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.”