My Top 10 British Films – 4

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Ultra-violence, drugs, sex, crime, punishment and the human capacity for evil are just a few of the subjects covered by one of the most talked about releases in all of movie history.

With its outlandish characters, outrageous costumes and memorable direction, Stanley Kubrick’s outrageous dystopian pantomime creates a world which is both totally unrealistic and yet unsettlingly familiar. Nothing in this retro-futuristic fantasy looks or sounds quite like the world we know, which helps to keep the viewer off-balance during the whole cinematic experience. Like a blurry photocopy, the costumed facsimile of Alex and his droogs kind of resembles something from our everyday experience, even though it’s a misshapen and fuzzy representation of the reality we all share.

As we follow Alex on his journey from joyously psychotic gang leader, to reluctant prisoner, through willing guinea pig and political patsy, we know we’re watching a psychodrama set in an imagined world, yet that does nothing to quell a strange yet poorly defined feeling of unease this movie often conjures in its audience.

Although the themes are timeless, the grey, brutalist concrete world Alex and his cohorts inhabit is indicative of an era that spawned a whole library of dark, gritty and unrelentingly challenging films. A Clockwork Orange distils, extracts and exemplifies that knowing sense of social unease threaded through movies like Taxi Driver and Dirty Harry as they reflect on the bitter harvest of alienation, violence and social dysfunction left in the wake of the post-war consensus.

This is why A Clockwork Orange still resonates with audiences to this day. On the subconscious and collective levels, we recognise this film as a by-product of our religious adherence to malleable ideas of progress, re-heated and served back to us in this oddly sour yet compelling cultural concoction. We see the big, difficult questions in the background, while the folly of ignoring them is acted out by the characters portrayed on screen. We may not know Alex in person, but we know only too well where he comes from…although we don’t really like to admit it.

It’s rare for any single movie to be quite so influential on popular culture as A Clockwork Orange, but Kubrick’s expertly off-kilter adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ insightful novella has created some of the most instantly recognisable imagery of the entire twentieth century. The controversy surrounding on-screen violence and real-world murder which swirled around this movie during the 1970s has elevated it to the status of a cultural artefact, rather than just a very well made and oddly disturbing film. Whether it means to or not, A Clockwork Orange says something unsettling about who we are as individuals, governments and societies, and the questions it asks of us are difficult to answer.

The Irish Border is just an Excuse

It’s on, it’s off. Oh wait, now it’s back on again…hang on though, it was never really on in the first place…and now we’re back to square one and it’s halfway through October. Tick tock, tick tock…

That seems to be the general consensus of our political commentariat, who’ve been following every tortuous twist and turn of these increasingly fraught and fanciful Brexit negotiations. Once again the thorny issue of the Northern Irish border has thrown a spanner in the works, accompanied by pie in the sky expectations of frictionless borders between two independent and self-governing jurisdictions.

Whilst the EU indulges the fantasy that it can maintain some kind of legal control over the UK post Brexit, Britain daydreams about sending goods and products into a foreign jurisdiction without so much as a cursory customs check.

If there was the political will to manage this change in a pragmatic and co-operative way, there would simply be no need for these circular conversations endlessly revolving around some non-existent, magical border solution, which is how we know this is a political issue rather than a legal or technical one.

For example, more than 4,000 passenger vehicles and 10,000 commercial vehicles cross between the US and Canada every single weekday via the Ambassador Bridge
alone. In other words, the Irish border problem is eminently manageable if each party is willing to abandon its unattainable political goals.

It’s also a bit rich for the EU to be so suddenly concerned with border management, after deliberately letting more than a million undocumented migrants literally break down the gates and march straight into Europe. No such danger exists along the Irish border.

It’s no coincidence that our one and only land border with the EU (aside from Gibraltar) is presenting the biggest single obstacle to progress on any kind of meaningful Brexit deal. As I’ve watched these increasingly preposterous discussions unfolding, I’ve come to believe the EU isn’t really interested in the Irish border per se, but they’re especially interested in sending a message to twenty-seven other nations for whom land borders would be a much bigger issue if they decided to leave someday.

I think this is the real agenda behind the EU’s illogical insistence on continued regulatory control over a nation which will no longer be a member of the bloc. They know perfectly well that no sovereign nation worthy of the name would ever agree to such an outrageous demand, but they also know that the remaining twenty-seven members are paying close attention.

The Irish border problem isn’t really about the Irish border. It’s about showing those other nations within the EU just how difficult and bloody-minded Brussels intends to be if its authority is challenged. We could solve this problem fairly easily if the European Union had any political interest in doing so, but they obviously don’t, because it was never really about that.

I’ve said for some time now that the EU has no political interest in reaching some kind of reciprocal deal with any nation that dares to leave. It’s now clear that the Irish border has been chosen as the pretext for a no-deal Brexit.

Don’t be afraid. It could not be otherwise.

Images courtesy of Ted C & Phillip Flores at FreeImages.com

The Democrats’ New Coke Calamity

That angry wailing noise emanating from Washington right now is actually the sound of the slow, painful and undignified death of the Democratic Party and everything it has come to represent in recent years. That’s a pretty bold statement I’ll admit, but it would not be an exaggeration to say that history will remember the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh as the DNC’s very own New Coke moment.

For those who aren’t familiar with the phrase, the New Coke analogy is often mentioned in both business and political circles. It originates from Coca-Cola’s calamitous, damaging and completely unnecessary re-branding exercise in 1985, when one of the strongest and most iconic brands on planet Earth decided to ditch the very formula which had made it into such a global phenomenon in the first place. Predictably, it wasn’t long before the Coca-Cola board and their overpaid marketing people were scratching their heads as to how an indestructible brand was very nearly destroyed. Ironically, the only thing that saved Coca-Cola was reverting to the tried and tested and well-liked recipe of the past. Alas, the New Coke debacle is a political lesson that the DNC seems hell-bent on ignoring.

We are now witnessing Coca-Cola’s once toxic combination of hubris and panic being replicated in today’s marketplace of ideas. It’s this lack of either perspective or principle which has led a seemingly intelligent group of people to throw their considerable weight behind a brazen, desperate and completely unconscionable attempt to defame a thoughtful, decent and boringly honourable man as some kind of serial sex offender.

Unfortunately for them, the new antibiotic of the Trump Effect has ensured that the latest Democratic campaign to poison a man’s reputation has infected the DNC instead, and the damage has yet to be fully assessed. I’m willing to bet that by the time the mid-term elections come around, the average US voter will have firmly associated the logo of the Democratic Party with ideas of dishonesty, media manipulation and political intimidation.

Having already lost control of the Executive and Legislative branches of government, the Democrats were only too aware of the stakes when it came to the intellectual direction of the remaining Judicial branch. Indeed, the fact that they were willing to even consider, let alone enact such a high-risk strategy lends credence to all those right-wing nutjobs who’ve been banging on about judicial activism for decades now. Why else would the Democrats risk their own already tattered reputations and future electoral chances if they knew absolutely everything was at stake?

The pundits and historians of the future will point to the Democrats’ mean-spirited mishandling of the Kavanaugh confirmation process as one of the greatest political blunders of the modern age. This is a drama which has been many decades in the making and it won’t be over any time soon. The unexpected election of Donald J Trump and the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh are just the first of many, many chickens which a large part of America’s body politic believed would never come home to roost.

Just like the board of Coca-Cola all those years ago, the Democratic Party and their mainstream media enablers have no-one to blame but themselves as they’re brutally sucked out of their ideological vacuum and cast into the political abyss.

Image courtesy of David Lat at FreeImages.com

FCO30/1048 Initial Request

This is something of an unusual blog post for me, but I’ve a feeling it could be the first of many on this obscure but nonetheless important subject.

I have today written to the Chief Executive of the National Archives at Kew to request that the fabled FCO30/1048 report be digitised and made freely available online.

You can click this link to read my letter in full, and I’ll keep you posted with any developments…

Image courtesy of philipp k. at FreeImages.com

My Top 10 British Films – 5

How to get Ahead in Advertising (1989)

Starring Richard E Grant as the archetypal 80s yuppie, this hilarious and metaphorical study of a burned-out executive’s midlife crisis paints a familiar human face on the zeitgeist of our modern consumer age.

Although seemingly successful on the outside, hotshot advertising executive Denis Dimbleby Bagley hits a brick wall when he’s asked to come up with a catchy advertising campaign for yet another new acne treatment. It should be easy for a man of his talents, but instead he comes up empty as all of his personal doubts, demons and neuroses congeal into a psychological poison which has been festering inside him for years.

Sliding rapidly into a nervous breakdown, Bagley’s deteriorating mental health manifests physically as a boil on his shoulder, which continues to grow despite various attempts at treatment. Eventually it develops its own voice as Bagley’s inner conflict breaks out into open warfare. As he constantly fights with himself, those around him and society at large, Bagley struggles with the universal yet intensely personal question of whether he is really a good man, who’s led a worthy life. However, as this movie so clearly demonstrates, the answer to that fundamental question is not always “yes”.

Released during what many people regard as Handmade Films’ most creative period, Bruce Robinson’s hilarious scripting and direction mercilessly skewers both social convention and personal pomposity, while also challenging many of the comfortable, middle-class assumptions that rule not only the characters’ lives but also our own, regardless of where we’ve actually come from.

One of the particular strengths of the script is its sense of balance. While Bagley believes his existential angst is something new and unique, Richard Wilson’s older and more experienced portrayal of Bagley’s boss has seen his own share of therapy, and looks upon his junior’s struggle as a natural part of the creative and evolutionary process. Bagley becomes each and every one of us as he struggles in vain against the rising tide of his own commercial instincts. Probably the most unsettling part of the whole movie is that, despite its boorish manners and unrepentant dog eat dog outlook, Bagley’s boil is always honest when it speaks.

Like all truly great scripts, How to get Ahead in Advertising remains relevant and reinvents itself for each new generation. The much lauded pork pie rant applies as much to today’s fake news as it did to yesterday’s fake flavourings. More than anything else, this movie reminds us how the more things change, the more they stay the same.

This film is as funny as it is insightful, and it manages to perfectly frame the eternal struggle between activist and pragmatist that plays out daily inside each and every one of us. It had much to teach when it was first released, and probably even more so today, which is why How to get Ahead in Advertising easily makes it into my top ten British films.

Let’s Hope Theresa’s Learned her Lesson

Well I guess there’s some life in the old gal yet. After more than a year of obfuscation, humiliation and repeated capitulation, Theresa May at last seems to be waking up to the cold, stark realisation that the European Union is a thoroughly hostile, untrustworthy and deeply anti-democratic institution. After her completely unnecessary and gleefully stage-managed humiliation in Salzburg, our Prime Minister seems to have finally understood that the people she’s dealing with will do anything and everything they can to undermine her at every turn, and what’s more they’ll enjoy doing it.

With her name fast becoming a byword for political miscalculation, Theresa May’s decision to come out swinging following the EU’s pre-planned political ambush was exactly the right move at the right time. We’ve all been forced to endure the endless scorn and derision of Brussels’ bloated little big men since the day of the referendum, and we’ve all had a bellyful of it now.

After the astonishing scenes at Salzburg, anyone who cannot now see exactly who and what we are dealing with is either woefully misinformed or dangerously dishonest. Either way, we can now safely discount the mournful wailing of those continuity Remainers who still rush to bend the knee to this smug, ossified and overbearing boys club. Their breath-taking and barefaced mendacity shows just how well they’d get along with those Brussels bureaucrats who think that sniggering Instagram posts are an acceptable form of international diplomacy.

So it was with a renewed sense of relief and optimism that millions of hopeful voters watched our most senior elected official finally standing up for herself, and by extension, the scores of us who would’ve happily told the likes of Tusk and Barnier exactly what to do with their damned cherries several months ago.

It’s taken a right royal spanking in front of the whole world to shake her out of her complacent stupor, but it seems that our Prime Minister is beginning to understand that the EU27 are no longer our friends. Theresa May’s newfound belligerence is a breath of much-needed fresh air, and a welcome reality check for those Europeans who believe that if they just fold their arms and say “non” often enough we’ll suddenly change our minds and realise the error of our ways. We knew this was coming on the day we cast our votes, and every petty, petulant insult and snide jibe merely confirms our worst suspicions about the motives and demeanour of those who, even now, refuse to relinquish control of our future.

But let’s not be too hasty in our optimism. After all, we’ve been here before. It’s no accident that those heady days of double-digit poll leads and solid party support coincided exactly with the Prime Minister’s firm and mature attitude towards those Brussels bullyboys in expensive suits. I believe that Theresa May can find that level of support and respect again, but only if she listens to the wisdom of her own experience, rather than to the poisonous, weasel words of an elitist establishment that’s always been embarrassed to be British for some reason.

Whilst it’s true that we’ve seen this more determined and less wobbly PM before, there’s an important difference this time around. Post Chequers, she knows full well that she’s spent every penny of political capital she once held while trying to conduct her own legislative ambush against both her own Cabinet and the country at large. Having first cleared her hugely unpopular plans with her “friends” in Europe, she now realises that her only achievement is to severely weaken herself at home while getting nothing in return from the EU. In short, they knowingly lied to her when they quietly tipped her the wink and said they would support the Chequers plan.

It must be comforting for Theresa May to know that with friends like those, she can still rely on her enemies among the Brexiteer faithful to help her do the right thing.

These are strange times indeed.

Image courtesy of Krzysztof Szkurlatowski at FreeImages.com

My Top 10 British Films – 6

Layer Cake (2004)

Starring a pre-Bond Daniel Craig, this sleek and stylish reimagining of the British crime thriller is filled with more twists and turns than a mountain goat track as we follow an anonymous cocaine dealer who finds himself sucked further and further into a criminal underworld he’s long been planning to escape.

Charged with the relatively simple task of finding the missing daughter of a crime boss, our “hero” soon finds himself caught in the crosshairs of an elite underworld assassin tracking down a stolen drugs shipment. With events fast spiralling out of his control, the always smooth and clean-cut cocaine supplier is finally forced to step in and get his own hands dirty in order to save first his liberty and then his life.

Despite repeatedly claiming not to be a gangster, our cocaine supplier soon realises that he faces a stark choice between an un…marked grave and scrambling to the top of the bloodied underworld pyramid. The clear lesson is that you’re either in the underworld of you’re not. Our protagonist’s own words come back to haunt him as he learns how dabblers and wannabes inevitably inhabit a world of pain, grief and regret…but only if they’re lucky.

Expertly written by J J Connolly,
Layer Cake is a skilfully crafted trip into an inescapable rabbit warren of organised crime, shifting loyalties and official corruption. Many of the characters inside this underworld such as Duke, Morty and Eddie Temple are so well-developed that they manage to be both larger-than-life and completely believable at the same time. A difficult accomplishment for any author. Each of the players reveal detailed and often interwoven histories which help to keep their personalities grounded and their actions well motivated.

Although super smooth and sleeker than a Japanese bullet train, director Matthew Vaughn resisted the urge to indulge in too much of the directorial and cinematic masturbation which has been the Achilles heel of so many promising movies during the early 21st-century.

Beautifully shot, skillfully penned and featuring the haunting vocals of no lesser talent than Lisa Gerrard, Layer Cake is every part the modern crime thriller, but it’s also a lot more as it probes the wider issues around society’s war on drugs and its unintended consequences. It’s also one of the best looking movies you’ll ever see.

If you’re looking for a cool crime caper that’s well scripted, believable and actually has something of substance to say, then Layer Cake is definitely the film for you.

My Top 10 British Films – 7

The Hill (1965)

Almost forgotten now, this tense and relentless prison drama stars a young Sean Connery as busted Sergeant Joe Roberts trying to survive a notorious Middle Eastern prison camp during the bloody campaigns of World War II.

Ably abetted by an excellent supporting cast including Ossie Davis and a surprisingly serious turn by Roy Kinnear, The Hill is a searing and bleak study of dehumanising bureaucracy, psychological torture and overt institutional cruelty. Brilliantly shot and superbly scripted, this simple premise follows the incarceration and steady deterioration of five very different characters as each one is hammered relentlessly by the incessant malice of a vengeful staff establishment.

As Roberts and his cell-mates are pushed to their physical and psychological limits, each one disintegrates under the stress to reveal both their own and the system’s shortcomings. The death of one prisoner finally pushes mutinous mutterings into outright rebellion as the rule of law rapidly breaks down, with the men turning on both their captors and one another. After a tense stand-off between prisoners and staff, order is finally restored when the inflexible camp commander at last shows some leadership, having been relentlessly undermined by one of his over-zealous underlings.

Although Connery and the others gave great performances, the real star of this show was Ian Hendry, whose brilliantly understated interpretation of a born sadist hiding in plain sight made the character of Staff Sergeant Williams one of cinema’s most chilling, believable and sadly neglected on-screen psychopaths. Hendry’s portrayal of a fearsome prison officer quietly building his own, personal power structure inside an established institution is as insightful as it is instructive.

Scripted by Ray Rigby, the true horror of The Hill is often lost on first viewing. It lies not in the physical torments of searing sun and endless drill, but instead it lurks in a hundred petty slights and humiliations as the screw is silently and relentlessly tightened. From the moment the inmates double in through the gates, Williams and the system behind him lay claim to every aspect of a prisoner’s being, both inside and out. Not only are the inmates ordered what to do and when, but also when to laugh, when to stop laughing, what to say and when to say it. The world of The Hill owns them mind, body and soul, and just as that mountain of sand and rock can be seen from all parts of the prison, so the men forced to march up and down it daily will live in its shadow long after they’ve served their time.

The Hill is a very unusual film. In many ways it feels more like the original play by R.S. Allen as it boasts no musical score, and its main focus is the dialogue and interplay between the characters. At the same time, it’s brilliantly shot and directed by Oswald Morris and Sidney Lumet respectively, leading to a compelling if not altogether cheerful cinematic experience. The use of light, shade and close-ups from unusual angles keeps this black and white movie feeling fresh and innovative, despite it having passed its 50th birthday a few years ago.

A masterpiece of writing, performance and cinematography, The Hill is just as relevant today as the day it first premiered. Such a long lasting and insightful creation easily makes this one of the best British films ever released.

My Top 10 British Films – 8

Asylum (1972)

“We’re a long way from Harley Street out here.”

From the legendary studios of Amicus Productions, Asylum is probably the finest example of the many classic British horror anthologies that graced our screens during the sixties and seventies.

Starring Robert Powell as a young and idealistic psychiatrist, Asylum explores the tall tales and terrifying truths behind four patients’ incarceration at a gloomy and remote institute for the criminally insane. Sensibly light on the gore, Asylum is instead heavy on a slow-burning creepiness in which was one of the seventies’ greatest cinematic gifts to the world. I need only mention the words “brown paper” or “shop dummy” to give anyone who’s seen this movie an immediate attack of shivers.

What makes this relatively low budget film stand head and shoulders above its peers is the surprising quality of the both the cast and the writing. As well as Powell in the lead role, the credits boast no lesser names than Peter Cushing, Britt Ekland and the perennially underrated Herbert Lom to name but a few. The outlandishness of each segment is well balanced by a gritty realism which set Amicus apart from Hammer Films, its main rival of the period. Indeed, it’s the Amicus trademark of the outrageous ideas expressed through mundane situations which make many of the scenes from this classic movie so memorable and disturbing, despite their being so obviously unbelievable. The wrap around story of the aspiring psychiatrist helps to ground the whole movie far more effectively than its contemporaries. Psycho author Robert Bloch made sure to pay particular attention to this often neglected part of the anthology and cunningly exploit its full potential. The doctor’s own tale builds to an unexpected and very satisfying final twist, having been expertly moved along by Patrick Magee and Geoffrey Bayldon, two more hugely talented and undeservedly obscure actors of the period.

Asylum is one of the best examples of a movie becoming greater than the sum of its parts, and despite the fact it’s only make believe, there are few who won’t pull a face or make some dark remark when some of the more memorable segments are mentioned. That’s quite a feat for a film that’s now forty years old and made on a shoestring. Asylum has stood the test of time and held its own amongst many younger and far bloodier rivals, thus earning its place in my top 10 British films.

My Top 10 British Films – 9

The Rebel (1961)

Tony Hancock stars in his default role as a dour and downtrodden version of himself in this witty and prescient exploration of a nihilistic, self-referential and obsessively obscurantist art establishment.

Cursed with a big dream and a small talent, Hancock struggles to cope with the confines of his orderly, predictable and comfortably dull life as a junior clerk at an accounting firm, until at last his repressed inner artist finally breaks free to reshape his life forever. Fleeing from stuffy London to bohemian Paris, Hancock’s singular lack of painting talent is soon mistaken for a new and profound artistic expression as he rapidly rises to the pinnacle of European creative society through a mixture of good fortune, fast talking and the rigid intellectual conformity of an outwardly rebellious clique.

Emulated by struggling painters, courted by wealthy industrialists and pursued by their wives, Hancock’s every action and utterance is elevated to the status of profundity and uncommon insight as the aesthetic establishment both buys into and bolsters Hancock’s own delusions of greatness. As a result both his fame and resale value continue to increase not only for him, but for an ever-expanding orbit of agents, exhibitors and other hangers-on within the creative community.

Naturally it can’t last, and eventually the artistic world turns against him, declaring his work to be puerile and shallow, even though Hancock remains as reliably inept as he’s ever been. With the cycle completed, the film closes with Hancock back in his old London lodgings, having gained only a few hot meals while his agent has pocketed yet another fortune and moved on to the next creative meal-ticket.

In its own gentle yet insightful way, the Rebel is a conglomeration of Hancock’s earlier output, shining a light on a man who’s desperate to be taken seriously as an artistic and intellectual force, but lacks the background, connections and raw talent required to realise his dreams. Some famous Hancock’s Half Hours such as the Poetry Society and the Gourmet are writ large as his character struggles to realise the greatness he firmly believes is predestined, and yet is constitutionally incapable of reaching. In fact it’s this underlying theme that runs through almost the entire body of his work, making Hancock’s career in comedy and his untimely demise all the more poignant and touching, as life and art turned and turned about so often throughout his life that it was difficult to tell one from the other.

One of the things that makes Tony Hancock’s comedy so enduring is that we recognise ourselves in that simple working man who finds some small way to fight back against his crushing nihilistic existence each and every day. From the Rebel’s brilliant monologue on the morning commute to the perfectly executed choreography of the accountancy office, we lend Hancock our sympathy and support because we’ve all felt his existential agony first hand.

The foundational ideas underpinning the Rebel are as relevant today as they were in 1961, as we watch an increasingly remote artistic elite drifting ever further into conceptual obscurity, while still claiming to be the authentic voice and conscience of the human experience. Once inside that protected, moneyed and insulated clique, the stark choice between conformity and obscurity can be a powerful persuader for even the most ardent expressive soul.

The big joke running through the whole of the Rebel is that it’s not really a study of rebellion at all, but an ironic and cutting exposure of a shallow, self-absorbed and viciously conformist artistic establishment.

The Rebel provides much food for reflection in this time of great change.