Archive | September, 2014

The Last Impresario: Michael White’s life, from Pythons to Rocky Horror to Kate Moss

25 Sep

Who is Michael White? In The Last Impresario, the documentary about his star-cross’d and star-making life which opens in London tomorrow, and which I saw last night with a Q&A between the BBC’s Alan Yentob and the film’s young director, Gracie Otto, he is described as “the most famous person you’ve never heard of”. Otto herself hadn’t, when she attended the Cannes Film festival in 2010 as a recent film studies graduate, and noticed a mischievous, nattily dressed septuagenarian with an eye for the ladies (including herself) towards whom everyone seemed to gravitate at parties.

The more she found out about Michael White, the more convinced she became that she had the subject of her first film. White launched the careers of both the Pythons and the Goodies when he discovered a Cambridge Footlights show of unusual talent, and put it on in the West End. “It was extraordinary,” reflects John Cleese in the film. “I mean, this student show, in the West End! Unheard of. It allowed me to pay off my student debts in three months.” Bill Oddie, later of the Goodies, was another member of the revue: “Michael White was a bit like a Bond villain,” he recalls. “Always had a glamorous blonde on his arm.”

White put on Kenneth Tynan’s infamous avant-garde, fully nude erotic revue Oh! Calcutta!, which in 1970 didn’t so much push the envelope of acceptability as tear it into tiny pieces. It was only two years earlier that the centuries-old requirement for all plays to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain’s office had been scrapped. Despite (or because of) scandalised and negative reviews, the show became the longest-running in Broadway at the time.

White was the first to bring Dame Edna to London, though he lost a fortune with “her” on Broadway. He made The Rocky Horror Show a hit, then signed away the rights for a song to a hard-nosed American producer while distracted by drugs and women. In film, he produced such cult hits as Monty Python And The Holy Grail, My Dinner With Andre, and Polyester by John Waters, “the Pope of Trash”. The Cannes screening was presented in “Odorama” – scratch-and-sniff cards with scents such as fart and dirty socks. Waters recalls, “They broke the glass on the doors, people were so keen to get in.”

Oh, and lest you think White had a talent only for spotting actors, during the Q&A Otto mentioned one bit she hadn’t managed to fit into the film: White once attended a dinner bringing a friend whom he predicted “would be big in computers”. The friend was Steve Jobs.

Jobs, of course, is no longer available to interview, but Otto tracked down some heavyweight talking heads in The Last Impresario. Here’s a small sample:

Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue: “He was one of those extraordinary people who seem to know everyone on the planet. He was certainly by far the first person to talk to me about Kate Moss, before any agent.”

Kate Moss, supermodel: “When we first met, we ended up talking on and on, and then it was ‘let’s go to another club’. He was the only one who could really keep up with me.”

John Waters, cult film-maker: “He wasn’t a suit. Or if he was, he always had a great one on.”

Yoko Ono, whose art show White put on in pre-Lennon days: “Michael’s an interesting guy, a visionary. Very cool and visionary.”

Jim Sharman, director of The Rocky Horror Show: “Michael was one of the few producers who were prepared to take a punt, a gamble, on risky ventures that challenged the status quo.”

Michael White

Michael White in San Tropez

But for every party, there’s a hangover. And when your whole life is a party, that’s one doozy of a come-down.

By the time Otto catches up with White, he has suffered three strokes. The second, according to Peter Richardson of the seminal ‘80s comedy troupe The Comic Strip (yes, White produced them, too), came hot on the heels of the first.

“Imagine: you’ve had a stroke, then you go out partying with Jack [Nicholson, natch]. Jack saved him, I think, and got him to the best hospital.”

White is also broke, and somewhat tearfully packing up his memorabilia for sale at auction. In particular he has an extraordinary collection of 30,000-odd candid pics of the stars (see above) – at any social function, he’d be snapping away. An ex-partner felt it was his way of dealing with people, keeping them close and yet simultaneously at arm’s length. Sent to a boarding school in Switzerland at seven to cure his asthma, he was terribly lonely. Ever since, he liked to cocoon himself in a whirl of fascinating, dynamic people, while keeping his emotions and real feelings to himself.

In the end, White remains a charming enigma, the calm at the heart of the storm. He is not a loquacious interview, as a result of the strokes, but he seems not much given to self-analysis anyway. Who is Michael White? This fascinating documentary gets as close as anyone is likely to.

Meet the men behind manga: Gekiga exhibition launches at London Cartoon Museum

23 Sep
Gekiga

Gekiga at the London Cartoon Museum. Note the paucity of speech bubbles or narrative captions

We all know manga. It arrived drip-drip in the West in the ‘80s, most prominently through serialisation of the samurai epic Lone Wolf And Cub with covers by Frank Miller, and now spills across endless shelves of Forbidden Planet – everything from riotous fantasy to the exploits of super-chefs or teen tennis prodigies – as well as filling our cinemas in its animated form. But before manga arrived in the West, before it even existed in its present form in Japan, there was… Gekiga.

Gekiga is the bridge between Japanese post-war kids’ comics about wide-eyed robot children, and the astonishing variety in style and subject matter we see today. It sprung from an intuition on the part of three friends and occasional rivals that those who had grown up with comics were ready for something more adult. Ordered to share a bedsit in Osaka by their publisher to increase productivity, Masahiko Matsumoto, Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Takao Saito stayed up late into the night discussing a new visual language, based on the cinematic vision of Osamu Tezuka, the “Father of Manga”, and a new kind of storytelling, rooted in real life rather than fantasy. A new genre, they decided, needed a new name. The one that stuck was coined by Tatsumi: “Gekiga”, or “dramatic pictures”.

Those early pioneers are not well known in the West. The Wikipedia page on Gekiga does not even mention Matsumoto, whose work The Man Next Door thrilled and inspired the other two to raise their game. So it was wonderful, and not a little moving, to see Matsumoto’s son last night at the London Cartoon Museum, launching a two-month-long exhibition dedicated to Gekiga.

Tomohiko Matsumoto

Tomohiko Matsumoto, son of the originator of Gekiga comics, and cartoonist Takayo Akiyama, who translated for him

“These stories are less humorous and more realistic,” explained Tomohiko Matsumoto through a translator, “which appeals more to teenagers than children. Before, it was all fantasy – a lion starts talking to you, or people come out of a rocket. My father invented the manga which formed the basis for Gekiga in 1956, then two years later Tatsumi created the name, and worked in the same concept and style. Other cartoonists begin to experiment with Gekiga, and it starts to become more normal and popular, and that is the start of manga culture as you now know it.”

I collared Matsumoto after his speech, to ask him about the influence on these pioneers of Tezuka, who created Astroboy and Kimba The White Lion (which formed the template for Disney’s The Lion King). “Good question,” said Matsumoto smilingly in English, before continuing through the translator: “Tezuka used to live on the West side of Japan, near Osaka where my father was. He gave my father a drawing, and to Tatsumi too. [The drawing given to his father, of priceless historical significance, is up on the Cartoon Museum’s wall.] They admired his work greatly; their goal was to become cartoonists like him. But when he moved to Tokyo, and started doing shorter stories, where he needed to explain the action with speech bubbles, they felt it narrowed down his expression. So they needed to create that expression for themselves.”

So successful were they that the pupils became the masters: Tezuka himself would later derive influence from the more realistic Gekiga style, most notably in Message to Adolf.

Samurai Gishiden, by Hiroshi Hirata

Samurai Gishiden, by Hiroshi Hirata. Frank Miller, eat your heart out!

The exhibition at the London Cartoon Museum brings together over 50 pieces of original artwork and reproductions from rare manga, most never displayed before in Europe. Most interesting are pages from Tatsumi’s autobiographical manga memoir of the period, A Drifting Life, which conveys the challenge and excitement of developing a new literary movement; a series of intoxicatingly bright and pulpy noir covers; and two extraordinarily powerful black-and-white Samurai illustrations by Hiroshi Hirata, which could grace the wall of any art gallery.

As to Tomohiko’s revered father, Masahiko Matsumoto, he will finally get the British publication that in life eluded him. Four stories from the work that started it all, The Man Next Door, are being published by Breakdown Press this week – 58 years after it was written.

Feminism for men: Emma Watson launches the HeForShe campaign

22 Sep

Former Harry Potter star Emma Watson gave a passionate and well argued speech at the UN yesterday, where she has been UN Women Goodwill Ambassador since graduation. The speech was to launch HeForShe, a feminist campaign that is avowedly inclusive of men.

“Men,” she said as part of her 12-minute address, “I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue too.”

Caitlin Moran, one of the most influential of the new feminists (I’m sure there should be a catchy term coined for this, but new feminist will do), said much the same in her funny and essential book, How To Be A Woman:

“And do not think you shouldn’t be standing on that chair, shouting ‘I AM A FEMINIST!’ if you are a boy. A male feminist is one of the most glorious end-products of evolution. A male feminist should ABSOLUTELY be on the chair – so we ladies may all toast you, in champagne, before coveting your body wildly.”

I would like to respond to Watson’s initiative, as a man.

When I was at uni, my partner was a feminist, while I had been educated at an all-male public school and viewed women not so much as inequals, as aliens from another planet. Through her I discovered Greer and Dworkin, and Mary Daly who argued for the wholesale rebranding of words: “history”, for instance, should become “herstory”. We poked gentle fun at this, coining words such as “peroffspring” instead of “person”, but there was a strong point there. As Orwell knew, words frame concepts. Where there is no word for “freedom”, it is hard to conceive the idea of freedom. Where there is only a “chairman” of the board, or a “fireman”, it is hard to conceive of women being appointed to those roles. The change has now run deep. With the exception of Fireman Sam – kids’ cartoons still lag woefully behind in sex equality – the profession has been widely rebranded as “firefighters”; “chairman” is now “chairperson”.

There was in this strain of feminism, at that period of time, an undercurrent of man-hatred. “All men are rapists,” was a popular slogan. Gee, thanks. “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” was another. Mary Daly herself ran into legal difficulty at Boston University by refusing to teach male students. Perhaps it’s natural, when you have been oppressed, to hate your oppressors. But since then Nelson Mandela, for one, has shown that there is another way to react to oppression. By embracing your former oppressors, and making them part of the change.

The majority of young women do not identify themselves as “feminists”: only 29 per cent of American women do so; 42 per cent of Brits. Yet “feminist” simply means, “I believe in equal rights, respect and pay for women”. That’s it. That’s all. That so many still interpret it to mean “Hate men and refuse to shave armpits” is a legacy of those righteously angry gender-warriors of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

And because feminism simply means “I believe in equal rights, respect and pay for women”, a man can be a feminist too. The first club my eldest son joined at Cambridge was the Feminist Society. There was no sense, now, that he should be excluded for his gender.

Emma Watson is right to say that men can and should be part of the change. Right, too, to point out that men are also trapped by gender stereotypes; that suicide is the biggest single killer of men up to the age of 45; that being part of the change, for men, is not just philanthropic and ethically sound, but self-interested as well.

“Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive,” says Watson. “Both men and women should feel free to be strong. It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum instead of two sets of opposing ideals.”

So what can men, practically, do?

The first change is from within. Are you inclusive or dominating in a conversation? If in a relationship, do you do an equal share of household chores? If you have children, do you share the nappy-changing and sleepless nights and, when they’re older, the tough conversations, as well as the play?

The second is something simple I have been thinking about for a while, something I know I need to work on myself. It’s a ripple effect. I’ve brought my boys up to respect girls and treat them as equals. Now they’re older, I feel I should move on to other men.

In the distant past, when men cracked sexist jokes, I would laugh along with them. Unsure of my own masculinity (I’ve never been much of a “bloke”) I wanted to feel part of the pack. I feel ashamed of that now. These days, I maintain a stony silence, a tacit disapproval.

That’s not enough. As Emma Watson quoted in her speech, “All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men and women [tellingly, Watson had to add “and women” to the original quote, which did not consider them worthy of inclusion] to do nothing.”

Recently, at the poker table – one of the last pretty much all-male preserves – someone looked leeringly at the masseuse giving a shoulder-rub to a player. (It’s a common thing, in poker, when people sit for up to 24 hours at a stretch.) Without even addressing her, only the other men at the table, he announced, “I love that the massage girls here are all so gorgeous. This one can rub me down any time.”

I piped up, looking him in the eye, “I love that the massage girls here are all consummate professionals who have trained for years to acquire diplomas in different branches of physiotherapy.” (Which is true. I’ve asked.)

That felt good. I’d like to do more of it.

Shock around the Troc: Picturehouse announces huge Trocadero development

19 Sep
Trocadero rooftop

Rooftop bar planned for the new Picturehouse Trocadero

Wow. Today’s online Standard has broken the news that Picturehouse cinemas will be taking over the Trocadero Centre on Piccadilly Circus, and from the drawings and plans, it looks ace. I particularly like the rooftop bar, with a view of the London Eye and Houses of Parliament.

The cinema that was there before was a Cineworld multiplex. It was unloved and dilapidated, with ViewLondon reviews complaining of mice (always a problem in cinemas, mind you, with spilt popcorn etc – that’s why rep cinemas always used to have a cat).

Picturehouses, on the other hand, I love. I live five minutes from the Brixton Ritzy, my favourite cinema ever since I moved to London three decades ago (at least after the Scala closed down). As an Oxford student, I used to haunt the Phoenix and the Penultimate Picture Palace, also both now Picturehouse Cinemas. They cater to an artier, hipper crowd, who (lucratively, from the chain’s point of view) are happy to sit around in the bar afterwards discussing the movie. They have an ace loyalty card that gives you discounted beer and food as well as discounted film tickets.

(Less happily, the Ritzy have a workforce who had been striking, since not enough of that beer money was flowing back to them. Last Friday, staff finally accepted a deal which, while it fell short of the London Living Wage they sought, offered 26% pay rise over the next three years. Just in time for the opening of the miners’ strike film Pride, aptly enough.)

Picturehouse Trocadero

Yet more bar space at the Picturehouse Trocadero

The Trocadero deal is a funny old thing, though. Since 2012, as the Standard strangely did not point out, Picturehouse Cinemas have been owned by Cineworld. So really, the new Trocadero complex is less a grand new development, than a grand new rebranding. With a lot of funky bar space thrown in for those hipster movie discussions.

When the buy-out happened, movie fans were concerned that Cineworld would tarnish the Picturehouse brand, turn these quirky indie-feel cinemas into soulless corporates. On the evidence of the Trocadero development, however, the opposite may be the case. If so, hurrah. A movie example might be when Disney bought out Pixar – but rather than ruining Pixar, installed its supremo John Lasseter as creative head of both.

If all multiplexes could become a little bit more Picturehouse, I’d drink to that. Preferably in a rooftop hipster bar.

The future is now. Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder

17 Sep
2001 A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey, to be re-released as part of the Days of Fear and Wonder festival

It’s sci-fi, Jim, but not as we know it. The BFI today released full details of their festival Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder, and I have to say I’m impressed. Normally we in London get all the cool pop-ups, all the hot-tub/rooftop/secret cinemas, but this festival does a fine job spreading weirdness right across the land.

Want to watch sci-fi down a North Welsh mine filled with trampolines? Follow clues through the streets of Glasgow to find a screening of Escape From New York? See Mad Max 2 in a post-apocalyptic wasteland in Belfast? Watch eco-dome sci-fi film Silent Running at the Eden Project? Catch a starlit drive-in show at the Herstmonceux Observatory and Science Museum in East Sussex?

There are over a thousand screenings and events in over 200 locations around the country, including three months of programming at the BFI Southbank. The search function has just been added today to the BFI website.

My mind is blown. I was a sci-fi nut as a kid, though films were pretty sparse. The queue for Planet of the Apes stretched several times round the block. Star Wars made me vow to be involved in movies when I grew up. After I saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show, I made a point of tracking down all the B-movies name-checked in the Science Fiction Double Feature song (which, in some kind of dream/reality confusion worthy of Father Ted, Patricia Quinn sang to me and a handful of other party guests in Kim Newman’s kitchen last summer).

By now, a lot of the science-fiction I loved has become ancient history. Take 2001: A Space Odyssey (re-released in a digital transfer on Nov 28), or the comic 2000AD. We’re living more than a decade in the future from those once far-flung predictions. We may not quite yet be commuting to work on jet-packs, but we will soon be in driverless cars.

Sci-fi has emerged from the fringes to become not only the dominant blockbuster form, but its visionary cinema of ideas is being celebrated by the BFI in their biggest and most ambitious festival ever. Truly, the Geeks have inherited the Earth.

Pecs appeal: what The Guest reveals about Hollywood’s new stripping sexism

15 Sep

Ye gods, but Dan Stevens is gorgeous in new movie The Guest. You hardly recognise him from Downton Abbey: the puppy fat is replaced by cheekbones, the floppy fringe by manly stubble, the limpid blue eyes are now focused laser beams of energy. He needs to be gorgeous: the more interesting first half of the movie, before things go pear-shaped and daft-thrillery, is all about how he wins over a family, one by one – the mother through sensitivity, the father through beer, the young son through help with bullies. But does he really have to win over the 20-year-old daughter by stepping from a steamy bathroom in the skimpiest of towels? Those pecs! Those lats! Those abs! She swoons.

If Stevens becomes a star on the back of this, and he surely will, his personal trainer deserves 10%, along with his agent and manager. In fact, it’s a little surprising there’s not yet an Oscar category for that. And what’s interesting is how thoroughly gratuitous nudity in Hollywood has now been turned on its head.

Right into the ‘90s it was almost impossible to be an actress and not get your kit off, unless you were Meryl Streep. It’s why columnist Julie Burchill used to call acting a form of legalised prostitution. Even the respected auteur Robert Altman pressurised Greta Scacchi (unsuccessfully) to show off her celebrated bust in The Player, despite a prior agreement: “When it came to the day of the shoot,” Scacchi later recalled, “he told me ‘Get yourself on the set, take your knickers off and do what you’re paid to do.’” Demi Moore was paid a record $12 million to strip off in Striptease. Halle Berry is rumoured to have been given an extra $500,000 to show her boobs in Swordfish, though she denies any extra fee.

How times have changed in the new millennium. When Alice Eve gratuitously stripped in front of Kirk in Star Trek Into Darkness, the backlash was huge, to the point where the scriptwriter apologised – and even then she only undressed to bra and pants. There is no expectation now that beautiful and talented actresses such as Jennifer Lawrence will have to get naked to get ahead. It’s one reason, aside from righteous indignation at the appalling invasion of privacy, that the recent hacking of nude celebrity pictures has aroused such interest: in the ‘90s, it would have been nothing people hadn’t seen before, on screens 40 feet high.

No such reticence applies to the male physique, and I blame Brad Pitt. When he took his shirt off in Thelma & Louise, revealing the washboard abs beneath the cheeky grin, it opened the doors for equal opportunities sexism. Since then, Matt Damon, Tobey McGuire, Will Smith, Ewan MacGregor, Michael Fassbender, Tom Hardy, Hugh Jackman, Tom Cruise, Gerard Butler, Ryan Reynolds, Channing Tatum… actually, it would be quicker to make a list of actors who haven’t had to bulk up and strip off.

And now, finally, there are signs that the more insidious sexism in Hollywood may gradually and grudgingly be coming to an end. It’s long been argued by movie execs, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, that films with women in the lead roles don’t make money. None, therefore, were made… so none made money. Bridesmaids in comedy, and in the blockbuster market The Hunger Games and Gravity (though its director initially had to fight the studio to get them to okay a female lead), have demonstrated the fallacy, and execs are, according to the New York Times, taking note.

There’s still a ways to go, and still a big disparity in pay cheques. But, in liberating Hollywood’s women, must we objectify Hollywood’s men? How long before aspiring male actors are simply reading for the part of “Hunky Boyfriend: must be prepared for Shower Scene”?

Coal v kohl in Pride, this year’s breakthrough Brit hit

11 Sep

Pride movie

Every couple of years, a small British film comes along that transcends its parochial setting to touch a universal nerve, with award nominations and US box-office upsets ensuing. Think Brassed Off, or Billy Elliot. Now think Matthew Warchus’s Pride, released on Friday, which splices the DNA of both those sleeper hits.

Pride is based, as is so much Oscar-bait, on a true story: having realised, in 1984, that there is one minority group being persecuted even more viciously by the police than themselves, a Soho-based Gay & Lesbian group becomes one of the best fund-raisers for the miners’ strike – only to find the Welsh coal-men, however desperate they are, reluctant to accept charity from a bunch of “poofs and perverts”.

That the insular mining community is, for the most part, won over by the exotic visitors is no spoiler; without that there’s no movie. [In real life, they didn’t even need winning over, as this piece in GayStarNews shows.] But there’s a real joy in how it unfolds: particularly Dominic West’s showstopping disco routine to the song Shame, Shame, Shame in the miners’ social club. The ensemble cast is wonderful. Imelda Staunton and Bill Nighy, playing against type as a shy and stuttering poetry-lover, seem most likely to receive Best Actor noms, and the only false note is struck by the one irreconcilably homophobic villainess of the piece, who seems too much of a battle-axe to be true.

And the script… well, I wish I’d written it. The opening lines: “I’ve spoken to the Council about your deviant parties,” warns an older resident of the main gay character’s housing estate. “No need to do that,” he teases, “just knock on the door and we’ll let you in.” Further enraged, the man warns, “They’re sending policemen!” “Ooh, I do hope so!” The one-liners fizz throughout, but first-time writer Stephen Beresford is also deft at painting it black, as the spectre of AIDS beings to spread its chill.

As to the politics of the strike, that’s wisely ignored in favour of its human cost. But what starts as a good-hearted paean of tolerance and understanding for “poofs and perverts” develops into something more interesting and subversive still: a reassertion of the dignity and solidarity of the Labour movement, at a time when it is more sorely needed than ever. The ending had me in tears.