Archive | April, 2013

Colonel Badd: out-takes from our short, showing at Cannes

29 Apr

The director of Colonel Badd,  the 15-minute short I co-wrote centring on an interview with a retired supervillain, has just put some out-takes on Vimeo. I’m in the poker scene (of course!), with an American accent and a hook for a hand. Do please help yourself to a slice of my ham (click the image above).

I always enjoyed acting. My Toad of Toad Hall was a hit when I was 12; and at 16 my Chrysale in Moliere’s Les Femmes Savantes went down well with those who could follow the French, even if the blond leg hairs sticking through my black tights made me resemble a geriatric hedgehog.

Hugh Grant was at my Oxford college, two years above me. But whereas he got to star in a student-made feature film called Privileged overseen by John Schlesinger – I recall Hugh stripped to the waist, carrying a deer on his shoulders across the Cherwell river – all the drama productions I successfully auditioned for collapsed before I could act in them. And so expired my thespian dreams along with, presumably, a 13-year marriage to Liz Hurley ending ignominiously in a parked car with prostitute Divine Brown.

Yesterday was also the cast & crew screening of the final cut of Colonel Badd. It was wonderful to see the featurette edited down, with music, and extra reverb for the succession of villainous laughs Colonel Badd tries out to “get in character”, as Tarantino would put it.

Next stop, Cannes – where both Colonel Badd and Filth, which Tony Errico also directed, have been accepted into the Short Film Corner. If anyone who reads this is heading to the festival, message me for a cocktail on the Croisette!

My Cannes 2013 reports start here. My diary extracts from the amazing 1997 Cannes Film Festival start here.

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History men: in memoriam Eric Hobsbawm (and my own father)

25 Apr

hobsbawm_interestingThis post hasn’t, I confess, much to do with film; though you can imagine an elderly remake of The Big Chill (1983), Lawrence Kasdan’s warm and witty film about a group of friends who reunite after a funeral, if you will. I simply wanted to do my small bit in remembrance of a giant of letters, the unapologetically Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who died in October aged 95 and whose memorial service was held yesterday in London University’s Senate House (used as a location in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises, if you want another film reference).

His family and mine stayed, for a few halcyon summers in my youth, in adjoining houses in Snowdonia. I studied History at A-Level and at Oxford, so I had read a couple of Eric’s many works, but I was more over-awed by the fact that Mick Jagger had once sat around the campfire here; besides, my father was also a distinguished historian.

Eric was a sweet man, ravenously intellectually curious, who also loved the countryside and had a peculiar habit, affectionately mocked by the younger generation I am ashamed to say, of expressing his greeting twice – “Hello, hi!” – as though the first utterance was not emphasis enough for the splendour of the day. I have kept in touch with his son and daughter and niece ever since.

The memorial service was a parade of the great and the good. The President of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, sent a video tribute praising his “great courage, consistency and sense of resolve”. The author and journalist Claire Tomalin recalls asking Eric how living in a comfortable house in Hampstead squared with his socialist ideals. The wry response: “If you’ve living in a ship that’s going down, you might as well travel first class.” His views on the rottenness of the capitalist system certainly seem more prescient and urgent than ever.

Professor Donald Sassoon, on a panel with the journalist and writer Neil Ascherson, recalled Eric making some sweeping generalisation about some supposedly universal truth which Sassoon was about to dismiss as hot air, until Eric capped it with the devastating codicil, “Except of course in Tasmania.” The clear implication was that the state of affairs had indeed been considered in every country of the world, and found wanting only in one. The device is to be recommended to anyone wishing to add weight to an argument.

The BBC’s favourite historian Simon Schama was a verbal Catherine Wheel; almost to a fault. He recalled his first encounter, “bug-eyed with illumination”, with one of Eric’s works as a student; and how, when he years later got to discuss matters historical with the great man in the BBC canteen, he found himself outclassed by the breadth and specificity of his learning; he likened Eric to “a truffle-hunter digging delicious pungent nuggets of analytical [something] from the undergrowth”, and suggested “his mind was in itself an enacted dialectic”.

But just when you started to feel the speech was more about Schama’s own gift for words than Eric’s, he began to break down. The final lines were almost lost for tears. Eric was “someone who could not get enough of the exhilarating peculiarity of the human condition”, he managed to say, counselling his fellow professors at the memorial event, which had been organised by Birkbeck College along with Eric’s family, to “tell your students to read Hobsbawm if you want to know what history can do – what a great historian is.”

Eric’s widow Marlene and daughter Julia also gave touching tributes, though you might be even better served by reading Julia’s wonderful encomium in the Financial Times, here. Overall the strong sense was not merely that Eric’s work had touched a chord with the distinguished company here assembled, as well as generations of students all round the world, but that Eric the man had, as well.

It is never easy to lose a father, but easier when you know that they have lived well and long, and that the ripples from their life will continue to spread long after the stone has sunk to the bottom.

Colin_WellsMy own father (right), the Ancient Historian Professor Colin M Wells, received a page obituary in The Times, which I dearly wish that, impossibly, he could have lived to see, and a library in his name at Wolfson College. I also exorcised the extraordinary pain (to us, I’m not sure he was aware of it) of his final five days in a coma by writing a radio play inspired by the subject – which was cathartic though I have not submitted it anywhere and perhaps never will. Three years on, the sucking, surprisingly brutal grief has dissipated, and my father’s visits to me in the dreamworld are less frequent and more genial.

I heartily wish Andy and Julia the same.

Wish you were here: interview with Storm Thorgerson

19 Apr

 

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The Cranberries: Wake Up and Smell The Coffee

Storm Thorgerson, the visionary behind some of the most striking album covers in rock, died yesterday. He originally wanted to be a film director, and in a way, his images all feel like found scenes from a wider movie. I conducted a fascinating interview with him in 2007, in the arts supplement I edited at the Saturday Times. This was the story:

If the future of music lies in downloads, one man will suffer more than most. After 39 years as Britain’s foremost designer of album covers, during which his canvas has already shrunk from 12 inches of vinyl to 5 inches of CD, Storm Thorgerson will be out of a job.

Storm who? Though more joints have been rolled on his artwork than George Michael could smoke in ten lifetimes, few know Thorgerson by name. That’s about to change with the publication of Taken by Storm, an extraordinary collection of his works, profusely annotated with barmy yarns about their genesis.

The Dark Side of the Moon prism? That was his. The burning businessman on the sleeve of Wish You Were Here? His too. The naked children scaling the Giants Causeway on Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy; the tearful housewife on 10cc’s How Dare You; even, moving on to the present day, the four men playing cards in the desert on Muse’s Black Holes and Revelations. All his.

Before we meet in a café in Belsize Park, North London, I get the tour of Thorgerson’s next-door flat-cum-studio which he has owned since the 1970s. It’s as random as the man: bits of paper pinned up on the wall, with sketches of ideas and works-in-progress. Here are two gunfighters, one flinging fruit, the other with a coat made of balls – tennis balls, billiard balls, all kinds of balls. Turns out it’s for a project with Bob Dylan. It’s Thorgerson’s young colleague, Dan Abbott, who shows me around. Abbott is the draughtsman who fleshes out Thorgerson’s ideas, before a photographer shoots them. Similarly, many of the most striking covers of the early 1970s owe a considerable debt to the graphic designer George Hardie, among other contributors. Thorgerson himself mainly provides the concepts, and the drive to see them realised.

“That’s why I prefer to describe these shoots as ‘performances’,” Thorgerson explains airily, squeezing himself into the café bench and parking his walking stick. “I’m more like a choreographer; and the choreographer needs the dancer, doesn’t he?” He fell into designing sleeves quite by accident. Pink Floyd, whom he knew anyway from school, asked Thorgerson’s flatmate to do a record cover. When he declined, Thorgerson stuck up his hand. “I had no idea what I was doing! But we did make the most of it. Me and Po [Aubrey Powell, with whom he founded the design company Hipgnosis] worked bloody hard.”

He had previously intended to be a film director, inspired by seeing Fellini’s and Antonioni’s L’Avventura, and he studied cinema at the Royal College of Art. But if there is a director he most resembles, it’s Werner Herzog, pulling a real steamboat over a real mountain in the Peruvian jungle for his famously gruelling and epically insane film Fitzcarraldo. Thorgerson insists on doing almost all his shoots for real, long after digital trickery should have made most of his surreal, dream-like images simple to create.

It’s an admirable folly that may or may not produce better results, as he claims, but which certainly makes for an entertaining anecdote. One cover concept called for a row of 20ft telegraph poles stretching into the distance, each topped with a seated hermit. The ground was muddy and the huge poles kept slipping; Thorgerson had to climb up one himself to show his volunteers they would be safe. The cover for Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason showed 700 heavy iron hospital beds arrayed on the beach, something that took four tractors and 30 helpers six hours to accomplish. England being England, it rained, so they had to take them all away again . . . and repeat this lapse of reason in its entirety two weeks later.

Thorgerson’s upbringing, you won’t be surprised to hear, was unconventional. If you think his name is unusual (it comes from his uncle, and is not uncommon in Norway), consider that his mother called him Geraldine for his first nine months – in what he calls, unable to resist verbal as well as visual puns, the “dark side of the womb”.

He was packed off to boarding school at just 4½ – “If you want to know why I’m mad, there you are” – and because of its progressive views about not forcing education, he didn’t learn to read until he was 9. It was at grammar school in Cambridge that he met Roger Waters and Syd Barrett, who later would form Pink Floyd. “I was friends with Roger indirectly because our mothers were friends, and still are, at 88 and 94 respectively.

“It was a very interesting place, Cambridge; student towns can be great fun, even if you’re not studying there. There’s a lot of culture . . . and a lot of girls. Most of whom actually seemed to end up with Syd. I still know all these guys; I would have known Syd still, too, till he died, if he hadn’t gone off the rails.” But didn’t he once say that he had not spoken to Waters in 30 years? “Twenty-five,” Thorgerson corrects. “But he’s friendly now. Roger had a particular way of dealing with things, which requires him to be more definite than he needs. He was very rigid about who was what in the Pink Floyd hierarchy, and I got put into a box, and he’s only opened the lid recently.”

In fact, during our meeting, he receives a cryptic message by mobile: “Roger has no objection.” This turns out to concern Thorgerson and Abbott’s suggestion of a 40th anniversary rerelease of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and the publication of a book of Syd Barrett’s sketches, in tribute to that crazy diamond.

And is Barrett still missed? Did Thorgerson see him again before he died? He shakes his head. “His death was more or less so sad there’s nothing one can think to say. The band have always felt very strongly about Syd, so tabs were kept, as it were, money was paid; as best they could, they looked after him.”

It’s a rare moment of vulnerability from a self-confessed egomaniac, a man with the chutzpah to persuade a doubtful record company to release Wish You Were Here wrapped in black plastic (to symbolise absence, professor), or to release Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door with six alternative sleeve designs – and then cover it in a brown paper bag.

“Pictures of a band, like the Beatles, or Take That, what do they tell you? They tell you what they look like, but nothing about what’s in their hearts, or in their music. If you were trying to present an emotion, or a feeling, or an idea, or a theme, or an obsession, or a perversion, or a preoccupation, when would it have four guys in it? In the huge world of things to choose to represent it, why choose four guys?”

Particularly when, as with Thorgerson’s early run of covers for Pink Floyd, you can have a cow, then an ear under water, then a prism, then a man on fire, then a giant inflatable pig (Roger Waters’s idea) which infamously escaped from its moorings, floated to 18,000 ft and nearly gave the jet pilot who radioed in the sighting a heart attack. Music downloads may be the future, but they will never be this much fun.

Yes we Cannes! Colonel Badd posters up for film festival

19 Apr

Exciting news – x2! First, we now have some great-looking character posters for Colonel Badd, the short film I wrote about here. I loved Avengers Assemble, so it’s cool to be part of a terrifying team-up of scarifying supervillains. Every good story needs a strong hook, and in this one, I’m it (top left)! [Photography by Giulia Pizzi.]

Secondly, Colonel Badd has been accepted into the Short Film Corner at Cannes, and director Tony Errico (lower left) has been good enough to put me down for one of the precious Accreditations. So it looks all of a sudden like I’ll be going! If anyone knows anyone with a room/floor/couch available cheapish during the Festival, please email me. I’m a good cook, fun to have around, and fully house-trained.

Last time I went, I slept on Jon Ronson’s floor as he wrote gags for carrot-topped TV terror Dennis Pennis (aka Paul Kaye), partied on a yacht with the cream of young Brit talent such as Anna Friel and David Thewlis, danced in a beach marquee with James Woods, and lunched with Alan Parker and Barry Norman.

Then, I was Editor of Time Out. Now, I’m the lowest of the low on the film pecking order: the humble writer. Co-writer, even. But it will be fascinating to experience the other side of the festival – not the acme of international cinematic art, but the world’s biggest commercial movie fair.

Click on the ‘Follow’ button so as not to miss my blogs from Cannes next month!

David Bowie Is at the V&A: it really is the freakiest show

16 Apr

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I’ve just returned from what is, in my thoroughly unobjective opinion as a Bowiefreak, the best exhibition ever mounted. The V&A’s David Bowie Is deserves the hype. But since tickets have been selling out quicker than a rock star clutching a can of Pepsi, and you’re unlikely to get to go for a while yet, let me guide you through it in song…

ImageCh-ch-ch-changes. Bowie, the exhibition makes clear, changed the image of every band he joined, even before he started his solo career.

The ever-circling skeletal family. The headset commentary offers snatches of song and interview, and amazingly it “knows” where you are, switching back and forth depending on which exhibit you are standing in front of. It’s like being inside a living documentary.

ImageCracked Actor. As well as selling over 140 million albums, Bowie has acted in over a dozen feature films including Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth (right). There’s a separate screening space for clips from the likes of Labyrinth and Basquiat, as well as the loin cloth he wore while playing the Elephant Man, to no small acclaim, on stage in New York.

ImageThe hand that wrote this letter. In addition to the cut-up lyrics for Blackout (left) there are loads of handwritten song lyrics, most of which, sadly, are pristine, with none of the crossings-out and rewriting that usually make handwritten songs and poems so fascinating. Did they spring fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus? Or, more likely, are these just write-ups of the final versions? There are a couple of kooks, however. Most striking is a deleted verse from Fashion: “Hell up ahead – burn a play – start a fight/If you’re covered in blood, you’re doing it right.” There’s also a glimpse into how Heroes could have been very much worse: “And we kissed/And you felt called” is crossed out and replaced with “And we kissed/As though nothing could fall.”

ImageHang him on my wa-wa-wa-wall. Bowie’s interest in art goes back to his teens: a school sketchbook is here, along with sketches for album covers (such as his self-portrait for Heroes, right), costumes, stage sets, and characters and backdrops for a projected film set in Hunger City. He’s no draughtsman, but he has the vision for others to follow. Most poignant are two canvases from his Berlin period (including a bug-eyed Iggy Pop), with a bit of an Egon Schiele vibe. He has said that painting helped him to kick his drug addictions.

Return of the (Very) Thin White Duke. As well as loads of stage costumes, his measurements are written out in detail. His waist size in the early ‘70s is given as 26.5in!!

ImageSpace Oddity. The V&A show is vast, full of nooks and corners and booths. At the end is a cavernous space dominated by a vast screen pumping out supersized videos, and costumed mannequins stacked up in see-through boxes four storeys high.

Five years. The V&A has collaborated with the BBC on a documentary entitled Five Years, covering 1971, 1975, 1977, 1980 and 1983. It will be broadcast sometime next month.

He’s a star, man. I went round the exhibition with a Bowie neophyte, who previously had no interest in him or his songs. Afterwards she spent hours watching past videos and interviews on YouTube.

Click here for my blog on David Bowie’s Where Are We Now?

Click here for my 1995 interview with Bowie and Eno

Oblivion: where Tom Cruise’s career is heading

11 Apr

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I wouldn’t go quite as far as the heckler at the Brixton Ritzy – “Shit!” was his pithy summary as the closing credits rolled, to a ripple of laughter that sounded very much like agreement – but to give Oblivion three stars out of five would feel generous.

How can a $120 million sci-fi mind-bender starring Tom Cruise and set on a post-apocalyptic Earth contrive to be such a crashing bore? The set-up is intriguing: the Moon has been blown up by alien “Scavs”, producing catastrophic earthquakes and tidal waves, so that most of New York is silted up. Only the tip of the Empire State Building pokes up through the soil.

From their minimalist white platform above the clouds (an ivory tower, see?), dashing Tom Cruise and his English rose Andrea Riseborough collaborate on the clean-up of wasteland Earth, like Mr and Mrs Wall-E, while the rest of humanity have fled to one of Saturn’s moons. He dashes about in a nifty space-ship-cum-copter thingy fighting off the last remaining Scavs, while she stays at home managing the communications. (Evidently sexual politics will not have progressed much by the end of the 21st century.) But as their memories were wiped clean five years previously, not all is as it seems… to say more would spoil some of the more enjoyable surprises in the film.

For there is an original idea or two struggling to emerge from this good-looking but derivative hotch-potch of sci-fi classics. Sadly they never quite make it. Even at just two hours the film feels wildly overlong. If it’s aiming for Solaris-style philosophical heft, Cruise’s limited range puts paid to that – he only has his Cheeky Action Face, his Cheeky Sexy Face, and his furrowed-brow I Worry After Rock Of Ages And Jack Reacher That If This Film Tanks Too I’m Finished face. And Morgan Freeman is criminally wasted in a hackneyed and underwritten role.

At least the makers of Oblivion got one thing right: the title. It’s what this movie seems destined for…

Thatcher dead = Wizard of Oz or The Iron Lady?

8 Apr
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Ding dong the witch is dead. Thatcher, left; Britain, right

The Wizard of Oz has had yet another revival today, as people across the UK sing “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead”. The rule is not to speak ill of the dead, especially the recently departed, but the usual niceties will clearly be waived in the case of Margaret Thatcher.

We’ve already had one such moment: November 22, 1990 was, to my generation, as the shooting of JFK was to my parents’. That was the day Thatcher was dumped by her own party and exited Downing Street in tears; the Iron Lady melted down for scrap. I was on the Tube at the time, and the platform indicators were wiped clean of train arrival information to carry the news to all passengers – the first and only time I have seen them do that.

Three men high-fived each other. A young woman broke into song: yes, it was “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead”. It was the happiest Tube carriage I’ve seen since I chanced upon a party on the Circle Line. Only a couple of old dears sat in near silence, tutting and scowling at the revellers, clearly Thatcher fans but not wanting to speak up about it too loudly.

My teenaged son has been studying Thatcher in History (!), and it’s hard for him to comprehend the sheer venom that so many have for the frail elder stateswoman. Especially after seeing the recent biopic, The Iron Lady. That employed, quite deliberately, the tactic of framing the historical action with present-day scenes of her as a dotty old dear in her lonely dotage. An unsympathetic lead character is the kiss of death for a film, and that was the only way they could think of to get the audience on side.

The film also tried to present her as some sort of feminist heroine. If she was, it was only by default, by the virtue merely of smashing the glass ceiling. She actually got on by being more macho than the men: lowering her voice an octave, leading the country into war, pronouncing “This Lady’s not for turning”, drinking whiskey, sleeping only four hours a night. As the film Made in Dagenham showed, Secretary of State for Employment Barbara Castle did far more for women’s rights when she ushered in the Equal Pay Act of 1970.

Altogether, The Iron Lady was heavy on relationship drama, and light on politics. So what should Thatcher’s legacy be?

It’s more complex than her detractors will admit. Yes, she abolished the GLC in a magisterial fit of political pique at seeing Red Ken grinning across the Thames at her from his leftie enclave at County Hall, and that’s hard to forgive. Then again, look east as you cross Waterloo Bridge, and her legacy is clear to see (memorably enshrined in the peerless gangster pic The Long Good Friday).

As a jobbing journalist, I can only lament the NUJ’s toothlessness when it comes to implementing minimum pay scales for freelancers. (Many of the places I write for, when I’m lucky enough to write at all, now pay half what they used to. The others pay nothing at all.) Then again, I worked in Wapping for six years, and it’s striking when you read the history of The Times to find how utterly paralysed the paper once was by the print unions, who would halt production pretty much on a whim. They were also a notorious closed shop, passing jobs on from father to son (rarely was it from father to daughter).

And yes, Thatcher led the country into war. But at least it was a war with some justification (in a referendum this March, 99.8% of Falkland Islanders voted to remain British), and far less damaging than the ‘phoney war’ recently perpetrated by a Labour Prime Minister.

And yet. I lived through that corrosive, divided era of miners’ strikes and Poll Tax riots and “there is no such thing as Society”. I was Editor of Time Out on that wild wild night when Tony Blair finally ended 18 years of Conservative rule, and we all watched it on the big telly on Time Out’s eighth floor with artist Tracey Emin, and cheered when Michael Portillo lost his seat, and dared for a short while to believe, as the campaign song had it, that things could only get better.

If I hear anyone singing “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead”, don’t blame me if I hum along.