Thursday, 30 August 2018

War & Peace (1972)

The 2016 series of War & Peace was not the first time that the BBC had adapted the novel of War and Peace for TV. All the way back in 1972 they made a version that was even longer - more than three times the length of the new series - and as all we long cats know, longer is better.

On top of that (as if being in 20 parts was not enough!) they got Anthony Hopkins to star in it as Pierre Bezukhov. He was not super-famous then, although he had been in The Lion in Winter (a favourite film of Gamma Longcat, especially during the colder months) in 1968.

Pierre first appears in the second scene of the first episode, alongside none other than Colin Baker (best known as Blakes 7's Bayban the Butcher* but most recently seen by me in the final part of Fall of Eagles), who is the second most famous actor to appear in the series. In the '70s Colin Baker was young and handsome, so he was well cast as the dashing but dastardly antagonist Anatole Kuragin, back when he looked like this:


In episode 10 Anatole tries to elope with Natasha Rostova (Morag Hood) despite secretly already being married - naughty Colin! However, Pierre knows his secret and so goes to confront him, leading to a fight scene where Anthony Hopkins bashes poor Colin's head off of a sofa:

Colin carries on acting like the true pro he is, even though Anthony Hopkins is busy doing enough acting for both of them!

This series looks like had a bigger budget than most of the other BBC historical drama series that I have watched from roughly the same era, as evidenced by the extensive battle scenes with large numbers of soldier extras - at least compared to other series with military plots such as The First Churchills or Fall of Eagles, both of which went to some lengths to avoid showing scenes of battle whenever they could avoid it.

Even so, the series is not nearly as lavish as the recent remake was, which is most obvious if you compare the ballroom scenes that the 2016 series did on a far grander scale. But the extra running time of the older series allows it to feel the more epic in scope, and so better captures the feel of the original book. This is also achieved through the recurring use of voiceover monologues to show us the thoughts of the main characters - perhaps this technique was too old-fashioned for the 2016 series to make use of, but it also would not have had the time to use it even if it had wanted to.

For example, here we see a scene in which Prince Andrei (Alan Dobie) has been wounded at the battle of Austerlitz (said battle gets the whole of episode five devoted to it) and he monologues at length about seeing the sky, ironically unaware that the French Emperor Napoleon is close enough to him to be in the background of the same shot.

Napoleon is played by the third most famous actor in the series, David Swift, who was Henry in Drop the Dead Donkey and would, like Colin Baker, go on to have a minor role in Fall of Eagles. Though unlike Colin he would not go up against Paul Darrow in a Blakes 7 ham-off.

A curious aspect of the series is the way that the main characters who are killed off always die off-screen, with their deaths being referred to by other characters after the fact. While we see the emotional effects these deaths have upon the other characters, not witnessing the deaths themselves robs them of some impact. This means that Colin Baker does not even appear in the battle of Borodino episode (BBC saving a bit of money where it could?) and instead Prince Andrei mentions that he saw Anatole there several episodes after the battle is over.

The weakest part of the whole series is the very last episode, which is an extended epilogue that takes scenes implied by the end of the book and extends them out unnecessarily. While the BBC's Lord of the Rings adaptation spent an episode-and-a-half on the 'tea and medals' after the fall of Sauron, at least that includes the essential Scouring of the Shire bit. War & Peace takes up two whole episodes after the French retreat from Russia, about twice as much as is necessary.

This is really an issue with pacing rather than length, as the story is easily long enough to fill the 20 parts. It makes a good series, albeit one where the last quarter is the weakest, and the journey to get there more enjoyable than the arrival.

* Not really of course, he's best known for being in Doctor Who... as Commander Maxil, lol!

Monday, 27 August 2018

Mission: Impossible - The Guardian

"Time for a new mission."

"Good morning Mr Klegg.
A small nation on an island off the coast of Western Europe has become dangerously divided between two extremist political factions. The governing party is friendly to us but is paralysed by weak leadership, with no individual in overall control. However a typical senior member of this party is this man...

Foreign Secretary C... er, Hunt, whose policies include privatising their National Health Service, flogging servants, shooting poor people, and the extension of slavery to anyone who hasn't got a knighthood.
The opposing party is presently dominated by this man...

Known only as "Jeremy," he rules it with an authoritarian, iron fist with the aid of a cadre of fanatically loyal supporters.
But it is not all good news for us: he is a socialist, with unacceptably fringe policies such as nationalising the railways and raising taxes on the wealthy.
He is also an anti-semite, as can clearly be seen from this out-of-context photograph:

Regardless of which of these two parties are in power, both are committed to their country leaving the European Union, which would weaken our Western Alliance against the Eastern Bloc.
Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to form a new political party that can occupy the centre ground of politics - an area that is currently completely unrepresented in that country..."

"Wait a minute..."

"This third party will need to be unambiguously in favour of remaining inside the European Union as its main policy, and use this to lure away the more moderate members of the other two parties, the majority of whom secretly hold such a view. This will be universally popular among the general populace, who are crying out for such a mainstream party to represent them.
Now I know what you're thinking..."

"...That such a party already exists?"

"...That such a party already exists, only we can't count the nationalist parties because they do not field candidates in every electoral constituency - something this brand new party must do if it is to challenge the two established parties.
You have carte blanche as to the name of the party, however it must encapsulate both a commitment to liberal values and support for the ideals of democracy."

"Are you taking the..?"

"As always, should you or any of your IM Force be caught or killed, the Editor will disavow any knowledge of your actions.
This party will self destruct in five seconds.
Good luck Nick."

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Fall of Eagles: End Game

The final part of Fall of Eagles is all about the last days of World War 1, as the German army is losing to the Americans and Germany is threatened from within by Bolshevik revolutionaries - the very forces Kaiser Wilhelm unleashed in The Secret War to try and win the war have come back to nom him.

At a meeting with his senior generals and new Chancellor (Erik Chitty, Engin in The Deadly Assassin), it becomes clear that the best the Kaiser can hope for is to save his dynasty from sharing the fate of the Romanovs in Russia - not to win the war, just to lose it as little as possible. The episode becomes a character piece, focusing on Wilhelm's slow acceptance of just how bad the situation is, and how much of it is his fault.

A young Colin Baker appears here as the Kaiser's son, "Little Willie" (lol). Yes, he is even credited as that on-screen.

Little Willie is shown to take after his father, and is if anything even more useless - we see him sneak away from a staff meeting to take a telephone call from his mistress, and he is completely indecisive when it comes to military decisions. So much for the future of the Hohenzollerns.

In the key scene for the episode, Kaiser Wilhelm is left alone by a fire to decide what to do. He makes a self-pitying speech in which he flip-flops between fighting to the end and running away, before eventually deciding to abdicate and flee to safety in Holland. Barry Foster has been superb as Wilhelm throughout the series, but this may be his finest moment because he is carrying the emotional scene single-handed.

With the decision made and the Kaiser gone, it is left to Field Marshal Hindenburg (Marius Goring, Maxtible in Evil of the Daleks) to sort out the mess Wilhelm has abdicated left behind. He telephones the Social Democrats in Berlin and the army teams up with them to stop the Bolsheviks from taking control.

There is a lot of telephoning between characters in this episode. The Germans aren't nearly as scared of it as Franz Josef was back in Indian Summer of an Emperor. There is a line of ironic foreshadowing for beyond the end of the series as Hindenburg says to the leader of the Democrats
"Yes, we must hope for favourable terms at the peace treaty."

With its end date in 1918, this 100-year anniversary seemed an appropriate time to look back on Fall of Eagles (since mannys like multiples of ten for some reason). It is one of the forgotten classic BBC historical drama series, with comparatively little written about it on the internets. This seems a shame to me, as it holds up well today, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in classic BBC historical drama series... which I presume includes most mannys, and all cats.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Fall of Eagles: The Secret War

The Secret War picks up from where Tell the King the Sky is Falling left off - Rasputin has been shot till he was dead, and this has encouraged the members of the Duma to further defiance of the Tsar.

One such member is David Collings, returning from all the way back in The Last Tsar to prove that the nature of Miliukov is irrepressible! He demands the resignation of the Tsar's entire government. Then Kerensky, played by Jim "Bishop Brennan" Norton, goes even further and demands the resignation of the Tsar.

The one thing the Duma agrees with the Tsar about is that they want to keep World War 1 going until they can beat Germany.

Meanwhile Kaiser Wilhelm is meeting with his generals, admirals, and his Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg (Peter Copley returning from Indian Summer of an Emperor). He is older and starting to show the strain of the BBC aging make up. The war is not going well for Germany, and the Kaiser claims
"I did not want this war."
suggesting that he has not been watching the series as carefully as we cats have. The generals and admirals have suggestions to make, one of which is to get the Americans to help out by attacking them until they join the other side... teh satires!111

Bethmann-Hollweg has a plan to get some revolutionaries to take over Russia who will want to make peace, but seeing as the wrong sort of revolutionaries are taking over Russia right now then this will mean getting Lenin and his Bolshevik friends to come back from Absolute Beginners to do it.
The Kaiser doesn't like this plan, but he has to go along with it.

Lenin is now in Switzerland with his wife and Zinoviev (John Rhys-Davies, who would later play Macro alongside Patrick Stewart's Sejanus in I Claudius), and while they want to go back to Russia to join in the revolution, they don't want any help from Germany to do it in case it makes them look like traitors.

Bethmann-Hollweg and the Kaiser make contact with Dr Alexander Helphand (Michael "Toymaker" Gough) to arrange help for the Bolsheviks from Germany without it looking like the help comes from Germany. Helphand is possibly the most cynical character in the series, as we see when he tells Glazkov, his Bolshevik go-between,
"Life is odd, isn't it? I buy coal from the Germans and sell it to the Russians. Copper, tin, aluminium and steel. German steel to make Russian guns... to kill German soldiers. This is a capitalist war, my dear Glazkov - industrialists don't care who buys from them so long as they make a profit. That is what wars are all about: profit. The only thing the Germans don't know is that most of the profit I make here finds its way, eventually, into the hands of the Russian revolutionaries."

Back in Russia the army revolts and the Tsar is forced to abdicate while trying to get home on a train (making this one of the worst commutes ever, lol). Charles Kay puts a lot of emotion into his acting for his last scene, we might almost feel sorry for him and forget how this is Nicholas's own fault for being so useless. The final shot we see of him in Fall of Eagles emphasises his loneliness as it jump-cuts three times, further and further away from him each time - sort of like the ending to Blake in reverse.

This is a great episode, but it saves the best for its last few minutes, as Lenin and the Bolsheviks are on the train to take them home to Russia. They don't know what sort of welcome to expect, and are worried they might get arrested straight away. But, in contrast to the Tsar's recent train experience, when they get to St Petersburg they receive a triumphant heroes' welcome, with hugs and kiffs from soldiers and strangers, and a band playing music for them.

Lenin even gets a freeze-frame and superimposed caption with his name and dates to end the episode on, which no other characters get.

Watching this you might take away that Lenin is the hero of the whole series, except that he didn't really do anything - the Tsar managed to bring about his own Fall through being rubbish at being an autocratic ruler. He has this in common with the other two Eagles, as we shall see next time in the final episode.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Fall of Eagles: Tell the King the Sky is Falling

There lived a certain man, in Russia long ago
He was big and strong, in his eyes a flaming glow
Most people looked at him with terror and with fear
But to Moscow chicks he was such a lovely dear
He could preach the Bible like a preacher
Full of ecstasy and fire
But he also was the kind of teacher
Women would desire

Ra! Ra! Rasputin!
Lover of the Russian Queen
There was a cat that really was gone
Ra! Ra! Rasputin!
Russia's greatest love machine
It was a shame how he carried on

He ruled the Russian land and never mind the Tsar
But the kazachok he danced really wunderbar
In all affairs of state, he was the man to please
But he was real great when he had a girl to squeeze
For the Queen he was no wheeler-dealer
Though she'd heard the things he'd done
She believed he was a holy healer
Who would heal her son

Ra! Ra! Rasputin!
Lover of the Russian Queen
There was a cat that really was gone
Ra! Ra! Rasputin!
Russia's greatest love machine
It was a shame how he carried on

But when his drinking and lusting
And his hunger for power
Became known to more and more people
The demands to do something
About this outrageous man
Became louder and louder

"This man's just got to go!" declared his enemies
But the ladies begged, "Don't you try to do it, please"
No doubt this Rasputin had lots of hidden charms
Though he was a brute, they just fell into his arms
Then one night some men of higher standing
Set a trap, they're not to blame
"Come to visit us" they kept demanding
And he really came

Ra! Ra! Rasputin!
Lover of the Russian Queen
They put some poison into his wine
Ra! Ra! Rasputin!
Russia's greatest love machine
He drank it all and said "I feel fine"

Ra! Ra! Rasputin!
Lover of the Russian Queen
They didn't quit, they wanted his head
Ra! Ra! Rasputin!
Russia's greatest love machine
And so they shot him till he was dead

Oh, those Russians...

I was really looking forward to this episode, but sadly Rasputin is not played by a cat, he is played by Michael Aldridge (Percy Alleline in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy).

This episode of Fall of Eagles tells the story of how World War 1 goes badly for the Russians because of factional infighting between the mannys who would be most capable of running the war (or at least who think they would be best at it), and those who are in their positions only because they are friends with Rasputin and have gotten him to use his influence with the Tsar and Tsarina. As a result the character of Rasputin dominates the episode, even though he only actually appears in a pawful of scenes.

The main point of contention is the appointment of the incompetent Protopopov (why does Protopopov have four o's in his name? Because otherwise he'd be Prtppv, mew) as Minister of the Interior, a vital government job and responsible for supplying the Russian army with all of the things it needs to do a war properly.

Protopopov is played by Hugh Burden (the sinister Channing in Spearhead From Space), while his arch-rival is his former boss and president of the Russian Duma (which the Tsar keeps changing his mind about abolishing) Rodzianko, played by Charles "It's just a jump to the left" Grey.

Things get worse when the Tsar takes personal command of the Russian army, with General Alexeiev (Nigel "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling" Stock) to advise him. For 'advise him' read 'actually do everything because the Tsar is completely useless.'

This is popular at first, but then after a while the Tsar can no longer escape being blamed for how badly the war is going for Russia.

With the Tsar away at the war and Empress Alexandra left in charge back in the capital city, Rodzianko is brought into the conspiracy by members of the Tsar's own family, who are worried that Rasputin's influence over the Empress is so great that he is now ruling Russia from behind the throne.

As with many pivotal events in Fall of Eagles, we don't actually see Rasputin's assassination. Instead, in the final scene in which he appears, Rasputin prophesises his imminent death, as well as a few other future events in that suspiciously accurate way that prophecies in historical TV series tend to be (see also the propecies of Thrasyllus and the Sibyl in I Claudius).

"I will tell you something - I will not last out this year. My life will be taken. I know that. And after I have gone, everything will fall. God will be mocked, and Russian will turn against Russian. The ordinary people will take the broken pieces of Russia into their own hands."

Monday, 6 August 2018

The Mary Whitehouse Experience

The Mary Whitehouse Experience was one of the defining British TV comedy series of the 1990s but seems largely forgotten today, certainly when compared to some of its near-contemporaries such as A Bit of Fry & Laurie, The Fast Show, or Father Ted. Two seasons of six TV episodes were made, after having first been a radio series, and these are available to watch online (in the Yousual places), though not in great quality and with some bits missing - there's certainly been no sign of a proper DVD release!

One reason for the BBC wanting to forget about it might be that a lot of the comedy was topical, and it dates from that strange period between John Majors becoming Prime Minster and the 1992 General Election - in fact the very last episode was broadcast three days before that election - so quite a lot of it has dated badly.

But at the time, for its target audience - mannys in their teens and twenties, especially students - it was Appointment Television, in a way that doesn't really exist any more. The day after an episode was first shown, everyone would be talking about it on the way to school. Or so I've been told.

The main cast of the series consisted of four mannys: David Bladdybub, Hugh Dennis, Rob Newman and Steve Punt.
In order of how funny they were individually, it goes:
1. Rob Newman

(big gap)

2. David Bladdybub
3. Hugh Dennis
4. Steve Punt
(although this is a little unfair on Steve Punt, as he often served as the straight manny in the sketches.) This can be compared with how smug their comedy performing personas were, where the order is (from most to least smug):
1. David Bladdybub

(very big gap)

2. Rob Newman
3. Steve Punt
4. Hugh Dennis

The series helped launch all of their comedy careers, though as they had all been to Cambridge University then doubtless this would have happened sooner or later. Punt and Dennis had already been the sidekicks to Jasper Carrott, and they went on from this series to have their own sketch show. These days Steve Punt seems to mainly do radio comedy like The Now Show, while Hugh Dennis is a reliable regular on Mock the Week and he also tries to be in as many BBC sitcoms as he can, even really awful ones like My Hero.

Rewatching it now, the first season does not stand up so well, as though the team is still finding their feet. It also contains a lot more topical material than the second season, and leans heavily on Rob Newman's talent for impressions - John Majors is obviously still recognisable, as is Jonathan Ross, but quite a few require a knowledge of early-90s footballers and musicians that I just don't possess.

Where it really takes off is in the second episode of season two, when suddenly a number of recurring characters and catchphrases are introduced all at once: Ray the sarcastic-sounding manny ("Oh no what a personal disaster!"); Ivan the daytime TV presenter who cannot cope with any bad news ("It's all gone a bit tricky now!"); and M Khan, the subject of some rude graffiti that must have, statistically speaking, been seen by everyone on the planet.

The punchline to the episode is that even visiting aliens have heard of M Khan. Here we can see that the aliens are being played by the Husks from Ghost Light. As a BBC production, they obviously had access to leftover Doctor Who costumes and props - I also noticed Nord's helmet in an early programme.

Of all the recurring sketches, the most memorable and quotable is almost certainly History Today, in which Bladdybub and Newman play elderly mannys who insult each other in a childish, puerile fashion while they are supposed to be presenting a serious TV discussion programme. Catchphrase: "You see that? That's you that is."
What elevates these sketches above the rest is not only the cleverly constructed, witty scripts, but also the way that Bladdybub and Newman are visibly corpsing or on the verge of corpsing on several occasions.

Newman and Baddiel in Pieces

History Today was carried over into Bladdybub and Newman's spin off series, Newman and Baddiel in Pieces, a series that has the odd distinction of having to have its title and title sequence changed for when it was repeated.

As the story goes, the original title sequence showed the two figures in the background of Edvard Munch's rubbish painting The Scream are really Bladdybub and Newman, but the Munch Estate objected. They make Terry Nation's Estate look generous by comparison, and if there is no picture above this paragraph then you'll know they've gotten to me too!

Newman and Baddiel in Pieces was darker comedy than The Mary Whitehouse Experience, although mild by the standards of the dark age of comedy that followed about 10 years after (and which we are arguably still in). Lacking Punt and Dennis, the sidekicks were played by Simon "Love & Monsters" Greenall and the comedian Sean Lock, possibly his first TV appearance.

Aside from History Today, notable sketches included the recurring character Jarvis (played by Newman) who was a perverted manny who was always pleased by his own accidental-on-purpose innuendos, and a (then topical) parody of the film Reservoir Dogs in which one of the characters is "Mr Wobbly-Tickle."

After one season Bladdybub and Newman split up, and Bladdybub teamed up with Frank Skinner to release a novelty record that even now ensures that, for a few weeks every other year, they're the most hated mannys in Scotland.

David Bladdybub is still on BBC TV from time to time. I most recently saw him as a guest on Frankie Boyle's New World Order, where he was having a go at the Labour Party in opposition. This seems a long way away from The Mary Whitehouse Experience when they used to have a go at the Conservative Party in government. Meanwhile Robert Newman might not get on TV as much, but he is still the funniest.