Thursday, 11 February 2016

Who do you think you're kidding, all you cynics?

It might be a matter of perception, but the new Dad’s Army film seems to be dividing viewers and reviewers along far deeper lines than most film releases.

For many of us over a certain age, Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s series was a highlight of the 1970s TV schedules and deservedly retains the status of national treasure.

Reruns have ensured that it has never dropped out of the public consciousness and continues to gain a new audience, and it has consistently been voted as one of the best examples of British TV and, specifically, sitcoms.

For me, there’s the added little point that my paternal grandfather was seriously myopic (thanks, Grandpop) and thus did his WWII service in the Cornish Home Guard. Decades later, he’d chuckle at the series and note that it was very true to life.

When the film was first announced, I suffered a fit of apoplexy. How could they? The original is sacrosanct and should not be tampered with.

Then I saw the casting. Goodness, the casting of this film is genius. And I started wanting it to be okay.

There were other worries, though. I originally heard that the script was to be written by those responsible for the St Trinian’s reboot, but it turned out to be by Hamish McColl, who previously penned 2014’s utterly delightful Paddington.

After seeing the trailers, I decided to make it another cinema visit and, by coincidence as much as anything, The Other Half and I saw it on the opening day, last week.

There will be no spoilers here, but suffice it to say that the film sags in the second half.

Parade time in Walmington-on-Sea (Bridlington)
However, the idea that it’s rubbish is difficult to grasp. The script is more than mere pastiche. There are innuendos and physical comedy, certainly – both of which existed in the original series and are staples of British comedy – but also layers of far subtler stuff.

It has the thread of class running through it, as did the original series – a subject that is every bit as relevant today.

The catchphrases are used with care. Charlie Mole’s score is clever, with all sorts of subtle references within it both to the original theme and assorted songs from WWII (and even, I thought, James Bond).

The cast is wonderful and don’t make the mistake of trying to impersonate the actors who made their characters famous. Particular mentions will go here to Toby Jones, who is wonderful as Mainwaring, Bill Nighy as Wilson and Michael ‘The Great’ Gambon as Godfrey.

It was also delightful to see the two remaining original cast members appear, including Frank Williams reprising his role as the vicar.

The women in the film are not, as one or two have alleged, shoehorned in in the interests of some sort of political correctness, but are worthy characters in their own right – and for goodness sake, it was hardly as if WWII excluded women.

In a role that could, given the original series, have been awkward, Felicity Montagu makes an admirable Mrs Mainwaring.

I had a worry, about half way through the film, that many of the core characters were making fools of themselves, and that what I couldn’t cope with was it being left in that way.

The denouement, though, is surprisingly tense and solves this question in fine fashion.

This is not, of course, the first Dad’s Army film, but 1971’s effort was not good, suffering from the inability to transfer a small-screen series to the big screen (and the same can be said of other British sit coms).

This is far better.

Mrs Mainwaring leads the women
Nor was I alone in my enjoyment: before the film started, The Other Half whispered that, at just gone 56, he didn’t expect to be one of the youngest members of any audience.

There was a ripple of applause during the film at one catchphrase and another at the end.

I shall assume that these were not, in some way, sarcastic.

Of course, it offers the chance to consider the issue of ‘ownage’ of characters and, indeed, dramatic works.

What this film of Dad’s Army illustrated for me was the quality of the original writing and creation of character. In recent years, I’ve been appalled on occasion when certain remakes have been announced.

But great stories and great characters can have a life of their own: would anyone suggest that there should never have been any film adaptations of Sherlock Holmes after, say, those with Basil Rathbone? Were that the case, we’d never have enjoyed Jeremy Brett. And if it had stopped there, we’d not have Benedict Cumberbatch.

What, in this case, does such a reboot give us?

Well, I think it’s a nice reminder of people who, however daft they could be in certain circumstances, they also did the right thing when the chips were down.

It’s a please, in such cynical times, to see something that is essentially uncynical.

I left the cinema with a broad smile on my face. And while it most certainly not the best film ever made, I cared about the characters once more and certainly wouldn’t object to watching it again. 

Friday, 8 January 2016

Star Wars – the excitement reawakens

It was the summer of 1977 and I was 14. With my sister – three years younger – we had persuaded my parents that we should be able to make our first visit to the cinema on our own, and thus we joined the crowds in Ashton-under-Lyne to see that year’s massive hit, Star Wars.

It’s been pointed out since – more than once – that George Lucas’s iconic films don’t bear too much scrutiny; certainly not for the scripts.

But then again, that was never what they were about.

The response all those years ago was all about – well, the excitement of the piece. The action, the adventure, the effects, the humour, the characters, the classic goodies v baddies nature of the thing ...

This was Saturday matinee stuff done with all the pizzazz that Hollywood could muster in 1977 – indeed Lucas had had to set up a new company, Industrial Light and Magic, simply in order to realise his vision.

The old and the new
And that company set the standard for special effects for years after.

But back to Star Wars. Aimed fairly and squarely at youngsters – not at their parents – this was no ‘family film’ in the sense that that had meaning in those days.

Irrespective of the literary merits of the script, it was a film that had a huge impact on the lives of many who saw it.

I probably wasn’t as obsessed as many, and while I managed to get my hands on model kits of both C-3PO and R2-D2, plus the novelisation and the first two sets of trading cards – and my father somehow got a cinema poster for me – I didn’t have the wherewithal to ‘invest’ in much else.

But in the meantime, I played air lightsabre and fantasised about being a Jedi Knight.

The robots died years ago, victims of the many moves my earlier life involved, while the trading cards and poster went much the same way, although in more recent years, Ive got quite a few autographs from original cast members.

I nursed a brief, rather fantasy-like ambition of going to work for Industrial Light and Magic (imagine getting paid to build models?), but that didn’t survive any more than my teachers’ belief that I should go and study graphic art.

So good to see old friends again
But I still have that ‘novelisation’ on the shelf – battered though it is – and I’ll admit to a lightsabre app on my phone.

And now – in recovery from the ‘you’re over 13 and can’t have toys’ (that passage of Corinthians about ‘giving up childish ways’ has haunted me for most of my life) – I have a Funko Pop New Order stormtrooper, which arrived in my Christmas stocking.

I saw The Phantom Menace at the cinema twice. First, because the Other Half and I wanted to see it – and then because taking her was the only way that my niece was going to see it.

It was awful. I didn’t even bother going to the cinema for the next two of Lucas’s prequels.

Leia muses – the fans enthuse
I’ve seen them since on TV and they’re as slick as hell, but they are not Star Wars. Okay – they’re not my Star Wars. Or, given the general attitude toward them, pretty much anyone else.

Just because I’m fascinated by the history of a trading body such as the Hanseatic League doesn’t mean that I want trade disputes in the Star Wars universe!

Of course, probably worse than that (yes – worse even than the creation of the execrable Jar Jar Binks) was Lucas’s attempt to wipe all original copies of the first trilogy from existence and replace them with his seriously remastered versions.

Now this posits an interesting philosophical question.

At what point does a work of art belong to the public/fans and not the artist/creator?

And make new friends – Rey, BB-8 and Finn
In essence, Lucas’s core ‘crime’ was finding that new technologies made his mental visions more and more possible.

However, where many might simply have released a ‘director’s cut’ he tried to change history.

Bad move. As you might have gathered from the top of this post, the original films were important for youngsters of their day – my love of them is far from being unique.

Now I’m not into a heavy bad-mouthing of Lucas – I like to think that I have a clue as to why he did what he did (I can ask the philosophical question, after all) – but I approached the latest installment with, at first, complete disinterest, then trepidation and, only quite late on, excitement.

Maz Kanata
And so to Star Wars: The Force Awakens – is it any good?

Well, if you’re looking for spoilers, you won’t find them here.

For me, it was the start of the new year: The Other Half and I saw it on New Year’s Day at the BFI IMAX – thus ensuring it was an ‘event’, since we’d never been to the UK’s biggest screen before and since we’d never had the ‘immersive’ cinematic experience before.

I came out feeling like a wrung-out dish rag and then, within around half an hour, found myself bubbling like an excited teenager again.

The plot may not be staggeringly original – but there are no bloody trade wars!

Kylo Ren
The two new leads, Daisy Ridley as Rey and John Boyega as Finn, are good: it’s joyous seeing Han Solo, Chewie, Leia (and even Luke) again.

The wonderful Max von Sydow gives it all some classical actor authority, à la Alex Guinness.

I like Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o); the first appearance of an x-wing had my eyes pricking, C-3PO is as irritating as ever, while new robot, BB-8, manages to be both cute and funny, while Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) establishes himself as a bad enough baddy – with a tad more complexity and a few more obvious issues than old Darth.

John Williamss iconic score is back – hearing the themes again sets the spins a tingle, as does the opening moments, when the words head off into deepest space above us.

Action – and ships – to make the heart thump and eyes prick
The action sequences are exciting and the whole film is imbued with the humour and good spirits that drew us in back in ’77.

In a nutshell then, JJ Abrams has given us back Star Wars.

It may win no awards for originality, but as the box office take and the response have shown, that is not what was wanted.

Lucas does not, apparently, like the “retro” feel, but that illustrates once more the tension that has existed for some years between the creator and the fans of his creation.

What will be interesting is to see if he now takes this opportunity of his child having finally left home to spread his creative wings once more and produce something new and, if he is so inclined, entirely different.

In the meantime, I’ll look forward to the Blu-Ray release – and wonder what will happen in the next instalment.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Graphic genius: Escher at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

House of Stairs
Now don’t get me wrong: regenerating 10 derelict houses is A Good Thing – but come on, is it really art?

That is the question triggered by the announcement a few weeks ago that this year’s Turner Prize has been awarded to Assemble, an architecture and design collective, for its work on derelict properties in Toxteth, Liverpool.

Of course, if you can label a ‘supernatural study centre, which screens interviews with people who claim to have had paranormal activities as ‘art’, then perhaps it is.

If you can use ‘art’ to describe an avant-garde, a cappella 24-minute opera (rather than ‘music’ or ‘opera’), then that regeneration might well qualify as art.

Yet it is indicative of the mess that art is in these days – not least in the UK – and of the just how far up it’s own fundament that the art establishment is, that it still treats with disdain anything that might be a bit ‘graphic’ – and that’s not ‘graphic’ in the sexual sense.

All of which brings us to what is one of the best exhibitions to be seen on these shores this year, having first been seen at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and now at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Ascending and Descending
The Amazing World of MC Escher is the first major UK retrospective – even more incredible when you consider that there us only example of his work on display in a UK gallery (Day and Night at the Hunterian in Glasgow).

Maurits Cornelis Escher was born in Leeuwarden in the Netherlands in 1898. A sickly child, he failed his final exams – except for maths – and went to study architecture at the School for Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem, before he was talent-spotted by the head of the graphic art section and hauled across to that discipline.

If his name isn’t on the tip of everyone’s tongue, millions are familiar with his work – particularly the illusory pieces that feature, for instance, impossible staircases.

Adored by mathematicians and hippies alike, he remains suspect for the art establishment – doubtless not least because he was a graphic artist.

And in an era when UK art schools no longer even bother to teach drawing, his dazzling skills as a draughtsman could be viewed as unfashionable for those who might prefer to pretend to enjoy turgid filmed rants or photographs of ancient vases being vandalised.

The works are even more extraordinary when you realise that many of them are prints – and as someone who has done a teensy weensy bit of printing this year, the level of complexity and detail proved almost mind blowing.

The most famous works are here: the illusions of impossible buildings include Ascending and Descending, a lithograph from 1960, which was one of the first of Escher’s works that I became aware of – if memory serves me correctly, via a feature on Blue Peter.

These works also include House of Stairs, a 1951 lithograph, with its rather delightful little ‘curl-ups’ trundling up and down and around.

And there are also pieces that demonstrate Escher’s fascinating with representing flat and three-dimensional objects, as with the little Reptiles (1943) that crawl out of the paper and become ‘real’ before crawling back into the paper, while Drawing Hands (1948) is another dazzling example of that same fascination.

You can quite easily get lost in 1938’s iconic Day and Night, which incorporates Escher’s famous tessellations – a technique inspired by studying Islamic geometric patterns during a trip to Alhambra in Granada.

Day and Night
The tessellation-based lithograph, Encounter, from 1944 has something about it that evokes Dante – a point that may (or may not) be related to its being produced during WWII.

And of the tessellations, Metamorphosis II, a woodcut from 1939, takes us on an extraordinary graphic journey of transformation – here, taking up one wall of the exhibition rooms.

The statistics are incredible. This print measures 19.2 by 389.5 cm and was printed from 20 blocks on 3 combined sheets.

A similar, but much larger version – Metamorphosis III – of this adorned the post office on the Kerkplein in the Hague, made in 1967-8 as a commission. It was moved to a new home at Schipol Airport in 2008.

Still Life and Street
But as with all the works on display in Dulwich, here you have a supperb opportunity to get really close up to them to be able to revel in the detail.

Eye, with its reflected human skull, is one of his eight mezzotints and has wonderful Manet-like blacks – evidence (were it required) of Escher’s mastery of more than one print-making technique.

But there are plenty of less-familiar works here too.

For me, one of his earliest works, the woodcut Bonifacio (1928) created after visiting Corsica, is just astonishing – not least for the extraordinary variety of marks that he used.

Still Life and Street, a woodcut from 1937, is one of those deceptive pieces that it takes a moment to realise are impossible.

For all the surreal nature of much of Escher’s work, he was not attached to Surrealism and doesn’t seem to have known or communicated with any of the Surrealists artists.

For all that his work appealed to the likes of hippies and the Flower Power generation, he refused a commission for Rolling Stones cover after Mick Jagger made the mistake of writing to him by his first name.

A quiet man, he was far more interested in corresponding with mathematicians, Harold Coxeter and Roger Penrose.

But that’s not to say that his works are po-faced. They’re often playful and full of irony. And they remain technically astonishing.

A relatively small exhibition by the standards of the vast blockbusters found in central London galleries in recent years, it nonetheless takes plenty of time to view – simply because you need the time to concentrate and digest.

But if the art establishment continues to turn up its nose, then that should not stop us relishing just what a fabulous artist Escher was and just what a magnificent legacy he leaves – and as an example of just what graphic art can mean.

The Amazing World of MC Escher is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 17 January. Find out more at

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Enjoy 400 years of Christmas in Hackney

A hint of holly, 16th century style
The advent of Advent means that it’s just about decent to mention a certain winter festival – which also means that it’s the perfect time to recommend a visit to the Geffrye Museum to check out Christmas Past: 400 years of seasonal traditions in English homes.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, the Geffrye is a museum of the English domestic interior in Hackney.

First opened in 1914 and extended in 1998, the main body of the museum sits in the Grade 1-listed almshouses of the Ironmongers’ Company, which were built in 1714 thanks to a bequest from the eponymous Sir Robert Geffrye.

In these are recreations of rooms through the centuries – rooms of the urban ‘middling sort’, as an introduction explains.

It’s a fascinating museum at any time, but each year at this point in the year, the rooms are decked out in appropriate Christmas garb, providing a further educational aspect to a visit.

It’s intriguing to see how – in middle-class homes at least – Christmas faded rather over the centuries, with many old, pagan-based traditions dying out.

A recognisable Victorian Christmas
The early rooms, starting with the 17th century, see little in the way of decoration – a small sprig of holly here or there leaves you hunting to spot indications of the season.

What we recognise as Christmas only began in the 19th century, in the Victorian era, when the relevant room is decked out in a way that is instantly recognisable.

The notes point out that, although Prince Albert is often credited with introducing Christmas trees to Britain from Germany, this overstates the situation.

But his enthusiasm for the Tannenbaum was crucial in its developing popularity – not least give the swathes of the public who were caught up in the cult of the young royal family.

Unlike the festive tree, the Christmas card was an English invention – from Sir Henry Cole in 1843, although it was a couple of decades before it really took off, with the Post Office having to ask people to ‘post early’ by 1880 – although that only meant post by Christmas Eve!

Christmas in hip Shoreditch
Interestingly, the 19th century was also when there was a revival in some of the old traditions that had faded over the centuries: for instance, an old Twelfth Night game reappeared, but as something closer to charades.

There are a number of rooms covering the 20th century – there were many changes in design over that period – and all these reflect a world that we are more personally familiar with.

The exhibition takes us to ‘the present’, ending in a “converted industrial building or warehouse in the newly-fashionable area around Shoreditch”.

This year’s look at Christmas past is on at the Geffrye until 3 January. There are plenty of activities and events organised over that period too.

And a fine café and shopped absolutely packed with Christmas baubles and games gives visitors more to do.

If you can’t make it in the coming weeks, the Geffrye is a gem at any time of the year – and with the Hoxton overground station right behind it now, it’s even easier than before to reach.