Monday, August 31, 2009

Bank Holiday Film Festival: Finale

Needless to say, any examination of the cinematic depiction of the machinery of government has to include...
Movie poster: Duck Soup
Duck Soup (1933)

"What has four pairs of pants, lives in Philadelphia, and it never rains but it pours?"
The older and more inexperienced I become in the business of public service the more that I come to realise the documentary elements of this film.

The small independent state of Freedonia is on its uppers and negotiates a $20,000,000 donation from the wealthy widow Mrs. Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) to save its economy. There is a catch: the money is only available if Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) is appointed President. From here on in it's the ride of your life. These days we have the rewind button; how much must people have missed watching it the first time at the pictures?

I don't want to spoil anything for you if you haven't seen it. You want to see it. You really, really want to see it. The plot's all over the place (just like working in the public sector in fact) and it doesn't matter a bit. It's a freewheeling trip through a collection of mad sketches, dialogues and some of the best visual pantomime on the silver screen.

Good God, even Zeppo gets to play an active part!

As a taster for any tyros, and a celebration for the rest of us...

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Bank Holiday Film Festival, second course

Carrying on with this season's theme, let's move on to the business of elections themselves.

the Tory candidate flanked by his supportersLeft, Right and Centre (1959)

"Westminster. The House of Commons. Every nation, they say, gets the government that they deserve. And that is a sobering thought. Beneath that noble roof, my friends, sit six hundred MPs, made up for the most part of Conservatives and Socialists. One might sum up the enormous difference between the two by saying that whereas the Conservatives philosophy is 'the exploitation of man by man' with the Socialists it is exactly the other way round."
A nice, gentle romantic comedy of the late 1950s wrapped up in a light drama of the politics of the Butskillite era. A slight confection, not the cream of the crop from the Launder and Gilliat stable, nor the best film of the year but any film featuring Ian Carmichael, Alistair Sim, Richard Wattis and Eric Barker has to be worth a look. And assuredly it is.

(It's also Gordon Harker's last film. I'm a big fan of his. He's Hardy the chauffeur.)

the TV panel game What On Earth Is ThatThe plot revolves around the Parliamentary by-election at the small town of Earndale, a straight fight between the Conservatives and the Socialists. Suave TV personality Bob Wilcot (Ian Carmichael) - "penguins are very much my cup of tea" - is standing as prospective Conservative MP. His motives are not idealogical: his uncle, Lord Wilcot (Alistair Sim), needs the publicity for his stately home and its myriad commercial ventures. Taking the train down he finds himself sat next to a pretty young woman and they hit it off quite nicely. It is only after getting off the train and being photographed carrying her bags that he learns that Stella (Patricia Bredin) is none other than his opponent.

"I never thought any daughter of mine would put up for parliament. We've always been such a respectable family! Well, good luck Stella!"

"My name is known in almost every home."
"You could say the same for almost any detergent."

They find that despite everything they can't find the heart to attack each other as tradition demands, much to the dismay of their election managers. Richard Wattis, as the Conservative agent Harding-Pratt, and Eric Barker as the Socialist agent Bert Glimmer, are wonderful supports. Both provide suitably cynical and knowing foils to the rather innocent candidates.

Wilcot's arrival at the stately pile is a treat and a half. We're first of all met by a fun fair. Stepping through the turnstile ("Complementary pass, 'is lordship's orders"), he fnds the hallway is turned into an amusement arcade, including "What the butler saw" machines. My own favourite is "Special offer. Lord Wilcot's Own Parsnip Wine. Puts the 'NIP' in 'Parsnip.' Only 3/6 a bottle."

"Accrington and Stockport parties this way please!"

"Robert, we are all governed by dead ideas but when it comes to party programmes an idea has to be not merely dead but to have lost all meaning before it has any chance of being adopted with any real enthusiasm. Remember that my boy. It will get you absolutely nowhere."

Perhaps more convincing than the blossoming romance between the two candidates is the burgeoning friendship between the two election agents as they try to put the kibosh on that relationship so that they can get on with the business of mud-slinging, abuse and general jiggery-pokery.

"Mister Wilcot may know how to fix an injured penguin but will that help a single old age pensioner?"

Local news

My father shows me the local newspaper. There, in a tiny side-column on page fifteen, next to the chiropodists' opening hours, is a bit of news.

A small blaze ruined a shower in a house in Hamburg Road. A local man led his wife to safety.

"No mention of the bucket of cold water then?" I asked him.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Bank Holiday Film Festival, part the first

Given that some time in the next year we'll be swamped with politicians kissing babies I thought it might be interesting to review how the machineries of our political masters have been portrayed in film.

Prime Minister Amphibulos introduces Carlton-Brown to his senior ministers
Carlton-Browne of the F.0. (1959)

"The Island of Gaillardia was discovered in 1720 when an English vessel with a cargo of oranges ran into it in the dark. As a result, Great Britain gained a colony, the captain lost his ticket, and the inhabitants lived on marmalade for months."

This is pretty much one of the weakest of the Boulting Brothers' satires, which is surprising given that it has an impeccably strong cast and some wonderfully funny dialogue. There is an emptiness about the core of it, largely because unlike many other Boultings efforts there is no central human figure to act as foil to the idiocies on display. The eponymous hero, Cadogan de Vere Carlton-Browne, is as much part of the machine as anybody else. And throughout the film there is a sense of half-heartedness - ideas are started, show promise, and are given up on. In the end there are so many easy targets - the hypocrisies of politics and diplomacy; the cold war; banana republics; bureaucracy - that none are effectively lampooned.

Which is not to say that the film's a dead loss.

lobby cards: the military parade - the glorious Royal Air Force; King Loris and Princess Ilyena at the pictures; Tufton-Slade and Carlton-Browne prepare for the ceremony

Carlton-Browne (Terry-Thomas) is a career Foreign Office desk jockey, Permanent Assistant Political Secretary for the Miscellaneous Territories, the disappointing son of a great ambassador of the nation. He is called unexpectedly to the office one day after the F.O. receives a dispatch from its representative on the island of Gaillardia.

"Who's our fellow out there?"
"That's just it: there shouldn't be anyone. The dispatch is signed 'Davidson' but he should have come back in 1916."
"I wonder if anything's wrong, I mean, he's not really on the ball is he? What was the last thing we heard?"
"A message of loyalty on the accession of the queen, sir."
"I say! That's frightfully slack! That's nearly six years."
"Not this queen, sir. Victoria."

The report states that a group of Russians, posing as a Cossack Dance troupe, are surveying the island for reasons unknown. On hearing this, the Foreign Secretary (Raymond Huntley) takes a typically idealistic view of the matter:

"There'll be questions in the House. If there's anything worth having, we should have it, not the Russians."

British surveyors, in deep cover as Morris Dancers, are sent over in a British Council dancing exhibition. Alas, King Loris and his Heir Apparent, are assisinated at the theatre, leaving the field wide open for a power struggle between Young King Loris (Ian Bannen) and Grand Duke Alexis (John le Mesurier).

In an effort to display a show of strength Young King Loris is persuaded by Prime Minister Amphibulos (Peter Sellers) to put on a military march past. The result is a treat. The commentary is garbled and overblown and wickedly funny. The military strength of the same sort of order as that of the town council of a small provincial borough. Perhaps the highlight is the appearance of the glorious Royal Air Force - a delapidated Gypsy Moth pulled by donkeys because it's got no engine.

lobby cards: the British delegation meets the King; Archipolagos brings news to Carlton-Browne; Grand Duke Alexis surveys his troops

Needless to say, the situation deteriorates and civil war ensues, egged on by Great Nations squabbling over mineral rights on the island. That great tool of 20th Century diplomacy - partition - is employed. (The farcical element of the partition is blunted by the fact that exactly this logic was employed in real life at the time.) The eminences gris of the two new nations - Duke Alexis and Prime Minister Amphibulos - pull strings to consolidate their power bases and conspire for riches.

And King Loris and Princess Ilyena go to the pictures...

A few more choice cuts:

"We danced our way in. We'll have to dance our way out."

"I'm very happy to tell you that you're now in the position of being able to blow the world to smithereens."
"But that's tremendous! My dear fellow, how could we ever thank you enough?"

"If you do marry her you'll have to live there part of the year."
"Anything to shoot?"
"Only the natives."

"As polling day grows near in the Gosford Green by-election excitement mounts rapidly to fever pitch. Here at first hand a typical housewife gives our roving camera her views on the burning issues of the day."

"What do you think of the cold war Mrs. Carter?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"The international situation, do you think it's getting any easier?"
"Well, I don't really know."
"No, of course not."

Friday, August 28, 2009

Celebrating local democracy

Sometimes we just don't give them the credit they deserve...

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Comic Cuts: Puss and Boots

a shopping trip becomes a trip into memory lane

Puss and Titch decide to run a rhinoceros ride on Boots' beachComics were important to us when I was a kid. Every week my dad would get "The Hornet," "Adventure," "The Rover," "Action" and "Tiger & Hurricane" (just to prove we weren't an entirely D.C.Thomson household). My sister would get "Bunty" and "Diana" and between us we'd get "The Beano" ("The Dandy" was for toffs) and "The Sparky."

"The Sparky" was a peculiar confection. While it was obviously from the same stable as "The Beano" and "The Dandy" it was always a little, eccentric, shall we say. Old-firm favourites like "Pansy Potter," "Freddy the Fearless Fly," "Nosey Parker" and "Peter Piper" got a remodelling by new artists. At first the brand new strips were fair enough but largely aimed at the kids who were just slightly too old for "Bimbo." Then it all started to get a bit silly. We got a weekly update on the goings-on in the editorial office, tyrannised by "Sir," fuelled by lots of cups of tea and Greek-chorused by the office cat. "L-Cars" gave us Cedric and Frederick, inept and jolly and generally getting their man. (Was there an office anywhere in Sparky Land that that didn't have somebody being kicked out of the doorway?) I-Spy, a pair of hands, a trenchcoat and a stove-pipe hat, armed with an unfeasible arsenal of weapons and gadgets. And my favourite...

My favourite bit of silliness was always "Puss and Boots," drawn by the late, great John Geering.

Puss meets with an accident

Puss the MilkmanBoots the traffic cop pulls over Puss

The plot was always simplicity itself: cat does something, dog sabotages it, punch-up ensues. Or dog does something, cat sabotages it, punch-up ensues. So why did it something so very simple merit a two-page spread? Quite simply, the sheer variety of lunatic ideas brought along by Geering.

Puss meets Boots' auntie This was a world where all policemen had flashing lights on their helmets. And tortoises had crash helmets. Sometimes they also had flying goggles and white silk scarves. Pogo sticks and unicycles were the transport of choice. Elephants featured largely (pun intended). As did the policemen, judges, mayors and corporations of a small town (which always felt like it was in the North of England). Every so often the action would take place in a nearby seaside resort, which always gave the artist the excuse for lots of ice cream cones, donkeys, and blokes with knotted hankies on their heads.

And it was always a ton of fun. Here are a couple of snippets. In this first one Puss is masquerading as a centaur (don't try and work out why, it will only end in tears). The back legs are Puss' nephew, Titch. Titch's side of the dialogue was always "baggle;" he was only a little lad after all. (Though there were times when he was the only one with the sense he was born with.) Boots did have a nephew, too, but he rarely featured.

Puss and Titch pose as a centaur, the best to show the dangers of smoking
And every so often the forces of law and order would remind them of the need to behave themselves...

a disagreement between an usherette and an organist leads to a career change for the lads

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Nature's bounty and that

I started the weekend seriously depressed. The reasons for this are entirely rational - worrying about a pile of stuff which were sensible to worry about but which I couldn't resolve - but as usual I took this as an opportunity to beat myself up for not being a particularly practical person. Which I'm not, I have to hold my hands up. Mind you, I must have had my moments: every so often I'll look at something about the house and wonder how on earth I did it (the hall mirror being a case in point - six foot by four, plate glass on oak frame, mounted on the wall single-handedly by my own fair hand). Sigh...

Yesterday I cheered up modestly. A pair of problems I was concerned about are determined to turn a scary incident into a jokey anecdote (I wonder where I get that habit from?)

I picked a few apples and plums from my parents' garden for them. Coming home I had a nosey round and took a few pounds of nuts off the hazel bush. Technically they're cobnuts, I suppose. I like hazel nuts picked in the green when you can crack the shells with your teeth and fingers and the kernels are white and moist and rich in oil. The best thing you can do with them in this state is to just crack and eat, though they'll go well enough with a decent salad, especially if you include a few bitter herbs such as rocket or chicory. Later on, when the shells are brown and woody, they're great toasted lightly on a dry frying pan. This brings on the flavour, which is great for making pastes, dips and sauces.

Quick recipe that works well with hazelnuts or walnuts.
(Quantities are extremely approximate!)

Toast the nuts lightly in a pan. Let them cool down a bit. Dump them into a food processor. Add some garlic - depending on your taste, one or two cloves per handful of nuts. Add roughly a tablespoon or two of not-very-expensive olive oil. Whizz until smooth. Empty into a container you can cover and stick it in the fridge to let the flavours mellow. Eat it tomorrow with some nice bread and a decent strong cheese. It doesn't keep long.
If you want, you could add stoned green olives to the mix before processing - a one-to-one ratio of olives and nuts gives you an interesting paste.

I noticed last night that the figs were colouring up and, much to my delight, I find that despite the lousy weather I have half a dozen of them ripe. Splendid.

Feeling a bit chipper I had a nosy round the bottom of the garden and discovered that I was wrong to be disappointed with the damson this year. It had flowered well but I couldn't see more than just a couple of scabby articles of fruit. I discovered that one branch, well back in the lee of a big rose bush, was absolutely chocablock with fruit, so I've taken a couple of pounds off for now. I do like damsons: they're a bit rough-and-ready and extremely sour straight from the tree but they make superb jams and sauces. I like them simply washed and halved and fried in the pan with a Cumberland sausage. Besides which, I like the wildness of a damson tree, it appeals to the romantic in me.

The final treat was to find that a bramble I'd missed was fully in delicious fruit. The fruit was picked and the bramble plucked. It's not so bad when even the weeds are productive.

Now then... where were those elderberries?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Cartoon capers: Krazy like a Kat

Ignatz hurls a love token at KrazyI was going to write a bit about the differences between American and British comic book cultures today and I may well do some time but at the moment I just can't be arsed.

Instead, from the excellent "Origins of American Animation" section of the Library of Congress' American Memories collection here are a selection of silent shorts featuring Krazy Kat.

None of them come close to matching the sheer genius of George Herriman's newspaper cartoons. I love and admire these greatly but, strangely for me, I cannot read a collection of them in one setting. After about ten I am exhausted. Which is difficult to explain because at first sight the cartoons look scratchy and primitive and not very much happens. At the risk of sounding poncy (ah bollocks to it - go for it Kevin!), it's the comic strip equivalent of a Samuel Beckett play.

Krazy Kat kartoon from 6th January 1918

Bill Watterson, the creator of the wonderful "Calvin and Hobbes" recently wrote an essay on the subejct for The Komplete Kolor Krazy Kat which provides some useful insights from an artist's perspective. You can see it on the "This Recording" site so long as you don't mind scrolling down a lot too many links and adverts.

Want more Krazy Kat? The Comic Strip Library.

Sunday, August 09, 2009


More proof, as if 'twere needed, of the determinate logic of small female children...

My niece has taken to the habit of having her breakfast at home (porridge, lots of toast and a yoghurt) then toddling round to my parents' place to cadge a lot of toast and some beans. My dad, soft touch as he is, does the honours.

"Don't they feed you at home?" asks my mother.

"I thought you loved me," replied the tot.

Friday, August 07, 2009


This was Edinburgh some time in the late eighties. Damned if I can remember who it was. Tippex(!) on black Canford paper.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

A la recherce de scribbles past

These were done a long, long time ago. Before I convinced myself I couldn't do it. Most of these were done with a 0.1 cartographic nib and India ink on cartridge paper.

Whiskered bat

A drake shoveler (just coming out of eclipse plumage).
Brush and ink.


A badger

Grey Partridge

I couldn't do these for toffee these days, sadly.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Lingua Franca

My dad's quite enjoying going to church these days. He's a bit put out that the communion wine has been locked in the keep because of the swine flu but aside from that he's settled in quite well. Today he was delighted by the appearance of some Finns. I don't know why they were there, and if he knew he'd forgotten, but a party from Finland came along to join in and take the lesson.

"And do you know, their English was perfect. I mean, not like us, we're natives and we don't bother learning other people's langauges. We're just lazy, like the French. Absolutely perfect diction. You might have thought they come from Yorkshire."

I'm still trying to get my head round any of that.