Book review: Order, Order! by Ben Wright

Order Order cover

Alcohol has long been the fuel which has powered the engine of our nation’s political life. Sometimes the results seemed to be beneficial. Margaret Thatcher generally found it difficult to relax and enjoyed a whisky or two most evenings during her long stint in Number 10. Winston Churchill also seems to have been improved incredibly by the astonishing amounts of alcohol he drank during his premiership. One has to wonder if we would have won the war, as BBC Political Correspondent Ben Wright does here, had he not drank.

Sometimes the results were less positive. During the 1970s, both Harold Wilson and Richard Nixon both saw their powers dim partly as a result of excessive alcohol consumption.Much earlier, William Pitt the Younger went through the same thing.

Occasionally, the results have been funny. Wilson’s famously erratic Foreign Secretary George Brown experienced numerous embarrassments as the result of his frequently “tired and emotional” state while Tory MP Alan Clark was famously exposed by Labour’s Clare Short as being drunk in the House on one occasion, or at least did so as far as Commons protocol allowed.

Often,  of course, as in the case of former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, the results have been tragic.

Ben Wright’s book offers a witty and well informed insight into one of Britain’s longest standing political traditions.

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Book review: Order, Order! The Rise and Fall of Political Drinking by Ben Wright.

Published by: Duckworth Overlook

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Book review: The Impossible Has Happened by Lance Parkin

The Impossible Has Happened

The Impossible Has Happened: The Life and Work of Gene Roddenberry, Creator of Star Trek. Author: Lance Parkin. Aurum Press. Published: July 21st 2016.

It has been fifty years since the creation of Star Trek and the franchise is undeniably going strong. A new film and a new TV series are both scheduled to appear later this year.

Twenty five years after his death, the reputation of the series creator Gene Roddenberry is more uncertain. On the one hand, he has been subject to a personality cult almost as elaborate as that surrounding Scientology creator and sci-fi author. On the other hand, he has been demonised as a fraud, a philanderer and a phoney. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between.

He was born in 1921 and served with distinction as a pilot in the Second World War. After the war, ironically he came very close to death in a Pan Am air crash which killed seven people in 1947. He served in the US police force drifting into TV writing and creating one non-Star Trek series, a police-themed one called The Lieutenant. He then created Star Trek which ran for three series between 1966 and 1968. At the time, it was neither very successful or a failure. Mission Impossible which ran at about the same time was probably more successful. Leonard Nimoy indeed joined the Mission Impossible cast after Star Trek ended. But unexpectedly, Star Trek became a huge success after it had ended through syndicated repeat showings. The show grew and grew and grew.

Many of the myths surrounding Star Trek seem to come from stories Roddenberry himself told at science fiction conventions in the 1970s. Some had the commendable aim of consolidating a following for the series but others clearly had more to do with Roddenberry’s ego. Yes, the series did end after three series but Roddenberry’s claims that it was ended unfairly by small-minded producers don’t add up. It was no longer profitable and the last series was significantly worse than the others. Roddenberry also subsequently exaggerated his own role as a champion of equality and civil rights claiming falsely that he fought narrow minded studio heads over the issue In fact, though he wasn’t racist by mid-20th century standards, the 1960s series only ever featured as many other minorities as most other US TV series of the time. Nichelle Nicholls’ Uhura, for example, was barely ever given anything important to do. She was one of many women Roddenberry had affairs with and in truth, the original series really didn’t have a progressive role towards women at all.

Leonard Nimoy certainly grew to hate Roddenberry. The man would often claim sole credit for the success of the series, ignoring the contribution of many others. He had no role at all in the making of the most acclaimed film 1982’s The Wrath of Khan (which he hated) and his own increasingly drunken, ageing cocaine-addled influence partly explains why the ultimately excellent Next Generation series had such a dull start.

Author Lance Parkin provides a balanced portrait of a man who for all his many flaws took TV on a journey where no one had gone before.

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Blu-ray review: High-Rise

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Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons, Keeley Hawes, Elisabeth Moss, Reece Shearsmith. Director: Ben Wheatley. Released: June 18th 2016.Studio Canal

Anarchy has often made material for some surprisingly dull films.

As exciting (or depending on your viewpoint) terrifying as a good riot may be, its difficult to maintain the sustained energy of a genuine rumpus for long on screen. It’s true Quadrophenia was enlivened by a memorable battle between Mods and Rockers while Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing was essentially all a big build up to an urban riot. But JG Ballard’s celebrated 1975 dystopian drama High-Rise is all about a riot: essentially a sky rise building’s not so gradual descent into violence and barbarism. How long can a film continue to shock, titillate and surprise you over a two hour period?

Quite a lot as it happens. Hot British director Ben Wheatley (Sightseers) is in many ways a perfect fit for this sort of thing and ably assisted by a cast of beautiful and not so beautiful people, this just about works while never quite scaling the heights of a novel which has influenced everything from the Blockmania of Judge Dredd to David Cronenberg’s early tower block based horror Shivers.

Indeed, as the accompanying featurette on author JG Ballard reminds us, Cronenberg is one of a number of directors (along with Spielberg) to tackle the late author’s books before. Set in a futuristic version of the Britain of the 1970s and featuring audio commentaries and interviews with cast and crew, High-Rise probably won’t be your favourite film of this year. But it will probably be one of the more interesting.

 

 

May the fourth be with you!

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Today is, of course, International Star Wars Day. And what better way could there be to commemorate this date which sounds a little bit like a phrase never actually said in the original trailer than  by buying these magical new Star Wars books from Egmont?

Actually watching the films. That would be a better way to celebrate clearly. But get these books too. Although technically none are out until May 5th, so you will have to wait until tomorrow. But you can order them today. And what could be more fun than ordering things?

If you like Star Wars but also love transforming things from black and white into colour, then you should love the Star Wars Galaxy Of Colouring Book pictured above. It is actually bigger than it looks here – 250 x  360mm – and has 112 pages. The front cover is dominated by a storm trooper, in a uniform which is clearly meant to be black and white anyway so not actually very good to colour in. But there are better pictures inside.

Yoda is green,

Greedo’s sort of blue,

Ewoks are brown,

May the Force be with you!

Next up, is the Star Wars Dot To Dot book, pictured below. Rest assured, even though this is Star Wars, you are expected to start with 1 each time. Not 4! Alternatively, miss out 1 to 3 and then come back to complete the puzzle twenty years later.

Star Wars Dot to Dot

Finally, if you’re a total geek, there’s the Star Wars Graphics book featuring lots of ships and locations with all the specifications, none of which really exist.

Star Wars is 40 next year so expect much more of this in 2017.

Star Wars Graphics

Book review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Book review: 2001: A Space Odyssey.

By Arthur C. Clarke.

Illustrations by Joe Wilson.

Published by The Folio Society.

All illustrations from The Folio Society edition of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

. © JoeWilson2016

2001: A Space Odyssey is a long film. Having experienced both it and the actual year 2001, it must be said the film seemed the longer of the two.

In summary: Music. Prehistoric ape men throwing bones into the air. Spaceships moving very slowly to classical music. Leonard Rossiter. The excellent HAL shutdown sequence. The space baby bit which nobody really understands. Many hippies came away in 1968 thinking they had seen the best film ever made. Perhaps they were right. No one had after all, seen Timecop then.

Some muse that the film proves that director Stanley Kubrick helped fake the Apollo 11 moon landings the following year. This seems unlikely. Kubrick was after all a very meticulous director, famous for insisting upon multiple takes. If he had been hired to film the moon landings, they would probably still be being filmed.

This is not the film, however, it is Arthur C. Clarke’s much more palatable book, illustrated for the first time (by artist Joe Wilson). It is not a predictive text. Having cleverly predicted the moon landings would be in 1970 (he made the prediction in 1945 and was only one year out!) Clarke seems to have been about a century out at least in predicting how advanced we would be by 2001. Anyone hoping for the discovery of a giant space baby in that year would have been sorely disappointed.

But this is ultimately an enjoyable and nicely illustrated read. Scoring it out of 2,500, I would unhesitatingly give it…2001.

Book review: The End Of Asquith by Michael Byrne

herbert_henry_asquithA political drama set amidst the upper echelons of the Asquith Government might not sound like everyone’s cup of tea and indeed probably isn’t. Author Michael Byrne nevertheless deserves credit here for almost achieving the impossible task of being both almost wholly historically accurate (as far as I could tell anyway) and being dramatically engaging. The novel often reads like a film or TV script. Anyone planning a drama based around  the very British coup which saw Herbert Asquith usurped as wartime Prime Minister by David Lloyd George in 1916, could do worse than using this book as a starting point.

First world war: British troops go over the top in the trenches during the battle of the Somme

Even with the absence of  “middle aged man in a hurry” Winston Churchill, who has resigned as Lord of the Admiralty after the Gallipoli disaster and gone to the western front, there are plenty of colourful characters here. Byrne does a good job of seeing everyone’s point of view. Asquith himself is clearly exhausted by power after eight years as Prime Minister, is mourning the recent death of his son in action and prone to composing letters to his ladyfriends during cabinet meetings. He is naturally wary of conceding power to the ruthlessly cunning and mischievous Lloyd George. The sneaky future press baron Max Aitken (then a Tory backbencher, later Lord Beaverbrook) is another major participant. There are plenty of decent characters but there is also lots of skulduggery here.

The stakes were high. The Liberal Party which had won an historic landslide only a decade before was totally wrecked by these developments. On the plus side, the book reminds us that the outcome of the war was not inevitable. In Germany and Russia, similar dissatisfaction with the war leadership at this time, led to disaster: revolution and defeat in one nation, revolution followed by seventy years of tyranny in the other. Britain got off relatively light.

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Book review

The End of Asquith

Author: Michael Byrne

Published by: Clink Street

2016 Oscar predictions

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Here are my predictions in the ten top categories. Be warned: my track record is poor.

Best Picture: The Big Short

Best Director: Adam McKay (The Big Short)
Lead Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)
Lead Actress: Brie Larson (Room)
Supporting Actor:  Tom Hardy (The Revenant)
Supporting Actress: Alice Vikander (The Danish Girl)
Best Original Screenplay: Spotlight
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Martian
Best foreign film: Son of Saul
Best animated: Inside Out

85th Annual Academy Awards Oscars, Press Room, Los Angeles, America - 24 Feb 2013

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Stewart Cook/REX/Shutterstock (2165841gd) Jennifer Lawrence 85th Annual Academy Awards Oscars, Press Room, Los Angeles, America – 24 Feb 2013

Blu-ray review: The Walk

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Many people have a hobby. Some collect Smurfs. Others do DIY. Others like to record their opinions of recent film releases for public consumption.

But not everyone’s the same. In the 1970s, Frenchman Philippe Petit directed all of his free time towards achieving one single goal: walking by tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Centre in New York.

In addition to the obvious perils: the great height, unexpected crosswinds, the possibility that Jeff Bridges might be attempting to climb the towers at the same time to rescue Jessica Lange from King Kong in a poorly realised remake, Petit and his chums also faced the added complication that the WTC was brand new and not yet officially open to the public in August 1974. Also, what he was planning to do was technically illegal. He not only had to sneak in to do it but risked serious jail-time afterwards.

Just as the real life Petit (for this is a true story) faced plenty of obstacles, so too, did onetime Back To The Future and Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis in seeking to dramatise this story for the big screen. For one thing, many people watching will probably know the outcome of the famous walk already, potentially robbing the film of any dramatic tension. The story was also already filmed as the 2008 documentary, Man On Wire. This shouldn’t be confused with Bird on a Wire which is something else entirely.

The film begins rather whimsically with a few scenes filmed in black and white with occasional flashes of colour rather like a cheerier version of Schindler’s List. This doesn’t last long.

Others may start to worry when it emerges that US actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt is playing Petit with a French accent, narrating the film while overlooking the towers from the vantage point of the top of the nearby Statue of Liberty. But they need not worry. Levitt is great. His accent is excellent and as the accompanying featurette reveals he quickly demonstrated a rare aptitude for tightrope-walking himself.

While one would expect all the drama to focus on “the walk” itself, the film does a good job of being compelling throughout its running time helped by a good cast and special effects which recreate the doomed World Trade Centre with a strong sense of authenticity. Petit himself seems to have been a somewhat temperamental character, his desire to complete the walk which he sees as a great work of “art” sometimes bringing him into conflict with his long-suffering girlfriend (Charlotte Le Bon) and equally temperamental mentor Papa Rudy (Sir Ben Kingsley). The latter sees the walk as performance only and urges the younger man to wear a safety harness, to no avail.

In the end, Petit’s timing was unfortunate from a publicity point of view. His exploit was knocked off the world news headlines by the news of the resignation of President Richard Nixon the following day, one of the biggest news stories of the century.

Ultimately,  Zemeckis’s touch is as sophisticated as Petit’s own rare sense of balance, the film only subtly alluding to the tragic events which most of us primarily remember the World Trade Centre for today.

Review: 4 out of 5

The Walk

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Sir Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Running time: Deleted Scenes

First Steps – Learning To Walk The Wire Featurette

Running time: 123 minutes

Twenty years of Our Friends In The North

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It has now been a full two decades since the start of one of the most acclaimed British dramas of all time, Our Friends In The North. Peter Flannery’s hugely ambitious nine part series depicted British life between the years 1964 and 1995, through the eyes of four Newcastle friends as they progress from youth to middle age.

Opening on the eve of the October 1964 General Election, which saw a rejuvenated Labour Party reclaim power after thirteen years of Tory misrule, the series ends in 1995, with New Labour seemingly poised to do much the same thing. In the meantime, the series touches on a whole range of issues including corruption within the police and government, the decline of the Left, the Miner’s Strike, homelessness, the failure of high rise housing and rising crime. The show includes a huge supporting cast too. Even today, it is hard to watch TV for long without seeing someone from it crop up.

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The four main players have all enjoyed huge success since, one (Christopher Eccleston) subsequently becoming Doctor Who, another (Daniel Craig), then unknown, subsequently becoming James Bond and a huge star. The other main actors Gina McKee and Mark Strong have been prolific stars of TV and film in the years since. Only Eccleston, who had appeared in Danny Boyle’s debut Shallow Grave and the TV series Cracker and Hearts and Minds amongst other things could claim any real fame at the time.

The series required the four actors, in reality then all around the thirty mark, to age from their early twenties to their fifties. It is odd to reflect that, odd as they look in the final 1995-set episode, they are actually supposed to be about the age the actors are now. Ironically, the excesses of 70s fashion mean that even when playing their own age, in the fourth and fifth episodes set in 1970 and 1974, they still look a bit odd.

This is nevertheless a classic series. If you’ve seen it, watch it again. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to seek it out.

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Hillary’s last chance?

Poor Hillary Clinton.
While it is tempting to think of her recent illness purely in terms of its likely impact on her presidential prospects, it should be remembered that the Secretary of State faces a very serious medical condition. We all wish her well.
However, Mrs Clinton’s agony will undoubtedly have been compounded by the possibility that the news of her blood clot may well prevent her becoming the first woman president of the USA. Even more annoyingly, she has already had two great opportunities to achieve this in the past…
2004
It’s easy to see why Hillary didn’t run for the presidency in 2004. She had only been elected as a Senator in 2000, after all, and incumbent presidents – even terrible ones like Bush – are rarely defeated when they run for re-election. It made much more sense to hold out until 2008, when the field would be clear. Had I been writing this blog in 2004, I’d probably have urged her to hold out until 2008 too.
Yet in retrospect, 2004 might well have l have been the former First Lady’s best ever chance of winning the presidency for herself. Senator John Kerry who was not, after all, the most inspiring presidential candidate the Democrats have ever produced came within a hair’s breadth of dismounting Bush (Kerry is now, of course, Clinton’s most likely successor as Secretary of State). Bill Clinton too, it should be remembered, seemed to have little chance when he announced his candidacy against a post-Desert Storm President George HW Bush in 1991. A bolder attitude would perhaps have favoured her in 2004.
But then nobody knew about Barack Obama…
2008
Hillary Clinton came tantalisingly close to securing the Democratic nomination in 2008. Yet in truth, this time, she didn’t deserve it. Her campaign shared many of the faults of David Miliband’s campaign for the Labour leadership in 2010: arrogance and assumption that the prize was owed to them by right as well as support for the unpopular Iraq War.
Admittedly, Hillary was not to know just how strong a candidate her opponent Obama was to prove. She stayed in the race long after she should have pulled out, feebly claiming she needed to be on hand in case Obama was assassinated. It was not her finest hour.
2016?
Age does not seem to be the deterrent to high office that it can be in the UK. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, elderly leaders were the norm in Britain. Jim Callaghan was 68 when he stood down as Labour leader in 1980. The resulting leadership contest was between Denis Healey (62) and Michael Foot (67).
All of these men would live into their nineties: Healey is still alive today. Yet Foot’s advanced age was widely seen as a major factor in Labour’s landslide 1983 defeat. Since then, Britain’s leaders have got younger and younger. John Major became the youngest PM of the 20th century in 1990. He was 47. His successor Tony Blair was 43. David Cameron in 2010 was younger still. Today all three party leaders are well under fifty.
In the US, Reagan seemed to set a different precedent. While Foot had long white hair, a walking stick and glasses, Reagan (who was in power at the same time as Foot was Labour leader) had somehow retained his dark hair despite being two years older than Foot. Reagan was the first ever presidential nominee to be over seventy. Since then Bob Dole and John McCain have followed his example. Although, of course, neither won. Mitt Romney was 65.
So Hillary being 69 in 2016 was not seen as a serious obstacle to her running in 2016. And the omens looked better than ever after a successful stint as Obama’s first Secretary Of State.
But the blood clot is more serious. Hopefully, both Mrs Clinton and her presidential prospects will make a speedy recovery.
19th International AIDS Conference Convenes In Washington