The BBC Television Shakespeare: As You Like It (1978)

Director: Basil Coleman

This is kind of where this Shakespeare series began, in that Cedric Messina had been using Glamis Castle and environs for another production and decided it would be a good setting for a version of As You Like It, whereupon he later had the further idea of doing the whole canon (this would be one of only two of the plays to be done on location). I gather this is one of Big Bill’s best-known plays but I’ve never actually read it nor seen any other versions of it, and didn’t even know what it was about, so I was really going in cold…

I was interested to find the story basically being a political intrigue at first; our hero is the son of a deceased duke who’s been dispossessed of his dues by his older brother, and there’s another duke usurping his brother and driving him into exile. This confused me terribly at first, cos this is one of Bill’s comedies (I at least knew that little about it) rather than his tragedies and yet the way it begins I felt it could almost be read as the latter at times during the first hour or so; I felt it wasn’t really until the action moved to the Forest of Arden that it really definitively settled on being a comedy. Found it quite off-putting, to be honest, and I never really engaged with it as much I would’ve liked.

Helen Mirren is our heroine, Rosalind, and is much the best thing about this production; Rosalind is a solid heroine who she makes the most of, and obviously the gender shenanigans she gets to engage in will be a big drawcard for modern audiences (even if I didn’t find them that convincing). I don’t recall anyone else in the cast making a comparable impression (though if, like me, you enjoy playing “spot the actor who was also in Doctor Who at some point” when watching things like this, then this episode offers some rich pickings) other than Richard Pasco, and that not in a good way, really. Jaques is apparently considered one of Shakespeare’s juiciest parts, he has the famous “all the world’s a stage” speech and is meant as a sort of cynical voice to undercut the otherwise lightness of the play, but Pasco (who we’ll see again next time in Julius Caesar) plays him as a kind of tedious brown note of much less interest than the characters seem to think he is. (Well, most of them; Orlando does get to say to him at one point “I do desire we may be better strangers” which is my favourite line in the thing.)

As for the location shooting, at the time it was considered it actually kind of overwhelmed the story and the actors but I liked it; it looks as good as I supposed it could’ve done being shot on video rather than film in 1978—even if it’s kind of shot in studio style, multicamera long takes and so forth—and it probably wouldn’t have looked any better had it been done in studio without going to a lot of expense. Unless they went for something really stylised and artificial, and the BBC weren’t quite ready to go there just yet. I can’t say I greatly liked this production, but it has its points of interest, and I suspect it’ll benefit from a rewatch where I know what to expect next time round…

Our Mutual Friend (1958-59)

Director: Eric Tayler

As well as the BBC Shakespeare, I’ve got a stack of Charles Dickens adaptations from the BBC to make my way through from the 50s to the 90s. No, I can’t believe the ones from the 50s still exist either; let’s face it , if the BBC made it before they ended their wiping policy in 1978 and it still exists, it probably does so by accident. Somehow, though, the 1958/59 production of Our Mutual Friend has come down through the ages and landed on DVD via Simply Home Entertainment (along with five other b/w BBC productions I’ll get to in due course), and that was my most recent viewing.

Now I did say before I watched pretty much bugger all last year, but I actually did watch a bit of this, the first three episodes to be precise, and I found myself not quite engaging with it. Not really in the mood for it then. Anyway, I resolved that I would make another attempt on it, and at least start by rewatching those three episodes. So I did, and having done so proceeded to the next three. Brief pause to do a bit of other business and wonder if I should leave it at that and come back for the second half later. Then I decided fuck it, let’s watch the whole thing. So I did, and finally went to bed that night a bit before 4am… which is late even by my fucking terrible standards, but clearly I was in the mood for it at last. Great stuff.

This was live TV back in the day, too, and I’m fascinated by the BBC’s live work, more so than I am by commercial TV where they could pause for breath in the ad break; the BBC didn’t have that luxury—all they really had was the occasional prefilmed bit that couldn’t be done in studio—so I’m fascinated to see how they arranged material to make it possible. Interesting to see how relatively few prefilmed segments Eric Tayler used here (unless I missed some), though that may have been a good thing given the filmed bits seemed to be most post-synchronised and quite poorly at that… yikes.

The other thing you look for, of course, is fluffs, and I spotted only a handful of those… only one that was egregious enough to actually be called a line fluff, and even that could’ve been written off as the character misreading a letter they’d been given. Otherwise, the cast manages with aplomb, and the more grating issues are technical ones, particularly the use of photographic flats for background scenery. They’re kind of screamingly obvious, particularly in Mrs Higden’s death scene where the point where the “rural” scenery and the studio floor meet and the join is quite badly covered up… yikes again.

Wasn’t familiar with most of the cast, our hero being played by Paul Daneman who was Richard III in Age of Kings (should rewatch that for review), the heroine by Rachel Roberts (later a Hollywood tragedy), and the other “hero” by David McCallum, who had yet to become known as, well, anything, never mind Ilya Kuryakin (let alone Ducky from NCIS). Credited as “courtesy of the Rank Organisation”, though, who evidently thought he was important enough to demand that notice.

Not familiar with the book either (the only Dickens I’ve actually read is the Xmas books), which was his last finished novel (Edwin Drood’s tale having ended ahead of schedule, as it were) and which seems to have puzzled critics and readers in its time who seem to have thought there was too much going on even for Dickens… and this, it must be said, is certainly a feeling I got from this TV version; there’s a LOT going on and you could probably safely ditch the subplot with the Lammles at least (I was never a hundred percent sure what was going on with them). I imagine the original audience of the show had some work to do keeping track of things, cos the show is noticeably light on recapping what happened in previous episodes. I also gather the book handles its plot somewhat differently, in that the revelation that John Rokesmith is actually the putative murder victim and dispossessed heir John Harmon is only made very late in the book. This was a point the TV version couldn’t overcome, so it frankly doesn’t try. Wonder if it’s as obvious in the book as it necessarily is on the show.

Anyway, some reservations aside, I liked this a lot. As I said, I was clearly the mood for six hours of vintage live BBC classic adaptation last night… So that leaves us with the rest of the Simply HE releases, those being Bleak House from 1959, Barnaby Rudge from 1960, Oliver Twist from 1962, Great Expectations from 1967 and Dombey and Son from 1969. And then there’s the rest of the Dickens stuff I’ve got from following decades! Lots more viewing ahead, eh…

The BBC Television Shakespeare: Richard II (1978)

Director: David Giles

I never did understand what the rationale was for the order in which the BBC tackled Big Bill’s plays in this series, so we go from one of his best-known tragedies to, well, one of his probably less-well known works (this is one of those for which there’s never been a cinema version). Richard II covers a fairly narrow period in its title character’s life, meaning it missed out a lot of stuff like the Peasants’ Revolt to basically focus on his downfall; we see him as a somewhat variable power, exiling people and seizing their assets to fight a war in Ireland and then basically crumbling when he gets home from that and finds Henry Bolingbroke’s come home from exile a few years ahead of schedule.

There’s apparently long been speculation about the historical Richard’s mental state, and Derek Jacobi’s portrayal arguably plays up to that, and, for me at least, ventures at times over the edge into ham. I think I considerably preferred Ben Whishaw’s version in The Hollow Crown. Performance-wise, I liked Charles Gray (who we’ll see again shortly as Julius Caesar) as the Duke of York and Jon Finch as Bolingbroke (remember him as Macbeth in Polanski’s film? He had form playing kings who’d got there by dubious means) a lot better here. Notable too in the cast is Boba Fett, the recently departed Jeremy Bulloch as Henry Percy, and, well, this was not his finest hour… initially I thought it was the bloke who played Prince Harry in the original Blackadder, and once I had that in my head I couldn’t take him seriously. Not sorry that he was recast for the rest of the Henriad…

Regarding which, it’s a bit odd that this was produced separate from the rest of the Henry IV/V/VI plays, and I think the BBC recognised that themselves cos they repeated it a year later ahead of Henry IV. I’m not sure how well it works by itself, I think mostly it serves to lay the background for the rest of the sequence. Overall not a bad job, kind of classically “70s BBC”, albeit somewhat less vigorous than R&J last week.

The BBC Television Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet (1978)

Director: Alvin Rakoff

So, through the course of 2021, I’m going to attempt a full viewing of the 1970s/80s BBC Shakespeare in an effort to get back into, you know, actually watching things that aren’t Youtube videos (my non-YT film viewing in 2020 amounted to precisely one short film—young mister Elena’s Audio Guide, great—and, I think, two full TV series—Firefly and An Age of Kings, the BBC’s earlier Bardtacular). My TV backlog is threatening to get as out of hand as the infamous never-ending film backlog, so it’s time I started digging in. To which end I’m starting on the BBC Shakespeare, and will try to get through at least one episode a week of that.

We begin accordingly with Romeo and Juliet, which struck me as a pretty satisfying inauguration of the series. I know the earlier productions helmed by Cedric Messina have a bit of a reputation for stodge, but this worked pretty well for me. The Verona street set is impressively large and Rakoff gets a lot of value out of it with some reasonably mobile and active camerawork, particularly during the fight scene between Tybalt (Alan Rickman making his screen debut, already radiating that bass-baritone menace despite an unfortunate head of hair I hope was a wig) and Mercutio then Romeo. The latter is played by Patrick Ryecroft, who I think does pretty well… don’t know if I was as convinced by Rebecca Saire in the other title role, though she is notable for having been the same age as Juliet (who’s usually played by older teens or 20-somethings) and for having sniped a bit at it before broadcast cos she seemed to think Juliet should be a bit more sexy, whereupon the BBC panicked and cancelled all her other promo duties… On the whole, I liked it (surprisingly bloody stuff) though it does tail off some in the second half, R & J’s emo kid business after that sword fight really isn’t as interesting, but I suspect that’s down to Shakespeare himself rather than Rakoff’s direction.

Apollo 11 (2019)

Director: Todd Douglas Miller

I couldn’t let Gibson’s gorefest be the only film I watched in 2019, and I thought it was high time I actually watched something new, given that I haven’t watched any new films since 2016, hence tonight’s viewing. Of course, tonight’s film was actually shot entirely in 1969, so… so much for “new”? Whatever.

Anyway, Todd Miller had apparently just finished making a film on Apollo 17 when someone suggested he tackle 11 as well, and while preparing it a bunch of never-used 65mm film footage was unearthed. Alongside the normal 16 and 35 film plus video, this gives an added sense of awe to an otherwise fairly straightforward film. Don’t know why but the launchpad footage in particular and the shots of the many and varied spectators watching (and recording—the only difference between these people and our generation, clearly, is that they used actual cameras, both film and still) the event put me in mind of Koyaanisqatsi for some reason.

I say straightforward because that’s what it is; Miller opted for the Senna approach of sticking only to the original video and audio and not adding new interviews or narration; all he adds is some diagram animation and captions (which I only wish he’d made a bit larger; they weren’t easily read on the TV screen). It doesn’t really need anything else, though, does it? There’s other documentaries about the space program that do that; I like Miller’s decision to just let the original footage tell the story and watch it unfold without comment. And at 93 minutes it’s finely proportioned and never dull.

And OH how good is that original footage? Scrubbed up beautifully (the video footage from the Apollo cabin and the closed-circuit TV cameras around the launch site looks genuinely remarkable for its age, quite apart from being impressive that it exists at all), the whole film looks amazing, glad I got it on blu-ray. The film might be fairly and straightforward with what it does, but there’s also something thrilling and moving about it as the flight moves through its various stages, from leaving the Earth to landing on the Moon to the lunar module rejoining the command module and the final splashdown.

And also terribly saddening in a way. Cos with hindsight we know now that, in many respects the whole Apollo program was a bit of a Cold War stunt by the Americans to finally actually beat the Soviets at something in space, though obviously that doesn’t take away from the American achievement (the joy at mission control was well-earned). And I grew up in the 80s when there was still some excitement about that… I mean, yeah, there was also the very real threat of nuclear annihilation before we got back into space, but there was also the feeling that we would actually do so nonetheless. We had probes going to the outer planets, and if we hadn’t returned to the Moon since 1972, not to worry. We’d be back there soon enough. There was a vision there.

Not any more. I mean, even at the time there was criticism (not unjustified) that the money spent on the Moon mission could’ve been better spent improving conditions on Earth, but there was still the sense that the knowledge we would gain from the mission was important however much it cost, that the science was worth it in and of itself and would, you know, actually make humanity better. Not any more. In just half a century we’ve slumped into an age where science doesn’t matter to people any more, blowing up the Middle East is more important than anything, and shit like the flat Earth has staged a comeback. However much it may have been driven by political ambition in real terms, there was still a vision to the space race and a sense that it would take us somewhere. I haven’t felt that for a long time, it’s not like people—at least not the ones in a positiont to do anything useful—even seem to care about making this world better instead. Enjoy this film if you watch it too. It’s good to remember that at least at some point this sort of thing mattered.

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

So I haven’t watched a film in over a year. I haven’t really had the interest or the desire, and the handful of films I did watch between my last post here and this one I just wrote cursory notes about on Letterboxd. Not feeling like writing either.

This was on TV for Christmas night. Counter-intuitive programming from SBS, marking the alleged anniversary of Christ’s birth by showing a film about his death… And for some reason I felt like watching it, and writing about it like I’m now doing. I saw this on the day of its cinema release back in 2004, and I saw it with my Mum. Mum was a far better Christian than I was or am, insofar as she actually was one, so we made an interesting pair going to this movie… and, remarkably, we both came out of it with much the same negative opinion of it. It did as little for her as it did for me.

As I’ve said elsewhere on here, I felt the fears that it would promote antisemitism were overstated, but all the reports of how excessively violent it was? It lived up to those. After this rewatch nearly 16 years later, I’m not quite so sure about that first point. With the dubious benefit of hindsight, we know now what Mel Gibson evidently really thinks of our Hebraic cousins, and it’s hard to watch the film without that knowledge; and we do know he leaned quite heavily on the “work” of Anne Catherine Emmerich (and/or of Clemens Brentano, who may or may not have faked her “visions”) which is apparently quite anti-Semitic. Accordingly I felt a lot more antipathy going on towards Caiaphas and the rest of the Sanhedrin, to say nothing of what the hell’s going on at Herod’s palace. Equally, though, I doubt the film would serve to actually make anyone an anti-Semite if they weren’t already one, and the film is just as horrible with its Romans; I’d forgotten just how psychopathic they were.

Equally, though, I can’t imagine that the film would make anyone a Christian, either; if you haven’t already read the gospels or otherwise have some familiarity with the stuff that happens before the film’s story starts, some of it’s going to be kind of incomprehensible. It presupposes a lot of its viewers in that respect, so it hardly works as a tool for evangelising to prospective converts. Which raises the question: who and what the hell is this movie for? What’s it about, really?

Because The Passion of the Christ is certainly not about Jesus’ resurrection, which is passed over a few seconds before the end; I mean, I’m not a Christian but I do understand that the whole point of Jesus kind of is the resurrection, you know, he dies and comes back to life and that‘s the important thing about him if you do subscribe to his newsletter. The film cares so little about this detail it may as well have left it out entirely. Similarly, it has only marginally more interest in Jesus’ actual message and teachings, which are also kind of important if you’re into that, and that makes it theologically useless.

So Gibson doesn’t care about the resurrection or the teachings of Jesus, he’s fundamentally interested in spectacle much like Cecil B. DeMille was with The King of Kings 80 years earlier. But this is a far more vicious spectacle than DeMille’s, not just because the latter couldn’t have got away with depicting this much violence in 1927 (and the violence isn’t the only thing even DeMille would’ve found unnecessarily vulgar). There’s no religious feeling underlining this film like there is in King of Kings; this is purely Gibson getting off on extreme violence. Gibson could talk all he liked about how he played the hands that nail JC to the cross cos “[his] sins put him on the cross”, but I don’t buy that for a second. He’s enjoying these atrocities being perpetrated against his putative lord and saviour—remember, this isn’t a fictional character to Gibson—so much so that he just had to take direct part.

Who and what is this movie for? It’s for Mel Gibson, as a kind of pornography. The Passion of the Christ is frankly the work of a ghoul, and I hate it now in a way I didn’t upon that first viewing on Ash Wednesday 2004. Like I said, I thought at the time the film lived up to the reports of its violence, but on rewatching I found I’d actually forgotten just how wildly excessive it really is (e.g. even when Jesus is finally up on the cross, Gibson has to have one of the other men being crucified—the one who mocks Jesus—be attacked by a crow that picks his eye out). David Edelstein famously christened the film “The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre”, which sums up the splatter aspect of the affair nicely, a chainsaw being about the only thing not used on Jesus; the miracle that the film really depicts isn’t that Jesus returned from death at the literal last minute, but that he didn’t die before he could even be crucified. I used to say I was afraid for anyone who claimed, as many did, that their religious faith had been strengthened by this grotesque nonsense; now I’m afraid OF anyone who would say that. How any of it was ever supposed to serve someone’s religious faith is beyond me.

Anyway, we’ve been promised a somewhat belated sequel in recent years, which is apparently currently scheduled for April 2021, and which will supposedly cover the period between the death and the resurrection and may be set at least partly in Hell. Which means it’ll be even less biblical than Passion but we can probably at least expect spectacle again, and though I’ve no desire to see Passion ever again I could be tempted to see just how Mel handles the underworld…

 

Police Academy (1984)

Director: Hugh Wilson

On TV tonight, haven’t seen in I don’t know how many years. Possibly not this century. I wrote on here some years ago that I might actually still like this (though I was and am nonetheless kind of embarrassed to admit I’d seen the series up to the fifth film—remember, even Steve Guttenberg didn’t go that far—and had actually seen four and five at the cinema when they were new), and tonight I had the opportunity to find out… And I think it’s been long enough between drinks and enough water has gone under the bridge, and my use of metaphor has clearly become sufficiently debased, that I have a much better idea than I once did of just how bad it is, really… all the subtlety and sensitivity of a Tsar Bomba to the testicles and about as much intelligence, vulgar and crass but still weirdly afraid to be quite as vulgar and crass as it could be if it just tried a bit harder, and just… well… eighties. If the year 1984 could be summed up as one film, this could be the one. MICHAEL WINSLOW, for fuck’s sake. And having watched it again for the first time since I don’t know when, yeah, I actually did kind of like it. I mean, it’s not really that good, it’s fairly average, but it’s well enough done that it’s also kind of painless. I don’t regret watching it again, in a way I’m sure I would regret watching the sequels…

Blade Runner (1982)

Director: Ridley Scott

Oh hi, fancy seeing me here… Anyway, long time since I last watched this, and even longer since I watched this version… there being so many versions of this film, of course, that part of the fun of watching it on TV tonight was wondering exactly which one we’d get. Lo, it was the actual original cut from 1982 with Ford’s infamous voiceover, which I’ve not seen since probably the late 80s… Back in the 90s when I was doing film studies at UNSW we watched it in class once, i.e. the 1992 “director’s cut” that wasn’t really, and the lecturer asked if any of us had seen both versions. I was the only one who had, so she asked which of them I preferred, and I said neither, and the ensuing gasp of horror from my classmates was something to hear; I half expected someone to burn me as a heretic. Still, ask me a question, run the risk of getting an honest answer; I didn’t think either version could be called “better” than the other, cos frankly I didn’t really like either. It did nothing much for me in either form (I’ve not seen Scott’s proper director’s cut) and I never really understood why people thought so highly of it; I mean, it was perfectly adequate and technically accomplished but not that much more.

I last saw it about a decade ago thanks to my erstwhile radio colleague Evan when I saw the 1992 version at his place, and I think I liked it for the first time pretty much… but I didn’t love it, and on rewatching the original version tonight I still don’t. I’ll obviously concede its visual splendour (if nothing else, seeing it in a proper widescreen version only reminds me yet again how inadequate pan-and-scan VHS editions of films like this were back in the pre-digital dark ages), cos I’m not that stupid, and it’s an excellent illustration of Isaac Asimov’s theory that science fiction is less a genre unto itself than a flavour you apply to other genres; basically Blade Runner is really an old-style film noir tarted up with androids and other “futuristic” details. I’m actually less offended by Ford’s voiceover than most people are, cos that’s just another thing noir does. I still don’t love it, though. It’s perfectly good, eminently watchable and well-made (though with hindsight the unicorn business is just even more obscurely handled than in the director’s cut), all of that. And it still feels kind of cold and empty and it still doesn’t fully connect with me and I still don’t entirely understand why it’s supposed to be one of the greatest films of all time.

Red Christmas (2016)

Director: Craig Anderson

I don’t often engage in “Christmassy” things, cos I’m not particularly into Christmas itself, but eh… thought I might make an exception and watch this (which is itself something of an exception to my general rule this year of not watching stuff of any sort). And, yeah, I probably shouldn’t have bothered… I was expecting a bit more in the way of comedy for some reason, possibly because director Anderson’s background is TV comedy (things like Black Comedy, Maximum Choppage, Double the Fist), and partly because the premise is fucking deranged; basically we’re dealing with a slasher film in which the killer is an aborted foetus that somehow survived, grew up, and is now out for revenge on mummy dearest. (And the foetus is called Cletus. Amazing.) That idea is so brilliant that it’s such a shame the film is, really, just a slasher film after all (it’s also one of those old school-style Ozsploitation films that evidently brings in an American lead actor—Dee Wallace in this case—mainly if not solely to help sell the film in the US). A perfectly competently made one (the rather strident and bold use of colour in the second half of the film is really striking), but that’s all.

As a study of the ramifications of abortion, it’s obviously lacking in subtlety, though the question of whether it swings pro-choice or against it isn’t terribly clear-cut… you can’t really call any of the characters particularly sympathetic—apart from Jerry who has Down’s Syndrome; this is a quite lovely performance (much the best one in the film) by Gerard Odwyer, and he gets probably the best scene in the film when he discovers just why mother dearest chose to terminate her youngest child—and that includes Cletus; unlikable as the rest of the family kind of is, it’s weirdly hard to feel for him when he’s slicing them up just for having the temerity to have, you know, lived (the first victim, too, is the adopted daughter). Basically I think I just wanted something kind of epic trash from Red Christmas, mostly because of the berserk central premise, and I didn’t really get it; obviously you can take a berserk central premise and play it fairly straight and do so effectively, but here I think a more excessive and black comedic approach might’ve served it better.

Woman of Tokyo (1933)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Wherein we can see Ozu starting to become “Ozu”, if you know what I mean, playing with the sharp scene changes his later films would be full of, and doing so in a particularly startling way at one point when, without warning, the credits for the 1932 American film If I Had a Million abruptly appear on screen. For one horrible moment I thought there was something terribly wrong with my copy of the film, but no, we soon see the characters are actually watching the film at a cinema and Ozu just decided to be cheeky and cut bits of the American film directly into his own (in a manner I rather doubt Paramount would’ve actually given him permission to do) rather than show people looking at it on a screen. I’ve been amused before by the way Ozu inserted film posters and the like into his early films, but this was clearly taking that to the next level…

Otherwise, the story seems more like Mizoguchi than Ozu, revolving around a brother and sister, Ryoichi and Chikako who co-habit in a small flat; he’s a student and she’s pretty much the wage-earner, working in an office by day and, well, doing something else by night. Something else that’s attracted police attention for some reason that the film is oddly vague about (it hints at prostitution while also hinting at something apparently worse, but what?); Ryo’s girlfriend’s brother happens to be the officer investigating her, and when said girlfriend goes to warn Chikako, complications ensue. Ozu seems not particularly involved in all of this, and perhaps the film’s origin indicates why; for whatever reason the studio needed a film from him very quickly and he certainly delivered, tossing this off in just eight days and starting shooting before the script was even finished, so that doesn’t really bespeak a strong connection between him and his material. The ultimate bleakness of the thing just seems a bit pointless too, and the brevity of it (not even 50 minutes long) doesn’t give much opportunity to get close to the characters. OK, but not one of Ozu’s strongest works.