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They had four web cams set up in various parts of the spooky old building.

People were invited to phone in and tell what they saw.

I saw corners of rooms and lengths of corridor.

Other people saw:

a dark figure in a cloak
children playing
two men fighting in a doorway
a wandering column of smoke
a hovering face

And so on and on.

Are these people suggestible?
Are they bonkers?
Are they having a laugh?
Am I missing something?
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I hadn't realised modelling is such hard work. No I'm not being ironic here; it is, it is.

And I'm no longer surprised that so many models progress into acting. The two disciplines are right next door to each other.

Beauty is not enough. Beautiful girls are ten a penny.

The camera falls in love with the oddest people.

The merely beautiful have fallen by the wayside, but the chunky little lesbian with the chipmunk face is still there. She has a grain of whatever it is that Tyra Banks has in bagfulls. You can't dismiss her.

I love it that Twiggy's on the panel. So unaffected, so real.

"I was the first working-class model," she says.

"Over here we don't say working-class, we say ghetto," says one of the waspy queens.

O, go away, you silly person; don't you know that you're in The Presence?
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Remember Michael Praed?

First he was Robin Hood in the dippy-hippy Robin of Sherwood; then he was Prince Michael of Moldavia in a couple of well-beloved episodes of Dynasty.

He was devastatingly beautiful and his Robin was a whole lot better than Jason Connery's.

He was going to be big.

Then something must have happened. Or, perhaps, more accurately, something didn't happen.

Anyway, these days he appears in odd episodes of the British soaps and has a steady gig doing voice-over for the BBC's history/archaeology show Timewatch.

Last night on Timewatch he was telling us about a bunch of decapitated skeletons that have been unearthed in a Roman cemetery in York. An unprecedented find. It seems likely they're the victims of a purge of the palace old guard conducted by the Emperor Caracalla after the death of his father Septimius Severus.

Thrilling. Thanks to Dio Cassius we know some of their names. Archaeology rarely gets this personal.

Setimius Severus was a dude. A North African who campaigned against the Scots and made York the capital of the Empire. He died there and his funeral was like nothing Britain had ever seen.

So how do you pronounce Severus? The Rowling crowd say "sever", but Praed and his experts were all saying "severe".

Septimius Severe-us? It sounds all wrong to me.
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Must have been a great pitch: "We have a spirit medium go look for dead celebs."

So they put it into production and immediately came up against the problem of access.

A "Duh!" moment. Was Yoko Ono going to allow these nuts into her apartment in the Dakota building? I think not.

So they were reduced to looking for John Lennon on a spooky island he never actually visited- but only five miles from where his plane once touched down.

"John, John are you there? Speak to us John!"

Last night we were looking for Mae West. Or as the nearly bald female presenter with the Tin Tin quiff put it- making a "journey into a woman who made a huge imprint on her native city of New York."

We looked for her in a theatre she once played as a child.

She didn't seem to be there.

We looked for her in a spiritualist church she'd visited once or twice.

She wasn't there either, but there was an entirely inexplicable smell of cookies and coffee.

Finally we looked for her in a bar she'd frequented back in the roaring 20s.

Naah, no show, but we did make contact with a couple of Victorian children and a weird guy called Vincent who likes to stand in the corner and watch.

Groovy!

I love this show.
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Jonathan Miller's Alice in Wonderland was first transmitted by the BBC in 1966. I was 15 at the time.

And fell head over heels in love with the rather snooty miss who plays Alice. Ach, all that lovely, lovely Victorian hair!

Then, as happens with TV movies, it disappeared from view.

Now I own my own copy. Wicked!

It's every bit as gorgeous as I remember. It's the blissed-out hippy movie to end all blissed-out hippie movies. The drugginess! The melancholia! The costumes! The sitar riffs! The hair!

Did I mention the hair?

And Peter Sellers is in it.

And John Gielgud gets to sing the Lobster Quadrille while prancing along the sea shore with Malcolm Muggeridge (Formerly famous media person and scourge of the permissive society.)

Far out, man!

I've always thought Miller could have been one of the great film directors if only he'd bothered to put his mind to it.
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Fantabulosa wasn't fantabulous. It was a dramatisation of the Kenneth Williams diaries and told us the old, old story of how the funny man was fucked over by his parents, lived a tortured life and died friendless and alone.

Michael Sheen had the mannerisms more or less right, but he didn'tlook like Williams and he wasn't funny. The real Williams was weird and anarchic, bordering on dangerous; Sheen's Williams was merely annoying.

There have been a lot of these shows recently. The best of them was the Life and Death of Peter Sellers. We seem to have an appetite for crucifing clowns. How dare you make us laugh, you freak! Now cry- go on- cry!
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Everyone came to a bad end except Pullo.

I knew that something like that was going to happen to poor, old ,uptight Vorenus.

I knew that something like that (indeed, something exactly like that) was going to happen to Caesar.

But I was not expecting Pullo to walk off into the sunlit Campagna hand in hand with his favourite girl.

Pullo is a brute with untold killings and at least four atrocious murders to his (dis)credit, but I love him dearly. He is so blithe. So good-natured. I want him to settle down on a farm with the lovely Irene and raise chickens (or pigs or whatever it is that Roman farmers raise)and die at last, full of years and honour and with so many grandchildren and great-grandchildren in attendance that there's not room for them all around the bed.

The arena sequence made the arena sequences in Gladiator look like they'd been scripted by Richard Curtis. That decapitation- o my!

The shadow of Shakespeare lay black and Stygian over the last half hour. The writer avoided the horrors of the Burton-Taylor Cleopatra with its ghastly Shakespearian paraphrases but the Man was present even in his absence. I was waiting for "et tu Brute" and when it didn't come I felt a little cheated. But the killing was grand- a scuffle in a butcher's shop. And the politics, with Brutus  the pansy-arsed tool of a rightwing cabal , were so real and dirty it hurt.

Will we see more of James Purefoy's Antony in the sequel? Please, please, please!

And now we have to wait until 2007 to find out what happens next.

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I'm not squeamish- not really. I've worked in hospitals. And when it comes to film and TV (and I know it's prosthetics that are being chopped off and the blood is fake) I scarcely turn a hair.

There are only two things that really creep me out- squashed bugs and ghosts.

So Sweeney Todd wasn't really for me. This wasn't the Sondheim show but a TV movie starring Ray Winstone and (oh joy!) dear old David Warner. The odd thing is they did it entirely straight- as if it were a study in the pysychology of a serial killer and not, as was the case, an updated version of a grisly old Victorian shocker about an ogre who never was.

I'm Sweeney Todd the barber
And evil thoughts I harbour..

This must be the first time that the story has been told without a hint of camp, without a single laugh.

The killings came thick and fast, blood flew, body parts were dredged from the Thames, coffins were thrown about. The single-minded dedication to the aesthetic of grue was awesome. No bugs were squashed and no ghosts appeared, so I found it all faintly boring, but I guess there were people out there going "gross!" and "eek!" and hiding their faces behind sofa cushions, who felt they were getting a good return on their licence fee.
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The thing about the Two Ronnies is there's no edge. Just a blokey, saloon bar naughtiness. I quite like Barker's wordplay and Corbett's shaggy dog stories but I come away from one of their shows feeling like I've been ingesting too much carbon dioxide.

Barker was a potentially great comic actor who squandered his talent on middle of the road sketch shows and progressively weaker sit-coms- in the last of which he played a short-sighted old git who is continually bumping into things and mistaking the mustard for the marmalade. He could have been a memorable Falstaff (it was offered him by Peter Hall) but he backed away. This combination in him of poor taste and lack of ambition depresses me.

No way are the Ronnies the equals of Morecambe and Wise- the rival double-act of their generation. Morecambe was a great zany, an anarch, and though his scripts were safe enough, his antics- like Groucho Marx's- rip through the illusions of dignity and manners and caste. Anyone brave enough to go on stage with him wound up looking like a twit.

Or even a twat.

There's nothing like that with the Ronnies. They concluded this year's Christmas compendium of greatest hits with a lamentable skit on Alice in Wonderland- which featured the self-satisfied Ronnies, dressed as a succession of Wonderland characters, singing coyly bawdy lyrics to tired old show tunes. The mismatch in quality between Carroll's imagination and the imagination of Barker (who was probably the author of most of the stupid songs) was embarrassing. You don't spoof Carroll- he's the cleverest, darkest, twistiest, most wildly imaginative humorist in the English language. Go up against him with your stale jokes about drinking and shagging and you wind up looking vulgar and stupid and coarse.

Like a pigeon shitting on a Stradivarius.

I know Barker's recently dead and de mortuis etc- but I'm sick of the chorus of praise, praise and more praise. Yeah, he was handy with a pun, yeah, he was good in Porridge, but he never cut loose, he never took risks, he never did anything (on Telly anyway) that wasn't middle-brow. I look at his career and think, what a fearful waste.
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Turned out nice again.
Can I do you now, sir?
Stop messing about.
Just like that.
The answer lies in the soil.
And now for something completely different.
Stupid boy!
Don't panic!
You are awful, but I like you.
I shall say this only once.
Rock on, Tommy!
I'm free!
Loadsamoney!
So it's goodnight from me...and it's goodnight from him.
I do not believe it!
Suits you, sir.
I was very, very drunk.

Comedy catch-phrases are tribal passwords. We all know them, we can all perform our version of them, whenever they turn up they guarantee a laugh. They help glue a society together. The odd thing is they're rarely funny in themselves. I guess they work by distilling the essence of a character or situation. Because, of course, a catch-phrase isn't just words, it's an accent, an intonation and a set of accompanying actions. And it briefly conjures up a whole world of hilarity. "I'm free" isn't just Mr Humphries prancing on stage- it's the Grace Brothers store and Mrs Slocombe's pussy and doddering old "young" Mr Grace with his dolly-bird nurses all rolled up into a ball. Of those I've listed, and I could have listed many, many more, only the two Ronnies' sign-off catch-phrase, "so it's goodnight from me..." is anything like a joke. Catch-phrases aren't immortal, but they often outlive the comedians that launched them. The first on my list belongs to the great George Formby, which means it must be at least 70 years old.

And now there's Little Britain- the biggest, most inescapable TV sketch show since Monty Python- and it's stuffed with catch-phrases

Yeah but no but...
I want that one.
Write the theme song, sing the theme song...
Computer says no.
I'm the only gay in the village.
I'm a lady.

The critics, offended by Little Britain's popularity, are ganging up on it. "It's not funny," they say. Actually it is. But even if it wasn't, there's no arguing against catch-phrases, especially when they turn up mob-handed.
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BBC 4 gave us a short history of the ghost story last night. They started with The descent of Inanna and wound up with Robert Aickman- and all in half an hour- whee!

But they got it right. At least I thought they did. They paused on Sheridan le Fanu and M.R. James and Aickman- and that's as it should be. These are the masters. And they didn't bother with the Turn of the Screw (which I consider over-rated.) I'd have liked a nod in the direction of Margaret Oliphant, but you can't have everything and there were an awful lot of Victorian and early 20th century writers who knocked out a ghost story or two.

Ooh, and Jackie, you'd have liked this- they fished out a clip of Algernon Blackwood talking to camera in 1951- and he was everything you could have wished- long-nosed and gaunt with an avuncular twinkle in his eye.

I'm crazy for ghost stories. Here's my personal top ten.

An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street- Sheridan le Fanu
The Signalman- Charles Dickens
The Library Window- Margaret Oliphant
Thrawn Janet- Robert Louis Stevenson
Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance- M.R. James
The Room in the Tower- E.F. Benson
The Dog Hervey- Rudyard Kipling
The Wendigo- Algernon Blackwood
Seaton's Aunt- Walter de la Mare
The Houses of the Russians- Robert Aickman
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OK, so I'm a convert. It was thrilling TV.

The gimmick was they were doing it as a soap. Only they weren't. Soaps go on forever and this was a mere 7 1/2 hours. Lots of charming minor characters had to be cut. Pity.

There wasn't any poetry (yes, Dickens is a poet) but the plot was nicely sharpened up. It was if the story had been rewritten by Dickens' good mate Wilkie Collins.

I was sorry about Skimpole. He's one of Dickens' greatest creations. A bastard, certainly, but a fantastically charming bastard and not the slimy piece of goods they reduced him too here. It was a bit like playing Falstaff as a sad old boozer.

The not very interesting central characters- Esther, Jarndyce, Rick, Ada and the noble doctor were brought to life by some first-rate acting. We cared about them. Here, as in the adjustments to the plot, the original was improved upon.

I remember Pauline Collins as a soubrette. Now she's playing old lady roles. Lawks-a-mercy!

Alun Armstrong was never going to be a star. He's just too ugly. But he has grown into his looks. His turn as Inspector Bucket was mesmerizing.

And who'd have thought that Gillian Anderson had it in her to play an English aristocrat? Her Lady Dedlock proved she's not just a star- she's a great actor. And I mean right up there with the Redgraves and the Riggs and the Denches. That great.

Next time they tackle a big Dickens (let it be Our Mutual Friend) maybe they'll allow themselves double the time. Triple the time. Quadruple the time. We can take it.

Adaptions

Nov. 8th, 2005 11:11 am
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The BBC is running a series of Shakespeare retreads. The first was a version of Much Ado set in a TV news-room- with Beatrice and Benedick as news-readers and Hero as a weather-girl. I'd have been interested if it was only the setting that had been modernised, but none of these new versions keep Shakespeare's language- and without the language you haven't got Shakespeare. His plots- most of them borrowed from history books or the pulp fiction of his day- are the least thing about him. So what's the point?

I feel something similar about the current dramatization of Bleak House. The gimmick is that it's being done as if it were soap opera- in speedy half hour chunks. I watched an episode to get the flavour- and can report that Gillian Anderson is looking lovely. There's an honourable tradition of doing Dickens on TV- I remember a 1950s Oliver Twist so violent that my dad went and stood in front of the screen to shield my infant eyes from corruption- but the publicity and reviews for this particular version have narked me. We're being told that Dickens himself would have been writing soaps if he were alive today- even that this version improves on the original; Well, "cobblers" to both those suppositions. This version is fun (I suppose) but- as with the Shakespeare- all it really gives us is Dickens's plot- and no-one reads Dickens for his plots.

Shakespeare and Dickens are writers- the two greatest writers in English. What matters about them is the words. The choice of words, the way they're put together. The poetry, the jokes. That's where the magic is. Consider the opening of Bleak House (the fog thing)- that great kedgeree of brilliant descriptive writing, surreal wit and angry satire- and try getting the same effect in a TV studio with dry ice and yellow spot-lights. Can't be done. The new "Shakespeare" plays and the new "Dickens" dramatization may (lets give them the benefit of the doubt) be fine bits of work in their own right, but anyone who supposes they're getting the full Shakespeare and Dickens experience from them is being short changed.

Rome

Nov. 3rd, 2005 09:52 am
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My impression of Julius Caesar is that he was a charismatic, vulgar, life-and-soul-of-the-party sort of man- therefore not very much like the reserved, elder statesman played by Ciaran Hinds in Rome. But like I say, it's only an impression- I haven't studied the subject- maybe Hinds is right and I am wrong.

I liked Kenneth Cranham's Pompey. Cranham is a remarkably ugly man who has grown into his looks. Also a remarkably fine actor. He doesn't have very much to do, but when he's on screen he fills it. Maybe this'll make him a star.

But what's really special about this series is its texture. The legions fight in proper, machine-like, Roman order, advancing in line with their sword arms going in and out like pistons; an aristocratic lady shags her boyfriend in a bed surrounded by slaves- one working the punkah, another handing out cooling drinks; there's mud in the streets and the buildings are weathered. In terms of how it looks and feels, Rome effortlessly clears the bar that Gladiator raised.

And when it comes to ethos it's a huge improvement. The characterisation in Gladiator was simplistic- Russell Crowe was good and noble, everybody else was shite. Here we get moral complexity. Our heroes are a couple of military toughies- an unthinking, good-natured jar-head and his puritanical commanding officer. Neither is a nice chap by modern standards. The puritan heads up a crufixion squad, the jarhead collects teeth as battlefield trophies. OK, so there will be anachronism- there always is- but at least it's not going to take the form of leading characters with pansy-arsed, twenty-first century scruples.

I think I'll be sticking with this.

Satire

Oct. 11th, 2005 09:50 am
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The new Channel More4 (or Mofo as I think they'd like us to call it) kicked off last night with a brilliant comedy drama about the Blair government. It was lotsa fun and Bernard Hill (Theoden in LOTR) was amazingly good as former Home Secretary David Blunkett.

But does satire change anything? Has a government ever been brought down by it?
Britain has a robust tradition of political satire going back to the 18th century and in all that time we haven't had a single revolution. Instead of hanging politicians from lamp posts we point the finger at them and snigger.

So satire acts as a safety valve, protecting those in power.

Lost

Aug. 12th, 2005 09:53 am
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The problem with American TV is that successful shows are allowed (no, required) to run and run until every last drop of vital existence has been squeezed out of them. Until there's nothing left but rind and pips. It's a terrible shame.

Most of the shows I have loved in recent years have died the death long before they were finally put out of their misery.

Deep Space Nine
The X Files
Xena
Buffy.

I fear for the Simpsons. There have been some really ropey, unfunny episodes recently. And then there's Deadwood- which is showing alarming signs of being all washed up after a single season.

And here comes Lost, which seems expressly designed to be so open ended it can run forever. I watched the first double episode and fidgeted. The whole point of it is delay- deferred gratification. Do I have the stamina to stick with it for seven, eight years until all becomes clear? I doubt it. I know from sad experience that by the time we get there the whole concept will have become so jaded, the plotlines so tangled and far-fetched, that I will long since have ceased to care.

Trek

Aug. 3rd, 2005 11:41 am
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Star Trek just ended with the last ever episode of Enterprise. You'd think it would have been a major media event and it wasn't. All of us true Trekkers stopped caring a long time ago. Maybe the franchise will be revived and maybe it won't.

There was a shoot out with a bunch of ugly aliens, some character I was supposed to care about but didn't blew himself up in an act of heroic self sacrifice (like a suicide bomber) and Archer got to hug the sexy Vulcan. There was a bang, there was a whimper and now Berman and Bragga are going away to have a long, long think.

Enterprise has been crap. In fact all of Trek has been crap since the point, about three quarters of the way though DS9, when they switched from cool storylines about post-colonialism and theocracy to uncool story lines about explosions.

I had been hoping this last episode might pull out a few stops and contain glances backwards (forwards?) to the glory days. And it did. It shoehorned Riker and Troi into the action. I winced when Riker was made to say he was a big fan of Captain Archer's but- never mind- it was good to see them.

How well they're both looking!

Extras

Jul. 22nd, 2005 09:31 am
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Ricky Gervais's new show debuted last night. Gervais and his female sidekick, played by Ashley Jensen, are film extras who get to meet bona fide stars on set. Last night's guest star was Ben Stiller- playing a monstrous version of himself that would have been actionable if anyone else had done it.

Like The Office it's a comedy of social embarrassment. Otherwise Gervais is doing his best not to repeat himself. Where Brent was a bumbling puppy; this new character is bitter and morose- and a creature of self-destructive impulses, some of them alarmingly decent. There are some very funny scenes; Stiller was well worth whatever it was they paid him and I loved the bit where Jensen tries to chat up the casting director with a prosthetic bullet hole in the middle of her forehead. Gervais is an unselfish performer and is happy to share out the good stuff with his colleagues.

The Office had a slow-building story arc, and I guess we can expect something similar here. We're promised some intriguing guest appearances (Kate Winslett, Samuel L Jackson, Patrick Stewart) and Gervais and co-writer Stephen Merchant are working on Season 2. I'm hooked.
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Agatha Christie fools me every time. I've studied her methods in film after film (I can't bear the books, but my idea of a relaxing evening is to settle in with a Poirot dramatization) and I never spot the killer in advance.

She's the master of misdirection. All the evidence is there, but somehow she contrives for you not to spot it. She's awesome.

It's become a tradition (ever since Murder on the Orient Express) that Christie dramatizations should be packed with stars and polished to a high shine. The Poirot series (with the incomparable David Suchet) was worth watching simply for the production values. Everything gleamed, everything from the houses to the ashtrays was Art Deco. Mmmmm.

Last night was an oddity. The Pale Horse is late Christie and there's no Poirot, no Miss Marple and it's set contemporaneously in the Sixties. The film was as meticulous in its recreation of that era as tradition demands- with authentic clothes and cars and haircuts, conversational references to "angry young men", posters for Lolita and the Rolling Stones on bedsit walls and the Kinks on the soundtrack. It's odd to see a period one has lived through treated as if it were a remote historical epoch. It made me feel old to the point of ghostliness.

And Gollum was in it- Andy Serkis I mean- as a strange, nerdy, young policeman with an even stranger head of hair. He easily stole the show from the nominal hero. What a talent he is!
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William Golding's Lord of the Flies is read in schools, but the rest of his novels are a minority taste.

Maybe this will change now the BBC has filmed his trilogy, To The Ends of the Earth.

Set on board a clapped-out man-of-war turned emigrant ship at the close of the Napoleonic era, To the Ends of the Earth is a bracing riposte to the Hornblower mythos. The cabins drip, the bilges stink and the sailors are into buggery. The characters are all flawed in unlikeable ways. The hero is callow, arrogant, snooty and unfeeling.

The film gives us the creased uniforms and sweaty faces but misses out on Golding's poetic intensity. It's less visual than the book, less cinematic. We get lots of reading aloud from journals but only odd, perfunctory glimpses of sea and sky. The book deals with sex, class and the romantic imagination; the film deals with sex and class.

I'll watch the next two episodes. But what I really want to do right now is go out and buy the novels.

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