Thursday, 25 February 2021

What I'm reading: Retro comedy-thriller romp

James Essinger: ROLLER-COASTER

In a preface James Essinger warns the reader that you might find the author of this comedy thriller ‘somewhat bonkers’. It’s a book he wrote in the 1970s and is only now bringing to print. With a hippie hero who has created his own slang (like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, 1971) and a supporting cast with names like Terrapin and Tortoise (and a security chief called Pickling Fox-Foetus), I was reminded of  BBC 1950s radio hit The Goon Show and (two decades later) television's Monty Python. The story has terrific pace, but ‘bonkers’ barely begins to describe it!

Ancient eccentric Dr Tortoise sends wannabe-hitman Terrapin to Marseilles to kill some renegade Finns who are planning a terrorist outrage to avenge the brutal Russian occupation of Finland during World War Two. The wartime chapter is the one that isn’t funny – it’s extremely powerful – but the rest is a helter-skelter of comedy disasters. John Gardner (who later wrote a dozen or more James Bond adventures) began his career with a series featuring an inept MI5 assassin called Boysie Oakes – The Liquidator. Before Boysie there was The Dolly Dolly Spy in the 1960s, the first of a quartet of Carnaby-flavoured spy novels by Adam Diment. Rollercoaster clearly belongs in this quirky company. As a first novel forty-plus years ago I would have given James Essinger a schoolmasterly report: ‘Shows promise. Needs discipline.’ A zany, nostalgic romp.

Monday, 15 February 2021

David at the movies: Alcohol-fueled masterpiece




Always a joy to see a new black-and-white movie. Mank has luminous cinematography – the best I can recall since Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1973). It’s a “Making-of” story, or more precisely a “Writing of” story about Herman Mancievicz’s writing of the screenplay for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, which was to win "Mank" an Oscar in 1941.

Gary Oldman’s Mank writes in a booze-filled haze, drawing on memories of his years of friendship with William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and the magnate's mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) to create cruel parodies of them in his script. Orson Welles (Tom Burke) makes only a small contri-bution to the writing process, we’re told, although he shared the Best Original Screenplay award, the only Oscar Kane won despite going on to be hailed as a movie masterpiece.

Like the 1930s pictures it evokes, Mank is very theatrical, more talk than action. Oldman is at his seedy and brilliant best, and Seyfried invests Marion Davies with more depth (and talent) than she is usually credited. Writer/director Jack Fincher gloriously recreates the spirit and the texture of the era of Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, Hollywood’s Golden Age. A splendid tribute to a high spot in cinema history.

Monday, 8 February 2021

What I'm reading: Not licensed to kill



I’m playing catch-up with Charles Cumming, having admired The Trinity Six, his contribution to the Cambridge Spy saga (Philby & Co.). A Spy by Nature was his first book. Alec Milius flunks the training for MI6 but MI5 offer him a probationary assignment: he is to join a “sting” operation with an oil exploration company in the City of London, whose contracts in Kazakhstan a US rival is trying to poach. Alec must befriend an American husband-and-wife team and feed them false intelli-gence.

In this early novel (2001) I detect the influence of Robert Ludlum. Cummings writes everyday prose and uses extended dialogue scenes to shade his characters and build up the tension. I wish he didn’t write in the present tense, but this is an impressive debut. Industrial espionage (by our closest ally) doesn’t sound as murky as penetrating terrorist cells, but in fact it is. The ending is as bleak as a Le Carrè.

The author’s biographic introduction tells us that as a post-grad he was approached by MI6. I hope it really is true that their recruitment briefing includes the statement: “Officers are certainly not licensed to kill.”

Sunday, 31 January 2021

What I'm streaming: The Plague before this one


(Channel 4/All4)

A series about the early years of the AIDS crisis would be a hard watch at any time; it’s especially tough while we’re locked down because of Covid. Written by Russell T. Davies, who gave us the taboo-breaking
Queer As Folk twenty years ago, this series has a similar structure: a group of gay friends sharing their lives – and their beds – as the liberation of the 1960s and 70s turns to ashes with the arrival of HIV.

As he did in Queer As Folk, Davies spares us no detail of the rampant promiscuity that turned HIV into a pandemic. He doesn’t show us the bigotry of Evangelicals (mainly but not exclusively in the US) who saw AIDS as God’s wrath upon the citizens of Sodom, except that maybe the series’ title is nod towards the Fundamentalists.

Olly Alexander and Lydia West as Ritchie and Jill
The ensemble acting is faultless, production values are off the scale, the pop soundtrack perfectly selected. The main character is Ritchie (Olly Alexander), a struggling actor, although the key role is that of Jill (Lydia West), “den-mother” to this camp group who offers strong support as her flatmates fall in love and break up and die.

It’s hardly a spoiler to say that someone will die in each of the five episodes: from pneumocystis, KS lesions, CMV, cancers – the grim toll of diseases that harvested men with compromised immune systems. There was a stand-out episode in LA Law when two parents cut their son off from his lover and all his friends and took him home to die. Russell Davies revisits that storyline in the final heartbreaking part of It’s A Sin.

Many of my generation and the one behind us lost people we loved and people we liked during that terrible decade and a half. The grief of those losses will come gruellingly back to us watching this series. Ultimately, medical breakthroughs and human kindness saw us through the age of AIDS. Inshallah, they will also see us defeat Covid.

Sunday, 24 January 2021

David at the movies: Breaking up is hard to do


(Netflix and cinemas)

This movie was filmed some ten miles from where I live on the Sussex coast. Grace and Edward (Annette Bening and Bill Nighy) have been married for almost thirty years, but their marriage has withered into staleness and bickering and Edward is about to leave her for somebody else. Their son Jamie (Josh O’Connor) is caught in the crossfire, and his mum expects his occasional visits from London to become weekly.

This a somewhat “slight” story about a break-up. It reminded me a lot of David Lean’s 1940s Close Encounter: two very ordinary people caught up in a relationship without a future. If this was a TV soap, it will be full of fisticuffs and shouting. The scene where Grace overturns a kitchen table is the closest it comes to violence and doesn’t entirely ring true. Being left, for Grace, is a lot like being widowed. Bening, never less than outstanding, captures perfectly the grief and confusion that abandonment induces. Nighy, like Trevor Howard in 1945, masks guilt and pain behind a “stiff upper lip” which is probably just as real in 2021 as it was back then.

Josh O'Connor as Jamie

Josh O’Connor, whom we have come to feel pretty negative about as Prince Charles in the Diana/Camilla series of The Crown, gets Jamie exactly right: helpless to know what to do and quietly hurt by the break-up. You get the feeling that Jamie too will marry someone who seems exactly right but will turn out not to be.

 Hope Gap is a small stony beach below Seaford Head. In my novel Lillian and the Italians (publishing next month) it’s where Lillian scatters her husband’s ashes. Hope Gap the movie will not lift your spirits, but it shows exquisitely the pain and bitterness of a marriage turning to ashes.  

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

What I'm streaming: Pawn takes king



They’re saying you don’t need to be a chess aficionado to enjoy this, but the games are totally central to every episode. Non-chess fans must surely wonder what the hoopla is all about.

9-year-old Beth Harmon is sent to a near-Dickensian orphanage in Kentucky after her mother’s death in a car accident. An immigrant janitor (Bill Camp) introduces her to chess and unleashes a prodigious talent. Fostered in her teens in the mid-1960s, she is soon meeting – and beating – champion players at state, national and international matches.

All the men in the story are chess nerds. Beth sleeps with a couple of them and lives with one for a while, but chess is her only real passion. The death of her foster-mother affects her less than losing a match.

Queen’s Gambit boasts superb sets (mostly hotel rooms and tournament venues) and fine performances, notably from Anya Taylor-Joy as the enigmatic Beth. Production values are very, very high: I particularly liked the stalactite chess moves Beth visualizes on bedroom ceilings. But the emphasis on the games completely swamps the story. The deaths of both her mothers lack emotional heft, as do her brief romances. This might have been better as a two-hour movie. Style triumphs over substance, but it’s a substantial triumph. And if a few thousand youngsters swap video games for chess, the series can be deemed a double success.

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

What I'm reading: If you go down to the Swamp today ...


This is a sequel to The Last Child, revisiting young Johnny Merrimon ten years after he confronted the terrifying abduction of his sister. Now in his twenties, Johnny lives a hermit existence in The Hush, several square miles of forest and swamp he has inherited in North Carolina. A billionaire neighbor bids to buy The Hush to extend his hunting reserve. Johnny doesn’t want to sell. He has dreams and visions centering on the 1850s when his ancestor and namesake fell foul of a female shaman with malevolent healing powers. 

A descendant of the shaman responds to a summons to return to the county and cross paths with Johnny Merrimon. And there’s Something lurking in the swamp (the author calls it “Something”), a dark presence that for more than a century has been savagely culling unwelcome intruders.

Like Stephen King, John Hurt elevates the Gothic thriller into the realm of literary fiction. The Hush brings some echoes of The Shining, where it's the location itself that threatens the mental and physical health of trespassers. The story builds to a shattering climax as Merrimons past and present reach a "confluence" on a hill in the center of the swamp. A couple of loose ends suggest that this may be the middle segment of a projected trilogy.

Tuesday, 5 January 2021

What I'm streaming: Pride without Prejudice


Goodness me, this is the most startling recreation of Regency England since Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy found zombies on their lawns a few years ago. Bodices are more spectacularly ripped than we usually see in Jane Austen adaptations, although the fundamental challenge of finding a rich titled husband for your cosseted (and corseted) daughters is still at the heart of the story. This is a Georgian Downtown Abbey, quite a bit raunchier and a lot more downmarket.

What sets Bridgerton apart is its “colour-blind” casting. Simon, Lord Hastings, our dashing hero (and boy, is he dashing!) is played by a black actor (RegĂ©-Jean Page), as are many of Queen Charlotte’s queen’s courtiers and even the Queen herself (Golda Rosheuval). It takes a bit of getting used to – I kept thinking (very unPC, unBLM) that we were in Louisiana and (oh, happy thought) the slaves had taken over the plantation. But the casting is the key ingredient that gives Bridgerton its big dollop of freshness. Phoebe Dynevor’s Daphne Bridgerton, whose on-off relationship with Lord Hastings is at the core of the drama, gives a feisty modernist performance, but she rather pales (if I may use that word) in comparison with some of the other debutantes.

The court of Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuval)

The Simon-Daphne romance gets too much screen-time, as does Miss Thompson’s unmarried pregnancy and the mystery identity of gossip-monger Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews who, alas, does not appear onscreen).
Bridgerton plays out as a period soap, which is what Jane Austen’s intricate social comedies tend to be reduced to for viewing audiences. Mad King George is barely glimpsed, and the Prince Regent not at all. The one gay couple at court seem to have fallen foul of censorship or more likely the cutting-room shears; let’s hope this is redressed in Series Two.

Series Two? A decade from now we’ll be in Series Ten. This is pure tosh, lavishly costumed and backgrounded, and it will run and run.

Lady Danbury and Lord Hastings (Adjoa Andoh and Rege-Jean Page)