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.

My top 10 British Films – 10

Yield to the Night (1956)

J Lee Thompson directs a young Diana Dors’ compelling portrayal of condemned prisoner Mary Price Hilton in this suffocating study of banal, bureaucratic torture. Stripped of her trademark bombshell costumes and makeup, Dors looks uncommonly vulnerable as a true understanding of her plight begins to dawn as appeals fail and hope fades. Without her legendary good looks to hide behind, Dors gives the performance of her career as the fallen party girl transformed into a pale and mournful lost soul, hollowed out and shuffling around the prison grounds in a tortuous cycle of waiting and worrying as her inescapable fate approaches.

On constant suicide watch, the tension of mundane routines slowly climbs to an unbearable peak as Hilton struggles to ascribe some worthwhile meaning to her life and her final days in the claustrophobic condemned cell as she endures the agony of awaiting the noose. Eating, sleeping, smoking and playing cards with the prison officers surrounding her as the clock ticks down in that cold and spartan prison regime. The interplay between Hilton and her “matrons” is especially absorbing, as the surrounding staff struggle to balance their common humanity against their clear and inflexible judicial duties, with the invisible walls between the condemned and her handlers constantly being probed, breached and re-built as those charged with supervising Hilton’s state sanctioned demise struggle with the burden of their own individual consciences.

With nothing left to lose, Mary recounts the tale of how she came to be waiting at the scaffold, revealing a very human story of feminine jealousy, insecurity and lack of maturity, culminating in the murder of a rival for her lover’s affections. This moving and personal account is an excellent reminder that behind the headlines there is often a tragic and complex human story that all too often remains unexplored.

As Mary’s story reaches its inevitable climax, the tension of boredom becomes unbearable, forcing the watcher to almost feel sorry for the staff surrounding her as they stoically suffer and share in her psychological torture. When at last the final appeal is rejected, each tries to offer solace in her own clumsy and misguided way, while each knows there can no reprieve, no matter how much genuine remorse they believe condemned might feel.

While not exactly a fun family night in, Yield to the Night is an excellent example of the lost art of building tension through inaction. It often reminds me of the first twenty minutes of Psycho, where very little happens, yet the audience finds itself glued to the screen, afflicted by an almost inexplicable morbid fascination for every twist and nuance in a character’s complex relationships, despite already knowing how the tale must end.

Speaking of endings, Yield to the Night surely boasts one of cinema’s all-time great closing shots, as nearly everyone who watches this classic British film remarks on the that last abandoned cigarette, symbolically smouldering away through those final frames…with nobody coming back to claim it.

Yield to the Night is a hugely underrated exploration of those hidden human depths beneath both the dry court transcripts and the sensational press coverage surrounding any high profile case. Through dialogue and character development, it peels away the layers of half-truths to reveal a hugely flawed and almost childishly simplistic character doomed by circumstance, temperament and a wider societal demand for justice and retribution.

There is much food for thought in this unjustly forgotten film.

My Top 10 Live Bands – 1

Iron Maiden

Tremble with terror, ye unbelievers! No recording industry fortress can withstand the unstoppable musical force unleashed upon this mortal realm by the musical alchemists of Albion!

Iron Maiden are so much more than just an astonishing and amazing live spectacle. They’re a living, breathing, libertarian resistance that glories in taunting an entertainment elite that long ago decided such louts were just too uncouth, too incorrect and generally unworthy to tread the sanctified and hallowed halls of the mainstream media complex.

Cast out and denied the limelight that was rightly theirs, Iron Maiden set about raising an army of fans and building an entertainment war machine the likes of which this world has seldom seen.

They have succeeded, and they have swept all before them.

My personal relationship with Maiden began way back in 1986, when I first saw them play live at Hammersmith. For any readers who remember, this was the gig that featured a brief appearance by some hapless kid who was placed there courtesy of Jim’ll Fix It…ahem, moving swiftly on.

I’ve seen them four times in total, roughly once a decade, and on each occasion I’ve witnessed how this insatiable media monster has grown bigger, stronger and ever more ambitious with the passage of time. With musicianship, equipment and a stage spectacle second to none, Iron Maiden have first conquered and then colonised parts of this world where the corporate media machine often fears to tread.

Fronted by the coolest living Englishman, an Iron Maiden gig isn’t just a great concert, it’s a major event. The ground trembles as the beast approaches, accompanied by a roar of jet engines as a customised Boeing 747 named Ed Force One touches down. This is no magic carpet for a spoiled pop princess, but rather a fully liveried workhorse transporting band, crew and tons of equipment to every conceivable corner of the globe. Naturally, Bruce Dickinson himself is at the controls as Ed Force One continues its epic journey to spread the dark gospel.

Oddly enough, the sheer scale of an Iron Maiden gig means that it’s actually best viewed from a bit of a distance. The stage and lighting are of such epic proportions that it’s easy to miss the bigger picture from close up. Naturally, there’s no need to worry about not hearing if you’re further back, as Iron Maiden’s infamous four axe attack can be heard for miles around.

Now well into their fourth decade in the music business, Iron Maiden have managed to avoid the rock ‘n’ roll tiger traps which have turned far too many of their contemporaries into monosyllabic, shambling caricatures. They’re fit, able, independent and spoiling for the next conquest.

Any band that’s big enough to headline Glastonbury but turns it down is a band that deserves our undying respect and admiration. Iron Maiden exist in a parallel media universe which they’ve conjured into existence through sheer force of will (and maybe some dusty, arcane powers) making them the undisputed overlords of all they survey.

Go see the beast on the road, and pay homage to the world’s greatest living rock legends.

My Top 10 Live Bands – 2

Marillion

This is one band I was lucky enough to first witness in their pomp, way back in the 80s while they were still fronted by the legendary Fish and Misplaced Childhood rode high in the album chart.

I already knew that they were all first class musicians, but I had no idea just how tight and polished a band could be on stage. Anyone who bought Misplaced Childhood on vinyl back in the day will know that it’s a full-blooded, unashamed prog rock creation consisting of only two tracks, side one and side two. As it was their latest release, I was understandably looking forward to hearing some album cuts performed live on stage. What I didn’t expect was to witness the whole damned thing! Every last note and nuance, performed live, in sequence, with no breaks and no mistakes.

It was then I realised I wasn’t just watching a kick-ass live band, I was in the presence of true musical greatness. Marillion’s huge but tightly controlled energy dovetailed perfectly with the word-perfect recitals of the audience to produce a potent and mesmerising musical mix.

I’d had my first hit of the Marillion magic, and I knew had to have more…and so I did. I saw them twice more before the world came to an end when Fish left the band. After losing one of the finest lyricists this country’s ever produced, the future looked bleak for the last and greatest performing proponents of prog rock’s hugely demanding yet dying art.

Like many other fans from the Fish era, I wondered if it was the end of the road for Marillion. Still, after four hugely respected, often cited and much loved albums, that ain’t half bad.

But then, something extraordinary happened. Some obscure, small guy from Kendal joined one of the tightest rock bands in history to retool, rebrand and relaunch.

Marillion quickly stepped out of the mainstream spotlight as new singer Steve Hogarth and the rest of the guys set about building a new kind of band, a band based more around audience access and crowd funding than courting the continued goodwill and patronage of the major labels. This was a bold and revolutionary move in the early 1990s, but one that’s proved crucial to Marillion’s continued success and close relationship with its fan base.

So, after watching from afar for more than a quarter of a century, I finally decided to take the plunge and see this “new” Marillion in late 2016.

To say I was blown away is something of an understatement. Time and age seem to have only improved Marillion’s live performances, as focused experience has gradually replaced youthful exuberance. With a hi-tech video system, custom made movies, and the most balanced and powerful live sound you’ll ever hear, Marillion introduced FEAR, their eighteenth studio album to a seemingly insatiable audience.

Marillion are one of the few bands who’ve manage to pull off that seemingly impossible trick of moving with the times while also standing still. As highlights from the ever lengthening Hogarth era were delivered at full power, I realised that the tracks I was hearing could’ve been penned at any time since the late 1980s to the present day.

As I’ve said before, a Marillion gig is a masterclass in layered power rather than raw volume, and its effects on the audience are profound and long lasting.

After a long dry spell, I’m hooked on the M-stuff once again. Wanna try some?

The Internet Acquittal of Tommy Robinson

So Tommy Robinson went and got himself arrested, again. That means it’s the end of civilisation as we know it, apparently.

It’s times like these when the wise words of Andrew Klavan often resonate the most. Klavan, among others, has often observed that conservatives generally, and the farther right in particular, have the often annoying and always counter-productive habit of declaring every development they dislike to be a reliable harbinger of impending societal collapse.

Gay marriage? It’s the end of civilisation. Female clergy? It’s the end of civilisation. The arrest of Tommy Robinson? It’s the end of civilisation. And so on, and so on, and so forth.

Certain nationalist and identitarian elements on the internet are bristling with righteous indignation and condemnation of the UK police state’s outrageous infringement of civil liberties, while typing furious petitions demanding Robinson’s immediate release from prison. Like that’s going to have any effect, other than helping GCHQ to hoover up a ton of data regarding the completely legal yet politically incorrect opinions of numerous British citizens.

Whether you believe that Robinson and his followers are “far right” or not, it says a great deal about the current state of our news media when we’re forced to turn to the Daily Mail and the ever reliable Guido Fawkes website for something approaching a balanced and dispassionate assessment of the situation.

Guido was one of the first online news sources to point out that only last year, Mr Robinson was handed a suspended sentence and expressly warned by a judge against live reporting from ongoing trials of predominantly Asian grooming gangs. Whilst the grooming gang phenomenon is a clear and present risk to young girls, women and our wider society, so too is tweeting the details of “Muslim paedophile” trials in blatant defiance of media restrictions before a jury has had an opportunity to reach a verdict. Thanks to Robinson’s reckless and self-aggrandising behaviour, he’s in jail while potentially vulnerable witnesses could be left dangerously exposed if a mistrial were declared. It’s difficult to see how any of those outcomes will help more victims escape from an ever lengthening list of organised offenders.

Whether you’re enraged or delighted by the arrest and imprisonment of Tommy Robinson, there’s no escaping the fact that despite being personally warned by a sitting judge, he went ahead and broke the law anyway. And he did it on purpose while he was under a suspended prison sentence.

Like most modern-day ideologues, it seems like the majority of Mr Robinson’s most ardent supporters want to have their cake and eat it too. They’re only too pleased to see a growing number of mostly Muslim defendants in the dock and claim, with some justification, that it’s long overdue. Yet they fly into a fit of self-righteous rage when one of their own is taken to task by the very same legal system which is finally catching up with their sworn cultural enemies.

Either we are a nation of laws or we are not. You can’t have it both ways.

Images courtesy of Jason Morrison & Doru Lupeanu at FreeImages.com

The 24hr Tragedy Cycle

Not before time, the public enquiry into the tragic events at Grenfell Tower has juddered into motion. Already we’ve heard several days of heartrending and tragic testimony from those who’ve lost loved ones in the most dreadful, almost unimaginable circumstances. These Commemoration hearings will perhaps bring some small crumb of comfort to those left behind to live with the crippling pain, anguish and guilt that always accompanies such a sudden and traumatic event.

But since when did a public enquiry become a fitting vehicle for these once very private and deeply personal parts of the grieving process?

Will these eulogies to the departed teach us anything about how this tragedy unfolded, or forewarn us against similar dangers in the future? Will they shed any light on decisions made long ago that formed the next link in this chain of catastrophe? I’d like to think so, but a tear-jerking tale of personal loss cannot advance our understanding of the events leading up to that terrible and unforgettable night.

This blurring of lines between the judicial and the personal is an unhealthy one, both for the victims of tragedy and for society at large. While friends, family and community might offer essential support to those directly affected by disaster, the public enquiry is designed to heal and salve the wider society. Its primary role is to establish exactly which variables contributed to the tragedy, and to honour the suffering of the departed by ensuring that we learn something valuable from their deeply unjust and untimely demise. We all feel a sense of loss and bewilderment after such a monumental event, and so we look to the instruments of State to provide answers and reassurance that never again will we tread that same path toward disaster.

It feels deeply ironic that our media driven and secular society is becoming ever more obsessed with personal grief, as we turn away from the eternal and spiritual to place our trust in the inconstant and temporal. Funerals, memorials and services can no longer satisfy our collective search for closure and meaning. These ancient rites of passage and grief are now recycled into documentaries and retrospectives, while yet more tributes to the lost are being shoehorned into a judicial process designed primarily to establish the facts.

As these personal tragedies are played out day by day on the public stage, I’m forced to wonder who benefits most from this protracted display of emotional outpouring. Time will tell, but I’m not convinced that these overly worthy displays of grief and loss will move us any closer to the answers we seek. Still, it makes a cracking good real-life melodrama that we can all involve ourselves in, whether we were there or not.

Who are we really thinking of when we turn on the TV to catch the next episode?

Images courtesy of Hazel Brown & Johanna Ljungblom at FreeImages.com

My Top 10 Live Bands – 3

VNV Nation

Once in every decade or so, a musical movement or maybe a movie franchise appears that just looks, sounds and feels like nothing else. Like a brand new branch springing from a mature tree, this unexpected creative offshoot bursts out of the existing cultural body in a completely unpredictable way, yet somehow manages to look like it was pre-destined to appear all along.

VNV Nation arrived in our psyche in just such an unexpected yet predictable fashion during the creative drought of the mid1990s; starting very small, but rapidly evolving into an entire musical sub-branch in their own right. This Anglo Irish duo somehow managed to blend an almost New Wave futuristic synth vibe with state of the art technology to produce a stunning series of auditory sculptures which are often imitated, but never bettered.

Working tirelessly both on the road and in the studio, VNV Nation have built up an impressive album catalogue as well as a hugely dedicated following, and all without the blessing or endorsement of the mainstream media machine.

Having been a fan of their music for quite a while, I was more than pleased to finally have the chance to witness a live performance.

They didn’t disappoint.

Although not the greatest of technical singers, Ronan Harris’ voice nonetheless oozes an authentic and heartfelt sincerity which perfectly matches the more spiritual aspects of VNV’s best work. Meanwhile, the physically imposing Mark Jackson stands like a stylised Soviet foundry worker as he hammers out the industrial foundations of a seemingly endless stream of underground anthems. With two guys working, and I mean working the desk all evening, the sound started at a high point and was absolutely flawless within a very short time. There are plenty of much bigger and much richer acts who could learn a lot from that level of dedication and professionalism.

Illusion, Homeward, Legion, Standing and the majestic, incomparable Beloved were just a few of an ever growing catalogue of firm audience favourites that kept us all jumping pretty much from start to finish. VNV delivered exactly what we all wanted, which was an orgy of hardcore electronic tracks which transcend mere dance music to become something much more akin to audial art.

They were flawless, and the reason for their fans’ dedication and almost obsessive loyalty was clearly expressed in the symbiosis between those on the stage and those on the ground. It was as though the very gods of synthpop themselves had descended to bring us the good news.

Preach it loud!

Like all truly great gigs, I just didn’t want it to end, but all good things must pass in time. However, that’s not before the guys delivered their trademark wind-down of Perpetual, which ekes out the last looping, chiming chords of the gig and leaves the audience both on a high and hungry for more.

VNV Nation have more than earned their success, and their live gigs are a testament to the old showbiz saying which reminds us that, no matter what, talent will out.