TV Review – Brookside, The Larry Sanders Show, Star Trek: The Next Generation

What Is Love?

(Originally published in L:Scene magazine, February 1996)

Brookside (C4) continues to be a crucible of sexual intrigue, week after smouldering week. There’s now an Australian present, who’s a) working in a local pantomime (plausible), b) getting into heavy drugs courtesy of Jimmy Corkhill (erm, alright) and c) loins are being stirred by Jacqui Dixon (do me a favour). “Ah think ah’ve foullin for yer big toyme,” he states as if he’s still urging the kids to reveal what’s occurring behind him. He’s due to die any day.

Next door, newly arrived Gary and Lindsey Corkhill are getting sexually frustrated: he wants it, she doesn’t. “Why won’t you give me a chance, ay?” says Gary, filtering his volcano of feelings into effortless soap speak. But it turns out Lindsey doesn’t love her husband anymore; she foullin for scouse stud Mike Dixon. “I just don’t know what to do about Gary, he’s so nice to me – but I can’t stop thinking about you Mike.”

In a Hitchcockian moment of tension, Lindsey and Mike are passionately snogging in the back of the shop whilst Gary walks slowly along the street. The door opens on the Romeo and Juliet of L12 but it’s only loveable Terry. I unlock my knuckles from the armchair. Loveable Terry can keep a secret and offers the use of his flat for their horizontal jogging in a Jack Lemmon-esque display of lovability.

But loveable Terry has also foullin for Sarah, who was also shagging Mike last time I looked. That man makes JFK look like LBJ. In fact both loveable Terry and slightly less loveable Eddie seem to fancy Sarah, despite the fact that the latter is also her father-in-law. “I’m not sure you should be letting him up here,” shit-stirs a jealous Eddie. “He went off his head a year ago.”

But people tend to go off their head all the time on Brookside. My money’s on Katie being the next purchaser of a Saveaway to loony land; all those heavy handed hints about her being worried about her mother being contractually obliged to go to Japan for a year, her being too tired to have a Chinese meal and the discovery of a spot on her face must add up to something.

The Larry Sanders Show (BBC2) is so classy it makes you vomit. The characters are all so gloriously drawn that the fact that situations seem not so much written as congealed never seem to matter. Line of the week went to Sideshow Hank, who delivered a speech to a camcorder for Larry’s birthday. “If I start crying, just keep running,” he warns, checking his cue cards. Unless you live in Brookside genuine emotions are like that – not available on cue cards.

In the old episodes of Star Trek, currently being repeated on BBC2, it was invariably the case that Captain Kirk would come across some beautiful Space Girl who would gaze longingly into his eyes and murmur, “Tell me Captain, what is this concept you humans call ‘love’?” Kirk would usually waste no time in having a bit of inter-species other. The chief attraction of Star Trek: The Next Generation (BBC2) is that it usually manages to avoid this sort of rubbish – or at least turn it on its head.

This week a lot of weirdly shaped-skull people were on a diplomatic mission to the Enterprise. Whilst some of them stayed on board and drove the crew nuts, Captain Picard went off with one of them and managed to crash on a barren planet. “Inertial dampers off-line, life support failing.” It’s this ability to make talking in lists so natural that got Patrick Stewart the part.

The downside of having the weird skull pilot dying on you and having broken some ribs is compensated for when he meets a beautiful Space Girl who’s been stranded there for seven years. “Well you’re certainly not a Terallian, unless you’ve lost two of your arms,” smoothes the Captain.

“I’ll do anything you want, just don’t leave me,” she replies, clearly impressed with his chat up lines.

But the Captain is not interested in her charms. “I feel a great sympathy with what you’ve been through…”

Meanwhile on the Enterprise, keen Klingon Lieutenant Worf has chinned a particularly annoying weird skull alien. “Wonderful,” enthuses the alien. “If you’ll excuse me, I’d like to document this experience.” Clearly something is up with these weirdos. Picard, too, is starting to smell a rat as he discovers he hasn’t got broken ribs after all. And rather than a willing mopsy, Space Girl is turning into Kathy Bates. “You should love me by now,” she pouts.

The supposedly dead pilot turns up again after she leaves and, like a Private Eye look-a-like, it turns out that they’re one and the same person. “My mission was to study human intimacy, a concept you call ‘love’,” explains the pilot. Ah. In this case it’s a good job that the Captain didn’t stick his tongue down a strange person’s throat. Cast of Brookside please take note.


Book Review – Peace On Earth, The Ghost Road

An Unhappily Prosperous World

(Originally published in L:Scene magazine, February 1996)

It must be that famed Polish sense of humour. It lies in the art of being dryly hilarious about something of the utmost seriousness. Even Roman Polanski made Dance Of The Vampires.

So it is with dear old Stanislaw Lem and his latest book Peace On Earth (Andre Deutsch – £14.99). He’s been writing the most extraordinarily imaginative books for decades now and as he gets older, so he grows funnier. Still living in Krakow – the universal acclaim for his books has yet to make him move to some Western literary hotbed – his books have been a bit thin on the pasture recently. So it was with some delight that Peace On Earth was received.

The story is typical Lem. Ijon Tichy, our unflappably stoic hero, has been on a secret mission to the moon which has not only left him with amnesia but two separate personalities, thanks to the two hemispheres of his brain being forcibly separated. With two personalities controlling each side of his body, he has to find out why this has happened and whether he might be in possession of some top secret military facts which his less dominant side is keeping under wraps.

Around this, Lem wraps a beautifully portrayed satire of espionage and military buildups. All weapons have been sent to the moon to fight amongst themselves, but the people back on Earth are missing them. Whoever finds out whether the moon is beyond intervention will have the world in their power. Lem leaves no moment of pomposity unturned as he wheedles every ridiculous possibility out of the paranoia and mistrust of an unhappily prosperous world.

And of course it’s all deadly serious. Tichy is as dislikable narrator as is possible. He treats everyone with a disdain which they don’t always deserve. Hollywood would describe this main character as ‘impossible to sympathise with’. I’m sure Lem wouldn’t have it any other way.

And though it all there’s Lem’s wit, dry enough to make a Martini. There is no character or situation which is not wrung through the mangle of Lem’s barbed observations. You know you are guaranteed another jaw dropping aspect of this world and a scathing scintilla of wit at the turn of the page.

Now after all that do I have to actually ask you to get this book? And while you’re at it, get his other books as well. They may not be as funny but they’re just as fun.

The Ghost Road (Penguin – £6.99) was the Booker Prize winner of last year, in which a supposedly serious novelist delivers the third part of what we must now call a trilogy. David Eddings look out.

Not that it stopped every critic in the land reacting with slavish hunger and effusive verbiage at the latest book from Pat Barker, the follow up to Regeneration and The Eye In the Door. Set in the closing months of World War I the narrative picks up once again on the story of Billy Prior, professional Interesting Character: homosexual, shellshock victim, asthmatic, working class officer, former spy and a bit of a nutcase deep down.

Surrounding him are a bunch of real people. Barker is nothing if not a name dropper and if you happened to have read Robert Graves’s Goodbye To All That then you may recognise these bods. From Siegfried Sassoon to Wilfred Owen to Lewis Carroll, you too can wade in all that reflected glory. If Barker were to write a fourth book my money’s on Lawrence of Arabia being the special guest star.

Having an ‘in’ on these people, especially if you’ve read the previous two volumes, makes The Ghost Road very readable. A novelist can’t really go wrong with the first world war and Barker presents us with a paradoxical book, vibrating with the nervous energies of characters who have witnessed the war in all its horror but can’t avoid its almost macho pull. She also has a genuine talent for those little insights into the human condition, especially inherent class structures that Mary Wesley would chew her own foot off for.

Around all this sociology we have the figure of William Rivers (another real life character) the elderly psychiatrist who treated Prior and now spends his time drawing stocking tops on paralysis victims and thinking back over old times. Somehow he makes a connection between Charles Dodgson, the vicar who told him stories when he was a child, and the strange rituals of a group of ex-headhunters in Africa where he was assigned as a student doctor.

If all this has already got your attention then that’s what the book is supposed to do. Barker writes for literary reviewers in Hampstead who are eternally relieved not to have to read another turgidly written ‘novella’ about how a ‘relationship’ went ‘wrong’. She won the Guardian Fiction Prize for The Eye In The Door, a competition deliberately set up to provide an alternative to the unreadable rubbish which gets nominated for the Booker Prize each year. Then she went and won the Booker over the seemingly unassailable Salman Rushdie, a provocative gesture on behalf of the judges. But through all the cultural politics Pat Barker is nothing more than the sensible person’s Iris Murdoch.

Video Review – Exotica, A Study In Terror, Harry Enfield and Chums, Blackadder

Writhing Performers

(Originally published in L:Scene magazine, November 1995)

In a club as exotic as its title, a schoolgirl lapdancer oozes for a client with hang ups. Meanwhile a pet shop owner deliberately gives away tickets to the opera. All the while, people are striding across a burnished landscape, line abreast. They, like the audience, are looking for something.

Exotica (Fox Video – Rental) tries hard to be meaningless at first. People’s lives flit by seemingly at random and are unwilling to reveal anything about themselves. But director Atom Egoyan’s camera carefully reveals these people’s methods, reasons and, most of all, their perversions. Bruce Greenwood’s love for the lapdancer goes far beyond mere lust. Elias Koteas’s constant introduction of her (“What is it about a schoolgirl?”) reveals more about himself. And Don McKellar’s pet shop boy has only himself to blame when he gets mixed up in their world.

For once, here is a so-called art house film that isn’t afraid to go beyond its small remit. The club and its writhing performers are necessary to the story and not a frame is wasted on unimportant subtext. The climax is like an orgasm – at once fulfilling and inevitable, as well as untenable and surprising. I’m sure no Atom Egoyan film could ever be described as predictable. On the spine, Exotica describes itself as an ‘erotic thriller’, one of the most overused and shite-indicating terms used in films. Exotica isn’t an erotica thriller.

Ever since the death of dear old Arthur Conan Doyle people have been pondering inane fanfic questions such as “What if Sherlock Holmes had met…?” Everyone from Sigmund Freud to Lord Haw Haw have been on the receiving end of the great detective’s impossible smart-assedness and in A Study In Terror (A Taste of Fear – £10.99) we get the inevitable: Jack the Ripper.

“Hold!” I hear you cry, “Wasn’t that film called Murder By Decree starring Christopher Plummer and James Mason?” Well, yes it was and unfortunately this film turns out to be, with apologies to Gene Wilder, Sherlock Holmes’s less smarter brother.

This film was made earlier than Murder By Decree and unfortunately has ‘Hammer Horror’ stamped all over it in exploitative red ink. You almost know what to expect when you see Barbara Windsor’s annoying and indecently young visage getting slit up a treat early on.

But somehow it manages to rise above all this Dale Winton-like tackiness. John Neville as Holmes (no, I’d never heard of him before The Adventures of Baron Munchausen either) and Donald Houston as Watson are interesting without being overly flashy, driving a narrative which actually makes some serious points about homelessness and poverty. Edwardian monarchs, however, are not implicated.

A mildly diverting hour and a half then, and strangely interesting for the fact that Frank Finlay plays Inspector Lestrade, a role he recreated a few years later for… you guessed it, Murder By Decree.

Harry Enfield goes mainstream in his latest Harry Enfield and Chums (BBC Video – £10.99) video. But then it’s hard to disprove he wasn’t in the first place. By his own admission ‘a bit Dick Emery’ Enfield’s first show on BBC1 wasn’t all that different from his BBC2 or Channel 4 shows. The man has a gift for knowing what a large proportion of the population will laugh at.

Take the Self-Righteous Brothers, two of the characters debuted here. They only needed to appear once, going on about the relative merits of ‘Edmonds’, for everybody in this fair land of ours to go “Oi, Edmonds, no!” at annoyingly high volume.

The only difference here seems to be a high proportion of famous guest stars (“Oi, Hill, no!”). Whereas the idea of ‘Benny Elton’ wandering around parks at double speed clothing scantily-clad bimbos is immensely risible (it’s a wonder he never thought of it himself), Naomi Campbell as the lover of Wayne Slob was one of those ‘what ifs’ that should have remained so.

It would have been better to have left the acting to Enfield and his chums, Paul Whitehouse and, especially, Kathy Burke. Burke has long been on the sidelines of British comedy acting, probably because she doesn’t look like Emma Thompson. With the evidence here of one of the randy old ladies (“You look like a young Harry Belafonte”), Waynetta Slob and Perry, the (male) mate of Kevin the Teenager, she should be winning Oscars by the end of the decade.

The BBC gets its act together elsewhere with the realisation that there is such a thing as a three hour videotape and has produced a wallet-friendly release of all four Blackadder (BBC Video – £10.99 each) series on a tape each.

The Black Adder was a high budget romp through the dark age of a mythical Richard IV. Written by Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis it introduced us to the king’s repellent son Edmund, an oily scheming git with a deformed haircut who referred to himself as the Black Adder. With actorly guest stars including the alliterative Brian Blessed and Frank Finlay, the series was a small success but lacked the requisite factor of actually making you laugh more than twice an episode. Only episode four, The Queen of Spain’s Beard starring Miriam Margolyes as a lascivious Spanish princess and Jim Broadbent as her cheerful interpreter, managed to achieve something that was more than the sum of its parts. Adjudged an expensive failure at the time, a second series looked unlikely.

Thankfully, someone at the BBC thought otherwise. For Blackadder II is one of the greatest sitcoms of all time. With a scaled-down production and Ben Elton replacing Atkinson on script duties the Black Adder took on a new lease of life. This time he is Lord Edmund Blackadder, court lackey to the non-fictional Queen Elizabeth I and total bastard.

The genius of Elton and Curtis’s script was to make Blackadder less smarmy and more sympathetic – even when he’s kicking Lord Percy in the nuts. The only other characters to survive from the first series – Baldrick, Blackadder’s mucky servant and Lord Percy, “a total git who I don’t seem to be able to shake off” – were developed into two genuinely funny sidekicks. The actorly element was still there in the presence of Tim McInnerny and Miranda Richardson as the frighteningly immature Queen, but now they had funny lines to deliver. It’s hard to single out one episode out as the best but Beer, wherein Edmund has to deal with a visit from his puritan aunt (Margolyes again) whilst hosting a drunken party is a masterpiece of frantic farce. The explanation of “great booze up” has to be seen to be believed.

With a now winning formula, Blackadder the Third and Blackadder Goes Forth couldn’t go wrong. Tim McInnerny was afraid of being typecast so Percy had to go, although he returned as the petty Captain Darling in the fo(u)rth series. Baldrick had to get thicker to replace him, to diminishing returns. But Hugh Laurie made an exceptionally insane Prince of Wales and Stephen Fry has never been better. His tall demeanour and deep voice brought the violent Duke of Wellington in series three and blood-lusting General Melchett is series four to vivid life.

All these tapes are well worth your money, with first choice going to the truly exceptional second series. One of the greatest British sitcoms at good value. Can’t be bad.

Club Review – Liquidation

Pop Liquidator

(Originally published in L:Scene magazine, February 1996)

Liquidation at Hardy’s is the true essence of Britpop in the north. Two years old, it is only recently that people have caught onto the organisers’ almost petulant love of Blur, Supergrass, Pulp etc. Now, they have just opened another floor of fun-filled frolics that should have the bright young things of Liverpool languidly draped over the enormous dance floors.

The latest grunge sounds from America are not welcome. Check shirted long hairs ‘getting down’ are asked politely to leave. Here it’s all slinky young hipsters climbing off their mopeds and flicking their fringes elegantly in the direction of the bar. “It’s fun, it’s unisex, it’s all happening at Liquidation,” say the posters. The origins of Liquidation are mistily obscure. Jim and Julian’s need to put on a night for all the unsigned bands they knew collided with Danny’s penchant for “new music”. At the time, this consisted of Babies by Pulp, Sunday Sunday by Blur and not much else. Oasis were still waiting for Noel to get back from roadieing for the Inspiral Carpets. But this could all be bollocks; the people here are, after all, very cool.

Liquidation started slowly, gradually building up an audience on the top floor of the student-friendly Hardy’s on Hardman Street. Initially they were getting less people than downstairs, where mainstream dance was more the done thing. These positions slowly reversed until the end of last year when doors had to be closed at 11pm and bouncers were regularly turning away over 300 people a week. Now the little fish has swallowed the big fish and total capacity of Liquidation throughout its three rooms is equivalent to that of the rather famous Cream.

But there’s no pulsing beats here. In fact the music played could easily be described as that darling of the music weeklies, Britpop. “It’s basically what we were doing when we started, but it wasn’t called Britpop then,” says Danny. “It’s more to do with people being into human music. Three years ago, I was so fucked off with the music scene. It was like if you don’t want to take a tablet then it’s shit.”

Another aspect of this new improved whiter than white Liquidation is something called, rather splendidly, the Technicolour Suite. This is a cinema situated in the other downstairs room which shows the best in ‘far out’ films. This week we had David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave and an annoyed Jeff Beck smashing up his guitar in Blow Up. By a strange coincidence this is also the name of Liquidation’s equivalent and higher profile rival in London, where the world looks equally bright and spangly rose-coloured pebble spectacles. “Everyone talks about Liquidation being a copy of Blow Up, despite the fact that we started exactly the same week,” says an almost heated Danny. “But this venue is so much bigger than theirs, we can overtake them in exactly the same way as Cream has overtaken the Ministry of Sound.”

The last word goes to a misty-eyed lad who came all the way from Solihull. “It’s got its finger on the pulse. You know when it started, like dance music was all the thing. Now it’s gone sort of upbeat, with the Blur and Oasis thing. It’s hit the right note at the right time. Whatever you say about those two groups, they’re doing this country a good service, you know what I mean like?”

And so I wandered off into the gaily upbeat throng – currently dancing to Menswear – and tried to work out how to do that hands-behind-your-back-bouncing-up-and-down dance. Liquidation play greatest hits for the 21st Century girl or boy. Fab.

Liquidation at Hardy’s: Every Saturday 10pm-2am. £2.50 entrance, though you may have to get there early.

TV Review – Jake’s Progress, In Search of Happiness, Heroes of Comedy

Angus Deayton’s Eyebrows

(Originally published in L:Scene magazine, November 1995)

If you’ll forgive a blindingly obvious metaphor, Alan Bleasdale is like The Beatles – he’s from Liverpool and has been influenced a lot by America. In Jake’s Progress (C4) people have problems. They’re a lot closer to real life tha they would be in an American drama series but they still talk about it incessantly.

Robert Lindsay and Julie Walters – who when we last saw them together were mother and son – are a couple so happy they still perform cunnilingus. Robert’s too worried about Julie to notice that their son Jake is saying, “I want everyone to die except me and daddy.” I was saying similar things myself myself when I was a kid but this is Alan Bleasdale and these things have significance.

Robert Lindsay is as embarrassingly eye-catching as he was in Alan Bleasdale’s previous GBH. Full of all the bouncy energy of a man in a Gillette commercial, he also dutifully makes the tea, does John McEnroe impressions and writes songs in his loft. He’s basically playing himself – an annoying actor in his forties who wouldn’t know a domestic crisis if Lee Strasberg taught him how to be it.

Alan Bleasdale obviously wrote the part for him and that’s not the least of his self-indulgences. Robert and Julie are at a party where the people take Lindsay Duncan reading palms dressed as Mia Farrow and Lindsay playing guitar in the stairwell seriously. Dennis Potter had his sexual fantasies. Alan Bleasdale has crap baby boomer parties.

But Alan Bleasdale’s dramas have a compulsiveness which makes you watch, ignoring unlikely coincidences (young Jake overhears everything). GBH was lauded to the hilt, despite the fact that episodes 2-6 were well-written shite of the highest order. After that first episode you had no choice but to keep watching, despite Michael Palin’s holiday with Daniel Massey. Here, Amanda Mealing appeared for no apparent reason though it was treated like Harry Dean Stanton coming out of the desert.

Bleasdale works on the grand scale now. A swift burst of mathematics on behalf of this reviewer gives the result that there is another six hours yet to come. Altogether, you could see three Dances With Wolves or six Pocohontases, and my bum was numb through both of them. These people are going to talk and talk.

In Search of Happiness (BBC1) stars Angus Deayton and more importantly Angus Deayton’s eyebrows. They both flitted about the world like a pointless James Burke with licence-payer annoying speed, interviewing people who claimed they had discovered true happiness. If I tell you that one was an American ‘sub-modalist’, one was a couple who drilled holes in their heads and another was someone who moved to Australia then moved back to Bolton, you know that sights weren’t being set overhigh in the general enlightenment stakes.

Still, Angus’s eyebrows were as entertaining as ever and their reaction to Laurence Y. David G. Adams, name analyst and initial freak who wanted to rename Angus Angus G. Deayton for no obvious reason, was beautifully timed.

Heroes Of Comedy (C4) attempted another impossibility: how to define funnyness. Tommy Cooper was the victim here and various luminaries tried to say why he was funny. “The face was a call for help,” said Spike Milligan, who obviously wished he had one as well.

“It was a bit like having a big naan bread bearing down on you,” metaphored Bob Monkhouse weirdly. Anthony Hopkins did an impression of the man which was similar to his impression of Laurence Olivier in the remastered Spartacus, where he sounded like Anthony Hopkins doing an impression of Laurence Olivier.

In the end, it was the clips of the man that told all you needed to know. Cooper trying to do a ventriloquist act on a rocking boat set, attempting to sing ‘Gye Gye Glues’ and getting no further than ‘gye’ was funny. Simple as that.

Film Review – Jade, Species, Crimson Tide


(Originally published in L:Scene, November 1995)

Good cast, great director, legendary producer (Robert Evans). What a shame that Jade is written by Joe Eszterhas, a man seemingly incapable of expanding on a good idea. Jade comes with pretensions but deep down it’s nothing more than an after-11pm-on-Sky erotic thriller. It’s an unresolved war between a hackneyed, artless script and a real return to form for dear old William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist and The French Connection.

A San Franciscan Stephen Ward-a-like is messily murdered and public prosecutor David Caruso is called in to give the verdict. “This was rage,” he says and he’s possibly right. He’s also right to think of possible career advancement since the victim had some pictures of compromising positions between the Governor and a prostitute in his safe. Could he have killed him? Could she? Or could it be the mysterious Jade, a woman with an almost legendary sexual appetite who seems to have screwed her way through most of San Francisco and enjoyed it as well?

So, Jagged Edge meets Basic Instinct then – Joe Eszterhas wrote them all. Both of those films, whilst successful, were decidedly overrated and Eszterhas clearly has no desire to do anything new with these formulas. Plus the actual plot has more holes than Bikini Atoll; you always know you’re onto a real dog when a character has his brakes cut early on and the incident is never mentioned again.

So three cheers for wily old canine Friedkin, who manages to make this mess almost bearable. The whole thing is superbly shot and he manages to get a good performance from Caruso as the only man around actually to have never slept with Jade, despite being in love with her. Linda Fiorentino fares less well in a cipher of a role. She is also required to shed clothes with much abandon; something she is far too good an actress to need to do.

It’s fitting that the most memorable scene should be that old Friedkin stand by, the car chase. Here, a hell-for-leather vertical descent down the oft-filmed San Francisco streets, in which you can physically feel every bump and hole along the way then makes a left turn into a gaudy and crowded Chinese celebration with the chase suddenly pitched at an agonizing snail’s pace. Wonder if Eszterhas wrote that into the script?

The first scene of Species is a killer. A young girl, kept in a scientific observation cell, is gassed with cyanide. Grim but tearful Ben Kingsley looks on. But the little girl improbably survives and escapes. Right from the start you’re interested but Species can’t help but let you down, enjoyable rubbish though it is.

For a start it’s a poor man’s Jurassic Park. There’s a lot of nonsense about alien DNA being spliced with humans and there’s a team of disparate B-list actors on the hunt for the monster. For Sir Dickie, Sam Neill, Laura Dern et al, here read grizzly Ben, Michael Madsen (as the action man hero!), Marg Helgenberger, Alfred Molina and Forest Whitaker. But whereas with Steven Spielberg you get his elegantly simple plot structures, here we have a lot of hopeless running around and ineffectual character studies worthy of Doctor Who.

With our ‘team’ tepidly on her heels, the little girl escapes on a train and changes via cocoon – the one genuinely disturbing scene in the film – into Natasha Henstridge. And because she’s now past puberty her biological clock is ticking like a timebomb late for a conference. She’s not the only one. Biologist Helgenberger is getting the hots for Madsen, despite the fact that he “hunts men”.

“So what do you do out in the Valley?” asks Madsen with all the charm of a recently mugged pork chop.

“Pine for guys like you?” she replies hopefully. Like the rest of the script it’s about as convincing as Eddie Large’s Cliff Richard.

But enough of this soap opera stuff, where’s the gore? It’s portentously announced in the opening title that H.R. Giger, designer of the alien in Alien designed the alien. Finally we get to see it. Henstridge shags an oblivious Molina. “Oh I enjoyed that immensely” pants Molina in the most British way ever, his mind clearly on Jill Gascoine. Henstridge kills him and turns into… the alien from Alien. Oh well, it’s good to see Giger didn’t tax his fevered mind too much.

The rest is predictable: The Brits die, the survivors chase the alien down a sewer, Madsen kills it with the immortal cry “let go you motherfucker”… there is even a little scene in case anyone fancies a sequel. There is much that isn’t explained but that isn’t the point. Like Hitchcock’s regular McGuffin the message being sent here is, ‘never mind sense, don’t you want to a really good looking woman in the buff and lots of stylised gore?’ Hmm… recommended.

If you want a properly visceral film try Crimson Tide, a claustrophobic and smokily intense mainstream thriller. Sweatily chewing up all the submarine cliches there are it delivers excitement by the ballast tank-load.

The Cold War film doesn’t exist anymore but then it hardly needed to exist in the first place. Hollywood didn’t need a load of commies to rail against; just about anybody would’ve done. Nowadays of course, everybody does.

Gene Hackman is the captain of a nuclear submarine eager and ready to fight against any enemy his commander-in-chief points him at. “As of now we are back in business,” he delightedly tells his new Executive Officer Denzel Washington when Russian Nationalists seize control of nuclear warheads. Denzel isn’t so eager and this is where the true conflict arises.

These days, Tony Scott is a fantastic director. After The Last Boy Scout and True Romance his films, whilst still retaining that polished, commercial sheen, have miraculously turned into gripping, jaw-dropping slabs of cinema. Against the contrasting wail of a male voice choir Denzel and Gene’s slight differences are exaggerated by the conflict. Denzel is tight-lipped over Gene’s “simple-minded” ways but his tight lips are pissing Gene off.

Aside from some glaring rewriting from a certain Mr. Tarantino (“I’m Captain Kirk and you’re Scotty”, metaphors Denzel to his bemused communications officer, “if you don’t give me warp power a billion people are going to die”) and a inappropriately jolly and upbeat ending (well it was either that or a nuclear holocaust) this is a super-cool, militaristic thriller with more twists and turns than a corkscrew rollercoaster. Cold War, shmold war – all thrillers should be this good, regardless of the filmic enemy.

TV Review – Four In A Bed, The Strange Case of the Law

Commercial Quality

Since Channel 4 cannot show Come Dine With Me till the end of time, although you strongly suspect they’d like to, they had to delve deep into their bottomless ideas bag and come up with shows that are almost exactly like Come Dine With Me but different enough to make those watching after 15 minutes go, “oh, hold on, this isn’t Come Dine With Me.”

Four In A Bed (C4) takes place over four nights and features four people who run B&Bs visiting each other’s places and casting judgement. Those slight differences are that the people running the B&Bs come in pairs and there’s a lot less alcohol involved. This last aspect makes it one of the dullest, underpowered, low-wattage shows that has ever been made. It makes Bargain Hunt seem a masterpiece of skillfully directed tension.

The first episode of this titanic struggle for a few quid was set in Torquay and featured Monica and Hans, Dutch owners of the Harmony B&B. Hans sets himself up as being a bit of a devil-may-care contrarian, “Don’t make everybody like you,” he counsels. “Some people hate me but I don’t see them anymore.” Hans looks like Whispering Bob Harris standing on someone else’s shoulders, so the threat doesn’t so much land as get pulled away on a gust of air.

The other B&B-running guests include a pair of Essex girl sisters who live in a blinged-up place in Cumbria (“took us ages to put the diamantes on the wall”), a quiet mum and daughter from Gateshead (Mum: “I don’t actually want to talk to anyone because we talk to people every day”) and Jenny and Richard from Norfolk. He’s indecipherable but she talks for him anyway. She could talk for everyone east of the Ouse.

Jenny spots her worst nightmare: hairs in the shower. “That’s my worst nightmare,” she repeats, assuring us she doesn’t dream about naked public speaking or invasions of killer wasps. Hans, who uses a wheelchair now and then and doesn’t care what you think of him for it, shows them the sights of Torquay. This is a wheelchair badminton match, which the participants uncomfortably throw themselves into with the air of English people tolerating foreigners everywhere. Jenny’s dubious looks are getting dubiouser.

For the moment, the Dutch hosts are having trouble with incomprehensibly Norfolk Richard. Most British people would have trouble with him: “You can feel’n arms because, something, you know it’s been try to relate to ’em all an’ that, think you will.” His wife has not let him say anything for so long he’s lost the ability to be legible. Instead, Jenny tells fascinating stories about the people who have stayed at her place, including the gripping tale of a man who drank 23 cans of scrumpy and fell over.

Finally, things come to a head over breakfast. Let battle commence. The not-Dave Lamb doing the low energy voiceover tries miserably to inject tension but it’s clear Jenny and Hans can do it on their own, or as much as is possible for two quite polite people who aren’t on alcohol. Jenny isn’t a fan of the sausages and says so. “I would hope that my food is better.” She writes down her assessment of the sausages: “I don’t want to say cheap quality. Commercial?” This baffles Hans and he feels offended on behalf of his butcher. As does the word scuff, which someone had noticed in one of the rooms. “What is ‘scuff’? Is that Yorkshire? I think I heard it on Auf Wiedersehen Pet.”

Day two and revenge is in the air. With the other contestants merely onlookers to the coming bloodbath, Hans sniffs around Jenny and Richard’s place on the Norfolk Broads. “It’s just a house.” Jenny is worryingly patriotic and has not only named the rooms after Royal Palaces but has put British flags everywhere. “It’s a symbol of the country, not a tablecloth”, points out Hans. Monica is also struggling Dutchly with verbose Jenny. “I cannot cope with it anymore. Too many words.” But winter is coming when Hans issues the dread words, “I’m interested in their sausages.” Let battle commence at the breakfast table.

Hans offends Jenny (Richard has wisely retreated at this point) by asking for a sausage on a roll. “We don’t do rolls at breakfast,” she points out.

“Jenny, can I be awkward?” Jenny’s pleasant, patriotic smile almost slips. Hans wants unsalted butter. It’s like a nuclear bomb just went off but without the blast, noise, fallout or any damage whatsoever.

“In England we like salted butter,” asserts Jenny. Nevertheless, Hans and Monica give her a poor performance review. A mere 4/10 for service. Now that the programme is moving on to the people who are perfectly nice and pleasant with each other, it’s time to bail after all this blood on the union jack carpets.

In an entirely different world, there are people who go their whole lives with a perfectly ordinary name that nobody could take any pleasure from. Unfortunately, these unobtrusive, humble names are exactly the sort of monikers that, say, an authoress might want to use to ground her otherwise magical and otherworldly tales. Welcome to Harry Potter, middle-aged lawyer and presenter of The Strange Case of the Law (BBC4).

Undoubtedly a lawyer, with his Rumpole-esque rolling delivery and that shabby-yet-smart demeanour of all those who serve the bar, he hides his no doubt seething hatred of JK Rowling well, even brazenly not changing his name to the slightly less laughable ‘Harold’. You can imagine him gripping his gown and arguing in the mirror that he was quite happy being called Harry Potter for forty-odd years and no mere children’s book is going to make him change.

Moving on reluctantly from mocking the poor man’s name, The Strange Case of the Law is a studied history of England’s Common Law, of which Potter (snurk) is quite proud because it deigns to include ordinary people. He goes back to English law’s origins, notably disparaging Scottish law despite being Scottish himself. One of the earliest written laws is read by Potter (teehee): “If someone disables a genital member, one is to buy him off for three person payments.” A person payment is the equivalent of the lives that won’t be born and is actually quite a lot of dosh, considering the worth of lives generally in the Dark Ages. Early compo.

The earliest trials in England were based on oaths. If you swore you were innocent and got a certain amount of your mates to swear equal oaths to your honesty, you were innocent. Because everyone was so religious and believed that swearing oaths that were false meant an elevator to hell it worked surprisingly well.

Nevertheless, justice was harsh. Various extremities had a habit of being chopped off. Ordeals were also popular. Priests blessed hot iron before they were placed in the hands of the accused. Because the iron was so blessed, it was how your hand reacted to amazingly hot metal that saw justice prevail. Similarly with Ordeal By Water, which depended on your reaction to sacred water, not your drowning capabilities.

Despite all this, Potter (hyuk) explains how we had a better justice system than the continent, which was why the invading Normans were quick to assimilate it, although they preferred their own Trial By Combat. This French system was largely down to who had the biggest weapon but an armourer explains: “You would try to bludgeon them into submission. When an opponent is on the ground declaring ‘I yield’, it’s the equivalent to an out of court settlement of a large civil case.”

Henry II set up juries although they were more licensed grasses, who had to report wrongdoing under that word oath again. He also centralised the system in Westminster, which was merely a fledgling area rather than a den of iniquity as it these days, “Making money seems to have been an important aspect of Henry’s reforms”, says Potter (titter).

The clerics escaped the reforms, hence that whole Thomas Beckett thing because Henry didn’t like anyone who resisted reformation. Magna Carta improved the law by accident and a Pope got rid of the ordeals in favour of his preferred Inquisitions, which the Spanish enthusiastically took up. But in parochial England we preferred the newly invented Trial By Jury. It wasn’t until the 14th century that lawyers arrived, divided into attorneys (solicitors) and sergeants (barristers). And nothing has changed to this day. There are two more parts to this series, but I’m wary of where Potter (giggle) is going to go next. The early history of the law is fascinating. Getting into the nitty-gritty of the perplexing now is going to be trying.

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