The heroes who saved Exeter

The news was alarming, to say the least.

At just past 1am on the morning of 4th May 1942, radio operators based in Exeter, reported that forty German bombers – Junkers – had taken off from Nazi-occupied Paris and were now heading for Exeter. Although the news was not totally out of the blue –  Exeter had already been suffering as a result of the Baedeker Raids and had already experienced serious attacks late in April –  this promised to be the worst attack yet.

Thankfully, a small but valiant band of heroes were on hand to defend Exeter that night. Demonstrating incredible bravery and facing terrible odds, the 307 Polish Night Fighter Squadron went into battle despite having only four serviceable Beaufighters available. As we know, Exeter did not escape bombing that night. However, without the actions of the Polish fighters, the consequences would have undoubtedly been worse. By 2.30am, the squadron were accredited with shooting down four Junkers including one which had crashed near Topsham cricket ground.

In short, the role of the Polish Night Fighters in defending wartime Exeter, is too often overlooked.

Always faithful

The story of the Polish Night Squadron essentially begins with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939: the event which triggered British involvement in the Second World War. With Poland defeated, many Polish pilots made the hazardous journey to Britain. Eventually realising their worth, the RAF soon had the Polish pilots flying with them, initially stationed in Blackpool. In Lincolnshire, a  new division was formed under Squadron Commander Stanislaw Pietraszkiewicz. It was named the ‘307 (City of Lwow) Night Fighter Squadron’. It arrived  in Exeter in April 1941. The location was fitting. The city of Lwow, now known as Lviv is now part of the Ukraine. By coincidence, the city has the same motto as Exeter: “Semper Fidelis”: always faithful.

The division had another name too: they were known as the ‘Night Owls’ or the ‘Lwow Eagle Owls’. An owl, a plane and a crescent moon were included in their emblem.

The Night Owls remembered

The Night Owls remained  in Devon until they were moved to Swansea in April 1943. Their role in Exeter had extended way beyond the actions of May 1942. Many of the pilots suffered death, not just in combat, but often as a result of technical faults on their planes. They also came to play a vital role in city life. Some of the pilots married and had children during their time in Exeter.

2019 was the 80th anniversary of 307 Squadron and in November (14-15 November) 307 Squadron held a major exhibition at Exeter Guildhall to mark the anniversary. The Polish flag was raised on 15th November over the Guildhall as has happened every year since 2012.

Extra: What were the Baedeker Raids?

The Baedeker Blitz was a series of air raids launched during April and May  1942, in response to the RAF attack on the undefended city of Lübeck. The German high command reportedly used the 1930s edition of the Victorian Baedeker series of guidebooks to help them identify English towns which were valued primarily for cultural value, rather than for their strategic or military importance. Exeter – in fact, a city of cultural value but also not strategically insignificant either – was targeted first. The overall campaign was abandoned fairly quickly but nevertheless cost some 1,600 lives in total and destroyed many buildings.

Chris Hallam wrote the 2019 book, A-Z Exeter – Places, People, History and co-wrote, Secret Exeter (2018). Both books are available now from Amberley.

The Best British sitcoms of the 21st century so far: The IT Crowd (2006-13)

Jen, Roy and Maurice make up ‘the IT Crowd,’ the IT support team located in the basement of a large London corporation. Jen (Katherine Parkinson), is the boss. Hopelessly out of her depth having bluffed her way into a job she knows nothing about, she is even unsure how to pronounce the word, ‘computers’ correctly. Roy (Chris O’Dowd), meanwhile, is nice but lazy. He tends to answer every IT enquiry with the question, “Have you tried switching it off and on again?” Finally, there’s Maurice Moss (Richard Ayoade), an intelligent geek.

As with Graham Linehan’s other sitcoms, Father Ted and Black Books, The IT Crowd’s main characters arguably adhere to a comedy formula: an inept boss who would rather be somewhere else (Ted Crilly, Bernard Black, Jen), an amiable subordinate (Dougal, Fran, Roy) and a weirdo (Father Jack, Manny, Moss). But if it is a formula, it’s pretty loose: none of these characters are really anything like each other. And it works.

The casting of Chris Morris, as company head, Denholm Reynholm generated much comment when the show started.  Why was Morris, the man behind Brass Eye attaching himself to such a mainstream vehicle? Such statements proved misplaced. Morris, although fine, was never the best thing in it. All the main cast proved their worth on their show and have flourished elsewhere since. Morris, at any rate, soon left to be replaced by Matt Berry as his son and heir, Douglas. As the lecherous, unreconstructed “sexy Hitler,” Douglas, Berry (in fact, only twelve years’ younger than Morris) delivers an almost career-defining performance.

Although patchy at first, The IT Crowd was a rare sitcom which steadily improved as it went on. Standout episodes feature Roy’s emotional game of Dungeons and Dragons, Moss’s appearance on Countdown, Roy and Moss tricking Jen into believing a box contains the entire internet and a work’s outing to see ‘Gay! A Gay Musical.’

And for the record, the title, The IT Crowd is apparently pronounced to rhyme with ‘high tea crowd’ not ‘bit crowd’. Although, frankly, it probably doesn’t really matter.

All 4, Netflix

Veganuary 2020 Restaurant review: Comptoir Libanais, Exeter

Written with the assistance of Nicky Hallam

Guildhall Shopping Centre, Queen St, Exeter EX4 3HP

Three months after our last visit, my wife and I were happy to return to the Exeter branch of Lebanese restaurant chain Comptoir Libanis on a special trip in honour of Veganuary.

Although neither of us are practicing vegans, we are both sympathetic to the vegan cause. My wife, to her credit, at least, had a fully vegan meal. I caved and chose to have some meat. But I won’t dwell on that.

The restaurant is, as before, welcoming and pleasant to visit. Staff are friendly and attentive. Even the toilets are nice with paintings of Hollywood stars of yesteryear adorning the walls. As a writer for Yours Retro magazine, I appreciated this.

The restaurant was also as good as it was before in catering for my nut allergy, removing all pistachios from the first course. Most restaurants have improved their standards on this recently, but there is still room for improvement at many.

Not here! They were great about it.

The restaurant seemed fairly quiet for a Friday night. January is, of course, traditionally a quiet month for restaurants. The other restaurants we passed looked quiet too. Comptoir Libanais looked quieter still.

First course:

The aubergine was very tasty, soft and held together well and each bite was accompanied by a pop of pomegranate freshness. This heat situation was, for me, made worse by the meal having far too much chilli on it. It practically blew the back of my head off and got my meal off to a rude start.

I much preferred the hommos, which had a smooth, creamy texture. The falafel was crunchy and the pink pickled turnip and mint provided a colourful combination. The spicy harissa sauce made it impossible to eat in full (for me anyway) though.

Second course:

The tagine was perfect comfort food. The vermicelli rice made a nice change and there were peppers with aubergine, chickpeas, a tasty sauce with tomatoes and pomegranate seeds on top.

Overall: a good experience, but too spicy for me!

Restaurant review: Comptoir Libanais, Exeter

Guildhall Shopping Centre, Queen St, Exeter EX4 3HP

Three years after it opened, the Exeter branch of Lebanese restaurant chain Comptoir Libanis has established itself as a solid player in the city’s ever expanding food empire.

Arriving for lunch in the Guildhall Centre on a grey early October afternoon, we might have expected the restaurant to be deserted. Not a bit of it. There was a busy, pleasant, family friendly atmosphere and some well-behaved pre-school children sat near us, many wearing Fezs on their heads, which I presume had been given out specially (just like that?).

The food: For starters, we were recommended the Mezze Platter., for me and my wife to share. This consisted of hommos, baba ghanuj, tabbouleh, falafel, natural labné, cheese samboussek, flatbread and pickles. Every aspect of this was pleasant and as I am a nut allergy sufferer, I was especially appreciative of the staff’s sensitivity when I enquired about this.

I am generally quite a messy eater (the party of children I mentioned before, probably left less debris behind than I typically do. I thus went for a relatively safe option: a burger, specifically a Lebanese Lamb and Halloumi burger consisting of char-grilled lamb kofta burger with grilled halloumi, tahina, harrisa mayonnaise, tomato, pickled cucumber, served with Lebanese spiced potatoes.

We live in age where high quality burgers have become almost the norm. This one certainly really hit the spot. I soon found myself calculating how much bread I needed to sacrifice to ensure I could manage all of the main event.

Not for the first time, my wife chose well too, opting for Chicken Taouk: marinated grilled chicken breast with garlic sauce, pickled cucumber and tomato. I was soon in the weird position of envying her choice while simultaneously being pleased with my own selection.

Our only error? We had by now eaten far too much to even contemplate a dessert. The starter alone would have satisfied many people.

Still, never mind: we are sure to come to Comptoir Libanais again.

DVD review: The Last Station (2010)

Review first published on Movie Muser, June 2010  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Director: Michael Hoffman

Cast: Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Anne-Marie Duff, Paul Giamatti, Kerry Condon, John Sessions

Running time: 107 minutes

Russia: 1910. With the First World War and the Russian Revolution still a few years off, ageing War and Peace author Leo Tolstoy (Plummer) might be expected to be enjoying a peaceful retirement. In fact, torn between the conflicting demands of his strong willed wife Countess Sofya (Mirren) and those of his increasingly zealous Tolstoyan followers, the author’s life is barely less turbulent than the events of one of his great novels.

The Last Station is less about Tolstoy himself than the plethora of characters surrounding him. The most sympathetic is perhaps young Valentin Bulgarov (McAvoy), a brainy but self conscious acolyte of the author. Arriving at the Tolstoy Estate as the author’s new private secretary, Valentin soon finds his loyalties divided. Should he side with the clique effectively led by his boss Vladimir Chertkov (Giamatti), in attempting to build a personality cult around the author or with the more reasonable wishes of Tolstoy’s undeniably unstable wife?


For a film dealing with such weighty issues, the first half of The Last Station is remarkably cheery stuff. Perhaps wary of scaring off his audience, director Hoffman devotes much screen time to the sneezing and reticent McAvoy’s tentative relationship with ballsy proto-feminist Masha (Condon). Only in the second half, does the film’s mood darken to a suitably more sombre state, yet the change is so dramatic (McAvoy’s character also transforming overnight) that it unbalances the film. 

The film is beautifully acted, however, Plummer almost looking like an American (okay, Canadian) reincarnation of Tolstoy at times and Mirren equally great as his long-suffering spouse, a woman clearly prone to emotional volatility, expressed through occasional gun-play and chicken impression, but who nevertheless has good reason to feel aggrieved.

The accompanying commentary and interviews give some insight into a project which was apparently in the pipeline for around twenty years. But ultimately it’s a problem of tone. Too lightweight in the first half, while too melancholy (and despite dramatic events, frankly, dull) in the second, somehow The Last Station never quite scales the epic heights it threatens to achieve.
Overall Verdict: Great performances elevate a film which falls just short of Tolstoyan brilliance itself.

DVD review: Upstart Crow Series 3

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Upstart Crow, that is, the further adventures of Will Shakespeare, returns for a third series. As before, Shakespeare (David Mitchell) is depicted as a normal if somewhat conceited man, simultaneously brilliant while full of human flaws. He alternates between his humble Stratford domestic existence with wife, Anne (Liza Tarbuck), somewhat embarrassing parents (Harry Enfield and Paula Wilcox) and children (notably Helen Monks) and his busier London life dominated by his flamboyant contemporary, Kit Marlow (Tim Downie) and assistant Kate (Gemma Whelan).

Ben Elton’s sitcom has always had something of the air of a Blackadder II tribute act about it (not forgetting, of course, that Elton co-wrote that superb mid-eighties series). Will is essentially a less sinister Edmund, Marlow is Flashman, Greene (Mark Heap) is Lord Melchett, while Kate is a female…er…”Kate” (short for “Bob”) while Baldrick was basically a much dirtier Bottom (Rob Rouse). Ahem…

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There is also a definite sense of fatigue creeping in. The issue of Marlow’s impending murder is dealt with rather unsatisfactorily and there is also an over-reliance on extending words (for example, “strap on a pair of boobingtons”) for comic effect. It’s lazy and not even very Shakespearian. There are cameos by ex-Young Ones Nigel Planer and Ade Edmondson and, separately, by Edmondson’s daughter, rising star Beattie Edmondson.

And yet, for all that, there are frequent flashes of brilliance here. The use of language is often superb as with Mitchell’s hilarious sex monologue in the first episode. Ben Miller brilliantly sends up actor Mark Rylance as the Tudor actor, Wolf Hall and Spencer Jones continues his excellent piss-take of Ricky Gervais. The cast, particularly Whelan and Downie are also consistently great.

And, as in real life, all does not always necessarily end well. The final episode is surprisingly, beautifully and wonderfully poignant.

Release date: October 8th 2018

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DVD/Blu-ray review: March of the Penguins 2 – The Next Step

Release date: November 5th 2018

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The penguins are back. And this time, they’re mad as hell…
Thirteen years ago, the United States went penguin-crazy as the documentary film, March of the Penguins (La Marche de l’Empereur) waddled to considerable box office success. It was a nicely made film and many people undeniably have a soft spot for these particular flightless birds. Despite this, many Britons were probably baffled by the film’s success which inevitably spread to the UK too. It is easy for us to forget that the US does not have high quality nature documentaries on TV fairly regularly. We have, in many ways, been spoilt by the licence fee and David Attenborough. We don’t know how lucky we are sometimes.
The film produced some odd side effects, however, with many eccentric American conservatives bending over backwards to find reassurance in right-wing lessons which they imagined the film had taught them as if it turned out an episode of Pingu had been secretly written by Ayn Rand. It is surprising that they were not put off by the fact the film was French, the French nation being held in even lower than usual regard by the US at the time after they’d sensibly avoided the Iraq War which both the US and UK had foolishly become embroiled in. The film’s success also led to a spate of slightly bizarre penguin-themed animations: Happy Feet, Happy Feet Two and Surf’s Up (although the last two of these flopped at the box office).
For various reasons, this sequel seems unlikely to set the world alight in quite the same way. It’s pretty similar to the first film. It looks nice. The English language version is again narrated by Morgan Freeman. The penguins are praised for their “good manners” as they walk along neatly. They do walk along neatly. It is nothing to do with “manners” though. That’s a human quality. It’s that sort of standard.
This was shown on a TV channel in the US, here it’s gone straight to DVD/Blu-ray. But don’t be fooled: if you saw March of the Penguins, rest assured: this is every bit as boring as the original. I pretty much forgot I’d ever seen it even before I finished watching it.

Book review: Fighters and Quitters by Theo Barclay

Book review: Fighters and Quitters: Great Political Resignations, by Theo Barclay. Published by: Biteback. Out now.

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All political careers end in failure, Enoch Powell is often quoted as saying. Not all end in dramatic frontbench resignations, however. Except for those included in this thorough and entertaining collection by barrister Theo Barclay. Fighters and Quitters fills in the blanks on some of the great ministerial resignations of the last century. In most cases, transcripts of the resignation letters (and their replies) are included in full: a nice touch.

The selection process to decide which resignations should be focused on in the book does seem to have been a bit odd though. First up is the Duchess of Atholl, who resigned over Munich: an interesting case, which I knew little about. The Duchess should not be confused with another famous Atholl who resigned too late for this book: notably the total Atholl who resigned as Foreign Secretary last month (JOKE).

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We then jump to 1963 and John Profumo: undoubtedly a massive resignation and the biggest sex scandal of the 20th century, skipping over Hugh Dalton’s “Budget leaks”, Nye Bevan’s “false teeth and spectacles” and Macmillan’s “Night of the Long Knives” in 1962, in the process (the Long Knives admittedly were more blatant sackings than resignations admittedly). Callaghan’s 1967 resignation over devaluation, George Brown’s 1968 departure as Foreign Secretary (after numerous empty threats to quit) and Reginald Maudling’s exit over the Poulson affair are all missed out.

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John Stonehouse and Jeremy Thorpe are covered. Both remain remarkable stories, but neither were particularly characterised by the resignations of the key participants.

The three big ministerial resignations of the Thatcher era (aside from the Iron Lady herself) do feature here: Heseltine, Lawson and Howe, the last two sharing a chapter. Other potentially interesting cases up to the present: Lord Carrington, John “here today, gone tomorrow” Nott, Cecil Parkinson, Jeffery Archer, David Mellor, Norman Lamont and David Blunkett are missing too. Probably I am asking far too much to expect all of these to be included. Nevertheless, the selection process does seem inconsistent.

Heseltine Speaks At Conference

Despite this, if you do enjoy accounts of ministerial resignations – and let’s face it, who doesn’t? – this a solid, exhaustively researched read in which Barclay subjects the last thirty years to particularly intense scrutiny. He also redresses the balance in many cases.

Twenty years on, Welsh Secretary Ron Davies’ “moment of madness” and certainly his explanation for it seem madder than ever (overwhelmed by tiredness, he went to stretch his legs on Clapham Common in the middle of the night, met a man and agreed to go for a takeaway with him, before being robbed apparently). Edwina Currie, meanwhile “was the victim of a corporatist stitch-up, but it arose out of a crisis created by her own big mouth.” Peter Mandelson, meanwhile, seems genuinely hard done by. The general view that the late Robin Cook’s resignation over Iraq was principled and honourable (he in fact left it far too late to prevent anything) while Clare Short’s was hypocritical and self-serving (she in fact seemed very well-intentioned) is rightly reassessed.

An excellent read.

Edwina Currie launches new British Lion Code of Practice

Book review: Only Fools and Stories by David Jason

Only Fools and Stories: From Del Boy to Granville, Pop Larkin to Frost by David Jason (Published by Century)

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In 1980, as he approached his fortieth birthday, David Jason could look back on an enjoyable comedy and acting career. But he had never hit the big time. And there had been plenty of missed opportunities.

For a few joyful hours in the late Sixties, for example, Jason had been briefly cast as Lance Corporal Jones in a new BBC sitcom about the wartime Home Guard called Dad’s Army. Jason, was only in his twenties then, but already had a good reputation for playing old men. Jason’s euphoria at getting the role was short-lived, however. The casting director’s first choice, middle-aged Clive Dunn got back in touch and indicated that, on second thoughts, he wanted the part which would make him a star, after all. Jason was out.

He could also have very easily been a Python, having co-starred with Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Jones in the 1967-1969 comedy sketch Do Not Adjust Your Set. But for whatever reason, Jason didn’t follow these three into the hugely successful Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

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He was, at least, by the end of the Seventies, an experienced and highly recognisable comedy face. He had played the geriatric convict Blanco in the hugely successful prison-based sitcom,  Porridge. Appearing with Ronnie Barker again, Jason had excelled as Granville, the put upon Yorkshire errand boy in Open All Hours. But though now regarded as a classic sitcom (indeed, Jason appears in its follow-up, Still Open All Hours to this day), the Roy Clarke series was very slow to attract a large audience.

Only Fools Xmas

It took Only Fools and Horses to make Jason a star. John Sullivan’s sitcom began in 1981 and like Open All Hours was to be a slow burner, getting what, by 1980s standards were considered low ratings. But the role of wheeler dealing market trader Derek “Del Boy” Trotter (a performance Jason based on a stylishly dressed cockney building contractor he had encountered in the Sixties) was clearly the role he had been born to play. By the end of the decade, the series was one of the most popular in the land.

Although less of a full-blown autobiography than Jason’s 2013 book, My Life, this should be enjoyed by all Jason fans featuring countless anecdotes about his experiences on the show (notably a series of practical jokes carried out with his onscreen brother Nicholas Lyndhurst) as a well as stories about his other later works including A Touch of Frost, The Darling Buds of May and Porterhouse Blue.

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Film review: Ghost In The Shell

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Ghost in the Shell is out now on Digital Download.

106 minutes

Directed by: Rupert Sanders

Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Carmen Pitt, Pilou Asbaek, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche

First, the good news: in 2017, for the first time ever a superhero film starring a genuine actual woman person proved a big hit at the box office.

However, it wasn’t Ghost in the Shell. It was Wonder Woman.

The mystery, of course, is not so much why this happened but why this hadn’t happened before. There are a few possible explanations:

Explanation 1: Cinema audiences are all similar in character to Donald Trump. They claim to like women but secretly fear and despise them (even the ones who are female themselves): Happily, FALSE. Resident Evil, Underworld, Tomb Raider and other female-led non-superhero films have done well with audiences after all. As did Wonder Woman…

Explanation 2: No one outside the Geekzone knew about characters like Elektra, Aeon Flux, Catwoman and the franchise Ghost in the Shell. Everyone knows Wonder Woman: Probably TRUE, yes. Except in the case of Catwoman, who everyone knew but which was truly dreadful.

Explanation 3: That’s just it! Wonder Woman was actually good. All those other films were bad! Surprisingly, this is generally TRUE too (although Ghost in the Shell, as we shall see, isn’t bad). But why should this be…?

Explanation 4: Women are just bad at playing superheroes. FALSE! Garner, Theron, Johansson were and are all good actresses. It’s not just Gil Gadot, great as she is.

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Explanation 5: Filmmakers really haven’t got the knack of making superhero films for women until now. Oddly, this is more likely to be the explanation than anything else.

Perhaps I am wrong to group Ghost In The Shell alongside these other films. It is arguably a different kettle of fish. It is science fiction, a direct remake of the Japanese anime which is  in fact one of the most successful animes there has ever been. it’s Blade Runner type setting is reasonably visually impressive and the film is certainly action packed. Johansson is fine as the synthetic human who has been transformed into an anti-terrorist operative  although it is difficult to reject the widespread criticism that an Asian actress would have been more suitable for the part.

Ghost In The Shell is never awful but it isn’t especially original, lacks a sense of humour and is sometimes quite boring. Great films do sometimes fail at the box office. This did fail but ultimately really isn’t great.

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Book review: How To Stop Time, by Matt Haig

Published by: Canongate, July 6th 2017

Tom Hazard has a condition.

For although he looks and sounds like any other forty-one year old man, he is older than he seems. Much older. For while most men of forty-one spent their childhoods rising BMXs and playing Spectrum computer games, Tom was born in the later stages of the Tudor era. In short, he is well over four hundred years old already and can expect to live into the 23rd century.

Anageria is the name given to Tom’s condition in Matt Haig’s excellent novel. He is not immortal and indeed does still age but just as dogs and cats are thought to live for seven years to every human’s one, Tom lives one year for every other humans’ fifteen. In short, he has only aged ten years since the age of Charles Dickens and Abraham Lincoln. He would only age five or six years in the entire period most of us spend on the Earth.

Like the hero of The Time Traveler’s Wife (who constantly finds himself jumping from random year to random year in the life of his partner), Benjamin Button (who is born as an old man and then ages backwards), Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (who like Tom, doesn’t age much from Tudor times onward but also changes sex) and the main character in the recent film The Age of Adaline (who remains in her late twenties for sixty years and ends up with an old lady as a daughter), Tom ultimately finds his long life less a blessing and a curse, particularly as he struggles to form relationships with any normal person (or “Mayfly”).

It’s a superb premise and a compelling read. Hazard undergoes all manner of human experiences ranging from the grim brutality of the 17th century witch-hunts to the joys of the Jazz Age. Like many characters in these situations, he has an uncanny Flashman-like ability to bump into famous people along the way, an encounter with author F. Scott Fitzgerald, recalling a similar encounter in Woody Allen’s time travelling film Midnight In Paris.

Matt Haig is one of Britain’s finest novelists and while this may slightly lack the emotional punch of some of his other novels (such as The Humans), there is still a simple joy in witnessing Tom’s experiences throughout the centuries as he struggles to find reasons to stay alive.

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Star Wars book reviews: 2017

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Let’s face it: here is something about Star Wars. Nothing compares to it. It is simultaneously one of the biggest films of all time and a cult favourite. These reviews cover just a small sample of the huge range of Star Wars books released (mostly) in the past year. 2017 is, of course, the 40th anniversary of the original film’s release. The strange thing is none  of these books are even being released because of that. There are always just lots of Star Wars books being released anyway and these are some of them.

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Art of Colouring: Rogue One A Star Wars Story and Star Wars Rogue One Profiles And Pictures have both been released by Egmont to capitalise on the success of the recent mildly enjoyable Rogue One film. The colouring book has its weaknesses -why would any one want too colour in storm troopers who are black and white anyway? – but both are otherwise competent enough. Make Your Own U-Wing (also Egmont) similarly does exactly what it says on the tin.

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A more philosophical supposedly grown-up approach to the franchise is taken by former Obama Administration official Cass R. Sunstein in The World According To Star Wars (pub: William Morrow). It is good but mostly quite silly.

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By far the best book on the history of the franchise here and indeed, perhaps anywhere,  is Chris Taylor’s How Star Wars Conquered The Universe (Head Zeus, 2015). Utterly absorbing and totally comprehensive.

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Finally, before her untimely death last year, Carrie Fisher’s memoir The Princess Diarist (Bantam Press, 2016) generated a disturbance in the Force by revealing the then teenage actress’s on set affair with Han Solo actor Harrison Ford, then in his thirties and nearing the end of his first marriage.

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“I love you!” “I know!” is the couple’s famous exchange in the film. And we should know  too. The affair had already been referred to in Chris Taylor’s book mentioned above. This was published some time before Carrie Fisher’s confession. Why did nobody pick up on it then?

Fisher’s final book is not really a fitting tribute to the late author’s formidable talent. The diary extracts written by her younger self are not really fit for publication. The rest is lightweight fare from a great writer on lazy form.

Ultimately, though, consider this: no books have been released entitled How Smokey and the Bandit Conquered The Universe. Or How Annie Hall Conquered The Universe. Or How Saturday Night Fever Conquered The Universe.

Why? Because Star Wars is utterly unique. Truly, a Force unto itself.

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Why 2016 was a great year after all

150806212843-07-fox-debate-trump-0806-super-169Don’t believe me? Then, consider the following…

  1. Much attention has been focused on the large number of celebrities who died in 2016. But what about the much larger number of celebrities who DIDN’T DIE during the year? These include former US president Jimmy Carter, actor Tom Baker, Bjorn Borg, puppeteer Bob Carolgees, former NUM head Arthur Scargill, Deliverance star Ned Beatty, actors Olivia de Havilland, Roger Moore, Brigitte Bardot, politician Ross Perot, Frank Oz and Hugo Chavez. Chavez, admittedly, was already dead at the start of the year. This still counts.
  2. Sadiq Khan was elected mayor of London. His opponent Zac Goldsmith’s campaign floundered, proving decisively that racist and dishonest tactics will never succeed in a western political campaign. Ahem…
  3. For the first time in over two centuries of history a woman was nominated as the presidential candidate for a major US political party. Hurrah! Admittedly, she lost to a man accused of sexual offences who has condoned violence against women. And the fact that she was a woman was undoubtedly a decisive factor in her defeat. Still, it’s a start…I think?
  4. Jeremy Corbyn survived as Labour leader ensuring Labour will be unencumbered by the burdens of power and actually having  to work to improve people’s lives for the foreseeable future.
  5. The Brexit result was a triumph over the privileged elite by anarchist non-elitist working class salt of the Earth outsiders like Boris Johnson, former stockbroker Nigel Farage and Rupert Murdoch. Working-class people willingly rebelled against Westminster by giving lots of extra power to Westminster. Children everywhere learnt important lessons about democracy: a) lying does seem to work b) you don’t actually have to believe in whatever your campaigning for yourself to win c) grossly misrepresenting your opponents can work. Cameron never actually came close to saying Brexit would lead to World War III and d) Most importantly, don’t listen to experts! Got that kids? Economists, teachers, doctors: ignore anyone who, by definition, knows anything about them. Instead, put your trust in astrology, the Tory press and Michael Gove.
  6. Boris Johnson didn’t become Prime Minister. Actually, that really was a good thing…london-mayor-boris-johnson-holds-brick-he-speaks-conservative-party-conference-birmingham

Book review: The Long And Winding Road by Alan Johnson

alan-johnson-book-jacket-the-long-and-winding-roadImagine history had panned out differently. Alan Johnson might have become Labour leader in 2010. Labour might have won power in 2015 and the disaster which is Brexit might not now be happening. The pound would be strong, Ed Balls would be in government, Corbyn still on the backbenches while the Foreign Secretary might actually be someone who is capable of doing the job. Perhaps without Brexit to inspire him, Donald Trump would have lost in the US. We can dream anyway…

Perhaps this was never likely. Johnson never ran for the leadership and lost unexpectedly to Harriet Harman when he ran for Deputy. But as this, the third volume of his celebrated memoirs reminds us, Labour’s last Home Secretary is that rarest of things. Like Chris Mullin, he is a politician who can write.

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Book Review: Gilliamesque by Terry Gilliam

For more on Terry Gilliam, see my feature The Imaginarium of Terry Gilliam in issue 14 of Geeky Monkey magazine.

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Gilliamesque: A Pre-Posthumous Memoir by Terry Gilliam, published by Canongate, 2016

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Terry Gilliam has always stood out from the crowd.

Even when in Monty Python, he stood out somewhat as the one American. Slightly odd looking, he mostly remained off screen at first, producing instead the celebrated animated sequences (for example, during the series’ opening titles) for which he became famous. Nearly fifty years on, this book, his memoir is illustrated throughout in a similarly unique style.

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Like many people called Terry (Terry Pratchett, Terry Brooks, fellow Python Terry Jones, er, Terry Scott?). Gilliam found himself drawn to the fantasy genre. His directing career began awkwardly with Gilliam co-directing Python ventures with Terry Jones. Although mostly good films in the end, they were tough shoots with Jones and Gilliam gently wrestling for overall control and the likes of Cleese and Palin losing patience with the American who they felt treated them like they were bits of animated card.

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Gilliam really came into his own in the first half of the Eighties with brilliantly imaginative fantasies like Time Bandits and Brazil. He’s had many fine moments since – notably The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys and has undeniably developed a unique visual style. Despite this, he has never developed a reputation for being a safe pair of hands, largely due to high profile flops like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and The Adventures of Don Quixote which never even completed filming.

Though he sometimes adopts an overly defensive tone when discussing his own films, Gilliam makes for an engaging likeable narrator on his own life. The world of cinema would certainly have been poorer without him.

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British Public Take BFJ To Their Hearts

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People all over the land have been thrilling to the antics of the huge lumbering giant BFJ otherwise known as Boris Fucking Johnson.

“I love how he uses funny long words which nobody really understands, like rambunctious and flibbertigibbet,” says Colin, 66, from Kent. “I also like how he travels to lots of different countries all around the world really fast.”

Miranda, 44, from Chelsea, also enjoys Boris Fucking Johnson’s adventures. “He’s always saying the wrong thing!” she laughs. “He blows dreams into people’s ears. Mainly dreams about the UK benefiting economically from leaving the European Union.”

Boris Fucking Johnson has definitely not been seen enticing young women out of their windows as some had claimed.

Less popular recent characters from the same stable include George Osborne’s Marvellous Economic Medicine and The Fantastic Dr. Liam Fox.

News: Tom Daley to go weekly

Tom Daley to go weekly

After over twenty years, it has been announced that the Olympic bronze-winning diver Tom Daley is to go weekly. “Tom is very popular and has been a big success,” a spokesman said, “but some segments have been increasingly skimpy of late, particularly around the trunks section. Fans should still enjoy a less frequent and more substantial Tom in the years to come.” The announcement follows similar recent format changes for the actresses Honeysuckle Months, Keira Fort-Knightley and the gradual transformation of Gary Numan into Gary Oldman.

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Olympic results “unfair” claim protesters

Large numbers of protesters have gathered to complain about Britain’s medal tally at the Rio Olympics, with some arguing that the event should be completely re-staged. “It’s an outrage,” said one. “Many of the judges looked like they didn’t know what they were doing. I bet some of them were too working class or old to make informed decisions on such complex issues. I don’t think some of them had even been to London, let alone lived there.” “Perhaps the Olympics could be re-staged in another city in about four years time?” suggested another. “They could do that every four years, in fact, until we get the result we want.”

Tom Daley “wins entire Rio Olympics” single handed

Reports have been coming in that British diver Tom Daley has won every event at the Rio 2016 Olympics on his own. Some commentators have disputed this, one claiming, “Tom’s a damn good fellow but I’m sure in the synchronised diving event at least one other person was involved.” “There actually may have been someone else diving too,” admits one correspondent. “But our deadlines are very tight and I didn’t get the fellow’s name if there was anyone else there. It was also very hard to see: whoever it was was very awkwardly placed. Tom was right in front of them during the entire dive.”

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DVD review: Sing Street

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Dublin, 1985 and teenager Conor is having a tough time. His home life is hell as he and his older brother and sister are forced to support each other as their parents are totally distracted by an ugly break-up. What’s more, Conor is forced to attend a tough new school where he faces a daily battle to avoid being beaten up by the other pupils as well as by the priests who are supposed to be running it. As if all that wasn’t enough, the Irish Republic is in the doldrums with many young people pinning all their hopes on escape to the UK, itself experiencing record breaking levels of unemployment under Margaret Thatcher at this time.

Thankfully, Conor has two great comforts: firstly, his love of music, encouraged by his brother (US actor Reynor), who though only slightly older seems to have otherwise already given up on life and secondly, his passion for attractive local girl Raphina (Boynton). He attempts to fuse these two interests together by forming a band in a bid to win his girl over.

It may seem bizarre to describe Sing Street as a feelgood film, given this review’s first paragraph, but though it has a harder edge to it than John Carney’s Once and Begin Again (the last of these is reviewed here http://bit.ly/2abGb3M), this is still generally uplifting stuff. The generally young cast is great, particularly Walsh-Peelo as Conor/Cosmo. Particularly amusing is the band’s tendency to instantly transform their image according to the fashions of the day: New Romantic one minute, Goth the next.

Criminally overlooked at the cinemas, this is one of the most charming, enjoyable films of 2016.

And the soundtrack is awesome.

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Director:John Carney

Special Features:

Go Now by Adam Levine

The Making of Go Now Featurette

A Beautiful Sea Live Performance

Starring: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Aiden Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Jack Reynor, Kelly Thornton, Ian Kenny, Ben Carolan

Lionsgate. Release date: August 8th 2016

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DVD review: Upstart Crow

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You could feel the shockwaves reverberating around the British comedy world for days afterwards: Ben Elton had written a good sitcom.

It should not have been a shock, of course. Elton co-wrote two of the best British sitcoms of all time, ‘The Young Ones’ and ‘Blackadder’, indeed, the three best series of ‘Blackadder’. The ghost of ‘Blackadder II’ hangs over ‘Upstart Crow’ which also has an Elizabethan setting. It is not as good as ‘Blackadder II’ (few things are), but it’s a noble attempt.

David Mitchell plays William Shakespeare, a man torn between the demands of his rather lowbrow Stratford household and that of London and his pursuit of a career as a playwright and a poet. At home, he has a loving wife Anne (Liza Tarbuck), a permanently grumpy teenage daughter (the excellent Helen Monks of ‘Raised By Wolves’ in an underwritten part) and two elderly parents (Harry Enfield and Paula Wilcox). Much to his frustration, all of Shakespeare’s family react to his work rather as many modern schoolchildren would. His father openly admits to finding his son’s plays dull while the others tire of his fondness for clever wordplay.

“It’s what I do!” Mitchell’s Bard defends himself, in what almost becomes a catchphrase. “If you do your research, my stuff is actually really funny.”

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His London life, meanwhile, involves Kate (Gemma Whelan) who longs to act, a profession not then open to women, his manservant Bottom (Rob Rouse, a cleverer, cleaner version of Baldrick) and Marlowe (Tim Downie, excellent), Shakespeare’s doomed contemporary, here played as an arrogant but charming womaniser (“a clever girl is an ugly girl, ” is his advice to Kate). There are elements of ‘Blackadder’ in all of this: Kate has similarities to “Bob,” a reference later made explicit. Marlowe is also reminiscent of the late Rik Mayall’s Lord Flashman and some of the scenarios and jokes involving potatoes and dungeons are reminiscent of the earlier series deliberately or not. Future sitcom scholars may also wish to compare the openings to episode 2 of this to the start of ‘Blackadder II’s final episode ‘Chains’.

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‘Upstart Crow’ goes wrong when it goes down the predictable route of showing how Shakespeare  finds inspiration for his plays in real life. This isn’t a bad idea in itself but it rarely works here. Other quibbles? The always brilliant Mark Heap (‘Spaced’, ‘Friday Night Dinner’) although impressive is never given much chance to be funny in his portrayal of Shakespeare’s rival Greene and the scenes involving the rehearsal of the actual plays are less good, the exception being Spencer Jones’ spot on piss-take of Ricky Gervais.

Twelve years ago, the idea of Ben Elton taking the piss out of then comedy supremo Gervais would have been unthinkable but the co-creator of ‘The Office’ has seen his stock fall while Ben Elton’s has risen since then. ‘Upstart Crow’ is far from flawless but it provides David Mitchell with his best sitcom role since Peep Show, contains some laugh out loud funny one liners and marks a definite return to form for Ben Elton, one of Britain’s most unfairly maligned comedic talents.

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How to lose the US presidency in 21 ways

There are many ways to lose the presidency whether you’re fighting a primary or battling for the ultimate prize itself in the November general election. These are just some of them…

Cry (Ed Muskie, 1972)

Public crying has played well for both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama more recently but when Muskie appeared to weep over allegations about his wife’s drinking, he soon lost his status as the Democratic front-runner. Ultimately, the victim of a dirty tricks campaign by the Nixon camp, Muskie denied crying, saying reporters had mistaken snow melting on his face for tears.

Lose your temper (Bob Dole, 1988)

Dole snarled that his opponent George HW Bush should “quit lying about my record” after losing a Republican primary. Dole looked like a sore loser and his campaign never recovered. He later won the nomination in 1996, losing comfortably to President Bill Clinton.

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Scream (Howard Dean, 2004)

Although he was probably on his way out anyway, Dean’s hysterical “I had a scream” speech which ended with a Kermit the frog-style note of hysteria ended his prospects of getting the Democratic nomination. John Kerry got it instead and subsequently lost to George W. Bush in November.

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Fail to answer a simple question (Gary Hart, 1984)

Democrat Hart (of later sex scandal fame) proved unable to explain why he had changed his surname from Gary Hartpence. In 1980, Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy floundered desperately when he was asked the most basic question, during a TV interview: why do you want to be president?

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Be inadvertently racist (H. Ross Perot, 1992)

The Texan billionaire independent offended a largely black audience by referring to them repeatedly as “you people” throughout a campaign speech.

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Terrify everyone (Barry Goldwater, 1964)

The Republican nominee’s open extremism and apparent enthusiasm for nuclear weapons led him to lose by a record margin. “In your heart, you know he’s right” his campaign claimed. “In your guts, you know he’s nuts” countered his opponents.

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Have an affair (Gary Hart, 1988)

Recovering from his 1984 failure, Hart enjoyed a 30% lead over his nearest rival and was the clear favourite to succeed Reagan until allegations of infidelity with model Donna Hart emerged. Hart initially denied meeting her until photos emerged of her sitting on his lap. Hart then withdrew from the campaign, then re-entered it later, totally sabotaging his own career in the process.

Skeletons in the closet (George HW Bush 1992, George W. Bush 2000)

A last minute recovery for President Bush against Bill Clinton stalled after allegations over his role in the Iran-Contra affair re-emerged. Later, his son was harmed by a last minute revelation over a 1979 drink driving incident during the closing stages of the very close 2000 campaign.

Picture: 43rd US president, George W. Bush and his father, the 41st president, George H.W Bush)

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“Steal” a speech (Joe Biden, 1988)

Obama’s future vice president (and 2020’s current Democratic front-runner) withdrew after striking similarities were spotted between a campaign speech he delivered and one which had been made by British Labour leader Neil Kinnock (an unknown figure in the US).

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Ignore all attacks (Michael Dukakis, 1988)

When the Bush campaign cast doubt on the Democratic nominee’s mental health, Dukakis refused to sink to their level. Unfortunately, by the time he did release his records (which revealed a clean bill of health), the damage to his campaign had already been done.

(Picture: Future 2004 nominee John Kerry, ex-1980 candidate Ted Kennedy and 1988 nominee, Michael Dukakis)

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Insult your rivals (Bush, 1992)

“My dog Millie knows more about foreign policy than these two bozos,” President Bush said of Clinton and Gore late in 1992. The “bozos” bit went down very badly with voters. Clinton’s lead grew by around five percent just before election day.

(Picture: 1992 debaters: Democratic nominee and eventual winner, Bill Clinton, Independent Ross Perot and the incumbent President Bush).

Be too honest (Walter Mondale, 1984, Michael Dukakis, 1988)

Both these Democratic nominees admitted taxes would have to increase substantially to tackle Reagan’s huge escalating deficit. Bush in 1988 was much less frank “read my lips – no new taxes” but won. Taxes went up dramatically soon afterwards (Picture: Walter Mondale in 1984)

Insult women (Mitt Romney, 2012)

The Republican nominee referred to “binders full of women” he could choose from for his cabinet. This played badly.

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Rely too heavily on your war record (John Kerry, 2004)

This backfired when several campaign groups began casting doubt over the Democratic nominee’s Vietnam War heroism which had been contrasted with Bush’s decision to join the state National Guard (a classic draft dodging tactic) and Vice President Cheney’s decision to duck out of the war altogether.

Run against your own party’s incumbent (Eugene McCarthy, 1968, Ronald Reagan, 1976, Ted Kennedy, 1980, Pat Buchanan, 1992)

This has never worked, although McCarthy undoubtedly made history by prompting President Johnson’s withdraw from the 1968 contest. Reagan also undoubtedly enhanced his credentials for a future run by challenging President Ford. Four years later, Reagan ran again and won.

(Picture: Eugene McCarthy in 1968)

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Pick the wrong running-mate (George McGovern, 1972, John McCain, 2008)

The McGovern campaign was thrown into chaos when running-mate Thomas Eagleton had to be replaced. John McCain’s campaign was similarly undermined when Sarah Palin’s intellectual shortcomings became too obvious to ignore. Oddly, however,  Bush’s disastrous choice of Dan Quayle in 1988 seemed to do him little real harm.

Screw up the TV debate

Notably Richard Nixon in 1960.

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Insult 47% of the electorate (Mitt Romney, 2012)

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims. … These are people who pay no income tax. … and so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Mitt Romney, remarks at private fundraiser. Ironically, he ended up losing having received 47% of the vote.

Get paranoid (H. Ross Perot, 1992)

The independent candidate accused the Bush camp of trying to sabotage his daughter’s wedding by labelling her a lesbian.

Make huge factual errors in public (Gerald Ford, 1976)

“There is no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford Administration.” President Ford made this absurd claim in the 1976 TV debate. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he went on to lose narrowly to Jimmy Carter. (Picture: 1976 Democratic nominee and eventual winner, Jimmy Carter debating President Ford).

“Win” (Al Gore, 2000)

Few election results look more dubious than the 2000 one. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, the Supreme Court declared George W. Bush not Al Gore the winner.