Saturday, 4 June 2016

Muhammad Ali

MUHAMMAD ALI… Truly the greatest. Remember being backstage at the Oscars the year When We Were Kings won. Have never witnessed such a reaction for a star. Awestruck standing ovation in the press room. I swear even Jack Nicholson, who’d led him in, was getting teary behind his Ray-Bans. That said, three hours earlier, I’d watched outside as a hunched, shaky figure shuffled up the red carpet, cocking a wry grin over the fact that the E! Entertainment door-stoppers had failed to recognise him, swarming instead over the gown of some Actress-Nude Model-Whatever (Jenny McCarthy if memory serves, who’d apparently put said item on back-to-front). Wistful nostalgia, but people forget how TV-mainstream boxing was in the ‘70s, before it became a pay-per-view freakshow. A big heavyweight bout would give the Morecambe & Wise Christmas Show a run for its money. Remember being at a Blondie gig in 1978 with Debbie Harry breaking off to lead the Birmingham Odeon in a chant of “Ali.. Ali…” (he was fighting Leon Spinks later on). Not sure if this got played last night, but Richard Dunn’s bout didn’t go quite the same distance…
Yorkshire TV look back on the World Heavyweight Fight between Ali & Dunn.

Friday, 8 April 2016

The People Versus OJ Simpson

Have been gripped by the BBC2 re-broadcast of the hit US series. I have a special interest as I lived in LA through the course of the trial. It was, truly, a soap opera, from Dominick Dunne's Vanity Fair columns to the Dancing Itos on Letterman. Almost tangible. I used to see dream team lawyer Robert Shapiro in my local supermarket in Pacific Palisades (where the tabloids at the till screamed their latest wacko theories). I once ran past Johnnie Cochran jogging on Santa Monica beach. I remember my downstairs neighbour bounding up the stairs and banging on my door mid-afternoon. I threw it open, assuming an emergency. "Oh my God, Fuhrman just perjured himself!" she wailed.

Somewhere amid it all was a pair of grisly murders. Nicole Simpson was almost decapitated. Ron Goldman, who was similarly butchered, became a mere afterthought in the sorry mess of a trial as Judge Ito lost control of the courtroom. As the People's key witnesses began, one-by-one, to sell their stories to the press, so its case evaporated. And they ballsed it up. Christopher Darden, IMHO, was just not up to it. He was a broken man by the end of it. Trying on the gloves was a mistake. Though a bigger one, I fear, was allowing Nicole Brown Simpson to be referred to, throughout, as OJ's "wife", painting Simpson a bereaved victim (albeit a very smiley, jokey one). Solid DNA evidence —  only a 21 billion to 1 chance that Simpson didn't do it! — was dismissed as "garbage". I remember Marcia Clark trying to explain the science of DNA to the jury (in a very patronising way) in terms of how it featured in Jurassic Park. That's how new it was. In the end it just became a clinical exercise in character assassination by the defence. Every witness methodically shredded.

The best book I read on the subject was American Tragedy by Lawrence Schiller and James Willwerth. It uses Robert Kardashian as its everyman. It purports that Kardashian knew pretty much from the get-go that OJ had blood on his hands and yet he persisted with his defence. Yep, the three Bobs — Kardashian, Shapiro and Marcia Clark's latest "do".

I have no doubt, based on the sheer weight of evidence, that Simpson was guilty as hell. But, of course, the case was never about a double-homicide. It was, as the author James Ellroy (whose own mother was raped and murdered) once put it to me, "a referendum on race." On the heels of the Rodney King beating and the riots, was it any wonder? Ultimately it was about whether black people in America got a fair shake from the law. They certainly didn't. And probably still don't... Except for Simpson. The LAPD bent over backwards to accommodate him. The case was compromised from the get-go.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Is this the face of Jack the Ripper?

Bruce Robinson, the writer and director of Withnail & I, has spent 15 years investigating the Whitechapel murders. He tells us whodunnit

Jeff Dawson Published, Sunday Times Culture: 4 October 2015

  • Nailed? Robinson argues that Michael Maybrick, a touring popular singer, killed prostitutes in Texas as well as Whitechapel (Roc Canals Photography)


  • As the title of Bruce Robinson’s book has it, They All Love Jack. Indeed they do. Certainly publishers do — they have made a killing out of the quest to nail the Ripper. Lewis Carroll? Randolph Churchill? Prince Albert Victor? A century and a quarter later, the dragnet trawls on.
    In 2002, in Portrait of a Killer, Patricia Cornwell fingered the artist Walter Sickert as the East End Eviscerator. (He had a deformed penis, she imagined, strangely.) Last year, in Naming the Ripper, Russell Edwards collared the Polish immigrant Aaron Kosminski by genetically fingerprinting a shawl he had bought, purportedly belonging to Catherine Eddowes, the fourth (or possibly 94th) victim of “Saucy Jacky”.
    Mention of both books causes Robinson to harrumph. “I don’t mean to be rude about anybody, but that shawl’s been around for about 30 bloody years,” he says, pointing to the scientific backlash against fundamental errors in Edwards’s data. “Unfortunately, in his DNA extraction, he’s got his decimal point in the wrong place. It’s bullshit.”
    Walking tours, waxworks, Whitechapel weekenders... Women’s groups are picketing a new Jack the Ripper Museum on Cable Street (the moral equivalent, one supposes, of opening a Peter Sutcliffe Centre in Leeds). It is also reportedly the next target of the group that attacked the Cereal Killer Cafe last weekend. “There is a perverse, almost heroic status that has evolved around this prick,” Robinson writes, “as though he were someone special rather than the epitome of all that is cruel and goddamned repugnant.”
    And don’t even mention the “Ripperologists” — the Trekkies of the trade, “the self-appointed experts and guardians of flat-earth thinking”. “Dozens of books clogging the market, all quoting each other,” he howls. “Part of my motivation for writing this was getting rid of all this junk. I wanted to discard it all and go back to the beginning.”
    We know the official story. In the autumn of 1888, a serial killer emerged to slash and dismember five Whitechapel prostitutes; the last one (Mary Jane Kelly) was so mutilated that the country, the world, was gifted a bogeyman. There were few material clues, some taunting letters and a welter of contradictory descriptions, before the perp slinked off into the peasouper.
    Therein lies the problem, Robinson says. The literary sleuthing, all of it, has been predicated on a false assumption — that the rozzers were telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. “It’s an absurdity, an utter absurdity, to take these Victorian police at their word,” he protests. “You just simply cannot do it.”
    It’s taken 15 years for him to “bust the Ripper”, a mission that has been self-financed at huge personal cost, his research filling the stables of his country pile in Herefordshire: documents, letters, photographs, ranging from the findings of philatelists to the musings of maggot experts. The resultant 800-page deconstruction of the case is monumental. Dense and detailed, it is also savagely funny. One would expect nothing less from the writer-director of Withnail & I, a film that’s become one of Britain’s best-loved comedies.
    Its opening chapter is part social history, part legal treatise, and worthy of the GCSE syllabus: a scathing attack on 19th-century Britain, its Establishment and empire. What did the Victorians do for us? Well, they created a seething underclass of “sub-British”, Robinson writes, where a mother would whore herself “for the price of a mug of tea”, and a West End toff who “liked an arse” could stroll east for some penny-pinching pederasty.
    So let’s cut to the “ta-daa” moment. He declares that Jack the Ripper was a man named Michael Maybrick, previously peripheral to the Ripperati, but now front and centre. We’re talking literally. For, under his stage name, Stephen Adams, Maybrick was a popular singer/songwriter, the Paul McCartney of his day, a man who could shift 100,000 sheets of his ditties (They All Love Jack being one), but who was, as Robinson explains, carving out an unsavoury sideline.
    His case against Maybrick is compelling and complex. From the pool of hoax “Ripper letters” sent to the Met, a series are in fact genuine, he asserts, containing cryptic clues that suggest first-hand knowledge of the killings. Cross-reference the postmarks — from Aberdeen to Penzance, from as far afield as New York and Johannesburg — and they, and other slayings, coincide uncannily with Maybrick’s whereabouts on his exhaustive musical engagements. “In our day, you’d say, ‘What could his job be? He could be a pilot, he could be a long-distance truck driver [as was Sutcliffe].’ In the Victorian period, he could have been a singer or musician travelling from gig to gig. He was Jack the Ripper on tour.”
    We have been down the Maybrick road before. James Maybrick, Michael’s older brother, a Liverpool cotton merchant, has long been a Ripper suspect, courtesy of a confessional “diary”, unearthed in 1992, the veracity of which has been argued over ever since. But it’s a case of “up the right arsehole on the wrong elephant”, Robinson says. James was murdered in May 1889 (allegedly poisoned by his wife, Florence, who copped a death sentence in what was considered a serious travesty of justice). Did Michael do that, too? Then go on to frame his brother as the Ripper? Robinson thinks so. “I believe 100% he was who I say he is.”
    Jack the Ripper would not seem obvious Robinson territory. He has attained cult status as a sort of reclusive — and profanely garrulous — writer, having spent the past 20 years holed up in the countryside, bashing out unproduced scripts or children’s books with his illustrator wife, Sophie Windham, coming out of exile only to direct The Rum Diary (2011) at the behest of No 1 fan Johnny Depp (who, coincidentally, appeared in the Ripper film From Hell. Don’t get him started...).
    Delve further, however, and victimhood is at the heart of his work: the bleak, semi-autobiographical Withnail; his nine-tenths autobiographical novel The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman. One can add The Killing Fields (for which he won a screenwriting Bafta), with its Khmer Rouge horrors, among other screenplays. “What helps me with that victimisation thing vis-à-vis the Ripper is that I have a huge distrust of authority.”
    Withnail was a bittersweet experience, the stardust swept aside by the acrimony over lack of financial reward, followed by a disastrous sojourn in Hollywood. It was while making his first American studio picture, the serial-killer flick Jennifer 8, back in the early 1990s, that the Ripper came his way. Intrigued by true crime, he had intended to do something on the case of William Herbert Wallace. “Chandler [in his 1962 memoir, Raymond Chandler Speaking] rated this as one of the two greatest crime mysteries of all time. The other is James Maybrick.”
    A call to a researcher led him serendipitously to Keith Skinner, an old actor buddy since refashioned as a Ripper expert. “There seemed to be something going on here. Here’s Chandler writing about it, and here’s this so-called diary turning up 100 years later, accusing [James] Maybrick of being the Ripper.”
    It is James’s sibling Michael, though, who fits Robinson’s bill: tall, powerful, clever, egotistical, homosexual and quite the misogynist. “You don’t have to be insane to cut people up, you just have to hate enough,” Robinson contends. And, importantly, he was a Freemason: the Ripper letters (like the crimes) were laden with allusions to Masonic ritual, taunting Sir Charles Warren, the Metropolitan police commissioner and “Boss Cop”.
    Masonry is the nub of it. Warren was a leading “Bro’”, an amateur archaeologist who had excavated King Solomon’s Temple. From there it’s a “funny little game”, with Boss Cop eliminating clues as fast as Maybrick can lay them (including Warren’s expunging of the crucial “Goulston Street graffito”, found on a wall near victim number four).
    The police, the coroners, the courts — it was about containing one of their own, Robinson suggests, with Warren bent on preserving the “mystic tie” to the “government within government”, all the way up to the most powerful Freemason of all: “Fat Ed”, better known as Edward, Prince of Wales. “My God, you could have boxed it up and sold it like Cluedo,” Robinson splutters. “He was dumping clues everywhere, and every time Warren covered up the clues, the Ripper upped the ante.”
    Robinson adds other murders to the roster — the female torso found hidden, “like Hitchcock”, in the foundations of Scotland Yard on October 2; the prostitutes Martha Tabram, Rose Mylett, Alice McKenzie and Frances Coles (“non-canonical” to his Ripperology chums). And he doesn’t restrict the killings geographically. An eight-year-old child found mutilated in Bradford was the Ripper/Maybrick’s handiwork, he insists.
    So just how many did he kill? “I’m thinking 25, 30, something like that. It just suited the authorities to reduce the murders to these old hags in the East End who no one’s gonna give a toss about. There were seven prostitutes killed in Texas in 1884, and the policeman running that case came to London because of the similarity to the East End hits. In 1884, Michael Maybrick, of course, was touring the USA. But you can only research so much. There comes a point when you’ve just got to say, ‘That’s it.’ I couldn’t get into all of these, because I’d be doing this until I was 91 years old.”
    Maybrick had had enough, too. In 1893, he seems to have hung up his blade, forgoing the Café Royale and champers with his boyfriend for a curious retirement on the Isle of Wight, “married to a fat butcher’s daughter from Hammersmith”. He died in obscurity in 1913.
    Robinson’s book is delivered with characteristic, entertaining vituperation. I wonder, though, whether the catherine wheel of rage might be spinning too furiously. He digs at Blair and Thatcher; there are blistering but digressive passages on General Gordon and Khartoum, Irish oppression and Fat Ed’s reinforced fornicating chair. Even Danny the dealer from Withnail — crafter of the Camberwell Carrot — pops up.
    No less apparent is Robinson’s — how shall we say? — fragile tolerance for those of a contradictory disposition. Detractors are derided as “imbeciles” or as “lying like a back-alley slut”. “The reason I’m so harsh on Ripperology is I’ve got to kill ’em off. I’ve got to swat these guys like flies.”
    He laughs, but he’s deadly serious. “I think any bright 12-year-old could have caught Jack the Ripper. I genuinely believe that.” The only thing one can add with equal certainty is that there will be another book round the corner, alleging someone else. Robinson knows this. “I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to think it is the last word. But if people want to break this book, they’d better know what they’re f****** talking about... every damn thing in it is very, very closely researched and sourced. It’s not opinion. This is not a theory. It’s an explanation.”

    They All Love Jack is published by Fourth Estate at £25. To buy it for £22.50, inc p&p, call 0845 271 2134 or visit thesundaytimes.co.uk/bookshop. Bruce Robinson will be talking at The Times and Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival on Saturday at 8.30pm (cheltenhamfestivals.com/literature)

Monday, 27 April 2015

Gallipoli: A Personal Story


My maternal Grandad, Lance corporal Wilfred Mack of the 5th Battalion, Norfolk Regiment, was badly wounded at Gallipoli in August 1915, shot several times in the leg (as kids we were always told seven bullets) during the futile attack on Suvla Cove. Gallipoli is rightly remembered for the terrible and heroic sacrifice of ANZAC troops — memorialised by Peter Weir's excellent film, Gallipoli — but I'm glad the centenary has given the Tommies their due, too. It is also a reminder that this was truly a World War, troops drawn from all over, with not all the action confined to the Western Front.

Stirred by the 1960s anti-war movement, the tendency has been to subscribe to the "Lions Led By Donkeys" version of hostilities, latterly known as the Blackadder school of thought. Undoubtedly there is truth in this, though for me it's too facile a judgement to lay upon all of the action — especially if you do your reading, and especially if you look at the ratio of officer casualties. That said, the Gallipoli campaign, of which Churchill was an architect, certainly fits the bill as a grossly ill-conceived Whitehall project. This was the D-Day landing of its time, yet was executed with what seems criminally scant attention paid to very deadly detail. Eight months of fighting, 250,000 Allied casualties. Enough said.

Some years later, a myth grew up about the 5th Battalion, Norfolks. In a sort of Levantine version of the Angle of Mons, extrapolated from some descriptive newspaper accounts, the men were supposed to have charged the Turkish positions, with 200-plus simply disappearing into a strange mist, never to be seen again (in some outlandish recent versions they were abducted by aliens). Yet another drama, a TV one this time, All The King's Men, promulgated the myth of the "Vanished", skewing the story with suggestion that the Battalion was drawn exclusively from the royal staff of the Sandringham Estate. (The pals' brigades were actually recruited from all over the county. My grandfather was a smallholder, born nr. Holt, lived the rest of his life in Sheringham.) For me the whole thing is rather disrespectful and ignores what seems almost certainly to have happened, especially when, after the war, they found many of the remains shovelled into a ditch.

From what I can remember him saying, and from what my mum tells me, they charged the Turks (records show they got 800yds behind the lines and regrouped, confused and lost, at a farmhouse) before machine guns took their toll. It would account for the number of bullets Grandad copped. These were raw, untried troops, remember. He was 19 at the time. From what can be gleaned from his recounting, in the chaos and carnage, people running all over the place, the survivors took cover in the shell holes of No Man's Land till darkness fell — though not without Grandad seeing his best mate's head being blown off right next to him and with a lifetime of nightmares to show for it. Eventually he crawled back.

Grandad died in 1981 when I was in my teens, before I really gained appreciation of what he'd been through (due to my dad's National Service stories and the paternal side's own multiple representation in WW2, it tended to get eclipsed). He was a man of few words, his accent so strong — back then broad Norfolk was a different language — it was difficult to make out a lot of what he said anyway. But I do remember him talking about docking at Marseilles and, later on, continuing the fight against the Ottomans in Palestine, which would have brought him under the supreme command of Lawrence of Arabia.

Grandparents Wilfred and Louisa went on to have eight children, all girls, one of which being my mum. With the maternal family name facing extinction, too, we thought it only fitting to name our own son Mack.




Sunday, 22 March 2015

Roll Out The Big Guns

With Fury, David Ayer has made a Second World War film that rewrites the genre. Even though it stars Brad Pitt and a very big tank

Jeff Dawson, Sunday Times, October 12, 2014
Invading allies: the cast of Fury: from left, Shia LaBeouf, Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña and Jon Bernthal

The original script of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds contained a line in which the renegade Nazi-scalper Lieutenant Aldo Raine — played by Brad Pitt — lambasts a comrade for eulogising a popular screen “war hero”. “John Wayne’s a pampered movie star,” Raine chides. “He bursts into tears if his cook busts his yolk at breakfast.”
Rest assured that on Fury, the hard-boiled story of a US tank crew slogging across Germany, the cast (featuring Pitt again) endured a gruelling pre-film boot camp, the better to pass muster as combat-hardened GIs. “They didn’t have cellphones,” a producer intones. “No coffee,” a military adviser adds. War, as they say, is hell.
To be fair, you won’t find a production oozing more authenticity. At Bovingdon airfield, in Hertfordshire, a former bomber base, the production designers have reconstructed an entire German Stadt across the tarmac. It has been lovingly rendered... then artfully ravaged. The shell holes, debris and bodies (rubber ones) do everything to convince you that you really are on the front line south of Hanover in April 1945. On a chilly morning, braziers burn, mud squelches and extras smoke. Through the fug of war, two Sherman tanks loom, rumbling into the square with visceral resonance. The lead one has “Fury” scrawled on its gun barrel; the head of its commander, Sergeant “Wardaddy” (Pitt), pokes out of the turret.
“The experience of the fighting man in Germany was crossing a river, hitting a village, crossing a river, hitting a village — and, at this stage of the war, it was a crapshoot,” says the writer/director, David Ayer, bundled up in a parka and US Navy baseball cap. “They’d hang out the white sheets and surrender, or they’d fight you and you’d burn it down.”
Unwisely, here, the Germans have laid an ambush. “There’s an antitank gun in the tailor’s shop.” He points to where curtains flap behind broken glass. “The tank’s going to fire white phosphorus into it, light it on fire, then machinegun the soldiers as they escape. It’s good, clean fun.”
Actually, there’s nothing clean about Fury, as grubby and squalid a war picture as you can get. “No one has ever done a movie about this stage of the war,” Ayer insists, his fictionalised story based on “vignettes and after-action reports” of the 2nd Armored Division’s odyssey. “It’s always been about the Bulge, Arnhem, D-Day, but at this point the US Army was exhausted, falling apart.” They had been on the road since North Africa, he says, travelling “like a band of gypsies”.
Fury movie featurette. Brad Pitt
As a former sonar operator on submarines, Ayer can empathise with the lot of the tank crew, “a metal machine full of smelly men”. And without a Nespresso. Less a Dirty Dozen, more a Filthy Five: Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal and the fresh-faced rookie Logan Lerman, popping his soldierly cherry as their trusty tin can mounts a stand against an overwhelming force of SS bitter-enders. To deafening decibels and raining ash, the scene proceeds, and it’s mighty impressive — until someone yells “Cut”, and a platoon of experts crunch across the rubble to ensure that men and machines remain true to their grimy grandeur.
Although there are any number of conflicts to choose from, the movies have an enduring love affair with the Second World War. With The Railway Man, The Monuments Men and Stalingrad out in recent months, and the freshly minted Mrs Pitt’s directorial take, Unbroken, opening soon, the bombardment continues. “It’s true good versus evil. That lack of ambiguity is a rare thing these days,” muses Ayer, mindful of the tortured introspection of all those war-on-terror films. It’s also war by proxy. The allies are “invaders”, rather than “liberators”, Ayer says, “which makes it a different dynamic. It’s a bit of an allegory to some of the wars we’re involved in today. And there’s the fanaticism — a child could be the enemy, a woman could be the enemy.”
The body of a youth, lynched by the SS, dangles from an upstairs window, the slogan “Ich bin ein Feigling” (“I am a coward”) slung round its neck, there to coerce every able-bodied citizen into staging a rearguard action. “That’s the other bit of this. Everybody knows the war’s over. They’re fighting to the last, and it’s pointless. People have to continue dying to service this evil, totalitarian regime. I’m trying to capture that sense of tragedy.”
Any Second World War movie of recent times, of course, owes a huge debt to Saving Private Ryan, which rebooted the genre in 1998. There’s a direct line from that film to Fury, not least because Spielberg’s opus was shot up the road in Hatfield (on another old aerodrome), and its vast set was recycled into the television series Band of Brothers. And among Fury’s 4,000 pairs of hand-stitched boots, miles of uniform racks and hangars full of hardware, there’s no shortage of kit that did a tour of duty for Spielberg. The M1 rifles and German MG 34s, genuine antiques, have earned the John Wayne-ish distinction of having fired more rounds in movies than they ever did in combat.
Just as Spielberg had his shark, his T. rex, in the form of a Tiger tank, a destructive behemoth that could make mincemeat of a Sherman, Ayer has deployed the samebête noire, a real live monster shipped up from the Tank Museum in Bovington. He grumbles, though, that Spielberg inadvertently “institutionalised” a new method of execution of the war film — the shaky handheld camera and other cinematic tropes, things he’s trying to avoid. “I’m going back to the actual history itself, to the original photographs, the original Signal Corps footage, and building the world up from there,” he says. “I’m trying to reinvent the genre a bit and breathe new life into it.”
Where Spielberg maintained the nobility of his Greatest Generation, Ayer stabs the Geneva Conventions in the eyeball. (“Ideals are peaceful, history is violent,” Wardaddy broods in one of his Duke-meets-Colonel Kilgore moments.) The sum of Ayer’s research, based on interviews with old soldiers, is that the combat, by this point, was barbaric. “Either they’re party-line about it, the clean history, or there’s the guys who tell you, ‘Yeah, we shot prisoners, we did this, we did that.’ This idea of delivering Europe from evil has been projected into the fighting. It’s not clean. It’s not black-and-white, and that’s what I want to show — it’s not easy to be a soldier. It’s not easy to know when to pull the trigger and when not to pull the trigger.”
Despite his military pedigree (both his grandfathers served in the war), Ayer made his career in cop films, depicting the mean streets of South Central LA and scoring plaudits for his Training Day screenplay and his directorial efforts: Harsh Times, Street Kings and End of Watch. “Uniforms, guns, a very A-personality masculine world — there’s a lot of parallels.” His more recent outing, Sabotage, starring an embalmed Arnold Schwarzenegger, fared less well critically.
Back in the habit: Eli Roth and Brad Pitt, right, kill Nazis in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds
Ayer, who looks like a cage fighter but is perfectly affable, has been down the Second World War road before — and not without controversy. His breakthrough script, drawing on his submarine experience, was the infamous U-571 (2000), derided in Britain for its scurrilous portrayal of the US Navy, rather than the Royal, as the captors of the German Enigma machine (an episode, one hopes, that will be readdressed in the Benedict Cumberbatch-as-Alan Turing film, The Imitation Game).
Ayer issues a sheepish grin and slides into dog-ate-my-homework mode. “It’s horrible that I got the slings and arrows on U-571. It wasn’t my idea, wasn’t my script, wasn’t my story. I was a hired gun. I was 27 years old. It was my first studio job. I was happy to get paid. In hindsight, should I have turned the job down? No, because I was broke. So I apologise.” He explains how he had dinner with Sub-Lieutenant David Balme, the officer who led the mission. “And he was fine with the whole thing, so I thought we’d be in the clear. Apparently not.”
Back to the action: Ayer strolls over to figure out further ways of demonstrating that for Fritz, the war is over. Following to observe on the monitor, I sidestep a civilian body — a pretend one that has had its head blown off.
There’s one detail they’ve got wrong. In the Second World War, the average age of a combat soldier was 26. The jowly Pitt, at 50, is battling the Boche 12 years past the cutoff age for the American draft. Wargrandaddy. Was it his sterling work in Inglourious Basterds that swung it? He did, after all, end up killing Hitler. No such stuff for the Führer in Fury, Ayer laughs. “He takes care of himself a few weeks later.”

Fury opens on Oct 22

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Being UK-ish

For all its wonder, the English language has a notable limitation, and one felt very close to home — there is no adjective to describe our statehood. You can be English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish but not, it seems, UK-ish. The preferred term, British, is inaccurate as it excludes Northern Ireland. I fear the union will forever induce confusion until someone invents a suitable word.

I resisted blogging about the Scottish Independence referendum as the arguments were done to death and, frankly, who gives a monkeys what I think. But I will note this, for all of my life I have been acutely aware of the awkwardness that comes with the words "England" and "English". To me, even today, they sit uneasily on my tongue. Maybe it's a generational baby-boomer thing. Maybe it's my background (grew up in Portsmouth, the very British home of the Royal Navy; went to university in Wales; later lived in the US) but, to me, saying "English" when you meant "British" was the height of bad manners and a display of ignorance/arrogance towards one's Celtic neighbours, as well as being plain wrong.

For three centuries the English have suppressed their national identity, unable even to claim a national day, the reason, I suppose, why people get so worked up about the England football team for its indulgence of a flag-waving pageant by proxy. Scottish nationalism, Welsh nationalism — misplaced or not, there's a notion of romanticism at the heart. English nationalism, English Parliament, English devolution, however... To me they still sound sinister terms. I believe I will have to get used to them.



Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Robin and Dickie

I seem only to blog these days in memoriam. Belatedly, allow me to bid a fond adieu to Robin Williams and Richard Attenborough.

Funnily enough, I had been thinking about Williams just before the news broke about his death. I had been equating my own obsession with exercise to a sketch from one of his stand-up shows in which he likens it to drug addiction (with a street-corner hustler going, “Hey man, wanna buy some Nikes?”)

No question that, for all his brilliance, Williams was something of a tortured soul. I remember the first time I encountered him, at the Loews Hotel, Santa Monica, 1995. I had overheard him in the corridor protesting to his huge, bear-like manager/minder, effing and blinding that he didn’t want to do any press, and then, at the flip of a switch, entering the room in full-on performance overdrive. A bit like Jim Carrey in a way, rather down and maudlin but compelled to perform for an audience. Interviews with Williams were generally useless, your tape recorder just filled with stream-of-conscious babble and speaking in tongues, although, somewhere, I do have him doing and impression of myself.

Around then, he’d lost his way a little bit. A sort of post-Mrs. Doubtfire lull. He’d just made Jumanji (a film I love), but was then onto sub-standard fluff Jack and Patch Adams. The real turnaround came, of course, with Good Will Hunting. Though with films like The World According To Garp there’d never been any doubt about his strengths as a straight actor. 

Perversely, it seems accolades only ever flow for a comic when he proves himself in something “serious”. Anyone in the business will tell you they’ve got it the wrong way round. To quote Edmund Gwenn on his deathbed: “Dying’s easy. It’s comedy that’s hard.”


Edmund Gwenn's role as Kris Kringle in Miracle On 34th Street was reprised by Richard Attenborough in a rather so-so '90s version. That was just after Jurassic Park when Dickie the director had stepped back into acting as a loveable grandfather figure, thesping being his first love.

What can you possibly add about Attenborough? Just about the nicest man in motion pictures. Spitting Image thought they were sending him up with a lachrymose puppet whose every other word was “darling”, but it wasn’t a million miles from the truth. 

I met him on the set of Shadowlands in Oxford, 1992. Couldn’t have been more welcoming. I also remember him at a screening in London, in the foyer afterwards, just standing there, talking about this and that and people gathering round to listen. A magnetic charm. He suffered some cruel tragedy in later life. I’d like to think of him now as that young airman in (my all-time favourite film) A Matter of Life and Death, arriving at the top of the celestial elevator: “Its’ heaven, isn’t it?”