Sunday, 29 November 2015

Festive 4 Play

The difficult fourth album will not be hitting stores shortly, but may be passed onto you soon like a terrifying gypsy curse or persistent conjunctivitis.

I haven't yet managed to find a way to over-lay a 'clap track', but there's always next year...

This year’s carefully selected compilation of unforgivable hits once again features Christmas singles which you may have never heard before (and may not wish to hear again).  A request that this year’s album contain a little more in the way of traditional carols has been noted (kind of) combined with my  usual remit of finding ‘interesting’ recordings by well-known performers.  Lets lower the needle and get started.

1. Closing of the year (Bentley Jones)

Last year’s campstravaganza opening track by the Pet Shop Boys was never going to be matched, but this boy-bandish yet soulful number by Bentley Jones (perhaps better known under his mix pseudonym of PHUNKSTR) isn’t a bad attempt.  Believe it or not, the song first appeared in the Robin Williams film Toys, and was written by none other than 'film score-meister' Hans Zimmer!

(The original version, from the film Toys)

2. White Wine in the Sun. (Tim Minchin)

The guardian newspaper called Australian Tim Minchin’s song ‘a contrarian carol’.  Minchin himself says: “Christmas means much to billions of people who don’t believe in Jesus, and if you think that Christmas without Jesus is not Christmas, then you’re out of touch, and if you think altruism without Jesus is not altruism, then you’re a dick.”  He acknowledges the contradictions inherent in celebrating a festival he doesn’t believe in, but concedes that he still really likes it.  It’s about seeing his family at Christmas, who’ll be waiting… drinking white wine in the sun.  Sound familiar?

3. Oi to the world (No Doubt)

A ska/punk play on Joy to the world sounds like light-hearted fun, but the rapid fire lyrics actually tell the story of a bloody, racism-fuelled encounter between a Skinhead called Trevor and a Sikh Punk called Haji.  Despite a violent showdown, it’s the spirit of Christmas which ultimately triumphs. Another example of the infinitely adaptable message that we should all make an extra effort to be nice to each other at this time of the year.  The lyrics are well worth a read:

4. Angels from the Realms of Glory

Otherwise known as the one with the tricky chorus which no-one can actually sing.  Annie Lennox can, and even this older, throatier version of her instantly-recognisable voice makes it sound heavenly. Excelsior!

5. I have an ugly Christmas Tree (Oh, Hush)

Here’s a happy little number, recorded by Oh, Hush (Chris Sernal) a ‘secret artist’ who apparently has never played live or posted a single image of himself.  But he wants to keep his tree up until February and loves finding pine needles in July, so he’s my kind of guy.

6.The Holy and the Ivy (The Mediaeval Baebes)

Does anyone else remember the Mediaeval Baebes - an ensemble of young women who recorded traditional songs from the middle ages, in the 1990s? It’s a haunting sound, perfect for this years ‘ancient pagan chart-topper dressed up as a carol’.  One theory suggests that it was originally a battle of the sexes ‘sing-off’ between the masculine Holy and the feminine Ivy, which is eventually resolved beneath the mistletoe.

(Sadly I couldn't find the video for this particular carol,
but here's a different one by the Baebes instead)

7. I want you for Christmas (Cheap Trick)

Remember in Love Actually when Bill Nighy’s ageing rock star makes an assault on the festive charts by cynically shoe-horning the word Christmas into a former hit single?  Here Cheap Trick do that for real, but it was their song originally, so that makes it OK.  And besides, they aren’t taking themselves seriously for a second - they’re having fun and so will you.

(Once again, not quite the video you're looking for -
this is the original song from 1979)

8. Un flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle (Ariel)

A change of pace here - a 16th century French Carol recorded by US singer-songwriter Ariel Tebben on the Celtic Harp.  To this day in the Provence region, children dress up as shepherds and milkmaids, carrying torches and candles to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, while singing the carol.

9. Snoopy’s Christmas (The Royal Guardsmen)

Making their fourth consecutive appearance  - what would a New Zealand Christmas be without Snoopy and the Red Baron? 

And speaking of which:

10. A New Zealand Christmas (Chris Jones)

A celebration of BBQs burning into the night and, on the radio, the Red Baron making one more flight… It’s a New Zealand Christmas - the kind we all love.

11. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (Busted)

I quite clearly know nothing about music, but this single by English band Busted seems to me a surprisingly sincere and enthusiastic take on the traditional carol, with some rather sophisticated musical arrangements.  Mike Oldfield-esque electric guitar, strings, piano and bells?  I’m there!

12. Christmas Lights (Coldplay)

Recorded in 2010, the video features Simon Pegg, as one of three violin-playing Elvis’s. A street level, reality-intrudes Christmas tale of a similar ilk to the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York, but set in London’s Oxford street.

13. Blue Christmas (Sheryl Crow)

Ms Crow’s breathy rendition of this popular Christmas standard provides a stripped down alternative to other heavily orchestrated tracks on this compilation.  

(This is a different version to the unaccompanied
track which appears on the compilation)

And it gives you a chance to prepare yourself for what’s coming next:

14. Jingle Hell (Christopher Lee with Li Li)

I know I’m going to be defending the inclusion of this one for months to come.  But let me just say: unless we mere mortals really believe that we could record a Heavy Metal Christmas single at the age of 91 which breaks into the US Billboard top twenty, maybe we should just pull our heads in before you-know-who bites our jugulars.  Besides, this magnificent track by the late Sir Chris and classically- trained soprano Li- Li is on last so that you can always pretend there are only 13 tracks on this album (though why you’d ever want to do that is beyond me)

(Caution: the novelty of this video may pall as quickly as the single itself does)

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Kin of Kong: Part One - Clown Prince

"You're not a patch on your Old Man"

We tend to suffer from sequel fatigue these days, and for good reason. Few films are made without a franchise in mind, actors signed up for a series of continuations stretching years ahead before production even begins.
And generally these films tend to be grander in scale, bigger, but rarely better than the original which spawns them.
Inflation accounts for some of the greater cost, but mainly the perception seems to be that the next film has to be bigger, louder and longer to justify itself, budgets soaring to hundreds of millions of dollars.

But there was a time when sequels were regarded as quick knock-offs, hurried into cinemas to capitalise on the still-current interest in the original film.  And sadly, this is very much the case for Son of Kong - rushed out at the end of the same year as the release of 1933's King Kong.

Given that the original Kong had a then-lengthy production schedule of 55 weeks (and utilised some models and sequences created for an earlier, unmade film), it was obvious that the miracle could never be repeated in mere months.  To their credit. the producers were well aware of this and Kong screen writer Ruth Rose wisely decided: "If you can't make it bigger, make it funnier"

Denham bandages young Kong's injured finger.
Consequently, Son Of Kong is a better film for the human actors, and far less focused on the wonders of stop motion animation.  Young Kong still has his moments, but more about this later.
Robert Armstrong in particular benefits from this shift in emphasis, with generous screen time allowing hi m to really flesh out the character of Carl Denham. No longer in a certain someone's giant shadow Armstrong projects genuine charisma, somehow making the opportunistic huckster Denham a likeable character. Quite rightly the film opens with him practically a fugitive, bankrupt and in hiding from a city which is determined to make him pay for the destruction wrought by his abduction of Kong.

To his credit, he does appear to acknowledge his terrible injustices against the 'Eighth wonder of the world', which we later find the surviving villagers on Kong's home are not about to forgive.

The other returning characters from the first film, Captain Englehorn and his cook Charlie throw Denham and unexpected lifeline, and soon all three are heading for Indonesian waters once more.  The fact that they will eventually wash up on Kong's Island is a given (note: In a similar vein to Sherlock Holmes's most famous line never actually having been written for the Great Detective, Kong's home is not referred to as 'Skull Island' here, in the first film or even the '76 remake.)

And just as the female lead, Helen Mack, is a brunette in this film, young Kong himself is now blond, possibly even albino.  At a mere twelve feet high he is lighter than his father in every sense, and not above gurning directly to the camera, shrugging with upturned palms like a vaudeville comedian.
Worse still, he appears to be accompanied by the chattering of a chimpanzee in some scenes, and during an otherwise impressive battle with a huge cave bear is literally knocked cross-eyed at one point.

Pooh Bear felt Hundred acre wood wasn't as friendly a neighbourhood as it used to be.
Despite this, the sequence is also possibly also the nearest the film comes to capturing the excitement and spectacle of the original.  A later tussle with a dragon-like creature is over far too quickly.
Infamously the film ends abruptly with a massive earthquake which submerges the entire island in a matter of minutes, the trapped little Kong lifting Denham to safety before disappearing beneath the waves.  Kong's Island, perhaps the world's final great place of mystery and wonder, painstakingly realised in the first film, is hastily erased - surely the final insult to the memory of the movie legend this one seeks to exploit. 

I should abhor Son of Kong, but I really can't.  Although an obvious cash-in, the good outweighs the bad in terms of Armstrong's performance, and in young Kong's relatively few scenes some of the magic does still shine through. 

Rather than detracting from the film which came before it, by comparison this all-but-forgotten and inessential adjunct only further highlights the achievements of the original King Kong.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Haven in the west

Paradise is at the end of a road which leads nowhere in a region which is neither a golden bay or a west coast.

The sparkling Tasman Sea.

I’m reliably informed that Westhaven is in Auckland, boasting the southern hemisphere’s largest Yacht Marina, and Whanganui is a large coastal town in Manawatu, near the mouth of New Zealand’s longest navigable waterway.

We didn’t go to either of those places, as lovely as they sound, but we did go to a Westhaven, also known as Whanganui inlet, which many people don’t seem to know exists.  Which is perhaps why it is one of the most unspoilt and breathtakingly beautiful places we’ve ever been to. It is described as being on 'the west coast of Golden Bay', a geographical anachronism like Harry Potter’s 'Platform 9 3/4' which only enhances the magic, and seclusion of the place.  One of New Zealand’s largest estuaries (roughly 13km long and 2-3km wide), it is filled by the Tasman Sea at high tide which flows rapidly through imposing heads glimpsed briefly as you take the winding drive from Pakawau. (As with any route heading North of Collingwood, don’t expect to reconnect with civilisation – you are pushing into the wild west).

The western peninsula from the other side of the inlet.
If you have bionic eyes you might just make out the lodge on the ridge line at the centre of the image.
And it was on the western head that we were lucky enough to stay, which is also a privately-owned 400 hectare peninsula, and home to Westhaven Retreat, a 4-star luxury lodge.  Anyone who knows us won’t be surprised to hear that we didn’t stay here, however - our accommodation was a much more modest cottage, adjacent to the main building.  

After the long drive we had started to wonder if we had come to right place, as I picked my way through fresh cow pats to open a farm gate, loudly serenaded by dogs before manoeuvring carefully around huge wandering cattle beasts.  As we crested the hill and the lodge came into view we weren’t left in any doubt. A unique and exquisite structure of which there will be more about later.

The lodge is designed to compliment the landscape.
“You’re kiwis, we knew you wouldn’t mind!”, explained our host about our farm encounter entrance. She also apologised for the nearby helicopter, the way most guests usually arrive, which crouched close to our cottage like a giant shiny black dragonfly. The fact that Rose scampered out to photograph it ferrying its wealthy passengers to the beach later that evening would have shown just how much we minded, it’s rare we have a helicopter in our garden.

The 'other half' leave for their beach trip.
The cottage was everything we needed but as with all things here, it’s really about the location.  I’ve loved coastlines and this part of the country for almost as long as I can remember, but Westhaven is something else again. From the top of the peninsula views of the Tasman Sea to the west and the inlet on the other side were literally jaw dropping. Paths weaving down through surreal rock formations and a nikau palm forest led to perfect sandy beaches which we literally had to ourselves. 

A mysterious wall built by a primitive tribe.
Not Skull Island, but the Westhaven nikau forest.

Rose looks back at 'our' beach.
On our second day I interviewed the 'Westhaven family' about the retreat and then Rose joined us for a tour of the facilities which I will be writing about for work.  They seemed almost as interested in us as we were in them, and this led to them inviting us to use the spa and opulent indoor swimming pool that afternoon as an anniversary present from them.

The lodge's indoor swimming pool.
The lodge itself was designed and built by the patriarch of the family, an extremely accomplished Austrian engineer whose experiences working in Asia led him to believe in the principles of Feng Shui.  And so the building is formed of three interlocked octagons (a 45 degree angle being spiritually preferable to the hard right angles of most western structures).  The interlocked building is designed to be safely flexible during a quake and the shape also resonates what Bruno referred to as the two 'landscape guardians' of their home.  Two remarkable rocky outcrops sit above the lodge, the ‘lion’ to the west and the ‘dragon’ to the north, their shapes being quite self explanatory and also echoed within the low crouching form of the lodge.  It is a beautiful building inside and out which completely fulfils its aim of harmonising with the surrounding landscape.

The lodge and cottage (tiny white blob on the lower right) photographed from the head of 'the dragon'.
The 'lion' ridge can be seen in the distance.
Rose and I both did a lot of walking (almost every track available during our short stay), and after much goading I even braved the chilly waters of the Tasman. But we also did a lot of reading - something which I’ve shamefully let slip far too much this year.  And as eager as I was to write about the experience I also left my laptop alone, and I’m glad I did. ( I met a work mate at the airport when we flew out from Wellington who all but insisted that I hand over the PC to her so she could put it in my locker until I came back to work).

(Very) amateur body surfing was unplanned,
  but the waves were persuasive enough to carry me all the way to the shore.
Quite a different experience to our Melbourne holiday last year, the combination of exercise punctuated by long blissful spells of inactivity helped us both to relax more quickly than usual.  New Zealand’s earliest sea captains knew about this hidden inlet which provided shelter and safety from westerly storms, and it certainly worked wonders for us.

We discovered this hidden corner of New Zealand almost by accident at the beginning of the year - and look forward to coming back.

A friendly Kereru followed me through the nikau forest.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Periodic Fable

Synthesised chemical elements like Rutherfordium can only be brought into being under very particular circumstances, and then only last for a fleeting period of time.  

In 1979 ITV achieved this alchemy with what was supposed to be a science fiction show to rival the BBC’s ubiquitous Doctor Who, made by their production arm ATV, and aimed at children.  But that certainly wasn’t what they got.  Author PJ Hammond was inspired to write a supernatural science fiction series after spending a night in a haunted castle and instead came up with one of the darkest, creepiest and most enigmatic shows ever to appear on television.

The still inexplicable twin casting triumph of Joanna Lumley and David McCallum, who apparently signed on immediately, was touched on last time, and by the time ITV realised what they had been given by Hammond, the programme was already something of a hit.
The first ‘assignment’ dealing with two youngsters whose parents have been taken by a nursery rhyme comes closest to betraying Sapphire and Steel’s origins as a children’s programme, but the second story pulls no punches.  Set on an abandoned railway platform it is relentlessly oppressive in atmosphere and the resolution of the crisis is only achieved at a terrible cost.
In stark contrast, once again the appearance of a Sapphire and Steel annual in 1979 indicated the original intention of the programme as a kids TV vehicle, as did a continuing comic strip in ITV’s youth magazine 'Look in'.

Nobody could claim to fully understand the programme, as was the intention, but they tuned in in their millions in Britain.  The famous ITV ten-week strike of 1979 actually worked in the programme’s favour, as the second serial was repeated in full when the channel returned to air, greatly reinforcing the programme’s viewership. The return of our favourite ‘elements who actually weren’t’ was guaranteed.  Also as discussed before, the availability of it’s stars made exactly when a little uncertain and in fact it was a full 18 months before Sapphire and Steel returned.

Silver Fox - Elements don't scrimp on hair care products
The third adventure isn’t fondly remembered but does at least introduce ‘specialist’ Silver; played in dandified fashion by David Collings who shakes up the existing dynamic between our leads.  His flirtatious rapport with Sapphire appears to provoke jealousy in her usual partner.  Steel hardly needs to be made any more grumpy, and perhaps the notable scene where he appears to snap lift cables with his bare hands and tie them in knots is his way of ‘working off steam’.  It’s the following story, dealing with a ‘faceless man’ who can inhabit any photograph ever taken which seems to be the most remembered and chilling.

This is the story I re-watched recently with friends, and despite its obvious staginess and budgetary limitations, we agreed that it’s really only the incidental music which dates this unnerving tale.  Xylophone solos and a crew member’s cough on the soundtrack are more than made up for by expert use of lighting (the sepia children would doubtless be an expensive CGI effect these days, but perfectly realised here), the charisma of our leads and the sheer freaky uneasiness provoked by the tale.  PJ Hammond seems to know exactly how to write for the show’s minuscule budget: everything shown on screen feels like the tip of the story’s iceberg, the unseen but greater mass of what is implied, but unseen, is what really scares us.

From what I’ve heard Hammond's skill was sorely missed when Sapphire and Steel returned the following year for its fifth assignment.  I say heard because I somehow missed this sub-Agatha Christie drawing room mystery written by Doctor Who scribes Don Houghton and Anthony Read - or perhaps the programme’s erratic scheduling finally defeated TVNZ and it was never shown here.
Hammond was exhausted and needed a break, but was apparently appalled when he saw what had been done to his creation in other writer’s hands.

Director Shaun O'Riorden (left) and PJ Hammond
He rallied and gave us what was to become one of the greatest conclusions of any programme - except, Assignment 6 was never intended to be a finale.  I certainly saw this one, as with most memorable TV fantasy in my childhood with my Mum, and I remember us both gasping with genuine surprise when the true nature of our heroes’ adversaries was revealed.
In the real world Sapphire and Steel had also come up against an implacable enemy, and when Central television took over ATV a slew of programmes were cancelled - this undervalued gem among them.

Hammond apparently wanted to shop his creation around to other channels in the hope of continuing. But when hoping to enlist his stars Lumley and McCallum they begged off, feeling they’d done all they could with the roles and convincing him that the show couldn’t have ended on a better, if downbeat, high.
Sapphire and Steel were unassigned but remained a cult classic through nostalgic recollections, a partial repeat on British satellite channel Bravo, and VHS and DVD releases.

Twenty years later, Big Finish Productions released three ‘seasons’ of Sapphire and Steel audio dramas, starring the mighty David Warner as Steel (McCallum was living full-time in Hollywood at this time) and Susannah Harker (Lumley didn’t want to reprise her role).

I haven’t had the pleasure of hearing these but they were apparently very popular and well-received.  Big Finish no longer have the license and don’t sell them anymore, but I live in hope of tracking down some second hand-recordings one day.

Different elements: David Warner and Susannah Harker voice Sapphire and Steel
in original audio adventures from Big Finish.
Earlier this year it Wellington-based Luther creator Neil Cross announced that he was in talks with a British Production company to revive Sapphire and Steel.  Exciting news, but to me part of the series charm was that the original series was ephemeral, only able to exist in our reality for a short time.  A brief but bright flare of brilliance in the early 1980s when Time broke through and we had to depend on two sharply dressed strangers who refused to explain themselves, and left us knowing as little about them as we did when they first appeared. 
I doubt something so determinedly cryptic could be made now, when mainstream audiences appear to need everything spelt out before moving quickly on to action and effects scenes. 

But I’m very happy to be proven wrong.

(I'm heavily indebted to the excellent Horror Etc podcast for unearthing a great deal of this information)