Monthly Archives: June 2011

Review: Dr. No

© United Artists Corporation / Danjaq, L.L.C.

Acting almost as a dress rehearsal for what was to follow, Dr. No is rough around the edges, yet all the more enthralling because of it.  Whilst later stories would jet-set across continents, the majority of the action here takes place in Jamaica, with only a smattering of early scenes visiting good ol’ Blighty.  As with all Bond films, it involves a Machiavellian villain of frightening intelligence, yet for the majority of the picture, the titular character takes a back-seat, allowing simple detective work, and a smattering of subdued violence to lead the action.

The template for Bond is laid out from the get-go, with Sean Connery absolutely nailing his performance as the charming secret agent investigating the disappearance of a local MI6 chief.  It’s amazing to think that he was far from the first choice in the minds of head honcho Albert “Cubby” Broccolli and Bond creator Ian Fleming..  His Bond lives for the thrill of it all, able to beat beautiful women at card-games, win an enormous lump of cash without so much as a smattering of enthusiasm, and get them in his bed in double quick time.  Ultimately, Bond is the ultimate man – in one scene even fighting free of a man it’s just been made clear wrestles alligators, as if to labour the point somewhat.

© United Artists Corporation / Danjaq, L.L.C.

And that’s who Bond is in this first picture: a man who takes control.  Later films suggest he is often lucky to make it out alive, yet the overriding image here is that of focus.  As the years progressed, Bond would become far more open to temptation, but here even a beautiful double agent is no match for him.  That is, however, until Dr. No turns up halfway through the picture, and immediately makes Bond look a tad foolish.

Sadly, No immediately dates proceedings thanks to two major setbacks – firstly, his announcement that his underground base cost him “One million dollars!”, which only serves to remind modern audiences of the similarly dressed Dr. Evil.  The second, is that unfortunate side-effect of the period, with Joseph Wiseman playing No as half Chinese, despite being nothing more than a hint of stereotype with a funny voice.  It’s not a flaw which is unique to Bond – indeed, a number of film and television productions relied on actors “blacked up”, but after the first half of the film acted as a beautiful tourist board advertisement for Jamaica, with a prominent role given to John Kitzmiller as islander turned operative Quarrel [who manages to pre-date Star Trek’s “red-shirts” by a good four years!] it is somewhat of a disappointment to then be trapped in the studio with a monotone caricature. Read the rest of this entry

Relaunch

Relaunch. That’s a word that is bandied about with gay merriment in these fast paced, exciting times we live in. But what does it actually mean?

Dictionary.com suggests it means “to reintroduce a product or brand to the market after changes or improvements have been made.” This is a concept which is surely open to debate. In terms of television, it was announced this week that long-running cop show The Bill was to be taken off air after 27 years, following a disastrous relaunch. You see – these things can go wrong. The changes are not always improvements.

In the case of The Bill, they took a show which had long since descended into mindless soap drivel about Tucker from Grange Hill running rampage with a sniper rifle and a fake ID that somehow got him into the Sun Hill constabulary, and turned it into mindless soap drivel about Ash from Casualty looking moody in a new hour long format that nobody was watching. Yes, they messed up, with viewership dropping from 10 million viewers to barely 4 million almost overnight. They should never have gotten rid of Tony Stamp, methinks.

Elsewhere, this week also sees the relaunch of a hugely successful franchise – Doctor Who, a show that perhaps the concept of a relaunch was invented for. Whilst its true that every week (when its not a two-parter) is effectively a fresh start for the show, every couple of years since its inception its felt the need to change. When ailing lead William Hartnell started struggling with his lines, the show, which had already begun to evolve from its original remit to educate with regular historical stories with little or no sci-fi concepts, came up with the ingenious idea to change the lead actor to someone completely different, and work this change into the show in as up-front a way as possible.

Since then, its had a further eight changes of hand, and this week sees the yet another, as Doctor Eleven takes charge of the franchise. And its not just the lead actor that’s changing. With a new head writer, new executive producers, fresh directing talent, a new score, a new TARDIS set, this is somehow the exact same show we’ve been watching since its enormous 2005 reboot, the exact same show many have been watching since the original run between 1963 and 1989, and somehow an entirely new beast all at once. Doctor Who it seems, is built for change.

Other shows, perhaps, are not so lucky. Imagine if Eastenders suddenly ended up moving to Glasgow, the way Grange Hill was uprooted to Liverpool for its own disastrous revamp. Or if Coronation Street was suddenly populated with southerners, or Emmerdale was infested with chavs and townies. Though actually, its not that far off of late – give me a Dingles sitcom spin-off, featuring the madcap japes of Eli, Marlon, Zak, Shadrach and co and I’ll happily never watch it again. It remains to be seen if the move from Bristol to Cardiff in the ridiculously brilliant Being Human will pay off, though its head writer cut his teeth on Doctor Who, so quite probably.

Today, it was announced that The Film Program, more colloquially known as Film [Year] has found a new host in the shape of Claudia Winkleman. The BBC press release proudly proclaims the show will return with a new format, and feature regular studio guests – changing the feel of the show into something more akin to Newsnight meets whatever-bollocks Graham Norton calls his chat show these days. It could work. It may be the fresh start the show needs after a decade of Jonathan Ross’ dry reviews – whilst I like and even admire Ross, his opinion on films was greatly reduced when he proclaimed Batman Forever was the best film ever made simply to get paid for a poster credit. But it could also end up just like Top Of The Pops – viewed as an archaic program format which serves no purpose in this 21st century world when everyone it seems, is a reviewer.

Whatever happens with Film, it’s clear that the television landscape continues to change in ever more fascinating, but ever more disheartening ways. You can blame the internet, you can blame Simon Cowell, you can blame just about any mover and shaker in the telly world today but just for now, at least, be thankful that we have the likes of Being Human to showcase just what the BBC is capable of, and the likes of Doctor Who for proving that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, time and time again.

Regenerating A Legacy

THIS WAS AN ORIGINAL PIECE WRITTEN EXCLUSIVELY FOR THIS BLOG.

The Trip of a Lifetime. (© 2005, BBC)

“D’ya wanna come with me?”, he asked in his broad Salford tone. Of course, I did, but would everyone? Could this big eared bloke in a leather jacket really be the face of a relaunched sci-fi classic, and actually make it a success? It had been nine years since Paul McGann donned a foppish wig and a fancy dress costume to battle Eric Roberts scenery-chomping Master in a big budget American pilot. The pilot was cunningly rebranded as a tv movie when it became clear the Yanks just didn’t quite get Doctor Who, putting the series back into limbo. It had been seven years before that when, after deliberately rescheduling the series against Coronation Street, and refusing to up the budget to compete with the swanky new sci-fi imports, the BBC put the series officially on hiatus. Determined to rid themselves of a clearly unwanted child, they closed the production office – abruptly ending Sylvester McCoy’s tenure as the seventh incarnation of the popular Timelord just as the series was beginning to regain its former glory, after a run of vastly impressive stories that really deserve widespread reappraisal.

So when Russell T. Davies announced that he would be bringing back Doctor Who, fandom had every right to be sceptical. British fantasy television had been stung by a series of recent disappointments, from the vastly overblown mess that was Invasion: Earth, to the enjoyable, but ultimately neglected reworking of Randall & Hopkirk {deceased} with Vic Reeves & Bob Mortimer. While American networks had their runaway successes, from the multiple incarnations of Star Trek and Stargate to the powerhouse, mainstream smash hits that were The X-Files and Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, British science fiction had descended into a laughing stock of low budget tat, vastly over-expensive cgi messes with poor acting and even poorer scripts, or the occasional children’s drama serial that nobody really watched anyway. Read the rest of this entry

Review: Queen – News Of The World

© Queen Productions

After the giant leaps in sound and ambition across the first four albums, Queen’s fifth effort A Day At The Races has always felt as if it were treading water: a strong album but ultimately a bit of a bloated after-thought from the seminal A Night At The Opera. With News Of The World released at the height of the punk movement, and indeed recorded in the same studios concurrently as The Sex Pistol’s trailblazing Never Mind The Bollocks… album, Queen had to do something new.  

The result was a stripped down work that remains a rock staple to this day. When Marilyn Manson and Trent Reznor were making the now legendary Antichrist Superstar in the mid-90s, it is alleged this album was a frequent spinner in their studio, and it’s not hard to see why. The songs leap out at you, grab your collar and shake you up till they decide to let you go – with even the softer moments being far rawer than what had come before.

That is, it always had that effect on vinyl. The previous cd release from EMI in 1994 was a horrid, tinny transfer, with the volume far too low and all the original’s clarity lost. From the opening stomps of We Will Rock You, it’s clear this has been correctly. Beefy is an understatement, and it sets the tone for what is to follow. It’s immediate follow-on, We Are The Champions, suffers the same distortion in the top end that plagued the recent Greatest Hits remaster – perhaps this is due to the actual recording, however, and cannot be helped, but the added dynamic range has made it all the more obvious.

Revived from the ashes of former glories and given an energetic make-over, Sheer Heart Attack finally sounds like the punky-thrasher it always should have done. The clarity of the vinyl release is back, and at last you can really turn it up to eleven. The actual mix of the track still suffers from a murky symbol sound, but I can live with that as par for the course in that genre. In a completely different tone, Brian May’s ballad All Dead, All Dead has previously felt somewhat moribund, but again, startling clarity has pumped new life into an underrated piece in Brian’s tormented lovelorn ouvre.

Spread Your Wings is one of those big hits the band never had, and listening to this new mix it’s even more apparent that it deserved to be enormous. With writer John Deacon’s beautiful bass line pumped up in the mix, and Roger Taylor’s kick-drum far more prominent than before, you’d be forgiven for thinking this mix would be all bass and no trousers. Thankfully the lilting piano and acoustic guitar work are given space to breathe, this is a world away from the previous cd reissue, and even puts an earlier surround mix to shame.  Taylor’s turn in the spotlight, Fight From The Inside has been given the most startling make-over of the set: it’s bass drum literally blows everything that proceeds it out of the water, with the earthiest, most powerful thumping of the remaster range so far. Yet it doesn’t intrude in any way… it just feels so very, very right.

Moving into side two, the experimental Get Down Make Love again benefits from added bottom end. Whilst not wanting to undervalue Deaky’s wonderful contributions to earlier albums, this is possibly the first Queen record where the bass became as prominent a part as every other instrument, and it really shows in this fine bit of Mercury sleaze.  After the oomph of the last couple of tracks, firm favourite Sleeping On The Sidewalk can’t help but sound a little pedestrian, sonically – yet again it’s new-found clarity is to be applauded. Even the album’s only real filler, Who Needs You benefits from the bigger sound.

Finally we reach the epic closing numbers – It’s Late and My Melancholy Blues: a glorious couplet if ever there was one.  May’s balls out blues-drenched rocker deserved to be featured on the Paul Rodgers tours, yet was grossly overlooked, whilst Mercury’s piano led closer (which has added guitar on its bonus BBC session version) is a stripped down stunner: that impressive vocal range pumping out stunning notes with fascinating precision.

In summary, News Of The World may have shown Queen stripped back to basics, but it was also an album of fresh innovation, and a timely reminder that they had bigger rock ‘n’ roll balls than the rest – a feeling which is only bolstered by it’s new bonus disc, which features stunning live rock-outs, classic BBC sessions and a different take of abandoned rocker Feelings, Feelings to that which leaked years ago. A true classic, in every sense of the word, and at long last, given the remaster it deserves.