from 2005 appears to be the object of her gaze.  Temple uses two images to create, in his own words, “a strange third meaning”.  His apparently empathetic slant on the London Mob has some critics puce with indignation, but these critics are wrong.  What Temple is pulling focus towrds is the visceral force of the London Mob, to recognise its effects and impact on the political temperature of whatever rows appear to be going on at any given time, and that the revolting aspects of the English become galvanized and distilled in a city that has lots and lots and lots of people in it.  The mob is an almost inevitable result of various socio-political influences mashing and merging upon one urban space.  It is not interesting to decide whether a documentary filmmaker is “for” or “against” the mob.  His work is to document, and one would hope we all have moved on from GCSE binary arguments about “good rioters” and “naughty rioters”.  Temple understands the spirit of London, and to leave out the mob would be as wrong as to leave out London pubs and horse-drawn omnibuses.

It is this “strange third meaning” of Temple’s that leaves us to a new view of our City.  Perhaps this is what Mike McCahill meant at The Telegraph quote above, when he wrote of the film maker plunging “frenziedly and triumphantly” into the gaps.  It is in the gaps where the mystery of London becomes realised.  Images are crushed and pushed against one another, challenging and changing each other.  The soundtrack was a meshed series of musical and vocal techniques, a varied voiceover of actor’s repeating poems and texts about London only when and if the voiceover was required.  Although, frankly, I could have done without T S Eliot.  But then I always can.  After watching this, there was a strange feeling of environmental abandonment.  What had I just seen?  Do I know this place?  What is this foreign, surreal, magnetic city?  It took a moment to come back down to earth.  London can be reborn, remade and reimagined at the touch of an editor’s hand.   A truly imaginative and engaging film, filled with the lifeblood, stories and sense of our city.  Whilst avoiding anything as wistful as nostalgia, it renews a sense of metropolitan enquiry, making the viewer want to explore more of its streets, its crooked turnings, its dark-bricked alleys, whilst you are followed by the sense that you could walk for a fifty years and never have a hope of fully knowing the true heart and tales of our city.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

An Evening at Breakfast

Was it me or did Valentines Day feel as if it was on steroids this year?  Never before in London had I seemed quite so many anxious looking males rushing home from work with bouquets.  Some ranged from the ideal (fifteen dusky pink roses tied with a velvet ribbon) to the dumpable (eight yellow carnations wrapped in thin cellophane, which was dotted, confusingly with white spots, carried by a clueless chap on the Victoria Line).  On February 15th, at 8am, I passed Marks & Spencers in Bond Street station.  They were taking down the ornate, heart-shaped boxes of cheap chocolate and replacing them with ornate, bunny-shaped boxes of cheap chocolate.  No sooner is Valentines Day over, and suddenly it’s Easter.  The store staff were agitated and desperately promoting Easter / Egg / Dead Messiah themed confectionery.  In a recession with a flat-lining economy, every festival is just one more vital opportunity to stay above water.

Up in Hampstead, on Valentines Night, there were no tables to be had at any pub.  When I say no tables, that is a slight lie. I had booked a table at The Flask, a sort of unloved Youngs pub next to the best second hand designer shoe shop in London.  The Flask had had the only spare table in the district at 7pm.  But when I arrived I found our table in miniature form, pushed against the wall and accompanied with two tiny stools, the same size that you see in a nursery playspace.    I walked around the dining room, and everyone else had chairs.  Everyone else was not about to be sat at a three year old’s dining table.  I asked if we could have some chairs at our table and a man with complicated facial hair told me that no, I could not have any chairs.  I must sit on stool.  I considered the high chairs, before abandoning  the nursery corner at The Flask altogether. It was a shame, because I would have missed the group singalong of “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round” after nap time.   Around the corner, Cafe Rouge sat – open and empty, with short, tiny red candle lights on each table giving the place an unsavoury, gothic aspect.  A sign outside told me I had to pre-book if I wanted the Valentines menu.  The man inside said that if I wanted to eat there at all I would have to have the Valentines menu.  The Valentines menu was a pile of shit cobbled together and trying to look Parisian.  Carluccios had the same, austere, terrifying  nonsense going on; a four course Italian meal at £25 full of the kind of food (beetroot pasta anyone?) that no one in their right mind would want to eat.  I might send the yellow-carnation-cheap-cellophane-probably-has-halitosis man I had spotted earlier there, but only as severe punishment for his floral mishap.

Thank God for Pizza Express.  It was the only sane building in the district, with its champion site halfway up Heath Street.  This building used to be a sort of steak and ribs shack called Kennys.  We went there once to meet one of my brother’s girlfriends in the early 1990s.  It was an odd evening.  My brother had got a couple of sisters mixed up and inadvertently asked out the wrong sister out over the phone so was a bit off his ribs that evening.  For reasons that are not clear, he continued to go out with the wrong sister for three months, but I don’t think Kennys had anything to do with it.  Now Pizza Express is there,  sticking to what it knows best and accompanied by the usual hardy, but small, wine list.  There was no danger of being force fed a Valentines menu designed to wreck your constitution, and fill you up with so much fat, chocolate and lard that any attempt to have Valentines sex once you got home would result in indigestion, dyspepsia and /or a coronary.  There were a couple of comedy waiters who kept dropping things, but Pizza Express can absolutely always be relied upon to do exactly what it does on the tin, and the garlic bread is still as astonishingly good as ever.

Onto the lurve-in at The Everyman, then.  One of London’s leading independent cinema groups (along with the Curzons) were showing Breakfast at Tiffanys with free prosecco as a Valentines special at three of their cinemas – the Hampstead, Baker Street and (new) Maida Vale Everymans.   The Belsize Park and Renoir Everymans were deciding not to put Baby in a corner on Valentines Day, and were showing Dirty Dancing.  For the anti-Valentine cynics who think that love is nothing more than a deadly disease, there was Fatal Attraction at the Everyman Screen on the Green (no free prosecco with that one, only a T Shirt claiming All Women are Desperate, Psychotic Man Eating Numpties Who Will Kill Your Rabbit Rather Than Keep Their Dignity). At Hampstead there were lots of couples of the down-at-heel, shabby chic variety getting smashed on the free prosecco.  Well, the prosecco ought to be free when you have paid £25 a seat.  However, The Everyman is a fantastically luxurious experience.  It may be £25 a seat, but it’s actually £25 for a cushioned, velvet armchair (big enough to curl your legs under you when you’ve kicked your shoes off) a table, waiter service which brings you your drinks after you’ve placed your order in the lobby so you don’t have to carry them, and one of those special buttons with a picture of an usherette on it, which you press when you require a fill up or a food order, which makes you feel like you are in a First Class section of an aeroplane.  Chocolate raisins were dispensed in those white, square cardboard containers that people in American films eat Chinese food out of.  In the foyer, they allow you to taste artisan chocolate for free. I love the Everyman.

  Breakfast at Tiffanys is one of those films whose magic made a ludicrously significant impact on me because I saw it at my most impressionable age.  I’m not sure whether these sorts of experiences are serendipitous or disastrous, but the truth is the impressions films leave us with in the adolescent years embed themselves with great fondness for, it seems, ever.  The day Audrey Hepburn died in 1993, BBC2 went on an Audrey-o-thon.  I had seen stills from Breakfast at Tiffanys of course, as so many elements of popular culture had harnessed the style and attitude of the film, that you felt you’d seen it before you’d seen it.  I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  I adored it.  My choices for eyeliner and hair and how to smoke a cigarette were formed that evening, and stayed, as if preserved in early sixties aspic.  No sixteen year old with a sense of style can watch Breakfast at Tiffanys without being seduced by Holly Golightly’s elegance and style.  We didn’t look beyond the surface, of course, as the whole $50 for the powder room thing kicked the tale into an unpleasant, adult arena, but the impression made by the artifice of Lula Mae / Holly’s self-made character launched a thousand liquid eyelines.  But – and here’s a confession – I never rated Audrey Hepburn that much as an actress.  She looked striking, she had doe-like eyes, and an undeniable grace and charm, but as for actually bringing home the acting bacon?  I sort of always gave her a B Minus.  George Peppard, I thought, was entirely made from stone cladding, or marble, or some other water-resistant, heat-resistant matter so impermeable that no emotions or acting could ever get out.  He sort of plonked himself about with his strong jawline and his Action Man hairdo throwing out unblinking stares of unyielding emptiness.  But none of that had ever detracted from the essentially wonderful Breakfast at Tiffanys for me, with its illuminating colour frames and its gorgeous slinkiness. 

How wrong you can be.  After twenty years of watching B of T on televisions small and large, on digital format and VHS, I had never really seen it.  Not in its true guise, and not as the director intended.  All of a sudden, parts of the film unrevealed began to reveal themselves; the quality of the carpet in the communal hall of the brownstone building, the shockingly awful, tiny gold telephone that Paul’s old lady lover has shoved into their rococo apartment, the tiny baubles of glass like a vertical string of pearls that make up the stem of the martini glass of morning milk for Holly, the fact that her cat is seriously overweight, the remarkable heaviness of the make-up on every woman except Hepburn, and the delightful fact of the teeth.  Actors teeth look like – well, teeth.  Some of them are crossed.  All of them are that charming shade of off-white.  They are slightly nicotine-stained.  They are not overwhelmingly white.   There is a grandeur to the sharp, sparse set design that comprises Holly’s small apartment.  The decor is (with the exception of Paul Varjak’s bizarre flat) one of muted browns and matt creams and plain black and white, all of which contrasts and frames the sharpness of the classic tailoring worn throughout.  Apart from the legendary black Givenchy dress, there is the astounding tailoring of Patricia Neal’s royal blue and black check two piece – the two pieces being a knee length skirt and a voluminou cape which clasps at the neck – which announces itself violently and stridently, much like her character.

But the most alarming revelation was the acting.  The acting ability of Hepburn and Peppard absolutely wins through.  Yes, she looks remarkable, but she is acting her socks off, and the romantic narrative of the film suddenly comes alive.   Her face is not suited for television, because she is so overwhelmingly cinematic.  She has the most amazing skin and his face actually seems to move if you put it on a cinema screen.  It was like watching a film in colour for the first time having only seen it many times before in black and white.  The cinematographer’s work is able to be seen.  There are shadows, shapes and nuances which the television is ill-equipped to project.  The best discovery of all is that the substance of the plot near-outshines the style of the film.  Bearing in mind this slice of dedacent post-war Americana is probably the most stylish film of the second half of the twentieth century, that’s some competition.  The other revelation was, obviously, the eyeliner.  Basically, I went into shock and had to be given Merlot.  Here’s the thing :  I’d been doing it wrong since 1993.  The eyeline of the 1961 Hepburn eye doth not flick out and up.  It flicks out in a straight line some 3mm beyond the outer rim of the eye and it is very thin.  Flicking “up and out” is very 50s.  Hepburn announces the new 60s line.  Then there is some complicated grey-blue eyeshadow business going on (impossible to absorb, more Merlot) before a riot of mascara completes the whole lot until we’re left with classic, gamine, eyelash-batting Hepburn a la mode

After the lights went up, various people were either snogging or asleep, depending on their ages.  The chairs were deliciously comfortable and hard to stand up from.  Once I took a cursory shufti at the audience I realised that only about four of them looked old enough to have seen this film when it first came out, nearly fifty years ago, young and excited on a first date.  Christ, they looked old now, though, shuffling about and dropping sweet wrappers and fumbling for reading glasses.   Age happens everywhere, except celluloid where, in this instance, everything was as buff, shiny and beautiful as new, fittingly returned to it’s original genre.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

You Belong To Me

On Monday, I went with Mother Bluebird to see The Deep Blue Sea, a film so ponderous and deadly slow that I wanted to cosh the director over the head with a blunt instrument and run out of the magnificent confines of the Curzon Mayfair.   Such wonderful actors, and such a self-consciously po-faced and generally snail slow film, it failed to slake my normal thirst of all things Austerity Britain.  I think we should all start to love Austerity Britain (generally 1945-1952 but ranges according to what you read), as pretty soon we are all going to be living in it.    But what it did do, somewhere amongst the languid tomfoolery of the over-indulgent art direction, is use the whole of the song You Belong To Me

This is a song which has always had a terrible beauty to me.  Strangely, it can depress, despite its gloriousness.    For those of you unfamiliar with it : cop of load of :

Of course, now you have listened to it, you realised you weren’t unfamiliar with it at all.  The Deep Blue Sea isn’t the only film that has used it.  It also popped up in the Derek Bentley Story Let Him Have It back in 1992.  Tori Amos sang it for Mona Lisa Smile.  Another version of it also appeared in Shrek.  With the obvious exception of Shrek, the song is usually used to indicate fatally unrequited sexual longing, imminent loss, ration books and heartbreak.  Directors can’t seem to resist it – employing it to evoke moods and atmostpheres that perhaps they are struggling to create themselves.  Maybe it’s not just the stately tempo which lends it a certain melancholy, but the effect of years of watching Austerity Britons on screen, fumbling with clothes in dreary shades of fawn and brown, stumbling over damp craters left over from wartime blitzes and then dealing stoically, in narrow-brimmed hats and headscarves, with the impudent injustice of life.   Certainly that’s what seemed to be happening in The Deep Blue Sea.  The director’s (only) excellent choice throughout the movie was to play the song in its entirety, set to a montage of scenes set in a public house in London in 1950 where everyone wears a hat and smokes like a trooper.  Rachel Weisz’s character and her lover, for whom she has left her husband, sing along with the song playing on the jukebox and gaze adoringly at each other.  But you can see they are doomed; she looks to him as if she needs air from him to help her breathe and eventually, like every other dirty damn cad, he does a runner – bizarrely, to South America.  But do we believe him? 

The song fitted beautifully to the scene – it’s a strange song, suggestive of the war, in which the longing of the domestic heart is placed in the exotic locations where a lover might be, yet there is that terrible sharp sense of ghostly doom; someone doesn’t return home, service is done in foreign lands that ends only in misery and loss (Fly the ocean in a silver plane, see the jungle when it’s wet with rain, but – remember ’til you’re home again….).  Despite the lush, glamourous romance of it, my introduction to this song wasn’t romantic at all.  Or in a plane.  Or in a jungle.  It was the winter of 2001 and I was standing in a pair of itchy, red woollen tights in an uninsulated rehearsal room for the Chichester Festival Theatre.  A scene was played out, startlingly, in which an actor who was the son of another person who was an actor, and a girl actress who had been a nineteen year old divorcee and who was part albino, grappled in a tongue-free stage kiss on the linoleum.  The pale wooden IKEA table, covered with the rings of that morning’s umpteen Nescafes, doubled as a gravestone in a provincial graveyard by the sea.    The table was doing the best method acting  – although it isn’t difficult to play a graveyard on the edge of the sea when you’re in Chichester off-season.  The stage kiss was formidable – just a vast airy sucking sound, punctuated by occasional stabs of sexual awkwardness whilst each actor concentrated on not sticking their tongue in the other actor’s mouth.  I think, although cannot be sure, that the scene featured antlers of some kind.  I do remember the waft of appalling Honeyrose cigarettes, the tabs that actors smoke when they don’t want to smoke real cigarettes and which smell of month-old petrol station dead roses mixed with an aged cat’s urine.   They smell ten times more toxic than the real thing. 

The director, a pained and sadistic chap in his early seventies, walked past this week’s “whipping boy” and pressed some god-awful tape recorder, that probably came from someone collecting Nectar tokens.  When he pressed PLAY, this was the song that came out.  It piqued my interest, mainly because I couldn’t for the life of me identify the singer.  Keely Smith?  Kylie?  Cyndi Lauper?  It could have been anyone, the way that tape machine was strangling the vocals.  I was hanging off the ends of the country in the middle of a dark winter and this song leapt out of the room and filled some warm, gorgeous place in the air.  What was it? 

And so it went on for the next four weeks.  Night after night, standing in the wings, in the same, itchy red tights and mid-length 1970s costume waiting to go on for my turn to stage kiss the actor who was the son of the person who was an actor, three lines of this song became my stage prompt.  I listened to it, increasingly annoyed I couldn’t identify it, thinking “Who is this?  What is this?  Why is she singing about a market in Algiers and buying souvenirs?  Is she actually IN Algiers?  I should know this?  Shouldn’t I?  Oh, dear.  Whoops – sorry am I on now?”

Back in London I broached the topic with my brother over a robust steak luncheon. 

“So, do you know the song You Belong To Me?”  I asked.  He had started his lunch back to front and was progressing steadily from pudding to soup.

“Oh you mean – ” And he started to sing You Were Made for Me, Everybody Tells Me So! by Freddie and the Dreamers, complete with cheeky-chappie 1960s swinging arms.  The diners – frail, elderly and few – ducked.



“Useless,” I said.

It continued to elude me.  I had become convinced, for some reason, that it was Keely Smith after all (which it wasn’t)  and filed it amongst the “Songs To Learn One Day” amongst the hundreds of other songs that littered my frontal lobe.  I occasionally asked acquaintances who were musicians about it.  I either got blank expressions or a repeat of the Freddie and The Dreamers routine.  But it wouldn’t stop turning up.  Amongst the hundreds of hits from this period, You Belong To Me continued to be the Editor’s Choice in film and dramas – always when a love affair transcends the possibilities of real romance or when it all goes spastically wrong.  It would suddenly surface every so often on television, reminding me of the cold, pale blue painted rehearsal room of years before, and the middle of a torrid, horrid English winter.  And I still didn’t know who sang it.

At 6.45am this morning I had had enough, so, waiting for the kettle to boil, I propped myself up against the kitchen worksurface and rippled through my i-Tunes search engine.  JO STAFFORD.  Of course, it was Jo Stafford.  One of the biggest singing stars of the 1940s and 1950s.  The person that Frank Loesser slapped because she wouldn’t sing his songs the way he wanted her to for Guys and Dolls.  And then, as with the wonder of i-Tunes, it was a moment, a click, 99p and a 30 second download and then it was mine.   Since this morning, I have used the internet to discover more things about it.  It was written by a music librarian for Louisville Radio, USA called Chilton Price.  I don’t know if that is a man or a woman.  The radio station played predominantly country music, and, as the story goes, one day she, or he, showed country music composers Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart some of the songs she/he had written.  This was one of them.   Astonishingly, she/he had also written a song called Slow Poke, but I don’t know what happened to that.  The version of You Belong To Me in the You Tube link above, sung by Jo Stafford, was in the UK charts for 20 weeks in 1952 and is the first British No 1 by a female solo artist.   It remains “our song” for many couples in the US and UK today who were courting in the years after the war.  Of course, ten years ago, in Chichester, I couldn’t have scrolled through anything.  I would have had to go to the small HMV in the city centre and no one would have known what I was talking about.  I would have had to check into an internet cafe.   Or do that terribly twentieth century thing and actually, I dunno, look it up in some kind of book.   Would the song ever have got to me; ever have eerily,  fascinated me in an annoying and endearing way, if I had been immediately able to identify it?  It became more haunting for its anonymity.  Would it have failed to enchant if I’d been able to pinpoint it in so prosaic a fashion ten years ago?  It would be nice to think so.  The advent of the i-Tunes era has made everything wonderfully accessible and certainly made life less irritating, but I am sure that the ghostly magic of the melody of this song wouldn’t have been half as dreamy or interesting if it had been so readily available from a telephone – a telephone  – at a neat, tidy, swift 99p per click.

Please return to the London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday. 

Come on baby, Light My Bus Pass

Certain things should be got out of the way swiftly in life : measles, chickenpox, using hair mousse, first love, experimenting with eyeliner, learning how to drive,  working out what the washing machine is for and how not to boil silk knickers at 90 degrees etc.   I didn’t do any of this (with the exception of the eyeliner).  In fact, when it came to the motor car I was practically retarded and wasn’t licensed to drive one without adult supervision until I was 32.  I learnt nothing about the common sense stuff until I was 30.  Carpet shampooing, grown up clothes shopping , where to buy good tights and the importance of the three week wax (I am not talking about the car this time) was all a mystery to me until I hit my thirties.  This is because when I was a charming yet supercilious adolescent I was too busy listening to The Doors LPs and plotting about how I was going to get on an aeroplane and marry Val Kilmer. 

Halcyon days,  kids.  Plotting to marry Val “Jim Morrison on the weekends” Kilmer was basically a full time job because the bastard was married already.  Dammit.  His wife was the florid, fragrant Joanne Whalley, who tagged her new husband’s name on the end of hers just to make everyone sick with jealousy that she’s gone and married him.  Val Kilmer was already firmly ensconced in my heart as the future Mr Bluebird, but then he signed up to be Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s The Doors and my cup of Kilmeresque love basically ran over.   Jim Morrison was probably the most delightful thing ever to be on the cover of American Billboard, the prettiest boy sitting on Venice Beach in the late 1960s.  There was some stuff about him marrying a peculiar witch or something, but I still thought he was Mr Hot Stuff.  Unfortunately, he was dead.  (First rule of the Bluebird marriage lottery : pick a live victim).

Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison was the most exciting thing to happen to me in 1991 – with the exception of learning how to smoke.  I was very pleased about the latter, as surely Jim would think it terribly rock on roll to have a fag on the go.  Not that Val had a fag on the go, of course.  He was all man.  He quickly jettisoned the brat pack in terms of my posters of the moment.  Rob Lowe?  Bin him.  Moody fashion shots of early 1990s models in imitation early 60s bouffants from Elle?  Get rid.  Kiefer Sutherland avec quiff?  Shred the fella.  Nothing existed but Val, who, for reasons that weren’t entirely apparent, my father started referring to as Valerie.   Operation Val sped with miraculous speed throughout my adolescent world.  I didn’t even notice the Gulf War had started and ended, so busy was I playing the first album, imaginatively titled The Doors, over and over and over again. 

Dad and the whole “Valerie” thing had started to make sense.  In order to truly understand The Doors  in all these Venice Beach, Gothic, William Blake-esque splendour, I was forced to listen to them at top volume.  This meant for either of my parents to get my attention they had to send a carrier pigeon, bang loudly on the ceiling, shout and scream or suddenly appear in my bedroom doorway hollering: “THERE’S PHONE CALL FOR YA” whilst making urgent “telephone” shapes with their left hands.  It wasn’t Val on the phone of course, that would just be weird.  My parents annoyance wasn’t helped by the fact that my bedroom was built in about 1590, and the walls would shudder with every Morrisonesque wail about wanting to have sex with his own mother.   I think the 12 minute version of The End  did my parents heads in in particular.

When The Doors film was in progress, I seriously considered jumping on a transatlantic plane and putting myself forward for the role of Pamela Courson, Morrison’s snake-hipped, smack-eyed paramour for much of his short adult life, but dammit if that Meg Ryan didn’t get in my way AGAIN by taking the role herself.  The Megster and I have had battle lines drawn since that morning in a cafe when she right put me off my sandwich.  Basically, I was sitting there, happy as Larry, with a brioche, and she then started to…..erugh.  I can’t say it.  DISGUSTING, that’s what it was.   With Pamela’s films shoes filled, the only other role open to an aspiring 15 year old actress from Watford was the freaky white witch type character, and hand-fasting aint how I roll.  Desperately upset, nothing remained but to wait for the film’s release.  The only slightly interesting item on the agenda was an imminent trip to Paris, where I could join the other emotive 15 year olds from around the world mooning tragically over Morrison’s grave. 

Soon, in a bizarre death-over-life hostile takeover, I realised Jim Morrison was inhabiting my imagination more than Val “Cheekbones” Kilmer was.  Val Kilmer seemed to be – dare I say it – a little bit dull?  He was more pottery than poetry.  He had a house without a roof in the desert but apart from that he seemed dreary dreary dreary, so I veered over to his character instead.  Soon, I knew everything about Morrison, from his date and place of birth to his father’s military career, to the details of the Miami trial for obscenity and the somewhat gruesome poetry he seemed to churn out by the hour.  When I won a music prize at school I was told to chose an appropriate book for £10.  I chose “Jim Morrison : Dark Star” by Dylan Jones.  I was asked to meet the Deputy Head, and requested to chose another book as she thought Jim Morrison’s crotch jaggedly sticking out from the front of a glossy book would cause the Board of Governors to have a collective stroke.  I stuck my ground.  I got my book, and meanwhile set a precedent; within a year books on Prince and U2 were being given to Fourth Formers who had gone through decades of having to read dreary rubbish about Grieg’s melodies.  Or something. 

When the film finally came out in the UK then, I was so excited that I could barely sit still, and gleefully counted out the days on the calendar on my wall.  I saw it in a Cannon cinema in the West End.  My mother went to the screen next door to see Thelma & Louise, which she wasn’t at all sure about it afterwards, because she said “it made it look okay to kill people”, which boggled my mind a bit.  Nothing was that exciting in The Doors film.  I suppose it couldn’t be anything but a let down.  It seemed to go on for a bit too long, feature a Jim Morrison who had had a humour bypass and lacked pace.  When the screen said ‘1968’  half way through a montage 90 minutes in, my exasperated friend turned to me and said “What year did he die?  Is it soon?”  Meg Ryan was upstaged by her own wig.  Val Kilmer looked doped up , as Jim Morrison would have been, but actually just ended up looking as if he was bored.  He was very pretty, however.  And sang his own songs like a trooper.  But the script wasn’t poor.

Val uses an open shirt to distract from the fact that after 12 years in the Business known as Show, he still can’t quite work out where the camera is.  To your left, son – your LEFT!  Meanwhile, the original version on the right does it all a whole lot better.  Lovely.

Still, it was two and a half hours of Val strutting about in leather trousers, so what’s not to like?  However, I was upset by the whole fat period with beard, sloppy bits of whisky in his hat and big belly.  But at least it prepared us for the Val of the future.  Imagine my horror, dear friends at pictures of Val in the last two years.  He ate all the pies.  And the cakes.  And the KFC buckets.  Nevermind a shadow of his former self, he is now the widescreen version, with eyes like piss holes in the snow and keeping to an average of seven meals a day.  When the loves of one’s youth turn up aged and grisly, we are always shocked, although we shouldn’t be.  Part of the shock is self-referential – if Val Kilmer is 106, how old does that make me?  I am not suggesting for a moment that Kilmer should have taken a leaf out of Morrison’s book and stayed young, having died in a Parisian bath at 27 (very selfish – did he not spare a thought for the chambermaid?).  But growing old disgracefully doesn’t just let him down, but lets all of us down as well.  The passing years are written on him.  One glance at his podgy chops and eighteen years ago doesn’t feel like yesterday anymore.

I hardly listen to The Doors these days, but I do have the film on DVD and find I enjoy it now more than I did then.  I sing along with the songs more than I did then.  I think of the film more fondly than I should.   Although it is a shock that Val(erie) Kilmer is now 50! – 50! – it’s even more of a shock to see that had Jim Morrison lived he would have been a stately 68 years old, and would basically look like Keith Richard.  Never mind all the drugs, they’d just whizz him off to Geneva and give him a complete blood transfusion every couple of weeks and he’d be totally fine.  There’s no dude like an old dude.  But, my Jim Morrison years are, and these days Val Kilmer is more Old Man than Ice Man.   Thank goodness for celluloid then, where youth springs eternal and – for a moment – so do we.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Going on holiday by mistake


Withnail & I  has unfortunately, turned into a somewhat obnoxious cult.  I said cult.  It’s unfortunate when a sublime piece of work gets piggybacked by a cluster of self-conscious and squirmy students who delight in the brassy crassness of drinking a lot and reciting lines to each other in the university bar.  Perfect lines delivered by an actor can only wilt and fade beyond parody when repeated by nineteen year olds after six pints.   Many films are released into their biggest audience viewing at the cinema, and then viewings descend, as if on a graph year-by-year, decade-by-decade.  Withnail & I, in perversion, has done the opposite.  It opened with a whimper, and seemed to be banging away on DVD ever since, collecting up new fans with every passing year, and shows no signs of letting up. 

The film itself doesn’t open with a whimper, of course.  It can’t really, with Richard E Grant’s Withnail claiming in the first five minutes “Right you fucker.  I’m going to do the washing up.”  Bruce Robinson’s script of two, down-at-heel actors, high on desperate drinking, flailing in a decrepid flat and low on their luck, was written when Robinson himself was a desperately poor out-of-work actor, sharing a Camden house with fellow drunken out-of-work actors, in what he has called the most miserable time of his life.  At this stage, Robinson seems something of a hybrid, having trained as an actor but was filling his time writing to establish his authorial voice and develop characterisation.  The process of writing Withnail was what led him to the undeniable truth that he wasn’t meant to be an actor at all, and that writing was his true vocation.   Having originally started life as a novel, Withnail emerged into a screenplay and eventually received the production money to enable the film to be made after George Harrison read the script on a transatlantic flight.   The production was an anxiety-making one – the film resisted an attempted shut-down by production on its third day, Robinson had never directed a film before, and when the film needed an extra £30,000 to continue being made Robinson ploughed his own money back into it, thereby reducing his fee.  True to say, production companies are a bunch of neolithic arsewipes who can’t be trusted to buy toilet paper – but the film, by hell or high water, got made.   And then it sort of grew legs.

By the mid-1990s, about the time when the cringeing quoting game begin in pubs up and down England, no student video collection was complete without it.  Students are nobly devoted to the films that, again and again, resurface in the definitive student film canon.  When a film – Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs – enters the passionate student mindset, the posters can stay up on student walls for another 15 years after initial impact.  Images of Richard E Grant and Paul McGann festered on bedsit walls next to Betty Blue and Trainspotting as the appropriate student picture du jour by the time I became a drama student in the mid-1990s.   Withnail & I had all the elements that appealed to the young, the drunk, the gothic, the artistic, the thespian flamboyance, the surreal humour.  I lost amount of the number I times I heard “Of course he’s the fucking farmer!” and “Don’t threaten me with a dead fish” in my student years.  At drama school, of course, the Withnailian element was heightened to hysterical levels.  Most of the boys thought they were Withnail, or at least desperately wanted to be him.  With the shortsightedness of the vain young, they didn’t see him as a man with a disease, but a loveable old soak, a great debunker of myths and an inspiration for social posing.  The irony of this was that Withnail became a life guide rather than a film.  Some of them literally fulfilled Withnail’s indignant : “I’m a trained actor reduced to the states of a bum!… What do you want to go to the countryside for? I’m in a park and I’m practically dead.”  I shouldn’t think they’d find Withnail that funny any more.  The view is too close and it stings; the tragedy of unrealised professional hopes is only funny from a vantage point far removed from the world of drunken, unemployed actors. 

Nothing ever takes away from the strident unemployability of Withnail; his callousness, his attempts to make a virtue of snobbery, his mercenary pimping of his best friend – who he suggests to his rabidly homosexual Uncle Monty may well be a “toilet trader” -, his tenacious and mean self-preservation.  His only actorly audience is a couple of animals in London Zoo, who end up being the unwilling onlookers to his speech from Hamlet in the last scene.  We’re left with the impression that this is the only kind of performance he will ever give.  The character who Robinson based Withnail on never worked after he left drama school.

What it does capture, away from the urbane wit of Withnail and the bitterly funny anxiety of “I”, who has an undeservedly torrid time at the hands of his housemate, is the loneliness of the long distance actor.  Sitting about is what many actors have to do.  The world shapes itself by whether or not the audition will take place, if they’ll like you when it does, whether you have the right hair, the right eyes, whether the phone will ring and meanwhile, the life of the yong actor is marked by a disinclination to do anything else.  Because, as the Gods are against you (and they surely are if you’re “resting”) the minute you book a holiday or take a day job is the minute your theatrical destiny will realise itself and the National Theatre will come calling.    The lack of career structure, the absence of any ladder that could be climbed is, to most people, unimaginable.  This film captures the louche nothingness of sitting about on drugs that young actors seem particularly good at doing.  Whilst I am not negating the efforts of other young professionals at getting deliriously out of their heads, actors are student-y long after the rest of the world has stopped behaving like students.  At  30 years old, they can still be 19, sitting around in T-shirts in Hornsey building bongs and  – whilst their contemporaries are signing off mortgages, wearing trouser suits and turning up to meetings – the out-of-work actor has yet to work out what the drycleaners is for.  In Withnail & I our two leads are less than a year out of drama school, but Robinson knows it is very possible that Withnail will stay in the same festering, poverty-stricken, wine-addled state for the next decade.   Withnail is a actor of the can’t work, won’t work, variety, who won’t understudy anybody, thank you very much, because his self-worth is so exorbitantly high that he won’t do anything.  “I” on the other hand, the character assumed to be based on Robinson himself, ends the story by leaving to take a job in theatre in the provinces.   It humourously imparts the lifestyle of the kind of out of work actor who waits for the pubs to open so he can keep warm, whilst never trivialising it’s tragedy. 

The script is irresistibly good – who can resist Uncle Monty’s musings over the delights of a “firm young carrot” and his memories of a former male love, who he now imagines to be “wintering in Guildford, Vim under the sink and both bars on….”? The film serves to debunk the myth that a film needs a good plot because Withnail basically doesn’t have one.  Actors in Camden Town prepare to go to the country. They go.  They come back.   Nothing happens, but yet it does.   The film starts with two people fragmenting, one into vicious alcoholism and the other into marajauna-induced panic attacks that leave him grappling with the undiagnosed “matter” clogging up their communal sink.  Only in the last ten minutes does one of them possibly find a way out of the “matter” and make a bid for freedom.  The other will only fester back into it.   This is the tragic beauty of the film.  It is a masterpiece of dialogue – but why do people feel the need to belittle it by sitting and repeating the lines in that unfunny way?  And don’t get me started on the nuttiness of the Withnail drinking game, which has been rated by medical experts as “likely to be fatal”. 

Withnail is a superlative piece of work.  Just as there are more and more Elvis fans with every passing year since the King’s death, Withnail is breeding with fecundity.  In about 20 years the whole planet will be composed of people who love Withnail & I and I don’t doubt the world will be better for it.  Robinson has just written and directed his first film in 18 years (The Rum Diary) at Johnny Depp’s insistence, which will be released later this year.  I hope to be delighted by it.  But please, people, if you do like it, resist yourself from repeating the script.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Good Lennon, Bad Lennon

The trouble with biopics of rock ‘n’ roll stars is that you are always aware that you are looking at an actor,  not a character.  Because the character is probably dead.  Or in rehab.  Or in California.  Or something.  There have been a rash of fictional Lennons over the years, not least the recent “The Killing of John Lennon” which you probably haven’t heard of.  Someone I know invested £50.0k in that and well – that was the last they saw of that money.  It was a total rotten tomato.  The last royalty statement came from an office four floors up on Camden High Street and spoke of the princely sum of £327.  For the last three years, following its premiere at a small Western Canadian film festival, it’s been lurking on the True Movies Channel in the small hours with a well deserved audience of 4 because it lost thousands and thousands of pounds.  All it seemed to feature was Mark David Chapman breathing heavily and driving around in a car. 

There is also a film which features fictional Beatles which is so bad it’s hysterical.  You must try to see it.  It’s called “The Linda McCartney Story” and what I love about it is how the title of the film allows you to infer exactly what the subject might be.  It features a John Lennon who is about 6 foot 7 inches tall, speaks with a Colorado accent and goes round to Paul’s gaff in the late 1960s when The Beatles are imploding to throw things at his St John’s Wood front door.  This front door looks like it’s in Arizona.  Whilst throwing a plank of wood, “John” announces “I hate you Pawwl, the Beatles are orvah. Ah’m going back to the Mursey…” or something similar.   When I was a youngster, I went on a two day trip to Geneva with a Welsh Beatles tribute act.   Me and three other girls were their backing singers, and our “John” got rat-arsed all the way from Zurich to Chur on a train and arrived in St Moritz where he carried on drinking without a pause for the following two days.  When we eventually parted ways at Gatwick Airport after two days of singing, he was bright purple. 

In the last three years, however, we have been granted two Lennons.  The first (Lennon Phase I?) was Sam-Taylor Wood’s biopic “Nowhere Boy” which featured the unlikely Lennon of Aaron Johnson who was so good looking – and in fact, possibly too good-looking to be the young Lennon – that Taylor-Wood wasted no time at all in whisking him up as her paramour and conceiving a child with him forthwith.  The second was the bizarre Lennon Naked”, a BBC4 production featuring a scary-looking Christopher Eccleston looming out from under a pale brown wig that looked as if it had been borrowed from Ian Beale’s wife in EastEnders.   Both took segments of Lennon’s life – the late 1950s and the very late 1960s respectively – and presented them as insights into the motivations and character developments of Lennon at that time.  One of them succeeded and one of them failed . 

“Hmmm…..well, the bottom 35% of his face looks a bit like Lennon, let’s cast him!” the BBC thought.  Wrong, wrong, wrong.

I cannot work out why anyone would cast Christopher Eccleston as John Lennon, other than he has the right pointy nose.  The trouble with Eccleston is that he has the overly-earnest manner that Meryl Streep has on screen.  “Look at me – and see how I’m suffering for you! I’m wearing so much angst on my face – it’s acting, you know!” beams from him.  The trouble with that of course, is that you can’t see what the character is, because all you can see is someone acting very hard.  There is nothing noble in letting your audience see how much you are self-flagellating in order to become your character.  Audiences are not so much interested in watching the process as watching the distilled, finished result.  The whole point is that the audience should not see the strings.  Unfortunately, with Eccleston, he is all process, and wrings performances out of himself as wretchedly as a dogged housemaid wringing out a wet flannel, leaving the audience feeling exhausted.  

In “Lennon Naked”, he flopped about in a white trouser suit in Apple in Savile Row in 1969 – 46 years old, playing 28 years old – and presented a vocal and physical heaviness that told nothing of Lennon’s natural exuberance, playfulness or flamboyancy.  Even when furious with wives or cohorts, people who lived and moved around Lennon have commented on how he would pad about his home and stealthily and quietly as a cat, and would suddenly appear – somewhat unnervingly – across the room from you on the sofa reading the paper.  But with Eccleston we got a slightly creepy, spoilt child who strutted loudly around his Tudorbethan manor-plex in such an idiotic way it was difficult to imagine him having any time to compose any music atall.  Meanwhile, Eccleston’s accent veered haphazardly around the Wirral, passing through Cheshire, Herefordshire and East Riding en route.  The script was a mish-mash of primal-therapeutic outbursts and self-pitying whingeing which rendered the empathetic link between audience and the character of the male lead (so necessary in intensely personal, character led narratives) very problematic.    When he wasn’t having a humour bypass, this Lennon was watching  his soon-to-be-ex-wife Cynthia weeping at the breakfast table at Kenwood, her false eyelashes plopping sadly into the cornflakes.   We were meant to share Lennon’s anger towards his distant father, recently reconciled into the family home in the late 1960s, who had abandoned him as a boy.  Instead, I ended up feeling sorry for the father who had to listen to an awful lot of claptrap whilst Eccleston pouted around his Surrey drawing room doing a lot of “I’m cross” acting and avoiding picking up a guitar, because this was the worst kind of Lennon biopic – that which didn’t have any music.  It was downright dismal.  There was no insight into his character at all, and the whole thing felt laboured.  It was looped in to coincide with BBC’s “Fatherhood” season so dealt almost exclusively with Lennon’s relationship with his father, more or less bypassing his  pseudo-Oedipal relationship with his own deserting mother.  The sight of Eccleston trying to play a 23 year old Lennon in 1964 complete with BBC wig dept moptop was very funny.  I don’t think it was meant to be. 

Christopher Eccleston suddenly realises his agent got the audition information wrong.  He was told he was being seen for BBC “Doctors” and he is well-miffed coz he bought the white coat and everything.  Oh well.  It looks like he’ll have to have a bash at Lennon instead then. 

“Lennon Naked” also provides us with two vastly underwritten roles for both Cynthia Lennon and Yoko Ono.  Despite that this film was set during the breakdown of the Lennon’s marriage, it all too loudly chimed with the unthinking, two-dimensional, recidivist projection of Cynthia Lennon which has always puzzled me slightly.   Too easily, biographers and filmmakers situate her marriage to John in context with his extraordinary second marriage.  She becomes representative of abstract aspects of Lennon’s life he was keen to change.  The problem with this is that she becomes a device rather than a character.    As if the fate of being a rock star wife doesn’t already give her an existence lacking legitimacy, we have to watch as the dramatic depiction of the character of Cynthia is also being denied any legitimacy.  The writer dodges this rare opportunity for insight into the collapse of their marriage.  Instead, Cynthia is awkwardly twisted into a patchwork quilt of parts of Lennon’s life that are about to shift.  It’s all rather odd.  The result is a strange negation of their marriage, a failure to recognise it’s importance as Lennon’s formative adult relationship.   The idea that their marriage would never have happened if they hadn’t had a child on the way, still seems to perpetuate, despite the biographies that challenge this by documenting the details of their relationship and that Lennon made it clear he always intended to marry her anyway.    All too easily, the writer of “Lennon Naked” has slipped in a lazy prototype Cynthia, writing her as a copy & paste  “first wife” from the drawer marked “Rock and Roll first wives [sub-classif. provincial middle class] Possibly a drag.”   Yoko Ono doesn’t escape from this either, being strangely mute throughout. For her, however, the silence indicates something exotically enigmatic.  She is foreign and she is an artist; therefore she is allowed some kind of unspoken depth that ordinary female characters – including Cynthia and her mother Lillian – are unentitled to.

This is a missed opportunity to challenge the only two roles for rock star wives that films usually provide us with.  First, the sweet, undemanding girl, too bourgeois to accommodate our heroes sexual peccadillos and too busy running a home to encourage him to sleep with groupies (Jane Asher, Cynthia Lennon, to some extent Jim Morrison’s Pamela Courson) and the crazy, lunatic control freakish hussy who in determining her own artistic destiny can only ever be the butt of other’s jokes and is never taken seriously (Yoko Ono, Linda McCartney).  “Lennon Naked” was written by a man.  I don’t know that for sure, but, good God, let’s just say I’d bet ya all my Beatles CDs and DVDs on it, ladies.  

Where Sam Taylor-Wood succeeded where the director of “Lennon Naked” failed was that she decided that looking a bit like Lennon wasn’t part of the casting criteria.  You can tell as, yes, dear readers, you Beatle eyes do not deceive you, Johnson is far prettier than Lennon was as a young whippersnapper.  Eccleston looks slightly like Lennon – if Lennon’s face was pulled downwards slightly, given a lined brow and then the image turned and flipped to something altogether more dour – and that’s the problem.  In relying on an actor who looks a bit like him, the actor may turn to concentrate on trying to look a lot like him.  For Johnson, this isn’t an option.  The whole look-a-like-y thing doesn’t exist.  Subsequently, he is able to inhabit the character much more effectively and make it his own.

“Nowhere Boy” is the story of Lennon’s early life in provincial Liverpool, between the time he was reconciled to his estranged mother, Julia, in his late-teens, to his departure for Hamburg shortly after her death.  Rock ‘n’ roll’s matronly aunt is here, of course, Aunt Mimi, with all her Royal Doulton china and her provincial snobbery (“No, John!”  she shouts when he starts fiddling with the radio to look for something skiffle-tastic. “We do not turn Tchaikovsky over!”).  “Nowhere Boy” isn’t really about John Lennon, so much as it’s about the dynamic relationship between two strong women who struggled to claim him and – in a round and about sort of way – both raised him.    The struggle for the teenage John to determine these relationships results in him getting caught in a bizarre love triangle, as the mother who seemed incapable of effective parenting whirls back into his life, confusingly declaring to him that he is “my dream!”, and challenging the matriachal authority established by the kind, if emotionally inexpressive, older Aunt who raised him. 

Aaron Johnson as the young John Lennon.  Rather nice, isn’t he?

Suede brothel-creepers CHECK.  Buddy Holly specs CHECK.  Artistic works lodged neatly under black clad arm CHECK.  Aaron Johnson rocks the late 1950s Liverpool beatnik rocker look as the young John Lennon. Cor.

To this, Taylor-Wood loops in Lennon’s musical development – much of which was courtesy of his bango-playing mother, his initial musical first starts with his band The Quarrymen, and his meeting with the 15 year old Paul McCartney.   All too soon – of course – Julia is killed by a car in 1957, thereby releasing a wave of Lennonesque rage that was to re-echo throughout the years.  The writing (Matt Greenhalgh – also responsible for the excellent Control)  is strong and the fact that Greenhalgh is economic with words (never using 5 words when 2 will do) creates a script of great tension.  Oh – and it’s full of music!  Johnson even learned to play the guitar and sing.  Suck on that, Eccleston.  At the end of the film there was a sense that Johnson plays the third supporting role in this film, despite being in nearly every scene; with the major impact and drama coming from Kristen Scott-Thomas’s Aunt Mimi and Anne Marie-Duff’s Julia.  These are women – the mother and aunt of a rock star who – wait for it – wait for it – actually have properly written roles to play!  Who knew?  It is a film which engages in the human – rather than the superhuman elements of Lennon’s life – and a presents us with a conventional storytelling technique which stands it in good stead.  Most importantly, the characters are well-rounded and drawn beautifully.    “Nowhere Boy” provides us with a fascinating aspect  into Lennon’s teenage years. Sam Taylor-Wood and Matt Greenhalgh have illustrated how it was two strong women who made John Lennon, and gave two actresses that very rare thing in film –  well-written three dimensional female roles for actresses aged in their late 30s and late 40s.    Imagine that – if you can.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

The Royal Screen

There is a real delight in a cinema in the afternoon on a weekday.  Unless it’s the Swiss Cottage Odeon, of course, where they had the air conditionning whacked up to full level and most of us sat there watching The Kings Sp-sp-sp-sp-eech wearing balaclavas and scarves.  When I say most of us, I mean 3 of us.  There was only 4 of us in there.  The screen sat approximately 400.  It was also not a real pleasure to turn up and find the box office open only “on weekends and Wednesdays” and subsequently I was expected to use an automated machine.  The machine was told I wanted to buy a ticket for The Kings Sp-sp-sp-sp-eech, which I bought a ticket for from it, only to find it vomited out a ticket for a 6pm screening of The Social Network

In Screen One there was me, a middle aged man with a big rucksack, and two elderly women who insisted in speaking in German throughout all the trailers.  One more woman arrived at the end of the trailers, who looked old enough to have actually been in the film playing Edward VII’s under housemaid.  We heard her before we saw her, bashing her walking stick through the door and moving slowly up the stairs to the auditorium.  “Hello?  HELLO? Ooh”  she said, expecting somebody to answer her.  She got to the front of the auditorium where she stood, infront of a massive screen filled with snippets of the over-anticipated Sky Atlantic channel and said “Ooh – it’s on in here is it?  Oh right.  Not very full is it?”

“No,” we all said.

She took advantage of the fact she would probably be thought of as too old to be really “with it” and launched herself into a Premium priced seat which she clearly hadn’t paid for.

The Kings Sp-sp-sp-sp-eech  is deliriously marvellous, and you all know that unless you’ve been living in a rabbit hole for the last four weeks, so I don’t need to bang on about it here.  If you haven’t seen it, you should see it, but beware, it will turn the most recalcitrant republican into a bewildered monarchist.   “Go on!”  you feel yourself egging on his Majesty King whatsit, as he prepares to address the nation on the eve of war.  “Go on, Georgey, Bertie, whoever you are!”  you want to shout, as pseudo-Rule Britannia music threatens to break the Dolby stereo.  I cried three times. I don’t even like the royal family.  I think there are –  in the main – vastly unattractive.  But hello, when did Colin Firth get so sexy all of a sudden, with his sexy little speech impediment?  And why do I find a stutter slightly adorable?  And doesn’t he look lovely when he’s got his official outfits of state on (Hello, Your Majesty!) with all those lovely bits of braid and awards and bells and tight trousers?   It’s a clever move before a royal wedding.;  get the citizens onside by emotionally manipulating women of a certain age into thinking Colin Firth is actually part of the royal family.  Don’t believe me?  Go on, see it.  You’ll be weeping in the aisles with the rest of them.

If Colin Firth started wearing tight trousers on television and ended up wearing tight trousers on film, almost every advert we saw was for actors reversing this process.  Film has come to television.  Sky Atlantic is basking delightfully in the acquisition of Martin Scorsese for Empire Boardwalk and wiping their hands with glee at grabbing Kate Winslet for Mildred Pierce.  I know this because the Sky Atlantic advert on the screen mentioned these two programmes four times.  Television provides some of the highest calibre entertainment American has produced.  Who’d have thunk it?  All the actors of my youth, The Brat Pack, now known as the Hip Replacement Pack, have survived only on television; if Kiefer Sutherland isn’t being arrested whilst driving drunk with a cow in his car on the way back from a poker game (or similar), he’s working one of the television hits of the century with 24.  Charlie Sheen, if they can find him from where he lives in his mansion under a pile of naked Hollywood hustlers, pimps and strumpets amid a mountain of Columbia’s finest, is getting by with Two and a Half Men.  If his probation officer lets him.  Rob Lowe finally crawled out of the mucky, Dukakis “whoops I’m in bed with mother and daughter in Idaho!” scandal by proving himself on West Wing.  James Spader is suited and booted on Boston Legal.   Not one of them dreamed of stepping off the John Hughes / Joel Schumacher gravy train in the mid-late 80s and finding themselves on television 20 years later.  You can imagine their disgust:

Malibu, California.  The late 1980s.  Sometime after lunch in Jon Cryer’s colonial-style ranch.

Emilio Estevez :  Yeah, get this, man – apparently when we’re really old – like 40 and stuff – we will only get jobs on TV!

Charlie Sheen: {hoovers up some white powder, which he “found in the cupboard”, which later turns out to be Waitrose’s bicarbonate of soda} No way, bro.  I was in, like, Wall Street.  It was a movie and stuff and we had cameras – BIG ones – and I got to swear and had, like, a really really nice suit.  I got to use Michael Douglas’s jacuzzi.  So, no.  I am NOT TV guy.

Andrew McCarthy: {adjusts mullet, swears – but only a PG-rated word}  Goddamn motherfudger!  I’m far too short for TV.  My career is over.  I heard about this.  Kiefer Sutherland is gonna be in a show and save the world or something.  Lou – sorry – you’re gonna do poker on the poker channel.

No one knows quite what to say.

Lou Diamond Phillips : Are you crazy? Kiefer saving the world?  He keeps a goat in his living room.  No one is gonna believe a Canadian can save the world.  What’s the poker channel?

Emilio Estevez : You will not always be on the poker channel, Mr Diamond. Sometimes directors will hire you when they are casting for terrorists.  You will make a comfortable living from this.  So, Kiefer gets to save the world and you get to play the guy trying to blow it up.  Oh, and my Dad is the President. Or something.

Charlie Sheen : I’m the President, man.  I’m gonna save the world, man.  I got the chicks, I got the HAIR. I am deeply DELUDED and incomprehensively vain.  I’m gonna save the world and you losers are gonna be my secretaries.  I just gotta find those shoes.  Anyone seen my shoes?  They are small and green and made of something and they came from the lady who had the thing……any more bicarb?

Judd Nelson:  So, the world is changing.  What is going to happen to me? {A sinister chuckle is heard from the room overhead.  They dismiss this as Val Kilmer doing a vocal warm-up and carry on the conversation}.  Are movie actors like us going to become obsolete?

Emilio Estevez: Well not entirely, but television is gonna be where it’s at, on Sky Atlantic.  If you want to get by on films in the future you’ll just have to work for the Coen brothers or playing a saturnine gay cowboy or do a musical. 

Lou Diamond Philips:  Is Sky Atlantic an airline?  Who are the Colin brothers?

Andrew McCarthy : Oh well, I guess time will tell. Personally I don’t believe a word of it.  It’s like trying to make me believe that Guy Pearce from Neighbours is a proper actor.  Or that the lovely Madonna and Sean Penn will ever divorce.  Jeez, they’re such a great couple.  I’m going to the health club to play squash with Matthew Broderick…

Yes, dear Brat Packers, the times have changed.  A rolled-up jacket sleeve and a toothy grin wouldn’t hack it on HBO.  Although Bruce Springsteen may have been right when he sung that there were “57 channels and nothing on…” on US television, the small amount of output that contitutes the 58th channel of HBO has done more than anyone ever predicted.  Perhaps the most astonishing thing wasn’t that every advert at the cinema on Friday was for television but that people still turn out in their thousands to go to the cinema, a habit that many in the 1970s believed would die out.  There is nothing like watching a film on the big screen.  One in fifteen people in the UK and Ireland have now seen The Kings Speech, a fact I find very encouraging for the UK film industry.  Before the main feature, an advert came on to encourage us to visit the cinema more often.  By Simon Pegg, who is famous on television.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Don’t Forget About Me? I couldn’t if I tried….


In the 1980s there was nothing more exciting to a suburban English school girl than a John Hughes movie.  We were totally entranced by the glamour of what going to school in America must be like; no uniforms, an undercurrent of sexual fascination with fellow class members who were too goodlooking to believe, lots of make up, a series of musical montages underlined by synthesizers and drum machines and big big hair.   I mean Rob Lowe, for Chrissakes.  In the rash of John Hughes movies that filled the VHS cupboards of our adolescence there was really nothing more than the classic boy-meets-girl narrative that Hollywood’s been doling out since the Andy Hardy movies of the 1930s, but the morals were clear and love was now a serious business: self-reliance, truth and a sense of what was “right” always overrode social snobbery and prejudices.  And the “odd girl” at the back who was Ally Sheedy (The Breakfast Club) or Molly Ringwald (Pretty in Pink) must emerge in the final scene as a radiant swan with smudged kohl eyeliner and a gentle lick of mascara.  That way the boys can see how beautiful she really is and that underneath we are all ugly ducklings who have the capability to emerge as mid-American swans.

The Breakfast Club was superbly crafted, because it gave everyone someone to identify with.  In the dull, dark Tuesday evenings in Watford in 1989 watching The Breakfast Club was really the only reasonable thing to do.  We all wanted to be the Molly Ringwald character (preferably without squinty eyes and frightened fish mouth) and in darker moments, feared we might have an Ally Sheedy character lurking about the outer perimeters of our adolescent psychosis.  The brainy one – whose name was the feeblest anagram of brain imaginable (Brian) we didn’t notice.  We thought Emilio Estevez quite fanciable despite his fashion mistakes and humour-free athletic approach to life, and I never stopped laughing at the fact that he got a detention because he “taped Larry’s buns together”.  Judd Nelson provoked a kind of hormonal madness that I didn’t get.   He had scary nostrils, a slightly ape-like demeanour and comedy Groucho Marx eyebrows.  Still, there wasn’t a girl in the Northwood area who didn’t want to give him a hand job in 1988.

Urbane, sophisticated smoothie John Bender (Judd Nelson) responds to 1980s small town teacher authority the only way he knew how.  With a pout and a denim jacketed shrug.  Please can someone explain the sexual allure of this?

The late John Hughes seemed to use the exterior of one school for most of his location filming.  The school at the start of The Breakfast Club is the same school Ferris Bueller bunks out of for a day in Ferris Buellers Day Off two years later.  The Breakfast Club, set in a fictional town of “Shermer” is a small Illinois town, the model of which was the town John Hughes grew up in in Illinois.  The implication of this was that the dramas and imaginings of EveryTown could quite feasibly be your town.  It had that eerie feature of the Brat Pack movie, the older actor trying to pass himself off as  17 year old.  Judd Nelson was 25 when he made The Breakfast Club with the spiky-haired Emilio Estevez clocking in at a spritely 22.  The most dramatic case of this was James Spader, who was nearly 26 when he appeared in Pretty in Pink and where, dressed in the yuppie regulation cream suit with loafers on sockless feet, he looked like a thirty-something who might have owned a wine bar in the Kings Road area.  Perversely, they whopped around fictional high school corridors, talking prom, avoiding detention, listening to music on vast Walkman headphones attached to bulky tape recorder stereos.

In case you needed to seek further verification that Steff (James Spader’s character in Pretty In Pink) was Captain Twat, of Twat Road, Twatsville USA, then look no further than this picture.  Note cruel lip and clutching of high-end car product catalogue in privileged hand.

“However were we supposed to act when we were 17?” we thought, as fourteen year olds, curled up in the corner of the sofa watching Molly Ringwald destroy two utterly reasonable dresses as an act of unconventional rebellion, and rock on up to her high school prom alone.  “Was this how you spoke to boys?” we reasoned, as actors laced in hair gel and large shouldered denim jackets danced flirtatious rings around each other.  These films were our point of reference, and they were, clearly, fucked up.  If you thought as a fourth former, that you could fling yourself off the hockey pitch and into the Common Room at breaktime thinking that all it took for boys to like you was a leather jacket and a simpering about “Blane asking me to prom” you were woefully mistaken.   Because in Hertfordshire in the early 1990s people would beat you up.

Blimey.  Detention in my school was never like this. Emilio Estevez struggles to look butch in his lady vest, whilst Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy and The Brainy Brian settle in for a Saturday library fest, shortly before Brian declares he “loves” Moliere.  Seriously.

This was England, for God’s sake.  To the English, there is a suspicion in the idea that the odd girl at the back is capable or being anything other than the odd girl at the back, that to clap and whoop and say “Atta girl!” when the lead girl finally grabs her hair-gelled, jacket-and-jeans high school guy is actually slightly nauseating.   In America, popularity – or the means to acquire it – seemed to be tied up with dignity.  In England it was just bad form to put yourself forward.   In the John Hughes movies of the Raegan years hard work is rewarded, poor but noble people rise up and claim their place, the pantomime villain (James Spader) was taken down a peg or seven, and his mulleted head would be hanging low as the credits rolled.  The world, as we saw it, was righted.  Life, as we were about to understand, is not at all like that.

There are no life-affirming montages, for a start, in which protagonists make themselves over in order for Emilio Estevez to suddenly fall in love with them over the library stacks.  Nor were there impromptu dancing sessions in detention that preceded confidences told in a trusting circle.   Chaps in the Lower Sixth did not look like Charlie Sheen, whose best screen moment probably came from the bit where he tried to pick up Jennifer Grey at the police station in Ferris Buellers Day Off. The fact that life wasn’t like that goes some way to explaining why teenagers needed these movies so much.  At advance screenings for Pretty in Pink the original ending got a tepid response from the audience.  Sending Molly Ringwald’s character off into the distance with her old school friend, Ducky,  defied expectations of social aspiration and denied Molly Ringwald’s character the beautiful truth that love conquers class.  Andrew McCarthy’s character had the disgusting name of Blane, and his membership of some bizarre wealthy tribe rendered him a Eloi to Ringwald’s Morlock.  Two Morlocks can’t go off together back to the underclass!   Six months after filming, Hughes reshot the ending, which involved having to put McCarthy into an unconvincing wig.  He had lost almost two stone in preparation for another role by then.  This meant that Blane looked like he had been suffering from a very dramatic bout of lovesickness.  Andrew McCarthy’s “Blane” and Molly Ringwald’s “Andie” were reunited, and she got to go off into the sunset and snog him in his BMW (Well, it was 1986).

In the 1980s, people had records.  And some of those people had shops where they sold records.  Here is Molly Ringwald’s character working in a record shop, admirably swooning at the mention of Andrew McCarthy.

The Duckman, a noble character, but Molly didn’t want to go out with him despite his many pledges of love to her.


“Molly! Molly!  Let me out so I can pick up my career where I left it!”  Andrew McCarthy smoulders away and is destined for Molly, despite the fact that Duckie has tried to lock him behind a gate.   Check out those shoulder pads! SWOON

I would take Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club over any of  John Hughes’s others – Sixteen Candles, Weird Science or even Ferris Bueller. And don’t get me started on the sick-making post University life drivel that was St Elmos Fire which was such a merciless carcrash of two dimensional characters that it risked darkening the whole teen genre.  All it proved was that when it came to capturing the sentiments of youth, John Hughes really ought to stay in high school, as it was there that his talent really shone.  Oh, and another thing, Hollywood Brat Pack starlets : complete these films and go away, never to appear in public again, because if the members of The Breakfast Club are as old as this:

Then exactly how old does that make me?   They look about 100 so I must be about 80, right?   Curiously enough, Emilio Estevez has got better with age :

God I’m intense.  I’ve got a plaster saying “STATE CHAMPION”.  And my Dad was in Apocalypse Now.  Suck on that.

This is my rueful, “I-may-direct-films-about-the Kennedys,- but-I’m-a-man-of-the-people” expression.  Casting Directors like it, my friends.  Brow  lift?!   No sorry, don’t know what that means.  Of course I haven’t had one.

It may be difficult to kids today to understand the impact of these films.  The cultural highlight of English telly in the late 1980s and early 1990s was Eastenders.  Youth culture in England was, as always, centred around music, not film.  It wasn’t until Trainspotting was released in 1994 that UK film stopped being about watching Helena Bonham Carter flop about Florence with Maggie Smith.  For films about teenagers that seemed to be going through what everyone else was going through, John Hughes movies were all we had, which may explain why we watched them over and over and over again until, word perfect, we’d repeat whole scenes to each other and guffaw happily at other.  That’s what we did for entertainment, children, before there was an internet.

“Young man!  Have you finished your paper?”

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

p.s. Oh, and 150 of you have apparently logged on in the last week to view a Nick Clegg blog from four months ago, which trebles my weekly traffic, I can tell you.  There can’t be 150 people at the Liberal Democrat conference this week, surely?  What the blazes is going on dear readers?

I don’t believe what I’m hearing

Gather round, kids.  What’s not to like in the following ensemble of wonderful-ness? :  Gene Kelly plays a movie star in a fab white trilby and hardly has his tap shoes off in the film’s 103 minutes,  Donald O’Connor is his fizzball-of-energy cohort composer, Debbie Reynolds is the charming ingenue and Jean Hagen is the woman whose voice is so harsh it could strip paint.  It’s a comic depiction of Hollywood by Hollywood, but its knowingness never turns to cynicism; it parodies film-making whilst still holding it in affection.   Singin’ In the Rain is a musical liked by people who don’t like musicals.

The infectious exuberance of its superb score, direction and tap dancing – marked by Kelly’s athletic slant as choreographer –  is the best reason for watching it.  Many nights in Bluebird Towers have been spent reclined on the sofa with a glass of red joining in by harmonising on You were Meant for Me and then getting up to dance haphazardly around the room, narrowing missing smashing into the television.  But, reading further into Singin’ In The Rain is a fascinating business ; you see only a series of mirrors, endlessly reflecting the reality and artifice of the screen.  This is a film concerned with the space between what an audience sees and what an audience hears; and makes us conscious of the discrepancy between the two.  Not only that, but even without the ears, the eyes alone can fool; what Hollywood looks like from the outside rarely has anything to do with what is going on within.  Hey kids, ain’t that the truth.  This film is contrived to show the nature of artifice, how it manipulates and suspends belief, but also its merits and purposes.  Any film musical is going to be far removed from reality by its nature; what Singin In the Rain creates is a reality based on artifice – a hyper-reality, if you will.  The brilliance of the 13 minute story-within-a-story sequence Broadway Melody is a riotous display of colour, dance and scenery that presents the film’s plot in microcosm in an expressionistic vision.  While comically lampooning film-making, and stripping away the lies and artifices that audiences end up having to consume, it is marked by a self-referential affection towards film-making.

At the outset, then, we meet Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and his co-star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), silent movie stars at a film premiere of their latest release.  The Royal Rascal is a melodrama set in France during the Revolution and featuring dashing sword fights and protestations of love set to a background of guillotin-ing.    Lina and Don, who are capitalising on a “Are they? Aren’t they?” love affair which the studio has artificially created, must first meet the terrifying Dora Bailey, the gossip columnist du jour.

Don Lockwood, debonair and thrilling, meets his adoring public in front of the Gaumont Theatre.

The principal issues of the film are raised in Don’s first monologue, in which he gives a potted summing-up of his career thus far.  He comments that he was raised on “Shaw….Moliere, the finest of the classics” whilst the montage we see on the screen features him and his great friend Cosmo Brown (O’Connor) singing and dancing for nickels in bars.  Whilst Don comments that he had a “rigorous classical training” we see him and Cosmo dancing with violins and playing in nightclubs to people who quite clearly detest them.  This section features the fantasic performance of “Fit As A Fiddle” in which Gene Kelly’s and Donald O’Connor’s outfits are so loud they threaten to drown out the music.  This opening speech of Don’s makes it clear : what the studio feeds the publicists is contrived nonsense, and Don is beginning to feel it.

After the premiere of The Royal Rascal, Don and Lina professionally flirt and bow to the audience, and we soon discover that he actually cannot stand her, and she has the kind of voice that the studio must conceal, lest it break windows.  She is also so indefatiguably consumed by her own publicity that she believes Don is really her fiance, and that she is nothing short of marvellous.  Doggedly, Don follows Lena to the after-show party hosted in Beverly Hills by their producer.

After Cosmo’s crappo car breaks down (good at tap-dancing, bad at oil checks)  and Don is attacked by a load of 14 year old girls, he thumbs a lift from young lady Debbie Reynolds (playing Kathy Selden) who proceeds to not give in to his polished seduction routine and thinks that Don is, well, rubbish actually.  His films don’t impress her because she is a serious actress.  Honestly, she gives him a right drubbing.

Don pimps Kathy’s ride by jumping in her convertible and pouting gorgeously all the way to Beverly Hills, like the renegade, maverick starlet he is.

However, her moral superiority is short-lived; they unknowingly turn up to the same party, she as a dancer and he is a guest of honour.  When she jumps out of a cake, the game’s up – you aint no classical actress lady, you’re a vaudeville hoofer just like our Gene.  Coo.

Our Debbie proves she aint no Sarah Bernhardt.  Gene would like to go out with her, despite her scary shower cap.

After singing and dancing All I Do is Dream of You Debbie isn’t in the mood for any of Gene’s nonsense and is so humiliated by him discovering her real job that there is nothing left to do but smash a load of pineapples in Jean Hagen’s face.

Lina Lamont remains unimpressed by the new “Donald O’Connor Face Pack” range.

Lina gets Kathy Selden sacked from her dancer’s job, the cow.  Don spends time looking for Kathy, and Cosmo takes it upon himself to cheer Don up by a brilliant rendition of Make ’em Laugh in which he dances on a disused film set.  This is helpful, thank you Cosmo, but does not solve the main problem : talkies are in, and Lina’s voice will be revealed for all to hear. It’s a scandal.  Hollywood explodes into a vast amount of medleys performed by 1920s ladies shaking cocktail stirrers, but Don is not having his cocktail stirrer shaken.  Where is Kathy?

Even Donald O’Connor’s famous Geoffrey Palmer impression fails to cheer Don up.

But hope is in sight.  Whilst Don goes for a stroll and concentrates on looking handsome he bumps into Kathy Selden, who is filming a dance at the same studio.  Unable to tell her how he feels without the appropriate scenery, because “I’m such a ham”, he does it the Gene Kelly way, folks, by turning on hundreds of lights and creating a moonlit effect for a dance scene where he looks damn nice in a cricket jumper.  (Do the Americans even have cricket? Either way Gene makes it obvious to Kathy whether he bats or bowls.)

At last, Don assists Kathy with the decorating.

Terrified by Lina’s astonishing pipes “What’s WRONG with the way I talk?  Whadds the big idea?!!”  studio sets her up with a vocal coach.  Don too must also attend voice school.  Cosmo pops in to help out but it all goes footwards when the boys deliver what is my favourite dancing sequence on film.  Ever.  They turn a tongue twister “Moses Supposes his Toesies Are Roses” into a jazz tap routine and song.  And it doesn’t matter that it makes no sense.   Should you wish to see it in all its original splendour here it is (although if you work in office, headphones on, and volume UP please, otherwise you will prob get told off)

Wowzers – I love a man in two tone shoes – look at them go.

Gene and Donald thought they had the “Countdown” audition in the bag, until that bitch Vorderman bagged it.

The first day’s filming on the new talkie is a disaster, due to problems of where to place Lina Lamont’s microphone : (“I can’t make love to a bush!!”)   Their director seems to have a nervous breakdown.  A preview leads to the studio thinking Don and Lina are through when the sound goes out of synchronization and no one can fix it.  The audience leave thinking the film – and Don and Lina –  ridiculous.  Lina is too thick and ditzy to understand this, however.  Back at Don’s Spanish / Mexican / French-themed uber Hollywood chateau, him, Cosmo and Kathy try to find a way out of it.

The road ahead is Vaudevillian, they decide – or at least Kathy does whilst she is doing the washing-up.  They will turn the film into a musical : The Dancing Cavalier. Nothing can be worse than actually having to go back on the road in vaudeville, and they might just make the world’s first screen musical.  They celebrate.

Not for Gene the post-pub tea on the sofa with a slice of marmite and toast.  Oh no.  On arrival at Gene’s house, you must pirouette through his front room in the small hours, folks.  The only fit way to celebrate at Gene’s gaff, having decided to make a musical, is to perform “Good Toes, Naughty Toes” in front of his custom-built bar – a bar which, as Don Lockwood is so profoundly wealthy, is customized by Moroccan style fringed stools, with bases made from solid gold interwoven with strands of Lana Turner’s hair.  Classy.

Good Morning, which was actually filmed in the early hours, featured in an anecdote of Debbie Reynolds’ years later; she told how her agent  decided against her receiving the “vitamin injections” that Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor had to keep them going during long filming days.  This may explain why Debbie looks knackered and Gene and Donald look like they’re tripping off their faces.  Debbie Reynolds’s feet bled throughout the filming of the routine.  Years later she said that the two hardest things she had had to do in her whole life were childbirth, and making Singin’ In the Rain, which should tell you how happy she was.  During filming at MGM, Fred Astaire found a weeping Debbie Reynolds sitting under a piano, where she miserably told him how Gene Kelly didn’t think she was up to the job.  Astaire helped her, taking her through her dancing scenes.

He may be an Oscar winner, but Gene still has trouble trying to tell the difference between Debbie Reynolds and a wet lamppost. Or he’s still off his face on vitamin injections.

….what goes up must come down, chaps.  The injections wear off.  Our stars are reduced to a vegetative state.  MGM must replace their batteries else filming shall not continue.

Cosmo has an idea – his first since the film began.  As Lina’s voice is so awful, they will use Kathy to dub her.  The audience will never knew they are being duped, the peasants, and he won’t tell Lina either.  It’s going to be a triumph!  Don celebrates outside in some quite bad weather.

Gene taps beautifully, to distract from the fact that he is committing fashion suicide by teaming brown shoes with a grey suit.

Gene practically has to swim through his epoch-making dance, so heavy is the rain.  A small amount of milk was added to the rain vat to ensure the droplets showed up on screen.  Even with a temperature of 103 he carried on dancing through this sublime performance.  What a trouper!  It’s simply Gene at his fabbest.

The producers are up for it, but the plot will need to be entirely shifted to accommodate the musical element.  Don and Cosmo wander around the producer’s office in 1920s plus fours and come up with a plot, all of which is a run-in to Gene Kelly’s and Stanley Donen’s baby, The Broadway Melody. Cyd Charisse plays a vamp and gives it all she’s got.

Cyd Charisse tells Gene how it is – from the end of her very very very long legs.

“Do they have those in my size?”  asks Don.  “I’m desperately trying to remedy the brown shoe situation.”

At the end of the Broadway Melody – a story of a man who gets processed through the sausage factory of the entertainment business – Gene’s character (a Broadway hoofer) emerges jaundiced and sullen at the other end regarding both work and romance.  Salvation arrives only when he remembers the passion for dance that first inspired him.   Broadway, in all its glories and depravities, will always bring the silver-shoe tapper back to his original passion – which is to look snazzy in a boater and dance, dance, dance.

From this moment on, it’s a question of tying up the various loose ends; Kathy dubs Lina’s voice, in between Don telling her he loves her, Lina gets wind of it but remains as brassy, ditzy and ineffective as ever, and the premiere looms.  The Dancing Cavalier is a resounding success and the audience scream and shout for Don and Lina after the screening.  Lina is given enough rope to hang herself with when Don, Cosmo and the produce RF Simpson, enable her to go out and talk to the audience so they can hear her.  Disappointed by her screeching, the audience request that she sing.  Uncooperatively, Kathy stands behind a curtain and dubs Lina’s singing.  Cosmo and Don pull the curtains back and expose the sham movie-making procedure for what it is, and reveal Kathy as the true star.

When the facade is stripped away it reveals only another contrived reality – the curtain rises on Kathy, and the movie theatre audience in the film discover something new.  But we the audience at home do not.  We feel the vocal truth and artistic integrity of the film we sensed all along has risen to the surface and the gifts of the talented are truly realised.  The triumph of  hard Vaudevillian graft and romance has not only won Kathy and Don true love but also access to successful film production: the final frame – Kathy and Don embracing in front of a movie billboard of their latest film Singin’ In the Rain – is the last example of self-referential artifice, of a film within a film.   That reminds us that all the removal of artifice leads to is the presentation of an even more surreal reality that Hollywood hangs itself on.

A great musical film depends on a special alchemy, the triple thread (singing, dancing and acting) must be intact and all performers must gage the temperature of those performances correctly, or else the whole thing collapes like a badly-cooked souffle.  I think that the true measure of this alchemy does not make itself known until the film is screened in its final version.  The extra something special isn’t about the filmmaking procedure, because it is more than the sum of its parts; it’s more to do with a sense of completeness that can only be apparent with viewing.  I think Singin’ In the Rain is one of these films, in that its ultimate alchemy is so enchanting  that no one could have possibly planned it.

Fred Astaire visits the boys on set which was nice as his suit gave everyone something to laugh at.

Dear Bluebird Readers, this week my challenge is for you all to find a copy of this film from somewhere – steal from Aunts, ransack old video cupboards of random old people, and watch it.  I defy you not to find your spirits lifted.  Please post your comments to the blog entry – I’d love to know what y’all think.

I found a brilliant blog about this – also on WordPress – at the following site.  If you’re interested in reading more about Singin’ In the Rain check it out!:

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Kosher Gene Kelly

Gene is a teen dream, a foxy little devil and my first screen crush.  Oh yes.  You see, I didn’t care that he seemed to be wearing grey eyeliner in the opening scene of Singin’ in the Rain (or as we call it in my Italian class Cantando Sotto la Pioggia) I just thought  – and still think – he was lovely with his muscular shoulders and alarming buttocks which seemed to be sculpted from steel.  Here he is looking dastardly handsome while choreographing snazzy dance routines in his pretty little head:

But this blog entry isn’t about Singin’ in the Rain, as that deserves a whole blog of its own at a later date.  In fact, it isn’t even about the dancing talents of the man who may have single-handedly introduced and popularised ballet dancing to the American mass market.  This is about a far, far odder concoction called Marjorie Morningstar which Kelly made in 1957 playing off that plank of wood which occasionally did some acting, Natalie Wood.   Although most of Gene’s films grace my DVD shelves, I had never seen this one until last week.  A Jewish Gene Kelly?  I almost fell off my sofa in excitement at the thrill of it all, and imagined him wearing nothing but a kippah and a smile.  But, dear readers, it was quite the worst load of balderdash I’ve ever seen in centuries, a film with sets that move and the kind of sloppy continuity that sees Natalie Plank-of-Wood extinguish the same cigarette three times in four seconds.  Marjorie Morningstar lasts for two and a half hours.  I mean, Gene doesn’t even dance with a tallit or anything.  I was expecting Fiddler on the Roof meets On the Town. (“Fiddling on the Town?”) None of it seemed to work  as a narrative, and the script was criminally bad, but still I could not pull myself away from it.  That’s probably because Gene is S.E.X.Y.

The book of Majorie Morningstar was written by a man who sounds like a kitchen implement; Herman Wouk.  When not masquerading as kitchenware, Wouk wrote this story of a middle-class, conservative, Jewish girl who spends 565 pages battling with expectations of convention, class and creed during a love affair with a small-town theatre director called Noel.  It’s a bloated story of reactionary crap.  Noel is hip.  We know this because he wears white socks and black shoes.  He is also a fundamentally athiest Jew, sleeps with lots of dancers, directs plays, and is adored by the teenage girls who listen to him play the piano nightly in a summer camp bar.  What with him being a bad Jew and a good drinker, this is naughty Gene.  Cor.

Here is Gene dressed as a Spanish matador (Wowzers) claiming Marjorie is seeking vengeance on him with her non-existent God.  Seriously.  But she’s well confused because she thought she was just going outside for a snog and a bit of a feel with one of Hollywood’s finest.

“Hmmm,” the casting directors thought, when this pile of tosh landed on their desks in about 1955.  “Who can carry off the athiest, male, Jewish-ish slut look to perfection?  Call Gene!  He’s already got the hip clothes and sexy scar!  Never mind that he’s actually second generation Irish and has a foreskin.  BOOK HIM.  The man’s box office gold.”

The entire book is questionable; Marjorie desires a life of the stage and Noel, but ultimately he turns out to be a bit of a slapper and she – having had her well-brought up fingers burned by the amoral depravity of the stage –  gives up a fairly promising acting career to retire into Jewish housewifery with a doctor who hath no hair.   She finds comfort and sanctuary in the traditions of her faith, although in the film this ending is discarded and she ends up alone.  Gene / Noel fails in New York when he cannot sell his play to producers because he insults them over cocktails whilst wearing wide-necked 1950s shirts.  He returns to the small town where we first met him and continues sleeping with the daughters of men who own dry-cleaning franchises.

For two hours, Marjorie and Noel have silly arguments, in which Noel claims he’s up against Moses (er…is this a threesome?)  which is tough because you can’t argue with a dead prophet.   At least when “Moses Supposes His Toes-ies are Roses” came up in Singin’ In the Rain Gene and Donald O’Connor stepped up to the plate and performed the most energy-busting, amazing tap routine ever on film.  But the dancing that Gene does do in this film is moody and tortured – no doubt tap dancing wasn’t hip or beatnik enough for Noel and his black T-shirts.  Basically, Noel, having de-Judaised himself is pissed off with Moses or something – frankly, I found it hard to follow.  But the worst bit is when he tells her what no Jewish girl wants to hear : “Marjorie – you are your mother!”  Jeez, Gene you bitch.  And then its downhill all the way and we have close-ups of Natalie Plank-of-Wood shedding glycerine tears.

Natalie is called to Gene’s trailer, where he keeps his famous collection of V-necks to show off his pectorals.  “Have you READ this script of garbage, Natalie? – have you?!”  he asks as he clutches her.

For two hours they dance a bizarre negotiation of their relationship, in which sex (or the moral implications of a nice girl getting involved in all that stuff) is dealt with but never mentioned.  Instead, we have to rely on Gene’s eyebrows as a kind of shag-o-meter to let us know when he is thinking about it.  Then we watch Marjorie battling with her inner morality to decide on what is basically a no-brainer – whether or not to jump into bed with Gene.  Instead she tries to introduce him to her Mum and Dad, which acts as a kind of parental cold shower.

“I don’t care if you were in Singin’ In The Rain, there’s no way your showing me your special dance moves, sonny.  I’m saving myself for a dentist with a double garage.”  Marjorie tells Gene the score.

With nothing left to lose, a desperate Gene pulls his nautical look out of the bag and tries to show Natalie Wood his Anchors Aweigh.

The most attractive Gene moment is when he has been drinking for three days and is slurring in a very attractive way and has two days growth of beard.  That was terribly beatnik for 1956.  What would Debbie Reynolds say?  Either way, he is hot stuff and gets to do some dancing at the beginning as audience compensation for having to watch Natalie Wood.  The two issues that this peculiar film raised were firstly, why was the first Hollywood mainstream film for thirty years about Jews featuring hardly any Jewish actors?  And, secondly, Eleanor Bergstein, my friend, you have been rumbled.

Eleanor Bergstein was the brains behind the oestrogen-driven phenomenon that was Dirty Dancing, in which millions of dollars were made by the sight of Patrick Swayze sweating in a vest.  The first half of the plot is practially identical to Marjorie Morningstar: nice Jewish girl arrives at summer camp in the Catskills (Tamarak, as opposed to Kellermans, although – freakishly both camps have a similar-sounding song), meets surly dance teacher who charms her with his foxy moves and bewitches her with his zinging sex appeal. She must negotiate tensions between what her parents want and what she wants, before going to visit him in his cabin for shenanigans etc.  Replace Swayze’s sweaty vest for Gene Kelly in a cardigan and you have  Dirty Dancing 1950s style.  I wouldn’t have been surprised if Natalie Wood had propelled herself out of a lake into Gene Kelly’s arms and sung about how she was having the time of her life (after she’d had some acting lessons).

Gene was so tough and quite unkind in this film I had to open a beer and watch On the Town on where he is nicer and has a smart sailor suit on.  Ultimately, despite his acting skills, any film that has Gene Kelly in it but has no tap dancing is a waste.  So, next week, fellas, less of the serious whisky drinking Gene who lets down nice Jewish girls and shags about.  We shall return to something a little more life affirming, and Gene-related next Thursday……with the tap shoes back on.  Oh yes.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

I thought she was a sandwich…

Morning, my dear readers, and – as I promised last week – this morning is the second instalment of my Beatles Film Guide. Although a week in real terms since my last post, in Beatles terms we are moving forward a year from 1964 to 1965.  Churchill has died.   Christine Keeler has done her 9 months in Holloway Prison for perjury (oh, the shame of it) and Dylan has gone electric, the cheeky little blighter.  And what has happened to our loveable cheeky Liverpool moptops?

COLOUR.  That’s what happened.  “Help!” is a jolly caper, completely absurd, a plot which seems to lose the plot, and a series of exotic locations that render the combined Liverpudlian carbon footprint absolutely massive.   It is clearly a much more expensive film than A Hard Day’s Night and indulges a surrealist humour that surrounded the group at the time, but which also owes it’s inspiration to the Marx Brother’s “Duck Soup”.    Beatles Soup, then.  (“Fab” soup?).  It starts out as a silly business that doesn’t really mean anything and ends as a silly business that doesn’t really mean anything, but the wonderful soundtrack and jokes on the way excuse the absence of plot. Its peculiar brand of anarchic nonsense seems ahead of its time, the tone of the piece marked by a surrealism that pre-dates Airplane and similar comedy romps by a long chalk.  Who needs a plot, anyway, when you’ve got this?

Oddly, this comedy starts with Ringo being the target of a murder via a nameless Eastern religion (now, stick with me, kids.  There are giggles, I promise).  Anyone who subscribes to this religion is in awe of the Great God Kahili, the higher power of a congregation led by a pre-Rumpole of the Bailey Leo McKern.  No one is entirely sure what kind of a cult it is.  The sum total of Ringo’s ecclesiastical knowledge is that “It’s a different religion from ours.  I think.”  He is Ringo; ergo he must wear the ring on which the thin plot hangs.  He is the butt of most of the jokes.

Here is the famous Ringo, with his famous Ring.  This is his smouldering look, ladies.  Brace yourselves.

In the opening scene, the congregation are perturbed to discover that that particular day’s sacrifice victim is not wearing the sacrificial ring.  If there’s one thing you don’t want it’s a perturbed congregation.   Even worse than that, head congregant Leo McKern has realised that Ringo is wearing the sacrificial ring in a film of The Beatles singing “Help!” which is shown in the temple.  Apparently, one of those naughty, flibbertygibbert Beatles groupies must have given it to him or something.  Perhaps that’s not all she gave him – Ringo does say “It’s from a fan.  I get all sorts.”  I bet you do when you are on the road, son.    With nothing left for it, Leo McKern decides to go to England to find Ringo and sacrifice him according to custom.  He will take Eleanor Bron with him.  Off they go.  Cue 1960s caper / James Bond parody film.

The Beatles all live together in one house which appears to be four terraced houses knocked together to form a hip and groovy mid-1960s shagpad.  They did of course live in Liverpool but have now made pots of cash and have decamped further south to Twickenham, which is where the externals for most of the London scenes were filmed, both in this and in “A Hard Day’s Night”.  Here they are in their Beatles Mega House which was actually Nos 5, 7, 9 and 11 Ailsa Avenue, Twickenham.  They are showing off their lovely longer lush locks while gazing down at the adoring masses below their bathroom window. George is looking particularly angry at the idea of having to go off and make another film.  In the opening scene they arrive at their house and wave at two old ladies across the street.  The one who gleefully waves back is Gretchen Franklin, who later went on to find soap opera fame as Ethel in Eastenders.  Here, she clearly only has eyes for the Liverpool Wonderkids, her little Willie hasn’t been thought of yet.  “Wave!  Wave!” she eggs on her friend.  “Such lovely boys and so natural.”   “Yes!” says her scarily bespectacled friend, “And still the same as they was, before they was.”  John sleeps in a sunken bed and Eleanor Bron attacks Ringo’s hand via the back of a sandwich machine.  It’s all going on.

In shock at the realisation that Ringo may be killed (many jokes are made throughout this film about his member) they boys go out for a rogan josh at the nearest hostelry.  But, lo, the evil Swarmi, a.k.a Leo McKern, resplendent here in Carmen Miranda headgear, arrives with a knife to try to cut off Ringo’s arm.  The boys are not best pleased, even if Paul has started to fancy the Eleanor Bron character.

Paul has a cheeky dance with Eleanor Bron in the curry house and hopes Jane Asher doesn’t find out.

When Leo McKern’s henchmen succesfully knock out all the waiters, they pretend to be restaurant musicians.  In an echo of things to come, they play a version of “A Hard Day’s Night” on sitars.  There is also a cameo in this scene from the actor Jeremy Lloyd, who became a television writer in the 1970s, creating “Are You Being Served?”.   He also appears in a Hard Day’s Night as a dancing toff.  After Leo McKern and his mob have attempted to smash up the restaurant, Lloyd is the man who happily says to his date “Oh – it’s rather a jolly place!”  At least he ended up in the final edit.  Both Frankie Howerd and Wendy Richard’s roles ended up on the Beatles cutting room floor.   It was only during the transfer of this film onto DVD that footage was unearthed of Frankie Howerd’s and Wendy Richard’s deleted scenes.  Here is an image from the deleted footage, with Wendy on the far right:

Meanwhile, back in the final edit version, Eleanor has batted Wendy out of the way by knocking her out using her heavily mascara-ed eyelashes.  Having earlier attacked Ringo’s hand, in an unsuccessful attempt to eat the ring, Eleanor Bron has changed her mind and switched sides.   She opts to help The Beatles and retires with them for an afternoon’s serenading in the Twickenham superhouse.  They obviously really like her, because she’s a pretty girl with pink boots on and stuff, and they individually vie for her attention during a heartfelt rendition of “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”.   George is trying very hard here; he thinks the best way to get her pink boots off is to strike a G chord and gawp at her.  You’ve got much to learn, Harrison.

John spends the entire film bitching to professionals “You’ve failed, jeweller!”  he spits at the posh chap from Aspreys, who can’t get at Ringo’s ring.  Two idiot scientists appear in the winning partnership of Roy Kinnear and Victor Spinetti, who John wastes no time in wounding: “You’re another failure, aren’t you, scientist?!”   And indeed, he’s right, as the scientists best attempt at getting at Ringo’s ring is this:

Ringo shows all those teenage girls in the Harrow Rex in 1965 what they’ve paid to see.  Cor.  Pop stars had to iron their underwear in those days you know.  Or at least ask Wendy Richard nicely to do it for them.  Eleanor Bron’s bizarre suggestion is to shrink Ringo’s hand with an injection, which causes John to turn on her most accusingly, and politically incorrectly, by exclaiming “See what you’ve done, with your filthy Eastern ways.”  Blimey, John.  Keep your moptop on.  But, in the true tradition of capers the syringe slips and Paul inadvertently receives a full dose from Eleanor Bron.  Lucky him.  This makes him shrink until he sits in the ashtray.

There is nothing for it.  The chaps have worked like dogs and frankly, could do with a break.  That annoying fundamentalist cult man is still after them.  Two weeks at Cilla’s bungalow in Malaga?  No, of course not,  they’re BEATLES.  Six days in Biarritz, singing, skiing and falling into the snow while singing “Ticket To Ride” please.

A shot from the fantastic footage used for “Ticket to Ride”.  Some lucky bugger got the job of carrying the grand piano to the top of the mountain (er…Wendy?) whilst John pops out from inside the piano to surprise everyone, but is shocked by the size of Paul’s feet.

Here are the Fab Four, barely concealing their glee at having found the only piano in Switzerland that has 12 legs.

I told you I would inform you of my favourite man suit on a man in a film with a man in it EVER and here it is below, oh yes, it’s John’s olive green corduroy suit with matching debonair cap he wears on the far left here:

This is certainly a hip scene.  It’s on Salisbury Plain, following the Beatles return to blighty and an attempt for John to insult yet another person in a professional position when he turns on the Scotland Yard inspector who has been assigned to protect them. “Great Train Robbery, how’s that going?” he asks.  Surrounded by cadets on army training (this is not suitably explained in the film) the Beatles sing “I Need You” and “The Night Before”, which is cleverly cut with “She’s A Woman” every eight bars or so.  It starts to rain but that does not dampen The Beatles splendour, nor can custom stale their infinite variety.  Leo McKern has a go though and tries to blow them up.  “I’ve hurt me suit!  I’ve hurt me suit!” says Lennon.  It’s a tragedy.  It may have to go to the tailors.   They do whatever any young popster can do, and go and stay in Buckingham Palace.  They are readily accepted and just wave their MBEs on the way in.

Of course, the Queen wasn’t that much of a fan.  She wasn’t going to let a bunch of ruffians have the run of One’s Royal Palatial Apartments.  Anyway, she couldn’t risk Princess Margaret getting wind of it all, because she’d have got the gin bottles out and tried to sit on all the Beatles laps quicker than you could say “Liverpool shuffle”.   Instead, the Buckingham Palace scenes were filmed at Cliveden House, just outside Maidenhead, and which was still smarting from the shenanigans of the Profumo Scandal 18 months previously.  The group are developing an increasingly mercantile approach to Ringo’s ring.  They want to chop his finger off and  George has heard that “there’s a good drummer in Manchester”.

John, on location at Cliveden on May 11th 1965, where he enjoyed playing with his new dangling Paul McCartney prototype doll.

After a brief attempt at going for a swift drink in the local pub, which fails, due to Swarmi’s attempts to trap Ringo in the pub cellar with a famous Indian tiger, The Beatles do the only decent thing they can possibly do.  They go to The Bahamas and sing “Another Girl”.  They attempt to creep away through the airport disguised as old men.  Oddly, they all look the way they ended up looking in about 1979.  The scientists and the fundamentalists follow them there, however.  Here they are, having a truly dreadful time in all that horrid Bahamas weather.  On arrival, the boys head to the beach to rendezvous with some lady fans.  Ringo guffaws happily at the idea of his imminent sacrifice:

The Beatles attempt to locate the Temple where the Swarmi’s sacrifices take place, but cannot find it. They had attempted running away but a sense of solidarity and justice pervades and they decide to “go back and get ’em, eh!!” and bicycle viciously in the direction of Swarmi and his gang of fiendish louts.  Ringo finds a shell and uses it to try to speak to his mother.  The sun’s got to him, poor lad.


The film winds down on a Bahaman beach when Ringo’s ring inadvertently falls off into the sand.  “I don’t subscribe to your religion!” he retorts. Oh, yes.  Getting quite brave now the ring isn’t actually stuck to him.  The scientists, fundamentalists and Scotland Yard Inspector descend upon the beach for the final scene of unadulterated lunacy, soundtracked to a reprise of “Help!”.  The film is insensibly dedicated to the inventor of the Singer sewing machine and the end credits are filmed as reflected in myriad sides of a precious stone of the ring that, until now, has been stuck on Ringo’s award-winning and happily-drumming hand.  The Beatles sing along to a section of “The Barber of Seville”.  The End.

“Help!” is rollickingly good fun, and a filmic step between self-referential commentary on a rock and roll lifestyle (“A Hard Day’s Night”) and rich  psychedelia that pervaded the late 60s for The Beatles.  The colourings and surrealism are pointing to the rest of the decade, although still buttoned up in single breasted cordoruy suits.  The film was released three months after Lennon and Harrison first experienced LSD, when a dentist spiked their drinks at a dinner party. “Help!” is an album that captures The Beatles on the cusp of something extraordinary.  It’s the first studio album to include experimentation with classical music and the last which included a cover by any other artist (“Dizzy Miss Lizzy”).  The next two albums would be “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver”, both of which were released within one year of “Help!”, and both of which, dare I suggest, are the beginning of Beatles Mark II.  In “Help” The Beatles are emerging out of their uniformed selves and diversifying.  However, this is also the last “boyish” album, one which resonates with a kind of innocence.  “Help” the Movie contains a touching illustration of this naivety; in the Bahama scenes, John wears a woollen jumper and jeans on the sands of the Bahamas, looking like a pale Englishman leaving home for the first time, unaware and unprepared, looking out towards the exotic and unfamiliar horizon ahead.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Beatling Around

I love the Beatles.  There isn’t really another way to say that – but The Beatles I love are the pre-India, unreconstructed, Chelsea boot Beatles.  It wouldn’t bother me if I never heard Sergeant Pepper again, but the same can’t be said for me when it comes to”With the Beatles”, “Help!” and “A Hard Days Night”.  Give me a mop top and some cheeky Liverpudlian close harmony singing and I’m in musical heaven, my friends.  There is something about the infectious youth of these early albums that transcends things and is eternally fresh.  Not that I’m to be trusted, of course, after an hour of listening to this sort of thing.  I start behaving dramatically with liquid eyeliner and backcombing hair that already looks damaged, and emerge from Bluebird Towers looking like Valerie Singleton circa 1963 after she’s been dragged through a hedge backwards (by Adam Faith).

Anyway, I’m not going to tell anyone how fabulous The Beatles are because unless you have all been living in a hole in the ground since 1961 it won’t be necessary; this is a celebration of what is perhaps the finest mock-documentary style film that a band has ever made (ladies and indeed, gentlemen, I invite you to challenge me if you think there is a better one).  “A Hard Day’s Night” radiates a peculiarly British sense of musical hope.  The same year this film was made, The Beatles broke America.  The acting is in fact very good, and the script has no flab on it whatsoever.  Neither have The Beatles of course – there are none of the paunches and beards that made 1970 such a fashion disaster year for the Fab Four, after they’d spent three years eating all of Jane Asher’s cakes.  The scene in “A Hard Day’s Night” where “Cant Buy My Love” is played in the background and they start jumping about like nutters in a random field (in Isleworth, for the anoraks), complete with jumpy camerawork that creates a truly modern slant, is utterly joyous.

For those of  you who have not yet seen it, I suggest you pour a can of Vimto, shuffle on your single breasted suits and settle down for an hour or two of Liverpool’s finest.  I defy you, ladies, to not reach for the liquid eyeliner before the end of the first hour.  It’s stylishly filmed and stylishly suited and booted.  Every sartorial choice that is made in the film is the right one.   The plot is caper-esque – and there isn’t much of a plot, to be honest.  Boys arrive on train to London to film a TV show.  They get to lark about and defy the feeble authority of Shake and Norm, their warring managers, who spend the film ascertaining whether it is Shake’s fault he is taller than Norm.  Paul’s grandfather comes along for the ride (good comedy value, grandfathers) who prides himself on being “very clean”.  He sets up many of the films laughs, and mostly creates trouble.  He has a Republican outburst in a police station and gets bailed.   Ringo goes missing  but The TV show goes ahead.  Ladies scream.  People faint.  Beehives fall down with the sheer thrill of it all.  It’s BEATLEMANIA, don’t you know.

Wow, look at them go, eh ladies!  It’s the opening scene of the film.  Paul McCartney is so thrilled at the prospect of getting on the 16:14 from London Paddington to Strawberry Fields that he is hopping about on the pavement like a right raver, whilst Ringo Starr looks like he’s left something behind. George is having a right laff.  And, as for Lennon, the filthy-mouthed little urchin, well, all he’s doing is showing off his hairdo.  However, he’s still the only one any of us would have wanted to sleep with.   What?? No?  Prefer Ringo Starr, would ya?

They proceed to turn the corner and in a lunatic, half-baked attempt at tomfoolery, conceal themselves in a series of telephone  boxes.  The screaming extras at Victoria Station were all real fans, paid a little money.  At least enough for a Cilla Black record. The Beatles vault railings and it’s terribly exciting.  Paul wears a false beard, thereby unknowingly imitating his 1970 self, to get away from their hoards of screaming ladies.  They then catch a lift on a newspaper trolley before securing themselves in the official Beatles carriage for transportation of Beatles to glam telly filmings.  It’s rock and roll, kids.

John is delighted to have bagged the window seat before Gerry and the Pacemakers got on board.  Paul’s grandfather looks on ruefully from the bottom right hand side of the picture.  He distrusts the youth of today, but proceeds to behave worse than them all, and flagrantly abuses the trust that is occasionally placed in him due to him being “a nice, clean old man”. George negotiates the complexity of the Beatles crossword in this week’s Beano, (Drummer, begins with R, five letters.) whilst Paul realises he’s forgotten the tickets.

“No, no – look!” says Paul.  “Ringo’s hat IS scarier than yours! Look – it’s a horror!”

Paul meets one of his teenybopping fans whilst en route to Swinging London.  No, okay, okay – this isn’t actually in the film.  She is just a random old nutter.

On board the train, Paul’s grandfather becomes engaged.  This causes some disturbance, but this is momentarily dispersed by an impromptu performance by all four Beatles of “I Should Have Known Better” in the luggage hold.  Those were the days, eh, kids?  John gets his harmonica out (STEADY LADIES) and serenades the dogs in the hold and an unexplained trio of Fifth Form girls. One of whom is the model Pattie Boyd who George is so entranced by he marries her 18 months later.  Wowzers.

Grandfather is unimpressed with John’s “bottle up the nose” party trick.  Apparently it’s an in-joke about cocaine, but it just looks like John is picking his nose.   This coke joke print here is not used in the film as it is photographed here – John pretends to snort the coke bottle slightly off to the side while sitting down on the fab Beatles train.  As I said, cheeky little urchin.  You wouldn’t want your 14 year old daughter meeting him on the night out on the tiles.  As he says to one of the Fifth Form girls they meet on the train, once his manager has convinced the girls he is convict : “I bet you can’t guess what I was in for!”  I kid you not.

George has never been in a television studio and clearly cannot contain his joy.  Here he is dancing with what appears to be an enormous prawn cracker.  Make-up ladies in two piece suits gaze on lovingly and dream of being swept away to George’s Weybridge bungalow.   It’s the rehearsal, chaps, and they sing to Lionel Blair and the dancing girls “And I Love Her”.

In Swinging London, the Beatles have some fun with Orangeade before their fab hip TV show.    Meanwhile, there’s an interesting scene backstage, where John has a discussion with himself, and a small part actress nearby on whether or not he is, in fact, himself – or whether he isn’t himself.  Paul seems to be diligently tuning his guitar and doesn’t get to have adventures.  It is at this point that Ringo goes off for a wander, and the Grandfather figure gets arrested.  His arrest is just another excuse to see the Beatles racing through the streets larking about whilst their music plays.  Meanwhile, George is involved in a scene which lampoons the fashion industry and the youth culture industry in one fell swoop.  He is mistaken as an auditionee for a job in television presenting, as a possible co-presenter with a “trendsetter” called Susan.   He also gets to utter the word “grotty” for the first time on film (“Grotty? Make a note of that word and give it to Susan!” says the lunatic half-wit pretending to interview him).

Of course, the show eventually gets underway and goes like a steam train.  St John Ambulance have a day of it, dragging unconscious teens from Warrington out of the auditorium.  At the end of their “show” within the film, the Beatles do a short, slightly sombre bow, in unison.  It seems to smack of an earlier age.   It’s very restrained, as they shake their hair about to high chart-popping tunes in smart suits (at one point George hops from one foot to the other, and 16 ladies fall over with the thrill of it.  God, he’s hardcore!).

It’s brilliant.  See it, if you haven’t already.  And if you have well – I command you to see it again.

Next week, let The London Bluebird guide you through the magnificent 1965 caper that is “Help!”?  It’s in colour!  Cor!   And it also features my favourite outfit on a man in a film.  Ever.

Finally, anyone want to have a stab at what the blazes is going on here?  Is it a cover for a magazine of the specialist variety?

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

88 miles per hour?!

This is more than just a trilogy.  This is a superb cure for all known ills, and quite possibly the most robust comic science fiction trilogy it has been my good fortune to come across.   I first saw Back to the Future on a hot balmy day in July 1987 and it is unblemished by time.  The second part of the trilogy I saw at the now defunct Cannon Cinema in Watford (before someone had the good idea of demolishing it) and for the third one I returned to the same, now demolished, cinema with my parents and got told off by the man who owned the Italian restaurant next door, because I selfishly dumped my empty popcorn box into his pot plants.  Halcyon days. 

The cinema now languishing in the distorted memories of those in West Watford and which was demolished in the mid-1990s is here, in all it’s glory:

Christ, it’s beautiful.  It looked a lot like that when it was open (but with more protective metal sheeting).  but it took nothing away from the sheer glamour of Back to the Future II.  Very little could.

The beauty of The Back to the Future trilogy was that it gamely cashed in not only teenagers, but their parents too.  The original film, released in 1985, glanced back to the 1950s with a particular 1980s slant, much as Peggy Sue Got Married tried to do in 1986, but Peggy Sue failed miserably in a nonsensical closing section involving in the following order: Freemasonry, sex in greenhouses, a man in a scary cloak and Nicholas Cage in an even scarier beard.  Back to the Future excelled because it had more charm, was superbly funny and briskly confused us with bizarre 1980s teen-flick science. 

Oh, how we chuckled at the Oedipal nastiness of Marty McFly being sexually harassed by his own mother. And how we nodded sagely when we noted the son teaching the father life skills, or when the mad scientist turned out to be the sanest one of all.  What we didn’t nod sagely at, however, was that Marty McFly’s girlfriend, Jennifer Parker, changed heads between movie No 1 and movie No 2.  in the first film she was played by an actress with a background in opera called Claudia Wells, who was seamlessly replaced by Elisabeth Shue, amidst rumours that the first actress had had some kind of nervous seizure.   For those who wish to time travel back to 1985 in order to time travel to 1955 : here are some sights for sore eyes: 

Here is Marty trying not to be seduced by his mother in 1955 Hill Valley.

Imitation Marty
Now, this is not a real Marty.  This is a Marty suit.  Which you can actually buy for $29.99.  Price does not include quizzical question of Californian teen bamboozled by notion of time travel.


This is a confused looking Biff Tannen – high school bully, and Lorraine Baines-chasing lunatic who George McFly quite sensibly smashed the jaw of during the high school dance.  Here he is in all his green tracksuited glory in 1985 Hill Valley looking like an old lady.  He is pretending to wax a BMW in his servile role as George McFly’s slavey. 

Doc Brown.  He’s gorgeous with a capital “G” , isn’t he? Oh, hang on – I meant him:

Michael J Fox – blessed by shortness of stature and prettiness of face, he was able to spend most of the 1980s playing 17 year olds, and no one seemed to mind that he was rapidly approaching thirty.  A small chap with a very large pay packet.  Oh, think of the horror had the initial casting director’s desire of Eric Stolz actually happened – Jesus, ladies – think of it! Thank goodness they saw the light, and realised the future was M J Fox.  Eric Stolz, on the other hand, appeared to have fallen through a space time continuum all of his own since Memphis Belle.


Lady on the left is Jennifer No 1 from the first film.  Lady on the right in appalling “Jennifer 1” wig is Jennifer No 2 from the second and third films.  Marty McFly certainly didn’t seem able to tell them apart.  Both of them struggled with a vastly underwritten role and an unfortunate propensity to wear body warmers.


Here is Marty McFly, the hip hepcat, teaching those square kids of the 1950s what la Rock and Roll was really all about. What it was about was ruining the palpable tension of an excellent plot by indulging the young star by letting him do his 50s rocker impression.  It did, however, provide relief from the bizarre oedipal complexes that ran riot through the movie.  At the moment Marty sings this his parents have – mercifully – decided to only fancy each other.  This is Marty’s “Phew, I’m off the hook” song.  God, he’s hip.  Nice shoes.

And if you thought those shoes were cool, check out these self-lacing 2015 power sneakers.  You better. We’re all going to be wearing them in about four years (apparently).  These are the real size.  MJ Fox is rather small:

Here is Marty buzzing around the Twin Pines Mall in 1985 California, presumably the only place in a Southern Californian town where there is enough space to get up to 88 miles per hour.  And he gets to be chased by Libyans, another hugely unlikely scenario for Hill Valley, where the most exciting thing that happened to date was George McFly getting his tie caught in his typewriter.

It wasn’t meant to be a trilogy at all.  The last scene of the first movie, in which Doc, Marty and Jennifer take to the skies in a bid to go to the future to save their children, was a joke.  Robert Zemeckis must have broken out in a cold sweat when he had to try to make sense of that final scene from the first movie as the opening one of the second.  Subsequently, early on in the second film, Jennifer, being surplus to the plot, is mercilessly dumped in an alley and drugged so that the Doc and Marty can continue their adventures through time.  Nice.  In addition, you needed A Level knowledge of Back to the Future Part I to even know part of what was going on in Back to the Future Part 2 because the plot was so convoluted.  It’s the weakest of the bunch.  Thank goodness Back to the Future Part 3 returned to class form with a formulaic Western, and tied up the loosening plot points quite nearly.  It’s amazing what you can do with 1.21 gigawatts, kids.

And so the bratpack lost one of its cubs this morning with the untimely demise of Corey Haim, which meant I spent most of my bus journey to work wondering if any of the others were dead yet.   I don’t think any of them are, although it astonishes me that Charlie Sheen is still with us – what with his fiancee accidentally shooting him several years ago and his recent stroke, but there he is, all chin and eyebrow comedy in “Two and a Half Men” (presumably he is the “half”).  He is still the boy who likes to P-A-R-T-Y, despite his father’s best attempts to steer him towards the straight and narrow.  Charles ‘Hellraiser’ Sheen aint no straight and narrow guy; he’s two busy fathering babies with ladies who have their own TV shows.   Emilio Estevez went all serious, tried to pretend he wasn’t short, grew a moustache and made a film about Robert Kennedy, and Kiefer Sutherland eventually had to go to television – and make 24 – to gain full credibility, acquiring on the way I think a little plastic surgery on his chipmunk jowls.  Lou Diamond Philips La-Bamba’d off the Bratpack stage in about 1992 and has been seen in a host of TV movies ever since, and what of Ralph Macchio?  Did he Karate chop his way into the Millenium?  I doubt it.  He’s probably working in a Juice Bar somewhere, which isn’t like being dead, but you can see it from there.    Then there was Corey Feldman, the Haim’s closest friend and fellow Lost Boys vampire slayer.  Presumably his latest show, The Two Coreys may have to be shelved for a while.  So, a couple of career suicides, but is this the first Bratpack death?

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The two Coreys.  He’s the one on the right, by the way, with the Helen Shapiro hair-do.

After the supreme heights of The Lost Boys,  Haim and Feldman continued to be part of the “Two Coreys for the price of One” deal and made this film about two young chaps and a motorcar:

Not long after the release of this, and his curious self-penned mini-biopic, “Me, Myself and I”, Corey’s motorcar unfortunately ended up in a permanent parking space at rehab beside Charlie Sheen.  He seemed to be in and out of it for the next fifteen years,  until he faintly resurrected himself with The Two Coreys.  Oh well.  My heart goes out to all those Corey Haim look-a-likes who must feel like all those Princess Diana look-a-likes did on the morning of September 1st 1997, and who now have to find someone else to look like.  Although in the end even Corey Haim was struggling with looking  like himself.  To go from:  


is most certainly a tragedy. 

Keifer Sutherland, on the other hand, has gone from looking dreadful and pasty:

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To looking very dapper and tanned, with or without his two, large dangling gongs here:

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Is Kiefer Sutherland the Dorian Gray of the bratpack?