Tuesday, 24 December 2019

What I'm reading: Olympic name-dropping


Nicholas Haslam: REDEEMING FEATURES


This memoir by interior designer and all-round fashionista Nicky Haslam’s is firmly pitched at celeb-watchers and lovers of gossip. Well, I fit the second of those categories. There’s some fruity stuff here, and if name-dropping were an Olympic sport, Nicky would win platinum!

Haslam was a very pretty boy who has aged into a handsome old geezer, much as Cary Grant and Paul Newman did (but not Marlon Brando or Orson Welles).

Our hero comes from an aristocratic lineage, so the name-dropping starts before he’s born: his mother has Byron’s mistress Lady Caroline Lamb in her family tree and also Giorgiana, the "naughty" 18th-century Duchess of Devonshire memorably played onscreen by Keira Knightley. His father, though not gay, was friends with some notable homosexuals of the 1930s, including Harold Nicholson and Harold Acton. Nicky’s mother had a jet-set life before her marriage, living in Vienna and then in New York where she worked as Fanny Brice’s secretary and visited Fanny’s husband Nick Arnstein in Sing Sing prison with her.

His “top-drawer-ness” is undeniable: he went to the party given by the Queen at Claridges on the evening of Charles and Diana’s wedding. Diana was Nicky’s cousin, but he doesn’t have anything new to add to that sad story.

With Joan Collins and Andy Warhohl in 1980

In his early teens Haslam had sex in a public convenience with Hugh Paddick, whose memory is cherished by fans of Round the Horne. He went to parties where he met Noel Coward, Ivor Novello, Frederick Ashton, Tony Armstrong-Jones, Cecil Beaton – the great and the good (and the gay) of the 1950s. At 15, an Eton schoolboy, Nicky had a brief fling with an (unnamed) actor in New York who took him to meet Tallulah Bankhead.

The names reel by as love affairs and his career with Vogue flit him between London and New York: Garbo and Dietrich, Cole Porter, Jackie Kennedy, Nureyev, Gloria Swanson, Capote, Gore Vidal. He went to a séance with Salvador Dali and his wife at which the ghost of Marilyn Monroe, not surprisingly, failed to appear. He was a fan of Wallis Windsor but not of the Duke, about whom he has some revealing gay gossip. His anecdote of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine (Haslam says they were only married for three weeks: actually it was 32 days!) is an oft-told tale, but always worth telling. And the bitchy tone is enjoyable: Graham Sutherland “seemed less like an artist than a civil servant, dust-dry and persnickety and dainty”; his wife was “somewhat sullen.”

Still a glamour-boy in his 70s
It’s the tidbits of scandal that perk up the page. I must confess to fast-forwarding through some of the endless parties and first nights. Haslam writes well, but the descriptions of house interiors run to Proustian detail and there are lapses into Barbara Cartland phrasing - “a fatally handsome man”, “the shapely white cheeks of Lady Chaplin” – that made me wince and occasionally lol.

Endlessly reinventing himself, Haslam befriended rock stars as well as royals; he sings cabaret and wears leather in old age (which he fought off with plastic surgery). With friends in high – and occasionally low – places, his biography is a gluttonous feast for lovers of celebrity tittle-tattle.

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

THE CROWN


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

FLEABAG


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


MARIANNE & LEONARD


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 –

                      (thud)

Thursday, 4 July 2019

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

YESTERDAY


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.


ROCKETMAN


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

ALL MY SONS 


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

RED JOAN


 “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 émigré (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. 

THE SISTERS BROTHERS


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.

PET SEMATARY



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.

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY



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!

FISHERMAN'S FRIENDS


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.