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"If these walls could talk..."
When a group of high-spirited young American war correspondents arrived home from France in 1919, they celebrated with lunch at Manhattan's Algonquin Hotel, fitting comfortably round a little table for eight. That table would soon acquire an enduring legend to match the Café Royal of Oscar Wilde and Frank Harris. One after another, the new luminaries of the Twenties - Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman - found it to be their spiritual home, and it became virtually the canteen of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker.
Sumptuous entertainment it was not; many of the regulars were short of money (Vanity Fair paid peanuts). But the hotel manager had a soft spot for good writers, and the admission ticket was wit - the more savage and spontaneous, the better. At any moment, the table might become the scene of a verbal jousting tournament, and it was only a matter of time before someone dubbed it The Vicious Circle.
How it could have survived ten years without blowing apart seems amazing. But we should remember that Prohibition was in force throughout that decade (though frequently ignored: President Harding was serving alcohol in the White House), and it seems that only one of the twenty or so Algonquins mentioned here was a heavy drinker. We're not talking Hemingway or Scott Fitzgerald - both notably absent from the round table. But the film unaccountably leaves out any mention of food and drink, or anything else about the legendary hotel and restaurant.
Also, behind the professional rivalries, the Algonquin set do actually seem to have been fairly agreeable and well-adjusted people, though happy marriages are a bit thin on the ground. So for example, the civilised Marx Brother, Harpo, was welcomed in, while Groucho was not (apparently chafing about it, in defiance of his famous philosophy about clubs!)
In the end, the film rests mostly on fairly conventional interviews, with sons and daughters of the original set, spiced with some lively home movies (silent, of course) backed with rather too much of those predictably loud Charleston numbers we have come to expect.
Heart and soul and sadness
This video opens on Joan Baez answering a question we didn't quite catch, but was probably asking her to define her role in the world. She replied "A human being first, an activist second and an entertainer third." I have learned to mistrust "human being" as a code for "Sit properly in church", and to me Joan fails the driving test with that particular opening phrase.
Her plea for non-violence and world brotherhood may have swayed some of the biggest crowds ever assembled, but it is doubtful whether the message has filtered through to many of today's genocidal dictators or chuckling drug-barons. Still, the devil always does have the best tunes, and these will outlive her polemics by a long way.
You can listen happily to 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' without questioning why she appears to be sentimentalizing the slave-owning Confederacy, while refusing to sing to segregated southern audiences. It's plain, for example, that a troubled visit to Hanoi cured her sharply of her illusions about that people's paradise behind the iron curtain - perhaps a clue to her own summing-up of her quality: 'Heart and soul and sadness'. But if it blurred her beliefs, it did nothing to touch the huge conviction with which she sang. To this day, the pitch-pure tremolo just keeps washing over us and we can forgive her anything.
Fatally beautiful, she has somehow managed to live a full love-life without alienating her lovers. Her romance with Bob Dylan - so brief, so intense - largely stimulated her move across from blues into folk, and it was a richly productive partnership. Bob talks freely about it here, as does her husband David Harris about the jail sentence he served for draft-dodging, which originally bonded them. With this whirligig background, you might expect her only child Gabe to have grown up as a problem-kid, which he hasn't at all. Mother and son actually sing a duet at the close of the programme, where the harmony between them is unmistakeable.
Documentaries about Scott Fitzgerald tend to be more entertaining than revealing. We get the usual Roaring Twenties treatment, with Scott and Zelda dancing on taxi-roofs and diving into fountains, and then the depression years, with Zelda in a mental home and Scott sinking into alcoholic oblivion.
This one, directed and written by DeWitt Sage, is a triumph of new insight and creative theming. As Scott always wrote essentially about himself, we are given some important clues about where he came from, both geographically and spiritually. His family were relatively prosperous Irish, living at the end-house of a fashionable street, with less salubrious neighbours hovering nearby. He was brought up on a favourite nursery-story about big animals fighting small ones, and his sympathies were firmly with the small ones. He remained acutely conscious of class distinctions and the feelings of those shut-out from higher circles. Once, nearly twice, he was debarred from marrying a girl from an upper shelf, on class grounds alone. This did not make him a victim (he was on his way to Princeton), and his chronic self-pity seems misplaced. But significantly it was he who claimed "The rich are different from you and me" and the more thick-skinned Hemingway who just answered "Yes, they have more money".
The attempt at recording first-hand memories of spoilt county-belle Zelda from elderly townsfolk in Montgomery, Alabama, does not really come off. And there is far too much from a self-absorbed neighbour of theirs from when Zelda was first institutionalised in Baltimore, apparently wanting to trade on her friendship with their only daughter Scottie.
Better by far are the academics with their distilled views about Scott and his dreams that did indeed turn wintry. One of them thinks he could see a crack of daylight in his final days, living with a supportive young partner (Sheilah Graham) who seemed to be getting him back on the rails. But he was too far gone in drink, and died just one year before Pearl Harbour - the supreme irony. Because it was a low-cost paperback edition of Gatsby that the government published for the troops that suddenly and unexpectedly touched a nerve in thousands of Americans far from home, and brought fame to the author on a scale he had never known in his lifetime, and which has not subsided even now.
Good casting, lousy script
Like most Hollywood bio-pics, this one makes agreeable wallpaper - a more-or-less truthful chronicling of a filmstar's career against an evocative period backdrop, that does not enable great dramatic effects.
The opening words are symptomatic of the limp script: "I was just 26 years old when I arrived on the rugged shores of California...The year was 1935." They should have binned that quite needless footnote and cut straight to "Are you Flynn? We're all waiting for you. The director's mad as hell!", referencing his eternal upsetting of other people's lives, while always able to charm his way through.
Flynn is played by an enthusiastic Duncan Regehr, tall and handsome enough to carry the part, but lacking the aggression and the devilish guile of the original, so for example the fight scenes are embarrassingly artificial, as are the attempts at replicating the drunken carousing. More convincing by far is Hal Linden as studio boss Jack Warner (of Warner Brothers), locked in a constant elbow-game with Flynn over money. And Lee Purcell makes a remarkably lifelike and suitably demure Olivia de Havilland.
Less well-cast is Barbara Hershey as Flynn's French wife Lily Damita, while other figures like Bette Davis and Raoul Walsh have little more than walk-ons. And it gets irritating to hear about "a new bandleader called Benny Goodman" or the mention of Clark Gable winning the part of Rhett Butler.
One early glimpse of Flynn's health problems is significant (in a rather hammy collapse into a chair), as we learn that he is malarial as well as helplessly alcoholic and a chain-smoker, having to be rejected for war service at thirty. It is one irony of his career that his genuine swashbuckling days were long behind him by the time he reached Hollywood, and it was the camera, not Flynn, that had to be quick and nimble enough to create the famous effects.
Finally, they just had to feature the old story of John Barrymore's corpse being left propped up in Flynn's house, to frighten him when he got home from a bender. Proved apocryphal, on investigation.
The Stench of the Mob
Shooting yourself through the eye is not the commonest form of suicide. And when you fail to pay protection for years on end, you take a risk that tends to make suicide unnecessary. Especially in 60's Soho, where every cop was in the pay of the gangs, and gambling had just become legal, as personally supervised by Meyer Lansky who was there to make sure the mafia machine was running smoothly. It was no place for an honest club owner.
So when Britain's favourite boxer Freddie Mills was found dead in the back of his car with a converted fairground rifle beside him, it suited a lot of people when his death was hastily ruled a suicide, in a case that appears more scandalously full of holes every time you look at it. "The police didn't want any fuss" someone remarked - a smooth, oily comment that just reeks of cover-up.
Freddie is sometimes called the first celebrity boxer, welcomed into grand showbiz parties and on to various TV shows, largely because of his cheerful personality and that wide spontaneous smile. "Happiest man I ever met", "Fun guy", "Not a quitter". These are the responses you get from his family and friends, who rejected the suicide theory with derision. (His stepson actually said it looked "stage managed").
But that famous smile was not the whole man. There are plenty of clips of his triumphs in the ring, like the 1948 re-match against Lesnevich, which made him the first British light-heavyweight champion of the world for half a century. Yet we don't get a glimpse of the famous close-up of Freddie facing an opponent with his head down like a charging bull, the Frankenstein forehead accentuated, eyes full of death. People said that Ronnie Kray had the most frightening face in London. I would place him second to Freddie any day.
Too rich to be ethical
Until Dr. Conrad Murray's trial for the manslaughter of Michael Jackson, he had never been accused of medical malpractice (though he had been accused of plenty else) and his record as a cardiologist appeared unblemished. But once he became Jackson's live-in doctor, everything went into ragtime.
Ever since the singer had been charged with molesting children, his fairy-tale image had been tarnished and his career was floundering. Only a world tour could revive his fortunes, and this had been duly sold-out in advance. But Jackson's chronic insomnia needed an urgent fix, and Murray unwisely administered propofol, strictly illegal except by anaesthetists in a hospital environment. When Jackson died, only minutes later, propofol was found to be the chief cause of death.
We are reminded of Elvis, whose bodyguards spent less time fending-off assassins than they did squaring the cops over where the king's uppers and downers might have been procured. And this is the main interest of the film, a peep into that rarefied zone above the clouds, where nobody queues-up for prescriptions, and the wonderful world of pharmaceuticals is yours to play games with.
Jackson, of course, was playing games till the end, lamenting openly that he'd never had a childhood, only a relentless dance-training by a brutal disciplinarian of a father that would be both his making and his breaking. Jackson himself had long been a racial enigma, the most successful black singer in history (possibly the most successful of any race), obsessively turning himself white for no apparent purpose. And if you didn't look too close, Murray could be a role model for black youth - the slum-kid from Port of Spain who makes it to university and then private practice.
But this film shows Murray to be a badly divided man. At times, his dialogue can sound sharp and convincing. At others, it breaks down altogether into disjointed half-statements, as though he's back on the pavement. Meanwhile his testimony in court is alarmingly flawed. At the moment when he should have been trying to save Jackson's life, it turns out that he was on the phone, chatting-up a waitress he'd met the night before. Her own testimony, based on what she'd managed to overhear during that phone-call, formed part of the prosecution's successful case. And to think that Jackson selected Murray because he needed someone to trust.
Masters of Money: Keynes (2012)
Economics with a human face
For most people, John Maynard Keynes is identified with the antics of the Bloomsbury group far more strongly than he is with economic theory. If they think of Keynesianism at all, it is only to dismiss it as sloppy housekeeping, unsound borrowing with a whiff of the Marxist planned economy about it.
This is one of many ironies about Keynes, who was actually a keen capitalist, but who saw the dangers of laissez-faire, and believed in timely government investment where it would stimulate a 'multiplier' effect, or what we call the trickle-down. It was his work at the Treasury in World War I that brought home to him the interdependence of national economies, causing him to oppose the punitive fines demanded of Germany, which that starving nation could not begin to pay off. In his book 'The Economic Consequences of the Peace', he predicted a breakdown of government and possibly another world war.
Stephanie Flanders is the ideal choice for this one-hour profile of Keynes. She is recognisably a product of St. Paul's School, whose training always shows up well in female presenters - brisk and articulate, with that nimble and appealing diction, but a dress-down makeover that signals the underlying feminism at the heart of the culture. Her facial expressions are as eloquent as her words, with subtle nuances that enrich many an argument.
We can't immediately understand why she wants to take us on a car-rally in Cumbria, until we see that those lightning manoeuvres are made possible only by heavy-duty tyres manufactured in Carlisle by Pirelli, who have just been persuaded to remain in the UK by means of a Keynesian handout. On a larger scale, the world's biggest solar energy plant has just cost the American government nearly a trillion dollars, which we only hope it can recoup.
Flanders tries to figure-out what Keynes would make of some modern situations. (The sub-prime crisis and 2008 crash were front-of-mind when this film was made.) For example, the fate of the corrupt Greek economy, waiting to be baled out by powerful Germany, where the boot is now on the other foot. Could history be repeating itself?
Keynes's unique insight came from realising that economies were not purely mechanical. They were part-human, with an irrational element that he called 'animal spirits', which can be seen in spontaneous optimism or pessimism that defies logic. But infallible he was not. He almost bankrupted himself speculating too early against the German mark. And his forecasts managed to overlook a little thing called the Wall Street crash of '29, in which he lost almost everything.
The James Dean Story (1957)
Day of the Anti-Hero
Dying young is always a smart career move, and never more so than by James Dean after his astonishingly short career of just six months the lot. We can too easily imagine this petulant, self-absorbed problem-kid living on into the Sixties and boring the pants off us with protest and psycho-babble. But his glory days - so brief, so intense - came and went at just the right moment, when audiences were needing a rest from too much conventional virility in their screen heroes. The idea of an angry teenager hiding a sensitive, vulnerable side seemed to intrigue many. There is no doubt that it touched the maternal in female viewers. And after Dean's dramatic death, many young males liked to see themselves as enigmatic figures with tragedy hovering. (Scriptwriter Stewart Stern even picks up a hint of emotional blackmail: "It could happen to me too, Mom.")
Stern also points out that Dean's origins in the small-town Indiana of cornfields and prairie did not exactly chime with that tortured personality that seemed so metropolitan, like the Actor's Studio from which he promptly dropped out. The clunking interviews with locals who remember the boy next door (generally fondly) were plainly rehearsed, and the extensive use of still pictures instead of the expected movie-clips does nothing to raise the production values, whatever Stern may have meant by "dynamic exploration of the still photograph".
One of these stills shows a school report, where his temporary enthusiasm for art is acknowledged, alongside another reference to Safety Driving Training - ironical indeed, as is his brief involvement in a documentary movie about car safety. On that sensitive topic, I was surprised not to hear the widely-credited story of Alec Guinness warning him of a premonition that Dean would shortly die in an accident if he continued to drive that new Porsche. It happened in a week.
Rock Hudson (1990)
In Hollywood's Gay Corridors
This is the drama of a film studio looking to make endless millions out of its top male star, just as long as word doesn't get out that he's gay. It's certainly a measure of Rock Hudson's fame that they were willing to throw two other stars to the wolves in a desperate deal with a gossip columnist to keep the lid on it all.
The main mover and shaker is Rock's agent, Henry Willson, played by a well-cast Andrew Robinson, whose office was known to be a nest of scheming gays, including Willson, whose lesbian secretary Phyllis was ordered to marry Rock, purely to damp-down the rumours. That part of the story is left out, however, since the film is based on Phyllis's own memoirs, written soon after Rock's death from AIDS. Instead the three-year marriage is presented as a non-stop honeymoon with the love-birds canoodling in a dozen romantic locations, and brought to an end only when he attacks her in a drunken rage. (Check the only interview she ever gave, with Larry King. You'll see something very unlike the wholesome Daphne Ashbrook who plays her here.)
Otherwise the casting is unremarkable, as is the narrative, especially some quite unnecessary newsreel footage to signal that we're moving from the discreet Fifties into the disquieting Sixties.
Mere nostalgia, too cheap for these stars
If you're just wanting another rendering of 'Chattanooga Choo-choo' or 'Taking a Chance on Love', you don't need to waste Judi Dench, Cleo Laine or Ian Holm on such cheap fare.
It's basically a 'Where are they now?' story about the reunion of a wartime girl band, The Blonde Bombshells, who've gone their very different ways, and whom the Judi character wants to present at her grand-daughter's school dance.
As for how they re-convene after fifty years, it all looks rather contrived. The recently widowed Judi wants to go back to playing the saxophone, and finds herself busking in the street, where the one (transvestite) male member of the group just happens to turn up. Played by Ian Holm, this nauseating character is a bankrupt car-thief who dodged the war by pretending to be a woman, but likes to show off his Military Cross, which he had simply acquired from a gutter drunk. But he plays the drums well enough to be accepted by the team, and seduces all of them, except Judi.
Along the way, we get Olympia Dukakis on fine form as a trumpeter and vocalist, June Whitfield as a Salvation Army bandleader, apparently too holy to play jazz (the devil's music), and our last-ever glimpse of Joan Sims ("The more we rehearse, the worse we sound!"), only months before her sad, lonely alcoholic death. One of the few good touches is the choice of Romola Garai as a very realistic Judi when young.
Sure enough Judi marries the Ian Holm character at last, against the wishes of her family, and reminds the school audience that the band-members are not old people, they're just people who've been young for rather a long time - 'Blonde Bombshells of the Third Age'.
Premier Division social climbers
Cockney-cop turned private detective finds himself investigating the moneyed elite of Chelsea. That could have been a predictable culture-clash comedy, with Nicholas Ball as a poor man's Michael Caine, but Thames Television surpassed themselves with this episode - a subtle interweaving of snobbery and reverse-snobbery, baffling and amusing in equal parts to outsider Hazell.
A trust-fund daughter is about to celebrate her 18th birthday, and her parents have received an anonymous letter warning them to check-out her fiancé Jonathan. At the detective agency, Hazell is sent off to meet the mother, a well-kept beauty whose discreet randiness drives the plot in an unexpected way. Jonathan appears to be a straightforward Hooray Henry, disdainful of Hazells's lack of savoir-faire at the party - for example, the only one wearing a dinner-jacket (too bourgeois for Cheyne Walk), and having to be shown how to use a pepper-mill. As Hazell has been told to pretend he's interested in joining Jonathan's property scheme, however, the two of them have to make small-talk, and find they've got things in common, as Hazell reminds him: "In your world, you do it with a writ. In mine, we do it with a boot." We can't reveal more, but you'll hardly be surprised when Jonathan turns out to be not all he seems.
All the cast are able to carry conviction, except for the girl's father, who is too much of a boardroom stuffed-shirt, and the agency receptionist who speaks her one-liner "Vulgarity is making a comeback" without any sincerity or spontaneity. As always with Hazell, it's the dialogue that swings it - not a word wasted, not a cliché to be heard, many of the scenes ending on a terse little phrase, witty and wicked, that you could miss if you weren't listening out.
Real shame that Nicholas Ball should have delivered his ultimatum to the producers after just two seasons, demanding that future episodes must be made on film, not video, and then found the door shut in his face.
Running from Crazy (2013)
Being a Hemingway
"I never finished High School".
That is perhaps the most significant line in this investigation into the Hemingway Curse (to me, no less imaginary than the Kennedy Curse). We are seeing what happens when a celebrity teenager runs wild before her mind has been suitably furnished by sensible academic tuition. The hippie drivel just keeps gushing out, with random thoughts often clashing and contradicting, and hardly a complete sentence to be heard.
As the youngest daughter by seven years, Mariel is convinced that she was an unwanted arrival in the home of Ernest's alcoholic son Jack. That is an example of the self-absorbed outlook of Mariel and her sister Margaux (her name jokingly re-spelt for a premium claret). According to Mariel, both her elder sisters were sexually abused by Jack, with Margaux remaining abnormally in love with him. And the victim-points just keep mounting up and up...
Before Margaux's fatal overdose at 42, she had also started to assemble a video along the same lines, and parts of it pop-up here, rather confusingly to those of us who may initially have trouble telling the two sisters apart. "I don't think I had a childhood" says one of them against a blurry image that could have been either, the editing itself being distinctly hippie and chaotic. We also can't quite see which of them is holding one end of the matador's cape in a pathetic bullring stunt with a tiny calf.
But we can soon see that Margaux's history is the more tragic. "There was all this coke around..." she proclaims triumphantly at one point. When she comes out of the Betty Ford Clinic, announcing that she's never felt better in her life, we can see this for the hollow boast that it is.
The pilgrimage to Ernest's remote desert cabin is conducted like a disorganised student joyride, with silly reflections about wild scenery, a predictable breakdown in the middle of nowhere, and an unexplained sequence of Mariel climbing a near-vertical rockface. Only the close-ups of the gravestones carry some emotional force. Apparently visitors always leave a bottle of Jack Daniel's on Ernest's tomb, while Margaux's carries the ambiguous legend 'Free Spirit Freed'.
If the Hemingways do have a history of mental illness, Mariel seems to have defied it with the upbringing of her two daughters, who seem refreshingly sane and well-adjusted. As for her plans to discourage the stigma of suicide by working with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, we can only watch and wait.
Less than meets the eye
There could never be a great film about Stevie Smith; the poet is simply too small, silly and self-absorbed, like her work - just the kind of poetry that seems to win awards, as hers did twice.
But smallness is the strength of this film, and its economy has been praised by many. Most of the action (mainly talk, in fact) takes place in one modest suburban front parlour, between Stevie and her deeply unpoetic Yorkshire aunt, played by Mona Washbourne, who comes a little too close to caricature, and does not quite measure up to Glenda Jackson, Trevor Howard or Alec McCowen, who comprise the rest of the minimal cast. Even at that, the two males are only allowed on-board as fringe-characters, McCowen as the hopeful young suitor Freddy, doomed to disappointment, and Howard as a mystery figure, known only as The Man, presumably an ex-lover, who recites a few of her poems with deep sincerity.
These poems display little virtue (rather like a poor man's Edith Sitwell), but they reveal an unusually deep preoccupation with death, alongside a confused and childish protest against middle-class values, as deeply embedded in the aunt's character. Her coining of the phrase 'Not waving but drowning' may yet survive as her epitaph.
Jackson carries full conviction as Stevie, having to act the same person from schooldays onwards, so we don't always know what age and stage we're at. She talks as though she's still in her teens when she visits Berlin with a German boyfriend at the beginning of the Nazi era, by which time Stevie would have been into her thirties.
Meanwhile she treats death as another character in the story, apparently welcoming the certainty of his arrival, and Howard reports that she died, unable to speak, but circling one word on a sheet of paper. The word was 'Death'.
In Depth: Melanie Phillips (2013)
Zeal of the convert
By titling her memoirs 'Guardian Angel', Melanie Phillips has pre-empted the ridicule that commonly greets that sneering term for a liberal thinker. For she is the liberal thinker who got mugged by reality, moving from her job as News Editor of the Guardian to the other extreme, the right-wing tabloid Daily Mail, middle-Britain fodder, grounded in reality, as she came to realise. Like a plague-nurse, she needed to survive the disease of socialism in order to become immune to it. And her conversion has left her zealous indeed.
She talks fondly and respectfully of her Jewish upbringing, whose sensible disciplines show up unmistakably in her speech and manner (spoilt by just one hippie giveaway, the habit of repeating "And you know what?"). Her choice of journalism as a career seems to have been a quest for truth, something she values deeply. It was her feeling that truth was being compromised by the hard-left arguments of her Guardian colleagues - starting with a belief, and then looking around for evidence that might fit it - that caused her to cross the floor.
Whether or not because of her racial background, she reserves special loathing for the 'theocratic authority' of Islam, whipping-up anti-Jewish feeling in order to distract attention from abuses like FGM, among many others (though she admits that many muslims are not islamists). Thus 'Londonistan', nothing less than a terrorist state within.
Again, perhaps with a rear-mirror glance at her own good schooling, she despairs at a teaching culture that dismisses grammar as racist, or demonstrates sexual positions to nine-year olds, along with entry-level drug lessons, turning-out premature adults whose childhood has been fatally denied them.
In a rather puzzling short passage, she mentions two separations that have caused her grief: one from her own family and one from her political family. We are left to interpret these for ourselves (or buy the book, of course!). Presumably the first would have been something to do with her student-rebel phase. And the second would have been her resignation from the Guardian, leaving many friends who would be friends no longer. Still, she hasn't given up on truth-seeking. She tells us that she is optimist enough to believe that truth eventually wins, and the tyrants will be overthrown.
Meanwhile it is not just 'Guardian Angel' that gets a 3-hour free plug, but her other eight books too, since all of them relate to her life-story - each of the front-covers given generous exposure (free advertising, but why not?), while the unseen phone-in callers are making their contribution under the admirably tight supervision of Peter Slen.
In Depth: Heather Mac Donald (2019)
Slowly seeing through socialism
It seems only yesterday that women and ethnics were claiming they had to be twice as good as white males to achieve the same rank in the workplace. Now apparently it's the white male who has to be twice as good, in order to get a job at all.
This programme marks the publication of 'The Diversity Delusion' by Heather Mac Donald (three words, not a misprint), a prominent conservative lecturer and broadcaster, who ends up telling us less about the book than she does about her own personal odyssey through various shades of political opinion.
At school in L.A., where conservatives were treated like lepers, she couldn't help absorbing the yeah-man hippie culture, where Big D for Diversity was the answer to all the world's ills. She then got caught up in Deconstruction, a leftish philosophy whose over-emphasis on analysing words and meanings seriously inhibited the appreciation of classical literature that she had acquired at Cambridge. And in due course, reality dawned, as she realised that diversity rhetoric was just a tactic for establishing race and gender quotas and the celebration of victimhood, a contest to be top victim. Every time she praised a college for its open, unbigoted attitudes, she found it was taken amiss. The victim-narrative had to be maintained, the pantomime villains kept in the picture.
The actual road to Damascus seems to have been her visit to Claremont-McKenna College, where she was barred from entry by a student mob, enraged by her book 'The War on Cops', which questioned the basis of Black Lives Matter and suggested that the large black jail population may not have been chiefly caused by racist law enforcement.
With a passion, she asserts the value of diligent study, and notes the perjorative 'acting white' label, which discourages many good habits of scholarship and citizenship. One by one, she demolishes cherished left-wing beliefs, convincingly proving that welfare bureaucracy (deliberately) makes large numbers feel helpless; it was radical feminists who legitimised single-mum culture; pregnancy tourism is abusing the right of citizenship for those born in the US; and yes, we do need that Mexican wall.
As always on the Book Programme, the self-effacing Peter Slen keeps up the pace, a man whose few words manage to keep the programme on-course and on schedule better than many a more loquacious anchor.
Did they, didn't they?
We can't quite tell whether this film is meant to be a love-story against a war background, or a war-story with a romantic sub-plot. The two themes appear to compete for dominance, rather to its cost.
The two star-roles are General Dwight D. Eisenhower and his English (actually Irish) driver and secretary Kay Summersby, who were the subject of rumours that remain unconfirmed to this day. Her memoirs were as discreet and unrevealing as you would expect in 1948, before the war propaganda had had time to wear-off, especially as Ike was still alive. But after his death, she started writing a new version called 'Past Forgetting', apparently wanting to correct the record before she herself succumbed to cancer. The trouble was that her mind was going, and the story had to be finished by a ghost writer. How much was truth, and how much was catchpenny fiction, we can't tell. But as for "Did they, didn't they?", the answer seems to be "They wanted to, but didn't... quite."
The film appears to make a vague reference to the non-event, when Ike says "I was about to make a damn fool of myself. Call it battle fatigue." Perhaps we can take this as a code for "I did make a damn fool of myself".
Either way, there is no doubting the depth of feeling on both sides, and in a rather contrived farewell scene where the two of them are watching Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence singing 'I'll see you again' (featuring the lines 'Time may lie heavy between/But what has been/Is past forgetting'), the emotional force is powerful indeed.
Their touching personal story, however, is rather too drowned-out by endless stock footage of D-Day and the Normandy campaign. Still, their performances are masterly, Robert Duvall big and confident, and Lee Remick surprising us with her realistic English accent. Of the rest of the cast, Ian Richardson looks fully mad enough to be Montgomery, but replicates his accent so convincingly that it can actually sound a little too like mimicking, and Vernon Dobtcheff makes a suitably lofty and chilly De Gaulle.
The dialogue by Melville Shavelson is the best from any war film of its kind. When Monty asks Ike not to smoke, he adds "Is that an unreasonable request?", and Ike replies "No, it's the only reasonable remark you've made all morning." George Patton had famously declared "Brave men don't cry" to excuse the slapping of a teenage soldier in Sicily. When Ike forgives him and offers him command of the Third Army, it's Patton's turn to weep with emotion, and Ike gently reminds him "You see? Brave men do cry." So it comes as a let-down when Ike is made to say "For starters...", an irritating 70's cliché. Monty is referenced as Lieutenant-General, when he'd been a full General for some months. And dialogue apart, the scene where Ike visits Belsen in May 1945 is confusingly (and jarringly) captioned 1944.
Inside 'Dr. No' (2000)
Not many films are good enough to have films made about them.
The creation of 'Dr. No' is a vivid piece of social history, full of the brutal irreverence of the 60's, yet with its roots in a social scene about as remote as you could get from the antics of 007.
At 44 (not 41 as they state), Etonian journalist Ian Fleming had to do the decent thing, after breaking up the marriage of Lady Rothermere by making her pregnant. Profoundly jittery about the prospect of marriage, he decided to soothe his nerves by sitting down and producing the great spy novel he'd always boasted about, but had never got round to writing. The first James Bond story sold only moderately, but attracted a core of readers who asked about the next one. Each Bond sold more than the last, and two film producers, Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, felt so certain they were looking at a future hit-series that they didn't offer the part to their first choice Cary Grant, because they knew he would never commit to more than one film.
So they changed tack and interviewed actors who were experienced but unknown, selecting Sean Connery, apparently because Broccoli's wife said he would pack-in the female audience. Fleming had a poor first impression of street-kid Connery, who could see the other man only as a patronising snob. But both were professional enough to change their attitude, as they started to see the possibilities. The key factor was director Terence Young as a one-man finishing-school, who would convert Connery into a polished sophisticate. Connery's upper-class accent is a very good try, but may have encouraged the casual one-liners that would not place it under too much of a test. These would became a favourite stylistic of 60's spy films.
And so, the cast took off for Jamaica on a schedule so tight that they often had to work on Sundays. For her iconic beach scene, emerging from the surf, Ursula Andress had to be plastered all over in makeup, as she had no suntan, and cut herself badly on the coral. Her German accent was also too heavy, so her speech had to be dubbed. But one besotted admirer was Ian Fleming himself, by then a dying man, who lived half the year in Jamaica, and had a deep knowledge of the country. This would add authentic local touches to the production.
To this day, that opening logo, with Bond viewed through the rifled barrel of a revolver, retains its impact, along with the immortal John Barry theme tune that went with it. Audiences knew they were watching something entirely fresh and inspiring in cinema history - except Fleming, who loathed the film, and was heard muttering about it as he left.
In Depth: Nick Adams (2017)
Green Card Mischief
Australia attracts so many applicants for citizenship that thousands of them now have to be marooned on a remote island if they don't measure up. Yet from this sunny and ideally liveable continent, social commentator Nick Adams makes it his life's mission to escape. Oz, he declares, 'aspires to mediocrity rather than greatness' (tall poppy syndrome), thinks patriotism is for rednecks, and prefers life to be 'measured by small steps'.
America, where he longs to live, appears to be within reach, since he has qualified for a fast-lane version of the Green Card ('Extraordinary Ability'). Even at that rate, the application has to pass through several lengthy stages, with expensive legal teams needing payment, irrespective of the result. And then - unaccountably - the Australian authorities recommend that it should be revoked. His American lawyers are staggered, saying it's unheard-of. Suspicion points to a gay liberal in the consulate who just doesn't like sober-suited churchgoing Conservative thinkers. But at long last, the obstacle is cleared, and Adams arrives in the land of the free - with such intense relief that he writes a best-selling book: 'Green Card Warrior'.
Adams is full of praise for American 'exceptionalism', no doubt partly because his life had been saved as a small child, when an American doctor performed a high-risk operation against official medical advice. But he feels that exceptionalism is under threat from the huge left-wing ascendancy that came with the rise of mass higher education. Social media is drenched in socialism, and its sloppy stylistics are 'a conspiracy against the articulate'. Having grown up on the Enid Blyton stories, he loathes the way that librarians have forced new PC versions on today's children. He even dares to question the holy grail of diversity ("If you believe in everything, you believe in nothing.") To him, it is unity that has made America great, and which is more worthwhile striving for. But he sees signs that Middle America, with its small-town individualism, may be waking up at last.
These three-hour sessions with Peter Slen on the C-SPAN channel are expertly stage-managed, with Slen's concise dialogue keeping up the pace, the first half being the interview, leading on to a phone-in. One caller is a retired California cop, who observed the sad truth about welfare claimants, that half of them are uncaught criminals. Another lady mis-dialled, but thought the programme sounded so good that she stayed online anyway! Although it's called a book show, it's the authors, rather than their works, that are the topic, though the front-covers manage to get quite a lot of sly exposure all the same.
Keeper of the Flame
Hard to think what today's Rad-Fems would make of Libbie Custer, widow of a famous soldier whose fame had been largely fabricated by her, through fifty years of energetic lobbying that revealed prodigious talents as a writer and publicist. A typical army wife she was not. Certainly her father, a circuit court judge, felt that his lovely, sophisticated daughter could have found someone better than this casual scruff who had just passed-out bottom of his class at West Point. Among other reservations, he mentioned that a soldier's life was liable to be short. He would be proved right on that.
But into that short life, George Custer packed a lot. Only a year or so into his commission, he was brevetted Brigadier General, and headed-off Pickett's historic charge at Gettysburg. Marriage to Libbie was then promptly sanctioned. From their many surviving letters, there can be no doubt of the depth and intensity of the romance, and Libbie made clear her intention of travelling alongside the army (even causing Phil Sheridan to break his rule about no wives in the front line).
When she was forced to stay apart from him during one desert campaign, he actually abandoned his post to be with her, and was promptly relieved of his command for a year. Her biographer, the astute Shirley Leckie, comments that this may not have been pure uxorious devotion. For ironically, he had also instructed her to use her famous charms on men of influence, to further his career. And word had reached him that she might have taken this injunction too literally. (The consensus is not.)
But in fact, they were seldom apart for long. And the day came when she would join him in North Dakota, where gold had been discovered, and the Sioux Indians would have to be removed willy-nilly, in breach of solemn treaties. Was it just hindsight when she claimed she'd had a premonition that this would be the end, the 7th Cavalry riding off to their death, eager and glorious?
For fifty years, this would be the theme. As long as this indomitable widow still lived, nobody dared question the legend she had so carefully built up. Custer, saviour of Gettysburg and the Union. Custer flaunting those outlandish costumes in battle, with his long flaxen hair flung over his shoulder. Custer who had brought back the full-blooded cavalry charge with its blood-curdling yells, so terrifying, so inspiring.
Yet by the end of her long life, Libbie had actually started to question the legend herself, finally admitting "The American Indians were deeply wronged." That theme has certainly seen wide exposure since then. And other claims too have started to peel away the propaganda. The debts he left, after gambling on the stock market with 'money that was not his own'. A secret marriage to a Cheyenne woman, probably leaving two children. Even the accusation by President U.S. Grant that Custer's Last Stand itself had been a tactical blunder of the first magnitude. (But note how Grant's talent for deflecting blame has only come to light in recent years.)
Only a few quibbles. The programme was meant to be part of a series called 'The Real West', introduced by Kenny Rogers, but a voiceover keeps announcing "We now return to 'Famous Women'." One of the commentators, Arlene Killian, is described as an author, but we're not told her connection with the Custers. And the big veterans' reunion hosted by President Taft was not the 25th but (for some reason) the 35th anniversary.
Married to the Air
The emotional landscape of a First Woman will always invite speculation. As the first woman to fly the Atlantic, Amelia Earhart was treated like something startlingly exotic, according to Gore Vidal, who once met her, and remembers whole crowds just standing and staring.
What they saw was a unique blend of masculine and feminine. Never glamorous (and not wanting to be), Earhart exerted a most potent charm through her confident, engaging way of speaking and her indomitable character, edged with humour. But she was, at least partially, a creature of her own Svengali, the publisher George Putnam, who promoted her to huge effect and eventually became her husband, though not before she had served him with a pre-nup, disavowing the fidelity clause. Yet as no other romances seem to have come to light, it is fair to assume that she was effectively married to that wide blue yonder, with all its perils and possibilities.
It was Putnam who saw that Earhart could provide the natural other-half to the Lindbergh legend ("Lady Lindy"), even noting that the two of them looked surprisingly similar wearing that particular headgear - as long as she concealed her gaptooth smile by keeping her lips closed. Especially in the dreary Depression years, Putnam was mindful of the impact this mysterious goddess could make by suddenly descending on yet another shore.
But behind the cheering crowds, the media frenzy, the ticker-tape parades, one curious fact is easily overlooked - that Earhart was not actually a very good pilot. Her instructor may have praised her smooth touch on the controls. And nobody ever doubted her coolness. But under the test, she turned out surprisingly careless, in particular in her casual attitude to radio communications. On her last and fatal journey, round the world from west to east, it seems that either a badly-connected antenna or a wrong frequency prevented the plane from receiving crucial messages from the coastguard vessel in mid-Pacific. (And I certainly wouldn't like to have been the ship's radio operator when he discovered that.)
Nor was she a good poet, as everyone wanted to believe she was. Her lines were musical enough to linger in the air. But what does she mean by "Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace"? (Significantly this film is titled 'The Price of Courage', reversing that phrase to make it a little more meaningful at least.)
In this American Experience production, the handful of people who remember her confirm that she had been suffering much mental and physical illness, and had been advised not to take on such a massive project. Also her marriage was breaking down, Putnam holding her to a punishing work-schedule, lucrative though it was, while one commentator said she detected "none of the warmth you expect in a happy marriage".
So she paid the ultimate price for her courage after all. But perhaps in the end, this strange loner-rebel-poet felt she'd done all she could. Suppose she'd completed that last tour. Where do you go after conquering the world? Her biographer Doris Rich believed that Earhart's life was one long restless challenge, defying the fates, taking her good luck for granted, and believing that an early death could be something glorious.
She was right there. For it turned her into the legend that she is. To this day, the wild theories continue to pop up, and every fragment of wreckage in the Pacific is declared to be from her plane. Was she spying for FDR? Did the Japanese capture her and turn her into Tokyo Rose? Did she become a banker in New Jersey, as some claimed? Or did she just settle for the hermit life on some island too remote to be spotted?
They still won't believe she's dead, even now. That's how you stay young for ever.
Did she know too much?
"But she can't be dead!"
It was the Princess Diana moment, when the adored young TV presenter, Jill Dando, suddenly wasn't there any more, as a shocked world clamoured for answers but got only conspiracy theories. This one rests on two rather narrow supports - a file of unproved corruption charges against MI5, and one man's particular interpretation of dialogue and body-language.
Dr. Larry O'Hara has made a career out of accusations about the security services, and here he draws together some random evidence about the London nail-bombings (carried out in the same week as Jill's murder), to suggest that MI5 deliberately allowed these to go ahead.
One of the cctv clips from the Brixton bombing shows that it was filmed separately from the rest, presumably from a nearby rooftop. To O'Hara, this indicates a feud between MI5 and Special Branch, especially when Jill briefly mentions it on her very last Crimewatch appearance, briefly rubbing her eye as she does so, while the uniformed detective standing beside her looks up somewhat abruptly and removes his glasses.
Well, that looks mighty suspicious to our host, established conspiracy theorist Richard D. Hall, so it is handed straight over to speech analyst Peter Hyatt, an expert in detecting lies and evasions in interviews. It is truly entertaining to hear Hyatt rationalising certain habits of speech that we wouldn't think twice about. 'Negative assertions' (answering a question that nobody has asked)... 'Passive-aggressive response'... 'Extremity of denials'... 'Embedded admissions'... That meaningless word 'basically', that can give away so much. Yet these fail to bring us any nearer to solving the case, and it's still hard to see what could have been the motive to wipe out Jill Dando.
That doesn't stop Hall giving us our money's worth, with other intriguing elements like Jill's prescient enquiries about Jimmy Savile, bereaved fiancé Alan Farthing's sudden appointment to a job in the Royal Household, and even a suggestion that the nail-bomber could have been a mind-control subject, like the Manchurian Candidate. But Hall should have known that the 'sweating man', seen acting suspiciously in the street, was in fact a harmless eccentric, who had recognised himself on the 'Wanted' posters, and handed himself in to the cops, who soon released him.
Blue Gold: World Water Wars (2008)
Whose water is it anyway?
Water is the new oil, apparently - a vital commodity, in dwindling supply, controlled by corporate business, so tightly that the people of Bolivia were recently threatened with jail for collecting rainwater. Until the government drove out the big bad barons, that is.
If you're wanting a pantomime version of our global ecosystem, this is the one, every cliché firmly in place. It starts in the first seconds, with a stock image of parched and cracked soil, a slow dripping-sound, and Malcolm McDowell announcing that "whoever goes without water for a week cries blood." To give him his due, McDowell has matured into quite a good voiceover artist, almost mistakeable for Richard Burton. But this does not make the message any more credible.
It is basically that water is a human right, that should be administered by 'the people' or the United Nations, and not the ruthless, corrupt private sector. We are encouraged to feel that water belongs to everyone, rather like the Native Americans who couldn't get their mind round the ownership of land. We hear the startling claim that corporate business is 'not subject to clear-cut performance requirements', which is, of course, the standard weakness of the public sector and the charities, providing all manner of temptations when money is left lying around.
If, like myself, you are liable to develop hydrology fatigue, you can assess the main arguments quite effectively by just sizing-up the human types you're looking at, like bored constituents at an election rally. Every professional hippie-rebel is here, with their standard cries, of which "We the people must become the water guardians of the 21st century" is entirely typical.
The solutions, when they arrive near the end, are just too irritatingly naïve. Turn off the tap while you brush your teeth... Don't have a lawn... This is kindergarden-logic, as though the whole world is a well-run classroom. But then comes a surprise. The small town of Bolinas, California, has had a true brainwave. No new houses to be built, no more population to be encouraged, beyond the capacity of the water-supply. At long last, a breath of common-sense. Rights carry responsibilities. Instead of demanding clean water as a human right, you go to where the water is clean, if you want to raise a family. But alas, Bolinas is depressingly alone in its wisdom, a strange recluse-village that can only be reached by unmarked roads, and dismissed as yet another kookie Californian experiment.
Rotten to the core
Even now, after half a century, most people still believe that Teddy Kennedy drove off the bridge at Chappaquiddick because he was unfamiliar with the local roads. Yet there are only three roads on the island, and his family had been visiting Martha's Vineyard for twenty years. The car was indeed driven off the bridge by someone unfamiliar with the roads, but that person was not Kennedy.
At breakfast next morning at his hotel in Edgartown, he was chatting to fellow-guests in a cheerful mood as he looked forward to watching the regatta. Suddenly two lawyers arrived and took him to his room, where a lot of shouting could be heard, and soon afterwards they all left in a hurry, Kennedy looking totally devastated. It was obviously the first he'd heard of the death of the young secretary Mary Jo Kopechne, whom he had escorted away from a party at a nearby cottage the night before.
In a state of panic, the lawyers unwisely coached him to make a damage-limiting claim that he had caused the accident, and then gallantly struggled to save the girl. But there was never a less convincing liar than Kennedy, and he would have been wiser to stick to the truth - that he had parked in the forest, to be alone with Mary Jo, but was approached by the local cop who wondered if he was lost. He then roared off at high speed, so as not to be caught in a compromising position, before handing the car over to Mary Jo. And it was that normally teetotal secretary, after a few drinks, who found the large Oldsmobile hard to handle, and made the fatal wrong turn.
The subsequent cover-up, and Kennedy's various changes of story, are as transparent as they are nauseating. How could Kennedy not have reported the accident for ten hours if he had caused it? Why did Mary Jo leave her handbag at the party, if she was off to catch the ferry? At that rate, after drinking on-and-off through the day, why did Kennedy not get his chauffeur to do the driving, as he was present at the party? Was Mary Jo not due to spend the night at the cottage anyway? Even the tides in the bay do not tally with some of the timings given by the Kennedy team. His loyal wife Joan miscarried when she heard the news. His ailing father no longer wanted to live, and turned his face to the wall. Yet incredibly Teddy was voted back as senator for Massachusetts for the rest of his life.
If anyone can present this case with force and conviction, it is Ian Holm, a narrator so engaging and involving that you could believe he was the investigator who uncovered the plot single-handed.
Comics Britannia: The Fun Factory (2007)
How kids love chaos
Not many would dispute the claim, made here, that the English children's comic is 'one of the great achievements of popular culture'.
From December 1937, when D.C. Thomson of Dundee launched the Dandy, this brand of entertainment became so addictive to its huge market that one of the commentators described it as the crack cocaine of its day. Within a year, the Dandy had been joined by the Beano, and then, after a little local difficulty called World War II, the larger-format Topper and Beezer. At the high point, each of them was selling up to two million a week.
To add to the mass of comic situations presented in the stories themselves, there were certain ironies about their publication. The house of D.C. Thomson was Scots-puritan in culture, about as far removed from the world of Desperate Dan or the Bash Street Kids as you could get. But it also displayed that other quality, rightly or wrongly attributed to the Scots, of being ever so slightly tight with a penny. The artists who had brought so much joy to the nation's young were viewed by their employers as the hired help, not entitled to any rights over their drawings, however often they were re-used. Indeed, only one of them was so highly-valued that he was allowed to sign his own work: Dudley D. Watkins, also, perhaps curiously, a religious puritan. Despite this, they remained passionately dedicated to turning out these endless cartoon-strips, two of them driving themselves into a breakdown.
In the limited time available, the commentators manage to pack-in quite a lot of sociological observation. The readers were assumed to be mostly from the slums, so for example, a slap-up meal represented an escapist dream. Yet the stories found favour a long way from the slums, as many public-schoolboys would testify. The top-hatted Lord Snooty was meant to be taken down a peg by the other characters, yet always made friends with them. And then, of course, the racist issue. 'Little Plum, Your Redskin Chum' may have sounded innocent enough to us, but his scriptwriters would be in bad trouble for that kind of humour today.
Depending how much help D.C. Thomson may have given the producers of this programme, I think they have presented these particular comics as rather more innovatory than they were. (Tiger Tim's Weekly, in similar style, dated from 1920.) And they even seem to be suggesting that they had devised the speech-balloon, which dates back at least as far as Regency days.
Still, it's good to touch hands with so many heartwarming memories from our childhood, even if the fun factory wasn't exactly a barrel of fun itself.
Drummer turned leader
If you feel that the story of Hitler's rise to fame has been done to death, try this new take on that familiar but horribly fascinating topic.
Unlike the standard treatments - basically old newsreel with the events narrated in a dull, mechanical style - this one is a drama with subtlety and depth, showing the chain of accidents by which the strange team came together, all of them somehow damaged individuals with a powerful need to compensate for something.
We know that Germany was wanting someone to blame for its devastating defeat in 1918. But behind this lay a deep psychological need for a national mythology, how to make a shocked and starving people feel that they could touch hands with the Teutonic legends. This was behind the renewed celebration of the Aryan race and the warning of a world conspiracy to pollute its pure blood. The theories were promoted by a respected author, Dietrich Eckart, whose political mouthpiece was a small, obscure group called the German Workers Party (DAP).
It was when a shabby little army corporal, Adolf Hitler, was sent to spy on the DAP that Ekhart realised he had found what was missing - a populist orator, who could articulate the gospel with stunning force and conviction. But Ekhart saw him as the drummer, not the leader. The Munich putsch of 1923 would show who was the leader, the morphine-addicted Ekhart succumbing to a heart-attack just weeks later.
This is the first of a 10-part series, immensely strengthened by the narration skills of Alisdair Simpson - clear, engaging and involving. He is able to dramatise the squalid brutality of it all, while also touching on some themes that were richer and nobler than those beer-hall punch-ups. I just wish the lighting team had done an equally good job with the pug-faced professor from the University of Leicester who is made to look so sinister that it seriously distracts from the perfectly sound insights that he contributes.