Tag Archives: cinema

“When I was a teenager I got a a job at the concession stand at a cinema…”

A Darth Vader mime artist in Amsterdam (No, it is not relevant to anything)

Darth Vader mime artist stands in Amsterdam (No, it is not in any way relevant to anything)

I was going to blog about something else today but overslept, got sidetracked and now have to go out sharpish.

What do you want? Blood?

Fortunately, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent Anna Smith sent me an e-mail.

I never mentioned the movie Star Wars to her.

Nevertheless, she wrote:

__________

I myself am less than thrilled by Star Wars. When I was a teenager I got a a job at the concession stand at a cinema in Toronto. I anticipated an exciting future watching movies for free, saw Casanova, which I found ugly and clumsy, and then the first Star Wars movie arrived and played for months on end, blotting out anything else. I felt terribly guilty about selling the unhealthy coconut greased yellow popcorn and gigantic candy bars, and (possibly) cigarettes. The only thing interesting about the job was that the manager was a terribly obese pale young man who always wore a suit. When passers-by caught a glimpse of him through the lobby’s glass, they could not help but do a double take, which would throw him into a garish rage. He would stare back at them, gesticulating and shouting: “Go ahead! STARE at me… I’m FAT… STARE ALL YOU LIKE!”… That was more memorable than the movies.

__________

And that is what Anna wrote.

Personally, I think a vivid vignette often outweighs relevance.

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Late producer Gerry Anderson on his TV success, movie catastrophes and the state of pre-Thatcher Britain

(This was also published by Indian news site WSN)

Yesterday, British TV and film producer Gerry Anderson died, aged 83.

Back in the media mists of 1979, I interviewed him. This was just  two years after Margaret Thatcher was elected for her first term as British Prime Minister. Earlier this year, I posted the interview in three of my daily blogs.

Below, those three blogs are combined, in their original, unchanged 1979 form.

* * *

Producer Gerry Anderson is best known for Thunderbirds and Space 1999, but his career dates back 23 years; it includes thirteen TV series and three feature films. For sixteen of those years, he worked for the expansive (Lord) Lew Grade, boss of ATV and its subsidiary ITC. The ending of that long working relationship seems to have left at least a trace of bitterness.

Anderson is a Londoner. He was born on 14th April 1929 in West Hampstead and educated in Kilburn, then Neasden – “I lived in Neasden,” he says. “What can I say? I can’t deny it.” His father supplied cigarette machines which ordinary people kept in their living rooms. The business was literally run from a cupboard under the stairs. Anderson Sr acquired customers by knocking on doors and asking: “Would you like this French-polished cigarette machine in your house?”

One of young Gerry’s first ambitions was to be an architect. In fact, he says, he would still like to design his own house but, whenever he’s had the money, he’s had no time… and whenever he’s had time he’s had no money. In his early days, he went to Building School and studied plastering. However, after an accident, he discovered he was allergic to plaster. So he went to work in a photographer’s studio in Regent Street and became interested in the visual medium.

He soon moved on to the post-war Colonial Film Unit at the Ministry of Information. He says that was “when we still had a British Empire – Before Lew Grade bought it all”. After that, Anderson moved to Gainsborough Pictures (at what is now BBC Lime Grove Studios). He worked in the cutting rooms on The Wicked Lady, So Long at The Fair, Jancy, Caravan and various other movies.

At this point, he was called up for National Service with the RAF and (he claims) his IQ was so low he “was offered the choice of the cookhouse or the military police”. In fact, he became a radio telephone operator, guiding aeroplanes in to land – this started his interest in flying.

After military service, he returned to the film industry and worked as a sound editor at Pinewood Studios, where director Lewis Milestone gave him the advice: “It’s impossible to please everybody, so please yourself”.

Anderson says: “I’ve tried to follow that advice without any success at all.”

Spreading his wings, he went to a small company, Polytechnic Films of Maidenhead. He worked for them on a series of documentaries about unusual people – a man in Austria who lived for a year in a bottle… a woman who could type in ten languages simultaneously… a man who hypnotised crocodiles. The series was called You’ve Never Seen This. No-one did; the company went bankrupt.

He stayed in Maidenhead to form AP Films with Arthur Provis in 1955. Their premises were a disused ballroom at Islet Park and, eventually, they were commissioned to make a 52-part series for the newly-created ITV. It was only after they agreed to the project that Anderson and Provis discovered it was to be a puppet series: The Adventures of Twizzle. This led to Torchy The Battery Boy, then Four Feather Falls for Granada TV (with Nicholas Parsons as the voice of Tex Tucker).

These series proved a success, so the Anderson company moved to a factory on the Slough Industrial Trading Estate. There they made Supercar for Lew Grade’s ATV. That was followed by Fireball XL-5, the only Anderson series to be networked in the US. Following that success, Lew Grade told Anderson: “I am going to buy your company”.

First series after the take-over was Stingray, which was also the first British TV film series made in colour. Then there was the world-wide success of Thunderbirds. Followed by what Anderson calls the “tragic error” of Captain Scarlet. – The heads and bodies were made in realistic proportion to each other, so the puppets stopped being caricatures and this, he thinks, was unacceptable to the viewers. Anderson’s last two Supermarionation series were Joe 90 and The Secret Service. He then went into live-action with UFOThe Protectors and Space 1999.

But, for all this success, Gerry Anderson is not a totally happy man. He’s had great success and everyone can understand success. But he’s also had sudden commercial failures which, to this day, he cannot explain. Also, three years ago, his marriage to Sylvia Anderson broke up. It happened between the two series of Space 1999 – a show which itself must have been tiring because of the much-publicised production and front-office problems.

Since then, in his own words, he has been “marking time”. His company Gerry Anderson Marketing currently has the lucrative European merchandising rights to pop group Abba. Last year, he also made a Supermarionation TV ad Alien Attack for Jif Dessert Topping – the only ad he has done apart from three award-winning ones for Blue Cars (a travel agent) in the late 1950s.

I interviewed Gerry Anderson in his office at Pinewood, the studios where he worked after National Service and where Space 1999 was shot. He is a surprisingly quiet man who is very polite and whose apparent policy in interviews is to be as helpful, honest and open as possible. He talks quietly and reasonably slowly, as if choosing his words carefully. Presumably, he is a man made wary by a great deal of contact with media corporations. He worked with Lew Grade and ATV/ITC for sixteen years and, as he says, “sometimes it’s better to be a big cog in a small machine, rather than a small cog in a big machine.”

* * *

At last year’s Fantasy Film Convention, you said Thunderbirds was the highlight of your career to date.

Well, I think I would probably stand by that statement. When I was making Thunderbirds, it was not the highlight of my career. It was a terrible chore with horrible little puppets whose strings kept on breaking and whose eyes went cross-eyed and it constantly shortened my life. We got very little footage in the bag every day. It was a long, laborious, painful process. There were many films that didn’t work and were weeks in the cutting rooms being repaired and new shots being made.

So, at the time, I think my attitude was that puppets were a pain and the quicker I get out of this the better. But, looking back, people would say: “Gerry Anderson – Thunderbirds,” and there would immediately be a crowd wanting autographs. That series brought me real fame. I think it did more for me than anything before or since.

Lew Grade of ATV, who commissioned it, changed his mind about the format, didn’t he?

I think really what happened is that he ordered a half-hour show and, when we delivered the pilot, it was such a fast-moving, unusual and action-packed show that he obviously screened it to a few people and somebody must have said, “What a shame it isn’t an hour!” So he called me up and said: “Can you turn it into an hour?” And I said: “Look! We’ve completed the first one. We’ve got eight more shot. We’ve got about six more scripted! My God!” But he has a marvellous way with him inasmuch as he puts his arm round you and says: “Y’know, Gerry, I have such faith in you! I know that if I told you it meant a lot to me, you somehow or other would do it.” How can you resist that? So we did it.

And the three US Networks bid for it, but didn’t screen it.

I was not present at the meetings. I have never been involved in the sale of the programmes and therefore I don’t know the whole story. But certainly Lew went to America and came back with two of the three Networks having made an offer for it. When he got back to London Airport, he was tannoyed and when he went to the telephone it was the other Network saying they wanted to bid for it as well. I don’t know what happened, but the deal fell through.

Since this is going into print, I can only speculate. Whether he asked too much money or whether they had second thoughts or whether there are some politics I’m simply not aware of… I don’t know the reason, but I know that one Network dropped out and then, of course, panic set in – “I wonder why they’ve dropped out!” – and the next one went and then BANG all three went. And that was tragic. I say tragic for me – I mean, it must have been tragic for Lew. Let’s face it, he must have been bitterly upset about it.

You made two Thunderbirds feature films which seemed to be quite successful.

They weren’t successful. They were terrible failures.

How did they get financial backing?

Lew had made Thunderbirds Are Go on spec. United Artists saw it and picked it up immediately. They were so impressed with the picture. David Picker who, at the time, was with United Artists, when the lights went up turned to me and said, “Whatever subject you want to make, Mr Anderson, it’s yours.”

When it went out for its premiere, Piccadilly was blocked. It caused more of a stir in Piccadilly than the Abba premiere. It was a wonderful premiere and it was absolutely packed. Everybody cheered and I remember leaving the cinema and the manager said, “You get a picture like this and they start queuing up at four o’clock in the morning”. We went back to the Hilton, where they’d made all the vehicles in ice – a fabulous party. The head of UA at the time said to me, “I don’t know whether it’s going to make more money than Bond or not. I can’t decide.” I was sitting there (thinking I was) already a millionaire. I mean, all these experienced people: how could they all be wrong?

The next day, the Dominion, Tottenham Court Road (a large London cinema) had about ten people in it.

How was it promoted?

Well, I made a film called Doppelganger with Universal which had lousy promotion. But, I’ve got to be fair about this, Thunderbirds Are Go! was superbly promoted. The Dominion had all the vehicles made in fluorescent lights – a fantastic display. It was well-advertised. It went out over Christmas. But it failed. And I went to my local cinema and there were like five people in the back row and three down the front and that was it.

So why did they make Thunderbird 6?

I think the reason they made the second film was that nobody could believe that this thing had failed. They didn’t know what the mistake was but somewhere there was a mistake. Perhaps it was the wrong story. Perhaps it was released at the wrong time of year. Perhaps they built it up too much in the minds of the potential audience. I don’t know. Anyway, they had to try again. They tried again and the same thing happened!

Why did your film Doppelganger have its title changed for the American market?

Well, you know, I’m not too anxious to knock the Americans on this one. I thought Doppelganger was a fabulous title. A friend of mine thought of it and I thought it was a very, very good show, but I’m not exactly sure the Americans aren’t right inasmuch as they try very hard to get an immediacy into their titles, which gives you an idea of what it is you’re going to see. And, rightly or wrongly, they felt that the average person would not understand the title Doppelganger. So they changed it to Journey to the Far Side of the Sun.

The interesting thing about the whole exercise is that I insisted that it should be called Doppelganger over here because I thought it was an interesting word and, if people didn’t understand what it meant, they would find out. It made the film sound rather unusual. But it failed in Britain and America. Which goes to prove something or other. I’m not sure what it proves, but it certainly proves something.

Doppelganger got nasty reviews. ‘Puppets without strings’ reviews.

Well, generally speaking, I think critics (pause) like to write clever lines. And some subjects make it all too easy. What a great line – “The actors are wooden… Gerry was pulling the strings” and so on. (Pause) I don’t think that their criticism was unfounded. I just think it was wildly out of proportion.

Doppelganger was live-action. You were trying the same thing on TV with UFO.

Yes.

Was that because you had saturated the market for TV puppet series? You were competing with re-runs of your own series?

Well, I think we had saturated the market and I think Lew knew that I wanted to do live-action. I think people were beginning to say, “Lew, you can do this with puppets… If you can do it with live-action… you can clean up!” And so we did UFO and, like a lot of things, it was ahead of its time. I think if it was in production today, with all these UFO sightings going on, it would be marvellous.

We had a bit of bad luck on UFO because there were a lot of sightings at the time but, when the programme was halfway through being shot, the US Army Air Force issued the findings of an inquiry they’d been conducting for about two years. And they said categorically, “There are no UFOs”. It did tend to kill interest in the subject for quite a long time.

UFO almost went into a second series, I believe.

Well, the second series was really Space: 1999.

The Space:1999 series was refused by all three US Networks despite its very high production values. Why?

I think the reason is all too clear now. (Pause) It was ‘serious’ science fiction. On the other hand, so was Star Trek. But, you know, Star Trek got away with it because of (studio) politics. A studio (Desilu) was sold to a Network (NBC) and part of the condition was that they bought Star Trek with it. Then they took it off the air and 12,000 fans – who were probably the only people who watched it in the States – went to NBC and demanded its return. And then it became a cult show. But, I mean, it never had high ratings ever. It’s a show all on its own. I think Space: 1999 suffered from being British.

It didn’t get networked in Britain either. Why do you think that was?

I don’t know the answer to that. I wish you could tell me.

Well, at the time, programme planners for regional ITV companies were very jealously guarding their control over films and film series. There was a lot of resistance over networking film series.

I really don’t know. When I see some of the rubbish that is networked…

It was shoved away into Saturday morning slots on some ITV stations.

Well, I think we were killed before we even started. If you don’t get simultaneous networking, then the newspapers aren’t interested in commenting; if they don’t comment, people don’t watch; it’s like the hoola hoola bird going in ever-decreasing circles until you disappear up your own channel.

I heard somewhere that the original stars of Space: 1999 were to have been Katharine Ross and Robert Culp.

Not Katharine Ross. Robert Culp was interviewed. We met in Beverly Hills. I’m a great fan of his because he’s a very, very competent actor and has a very great charisma. He arrived and I said, “Right, I’ll tell you what the series is about…” And he said, “Look, before you tell me what the series is about, may I say a couple of things?” So I said, “Certainly.” He said, “First of all, I am a superb actor.” And I said, “Yes. That’s why we’ve invited you here.” He said, “Fine. But what is not generally known is that I am also an outstanding writer.” So I said, “Well that, I must confess, I didn’t know.” And he said, “Finally, I am an even better director.” Now all of those statements may well be true. But, knowing what television production means, where you’ve got one picture a fortnight going through – one hour every ten days – in my view the lead artist hasn’t got the time or the physical strength to cope with leading the series and be involved with the writing and also criticise the direction.

I felt that this would be a great danger and so, very politely, I said, “Thank you very much and goodbye.” And, equally politely, he said, “Thank you very much. Goodbye.” We didn’t have any kind of argument. I respected his point of view. Whether he respected me, I don’t know. But the interview terminated there.

That poster on your wall is for the new Space: 1999 film , isn’t it?

Yes. I think Destination – Moonbase Alpha, is going to be damn good entertainment, particularly for people who like science fiction. What I think is a great shame is that here we have Superman on screen with its $50 million or whatever budget. Close Encounters with its $20 million budget. We’ve got some mighty expensive pictures on the screen at the moment. Even Star Wars was almost $10 million when it was made and probably now the same picture would be $25 million. With Destination – Moonbase Alpha we have two television episodes (Bringers of Wonder, Parts 1 & 2) strung together and the title reads: Sir Lew Grade Presents a Gerry Anderson Production and it doesn’t say it’s two television episodes strung together. The damage it does is that people who’ve seen all these (other) fabulous pictures now go and see that and say, “I would’ve expected something a bit better than that from Gerry Anderson.”

I’ve heard you say you’d like to move more into theatrical presentations.

Well, hopefully I’ll never see television again. That means if I were offered a good television series this afternoon I would crack a bottle of champagne and celebrate and do it and love every minute of it. But it is such a terrible strain, producing one hour a week, that I would much prefer to do theatrical – that is cinema – pictures. At the time of this interview, I’m at the point of a very, very big breakthrough. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what it’s about or who’s involved because it would spoil the chances of the picture going.

Is it for a studio or for an independent?

It is a major subject with a major studio, a major director and a major star. And a fantasy subject. We’re right on the knife-edge at the moment.

If it works out, you’ll be producing again. Why do you produce rather than direct?

I always wanted to direct and I made the fatal mistake of thinking if I start my own film company and I’m making my own pictures, when it comes to the director, I will be able to direct. That’s how I hoped to become a director. Instead of which, you find you are so busy organising production that, when it comes to the crunch, you have to take somebody else on because you can’t handle it yourself.

You have directed, though.

When we first started, I directed 26 Twizzles, 26 Torchys, 52 Four Feather Falls, the pilot of UFO – I’ve directed an awful lot of our stuff.

Do you think you’re a bankable director?

No, certainly not. Because most of the films I’ve directed have been puppet films and bankable directors are directors who have directed theatrical (cinema) pictures that have made millions of dollars. I haven’t directed any theatricals, so I can’t be bankable.

You were saying there are a lot of big-budget films around at the moment. There’s a danger in big budgets, isn’t there? With a big budget you do what’s easiest whereas, with a small budget, you have to be more creative.

Well, this is Gerry Anderson feeling sorry for himself. I think, in an ideal world, people who have for years worked on a small budget and therefore got the very best out of each pound or dollar… when science fiction took off, those were the people who should have been given the chance to take the big budgets and produce something really sensational. But business doesn’t work that way. Americans are so much more adventurous than British people at the moment. They get the money and they arrive at London Airport with their sack containing $20 million and they’re certainly not going to come into a British studio and say, “Can you recommend a British producer to whom I can give this $20 million so that he can make himself a fortune?”

That is not going to happen so, consequently, people like myself have not benefitted from this tremendous book in science fiction. It is, in the main, American money. The profits, as in the case of Star Wars, which was shot in Britain, will go back to America to encourage further investment for new American producers. British technicians have gained, but that’s short-sighted. The profits are going back to America. They are not remaining here and they will not fund future British productions.

Why do you think it’s so difficult to get backing in Britain?

Why do I think that is? Why, as we sit here, are we likely to have a State of Emergency in the next 48 hours? Because, sadly, this lovely country of hours which, at one time, had so many wonderful qualities, is falling apart. People don’t think any more; people are lazy here; people don’t want to work; people don’t want to take chances; people are out of touch with new ideas. It’s a national disease.

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The Cinema Museum’s nostalgic smell is in Charlie Chaplin’s old workhouse

Ronald Grant as an even younger man

Cinefiler and collector Ronald Grant as an even younger man

Yesterday, I had a tour of the Cinema Museum in London with Ronald Grant of the separate but linked Ronald Grant Film Archive which has well over one million images from more than 50,000 movies.

Ronald was born near Aberdeen and brought up watching films in his local village hall three nights a week.

“I became enchanted with the cinema,” he said yesterday, clearly under-stating the case. “I liked to help the projectionist and got pieces of film and took them home and showed them on the wall with a magnifying glass and a torch.”

By the time he left school, he just wanted to be a projectionist and got a job with the four Donald brothers who ran 13 of the 15 cinemas in Aberdeen.

Eventually, in London in 1981, his extraordinarily wide-ranging collection of movie memorabilia formed the basis of the Cinema Museum, which is housed in The Master’s House of the old Lambeth Workhouse – the workhouse where Charlie Chaplin was partly brought up.

Ronald Grant at the Cinema Museum yesterday

Ronald Grant at the Cinema Museum in London  yesterday

As well as screening rare films, occasionally with producers/directors/actors there to talk about the production, the Cinema Museum has an almost eccentrically wide collection of film memorabilia from stills and posters to UK and UK books and fan magazines, original cinema projectors, signs from the inside and outside of old cinemas, staff uniforms, pieces of period carpet and even something I had never heard of – small tins of cinema fragrance sprays.

Ronald Grant told me:

“You have to remember that, in the 1920s and 1930s, many houses had no piped water. If you had no piped water, then there was a tap and there were lavatories outside and you shared them with the other tenants. If you wanted to have a bath, you had to go to the municipal baths, which cost money. Or you could have a tin bath which you put in front of your open fire. But this meant you had to go downstairs and bring up pails of water, fill the kettles, put the kettles on the range, heat the kettles, fill the bath…

“It was a whole lot of diddle-daddling and fiddling about, so children sometimes shared the water that other people had bathed in and, generally speaking, people didn’t bathe as regularly as they do now.

“In which case, if you had 1,500 to 2,000 of these people in a confined space like a cinema on a hot summer night…

“The other thing was that, before 1948 and the National Health Service, there were a lot of diseases and illnesses that might prove fatal. There was scarlet fever and diphtheria and there was a lot of tuberculosis around, which is a disease of the lungs. People would cough-cough-cough and spit on the floor. Tuberculosis is carried by moisture so, if you’re coughing – and with many people who had tuberculosis their lungs were bad so they would cough – the moist air could carry the tubercular infection.

“People were very nervous about going to crowded places and maybe catching something that might kill them or might involve a lot of attention from the doctor. Before 1948, you had to pay for the doctor. He was a professional like a lawyer and would charge a professional fee. Medicines would all have to be bought at full price.

“So poor families did not want to go anywhere and risk catching something that would create illness.

“And so cinema owners wanted you to think it was fresh and hygienic and they would spray this perfume.

“Here’s one you can smell. This is what was sprayed in the cinema. We have various flavours and scents. This one is Neuroma Spraying Essence – germicide, it says in brackets – Guaranteed to contain powerful germ-destroying properties blended with a delicate perfume.

The Cinema Museum - a unique collection of memorabilia

The Cinema Museum – a unique collection of memorabilia

The Cinema Museum has existed since 1981 and has never received any money from any funding body. It hopes to buy its current building which it leases from the NHS, but that could cost anything from £2 million to £5 million.

It would be tragedy to lose a unique collection of movie memorabilia.

Here is a 2000 tour of a small part of the Cinema Museum:

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Last night I had a dream and saw a Native American not Michael Winner

Unseen film director Michael Winner

I had a dream last night.

I was in a very large warehouse. It was completely empty.

Two young men came in. Both acted like jack-the-lad Essex boys. Both were a bit twitchy, but smiling, yet I knew there was something dangerous about them. They were talking to each other and to me. They were being amiable but in a dangerous way.

The warehouse was so big its floor stretched almost to infinity. It had a horizon and the floor and ceiling and walls were a light brown, sandy colour.

From the horizon, a figure started running towards me. It was a miniature Red Indian – sorry, Native American – perhaps only two feet high but his head-dress and his head were out-of-scale and were too big for his body like in a Warner Brothers cartoon. He was in sepia and, as he ran, light tan dust clouds were created behind him.

As he approached me at immense speed, I motioned to my left and he swerved and leapt upwards onto one of the two youths. As they fought, the Red Indian – sorry, Native American – turned into rapidly-changing abstract coloured shapes and he lost his fight with the Essex boy.

Then we were outside the warehouse in an open shopping car park, but there were no cars. The Red Indian – sorry, Native American – still in the form of rapidly-changing abstract coloured shapes – was ricocheting around in random movements as if he had been radio controlled and the controller had gone haywire.

I do not know what happened then. The dream just fizzled out.

Or perhaps I woke up.

Sometimes with dreams it is difficult to know if you have woken up or not.

I had been going to write a totally different blog this morning, but it fell through last night.

Famous people are strange. We dip in and out of their lives, missing big chunks including, sometimes, their deaths.

The late late Larry Hagman of Dallas

When the new series of Dallas started on channel Five a few weeks ago, my eternally-un-named friend and I were both amazed that it co-starred actor Larry Hagman, because we both thought we distinctly remembered him dying a few years ago.

Then, yesterday morning, came the news that he really had died the day before.

Last night, my eternally-un-named friend and I went to the Cinema Museum in South London to see an interview with film director Michael Winner which, unknown to us, had been cancelled a fortnight ago because of his ill-health.

Apparently, last month, he revealed he had been told he only has 18 months to live. I had missed those reports.

Apparently he is going to sell his large house in Kensington and move into a flat.

As I mentioned in a blog last December, I sat in the garage of Michael Winner’s large house in Kensington a few years ago.

He was being interviewed for a documentary and, not unreasonably, did not allow the film crew into his house. If he was to be interviewed at home, it had to be in his garage. It could have been in his garden, but the weather was variable.

When he was making movies, he had a fearsome film industry reputation for being polite to the stars of his movies but treating underlings with a lot less deference.

Movie critic Barry Norman once stated: “To say that Michael Winner is his own worst enemy is to provoke a ragged chorus from odd corners of the film industry of Not while I’m alive!

I had seen an interview with Michael Winner a few years before our garage interview in which he claimed that, when he went to parties on his own, he was sometimes almost too shy to go into a room full of strangers.

On the day of the garage filming, he provided value for money. His answers were vivid and filled with excellent sound bites. A real pro. But he was very prickly. My cheap psychology would say he was defensively sarcastic; he put up a surprisingly defensive wall for someone so successful.

Last night was strange.

I had somehow missed the fact Michael Winner had eaten an oyster in Barbados in 2007 and, as a result, had caught the bacterial infection Vibrio vulnificus, which kills 95 per cent of its victims within 48 hours, that he had to have 19 operations over 10 weeks and been on the brink of death five times. He also caught the superbug MRSA and had to have part of his leg cut away.

He wrote his own obituary for the Daily Mail in 2010

I had also missed the fact that, last year, he married the woman he had dated briefly when she was a 16-year-old wannabe actress and he was a 21-year-old aspiring film-maker. They had met again in 2005. It sounded very romantic and very touching.

We dip in and out of other people’s lives, glimpsing only random snapshots.

As we drove home round the Elephant & Castle roundabout, my eternally-un-named friend said to me: “It’s just so random.”

“The traffic?” I asked.

“Life,” she said.

“Compared to being brought up on RAF camps?” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “Sometimes we used to be at war. As a rehearsal. The camp would be at war for two days. Life in the outside world is just anarchy.”

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Nazis from the dark side of the Moon and ultra film violence from Indonesia

Prince Charles Cinema: home of lateral thinking marketing

London would be a duller place if the Prince Charles Cinema did not exist.

A few weeks ago, the management were asking what their market position was. I said I thought the cinema filled a gap between the mainstream and art house cinemas. In among some cult commercial films, the Prince Charles screens movies the National Film Theatre seldom if ever shows.

The Prince Charles screens cult, schlock, under-the-radar and often extraordinarily quirky movies. Amid special events like Sing-a-long-a-Grease, the Bugsy Malone Sing-Along, Swear-Along-With-South-Park and a screening of ‘The Die Hard Trilogy’ (they are not including Die Hard 4.0 because they say it is not a ‘real’ Die Hard film…. they will soon be screening the little-heard-of Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie and God Bless America (with free hot dogs) as well as an all-night marathon of Friday the 13th Parts I-VIII.

They also yesterday screened two films extraordinary even by their standards – Iron Sky and The Raid both of which, I suspect, have been held back by titles less vivid than they should be. Iron Sky should, I think, really have been called Nazis From The Dark Side of The Moon… or Space Nazis… because the plot runs thus:

Iron Sky: Nazis are not a waste of space

In 1945, some Nazis escaped to the Moon, where they built a giant secret base in the shape of a swastika. Since then, they have been watching us and waiting for the right time to mount an invasion of Earth in their meteor-towing zeppelin-shaped spacecraft and take their revenge. The date is now 2018 and the time is right…

Admittedly I got in for free, but THAT is a movie I would pay good money to see and the strange thing about it is that the visuals and the special effects are excellent, as are the sound, the direction and the acting. And the acting is difficult to pull off, because all the lines are (quite rightly) delivered totally straight-faced, so the acting style has to be in that difficult region between realistic and slightly stylised cartoon – If you have a central Negro character whom the Nazis turn white and a sequence in which the vacuum of space pulls off a female Nazi’s clothes yet she is still somehow able to breathe, there is a credibility risk unless you have everything spot-on.

They get away with lines like (I paraphrase):

“I was black but now I’m white. I went to the dark side of the Moon but now I’m back. And the space Nazis are coming!”

(To a taxi driver) “Take us upState – We need to get back to the Moon”

and

“The Nazis are the only guys the US managed to beat in a fair fight”

Alright, the last line is not actually so odd; it is the truth (if you exclude the British in 1776).

Iron Sky has its faults – it would be a much better film with less ponderous, less Wagnerian music – oddly from Slovenian avant-garde group Laibach – but it is 93 minutes long and never less than interesting.

It is good clean Nazi fun and has a fair stab at satire with a cynical political PR lady who sees the benefits of having a Nazi invasion of Earth and a not-too-far-removed-from-reality Sarah Palin type female US President in 2018 who says: “All Presidents who start a war in their first term get re-elected”.

With an unsurprisingly complicated production history, it is basically a Finnish film with English and German dialogue (sub-titled) which was shot for an estimated 7.5 million Euros in Australia, Finland, Germany and New York and partly financed by ‘crowd funding’ from fan investors.

Iron Sky is well worth seeing on the big screen – something that is highly unlikely in the UK now, as distributors Revolver are putting it straight to DVD.

The Raid: wall-to-wall high-rise violence

The Raid is another film championed by the Prince Charles Cinema though, unlike Iron Sky, it did get a decent UK release.

It is a visceral, staggeringly-violent Indonesian action film directed by Welsh film-maker Gareth Evans (allegedly only 27-years-old) with jaw-dropping martial arts sequences.

I am no martial arts aficionado, but the action is amazing – it showcases the unknown-to-me Indonesian martial art of Pencak Silat.

The movie won the Midnight Madness Award at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival and that sounds a pretty well-titled award.

The plot is token – more a MacGuffin than a plot.

A less-than-elite SWAT team mount an attack on the strangely run-down Jakarta tower block base of a crime lord who has rented rooms in the block out to the city’s most dangerous murderers, killers and gangsters… and, inexplicably, to one ordinary good guy and his pregnant wife.

Running 101 minutes, it could usefully have about 10 minutes trimmed off it, but it is astonishingly gripping throughout, especially given that it is simply wall-to-wall violence. Very well edited and with vivid Dolby Stereo, it is like being in a firefight. You have no idea what is going to happen next.

And the violence is relentless.

There are a couple of half-hearted attempts to give the movie depth and a late attempt to create personal sympathy with one of the characters, but this is pointless.

Watching it reminded me of the original reviews of Reservoir Dogs, which said that film was mindlessly violent, staggeringly bloody and was simply violence for the sake of violence.

Reservoir Dogs was not.

The Raid is.

And I loved it.

Director Gareth Evans could be the new Quentin Tarantino.

Uniquely different. That is what you get at the Prince Charles Cinema.

Nazis from the Dark Side of the Moon for 93 minutes and mindless martial art violence from Indonesia for 101 minutes.

Now that is what I call entertainment.

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Putting the F in art films + a surrealist comedian mistakes himself for a chair

Martin Soan as Miss Haversham at comedy club Pull The Other One last night

I mentioned cult movie The Room in yesterday’s blog – a film which it might seem difficult to out-surreal.

But reality, as always, tends to be more unbelievable than fiction.

In the last of a trilogy of odd memories, mad inventor John Ward told me another tale yesterday about working as the projectionist for an independent cinema in the 1960s.

“Our boss used to screen a right load of old rubbish,” John says. “As in cheap but perhaps not cheerful.

“We had more than our fair share of ‘Continental’ offerings – as in stuff you had never, ever heard-of plus the added fun of subtitles.

“Our matinees used to attract a small, demented audience filled with the sort of characters who could have been in David Croft sitcoms.

“One afternoon, we were showing some French film that the poster, as always, claimed had great delights but in reality included no known form of coherent entertainment. There were nine living breathing mortals in the audience, including someone the box office staff had christened ‘Mad Martha’.

“It was a 5-reel film and we inadvertently screened Reel 5 in place of Reel 3 and nobody noticed.

“On her way out through the foyer, Mad Martha commented in all seriousness to the box office staff that Her in the nice cream blouse were a brilliant actressThat film were a masterpiece.

I would be dubious about the truth of this story except that, eerily, exactly the same thing happened when I worked for Anglia Television, minus Martha.

In those days, feature films were screened from film reels on telecine machines, not off tape. During the screening of one late-night adventure movie with a complicated plot, the reels got scrambled and were shown in the order 1-2-5-3-4.

No-one complained.

The assumption by the Presentation Department was that people watching thought either that they had missed something in the complicated plot or that it was Art.

I did wonder when I later saw Quentin Tarentino’s excellent movie Pulp Fiction – where one central character is killed then comes back to life because the plot does a back-flip in time – if he had written the film in chronological order, realised it lacked tension, then simply swapped some of the pages round to make it more interesting.

All this would seem surreal except, last night, I went to the Pull The Other One comedy club and saw the former Frank Sanazi (sings like Sinatra; looks like Hitler) appear as orange-faced Tom Jones soundalike Tom Mones and Martin Soan appeared briefly as Miss Haversham from Great Expectations sitting in a chair. His costume included the chair. You had to be there. Allegedly the costume took a year to make. He was on stage for perhaps two minutes.

The critic Clive James once wrote of Martin Soan: “A total lack of any sense, rhyme or reason to the extent that the insignificance of this show completely escaped me… The funniest thing I have ever seen.”

I think I may have to go and have a lie down.

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“The Room” – The best bad movie?… And how to heckle cult movies properly.

Tommy Wiseau at the Prince Charles Cinema last night

There are a lot of films labelled “the best worst movie ever made” – for example, Killer Bitch – and where better is there to screen those movies than at the admirable Prince Charles Cinema off Leicester Square in London?

This cinema does not just organise sing-alonga Sound of Music and swear-alonga Team America screenings. Oh no.

Upcoming treats include The Charlies – their alternative Academy Awards held on Oscar night – plus a Friday The 13th all-night marathon screening of Parts I-VIII and a Troma Films triple bill of The Toxic AvengerClass of Nuke ‘Em High and their new film Father’s Day – introduced by Troma boss Lloyd Kaufman.

It has taken me some time to catch up with The Room – not a Troma film but an independent movie made in 2003.

British writer and social commentator Charlie Brooker said after its London premiere (at the Prince Charles) in 2009: “I don’t think there is a word that can describe that experience… Possibly the most unique movie-going experience of my life”

Other cinema-goers that night called it “Like a tumour” and “Absolutely blissfully indulgent in the most peculiar and perverted way”.

The Room’s writer/director/producer/star Tommy Wiseau’s message to the audience at that London premiere was: “You can laugh, you can cry, you can express yourselves but please don’t hurt each other.”

Last night, I went to the Prince Charles’ first midnight screening of The Room introduced by Tommy Wiseau and co-star Greg Sestero.

You know you may be in for a treat when there is a stall in the foyer selling T-shirts, £10 posters, DVDs and other knick-knacks and people are having their photo taken with the director…. It is also unusual, in my fairly extensive experience, to find your feet crunching on dozens of plastic spoons as you walk into your row of seats – spoons provided by the cinema. It has become a tradition to throw plastic spoons at the screen… A reference to an unexplained shot of a spoon in the movie – in a framed photograph standing on a table.

Basically, The Room is a seriously-intended soft-hearted movie about relationships which almost unbelievably cost $6 million to make. In Los Angeles, it was promoted using a single expensive billboard in Hollywood showing an extreme close-up of Wiseau’s face, with one of his eyelids in mid-blink. The ad ran on this expensive billboard for over four years.

Wiseau also reportedly paid for a small TV and print campaign saying The Room was “a film with the passion of Tennessee Williams”.

Where the alleged $6 million budget for the movie or the money for the billboard came from are just two of many apparently inexplicable mysteries surrounding the film.

In truth, last night’s screening of The Room disappointed me, because the constant heckling by the audience has not yet settled down into ritual.

I once attended a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the World Science Fiction Convention which was almost a brand new work of art in itself. Not only were audience members dressed-up as characters, but the heckling involved shouted responses and set-ups to what was being said on screen, to create whole new surreal conversations.

Last night’s screening of The Room – inevitably billed as The Best Worst Film Ever Made – was simply a licence to be rowdy, with people laughing (in often random places) for the sake of laughing, random heckling, random throwing of plastic spoons and wannabe hecklers yelling out mostly failed attempts at post-modernist humour. The heckling was mostly over the on-screen dialogue. To work effectively, movie heckling has to be in-between the dialogue.

The film, though, has a lot of potential for would-be creative hecklers.

There is much to be developed from an early heckle of “What does it mean?” and a later one of “This is a pointless scene!”

I loved and laughed heartily at an utterly irrelevant shot of an ugly dog in a flower shop (you had to be there) and almost laughed as much at the completely pointless picking-up by the central character of a newspaper lying on the sidewalk.

The pointlessness of certain specifics is what, it could be argued, makes The Room one of the truly great bad movies.

I thought it admirably odd that the male characters are often tossing a baseball between each other – in one noted scene in an alleyway, four of them wear unexplained tuxedos while throwing the ball and talking… until one of them trips over in carefully-framed giant close-up for no plot or artistic reason at all.

It is also rare for one of the female central characters in a film to say she has breast cancer and is going to die… and to be greeted with loud laughter and enthusiastic cheers from the audience. The cancer is never referred to again in the movie and, every time the woman touched her daughter’s face (which she does a lot), the audience shouted out “Cancer!”

The audience and the screening was at its best with recurring heckles. Throughout the film, there were justified yells of “Shut the door!” and, during repeated and unnecessary lengthy pans along the width of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the audience would chant: “Go! – Go! – Go! – Go! – Go! – Go! – Go! – Go! – Go! – Go!” until the pan finished.

Quite what it must be like for Tommy Wiseau to know his seriously-intended film about relationships is being laughed-at and abused I can barely imagine. But he seems happy to take the money. He did, after all, make the film as a serious drama but now markets it as a ‘dark’ comedy.

I particularly recommend that irrelevant shot of the ugly dog in a flower shop. I would seriously consider seeing the film again simply just for that one shot.

But – and this is important – one piece of advice to you if you do see it.

See it in the cinema.

And do not sit in the second row.

Dozens of thrown plastic spoons fall short and it is like being in the French army during the English archers’ onslaught of arrows at Agincourt.

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