Book Review:  Law and Order by Charlotte Brunsdon

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When is a series not a series? The 40th anniversary repeat screening of  Law and Order was a rare opportunity to view a pivotal moment in the development of British crime drama.  Press reports referred to the production as a missing link between The Sweeney and Life on Mars. Citations in screen history books and use of clips in “top 10” type programmes have given Law and Order an almost mythological status and yet for much of the past forty years, it has been inaccessible. BBC Four’s repeat transmission is listed as a “drama series.” Does this classification direct the viewer toward a specific reading? If Law and Order was billed as agitprop, plays, or a film in four parts would the audience construct a different interpretation?

First published in 2010, Charlotte Brunsdon’s analysis of the programmes situates them within debates concerning systemic judicial corruption and, retrospective readings of the 1970s as an era characterized by economic and social decline. Her study draws on archive research to illustrate the BBC and government’s response to complaints about perceived editorial bias.

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Broadcast in 1978, a year before Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government took office, Law and Order was initially praised by reviewers. Over the four weeks of transmission, a backlash grew, which saw the corporation being criticised in the House of Lords and being prohibited from filming inside prisons. In the last year of Harold Callaghan’s Labour government, the BBC was attempting to negotiate a licence fee settlement in a hostile economic environment while awaiting the results of a commission determining the possibility of a fourth terrestrial channel.

Accused of not sufficiently labeling the programmes as fiction the broadcaster was under effectively under siege by an outgoing administration who felt the judicial system had been unjustly smeared, and an incoming government determined to reinforce the rule of law.

As the author notes prior to the release of a limited edition DVD in 2008 Law and Order had effectively vanished. Broadcast a few years before domestic VCRs became commonplace that it was unavailable for decades is not uncommon. Many dramas from that period are currently languishing in archive vaults and will continue to do until an enterprising DVD company determines that an audience exists for the product and negotiates rights to release it. In analyzing Law and Order’s significance the author may have placed too much emphasis on factors concerning its relative obscurity in comparison to ITV series from that period. The BBC’s agreement with actor’s union Equity allowed for one repeat transmission within a two-year timeframe. After the two year period had elapsed rights to broadcast had to be renegotiated and fresh payments issued. The costs associated with renegotiation are key factors in why so many hours of television made prior to 1978 was junked.

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Law and Order was originally broadcast as part of the Play for Today strand. Brunsdon highlights why labeling the drama as a “play” had significant implications for how the viewer may have interpreted screen events.  Produced a few years before the BBC decommissioned Play for Today, Law and Order deliberately blurred the line between drama and docu-drama. Using techniques associated with crime drama and fly-on-wall documentaries transmission the programmes creative team was able to convey unpalatable truths about cracks in the judicial system. The author’s contextualization draws attention to the fact that during the 1970s police officers were routinely engaged in corrupt practices.  This was an era when high profile miscarriages of justice fuelled calls for institutional reform.  Political figures interpreted the broadcast of Law and Order as a provocative act designed to undermine public faith in the judicial system.

Analysing individual episodes Brunsdon considers if producer Tony Garnett was attached to the project due to expectations he would deliver controversial drama that might trigger public debate. His last production for the BBC before leaving to work in America, Garnett’s distinguished track record included collaboration with Ken Loach. The author demonstrates that his earlier work (Up the Junction, Cathy Come Home) was typified by e use of real locations and unknown actors.  Acknowledging difficulties ascribing authorship in a collaborative medium, Brunsdon places emphasis on the role Garnett played in fostering an environment that enabled the writer, director, and actors to flourish creatively.

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Brunsdon’s monograph questions if the use of the serial-format may have contributed to the backlash. Dramas broadcast under the Play for Day banner were usually one-off productions. Exceptions such as Flipside for Dominick Hide and Another Flip for Dominick occurred due to strong public and critical response to the originating play. Law and Order’s episodic structure placed it in between the then familiar formats of one-off drama and continuing series. Fictional and observational formats were consciously combined to cause an uproar. Illustrating how the audience confused fictional and reality, actor Derek Martin was booed by a crowd at a football match shortly after the first episode’s transmission.

Charlotte Brunsdon’s study uses contemporary documentation to demonstrate how in a pre-multi channel era popular drama had the power to stimulate public debate about institutions.

Law and Order is published by BFI.

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Book Review: Shut That Door by Tony Nicholson

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

ITV3 is to air a two-hour documentary celebrating Larry Grayson’s life and legacy.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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: Folk Horror by Adam Scovell

 

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What is Folk Horror? When did a group of disparate texts become linked under the banner of a relatively new subgenre? Do the works of M.R. James, Dennis Wheatley, and Nigel Kneale share common preoccupations? Were The Wicker Man, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and Witchfinder General exploitation films or did they reveal something deeper about that era’s attempts to reconcile conflicting views of past? How has this previously critically scorned subgenre become the focus of scholarship?

Writer and filmmaker Adam Scovell’s text is a subjective survey of the genre that explores its genealogy, formation of a cannon, and wider considerations about cultural shifts. Arguing that the subgenre is fluid, the author suggests that instead of using Folk Horror as a term to retrospectively categrorise books, films, and TV series, it should be employed to open up discussion about thematically connected texts and what present day attempts to form a cannon may say about the critical community.

Acknowledging that ‘Folk’ is an ambiguous term, Scovell’s study suggests that it may refer to cultural practices, aesthetic practices specific to a particular community, and thematic commonalities. Particular focus is paid to the 1960s counter-culture movement and the emergence of alternative lifestyles. This subculture sought to establish a socially progressive model of society which incorporated Folk traditions.

Scovell concedes establishing a precise definition of ‘Horror’ is equally problematic. The term is constantly modified and historically has incorporated Folklore based narratives.

The author suggests that the term may have been originated by director Piers Haggard in a 2003 interview for Fangoria Magazine.

Mark Gatiss’ 2010 documentary series A History of Horror used the term to categorize three films; The Blood on Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General, and The Wicker Man. Gatiss noted that the films ‘shared a common obsession with the British landscape, its folklore, and superstitions.’ Scovell uses the same three films to form a Folk Horror Chain which provides a theoretical model for analysis of the subgenre, commercial imperatives, reception by later generations of critics and fans, alongside an analysis of contemporary cultural trends.

Scovell’s study is wide-ranging in scope and rigorous in its analysis. The book analyses a vast array of Folk Horror literature, films, and TV series demonstrating that the subgenre is still a potent creative and commercial force. Establishing a theoretical base for further academic investigation, he identifies core thematic elements and offers potential explanations for why Folk Horror continues to resonate.

Folk Horror is published by Auteur Publishing

Adam Scovell’s has written about key Folk Horror films for the BFI.

Book Review: The Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson – The story of the Barbary corsair raid on Iceland in 1627 (Trans by Karl Smári Hreinsson and Adam Nichols)

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In the summer of 1627 Algerian pirates descended on Iceland. Docking at Heimaey, a small island 7.4 km off the coast of Iceland, the pirates pillaged and plundered, destroyed the church, burnt farm houses and killed thirty-four people. 242 islanders were captured and transported to Africa where they were sold as slaves.

Reverend Ólafur Egilsson was one of the first to be enslaved. Born in the same year as William Shakespeare and Galileo Galilei, at the age of sixty his unshakeable religious convictions were tested when he suffered intense beatings during the voyage to Algiers. On land, the pirates executed those who made the sign of the cross or prayed, including a priest. Ólafur Egilsson was signaled out for extreme forms of punishment because he was a Lutheran minister. Routinely whipped by a rope, he was close to death when the ship reached Africa.

Ólafur Egilsson’s pregnant wife and children were also transported. After eleven days at sea, Ólafur’s wife gave birth to a boy. The child was immediately declared to be pirates’ property.

Brought ashore the captured Icelanders were taken to the slave market. Ólafur’s eleven-year-old son was taken by the Sultan’s representative. The rest of the family was taken to a house and Ólafur was put to work. He would never again see his son, Egill.

Conditions were harsh, many Icelanders perished due to overwork, heat exhaustion, and beatings.

Summoned by an official, Ólafur was ordered to visit Copenhagen and ask the King of Denmark to pay a ransom for the captives’ freedom. Iceland was at the time under Danish rule. The priest embarked on a long and tortuous journey to petition the King, unaware that the state’s finances were exhausted after the Thirty Years War.

A classic example of seventeenth-century Icelandic literature and a historically important captivity narrative, The Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson remained untranslated into English until 2008. A new edition published by Catholic University America Press contains several letters written by Icelandic captives detailing their experiences as slaves in Africa.

Documenting a tragic event, the book also provides invaluable detail about Muslim and post-Reformation Christian societies in the seventeenth century.

The Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson is filled with sorrow and torment. Ólafur Egilsson’s moving account of an intense personal tragedy is an enriching read.

The Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson is published by Catholic University America Press.