Thursday, 25 December 2014

All I watch for Christmas...

It's the season of double-issue festive TV Guides.
But what to watch if you don't have an aerial?

We don't have a TV as such, or at least access to traditional broadcast channels. With the season of comfort and joy often being so irrevocably tied-up with childhood memories - one thing that I occasionally miss is festive programming.  Admittedly, those glitzy Christmas Variety specials and perenial film favourites are often better in memory than reality (unless it's Morcambe and Wise, of course), but I wanted to make the effort this year to see some Christmas-themed films in the lead-up to the big day.  Our unchallenged annual Christmas Eve film will always be Love Actually, its impossible-dream cast and wryly-observed comedy overcoming the occasional cloying sentiment and questionable gender-stereotyping.
This year I also managed to get hold of a universally-panned film adaptation of a very special 1983 novel, a mockumentary which sadly drained all the fun out of what should have been a sure-fire concept, an acclaimed remake of a nearly 70 year old classic and a gorgeous, almost description-defying interpretation of a Hans Christian Andersen tale.

Winter's Tale (2014)

This film has received such a drubbing that its a wonder it got its brief cinematic release at all. I read the novel it is based upon while living in a castle in Scotland, a slightly fantastical location which matched the 'just left of reality setting' of the book. It made quite an impression on me, but seemed so unheard of in following years that sometimes I had to wonder if I actually dreamt it.
The film does not deserve the universal abuse; it is an engaging love story well performed by a talented cast with some beautiful sets and cinematography.  But I'm not sure it can fairly be called an adaptation of the book either, which is many times richer in detail, texture and characters than this film could ever be. The screen writer is honest in his admission that they simply took the love story strand from the novel and adapted that, in which case I believe the film succeeds. Bu there is an epic and engrossing story left untold -which doesn't feature unnecessary exposition or a pointless cameo from Will Smith.  And yes, a key part of the film is set at Christmas time, so it qualifies as a festive film.  Don't listen to the reviews - give it a try.

Stalking Santa (2006)

Oh dear. There's nothing like that sinking feeling when a film you've encouraged others to watch with you gradually and irrevocably takes on the dull sheen of excrescence as the running time drags on and on.  A mockumentary about a man who devoting his life to proving the existence of Santa, and through his researches discovering evidence in an ancient papyrus scroll, cave paintings and even previously unseen Roswell documentation should have been fun.  And these early sections were.  Unfortunately the other 95% of the film is a trudge through misjudged and laboured gags which just clunk to the floor and lie there like festering mince pies of Christmas Past.  Our main character is not simply uncharismatic, because that's the point, but actually unlikeable in more of a miscast sort of way. Probably aiming for the delicious cringe-style humour of The Office, this might have worked as a half-hour take-off in the vein of Leonard Nimoy's or Arthur C Clarke's 'unexplained' series. But instead Stalking Santa saps every ounce of goodwill by staying too long and trying too hard.

Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

Written and produced by John Hughes, this remake of the 1947 classic could have gone just as disasterously wrong. Definitely a family movie, possibly more child-centric than the original, this has the aesthetic of a production from ten years earlier; from the depths of the 'Wall-Street, braces-wearing' 1980's.
I'm happy to report, however, that this film is delightful and should be a must see for anyone with younger relatives in the lead-up to Christmas. Richard Attenborough is perfectly cast as a man who, although not definitively identified as the real thing, completely convinces you in a film which is after all really about faith in goodness and the power of belief. An important message for any time of the year, especially this one.

The Snow Queen (2005)

Proof that not only was Hans Christian Andersen on drugs, but possibly everyone involved in the making of the this utterly unique production. In fact, even watching it is a rather trippy experience - but in the best possible way.  Unique is a much-overused term, but I honestly can't compare its gorgeous blending of live action and animation to anything I've ever seen before.  Sometimes it's a little like Tron, other times like a vintage hand-tinted silent film but mostly it's a full-blown motion-painting which completely blurs the lines between real and created. For the visuals alone I'd like to own this one myself, but the performances themselves are also enchanting, including the silent Snow Queen herself who gives Angelina Jolie's Maleficent a run for her money.  This is no sanitised, simplified Christian Andersen either, but takes you to some very dark places before good eventually triumphs.  Beyond the wintery setting this film is not overtly Christmassy, but made perfect viewing at the close of the big day itself.

Sadly these recommendations come a little late for this year, but I'll post a reminder in the lead up to Christmas 2015, along with some new additions.  In the meantime, I hope you and your family had a very Merry Christmas - and 'the Stick who Walks' wishes you a happy, healthy New Year.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Count Down Part 7: The Ghost of Chelsea Present

The Prince of Darkness finds himself in an alternative swinging London of the early 70s; mis-imagined by a venerable studio trying to connect with a world which was leaving it behind.

Dracula AD 1972 only proves that the more things change, the more the stay the same.  Despite the frenetic attempt to dowse every thing in technicolour fashion, misconceived lingo and equally dated music, it's really only the scenes involving Cushing and Lee,  (particularly their confrontations book-ending the film) which bring this instalment to life.  The final showdown, beautifully lit and shot in the decaying remains of a de-sanctified church, betrays none of the film's strained contemporary setting and could as easily be set in this series' glory days of centuries past.  Indeed, each antagonist makes his home in a determinedly unmodern setting: Dracula naturally favours a crypt, while Jessica Van Helsing  decries her grandfather's Victorian home as "a mausoleum".

But there's some work to done before we skip ahead to the best bits.  Let's begin with the positives.  By this stage praising our two leads should be a moot point.  Despite grief having visibly aged Cushing so much that Stephanie Beacham's role had to hastily revised to Van Helsing's granddaughter rather than direct offspring, he still owns every single scene he's in. Gentle and compassionate with Beacham, yet still a steely force to be reckoned with when facing down the undead. Honorable mention must go to Cushing's impromptu pull-up when trying to gain access to the fenced-off Cavern - indeed, in interviews Christopher Neame recalls the bruising he received during his tussle with the veteran actor.

Peter Cushing plays (a) Van Helsing for the first time in 12 years.
Lee actually gives voice to some of Bram Stokers original dialogue (probably at the actor's own insistence) and despite giving yet another faultlessly convincing performance as Hammer's greatest anti-hero, publicity stills and behind the scenes footage suggest that he was not having the time of his life.

Come on Chris, if this doesn't make you happy, what will?
Having been vocal about his desire to leave the role behind since the early 60s, why did Lee keep returning again and again to Hammer's Dracula films? This excerpt from an interview with Director John Landis reveals the answer:
"I would say, "Forget it, I don't want to do another one." (Then) I'd get a call from Jimmy Carreras (President of Hammer films) in a state of hysteria and he'd say: "No, you have to do it... because I've already sold it to the American distributor with you playing the part.  Think of all the people you know so well, that you will put out of work!" Emotional blackmail.  That's the only reason I did them."
So we can now add 'martyr' to Sir Christopher Lee's many achievements.

It's the festive season, and I find myself unwilling to dwell uncharitably on this film's less successful elements. Actually, in all honesty, element is more accurate.  I have no problem with Hammer taking 'Drac to the future', especially as it reunites its two stars in their legendary roles for the first time since 1959.  But I just wish the production team didn't feel they had labour the setting so much.  The interminable performance by short-lived band Stoneground at the beginning is an embarrassing toe-curler of the first order, while the dialogue spoken by the younger stars sounds like a middle-aged screen writer's lazy sketch of Hippy-speak, with few lines left unappended by the word 'man'. The soundtrack is similarly unsubtle, but probably dates better than the other '70s trappings spray-coating this otherwise worthy addition to the Dracu-Lee saga.

Caroline Munro just about redeems the cringe-some musical interlude
The performances are all typically of a standard exceeding Hammer script requirements, with Christopher Neame bringing just enough gravitas to disciple Johnny Alucard and Stephanie Beacham showing all the promise which her long career has delivered on. It's always a pleasure to see Caroline Munro, and the tall actress recalls in interviews how she was genuinely afraid of the towering Christopher Lee in their scene together.
But the film's crowning glories are the confrontations between the Count and two different generations of Van Helsings.  The frantic night-time grapple on the runaway coach at the film's start is pure gold - as exciting and well-realised as the climax of any of the previous films - and this is just this beginning.

That wheely hurts: the Count is spoke to
The climactic resolution of this film is beautifully shot, the surreal lighting giving the impression that stills from this sequence have been somehow hand-tinted.  Hammer films are modern morality plays and naturally good triumphs, the battered but determined Van Helsing using a shovel to force the struggling King vampire onto a concealed bed of stakes in surprisingly gritty, but satisfying conclusion.

Not painted from 'life'
History seems to remember this film as an unsuccessful experiment, which is certainly odd as it had a direct sequel the following year, so faithful to AD 1972 that together they make a splendid two-part adventure.  But more about Lee's final bow as Hammer's Dracula next time.

It's only five more sleeps to Christmas, and this blog is about to turn very tinselly in the next few days.  I was even hoping to somehow tie Dracula AD 1972 to the festive season, and unsurprisingly failed miserably until it finally occured to me why I like it so much:
"In the seventh part of 'Count Down' Hammer gave to me: 
Peter Cushing, Caroline Munro and Christopher Lee"

And if that isn't a Christmas present worth opening I don't know what is.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Great Southern Land

Nine sleeps to go, but I received the greatest gift my parents ever gave me in 1972: when my family moved to a tropical Island on the other side of the world

Immigration was a popular pass-time in Scotland, and families were encouraged to up-root themselves and set up new lives in former colonies of the British Empire.  Canada, South Africa and Australia were popular destinations. Contrariness made my Father pick New Zealand, so we were soon jetting towards the one place no-one else was going, or had even heard of.

Our first night in the run-down cottage which was to be our temporary home, my mother sat in the middle of the furniture-less living room and cried.  It was a shock, the change and challenge of building a new life all seemed so huge and she was homesick.  (In years to come, she became a fierce advocate of the kiwi lifestyle and would never entertain returning to Scotland.  There was always a slight gnawing anxiety that my father might want to one day, but despite always pining for the country of his birth, he knew when he had it good).

I was mad about animals, and comfortingly, my new bedroom had cartoon African wildlife on the wallpaper. Throughout that unsettled night, trains rumbled through the rail yards across the road, on their way to even stranger places.

It was March, and the next day dawned hot. People wore shorts, sometimes bare feet. They said ‘Gidday!’ Tar melted on the roads. There were huge palm trees planted along the river banks – this was a tropical island paradise!
It was all in stark contrast to the Scottish town I had grown up in up till then.  Much more of an urban playground, I never really got the opportunity to lift rotten branches and gape in fascination at the variety of critters wriggling and scuttling for cover – the wildlife encountered back home was usually an angry dog who sent me scuttling for cover.
I don’t even remember climbing a tree in that concrete jungle, whereas here we had a whole wood (actually a very modest orchard) outside our own back door. And a tyre swing!  Not in my most fevered imaginings could this ever have come true!

There were overgrown fuscia trees crowding the cottage, the already other-worldly flowers rendered completely alien in livid pinks and purples and an ancient, aromatic lemon tree which attracted all kinds of insects.  I got bee stings from running across the small lawn in bare feet, and was terrified but fascinated at the same time by a tiny jumping spider, because I’d been warned about the poisonous katipo (and have still never seen one).

Initially, school was marginally more terrifying.  I was stood at the front of the class while they were encouraged to guess where I came from.  A barrage of exotic realms were flung at me, before I was buffeted by a lusty recital of  ‘A funny old bird is the kiwi bird’.
I was rubbish at team sports (and still am – the promised bodily co-ordination never arrived) and was always left over after the Captains had picked their soccer teams. But somehow being able to draw made me accepted.  The first time we did some drawing in the classroom my teacher got the teacher from the next classroom, who then got the headmaster to come and watch me scribble ( animals, of course) with an HB pencil on a big sheet of newsprint paper.  My name quickly got shortened to its first three letters by my classmates. I was six, and instantly adopted the lingo and, perhaps to my father’s slight dismay, the accent. Every variety of the Scots accent makes a big thing of the ‘r’ sound, whereas Kiwi’s seemed determined to make it an endangered species.  Fair enough – so in Godzone I did as the Godzonans do.

In the year of our arrival, at least, Blenheim had an odd post-war timelessness about it.  Women wore sun frocks, men wore hats and giant wooden butterflies adorned the outside walls of houses. Some older people called England ‘home’, a Mother country they’d never been to, while younger generations didn’t seem to think much of ‘Poms’, a description I sometimes got inexplicably tagged with.

Swimming was a huge part of the kiwi lifestyle and my sister and I were quickly enrolled in swimming lessons to learn how to ‘starfish’.  Huge use was made of our school pool but in weekends the destination was something which sounded to my foreign ears like ‘the town bars’.  It took me ages to realise that the last word was actually ‘baths’ – a quaintly archaic term for the municipal swimming pool.  Unlike Scottish Pools this one was outdoors, no cloying pall of chlorine, queasily tepid water and conditioned air or weird muffled acoustics, but swimming as nature intended - in the fresh air and sunshine.  This is a passion which has stayed with me always, despite water temperature and shark documentaries.  After hours in the cool blue water, my school friends and I would lie stretched out on the sun-warmed tiles by the poolside drying and browning (or reddening) at an equal rate.

Beaches were ‘down the Sounds’ (the Marlborough Sounds were actually north of us, but you went ‘down them’.  'Up the Lake’ was Lake Rotoiti, due south in the Nelson Lakes National Park
We joined another family on a holiday ‘down the Sounds’, in an incredibly run-down batch.  I poured over my pride and joy – the A to Z of New Zealand animals and looked forward to ticking off as many as I could.  I caught my first fish, an undersized ‘spotty’ who had to be instantly released, and cried all the way back to shore.

The sun still shone in wintertime, my Mother marveled at the way the sky could be cloudless and the sun blazing, while the temperature plummeted past zero and the grass frosted white.  Mice moved into our house, another species for me to be fascinated by.
A long-gone Homestyle bakery on the other side of the railway tracks layered our chilly semi-industrial neighbourhood with the irresistible aroma of fresh bread.

Summer came again and we discovered berry fruit, not the brambles and blackberries we’d been used to, but strawberries and boysenberries.  Perhaps we couldn’t always afford them, because my Mother announced that she’d heard sliced tomatoes sprinkled with sugar tasted just like strawberries, and we were going to try it.  When asked for my verdict I replied innocently and with a complete lack of the smart-arsed-ness which my Mother often characterised me by: “It tastes like tomatoes with sugar on them.”

We finished our first year in New Zealand at ‘the Lake’ sharing Christmas dinner with new friends while the sun blazed outside and small boats dotted the sparkling water.  We were as far as physically possible from our own extended family, and the seasonal comfort and joy was inevitably tinged with home-sickness for Mum and Dad, but my sister and I were utterly, bare-footedly, pavolva-lovingly converted.

My parents brought us from the other side of the world to find a better life, and in that one brave, scary, strange and utterly wonderful year everything changed.  Anything of value I now have, or can call myself blessed to have experienced,  I can trace back to that courageous decision they made, in far-away 1972.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

On the Third Long Play of Christmas

Third time's the charm? It's time once again for the gift which really does seem to bring more joy in the giving than the receiving...

It's a shorter Christmas album this year, we're going for quality over quantity (ahem - and also trying to make sure that the disk actually plays). But as usual it's been fun trying to track down those Christmas singles by surprisingly familiar artists which you probably haven't heard before (or ever wanted to)...

1. It doesn't often snow at Christmas (The Pet Shop Boys, 2009)
This is a 2009 commercial version of a Christmas single previously only available to the Pet Shop Boys' fan club - and is as orchestrally sparse and understated as you might expect from them.  I jest, of course, it's a production number of colossally camp proportions and quite brilliant. Cue drum machine, choir, bells and , er ... trumpet solo!

2. Joy (Tracey Thorn, 2012)
From the unmistakable Ms Thorn's fourth solo album Tinsel and Lights, Joy is a family effort: featuring her husband and the other half of 'Everything but the Girl', Ben Watt, with backing vocals by their three children.  Actually, the whole album is wonderful, watch out for her on next year's playlist...

3. Christmas-time (Don't Let the Bells End) (The Darkness, 2003)
The Darkness are often accused of sounding 'just like Queen', but there are far worse charges which a band could face.  Certainly, the guitar is classic Brian May, but could that be school-boyish parody lurking within the boisterous lyrics?  I couldn't possibly comment - just enjoy 'the best Christmas single Queen never made'. (Thanks Peter)

4. Silver Bells (She and Him, 2011)
The 'adorkable' and multi-talented actress Zooey Deschanel formed a duo called She and Him with musician Matt Ward, when he learned that she sang and wrote songs but never pursued a musical career.  In this stripped-down version of the perenial favourite, Deschanel picks her way unhurriedly through the song while accompanying herself on the ukelele.  Cute as a button, much like the lady herself.

5. Baby Please come Home (Darlene Love, 1963)
U2 have also recorded this Phil Spector hit, but this album is about Christmas, not you, Bono - so we have the original Darlene Love version.  One reason why is that  "...nobody can match Love's emotion and sheer vocal power" according to Rolling Stone magazine, and who are we to argue? Speaking of Bonos, however, the percussion on this track is credited to one with the first name Sonny, with backing vocals by a lady needing no second name: Cher.

6. Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight) (Ramones, 1987)
This is 'our' song, as Rose and I invariably fight while engaged in that most peaceful and good-willing act of the year: decorating the Christmas Tree. (Last year was an exception: I toppled off a stool while adjusting the crowning star, instead, and broke a toe)
The point is: who'd have thought it would take a pioneering Punk Band to remind us of the true meaning of the season: peace on earth, at least for one night...

7. What Christmas Means to Me (Stevie Wonder, 1967)
What is Christmas without some Motown?  This song is particularly moving when you consider that Stevie Wonder is lovingly describing festive iconography he was never able to perceive himself.  Wonderous indeed.

8. Please come home for Christmas (The Eagles, 1978)
Don Henley on vocals backed by Joe Walsh on guitar - what else could you want for Christmas? The first Christmas song to reach the US Billboard top 20 in 15 years when it was released, and you can hear why.

9. All I want for Christmas (Styx, 2002)
These legendary rockers have toured with the likes of Boston, Foreigner and REO Speedwagon, which is a surely Seventies music fan's idea of Christmas.  In this track Glam rock makes its traditional album appearance this year - feel free to stomp around in your platforms to the glittery beat - you know you want to.

10. 2000 Miles (The Pretenders, 1983)
A Chrissie present! (sorry.)
The Pretenders are instantly recognisable and rightfully legendary . This song, about distance not always being overcome in efforts to be together at Christmas-time, is a little mournful; but no-one does bitter-sweet like Chrissie Hynde.

11. Last Christmas (Manic Street Preachers, 2003)
The Manics need no introduction in our house, we've enjoyed the Welsh rockers for years.  I've never been able to love the simpering Wham original of this ubiquitous Christmas chestnut, but the Manic Street Preachers' unplugged version is sublime. It deserves the applause.

12. Snoopy's Christmas (The Royal Guardsmen, 1967 )
'Nuff said. Except: Merry Christmas, my friend!

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Light Savour

Star Wars fans have felt the disappointing side of the Force many times in recent years, so did the teaser for the latest instalment strike back with the return of a New Hope?

Proper, and subtly updated, storm troopers (instead of those prequel pixel-monkeys):

A Swiss/Sith Army lightsabre with extra attachments (can-opener and corkscrew?)  Be careful how you hold this one:

And best of all, if you aren't going to show any familiar faces in what is after all just a teaser, then give us something just as familiar and beloved - the ship that made the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs.  The Millennium Falcon is lovingly trailed by a swooping, tilting camera in a bravura shot which homages old-school Dykstraflex. Oh, and some TIE Fighters:

Welcome back, Star Wars!

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Growing up is hard to do

The game this weekend was League (re) Union.

The 'indy band' album cover shot - somehow spontaneous and posed at the same time...

"No, let's just get a picture of the three middle-aged men" said Mary with unusual reticence after we invited she and Rose to join us in a group photograph.
She was right though, the shadow of fifty is cast across us much like the one from Jonty's nose was in the ensuing photographs (banter, guys)  - and we weren't even fift-EEN when we met.

3 unwise men...
The writer, the actor and the artist encountered each other amid the 'Disco and Death Star' final years of the 1970s, and formed strong bonds through the metamorphic years of secondary school. We dabbled in each other's disciplines: treading boards, sketch books and creative writing with varying degrees of success but consistent enthusiasm. And it was this last area, the literary arena, which caused enough laughter this weekend for me to literally have to pass around tissues for a roomful of 'adults' to staunch their tears of mirth.
As I've mentioned before; not being the cool kids, we did more science outside of school than we did within - and even wrote up reports about our astronomy club (the 'STAR League') viewing sessions. Spanning 1981-1986 and recorded in four volumes now known as the astrobooks, these accounts became invaluable commentaries on our times together, at times crassly naive but also possessing a pure, almost virginal outlook untainted by experience and cynicism.  (And maturity and intelligence at times, but that hasn't changed as this weekend amply demonstrated.)  And it was these recently restored journals which generated enough screams and roars of hilarity to ensure that it wasn't until Monday when all our cats tentatively returned.

'Astrobooks' (and ancient photo albums) all got a good going over...
Stretching the abundant patience of our wives, who also appear within those pages, the weekend was something of a regression to those early years, complete with a Sunday Horror (on Saturday night), a trek through farmland to take a variety of group photographs (which will hopefully always bring as much future amusement as the the thirty year old ones in the Astrobooks), and finally a viewing session of a perfect night sky at the very end.

Cheers! (again)
This blog has never been intended as a diary, so I'll let these images speak for themselves. And I'll close by stealing a wonderfully apt quotation which Jonty used in his online summing up of the weekend:
"One day chums
Having a laugh a minute
One day comes
And they're a part of your lives" ….for over three decades!

And what's a summery afternoon without some frisbee 'action'?

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Hey, Missy!

A Scottish Doctor and Master, and the best series for almost ten years.
So why does writing about the conclusion feel like a chore?
I've started, so I'll finish...

The scary/crazy Scottish HR manager from that wonderful series Green Wing is the Master - its confirmed. But also - she's a woman.  Fandom has tied itself in knots trying to concoct over-complicated alternative theories for this intriguing character's identity for three months now - and what a twittering waste of data that was.  Sometimes the simplest, and in this case, most logical conclusion is the correct one - even in a Steven Moffat script. And Michelle Gomez is a magnificent Master, thankfully supplanting the excruciating John Sim version, to become the best since Delgado.  Or at least Jacobi.

Except, she now appears to have been vapourised.  By a Cyberman.  Who's also the resurrected Brigadier.  Whaaaat?

Despite many wonderful, ingenious scenes and exquisite performances, watching this season finale wasn't an entirely pleasurable experience for me.  In fact, it stopped me sleeping properly, which is ridiculous for a TV programme.  I can only put it down to the feeling that Dark Water/Death in Heaven falls short of capping what has been the best series since 2005 - with a consistency of story-telling quality which surpassed all expectation.  Unsurprisingly, we've had the best Doctor in years, and the very surprising rehabilitation of a companion who has surged from the back of the field to the lead.  This alone could have carried a year of average scripts, but instead we've been given Into the Dalek, Listen, Mummy on the Orient Express, Flatline - no less than four stories surely destined for all-time greatness.  I even loved the Robin Hood episode.
So, could this ever be rounded off satisfactorily?

Moffat rose to the occasion magnificently last year with Day of the Doctor after a very patchy year of stories - but this time I'm left with the feeling that we've dropped back into the credibility-stretching, over-complicated keyboard bashing which finales like the Wedding of River Song previously 'thrilled' me with. After being so thoroughly spoilt this year I hate to be negative now, so I'll emphasise the positive (which took a second viewing to really bring to the fore).  Actually, I'll make a top five list:

1.Circular logic.
What does that logo mean, we all thought?  Then the doors closed together and we all suddenly remembered we've known who the villains in this story were going to be for months.  A forehead slapping moment in the best possible way.

2. Kissy Missy.
You can keep all your bromance/romance fan theories, this was a hilarious and icky moment, with the Master expoiting a completely new way of rattling the Doctor. And the look on Clara's face was priceless...

3. Martial art. A painting of the Brigadier (from his last appearance in the programme), is a lovely tribute, rendering that absurd Cyber-Brig nonsense later on even more unnecessary and increasing the pang of regret that the new programme makers didn't move quickly enough to get Mr. Courtney back while they still could.

4. Only Osgood dies young.
Still reeling from this one and I have to hand it to Moffat.  How do you show just how malevolent the new Master can be? Have her ruthlessly kill a supporting character of course, but obviously not the most beloved one which fandom instantly took to it's heart as their avatar, and has just been invited to join the TARDIS crew.  No, that would never happen. Much less tread on her glasses afterwards.  Oh no.

5. Permission to Squeeeee!
I once read about a quick-thinking skydiver who saved a friend who's chute failed to open by doing exactly this - so it really could happen.  I couldn't do it though, I invariably fumble with keys and locks under the least-challenging of circumstances.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Return to Aus

Standing at the limit of an endless ocean...
hidden in the summer for a million years

The Domain Gardens - perfect for a picnic in the shade

Thank you to everyone who left such kind comments on Facebook about my previous post - The Insect Bride.  Reading your well-wishes made our celebration even more special  We spent our 25th Anniversary in Melbourne - a long-planned and much looked-forward to week of sheer indulgence.
Trying to book an apartment at the beginning of this year proved to be unexpectedly difficult, until it finally dawned on us that we were married on Melbourne Cup day, and would be staying during that City's busiest week of the year. However, I am fortunate to be married to one of the planet's greatest organisers, and even this obstacle proved no match for her mighty skills.
We arrived on a grey, chilly morning, and left a week later in a tar-melting 37 degrees, browner, happier but also poorer after enjoying shopping and cuisine in a city world-renowned for it's cafe and restaurant culture.

The Yarra river (and Flinders station on the left) from the south bank

Both somewhat frazzled by our regular work and commuting routine, we were determined not to spend the week rushing around and achieved this goal pretty well.  It helps that Melbourne is an extremely easy city to navigate, laid out in a grid pattern and easily land-marked by the Yarra River and distinctive Eureka Tower.  Following the advice of making a one week tram ticket our first priority, getting around proved to be extremely easy, especially as our centrally-located apartment genuinely was.  Early mornings would see me running along the banks of the Yarra River before grabbing a couple of takeaway coffees to bring up to the apartment on my return.  Our balcony caught the morning sun and despite still being on 'kiwi time' and rising early, it was wonderful to relax out there and not feel as if we had to rush to begin our day.

Inner city living - some feat.

When we weren't eating and spending, we visited the Jean-Paul Gaultier exhibition - already iconic and striking creations made all the more so by the mannequins wearing them.  Precisely positioned projectors cast footage of human features onto their blank faces, an unsettling effect particularly when a mannequin unexpectedly blinked or even spoke to you.

Blinkin' heck - did that dummy just open its eyes?

The Melbourne Cup Races were an inescapable presence, and we went with the flow, drinking in the undeniable elegance on display by people-watching at Flinders Railway station,  and Rose buying a 'fascinator' to wear while watching the Cup Day race at Federation Square.
We had meals with friends, one who's lived in Melbourne for two months, and the other for 20 years - both very much in love with the place and it's certainly easy to see why.  One morning we hired a couple of the bikes which the City council makes available at various stations throughout the city, and traced the upper section of the Yarra river - crossing at Port Melbourne to make our way back again.  Paths are well marked for cyclists, and equally, areas where they are not welcome.  I'll risk incurring the wrath of the popular cyclists front of Wellington by voicing my approval.  As an early morning waterfront pedestrian I dearly wish a route for cyclists could be delineated, rather than feeling as if I'm trying to walk to work on a velodrome track.

Melbourne Cathedral

We finished our week at a long established Melbourne cabaret - entered via a ghost train.  'Dracula's' has entertained this City and the Gold coast for almost 25 years with a blend of playfully horror-infused burlesque and musical entertainment and we were treated to a seventies-themed show with well-staged and performed renditions of hits from that era.
Packing the following morning involved shoe-horning a large number of rare and long-sought blu-ray discs into our bags - now much fuller than when we had arrived.  Many of these movies will be fodder for film reviews in following months - I'm looking forward to finding the time to watch them.
Our foremost impression of Melbourne is that it is an incredibly relaxed and friendly city, which made it perfect for combining a shopping trip and culinary expedition with a peaceful getaway break.

Grungy, lively Degraves St - perfect for breakfast at any time of the day.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The Insect Bride

Even Frankenstein's Monster found a mate. Dracula had Brides, Kong had his 'squeeze' and for 25 years today I have been married to my 'Amazing Amazon'.

It might not seem appropriate that the wonderful person who so often symbolises practicality, stability and normality in my developmentally-arrested life should feature in this fantastic fiction-obsessed blog.  Except, as Rose encourages me to aspire to occasionally give at least a vague impression of a grown-up; life with me has somewhat tainted her.

She now knows her Marvel and DC, can name the Star Wars planets, identify the Doctor's friends and enemies, and quote:"Klaatu Barada Nikto". She's been made to watch some atrocious films for the sake of my sad obsessions, but always finds something to enjoy about the occasional good ones - which makes me ridiculously happy.

But as fervent as the denial would be, I believe the seed was there before I ever stumbled awkwardly into her life. As everyone who knows us will have heard, Rose moved in next door to me at the Nurse's Hostel all those years ago, so even I couldn't fail to meet my future life partner.  Having barely met, she watched an episode of Doctor Who with me in the TV Lounge (The Daemons) and remarked "The Doctor's riding a motorbike?".  This was enough to distract me from one of my all-time favourite stories: you see, the general viewing public call him "Doctor Who", only the enlightened correctly refer to the lead character 'the Doctor'.

Rose already loved Monty Python, Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds and our first 'unofficial date' was to an audience participation screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (do I know how to treat a Lady, or what?)
Through our quarter-century together she's become chilled to the bone with me as we've scanned the night sky together, made me damn sure I kept my guard up as she followed me into many years of martial arts training and even sat through a live concert of music from Doctor Who. I'm well-aware that this programme plays far too big a role in my life, but I will always smile to myself recalling that when the impossible happened, and the long presumed-dead series returned from cancellation to become a world-wide hit, it did so with the episode title: 'Rose'.

Of course, we've done so much more together - which she often instigates and organises, that is far more significant, challenging and rewarding than anything which comes under the frivolous and geeky auspices of this blog - and I won't detract from that by giving mention here.
I try to be realistic about myself: there was never any need for 'Ladies to form an orderly queue', but somehow I have ended up with someone who is not only the perfect woman, but perfect for me.  Happy Anniversary to my wonderful wife.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

School Night of the Living Dead

Halloween is here, and some scenes may disturb as we look back at a very Kiwi tradition of late night chills

"we kiss on the sofa, roll on the rug 
we’ve finished the wine by the time that the credits scroll up 
our week begins and ends on Sunday night 
we live for the Sunday Horrors" 
(Sunday Horrors: from Pre​-​Pill Love by Simon Comber)

An apt song which I hope Mr Comber doesn't mind me quoting, although it's not exactly my experience of the glorious seemingly never-ending seasons of late night vintage frights that was TV2s Sunday Horrors. My happiest memories are gathering a stalwart group of male friends at my house throughout our late teens; spanning our final year at school and beyond - to get-togethers while home from University.  By the end of it's run girlfriends and flatmates would form part of the audience  - we'd grown up with The Sunday Horrors.

I've wanted to write about these late night screenings for quite some time, as they went far beyond mere viewings of murky Universal and Hammer classics, (if we were lucky), and came to embody a comforting, end-of-the-weekend bonding ritual which was rarely missed.

(Left: it all began here: Taste the Blood of Dracula in May 1983 was our first-ever 'group viewing' - and a comfort against the end of the May holidays)
In trawling through old diaries to try to pin-point specific film titles and screening dates, the cameraderie of these long-ago gatherings has really hit home, and scanning the ever-changing roster of friends who dutifully trooped through my door on a Sunday night brings a sharp pang of nostalgia.  I say 'dutifully' because I was a genuine horror film fanatic, but my friends, being friends indeed, came along for the ride.  This is not to suggest they did it for me, but that the companionship was the most important part.  Whatever trials were taking place in our academic or embryonic romantic lives, we could put it all aside, enjoy my parents' unfailing hospitality, and immerse ourselves - almost always with fond mockery - in a creaky old chiller.
So much for my self-indulgent reminiscences - now on to my research findings.  Although I recall staying up for a Sunday night horror film (with my dad), as early as 1978 (The House that Dripped Blood: Cushing, Lee AND Jon Pertwee) the seasons of films we're discussing here truly began a few years later.

Without fan-fare, on March 14, 1981, TV2 brought to life a Sunday night institution which lurked menacingly between Radio with Pictures and the Goodnight kiwi.  In fact, this first season of The Sunday Horrors, lasting a mere two months, appears to have pre-dated Radio with Pictures by a couple of weeks, and was composed largely of worthy 1940s noirish, 'uncanny thrillers'.  From this humble beginning the on-going seasons of late-night cult cinema classics which The Sunday Horrors eventually became were to survive almost until the end of the decade, taking a whole generation from film fright to fondness across those years.

It seemed doubly ironic that not only did blood-curdling offerings featuring the diabolical and undead screen on the holiest day of the week, but it was also a school night - leading to much subterfuge across the nation from young horror devotees as they tried to avoid being sent to bed by vigilant parents.  Sometimes just sitting very still and quiet in the living room could make an adult forget you were there until the end of the movie.

(Right: The very first Sunday Horror: RKO's classy Cat People, screened mid June, 1981)
The screening of seasons of vintage horror films on late night television had enjoyed a venerable history elsewhere in the world.  BBC2 hosted summer screenings of late-night horror double bills throughout the late 1970s and early '80s while the US had begun this practice as far back as the late 1950s, with colourful hosts like Morticia Addams-inspired Vampira presenting Shock Theatre. Creature Features, another TV station's series of screenings, essentially gave its name to the entire genre of monster movies.

New Zealand's Sunday Horrors initially threw some classic Science fiction films into the mix, with 1983 screenings of the original The War of the Worlds and The Incredible Shrinking Man. Gradually, however, it settled down to more traditional Horror fare, with the on-going misadventures of Dracula, Frankenstein's monster and the Wolf Man peppering the  schedules.

Karloff and Lugosi together - and brutally mocked...
As I've mentioned,  my own recollections of these screenings usually involved gathering a group of friends in my family's living room late on a Sunday night.  With my long-suffering parents retreating to bed, we would proceed to hoot and cackle our way through the creaky, often monochrome chillers of yester-year.  Fancing myself an earnest devotee of these films, I would sometimes be secretly scandalised by the derision we heaped upon them. I remember once throwing something of a sulk when a screening of Son of Frankenstein was 'ruined' by a barrage of teenage innuendo at an unfortunate line of dialogue. (Bela Lugosi's Hunch-backed Ygor rolls his eyes, rubs the Frankenstein Monster's chest and unforgettably gurns: "He does things for me..."  You could have heard the roar of laughter from space.) But it was always well-intended and with a certain degree of affection, because we all kept coming back for more.

And I was doubly delighted when the occasional film, if not actually scaring us then at least riveted our attention. The rare, rapt silence was music to my ears.

As the years progressed the later Sunday night offerings began to fall more into line with current trends.  More recent titles like Halloween, the Howling, Salems Lot and Alien began to replace the esteemed horrors of earlier eras.  The slot was re-named When Worlds Collide in 1988, to focus more on science fiction and fantasy, and the following year was moved from Sunday nights altogether.  But worse was to come.

Only in New Zealand: Count Robula presents The Friday Frights
(Copyright Anna Chin)
In 1989, it was announced that former Prime minister Robert Muldoon would be taking on the role of Count Robula, the ghoulish host of TV2's 're-vamped' season of late night Horror Films  - the Friday Frights. Seemingly inspired by Muldoon's infamous portrayal of the narrator in an earlier production of The Rocky Horror Show, this was to be a short-lived last gasp of regular creepy features . According to my good friend Mr J Simian, Sir Robert was 'so wooden he could have staked himself' and appears to have done just that.  A viewing tradition which had once seemed as much of a fixture as the six o'clock news had passed - the torch-wielding villagers and holy water sprinkling vampire hunters had finally over-run the castle - and the Sunday Horrors crypt was sealed. (At least until our new 'kid on the block' third channel later robbed that grave and resurrected the grisly remains as 'TV3's Sunday Horrors'.  But that is another story)

In fairness, it wasn't all Count Robula's fault.  The advent of home video had increasingly enabled anyone to see the kind of films which were The Sunday Horrors' stock and trade anytime they wanted.  Ghosties and ghoulies and late-night beasties were forced to flee from the dawning light of VHS.

It seems unlikely that The Sunday Horrors ever did anyone any harm.  In fact, perhaps an appreciation of earlier ages of film, of pioneering directors and stars to which more contemporary cinema owed a huge debt, may have been gained during these late school nights.  Some young kiwis might even have been inspired to follow a career in film and television.  But most of all, it was good, spooky fun.

(Left: If you're going to miss a Sunday Horrors session, make it a good one.  Night of The Eagle was voted one of the very best  - and I wasn't there!)

Doing hard research (OK, looking at archive copies of the Listener) has both exceeded and slightly de-romanticised my recollections of The Sunday Horrors.  It now seems clear that I enjoyed the initial 1982 run of films on my own: it wasn't until May in 1983 when the group viewings began. (Perhaps some of us weren't deemed old enough to be out that late on a 6th form school night, and even I possibly wasn't even allowed to see most of the '81 run).  But on the plus side the line-up of films was absolutely superb, in quality, variety and longevity - practically 11 out of 12 months in 1983!

I would pay good money to see some of the wonderful films which I missed, (in fact, that's exactly what I'll have to do).
And now, for anyone interested (maybe just me), here are those Sunday Horrors seasons in full (I'll continue to add to these over the next few weeks).

Schedules (1981 onwards - to be completed)

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Lunar Express

As the current series of Doctor Who passes its half-way point I find myself talking about eclipses and Foxes.

I'm not saying I predicted vintage trains in space, and certainly didn't foresee steam punk,
but here's a painting I submitted for my University Entrance Art portfolio back in 1982.
(and he seems to be wearing the Eighth Doctor's costume)

This series of Doctor Who has been frustrating.
Why?  Well, just when you think you've picked a favourite story and are sure the quality is most likely to plateau or dip from this point, another one comes along the following week which is even better.  Of course there have been the rare wobbles (Time Heist: go to the back of the class) but so far, this year has been the most consistently brilliant in terms of writing, performance, direction and production value which I can remember.  It's due in no small part to Capaldi.  I hoped we'd see a less accessable, more alien and unpredictable interpretation of the Doctor, but I don't think anyone could have forseen the extent of risk Capaldi dares with his characterisation, or the degree of pay-off. You can't take your eyes off him and although I'm a little reluctant to say it, he's the sixth Doctor done right - scary, unfathomable, but able to let the hero we've followed all these years shine through just when he's needed.
Perhaps because of all of the above, Jenna Coleman has also upped her game hugely from last year.  No longer a self-adoring, quick-fire quipping cypher, Clara is suddenly a believable person in unbelievable circumstances. Sometimes scared, or angry, and sometimes, mercifully, lost for words.

So here is a post tenuously linking itself to the last two stories.  Kill the Moon wasn't stellar, (at least that's my opinion), but did showcase the inevitable bust-up between our two leads.  Perhaps it was inevitable, but still shocking in it's own way and, of course, brilliantly played.
I won't be subscribing to the theory posited in the episode for the origin of our natural satellite, but I am going to talk about the moon. And why not - we had a lunar eclipse earlier this month.  Not a common event, but also the second total eclipse of the moon this year.

As the earth's rotation and moon's orbit align - we become become 'piggy in the middle' with Sol and Luna. The Earth's shadow is cast across our moon, but this doesn't blot it out completely, instead washing it in a dim coppery twilight at totality.  It's a striking sight well-worth seeing, and I'll certainly never forget my first experience of a 'blood moon', with the Star League, on a mid-winter night in 1982.

The moon (in total eclipse) tracks across the sky, with part of the constellation
of Sagittarius, in August 1982 (Photograph by Mark Mullen)

The following episode: Mummy on the Orient Expresswas stellar, and absolutely beautiful to look at.  It has to be said, there probably aren't many programmes as well directed, production- designed and photographed on TV at the moment.

 This episode barely had a single forgettable shot, but what I want to talk about is 'that song'.  I had no idea who Foxes was, but Don't stop me now by Queen has been a favourite for a very long time.

25-year-old, Grammy Award-winning Louisa Allen performs a jazz/blues cover of the Queen classic, and as well as providing some diverting background colour on board the Orient Express, the collaboration between singer and series seems to have had benefits both ways.
Foxes has enthused: " I couldn’t think of a better place to make my acting debut than on one of the UK’s most iconic shows!" while the BBC have taken the opportunity to release the whole track with a compilation of series 8 clips, including some not seen before for upcoming episodes.
Doctor Who and Queen - having a good time, having a ball...