Monthly Archives: January 2013

If you are asked to choose a favourite film actor…

 

… do you first think of the people who act in your favourite films? Or does your favourite person have a specific memorable persona which enriches all the films he or she appears in?

It’s an interesting question. Ever since the Academy Awards were initiated in 1929 to celebrate Hollywood films, actors have always been included within the prize-giving. However, it is an accepted part of the Hollywood story that for a long time actors were much less important than studio bosses, producers and directors.  In those early days (and we’re talking about US cinema, of course, because that country produced the majority of films which ordinary people saw), actors  were employed by specific studios and therefore often appeared in similar genres of film. Even if they were loaned out to other studios, the tastes of producers and fans were sometimes conservative.  Only in the 1950s did the successful performers begin to understand their commercial and artistic worth and to take independent steps such as negotiating for better roles and setting up their own production companies.

So if you’re thinking about great film performers, I think you’ve got to admire especially those people  who worked during  those very different periods of production and employment.  While there are many men and women who started in films in the 1930s or 1940s, who worked regularly for thirty or forty years, and whose films are still watched and enjoyed, I think the one with the most varied and impressive CV is James Stewart.

At time of writing, eight of Stewart’s films feature in the IMDB website’s top 250.  The American Film Institute decided that five of his films were among the top 100 ever made in the country.  One of his films has been rated by the distinguished Sight and Sound poll as the best film ever made.

Stewart’s movie persona is often described as an “everyman”, but that term underestimates him. In my opinion, it only really applies to his two famous Frank Capra films : Mr Smith Goes to Washington, where Stewart earned his first Oscar nomination as the idealistic senator challenging big government’s  vested interests, and the Christmas favourite It’s a Wonderful Life, with its warm message about every individual’s potential influence on his or her community.   Elsewhere in those innocent pre-war days, although Stewart’s marshal in Destry Rides Again appears to be a small quiet man triumphing over the violent bullies, he does display some striking skill with firearms and then wins over his doubting townsfolk with distinctive personal skills, while in The Philadelphia Story, his journalist starts off as toughly intrusive and comes out likeably at the end of the film partly because of the plot’s romantic complications and partly because  of the gold-standard co-starring pair of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn.

The change which took place in Stewart’s post-war film persona has been widely commented on. His characters look the same, and they often retain some of his pre-war charm, but they are also tougher, more intense, more prone to anger or anxiety, often materialistic and embittered by past experience. George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life definitely has some  of those qualities, although I’m not a great fan of the film, despite its many strengths, because of its sentimental ending. An interesting counterpoint  to It’s a Wonderful Life is Magic Town where his Rip Smith, for a time, exerts the same influence over a community which George Bailey has, but one which is less benign.

Stewart’s five  Westerns with Anthony Mann are a significant part of this post-war oeuvre. In each of Winchester 73, Where the River Bends, The Naked Spur, The Far Country and The Man From Laramie, his characters are driven, selfish, usually seeking revenge, even if at the end they enjoy some redemption or reconciliation.

Then of course there are the Hitchcock films. Stewart’s detective in Vertigo is prone both to a physical fear of heights and deeper psychological obsessions, and his performance has been thrown into greater relief as the film itself has gradually grown in critical status. It first appeared in Sight and Sound’s decennial poll of greatest films in 1982, two decades after its release, and was voted number 1 in the 2012 list. A similar trajectory can be seen in the American Film Institute lists : in the poll of 1998, Vertigo had the lowest position of the five Stewart films which were included , yet, nine years later, it had become, overwhelmingly, the most popular of those five.

In the other Hitchcock films, Stewart is generally regarded as brilliant as the wheelchair-bound Peeping Tom in Rear Window, and although Rope is usually criticised as too stagey, I like his portrayal of the suspicious, cynical older friend of the two gay killers.

Two more performances of this period which can be bracketed together are in films which aim (appropriately in black and white) to present a bleakly realistic view of crime and justice : as a reporter in Call Northside 777, and a lawyer in Anatomy of a Murder.

At least in the middle of all these was Harvey – but, although this is usually seen as family entertainment, let us not forget that Stewart’s character in this wackily amusing comedy is an alcoholic fantasist whom his family try to have certified!

In the 1960s, Stewart finally got to work with John Ford in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  Referring back to my earlier point about whether your favourite actor is the person who plays in your favourite films, I do share the popular view that this is a great Ford film in its dramatisation of the dichotomies of old West v new, and of legend v truth, but I do feel that Stewart is a weakness in the film because he is at least 20 years too old for his lawyer character in the main part of the narrative. I prefer his contribution (although much shorter) in a later film for both himself and John Wayne, Don Siegel’s The Shootist.

In addition to all that creative work, Stewart served for several years in the US air force during World War Two. I don’t know much about the details of his service, but it is frequently mentioned that he was promoted several times, ending the war at the rank of Colonel.  It’s important not to confuse the person and the performances, but, for me, it is a pleasing irony that Stewart, who is often remembered as the gawky, drawling innocent he played in some of his films (a persona he did tend to play on in TV interviews in his later years) should have behaved so dramatically different in real life.

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Our Rabbie

 

In many ways, Robert Burns is the ideal representative for the Scotland he lived in, with his personal experience of both town and country, west coast and east, lowlands and highlands, religion and politics, and people from all walks of life.

Of course, he is also a figure of contradictions : the self-employed farmer who became an employee of the state, the populariser of the Scots language who was influenced equally strongly by English classical stylists like Pope and Fielding,  the hard-working literary craftsman whose posthumous reputation has been confused by both friends and foes more attracted to his life and legend.

You tend to feel that, in recent decades, it is these contradictions which have fed Burns’  iconic status : for example, someone who was never rich in his own lifetime but who features on the Clydesdale Bank £10 note or the political radical who at different times has been adopted by political spin-doctors of  various colours.

Of course, while a few Burns poems are world-famous, many are scarcely known at all. One reason for this, as hinted above, may be the popular interest in the person of Burns. As the entry in Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland says, “(Burns) is very often referred to as ‘Rabbie Burns’. The familiar form of his name signals affection and acceptance. It is as if Burns is being saluted in a very down-to-earth way, as a creative genius certainly, but also as someone who does not stand on his dignity, a friend to the common man.”

Perhaps this Burns season it’s worth paying more attention to Rabbie the poet,  and, especially, to the sheer range of his work : comic, dramatic, satirical, philosophical, and, of course, the love poems and lyrics of all styles, romantic, emotional, tender and carnal.

 

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The end of “Tam O’Shanter” in metalwork, on this Burns walkway in Alloway.

 

This BBC archive  offers a comprehensive themed list of his works and some brilliant readings.  

 

Reference :  Keyes, John and Julia (ed)  (1994)  Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland  London : Harper Collins

 

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Why is Robert Burns the only world famous writer who has a meal organised in his honour?

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“Alloway’s auld haunted kirk” in Ayrshire, key scene in Burns’ “Tam O’Shanter”, and actual burial place of his parents William and Agnes.

 

When, as a child,  I first came across the phenomenon of the Burns Supper,  the thing which struck me was that the food served could be so plain. The idea that people would get dressed up and go out for a fancy meal at which the main course was haggis  seemed incomprehensible.  So I was reassured the first time I read an actual Burns Supper menu, to see that this very much acquired taste in food actually played only a minor role in the meal, and that beef was usually the main course.   

Later, the other question which puzzled me was: why did the poet Robert Burns have an annual meal organised in his honour, an event which started so soon after his death, when no other famous writer did? Why, indeed, did he have special societies set up in his honour?  True, Burns was a writer who celebrated conviviality and companionship, but so did others. The works of  Shakespeare, Dickens, and Joyce all suggest that they are writers who see food and drink as among the great pleasures of life, and surely the English and the Irish are nationalities who welcome a good party as much as the Scots?

The answer to the mystery, I am certain,  although I have found it hard to find anyone who shares this view in writing, is freemasonry.  It is well-known that Burns was a freemason, part of a religious movement which developed in the 18th century as men espoused rational and scientific thinking which was seen to be a modern alternative to the hierarchy and  doctrine of the medieval Catholic Church, and which is still popular today.  It seems highly likely to me that many of the people who wished to honour Burns after his premature death were fellow masons as well as literary admirers. The first Burns Club was set up in 1801 in Greenock, only five years after his death – a speedy appreciation, indeed. The Burns Monument in Ayr which was built in the 1820s shows Masonic design influences.

Certainly, other factors came into play soon afterwards to extend and deepen Burns’  reputation. For example,  Carol McGurk points out that many of the next couple of generations of Scots of the same social class as Burns (which she describes as “peasant”) did what he had once planned to do and emigrated. The picture of Scottish life portrayed in Burns’ work which they read now was instrumental in forming the memory of their former homeland. By the centenary of Burns’ birth, 1859, several editions of his work had appeared, and, as Carol McGurk says, “British popular culture was (now) permeated with the familiar aspects of the Burns myth”.

During the last generation, the classic Burns Supper has become less structured and formal. Nowadays, Burns events in January or early February retain the food and drink and music  but tend to have fewer speeches.  This is probably because there are fewer Burns experts around and fewer skilled public speakers who are not professional politicians or actors. Also, our Scottish culture has become more international and less text-based. Men and women now participate equally, in contrast to the men-only clubs which hosted them regularly in the past.  The result is a more varied, more welcoming type of Burns event, perhaps more in keeping with the poet’s democratic outlook.

Robert Burns’ status as a writer is still celebrated – and certainly his complex colourful life is understood better than in the past.  However, in my experience, intriguingly, the freemasonry element of the Burns story is still rarely mentioned.

 

Reference :  McGurk, Carol  (1994), “Burns and Nostalgia” in   Simpson, Kenneth (ed) Burns Now  Edinburgh : Canongate Academic

 

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Back to days of hope, in both senses

 

Once upon a time, and for a long time, I rated Days of Hope, a 1975 TV film series written by Jim Allen and directed by Ken Loach, as the best programme I had ever seen on television.  There were a number of reasons for my strength of feeling. Some were to do with my youth when I first saw it and the way its English working-class political narrative fitted in with, and fuelled, my burgeoning interests in history and politics. One was certainly the fact that it looked and sounded like no other drama I had seen on TV before.

Of course, its qualities, at that time quite new to me, are now more familiar and easy to recognise. It was filmed solely on location – which meant it was actually a film, at a time when TV plays were mostly set in a studio with only occasional use of outdoor locations. All of the actors were unknown faces, and many were amateurs, so they definitely looked like real people. In addition, the way they spoke and behaved was spine-chillingly authentic, as if they were in the same room or from along the road . Days of Hope first appeared in an era of TV drama when writers tended to receive the greatest prominence, so I remembered it as a Jim Allen work, although now I appreciate that much of its impact is due to director Ken Loach.       

Days of Hope is subtitled as “four films from the Great War to the General Strike”. It follows the fortunes of three characters in a Yorkshire farming family : Ben, his sister Sarah and her husband Philip. In the first film, Philip is a conscientious objector while Ben joins the army voluntarily and serves in Ireland. The second centres on Ben, who deserts from the army and supports striking miners in Durham. In the third, Ben is now a Communist activist while Philip is a Labour MP. The fourth deals with the General Strike where Ben and Sarah see the strike as an opportunity to bring about a working-class revolution while Philip loyally follows the TUC leadership’s conciliation.  In all of the films, politics is these characters’ (and many others’) overriding  motivation.

I immediately became of great fan of Paul Copley, who played Ben. I was always keen to see him over the next few years in other TV performances and was gratified to read about his success in theatre work. As TV drama fashions changed, he appeared less often, so it has been pleasingly ironic to see him again recently in another drama set in the same historical period but with a totally different tone, Downton Abbey.

Seeing the whole cast again, it has been striking to reflect how few are still recognised. Perhaps the most visible is Alun Armstrong, another great actor from the north of England who has perhaps enjoyed a more high profile career since than Copley, and who here has a smaller though important role. Nikolas Simmonds, who played Philip, turned after this to directing and teaching, but died relatively young from a serious illness. Pam Brighton, who played Sarah, also moved into directing, particularly with the politically engaged Dubbel-Joint company. Most of the other performers have  had few other TV or film credits.

There is no doubt that one of the reasons for my high estimation of Days of Hope was that I had watched it in the distant past of my youth and  had not had the chance to re-assess it in the light of changing tastes and experience. Despite Ken Loach’s success as a film director in the past twenty years, it has never been repeated by the BBC. My recent viewing via You Tube was my first in thirty years, and this came about probably because the films have only recently been issued on DVD.

In my memory, the first two films were the best, because of the strong characterisation, the rural settings, the rawness of the dramatic incidents with their sudden bursts of violence and the occasional very effective use of unaccompanied singing.

First time around, I remember finding the final film difficult. It is by far the longest, the three main characters in whom I had become interested are featured less, and it includes several scenes of complex trade union argument about the progress of the General Strike. Thirty years has given me a broader context in which to place these scenes. Cinematically, they make a fascinating parallel with the similar scenes in the 1995 Loach/Allen Spanish Civil War film Land and Freedom, where farmers and soldiers debate the rights and wrongs of land collectivisation. Historically and politically, Loach and Allen were probably commenting as much on the contemporary tensions within the Labour Party and the trade unions, which became all the more obvious and significant later, first,  with the emergence of the Social Democratic Party, and, later, in Tony Blair’s New Labour project.

TV and cinema drama scenes which feature long discussions between characters are so rare now, that it is easy to think they would only feature in the work of tendentious political writers and directors – but no, rather they are evidence of how strongly TV in the 1970s was still influenced by theatre. Watching a repeated episode of the more mainstream Colditz, for example, I was struck how a scene between a British POW, who had been brought up in Germany, and his childhood friend who was now a Nazi was extended into an equally detailed political discussion.

Although this latest viewing of Days of Hope did nudge away my rose-coloured spectacles occasionally, it was still brilliant to watch, first, to re-assess  it alongside Loach’s more recent films;  also, as an alternative, more politically engaged perspective on a well-covered period of 20th century history; and, finally, simply to make you wonder at the fact that, once upon a time, programmes like it appeared quite often on prime-time TV!

Some more observations are available on Screen Online and Senses of Cinema.

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New York waterfront in winter

 

Most people would surely agree that New York is one of the most photogenic cities in the world.

 

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These photos were taken in the long ago pre-digital days, during one of my first visits in January 1984.  I’m fond of the colour contrast of the photos, which was given free, without any planning by me, by the hazy winter sunlight.

 

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The pre-2001 presence of the World Trade Centre is telling, but, even more striking for me,  are  the foreground ships, suggesting a still busy waterfront.

 

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Contrast with the  photo below,  taken 19 years later from the same promenade.

 

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Reflecting on the National Theatre of Scotland as the baton is passed

 

Seven years after its first productions, just as Laurie Sansom takes over from Vicky Featherstone as artistic director, seems like a good time to assess the position of the National Theatre of Scotland.

This 21st century attempt to establish a Scottish national theatre has been hugely more successful than the last – although those few years’ existence of the Ewan Hooper/Tom Fleming Scottish Theatre Company during the 1980s, which appear to have been airbrushed out of history, perhaps deserve reassessment.

So how has the NTS’ success been achieved? Firstly, certainly, by applying, to quote its own phrase, the Theatre Without Walls approach – although in these cash-strapped times, it is unlikely anyone in the planning would have positively argued for a new theatre building.

Second, and perhaps we might have expected this, by putting on a large number of theatre shows, of all kinds, all over Scotland, to build audience interest and loyalty quickly. But Vicky Featherstone and her team showed particular skill in producing  shows in association with other organisations which were also successful outside the country. Black Watch has been the overwhelming global success, but, by my calculations, another eight have toured outside the UK, and a further  17 performed outside Scotland.

I’ve seen nine NTS plays, which is a tiny percentage of the 120 or so they have produced or co-produced in those seven years.  That output has shown huge energy and ambition : new plays and  established works; adaptations from other texts; performances based on dance, stand-up comedy or story-telling;  a range of venues which included conventional theatres, village halls, schools, churches, night-clubs, sports arenas, parks, shopping centres  and swimming baths.

My own favourites?  Black Watch was brilliant and its global success well deserved ; also The Bacchae; and Men Should Weep, which had the challenge of running alongside an arguably better-cast London production.

At first,  I was very pleased that they had been able to recruit local boy made very good Alan Cumming into an unusual (and ultimately successful) project, The Bacchae  but the fact that he returned to a less unusual play, Macbeth,  which the NTS had already done twice before, suggested that a celebrity guest can be a double-edged sword. Having said that, I hope that enquiries are going on behind the scenes in order to coax other  TV and cinema names who have proven theatre track records, people like Ewan McGregor, James McAvoy, David Tennant, Bill Paterson, Phyllis Logan…

I’m just a bit alarmed that one of the 2013 projects, Let the Right One In, is adapted from a recent movie which, artistically, hardly needs a new theatre version. Also I wonder if one or two writers are being over-used : it was reasonable that Andrew O’Hagan’s journalism expertise should be employed on their newspaper piece Enquirer but for two of his six books to have been adapted into NTS productions was perhaps one more than immediately necessary.

One of the weaknesses of some of the Scottish Theatre Company  productions which I saw in the 1980s was the sometimes clumsy transfer of English dialogue into Scots language. It’s great that Scots-dialected English is now seen as perfectly appropriate, although it worked rather better in Black Watch than in The House of Bernarda Alba.

Many commentators like Michael Billington feel confident that Laurie Sansom will lead the company into further artistic and commercial  success, and I’m sure that confidence is well-founded.

May I offer a couple of ideas for future productions as we move towards referendum time?  First,  Armstrong’s Last Goodnight by John Arden, a meaty medieval story by one of those great post- war playwrights who are in danger of being forgotten, and, second,  Jock Tamson’s Bairns by Liz Lochhead and Communicado, which was a great success of Glasgow 1990 and deals with Scottish history, culture and identity in a unconventional theatrical and musical way.

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BBC4 – an opportunity missed?

 

When one is tempted to complain about what’s on television, it’s often easy to forget that, not only are particular programmes or channels aimed at people very different from us, but also the people who make programmes and run channels are people very different from us. Even taking all of that into account, I still feel that BBC4 is a channel where great opportunities are not fully developed. This topic has been discussed by more knowledgeable commentators than me,  but here is my tuppence worth.

The channel started life as BBC Knowledge, and it seems originally to have been planned as a channel of high-ish  culture and documentary.  In its early days, that’s certainly the way it looked to this person who didn’t receive its programmes and only read its schedules.

Some intelligent and imaginative ideas have been retained. The idea of Friday night being (mainly pop and rock) music  night, with a mix of new and repeat programmes, seems to be popular, as are many imported dramas like The Killing and Lilyhammer.  The daily World News is a refreshing alternative to other BBC news output, although it was better still when not scheduled as a rival to Channel 4 News.

But why are the foreign films (classic as well as contemporary) not a regular feature instead of an occasional one, thus providing a genuine alternative to most of the movies on BBC1 and BBC2? It’s always been hard to see foreign language cinema if you live outside London, but sometimes in the past BBC2 and Channel 4 provided that cultural service. It’s a perfect niche for BBC4.

Surely, too, the BBC must have a huge drama archive available for rescreening.  They must have tapes of dozens (maybe even hundreds) of productions of the great playwrights of the past  featuring well-known actors which would still look perfectly watchable in 2013.  When the Boat Comes In and Colditz, mainstream rather than prestige fare when they were first released but brilliantly crafted in comparison to much 21st century TV drama, were shown on the Yesterday channel.  Why not Saturday night as drama night on BBC4?

Also, although some imported dramas have been high-profile successes on the terrestrial channels , one keeps reading of US programmes  which either never get shown regularly here, or get pushed onto channels like FX which few people have access to. Were The Wire and Breaking Bad so expensive to buy, or were their distinctive audience-grabbing qualities so hard to foresee?

Finally, performances of classical music and opera are shown rarely outside the summer  Proms season, yet there is a big audience for them up and down the country and all the year round.  The status of composers and performers of this type of music tends to stay more steady in popular taste than those of pop or rock music, so surely there are safe rescreening opportunities  here?

I often think that many of the people who are responsible for producing and screening programmes nowadays simply lack confidence in judging what is good quality and what is less good. Undeniably, there has been blurring of the boundaries of high and low culture over the post war decades : some of the areas of high culture have been marginalised and are now unappreciated and undervalued; popular culture in turn has continued to expand and profit. One consequence during  the past decade has been this strange phenomenon where documentaries are made in the style of drama, with imposed characterisations, suspense and emotion – although it’s equally possible that has developed merely because writers and actors are too expensive and demanding!

Perhaps the executives responsible for BBC4 should think of it as the TV equivalent of Radio 3. The latter has been popularised significantly in the last twenty years, but I suspect most licence-fee payers would still consider most of its content substantial and stimulating, even if specialised, and certainly worth supporting and developing.

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On the later days of Christmas…

 

Happy New Year!

We often bemoan the fact that ferocious weeks of pre-Christmas preparation leave a sense of emptiness at the speed at which the day passes, or about the way the spiritual meaning of the feast (whatever we mean by that) is eclipsed by commercialism and materialism.

The  Spanish-speaking countries encourage their citizens to treat Christmastide as a full season rather than simply one day by giving prominence to the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January, when according to tradition, the three kings, or wise men, came to worship the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. Admittedly, the feast of Los Reyes does seem to include another occasion for giving presents, but it is also celebrated with processions, other outdoor events and special meals.

This photo shows the large stage being set up in the centre of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in early January, 2006, for their imminent Los Reyes event.

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UK towns often still have cribs in public spaces and offices, but the Spanish belens, such as this one in a municipal building in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, are usually more imposing.

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Large nativity scenes are familiar in other parts of Europe, mostly the Catholic countries, such as this one of life-sized figures and real animals, photographed in Funchal, Madeira.

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Coincidentally, the UK charity Casc-aid  is suggesting that churches should promote the idea that Christmas Day is the first day of the Christmas season and not the culmination of it.   The charity judges that the average adult spends £400 on Christmas presents and recommends a reduction in our spending in order both to share resources and reduce individual stress.

Perhaps greater efforts could be made to reinstate the Epiphany as an important part of the UK Christmas season : after all Twelfth Night was part of native practice long before the name was adopted by Shakespeare.

Another, wry, perspective on the long-drawn-out commercialism of Christmas was provided by US musician Loudon Wainwright in his song “Suddenly It’s Christmas” – sure to be available on You Tube somewhere.

 

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