Monday, 8 August 2016

Wot I'm reading: Artistic tantrums

Brian Sewell: OUTSIDER

In the first chapter of this memoir (2011) Brian Sewell reveals that, seeing Aladdin as a teenager gave him 'an undying ambition, never fulfilled, to play the Widow Twanky.' With his highly affected speech Brian’s Twanky would surely have sounded like Edith Evans’s Lady Bracknell. When you read Alan Bennett’s diaries it’s easy to hear his Yorkshire vowels in your head. Mr Sewell similarly writes as he speaks: a plummy, precious, over-elaborate prose. In the early chapters of his memoir he describes his early life – mother, father, stepfather, schoolfriends – with the same clinical brutality with which he will later appraise artists and their work.

One of his tutors as a student of art history at the Courtauld Institute was Anthony Blunt, the ‘Fourth Man’ in the Cambridge Spy Ring. You feel his passion, inspired by Blunt, for Poussin above all other painters. Paint, rather than blood, runs in Sewell’s veins: he recalls in vivid detail the paintings he saw on a Grand Tour of Italy with five fellow students in an old Vauxhall in the 1950s. The detail of his studies – in these long Victorian paragraphs – and his subsequent career as a cataloguer and appraiser with Christie’s becomes wearisome after a time.

Arguments over attribution are only a little bit exciting, although Alan Bennett gave them an extra ‘frisson’ in his play about Blunt, set mostly in the Queen’s art gallery. Outsider offers a few moments of high drama in the auction rooms. In the 50s and 60s many great paintings and drawings sold for a fraction of what they are worth today. His rarefied view of art – and of his own importance – seem designed to make the rest of us (‘outsiders’!) feel like philistines; I certainly did.

Having been both Catholic and Anglican, Sewell is content to call himself an ‘an agnostic Christian,’ a label I relished and am tempted to borrow. After years in the bosom of Christianity – he flirted with the attractions of the priesthood – Brian surrendered to the temptations of the flesh. A period of gay promiscuity and occasional love affairs ensued, but he describes his lovers with less intensity than he gives to a Burne-Jones painting needing emergency repairs before its sale at Christie’s. At the end he offers a bizarre apology for having used ‘bugger’ rather than the F-word throughout his book. I would have preferred an apology for his Dickensian syntax.

Sir Anthony Blunt: tutor and traitor
He is generous with praise for the people in the art world he liked and equally generous with disdain for those he didn’t: a lot of old scores are settled in this cavalcade of tantrums, which often reminded me of Kenneth Williams’s acid-queen diaries. This is a mean-spirited autobiography, only enlivened by the occasional titbit of gossip and revelation. When Anthony Blunt is unmasked as a spy, a traitor, Sewell refers to this in passing with no suggestion that he shared the Establishment’s sense of betrayal. Presumably he goes into the scandal in more detail in the second volume of his memoirs, which I will steel myself to read sometime in the not-too-near future.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

David at the movies; Re-Bourne


There's some very clever packaging at work in this fourth outing by Matt Damon as 'rogue' CIA agent Jason Bourne. It felt like the most exciting two hours I've spent in the cinema in a long time, and yet what it mostly does is to recycle the plot of the first three movies. Having recovered his memory, Jason is now trying to clear his dead father's name but the devious new head of the Agency (they're always devious in this series) has to stop him. There's a subplot involving a Zuckerberg-type social media chief who maybe does or maybe doesn't want to let the CIA use his global network for surveillance. 

Matt Damon isn't given much dialogue: he's an all-action man.The new CIA chief is played by Tommy Lee Jones, looking as if his head belongs on Mount Rushmore. He has a cool new assistant (Alicia Vikander as a younger version of the Joan Allen character from Bourne 2 and 3). Vincent Cassel plays a freelance assassin (he often does) known only as 'the Asset'. Julia Stiles reprises her role as renegade agent Nicky Parsons; there's an early chase scene involving her and Jason that is more visceral (and more believable) than the OTT climax on the Vegas Strip. 

The various plot-threads are somewhat clumsily tied together, but the main focus of a Bourne movie are the chases and shoot-outs. Taking the reins for the third time (he didn't direct The Bourne Identity), Paul Greengrass serves up non-stop action with a lot more style than cartoon-based movies - although Jason Bourne, let's face it, is another superhero just as James Bond is. Yes, we've seen most of this before, but the pace and the packaging  - there are five killings in the first sixty seconds! - make this feel (almost) fresh.

Star Trek: Beyond

It’s fifty years since StarTrek first arrived on our (non-widescreen) televisions, and the formula hasn't lost its box-office appeal. This latest 122-minute episode of the Prequel series is co-scripted by Simon Pegg, who also plays Scotty the dour but endearing engineer who sooner or later we know will manage to kick-start the Warp drive of another damaged starship.

Responding to a distress call on the far side of the universe, the Enterprise is attacked by a swarm of alien ships and crash-lands on a craggy planet with an Earthlike atmosphere. The scattered crew reunite and help the good alien (female) confront the bad alien (Idris Elba in Borg-like makeup) who is after the key to a new superweapon that, if unleashed, can destroy the Federation.

OK, this is a plot we have seen before – several times – and there are chase and fight scenes that date back to cowboy or kung-fu movies as much as to early sci-fi. The CGI is outstanding (I saw this in 3D) and the scenes on the space mega-city Yorktown are seriously out-of-this-world. The cast, settling into the roles most of us still associate with Leonard Nimoy and Co, have become likeable in their own right - especially Zachary Quinto as Spock the Younger. Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk is slightly wooden, which may be a deliberate homage to dear old William Shatner. Pegg’s script includes some welcome humour and the occasional nod towards Intergalactic Philosophy that has always been a clumsy but welcome feature of the series. 

Monday, 25 July 2016

Wot I'm reading: The second murder of Princess Diana


The latest instalment in the Gabriel Allon super-spy series begins with the blowing up of a yacht in the Mediterranean where the principal guest is the ex-wife of the heir to the British throne. It’s very cavalier of Daniel Silva to rescue Princess Diana (she is only ever called the ‘former princess’) from the horror of Paris only to have her murdered somewhere else.

Improbably, veteran Israeli intelligence operative Gabriel is brought in to investigate the killing, and he recruits Christopher Keller (whom we have met before), a British commando turned hitman. The prime suspect is ex-IRA bomb-maker Eamon Quinn, whose path has also crossed Gabriel’s more than once. Quinn is linked to the decades-old atrocity that destroyed Gabriel’s first wife and young son, a tragedy that Daniel Silva revisits in every novel, with powerful resonance. Keller and Gabriel criss-cross Europe in pursuit of the assassin and his sponsors. The climax, in the old ‘killing fields’ of Ireland, is thrilling and chilling.

The head of MI5 quotes Eric Ambler: “It’s not important who fires the shot. It’s who pays for the bullet.” And there are several old foes who may behind this new conspiracy - Russians, Iranians, Arabs – or perhaps a lethal combination of dark forces. The sheer scale of the conspiracy here, with all its twists and turns, reminded me (which Silva often does) of Robert Ludlum, whose great gift (the Jason Bourne stories are a good example: I wonder why they haven’t filmed the Allon novels?) was to make a preposterous conspiracy seem entirely plausible. The English Spy is one of this author’s more outlandish tales - and I think the murder of the princess shows bad taste: he fictionalizes the UK prime minister and could easily have fictionalized a minor Royal. Nevertheless, he always convinces you that a drama like this could well be played out on the streets of Europe’s cities – and, as we have seen too often recently, frightening dramas are playing out on the streets where we live.

Mr Silva never fails to deliver the goods. In an Afterword at the end of the book he delivers an alarm-bell-ringing assessment of how much he thinks President Putin threatens world security.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

David at the movies: Bring back the men in monkey-suits!


The latest reboot of this venerable franchise uses CGI instead of the wildlife footage and extras in gorilla-suits we put up with in the era of Weissmuller and Mahoney and co. Alexander Skarsgard, like Christopher Lambert in 1984’s elegant (but plodding) Greystoke, is a leaner meaner Tarzan than some of the steroidal hunks you see in the gym who might like a crack at the role. The story – our handsome hero returns to the jungle he grew up in to liberate the natives from enslavement by a vicious mine-owner – has echoes of some of the older plots in the series (much like the Bond movies), with some atmospheric scenes of Tarzan in his post-African role as Lord of a Manor (his bride is now Lady Jane, which brings unintended echoes of Lady Chatterley!). The Legend of Tarzan is faithful to the spirit if not to the letter of the Edgar Rice Burroughs source material.

The ‘foundation’ story, his childhood talking to the animals, is told here in a series of crisp flashbacks. This works very well, intercut with the developing rescue drama. The cinematography does full justice to the glories of the African landscape.The Victorian period flavour is well maintained (as it was in 1984), and the story is nearly as fast and furious as an Indiana Jones escapade. Skarsgard brings glamour and charisma to the title role. Margot Robbie’s Jane has a luminous beauty that reminded me of the early Sophia Loren. Samuel L. Jackson makes the best he can of a thankless role as the inept but valiant sidekick and Christoph Waltz recycles his recent resurrection of Blofeld with little visible effort.

There's not much originality here but it makes for colourful and thrilling entertainment. Hobbits and Harry Potter should have accustomed us to digital creatures by now, but I did find the CGI animals lacked credibility and made me – almost – nostalgic for extras in monkey-suits.


Twenty years after their first invasion the alien hordes are back with a bigger-than-ever flying saucer and their Queen-of-Mean female who’s like a dinosaur with tentacles (thank God it wasn’t testicles!). The USA has a female president (Sela Ward, not Hillary Clinton - no more testicle jokes), and instead of Will Smith we get his son (his character’s son) as sidekick to star hunk Liam Hemsworth. But in the end it’s ex-President Bill Pullman and ageing science-geek Jeff Goldblum who save the day – and the movie - with the help of a handy talking sphere from another distant galaxy.

The ending hints at another sequel – and thus Independence Day becomes a franchise, like Predator and Starship Troopers, to both of which this movie owes some of its imagery and inspiration. The pace is terrific, but the story is – inevitably, perhaps – very much a rehash of 1996 and the characters play second fiddle to the special effects. The CGI is state-of-the-art and then some. As with the second Alien and Terminator films, originality cannot be refreshed and overkill replaces any faint element of subtlety and creeping terror. But, as with those two (and quite a few others), there’s plenty of alien-zapping and planet-in-peril tension to keep the target audience entertained. Decade after decade, Star Wars and Star Trek keep putting bums on seats, and so can Independence Day.


How much you enjoy this will depend on how you feel about spending 90 minutes instead of the usual 25 in the company of Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone. Eddie is needy, Patsy is greedy – all the time. The plot of the movie is no larger than that of a TV episode: Eddie knocks supermodel Kate Moss into the River Thames and then goes on the run to St Tropez (hardly the obvious place for a celebrity to hide out). The many mishaps that befall them in London and in France are not too different from those that Mr Bean usually encounters.

The movie is pacy and funny: there’s no denying that. It has some of the crassness of Sacha Baron-Cohen’s Grimsby, but without the filth – and the side-splitting merriment!

I like Jennifer Saunders more than I like Joanna Lumley, who has let a degree of smugness creep into her portrayal of Patsy. Saffy (Julia Sawalha) gets less than her usual screen time, as does June Whitfield. Jane Horrocks’s Bubble remains a huge annoyance. The many (too many) guest celebrities are nearly all there, like Kate Moss, to have the piss taken, much as they would on Edna Everidge’s TV sofa (Dame Edna pops up in a swimming pool, and Barry Humphries has an appropriately larger part as a sleazo ex-boyfriend of Patsy’s cloned from Sir Les Patterson). Marcia Warren (who got a late career boost from the naff TV sitcom Vicious) gives a splendid turn as an ageing Valkyrie zillionairess styled on Norma Desmond.

So: 90 minutes of fun? Ermm, yes. But - fabulous? Absolutely not.


Fire at Sea, which won the ‘Golden Bear’ best picture award at the Berlin Film Festival in February, offers real-life horror and disaster. Part documentary, part docudrama, it was filmed on the Italian island of Lampedusa, which lies roughly midway between Libya and Sicily and has become the first port of call for more than 100,000 migrants from Africa and the Middle East. Over 15,000 have drowned, dying to be set free from terror and tyranny and poverty.

We see the Italian navy rescuing migrants from their sinking overcrowded boats and dinghies; many of them are in a desperate condition after days at sea. We get glimpses of the ‘internment camp’ where they wait to be processed and sent on to their uncertain future in a Europe which is increasingly unwelcoming.

Alternating with the refugee crisis, the film’s main focus is Samuele, a 12-year-old Lampedusan who lives with his fisherman father and grandmother. The family play themselves in the style of a Pasolini movie (minus the sex and the blasphemy). We watch Samuele slurping spaghetti, struggling with homework, playing with a slingshot. They seem to have a very limited awareness of the migrant situation, although that is perhaps only the director’s way of pointing up the contrast between the ordinariness of their lives and the appalling tragedy taking place in the waters around their island.

This heart-wrenching film offers no solution to the crisis. How could it? There clearly isn’t one.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Wot I'm reading: The ghost of Herman Melville

This literary adventure story was published in 2001 but only came to my attention this year, recommended by a friend with reliable good taste. 

Two narratives are interwoven in Henderson’s Spear, told in different styles, both vividly fresh and exciting. The modern one has Olivia, a rootless young woman imprisoned in Tahiti on a murder charge, writing her life story in the form of a letter to the daughter she gave up for adoption. The ‘period’ story, 100 years earlier, is the journal of a relative of Olivia’s, Frank Henderson, who sailed the South Seas with a crew that included Princes George and Edward, Queen Victoria’s grandsons, one destined to die young, the other to marry his brother’s fiancĂ©e and be crowned in Westminster Abbey.

The Victorian/Edwardian history is very much in the style of Herman Melville who also explored – and wrote about – Polynesia. There are storms at sea and other maritime perils and wonderfully weird encounters with the newly Christianized rulers of Fiji and Tahiti. Prince Eddy’s homosexuality is not over-emphasized, although this tale has a ‘shock’ ending. Olivia’s life is a catalogue of doomed affairs: ‘I’ve never been very good at love,’ she writes to her daughter, ‘though I am working on it.’ Her ill-fated trip to Tahiti, also driven by letters, is a quest to find out what happened to her father, a pilot who failed to return from the Korean War. Abandonment is a core theme in this novel, explored with depth and poignancy.

Henderson’s Spear is in the same league as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Kite Runner – novels that are impossible to categorize and a joy to read.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Helen Lambert Gee - a fine artiste, a true friend


Helen Lambert, who has just died at the age of 80, was one of my oldest and dearest friends. If you think you recognise her in the photo, it might be from BBCtv’s The League of Gentlemen where Helen ran a (poison!) pie stall during one and a half series in Royston Vasey. Or you might have seen her in one of her many TV commercials, most famously for Flash cleaning products.

I met Helen in the Nell Gwynne club in the crypt of St Martin’s in the Field when I was a 20-year student in 1962 and she was an out-of-work chorus girl. The following year she joined the touring cast of Joan Littlewood’s Cockney musical Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be; her dressing-room in the Devonshire Park Theatre when the show came to Eastbourne was the first dressing-room I’d ever been with – unless you count the vestry at Hailsham Methodist Church where I used to write/act/direct shows in my teens!

In Scotland in 1963, still with Fings, Helen had a fall onstage but carried on performing despite agonising back pain which was eventually diagnosed as a fractured spinal disc. Hospitalised for more than a year and told she might never walk again, Helen – typically and literally – did not take this lying down. After months of therapy she was back on her feet and by 1968 was dancing on stage with Harry Secombe in a musical version of The Four Musketeers; Helen understudied Elizabeth Larner in the lead and took over for many performances.

Helen had a fine coloratura soprano voice and could belt out a song as ‘powerfully’ as Ethel Merman; her comedic skill was at least as good as several other contemporary actresses and comediennes  (as we used to call ladies of the theatre in those days). But she never got that big break and had to rely on working as a guide for the British Council to supplement her sporadic earnings on stage and screen. As well as commercials and appearances with Dick Emery, the Two Ronnies and two series of ‘Uncle Jack’, she was in the chorus of the movie version of Oliver! and had a featured role in the 1979 remake of The Lady Vanishes.

She was very active in Equity, the actors’ union, and served on the executive committee for many years. After retiring from The British Council, she became a magistrate in Camden. Her spinal injury was a recurring problem and required further surgery, but despite this and other health issues Helen carried on working, mostly in commercials, at home and abroad, into her seventies. After an unhappy first marriage (I gave her away at her first wedding) Helen found happiness and lasting companionship with Ray Gee (no relation to David Gee!), who this year has also suffered declining health.

Loyalty was Helen’s most notable characteristic. She was a pro-active friend to many people, in ‘the business’ and outside. She was a tireless supporter of my slow-burning writing career: I dedicated The Bexhill Missile Crisis to her in 2014, though she thought it was a bit too rude! Those of us who were privileged to know and love her at a personal level, will miss her hugely. She was a woman of substance with a substantial talent that did not get the recognition it deserved. 

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Wot I'm reading: dirty deeds in Venice


I'm a bit late coming to Donna Leon and Commisario Guido Brunetti. Writing a book set in Venice myself (see Lillian and the Italians on, I've avoided anything that might colour my own view of the city. Easy to see why Signora Leon has such a big following: she is a very fine writer.

Here, Brunetti investigates the suspicious deaths of a building inspector in a fall and a decomposing overdosed drug addict. There seems to be a link to the activities of a pair of elderly moneylenders who make Shylock seem like Mother Theresa. The means Brunetti employs to flush out the killer are unorthodox, probably unprofessional but effective.

Leon's writing is entirely modern, although the unhurried pace and the quiet doggedness of Brunetti evokes the era of Poirot and Miss Marple. The author's elegant prose took me further back to dear old Dorothy L. Sayers (don't be shocked, reader: in my youth I was proud to be a friend of Dorothy L. Sayers!). Her picture of Guido's Venice is evocative without ever seeming overdone. She has a clear vision of the country and its people: "Italy was a country where everyone knew everything while no one was willing to say anything." 

A mortuary scene with the dead junkie's parents is perfectly poignant, and the ending is a notable demonstration of what Graham Greene called "the splinter of ice" a writer needs to stand out from the crowd. Mrs Leon stands out.