Saturday, 22 August 2015



In 1968 radical French film director Jean-Luc Godard wanted to create revolutionary art in cinema. He had already developed a style that threw out conventional linear narrative and cinematic technique and now he wanted to incorporate rock music into his societal critique by showing the link between political power and that of the rock star.  At that time in early 1968, Paris had been besieged by youth riots, Black Power was on the rise and the Vietnam War was escalating. The most potent rock bands of the period were the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Godard approached the former, wanting John Lennon to play Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Their meeting, far from inspiring Lennon, confused him about the project’s real intent so he pulled out. When Godard criticised the band in public for their lack of political engagement, Lennon hit back: ‘Dear Mr Godard. Just because we didn’t want to be in the film with you, it doesn’t mean to say that we aren’t doing any more than you’.

The director then moved on to the Stones, which promised a more genial reception: “I’ve seen all his pictures”, enthused Mick Jagger of Godard. “I think they’re groovy”. They allowed Godard the unique privilege of filming them in the studio creating one of their most famous revolution-tinged songs ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, (originally called ‘The Devil Is My Name’). This was the band’s return to blues form after the psychedelic misfire of ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’ album.
Godard’s title for the film project would be ONE PLUS ONE. His idea was to combine the work of two influential movements of the zeitgeist in one film. Separate political scenes staged by him would be intercut with the Stones’ footage to draw parallels (possibly) between the manipulation of the public by political fire-brands and that achieved in adulation of the modern rock musician. Unfortunately, the idea was ‘nouvelle vague’ in theory and almost ruinously vague and pretentious in execution. Watching the film at home is sadly the only way to enjoy it as it’s best to speed through the dreadful fake posturing of the air-punching student politics. Godard filmed actors in the apt environs of a junk-yard, featuring an actor quoting controversial black power leaderEldridge Cleaver (arrested on suspicion of rape at that time) as well as Hitler. Three young ball-gowned women are machine-gunned as symbols of the luxury-ridden establishment. Cleaver’s sound-bite is used portentously: “We are going to get our freedom, or no-one, but no-one is going to get any peace on this earth”. 

The only peace is to fast-forward through Godard’s half-baked juvenile agit-prop nonsense to get to the good stuff. What gives the film real value is the fascinating fly-on-the-wall window into the genesis of the Rolling Stones’ song over time, especially to fans of the group (hence my seeking it out some years ago). We see ‘Sympathy’ begin life as a calypso tune of all things. Jagger, Richards and Jones strum the basic chords; Mick, dressed in a glam white kaftan, picks his way through an early version of the lyrics to an opening blocky percussive lilt that turns into Hammond organ accompaniment. Some word changes would later be made. (Here, he sings of how ‘the SS raged’ rather than the finished ‘Blitzkrieg’. It’s all very relaxed and condusive to creativity. In the next scene, Jagger opts briefly for a slower, more ballad-like feeling rendition which then morphs into a loose jazzy groove that already begins to sound like the version we know. Later, we see the bongo-drummed opening with our man struggling slightly to counter-point the new rhythm with his first verse – the ‘whoo-whoo’ adding in to the mix as he pumps his foot to the floor like he’s stepping on the gas to the finishing line. This then completes the transformation to the single that restored the Rolling Stones to ascendancy as 60s icons.

The movie’s problem is that the two clearly disparate stories have no connection. The band knew nothing of the political scenes Godard shot and intercutting between both does nothing to bond them either - it just interrupts the intriguing music work with pretentious waffle. Secondly, Godard’s idea was not to show the final scene of the Stones playing the finished version of the song. Instead he wanted audiences to just see the work in progress footage of them in mid-invention and make the connection themselves to the eventual released recording.

The band did not appreciate the creative liberties being taken with their material to suit the director’s impenetrable vision, nor did Godard’s producer Iain Quarrier, whose eye was on storming the box office not the barricades. A premiere was scheduled for November 1968; what Godard didn’t know was that Quarrier took the bold step of re-editing the film to include the finished version of ‘Sympathy’ and to change the title to that of the song for the extra commercial boost.  Godard tried to present his cut of the film outside, but fans did not vote with their feet. He lambasted the group, as he did the Beatles, but with the added charge of racism, insisting they were being ‘…unfair to the black people’. Jagger saw through this ludicrous claim of pretended alliance: “I don’t think Godard understands anything about black people…He’s such a fucking twat...’

In SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL, the Rolling Stones allowed their music intimately to introduce itself, giving persuasive time to the Devil  - but not much in conclusion to a self-important darling of the New Wave…

Friday, 21 August 2015



In December1968, the Rolling Stones decided to stage a TV show, possibly inspired by the Beatle’s’ ‘Sergeant Pepper’ album, that would be a musical concept event based around a circus, filled with great acts of the day performing within the ring. They hired director Michael Lindsay-Hogg who had already filmed early pop promos for songs of theirs.

The show itself was a hugely ambitious under-taking. The technical breaks needed meant that even though they began filming at 2pm, by the time the Stones themselves came on it was already five o’clock the next morning. Jagger felt their own performance was under-par due to exhaustion. Subsequently the film was never released until 1996. They needn’t have worried. Despite its ups and 
downs, THE ROLLING STONES’ ROCK AND ROLL CIRCUS is well worth seeing.

There’s a slightly awkward parade opening in front of the wooden ring of guests; Charlie Watts looks particularly bemused with his tambourine - but then the line-up of bands begin to work their magic. They’re not only an impressive roll-call of some of the era’s great rock acts, but the film preserves them at arguably their heights and in some interesting combinations.  Jethro Tull mimed to ‘Song for Jeffrey’ and ‘Fat Man’ to cut down on rehearsal time. Only the former was used, but it’s a zesty  opener. The Who keep the energy flowing with a punchy rendition of their first mini-opera ‘A Quick One While he’s Away’. Taj Mahal gives good soul voice, and then Marianne Faithfull comes on, looking alluring and giving a beguiling version of the Goffin/Mann song ‘Something Better’.
Meanwhile, In between band sets the Stones’s separately filmed linking intros are a little uncertain, especially Charlie Watts, bless him. A bigger misfire is the pastiche showbiz cross-talk between Jagger and Lennon, calling each other ‘Michael’ and ‘Winston’ (Lennon’s middle name). It’s leaden and unfunny yet has the value of detailing the audience on the line-up of Lennon’s ad-hoc super-group of the night ‘the Dirty Mac’ (doing ‘Yer Blues)’.  We have Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. They make an excellent chemistry – until this is irreparably damaged by Yoko joining in with an excruciating screechy wail. It’s either purposely tuneless like some sort of ironic spin on jazz scat singing, or more likely the other kind of scat. She doesn’t realise how abominable she sounds. Nor possibly does John. Love is blind; Ono indeed. She doesn’t endear herself any further to anti-Yoko Beatles fans like myself who resented her multi-media influence on her future husband (not to mention her snake-oil disguised as art, but that’s another matter).

Regardless of that aural mis-step, eventually after what is still an amazing bill of artists the Rolling Stones appear and treat us to the last half-hour of a much better performance than Mick feared. Maybe it was that defiant burst of energy needed to overcome tiredness that sometimes lifts you above the ordinary, but they give solid renditions of some of their most famous live concert favourites. Jagger of course demands much of himself and prides himself even today on giving the very best. Only in the closing number ‘Salt of the Earth’ do  he and Richards betray a little of the understandable weariness settling in. Luckily, the crowd around them picks up the ending and runs with it. It’s a real egalitarian pleasure seeing the other bands mix with each other and the audience. Pete Townsend, be-hatted, eggs on the silliness amongst his peers and fans in a delirious party spirit reminiscent of the Beatles live finale of ‘All You Need Is Love’ the previous year.


As the opening text says: ‘It’s two days in December 1968 that in many ways capture the spontaneity, aspirations and communal spirit of an entire era…’

Thursday, 20 August 2015

No.41. Music on Film: 200 MOTELS (1971)

200 MOTELS (1971)
Touring can make you crazy. That is precisely what 200 MOTELS is all about’. 

Thus spake the narrator, actor Theodore Bikel, at the start of this madcap musical/live concert piece written, orchestrated and co-directed by Frank Zappa with Tony Palmer.

Zappa went to United Artists with a vague idea for a film. They green-lit it and almost $700,000 was spent by him on assembling a studio set, a cast of musicians alongside his band the Mothers Of Invention, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra for a concept piece loosely about the life of the rock musician. It was fast work, shot in only seven eight-hour working days and then edited in just eleven more. (Apparently the money ran out a third of the way through so they had to make do with the footage they had and edit it using very crude equipment).

200 MOTELS was the very first film shot on video-tape and then transferred to 35mm film. Its video effects such as freeze-frames, rewinds and frame repeats look basic today but back then became the basis for future rock video filming. It’s a loose and inventive film in format although bereft of any linear sense. Stylistically, the movie is akin to a cross between the studio-bound TV shows of THE BANANA SPLITS and ROWAN AND MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN, with its video look, cross-cutting and cartoon sound effects. The staging also feels like a live theatre broadcast of a musical, so it’s a curious mish-mash of approaches that has some validity for being an experimental use of the medium. The songs are reminiscent in eccentricity of Brian Wilson’s SMILE, but Wilson’s music is tuneful even when you’re not sure what he means. 200 MOTELS is harder to warm to.

Frank Zappa had the kind of personality that inspired people to trust him up to a point to voyage into the unknown in the type of project he’d had no experience of, which was movie-making. It has a cast almost entirely untutored as actors (and it shows) except Bikel who at least seems to have fun as the narrator/Rance Muhhamitz. Zappa cleverly stacked the deck with music showbiz glamour by adding Ringo Starr complete with Zappa-esque bushy long hair and beard and the manic Keith Moon as a suicidal nun that Starr chases through the orchestra pit at one point. Lord knows why but it livens things up. ‘Moon the Loon’ in a wimple somehow fits in this context, like an out-take from BEDAZZLED.

In the revealing ‘TRUE STORY OF 200 MOTELS’ documentary, Bikel was ‘intrigued by the idea’ presented to him by Zappa. He had little else to go on since the script was merely a fifteen-page outline then. Tony Palmer, whose background was in directing award-winning films about musicians, was so flummoxed by the impenetrability of the work that during the filming he wanted his name taken off it as director out of fear for his future career. 

The band themselves could shed no more light on Zappa’s meaning or methods than anyone else. “Working with Frank, it’s all very temporary” offered band member Mark Volman. The shifting sands didn’t just apply to membership but also to the content of 200 MOTELS. It’s hard to lock onto a narrative thread in the film, or melody lines in the songs, which does make appreciation hard going at times.

Zappa realised there were mutinous elements afoot which to be fair he was largely to blame for. Aside from his film being inexplicable to his colleagues, he was hiring people unused to the discipline of filming, who hated the early wake-up calls and had little patience with the continual downtime needed by technical breaks. Those who did have experience didn’t like the conditions any more so, venting their frustrations by complaints or simply leaving. Band member Jeff Simmons quit early in production. There is a character reference dig in the film aimed at him as ‘Jeff’ tires of playing Zappa comedy music and wants to quit. He was replaced by actor Wilfred Brambell (TV’s old man Steptoe), who after a week of rehearsal freaked out at the environment on set and also left, to be replaced by Ringo Starr’s driver Martin Lickert. The London Philharmonic Orchestra endured the madness while filming needed them but as soon as they wrapped, ripped their rented tuxedos and stormed off. You can see it in the documentary and Zappa’s anger at what he saw as their lack of professionalism.

When asked what he thought audience’s reactions to 200 MOTELS would be, Mothers’ member (and ex-Turtles singer) Howard Kaylan imagined: “People are gonna be leaving saying ‘What’s he doing? What’s the message?’ That is the message. He’s not saying it”.

That’s about as much sense as the film makes. It’s an avant-garde curio for sure, but paved the way for pop video techniques so for that alone more than its wacky content it deserves a place in music film history.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

No.39. Music on Film: DON'T LOOK BACK (1967) / MONTEREY POP (1968)


The renowned documentarian D.A. Pennebaker had the knack of ‘witnessing’ as he called it: capturing historic moments in modern pop culture on film. In 1965, he was invited to accompany Bob Dylan on his UK national tour and produced the excellent DON’T LOOK BACK - one of the great fly-on-the-wall documentaries as a result.

Whilst it opens with the celebrated cue-card ‘pop video’ of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ (specially filmed for the movie), and features a powerful live version of ‘The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll’ it’s less of an archive of his performances on-stage and more fascinating for the ones he gives behind the scenes. DON’T LOOK BACK is a film about how a popular commercial artist deals with fame and the media.

Dylan lands in London with his entourage, including Joan Baez, Alan Price and his manager Albert Grossman and almost immediately is hit by the excruciating cut-glass accents of the old-fashioned British press and the equally cringe-worthy inanity of their questions. Asked if he is angry, he teases: “I’m not angry. I’m delightful!”  As the tour progresses, it’s engrossing to watch how Pennebaker selects Dylan scenes that alternate between playfulness and evasion to cope with the boring predictability of repetitive interviews. Baez too is equally reluctant to play the game. A relieved photographer tells her how hard he’s found it to track her down. “Good,” she replies, not entirely joking. “I’m just a guitar player”, Bob fobs off another writer, like a cat toying with a mouse.
The most entertaining and revealing of these interviews for me is an impromptu one back-stage with Terry Ellis, a science student rather than a professional journo (who would later go on to found the Chrysalis Record label). Dylan uses the other response tactic he employs, which is to engage by going on the attack somewhat, to turn the questions back on the interviewer. The hapless young man seems slightly confused about his role as he complains that these celebrities aren’t interested in him and that the winningly cheeky Price is “Knocking me”. Dylan continually questions his inappropriate self-pity about why Dylan should need to demonstrate a desire to be friends with him. Whilst it may come across as unequal bullying, it’s a sincere and sustained dialogue and probably gives the most insight into Dylan’s resentment of the intrusion and entitlement that the actual media seemed to expect.

Dylan pre-empts another press man before he can ask about the meaning of his songs by warning him: “I got nothing to say about these things I write. I just write ‘em”. There is already a clear frustration in him at being loaded down with a ‘figure-head of the revolution’ status in the late 1960s. Admittedly he did court this to some extent back home in flirting with various political organisations, but would not be tied into reflecting one fixed view or doctrine. This was not unusual as a rock musician. He would not be the first or the last celebrity to voice an opinion on society without committing to being any form of campaign leader. He was criticised a great deal for this stance, yet arguably his position in the interviews in DON’T LOOK BACK illustrates that an artist owes no-one an explanation, merely the quality of their work to justify them.

Later, there is an engrossing scene we enter part-way in, where Time magazine’s London arts correspondent Horace Freeland Judson is sheepishly receiving a more personally caustic barrage for questions that Dylan finds unfair. When Judson finally speaks, composing himself to utter “Do you care about what you sing?” this is like a red rag to a bull. “Do you ask the Beatles that question?” roars Dylan. He turns the focus relentlessly back on his questioner. It’s uncomfortable, and yet it is hard not to sympathise actually with Dylan. The monotony of the same quizzing even by august publications must be a drag. Judson complained afterwards about the ‘abuse’ Dylan heaped on him in this sequence; yet Dylan pre-judging how Judson’s article will turn out is only in a sense getting his version heard first, since he will have no control over the finished piece which will ultimately be an unanswered judgement by the magazine on him.

There are lighter moments to be enjoyed too, such as Price’s little comments, notably about Donovan. “He’s a better guitar player than you”, he informs Dylan brazenly. Indeed, part of the wicked fun of DON’T LOOK BACK is had at Donovan’s expense. He’s like a spectre haunting Dylan through the film, the implication being that he is a pretender copyist of Bob. A scene shows the two men finally meeting. Donovan plays him ‘To Sing for You’ and then Dylan unleashes ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ (to establish his dominance possibly?).

Joan Baez fans also get to see her relaxing back-stage, performing a few of her songs in fine voice including the later-finished ‘Love Is Just a Four Letter Word’.

Anyone who’s curious about Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager (and later writer of two hugely compelling if one-sided biographies of Elvis and John Lennon) will find some interesting scenes of him here. He looks like a Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer and demonstrates an impressive, albeit heavy-handed protection of Dylan when a hotel staff member warns of noise complaints. He easily clarifies his and his client’s status to the employee without kow-towing: “I am not in charge of Bob Dylan” and then loses his cool a little by sending the man away with insults: “You stoopid nut!” Later, he shows more shrewd and calm business negotiation in a two-hander with an agent associate where they play off the BBC against commercial TV’s Johnny Hamp for the highest bidder on a TV appearance.

The more compassionate side of Dylan is revealed in a couple of sequences. The first is where he fears for a young girl’s safety as she clings to their post-concert getaway car. Later in a lengthy section in Manchester, he angrily button-holes a sozzled young chap he suspects of throwing a bottle down from their window; the camera then captures him softly explaining to the guy that he was mad out of concern for passers-by.

Finally, the tour builds to his performance at the Royal Albert Hall. We see snippets of this during which he enjoys himself, cracking a rare smile with the mischievous: “I looked in the closet. There was Donovan”, followed by his evident pleasure at the whole experience as they drive away. “I feel like I’ve been through something…” He still has enough self-deprecating awareness not to ultimately buy into his perceived self-image too much: “Give the Anarchist a cigarette”, he quips.
At one point, Pennebaker’s Royal Albert Hall footage catches him in a beautiful shot: a small man with a big talent framed in a big spotlight. That sums up Bob Dylan in 1965 and a profound, superb film by one of the world’s great documentary-makers.


In the same year that D.A. Pennebaker released DON’T LOOK BACK, he filmed the Monterey Pop Festival in California, the movie of which contained enough famous performances to give it a legendary status afterwards.

It’s a fairly short film of only 79 minutes and whilst it keeps the off-stage crowd interview sound-bites to a minimum and edits down performances that don’t really work like The Animals’ tuneless cover of ‘Paint It Black’, there are stunning highlights and some songs left thankfully intact. Janis Joplin gives a blisteringly raw version of ‘Ball and Chain’ with Big Brother and the Holding Company; the Mamas and the Papas give solid renditions of ‘California Dreamin’ and ‘Got A Feelin’.

Three of the best artists on display though all focus on stringed instruments. Firstly, (not that I’m biased), the Who’s belligerent energy comes across well, showcasing in particular Keith Moon’s manic anarchic drumming and Pete Townsend smashing up his guitar as he did back then. Later, by way of response, Jimi Hendrix goes one better. After a virtuoso guitar demonstration in ‘Wild Thing’, during which he humps it against the speaker stack, he then famously lays it down and sets fire to it, squirting on lighter fluid for good measure and then smashing it by the neck.

The last twenty minutes of the concert though is dominated by one continuous piece of incredible sitar work by Ravi Shankar backed by his band. Pennebaker cuts away often to show how transfixed the audience is of all ages by his phenomenal style and transcendent flights, his fingers becoming a blur of fretwork. Hendrix and the Monkees’ Micky Dolenz are picked out amongst the fans in attendance for this. Shankar’s joy at playing is infectious and the roar at the end is sensational.
 Later, amongst other films, Pennebaker would be a witness to the ground-breaking campaign strategy that brought Bill Clinton his presidential victory in the superb fly-on-the-wall THE WAR ROOM.

MONTEREY POP has since become available on a DVD with two hours of extra band footage.
This original 1968 cut is a short but valuable archive of a vital period in youth culture and music.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

No.38. THE OMEGA MAN (1971)


Charlton Heston drives a convertible contentedly down a deserted city street in the day-time. He sees a flash of movement from a building, stops the car and opens fire at the upper window with a machine-gun. And so begins the nightmare tale of the future: THE OMEGA MAN…

Directed by Boris Sagal for Warner Brothers, the film was based on the novella ‘I Am Legend’ by Richard Matheson. In the story, the world is ravaged by a plague spread by vampirism, but as the co-adapter Joyce Corrington (with partner John William) had a scientist’s background, she elected to have disease be disseminated by the more chillingly possible germ warfare following war between Russia and China.

Heston is Colonel Robert Neville, a military scientist, with slightly more improbably lantern-jawed heroic capabilities using weapons and his fists. This is no nerdy lab guy. He makes a likeable hero though, which is vital as for the entire first act he is pretty much the last healthy human alive and must plough a lonely furrow in his daily life of driving around, looting the stores of supplies and going to the cinema to screen himself WOODSTOCK for the umpteenth time. He recites dialogue along with the band members interviewed on screen and mutters “They sure don’t make pictures like that any more”. He realises on leaving that it is nearly dark and races back home to his secure bolt-hole just as he faces attack from fire-bombs and physical violence from a curious collection of foes.
The world’s predilection for conflict left an infected population that has mutated through three stages, the worst symptoms of which are albinism and a form of blindness in the eyes. The victim develops cataracts, an awful grey pallor to the skin and over-sensitivity to the light, which is why Neville’s plague-ridden enemies come out at night. They dress in monks’ ceremonial robes, wear shades and call themselves the Family, a sect lead by the urbane Anthony Zerbe as Matthias. Intriguingly, the film gives them a positive spin on their condition. They have turned their curse into a radical luddite philosophy, shunning all who serve ‘the Wheel’ of contemporary science and technology, the elements that created this post-apocalyptic living hell with “The tools that destroyed the world”. They taunt Neville nightly outside his apartment, determined to eliminate the last symbol of the old world in human form with torches of fire. “Nothing cleanses quite like fire”, declares Matthias with messianic fervour.

I’m pretty sure in the late 70s the comic 2000 AD ‘paid homage’ to the Family in one of its Judge Dredd stories - (the Brotherhood of the Light?)

Anyway, fortunately for Neville, his dull solitary existence of soliloquising and playing chess against an inanimate bust of Caesar is soon enlivened by the discovery of other humans in the area, unknown to him and the Family.  This comes after a flashback where we see him survive an impossibly fatal helicopter explosion that he walks away from – the indestructibility of El Cid almost knows no bounds.

The band of other healthy survivors are led by the personable Rosalind Cash as Lisa, her friend Dutch (Paul Koslo) and a band of children in their care. Cash was a very conscious timely choice by Joyce Corrington, an element of ‘racial pizzazz’ as she called it. In an era that saw the rise of the Black Power movement they wanted a bold black heroine who embodied resourceful qualities and made an attractive developing love interest for Heston’s character.

Since Neville knows he is immune to the plague bacilli he is able to concoct an antidote using his own blood, which he firstly uses successfully on Lisa’s brother Richie (Eric Laneuville). However, he cannot save everyone and in a shocking twist Lisa becomes infected and one of the Family. She subsequently sells Neville out and joins them. In a climactic battle, Neville is symbolically speared crucifixion-style outside by Matthias as he tries to take Lisa away. His final act as he dies is to give the bottle of the remaining serum to Dutch.

THE OMEGA MAN is entertaining and imaginative. The germ warfare thread hasn’t dated in the intervening decades; In fact it’s increased if one recalls not only the global threat of WMDs but more isolated cases such as Japan’s Aum cult and their Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway. It also posits a credible thoughtful possibility of how parts of a society adapt to necessary re-birth. Equally, the movie has a flavour of the 1970s present, reflecting the emerging Blaxploitation genre in its casting of Cash, Laneuville, and the albino black Family actors as well as Ron Grainer’s lush score which combines romantic yearnings with a hip funk edge, very much an early 70s soul vibe in places. 
THE OMEGA MAN is regarded by some as part of the Black Cinema trend of that time.
Heston’s old-school Hollywood leading-man appeal is neatly reminiscent of the values of the pre-ravaged world but still with an impressive energy and vitality. In the vintage featurette made by Warner Brothers, Heston brought Dr Ashley Montague, a famous anthropologist, to the set and discussed the film’s themes of individual and tribal survival with him. At one point, Heston picks up a machine-gun and offers his own take on man’s methods of achieving/re-establishing this dominance. Fittingly for someone who would become so identified with the pro-gun NRA movement, he describes the modern weapon of his character as “The ultimate extension of man as a killer ape”, a knowing reference to his recent famous central role in the similar future-shock PLANET OF THE APES.

It’s interesting to note that within a period of just a few years (all within my blog’s focus), Heston appeared in three different dystopian science-fiction future movies. As well as the aforementioned two, there was the frightening SOYLENT GREEN with its moving scene of him and Edward G Robinson being shown a film montage of the natural beauty of old-world Earth. For an actor who espoused controversial traditional ‘frontier’ values, he was also very willing to be involved with pacifist projects that warned of the consequences of our increasingly warmongering ways. (He marched alongside Martin Luther King on the day Dr King made his immortal ‘I have a dream speech’). Being allied to the unforced peace message of THE OMEGA MAN is to his credit.

Monday, 17 August 2015

No.37. British Sitcom Films: LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR (1973)


In 1973, Hammer followed up its astounding success with the trilogy of sitcom spin-off films of ON THE BUSES to do the same for the similarly high-toned LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR series.As expected, just like the series it’s a one-trick pony and a lame one at that. Eddie and his wife Joan (Jack Smethurst and Kate Williams) live next door to West-Indian neighbours Bill and Barbie (Rudolph Walker and Nina Baden-Semper). The wives get on well but the husbands are continually at racist logger-heads, fuelled mostly by Eddie’s ignorance; that’s unless you count that of the writers Driver and Powell.

The opening pre-credits sequence is the only one that shows any attempt at wit above the IQ of a hat-stand. The narrator intones Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt and his lyrical tribute to ‘This sceptre’d isle’ from RICHARD II over stock images of traditional solid English values. On the line ‘Where all men are created equal’ we cut to a tracking shot down the suburban street of the show’s families, depicting couples of both races having at each other with water bowls, soot, bricks and buryings of axes rather than hatchets to the jaunty tune of the title song.

From there though, the script and plot is a joyless merciless Hammer-ing of the same endless racial needling. Within the first ten minutes, Eddie has called Bill ‘sambo’ and ‘nig-nog’, a black bus driver a ‘choc-ice’ and the blatantly white Asian conductor ‘Gunga Din’ and ‘Ali-Baba’. Even the real Asian actor who plays one of the factory workers is required to behave like a stereotyped immigrant dimwit from MIND YOUR LANGUAGE. At least the writers could argue that they were taking equal opportunity pot-shots at every target (without er…discrimination?), including regional ones. When Eddie’s battle-axe mother Patricia Hayes comes to stay, she is not impressed by Joan’s high-falutin’ talk of protein and calories, boasting “Yes, well up north we don’t have them. Up north we have proper food”.

Eddie is not just a narrow-minded bigot. He’s also a conniving chiseller, getting caught by his boss, the familiar puffing stream-train of seething frustration Bill Fraser, attempting to turn back the time-clock hands. Eddie, Bill and their mutual white and black friends all work in the same factory. This is the boxing-ring of the plot as racial tension leads to the separately raced workers fracturing over union differences and going on strike. This at least was topical as strike action in Britain (especially from power companies) was hugely common in the early 1970s. Another bid for social comment is made by having Bill be a supporter of Edward Heath, which causes Eddie to later ask him for twice the union dues as a ‘Tory’.

It’s bad enough hearing the constant unimaginative racist insults of Eddie, met with the feeble reaction of ‘Honky’ by Bill, but the desperate shoe-horning of them into every scene is tiresomely lame. “A white lie, or in your case a black lie” says Jacko at one point just to spread the manure of ignorance as wide as possible amongst the cast even if in his case it's meant as a shared joke rather than an insult. Of course, the strike aspect is a golden (or leaden) chance to crow-bar ‘blackleg’ into the dialogue. Having Bill sing ‘Day-o’ in his bathroom in the morning surely does the film-makers no credit at all in answering accusations of black stereotyping, nor does the ‘hilarious’  fake cooking of Eddie in a cannibal stew by the black workers in tribal costume make it clear who the joke is really upon. Are these portrayals really only high-lighting Eddie’s ignorance?

Nina Baden-Semper’s delivery of her lines is awkward and Kate Williams is sadly simply called on to respond with knee-jerk sour sarcasm most of the time. There’s a host of other well-known sitcom faces in LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR like Arthur English, Melvin Hayes and Bill Pertwee and depending on your take, they’re either welcome relief or playing the expected type-casting.
The only relationship in the film that has any charm is that of the romance between Hayes and Charles Hyatt as Joe, Bill’s father. It has a quaint appeal even if Hayes nearly blows it with the acidic burp of “I’ve never been to a blackie wedding before”. Ultimately though, the warring Eddie becomes assimilated into a now multi-racial family by his brother marrying Barbie’s sister; so harmony wins out – perhaps.

The most offensive element of LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR to me isn't even the incessant hate-crime racism that’s accepted as part of a more innocent time - (arguably more guilty?). Worse still is the relentlessly dumbed-down humour in general in shows like this that was considered ‘good enough’ back then for audiences. Here, its lazy pandering to ignoramuses is defended as “ Ah-hah, but we’re actually mocking the bigoted white instigators of racism”, yet in order to enjoy this low-frequency pap, you would have to turn off all the brain activity that would distinguish this from something to inspire imitators of racism.

Fun for all the (Manson) family indeed. Speaking of which, how can it be family entertainment when there aren't any families in it. None of them down that street seem to have anu kids? Have they been sterilised due to hate-crime prosecution? Or have they all been fostered to the reverse-peculiar area of MR BENN's Festive Road where it's all children but no adults except his bowler-hatted eccentricity?

Laugh? I nearly examined my motives...

Sunday, 16 August 2015



No-one could ever have accused Stanley Kubrick of repeating himself or resting on his laurels. After directing two of the most talked-about films of the previous few years in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, he once again simply went wherever his fascination took him, adapting his style to the subject and embracing it with an incredible focus and awe-inspiring attention to detail.

His next project was to travel from the future to the past in BARRY LYNDON. It was adapted by Kubrick from Thackeray’s bawdy novel - described as the first novel without a hero; that is to say the central character it does have is an unheroic, unrepentant social-climber. The film follows Barry (Ryan O’Neal) from the cradle to the grave as he marries coldly into money and then is separated from it and his family in a divorce settlement returning him to the life of the roguish gambler he began.

Rightfully, BARRY LYNDON is one of the most beautiful films you will ever see, but to me too little else goes on to touch the heart. The period detail, costumes and the ground-breaking advances in lighting are breathtakingly exquisite and for these alone it deserves renown; but it’s inert, an utterly gorgeous poised series of tableaux. The scenes are poses, framed and played out to re-capture images of the eighteenth century that seem incredibly authentic but you’re not led to care about the people themselves.

One of the shrewd moves Kubrick made in pre-production was to ‘innocently’ ask a favour of his home studio Warner Brothers. Could he possibly buy from them the two Mitchell BNC cameras they had in store as he simply admired their craftsmanship? They didn’t realise till later that he knew full well that this workmanship of their inner design was priceless. The cunning director then set about having his cinematographer customise one of the two cameras to fit special Zeiss 0.7 F-stop lenses (built for NASA) that would enable him to film scenes lit by only a few candles to create the remarkable Oscar-winning old world painterly realism on screen.

Ultimately BARRY LYNDON went on to a lack of critical appreciation on release (apart from in Europe where its sedate pace and sensibility was welcomed) due to the same over-emphasis on the beauty of the shot that would hamper Ridley’ Scott’s later THE DUELLISTS. Over the years it has been re-appraised as one of his greatest films, but I can’t agree, compared to the more emotional engagement coupled with (not replaced by) the spectacle of most of his other work. It’s notable that the four Academy Awards it won were all in music, costume, production design and cinematography, but nothing representative in the performances, direction or writing. 

BARRY LYNDON is a strikingly lovely visual treat though and the film’s desire to try for the utmost realism of a period look is still valuable and entirely in keeping with Kubrick’s need to constantly challenge himself and surprise his audience. JAWS had just opened and transformed movie-going into the commercial blockbuster era that made art-house films an even tougher sell now. It would be another five years before a project of his came to fruition again with the more mainstream horror movie THE SHINING.