BRITISH CULT CLASSICS - The Queen of Spades / DVD Review

I last saw Thorold Dickinson's The Queen of Spades nearly thirty years ago when it was shown late one night on BBC2. I was probably too young to appreciate it, what with a head full of lurid Hammer films and blockbuster science fiction epics, so it was an absolute delight to see it again courtesy of the recent DVD release from Optimum.

A shame that I failed to understand how this underdog of a film clearly stood out as something very different from the British films released in 1949, one retaining a cult appreciation to this day.

In a year dominated by three of Ealing's finest films, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Passport to Pimlico and Whisky Galore, Powell and Pressburger's The Small Back Room and Carol Reed's The Third Man, Dickinson's supernatural period piece flared only briefly into life before becoming forgotten.

But what a delight it is to rediscover it all over again and to consider its place as one of the best films made in the post-war period that ranks as high, if not higher, as those already mentioned.

DOCTOR WHO: Three New Novels for April 2011

Thanks to those lovely folks at BBC Books I'm delighted to present details and covers for the three new Doctor Who novels due to be published on 28 April 2011, at £6.99 each.

Dead of Winter - James Goss

‘The Dead are not alone. There is something in the mist and it talks to them.'

In Dr Bloom’s clinic at a remote spot on the Italian coast, at the end of the 18th century, nothing is ever quite what it seems.

Maria is a lonely little girl with no one to play with.  She writes letters to her mother from the isolated resort where she is staying. She tells of the pale English aristocrats and the mysterious Russian nobles and their attentive servants.

She tells of intrigue and secrets, and she tells of strange faceless figures that rise from the sea. She writes about the enigmatic Mrs Pond who arrives with her husband and her physician, and who will change everything. What she doesn’t tell her mother is the truth that everyone knows and no one says – that the only people who come here do so to die.


Hunter's Moon - Paul Finch

‘There's no end to the horror in this place - it's like Hell, and there are devils round every corner.’

Welcome to Leisure Platform 9 – a place where gamblers and villains rub shoulders with socialites and celebrities. Don’t cheat at the games tables, and be careful who you beat. The prize for winning the wrong game is to take part in another, as Rory is about to discover – and the next game could be the death of him.

When Rory is kidnapped by the brutal crime lord Xorg Krauzzen, the Doctor and Amy must go undercover to infiltrate the deadly contest being played out in the ruins of Gorgoror.

But how long before Krauzzen realises the Doctor isn’t a vicious mercenary and discovers what Amy is up to? It’s only a matter of time. And time is the one thing Rory and the other fugitives on Gorgoror don’t have.

They are the hunted in a game that can only end in death, and time for everyone is running out…

The Way Through the Woods - Una McCormack

‘The motorway bends around the woods. So did the old road. So did the Roman road. As long as people have lived here, they've gone out of their way to avoid the woods...’

England, today. Between the housing estate and the motorway lies an ancient wood. The motorway bends to avoid it. Last week, teenager Laura Brown went missing.

Tonight, Vicky Caine will miss her bus and take a shortcut through the wood. And she will disappear too. England, 1917. Between the village and the main road lies an ancient wood. The old Roman road bends to avoid it.  Tonight Emily Bostock and a man called Rory Williams will go to the woods. Investigating events in the present day and back in 1917, the Doctor and Amy are desperate to find out what’s happened to Rory.  He was supposed to look after Emily – and now they’ve both vanished.

Something is waiting in the woods. Something that’s been there for thousands of years. Something that is now waking up...

Three more novels will follow in June 2011: Doctor Who: Borrowed Time by Naomi Alderman, Doctor Who: Paradox Lost by George Mann and Doctor Who: Touched by an Angel by Jonathan Morris. BBC Books first non-fiction title of the year The Dalek Handbook by Steve Tribe and James Goss will also be published in May 2011 at £9.99.

I'll have reviews of the three April releases soon.

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1976 was a busy year for Leonard Rossiter. Since starring in the first series of Yorkshire Television's classic sit-com Rising Damp in 1974, the actor had become a household name. The part of seedy landlord Rigsby had cemented an already long and prestidigious career in stage, film and television. And there was more to come.

Many viewers would have recognised his distinctive face and mannerisms after seeing him guest star in a number of dramas, sit-coms and documentaries of the period. These included appearances in Steptoe and Son, an earlier Bob Baker and Dave Martin crime drama for HTV, Thick as Thieves in 1972, Roy Clarke's contribution to BBC's Comedy Playhouse, Pygmalion Smith, and Johnny Speight's If There Weren't Any Blacks You'd Have to Invent Them, remade by LWT in 1974.

Kubrick had employed him in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barry Lydon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and on stage he had recently tackled Shakespeare, Pinter, Eric Chappell's The Banana Box, from which emerged Rising Damp two years later, and a tour of A Christmas Carol.

BEHIND THE SOFA...It's Time to Say Goodbye

A very brief note... well, the kettle's on, I'm gasping for a cuppa and most of the country has just been informed by The Telegraph that...yes, shock-horror... the economy has shrunk. It's what happens when your leaders put everything on a boil wash. And when it snows, apparently.

Despite these pressing matters, I feel it is only fitting to mark the departure of Behind The Sofa, the collaborative Doctor Who blog that I had the good fortune to contribute to for three years. Sadly, it is putting up the 'Closing Down Sale' notice and seems to be yet another victim of these times of enforced austerity.

I shall miss the place terribly. I kicked off with a review of 'Planet of the Ood', if memory serves me well, and the last was 2010's 'A Christmas Carol'. I even threw in reviews of Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures along the way. It was a pleasure to concoct views about Doctor Who and its many iterations that were both irreverent (dildos and pink slingbacks, anyone?) and stuffed with 'over-analysis' in such a way that the good Doctor was given a right good Foucault-ing. In some small way I'm sure BTS influenced the eventual publication of the book what I wrote. Neil, John, Damon and company certainly managed to barge their way into the foreword. Typical.

So, it just remains for me to thank them for a lovely time. The BTS archives will remain on line and are well worth a dip into.  I will continue to educate and inform right here until they throw me in a bath chair and force me to watch endless re-runs of Triangle.

Now, go and celebrate the return of their equally fabulous Tachyon TV website. Who knows, you might see me there...

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BEING HUMAN - Series 3, Episode 1: Lia / Review

BBCHD - 23 January 2011 - 9.00pm

"A slice of heaven in Barry. I bet heaven doesn't have chemical toilets."


No, this isn't Location, Location, Location with Kirstie Allsop and Phil Spencer... in case you wandered in after the 'previously' montage. Mitchell, George and Nina are in Barry and are being shown round a property by someone who sounds and looks like a slim-line version of Gavin and Stacey's Nessa. For a minute or two, as Mitchell, George and Nina freak out over the reappearance of Annie on their television set, I thought she might have been inclined to say, "What's occurrin'?"

The three friends decide that the rather retro looking, former B & B will do for them. It's going to have to work hard to become as much of an iconic place as the pink house in Bristol. That always felt like it was an additional character in the set-up so I'll reserve judgement on the faux-Hawaiian theme that seems to describe the previous owners' desperate lack of taste here. In that brief exchange between tenant and landlord there is however a flicker of respect for one of many unspoken agendas. Annie.

BRITISH CULT CLASSICS - Vampire Circus / Blu-ray Review

Hammer Films. Oooh. They're as much a part of my youth as trying to see mucky French films on BBC2 on a dodgy black and white portable, watching Monty Python with your baffled parents or reading James Herbert's The Fog during a maths lesson.

I caught the Hammer bug in my teens, in the mid 1970s, just as Dez Skinn unleashed The House of Hammer magazine and the titular film company sputtered on through regurgitated versions of television sit-coms and Dennis Wheatley adaptations.

Thankfully, those BBC horror double bills kept me up to speed and I knew my Bernard Robinson from my Roy Ashton, my Terence Fisher from my Roy Ward Baker. And thank God for Alan Frank's Horror Films published by Octopus Books in 1974. I voraciously devoured their back catalogue at every opportunity.

And now, with Hammer Time, I will be delving into the production company's archive and regularly reviewing a wide variety of their output - not just the horror films but also the thrillers, prehistoric epics, science fiction and war dramas that are all part of the Hammer legacy.

THE LIKES OF SYKES - Three Classic ITV Shows / DVD Review

Eric Sykes is, of course, a comedy legend. In a career spanning more than 50 years he has written for, and performed with, the greats of British comedy, acted in a wide variety of film and television productions - comedy and drama - and won numerous awards and accolades.

He came to preeminence in the 1950s after being invited to write for Bill Fraser, Frankie Howerd and then contributing to the radio series Educating Archie. It was here that he first met Hattie Jacques who would become an enduring comedy performer in numerous radio and television series with Eric.

In the mid-1950s he was writing with Spike Milligan on The Goon Show and by the end of the decade he had formed Associated London Scripts, a non-profit, co-operative writers' agency, in partnership with Milligan, Howerd and Galton and Simpson. The agency worked with Tony Hancock, Johnny Speight, Terry Nation and John Antrobus and became a successful creative hub for the some of the major names in comedy performing and writing.


The Daleks
December 1963 - February 1964

"If they call us mutations... what must they be like?"

Inevitably, you can't ignore the success of the Daleks. There's something immediately attractive about them right from the start. It's that combination of Terry Nation's ideas and the genius design by Raymond Cusick that must have intrigued viewers when this serial began transmission in December 1963 and continues to delight them nearly 50 years later. Though the presence of the titular creatures irked BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman, who had stipulated that he wanted no 'bug-eyed monsters' in the programme, the Daleks were originally more than the ranting arch nemesis they became.

Marc Edward DiPaolo, who talked about his 'Journal of Popular Culture' article Political Satire and British-American Relations in Five Decades of Doctor Who on Radio 4 at the beginning of the month, surely deserves the 'stating the bleeding obvious' award by concluding "the Daleks are obsessed with racial purity and dedicated to a policy of genocide and represent the Nazis." Not wishing to disparage his article, but I think the majority of scholar-fans had reached this very conclusion some time ago.

Yes, I know. This has been a very long time coming. About a year and half.

I started this ongoing review of Derek Jarman's films back in February 2009 and you can find the reviews of Jubilee and Sebastiane here in The Films of Derek Jarman Part One and the coverage of The Tempest and The Angelic Conversation in The Films of Derek Jarman Part Two. It's taken me since June 2009 to get back to these posts so I must apologise for the delay.

Anyway, without further ado, let's take a look at Caravaggio, from 1986, and The Last of England, released in 1987. Two films in very stark and distinct contrast.

THE AVENGERS - The Complete Series 5 / Review

50 years ago the very first episode of The Avengers was transmitted. Hot Snow, shown on the 7 December 1961 and introducing Ian Hendry as Dr. Keel and Patrick Macnee as John Steed, doesn't really give much of an indication as to how The Avengers would become the ultimate expression of Sixties pop culture and a global television phenomenon.

Those early episodes are gritty, hard-nosed thrillers and I've already covered Optimum's DVD box set releases of Series One & Two, Series Three and Four back in 2010 and 2009, charting how this black and white thriller blossomed as the decade moved on, and how, as James Chapman noted in his essay in Windows on the Sixties, "The Avengers both defines and is defined by the 1960s [and reflects] the social changes taking place in Britain during the period" and is a barometer of the "the technological changes that occurred in the television industry moving from 'live' performance to film, and from black-and-white to colour."

And with Series 5 we do indeed move into colour, heralded with a caption card 'The Avengers in Color' on each episode as required by the American network ABC who had paid the then-unheard of sum of $2 million for the first 26 episodes and made the series one of the first, if not the first, British series to be aired on prime time U.S. television.

SPIRITS OF THE DEAD - Blu-Ray / Review

Spirits of the Dead (AKA Histoires Extraordinaires) is a strange French-Italian co-production made in 1968, fashionably cashing in on the portmanteau horror film cycle, arguably created by films such as Dead of Night (1945) and that reached its zenith with the AIP and Amicus productions of the 1960s and 1970s. It freely adapts three of Edgar Allan Poe's short stories, 'Metzengerstein: A Tale In Imitation of the German' which is regarded as the first Poe story published, in 1832, that could be claimed as part of his Gothic repertoire; 'William Wilson' (published 1839) and 'Never Bet the Devil Your Head' (1841) and each is handled by a European director, all regarded as masters of European cinema at the time.

The BFI once again delve into their archive in January and pick out further fascinating evidence that British film making took some very interesting left-turns in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Two films by Joseph Despins and William Dumaresq are released on Dual Format Edition Blu-ray and DVD this month.

In the early 1970s, after Wilson had been forced to devalue the pound, Heath had replaced him and the optimism of the previous decade came to a crashing halt, foreign investors, including many of the major US studios, all abandoned the British film industry. Many indigenous film makers continued to plough their own course and Canadians Joseph Despins and William Dumaresq, the creative team behind the revelatory Duffer and The Moon Over the Alley, demonstrated the very idiosyncratic nature of the films emerging from the decade.

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