Monday, 9 December 2019

David at the Movies (on Netflix): The Godfather revisited

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Martin Scorsese has ‘done’ the Mafia before – several times. Now he revisits the Mob with this biopic of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a hitman for New York mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and a close friend of the Teamsters union president Frank Hoffa (Al Pacino), whose disappearance in 1975 has never been fully explained. Scorsese offers a solution now, though according to Wikipedia Frank Sheeran’s account has been challenged by others who claim to Know the Truth.

Played against an evocative score of pop hits from the ‘50s and ‘60s, we watch Sheeran’s transition from (almost) ordinary union activist to stone-cold serial assassin over two and a half decades. At three and a half hours the movie sometimes seems as long as its timeframe. In the background we are shown the rise (and death) of JFK, the Bay of Pigs, Cuba, Vietnam, Watergate – in nearly all of which the Mafia are shown to be deeply involved.

Two obvious comparisons come rapidly to mind: Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy, which featured both De Niro and Pacino in key roles and highlighted the Mafia involvement in trade unions, and Oliver Stone’s JFK, which detailed the Mob’s role in Kennedy’s election and his execution.

Robert De Niro as Don Vito Corleone in GODFATHER 2 (1974)
So, ground already covered and in similar detail. The ‘novelty’ here is the use of CGI to de-age the principal actors rather than have two players for each role. The de-aging of De Niro is fairly flawless, but Pacino’s looks a bit weird and Pesci’s (he seems to have been aged rather than de-aged) looks more like plasticine prosthetics. De Niro plays Sheeran much as he played Vito Corleone, a family man exterior masking a ruthless killer. Pesci gives us his familiar slightly shrill gangster “shtick”. Pacino (who was so subtle in The Godfather, shading from war hero to monster) is in shouty over-drive, reminding you of how loud (and how good!) he was in Brian De Palma’s Scarface. His Hoffa behaves like the president of a country rather than a union, but that’s probably how Jimmy Hoffa was, another kind of gangster.

The Irishman is loud and crude, way too long. It takes us into territory we’ve seen before, but it’s also very watchable, very absorbing. I hope they aren’t, but these may be “swansong” performances from some of the finest actors of the last half-century.

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This is a ‘Marmite’ movie: love it or loathe it. I like Marmite, but I didn’t think much to this.

Ancient millionaire Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies in his Southern mansion, apparently from suicide, after rows with his greedy would-be heirs. An investigator is hired, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, with an accent like that over-ripe sheriff in the Roger Moore Bond films). There’s a Will to be read, short and surprising.

The key character is Harlan’s Latina nurse Magda (Ana de Armas), who administered intravenous medication on the night of his death. Ms de Armas majorly under-acts whilst everybody else majorly overacts, particularly Don Johnson, Toni Colette and Jamie Lee Curtis. Chris Evans, the bad-boy grandson, seems to be channelling Rupert Everett. Bette Davis had a similarly unappealing family gathering in The Anniversary (1968), one of the direst movies of her decline.

1973 an earlier Agatha Christie spoof
Writer/director Rian Johnson is clearly torn between homage to Agatha Christie and a send-up. If you’re going to spoof Christie, you need to spoof one of her grander whodunits like Murder on the Orient Express. Knives Out, with its gothic-ish country house setting, is more reminiscent of The Moustrap, Dame Agatha at her creakiest. The Sondheim-scripted The Last of Sheila (1973) was not good, but it wasn’t as clunky as this.

The element I enjoyed most was the presumably unintended one of seeing how unkind the years have been to yesterday’s stars. Don Johnson is – how to word this? – a little less glamorous than in his Miami Vice days. Jamie Lee Curtis has an increased resemblance to her dad at this age; her mother aged more appealingly. Toni Collette appears to have shared a tanning booth with Donald Trump. After his Southern-fried piss-take on Poirot, it’s gonna be hard to watch Daniel Craig back in his 007 tuxedo next year.

This is tosh – and really not ‘quality’ tosh. Mildly – very mildly – entertaining.


Two British pensioners meet on a dating app, but one of them is a confidence trickster. We are shown quite early that Roy (Ian McKellen) is a conman, but Betty (Helen Mirren) has a gay grandson (Russell Tovey) who is rightly suspicious, so how will Roy and his crony Vincent (Jim Carter, Downton’s butler sliding off the path of virtue) get to fleece Betty of her million-plus pension pot?

There is an obvious twist to this story which even the dimmest viewer will be expecting, but the twist comes with a twist of its own. Which would be fine if only it wasn’t just too hard to swallow. The movie starts like a comedy, until we are shown that Roy has a very foul mouth and a homicidal streak, so the comedy has to turn dark.

HEARTBREAKERS (2001): a much fruitier movie
The two (three) senior stars give fruity per-formances and seem to be enjoying them-selves, but the film falls clunkily between comedy and drama and doesn’t really succeed in either category. There are some shivery flash-backs to the ruins of postwar Berlin, but the scenes in Mirren’s naff suburban bungalow are too slow and very repetitious.

I kept remembering Gene Hackman and Sigourney Weaver in an altogether more glorious geriatric con-artist movie, Heartbreakers (2001), in which the two leads took ‘fruitiness’ to another dimension. The Good Liar will presumably add a small chunk to its stars’ pension fund, but it is not something for which they will be remembered.

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The last movie take on Pearl Harbour (2001) was largely spoiled by a soapy love story. There’s only one wife featured in Midway and she’s just there as a token Woman Who Waits For Her Husband’s Return. What Roland Emmerich gives us this time is a solid chunk of naval history, superbly illustrated by the GGI effects he used so thrillingly in Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow.

With lengthy scenes of both the Japanese and American battle planning, the movie shows how the Japanese superiority after the ‘infamous’ damage they inflicted on the US navy at Pearl Harbour was overcome, mostly thanks to radio intercepts and code-breaking by the guys at Naval Intelligence (sorry, ladies).

Back stories are minimal, in keeping with the documentary style of the film. Woody Harrelson and Randy Quaid give un-showy performances as key admirals and all the fighter pilots play as a team, much as they would have in wartime, with nobody pushing for extra screen time. Good to see Luke Evans on solid form; he reminds me increasingly of the young Richard Harris, and I hope he has an equally substantial career ahead of him.

The CGI bombing at Pearl Harbour and out in the Pacific is nothing less than awesome. Here and there the aerial combat scenes (and camera-shots behind ordnance) give off a PlayStation flavour, but overall Midway does eloquent justice to a turning-point moment in 20th-century history.

(Scenes in Midway are date-stamped or time-stamped. I couldn’t help noticing that the Battle of the Coral Sea, six months after Pearl Harbour and one month before Midway, took place on the day when, here on the Sussex South Downs, I was being born.)

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It was 1980 when Stanley Kubrick took us to the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Stephen King was said to be unhappy with the movie. I was too: key elements of the novel were excluded, and Jack Nicholson seemed completely manic from the outset, which diluted his transition to psychopathic under the influence of the hotel’s ghostly residents. Hopefully Mr King is happier with the movie of his belated sequel, Doctor Sleep, directed by Mike Flanagan, who brought us the TV Haunting of Hill House and co-wrote the screenplay for Doctor Sleep with the author.

It’s a different kind of horror, although an adult Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor, always a strong presence onscreen) and a feisty black girl, Abra (Kyleigh Curran), both have the gift (or curse) of ‘the shining’. Danny, a recovering alcoholic, still gets visions and nightmares of The Overlook, but what brings him into contact with Abra is the serial killer Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and her followers, who inhale the ‘vapour’ of the Shining from their dying victims.

The original poster for THE SHINING (1980)
Danny and Abra use their telepathic skills to track down Rose and her gang. Their con-frontations give the movie a series of escalating climaxes and moments that may cause some viewers to close their eyes. Or even scream.

The cannibalization of teenagers makes for a much nastier tale than a haunted hotel. This is a long picture (two and a half hours) but it rarely flags. The flash-backs to Danny’s boyhood recreate very exactly highlights from the Kubrick movie. It’s hard to say which is scarier, revisiting The Overlook or Rose and her gang of life-stealers, but I can say that this is a thriller-chiller that may haunt your dreams for longer than The Shining did.

Thursday, 28 November 2019

What I'm reading: Russian mole becomes a fox

DANIEL SILVA: The Other Woman

A new Gabriel Allon adventure is an annual treat, much as a new James Bond or Modesty Blaise used to be. (The Bond stories continue with their pick-n-mix authorship, but Peter O’Donnell wisely killed off Modesty before the franchising wolves could gather). This year I’ve got through two Gabriel Allons, playing catch-up.

The Israeli superspy turned intelligence chief is usually defending his beleaguered homeland (and the world’s capital cities) from fanatical Muslim terrorists, but every now and again he turns his attention to the other great threat, the new republic of Russia with its tyrannical president whom Daniel Silva refers to as “the Tsar”.

A Russian defector reveals that a mole has infiltrated British Intelligence at the highest level since the era of the “Cambridge Five”. A parallel story introduces the reader to a French exile in Spain who had an affair in Beirut with a famous traitor – and bore him a child. Most readers will guess the name of her lover well before Mr Silva names him, the most famous of the Famous Five.

MI6 traitor Kim Philby
 depicted on a Soviet stamp
As Allon and his pals in the CIA and MI6 close in on the identity of the highly placed defector, the mole becomes a fox and a chase ensues, nail-biting and, frankly, a bit credulity-stretching. For the first time I found an error in Silva’s intensive research: he refers to “the dreary London suburb of Crow-borough” where Kim Philby abandoned his wife and children in 1956: Crow-borough is a small town on the edge of a forest in the High Weald of Sussex, 25 miles from me, 50 miles from London, and deemed “an Area of Outstanding National Beauty”.

Revisiting the Cambridge Spies gives The Other Woman strong echoes of John Le Carré, although the climactic chapters belong more to the age of the cinematic Jason Bourne. This is Daniel Silva a little off his very best, but that said it’s ideal reading for anyone on a longhaul flight or a sun-lounger – gripping stuff.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

What I'm streaming: God help our gracious Queen


Some people will have watched the new Netflix series of The Crown in a one-day binge. I’ve taken a week.

In the pre-publicity I thought that Olivia Colman still looked like Olivia Colman but minutes into Episode One I totally accepted that she was the Queen, every bit as much as Claire Foy before her. She has caught perfectly that air of haughtiness and slight discomfort that Her Majesty has never quite shaken off. I’m not so sure about Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip: Matt Smith seemed a better look-alike somehow, though he actually wasn’t. Helena Bonham Carter is spot-on as Margaret: needy, greedy and totally self-absorbed. Ben Daniels is well cast as Snowdon and despite looking nothing like him Charles Dance makes a credible Dickie Mountbatten. Josh O’Connor bears little resemblance to a young Prince Charles but he grows into the part well. When Emerald Fennell first appeared as a potential girlfriend I thought she was Sarah Ferguson, as she looks more like Fergie than Camilla, but Camilla she is, playing her as a sort of junior Margaret, promiscuous and manipulative.

The series has produced some fine moments, though perhaps not as many as the Claire Foy episodes, and one or two surprises. The series highlight was the Aberfan episode with its vivid CGI recreation of the slagheap engulfing the village school, though I rather doubt the Queen would have admitted to faking a tear after meeting the bereaved at Aberfan. Anne bonking Mr Parker-Bowles was a bit of a shock, as was Sir Anthony Blunt threatening Philip with some unwanted publicity if he (Blunt) was outed as one of Cambridge Spies. Did Mountbatten and the Queen Mum really ‘conspire’ to break-up Charles’s puppy-love affair with Camilla and accelerate her marriage to Parker-Bowles?

Helena Bonham-Carter and Ben Daniels as the Snowdons
- a marriage not made in heaven

Which raises the obvious question: is some of this royal ‘docu-drama’ factual or fictional? We’ve been down this road before with the Helen Mirren movie and more than one screen version of Diana’s life and loves. The writers this time seem to have toned down Prince Philip’s alleged philandering, which was such a feature of Kitty Kelley’s scurrilous book about The Royals (1998), and there were ‘revelations’ there and elsewhere that (so far) have not made into The Crown.

I’m as fond of a juicy piece of gossip as the next person, but I wonder how fair shows and movies like this really are. I’m sure Her Madge and the senior Highnesses don’t watch it, but it must be mortifying to the younger royals, whether they see it or not, to know that all their friends are tittering over the lives (especially the sex lives) of their parents and grandparents.

Prince Andrew: not exactly helping
You could almost argue a case that the Royal Family need a #MeToo movement to restore a bit of their right to privacy. In trying to modernize the institution, the Queen has perhaps allowed us to let too much “daylight” in; the “magic of the Monarchy” is getting a bit tarnished. Prince Andrew, of course, is not exactly helping.

Monday, 18 November 2019

What I'm reading: a timeless classic of Love and War (but not Peace)

Dave Boling: GUERNICA

I’m a bit late reviewing this novel, which was published in 2008. Critics have compared it to Captain Corelli's Mandolin and The English Patient. Its historical and romantic sweep even brings an echo of War and Peace although, sadly, peace does not come to Guernica within the time-frame of the novel.

The title is enough to send shivers down your spine, if you recall Picasso’s famous mural. The artist appears in the background of the story; we are shown him conceiving and executing the painting. Franco is another background character, the ‘generalissimo’ who tried to destroy the Basque culture and presided over decades of brutality for all Spaniards. The German aviator who leads the bombing raid over Guernica is a Von Richthofen, a cousin of the ‘Red Baron’, suave and gentlemanly, and ruthless.

At the heart of the story are the three Ansotegui brothers (Basque names are as intimidating as Tolstoy’s patronymics), three motherless boys whose father abandons them. One will become a fisherman, one a carpenter, the third a priest. We follow them from boyhood to manhood and watch as they work and play, dance and drink, fall out and fall in love. Guernica is, like many of the great novels, a superior kind of soap opera (very superior). While you read this, you are waiting for the bombs to fall. The history we know casts a dark cloud over the story. On the day of the bombing you wonder – and you care deeply – who, if anyone, is going to survive.

This was Dave Boling’s first novel. His wife is from the Pays Basque. He writes simply and vividly about the horrors of the Civil War. A villager taken away by the Guardia “was gone as if erased.” After the bombing, in a makeshift mortuary, “The undead shuffled past, staring into the faces, praying to find loved ones and praying not to find loved ones.”

The post-bombing story introduces two British characters and a hint that there can be light after the most terrible darkness. I’m a novelist. I sometimes kill off my own characters. It’s rare that a novel moves me to tears. This one did.

Picasso's GUERNICA

Friday, 27 September 2019

Wot I'm reading: More Israeli spies and spymasters

DOV ALFON: A Long Night in Paris

An Israeli tourist is ‘honey-trapped’ by a gorgeous blonde at Charles De Gaulle airport. His disap-pearance is investigated by the French police and by the Israeli Security Service when they realise that another Israeli on the same flight, who works for them, may have been the real target.

A Long Night in Paris is written in short chapters (some only one page), so it zips along at a cinematic pace. Jurisdictional spats in Paris and promotion tussles back in Tel Aviv slightly skew the story, but they demonstrate that catching spies is dirty work in more than one sense. There’s a nice cynical tone (the author used to be an intelligence officer): news reports are “the twilight zone in which legitimacy is created.” And a nice twist at the end brings an echo of the Ocean’s movies. Mr Alfon is clearly keen to see movie rights snapped up. Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon is still my favourite Israeli superspy, but Dov Alfon gets a ‘highly recommended’ from me.

Friday, 13 September 2019

Theatre at the cinema: comedy at its rawest


Raunchy gets redefined in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s show, which wowed Edinburgh Fringe audiences in 2013 and is now back in London and being relayed to a cinema near you. She developed the character into two not-to-be-missed TV series. And she scripted Killing Eve, which was more must-see television. (Onstage last night she reminded me quite a lot of Villanelle.)

Fleabag is not stand-up - well not exactly. It’s billed as a “one-woman play”, so perhaps the character is a performance rather than an autobiographical confession. Phoebe W-B sits on a chair and tells us Fleabag's recent life story, which is mostly about her busy hectic life (mostly with men, but some of it “solo” with online porn), her collapsing business (a guinea-pig themed cafe), relations with her business partner (dead, a suicide), her sister (estranged) and her mother (also dead). There are some sound effects and one voice-over (a job interview), but mostly she either talks about people or does impersonations of them. Her mimicking of a weasel-faced Tube pick-up is one of many high spots.

This is humour – this is life – at its rawest. A lot of it is rude (very) and funny (achingly), but there are hollows in Fleabag’s life which she doesn’t flinch at showing us: laughter some-times comes through tears. Waller-Bridge is at the cutting edge of contemporary comedy. If you missed it last night, cinemas plan a whole bunch of repeat showings. Do not miss it.

PS. If you're hoping to see the cute horny priest from Series Two of Phoebe's TV show, you're out of luck. BUT Andrew Scott will be appearing at a cinema near you this autumn in an NT Live (actually recorded) showing of Noel Coward's Present Laughter. And, of course, we'll be seeing Phoebe's contribution to the script of the new Bond movie next year. Will she bust his balls?

Monday, 19 August 2019

What I'm reading: 007 before Casino Royale

Anthony Horowitz: FOREVER AND A DAY

Anthony Horowitz contributed Trigger Mortis (daft title) to the 007 canon four years ago, which slotted into the chronology between Goldfinger and For Your Eyes Only. He now gets a second bite of the franchise cherry with Forever and a Day (not much better as a title, a bit Barbara Cartland), which is a prequel to Casino Royale, giving the 66-year series a new first chapter.

It begins with an echo of Daniel Craig’s cinema debut with M conferring on Bond, the new kid on the block, his ‘licence to kill’. This is the old pipe-smoking M, not the Judi Dench version. Our hero is then sent to the French Riviera to investigate the murder of his immediate predecessor, whose 007 handle he has chosen to inherit. On the Côte d’Azur Bond  encounters a CIA guy, a predecessor to Felix Leiter (who has been fed to the sharks more than once onscreen). He also meets an American billionaire who insists on calling him 'Jim' and a humongously fat Corsican gangster who could only be played by Marlon Brando or Orson Welles. And he meets a mysterious French beauty called Sixtine who seems to be playing two sides. Madame 16, as she’s also known, is a few years older than 007, but you get the feeling she will be bedded if not wedded in due course.

Like Ian Fleming, Horowitz lifts the sheet on the bed but doesn’t take us beneath it, so the erotic element is left to our imagination. (I always wished they had done this in the Roger Moore movies.) But he doesn’t skimp on the mayhem, and the adventure gathers plenty of momentum: a casino, a factory in the hills guarded like Fort Knox, a brand new cruise liner. The villains (more than one) get their just desserts, as we expect. The romance is one of those with an elegiac ending, paving the way for Bond to meet Vesper Lynd on his next assignment. Sixtine is a somewhat daft name, though not as daft as Pussy Galore (truly unforgivable, Ian, and only exceeded in awfulness by Plenty O’Toole in one of the films!).

Mr Horowitz perhaps does the best job of any of the inheritors of the mantle at capturing Fleming’s style: elegant prose with just the right amount of background, a seductive heroine, credible adversaries and slowly rising tension. The franchise is in safe hands.

Saturday, 10 August 2019

What I'm reading: Painting kings and courtesans

SIMON EDGE: A Right Royal Face-Off

London in the 1770s, during the reign of George III (the ‘mad’ one). A boy from Suffolk starts a new job as footman to the curmudgeonly Thomas Gainsborough, regarded as the ‘second-greatest painter’ in the land. The greatest is Sir Joshua Reynolds, president of the Royal Academy, who is deaf as a post and who uses cheap pigments that are apt to change colour after a few weeks. The foot-man’s letters home to his mum chronicle the almighty rivalry between the two artists, both often commissioned to paint the same sitters – up to and including the King and his numerous offspring, plus rich courtiers and (richer) courtesans.

In a parallel modern story, a vandalized painting which may be a ‘lost’ Gainsborough turns up on ‘Britain’s Got Treasures’, a wicked parody of BBC’s ‘Antiques Road-show’ with some very close to recognizable ‘Experts’. The portrait will be critical to the show’s (and the experts’) survival – but who is it?

Both the Georgian story and its modern corollary are a joy to follow. Simon Edge has a delicious tongue-in-cheek humour that put me in mind of Alan Bennett (our national treasure) and the late great Tom Sharpe, who gave us the Wilt series and (inappropriate to be named alongside Thomas Gainsborough) Blott on the Land-scape. The footman’s voice is especially appealing: ‘Sir Joshua is a strange old gentleman with the complexion of a boiled beetroot.’ I enjoyed A Right Royal Face-Off more than anything else I’ve read this year.

Friday, 2 August 2019

Wot I'm reading: From Yemen to Manchester

Stella Rimington: CLOSE CALL

Stella Rimington was the first female head of MI5, the inspiration for Judi Dench’s take on ‘M’ in the Bond movies. This is her eighth novel featuring Liz Carlyle of MI5’s Counter-Terrorism Unit, who is presumably a version of her younger self. In Close Call Liz and her team are following up an international arms-smuggling outfit whose reach extends from Yemen and the former Soviet republic of Dagestan to Paris and London – and Manchester, where this story comes to a thrilling climax.

As spy-writers go, Mrs Rimington is a ‘disciple’ of Le Carré rather than Fleming – no Goldfinger-sized villain, but an emphasis on the nitty-gritty of espionage: bugging and shadowing. Her style is a lot less rich than Le Carré and seems to be pitched for a Mumsnet readership (no disrespect). But it’s very clear that she writes with real authority about those who protect us from those would destroy us.

David at the movies: Leonard Cohen - life in the Stoned Age


Patched together from interviews and old home movies, this 100-minute documentary charts the 10-year romance between Leonard Cohen and the woman he called his ‘Muse’, Marianne Ihlen from Norway, whom he met on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960. We know her from the song "So Long Marianne" – a farewell song. There were many farewells. As the years passed,  Cohen made shorter visits to Corfu, living back in his native Montreal when he wasn’t on the road.

There were other women – many of them, sometimes more than one a day. Leonard’s life as a songwriter/ singer began in the Hippy Era when Free Love was the name of the game. Free Love, fuelled by drugs – acid, uppers, downers - was just an excuse for promiscuity, but promiscuity was mandatory in the 1960s. And not without casualties: suicides and deaths from overdoses. Marianne had a son by her first husband, Axel, whom we see as a happy child on the island. Like other children of that era, he was so fucked-up that he ended in an institution.

Cohen has given us some great songs – "Hallelujah" has been recorded by more than 300 artists – and his dark gravelly voice is one of the iconic sounds of the last sixty years, but Nick Broom-field’s unflinching documentary paints a portrait of an egotistical, self-destructive man who took up women and dropped them as casually as a Kleenex.

Three months before he died and knowing death was coming, he sent a love-letter to Marianne who was in her final days. So maybe, the man had a heart. His songs seem to say so, but his life rather less so.

Thursday, 11 July 2019

David at the Theatre: Back to the Age of Aquarius

I saw Hair (three times – I loved it!) when it opened in London in the autumn of 1968, so for me last night’s revival in Brighton was a trip down Memory Lane. For younger members of the audience it may have served as a History Lesson. Hippies must seem as distant as cavemen (whom my mum always said they resembled).

It’s a lively show, raucous and profane. I didn’t recog-nise anybody in the touring cast. Paul Wilkins is solid in the central role of Claude, which was played by Paul Nicholas in the original West End production (Nicholas is now one of the pensioners visiting retirement locations abroad in the ‘Marigold Hotel’ TV documentaries – about as far from hippiedom as you can get).

The original 1968 poster
Maybe distance lends enchantment, but I think the 1968 version was a lot more musical than this. Perhaps under the X-Factor influence, the songs are shouted rather than sung. The ‘anthems’ are still very powerful – ‘Aquarius’, ‘Ain’t Got No/I Got Life’, ‘Let the Sunshine In’ – but ‘Frank Mills’ has lost its poignancy and Shake-speare’s ‘What a Piece of Work is Man’ loses its majesty by being spread through several cast members. The dancing seemed a little over-choreographed, with a few inappropriate echoes of Pan’s People. The nude scene still has impact after all these years (Elaine Paige tells a fruity story about what she nervously took hold on to under the sheet in 1968, which you may be able to google).

It's probably just me (eligible for the Marigold retire-ment tour), but this revival didn’t generate the thrill I got in the 1960s. Still, the nostalgia is welcome and the show explodes with energy. The tour rolls on after Brighton. Sit in the stalls if you want to dance with the cast on stage during the finale.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

What I'm reading: Gay porn à la Cartland

Gordon Merrick: ONE FOR THE GODS

I’m still ploughing my way through some of the gay ‘classics’. Originally published in 1971, this is the first of two sequels to The Lord Won’t Mind, Gordon Merrick’s ‘landmark’ novel about gay love and gay sex in postwar USA. Our hunky well-endowed heroes Charlie and Peter are on an extended holiday on the French Riviera. Charlie is heartbroken when Peter two-times him with a cute local lad. After this little hiccup they join their rich friends Jack and Martha for a cruise to Capri and the Greek islands. More hiccups.

The yacht trip begins with a night storm which is almost in the Herman Melville league. Then Charlie, who has bisexual tendencies, decides he wants to have a child with Martha. He also – spoiler alert – wants Peter to have sex with Martha, at which point the novel unravels into tawdry melodrama.

Gordon Merrick 1916-88
Rich people on a yacht drinking too much and screwing their brains out, there’s a faint echo of Scott Fitzgerald, although some of the writing – “his dark eyes were soft with desire” - is more evocative of Barbara Cartland than Fitzgerald. The sex scenes are hardcore without being too crude, but here too there are lapses: I’m not sure if Barbara Cartland ever described a blowjob (I’m trying not to picture her giving one!), but she could well have written “he lay back and surrendered to the rapture of Peter’s miraculous mouth.”

As gay porn One For the Gods delivers the goods, but as a study in gay relationships the story’s artificiality weakens its conviction. A ‘juicy’ read, then, but not much more.

Friday, 5 July 2019

David at the Theatre: Modern murder mystery - well, it was modern in 1952

The Mousetrap has been playing in London continuously since 1952. Now, for the umpteenth time, it’s on tour. We caught it in Brighton, many decades later than the rest of the population. Respectable audience for a midweek evening, but not sold-out. Splendidly solid-looking country house hotel set. I’m clearly disrespecting some fine performers if I say there aren’t any major household names in the cast (not from my household at least), but they all play their roles with a gusto that this creaky old theatrical warhorse merits.

There’s only one onstage murder. A lot less ‘bloody’ than most television or movie whodunits. As so often in Agatha Christie, there’s a ‘historical wrong’ which the murderer is avenging. Secrets are revealed. Everyone in the snowed-in hotel is a suspect. It’s still set in the post-war era of Rationing (which I can recall, verging on antiquity as I am). The blond architect probably wasn’t as camp (Kenneth Williams camp) in the original production and may not even have been written as gay. The slightly butch female seems to owe something to the current TV Gentleman Jack, which again may be more than Mrs Christie intended, though there wasn’t any actual same-sex action, which is now essential to late-evening home entertainment.

I’m not sure if I would have guessed who the killer was; I must have been told some time during the last 67 years. During the curtain call the audience is asked to keep a secret that is known to almost everyone over the age of 40. Philistine that I am, I’m now going to reveal that the murderer is –


Thursday, 4 July 2019

David at the Movies: Even obliterated, the Beatles are the real stars


Richard Curtis takes a clever ‘What-if’ as the premise for his screen-play for Yesterday. What if a global power-cut-type event obliterated all memory of the Beatles? Except for one provincial British Asian, Jack Malik, a singer whose career is going nowhere. But now, with the vast catalogue of Lennon and McCartney hits which are exclusively his to pirate, he becomes a pop sensation. His childhood friend Ellie (Lily James, adorable as always), who’s been managing him, gets replaced by a percentage-hungry American super-producer (Kate McKinnon, gloriously OTT).

Himesh Patel (whom we know in the UK from East-Enders) acts and sings his way persuasively through the slightly klutzy central role. Ed Sheeran almost steals the show, playing himself (a natural klutz!) in a charming send-up. Danny Boyle has directed this at a snappy pace, but the most visible contribution is clearly Curtis’s script, with his trademark mismatched love-story. Other erasures from human memory caused by the power-cut are fed to us at clumsy intervals – did CocaCola pay for product dis-placement, I wondered? And the central mystery – what has actually happened to the Beatles? – is neatly addressed. I particularly liked the late appearance of two other people who know that Jack is a musical thief.

The other most visible contribution is the Beatles’ back-list – we are constantly reminded just how powerfully their songs are engrained in our consciousness. There may well be Sing-Along screenings of this next year.


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 superstar-dom 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 homo-sexuality. 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 partner-ship. 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 Lioberace movie. Rocketman is a story with a message about the dangers that Fame brings. 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.