Category Archives: Imaginary British Cinema

#192 – No Bread for Brenda

(1943, GB, 90 min) Dir Basil MacDougall. Cast Maggie Friend, William Hartnell, Phillipa George.

Wartime propaganda comedy starring the child star ‘Darling of the Second World War’ Maggie Friend as Brenda Leavensy, a young girl whose desire for her favourite pre-war crusty loaf runs so strong that she’ll do anything – anything – to get it after four years of denial. It all starts innocently enough with young Brenda going from house to house, scrounging together whatever she can of the necessary ingredients but by the end of the film what is perceived as her patriotic fervour has found her kidnapped by the Nazi’s to the heart of Germany where she is to be appraised by a comedy Hitler (future Who Hartnell who, it is said, detested the role). Of course it’s 1943 and it’s a British propaganda film so before long Ol’ Adolf is embarrassingly incapacitated down a chimney while dressed as Santa (don’t ask) and Brenda is winging her way back to Blighty to be greeted by more bread than she could have ever dreamed of. The humour’s dated and the sentiment is plastered thick but, as you’d expect, there’s a certain historical interest to the film.

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#184 – Empty Forest, The

(2015, US/GB/Fr, 102 min) Dir John Henry.

Campaigning doc about illegal wildlife trade. In the last couple of decades the amount of animals in the wild has declined massively and confrontational director John Henry wants to find out why – this is no disingenuous starting point question either, he wants to actually ask people why they are taking the animals out of their habitats and why the people who are buying them are doing so, even if it means being on the receiving end of some very angry men. The answer is depressing – the animals in question are either being kept domestically in cages thousands of miles from their natural habitat or else eaten for the status their meat conveys and the unfounded belief in it’s medicinal properties. An angry film that forces the viewer to bear witness to the animal markets of South East Asia, the piles of confiscated ivory in Africa and the animals caged outside restaurants in China or, as more recently exposed, in the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Laos. A barrage of statistics makes it plain that it’s not just elephants and tigers that are suffering – the loris, bears, pangolin, snakes, salamanders and many, many more now hover on the brink of extinction. That there is no solution or hope of a happy ending offered by the film makes it that much bleaker.

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#174 – Black Book, The

(1985, US/GB, 106 min) Dir James G Marshall. Cast Gabriel Byrne, Theresa Russell, Ian Holm, Billie Whitelaw, Phil Daniels, Alexi Sayle.

Alexander Kasin (Byrne) is a rising star in the KGB tasked with tracking down the author of the so-called Black Book of the title, dozens of copies of which have been disseminated across the Soviet Union via the producers of handmade publications known as samizdat. The file on said book is very thin – no copy has yet been found by the authorities though numerous references have been logged from intercepted mail, bugged telephones and the confessions of criminals. “There are not many copies in circulation,” he superior tells him, “But so far as we can tell the contents of this book are so volatile none can be tolerated.” So Kasin begins his investigation in the usual places – checking in with his informers, known black market operators and the samizdat slinging intelligentsia – but not only draws a blank but meets a kind of frightened resistance totally uncommon to him in his usual course of work. As he digs ever deeper and finds himself on a trail that leads to the obscurer ends of his homeland it occurs to him that he’s not on the trail of something new, but of a cancer as old as his country with a dark purpose at its heart. A classy, creepy detective film full of unplumbed darkness. An US/GB co-production directed by a Canadian, populated almost entirely with British actors and fantastically shot by veteran Irish DOP Brendan Bradley in snow bound Finland, The Black Book was made on the back of Gorky Park’s success but was sadly unable to replicate it. Not to be confused with Verhoeven’s Black Book nor indeed the Dylan Moran sitcom Black Books.

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#173 – Palm

(2012, Can/GB, 76 min) Dir Alice Werkherser.

Alice Werkherser’s follow up to Engineer Species is a very different beast to the earlier work which followed the traditional interview/narrative form of documentary and is very alike Peter Mettler’s Petropolis in execution. The main difference between the two films is that Mettler’s film, being an aerial record of the devastation wrought by industry on the Alberta tar sands, has visuals that are dramatic, terrifying and even beautiful if isolated from their context. Werkherser’s film is similar in many ways in that it is also about a great environmental devastation but one whose visual effect on the land is not as immediately shocking. Through a combination of helicopter and drone photography she has recorded the vast scale of the palm oil plantations that have irrevocably changed the once lush rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo in Indonesia (the world’s largest producer) into unending rows of farmed palm trees, straight line after straight line from one end of the film to the other, each area tagged at the bottom of the screen before rolling on for uninterrupted chunks of time in it’s bland, terrifying uniformity. He soundtrack is given over to a variety of people affected by this, from the purchaser of a multinational company (unnamed) who imports the oil about the surprising amount of products it is used in, to an indigenous person displaced by the plantations, to a representative from International Animal Rescue on the terrible effect on the local wildlife and environment, to a farm worker who relies on the plantations to feed his family and who was unemployed prior to that. A piece of vertiginous perspective.

#172 – Daniel, the Fart Catcher

(1998, GB, 93 min) Dir Alastair Hirst. Cast David Thewlis, Clive Owen, Jane Horrocks, Kevin McKidd, Ewan Bremner.

Period comedy. Apparently a fart catcher was the derogatory term for a footman or valet in the 18th and 19th century and, in this, David Thewlis is Daniel, the fart catcher for the bastardly Lord Everdice (Owen). Everdice, having lost his family’s fortunes on the baccarat tables of Europe, now desires to wed Lady Balthirst (Horrocks), the only child of the fantastically wealthy Balthirst family who remains unwed due to the fact that she’s a kleptomaniac with Tourette’s. Daniel, on the other hand, has been taken in the employ of Balthirst père to make sure this doesn’t happen and must now try his damnedest to sabotage his masters amorous advances without raising suspicion. Further complicating matters are Brush and Wash (McKidd and Bremner, reunited from Trainspotting) who, in the service of Balthirst mère who just wants her daughter wed no matter the cost, are trying valiantly (if ineptly) to sabotage Daniel’s sabotagings. To the film’s advantage it’s directed by Alastair Hirst, costume drama veteran of 1985’s Buried Hearts and the 1992 TV adaptation of J. Langdon Beetleman’s Staedtler Quartet so the form of the film is very much in keeping with the genre being mocked. The film’s disadvantages are chiefly two – one is that it’s directed by Alastair Hirst, who may have directed a good few costume dramas but hasn’t directed a comedy, and the other is that one is constantly reminded in the watching of the film of how much better Blackadder would have handled the same material.

#168 – Excuse Me Sir, I’ve Just Been Shot

(1973, GB, 105 min) Dir Aldous Oxbury. Cast Peter Cushing, Felicity Montague, Denholm Elliott, Christopher Lee.

Zany detective nonsense with Peter Cushing’s famed detective Albert Franklin investigating his own murder as he bleeds out from the gunshot wound he believes to be the agent of his ultimate demise. “But you should see a doctor!” exclaims his secretary, Pam. Not a bit of it – he’s too excited about the investigation to be bothered wasting his time on medical assistance. “Imagine how cold the trail will be by the time they’ve pulled out that bullet and stitched me up!” A fun romp with Denholm Elliott his nervy contact on the force and Christopher Lee as his incarcerated Moriarty-like nemesis. The best part of the film has to be the gravitas Cushing brings to the role that sells every scene regardless as to whether it requires him to crawl through a bed of eels (don’t ask) or deliver a dressing-down to a royal guard who he believes is wearing an improperly buttoned coat. Fantastic London locations add to the film’s charm including a chase through both Kew Gardens and Highgate Cemetery. This seems an obvious set-up for a series but alas, if this were the case there none but this sole entry.

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#167 – Man From D.I.E.T., The

(1982, GB, 47 min) Dir Barry Endwater. Cast Michael Banks, Eleanor Metz, Harvey Bealey.

One of those dire educational films that was put on when the teacher couldn’t muster the energy for a lesson plan, it seems that everyone I’ve talked to about this has seen it – both in the UK and, amazingly, the US. It’s gained a new lease of life recently thanks to the wonders of the internet. Yes, we really did have to watch stuff like this in school. The most novel thing about this is the presence of Michael Banks in the lead – Banks was a perpetual rising star in the late Sixties/early Seventies, mostly in forgettable actioners. He was even, if you believe the man, in consideration for Bond when Connery hung up his PPK. He gets to live out his fantasy here in a way as Bond-alike Hamilton Greens, up against a nefarious plot by devious disseminators of junk food like Glutenous Bap and the E Numbers crew. Cardboard sets, nonsense plot and sledgehammer messages – those were the days, eh? To his credit Banks doesn’t seem to be going for the easy cheque, he’s really going for it here. A quick perusal of his credits on IMDB suggests that this was a rare bit of work for him at the time so fair enough.

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#165 – Beast In London’s Fog, The

(1971, It/GB, 90 min) Dir Sergio Patrino. Cast William Berger, Catherine Bess, Helmut Messerschmitt.

Here comes Sergio Patrino, getting his Victorian London gore on like an Italian Hammer Horror. The fog-thick streets of the city are being stalked by once more by a knife wielding killer, bringing up uncomfortable memories for Detective Alan Brindling (Berger) who was hot on the trail of the Ripper a mere five years previously. On the prowl for the murderer he sees, through the fog, no man but a green-skinned, knife fingered beast. He passes out and when revived is believed by none. So be it – he’s on his own, one man against a foul creature that lurks beneath the streets themselves, the labyrinthine sewers it’s home. Logic? Plausibility? Forget about it – The Beast in London’s Fog has atmosphere to spare, hysterical acting without equal and an ending that’ll make you soil yourself one way or the other.

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#164 – Ice Pick Phillips

(2000, GB, 108 min) Dir Harry Denton. Cast Alan Barking, Jason Flemyng, Vera Day, Keith Chegwin.

On the back of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels there came a slew of gangster films from the British film industry and, as with any opportunistic glut, there were the occasional examples where advantage was taken of the gold rush and quality work was produced – Sexy Beast for one, Croupier for another. These few films however, represented a very small amount of the overall whole, the remaining dreck best typified by Ice Pick Phillips. We’ve got a minor actor acting the hard man (Alan Barking, best known as Ian Bleat in TV soap Waterhigh), a Lock, Stock alum (Jason Flemyng) and an egregious example of stunt casting (Keith Chegwin getting tortured to death for an unpaid debt) – all the ingredients for a paper-thin nth generation copy of something that was barely liked in the first place. It’s the true story of the titular man, a mob enforcer for the Dubbin’s gang in the Seventies who earned his name for the expected reason. The film is firmly on Phillip’s side, taking a gleeful relish in the objects of his tortures and making sad face at his eventual downfall and incarceration like it was some kind of injustice. Mandela he ain’t, needless to say. I would have been bored if my blood hadn’t been boiling at this vile little flick.

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#163 – Dent

(1987, GB, 105 min) Dir Malcolm Mowbray. Cast Michael Palin, Shirley Stelfox, Michael Elphick.

Simon Dent had always been an accountant, taking the same bus to the same firm for thirty years until the day he was called into the Managing Director’s office. “We’re downsizing, as the Americans call it,” the MD says and with that Simon’s life to that point is changed. On the way home, distracted by his grief, he hits a car that has pulled out in front of him, hitting his head on the steering wheel. Now everything’s different, suddenly losing his job is the best thing that’s happened to him – now he can grab life by the horns and ride it off a cliff no matter what his wife Doris says! Dent is a bit like if you crossed Falling Down with Reggie Perrin, the suppressed rage at the indignities of the modern world subsumed by a more childlike joie de vivre. The most important part of the film is that by the end, no matter what he tries to plug the absence in his life with, he remains unhappy, missing something. “I didn’t just have a job and a routine,” he says, “What I had was dignity.” A forced and pretty twee film but one featuring a fine, heartbreaking performance from Palin.

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