Friday, 7 June 2019

David at the movies: the "plain unvarnished truth"? As if!


Hot on the heels of Rami Malek’s Oscar-winning turn as Freddie Mercury, we have Taron Egerton going into camp hyperdrive as Elton John in this musical extravaganza charting the rise to superstardom of young Reggie Dwight from Pinner in suburban northwest London. This is not exactly the “plain unvarnished truth”, since once his career took off Elton didn’t really do Plain or Unvarnished.

Egerton does a great job capturing Elton’s growly vocal style and his weird combination of shyness and monstrous egotism. It’s a performance that rivals Michael Douglas’s take on Liberace, who is briefly glimpsed on Elton’s gran’s telly and whom he clearly drew on for inspiration. As in Candelabra, the script doesn’t hesitate to show the star’s battle with homosexuality. Elton has a crush on Bernie Taupin (nicely played by Jamie Bell) who isn’t gay but loves Elton and cherishes their Stan-and-Ollie/Eric-and-Ernie partnership. Elton has a stormy relationship with his second manager John Reid (Richard Maddon – fantasy-fulfilling to see him playing gay!). His happy-ever-after with David Furnish comes later than this timeframe. 

The other movie I was reminded of was Moulin Rouge in the way some of the songs are not just performed but acted into scenes that carry the story forward. Bell and Maddon both get to sing.

Elton’s addictions to booze, drugs and sexual excess (and shopping!) are not skated over, just as they weren’t in the Liberace movie. Rocketman is a story with a message about the dangers that fame brings with it. At another level it’s simply a great musical biopic.

Monday, 3 June 2019

Wot I'm reading:Israel versus ISIS - again

Daniel Silva: HOUSE OF SPIES

In Daniel Silva’s previous thriller The Black Widow, Israeli superspy Gabriel Allon lost Round One of his fight against Saladin, the new face of ISIS, whose suicide bombers devastated the historic centre of Washington DC. Now a series of bombings in London’s West End see Gabriel once again in harness with British and French Intelligence services to hunt down this Iraq-spawned successor to Osama bin Laden as the mastermind of terrorism.

As well as his usual team from 'The Office' (Silva’s version of Mossad) and MI6, Gabriel is reunited with Christopher Keller, hitman for the Corsican Mafia, a villain turned hero. The trail leads to a jet-set French hotelier who has a sideline dealing drugs and weapons; he and his English mistress have a taste for expensive artworks. Gabriel’s team mount an elaborate scam against the Frenchman, funded by millions of dollars lifted from the account of Syria’s President (whom Silva aptly calls “the Butcher of Damascus”).

The trail leads to Morocco, heartland of the hashish trade, and a violent confrontation in the Sahara. Where Silva excels, apart from the breathtaking pace and sheer elegance of his storytelling, is in the detail of location and character. Keller consults a Corsican ‘prophetess’ before he leaves the island: this outlandish woman is unnervingly believable – as is Saladin, the merchant of death and destruction.

ISIS, Al-Qaeda - you can change the name but not the message of hate. They are like the Hydra: cut off their head and they grow another. We may defeat them on the battlefield but their venomous ideology lives on in cyberspace and in the minds – and hearts – of those who embrace jihadism.

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Wot I'm reading: Apartheid revisited

Toeckey Jones: BOKKIE

Toeckey Jones is a friend and neighbour of mine on the Sussex coast. In the 1990s he published three award-winning novels, set in his native South Africa. This year they have been reissued.

Bokkie is set in 1960s Johannesburg where 19-year-old Sam Mane lives in some style with his mother, a celebrated star of stage and screen. In the summer before he starts university Sam falls in love with Pixie, a ‘Bohemian’ painter five years older than him, and they begin a passionate affair. Pride of place in Pixie’s flat is given to her portrait of Bokkie, a black boy from her childhood whose story she is reluctant to share.

Toeckey Jones vividly evokes the heartless savagery of the Apartheid regime which casts a shadow over Pixie’s life, past and present. The sounds and smells of Africa emerge strongly from the author’s fluid prose. The era of Apartheid may be over but South Africa is not yet a safe or a happy place for all its citizens and even less so for its wildlife.

This is a poignant and timeless love story, beautifully told. Originally targeting Young Adults, Bokkie will capture the heart of readers of all ages.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Theatre at the cinema: Where soap operas steal their stories

Bill Pullman, Colin Morgan, Sally Field and Jenna Coleman


Arthur Miller’s theatrical ‘warhorse’, transmitted to cinemas around the world this week, still resonates after more than 70 years. We’re back in the post-war 1940s. Factory owner Joe Keller (Bill Pullman) has built his business by trampling on the lives of other people. One of his sons went missing on a bombing mission three years ago, but Joe’s wife (Sally Field) still believes he will return. Their other son (Colin Morgan) is in love with his brother’s sweetheart whose father was terribly wronged by Joe. Ann (Jenna Coleman) returns to their hometown for a short fateful visit.

From plays like this (and their celebrated equivalents in Scandinavian drama) you realize where soap operas steal their plots. Neighbouring families torn between love and hate. Businessmen driven by greed, protective of their families but with cavalier standards of honour. A guilty secret that is sure to end in grief.

Sally Field and Bill Pullman give solid performances, although there were moments when Ms Field reminded me of Acorn Antiques’ Mrs Overall – not, I’m sure, what the director intended! Colin Morgan dominates the stage as Chris, his heart aching for Ann but afraid to shatter his mother’s delusion that Ann is still committed to the son who didn’t come back from the war. Chris belongs in the ‘pantheon’ of theatrical sons and lovers; Miller pitches him midway between the klutzy tenderness of Tennessee Williams and the awful bleakness of Eugene O’Neill.

This is a play very well worth seeing if NT Live do an ‘Encore’ showing at your local cinema.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Wot I'm reading: Diamonds not a girl's best friend

Jeffery Deaver: THE CUTTING EDGE

A couple are brutally murdered when they collect their engage-ment ring from the Manhattan jeweller who made it. The jeweller is also killed. A wounded witness escapes and is then hounded by the assassin. Wheelchair-bound investigator Lincoln Rhyme and his partner (now wife) Amelia join the hunt for killer and witness.

Jeffery Deaver writes scenes from the viewpoint of the assassin, a Russian mercenary with a creepy passion for diamonds, so we know early on who the 'unsub' is. But who's he working for? And what’s the connection to the mini-earthquakes and fires associated with a thermal drilling project in Brooklyn?

Mr Deaver’s thrillers are always labyrinthine. The solution to this one hinges on stolen identities. I was a bit reminded of an Agatha Christie. Rhyme has the added advantage of 21st-century forensic technology but he solves crimes by chipping away at tiny clues in people’s behaviour much as Poirot always did. This is not up there with his absolute best (The Bone Collector immediately comes to mind), but it’s elegantly written and cunningly plotted. The wounded witness, an Asian, is a well-rounded character and will hopefully bring Jeffery millions of new readers from that community.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

David at the movies: From M to OAP


 “The spy who came in from the Co-op” is how one British tabloid described the real-life pensioner on whom the Judi Dench character in this movie is based. Joan Stanley, as she is called here, was in her eighties when she was arrested on charges of espionage dating back to her youth. Played by Sophie Cookson in the flashbacks, we see Joan seduced by a Communist German √©migr√© (Tom Hughes, recycling his accent from playing Prince Albert on TV) who talks her into giving the Russians details of the developing UK nuclear programme. In doing so she not only betrays her country but also the professor in charge of the project (Stephen Campbell Moore) who is also in love with her.

I was reminded a bit of Alan Bennett’s play on Sir Anthony Blunt, who was finally exposed as the “Fourth Man” in the Cambridge spy ring after years of having his treachery hidden to avoid embarrassing the Establishment. In scenes at Buckingham Palace (Prunella Scales was terrific as HMQ) duplicity was given a dark comic edge. Alas, Mr Bennett didn’t script Red Joan, which could have done with a touch of humour.

It’s sort of droll to see Judi Dench moving from playing 007’s boss M to the shabbier side of espionage, Dench and Cookson are both excellent, but the zigzagging between Then and Now becomes slightly tiresome, and Joan’s attempts to justify her betrayal didn’t wash with me. Neither did Blunt’s, but Alan Bennett’s script allowed the viewer to relish his downfall, which we aren’t invited to in Joan’s case. We are reminded that the aptly acronymed MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) somehow prevented nuclear launches throughout the Cold War era, but, IMHO, a traitor is still a traitor. 


A Western that isn’t a Western (no cowboys or Indians), the weirdly titled Sisters Brothers is more than a little reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning Unforgiven (1992) or, further back, Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971). It’s set in the 1850s, the Gold Rush era. Charlie and Eli Sisters (the Sisters brothers – geddit? – Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly) are killers-for-hire, pursuing the also weirdly named gold prospector Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed) and his pursuer turned protector (Jake Gyllenhaal) from Oregon to California. There are misunderstandings and shoot-outs along the way, with an inevitable stopover at a bar-cum-brothel.

This rambling story only settles down when they get to the goldfields and we are introduced to a bizarre twist on the science of prospecting. There’s a lot of mumbling and squabbling in the script. Direction and cinemato-graphy are uneven: too many gloomy night scenes - and some of the daytime shoots are also very grainy. The last half hour is extremely grim. All four lead performances are rock solid, but none of these characters is particularly likeable, which makes this an Interesting rather than an Engaging experience. It’s one of those movies which will probably seem better on a second or third viewing.


Nice poster. Shame about the movie. Another pointless remake. This doesn’t add anything to the 1989 version apart from superior special effects courtesy of advances in CGI.

Only minor changes to the story. A family move from the city to the outskirts of a New England village where there’s a spooky outcrop in the woods beyond what the local kids have mislabelled as the “Pet Sematary”. Trucks thundering past their new house on Day One signal with no subtlety disasters that are to come. First the family cat and then – whoops, almost a spoiler.

There are more scares before the “resurrection shuffle” than after. The second Second Coming is totally OTT and seems to be sourced from the Chucky movies rather than Stephen King’s original novel. I’m guessing Mr King was inspired by the 1902 story The Monkey’s Paw (by W.W.Jacobs) which was somehow more spooky because they didn’t open the door when ‘he’ came back. Not enough for today’s grossed-out audience, of course.

John Lithgow is clearly slumming here as the old-timer neighbour who sets the drama in motion but he’s the best thing in this. Except maybe the CGI cat.


There's a spate of ‘Based on a true story’ movies this spring. Stan & Ollie is the best so far. Fighting With My Family, a comedy-drama biopic, is in the Not-as-good-as league, along with Fisherman’s Friends.

Soraya and Zak Bevis ( Florence Pugh and Jack Lowden) are up-and-coming teenage wrestlers living in Durham in with an amateur wrestler dad and a wrestling-mad mum. They get the chance to try out in front of Dwayne Johnson and the coach (Vince Vaughn) from the US wrestling equivalent of The X-Factor. Soraya is flown to Florida to train for the big time; Zak has to stay home and coach the local kids.

Soraya dyes her hair and changes her name to Paige. The coach (Vince Vaughn) is a hard man to please and she fails to bond with the cheerleader bimbos in the training group who all seem to have gone to school with Buffy and Willow. Will Paige drop out or will she make it to the giant stadium for a title bout at ‘Wrestlemania’? No spoilers, natch, but Paige’s story is somewhat predictable. Zak’s story is a lot more involving, as he struggles to settle for broken dreams.

I didn’t find this grabbed me emotionally in the way that Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby did but it’s an agreeable movie, with believable performances all round, crisply scripted and pacily directed by Stephen Merchant. Dwayne Johnson, who they say sold the story to the studio money men, seems immensely likeable. The wrestling scenes are a joy to watch - so much more spectacular than what we used to see on black-and-white TV screens when I was the age of Paige and Zak!


If you liked The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, you’ll be inclined to like this; it will help if you’re a fan of sea shanties.

There’s not a lot of plot: a music executive (Daniel Mays) is tricked by his mates into offering a recording contract to a group of Cornish fishermen who sing in pubs and at country fairs. Not an easy sell to the X-Factor generation, but when Danny falls for a fisherman’s daughter (Sarah Winter) his commitment grows and – if you know your pop music folklore, the rest is history. This is a movie loosely based on fact.

Despite its slimline script, Fisherman’s Friends has a lot of charm. We’re in Poldark territory, so the scenery is a guaranteed hit, and the fishermen are a likeable (mixed) bunch.  All in all, there’s a healthy dollop of the feel-good factor that made The Full Monty and the Marigold Hotel movies such crowd-pleasers.

Friday, 12 April 2019

Theatre at the cinema: "Fasten your seatbelts. It's gonna be a bumpy night."


Gillian Anderson and Lilly James as Eve and Margo

Having given us her (magnificent) take on Blanche Dubois a few years ago, Gillian Anderson now brings another of the 20th-century’s great screen ladies to the stage: Margo Channing, a role Bette Davis played like a fire-breathing dragon. Ms Anderson attacks the role with appropriate scenery-chewing gusto; I wanted to applaud when she delivered the key “fasten your seatbelts” line! The set combines backstage scenes with video close-ups which build a vivid bridge between stage and screen. The male cast members, I should add, are uniformly splendid, but this is a play about women.

Monica Dolan is excellent as Margo’s best friend Karen (Celeste Holm in the movie) and Sheila Reid milks some good laughs from the part of Birdie, Channing’s put-upon dresser (Thelma Ritter in the movie). It’s hard not to picture Sheila Reid as Madge, driving her wheelchair like Boudicca’s chariot in ITV’s Benidorm. Gillian Anderson will forever be Agent Scully to me (and maybe to you too), and a hint of Scully’s vulnerability neatly underscores her steel as Margo. I hope she adds Norma Desmond to her CV in the near future!

Gorgeous Lily James plays the pivotal role of Eve Harrington, the star-struck fan who becomes Margo’s PA and then her understudy and finally her nemesis. James has done good work in movies and TV and she is good here too, but her performance lacks the subtlety of Anne Baxter’s in the movie, although this may simply have been lost in the translation from screen to stage.

Sheila Reid, Gillian Andderson and Monica Dolan

A great actress (I know, I’m supposed to say actor) inhabits the role she is playing, becomes the character. Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, Maggie Smith – they always do this. Bette Davis was Margo, just as she was Baby Jane Hudson. Joan Crawford was a good actress, but as with so many actors you could see her applying technique to the role. Bette Davis (ditto Katharine Hepburn) was a great actress; you see the character, not the technique at work. Gillian Anderson brings that touch of greatness to her roles. Lily James does not – not yet – but I think she will.

NT Live will bring “Encore” showings of All About Eve to cinemas in your neighbourhood. For a fraction of the price of a theatre ticket you will get a masterclass in acting. Not to be missed.