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The Great War

Incredible Work by Thoughtful People
It's very hard to put into words just how brilliant this series is, and it would have to rank as one of the best documentary series of all time.

Unlike some later efforts on the Great War, the length of this series allows detailed exploration of some of the less well remembered campaigns. As we learn, conditions in Mesopotamia, the Balkans and the Alpine regions were just as inhuman and deadly as those in the trenches of the Western Front.

The tone of the narrative perhaps reflects some changing attitudes in Britain generally - a more questioning era as the mid 1960s approached. Made fifty years after the outbreak of war, many veterans were still alive and their recollections give the series great immediacy. Perspectives, based on first hand accounts given in interview or through surviving letters and diaries, are presented in an even handed way, from both sides, without shying away from deeply uncomfortable truths and graphic, confronting descriptions; failures in politics, and leadership; mutiny and discontent amongst the ranks, human frailties, and military and civilian deaths from enemy action, disease and starvation.

If there is one regret, it is that the series stopped rather abruptly the end of hostilities. There are some passing references to the Versailles peace conference, but it would have been wonderful to see a full concluding episode on Versailles, and the consequences.

Enemy at the Door

From a time when British television period and costume drama was of a consistently high standard, Enemy at the Door, by London Weekend Television, is a real standout.

The casting is as perfect as could be. It's also very cleverly written, and acted, in that the German occupiers often seem more likeable than many of the islanders, particularly the Commandant, Richter, played superbly by Alfred Burke. The relationship between Richter and the local doctor, Martel (Bernard Horsfall) is exquisitely crafted, demonstrating the tensions arising from being enemies by circumstance, harbouring a mutual liking and respect without showing it too much, and having to oversee a functioning community in impossible circumstances.

Simon Cadell plays the obligatory SS fanatic, Reinicke with sinister understatement, and jolts us out of any complacent sympathy for the German perspective by demonstrating just what they were capable of.

It's such a brilliant and thought-provoking story, and such a shame that it did not extend beyond the two series.

Century of Cinema: A Personal History of British Cinema by Stephen Frears
Episode 3, Season 1

An Essential Introduction to Post-War British Cinema
Contributors to this fascinating documentary include critic and writer Gavin Lambert; and directors Alan Parker and Michael Apted. It's a very useful introduction to Lindsay Anderson, Ken Loach, Woodfall Films, Karel Reisz; Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and the arc of post-war British Cinema.

One of the more interesting aspects is Gavin Lambert ranting against Brief Encounter (1945), a film that almost everybody seemed to rank as as the pinnacle of British cinematic achievement, for its repressed class consciousness. He suggests that no one actually got it, apart from the middle-class themselves. It was apparently previewed in a dockside cinema for a working class audience, who couldn't understand why Trevor Howard didn't just sleep with Celia Johnson and get it over with. ('When's 'e going to 'ave 'er orf?' someone reportedly called out during the screening).

For Lambert, the killing of PC George Dixon by Dirk Bogarde in The Blue Lamp (1950) seemed to be more about the desire to kill off the cinema of smug middle-class values and bring in a grittier, more working-class approach. (He was a few years too early, and George Dixon, played by Jack Warner, was resurrected for television; 432 episodes of Dixon of Dock Green which ran between 1955-1976.)

Typically British was made shortly after Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) had become a global hit. I often wonder what Gavin Lambert, who passed away in 2005, made of the the 'middle-class-ness' of the series of Richard Curtis films like Four Weddings, Notting Hill and Love Actually.

Between Alan Parker, Michael Apted and Stephen Frears at that time, there remained a general vibe of pessimism. They acknowledged the innovation of non-conformist directors like Lindsay Anderson, but looked more to Granada Television and the BBC's Wednesday Play, including Ken Loach's Cathy Come Home, as the gold standard for British drama and the ability to create something a little different reflecting the social and political changes in Britain during the 1960s. Alan Parker says that he later wrote Bugsy Malone (1976), a huge international hit, because his desire to produce movies reflecting British experiences and themes were being rejected on the grounds of being 'too parochial'. The most globally successful British directors had ended up working for a significant part of their careers in Hollywood. Stephen Frears concludes on a slightly downbeat note, commenting on the plight of a British film director by opining that, in spite of their best efforts, 'people want to see American films'.

In the years since the documentary was made, it was Stephen Frears who arguably had the most successful run with 'British' themes, and perhaps negated his own argument, with films like The Queen, Philomena, Mrs Henderson Presents, and some high quality television drama as well. Alan Parker made only three more films and chaired the BFI and UK Film Council. He passed away in July 2020. Michael Apted continued to manage a career encompassing Hollywood blockbusters (The World is Not Enough) and smaller socially conscious documentaries, with great success, including the long running 'Up' series.

Play for Today: The Price of Coal: Part 2 - Back to Reality
Episode 15, Season 7

Brilliantly Written, Acted, and Directed
This is the second instalment in a two part Play for Today, about a working colliery in the north of England. The first episode dealt with preparations for a visit to the colliery by Prince Charles, but things take a more dramatic turn in this conclusion.

Ken Loach is an incredible director for so many reasons, and is rightly held in very high esteem by other post-war luminaries of British cinema and television, including Michael Apted, Stephen Frears and Alan Parker.

One theme common to Ken Loach's films and television plays, is the way he is able to coax wonderfully understated, totally natural performances from his cast, including children, and doesn't shy away from strong regional dialect. As a result, it's sometimes hard to tell if you are watching a dramatised story, or a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Under Mr Loach's expert guidance, even mundane aspects of life take on an artistic poignancy. He and his crew and artists have left us unforgettable moments of working-class history in post-war Britain.

Play for Today: The Price of Coal: Part 1 - Meet the People
Episode 14, Season 7

Understated, Natural, and Brilliant
Ken Loach is an incredible director for so many reasons, and is rightly held in very high esteem by other post-war luminaries of British cinema and television, including Michael Apted, Stephen Frears and Alan Parker.

One theme common to Ken Loach's films and television plays, is the way he is able to coax wonderfully understated, totally natural performances from his cast, including children, and doesn't shy away from strong regional dialect. As a result, it's sometimes hard to tell if you are watching a dramatised story, or a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Under Mr Loach's expert guidance, even mundane aspects of life take on an artistic poignancy. He and his crew and artists have left us unforgettable moments of working-class history in post-war Britain.


A Quiet Gem
I first saw this years ago having picked up the DVD from a discount table, watched it, didn't really warm to it, then never gave it another thought. Having just recently viewed it again, I have a whole new perspective.

It is very well written (for the screen) by Charles Sturridge, an award-winning, accomplished child actor, writer and director, who later wrote and directed another favourite of mine, Longitude, amongst many other credits over a long and very successful career that is far from over.

Ian Charleson in the lead role (Major Archer) gives a subtle and sensitive performance in what appears to have been his final screen role. (He died in 1990, aged just 40). Ian Richardson as the likeably eccentric yet ultimately quite sinister Edward Spencer is another standout, with a very good quality supporting cast, including Emer Gillespie as the unreachable Sarah Devlin, and a young Sean Bean; a very different soldier from the one he would portray in the Sharpe films a few years later. There is is also a great ensemble of rather quirky characters that lend a human and personal perspective of the anxious last days of the privileged British in Ireland.

I have a feeling that this is a series that will improve again with each subsequent viewing.

By the Sword Divided

One of the best written and acted historical dramas
Another great period drama from the BBC; two series were made between 1983 and 1985. It follows the fortunes of a Royalist family, the Laceys, during the English Civil War. As the title might suggest, they are torn apart by their opposing politics, with ultimately deadly results. This for me is one of the occasions when the combination of a great script and convincing performances elevate the result to something far greater than the sum of the parts.

I've read some commentary that says that it is heavily biased towards the Royalist perspective, although I disagree, and think they give both sides a fair and sympathetic representation. The characters are wholly relatable in a modern sense, which is not always the case even in the best period dramas, and the human cost of the conflict is a key part of the story. There are some stand out scenes, including a witch trial and the political machinations surrounding the trial and execution of the King.

Play for Today: Kisses at Fifty
Episode 13, Season 3

Great Kitchen-Sink Classic
It's always fascinating to see an actor you recognise more for broad comedy take on a real dramatic challenge, and in this case Bill Maynard more than rises to the occasion. Behind the camera, he is supported by some top shelf talent in director Michael Apted and writer Colin Welland, and on screen, a great and authentic supporting cast as well.

In Stephen Frears' documentary on British cinema, Typically British, he, Apted and Alan Parker rightly look back very fondly on this period in British television, from which many successful filmmakers learnt their craft.

63 Up

Real Lives in Action
Each time a new instalment arrives, my admiration and respect for the participants grows. They show a real and courageous dedication to the series and its importance, and I'm always mindful that the effects from this level of exposure have not always been positive for them.

Michael Apted has, at times, been guilty of some insensitive and perhaps inappropriate questioning, and has been taken to task quite robustly by his interviewees. And rightly so. It's academic now as to whether or not Mr Apted, a very successful international film director, has actually possessed the empathy to make him the right person to steer this project. But then, without some of his deliberate provocations, would there have been the great, intense moments we've seen? The result, for better or worse, is a sum of all its parts.

It's been a real privilege to visit these old friends every seven years, and share their lives' success, failures, loves and tragedies. In a world full of celebrity for its own sake and superficiality, there is an authenticity here that is rarely found. They deserve our thanks for sharing part of themselves with us. They certainly have mine.

MGM: When the Lion Roars

Real Living, Breathing History of a Lost Hollywood
One of the great things about older Hollywood documentaries like this (1992) , is that many of the real, key people were still alive, and keen to share their personal recollections with breathtaking honesty.

Some highlights for me are JJ Cohn, former MGM production manager, who describes events surrounding the ORIGINAL chariot race in the silent Ben Hur; Samuel Marx, producer and story editor, offers fascinating insights into the suspicious death of producer Paul Bern, husband of Jean Harlow, and how the power wielded by the studio impacted the police investigation. King Vidor, pioneering director, talks about the creative process in silent film, and artists like Helen Hayes, Maureen O'Sullivan, Esther Williams, Van Johnson, Ricardo Montalban and others talk about the movies, and the people, in the golden age of the Hollywood studio system.

The filmmakers manage to deftly navigate the tricky problem that is LB Mayer himself, are honest about his faults, yet give his admirers sufficient time to create an overall balanced picture. It explores the breakdown in the relationship between LB and his protege, production genius Irving Thalberg, and how as a result, the studio separated into two factions depending on personal loyalties. My only reservation, and it's minor, is that the impression left is that Thalberg, in chronically poor health, was a defenseless victim of Mayer's greed and disloyalty, having been removed from the post of head of all production while away from the studio recuperating from illness. This may be true to a degree, but other sources suggest that Thalberg himself wasn't averse to some corporate maneuvering and excessive demands. Both were tough men, and as Samuel Marx recalled, "It was a tough time."

The story of MGM is the story of the movies, of Hollywood and the cliched rise and fall. Patrick Stewart's rather eccentric narration enhances the drama and helps to make this series something quite special, that can be watched time and again.

The Liners: Ships of Destiny

A Comprehensive History of the Great Liners
A genuinely fascinating cast of contributors providing many riveting first hand accounts of significant events, as well as expert commentary, ensures this series is an endlessly interesting journey through the history of the modern ocean liner.

Amiably narrated by Sandy McCutcheon, the series goes beyond the predictable glamour and tragedy of the golden years of Trans-Atlantic ocean travel, and examines the real social impact of the liners; in terms of national identity, mass migration, the rise of Nazism, and their impact on modern warfare.

The story ends in 1997, with the emergence of a new generation of high tech luxury cruise ships, and ambitious construction programmes to carry over into the next century. As one contributor succinctly put it; "Long may big ships continue."

Paradise, Hawaiian Style

"The Kid is Stealing the Picture..."
A classic Elvis formula escapade. Producer Hal Wallis, with whom Elvis and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, had a non-exclusive contract, had publicly admitted, around the time of Roustabout (1964), that he was skimming the reliable profits from his Elvis pictures to fund what he considered more serious artistic endeavours. Elvis himself, by all accounts, remained consistently well-mannered, cooperative, and thoroughly professional, in spite of his own career frustrations. He deserved better.

Having said that, Paradise, Hawaiian Style, a nice, enjoyable and undemanding film, in great colour, and with fantastic scenery. In places, it seems to be more of a star vehicle for the talented child actor and singer, Donna Butterworth, with Elvis consigned to a supporting role. I wonder what Colonel Parker made of that?

Fame in the Twentieth Century

A Lost Gem
It's such a great loss that, owing to the complications of copyright and licensing over a huge number of clips, we will probably never see Fame in the 20th Century on screen, ever again.

Clive James takes a forensically researched and eloquent look at the culture of 20th Century fame, from the silent film era to the media obsession surrounding Princess Diana. It's worth noting that the extreme celebrity culture that is examined, exists well before the days of dominant social media.

One of the strengths of the series is the narrative, and Clive James puts his skills as a wordsmith to very good use. A number of quotes still resonate, his description of Las Vegas, for instance; " elephant's graveyard, where ageing entertainers sell off their own ivory before crashing to their knees for the last time..."

Clive James also likens modern fame to the ritual sacrifices of the Aztecs, where they would choose young people at random, treat them like royalty for a while, then cut out their hearts. It says as much about the consumers of fame and celebrity culture, as it does about the famous people themselves. Even though it was made nearly thirty years ago, in a very different world, it would be just as relevant, perhaps more so, today.

Cor, Blimey!

Improves as the Story Unfolds
Despite the fact that a number of chronological inaccuracies can be a little off-putting, the sheer talent and warmth of the actors bringing these well-known and much loved characters to life goes a long way toward redeeming the film from its obvious shortcomings. The principal casting is sublime, without exception. Even the late Kenneth MacDonald, better known as Mike in Only Fools and Horses, has a great cameo as Barbara Windsor's comically sinister minder and associate of her then husband, Ronnie Knight.

For me, the film comes into its own in the second half, as the characters cope with the looming demise of the Carry On franchise and confront their own unravelling lives. It's hard to imagine a more convincing Kenneth Williams than Adam Godley, although the other players are just as accomplished.

One point to take issue with, for me, is the portrayal of Sid James, although Geoffrey Hutchings' performance is flawless and convincing. It's well known that the real Sid had his flaws, but many of his fellow cast-members, male and female, have described him in interviews as a gentleman, well-mannered and considerate, a pleasure to work with, a generous actor and thoroughly nice man. This doesn't really shine through in the portrayal, and early in the film especially, he is represented as little more than an unwashed serial sex-pest. The passion-fruit gag (best left to the imagination) becomes cringe-worthy and I think is way overdone.

As the film progresses, a more human side emerges and we see Sid's enormous popularity and warm relationship with his fans, as his infatuation with Barbara Windsor becomes destructive. Samantha Spiro's Barbara Windsor is so believable that you almost don't notice when the real Babs herself joins Adam Godley's Kenneth Williams for some poignant reminiscing in the closing moments of the film.

Many of the real Carry on Gang, despite giving so much pleasure to millions around the world, remained unfulfilled personally and professionally, and endured disappointments and great unhappiness in their off-screen lives. They were exploited very badly by the Carry On producers, who continued to make millions from endless repeats around the world, while the stars themselves had taken relatively modest, one-off fees.

Forgiving some of the film's flaws, it's a nice tribute to a wonderful and much loved generation of British actors and entertainers.

Jack L. Warner: The Last Mogul

A Great Hollywood Bio
This is one of my favourite Hollywood documentaries, and the family connection with filmmaker Gregory Orr (Jack L Warner's grandson), gives the account immediacy and a real human touch.

Gregory approaches his subject with a degree of sympathy, understandably, but allows sufficient time to address Jack Warner's shortcomings and often appalling behaviour. As a result, Jack L Warner - The Last Mogul, is a balanced and thorough account of a remarkable, but not always admirable, life.

It's too easy to like Jack Warner, and chuckle indulgently when you hear accounts of his buffoonery and the way he would disrupt dignified occasions; as one contributor said, "He would rather tell a bad joke than make a good movie." His complete lack of self-awareness should be refreshing in someone so powerful, but there is a cruel and sinister side. You listen to moving accounts by Jack Warner Junior, hurt and bewildered by the terrible treatment inflicted on him by his father, feelings still evidently raw years after Jack Warner's death. And the final betrayal of the brothers in 1956, as Jack connived with corporate raiders to move Abe and Harry out and then head up the new company. Harry Warner, a thoroughly admirable man by all accounts, suffered a stroke soon afterwards and was dead within a couple of years. Jack did not attend the funeral.

Gregory Orr's film manages to confront these complexities very skillfully, and the recollections of his very high quality list of contributors bring a huge amount of first-had knowledge. It can't have been an easy journey for Gregory Orr, and he deserves all the more credit for achieving the result that he did.

Edward & Mrs. Simpson

The 1930s Comes Alive
Thames Television held the weekday independent TV franchise for the London region between 1968 and 1992. During this time, they created an incredible body of quality work, encompassing comedy, drama and factual programming.

Edward and Mrs Simpson is an example of Thames drama at its very best, and I would think as close as you could get to visiting the 1930s without a time machine. Exceptional casting, production design, costumes, script and performance all come together to create a fascinating historical document, about a turbulent time in 20th century Britain.

The Duke of Windsor died in 1972, but the Duchess of Windsor was still alive when the programme was broadcast. (She died in 1986). She was not best pleased, citing invasion of privacy, and reportedly lobbied to have the production stopped.

As with many period dramas of the time, great care was taken with casting, and accuracy in speech and language. All the protagonists are treated generally sympathetically, although perhaps less so in the case of Wallis Simpson. Checking other sources reveals that historically, it all seems to be very accurate, including verbatim statements and conversations.

History has not been as kind to the Duke as the programme was, but the narrative of Edward and Mrs Simpson ends at their marriage, thus avoiding having to deal with the unpalatable aftermath; clumsy attempts to interfere with Britain's pre-war foreign policy, pro-Nazi attitudes, highly questionable behaviour during the war, and alleged subsequent financial shenanigans.

Elvis on Tour

One of the Great Music Documentaries
For me, this is one of the great music cinema films, right up there with The Last Waltz. (Noting the Martin Scorsese connection).

Elvis on Tour really captures the excitement of Elvis coming to town and the often obsessive devotion of the fans, while the behind-the-scenes aspects bring to life the frenetic, exhausting pace of the tour itself, and the complexity of the operation.

The uplifting vibe of the movie is helped by the fact that Elvis, his musicians and singers are all at the top of their game, and are demonstrably having lots of fun together on stage as well. The sheer joy of making music as an ensemble leaps from the screen. Sadly, this would not always be the case. (Although the decline in Elvis' performance quality in subsequent years has generally been way overstated). The musical highlight, I think, is a euphoric rendition of Bridge Over Troubled Water.

This film is all the more poignant, knowing what is to come, because it captures a magical moment in time.

Please Sir!

By Far the Best TV Comedy Cinema Spin-off
I think that this is one of the few occasions from the period of remaking British television sitcoms for cinema, that the vibe of the original series was captured so beautifully, and even enhanced. This is one of my favourite movies of all time in actual fact, because the fundamental themes are about being nice to your friends, respecting their beliefs, sticking up for them, and consciously including and taking care of those who are different and that are less fortunate.

Like many of the comedies of the day, particularly those made by London Weekend Television, the humour is broad, and there is a good deal of very unsubtle social commentary. Class divisions, inner-city poverty, and race relations form an ongoing theme, but are dealt with comically and you never feel like you are being preached at. The writers, John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, demonstrate a far more enlightened and thoughtful perspective than many of their peers. They also don't hesitate to poke fun at the attempts of people of liberal sensibilities to readily accept allegations of racism, and to over- compensate with their empathy. A black student, Wesley, played by Brinsley Forde, is accidentally left behind when the coach, enroute to the school camp, departs without him after a roadside stop. He is picked up by Penny (Jill Kerman) and he mischievously convinces her that he's been the tragic victim of his white fascist teacher who is also his slumlord. When they catch up to the bus, the very benign - and scrupulously mindful of other cultures - Mr Hedges (John Alderton) attempts to thank Penny for taking care of their student, and she lets him have it; "Trevor Huddlestone was right about people like you!"

Leaving aside any deeper analysis, it's a nicely written film, with likeable actors and characters, and just enough comical conflict. (Did you say something, yer pasty-faced pillock?") The incidental music, and soundtrack song, Cilla Black's La-La-Lu, are pretty cool as well. I find this film always makes you feel better for having watched it.

A Dance to the Music of Time

Strangely Brilliant
A 1997 BBC adaptation of the seemingly endless cycle of novels by Anthony Powell. Essentially it is about a group of privileged, upper middle class literary types, who manage to coast through life without seeming to do very much at all, with a couple of notable exceptions. Despite this, it's totally compelling, particularly the episode that is set in World War Two.

Anthony Powell was well placed in the literary and party scene of the 1930s, and many of the characters are based on people he knew during his life and career, literary and military. The Anthony Powell Society has a fascinating page detailing the real life inspirations for many of his characters.

A degree of tolerance, along with a suspension of disbelief, is required to enjoy the final instalment, although it actually improves after the first viewing. The principal character Nick Jenkins (based on Powell himself) had hitherto been played by James Purefoy, but Jenkins was recast with John Standing for the final episode. This could be a little disconcerting at first, particularly as James Purefoy had created such a likeable character, and had anchored the narrative of the first three episodes. Some of the other essential characters - ones that weren't recast - tended to age at their own rate, regardless of the timeline. JG Quiggin (Adrian Scarborough) and Kenneth Widmerpool (Simon Russell Beale) seemed to age about half century in the decade or so after the war, whereas Pamela Flitton (Miranda Richardson) barely developed a grey hair. The makeup, now far more obvious with HD television, was not good at all, particularly on the standout character, Widmerpool, otherwise played superbly all the way through by Simon Russell Beale.

Despite these flaws in the final episode, this remains one of my favourite dramas of all time, largely because the actors bring the characters to life so beautifully.

The Alf Garnett Saga

Beyond Appalling
I should preface by saying generally speaking I have no issue with some of the broad British comedies of the 70s. Although it's probably an easy thing to say as a middle aged white male, allowances have to be made for the sensibilities of the times, during which attitudes to race and sexuality were obviously very different. I loved Mind Your Language, for instance, because it was all done with such a sense of warmth and fun, and even Love Thy Neighbour, as offensive as that is by modern standards, seemed to have a mostly light-hearted feel. If not for the constant use of racial epithets, it might even stand up today as a great working class comedy. (I'm referring to the Love thy Neighbour TV series rather than the movie spinoff). The white race-baiter Eddie Booth was in a minority of one, while the other characters, for the most part, rose above his prejudice and delighted when his attitudes brought him undone.

But not this time; in the Alf Garnett Saga, many of the characters seem to be happily swimming in the same racist sewer, and the constant, calculated, angry use of a deeply offensive racial term I found uncomfortable and disturbing.

I agree with some of the other reviewers, in that the street scenes of a changing London were of particular interest, as were the cameos of John Le Mesurier, Patsy Byrne (later Nursey in Blackadder), Kenny Lynch and Joan Sims. But otherwise, this example of what the late Australian movie critic Bill Collins referred to as "the tarnished years of British Cinema", is best forgotten.

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