Wednesday, 18 May 2022
Lionel Davidson: KOLYMSKY HEIGHTS
I’ve decided to re-read a few of my favourite books. When I read it in the 1990s I thought that Kolymsky Heights was one of the best adventure thrillers I’d ever read.
A captive scientist in a secret research station deep in Siberia smuggles a message to an Oxford professor he knew earlier in his life. The CIA send Jimmy Porter into the post-Soviet wilderness to infiltrate the station. Porter is a Canadian-Indian (now more wokely called a "native Canadian"), a gifted linguist and survival expert. Getting him into Siberia in the guise of an “indigenous Russian” takes up two thirds of the narrative. What’s going on at the secret establishment has echoes of the X-Files. Getting him out with this world-changing secret is another challenge.
Lionel Davidson vividly recreates the Siberian permafrost and the people who live there (it’s where gold and other minerals are mined in huge quantities). This is a story like no other, bone-chilling in its setting and nerve-shredding in its tension. After twenty-five years I still rate it in my all-time top ten thrillers – maybe in my top five.
Thursday, 12 May 2022
DOWNTON ABBEY: A new era
Another episode in the upstairs/downstairs soap-opera life of the Crawley family, their heirs, their spouses and their friends – and, especially cherished, their servants.
We’ve moved on a year or so from last episode. Tom Branson has married Lucy, Imelda Staunton’s heiress daughter. Lady Mary’s car-crazy husband is away on a rally, leaving her to develop a crush on the director (Hugh Dancy looking cuter and less fraught than he was in Hannibal) who’s filming a historical (almost hysterical) movie at Downton (the fee will restore the leaky roof). Mary will also have a key role when the movie goes from Silent to Talkie. The film crew brings new romance into the life of Barrow, the gay butler in a very anti-gay era.
|Maggie Smith as Duchess Violet|
How wonderfully all the cast slip back into their familiar (and much-loved) roles after a gap of two years or more. Dame Maggie, of course, dominates her every scene. Hugh Bonneville is given reasons to cry and he does tearful as believably as he does starchy. Mary and Edith are adorable as always. Mr Molesley gets to save another day.
Plenty of people pooh-pooh Downton and its fans. I don’t watch any of the British or Aussie soaps, but I wouldn’t miss an instalment of this. There’s talk of a third movie. Bring it on!
Friday, 29 April 2022
In 2013, on Dame Edna’s “Farewell Tour”, Les Patterson and the lady herself tottered onto the stage of Brighton’s Dome gasping for breath. I half expected to see one of them die on stage, like Sid James or Tommy Cooper. But last night Barry Humphries toddled onto the stage of Eastbourne’s Devonshire Theatre, seemingly sprucer than ever at the age of 88.
This is not (not quite) the Les and Edna show; this is the ‘Making Of’ show, with Humphries talking about his early life in Melbourne and the ‘conceptions’ of Dame Edna as a send-up Australian housewife and Sir Les as a drunken Events Director who got promoted to Cultural Attaché. These two long ago took on lives of their own and are now much-loved figures on the global celebrity circuit.Humphries talks candidly about his boyhood and his near-fatal struggle with alcoholism. If there was one jarring note last night, it was his quizzing members of the audience about their bathroom decor: cringe-making when Edna does it, this doesn’t work when performed out of Edna costume. Throwing ‘gladdies’ was probably another misjudgment, especially without inviting the lucky recipients to wave them during the closing song.
Overall, the evening was a joyous reunion with Edna and Les – in hilarious video clips, including Edna’s naughty invasion of Charles and Camilla’s box at the the Royal Variety Show in 2013 (www.youtube.com/watch?v=1r3S5UKP7ME).
The Barry Humphries show is touring. Don’t miss it if it’s anywhere near you. Newsflash: we are promised another ‘Farewell Tour’ next year. Edna may take as long to leave the stage as that earlier Australian diva, Dame Joan Sutherland!
Thursday, 28 April 2022
Peter Scott-Presland: A GAY CENTURY
This is a collection of ten short plays, designed to be performed as mini-operas. I watched several of them, played but not sung, on Zoom last year. They each encapsulate a chapter of gay history, revisited or re-imagined. All of them are clever and interesting. They are all good. A few of them are outstanding. My absolute favourite is the first one, Two Queens, set in 1900, in which Queen Victoria visits Oscar Wilde on his deathbed in Paris. Her Majesty is given liberty to borrow some of Oscar’s most famous lines!
Wilde (or his ghost) pops up in some of the later dramas, affirming his role as the “patron saint” of gay liberation. EM Forster, Siegfried Sassoon. Noel Coward – many iconic gay figures of the century are here, revisited or re-imagined. Radclyffe Hall supplies, rather earnestly, the L in LGBT. Ivor Novello, sentenced to prison for fiddling petrol coupons during WW2, shares a cell with a psychotic gangster. The Jeremy Thorpe scandal is re-interpreted with Norman Scott’s dogs given voices and a key role! There’s an episode in Weimar Berlin that features Gerald Hamilton, said to be the inspiration for Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris; the play is a splendid ‘companion piece’ to Cabaret; I’d love to hear it sung.
Peter Scott-Presland has risen splendidly to the challenge of giving historical characters an ironic and incisive new script (to sing!). A Gay Century is a towering achievement. And Volume Two is due out soon.
Tuesday, 12 April 2022
Christine Mustchin: AFTER JAQ
A former detective, now a doctor, Kate Green goes to Brighton to take up a locum post, only to find the friend she was to stay with has been brutally murdered. With the police keen to write off Jaqueline’s death as a suicide, Kate turns detective again. Her investigation uncovers a web of corruption involving drug distribu-tion and the trafficking of foreign girls into prostitution. There are more killings.
Peter James’s 17-year series featuring Inspector Roy Grace has already made Brighton & Hove the ‘murder capital’ of south-east England! Christine Mustchin looks set to offer Mr James some strong competition. A sequel to After Jaq is promised. Ms Mustchin writes a lean elegant prose and builds her story to a thrilling climax.
Saturday, 26 March 2022
Two good reasons to see this. The title – it’s a movie about a dog. And Channing Tatum, one of the most likeable as well as one of the most attractive of Hollywood stars.
Tatum plays an Afghanistan war veteran recovering from traumatic injuries who is assigned to escort army dog Lulu (a Belgian breed similar to German Shepherd) on her final mission. Trained to sniff out and attack terrorists, Lulu is unstable after all she’s been through and is to be put down after Channing takes her to the funeral of her former handler.
Needless to say, on the long road journey to the funeral Channing and Lulu are going to bond and meet some weirdoes. To say more risks spoilers. This is a less mawkish movie than A Dog’s Purpose (which I loved, btw), but Lulu is adorable despite her forays into viciousness (three dogs are credited with playing her) and Tatum too is (very) adorable, in his way. See it.
Tuesday, 22 March 2022
William Boyd: TRIO
The three protagonists in William Boyd’s novel are linked by being in Brighton in the summer of 1968 while a movie is filmed. Elfrida, whose philandering husband is directing the picture, is trying to start a new novel about the last day in the life of Virginia Woolf (who went into a river not far from Brighton). Talbot, the film’s harassed co-producer, fears that his partner is trying to freeze him out; he also has mild urges to venture down new sexual paths. Anny, the movie’s self-obsessed American star, is juggling two lovers and having to deal with an ex-husband on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
This trio of diverse human dramas is a variant on familiar Boyd ‘territory’. The 1960s Brighton setting evokes Graham Greene, who clearly has been a major influence on Boyd’s writing life. The story teeters on the edge of both comedy and tragedy. None of the main characters is particularly sympathetic to the reader (to this reader), and the first chapters are a bit scrappy, but towards the end Boyd’s writing recaptures the quality of his best novels (Restless is the most outstanding of the last half-dozen).
Monday, 28 February 2022
Hillary Clinton & Louise Penny: STATE OF TERROR
The principal character in Hillary Clinton’s literary debut is – can you believe it? – a female US Secretary of State. With terrorist bus bombings in three European cities and a clear and present danger of outrages in the US, Ellen Adams, newly appointed to the new administration of President Douglas Williams, goes on the diplomatic offensive, jetting to Kabul, Tehran and Moscow to meet leaders who may help to defuse the situation. She is handicapped by hard-right ‘moles’ in Washington who are in league with those - a global group - orchestrating the outrages. It’s very gung-ho, very Jason Bourne; Ms Adams is frequently in the firing line, from fisticuffs in the Oval Office to shoot-ups in caves in the mountains of Baluchistan.
President Williams has a potty mouth which calls Richard Nixon to mind more than the current incumbent. His predecessor, Eric Dunn, presided over “four years of chaos” and now lives in kingly splendor in Florida – hmmm. Other world figures, up to and including Iran’s Supreme Leader, are lightly (very lightly) fictionalized. Russia’s President Ivanov was famously photographed shirtless on a horse!
Friday, 11 February 2022
Pedro Almodovar is the maestro of the modern Women’s Picture, and Parallel Mothers is emphatically that. Two women give birth to their babies in a Madrid hospital. Ana (Milena Smit) is the teenage daughter of an actress who is only interested in her career. Janis (Penelope Cruz) is a fashion photographer and the mistress of a man who isn’t free to marry her. Ana and Janis’s lives and destinies are irrevocably bound by something that happens in the hospital.
If that sounds like a soap-opera story – well, it is, and a well-worked one. Almodovar’s gift is to take this trite situation and give it a glossy sheen that makes it seem almost fresh. All the cast take their roles seriously. Penelope Cruz is the best of them; on screen she has an incandescence that reminds me of Sophia Loren’s early films.
There’s a background story in which Janis’s lover is trying to get permission to excavate the grave of some villagers savagely killed in the early years of the Civil War. I rather wish that this had been given more screen time. The final scene of this movie is nothing less than magnificent.
Monday, 7 February 2022
Michael Connelly: THE DARK HOURS
With Covid restrictions in place and the “insurrection” in the post-Election Capitol, the latest case for night-shift LAPD detective Renee Ballard and retired cop Harry Bosch is about as on-the-button as you can get. A murder on New Year’s Eve has a ballistic link to an unsolved ten-year-old case of Harry’s. The pair are hamstrung by lazy and inept colleagues/superiors, a recurring theme in Michael Connelly’s books – and presumably a factor in real-world police work.
Ballard is also investigating an ongoing serial rape case – a creepy brace of rapists called the “Midnight Men”. Both cases require dogged detective work and interviews that occasionally reveal a tiny clue to move the team forward. Connelly writes the best dialogue in current crime fiction, which gives an edge – a “zing” – to all this routine stuff. As he always does, he ratchets up the tension to a nail-biting finale. Nobody does it better in Police Department thrillers.