Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Carry On Christmas

Film4 has recently been screening the early Carry On films. In all, some 30 films were made in the innuendo-laden series, which is a staple of the TV schedules. A core cast of Kenneth Williams, Charlie Hawtry, Hattie Jacques and Kenneth Connor was immediately in place for opener Carry On Sergeant (1958), and director Gerald Thomas was at the helm all the way through to a misguided revival in 1992 for Carry On Columbus, starring Julian Clary.

Sophomore outing Carry On Nurse (1959) saw the introduction of Leslie Phillips, who returned for Columbus after a run in the first films, and Joan Sim, while hospitals remained a popular setting for the series - think Barbara Windsor in her pasties. Given the films' appropriation of seaside postcard humour and the aspirational times, the vacation seam was mined to its full in Carry On Cruising (1962),Carry On Camping (1962) and Carry On Abroad (1972).

Shirley Eaton - of Goldfinger fame - was another early regular and the movies also afforded roles to Bob Monkhouse (... Sergeant) and Richard O'Sullivan, in Carry On Teacher (1959). The theme of these early ventures was routinely of a hapless group - conscripts or other initiates - pulling together and overcoming their own shortfalls to support authority.

Sid James joined in 1960 for Carry On Constable and it's his introduction that arguably cemented the reputation for single entendres and hopeless mugging that would characterise the series, which reached its pinnacle in 1968's Carry On... Up the Kyber, with Roy Castle in the role of the young male ingenue.

The films are no better than the St Trinian's movies (resurrected even more recently with Gemma Arterton, Lena Heady, Rupert Everett, Russell Brand and Colin Firth), but it's warming to see Williams, in particular, displaying finesse in the early, black-and-white outings. This charming portrait of the actor, taken just before the series began in 1957, is currently on show at London's National Portrait Gallery.

Merry Christmas and all the very best for 2012!

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Silents are golden

Following wonderful presentations of Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (attended by Rowan Atkinson) and Le grand amour, with director Pierre Etaix, the team from Fondation Groupama Gan was back at London's Ciné lumière this week with A Trip to the Moon (1902, pictured). Georges Méliès's classic - just think of that image of the rocket embedded in the moon's eye - has been restored to its original colour, with a soundtrack by Air.

The French pop duo, who previously scored The Virgin Suicides (1999), had only a month to create the soundtrack and say they left the mix deliberately raw to match the filmmaker's methods. It channels their own fascination with the moon and psychedelia, though the use of sound effects - including farmyard animal noises - doesn't do it for me.

Pop is increasingly used to soundtrack old silent films, most notably Pet Shop Boys' work on Battleship Potemkin (1925). At the time of their Trafalgar Square concert screening, Neil Tennant spoke of director Sergei Eisenstein's wish that the film be rescored every decade. Pioneering music producer Giorgio Moroder famously pursued clips of Metropolis (1924) to every corner of the planet before releasing a colourised version of Fritz Lang's sci-fi classic in 1984 with a soundtrack including Pat Benatar and Freddie Mercury (on Love Kills, covered by Little Boots).

A Trip to the Moon's 14,000 frames were originally hand-tinted by 200 artists and it's a rediscovered print of this version that formed the basis for this restoration. Air also had the luxury of not having to compete with any existing soundtrack but, like Moroder's labour of love, it's hoped the soundtrack will attract a new audience to a classic that was well-known if little seen.

Scissor Sisters' John Garden (son of Graeme!) plays live accompaniment to a series of Méliès films at Ciné lumière tonight (NB Wednesday 14 December). Highlights of Air's Q&A following the screening of A Trip to the Moon will appear here

Thursday, 8 December 2011

What would Father Ted do?

The BBC website today has an article about the prevalence of slogan 'What would Jesus do?', most noticeably at St Paul's Occupy protest. The Archbishop of Canterbury tackled that question this week, but its growing prominence reminded me of Chris Marker's film The Case of the Grinning Cat (Chats perchés, 2004), which charts the presence of a piece of graffiti art at demonstrations around the world almost a decade ago.

The iconography of the image of a Cheshire-like cat seems way more interesting than the rhetorical, rather glib use of WWJD by many who may not believe in Christ. Jesus is global but the grinning cat lends itself to greater interpretation, and can be co-opted more easily by the broad spectrum of issues demonstrators now regularly join under together, though in the period Marker charts it largely appeared at marches against war in Iraq.

In his film, Marker first tracks the cats in Paris in a period following 9/11 and they can still be spotted there above the rooftops - and elsewhere, pictured. I would love it if the cat's rise continued unabated perhaps alongside the best slogan of all, which author Graham Linehan still spots at various very British protests: 'Down with this sort of thing', coupled with its partner from TV series Father Ted, 'Careful now'.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Pop music in novels

Pop music is a staple in contemporary cinema. It's used as a marketing tool by mainstream moviemakers and emotional signposting by filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino (cf Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, starring Ryan Gosling and College's A Real Hero track). But it's less commonly found in novels, particularly compared to classical or opera.

Other than novels directly about bands and music-making, such as Toby Litt's I Play the Drums in a Band Called Okay (2008), pop is rarely referenced in literary fiction. There are notable exceptions, however: Douglas Coupland has written novels called Girlfriend in a Coma (1998) and Eleanor Rigby (2004); the record shop-owner who narrates Nick Hornby's High Fidelity (1995) regularly makes mix tapes and has Top Fives to cover most of the important things in his life.

Amid the misogynistic horror, Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho (1991) has some very funny chapters on 1980s music including Whitney Houston, Huey Lewis and the News, and Genesis ('I've been a big Genesis fan ever since the release of their 1980 album, Duke. Before that I didn't really understand any of their work...').

The eponymous heroine of Alan Warner's Morvern Callar (1995) soundtracks her life to her Walkman while the music of Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) ranges from Otis Redding to 'the tuneless: King Crimson, Soft Machine, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa and Wild Man Fisher.' Character Shahid has the bootleg CD - bought from Camden market - of The Black Album in his Prince collection in the book of that name, and Prince is back for Arthur Phillips' pop-stalker novel The Song Is You (2009), which cunningly namechecks any number of particularly UK-centric pop sources.

We're back hunting for CDs in Camden and the West End in Malvern Hills, one of five stories in Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes (2009). The narrator goes to stay with his sister and help out in her café, where he meets a Swiss couple - 'We perform many hits. Beatles, the Carpenters... we do some Abba. Dancing Queen. That one always goes down well.'

Robin, one of the characters in Alan Hollinghurst's 1998 novel, The Spell, has 'old vinyls, in bumped, coffee-ringed sleeves... The Beatles and the Stones, the Doors, the Incredible String Band' though he has 'the small accidental CD collection of someone uninterested in music.' Through Robin's son, staid civil servant Alex is turned onto dance; 'Alex switched on the radio, and it was one of Haydn's opus 76 string quartets that he had sometimes listened to with Hugh. It held him for a moment... but he couldn't resist a feeling that it would always be there, and found himself reaching into the glove-box for his latest purchase from Harlot Records, Monster House Party Five, a three-CD compilation of 40 pounding dance tracks mixed by DJs Sparkx, Joe Puma and Queen Marie.'

Set in a parallel 1984, Japanese author Haruki Murakami's latest, 1Q84, could feature any amount of trendy 1980s tunes but instead anachronistically references It's Only a Paper Moon by EY Harburg and Harold Arlen ('It's a Barnum and Bailey world/ Just as phony as it can be'), alongside Janácek's Sinfonietta. While classical music may seem less gauche on the page, there are some great pop references in one of my favourite novels: F Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon (1940).

Driving with Wylie, the alcoholic writer who is in love with her, Celia dreams instead of the producer Stahr. 'I turned the dial and got either Gone or Lost - there were good songs that year... [but they] were the wrong mood, so I turned again and got, Lovely to Look At, which was my kind of poetry... "They asked me how I knew,' sang the radio, "- my true love was true." My heart was fire, and smoke was in my eyes and everything...'

Please do add your favourite pop moments in novels in the comments field below - thank you!

Friday, 2 December 2011

Raise high the roof beam, Salinger

In a contemporary review of JD Salinger's Franny and Zooey, John Updike almost finds a forebear for David Foster Wallace in the famously reclusive author. Updike confesses to being a fan, conceding that the 'Glass saga, as he has sketched it out, potentially contains great fiction' though he is troubled by 'the extravagant self-consciousness of Salinger's later prose, wherein most of the objections one might raise are already raised.'

Updike quotes a particularly telling phrase of Salinger's from the book's jacket flap in which the creator of Holden Caulfield seems to presage the silence that was to ensue: '... there is a real-enough danger, I suppose, that sooner or later I'll bog down, perhaps disappear entirely, in my own methods, locutions, and mannerisms. On the whole, though, I'm very hopeful.'

Salinger's final books - Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction - were published in the early 1960s from pieces that had appeared in The New Yorker in the late 1950s. His last published work, Hapworth 16, 1924, appeared in The New Yorker in June 1965. JD Salinger died in 2010, aged 91, without publishing another word.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Killing time again - Forbrydelsen II

In much the way author Howard Norman revisited the same story in three books from 1994 to 2002, the writer of The Killing, Søren Sveistrup, has been tipping his hat to familiar themes in the second series of the Danish crime drama. The original series (Forbrydelsen in Danish) stood out in part because of its focus on the family and friends of various central characters, especially those related to murder victim Nanna Birk Larsen.

Four episodes into the noticeably tighter Forbrydelsen II, the action is less immediately personal, though there are hints we may learn a little more about enigmatic heroine, detective inspector Sarah Lund. Her son has settled permanently with his grandmother, whose impending wedding gives Lund another family occasion to muck up or miss altogether, to put alongside her attempt to move in with Swedish ex-boyfriend Bengt.

Sofie Gråbøl is as outstanding as ever as Lund, whose powers of detection continue to outweigh the character's ability to play things by the book, coupled with an innate talent to be in the right place at the wrong time. As Gråbøl told me of her character in a recent interview for Time Out, 'She makes connections, that's her talent, her gift. Of course she has a strong gut feeling but there's nothing supernatural [about her intuition].'

Lund is one of only two recurring characters in the series - the other being her boss, Lennart Brix (Morten Suurballe). The political background is played out at a national level on this occasion, albeit with the state's civil servants still proving obstructive. Senior figures throughout seem to know more about the deaths of several people attached to a military unit in Afghanistan than they're letting on.

There are echoes of the excellent Danish film Armadillo (2010), which BBC4 would do well to screen during The Killing II's current run; the character Søgaard is notably familiar from Janus Metz Pedersen's Afghan documentary. Lund's case also has political as well as personal repercussions, not least for the women who are forced out of their jobs after having affairs. (There's even a replacement for luscious Rie Skovgaard in Ruth Hedeby.) Nor has the Danish weather improved.

There is, too, the initial frisson with Lund's new colleague, the brilliantly named Ulrik Strange (Mikael Birkkjaer), who has already succeeded where her previous (romantic) partner failed - by taking her to Sweden, as if that's some sort of strange Danish euphemism. Birkkjaer and Gråbøl previously appeared together in a film about a couple dealing with their daughter's death, Aftermath (2004). It's out on DVD on Monday.

Søren Sveistrup has injected warmth and dark humour in their relationship, worthy of the Swedish TV version of Wallander. (Gråbøl told The Guardian that Lund would beat Wallander in a fight - 'no contest'.) The writer is also playing with viewers' knowledge of what happened to Lund's previous police partner, and has just placed Strange in jeopardy. We'll have to tune in on Saturday to find out how that goes.