Category: DavidGeeBlog

David at the Movies: Upstairs, Downstairs and on the Riviera

 

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.

 

His lordship and most of the family decamp to a gorgeous villa in the South of France which Violet, the Dowager Duchess (Maggie Smith in her usual Lady Bracknell form) has inherited from an old flame. The French scenes are very Scott Fitzgerald (minus the sex), and the Downton film invasion brings strong echoes of other movies about movie-makers.

 

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!

David at the theatre: Edna’s comeback – she never went away!

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!

 

 

What I’m reading: Gay icons resurrected

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.

What I’m reading: Brighton & Hove, crime capital of south-east England!

 

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.

David at the Movies: a dog and Channing Tatum – two star attractions

 DOG

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.

What I’m reading: Graham Greene territory

 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.

 

William Boyd

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).

 

What I’m reading: the new First Lady of spy fiction

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!

 

The sheer geopolitical scale of this taut and tense thriller suggests that Mrs Clinton has contributed more than just her name to the project. I’m guessing it’s the Second Lady rather than the Former First Lady who’s responsible for the actual writing. Characters are pithily described. The pithiness extends to the staccato prose style: short sentences, short paragraphs – a style practiced by the late Jackie Collins, among many others. Not a style I warm to, but the exhilarating plot and the sheer pace kept me engaged through to the nerve-shredding (if slightly daft) conclusion.

What I’m reading: Ballard & Bosch back on the beat

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.

What I’m reading: Another take on the plot to kill JFK

 

Philip Kerr: THE SHOT

Perhaps taking a leaf from Stephen King, espionage writer Philip Kerr invites us back to the Kennedy era. The Shot starts with Jack beating Nixon in the election in November 1960, narrowly and – Kerr repeats an oft-told tale – with some help from the Mafia in the key state of Illinois.
    A professional assassin (presidentially named Tom Jefferson) is hired by mobster Sam Giancana (who famously shared a girlfriend with JFK) to murder Fidel Castro, so that Cuba can revert to its previous Mob-dominated money-spinning status. But there are other pressures on Jefferson, and he diverts his attention to a plot to remove Kennedy before the inauguration.
     “Georgetown lay on his soul like a dead weight.” Philip Kerr, as we know from his WW2 and Cold War novels, has a neat way with words. His extended dialogue scenes reminded me of Robert Ludlum at his most prolix, but the assassination theme pulls the reader through the occasional slow patch. As with The Day of the Jackal, you think the end won’t spring any surprises – but it does!

     Most conspiracy buffs believe that Cosa Nostra did play a key role in the events in Dallas in 1963; Oliver Stone’s movie JFK included this and several of the other scenarios in a mash-up of the conspiracy to end all conspiracies. The Shot offers one more tense, imaginative chapter to the Mythology of “Camelot”.

What I’m watching: Is crime drama getting too sick?

 

Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen & Laurence Fishburne

 

 HANNIBAL

 
Clearly I’m very late catching up on this, the TV version of the crimes of Hannibal Lecter, our favourite cannibal. Three series – 39 episodes – of crime and punishment. Mostly crime. I found it terrifically watchable but deeply disturbing.

     The credits tell us this is “based on characters from Red Dragon by Thomas Harris”, but the “Tooth Fairy”, the family-slayer from that book, doesn’t appear till the last few episodes of Series Three. The first thirty-plus hours introduce other killers, other crimes – and, of course, Hannibal whose crimes are sometimes attributed to others.

     The ill-fated Florence detective and Mason Verger (and his sister) (from Harris’s third book) are featured, and there are scenes augmented from Hannibal Rising, Book Four – the “prequel”. Conspicuously absent is Clarice Starling and the whole storyline from Silence of the Lambs. Clarice is replaced by some new female characters, including Gillan Anderson as a shrink who is close to Hannibal and also close to psychosis herself.

     The big liberty taken in this version is that Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) is working with Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) at the FBI as a consultant; he’s also Will’s psychotherapist. We, the viewers, are shown his killer/cannibal side, but it takes a while for the others to catch on to the viper in their bosom. Will Graham bonds with Hannibal and learns what happens when the moth gets too close to the flame.

     Production values are high and the cast, down to the supporting players, are all on top form. Mikkelsen’s Hannibal is a lot creepier than Anthony Hopkins’s near-pantomime baddie. The screenwriters have pushed the envelope way beyond the Tooth Fairy (and even the absent Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs) to introduce their own bevy of serial slayers. Bryan Fuller is credited as creator/producer, so I guess this gore-fest is what he set out to achieve. One killer in the first series turns bodies and body parts into totem poles. This I found genuinely nauseating. This show takes us close to torture porn, of which we see increasing amounts on TV and in the cinema. I worry that this kind of thing gives nourishment to already sick minds.

     Yes, I found the whole 39 episodes relentlessly compelling – apart from a few longueurs (Dancy’s breakdown is over-extended and Anderson’s character becomes tiresome). But I think it’s time we reappraised the current definition of what is classed as Suitable Viewing.

 

(I watched this on DVD, but it’s also available on Amazon Prime)

Dinner at Hannibal’s. Who’s on the menu?