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Using newly discovered notes for an unpublished autobiography and never before published photographs alongside freshly recorded interviews with surviving friends and colleagues, Tony Nicholson has assembled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.

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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.

DVD Review: Maigret

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Sacré bleu, ITV’s over hyped adaptation of Simenon’s Maigret novels is très boring.

Ranking alongside Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Phillip Marlowe as one of the world’s best-known fictional detectives, Jules Maigret was created by the prolific Belgian writer Georges Simenon. First appearing in 1929’s Pietr the Latvian,75 novels featuring the pipe-smoking detective were published between 1931 and 1972.

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Staking a claim to inventing the police procedural, Simenon’s innovations also included an emphasis on the social, emotional, and psychological aspects of criminality. Transforming the genre, Simenon used its conventions to show what could push a person over the edge. Illustrating the authors belief in man’s fundamental irresponsibility the crimes featured in the Maigret novels are a response to a moment of crisis.

With Maigret Simenon didn’t just invent a new type of hero, he also created a distinct sub-genre. Standing apart from any fictional detective published up to that point, Maigret’s methods and raison d’être established the character as unlike anything published before. Equal parts secular priest and psychologist, biographers have suggested that the detective represents the person Simenon would like to have been while the criminal elements are literary representations of who he might have become had his life taken a very different turn.

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One of the novels many innovations was its rejection of tired tropes exhausted by the puzzle school of crime fiction which focused on unmasking the killer and made little attempt to dramatise his emotional backstory. Written from a humanistic perspective, the Maigret novels seem less concerned with apprehending the assailant than discovering what had tipped an ordinary person over the edge and led to them committing horrific criminal acts. Emphasising his difference from other literary detectives Maigret’s compassionate approach to policing involved offering the perpetrators one last chance of redemption before the judicial process took over.

Famously written over several days, each of the novels is an economically told stark exploration of society’s disenfranchised and dispossessed. Deliberately using a restricted vocabulary, Simenon’s atmospheric descriptions bring alive a now vanished France. Widely read, according to the UNESCO Translation Index Simenon is the seventeenth most translated author.

A number of accomplished actors have played the pipe-smoking detective on screen and radio. For a generation, the Rupert Davies starring series is the definitive version. More recently Michael Gambon and Bruno Cremer have introduced successive generations of TV viewers to Simenon’s work.

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Following in the footsteps of some illustrious predecessors, Rowan Atkinson is the latest actor to play Maigret in a series which promised so much but ultimately failed to deliver. Simenon’s work seemed to be bullet-proof and was able to withstand a mercifully now forgotten production starring Richard Harris who seemed to be under the misapprehension he was playing the then Labour leader Michael Foot. This latest heavily promoted series reaches the screen as Penguin books is issuing newly translated editions of the books.

On paper, this series should have been a sure-fire winner. Expectations were high for the lavishly budgeted production. Initial optimism soon faded when critics realised ITV had delivered a misjudged adaptation which transforms two of the twentieth century’s most notable crime writer’s novels into a tortuous yawnfest.

Rowan Atkinson reportedly devoured the novels prior to playing the part. Physically he bears very little resemblance to the stocky detective in Simenon’s novels. Previously known as a comic actor his performance is too rigid and downplays the books’ humour. Lacking the passion of Bruno Cremer’s interpretation, Atkinson’s understated portrayal occasionally comes across as a one-note performance.

Expanded for the small screen, Simenon’s tightly-plotted novels rich with social detail have been transformed into ponderous and unfocused period police dramas devoid of anything resembling atmosphere.

A diversion to kill a few hours, even if the slow pace will make them feel like forever, Maigret is a misguided adaptation which does a great disservice to Simenon and his most famous fictional creation. Filled with a supporting cast unsure if they should play it straight or parody the material, it is an uneven series. Bland cinematography adds to the show’s many deficiencies. Avoid and buy the books instead.

Maigret is available to buy from Amazon.

DVD Review: Callan – The Monochrome Years

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Grim and gritty espionage series.

The phenomenal success of the James Bond feature films tapped into Cold War paranoia and inspired a wave of spy films and TV series. Enticed by the allure of glamorous locations, ingenious gadgetry, and diabolical foreign agents being vanquished the public flocked to cinemas and switched on TVs to see an array of thrillers featuring secret agents. As the Bond movies drifted away from Fleming’s template and became increasingly camp its imitators started to pastiche the genre. By the mid to late 1960s the trend with films and series Our Man Flint, The Avengers and The Man from UNCLE was to throw out any pretence of seriously exploring East-West tensions and parody with a knowing wink.

Bucking the trend a play commissioned for anthology series Armchair Theatre eschewed ersatz glamour and rooted its cynical view of espionage in an all too realistic world of grimy bedsits and dilapidated office blocks. Inspired by Kim Philby and Guy Burgess defections  screenwriter James Mitchell wrote a one off play A Magnum for Schneider. Uncharacteristically gritty for the era it presented a morally ambiguous view of espionage and surveillance that predates Homeland and Spooks.

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Pleased with the public’s response to A Magnum for Schneider ITV swiftly commissioned a full series. Airing five months after the play aired ITV Callan eventually ran for four seasons. A benchmark moment in the history of spy series. Appetite for this groundbreaking programme was so strong a feature film remake of A Magnum for Schneider was released in cinemas two years after the series finished. A one off TV play broadcast in 1981 was originally intended to bring Callan’s story to a definite end but the character would be brought back for one final outing in the 2002 novel Bonfire Night.

Not broadcast since the original transmission, Network’s release contains all the surviving episodes from the first two seasons and A Magnum for Schneider.

Stark and unflinching in its depiction of how far intelligence services might be prepared to go in order to protect society the series frequently pushed the envelope in terms of levels of violence seen on screen. Despite its age many of themes explored remain all too relevant today.

Innovative in its use of story arcs decades before they became commonplace in television drama Callan threw down the gauntlet to future espionage series daring imitators to be as bold in stretching the genre’s parameters.

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Acting on stage and screen since the immediate post war period Edward Woodward had already built a solid reputation before being cast in A Magnum for Schneider. The success of the play and subsequent series transformed him from noted character actor into a household name. His portrayal of the executioner earnt him a BAFTA award.

Miles away from the comparatively lily-white James Bond and John Steed David Callan (Edward Woodward) is a retired operative recalled to active duty by a mysterious branch of intelligence services known only as The Section. Previously retired from service for fear that his ability as an executioner has been blunted by a tendency to ask too many questions about the assignment and frequent displays of emotional attachment he soon learns that discharge from duty can only ever be temporary. Full of loathing for himself, his employers, and the jobs he is made to do Callan is all too aware that refusing to accept a job will lead to another operative being assigned to assassinate him.

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A high point in the history of British TV Callan is a taut and intense thriller. Intelligent writing and nonpareil performances from Woodward and Russell Hunter as seedy petty burglar Lonely place this series in a league far  removed from any other crime series produced in the UK during the 1960s.

Truly exceptional, the surviving episodes of this arresting series demonstrate a willingness to innovate that is lost in modern TV production. The final traumatic episode of this collection demonstrates a boldness that remains unparalleled in spy series. Often copied but never equalled, Callan remains the definitive small screen hitman.

Callan – The Monochrome Years is available to order from Amazon

 

DVD Review: River

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Stellan Skarsgard delivers a career defining performance in ambitious crime drama.

Nordic Noir comes to the East End of London in the form of Swedish film star Stellan Skarsgard. Temporarily leaving behind Hollywood soundstages for a UK TV series Skarsgard plays the eponymous River, a police detective who hears voices.

Multi-layered and emotionally potent, River is an audacious series from BAFTA Award winning screenwriter Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady). Updating the detective drama Morgan has created a gritty and lyrical show that is one of the strongest dramas to debut in 2015.

A complex examination of the human psyche’s frailties, Morgan’s screenplay explores the motivations behind murder with a degree of empathy. Possibly influenced by Nordic Noir’, River focuses on criminality’s collateral damage with a strong emphasis on grief’s corrosive effects.

The latest in a long line of troubled TV police officers, River is suffering from survivor’s guilt following the death of his partner. Since childhood he has heard what he believes to be voices from beyond the grave. Convinced his recently deceased partner (Nicola Walker) is communicating with him River’s grief endures.

River’s erratic behaviour is viewed with suspicion and concern by senior officers Police Superintendent Marcus McDonald (Owen Teale) and DCI Chrissie Read (Lesley Manville). Ordered to attend a series of therapy sessions with the police psychiatrist Rosa Fallows (Georgina Rich) he must prove to be fit enough to remain on active duty.

Skarsgard’s masterful performance conveys the pain of a man haunted by guilt. A BAFTA worthy portrayal of isolation, anguish, and suppressed rage.

More than an updated Randall and Hopkirk or a The Sixth Sense imitation, River is a sharply written six-part drama. Virtually faultless, the series makes a brave attempt to create a distinct identity and not be seen to swim in Broadchurch‘s slipstream.

A series rich with an abundance of excellent performances, supreme writing, and filmic cinematography. Undeniably one of the most significant British dramas to air this year.

River is available to order from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/River-DVD-Stellan-Skarsg%C3%A5rd/dp/B014UZTQLY/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1448876626&sr=8-1&keywords=river

http://www.amazon.co.uk/River-Blu-Ray-Stellan-Skarsg%C3%A5rd/dp/B0171S3HR6/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1448876626&sr=8-2&keywords=river

DVD Review: Downtime

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Unofficial Doctor Who spin-off materialises on DVD

In the early 1990s Doctor Who was a battle weary Time Lord consigned to repeats on UK Gold. A combination of enemies more fiendish than the Master and Daleks had vanquished the errant science fiction hero; falling viewing figures and an indifferent BBC. Languishing in the time vortex of viewers’ memories the intergalactic vagabond would be revived for one night in a misguided TV movie starring Paul McGann and then placed back into the cryogenic freeze of development hell until Russell T Davies’ successful reinvention.

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During those long dark days when enthusiasts clamoured for fresh adventures featuring their favourite foes a group of fans turned media professionals decided to take matters into their own hands and produce an independent and unofficial straight-to-video drama. Prohibited from including the Doctor or TARDIS the producers secured rights to include cherished characters and attempted to make Doctor Who without the lead character.

Produced on a budget smaller than the notoriously low funds available for late 1980s Doctor Who, Downtime was initially released on VHS at a time when fans were enjoying the more lavishly financed visual spectacles being offered by X-Files and Babylon 5.

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A sequel to a pair of 1960s adventures, The Abominable Snowman, Web of Fear, Downtime sees Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) and Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) investigate a university which is offering personalised syllabuses without tuition. Run along the lines of a religious cult, New World University harnesses then cutting edge IT to enslave students and prepare a gateway for an evil force to enter this world.

The voice of her long dead father draws Victoria Waterfield (Deborah Watling) to a Tibetan monastery. Will the message from a man who died on an alien world bring salvation or unleash the ultimate foe?

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A forgotten slice of Doctor Who history making its debut on DVD. Downtime‘s cast features several Who stalwarts; John Leeson (voice of K-9), Jack Watling (Professor Travers), Geoffrey Beavers (Tom Baker era incarnation of the Master).

An ambitious but muddled script aims high and crashes spectacularly. Littered with plot holes, inconsistent characterisation, and absurd dialogue the screenplay exemplifies the very worst of fan productions. Foolish attempts to reference Bergman’s Seventh Seal resemble Scottish Widows commercials.

A kitsch classic? The Who-niverse’s equivalent of Plan 9 from Outer Space? Dated visuals and uneven performances from the supporting cast mean Downtime is unlikely to find favour among fans of 21st century Doctor Who.

Downtime is available to order from Amazon