Book Review: Shut That Door by Tony Nicholson

41r7DDqTmhL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Seems like a nice boy: Comedian’s life was tinged with sorrow and joy.

At its peak, Larry Grayson’s Generation Game attracted audiences of 25 million. For an entire generation, the show was a key part of their Saturday night viewing schedule. The Oxfordshire born comedian’s catchphrases “Shut that door!”, “Seems like a nice boy”, and “Look at the muck in ‘ere” seeped into popular culture. His innuendo-laden asides to camera brought camp culture into the mainstream and made him a figure of hate for gay militants.

When it was first announced that Grayson would replace TV legend Bruce Forsyth critics predicted a swift end for the series. TV executives were initially reluctant to make such a radically bold shakeup to the format and instead lobbied for a safe pair of hands in the form of Record Breakers host Roy Castle to take over presenting duties. Confident that they had made the right choice the programme’s production team stood their ground and shot a pilot. Few would have predicted that the revised format and new presenter would take the show to greater heights of popularity. Hosting the biggest game show on UK TV was a huge reward for a professional who had spent several decades treading the boards in working men’s clubs, nightclubs, seaside reviews, and Soho pick-up joints.

21740356_10159313661085052_2852647852923158084_n

In the 1990s TV producer Tony Nicholson worked with Larry Grayson on a game show. Over nine months they shot a series which performed well in the ratings but ultimately failed to please executives who were more concerned with catering for younger viewers. The producer who had once been one of millions watching The Generation Game now had the opportunity to get to know one of the 1970s biggest TV stars. His time working with Grayson inspired the producer to write the biography.

Using newly discovered notes for an unpublished autobiography and never before published photographs alongside freshly recorded interviews with surviving friends and colleagues, Tony Nicholson has assembled an account of a life filled with tremendous joy and heartbreaking lows. The book is a labour of love partly born out of a desire to remind readers that Grayson was one of the most significant comedians working in twentieth-century British television.

Larry-Grayson

Beyond the innuendo, catchphrases, and potters wheel, very little was known about the comedian until now.

Grayson was born William White in a workhouse. His mother was in love with someone of a different religious persuasion whose family were vehemently opposed to the prospect of their union. The precise identity of Grayson’s father is a mystery. As Nicholson points out, the comedian was uninterested in learning the truth of his lineage. The author’s commentary is sympathetic to Grayson’s mother, reminding readers that this was an intolerant era.

Fostered by a miners family, he suffered heartache at six when his adoptive mother died. Mothered by his foster sister, he was raised as Billy Hammond, trod the boards as Billy Breen before finding fame in middle age as Larry Grayson.

Larry Grayson 2

The author’s research has uncovered a lost world in which comedians honed their acts over several decades before becoming an overnight sensation. Seasons at the bottom of the bill in seaside reviews and residencies in working men’s clubs were an essential part of the apprenticeship severed by Grayson and many of his contemporaries before their discovery by the leading theatrical impresarios of the day.

Establishing the real-life stories behind well-known characters Slack Alice and Everard, the author suggests that beyond the innuendo Grayson was paying an affectionate comedic tribute to people he had known in his formative years.

More than a warm tribute, Shut That Door critiques now antiquated attitudes and celebrates Grayson’s pioneering efforts to place camp culture into the heart of the mainstream a few years after the legalisation of homosexuality.

Shut That Door is published by Kaleidoscope Publishing.

Advertisements

Book Review: I Am David by Anne Holm (Trans by L.W. Kingsland)

51GTZZBK9GL._SX307_BO1,204,203,200_

Danish novel is a hymn to the plight of refugee children.

Since its publication in 1963, I Am David‘s reputation has continued to grow. For a continent struggling to heal the scars of recent conflicts, the story of a child discovering his identity while crossing Europe on foot resonated. At the time of Anne Holm’s death, it was reported that the book had sold in excess of two million copies.

Winner of the award for Best Scandinavian Children’s Book, I Am David is credited with introducing generations of children to the horrors of concentration camps and plight of refugees. Ranked alongside Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword, Nina Bawden’s Carries War, and Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit as one of the most significant books set in or around World War Two, I Am David uses the format of an adventure story to teach children about the forgotten victims of conflict.

Unashamedly sentimental, the novel is told from the perspective of the eponymous hero. Born and raised in a concentration camp he has limited knowledge of life beyond the perimeter. One night a guard offers David an opportunity to escape. Carrying a compass, bottle of water, bar of soap, and a loaf of bread he enters a world he has never known and begins an arduous journey to Denmark.

Withholding information about the concentration camp’s location and precise date the author has attempted to create a sense of any time. David’s refusal to trust information in books printed after 1917 is the first major hint that he has previously been incarcerated in a Soviet labour camp. The precise country he has escaped from is left ambiguous although some critics have concluded it is probably Bulgaria.

Published in an era when people were fearful that the Cold War would erupt in a fresh global conflict, the book reminded readers that in eastern Europe people were still being crushed by tyranny, terror, and torture.

Despite some finely sketched atmospheric detail and moving sequences, an over-reliance on coincidence dilutes the book’s impact. David’s twin quests to find sanctuary and self-discovery are splintered by incredulous plotting which momentarily throws the reader out of the narrative. Flawed but engaging, I Am David’ has taught generations of child readers about the aftershocks of 20th-century warfare and its victims while eulogising hope and freedom.

I Am David is published by Egmont.

Book Review: Max Linder – Father of Film Comedy by Snorre Smári Mathiesen

51rC-MiklKL

The story of a screen comedy giant’s rise and fall is a haunting tragedy.

Feted by Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, Max Linder was one of silent era’s biggest stars. Born to wealthy vineyard owning parents, Linder would dazzle audiences all over the world. Shooting films nine years before Chaplin, Linder was a cultural icon but today is largely forgotten outside of French-speaking territories.

A comic genius Linder is now recognised as one of the first performers to introduce subtlety. His cane carrying, silk hat wearing screen persona “Max” foreshadowed Chaplin’s tramp. Chaplin would later refer to Linder as ‘his master.’ Following a meeting, Chaplin inscribed a photograph “To Max, the Professor, from his disciple, Charles Chaplin.” More productive than Chaplin, Linder is believed to have shot 500 films of which around 100 still survive.

linder1

Traumatised by experiences in World War One he suffered from bouts of depression for the rest of his life. In February 1924 Linder and his wife made a suicide pact. An attempt to end their lives in a Vienna hotel was thwarted. Contemporary news accounts reported the pair had accidentally overdosed on barbiturates. In October 1925 Linder and his wife retired to a Paris hotel after attending a performance of Quo Vadis. Linder told staff that the room should not be disturbed. The following morning Linder’s mother in law tried to phone her daughter. When her calls were not answered she implored hotel staff to forcibly open the door. Entering the room hotel staff and Linder’s mother-in-law were confronted with the sight of two blood-soaked corpses. Max Linder was 41, his wife was 21. Immediately after hearing the news Charlie Chaplin closed his film studio for a day as a sign of respect.

linder1

Despite being an important figure in the evolution of screen comedy Linder has become a footnote. His name and work are largely forgotten outside of France. A 1983 documentary The Man in the Silk Hat directed by his daughter Maud was a moving homage to an unknown father. More recently Linder has been referenced in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. Kino Lorber’s release of a boxset containing four American films has been welcomed by cinephiles but the superior French productions are currently unavailable in English speaking territories.

Attempting to restore Linder’s reputation a biography by Norwegian writer Snorre Smári Mathiesen is an expertly research account of the early days of cinema and a life tormented by the horrors of conflict. Researching silent film the author became aware that despite references in noted European cinematic historical texts there was very little information about Linder in English publications. Similarly, in the pre-YouTube and DVD era, it was practically impossible to track down a VHS copy of Linder’s films. The absence of material made Linder seem more compelling and the author embarked on a quest to discover all that he could about the actor.

linder1

An impressive first step on the road to ensuring Linder’s work is more widely known. The author acknowledges a forthcoming biography by Lisa Stein Havn and concedes that it will probably become the definitive text. Max Linder – Father of Film Comedy is an effective introduction to the actor’s life and legacy.

Demonstrating why numerous silent era comedians revered Linder the author presents a vivid account of an ascension to international megastardom and final years blighted by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Due to the particularly dark nature of Linder’s post-war existence, the final chapters are uncomfortable. Even-handed in his analysis of screen icon and person, the author celebrates Linder’s cinematic achievements and is reassuringly frank about his off-screen persona.

Max Linder – Father of Film Comedy is published by BearManorMedia

Book Review: I Am Not A Number: Decoding The Prisoner by Alex Cox

9780857301758

Maverick indie filmmaker’s guide to the perplexing cult classic.

First broadcast fifty years ago, The Prisoner was a seismic television event. Viewers expecting a continuation of Patrick McGoohan’s espionage series Danger Man were confronted with a challenging show that took inspiration from Franz Kafka and John Le Carre.

A product of its time and yet unlike any other series produced, The Prisoner continues to attract a large cult following. Each year fans visit the filming location Welsh village Portmeirion to attend a convention celebrating the series. Aficionados wearing natty blazers recreate terror filled scenes fleeing oversized beach balls, meet surviving members of the cast and crew,  share their interpretations of the series themes and its controversial final episode. Fifty years after the series was first broadcast its fans have yet to reach a definitive conclusion about the finale.

Reportedly on transmission night, the ITV switchboard was jammed with thousands of calls from irate viewers struggling to make sense of the final episode. Refusing to offer a tidy conclusion McGoohan delivered a bonkers hour of television which suggested he may have been sprinkling magic mushrooms on his cornflakes. Absurd, obscure, and confrontational, it was the ultimate kiss-off from a lead actor who had been granted too much creative freedom.

Was The Prisoner an avant-garde masterpiece or an incomprehensible mess? Cult classic or overrated nonsense? Repo Man director and Moviedrome host Alex Cox saw The Prisoner when it first aired. In his new book I Am Not A Number: Decoding the Prisoner he situates the series in terms of its differences to anything else being broadcast at that time on British television. After fifty years of debate about the show’s meaning Cox suggests that answers to all questions are on the screen. Advocating watching the series in order of production instead of transmission he attempts to definitively reveal number 6’s identity and who or what was number 1.

Redressing decades of critical imbalance which has emphasised McGoohan as the series’ primary author, Cox draws the readers attention to the contributions made by co-creator George Markstein. It was Markstein’s knowledge of a Scottish village used as a haven for spies during World War II that provided the inspiration for The Prisoner‘s location.

Avoiding salacious accounts of filming that have been told over the years at conventions, Cox’s analysis reveals layers of subtext in the episodes, references production decisions and reminds readers of political events that were being satirised. A worthy contribution to continuing debates about The Prisoner‘s meaning.

I Am Not A Number: Decoding the Prisoner is published by Kamera Books.

The Prisoner: 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray is available to order from Amazon.



Book Review: The Venice Train by Georges Simenon (Trans by Alastair Hamilton)

2800538._UY630_SR1200,630_

Dark story of deception and anxiety.

Mid-level clerk, Julian Calmer’s life is thrown into disarray when a chance encounter on a train shatters any semblance of normality. Another example of Simenon employing an Everyman to explore the darker recesses of the human psyche. The Venice Train is a suspense-filled novella which analyses how a turning point in a life might compel an individual to walk away from a lifetime of conformity and discover their previously repressed true identity.

Julian Calmer’s life has previously been dominated by rigidity and routine. After a family holiday in Venice, he boards a train to Paris and sits across from a stranger unaware that soon his every waking moment will be filled with paranoia. Chatting with the stranger, Calmer is surprised that his fellow traveller is taking such a keen interest in the minutiae of his life. As the conversation draws to a close the stranger hands Calmer an attaché case and asks him to deliver it to an address in Lausanne.

Calmer’s decision to take possession of the case has jeopardised the safe and comfortable lifestyle he has spent years creating for his family. The stranger leaves the carriage promising to return in a moment but is never seen again. Curious about the case’s contents Calmer delivers it and discovers the lifeless body of a manicurist.

Fleeing the crime scene he returns to Paris. Opening the bag Calmer discovers a fortune in foreign currency. With a sum of money in his possession greater than what he might earn in a lifetime working for his current employer Calmer is torn between wanting to enjoy the benefits of his find and the desire to maintain the pretence of a normal lifestyle. Fearful that the criminal underworld will find him and exact some revenge for absconding with the funds he is determined to maintain a low profile until he is sure that the no evidence of a trail exists. He trawls Paris’ newspaper stands and purchases foreign publications hoping to find some information about the bag’s owner, the deceased manicurist, and current stages of the police’s investigation.

Adhering to Simenon’s template of an individual confronting a new self when faced with a change in circumstances, The Venice Train is a below-par novella from one of Europe’s most prolific writers. Barely concealed traces of the author’s misogyny are littered throughout the book. Tension and plausibility is tossed out of the window in a deeply unsatisfying final chapter which stretches credulity and reveals a tired writer going through the motions.

One for completists. Readers new to Simenon should avoid The Venice Train.

The Venice Train is currently out of print. Used copies are available to order from Amazon.

Betty by Georges Simenon (Trans by Alastair Hamilton)

91qMWU2+z6L

Lost soul’s facade conceals a dark past.

One of six books cited by Simenon to counter accusations of misogyny, Betty was reportedly inspired by a chance encounter with a drunken women in a Versaiiles bar. In the majority of his books Simenon’s mother is an ever-present figure. Men are represented as victims of symbolically castrating feminine forces. Temporarily jettisoning the recurrent mother motif, Betty features a traumatised woman who is a composite of Simenon and his second wife Denyse Ouime.

A twenty-eight-year-old alcoholic is seeking solace from the bottom of a glass in a bar on the Champs-Élysées. Trapped in a destructive cycle of exhibitionism and promiscuity, this depressed drunk has been cast out of the family home and denied access to her children. Potential salvation arrives when a doctor’s widow offers Betty a place to stay.

Confiding in her new found protector, Betty reveals a traumatic past. Loveless and hopeless, Simenon’s heroine is a war orphan, her father was murdered by German troops shortly before the cessation of hostilities. The irony of Simenon writing about the horrors of war and damage wrought upon survivors is not lost on Simenologists who have long been aware that he collaborated with the Vichy regime.

Betty is effectively an extended conversation with occasional flashbacks. The ending may fizzle out but this is fundamentally a book which reveals a great deal about Simenon’s neurosis and perversions. The inclusion of an incest subplot is particularly significant because during their conversation Swiss psychiatrist Dr Pierre Rentchnick noted that the author had a particular interest in familial abuse. Simenon’s daughter would take her own life in 1973 and many questions remain unanswered about the nature of her inappropriate feelings toward her father and the extent to which he may have in some way been responsible for both her lust and the eventual tragedy. This book certainly suggests he had entertained the notion of abuse.

Dark and unsettling, in this novel Betty reveals her trauma and comes close to exposing Simenon.

Betty is currently out of print. Used copies are available to order from Amazon.

Book Review: The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By by Georges Simenon (Trans by Siân Reynolds)

cover.jpg.rendition.460.707 (1)

Madman on the run seeks refuge in Paris’ seedy underbelly.

A notorious frequenter of brothels, Simenon boasted of visiting thousands of sex workers. His experiences in houses of ill repute, cheap backstreet hotels, and conversations with prostitutes were mined for a credible recreation of a shadowy world filled with dawn police raids, jealous pimps, and treacherous friends. An ice cold naked city seen through the eyes of a man rapidly losing his grip on reality, The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By is a supreme novel that explores many of the writer’s recurrent preoccupations and asks if truth is absolute.

Everyman Kees Popinga’s life falls apart when he learns that his employer has gone bankrupt and is about to flee from his creditors. Popinga has lived a life of strict routine in the Dutch city Groningen. A respectable mid-level executive with a wife and two children, thirty-nine-year-old Popinga travels to Amsterdam and attempts to seduce his former boss’ mistress. Convinced that his previous life was a form of self-deception, he views the probable imminent loss of family and home as an opportunity to discover his true identity.

Feeling emasculated after his boss’s former mistress laughs at his request he strangles her and boards a train to Paris unaware that he has killed the woman.

Hiding in France he mingles with the criminal underworld and finds temporary refuge in prostitutes boudoirs. Shortly after his arrival newspapers print stories about the murder of his boss’ mistress. Enraged at innacurate reporting Popinga writes to the papers to correct the information they are presenting about him and his crime. Deliberately ambiguous, at least initially, Simenon plays with the reader suggesting that a similar transformation of fortunes could transform anyone into the person Popinga has become.

Swiss psychiatrist Dr Pierre Rentchnick interviewed Simenon and published a paper entitled Simenon sur le gril. The psychiatrist who had spent a day questioning the author would later state ‘We all thought he was schizoid but we did not want to write that.’ The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By is a study of psychosis and it is highly probable that Simenon was using the format of a thriller to dramatise his personal desires and torments. Rentchnick’s study revealed that Simenon was an exhibitionist seemingly trapped in a state of perpetual adolescence so writing a wish fulfillment novel is no less improbable than the author’s oft quoted claims to have slept with 10,000 women.

Powerfully evocative The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By contains details plucked from Simenon’s life. Popinga’s arrival at Gare du Nord and subsequent discovery of back streets filled with street walkers recalls a similar journey made by Simenon in 1922.

Supremely crafted this taut exploration of dark desire and insanity is one of Simenon’s greatest novels.

The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By is published by Penguin.