Category Archives: tv

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.

Dark Intruder (1965)

Director: Harvey Hart

And so, to officially end this year’s month of horror, we turn to the small screen. Kind of. This was actually the pilot for a proposed TV series called The Black Cloak, which none of the American TV networks wanted to touch cos they considered it a bit… heavy or something. An occult detective chasing a sort of Jack the Ripper but with more demonic tendencies in fin-de-siècle San Francisco? That was too much for TV audiences to deal with. So Universal, somewhat grudgingly, put it out in cinemas as a supporting feature since they couldn’t do much else with it, and the networks were smug until, a few years later, The Night Stalker demonstrated TV audiences were actually perfectly fine watching that sort of thing… Anyway, I first heard about this years ago, read about it in a book about film adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft; this isn’t actually one, but the passing reference to Azathoth (and, more obscurely, Nyogtha) demonstrates that author Barré Lyndon had at least a passing acquaintance with the Cthulhu Mythos, and the Sumerian business is kind of fascinating in light of the infamous “Simonomicon” over a decade later. (Wonder if this was an influence at all?) Basically, the plot is as I briefly described above, Leslie Nielsen plays Brett Kingsland, a bon vivant playboy in 1890 San Fran where a series of strange murders is taking place, which he finds have something to do with Sumerian demonology in some way; while the “film” is kind of evidently an episode of a TV show in its execution, the story’s actually pretty good and there are some decent things here. It’s hard to entirely disagree with this piece that calls Nielsen the weak link in the chain, though, even if only because of hindsight; this predates his “official” comedic coming-out in Flying High, but he rather notably plays Brett in a flippant, foppish style that kind of looks a bit weird. “Frank Drebin without the jokes” isn’t actually that far off. Still, this was just the pilot for the show, and I imagine certain things would’ve been fiddled with had a series been commissioned (remember how different Star Trek was in pilot form?). That one wasn’t is, I think, a great disappointment; Dark Intruder certainly looks like the potential was there.

Alternative 3 (1977)

Director: Christopher Miles

It’s fascinating how people get taken in by hoaxes, particularly obvious ones, and even more particularly admitted ones. Nearly four decades after the fact, for example, people are still falling for Alternative 3; a Google search demonstrates as much in seconds. Rewatching it tonight myself, I find myself asking a number of questions about the thing, especially this: just how were people expected to receive it in 1977? I mean, I know how they did—either by not sticking around for the credits containing the actors’ names and panicking about it being real, or by reading the credits and berating ITV for perpetrating this irresponsible nightmare vision—but how were they meant to? The film’s own avowed copyright date is “April 1st 1977”, and I suspect it might’ve been more of a dead giveaway had it actually aired on that date… which it didn’t, since Anglia (the studio behind it) couldn’t actually get a slot for it on ITV that day and it actually aired nearly three months later. But would it have seemed more obviously fake or not?

For that matter, why am I even asking how “obvious” the fakery is? Is it only “obvious” because I already know it’s a hoax? Do the people in it only seem like they’re acting because I know they’re actors? If someone just sat me down with it and said “here, watch this” and I’d never heard of A3 before, how would it strike me? Compare it to Propaganda, which I didn’t know was a hoax when I watched it but I still felt there was something weird and wrong about it. Similarly, back in the early 90s I remember a program called The Einstein Code, which revolved around Einstein having developed a sort of “bad luck bomb”, it just got more and more preposterous, I got more and more “what the fuck is this shit”… and then I saw the “April Fools Production” credit at the end and I howled.

And this is why I wonder how people were supposed to respond to Alternative 3. Was it supposed to seem, you know, “wrong” to them in the way Propaganda and The Einstein Code did; were people supposed to look at this bizarre story of human colonies on the Moon and on Mars in the event of some terminal environmental catastrophe here on Earth and think “hang on, this doesn’t sound right” and wonder why some of the people in the film looked oddly like people they might’ve seen in other films of TV shows… cos what makes me ask is, in fact, the framework in which it’s presented, i.e. as an episode in a series called Science Report. Did such a series actually exist? I can’t actually find any reference to it online except in relation to A3; IMDB only lists A3 itself as an individual “TV movie” and has no entry for a series called Science Report that I can find. SO… if this series didn’t exist, were people surprised to see it on TV? If it did, were people surprised to find it had a bunch of reporters and other staff they wouldn’t have seen before? Did A3 seem, you know, “unlike” the other episodes? How “acted” does it really seem to other people? These are things I don’t know, and that’s part of what makes A3 so hard to actually appraise… the other part being, of course, that the story behind the hoax is the story, the hoaxed thing itself is in some ways just a prop…

Room 666 (1982)

Director: Wim Wenders

In which Wim Wenders visits the 1982 Cannes Film Festival and sits an assortment of his fellow attendees down in a hotel room with a 16mm camera, a tape recorder, a TV playing quietly in the background, and a question about the future (or otherwise) of cinema for them to pontificate on. Which they do at varying lengths; Jean-Luc Godard goes on for about 10 minutes, Mike De Leon for just a few seconds. Of course, from our perspective, Wenders’ own film is an artifact of the past, as probably inevitably happens to things like this which consciously try to predict the future of something; years later, our primary interest (should we care at all about such things) is mainly in seeing who got what right (the film’s fascination with the extent to which television might displace cinema is particularly amusing these days). Indeed, the film hardened into history within less than a fortnight of its first screening, when one of Wenders’ interviewees, R.W. Fassbinder, permanently checked out of the world with the help of some prescription and non-prescription drugs… and quite a few of his other interviewees have either passed on as well or else been kind of quiet over the years. Werner Herzog always offers good value, of course, kind of predicting the Internet as we now know it, while Michelangelo Antonioni, who would’ve been much the oldest filmmaker here, is, interestingly, perhaps the one most comfortable with the idea of technological change and having to adjust, quite interested in working with video (which he’d already done by this point). Plus Monte Hellman’s lament about the stuff he tapes off TV then never gets around to watching will no doubt resonate with many viewers even now (he said, looking with horror at his own monstrous backlog). And Steven Spielberg’s grumping about filmmaking only getting more expensive has kind of proven to be the case, not that he’s done much to help the situation with some of his own films or anything… In some ways, though, it’s the last interviewee, Yilmaz Guney, who’s the most interesting, not only because his interview is the only time Wenders varies his camera set-up in the whole film, but because he couldn’t actually appear on camera at all; at the time he was still in hiding from the Turkish government, so Wenders presents a recording of him instead. It’s actually a nice reminder in a way that pondering the future of cinema is an interesting thought experiment, but it’s not necessarily the most important thing in the world to contemplate…

The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011)

Director: Mark Cousins

So yes, this was an effort of a few days; not even I’m fool enough to watch a 15-hour plus thing like this in a single hit. Even doing it as I did, one disc (i.e. three episodes) a day, was difficult enough; each episode has quite a lot packed into it, and three in a row was kind of pushing it… Anyway, this is in keeping with the last couple of things I reviewed, being a film history documentary based on a film history book, although this is a much more general study than the genre-specific items we looked at, and, unlike them, this one is made by the author of the book and narrated by him as well. Said narration seems to be a sticking point with some people; Mark Cousins is unabashedly Irish and so is his accent, and his rather specific intonation (which tends to rise more than fall) is initially a bit difficult to get used to; it’s not the sort of voice I suspect most of us are used to hearing narrate something like this. Once you get past that, there are other small irritating things, little faults of subediting that really should’ve been caught, ranging from little things like wrongly dating a film to, well, larger ones like wrongly identifying a film (there is a notable difference between Méliès’ Moon at One Metre and his Trip to the Moon, Mark). And even with the unquestionably generous runtime, there’s still little bits of additional information that could’ve been squeezed in to flesh certain things out, you know, how some “third cinema” filmmakers like Haile Gerima in Ethiopia actually learned their trade in the US, that sort of detail. Be all that as it may, though, it’s hard to deny Story of Film is a pretty grand bit of work, an avowed history of innovation in film more than an overall look at the art form. This means it does tend to focus more on the “arthouse” side of things at the expense of popular genres, except, obviously, where Hollywood is concerned (and, later, Hong Kong and India), so I’m sure some critics will find it incomplete and missing out too many classics in favour of less obvious examples (especially the African stuff). This approach is fine by me, of course, it’s the less obvious examples I’m interested in and they’re the ones that give Story of Film its value. As I’ve indicated, it’s not perfect—I think my ideal film history doco would be an adaptation of Bordwell & Thompson’s Film History: An Introduction, which would undoubtedly dwarf this if it were done properly—but as a (comparatively) compact study of the world of cinema, it acquits itself well.

Solaris (1968)

Director: Boris Nirenburg

I’m having one of my periodic reading jags at the moment; I’m in the mood for books rather than films. Got through eight books since the start of January, whereas the only thing I’ve watched since that review of Zelig was an afternoon TV screening of The Maltese Falcon on Saturday. Great film, of course, but no need for me to review it again.

So one thing I’ve been doing lately is haunting Amazon.com.au, the Australian branch of Amazon that only sells Kindle ebooks. I’ve kind of gone the e-book route for new purchases for an assortment of reasons, not the least important of which is the decreasing amount of space I have for actual hard copy books. Price is also a consideration, it should be said. There are certain publishers like Valancourt Books and Black Coat Press who have fascinating catalogues (the former specialises in original 1790s-1820s gothic novels, the latter in 19th century French SF) I’d like to explore but I don’t really have the space for all the books I want to read nor the money for them. Their electronic editions may be less, you know, nice than their print versions, but eh. I paid, for example, $6.25 for one of Black Coat’s ebooks that would’ve set me back nearly $21 if I bought the physical book. And that’s if I bought through Book Depository, who are themselves selling it cheaper than the RRP of $24.44. You see why I went electronic. (It’s also a damn sight easier to dispose of the book and get money back for it if I find I don’t like it…)

This is all by way of introduction to our subject proper: the 1968 Russian TV adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. Bear with me.

So I was browsing for Penguin Classics. Saw they have an edition of Lem’s Cyberiad due later this year. That sent me in search of Lem’s other works. Unfortunately most of the electronic editions are in Spanish, but they do have a new translation of Solaris (the old one, translated from the French translation of Lem’s Polish original, was condemned by Lem himself and seems to be widely considered crap). I bought that, cos, you know, only a bit over five dollars. Then I went to Wikipedia, cos I didn’t actually know much about Lem beyond his reputation (I read a story by him in an anthology once)… and there I read this sentence: “He is known as the author of the 1961 novel Solaris, which has been made into a feature film three times.”

Hang on… THREE?

Tarkovsky, yes, Soderbergh, yes… who was the third one?

So I followed the appropriate links, and there I discovered the existence of the FIRST screen adaptation of Solaris, Boris Nirenburg’s production for Soviet state TV. Which the Wiki page told me was on DVD, but apparently only in Russia. Hmm, I wondered, could this thing possibly be on Youtube? A quick search revealed it not only could be, it WAS—subtitled in English, too, which I don’t suppose the Russian DVD would be. Admittedly, the subtitles did prove to be a bit wobbly, as I expected they might, but they weren’t an insurmountable obstacle.

Now, I’ve not actually read the book yet, but wanted to get into the TV version anyway; I gather that, despite Lem’s carping about how the film versions told his story (“to my best knowledge, the book was not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space”), Nirenburg actually remains more faithful to it than either Messrs Tarkovsky or Soderbergh; no lengthy preludes on Earth or anything like that. That said, I don’t suppose Nirenburg’s budget would’ve actually extended to anything of that sort in any case; if I’d ever wondered what a 1960s episode of Doctor Who in Russian might look like, I suppose this could be it (I’m presuming, owing to a few tell-tale signs, that it was in fact shot probably in much the same way as 60s Who, i.e. on video in long takes with multiple cameras, and the source material for this release is a 16mm telerecording). It’s kind of rudimentary on the technological level, maybe even more so than I’d thought it might be; come to think of it, I’m not even sure if there’s a shot of the planet Solaris itself (there’s one bit in the first part that I think was meant to represent it, but I don’t know).

The pace is somewhat more grinding than even 60s Who could be, though, which is probably its major issue; at 142 minutes it’s not too far off the length of Tarkovsky’s version despite not containing any of the stuff he introduced. It is kind of wilting stuff. On the plus side, Nirenburg actually does achieve some not bad moments of semi-horror; there’s an atmosphere on the station that borders on the gothic at times. It’s not bad on the whole, but I suspect it’s mainly now of comparative interest; Tarkovsky’s film might be less faithful to Lem’s book but it works rather better as a production in its own right. Still, I’d rather watch this again than the Soderbergh version…

Sharknado (2013)

Director: Anthony C. Ferrante

Fucking morbid curiosity. It’s led me down many a dodgy path in film, and HOLY FUCK it just led me down one of the dodgiest ever. When a friend on Facebook mentioned it was on GO! tonight, I knew I had to tune in though I equally knew I should resist… At least I suppose I now have some idea where the exploitation film is at in 2013; I was familiar with The Asylum (“mockbuster” masterminds behind this… thing) in theory—I suspect a DVD called Transmorphers I sighted at my local DVD emporium a number of years ago was the first I heard of them—but this is the first actual contact I’ve had with one of their products. Actually, the fascinating thing about Sharknado is its status as a social media phenomenon… made for the Syfy TV network in the US, it drew slightly below average ratings by Syfy standards but the Twitter word of mouth was voluminous enough that the viewer numbers increased substantially for a second screening and increased again for a third, ultimately leading to cinema screenings within a few weeks of its TV premiere. I know this sort of thing isn’t without precedent (hi there Duel), but I imagine it’s not exactly common for a TV film to blow up like that…

So, a global warming-generated megastorm wreaks havoc on Los Angeles, sucking thousands of sharks out of the ocean and dumping them, well, everywhere. A bunch of people try to survive the havoc. In short, it’s 86 minutes of pretty solid cheese that wastes little time on niceties like character, plausibility, continuity or decent special effects (I’ve seen better CGI in episodes of Doctor Who that cost vastly less than the million dollars this thing apparently cost). This review makes the point that the film really should be taken on its own terms and judges it a roaring success as such; I’m not so sure. Sharknado is pretty bad, but at the same time I’m not sure it’s bad enough. I could see the film trying to be so-bad-it’s-good without ever quite achieving that. I don’t know how else to explain what I mean other than saying Sharknado probably needed a director with more skill to make it really bad in a fun way. Someone who cared about making a bad film properly. If that makes sense. A better director could’ve played the material for more black humour (and more gore as well, the film could’ve done with that) and perhaps elevated it to real preposterousness; as it stands, it’s just, yeah, cheesy without being quite as inspired as it could’ve been. It feels like it was designed to generate the sort of Twitter buzz that it did without really being “good” enough to merit the fuss, not well enough made (really, the CGI is just so-bad-it’s-shit) to really be interesting. Fun but kind of frustrating too. On the plus side, at least I’m going to see out 2013 with one actual new release covered on the blog…

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