Monday, 27 June 2011

Hidden London: Richmond's Chilean revolutionary

Late last summer, as part of celebrations to mark 200 years of Chilean independence, a group of dignitaries gathered beside Richmond Bridge to commemorate the man who contributed to the country's liberation from Spain. Bernardo O'Higgins was the illegitimate son of a Spanish officer himself born in Ireland, Ambrosio O'Higgins, and Chilean Isabel Riquelme. The couple never married and Bernardo had little to do with his father.

From the age of 16 to 18, Bernardo was sent to school at Clarence House, The Vineyard, in Richmond (pictured above). In London he is said to have become instilled with a sense of national pride and, in 1810, he became one of those who supported independence in his country. At last year's ceremony at the site of this bust in O'Higgins Square (top), the Chilean chargé d'affaires, Rodrigo Espinosa, said: 'Our country is celebrating her 200 years of independence and one could say that, to a certain extent, the whole story could have started here, in leafy Richmond.'

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Hidden London: Anton Walbrook's grave

Emigré Austrian actor Anton Walbrook featured as the master of ceremonies in Max Ophüls' La ronde (1950) and was a particular favourite of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, starring in 49th Parallel (1941), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and, most memorably, as the impresario Boris Lermontov in The Red Shoes (1948), alongside Moira Shearer. He manages to be sad and dashing, which is probably why I like him.

Walbrook's final resting place (pictured top) is in the extension of St-John-at-Hampstead, NW3, tucked neatly beside the grave of George du Maurier (above). Both can be seen easily from Church Row, while nearby lie the graves of actors Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Kay Kendall; the main churchyard is home to the tombs of two Johns, Constable and Harrison (below, click for larger version), inventor of the marine chronometer.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The films of Pierre Etaix, Part Two

For his second feature, Yoyo (1965, 92 mins), French filmmaker Pierre Etaix entered his favoured world of the circus. (In 1973 he set up a circus school in France with wife Annie Fratellini, who was from a famous circus family.) Following the 1929 economic crash - and at the introduction of sound - a bored industrialist (Etaix) runs off with the mother of his son to form their own mini circus; the son grows up to become a famous clown, Yoyo, who dreams of restoring the old family château.

Etaix demonstrates his sound ear and balanced eye, though Yoyo's not quite as visually rich as Le soupirant, with its lovely scenes of Paris; typically, the director never quite allows himself a full-on happy ending. There are daring tributes to Groucho Marx and Charlie Chaplin and a tiny animation that would no doubt thrill avowed fan Terry Gilliam. Another fan, François Truffaut, wrote to Etaix after seeing Yoyo: 'It's a beautiful film in which I loved every shot and every idea, and which taught me many things about movies.' That's not bad, is it?

Etaix's first colour movie, and the best full-length introduction to his magical sensibility, Le grand amour (The Great Love; 1969, 85 mins), was followed by an assemblage of four sketches, Tant qu'on a la santé (As Long As You're Healthy; 1966/'71, 65 mins), in black-and-white and colour. It has some nice touches but rises to its peak in the last segment, Nous n'irons plus aux bois, which lays bare in sepia tones city folks' countryside idyll.

Etaix spent seven months assembling 4km of footage of the French on holiday alongside interviews on subjects as various as sexuality, advertising and the director himself, for his final conventional movie, Pays de Cocagne (Land of Milk and Honey; 1971, 80 mins). The result proved to be at odds with France's self-image post May 1968 - his camera seems more jaded than usual - and it proved to be his final conventional movie, a foray into the Omnimax format with old partner Jean-Claude Carrière in 1989 notwithstanding.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

The films of Pierre Etaix, Part One

Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki was unfortunate not to be officially recognised among a remarkably strong line-up at Cannes this year. His was one of many welcome returns, not least because his new movie, Le Havre, features remarkable French director Pierre Etaix (pictured above, left). Etaix was fêted at Cannes last year when his masterpiece Le grand amour (The Great Love, 1969) was screened by way of highlighting the restoration of his tremendous back catalogue of five features, long lost amid contractual constrictions and to the effects of time on film stock.

Trained as an artist, Etaix served a form of apprenticeship on Jacques Tati's Mon oncle (1958). Etaix illustrated a novelisation of Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot by Jean-Claude Carrière (also 1958) and the duo continued to collaborate on all of Etaix's best work, starting with perfect short, Rupture (1961); a second, Heureux anniversaire (Happy Anniversary), won the Oscar for best short film in 1963. (Carrière has gone on to work with Luis Buñuel, Milos Forman, Jonathan Glazer, Michael Haneke, Philip Kaufman, Louis Malle and Volker Schlöndorff, among many others.)

Rupture introduced Etaix's perennial character - the writer-director starred in his first four features - the dapper, slightly dreamy office worker. It was a role he developed for his first full-length film, Le soupirant (The Suitor; 1963, 83 mins). Le soupirant shares many themes with Etaix's best film, Le grand amour: the bourgeois lead lives at home with his parents; in the pursuit of love a series of misunderstandings occurs. The film features a notably discordant soundtrack and is at its most exuberant when Etaix gives rein to his clown's instincts. Elsewhere are the familiar sleight of hand and moments of inspired fantasy featuring automated objects.

Part two follows tomorrow

Monday, 13 June 2011

Hidden London: Jean Cocteau in the West End

I was once lucky enough to visit the sixteenth-century Saint-Pierre chapel in the south of France, famous for its murals, painted in the mid-1950s by Jean Cocteau. The French writer, artist and filmmaker was inspired, I seem to remember, by the connection between the fishing town (the chapel had been used as storage for fish until its restoration) and Christ's disciple as a fisher of men and fisherman himself, plus Django Reinhardt. There are some great pictures of it here.

If you can't travel that far don't worry, for there's another Cocteau mural just off Leicester Square, next door to the Prince Charles cinema. Cocteau completed a few of these works towards the end of his life and, in 1959, he tackled a side chapel in the Church of Notre Dame de France, newly rebuilt after it had been destroyed by bombing in World War II. There are all sorts of conspiracy theories surrounding the artist's imagery but look out for his self-portrait, turning away from the cross. There's a stream of photos here.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

A new Lund

Those suffering withdrawal since the end of triumphant Danish TV series The Killing, may be tempted to check out Swedish detective Irene Huss, based on writer Helene Tursten's character. An introduction for English-language thriller fans comes in publisher Soho Crime's Detective Inspector Huss. The cover to the 2003 edition brands it 'Sweden's Prime Suspect', though no doubt the dabs of Scandinavia's finest, Sarah Lund, would be all over the book if it were published now.

Forty-year-old Irene Huss is admittedly less of a mess than lovely Lund - Huss is a judo-practising, happily married mother of teen twin girls. The crime is different, too: a wealthy businessman falls to his death from his apartment block, although there is the ever-present interference from superiors on such a sensitive case.

The bleak Göteborg atmosphere compares with the Copenhagen of The Killing, then there is Huss's dress sense: 'black jeans, down-filled poplin jacket, and […] red wool sweater'. There is a Lund here, Huss's colleague Håkan, who brims with initiative.

A procedural in the style of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's Martin Beck series (also set in Sweden), there's the occasional nice change of perspective: 'Since the major renovation a few years ago, Göteborg's Central Station is quite a beautiful place to visit. The dark, polished woodwork of the walls, benches, and pillars creates a turn-of-the-twentieth-century atmosphere. But the crowded flow of travelers, the stoned junkies, and the the winos asleep on the benches are the same as always. The ticket line is the same too, even if nowadays it's computerized with little paper numbers and digital displays above each ticket window.'

A (Swedish) TV series of Detective Inspector Huss mysteries kicked off in 2007 - the slightly grim trailer for the first instalment is here - starring Angela Kovács (pictured), who was also a regular in the Krister Henriksson Wallander series, currently rescreening on BBC4. Six new 90-minute episodes of Irene Huss are due to air in Sweden this autumn - worth picking up, anyone?

Monday, 6 June 2011

Hidden London: human fat for sale

Reporting plans by Sir David Attenborough - 'the most trusted person in Britain ' - to develop the abandoned pub next door to his home in Richmond, Surrey, the Daily Mail fails to mention the property's grisly link to a notorious crime. The 'Barnes mystery' attracted attention when human body parts were found in a box in the Thames - eventually the trail led to a disaffected, alcoholic maid, Kate Webster, who was hanged for killing her mistress.

Webster went to work for Julia Thomas at 2 Vine Cottages, Park Road, Richmond, in January 1897. Webster had been in and out of prison over the years and though she and Mrs Thomas initially got on well, their relationship soon deteriorated. In a row after drinking, Webster is said to have attacked her employer and strangled her; the maid then chopped up Mrs Thomas's body and boiled many of the parts.

She disposed of some in a box from Hammersmith Bridge - a coal man who found it the next morning reported his discovery at Barnes police station, hence the crime's popular nickname. In an even more grim development, Webster is said to have sold the human body fat at the Hole in the Wall pub on Park Road for use as dripping.

The ensuing trial was complicated by the lack of Mrs Thomas's head but a recent news story reveals a human skull was found during work to redevelop the Hole in the Wall as part of David Attenborough's home. Unfortunately, I can't find confirmation that this was the missing piece of the widow's body, though Attenborough has received permission to turn the former pub's beer garden into a 'wildlife haven'.

UPDATE On 5 July it was confirmed that the skull belonged to Julia Thomas.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Cannes' biggest winners

Here's a slightly longer version of a piece I did for French film channel Cinémoi's free Cannes app (which features exclusive pictures, video content and more):

Belgians Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are among a handful of directors – including Francis Ford Coppola, Emir Kusturica and Shohei Imamura – to have twice won the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or. Following Rosetta (1999) and L’enfant (The Child, 2005), it could have been third time lucky this year but The Kid with a Bike received Cannes’ second prize, the Grand Prix.

Danish provocateur Lars von Trier was banned this year following an ill-advised Nazi rant, but he has won the festival’s top three prizes: the Palme d’Or for Dancer in the Dark (2000), the Grand Prix for Breaking the Waves (1996) and the jury prize for Europa back in 1991.

Both directors serve their actors well, too: Émilie Dequenne and Olivier Gourmet have been rewarded for their roles in the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta (pictured) and Le fils (The son, 2002), respectively, while Björk (Dancer…), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Antichrist, 2009) and Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia, this year) have scooped the best actress award for their roles in von Trier movies.

Another director who serves his women stars well is Pedro Almodóvar, also back this year with The Skin I Live In, starring Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya. Almodóvar's female ensemble for Volver, including Penélope Cruz and Carmen Maura, won the best actress award in 2006. But the festival’s biggest winners came in 1955 when the entire cast of Russian drama Bolshoya Semya (A Big Family) shared the - male and female - best acting prizes.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Hidden London: Craven Street, WC1

You're likely lost, or looking for the College of Optometrists, to stumble upon this unprepossessing street, hemmed in as it is by Charing Cross station, the Strand and Embankment. But a few plaques commemorate the literary minds that have passed through.

For nearly 20 years from 1757, Benjamin Franklin lived at No 36, during which time he wrote extensively (including starting his autobiography in 1771), attempted to mediate between Britain and America, was postmaster for the colonies, and pursued scientific and medical discoveries, including charting the Gulf Stream. Franklin returned to America in 1775 in time for revolution, and his Georgian home is now a museum (above). Bones found during the conservation and thought to belong to an anatomy school on the site are on show in the basement.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Herman Melville toured Europe to negotiate publishing contracts, when he stayed in a boarding house at No 25 (above). In spring 1827, 29-year-old German poet Heinrich Heine (his date of birth appears to be wrong on this plaque, below) stayed at another hostel at No 32 when he travelled to England to escape controversy following the publication of a second volume of his popular travel journals, Reisebilder. (The year had also seen the publication of his Buch der Lieder, one of the most successful poetry books ever published in Germany.)

Heine had a mixed experience of the capital, reflected by visitors to this day no doubt: 'It is snowing outside, and there is no fire in my chimney... I am very peevish and ill to boot,' he wrote to a friend. 'London has surpassed all my expectations as to its magnificence, but I have lost myself. Living is terribly dear, so far I have spent more than a guinea a day... It is so fearfully damp and uncomfortable here, and no one understands me, and no one understands German.'

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Tintin in retirement

Plenty has been written about the central place in Hergé's life and oeuvre of Tintin in Tibet (1960) - a biography due out in October promises a special focus on the story. The perfect Tintin album, however, must be Tibet's immediate successor: The Castafiore Emerald (1963).

Tintin in Tibet came at a time when Hergé suffered from eczema and insomnia - his dreams were dominated by eerie white spaces he transferred into the book. Hergé's marriage was collapsing and a Jungian psychologist advised him to stop drawing his hero - instead he created one of his most powerful books, revisiting one of Tintin's (and Hergé's) oldest friends, Tchang.

Penned 32 years after the boy reporter's first appearance, The Castafiore Emerald (pictured) is no less personal: Hergé wanted to stay home with his new, second, wife, and restricted his hero to Marlinspike Hall - there was to be no running around the world for this adventure. But the author's cartoon alter ego Captain Haddock has no peace: he is confined to a wheelchair after tripping on a broken step, has to tolerate a visit from the formidable Bianca Castafiore and still the stair is not fixed (by a character named in the French after a real builder with whom Hergé had problems, M Boullu).

Hergé's line is the purest of any of the books, as Tintin and co attempt to recover one of the diva's missing jewels amid a stream of red herrings. In his book Tintin: Hergé and his Creation, Harry Thompson quotes the writer saying: 'My ambition was to try and tell a tale in which absolutely nothing happened, simply to see whether I was capable of keeping the reader's attention to the end.'

In the final two (completed) books - Flight 714 (1968) and Tintin and the Picaros (1976) - Hergé reintroduces several old characters, including General Alcazar, Colonel Sponz, Rastapopoulos, Captain Allan and Piotr Skut, but all the favourites are reunited for The Castafiore Emerald: Professor Calculus, the Thompsons and Castafiore herself. The premature idyll heaps further irritations on Captain Haddock, however - pursued by paparazzi, bitten by a parrot (twice) and stung by a bee. Though Hergé took his time to produce the final albums, it was time for Tintin to travel once more.