Tag Archives: cult

Lew Grade, Patrick McGoohan and bizarre cult TV series “The Prisoner”

Rupert Booth’s book about Patrick McGoohan

Booth tried to unmask McGoohan

In this blog recently, I have been slagging-off ITV’s misbegotten attempted revival of Sunday Night at The London Palladium. I have a feeling it was made by people attempting to create a populist show based on some highly-researched viewer ‘demographic’ and that the producers are making a programme which they would not themselves watch – a virtual definition of dumbing down shows and looking down on audiences.

The original Sunday Night at The London Palladium was made by ATV under its mega showman boss Lew Grade. Lew was seen as Mr Downmarket Populist Entertainment Showbiz but, in fact, opera and ballet and all sorts of odd stuff would crop up amid the jugglers and dancing showgirls on Sunday Night at The London Palladium.

This came to mind because, last night, the admirably quirky Sohemian Society had a meeting about Patrick McGoohan and his cult series The Prisoner.

The speaker was Rupert Booth, who was plugging his 2011 book Not a Number: Patrick McGoohan, a Life but who, in an admirable demonstration of individuality, did not bring any copies to sell.

Lew Grade commissioned The Prisoner for ATV/ITV through his ITC Films company.

LewGrade_FozzyBear

Lew Grade with Fozzy from his ATV series The Muppet Show

“I think it’s a misconception that Lew Grade was simply Mr Entertainment,” said Rupert Booth last night. “He made his money out of shows like Sunday Night at The London Palladium, but he would put an awful lot of money into pet projects, plays, operas – I think ATV broadcast the first colour live opera in Britain. He made Jesus of Nazareth. He always said: I should do something about the Bible; I’m Jewish!

“When The Prisoner was first pitched to him, with McGoohan waving his arms about and showing pictures of Portmeirion, Lew Grade ended up saying: I have no idea what you’re talking about, but here’s the money. Go away and make it. That may seem incredibly brave but, in a way, it wasn’t: McGoohan was a very bankable star. He had been Danger Man (another ITC/ATV series) and was, I think, at that point the highest-paid actor on British television. I don’t think Lew Grade saw Fall Out (The Prisoners’ final controversial episode) coming. But I don’t think Patrick McGoohan saw Fall Out coming.”

The way McGoohan remembered getting the OK from Lew Grade for The Prisoner was: “He got up, puffed on his cigar, marched around a little bit, then turned and said: Pat, you know, it’s so crazy it might work.

There is a YouTube clip in which McGoohan talks about Grade.

In the audience at the Sohemian Society last night was someone who had worked at ATV at that time (but not on The Prisoner).

“You could argue,” he said, “that there can sometimes be too much creative freedom. I was told The Prisoner was a chaotic programme to work on, particularly towards the end. The people who worked on the last episode said they didn’t know what was happening from one day to the next. There was no schedule, there were no scripts, no lines, it was chaos. It’s a very interesting way to make a television programme, but it’s probably not the best way.”

“Well,” said Rupert Booth, “to my mind, The Prisoner was the absolute finishing of him as McGoohan: The TV Star. It was a bit self-destructive. This is when he’s getting through about two bottles of whiskey and day and he’s been through, I think, his third nervous breakdown. He was taking so much of it on his own shoulders and taking it so seriously and would not compromise ever.”

According to Lew Grade, at the time The Prisoner was in production, the President of CBS asked him: “Do you have problems with Patrick McGoohan?” Lew told him: “I never have any problem at all with Patrick McGoohan. He’s wonderful”… “Well how do you do it?” asked the CBS President. Lew replied: “I always give in to what he wants.”

Part of the title sequence from The Prisoner

Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner‘s opening title sequence

“There were stories,” Rupert Booth said last night, “that McGoohan would not even have the word ‘television’ said on set. the word ‘film’ had to be used, because he thought people working on a television programme would potentially compromise their standards. It’s indicative, I think, of how much he was putting into it. Most of the stories about the filming of Fall Out are that it was either terrible chaos or glorious chaos, depending on what your role in it was. If you were an actor and were able to fall over chairs and dance around and sing Dry Bones: magnificent! If had to try to light and follow that with a camera: slightly more irritating. So, out of the chaos…”

After The Prisoner ended, McGoohan went to Lew Grade with other ideas.

“There’s one story which may be apocryphal,” said Rupert Booth, “that McGoohan took some ideas all nicely typed-up into Lew Grade and Lew basically said: No. Sorry. You’ve lost it. You’re too much of a risk and McGoohan absolutely spat the dummy out, stood on the table, kicked all the stuff off and stormed out and effectively destroyed his TV career in this country. Which (if true) was stupid and ungrateful, because Lew Grade had been tremendous to him. He had given him an awful lot of money. He had entrusted him. I think McGoohan was very unfair to Lew Grade in that way. It does seem from reports of that era that McGoohan was pissed off his face and spitting his dummy out and throwing all the toys out of his pram if he didn’t get his own way.”

According to Patrick McGoohan, talking about Lew Grade years later: “from the very moment he said Go (on production of The Prisoner) and shook my hand – we never had a contract – he never interfered in anything that I did. Never bothered me. It was marvellous. I can’t conceive of anybody else in the world, then or now, giving me that amount of freedom with a subject which, in many respects, I suppose you might say was outrageous. He has an instinct.”

Perhaps ITV could do with that now. People who take decisions – and responsibility – on instinct not on research figures from uncreative people. I oft quote the William Goldman sentence from his book Adventures in The Screen Trade: “Nobody knows anything.”

It means that creating TV programmes (and films) is an art involving gut instinct, not a science where you create ‘sure-fire winners’ from research intended to cover your ass if the show or the film fails.

There are some clips from Fall Out, the final episode of The Prisoner, on YouTube.

5 Comments

Filed under Television

David McGillivray: from cheap sex films to horror movies, art and panto scripts

David McGillivray accosted yesterday by Halloween ghoul

David McGillivray (left) yesterday with a Halloween ghoul

David McGillivray is only a few years old than me, but I first became aware of him when I was in my late teens or early twenties and he was writing excellent film reviews for the British Film Institute’s Monthly Film Bulletin.

He quickly got involved in the 1970s British sex film industry, writing such epics as I’m Not Feeling Myself Tonight and The Hot Girls, then shifting into horror scripts for quickie film directors Norman J.Warren and Pete Walker and, later still, writing and producing his own films.

“I used to love being scared when I was a child,” he told me yesterday – Halloween – in Soho, “and I greatly enjoy frightening other people. I’ve only really ever been interested in sensation.”

“What was your best film?”

“Shorts or long?”

“Both.”

“Of the shorts, I’m very fond of one called Mrs Davenport’s Throat, which I made in Lisbon in 2005. It’s got a surprise ending that I don’t think anyone’s ever guessed.”

“You wrote and produced that?”

“Yes. It was inspired by those people at airports who stand holding cards with people’s names on. In my film, the eponymous Mrs Davenport goes up to a chauffeur who is holding a sign saying MRS DAVENPORT and goes off with him and we find out what happens to her. It’s not a pretty sight.”

“You said that with a smile.”

“It’s good fun.”

“And your favourite feature film?”

Exactly the sort of film young David wanted to write

Exactly the sort of film young David McGillivray had always wanted to write

“I never watch any of my films apart from House of Whipcord. That was my first big one for Pete Walker. I saw it again at a horror festival in Edinburgh about two years ago and thought it stood up quite well.

“I was a very young writer – I was 25. I read an outline of the story and it was exactly the sort of film I had always wanted to write and Pete Walker got together a marvellous cast. It was terrifically exciting for me. Suddenly here I was part of the film business that I’d always been so fond of.

“I think House of Whipcord is Pete Walker’s best film, though some people prefer Frightmare.”

“He seemed to suddenly disappear off the radar,” I said.

“He just decided to stop working,” explained David, “and nobody really knows why. He had the money to continue and he could have gone on making films. He didn’t completely disappear: he ran a chain of provincial cinemas called Picturedrome for a while but now, as far as I know, he really is completely retired. I haven’t seen him since 1992.”

“Is he worthy of rediscovery?” I asked. “Or are his films just tacky?”

“I have said,” David told me, “that he was Britain’s most talented exploitation director. As soon as a Pete Walker film starts, you know instantly it’s his. He had a very distinct style. He was a talented storyteller. He knew how to include the exploitation elements. I think it’s a great shame he isn’t still working. He just decided he didn’t want to do it any more. He didn’t need to make money; he was very rich.”

“Rich from the films?” I asked,. “Or rich independently?”

“Rich from property,” said David. “He made a lot of money from his early films: little 8mm ‘glamour’ loops sold either by mail order or in newsagents, often under-the-counter.”

“Soft-core?” I asked.

Not as successful as the sex films

Not as successful as Pete Walker’s sex films?

“Oh yes, all very soft core. They were basically striptease films. He made a lot of money from those and then his early full-length sex films made money. There were several people in the same market – Harrison Marks and Stanley Long were two rivals. Pete’s early sex films were very successful. Then he started making his so-called ‘terror’ films, which were less popular. All of those people made a fair amount of money out of nudie and sex films.”

“When you were young,” I asked, “did you want to make art films?”

“No,” said David firmly. “I never wanted to do anything arty and I never have done. I’ve got no ability, I’ve got no taste, no style. I’m a hack.”

David’s current film production company is called Pathetique Films. It uses the slogan Curiouser and Curiouser.

“But you appreciate arty movies, so you have taste,” I told him.

“I’ve got no ability. I really haven’t,” he replied.

“But,” I said, “you can write and you’ve seen enough movies to know what images need to be edited together to have an effect, so you can work backwards and know what material has to be shot to create the end result you want.”

“This is like a conversation I was having yesterday, about the difference between art and design,” David said, holding up a teaspoon. “What is this? It has been designed to look good, but is it art or is it just design?… It is design.

“My films are not art. They’re just product designed to give people a bit of a thrill in whatever way is possible.”

“But what you’re describing,” I argued, “is a Shakespeare play – a commercial product that’s aimed at a specific audience – almost lowest-common-denominator. Shakespeare was creating something to give the plebs in the pit a laugh. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are there to give people a laugh in Hamlet; there’s blood all over the place in Macbeth; there are things flying around and thunderstorms and a shipwreck (or is it two?) in The Tempest. I’m sure if I went in a time machine and watched Shakespeare plays as seen by the original audience, it would be like watching a down-market farce or an exploitation movie.”

“Well, yes,” David agreed. “Shakespeare’s plays were aimed at ‘the ordinary folk’ and wouldn’t have been considered Art in their day. Maybe one day, long after we’re dead and gone, the public will decide that my films are Art.”

“But the public didn’t decide Shakespeare is art,” I said, “It was people who wrote books about him. Critics decide. Critics would say The Tempest is art and the movie Forbidden Planet is a commercial Hollywood science fiction product, but the film is based on the play.”

“Well,” said David, “I would call Forbidden Planet art, because it’s a wonderful creation and it works and it scared the living daylights out of me when I was 7 or 8. When the footprints appear in the sand, made by the invisible monster, I was so frightened I remember distinctly I couldn’t look at the screen and I hid my face in my school cap. That film had an enormous effect on me and it’s a very artistic endeavour indeed.”

“But looked at objectively,” I said, “Shakespeare  is basically lowest common denominator sex, violence and comedy – much like The Bible in that respect. Reviewers thought Hitchcock’s Psycho was unforgivably down-market, repulsive and sadistic when it was released, yet people would probably think Psycho was a work of art now.”

“Definitely,” agreed David, “Well, any film by Hitchcock.”

“Or Michael Powell’s film Peeping Tom,” I said. “It was said at the time to be obscenely sadistic and it destroyed his entire career. But now it’s Art. I avoided seeing it for years because Time Out said it was a simile for the voyeurism of the cinema-going experience – It sounded unbearably arty and a load of wank. But, when I saw it, it IS a great film and, arguably, Time Out was right.”

“It’s not bad, is it…” said David.

“You must want to write Art,” I told him, “You want to create things and you want to create the best possible thing you can and that is Art and, if it has a big effect on a big audience like Harry Potter, then all the better, surely?”

“This is a very vexed issue,” replied David, “and goes back to what is and isn’t Art. I’ve really only ever wanted to create something that is going to have some sort of an effect on people. I don’t want to create something that’s going to be ignored, that’s going to sit on a shelf and not be seen. I don’t particularly mind what the critics say. I don’t care if they hate my stuff – and a lot of them do. All I want in years to come is for people to watch my films and enjoy them in the same way I enjoy the most rubbishy, churned-out second features. If I can create anything like Night of the Demon or, indeed, Night of the Eagle, I’d be very, very happy.”

“Well,” I said, “everyone’s making B films now – the Star Wars movies, the Indiana Jones movies, Quentin Tarantino’s movies. They’re all basically making crappy low-budget B films on a big budget – Crap becoming Art.”

“Yes,” agreed David, “they’re making wheat out of chaff.”

“They’ve making wheat out of chaff for chavs,” I suggested. “What are you making next?”

David McGillivray yesterday, by a rubbish bin in London - He suggested the bin

David McGillivray yesterday, by a rubbish bin in London’s West End  – He suggested the bin

“It’s panto time,” said David. “It’s a very busy time. This year I’ve contributed to four. I don’t write them, I only re-write them depending on who’s in them. My regular employer is Julian Clary – I’ve re-written his pantos for several years and, through him, I’ve met other people like Nigel Havers. I’m just finishing re-writing Robin Hood, which is in Plymouth this year. And I’ve re-written part of Snow White for Gok Wan in Birmingham. I love panto. I think that’s my true forte.”

“You knew Julian Clary before the pantos?”

“Yes, I’ve worked with him for 31 years. I’ve never written an entire show. He’s known for his improvisation. He Julianises what I put together as, indeed, do other comedians I’ve worked for.”

“Such as?”

“Paul O’Grady, Greg Proops, Angus Deayton…”

At this point, a man dressed in a white Halloween costume and wearing a Scream movie mask came into the restaurant where we were sitting.

“That is an example of the opposite of what we were talking about,” said David. “That is Art turned into crap… Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream now turned into one of the worst franchises in horror movie history…”

1 Comment

Filed under Horror, Movies, Sex

The cult of comedian Lewis Schaffer gets a disciple at the Edinburgh Fringe

Rose and Lewis Schaffer in Edinburgh yesterday afternoon

Rose and Lewis Schaffer in Edinburgh yesterday afternoon

“He was literally dancing home last night,” Rose said to me about Lewis Schaffer yesterday afternoon.

“Why?” I asked Lewis Schaffer.

“This man came up and said he’d been thinking about me all day,” Lewis Schaffer said.

“Yeah,” said Rose. “He said he’d been thinking about Lewis all day and he comes to the Fringe every year and he’d seen Lewis before and then he just walks into Bob’s Bookshop last night and Lewis is there.”

“He showed me pictures of my own posters,” said Lewis Schaffer.

Rose told me: “He’d taken a photograph in Edinburgh of every single poster he’d seen with Lewis on it. On his phone. Like obsessionally.”

“His friend said he didn’t want to see him,” said Lewis Schaffer. “He lives in East Dulwich and he listens to Nunhead American Radio – my radio series.”

“So he’s the listener?” I asked.

“It seems so,” said Lewis Schaffer.

“So,” said Rose, “this man’s obsessed with Lewis and he walked into Bob’s Bookshop last night…”

“He said it was a message from God,” interrupted Lewis Schaffer, “and he said I was a messenger from God… Him seeing me at Bob’s Bookshop last night at one o’clock in the morning during Midnight Mayhem was a sign that he had to go see Lewis Schaffer’s show and disregard his friend back in East Dulwich. He showed us all the pictures he had taken of my posters.”

“And then,” said Rose, “a lovely lady with a little bob haircut said that Lewis Schaffer was her favourite comedian and then, on the way home, Lewis got a 4-star review. And that was it. He was off. Dancing in the street. He was like Gene Kelly in the rain.”

“Where was the 4-star review?” I asked Lewis Schaffer.

Fringe Guide,” he replied. “The reviewer called me unhinged. It made my day. He had seen me many times since 2008. So it wasn’t like one of these people who just happened to see me on a really, really good day.”

“If I mention this in my blog,” I asked, “what do I call Rose? Is she one of your new entourage of helpers?”

“No,” said Lewis Schaffer. “Rose is not an entourage. I do not have an entourage.”

“But,” I said, “Claire Smith of The Scotsman told me you now have four people. If you have one person, it’s a stalker. If you have four people, it’s an entourage. You’ve got Heather. You’ve got Rose. You’ve got that tall bloke…”

“Alex Mason,” said Lewis Schaffer.

“And you’ve got some flyerer,” I continued. “That’s an entourage.”

“It’s just that…” said Lewis Schaffer. “I don’t even know what it is… What is it, Rose?… There’s something that… It’s just that super smart people are attracted to me.”

“Why?” I asked.

“You’d have to ask Rose what’s in it for Rose,” said Lewis Schaffer.

“Well, she’s doing a thesis on comedy,” I said.

“That’s what she says,” said Lewis Schaffer.

“Claire Smith told me your act was much better,” I said, “because Rose was writing down everything and you were talking to her about it. Like Rose was semi-directing you.”

“Well,” Lewis Schaffer admitted, “it has had a really positive effect on me. As Heather has had. And Alex Mason. We’re all a team together.”

“What does Alex Mason do, except look tall?” I asked.

“He’s very deadpan, but super funny,” said Lewis Schaffer. “He’s destined to be a great comedian or writer or something.”

“Like Lewis Schaffer?” I suggested.

“Hardly,” said Lewis Schaffer. “The guy’s a genius. I mean like a serious genius… Rose is a genius too, but she masks it with a working class patina.”

“Have you got a patina?” I asked. “It sounds sexual.”

“I don’t know what the fuck a patina is,” said Rose.

“You have a patina,” Lewis Schaffer told Rose.

“You have an entourage,” I told Lewis Schaffer.

“If you write about an entourage,” Rose told me, “I’m going to go fucking mental, because he’s going to look like a cunt.”

Look like?” I asked.

“Don’t write about this,” said Rose. “Write about him dancing in the street last night. He was like Gene Kelly. He was as happy as Larry.”

“What’s your university thesis on?” I asked Rose. “This is your second thesis isn’t it?”

“Third,” said Rose.

“She got two Firsts,” said Lewis Schaffer. “According to her. I don’t know if it’s true.”

“It’s absolutely true,” said Rose.

“What was the first thesis about?” I asked.

“Taboo comedy material at Lewis Schaffer’s shows.”

“Only at Lewis Schaffer’s shows?” I asked, surprised. “I thought it was in general.”

“I’m a bit lazy,” said Rose.

“What was the second one about?”

“Audience participation…”

“…at Lewis Schaffer’s shows?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Rose. “At Lewis Schaffer’s shows. And the third one is a compilation of the first two.”

“Like your Best Of… thesis,” I suggested.

“Yes,” said Rose. “It’s the highlights plus an extended interview I haven’t done yet. You said ‘theses’. But the first two were just research papers. This is the Big One.”

“If you write about me,” Lewis Schaffer told Rose, “you’ll become famous after I die.”

“I don’t want to be famous,” said Rose.

“I want to be famous,” said Lewis Schaffer. “So I assume everyone wants to be famous. All I’m saying is it will help you, Rose, by writing about me.”

“So has this mad man from last night got your e-mail address?” I asked Lewis Schaffer.

“I hope so,” said Lewis Schaffer. “I don’t want to lose track of him. Having a stalker is always amazing, although sometimes there’s a price to pay.”

“And your point is?” I asked.

“What is my point?” Lewis Schaffer asked Rose.

“He is happy a man is obsessed with him.”

“Anyone,” said Lewis Schaffer. “Just anyone.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Fame

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cult, Culture, Humor, Humour, Kitsch, London, Movies, Violence

Being world class performers won’t sell albums if you’re not available on iTunes

Bobby Valentino and Paul Astles in London last night

In December 2010 I blogged about the wonderful Paul Astles and Bobby Valentino, both world-class performers. They should be living in mansions in Surrey in unhappy marriages and down to their last million like other rockers of a certain age.

Bobby has performed and recorded with Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Mark Knopfler, et al and wrote/played the “annoying violin hook line” on The Bluebells’ classic hit Young at Heart.

I went and saw Paul and Bobby perform again last night, at their monthly Brockley gig in South East London.

“Friendly Street” – not available for download nor in shops

They’re still brilliant. As is their new-ish album Friendly Street.

“When did you record it?” I asked Paul after the show last night, while Bobby was getting me a copy from the boot of his car.

“We did it in the summer of last year,” said Paul. “I can’t remember when.”

“Where?”

Charlie Hart’s. He used to play with Ronnie Lane and Ian Dury. He’s Bobby’s next-door neighbour and our old friend and he’s got a studio. He’s playing around London with Slim Chance now.”

At the moment in London, you can stumble on the most unlikely, highly-talented musicians playing in the most unlikely of venues.

“Why’s your album not on iTunes?” I asked Paul.

“Just because I’m not together enough to do all the PayPal and bank accounting and all that kind of stuff you have to do.”

“How can people buy it, then?” I asked.

“Only if they see us. It’s a rare and precious thing.”

“You could be selling around the world on iTunes,” I said. “Not just in the UK.”

“Well,” replied Paul. “A man contacted me on my Facebook account from New York and asked me if I would send a copy of Friendly Street to him, so I did and he sent me a cheque for whatever £10-and-postage is in dollars. He was a very nice man.”

“You should put the album – and the individual tracks – on iTunes,” I told Paul. “You might find you have fans in Texas or you might become a big hit in the Ukraine. As far as I know, Right Said Fred are still mega-stars in Germany – they were a couple of years ago – and they make a very good living. Here in true UK, Right Said Fred are yesterday’s one-hit wonders; in Germany, as I understand it, they’re still selling shedloads.”

“Weren’t they Princess Diana’s favourite band?” Paul asked.

“Well, there you are,” I replied. “You can overcome any set-back. You have to be on iTunes. If you put your album on iTunes, the two of you might become a hit around the world.”

Even if they only became a cult hit in China or India, they could be living in mansions in Surrey in unhappy marriages and down to their last million.

Everyone should have aspirations.

And there’s still time. It just needs luck and distribution.

Leave a comment

Filed under Celebrity, Music

The eccentric UK cult of the Kibbo Kift Kindred & the Greenshirts of the 1930s

The Kibbo Kift Kindred were keen on costumes & ceremonies

I was at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1976 (yes, I am that old) but sadly I did not go to see a rock musical called The Kibbo Kift at the Traverse Theatre which was, as far as I can remember, at that time, a rather ramshackle room up some metal stairs.

I am very sad I did not see the musical, written by Judge Smith (his real name) who co-created heavy metal rock group Van der Graaf Generator in 1967.

But last night I went to a Sohemian Society meeting to hear Judge Smith (now bald – aren’t we all) extol the eccentric virtues of the now almost totally forgotten 1930s movement called the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift… and its highly charismatic leader John Hargrave – an illustrator, cartoonist, wood carver, thriller novelist, inventor and psychic healer.

By the age of 17, Hargrave was Chief Cartoonist for the London Evening Times.

After the First World War, he joined the Boy Scouts and, a charismatic outdoor man, he was soon appointed Commissioner for Woodcraft and Camping. In 1919, now calling himself ‘White Fox’, he married the leader of the Merry Campers – part of the Camp Fire Girls movement – called Ruth Clark (her ‘Woodcraft name’ was ‘Minobi’)

John Hargrave started the Kibbo Kift Kindred in 1920 as an anti-war breakaway from Baden-Powell’s more militaristic Boy Scouts. Hargrave’s aim was to encourage “outdoor education, the learning of handicrafts, physical training, the re-introduction of ritual into modern life, the regeneration of urban man and the establishment of a new world civilisation.”

These aims were to be accomplished by hiking and camping. “Picturesque and dramatic public speaking” was also encouraged.

The man sitting next to me in the Sohemian Society meeting last night had come down to London all the way from Leicester just to find out more about this extraordinary group.

During the Kibbo Kindred’s weekend hiking and camping extravaganzas, members were encouraged to make their own tents and wear handmade uniforms – long Saxon-styled hooded cloak , belted tunic and shorts for men; knee-length dress, leather belt and Valkyrie-style leather helmet for women. They liked a bit of elaborate ritual and ceremony, did the Kibbo Kift. At larger ceremonial meetings, the KK’s different Clans, Tribes and Lodges paraded with their tribal totems – everyone was encouraged to carve their own personal totem pole and parade round with it. Their tents were decorated in bright colours and their elaborate robes and regalia embossed with symbolic designs were somewhere between Hiawatha and Art Nouveau.

They used the native American greeting of the outstretched arm and raised open hand (to show you held no weapon) and Hargrave was “somewhat annoyed” when he discovered that the Italian Fascists’ raised arm salute looked exactly the same. Hargrave dropped the hand greeting when too many photos of Nazis in Germany with raised arms “caused confusion”. He did not like Fascists.

The Kibbo Kift sound like a bunch of amiable loonies but, involved in the Kibbo Kift, were suffragette Emmeline Lawrence, photographer Angus McBean, social reformer Havelock Ellis, biologist Julian Huxley and author H.G.Wells.

By 1925, Hargrave had switched his interest from ‘back-to’nature’ to the political Social Credit movement, which aimed to eradicate poverty and unemployment. The Kibbo Kift Kindred split when Hargreaves refused to recognise a new South London Lodge called ‘The Brockleything’. He formed the more political Green Shirts; the ‘back-to-nature’ diehards formed The Woodcraft Folk organisation (which still exists today).

In 1930, Hargrave formed a “Legion of the Unemployed” in Coventry. Wearing green paramilitary uniforms and berets, these political activists became known as the Legion of the Kibbo Kift and, by 1935, were known as The Green Shirt Movement for Social Credit, marching through the streets with their own bands of drummers. In 1935, they put up a Parliamentary candidate under the banner of the Social Credit Party of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but lost their deposit.

As Judge Smith explained to the very crowded room above a pub last night, the Green Shirts were the largest uniformed paramilitary street-army in 1930s Britain. They supported and promoted the Social Credit movement which, basically, said the Western banking system based on massive debt (the economic system makes money by lending money) is mad and inevitably results in periods of boom and bust. They had more followers than Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts, yet have been totally forgotten.

They were idealistic and had a particular dislike of ‘fat cat’ financial institutions, Communists, Fascists and the Governor of the Bank of England.

During the Second World War, Hargrave invented an ‘automatic navigator’ for aircraft. The RAF tested it, decided it worked well but, as it required a gyroscope and all the gyroscopes were being used for bomb sights, they never took up the idea.

After the War, Hargrave decided he had the power of psychic healing and dissolved his organisation in 1951, making a living as an author, illustrator and cartoonist for Vanity Fair and the Daily Sketch.

In 1967, he discovered that the new Concorde supersonic airliner had a ‘moving map display’ which sounded remarkably like the ‘automatic navigator’ he had invented during the War; but he had allowed his patent to lapse. Despite this, eventually, in 1967, he forced the British government to hold a full Public Enquiry which, basically, decided that Hargrave’s idea had, indeed, been nicked but he would get no money for it as he had let the patent lapse.

In 1976, now in his eighties, Hargrave went to see Judge Smith’s rock musical The Kibbo Kift in the Traverse Theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe and enjoyed it thoroughly though, Judge Smith said last night, this may have been because he was “pretty deaf by then and this very loud rock music may have been the first  music he’d heard for years”.

Before he died in 1982, Hargrave set up the Foundation of the Kibbo Kift Foundation.

All the paper records are now held by the London School of Economics; the costumes, banners and other physical stuff is held at the Museum of London.

Unjustly forgotten. As Judge Smith said last night, “one of the most unusual things about this very unusual man is just how little-known he and his movement are today. There’s no biography; there’s been no TV documentary. But he is far more interesting, significant and downright entertaining than many personalities of the time who are still famous today.”

On my way home from the Sohemian Society meeting, a girl opposite me in the tube train was making up her eyes with her right hand, using her Apple iPhone 4S in her left hand. She had it switched on to the camera, using it as a video mirror.

Times change. Lateral and creative thinking continues.

2 Comments

Filed under Eccentrics, History, Politics

“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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Kitsch, Movies, Surreal