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Reviews

The Beachcombers
(1972)

Fondly remembered from childhood
The Beachcombers was broadcast on UK children's television in the mid-1970's and I grew to be quite fond of it. Even then I thought Bruno Gerussi seemed a bit long in the tooth to play an action-based role, but there seemed to be good chemistry between him and Pat John as his boat hand, Jesse. Seeing a few episodes which have been posted on the internet recently I find the performances quite wooden, and the character of Relic is such a caricature he's embarrassing. One particular episode I remember had Jesse saving all his money for a potlatch (a Native American ceremony where every guest much receive a gift, however small), then giving it away to someone down on their luck. Chief Dan George (who was the go-to actor for wise Native American elders after his role in "Little Big Man") turned up to say maybe this was a new way of potlatching, giving all you could for your friends. Thanks for the memories Beachcombers, but I think I will let you stay a fond memory.

The Finest Hours
(2016)

Thrilling story sunk by conventional script
As someone who has lived at various places on the British coast all his life I have tremendous respect for the men of our Royal National Lifeboat Institution - all volunteers - who are willing to risk their lives to rescue others, and I love sea stories. The US Coastguard is managed by the government and has salaried officers, but on the evidence of this film they have more than their own share of guts and determination.

The best scenes in this film are undoubtedly those set at sea, the crew of the Pendleton jury-rigging a helm and nursing the hulk along until she can be run aground, and the men of CG 36500 fighting their way out to sea to save them (even if CG 36500 does develop the characteristics of a submarine a couple of times. I know lifeboats are designed to be non-sinkable, but not *that* non-sinkable). These scenes are truly edge-of-the-seat thrilling.

Unfortunately, in order to make a film, the story has to be 'dramatised'. So the Coast Guard station is commanded by an outsider mistrusted by locals who matter darkly over every decision he makes, and the hero is partly shunned as a Jonah after a failed rescue the previous year. (Is everyone around Cape Cod so sour and miserable? Just asking). On the Pendleton there is some Alpha-Male tussling for supremacy among the crew until they accept the "it's so crazy it might just work" ideas of the Chief Engineer. These back stories feel very forced and detract from the true drama of the rescue itself.

The film tells a good story, but not always in a good way. Worth watching once, but not a film to keep coming back to.

Thriller: Sign It Death
(1974)
Episode 7, Season 2

Beautiful but deadly
Another trip down memory lane for me - something I saw over 40 years ago that has stayed with me until the internet gave me the opportunity to see it again.

What can you say about a thriller which opens with a triple murder and builds to a climax? This is another classic episode of the 'Thriller' series which still keeps the nerves stretched for over an hour, even if the production values and filming techniques are dated and studio-bound.

There are good performances by the supporting cast, and two solid appearances by Patrick Allen and Edward Judd as business partners with totally contrasting personalities.

However, the whole episode centres on Francesca Annis. If the actress playing Tracy had not been convincing the result would have been a laughable flop. I cannot praise this performance highly enough, Francesca Annis brings so many facets to the role. Tracy is manipulative, calculating, devious, mendacious and downright psychotic (shown by the malevolent snipping of the scissors when Tracy feels she has been crossed). At the same time we can see that she is deluded by romantic fantasies, probably very lonely and insecure, and occasionally frightened of herself when she fails to control her own behaviour. The fact that she doesn't really understand how life and relationships work (when her boss gives her a cheap promotional toy she sees it as the start of his falling in love with her), and that she is obviously mentally ill and divorced from reality, make her oddly sympathetic, despite her murderous intentions.

Another excellent 'Thriller' episode with a superb central performance; still worth watching.

Thriller: Ring Once for Death
(1973)
Episode 5, Season 2

The butler did it!
The review title really isn't a spoiler because we know Masters is a wrong'un from the start as he terrifies a bedraggled, bedridden old woman in the pre-credit sequence.

I saw this entry in the 'Thriller' series when it was first broadcast in 1973 (to us Brits it was 'Ring Once for Death') and it has lingered with me ever since. Thanks to the wonders of the internet I just watched it again for the first time in 46 years and it still held me gripped. Admittedly TV filming techniques have changed enormously but suspense is still suspense. Hitchcock said the secret of suspense was the audience having information unknown to the characters they were watching, being desperate for them to find out and wondering when and how they would.

In this case the suspense is reinforced by excellent performances from Michael Jayston and Nyree Dawn Porter - he is icily cold and calculating, she evokes our sympathy and conveys her character's weakened, half-dead state superbly.

If you can bear to watch a drama which doesn't unfold in 30-second bite-sized scenes, filmed with a hand-held camera to evoke 'realism', if you want to watch a story and characters evolve, and if you like giving your nerves a bit of a stretch, watch this episode, it's a belter!

Georgian Underworld: The Peterloo Massacre
(2003)
Episode 4, Season 1

Compelling and moving
This short film does not attempt to tell the full story of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, but concentrates on the only inquest and enquiry into the death of one of the victims. It gives a compelling view of the corruption of the judicial system by those responsible for the massacre. After direct evidence proved to the jury that the crowd had not been violent and that military force had not been necessary to restore order the inquest was abandoned without a verdict being given, or any perpetrators named in court.

For non-UK readers: the Peterloo Massacre occurred on 16 August 1819 in Manchester. A large crowd of industrial workers (men, women and children) gathered to hear speeches by political reformers. Economic conditions were bad, many were unemployed and literally starving. The Manchester magistrates (businessmen who wanted the workers repressed) ordered the local volunteer cavalry (also manned by businessmen) to charge into the crowd - 11 were killed and about 600 injured.

The Shadow of the Tower
(1972)

A sad let-down from Auntie Beeb
In the early 1970's 'The Six Wives of Henry VIII' and 'Elizabeth R' enthralled the TV viewers of the UK with superb acting, gorgeous costumes, incisive scripts and high - for the time - production values. Even more exciting they were in colour, which was a real novelty at the time.

Looking for a follow-up project the BBC decided to go back in time to the founding of the Tudor line by Henry VII. The unfortunate truth is that Henry senior was far less colourful than his son or granddaughter. He was a shrewd ruler who used bureaucracy, the law and financial policy to maintain his power - and he was devotedly married to his wife Elizabeth and heart-broken when she died. In other words a bit of a cold fish with little fire and romance to turn into 12 hours of TV drama.

This story could have been told in half the time or less, but the BBC obviously thought they were on the crest of a wave and got too greedy. The result was a long-winded trudge through 24 years of history. Henry's reign was not uneventful, nor unsuccessful, but there were no wives or mistresses, no Spanish Armada and no rousing speeches.

The scripts are turgid and wordy and some of the acting positively amateurish. The younger women are also too much like 1960's 'dolly birds' as we called them then. If you enjoyed the other Tudor series of the time, don't think this is of the same quality. One to avoid.

Yesterday
(2019)

Entertaining if you don't think too hard
The difficulty with imagining a world which never had The Beatles is - there was more to them than just the music. They were a cultural phenomenon as much as a musical one; "All You Need Is Love" crystallised the attitudes of an era, it wasn't just a song. A world without that would not simply be the same world as today without the song.

Well, this is a movie, it aims to entertain and it certainly does that. The songs are well presented, although again showing it was the chemistry of the four that really made them work - Jack and his backing band really can't do "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" like John, Paul, George and Ringo. On a personal note, the film has made family history because my wife: a) wanted to go to the cinema to see it, and; b) she actually enjoyed the experience. That makes about 5 cinema trips together in 32 years of marriage - how we ever got together I will never know (but I'm glad we did).

Gasbags
(1941)

Rather uneasy viewing
The Crazy Gang were notorious for their free-for-all, anything-goes zany comedy both on and off stage. When American comedian Jack Benny appeared with them at the London Palladium he received a mysterious telegram: "Remember - what happened to Lincoln could happen to you." Then there was the time they convinced a street crowd that someone was trapped inside a pillar box (English mailbox).

Ever-present on the London stage in the 1930's, 40's and 50's, their film career was spotty and they never hit the heights of Will Hay or George Formby - the discipline of the medium didn't play to their strengths. Probably the best film to see them in today is 'The Frozen Limits' where they arrive 40 years late for the Yukon gold rush.

'Gasbags' dates from the early days of what was called the 'Phony War'. Following the invasion of Poland nothing much happened between autumn 1939 and the spring blitzkrieg of 1940. There was a war, but it didn't seem much to worry about. So the Gang are running a fish-and-chip stall instead of seeing to London's air defences and get whisked over to Germany by balloon. The rest of the film's plot involves finding a secret weapon which would allow the Nazis to tunnel under the English Channel and invade England. There's a lot of freewheeling farce and slapstick (much of which seems a bit pointless and goes on too long), but at least Moore Marriott is on hand to liven things up with some genuine character comedy in his famous 'old codger' role.

Early scenes take place in a concentration camp which makes for very uneasy viewing today. Nazi slave camps were no laughing matter, and the fate of Bud Flanagan's character (real name Reuben Chaim Weintrop) doesn't bear thinking about. This may have provided some light-hearted fun in 1940, but knowing the truth about Nazi Germany makes it a bit hard to take with hindsight.

Hark at Barker
(1969)

Two very different series
I recently bought this on DVD for the simple reason I actually remembered watching it as a boy fifty years ago (that's half a century, makes a girl think), and even remembered one of the gags. When cook (my favourite character back then) says she is making a dinner of 'bubble and squeak' (a traditional British dish made from boiled potatoes and cabbage, the French don't have a monopoly on haut cuisine, you know), Rustless replies "That''s probably what I'll be doing after I've eaten it." What amazes me now is how 'naughty' some of the humour was. I can only assume my parents didn't know what the programme was really like, or didn't think I would understand the humour (which was actually true). At one point Badger the bulter is exploring a secret passage at Chrome Hall and we hear a crashing noise; Rustless' secretary Bates screams "He may have gone over an abyss!" Rustless: "Gone for a what?" The two series are actually quite different, apart from the second moving to colour. The first features sketches by Eric Idle, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Graeme Gard and Bill Oddie, who would soon be busy as Pythons and Goodies. This meant they weren't available for the second series which was mostly written by Barker himself as 'Gerald Wiley'. As much as I enjoy Ronnie Barker as a comedy actor, I have to say I don't feel the second series is as funny as the first. In the first series the humour is quite sharp, in the second there is too much descending into farce and chaos as a way to round off the shows, and a lot of cheap laughs at the expense of Effie the maid's breasts. And as always with Barker's solo work, such as 'Futtock's End' and 'By The Sea', I find myself chuckling in anticipation of hearty laughs which never arrive. It's good to see these again, they revive pleasant memories, and Barker as Rustless is as memorable as Fletch and Arkwright. There is just a notable quality control problem here.

Stars on Sunday
(1969)

At a time when God needed all the help He could get...
...Jess Yates set His cause back 2,000 years.

The review by ShadeGrenade has pretty much nailed it here, but having had this as a feature of Sunday evening viewing in my tender, formative years, I had to comment, too.

The fact that the sickening hypocrisy of this programme was obvious to an 8-year old should speak volumes about its intent and content. Its intent: to get ITV over its obligation to broadcast a 'religious' programme on Sunday evening, and let people off having to go to Evensong by watching the Beverley Sisters sing 'The Little Drummer Boy'. This meant they didn't have to miss half 'The Onedin Line' on BBC1, or Morecambe and Wise on BBC2 (yes, Eric and Ernie featured on Beeb2 from '68 to '71, when Beeb1 caught up with colour transmission).

As for the content, it was of the 'When a Child is Born' level of quasi-reliogiosity - more 'feel good factor' than ecclesiastical debate. There were some heavyweights in the Bible-reading department, but it was Dame Anna Neagle who has stayed with me because she always had RAF wings pinned tastefully to her evening dress - rather like Mrs Wyse having her MBE on display in the Mapp and Lucia books - none of this Christian modesty rubbish. If you've got it, flaunt it, I suppose.

As for 'Bishop' Yates, he had the voice and manner of a particularly unctuous undertaker. The national furore when he was caught with a sexy girlfriend was only surpassed when we found out he wasn't Paula's father and Hughie Green had done the deed. And who tipped off the Sunday papers about the affair? Step forward Mr H. Green. As they say: revenge is a dish best served cold.

Murder Most English: A Flaxborough Chronicle
(1977)

Very dry, very English humour
If ever a TV show encapsulated English humour - wry, self-deprecating, sometimes macabre - this show did. The humour here is often so understated you can miss it completely: a man who fell to his death is described by a relative as "very down-to-earth... in a manner of speaking"; describing the social mores of Flaxborough Inspector Purbright says the inhabitants can tolerate anything but "flagrant unostentation", while two roads in the town are named 'Edward Crescent' and 'Abdication Avenue'.

I think Richard Harris made a genuine attempt to capture the idiosyncracies of Colin Watson's fictional world, but with only a handful of 50-minute episodes to do it in, a great deal is lost. Thankfully, the books are now, in 2018, being re-issued so they can savoured once more - they are not to be rushed like an airport thriller. The series also stands as the final achievement of BBC producer Martin Lisemore. In a too-brief career Lisemore gave us (among others) the 26-episode adaptation of Anthony Trollope's 'The Pallisers' (1974), and 'I, Claudius' in 1976 - classics by any standard. He was tragically killed while working on this project.

Anton Rodgers makes a great job of Purbright - patient, placid, dogged, and with a wicked line in penetrating interviews with suspects. Christopher Timothy (not yet James Herriot) is the eager young sidekick who hates dead bodies, but has a way of inviting unwitting confidences as he appears so naive.

If you decide to give this series a try, my advice is: listen carefully; be patient while the story develops, and; be prepared to ignore the dated technical standards and studio settings. It's not perfect, but still worth watching.

The Dark Ages: An Age of Light
(2012)

An acquired taste, but thought-provoking
One of my favourite documentary series of all time is Michael Wood's "In Search Of...The Dark Ages" from the early 1980's. It actually inspired me to study the period at university myself. I was intrigued to see how this would measure up, but it takes a completely different approach.

This is an art history of the Dark Ages, not a political history of kings and kingdoms. Januszczak argues they were not 'dark' because they produced some splendid art, architecture and design (the Sutton Hoo treasure, the Lindisfarne Gospels, Islamic mosques, Viking ships, etc.). Some of the items are indeed splendid but we have to remember they were created for a very small, elite section of society.

There is still a century and a half of British history about which we know literally nothing (450-600AD), and there was a great deal of social, political and economic instability for the great majority of people. In spite of the beauty on display here, the Dark Ages were pretty dark for most people.

Looks Familiar
(1970)

A goldmine for nostalgia buffs
This is a show I used to watch either when I was having my lunch at home (between morning and afternoon school, no school dinners for me, thank you!), or after I got home from school. For some reason it was broadcast during the day, when it really merited a good evening timeslot.

The other day my wife asked where I got my taste for old-school comedy (I love Will Hay, and George Formby, Frank Randle and Robb Wilton score highly for me, too). After a moment's thought I remembered seeing them all featured in this programme, which was all the better for having a panel of contemporaries who remembered working with the old stars of variety in the 1930's and 1940's, when live entertainment was still a mass medium.

It's sobering to think we are now as far in time from 'Looks Familiar' as it was from the days it celebrated so fondly (over 40 years). It wasn't just the most famous acts that were shown here, but specialities such as giant xylophoinist Teddy Brown and eccentric dancers Wilson, Kepple and Betty.

For me, any of these are preferable to modern so-called comedians who only seem to have to put the f-word into a sentence to get a laugh from their 'sophisticated' audience.

In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great
(1998)

Superb television - informative and gripping
I didn't see this on first transmission, I just watched the series on DVD. First of all, it tells the story of Alexander the Great very well (I sort of knew of him as a figure in history, now I feel I know the man much more) and, second of all, I don't think it could be made today. In 1997 Michael Wood and his team only just made it through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Twenty years later the political situation has deteriorated so much no TV company would dare send anyone to those regions for a documentary series. As it is Wood and the crew came under fire from Afghan bandits, and some of the clan leaders he meets are definitely cut-your-throat-as-soon-as-look-at-you types. I've loved Michael Wood's programmes on the Dark Ages since the late 70's. Some of his other output has been variable, but this took real guts to make and is a definite must-see.

Still Open All Hours
(2013)

About as funny as watching a rat eat your leg...
...which was a form of medieval torture. This has now been brought into the modern era by 'updating' a classic sitcom. The word 'updating' is in quotation marks for a reason - the setting may be the 2010's, but the scripts are determinedly dated. Where Ronnie Barker reigned supreme as the t-t-t-tur-tightfisted Arkwright, we have nephew Granville in charge, a Granville who has ditched his dreams and settled for being a grasping shopkeeper like his uncle.

This really is pitiful stuff. As another reviewer has said, the programme seems to be trying to re-capture 'Last of the Summer Wine' territory (a staple of Sunday night on BBC1 from the year dot). So we have a cast of familiar but much older faces filling the roles of Northern stereotypes and caricatures - battleaxe women versus feckless, lazy or ineffectual men. I know actors have to eat, but surely they can read, too? I can only point to the 'Memorable Quotes' section here as evidence for the dire, forced quality of this show.

It seems appropriate Ronnie Barker's portrait scowls from the wall of the back room of his beloved shop. He must be thinking about his legacy being destroyed by this junk.

Great Britons: Isambard Kingdom Brunel
(2002)
Episode 2, Season 1

Presenter and material match perfectly
Jeremey Clarkson loves courting controversy as a flag-waving, xeonophobic little Englander (a German car's GPS always takes you to Poland), but let's be fair - he can be a great presenter and populariser, and this programme is one of his best.

Clarkson obviously has a genuine love for his subject: after reeling off a lengthy list if Brunel's achievements he finishes with "...and we haven't even got to the ships yet." He not only shows you Brunel's spectacular work, he *explains* what makes it so good. Stepping out from behind the Great Britain's propeller blade he says: "A modern propeller, designed by a computer, in the 21st Century, is only 5% more efficient than this propeller, which was designed by Victorian bloke in a top hat - the man was a genius!" He also makes time to show how modern engineering is so often taken for granted and used for indifferent ends - the structure of the Millennium Dome weighs less than the air it contains, and it was used for a circus show.

This is an entertaining and informative programme which I have watched time and time again since it was broadcast.

Department S: A Fish Out of Water
(1969)
Episode 17, Season 2

One of the weakest episodes
The usual formula for a Department S adventure is the perpetration of a seemingly impossible crime which our heroes are called on to solve, the weirder the situation (the inhabitants of an entire village disappear, an airliner arrives a week late) the better.

This episode seems to want to give more emotional depth to the characters, when all we want is outlandish entertainment to send us on our way with a smile. Here, Department S is tasked with finding an elusive master criminal based in Beirut whose identity is completely unknown, apart from a name - Rafic.

The episode starts with the murder of an Interpol agent who was a particular friend of Stewart Sullivan, so we get a "you're too emotionally involved Sullivan, keep off the case" scene with Sir Curtis Seretse. Jason King is given the job of going to Beirut, and soon falls for the crook's girlfriend because she reminds him of his dead wife(!). (Yes, after seventeen episodes of flippant skirt-chasing we find Jason was married to a film actress who was killed in an air crash!) She also falls for him and continually tries to get Jason out of Beirut and away from danger.

Meanwhile some guys are messing around in a laboratory, apparently making up a consignment of drugs for Mr Big.

After a lot of flabby, talky, non-action, the whole thing culminates is a scene where the girl shoots Mr Big when he is about to shoot Jason, is prostrated by grief and guilt, and Jason is left girlfriend-less once more.

The main problems here are an over-ambitious script which really doesn't deliver the goods, and - being brutally frank - poor handling by the actors who struggle to do more than is usually asked of them. It doesn't help that Lee Montague and Magda Konopka are looped to cover their East London and Polish accents. The drugs plot never makes sense and contributes little to the story.

This is one episode of Department S that doesn't need to be seen twice.

Department S: The Perfect Operation
(1969)
Episode 8, Season 2

Interesting episode with a nice twist
As a whole the 'Department S' series offers a bit of a bumpy ride, with a quite broad range in the quality of scripts and stories. All are superficially baffling, and supposed to have been declared 'unsolvable' by conventional police forces which is why Department S of Interpol is called in.

In this case a surgeon is hijacked during a delicate brain operation and an impostor takes his place. Instead of killing the patient (a top-level British diplomat), however, the impostor completes the operation perfectly to ensure his recovery.

Investigation shows the diplomat has actually been working as a Russian double-agent, and had previously undergone brain surgery by a famous Russian surgeon. This would have been obvious to any other surgeon, hence the need to have a fake surgeon complete this operation.

In a neat twist, the diplomat's condition suddenly deteriorates and another operation is needed. The head of MI5 decides the double-agent should simply die on the operating table - effectively an execution.

These final scenes are played very well. Basil Dignam makes a ruthless character very believable, while Joel Fabiani as Stewart Sullivan makes desperate attempts to appeal to the conscience of his superior, Curtis Seretse, and is disgusted by the whole thing. The guilt-haunted reaction of Cyril Luckham's surgeon, forced to kill instead of save life, shows the impact of the situation on someone outside the security services.

As a strikingly bitter display of the workings of those in power, this episode stands above the usual 'Department S' froth and points the way to the harder-edged, cynical 1970's.

Supertrain
(1979)

A notorious flop of the 70's
One of the reasons I remember 'Supertrain' was - it was *never* shown on British TV! Actually, this was quite a scandal at the time because the BBC (our public broadcasting channel, funded by a license fee charged to every household with a TV set) paid a huge sum to screen this before it even premiered in the USA. When it completely tanked, the BBC announced they wouldn't show it - after wasting millions in license payers' money.

There is, however, a sequel. About 1985 I was watching Saturday night ITV (the commercial channel) and on came a TV movie about a supertrain. It was a one-off, no series followed, and I think it may have been the pilot episode. I remember Keenan Wynn played the railroad executive who committed his company to building the Supertrain with all its special track, signalling, etc., knowing he was dying and wouldn't have to see it make a profit. It all ended with the villain hanging on to the outside of the train while the driver (a bit of a nutter who thought he was Casey Jones) took the train to maximum speed to shake him loose. I think the villain ended up flying through an observation car window.

It was pretty awful, but an interesting curiosity to see it turn up on a rival channel six years after all the BBC fuss.

A Performance of Macbeth
(1979)

Doesn't stand the test of time
In the 1960's and 1970's theatre directors Peter Hall and Trevor Nunn staged what were then ground-breaking productions of Shakespeare. Stripping away the false beards, theatrical make-up and elaborate staging which had been standard in the days of Olivier, Gielgud and Richardson, they brought new approaches to the plays (setting Othello in Victorian times, for example) and went 'back to the text' with simplified productions which let the Bard's language speak for itself.

This is one of those productions. It electrified audiences in 1976, but now seems as dated as the over-dressed productions of earlier generations. With no sets whatsoever, the theatre production was staged in the round, and actors just walked into the performance space from a circle of chairs set around the stage. Unfortunately, what works on stage is not right for film or television. The camera has to move to maintain audience engagement and create drama, there have to be close-ups and two-shots. This production seems to want to have its cake and eat it by reaching a wide audience through a new medium while trying to preserve a theatrical event.

Shoot me if you like, but I have always felt Shakespeare is over-rated. His use of language is often excellent and he tackles the big themes of human experience, but his plotting often goes to pieces and continuity isn't always his strong point. This play is a good example: we have a swift, fast-moving opening with the witches, and Duncan and Banquo getting bumped off in short order and then... a lot of talk about the nature of kingship and power between Malcom and MacDuff, and reports of Macbeth's increasingly bloodthirsty tyranny. The last third of the play is particularly slow until things liven up a bit toward the end with Lady M going nuts and the climactic confrontation between Macbeth and MacDuff - which is reported rather than shown.

Interestingly, in Macbeth's second visit to the witches, Ian McKellen seems to be given given some sort of hallucinogen and then brain-washed into believing the witches prophecies, rather than deluding himself, which sort of shifts the weight of responsibility for his actions.

The best performance in the piece comes from Bob Peck as MacDuff - no frills, no 'acting', but a real-life portrayal of a real man you can believe in. Otherwise the acting is in the best RADA theatrical style, far too broad for the camera and all but screaming "Look at me, I'm *acting*!" and using silly drooling and over-emphasised facial expression for shock value.

This may have set Stratford on fire 40 years ago, but now looks dated and uncinematic (or untelevisual, if you insist, as it was recorded for television). And if you want to hear how beautifully Shakespeare can be spoken, without theatrical overemphasis, listen to Gielgud's recordings of Macbeth's speeches. (Even better, watch him as Henry IV in Welles's 'Chimes at Midnight').

Under Milk Wood
(2014)

A good interpretation, but there are cuts to the text
Under Milk Wood was written for radio as 'A Play for Voices', so a visual interpretation always goes slightly against Dylan Thomas's own intentions. However, as a way of celebrating the writer's centenary this version uses modern technology to bring an incredible cast together from across the world (all-Welsh, of course).

This is a fun version of the play. There is no reverence or bowing of the knee before Thomas's genius or 'the text'. The cast enjoy themselves, enjoy Thomas's jokes and sly digs at human nature, and enjoy the parts they play. The characters which are played straightest (by Jonathan Pryce and Siân Philips) are would-be poisoner Mr Pugh and his nagging wife, and even here black comedy is clearly in evidence.

My only criticisms are: that the fun sometimes gets in the way of Thomas's quite serious points about the human condition, such as Captain Cat's memories of his old crewmen and awareness of his own mortality, and; that cuts have been made, particularly of the children's' roles, and Rev Eli Jenkins morning hymn. And what happened to Mrs Organ Morgan complaining about being kept awake all night with the organ ("It's organ, organ all the time with him.")? Surely we can stand a little double entendre in 2015, 'political correctness' hasn't gone that far, has it?

Casting Tom Jones in the piece may seem a bit of a gimmick but it actually works very well - his musical training means he makes the most of the lyricism of the language (even if, again, a large monologue of Captain Cat's is given to another actor).

While this isn't a 'classic' version of the work, it is still enjoyable and worth watching.

Spectre
(2015)

Disappointing follow-up to 'Skyfall'
I was really looking forward to the new Bond entry, but I have been left with a definite feeling of let-down.

First, the 'Bond-goes-rogue' plot line has now been overused. Let's have him back on the side of Her Majesty's Secret Service, please.

The references back to the early years of the series (Thunderball, OHMSS, You Only Live Twice, Goldfinger) are becoming too self-satisfied and a too-easy way of avoiding coming up with anything original. Maybe this is a sign of my age, because I saw the original releases.

I am not sure where Bond can go from here, having wrapped up the story arc of all previous Daniel Craig efforts, but thinking caps need to be put on. Craig, incidentally, is physically very effective but has all the smooth charm of a brick.

The film looks beautiful, and it's a real roller-coaster ride of action and thrills. You just come away feeling you've seen it all before somewhere.

Titanic
(2012)

Very poor centenary effort
One of the greatest human tragedies/dramas of the 20th Century is wasted in this clichéd, poorly acted mini-series. Why do writers (and directors, mentioning no names, but with the initials James Cameron) think they can do better than re-enacting the truth?

Presumably Julian Fellowes was considered a suitable writer on the back of the success of 'Downton Abbey' set in the same era (of which I have seen not one second). If he had any interest or knowledge at all about Titanic it can only have been very basic (big ship, people on it, it sinks, people die). At least Cameron had genuine passion for his subject, Fellowes just gives us a by-the-numbers approach: snooty aristo's? check; plucky steerage passengers? check; immigrants, so we have an ethnic angle? check; doomed lovers... you get the idea.

Even worse are the fictitious elements. Italian waiters locked in a cupboard? There were people who couldn't reach the boats, and the first boat was not launched until an hour after the collision, because the ship was badly organised and managed - that is the *real* tragedy of Titanic.

The sinking itself is completely mishandled, a confusing mish-mash of scenes with no sense of increasing danger, just a desperate effort to tie-up all the plots which started in the first three episodes. The final scenes in the lifeboats are simply anti-climactic and fill out the running time.

Watch this once if you're determined to be a Titanic completist, but otherwise forget it.

Quantum of Solace
(2008)

Unique addition to the Bond series
I was prepared to hate QoS just thanks to word of mouth: it was the worst/shortest/hardest to follow Bond film with incomprehensible action scenes.I skipped watching it for seven years after it was released. Having finally seen it, I think it's a unique Bond film and probably an experiment that will never be repeated - certainly 'Skyfall' drew back into more familiar Bond territory with a creepy villain planning global destabilisation coupled with a bit of personal revenge.

First, QoS is a direct sequel to its predecessor. In fact, it's the film 'Diamonds are Forever' would/could have been if George Lazenby hadn't torn up his letter of intent, returned his advance fee and given up the role of Bond. 'Diamonds are Forever' would have opened with Bond's wedding and his wife's murder. A very dark, violent tale of personal revenge would have followed. Instead we got a safe mix of humour and a few - very few - thrills. Maybe Lazenby's Bond would have almost ruined his MI6 career and been hounded by his own people and the CIA as he went after Blofeld, who was now being courted by governments for his technological know-how? No, this would have been far too cynical for 1971.

Second, the film actually carries a political message. The villains here don't want to rule the world, they want to control the water supply of an entire continent. Some think this is lame, but it amounts to the same thing. The scenes of villagers desperately trying to catch the last drops of water falling from their old well are actually very moving. The water source finally stops and they leave sadly on the next bus, to who knows what future.

The Quantum organisation doesn't have its own space station, but it can buy individuals, and strong-arm governments into giving them control over natural resources, their sale and distribution. Can't you just hear news headlines trumpeting the "vigorous programme of economic reform" of Bolivia's new government?. Just to rub the message in, there's a clear reference to Venezuela's President Chavez, the "Marxist giving oil money back to the people". The Bond films have never made such an open reference to the contemporary world, or taken such a clear political stand. Only the fact that Quantum seems to be made up of 'rogue' elements rather than actual businessmen makes it fictional.

Finally, the film is genuinely thrilling. You feel Bond really is up against the world, and the world is a very nasty place. Not merely dangerous - nasty. Gemma Arterton's tripping of Greene's henchman seems a typical piece of Bondian humour - until she is found smothered in crude oil ("Her lungs were full of it" says M, although I'm not sure when the autopsy took place!). Much less fun than 'Goldfinger'. And it's worth remembering the Quantum organisation still exists at the end of the film, however shadowy it may be.

Yes, the action scenes are *very* quick and it can be hard to know who's doing what to whom, and while I admired the cutting between the chase and the Siena Palio, for example, I found the same technique confusing in the opera sequence. I loved the film, and I'm looking forward to a Bond double event, watching 'Casino Royale' and QoS back-to-back.

As I said, this comes across as a unique experiment in the Bond canon, and one which will probably never be repeated, but it was worth the effort and I loved it.

It's a Wonderful Life
(1946)

I never changed my mind about a picture so completely
I have seen this film several times now, and the first time it really had me suckered. George Bailey really did have a wonderful life, after all. His wonderful friends and family got together to do a wonderful thing for him in his time of trouble. And Clarence got his wings... pass the Kleenex, quick!

Then I started to think: George Bailey never got to travel the world and fulfil his potential to be a great architect. All his dreams faded and died as he struggled to run a business and raise a family. And what thanks did he get? His father dropped dead and landed him with the family business. His brother sold him out by getting married to the boss's daughter and landing himself in Easy Street. His uncle makes him liable for a larceny rap by losing thousands of dollars. OK, friends make up the shortfall and even the bank examiner joins in the goodwill, but - back in the cold, real world, maybe in January - George would still have to explain where the money had gone. If he couldn't do that he would still be seen as an embezzler of company funds. And meanwhile that nasty, villainous Mr Potter has got a nice little Christmas present - no sign of him making nice and handing it back.

And then there's Pottersville - wow! Bars, music and women. A dance with Gloria Grahame - preferably a horizontal Mambo - would be worth any red-blooded man's hard earned cash, surely? (Ms Grahame played at my local UK theatre in 1980. She was still as sexy as hell and, apparently, a lovely person to work with.) Of course, you could always listen to the snow fall and watch 'The Bells of St Mary's' instead.

So, from snuffling into my sleeve at first viewing, I am now horrified at the crabbed, stifled, thwarted, frustrated, cramped 'life' it tells us we should consider 'Wonderful'.

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