Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Victoria Wood (1953-2016)

Today, another of my heroes has passed away. Writer, singer, comedian. Victoria Wood was more to me than just a person off t'telly

I was only nine years old when I first stumbled across her brilliance. My Mum had taped episode six of Victoria Wood As Seen on TV one evening as she had been otherwise engaged - probably doing a dash of Shakespeare at the local AmDram ("It may be Hamlet, but it's got to be fun, fun, fun!")

I watched this one episode repeatedly and insisted on my friends watching it too. Luckily, the series was to be repeated later in the year so I was able to watch it all prior to the second series the following year.

I remember one particular evening when, although sent to bed early (it was a school night) I would listen to the show on TV through the floorboards of my bedroom. I still recall becoming quite emotional after hearing Victoria sing the sad song 'Crush' through a few inches of wood and some tufted-shag.

Well, I became obsessed. No one else had touched in to my sense of humour quite like Victoria (and never has since). I watched everything I could lay my hands on (repeatedly), grew to know sketches off by heart. I had books, videos, cassettes, and then one day.... I got to meet her.

It was Tuesday 19th March 1991. It was at Wolverhampton Civic Hall. It was, quite possibly, the most exciting night of my life.

I laughed so hard that evening. Afterwards, I went back stage to get my copy of Up to You, Porky signed and I gave her a bunch of flowers and a letter.

I had no idea that she would respond AND it would begin an eighteen year correspondence.

Her first letter was brief (postmarked 9th April 1991 - I have kept all the envelopes! I may use the stamps to make a novelty lampshade one day).

I'd enquired about a certain dress from one of the sketches (Whither the Arts? - 'Bessie!') and had also invited myself 'round for tea and cheesecake.

Dear Ben - I'm afraid I don't have the orange dress anymore - I think Pat borrowed it for EastEnders. Love Victoria. PS The cheesecake is in the larder ready.

And so our little pen-pal relationship began. We wrote back and forth frequently and she even helped me out with my A-Level English Language course when I was writing about comedy. I studied an episode of Acorn Antiques and Victoria helped with questions I had about the show and her approach to comedic writing. Ultimately, my study earned me top grades and I owe some of that to Victoria. She was so kind and generous.

I met her multiple times after that and she even recognised me in a public place once! (...people hide in shop doorways when they see me coming because they feel inadequate!)

There was even a time when she gave me permission to perform an omnibus edition of her 'Carl & Gail' sketches at a revue night alongside my friend Gaynor Wall. (I played Carl, obviously.)

Gail

Carl... do you know the facts of life?

Carl

Some of 'em

Gail

Which ones?

Carl

Gravy. I know how that's made... and I know where me Mam's apron is!

Apparently, it went down quite well - we even got a mention in the Matlock Mercury.

Victoria Wood As Seen on TV is still heralded today as one of the finest sketch show comedies in British history (it's true!) and I never ever tire of it. It has always stood proudly at the top of my 'Favourite TV Shows of All-Time' list and will undoubtedly remain so.

Then, in the late '90s, she wrote and starred in one of the most quotable sitcoms ever - the sublime dinnerladies. Again, it only lasted two series (like ASOTV) and that was due to Victoria's insistence on not outstaying her welcome. Some TV shows go on and on to eventually become stale. Vic liked things to remain fresh.

What made Victoria so outstanding with her writing is that she never hogged the best lines for herself. She always new her ensemble so perfectly that she could write to their abilities. Each character she writes has a beautiful depth beyond the outward caricature. Victoria could do pathos (and bathos!) like no one else.

Victoria's body of work was more vast than some realise. She is known, of course for her comedic songs and her superb ear for dialogue, but she was also a great dramatist. She won two BAFTAs in 2007 for her heartbreakingly beautfiul film Housewife, 49 based on the diaries of Nella Last - one for her writing and one for her performance as Nella.

This just added to her somewhat cluttered mantelpiece of glittering awards thrown at her over the years.

Just within the last hour or so, I have had numerous friends text, email, message me. Everyone who knows me well understands what Victoria Wood meant to me. She was my idol, my mentor, my Comedy God. I am tearing up as I type this.

I feel rather miserable by the fact that our correspondence dwindled and we didn't write for the remaining few years of her life - but I hope she knows that I truly was one of her biggest fans.

Maybe I have missed some other things to say, but I am a little overcome with grief. Maybe another time.

To paraphrase Mrs Overall; "Crying won't bring her back, Miss Babs!"

But, my god, I wish it would...

Friday, April 8, 2016

Gold

Trying to finalise a top ten list of my favourite films is not only daunting, but somewhat impossible.

(I just know I have compiled a list like this before, but I am not trawling through my entire blog just to check!)

I have so many favourite films. A list of one hundred would be easier.

How about a top thirty? (I started at twenty but kept thinking of others!)

These films are all personal favourites. They may not all be winners of great awards or even listed on lists by other film critics, but they mean something to me - and isn't that what really matters? In my eyes, these are pure gold!

So, in no particular order, here are my top thirty favourite films...

It's not the most butch list ever, is it?!

Clue (1985)

I don't think there is anybody out there who knows me well who doesn't already know that this IS my all-time favourite. I have seen it so many times and it never fails to entertain me. I know it (almost) word for word.

Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

A damn-near perfect movie (for me). It has drama, romance, comedy, horror, a singing plant... what more could you ask for?

The Haunting (1963)

Based on the seminal classic horror novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, this is a film that should be studied by those who churn out crappy jump-scare horror. Pure brilliance.

The Birds (1963)

I love Hitchcock films and to limit my choices for this list was very hard. However, this stunning slow-builder is simply terrific.

Strangers on a Train (1951)

My second Hitchcock has some superb set-pieces. This is the film that actually sealed the deal with my love of his oeuvre.

The Gay Divorcee (1934)

This was a hard choice as I have often cited 1937's Shall We Dance as my favourite Fred and Ginger movie. However, as I am limiting my list to thirty and I love all of their black & white collaborations, I choose this as it is the epitome of everything that is great about their films.

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Lynch is a bit hit and miss for me but this is, without question, his masterpiece. It stayed with me for days after the first viewing. Sublime.

The Red Violin (1998)

A severely underrated movie, in my opinion. It's an incredible journey through various countries over generations. The soundtrack won an Academy Award (rightly so).

Easy Virtue (2008)

One of those movies that never fails to cheer me up. A perfect cast.

Repulsion (1965)

One of two Polanski films on this list. It's depiction of creeping insanity is delirious and captivating.

Ed Wood (1994)

Tim Burton's best film (as Director) and Johnny Depp shines as the earnest yet terrible film maker.

Death Becomes Her (1992)

Camp as Christmas and beautifully macabre. It has become a bit of a cult classic but I have always loved it (I saw it six times at the cinema!)

Psycho (1960)

My third and final Hitchcock for this list (I have so many favourites!) is the genre-defining, spine-tingling, utterly brilliant movie that terrified a generation.

Time Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Although not directed by Burton, this is his baby. It blends my love of Hallowe'en and the joy of Christmas all in one go.

Some Like it Hot (1959)

Seriously, it had to be on this list. It's an undisputed classic.

Tootsie (1982)

Onto another drag movie and another flawless piece of cinema. Dorothy Michaels is a masterpiece in acting.

Thelma and Louise (1991)

Ridley Scott is an amazing director and no one can deny the chemistry between Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon.

Sweet Charity (1969)

An incredibly under-appreciated film, this one. I adore it. It makes me cry every time.

Brief Encounter (1945)

David Lean, Noel Coward, Rachmaninoff... sheer heaven

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Another film highlighting incredible chemistry. this time between Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell.

Dead of Night (1945)

An Ealing Studios classic. Michael Redgrave's performance is astonishing.

The Ladykillers (1955)

Another Ealing gem. Despite the stellar cast, Katie Johnson steals the movie as Mrs. Wilberforce (Mrs. Lopsided)

Singin' in the Rain (1952)

Yes, yes, an obvious choice. But is is brilliant and Jean Hagen is magnificent as Lina Lamont.

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Another Polanski. This one adapted from Ira Levin's novel. As far as I am concerned it is one of the best adaptations (book to movie) I have ever witnessed.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Macabre, camp and fantastic.

Alien (1979)

Another Ridley Scott. I much prefer this to Aliens but I also prefer Scott over Cameron any day!!

Barbarella (1968)

Jeepers. I do like the camper fare, don't I?!? How can anyone not enjoy this space romp?

Mary Poppins (1964)

Practically perfect in every way.

The Last of Sheila (1973)

Another murder mystery with a superb cast and a sensational plot by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins.

Murder by Death (1976)

A totally bonkers spoof but with class 'A' performances all 'round. (Although Maggie Smith steals the show..)

So, that's the lot. A few bubbling under the mark such as Bugsy Malone, My Fair Lady, El Orfanato, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark to name a few... I know I will wake up at three o'clock in the morning thinking "Why didn't I think of THAT one?!? but for now I am content.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Tell Me The Worst

Nothing is perfect. On that I am sure we can all agree.

There are many books, films, TV shows, and songs that undergo an awful lot of scrutiny from the multitude of fans across the globe, but few get nit-picked quite as much as the likes of Star Trek and Doctor Who. Sci-Fi/Fantasy fans are notoriously hard to please and I cannot deny that I am often a little perplexed by some of the decisions made within the walls of show-runners' offices. Only recently I was shocked to see the tirades and abject vitriol spouted on-line toward the recent season finale of AMC's The Walking Dead. However, in this case I think it's more to do with the fact that it didn't match the original comic book version, but as I have not read those, I actually found the finale quite gripping and entertaining.

It's hard to please everyone and it's even harder to please the die-hard fans...

This brings me to Doctor Who. Yes, yes, I have written about this show before, but I wanted to just highlight a few moments since the greatest programme on TV returned to our screens where I have found myself either 'facepalming' or throwing my hands up in the air and bellowing "WHAAAT??" at the television. Sometimes it's the sheer audacity of the writers/showrunners that beggars belief, but I don't want to sound like one of these terminally indignant fanboys. I am much more forgiving than most.

Doctor Who can be one of the most exciting, thrilling and breath-taking shows on air. It's a show about adventure, love, and right versus wrong. But it's not perfect...

Let's just pick a handful of episodes since the triumphant return in 2005 (beware potential spoilers):

Dalek

by Robert Shearman

Not a massive gripe, just a problem that seems odd in hindsight. Simply this: how come Henry van Statten has never heard of the Daleks in 2012 when they invaded Earth numerous times including the relatively recent 2007 (Whoniverse time - remember Rose was delivered home twelve months too late)?

OK, I accept that timelines are fluid in sci-fi worlds and we can't get too nit-picky over this, so let's move on.

Last of the Time Lords

by Russell T Davies

I got the notion that it was the power of positive thought that saved the Doctor - I have no problem with that because Russell T Davies set that up earlier with the whole Archangel Psychic Network thing; turning the weapon into a cure. That's fine.

But floaty Doctor? Hmmm. And shouldn't he be naked? Did Martha tell everyone; "Oh, and while you're thinking the word 'Doctor' think of his lovely brown suit too!"

Journey's End

by Russell T Davies

I feel a bit churlish writing about this one because I love series four, I love Donna, and I love this episode. However, the TARDIS dragging Planet Earth back is a stretch but, to be fair, the Doctor's reaction to the ONE planet left behind being Earth is priceless, if brief. It's a bonkers notion, but one can't help feeling the warmth of the companions and the Doctor(s) banding together to help save everyone. I read one review which said if you could cope with this image, you'll love the entire finale. I guess it's true.

The Big Bang

by Steven Moffat

This gets a loud "W.T.F?" from me (especially after a great first part in The Pandorica Opens).

REBOOT THE UNIVERSE? Who are you? J.J. Abrams??

There's science fiction, there's high concept notions, and there's pure insane bollocks.

The Girl Who Waited

by Tom MacRae

I only have one major issue with this and that is why on Earth didn't Amy just ask which button? Who presses red over green? Odd.

The Angels Take Manhattan

by Steven Moffat

I have two problems with this episode. Firstly, the Statue of Liberty being a Weeping Angel. 1) It's not made of stone, 2) the Angels cannot move when they are seen (this in the city that never sleeps!) and 3) it's just bonkers. The French don't hate the Americans that much, do they?

Secondly, there is the ending. Now, I know Steven has said he wrote a different ending and I can't help but wonder if he originally had Amy and Rory die for the sake of the paradox. If so, this would make sense. I imagine Steven then hated the down-beat and grim ending for the couple, so he rewrote a more "fairytale" ending so as not to upset so many kiddies before bedtime. However, the whole thing about the Doctor not being able to ever land in New York is just codswallop. Let's not mention the fact that Amy and Rory could just travel elsewhere and meet up with him.

Kill the Moon

by Peter Harness

What started out as a genuinely creepy and exciting episode left me gaping at the screen in bewilderment. The Earth's moon is an egg and always has been? What arrant nonsense. I am perfectly open to science fiction concepts but, as with some of the examples previously mentioned, I don't like the audacity of some creative people who need to stamp "AND ALWAYS HAS BEEN" on everything. It's not clever. We are not impressed or left in awe. The Doctor has visited the moon both in the past and the future. I am sure something would have been mentioned at some point by someone. Now, if this story had been set on a different planet's moon, then I would quite easily accept the theory without drawing a breath. Let me show how this can also help another episode...

In The Forest of the Night

by Frank Cottrell-Boyce

Once again, lovely idea. A forest appears overnight. We see the city of London completely swamped with foliage. What a terrific image. BUT... it all happens so quickly and gets cleared up the next day and, apparently, everyone will forget. Hmmm. When I saw this episode for the first time, it made me think how well it would work in the form of a novel but, as I mentioned before, on another planet. You could still have the threat but then not have the 'magic' solution. You could have the inhabitants of the city deal with the aftermath over time with the Doctor saying; "Now, look after your plants before it happens again!"

Face the Raven

by Sarah Dollard

I have only seen this episode a couple of times, so I may be missing something. For a first-time writer of the show, Sarah has some fantastic ideas and there is some cracking dialogue. The thing I don't understand is just why they can't take the Chronolock off Clara. Is it explained fully? Not to my satisfaction. If Ashildr took it in her stead, it wouldn't matter as she is immortal. Maybe I need to rewatch as it surely must be explained. I'll come back to this another time.

Heaven Sent

by Steven Moffat

OK, I know this one will be controversial. Yes, it's a tour-de-force performance from Capaldi. Yes, the visuals are stunning. Yes, it's another high-concept episode...

I just don't understand why anyone, Time Lord or whomever, would subject anyone to that kind of torture over, basically, NOTHING! Seriously, think about it. It makes no sense!! Billions of years??? For WHAT?? An answer? Even Deep Thought would think that was stretching it out a bit!! Still... Rachel Talalay's direction is superb.

All That Said...

I could ramble on about other oddities and inconsistencies within the show, but it IS just a TV show (and a damn fine one at that). I said earlier that it seems a bit churlish to make criticisms but occasionally it's fun to question and scratch beneath the surface. Anyone can ask me to rave about Doctor Who and I will do so for hours.

I'll finish with one more silly nit-pick...

It's bigger on the inside? WTF?

Simple Philosophy

It has almost been four months since I returned to Blighty after sixteen years of living and working in Australia. Prior to the move, I had this notion in my head that I would spend the weeks over Christmas simply relaxing and catching up with friends and family and, once the festivities were over, I'd find a job and resume the sort of lifestyle that I had become accustomed to.

Well, talk about naïvety!

The truth is, I wasn't so innocent to believe that I would be head-hunted and snatched up by the nearest TV company or maybe be spotted by a conveniently passing Hollywood producer in his limousine; "Hey, would you like to be a movie star?" I just thought that maybe, just maybe, I would be able to start afresh without too much rigmarole.

Alas. It was not to be so. Although I was not eligible for Job Seekers Allowance until three months had passed, it did not stop me from pursuing avenues right from day one. I know I said I'd treat Christmas as a holiday, but I still kept my ear to the ground and put my feelers out there.

I spruced up my CV; joined multiple Internet job-sites and agencies; travelled up and down the country visiting possible locations for desirable living conditions and employment opportunities; but it was not as fruitful as I had hoped. More 'fraughtful'. Yes, let's invent new words. Why not, eh?

Once upon a time, it was a little more straightforward to apply for jobs. You had a CV, you sent it in. Bang. Sorted.

These days, whenever you find a job that suits your needs, it seems you have to go through a recruitment agency or similar. There isn't just one, either. It seems for every job I apply for, I have to input my entire history into another database. I am now on (to name a few) CV-Library, Total Jobs, Geeky Jobs, Glassdoor, All The Top Bananas, UK Recruitment, Job Placements, Monster, NHS Jobs, Brighterbox, Guardian Jobs, BBC Jobs, and, of course, LinkedIn.

Although I can see the advantages of being listed on these various sites, I still get frustrated by the unfathomably atrocious lack of decent punctuation and grammar plus the repetitive nature of the forms. Anyway, I'm not going to blog about that as it will just turn into another pointless rant (Me? Never!)

One of the hardest obstacles to overcome, however, is the simple fact that I am wanting a change of career. I have been doing sales for over fifteen years and, although good at it, I need to do something that makes me happy. However, when you have a CV that details one's successes, the jobs that get highlighted for you are all the same. I have made sure that my CV features my writing skills predominantly mentioning the books that I have written and the web-content management extracurricular work I did during my previous job (plus a number of freelance/voluntary online reviews/essays etc.), but this always seems to get overlooked. I am a born writer. I just love playing with words. If I could get a job that somehow takes advantage of this talent (and, trust me, anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I do not blow my own trumpet very often, so I do not say 'talent' lightly) I may finally have a vocation and a career that I genuinely love. Isn't that what we are all told to do? It's a simple philosophy.

So, with this in mind, I am applying for Communications roles, Web-Content Management, Copy-writing jobs... anything that allows me be creative with the written form.

Four months in and I am not at quite the spot that I intended to be, but hopefully soon. I want a nice job working with nice people. I want a little flat where I can own a cat, bake lemon drizzle cakes, and watch all my favourite blu-rays on a decent surround-sound home theatre.

Is that too much to ask?