Television and cinema


It’s often pointed out by journalists who have nothing better to do that far fewer people visit the cinema than was once the case. I’m reliably informed that Exmouth once boasted two picture houses, and irksomely the one which has closed and been demolished was nearer my home than the one we still have. Obviously the advent of the twenty-four-hour film channel, surround sound and wide-aspect plasma screens has raised up competition that the small theatre can ill afford, so clearly my entirely unqualified and uninformed thoughts on possible improvements are required to remedy the situation.

The most obvious problem with cinemas is the absence of comfortable seating. Films are best watched stretched full-length on a chaise longue or Ottoman, and the predilection of picture-house proprietors for hard collapsible seating is clearly not to be borne. I know that at least one person agrees with me, because it was a conversation over cigarettes with my neighbour that inspired this train of thought. The latest Harry Potter film, which is approximately the same length as the Ring Cycle, had, I discovered, revealed the deficiencies of the cinema’s seating arrangements with numbing starkness. Ticket sales might improve with the addition of arm chairs and possibly some footstools.

Another thing that always makes a welcome addition to the cinematic experience is alcohol. A large gin and tonic, glass of Chablis or cask ale, particularly when followed by another, softens hard edges, smooths over deficiencies in the directing or script and encourages a general sense of well-being and benevolence. It also helps to erase the memory of the entrance fee, which is more than the cost of a second-hand frigate in some markets. There was a cinema in Whitstable that boasted a licensed bar, and I remember it being very popular with the undergraduate community. Ideally, said alcohol would be brought to one’s chair by a white-aproned steward, but at a pinch I’d settle for well-stocked bar. Always provided, of course, that it was suitably rich in very old single malts.

Then there’s the issue of film length. Back in 1959 they had the right idea when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer made Ben Hur three and a half hours long. This supplies value for money even at today’s inflated prices, so more films should be ridiculously long. Of course this might mean cutting down on those endearing advertisements for the local Indian restaurant that seem always to have been made in 1973; but that is a sacrifice I’m willing to make. Armed with a comfortable chair and a glass of something fortifying, the civilised cinema-goer can face even the most ludicrously protracted celluloid dream with equanimity, if not pleasant anticipation.

Of course the simplest change that can be made concerns air conditioning. I’ve noticed on successive visits to the multiplex in Exeter that it’s necessary to take an overcoat even in the middle of July. This is extremely silly, and I feel compelled to point out that sitting on a block of ice was good enough for our colonial forebears when facing the daunting rail journey from Calcutta to Benares. Naturally I hesitate to recommend that particular measure, but I know from experience that air conditioning units are fitted with temperature controls. Perhaps something a little nearer comfortable room temperature would be a good idea. Nice though it was to watch The Fellowship of the Ring outdoors at Glastonbury festival, I prefer to experience alfresco temperatures when actually outside.

This has gone on far longer than it deserves, so I shall end there. In fine, if my proposals are adopted I predict a 700% increase in box-office takings within the first year, with the possible total demise of the Shopping Channel within five. Some might take issue with the optimistic nature of this prediction, but it’s no less realistic than those of a government contractor.

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The Crimson Welshman left here a couple of hours ago, having borrowed my sofa for a couple of days. As luck would have it, he managed to get here on the weekend of the annual Crash-Box Classic Car Club rally at Powderham Castle, so we’ve been up to quite a lot in between the downpours.

I met the Crimson Express on Friday evening, and we headed back to the flat to have some beer and work out where we were going to spend the evening. After a laughable absence of deliberation we decided on the Grove, which is a nice pub on the sea front that’s great if you watch your sunglasses like a hawk. After a restful couple of beers in there we made our way to the Ganges for curry and more beer before ambling back to mon repos for gin and tonics and some more beer. I really regretted that curry on Saturday morning, but as usual it was nice at the time. The Ganges is a great restaurant, where you can always get a table and they play some truly bizarre music. Usually it’s sitar versions of famous popular songs. Watch their Madras sauce, though: it’s a bit on the spicy side.

When I came back from a turn in the garden to find my Cambrian comrade had fallen asleep, I called it a night. It certainly was a long and broken night, requiring early-morning window opening and allowing for very little actual sleep. Eventually I gave up the unequal struggle against consciousness at about nine, which I reckoned to be a vaguely respectable time for a chap to start making tea.

Once we’d tidied ourselves up enough to pass for human we hopped into Sceadufell and headed over to the car show. This is only the other side of the river from Exmouth, but the nearest bridge is at Exeter and it’s a long detour.  We got there around one, expecting the heavens to open at any moment, and immediately I began to take pictures. These are the highlights of my day.

A Ford Mustang that turned out to have bullet hole transfers stuck to it.

A Ford Mustang that turned out to have bullet hole transfers stuck to it.

Another of Ford's classics, this time from Ford UK: an Escort RS2000

Another of Ford's classics, this time from Ford UK: an Escort RS2000

A CG 1200 Spider, one of only twenty made. Subtle colour.

A CG 1200 Spider, one of only twenty made. Subtle colour.

More French engineering. This 1906 Renault upstaged all of its newer relatives on their stand.

More French engineering. This 1906 Renault upstaged all of its newer relatives on their stand.

People rave about the Veyron, but this is what I call a Bugatti.

People rave about the Veyron, but this is what I call a Bugatti.

The show was so popular that James Bond had turned up. Well, a silver-grey Aston Martin DB5 did anyway.

The show was so popular that James Bond had turned up. Well, a silver-grey Aston Martin DB5 had anyway.

Some really nice Bentleys that are worth the same as a small suburban housing development.

Some really nice Bentleys that are worth the same as a small suburban housing development.

The beauty of this Alvis is only partially marred by the Crimson intrusion.

The beauty of this Alvis is only partially marred by the Crimson intrusion.

It's the 101st anniversary of the Ford Model T this year. Happy birthday, Lizzie

It's the 101st anniversary of the Ford Model T this year. Happy birthday, Lizzie

This Sherpley Speed Six lost an argument with a French bridge. The owner is working on repairing it.

This Sherpley Speed Six lost an argument with a French bridge. The owner is working on repairing it.

A native American dream bike. One of many nice motorcycles that we saw.

A native American dream bike. One of many nice motorcycles that we saw.

It wasn’t just about cars, of course. I ran into my compadres from the MX-5 Owners’ Club, which this year celebrates its fifteenth anniversary and the twentieth anniversary of the MX-5 itself. I got to be in the picture, despite not having got Sceadufell down on the list to go on our stand. There were also a number of stores selling various car parts, tools and assorted bric-à-brac, one of the more obscure items being a very distressed four-inch shell casing. I needed an umbrella stand, so I bought it.

I pose with my new purchase in front of a suitable vehicle.

I pose with my new purchase in front of a suitable vehicle. I had to wait about a minute for the picture to happen, so my expression slipped a bit.

At about half-past three on Saturday afternoon, the threatened rain arrived. We left the show just as it started, and by the time we got back to HQ it had settled in for the night. We decided to catch the early showing of the new Sacha Baron Cohen film, then eat some pizza, start drinking and choose a pub.

How exactly can I describe Brüno? ‘Unbelievably obscene’ is certainly one description; ‘breathtakingly offensive’ is another, and equally apt. I think that the description that best suits my experience of it, however, is ‘the funniest thing I’ve seen all year’. From the eponymous hero’s Velcro suit disaster, to Cohen being chased by enraged orthodox Jews, to the cage fight that turns into a gay love scene, it just never stops providing scenes that make you laugh like an idiot while disbelieving the sheer tastelessness of it all. Par exemple: at one point Brüno declares his intention to become “the greatest Austrian superstar since Adolf Hitler”. The list of groups that might be offended by this film is so long that I think everyone belongs to at least one of them. The star will get himself lynched one of these days, but I hope it doesn’t happen for a long time yet.

We carried through our plan to the letter, and even got a chance to play some pool. The band in the Phoenix were great, and when finally, back at the flat, we drank our last gin and tonics of the evening, we did so with the knowledge of a day replete with achievement.

This morning I suffered. I’m still suffering, despite having a walk along the beach in the sunshine; despite having found a copy of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell at the car-boot sale.  I did, however, manage to clean up my new umbrella stand by soaking it in the bath for a couple of hours. I left most of the patina in place, but I gave it enough Brasso to clean off the outer layer of dirt and give it a slight metallic sheen. It looks good in the corner next to the bookshelf.

My clean shell casing in all its majesty, complete with umbrella.

My clean shell casing in all its majesty, complete with umbrella.

Now that I’ve reported all of the significant events of this weekend, I think it’s high time that I got to bed. Too many great songs have come from the random play function over the last couple of days for me to list them all, but following a Gregorian chant with the Deftones was a stroke of genius on the part of my computer. With that I shall bid you good night.

Good night (told you).

Rick Blaine is a man among men. He spends all evening wearing a white dinner jacket, employs Antwerp’s leading banker as a pastry chef, turns away employees of the Deutsche Bank from his private room and gives his nationality as ‘drunkard’. He’s also achieved the status of legend by bundling Ingrid Bergman onto a plane when she was all set to run away with him, then going off to join the French army. If I could be a film character, I’d be Rick.

I refer, of course, to the only romantic film that’s ever been worth watching: Casablanca. I can’t hope to say anything new about this film, so feel free to skip the rest of this post; but I like it so much that I want to tell you why.

Released in 1942, one of a vast array of films produced by Warner Brothers that year, Casablanca was based on the unpublished stage play Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett, which had been written in response to his experiences among refugees in France in 1938. The strong element of anti-Nazi protest that Burnett wove into his play survived its passage through the hands of several writers to completed screenplay format, and forms a tense and exotic backdrop to the story of underground resistance and star-crossed love that revolves around Rick’s Café Americain. The final title was influenced by the success of the 1938 film Algiers, starring Charles Boyer, Sigrid Gurie and Hedy Lamarr, and was chosen to evoke the same stylish, smoky vision of French Morocco, but Casablanca has long eclipsed Algiers on the cinematic map.

Perhaps the reason I’m so drawn to this film is that it admits some important truths. The romantic leads are unambiguously in love, but they are denied the conventional triumph of love over adversity that so often ruins this sort of story. The situation in which they find themselves can have no happy ending, but it can have a right ending, and their story revolves around how this is brought about: by admittedly reluctant and cynical but unswerving honour. It is this that lends the film’s conclusion a timeless quality, as the romantic hero steps aside – at great personal risk – so that the better man can keep the girl and she steels herself to support her husband’s work for a greater cause, against her inclination. In rewriting the story so that Ilsa Lund’s romance with Rick in Paris took place while she believed her husband to be dead, the screenwriters preserve the innocence of the three members of this romantic triangle and emphasise how circumstances have conspired against them all. The script makes it quite clear that their small problems are as nothing to the tragedy being played out on the European stage, and delivers a message that is as valuable now as it was then: it is more important to do the right thing than to achieve our short-term desires. More than that: sometimes there is only one outcome, and the only choice is how we reach it. It also reminds us of something that we too often forget: there are more important things than our individual concerns.

In terms of a film made in wartime and with at least some view to persuading its audience to fight the good fight, this strikes all the right notes. When a group of German officers sing patriotic songs in Rick’s bar, Victor Laszlo – Rick Blaine’s rival for Ilsa’s affections – asks the band to play La Marseillaise, and leads the entire clientèle in an emotional rendition. Rick’s brief nod of agreement is not the first hint of his admiration and support for Laszlo, nor his first act of defiance. This is a powerful scene, which emphasises Laszlo’s rôle as agent provocateur against the Nazis and encourages the idea that the German hold on Europe is weak. It also contains a lot of history about Franco-German relations, encoded in the two opposing songs. Originally the screenwriters wanted to use the Horst Wessel Lied, a specifically Nazi song that could be expected to inspire more opposition than a simply pro-German piece. In neutral countries the use of this copyrighted work without permission would have caused legal problems, so Die Wacht am Rhein was used instead, but this is not a Nazi song. It dates back to the Rhine Crisis of 1840, when it was feared that France might try to extend her borders to the German bank of the river, and it is a call to the Fatherland not to fear, because the guard on the Rhine is watchful. As such it makes a perfect complement to La Marseillaise, which is about fighting invading Germans and was originally entitled Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin (War Song for the Army of the Rhine).  In these two songs are embodied centuries of Franco-German antagonism and the huge significance of the river in European history. In some ways this actually works better than would a more direct opposition of French nationalism and German National Socialism, since it transcends the immediate political concerns of the moment and serves as a reminder that there is more to a world war than one unpleasant political system.

This sort of cue, obvious enough to be visible, but more powerful when the subtleties are observed, appear much earlier in the film. In one of the opening scenes, a man with expired papers is shot while attempting to escape from the police. He falls dead at the foot of a wall, on which is a Vichy propaganda poster. This depicts Marshal Pétain, the Vichy head of state whose name has become a byword for collaboration. His picture alone is the cue for an English-speaking audience, but the slogan that accompanies his image means “I keep my promises, just as I keep those of others.” The thought that went into these backgrounds and sets is enormous.

Over it all, though, looms the threadbare, world-weary honour of Rick, and Bogart’s wry characterisation. One of his first lines is “I stick my neck out for nobody” but it’s not long before the chief antagonist, Major Strasser, points out his habit of supporting the anti-fascist side whenever he becomes involved in a conflict. He rigs a game of Roulette to give a young Bulgarian couple enough money to avoid the disgraceful alternative payment accepted by the Prefect of Police. Finally he gives up his café, the woman he loves and his safety to aid the career of a man he hardly knows and leaves to join the troops opposing German expansion. A scene was planned that depicted Blaine and Renault aboard a troop ship, en route to participate in Operation Torch, the allied North African landings of 1942, but fortunately this was never shot. As it is, the film ends with an immortal line that was itself an afterthought, dubbed in a month after shooting ended: “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

I think that this film offers some hope for the industry, because it demonstrates what can be achieved in spite of endless rewrites, legal problems, difficult shooting and rushed deadlines. Like Blade Runner forty years later, the final result seems so polished and complete that no evidence of its difficult birth is left to trouble the audience. It would be unrealistic to hope that all films would be easy projects, but it’s surely something devoutly to be wished that more of them could transcend the problems of their creation so successfully.

Back in April, Devon’s analogue television transmitters were switched off, marking the beginning of the nationwide transfer to a digital signal. Now, this has been a bit difficult for me because my aerial is pretty ropey and won’t receive the new transmissions. I can’t really afford a new one; and because I live in a grade two listed building, satellite dishes are not an option. Basically, they’ve repossessed my television rights; not that the picture was that good anyway.

Of course I wasn’t watching all that much before in any case, but now I’ve been deprived of the cop-out of turning on the idiot box as soon as I get home and not doing anything for the rest of the evening. I can still do that, but I have to choose a DVD and get up every so often to exchange it for another. This involves too much thought, so I get sick of it sooner; and I save time anyway because I don’t have to sit through the adverts. No adverts means a drastic improvement in my irritation threshold, since adverts are annoying. There are only so many times I can watch a generic box on wheels being presented as the ultimate fashion accessory before I develop a strong urge to bury the nearest dealership in custard powder and do a rain dance.

The benefits don’t end there. I’m saving more than £150 a year by not buying a television licence, which means more money for books as well as more time for reading them. When I’m failing entirely to read anything I can use the time to post updates here, for which I feel your gratitude shining upon me like the June sun. Or not.

In short, then, all is well in my shiny new boxless universe, and that reminds me of a book I bought years ago from a library that didn’t want it any more. It was called The Evil Eye: the Unacceptable Face of Television, and it instructed me not to give in to the ionised siren song of the cathode ray tube; issuing dire pronouncements about social and psychological decay should I foolishly not heed its prophetic warning. How kind of the authorities to help me to go cold turkey and find that it’s quite nice with cranberry sauce.

I’m going to make one post stand in for several here so that I can switch off my brain and copy things from my reference library. It’s been a while since we visited Bizarre Books, so here are a few more gems from that indispensable volume.

Anonymous Bibliography of Mangrove Research, 1600-1975 (Paris: UNESCO, 1981)

Maclaren, Rob Grow Your Own Hair (Glasgow: Healthway Publications, 1947)

Reynolds, John W. The Earthworms of Ontario (Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 1977)

Glatt, Meier Teach Yourself Alcoholism. (EUP, 1975). Call me precocious if you will, but I’ve devised my own course of study.

Collins, Sewell The Rubaiyat of a Scotch Terrier (Grant Richards, 1926)

Scoffern, John Explosive Spiders and How to Make Them (Boy’s Own Paper, 1882)

Reid, Joseph V. You Can Make a Stradivarius Violin (Chicago, Ill: Popular Mechanics Press, 1950 & 55). Unless your name is Stradivarius, no you can’t.

Cort, Samuel Walter Cancer: Is the Dog the Cause? (John Bale, Sons & Danielsson, 1933). Clue: no.

Broel, Dr. Alfred Frog Raising for Pleasure and Profit (New Orleans: Marlboro House, 1950)

Stubbings, John Wilfred The Diseases of Electrical Machinery (Spon, 1939)

Hirschfield, Isador The Toothbrush: its Use and Abuse (New York: Dental Items of Interest Publishing Company, 1939)

Hore, Annie Boyle To Lake Tanganyika in a Bath Chair (Sampson Low & Co., 1886). Just when you think a Victorian travel monograph can’t surprise you, one does.

Today’s chronologically random quotation is from the German composer Max Reger (1873-1916), and was chosen for being gently scatological and insulting to critics.

Ich sitze in dem kleinsten Zimmer in meinem Hause. Ich habe Ihre Kritik vor mir. Im nächsten Augenblick wird sie hinter mir sein.

I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me.

I didn’t always love aeroplanes. I’m reliably informed that when I was a toddler, the Luftwaffe’s widowmakers used to terrify me; but that was a long time ago, and since I was at least five I’ve been fascinated by the stick-and-canvas halcyon days of flight. It’s not surprising, therefore, that my favourite family film is about the crazy, lethal, glorious days before wireless telegraphy, airline food and parachutes. My grandfather had an old ciné projector, and one of his reels was an abridged version that he used to screen for me, my brother and our two cousins. This film has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

In 1965, Twentieth Century Fox released one of the all-time classic aeroplane films, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. It follows the events of the 1910 Daily Post air race, an event sponsored by Robert Morley’s imperious and irascible Lord Rawnsley with the intention of bringing together the world’s aviators, to exchange ideas and prove that Britannia rules the skies as well as everything else. The ten-thousand pound prize brings together an eccentric cast from all over the world, and their various exploits and misadventures paint a beguiling picture of Edwardian society. The pompous and martial Oberst Manfred, Freiherr von Holstein and his long-suffering A.D.C., Hauptmann Rumpelstoss want to prove that “there is nothing a German officer cannot do” at the orders of the Kaiser; Count Emilio Ponticelli goes “like Caesar” to England, to “win, for Italia”; Lt. Col. Mays, Coldstream Guards, is there to fulfil Lord Rawnsley’s expectation that the race will be won by an Englishman, and incidentally arrange his engagement to the sponsor’s daughter; Yamamoto is also racing for his country’s honour, having travelled from Japan across the whole of Europe to compete, and Pierre Dubois mentions at one point that “the honour of France is at stake”, although his primary occupation is with a string of beautiful women, all played by Irina Demick. Only two competitors are openly doing it for the money: Orville Newton of Phoenix, Arizona, who’s completely broke and needs it to keep flying; and Sir Percy Ware-Armitage, who’s just – as Willie Rushton comments – “a most ghastly person”.

In terms of character interaction, the main focus is on the romantic triangle between Patricia Rawnsley (a divine Sarah Miles), Richard Mays (James Fox) and Orville Newton (Stuart Whitman). At the opening of the film Patricia and Richard have what was once called “an understanding” – not engaged, but very close to it; but as we see from his conversations with her approving father, she comes in a poor fourth place behind soldiering, flying, cards at White’s and snooker with the adjutant. When the simple, brave and ardent figure of Newton arrives on the scene it’s fairly obvious that Mays will soon be out of the picture, and this creates a brilliant comedic tension between the two and underlines their very different manners and perceived national characters.

In fact, national character is a large theme in this film. Each competitor in the race stands in for an entire nation, as seen through English eyes. The French irreverently mock the Germans throughout training, playing Frère Jaques on a gramophone and performing a clownish parody of the military flag-raising in the next hangar (what idiot would put the French and Germans next to each other a mere forty years after the Franco-Prussian war is beyond me); Dubois is a shameless flatterer and womaniser; von Holstein is a goose-stepping buffoon, but possessed of tenacity and courage; Ponticelli is an emotional Catholic with a huge family; Newton is relaxed, informal, reckless and ambitious; even the only Scot is a whisky drinker, who flies in tartan and refers to a drink as ‘a wee dram’. Only Yamamoto breaks with stereotype, and in his cut-glass accent announces “No thanks, old chap; I only drink whisky and water”. The English are the only characters who appear in all guises, from the dashing Mays to the caddish Sir Percy (Terry-Thomas) and his downtrodden and rebellious valet Courtney (Eric Sykes); from Benny Hill’s harassed fire chief to the retired Indian Army colonel, whose memsahib lends Mays an ostrich feather from her hat for a pipe-cleaner. But even these are archetypes: this film was made fifty-five years and two world wars after the events are set, and that intervening space informs a general spirit of nostalgia that suffuses the film (everyone knows that the English can’t resist nostalgia – it’s been a part of our character since Anglo-Saxon times). There is tension and competition between the nations, but it’s good-natured; all are united by the common goal of conquering the skies, although it’s significant given the film’s date that there is no Russian present. We are invited to compare this world with the one that replaced it after 1914, when all the Edwardians’ illusions about balances of power and the shared heritage of Europe came crashing down around them, and those pretty little confections of wood and canvas were fitted with machine guns.

Those fragile early essays in aeronautics are the real stars of the show. Each is a faithful replica of a real aeroplane of 1910, and some great names are represented: Santos-Dumont, Bristol, Sopwith, Antoinette, Blackburn and Vickers. Some of them, like Newton’s Bristol Boxkite and MacDougall’s Blackburn Monoplane, Wake Up, Scotland, are still flying today. Frequent in-machine shots highlight the vulnerability of a pilot making the cross-channel flight, while beautiful panoramic shots of the aircraft against the English and French countryside, the Channel and their native element emphasise their fragility and grace. The journey that takes a modern jet about twenty minutes from boarding to disembarkation is not without event for these machines. Through the sabotage of the scheming Sir Percy, Yamamoto crashes on take-off, Newton loses a landing wheel and Ponticelli force-lands near a convent, only regaining the skies after threatening the sisters that should he remain earth-bound, the race will be won by a Protestant. Crippled by a blocked fuel line, Mays makes an emergency landing on a stretch of road, narrowly missing an elderly military couple. As the Antoinette sweeps imperiously aloft, the old Colonel turns to his wife: “I think I’ll get one of those, Muriel”. “I shouldn’t, Willie,” she replies. “You’re near enough to your wings as it is.”

The English Channel also claims its victims: Oberst von Holstein, a slave to the Book of Instructions, ends up climbing out of his cockpit to retrieve it and falling ignominiously into the sea, pickelhaube still immovably affixed to his head; Lieutenant Parsons, RN, ends up launching his Picaut Dubrieul, “HMS Victory” and taking his dog, Nelson, for a swim. Although there is a steam launch on hand to rescue these men, the Channel was a huge obstacle, and many early pioneers ended up getting their feet wet. It can be easily forgotten just what a risk Louis Blériot was taking when he made his crossing in 1909, effectively trusting his life to twenty-five horsepower of unreliable Anzani; but this film reminds us that for those who made those first halting advances on the sky, the risk was always worth it. Dying of injuries sustained in a crash, the great Franco-Peruvian pioneer Jorge Chávez Dartnell summed it all up: “Arriba, siempre arriba” (“Higher, ever higher”). That is now the motto of the Peruvian air force.

All in all, then, this is a film that I can watch with my parents or my niece, but which doesn’t drive me insane, like musicals, or make me want to kill bunnies with hammers, like Disney. I had the aged progenitors over last night, and this is what we watched. They both saw it at the cinema back in 1965, long before they met: yet another link with family history.

If you haven’t seen this film yet, leave whatever hermitage you’ve been living in for the last forty-four years and watch it: it’s brilliant.