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.