Thursday, 13 December 2018

Fifty shades of tulip


Based on a book by Deborah Moggach, who gave us the original story for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Tulip Fever could hardly be more different. For starters it’s a lot more raunchy, with sex scenes that could almost be out of Fifty Shades – except than there isn’t any spanking. In 17th-century Amsterdam, when tulip bulbs are changing hands at the kind of price we associate with Chanel fragrances, Sophia Sandvoort (Alicia Vikander) starts cheating on her much older husband (Christoph Waltz) with a handsome young artist (Dane DeHaan). Sophia’s cook (Holliday Grainger) becomes jealous after her own lover is shanghaied.

The tulip bubble is about to burst, and with it comes the inevitable crisis in the love affair. Despite an intelligent script and good performances, Tulip Fever is a bit like period soap opera spiced up to porno-lite. As in soaps, the storyline is predictable and the characters over-familiar, but the cinematography is gorgeous and production values are high. In a similar league to Scarlett O’Hara, Sophia Sandvoort is not an entirely sympathetic heroine.


In case you’re too young to remember, this was a UK TV mini-series back in 1983 from Lynda La Plante, who also gave us several series of Prime Suspect. Co-written and directed by Steve McQueen (who gave us award-winning Twelve Years a Slave), it’s been updated to contemporary Chicago where four women, widowed by the violent death of their gangster husbands, take on a $5 million robbery that one of the husbands (Liam Neeson) was planning.

Neeson’s widow Veronica (Viola Davis, whom we remember from The Help and several other fine movies) leads the gangsta girls. In the background (more like a foreground) is the upcoming local city council election between corrupt millionaire Colin Farrell (taking over from his corrupt father Robert Duvall) and vicious crimelord Brian Tyree Henry. (Poor Chicago voters: and only two years ago they had to choose between the Donald and the Hillary!)

Despite some talky scenes, the movie moves at a fairly cracking pace, with car chases and killings paving the way to plot twists that add to the echoes of last summer’s all-girl Ocean’s 8. More caper than crime story, this version of Widows replaces the gritty realism of the 1980s TV series with high-gloss violence and the kind of villains we have seen all too often. Liam Neeson’s Harry is a minor variation on his overdone Taken character, and although her performance is first-rate, Viola Davis’s Veronica lacks the quiet fury of Ann Mitchell’s Dolly Rawlins in 1983.

Worth watching? Yeah, but I’d rather see the TV series again.


Two major revelations: Lady Gaga can act! And Bradley Cooper can sing. This is very much a remake of the Barbara Streisand/Kris Kristofferson version (1976) with ‘country rock’ songs rather than the ‘Some Enchanting Evening’ sound of the 1954 Judy Garland/James Mason version, which I still prefer. Funnily enough, the ending of this new movie does carry a strong echo of the Garland movie and a fainter echo of ‘The Man That Got Away’.

The storyline is familiar all the way back to the 1937 non-musical original. Gaga plays an undiscovered mega-talent (she’s singing in a drag cabaret) whose career gets a boost from a singer (Cooper) who’s passing his peak. Gaga becomes a superstar while Cooper hits the sauce and becomes an embarrassment. But she loves him – more even than she loves her career. Aah.

The 1954 ballady version. Still my favourite!
The love story works thanks to onscreen chemistry and quality performances. Gaga actually reminds me of Streisand in Funny Girl: she brings that sense of a raw burgeoning talent. I’m not a fan of her singing: she has a shouty style that reminds me, not pleasantly, of Carly Simon. Bradley Cooper sings as well (and in similar voice) as Kristofferson in the 1976 version. He also directs with considerable flair and has an amazing screen presence. Not sure he’ll get awards for this, but clearly his star, unlike Jackson Maine’s in the movie, is rising.

This is a loud, gutsy movie. I’m an old softie, I wanted more ballads.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Theatre at the cinema: geriatric song-and-dance show!


This may be coming soon to a multiplex near you, Alan Bennett’s latest play. Set in the geriatric ward of a North of England hospital, it’s a barbed ‘celebration’ of Britain’s National Health Service, of which Mr B. is a staunch defender.

The hospital is earmarked for closure and replacement by a new one in a nearby city which will not have a designated geriatric ward (many hospitals already do not).

Supervised by 25-year veteran Sister Gilchrist (Deborah Findlay), the ward is full of chronic cases, including a few with dementia. Run like a care home, the patients (and staff!) are encouraged to break into song at regular intervals. Visiting from the Ministry of Health is Colin (Samuel Barnett whom we remember from The History Boys). The ward’s doctor is Valentine (Sacha Dhawan, another handsome History Boy, also remembered from TV’s Last Tango in Halifax). One of the patients is Simon Williams, whose past history includes the less than gallant James Bellamy in the 1970s run of Upstairs, Downstairs; Simon is still roguishly handsome at 72.

Alan Bennett
At the end of Act One Sister Gilchrist is revealed to have her own ruthless way of unblocking beds. Despite taking a dark turn, the play remains broadly comic and filled with nostalgic musical numbers. The elderly cast members perform as energetically as the youngsters. Not in the same league as History Boys or The Madness of King George, this is nevertheless another fine piece of theatre from Mr Bennett, whose talent is undimmed at 84. We are promised more to come from our theatrical ‘National Treasure’.
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View forthcoming screenings of stage plays at 

Friday, 26 October 2018

Wot I'm reading: the hunt for another Muslim fanatic

Frederick Forsyth: THE KILL LIST

Frederick Forsyth has been keeping us up past our bedtimes since his nerve-shredding debut in 1971, The Day of the Jackal (of which I have a cherished first edition). The Kill List proves that, decades later, he is still a master of his art. As topical as you could wish for, this has a Mission Impossible-style ex-marine, codenamed ‘the Tracker’, tasked with hunting down a secretive Muslim fanatic called ‘the Preacher’ whose disciples are carrying out random suicide killings in the US and the UK.

Forsyth outlines terrorist cells and those who pursue them across cyberspace and the deserts of the Middle East with all the accuracy and immediacy of a TV documentary. His style is succinct, with telling little sketches: in a refugee camp outside Mogadishu “they had no sanitation, food, employment or hope”. Background details like this aren’t allowed to slow down the pace as the Tracker and a talented teenage hacker relentlessly breach the Preacher’s online defences and identify who he is, his history and his whereabouts.

All the plotlines, including an Israeli spy in a Somali market town and a Swedish billionaire’s son kidnapped by pirates, converge on a hamlet in the middle of nowhere and a Bin Laden-style kill-and-rescue operation. If you’ve never jumped out of a plane at 25,000 feet with a 40-kilo rucksack of ammo and survival kit, get ready for it now! Forsyth takes you there as vividly as a virtual-reality theme park ride. Not many thrillers are as thrilling as this.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Wow! I'm on a Novel Prize "longlist"

That's a NOVEL prize - not the NOBEL Prize!

LILLIAN AND THE ITALIANS is on the "longlist" (22 out of 77 entries) for the Retreat West Novel Prize.

Extracts from Lillian and the Italians can be found on


Here's a link to Retreat West. The winner gets published by them ....

Friday, 12 October 2018

Wot I'm reading: psychos are getting weirder!

Jeffery Deaver: THE BURIAL 


The last time an American psycho lured us to Italy it was Hannibal Lector, eviscerating a police inspector in Florence. Now US investigators Lincoln Rhyme and Amelia Sachs pursue a colourful villain who calls himself ‘The Composer’ to Naples, where this off-the-scale weirdo is orchestrating the panicked final hours of kidnap victims into a composition to honour his ‘Muse’ (whose identity is one of the story’s many surprises).

This is fairly extreme stuff. But with bone and skin collectors in his track record, Jeffery Deaver has made a speciality of the more exotic reaches of parapsychology. Lincoln and Amelia have complex relations with the various Italian law enforcement agencies involved in the case, introducing us to some colourful – and appealing – characters in both the agencies and the refugee community which Stefan, The Composer, is targeting. Towards the end the investigation undergoes a spectacular twist – another of Mr Deaver’s trademarks. Stefan, like Hannibal, is a man of many parts.

I’m not sure I found The Burial Hour entirely plausible – who needs plausibility? – but I certainly did find it enthralling and as satisfying as a glass of grappa (for which Lincoln Rhyme acquires a new taste).

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Wot I'm (not) reading: Comedy flop


It’s a big disappointment when a favourite writer produces a dud. Tom Sharpe, who died in 2013, was a great comic novelist, from his wicked Apartheid-era South African satires through to hilarious caricatures of the British establishment in Blott on the Landscape and Porterhouse Blue, both of which made hysterically funny TV series. I only recently discovered that I’d missed Grantchester Grind, a sequel to Porterhouse Blue, and decided to catch up on it.

I wish I hadn’t bothered. The humour here is very dry and barely raised the occasional chuckle. Porterhouse College needs to pay for a new roof to the Chapel and unwisely allows a philanthropic American media mogul to invest. Apart from a set-piece scene where some of the chapel ceiling falls on the congregation, most of the first 150 pages is taken is taken up with dialogue between the conservative College administrators and the deeply philistine American team. Both sides are liberal in the use of the F-word, giving this book the sledge-hammer impact of today's stand-up comedians who think foul language is intrinsically funny.

It is not. I can’t tell you if the following 350 pages get better, because I gave up. I hate to give up on a book, any book, but this one defeated me. Leaden and dull. Maybe Mr Sharpe was just going through a bad patch. After this he wrote several more novels, including another Wilt trilogy (Wilt was not my favourite Sharpe character). But for me Sharpe has joined the ranks of authors I had to stop reading. Iris Murdoch went very tedious in her later books (perhaps because of dementia stalking her), and I lost faith in Anthony Burgess and Gore Vidal, two of my all-time favourites. Lower down the literary food chain I long ago stopped reading Jackie Collins, who was never as good as Harold Robbins. Stephen King still delivers the goods, but Anne Rice, for me, does not.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

David at the Theatre: Anna and the King of Siam

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Siamese musical has been entrancing theatre (and cinema) audience since 1951, when it starred Yul Brynner and Gertrude Lawrence. This latest production at the London Palladium is a transfer of the 1915/16 New York show with most of its American cast onboard. Kelli O’Hara sounds just as divinely British as Gertie did or Deborah Kerr in the movie (with her singing dubbed by Marnie Nixon) – Ms O’Hara has an operatic range and needs no dubbing. Ken Watanabe is the King, with a ‘singing’ voice no stronger than Yul Brynner’s but very much the same on-stage 'presence'.

The story is a bit crisper than the movie’s, but the plot is unchanged, divided between the governess’s rebellious relationship with the king and the concubine’s star-crossed love story. All your favourite songs are here, gloriously well sung, and the kids (presumably there are several groups alternating performances) are as captivating as they were in the movie and all other stage productions. The palace set is pleasingly simple, but the opening scene – a steamer sailing onto the stage – is as thrilling as any Lloyd Webber blockbuster.

This is a splendid production of a joyous musical. There’s just time to catch it before it closes at the end of September.