Wednesday, 22 November 2017

1990: The Complete Collection

Cast: Edward Woodward, Robert Lang, Tony Doyle, Barbara Kellerman, and Lisa Harrow

Creator: Wilfred Greatorex

880 minutes (15) 1977-8
Simply Media DVD Region 2

Rating: 7/10
Review by Steven Hampton

Between his career-defining roles in genre TV shows Callan (1967-72), and The Equalizer (1985-9), British actor Edward Woodward starred in dystopian show 1990, a speculative SF drama that nowadays seems more prescient than ever. It is a grimly prophetic tale of sinister government in Britain but, whereas the original classic novel 1984 (1949), and its screen adaptations, were about fascism, this Orwellian scenario warns of the danger to society of enforced socialism, and it’s especially observant and relevant today because of the brutal government’s blatant refusal to accept criticism. Here, the people are policed by a Public Control Department, staffed by bullies and supported by a tyranny rubber-stamped by secret deals.

The programme’s animated title sequence is particularly striking. Two people standing in a white room, and this shrinking space makes the pair of captives into obvious prisoners, forced together, under a tortuous confinement of extreme detention. All they have left is each other as the walls close in about them, and a crucible symbolism is a quite profound visual statement of the show’s basic themes.

The futurism is limited to Anglo-dollars, ID cards, and compulsory TV. Indie news-hound Jim Kyle (Woodward) routinely evades state surveillance because his job would be largely impossible, and his life endangered, if they always know exactly where he is, never mind what schemes he gets up to. ‘Faceless’ is Kyle’s own ‘Deep Throat’ informant with furtive meetings conducted usually while parked side-by-side in their cars. As Scarlet Pimpernel references abound, the nets tighten around Kyle when suspicion falls upon him, just as if steel chains are made from tangles of red tape.

Fascinatingly detailed, there’s a brain-drain crisis of illegal emigration (including 500 exit visa applications per week), an opposition party leader becoming a mere cheer-leader for cabinet policy, an underground press ‘Facts’ leaflet sheet’s outlawed and eagerly quashed by boots-on-the-ground, and could the new Inspectors of Culture actually be censors? In its scripting of cynical class-war attitudes in civil service corruption 1990 boasts wit sharp enough to stab hearts-of-gold through a knife-proof vest. Kyle’s dalliance with Mata Hari-ish femme fatale Delly (Barbara Kellerman) brings him as much grief as satisfaction. Kyle investigates the regional establishments of so-called ‘adult rehab centres’ (ARCs), where many activists, dissidents, and other rebellious souls are simply crushed by ECT or drugs into zombies, and even serial killers can be turned into dutiful servants.

Rounding off the first series, Kyle is stripped of identity cards, and his human rights, and then declared a non-citizen, just a nameless number. Down on the street with the down-and-outs, he’s down, but not out of the fight, and our hero returns to a prominent action with a clever blackmail plot against his enemy. The most notable guest stars include: Ed Bishop, Edward Judd, and John Rhys-Davies. Some type-casting in evident: Ray Smith is a union leader, replete with shop-floor accent; John Savident portrays an ebullient Home Secretary; and Graham Crowden excels as a foreign VIP academic.

For series two, Lisa Harrow replaces Kellerman as the show’s leading lady, practicing new charm offensives while prospects for a general election are worrying all concerned. Kyle’s insistence upon a non-violent campaign against the Public Control is threatened by a lone gunman. When his identity is revealed, Faceless turns out to look like a fusion of the two Ronnies into one. Black marketeers make a mockery of rationing. Private cops Careguard foresees today’s G4S security contractors. Ordeal By Small Brown Envelope concerns the systematic harassment by the state, aimed at crushing any civil resistance to new official policy. But it’s worse than postal threats when they send those special bailiffs round with keys to a downgrade a family’s home.

Some of the sting plots hatched by Kyle & Co, against the oppressive regime, are like the tactics and strategy of Eric Frank Russell’s novel Wasp (1957), an infamous book about a movement ranging from psychological warfare to guerrilla mayhem. Using indirect action, not just open defiance, the crusading heroes of Kyle’s plucky gang of radicals eventually turn the game tables on authoritarian power. Tony Doyle (Who Dares Wins) is good value throughout this show as Kyle’s bullish chum, import-export agent Dave, smuggling Brits to Europe and USA, here still bastions of freedom, and leading the charge when muscle is required to calm or conclude a tense situation.

You’ll Never Walk Alone is a crisply theatrical piece with a chess tournament’s mind-game overshadowed by a kidnapping plot against the black-hats’ own queen. The final episode reaches a wholly predictable climax after a solo protestor in Trafalgar Square disturbs the pigeons with a self-immolation stunt. Can this grim situation end in anything but violence with a bitter irony? Although parts of this - especially its modest technology - are tellingly dated, this drama is educational, and incisive about political criticism, so perhaps it ought to be shown in schools.

Presented in very good condition for a BBC programme of its era, this complete series of 16 x 55-minute episodes (previously available separately, as two seasons), is re-released on a DVD box-set of four discs.  

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Whisky Galore!

Cast: Gregor Fisher, Eddie Izzard, Naomi Battrick, Ellie Kendrick, and Kevin Guthrie

Director: Gillies MacKinnon

98 minutes (PG) 2016
Widescreen ratio 16:9
Arrow blu-ray region B
[released 6 November]

Rating: 10/10
Review by J.C. Hartley

If you’ve ever read one of my reviews before, and there are so many of them on VideoVista and its sister site The Zone that I would hope you have by now, then you will know that I’m no fan of remakes. Especially when the original is considered to be something of a ‘classic’. To be fair, although I’m more than familiar with the 1949 film made by Ealing, one of my favourite studios, I approached this new version with high hopes. I see in my 2011 review of the original I mentioned Ealing’s slyly subversive tone, at odds with the cosy ‘little England’ atmosphere thought by some to inhabit their films.  

In fact, while Ealing’s output was often anarchic and anti-establishment, the final reel tended to impose some form of belated moral censure. Hence Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini, seemingly having got away with murder realises he has left a confessional memoir in his prison cell in Kind Hearts And Coronets (1949), the forces of law and order finally catch up with mild-mannered bank-robber ‘Dutch’ Holland in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), and the gang in The Ladykillers (1955), having pulled off their heist, end up by murdering one another. Similarly, while the inhabitants of the Outer Hebridean island of Todday stave off the lack of uisge beatha ‘the water of life’ by salvaging ‘export only’ spirit from a sinking cargo ship in Whisky Galore (1949), by the end of the film the whisky drought is back in force. I was happy to see such nonsense was avoided in this remake, or ‘reimagining’ as the producers’ prefer.

The novel Whisky Galore (1947) by Compton Mackenzie, was based on the running aground of the S. S. Politician off Eriskay in 1941, while carrying 28,000 cases of malt whisky and a substantial volume of cash. In 1918, Mackenzie had been chosen as one of the promising ‘younger generation’ of novelists by Henry James in an essay J.B. Priestley described as, ‘a piece of literary criticism so involved, so inscrutable, that some of the writers it dealt with do not know to this day whether he was praising them or blaming them.’ Priestley went on to observe in 1928 that Mackenzie had not lived up to the promise of his early novels Carnival (1912), and Sinister Street (1914), and, ironically, he is probably best known now, if at all, for Whisky Galore. Mackenzie’s sequel to Sinister Street was filmed in 1935 as Sylvia Scarlett, starring Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant.

The plot to Whisky Galore is laughably simple. In the midst of World War Two, the island of Todday is suffering the dreaded whisky drought brought on by rationing. During a fog, a passing cargo vessel, the S.S. Cabinet Minister, runs aground on the notorious Skerry Dubh rocks and the crew abandon ship. Seeing this as the workings of providence the islanders prepare to salvage some of the 50,000 cases of whisky bound for the United States. Unfortunately, the ship has run aground on a Saturday and, as a flotilla sets out from the island, the church clock chimes for midnight and the start of the Sabbath, upon which no task of work may be undertaken. Despite the delay the islanders do indeed manage to liberate a substantial portion of the cargo before the vessel sinks. The local Home Guard commander Captain Waggett (Eddie Izzard) foolishly decides that protecting the cargo from looting comes within his remit, and sets out to confound the islanders’ salvage operation, and then catch them with their bounty when they outwit him. 

At the heart of the story is the local postmaster Macroon (Gregor Fisher), and his melancholy realisation that his two eligible daughters are about to take the first steps into matrimony which will deprive him of the solace of their company. Peggy (Naomi Battrick) is in love with local schoolmaster George (Kevin Guthrie), and seeks to extricate him from under the thumb of his domineering mother. Catriona (Ellie Kendrick) is in love with Sergeant Odd (Sean Bickerstaff) an El Alamein veteran, who has returned to the island to train the Home Guard, as second-in-command to Waggett. 

Macroon Sr. explains to Odd that for him to marry Catriona there must first be a prenuptial celebration without which the marriage cannot take place, and the celebration requires whisky. No whisky, no celebration; no celebration, no wedding. Odd defers to the obvious blackmail, and slated to guard the shoreline facing the sinking craft he allows the villagers to overpower him in their mission to salvage the booze. Having stowed the cases of scotch in a hidden cave, the islanders are betrayed by the local innkeeper who sees his livelihood at risk from the abundance of free whisky. Waggett calls in the Excise and a frantic operation is launched, first to hide the drink during a house-to house search, and then to spirit the spirits away from their hiding place.

A curious sub-plot concerns the presence on the island of the mysterious Mr Brown, posing as a tweed salesman. Macroon listens in on Brown’s telephone call to Waggett’s wife asking her to urge the Captain to secure a red attaché case from the wreck. Obviously, this would prove an impossible task for Waggett to perform and the message is wholly intended for the eavesdropping Macroon. The case proves to contain personal letters from the recently-abdicated Edward VIII to Mrs Simpson, and other correspondence hinted as relating to an interesting offer of royal reinstatement from a certain continental despot, the second such reference in the film. Brown is obviously some lackey of Whitehall, but why would the letters be going to America? The purpose of this sub-plot, beyond mere padding, is hard to ascertain, perhaps the writer is vehemently republican and wanted to avoid the film being chosen for a royal premiere?

The film ends with both pairs of lovers united in matrimony, and Waggett temporarily in disgrace after a case of ammunition he returned to the mainland was discovered to contain whisky, hidden there during the house-to-house. Macroon finally cracks a smile and the island gives itself up to drinking and dancing. To say I enjoyed this film while on the wagon (only two beers in five weeks), says much for the good-natured entertainment it provides, although, as I lay in bed waiting in vain for the oblivion of sleep, my mind did tend to linger on the three and a half bottles of whisky (and one whiskey) I had stowed in a downstairs cupboard.

The extras reel consists of interviews with the principal members of the cast. What comes across is a genuine affection for the material and an obvious enjoyment of the whole exercise. The younger members of the cast, that is Battrick, Kendrick, Guthrie and Bickerstaff, have nothing but good things to say about the experience of performing with Fisher and Izzard. Slainte.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Fear In The Night

Cast: Judy Geeson, Ralph Bates, Peter Cushing, Joan Collins, and Gillian Lind

Director: Jimmy Sangster

94 minutes (12) 1972
Widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Studio Canal blu-ray region B

Rating: 6/10
Review by Steven Hampton  

This is a Hammer horror in hi-def just in time for happy Halloween. Peggy (Judy Geeson) is newlywed to Robert (Ralph Bates), an unhappy ‘teacher’ at a boarding school for boys. Peter Cushing portrays the kindly but decidedly odd headmaster, whose wife Molly (Joan Collins) is a scheming sculptress. Even before she leaves London, there is a scary trauma for the heroine when she’s attacked by a strange man with a prosthetic arm. Moving to a house in the school grounds, there’s plenty of creepy atmosphere and suspense unfolding to upset and threaten the heroine. After a second mysterious attack, Peggy is left alone in the cottage with a shotgun. Soon, her tormentors will be sorry they ever bothered her.

“Do you like tying knots in things?”    

Not so much a bloody shocker, in the traditional manner of classic Hammer productions, but a nonetheless effective chiller with modest ambitions as days of delirium follow nights of fear. Cleverly fusing odd elements from Clouzot’s masterpiece Les Diaboliques (1955), a subgenre defining thriller of French cinema, with obvious influences of Polanski’s classic Replusion (1965), that established the era’s trend for mystery drama centred on neurotic women, Fear In The Night pulls its varied aspects of predatory crime and psychological crisis into a meltdown of confusion and catatonia, under a gaslight plot that goes horribly wrong. The movie’s themes of stalking and isolation lead to disquieting revelations about a tragic history of the countryside location, and certain scenes here predate Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).  

In the final analysis, this is an understated, very British offering, coasting along through a story-line of increasing suspicions, buoyed by Geeson’s performance as the beleaguered heroine. It’s memorable for just a few iconic images, including the gloved hand clutching the victim’s neck, the curiously dream-like impact of shattered glass in the headmaster’s spectacles (see the DVD & Blu-ray cover artwork), and that particularly haunting first scene of the hanged man.