Sunday 1 November 2009

"Open Channel D" - it's The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

With the cinema screens of the 1960's dominated by James Bond, it was inevitable that the small screen would emulate the 007 phenomenon. The result was TV's most successful and fondly remembered spy series The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Created by producer Norman Felton, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. ran from 1964 to 1968 and starred Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo (a name suggested by Bond creator Ian Fleming) and David McCallum as Ilya Kuryakin, Solo's Russian counterpart. These two super cool secret agents were employed by the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement (U.N.C.L.E.) taking on the dastardly dudes from THRUSH (Technical Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity). Solo and Kuryakin reported to Mr Waverley played by veteran actor Leo G.Carroll, somewhat reprising his role as "The Professor" in Hitchcock's North By Northwest.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. format was a title featuring the word Affair in it such as The Deadly Toys Affair or The Vulcan Affair. Like Batman from the same era, each U.N.C.L.E. episode would boast a guest star like Angela Lansbury, Joan Crawford, Sonny and Cher, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy or Boris Karloff with each act separated by some groovy psychedelic lights.

Like the Bond movies, the U.N.C.L.E. spies dressed cool, Solo at home in a well cut suit or a tux while Kuryakin was a black polo neck kind of spy. They also had their own fair share of gadgets, like the U.N.C.L.E. gun, which of course didn't kill people but shot them with sleep darts and a wonderful pen communicator, which every U.N.C.L.E. agent carried, opening all communications with the immortal "Open Channel D"

To take on Bond, several of the episodes were combined and released as feature films, To Trap a Spy (1964) The Spy with My Face (1965), One Spy Too Many (1966), One of Our Spies is Missing (1966),The Spy in the Green Hat (1966),The Karate Killers (1967),The Helicopter Spies (1968) and How to Steal the World (1968). These movies performed relatively well at the box office. The attraction for many British audiences was the chance to see their heroes in colour due the absence of colour TV in this country at the time.

From its relatively serious first season, the subsequent U.N.C.L.E. seasons like the Bond movies, got camper and sillier. As a result, ratings began to falter and despite attempts to liven things up with a short lived spin-off series, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. starring Stefanie Powers and Noel Harrison, by 1968 it was all over for the super spies.

To reflect the hipness of the series, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. boasted a great theme tune composed by Jerry Goldsmith that was adapted throughout the seasons by other composers including Lalo Schifrin and Walter Scharf. The scores for the series are, as one would expect, flash, brash, brassy and sassy, though later seasons accentuated the organ sound to appeal to the kids. It's interesting to note how similar the Lalo Schifrin version of the U.N.C.L.E. theme sounds so similar to the composers other famous TV theme, Mission Impossible.
  For further reading on the exploits of Messrs Solo and Kuryakin, I heartily recommend The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Book by John Heitland, a long time fan of the show who has assembled an incredibly comprehensive, fully illustrated account of the show's history.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was the product of a simpler more innocent time that has been lampooned to death through Austin Powers. Nevertheless the is landmark series is still fondly remembered and its like will never be repeated or emulated.

Wednesday 28 October 2009

Grand Canyon Suite - Grofe's orchestral masterpiece

Composed in 1928-31 by Ferde Grofé, Grand Canyon Suite is an orchestral piece depicting aspects of the titular Colorado landmark. In 1958, it provided the soundtrack for Walt Disney's breathtakingly beautiful short nature feature, The Grand Canyon.

American pianist, arranger and composer Ferd Grofé began his musical career proper playing jazz piano with the Paul Whiteman orchestra and was the orchestra's chief arranger from 1920-1932. His most memorable arrangement for Whiteman was of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. In addition, Grofé also composed original film music, including the scores to Early to Bed (1928), Minstrel Man (1944), Time Out of Mind (1947), Rocketship X-M (1950) and The Return of Jesse James (1950).

It is however, The Grand Canyon Suite, an unashamed slice of evocative Americana, that Grofé  is perhaps best known. Grand Canyon Suite is divided into five highly individual movements entitled "Sunrise", "Painted Desert", "On the Trail", "Sunset" and "Cloudburst".

Wikipedia describes Grand Canyon Suite thus:

Sunrise opens with a representation of the moment of dawn in the canyon. The feeling of peace is present, a sense of still air, of a place owned by nature. Gradually we hear the sun mount the sky until the joyous proclamations of the full orchestra announce the arrival of another splendid and radiant day. Two main musical themes are presented: the first, announced by the piccolo, opens with a four-note motive (B-C#-G#-B) which will reappear later in the work in different guises; the second theme appears in the strings. After the trill by the piccolo, the descending notes that follow reflect the call of the canyon wren, a widespread but not frequently seen songbird common in the canyon country and desert southwest.

The Painted Desert is a watercolor of impressive delicacy and subtlety. Grofé manages to suggest the presence of some ageless, unchanging life still present in the arid and apparently lifeless desert, in the brilliant, sometimes startling colors of the rock formations, the geologic artwork of prehistory. Ingenious usage of chords and orchestral tone abound.

On the Trail is the best-known of the movements of the Grand Canyon Suite, the aural report of the day riding on the back of a pack donkey (imitating its clip-clop), beginning and ending with a great "hee-haw". A violin cadenza is used to wonderful effect. The principal theme of this movement, which is presented by the horns, and later, trombones, serves as the central motif of the suite. NB The "On the Trail" segment of Grand Canyon Suite was used for many years as the "musical signature" for radio programs sponsored by Philip Morris cigarettes, beginning with their 1933 program featuring Grofé and his orchestra.

Sunset is a nostalgic and pleasantly sentimental rendering of the most glorious of Grand Canyon moments, when the sky is alive with vibrant colors above the deepening shadows in the great gorge.

Cloudburst opens with a sleepy recollection of the theme from "On the Trail" in the upper strings. Then we enter a summation, a kind of panoramic view of the vastness of this Western scene, with brief references to other themes in the work. On to this scene suddenly come dark, scudding clouds and a rising wind. A lone cello solo suggests a mood of apprehension. The evening air is filled with fine sand and bits of tumbleweed, in the form of eerie slow violin glissandi. The storm breaks, with lightning, thunder and pelting rain. Then even more quickly, it is gone, with a last crash of lightning and peal of thunder. The moon emerges from behind the clouds and the earth rejoices in refreshed pleasure in a climactic rousing finish.
I have to confess I knew nothing of Grand Canyon Suite or its composer until a few years ago. It was only after I heard extracts on some classical compilations of American composers that I became hooked. I was struck by the epic, filmic quality of the music especially the airy Sunset, the explosive Cloudburst and the otherworldliness of the The Painted Desert - the latter would have made a great soundtrack for a 50's Sci-Fi movie! It also reminded me of the music from those wonderful old Walt Disney live action nature films that would support some Disney main feature like Blackbeard's Ghost or The Love Bug. It was therefore no big surprise to discover, that Disney had indeed used it to underscore The Grand Canyon short from 1958. The featurette is currently available as an extra on Disney's Sleeping Beauty Special Edition DVD. Don't take my word for it check out this stunning music for yourself.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Flight of the Navigator - Compliance!

One of the most fondly remembered movies of the last two decades is Disney's 1986 science fiction fantasy, Flight of The Navigator, directed by Randall Kleiser. Ironically the movie tanked when originally released, grossing only around $18 million. It was only after  TV screenings and video rentals and sales that it became a cult classic.

Flight of The Navigator concerns David played with great charm by Joey Cramer, a 12-year old boy who is abducted by an alien space craft in 1978. When he is returned to Earth, it is eight years later in 1986 though everyone else on Earth has aged eight years, while David is still physically twelve years old. On his return, he is taken to a NASA facility to be examined.

At the same time a silver, acorn-shaped vessel has been discovered and is taken to the same NASA base as David. It turns out that the alien spacecraft, a Trimaxion Drone Ship nicknamed Max, voiced by a manic Paul "PeeWee Herman" Reubens, is responsible for David's predicament. It calls to David and with the help of an intern, played by a very young Sarah Jessica Parker, David manages to access the alien spaceship and escape the complex. Thus begins a thoroughly enjoyable adventure in time and space for David and the audience.

What distinguishes Flight of the Navigator from other sci-fi movies of that era is the pace, an intellingent well crafted script full of warmth and humour and the fine ensemble acting. Continuity fans will snigger at the sight of Joey Cramer's hair changing from shortish to shoulder length mid scene. Presumably Joey was brought back for some re-shoots or reaction shots during post production and either the continuity person had taken a vacation or no one could convince Joey to get his hair cut. (At least it's not as awful as the wig that Ewan McGregor had to wear in certain scenes in The Phantom Menace!). Above all director Randall Kleiser, the man who brought us Grease, doesn't pad the film out and lets it say what it has to say and then leaves. For me it's up there with Back to The Future for fun, charm and intelligence.

Alan Silvestri provides a warm though very 80's-style electronic score for Flight of The Navigator that is closer to his work on Cat's Eye than his later orchestral work on Back To The Future, especially on the mysterious, David in the Woods and  The Ship Beckons cues. It's a short soundtrack but like the film it's an enjoyable ride.

The latest news is that Flight of The Navigator is to be remade, which for a new audience who find the special effects less than affective and the 80 isms a bit lame, it may seen a good thing. But in my opinion, no matter how many dollars are thrown at it, the new version will have a very hard job competing with the near flawless original.

Sunday 25 October 2009

Four Minus One - Andy Quin

Several years ago I was browsing round a charity shop and found a hoard of Library Music CDs. Amongst the usual cheesy synthesiser fare was Four Minus One, an expertly executed collection of jazz instrumentals by composer and jazz pianist Andy Quin.

Released in 1988 Four Minus One features Andy Quin's Tatum/Peterson/Evans style piano, supported by Tony Woods on Tenor and Alto Sax, Brian Hurst on stand up and fretless Bass, and Pete Cotterill on Drums.  Normally library music by its very nature is simply required to create a mood or provide succinct unobtrusive background. On certain tracks Four Minus One, adheres to these rules, however on the frenetic Bossa Da Company, the band get a chance to really let go.  The saxes are sublime and the rhythm section is electifying. Quin in particular, allows himself to display his enviable skills on the 88, transforming a rambling latin flavoured cue into something altogether wonderful, which to my ears sounds like a syncopated outtake from Richard Rodney Bennett's Billion Dollar Brain

Elsewhere, the hermetically tight quartet take care of business with the smokey jazz club style Eldidarap, the shades 'n' sharkskin suit sophisticition of Calculation and Backstreet, the title track Four Minus One and the perky Take Off  which sounds like a cross between a theme for a game show or a late night chat show and allows Tony Wood's sizzling reed work to shine through. It's a fitting closer for the group session and in my mind's eye I can imagine a good natured but slightly exhausted band packing their gear away in the back of estate cars, exchanging jokes, jackets over their shoulders, while Andy Quin chills out on the old Joanna for the five remaining solo tracks.

Born in London in 1960, Andy Quin has played with some of the UK's leading jazz musicians such as Stan Sulzmann, Don Lusher, Guy Barker, Steve Sidwell, John Patrick, Roy Williams and many more, as well as appearing as a soloist at numerous concert venues and jazz festivals.

Andy Quin's jazz music has featured on numerous TV programmes and adverts as well as film productions including George A. Romero's 1991 Horror, The Dark Half and Brian Dennehy's 1997 drama, A Father's Betrayal which includes Four Minus One's opening track Eldiderap.

Four Minus One has become something of a collector's item, with the vinyl version commanding some £50 for a decent copy. That aside, anyone who has enjoyed earlier postings about Dudley Moore and Gordon Beck, should find plenty to tap a toe to with the Mighty Quin.

Monday 5 October 2009

Wild Things - Nothing is what it seems....(REPOST)

Guillaume Canet's acclaimed Gallic thriller "Tell No One" gained plaudits for its complex plot full of twists and turns right up to the last minute. One movie that trod a similar, if swampy, path was the noirish 1998 erotic crime thriller Wild Things.

Directed by John McNaughton in  fine "Hitchcockian" style, Wild Things is densely plotted, with an attractive and impressive cast of 80's meet 90's stars including, Matt Dillon, Kevin Bacon, Denise Richards, Neve Campbell, Teresa Russell and a scene stealing performance by Bill Murray.

Wild Things is probably more famous for its notorious sex scenes but don't let that wrong foot you, Wild Things is a deceptive movie from the outset. The opening alone, lulls the viewer into thinking they are watching some high school teen melodrama - there lies the beauty of this movie. After this misleading beginning, things soon move up a gear and suddenly nothing is what it seems. Enemies become co-conspiritors, people you think are dead suddenly reappear - the ending is brilliant with revelations even during the end titles. I won't spoil the experience of seeing this film and allowing its sultry charms to take you in. Beg steal or borrow it and see for yourself and check out the fascinating Director's commentary.

Wild Things' soundtrack is provided by George S Clinton (not to be confused with the funk legend George Clinton) and echoes Hitchcock standby Bernard Herrmann and aspects of John Barry's creepy Seance on a Wet Afternoon. Aided and abetted by members of Morphine, K's Choice and Smashmouth, Clinton produces a very listenable soundtrack that manages to maintain its own identity and conjurs up suspense, steamy clinches and Floridan swamps.

In addition to Clinton's excellent score, the soundtrack also includes little musical gems including, Third Eye Blind's poppy Semi Charmed Life,  Smashmouth's ska punk version of War's Why Can't We Be Friends?; Johnny Rivers' soulful Poor Side of Town and K's Choice's angsty I'm Not An Addict to name but a few.

Check out the excellent fansite After Tonight for more information on this classic movie

Sunday 4 October 2009

L'appartement - obsession, lies and deceit

Released in 1996, L'appartement is a stylish and sophisticated noir thriller directed by Gilles Mimouni and starring Vincent Cassel, Monica Bellucci and Romane Bohringer.

Not to be mistaken for Billy Wilder's bittersweet classic, L’Appartement follows the exploits of Max played by Vincent Cassel, a successful businessman living in Paris, soon to be married to his fiance Muriel and about to leave on a business trip to Tokyo.

Over a lunch meeting in a restaurant, Max has to make a phone call only to find the only phone available is in use by a woman concealed behind a frosted glass partition. Max hears the woman, and believes it is his long lost love Lisa played by Monica Bellucci. Max misses the girl as she leaves the restaurant, prompting him to skip his flight to Tokyo and attempt to track Lisa down. Through a series of flashbacks we discover more about Max and Lisa and gradually through his investigations into her disappearance, Max encounters the emotionally damaged Alice, played by Romane Bohringer, and becomes drawn into a web of obsession, lies and deceit.

With a plot reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Barbet Schroeder's Single White Female, L’Appartement's non-linear plot takes the viewer through numerous twists and turns and keeps you guessing right up to its bittersweet conclusion.

The Hitchcockian vibe of L’Appartement is excentuated by Peter Chase's gorgeous melancholic and romantic score which recalls Bernard Herrmann's work with Hitchcock and Howard Shore's A History of Violence. Sadly, an officially released score is not available but a short DVD rip of the soundtrack is a great listen.

If the plot of L'appartement seems familiar, it was was remade in the US by Paul McGuigan as Wicker Park in 2004 and starred Josh Hartnett. I've not seen it it so I can't comment.

For me, Gilles Mimouni's artfully directed L’Appartement is a thing of beauty, stunningly framed by Thierry Arbogast, with a stylish and intelligent plot and great performances by an excellent cast. A cool and sexy film to be savoured.

Saturday 19 September 2009

Dirty Harry - The law's crazy

Released in 1971, Dirty Harry is a crime thriller film produced and directed by Don Siegel. It stars Clint Eastwood as the iconic Inspector "Dirty" Harry Callahan, a blunt, cynical and unorthodox San Francisco Police detective. The first of four Dirty Harry movies, it set the style for a whole genre of violent cop films and helped popularize the .44 Magnum as the most powerful handgun in the world.

Loosely based on the San Francisco Zodiac killings, the plot of Dirty Harry concerns a killing spree carried out in San Francisco by a psychopathic sniper known as Scorpio. Inspector Harry Callahan and partner Chico are assigned to track him down. With little regard for the niceties of Miranda rights and search warrants Harry eventually arrests Scorpio only to see him released on a technicality, prompting Callahan to utter, "The Law's Crazy". Of course Scorpio strikes again, hijacking a school bus, so Harry armed with his trusty .44 Magnum sees that Scorpio is put down once and for all.

The movie is full of memorable and iconic scenes including the hold up/shootout at the beginning of the movie where Harry utters the classic, "I know what you're thinking, punk. You're thinking "did he fire six shots or only five?" Now to tell you the truth I forgot myself in all this excitement. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and will blow you head clean off, you've gotta ask yourself a question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well, do ya, punk?"

So memorable was this scene that it was used, albeit in a digital form, to trail a proposed Dirty Harry computer game, which curiously never saw the light of day.

The Dirty Harry soundtrack was created by composer Lalo Schifrin, who had previously collaborated with director Don Siegel in two earlier Eastwood movies Coogan's Bluff (the inspiration for TV cowboy cop McCloud) and the strange and hypnotic The Beguiled. Hugely influential even 38 years later, Schifrin's sizzling proto Acid Jazz score for Dirty Harry fuses classical music, jazz, soul, funk and psychedelic rock to propel the screen action with powerful cues like the main title and the much sampled Scorpio's View.

When Clint Eastwood finally departs this mortal coil, his legacy will live on as a master film maker, occasional jazz pianist and playing two of cinema's most enduring and memorable icons, the Man with No Name from the 'Dollar' Spaghetti Westerns and Inspector "Dirty" Harry Callahan.

Friday 18 September 2009

The Clangers - Pink Mice in Outer Space

The 8th December 2008 was a sad day for British Television and the many people who grew up listening to the warm and relaxing tones of English animator, puppeteer and writer, Oliver Postgate who passed away on that day. Among his many many achievements were creating and narrating such TV Classics as Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine and The Clangers.

The Clangers were a family of pink mouse-like creatures who lived on a small grey planet in outer space. They communicated in whistles, and ate green soup supplied by the Soup Dragon. Broadcast by the BBC from 1969-1972, The Clangers was a charming stop motion animated children's television series and was produced by Smallfilms, a company set up by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin.

The evocative music for this iconic British series and all Smallfilms productions was composed and performed by bassoonist, conductor and composer Vernon Elliot who passed away in 1996.

The Clangers
have entered pop culture with plush toys still available in UK high street shops. In the late 1980s and early 1990's a Scottish alternative rock band called The Soup Dragons covered the Rolling Stone's I'm Free. In an old Doctor Who episode "The Sea Devils" there is a curious cameo where The Master is seen watching The Clangers on TV while in prison and believes he has picked up some extra-terrestrial broadcast and claims to understand their curious whistling dialogue! Cuuuute!

Wednesday 16 September 2009

The Singing Ringing Tree

For certain Brits who grew up in the 1960's and 70's, The Singing Ringing Tree occupies a special place in their hearts. Just the mention of it provokes avid discussion about school holidays, White Horses, Robinson Crusoe and a certain evil dwarf. So what is it about this 52 year old East German fairy tale that remains in the memories of so many people?

The story follows the exploits of a prince who asks for the hand of a beautiful but spoiled princess. She rejects his gift of pearls and demands instead a magical tree - the titular Singing Ringing Tree. The Prince goes off in search of the tree and eventually finds it at castle with an enchanted garden ruled by an evil dwarf who offers the tree to the prince at a price. If he fails to win the love of the princess he must return to the garden and the dwarf.

Like all fairy tales there's always a bit of suffering and the princess rejects the prince's gift and the poor lad gets turned into a bear for his trouble and the princess gets ugly as a result of a nasty old spell cast by the dwarf. The Bear carries the princess off back to the Dwarf-realm. Despite being dumped on at every opportunity by the dwarf, the Princess learns to love and with the help of some downright weird animals in the enchanted garden she overcomes the dwarf's power. As a result she gets lovely again, the bear turns back into a prince and the Singing Ringing Tree sings rings and they all live happily ever after.

So what's so bad about that? Well nothing really when you look at it in the cold light of day, but somehow the presentation on screen traumatised a generation and probably didn't help people of restricted growth integrate too well into society at the time.

Made in 1957 and first screened in Britain in the Sixties by the BBC as part of its Tales From Europe series, The Singing Ringing Tree (aka Das Singende Klingende Baumchen) was made in the former East Germany and directed by Francesco Stefani with music by Heinz-Friedel Heddenhausen.

Generously funded by the state, the Singing Ringing Tree was filmed in almost lurid colour with top quality production values for the time. Although originally filmed in German, the BBC added an English voice over to describe the action as it unfolded on screen. Whilst this idea was no doubt to save money by the strapped for cash BBC, the calm relaxing voice only accentuated the fairy tale aspect. It certainly needed to, as the dwarf was downright nasty and deeply scary and probably accounted for many a sleepless night.

Apart from the stunning visuals, a crucial aspect of the film was its score. Much of it is lush and romantic yet there are parts that are haunting and mysterious - particularly the scenes in the dwarf realm. Unlike the film itself, The Singing Ringing Tree score has never been released commercially but is a joy to listen to and may just have you hiding behind the settee or sobbing when you hear the tinkly theme tune.

If you want to see the Singing Ringing Tree, it's available on DVD and you can buy it here

Sunday 22 March 2009

The Supremes go Broadway!

The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart, released in 1967 comprises covers of show tunes written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart that have been used in countless movies. This album was original member Florence Ballard's last recorded appearance as a Supreme and heralded Diana Ross' leadership of the group.

Originally conceived as a double album but released as a single 12 track LP, The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart was no doubt part of Motown head honcho, Berry Gordy's master plan to make the Supremes, specifically Diana Ross all round entertainers.

At the tender age of 10 (when I first heard this record), these songs were my first experience of Rodgers and Hart and in some cases the performances that I judged others versions against. The storming opener The Lady is A Tramp still takes some beating as does Mountain Greenery, Dancing on The Ceiling, the classic Motown stomping take of My Heart Stood Still and a sublime My Funny Valentine.

In 1982 the original album was re-released as The Rodgers and Hart Songbook with all the missing tracks from the original sessions. The track sequence was changed along with the artwork, which replaced the Broadway style original with a rather lacklustre tinted illustration of the group. This release soon went out of print and began to attract silly prices on E-bay. It was only in 2002 that the album could be heard again in an expanded form plus a live version of The Lady Is A Tramp, thankfully with the original artwork and track sequence reinstated. Maybe it's a lack of reverb or the fact it's not being played on a Dansette but somewhere in the remastering some of the bite of the original recordings appears to have got lost and the songs sound a wee bit flat compared to their vinyl equivalent. This is not one of those vinyl versus CD comparisons - it's just an observation.

Yes this album is occasionally over the top, schmaltzy and camp, and compared to other Supremes albums it performed poorly in terms of sales, but just put The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart in your CD player, gaze at that ritzy clubland cover and imagine you're at the Copa slurping Martinis while the girls belt out the classics.

Saturday 28 February 2009

Infamy, infamy they've all got it infamy - what a Carry On!

A woman walks into bar and asks the barman for a double entendre. So the barman gives her one. Yes it was cheeky humour like this that made the Carry On films one of the UK's more successful cinematic ventures.

Between 1958 and 1978, 29 official Carry On films were released, commencing with the innocent Carry on Sergeant and culminating in the decidely down-market Carry On Emmanuelle. Filmed on miniscule budgets that even Roger Corman would have found a bit tight, the Carry On's were produced and directed by Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas respectively.

During the Carry On's 1960's heyday, which resulted in such classics as Carry On Cleo, Carry On Up the Khyber, Carry on Camping, Carry On Cowboy and Carry On Screaming, many of the saucy seaside humour scripts were penned by Talbot Rothwell. As time went on a regular cast of British actors developed who routinely appeared in the films. These included Kenneth Williams, Sid James, Charles Hawtrey, Barbara Windsor, Jim Dale, Joan Sims, Leslie Phillips and Hattie Jacques, often working for the most appalling wages. During the filming of one Carry On , wheeler dealer Sid James reportedly sold a couple of the cars used in the movie to bolster his paltry pay!

As the 1970's dawned rival film makers wanted a slice of the lucrative Carry On audience and produced their own bawdy romps like the inexplicably popular Confessions of ..series, where the emphasis was on smut and glimpses of nudity. To meet the needs of seventies' audiences the Carry On's had to compete and became less cheeky and more smutty and one by one the ensemble cast members left the series.

The Carry On's were never going to bother the Oscars committee, but they were immensely popular during their original release and remain so to this day, where cable channels will dedicate entire weekends to screening Carry On movies.

In addition to the dreadful double entendres, an important element of Carry On movies was the music, usually provided by Eric Rogers or Bruce Montgomery. Many of the early movie scores either employed a jazzy and brash big band or a military feel depending on the composer. As soon as you heard the Anglo Amalgamated Fanfare and the familiar Carry On music started up, you knew you were in for a cheeky hour and a half of slighty off colour fun and frolics

Seen today, there is nothing especially offensive about the Carry On's. There's no swearing, minimal nudity and only a few lapses in taste and decorum. The Carry On's were very much of their time and part of the bawdy Chaucererian humour that has been an intrinsic element of British comedy since the year dot. The mere utterance of "Saucy","Matron!", "Ding Dong!", the classic "Infamy, infamy, they've all got it infamy!" and Sid James' lascivious cackle are all part of the Carry On legacy. So next time some TV channel like Living or UK Gold screens a Carry on Weekend, cast aside any political correctness and curl up and indulge in a great British tradition.

Friday 27 February 2009

British Film Classics

With 'Slumdog Millionaire' deservedly winning awards the world over, it's genuinely refreshing to see a British funded movie doing so well. Sometimes we forget that our beleaguered little island once had its own very individual film industry.

The British movie industry used to turn out thoughtful, whimsical, thrilling, funny, charming, bizarre (and predominantly black and white) films that starred unflappable British greats like John Mills, Dirk Bogard, Jack Hawkins, Michael Redgrave and Kenneth More. Classic films like Brief Encounter, Henry V, The Dambusters, Scott of The Antarctic, The Cruel Sea and The Inn of The Sixth Happiness were the staple of many cinema goers' regular viewing sometimes supporting a US main feature or as the main feature themselves. Films like these were propelled by stirring and evocative scores that exuded a certain Britishness, coming from great beknighted composers including Sir William Walton, Sir Malcolm Arnold, William Alwyn, Sir Arthur Bliss, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, Ron Goodwin and Alan Rawsthorne.

British Film Classics is a great double CD that brings together some fine examples of these often overlooked composers' popular works for film. The first CD kicks off with Ron Goodwin's theme from the 1966 feature The Trap better known to British TV viewers as the music for the London Marathon televisations. Elsewhere, we are treated to Sir Arthur Bliss' galloping theme for Things To Come and my personal favourite, Sir Malcolm Arnold's whimsical and anarchic theme from The Belles of St Trinians.The second CD features many evocative scores including Ralph Vaughan Williams bleakly beautiful titles for Scott of The Antarctic and Sir William Walton's soaring Prologue from Henry V and his stirring Spitfire Prelude and Fugue from The First of The Few. Whether it is pure coincidence or my defective hearing, but George Auric's delicate waltz from the 1952 version of Moulin Rouge from CD1 bears something of a passing resemblance to John Barry's 1966 theme to The Wrong Box.

Take some time to wallow in a bit of nostalgia for those wonderful old British films and pay tribute to the composers who helped shape that industry and perhaps inspired the likes of Williams, Goldsmith et al .

Sunday 22 February 2009

Vanity Fair

Released in 1998, the BBC's third production of Vanity Fair was one of the best adaptations of William Makepeace Thackeray's classic novel. With a script by Andrew Davies and quirky production by Mark Munden, the BBC's Vanity Fair kicked Bend it Like Beckham director Mira Nair's so-so Bollywood style film adaptation into touch.

For those readers not familiar with Vanity Fair, it follows the fortunes of devious social climber Becky Sharp. Determined to reach the top, Becky schemes and seduces those who get in her way. When she unexpectedly encounters true love, her upward progress is seriously threatened.

The delightful Natasha Little played the scheming Becky Sharpe with a perfect combination of beauty and guile. Ironically Little ended up in Mira Nair's movie adaptation, playing second banana to Reese Witherspoon's Becky Sharpe. Although another of Andrew Davies' adaptations, Pride and Predjudice became the BBC's big seller, Vanity Fair is in hindsight the better story and one that has a longer shelf life.

Murray Gold, better known as the composer for Doctor Who, creates a fabulously energetic score for Vanity Fair. Using a dazzling array of brass, strings, percussions and reeds including the saxophone (not around in Thackeray's day), Gold's score, though not historically accurate with its borrowings from Jazz, Spanish folk, New Orleans funerals, Kletzmer and a bit of Kurt Weill makes a delightful din.

Over the Hills and Faraway with Richard Sharpe

First shown in the UK in 1993, Sharpe's Rifles was the first of a series of critically acclaimed TV adaptations of Bernard Cornwell's popular novels set in the 19th Century Napoleonic Peninsular wars. Sean Bean starred as the heroic Richard Sharpe, a common soldier who rises through the ranks of the British army after initially saving the Duke of Wellington's life.

Dressed in the uniform of the Green Jackets, the swashbuckling Sharpe served in the fictional South Essex regiment garrisoned in Chelmsford. Each story would see Sharpe carrying out daring exploits against the colourful backdrop of Wellington's campaign against Napoleon Bonaparte. In one of the TV series' deviations from Cornwall's novels, many of Sharpe's adventures were in the company of his crack team of Riflemen known as the Chosen Men.

Despite the literary Sharpe being a dark, scarred and ugly southerner, Sean Bean with his Sheffield accent, blonde tresses and general hunkiness became the definitive Sharpe. Apparently even Bernard Cornwall adapted his later books with Sean Bean in mind.

The music for Sharpe was composed by Dominic Muldowney and featured performances by British folk musicians Kate Rusby and John Tams who arranged much of the music in the series. Tams also was a regular in the series as Chosen Man Daniel Hagman, the sharpshooting former poacher whose cure for all ills was paraffin oil and best brown paper.

Sharpe was essential TV viewing during its heyday in the 1990's. It was filmed on location on a tight budget but excelled with its memorable characters, stirring stories with a bit of romance and action aplenty. The series spawned videos, DVD's, games and talking books and certainly inspired many to consult history books to read up on the background of the world Sharpe existed in.
Despite the limitations of the budget resulting in the Napoleonic campaign being apparently fought by opposing forces no bigger than a couple of football teams, Sharpe managed to convey a historical accuracy yet remained exciting and entertaining.

Through Sharpe, Sean Bean became a pin-up for the ladies and bona-fide Boy's Own type hero in the mould of Sean Connery or Harrison Ford. Alas when Hollywood beckoned, poor old Sean got typecast in baddie roles in such movies as Goldeneye, Ronin and National Treasure. He had a brief moment of glory as Boromir in Lord of the Rings but that was it.

Unfortunately the producers of Sharpe did an Indiana Jones with Richard Sharpe and dusted off his uniform and let out the trousers for a disappointing prequel and a woeful sequel both set in India. The best way to remember Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe is the sight of him and his Chosen Men marching over the brow of a hill to the tune of Over the Hills and Faraway to face another exciting adventure.

Saturday 21 February 2009

Le Grand Bleu - a different kind of blue

Released in 1988, The Big Blue (aka Le Grand Bleu), was director Luc Besson's first English-language film. Starring Besson regular, Jean Reno, Jean-Marc Barr, Rosanna Arquette, The Big Blue follows the rivalry between two free divers.

Sumptuously photographed in locations round the world including the USA, Greece, Antibes, France, Peru, Virgin Islands, and Italy, The Big Blue was nominated for several César Awards and won France's National Academy of Cinema's Academy Award in 1989. Its languid score by Besson's musical partner Éric Serra won Best Music Written for a Film. Despite this recognition and success, the film is rather dull and in my opinion only rescued by Serra's beautiful and serene score.

Serra's trademake fretless bass, subtle keyboards and percussion, along with Gilbert Dall'anese's soaring saxophone especially on The Big Blue Overture and Huacracocha pervade this pretty soundtrack. Let Them Try is a bit of a low point for me where Serra produces a horribly dated 'dance' track with samples from the movie (he did the same on The Fifth Element).

Viewers of the BBC's Little Britain comedy series will be familiar with a character on the show called "Little Dennis Waterman" a diminutive actor who when auditioning for a part in a TV show always wants to sing the theme tune. Well Éric Serra has his "Little Dennis Waterman" moment when he gets to "Sing da Feem Toon" and warbles the closing track My Lady Blue in his faux Peter Gabriel voice. I suppose it's the chef's privilege that having cooked the tasty repast he is allowed a bit of self indulgence. All things considered though, The Big Blue is a lovely piece of music and another worthy addition to Éric Serra's magnificent musical portfolio.

Friday 20 February 2009

Deep Blue - A Fantastic Voyage

Deep Blue (aka La Planete Bleue) is a fascinating feature-length movie of highlights from the BBC documentary series The Blue Planet. Released in 2004, the film substitutes, the familiar tones of British national treasure David Attenborough with a narration by actor Michael Gambon.

Deep Blue transports us on a fantastic voyage to the oceanic realm and introduces us to some of earth's most mysterious ocean creatures. As with all BBC wildlife related documentaries like Land of The Tiger and Walking With Dinosaurs, the filming is frankly stunning, aided in no small way by composer George Fenton's sweeping score performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Although based on the soundtrack from the TV series, the score for Deep Blue was composed specifically for the movie and as such adds even greater depth and colour to the already breathtaking visuals. From the dramatic opener, Bounty Hunters to the rousing magisterial title track, the soundtrack for Deep Blue effortlessly mixes traditional orchestration with subtle electronics most notably on Metamorphosis and Mounting Pressure cues.

If you are looking for an immaculately performed dramatic movie score, try dipping your toe in the Deep Blue.

Thursday 19 February 2009

Music from Grupo Puja! K@osmos

A couple of years ago, my local council put on a three-day festival of street theatre, the highlight of which, was a free performance by K@osmos and Grupo Puja - a troupe of Spanish and Argentine acrobats, live musicians and a “cosmic sphere” suspended from a crane.

The sight of eight people performing and occasionally bungee jumping some 100 feet above me was awe inspiring enough not to mention the fact that the music that accompanied them was live.

The man behind the music for Grupo Puja is multi-instrumentalist Gaston Luiz Lungman whose album La Musica which accompanies the show, reveals many influences including New Age, Drum and Bass, Prog Rock, Classical and most notably Pink Floyd and Clapton.

Absolutely unforgettable live, Grupo Puja! is an experience worth taking the time to see and hear.

Music from The Sultan's Elephant - (May the 4th be with you)

The Sultan's Elephant was a show created by the French Royal de Luxe theatre company. It involved a massive mechanical elephant and a giant girl marionette. The music for this show was composed and performed live by a French band called Les Balayeurs Du Desert.

The spectaclar show was performed in various locations around the world between 2005 and 2006. I was lucky enough to catch the show when it came to London from 4–7 May 2006. The show started with a Cyber-steam rocket "crashing" in Waterloo Place on Thursday May 4.

By Friday, a giant mechanical elephant arrived, along with the Sultan, resulting in some major traffic jams and disruption. In the meantime, a giant girl marionette emerged from the space ship and "walked" up Pall Mall and eventually met up with the elephant. While the girl toured London on an open top bus, the elephant paraded around St James Park. The following day, the elephant arrived in Trafalgar Square where the girl marionette was lifted onto the elephant's trunk and was carried back to Horseguards Parade. The grand finale took place on the Sunday when the girl returned to her space ship and took off in a cloud of smoke, thus concluding a magical few days in the hands and minds of the Royal de Luxe theatre company.

Apart from the sheer spectacle of the staging of the Sultan's Elephant there was of course Les Balayeurs Du Desert's live performance during the show, captured on their album Jules Verne Impact in memory of the 200th anniversary of Jules Verne's death. The album itself is a delightfully eccentric mix of world music, rap, bhangra, electro, dance and rock. It kicks off with the Bo-Diddley meets Bollywood Elephant Walk. Later on The Doors Hello I Love You gets a bonkers Galllic makeover in Hello Ola while Allez Hue dans L'eau echoes the sunny sounds of Air. The penultimate track, the mesmeric Decollage, will be familiar to those who witnessed the girl emerging from her space ship.
This album is not perhaps to everyone's taste purely because of it's eclectic mix of musical styles, but every time I put it on I'm reminded of that magical time in 2006 - the like of which we are unlikely to see again.

Monday 2 February 2009

Charlie Parker With Strings

Ok, this isn't a soundtrack and technically Charlie Parker With Strings shouldn't be here, but this classy collection of mesmerising performances featuring Charlie Parker playing with a small string ensemble, creates a movie in your mind.

Recorded and produced in 1949 by jazz visionary Norman Granz, Charlie Parker With Strings was the first release to feature a jazz soloist backed by violins. 'Bird' takes the opportunity to soar above the occasionally syrupy strings and reinforces his reputation as arguably the greatest improviser of all time.

After a frustrating day battling the snow, that's if you're in the UK, take time to chill out with this cool collection.

Saturday 24 January 2009

Ghostbusters - Bernstein's Supernatural Spectacular

Produced and directed by Ivan Reitman, Ghostbusters was one of the highest grossing films of 1984. Starring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Rick Moranis, Sigourney Weaver and Mr Stay Puft, Ghostbusters followed the comedic exploits of three New York City parapsychologists who out of financial necessity, become ghost exterminators.

Written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, Ghostbusters undoubtedly opened the doors for sci-fi comedies like Men in Black. The laconic Bill Murray all but steals the show with a stack of deadpan one liners such as:

  • "We came, we saw, we kicked its ass."
  • "Why worry? Each one of us is carrying an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back.
  • "Mr. Stay Puft's okay, he's a sailor, he's in New York, we get this guy laid we won't have any trouble."
  • "Somebody blows their nose and you want to keep it?"
  • "I don't have to take this abuse from you, I've got hundreds of people dying to abuse me."
  • "Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, no job is too big, no fee is too big!"

There's some excellent support from the radiant but haunted Sigourney Weaver as Dana Barrett and of course Rick Moranis as the nerdy Louis Tully. Annie Potts who plays the Ghostbusters secretary Janine Melnitz was of course the husky voice of Bo-Peep who gave Sherriff Woody a woody in Toy Story.

To some folks, the music of Ghostbusters is personified by the catchy title song by Ray Parker Junior. Despite being proven to be a lift of Huey Lewis' "I Wanna New Drug", Parker's Ghostbusters was a mega hit of titanic proportions. I remember at the time of the film's theatrical release, going to a matinee performance at a provincial cinema and being highly amused by the kids in the audience all singing along to the theme tune as the opening titles came up - just like Saturday Morning Pictures!

The actual soundtrack for Ghostbusters was written by veteran film composer Elmer Bernstein and what cracking score it is too. Bernstein's piano driven swirling marching theme with a touch of the ethereal Ondes Martenot is a joy, in fact the latter instrument pervades much of the score. The exotic Zool cue is brilliant along with the fanfare which is originally heard during the Lion statue opening of the movie. Bernstein was evidently a little miffed that his score was padded out by a selection of rather insipid pop music, but in the 80's that's what film companies assumed audiences wanted. As a result it is only recently that music lovers can now enjoy the beauty of this great score instead of the limp songtrack that was originally released.

A rather dismal follow up Ghostbusters 2 was released in 1989 which rather abandoned the rough and ready style and and humour of the original and covered any plot holes if indeed there was much of a plot in favour of some not terribly special effects. Bernstein was not retained as the composer in house and score duties were handled by Randy Edelman. None of Edelman's pleasant score for Ghostbusters 2 was released and a so-so collection of pop, soft rock, rap and swingbeat was released instead including a Rap version of Ray Parker's Ghostbusters song by RUN DMC. Still Bobby Brown's Swingbeat On Our Own is worth tapping your feet to.

It appears that Harold Ramis is planning Ghostbusters III. Let's hope he doesn't do an Indiana Jones and The Crystal Skull and lose any remaining cred!