My Top 10 British Films – 1

Sleuth (1972)

Taking the top spot as my all-time favourite British film is Anthony Shaffer’s brilliant, labyrinthine tale of a country house, the Lord of the Manor and the pretender to the throne. Shaffer’s razor-sharp pen guts and cannibalises the pre-war detective genre in much the same way that Wes Craven carved up and then feasted on the slasher movie in the 1990s. Although this is no ghost story or grisly horror, Sleuth’s tongue in cheek approach to costume, design and soundtrack steeps the whole movie in a strange kind of broken-dolly creepiness as the action lurches from quirky, through witty, before descending into something altogether darker.

Based around the simple idea of a staged burglary at a remote manor house, the storyline starts quite conventionally before taking a sharp detour into hidden agendas, psychological torture, humiliation and revenge as the characters are locked together in a battle of wits that has no beginning, no end and no clear rules.

Originally written as a stage play, it’s a testament to Shaffer’s scripting genius that he can hold the viewer’s attention for over two hours while only ever employing a maximum of two characters on screen at any given time. In fact, there are only three live characters in the whole movie, but I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone who hasn’t seen it.

Although the writing and the plotline are superb, the other reasons Sleuth stands head and shoulders above remakes and imitations are the remarkable performances of Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. It’s to Caine’s credit that he immediately spotted the potential to cannibalise his own cockney geezer persona by both trying to hide it and letting it slip out at exactly the right time, resulting in a very believable character whose wardrobe has risen in society while his accent often forgets its manners. This script demanded a lot more from Caine than most of his on-screen appearances and he rose to the challenge, with his character every bit the equal of Olivier’s older, more established and definitely more mercurial persona.

For me, one of the great joys of watching Sleuth is to see a renowned, respected and hugely serious actor like Laurence Olivier having the time of his life and basically arsing around on screen, seamlessly morphing into an array of quirky Cluedo characters from one line to the next as he amuses, cajoles, threatens and reminisces his way through Shaffer’s superbly crafted script.

As the story reaches its climax, there is literally no way of telling what’s going to happen next, let alone which of the characters is lying, bluffing, or deadly serious.

Relying on character motivation and on-screen interplay, Sleuth reminds us that truly great stories are driven by plots and characters, rather than successions of rapid-fire cut scenes designed to overwhelm the watcher and bludgeon the senses into submission. However, it’s nice to see a more situational and character driven approach reasserting itself in modern moviemaking, at least in some lower budget productions.

Although unjustly side-lined today, Sleuth is a masterclass in writing, acting, directing and set design. Although it boasts some of the most memorable plot twists in the history of cinema, Sleuth nonetheless remains true to Chekov’s Iron Law, one of the few rules in writing that actually matters. This is why it continues to satisfy audiences even today, in opposition to the jarring left turn that modern scripting schools seem to be teaching these days. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched this movie, and yet still I see little actions or background details I’ve never noticed before. Sometimes expressions or actions fly across the screen so fast they can only be witnessed in hindsight, on a second or third viewing.

The fact that it still offers up something new after more than forty years is just one of the many reasons why Sleuth is my all-time, knockdown champion British film.

My Top 10 British Films – 2

Withnail & I (1987)

As the dark winter months are softened by our own seasonal excess, it seems only right to raise a glass to Bruce Robinson’s boozy tale of two down-and-out actors struggling with poverty, existential angst and an ill-judged country break in the rain-lashed Cumbrian hills. With Richard E Grant and Paul McGann heading up a very capable cast, Withnail and I continues to be a firm favourite more than three decades since its first release.

As the swinging sixties draw to a close, our anti-heroes begin to wonder if there’s more to life than booze, drugs and waiting for the next acting job, so they flee London’s drizzling grime in search of a simpler, more wholesome slice of life. Alas, what they find is perpetual rain, unfriendly locals and Withnail’s upper crust Uncle Monty lurking in the shadows, hell bent on indulging his own sexual desires far from London society’s prying eyes.

With hugely entertaining characters and a scintillating script, Withnail and I is easily one of the most memorable, hilarious, strangely profound and oddly poignant British films ever made. The mere mention of this movie (especially in a pub) releases a barrage of unsolicited quotes, quips and comebacks that can keep a large group laughing long past closing time.

Although delivered to make us laugh, we understand Withnail’s jaded outlook only too well because we know he often tells the truth, if only by accident. That fact that Withnail and his sidekick remain hilarious throughout, yet sadly touching in their final scenes together is a testament to Robinson’s skill as both a writer and a director. None of us can ever forget Withnail’s lonely Shakespearean monologue in the pouring rain, with nobody to witness or applaud the flowering of his creative genius.

Despite its shoestring feel, Withnail and I was produced on a small but serviceable budget, punching way above its weight in terms of investment returns over the many years since. This is a movie providing yet more proof that, at least in budgetary terms, bigger is not necessarily better. Far glossier and much more presumptuous productions have faded into obscurity while the two actors who aren’t from London continue to delight new audiences as they drink, argue and debate their way across some of Britain’s most beautiful countryside (when we can glimpse it through the endless rain).

Apart from being uncommonly amusing, Withnail and I has endured because we recognise something of ourselves in our sozzled aspirants as they stumble from one misadventure to the next, swirling randomly like the omnipresent cigarette smoke accompanying Withnail’s often pretentious yet oddly profound pronouncements on life, society and the cutthroat world of commercial creativity.

The script never lets up for a moment, somehow lurching from surreal farce, to deep introspection and back again without ever missing a step, a feat rarely repeated by even the best scriptwriting talents. Withnail and I’s larger than life characters are often warm and endearing as they invite us into their strange and comical world, a world which all too often masks troubled minds and difficult lives hiding in plain sight behind the comedy. It is this background of grinding, hopeless despair that elevates the characters’ doomed struggle against obscurity to a level both higher and deeper than merely being a couple of really funny blokes dead set against the world. It’s as though the rain, the befuddled drunkenness and the omnipresent threat of eviction create a dark scenery against which the characters on screen can shine so much more brightly. There’s a little of Withnail’s drunken profundity in all of us, and that is why we still love him after all these years.

Labour’s Brexit Reckoning

It’s coming.

I know it doesn’t look that way at the moment, especially with the Tories tearing each other to pieces right now, but the Labour Party’s Brexit bunker is not nearly as impregnable as many inside it might like to imagine.

Brexit’s been a blast for Labour so far. For them it’s been the gift that keeps on giving. How they must be laughing themselves silly as they deliberately face every which way on the issue, carefully constructing a trail of quotes to ensure that everyone in Britain hears exactly what they want to hear from Her Majesty’s Opposition. It gets better though, because Labour knows perfectly well that no Brexit deal of any kind can pass their impossibly ambiguous six tests. A cynic might say that hurdle was deliberately set so high that nobody could ever find it, let alone clear it. Ironically, those tests may come back to bite them if Jeremy Corbyn ends up in Downing Street.

For more than two years the Labour Party has sat back and enjoyed the show, safe in the knowledge that no matter how hard they try, the government can never capture the unicorn they’ve demanded of them. Such is the privilege of sitting on the opposition benches.

To the casual Labour voter it might seem like the Tories are currently destroying themselves over the vexed issue of Brexit, while the opposition reclines in the back seat and enjoys the ride. This is half right, but Theresa May’s shameful Brexit sell-out has created a constitutional vortex which will suck the Labour Party into it just as surely as it will crush the Conservatives.

There is no way that Theresa May’s disastrous stitch-up deal will be approved by Parliament unless Labour changes its mind on the issue, something they have absolutely no incentive to do. It’s also been made clear that, true to form, the EU will not consider any form of renegotiation, save for some vague, non-binding “assurances” which will only increase mistrust among Brexiteers.

Those increasingly immovable facts leave the government with only two options. The first is to go for broke and declare a no deal Brexit, the second is to extend the Article 50 process in the hope that some hitherto unimagined solution falls from the heavens before the next election (it won’t, by the way).

Although either course is deeply unpalatable for the Conservative Party, it’s also extremely dangerous for Labour too. Whether the government attempts to extend Article 50 or declares no deal, Labour will be forced to finally whip its MPs and take a single, unambiguous and coherent position on Brexit.

I’ve written at length about how the entire Brexit process has exposed the establishment’s true colours when it comes to their real interests, and the Parliamentary Labour Party will not escape the day of political judgement. Whatever course of action the government decides to follow, the Labour Party will have no choice but to either support or oppose it. Then, at last, Labour’s true position on Brexit will finally be revealed.

Image courtesy of Dimitri_C & Carlos Sotelo at FreeImages.com

True Colours part II

“No deal is better than a bad deal.”

At least we know what will be written on Theresa May’s tombstone when that day finally comes. It must be hard for her to realise that her legacy will be the poisoning of our domestic discourse for a generation, but that’s exactly what she’s achieved.

Our looming constitutional crisis could so easily have been avoided if she’d played anything resembling a straight game with the British public. Instead the Prime Minister has secretly conspired not only to negate the benefits of Brexit, but to force this unwilling nation into an even more restrictive and abusive relationship with the EU, the polar opposite of the electorate’s clearly expressed desire. This shoddy stitch-up has no democratic mandate whatsoever, and it is in direct contradiction not only to countless public statements she has made, but it is also in conflict with the Conservative Party’s 2017 election manifesto. Now the PM is shocked…shocked that her re-heated helping of the toxic status quo has been roundly rejected by MPs of every political stripe. In short, it stinks.

Whatever their true motivations, parliamentarians are right to torpedo this outrageous attempt to re-join the EU through the back door, but I suppose we shouldn’t really be surprised at May’s behaviour. After all, the EU establishment is a Michelin-starred master of rebranding rotten legislation as some new and democratic concession to public opinion. Just as the Lisbon Treaty became a de facto EU Constitution, so the Irish Backstop would become a de facto cancellation of Article 50, with a few spicy “aspirations” thrown in to cover the stench.

Back in July of 2017 I said we were unlikely to strike any kind of meaningful exit deal with the EU, chiefly because Brussels would never willingly surrender the sovereignty it had so cunningly captured over the past forty years. On the other hand, I also wrote that the Brexit process has been invaluable in forcing the establishment both here and in Europe to show its true colours at last. If nothing else, the past two years have stripped away the veneer of collegiate co-operation and shared sovereignty to reveal the EU’s true, ugly, vengeful, authoritarian and devious face. There can no longer be any doubt about who this organisation represents and what its true motivations are. Anyone who still believes we should be a willing part of such an enterprise should ask themselves some hard questions about their own motives.

Following the referendum, I still naively believed that our new PM would at least make some effort to stand up for the British electorate, even if Brexiteers like me couldn’t get absolutely everything we wanted. Instead, she has deliberately run down the clock and is now trying to bulldoze us into a treaty that would make it even harder to escape the legal labyrinth of the EU. This is no accident, and it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that the establishment has set out to teach the uppity electorate a lesson by ensuring the calamity of voting incorrectly can never again threaten their house of mirrors.

As a result, Theresa May’s disastrous and frankly insulting deal looks set to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Good riddance to it!

Where we go from here is less clear, but if Remainers think they can use the confusion to prevent Brexit from happening, then they’re the ones being naive. The genie is out of the bottle, and the revolutionary idea of honouring the largest democratic mandate in our history won’t just go away, no matter how much our elected rulers officials hope that it will.

Images courtesy of Guido Giardino & Marc Puig at FreeImages.com

My Top 10 British Films – 3

The Wicker Man (1973)

From the pen of the late, great Anthony Shaffer comes one of the most chilling, iconic and original films in all of movie history. Set on the fictitious Scottish island of Summerisle, the Wicker Man features superb performances by Edward Woodward as police Sergeant Howie and Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle. Woodward has said that Howie was the best part he ever played, while Lee maintained that the Wicker Man was his finest film.

Supported by a deep bench of quirky and accomplished character actors, director Robin Hardy follows the increasingly labyrinthine twists and turns of Sergeant Howie’s investigation into the apparent disappearance of a young girl. Every step Howie takes into that remote community’s strange rites and customs brings him closer to his own carefully planned and agonisingly awful demise.

Hardy skilfully exploits Shaffer’s slow but relentless ratchet-turning writing to build a richly detailed, absorbing and thoroughly grounded society in which the hapless Howie quickly becomes lost, flounders and is ultimately destroyed. With a memorable music score and some excellent cinematography typical of the era, the Wicker Man is one of many films that disprove the idea that only a big budget production with aggressive marketing can stand the test of time.

Modern moviemakers and games developers often talk of depth or believability in the worlds they imagine, and this shoestring British classic is one of the earliest and best examples of that art. Schaffer didn’t just write characters, he created a compelling world for them to live in, complete with its own music, folklore and traditions. It is this cultural depth and attention to detail which makes an otherwise outrageous storyline compelling and believable, as the characters are moved and motivated by the world they inhabit and the values they regard as self-evidently true.

Dogged by production problems, shrouded in controversy and surrounded by rumour, the Wicker Man has become part cult classic and part urban myth in its own right, in a way peculiar to only a handful of movies released within the span of a few short years. Just like many of its contemporaries, it feels almost as though the Wicker Man has become somehow greater than the sum of its parts, as though something almost supernatural has seeped into the sprocket holes, waiting to be unleashed whenever the movie plays.

Now well into its fourth decade of life, the Wicker Man continues to delight, puzzle, outrage and intrigue movie fans and horror aficionados. Again, like many of its contemporaries, this movie boasts some of the most famous stills and publicity shots in cinema history, and its reliable appearance in authoritative lists of truly great films means that the Wicker Man will be reborn as each new generation comes of age.

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.