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Callan at 50

After the very successful London Film Festival that covered a large portion of October 2017, I caught up with the interesting although ‘hit and miss’ British Film Institute (BFI) season of ‘Who Can You Trust?’. The season has included the usual 1970s conspiracy theory thrillers such as ‘Klute’ and ‘All The Presidents Men’ as well as an interesting group of TV work including ‘The Avengers’ and ‘Danger Man’. My choice was the ‘Callan at 50’ with a rare public screening of an episode from Series 3 (‘suddenly – at home’) made in 1970.

The episode was a change of pace for the Callan series (1970-72) which for those who not familiar with it, starred Edward Woodward as a disillusioned agent (David Callan) working for ‘The Section’ which was a no holds barred part of British Intelligence (MI6/SIS)-essentially an execution cell. Callan is aided by a petty thief simply known as ‘lonely’ (Russell Hunter – who plays him as a Glaswegian cockney). Callan’s real enemies though tend to be internal ones – his boss Hunter and fellow operatives James Cross and Toby Meres.

In the episode to a pretty much full house at the National Film Theatre (NFT), Callan is directed by Hunter (William Squire) to stop a widow of a late Foreign Secretary (Zena Walker) taking part in a documentary series produced by a so called filmmaker who is actually a cover for a foreign agency. The unexpected happens though as Callan falls in love with the widow-which is code for her to be taken out therefore ruining a romance for David Callan.

The writing by Callan creator James Mitchell was first rate and the performances of Woodward, Hunter and Zena Walker were strong enough to get the viewer engaged and be on Callan’s side of the argument throughout.

Afterwards there was an excellent panel introduced by the BFI’s TV guru Dick Fiddy consisting of James Mitchell’s son (Peter), the ‘suddenly- at home’ director and TV/film veteran Piers Haggard and able hosted by the writers of the Callan ‘bible’ (‘The Callan File- the definitive guide’) Robert Fairclough and Mike Kenwood.

There was some initial hesitation by Peter Mitchell about how he saw his father’s creation but he soon settled into his groove ably assisted by some amusing anecdotes by Piers Haggard. It was universally agreed that a lot of the success of the show came down to the central relationship between Edward Woodward and Russell Hunter as they battled the internal politics of ‘The Section’ and trying in vain to progress in life.

Peter Mitchell revealed how he is working with Big Finish Productions to release new Callan material and that is something to look out for. Overall a really enjoyable afternoon spent in the company of Callan and its creators. So much so that I have gone out and brought ‘Callan-This Man Alone’ which is a 2016 documentary of the series…..

Elton John in Brum

“And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time…” is a refrain from Elton John’s classic 1972 hit ‘Rocket man’, and for me it has indeed been “a long, long time” since I saw him live. In fact it was 11 years (June 2006) since I saw him play at my beloved ‘The Valley’ – the first time in 30 years that anyone had played live there (the joke among Charlton Athletic fans, is that it is almost as long since any of our players have played on the football pitch there!).

So, I paid my £85 and took my seat at the magnificent Genting Arena in Birmingham (NEC as was) along with another 10,000 fans, and Elton, although now 70 is still probably the finest showman out there and delivered for his Birmingham fans a tremendous 2 hour 20 minute set of music that left people well pleased, entertained and got their full money’s worth.

Elton came on and started with his trademark song ‘The Bitch is Back’ (1974) to get everyone into the right mood from the off and then covered pretty much the whole repertory of his and lyricist Bernie Taupin’s music- from ‘Take Me To the Pilot’ (1970) to ‘ Looking Up’ (from his latest 2016 album ‘Wonderful Crazy Night’).

In total, Elton and his band covered 22 songs from harder rock like ‘Bennie And The Jets’ (1974) to ballads such as ‘Daniel’ (1973).

In between Elton took time out to talk to the audience and there was a moving tribute to George Michael with ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ (1974)and a most heartfelt ‘I Want Love’ (2001)dedicated to those who died in the Manchester and London Bridge terrorist attacks.

Elton’s shows are great ‘pick me ups’ and no matter what mood you enter the arena in, you know that it will not be long before you are gonna be up and dancing. Here, it was the trio of ‘’Crocodile Rock’ (1973), ‘Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock And Roll)’ (1973) and ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’ (1973) that got people surging forwards.

However, Elton is often at his best with his slower numbers and no more so than probably the first song that brought him acclaim with ‘Your Song’ (1970)- it is strange to think that it is 47 years old but it still holds an audience together when the lights go down and they hear those Bernie Taupin words of “ It’s a little bit funny this feeling inside…”. A tale of naïve, simplistic first love that still has the ability to get down into your soul.

Elton is into audience participation and no more so than with ‘Crocodile Rock’ with the fans singing back the ‘la,lal,la’ in the chorus and them singing together ‘Your Song’ which fans know by heart.

Elton’s band on the night including long time collaborators Davy Johnston on guitar and Nigel Olsson on drums and everyone on stage and in the seats and aisles seemed to have a blast. I was sat with two ladies from Walsall who had the best of times and as I looked around the audience -that seemed to run from teenagers to those in their mid 70’s- everyone seemed to be forgetting the troubles they might have outside, and for a few hours be taken out of themselves and allowed Elton and his music do the healing…..

'Patriots Day' - Boston Strong

‘Patriots Day’ is the first good Mark Wahlberg film since ‘Boogie Nights’ way back in 1997-in my opinion.  He has been an actor that I have not easily responded to- certainly in the broad comedies that he has largely been featured in such as ‘Ted’, ‘Ted 2’ & ‘Pain & Gain’. But all is now forgiven.

Here, in this largely very faithful recreation of the atrocious 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing, he is centre stage as Boston Police Department Sgt Tommy Saunders. Now Saunders is in a difficult place- having been disciplined by his force and having to work through his problems, this all changes when brothers  Dzhokhar Tsarnaev & Tamerlan Tsarnaev remotely detonate bombs at the finishing line at the Boston Marathon.

The movie, ably directed by Peter Berg, is at his most effective when it is showing the sheer chaos and carnage that takes place in an instant with people searching for loved ones, the scene being dominated with trainers lying there with parts of limbs still in them, and the authorities trying to work what has taken place.

The film is also good in the hunting down of the twin terrorists – mixing documentary and fictional scenes to good effect- Kevin Bacon impresses as the FBI Agent leading the investigation and showing that he is more than just a EE advertising front man. John Goodman does his usual turn- this time as Police Commissioner Ed Davis. There is tremendous support by J K Simmons (‘Juno’ & ‘Whiplash’) as police Sgt Jeffrey Pugliese who plays a central role in capturing the suspects.

Even though most people who followed this real life drama know the ending, it is still engrossing to witness the enfolding drama. The movie does not come up with any real answers to the terrorist conundrum that we face- at one

at one point the Mark Wahlberg character attempts to but can only conclude that the only answer is to love people. The film though is at its best when it chronicles the ‘Boston Strong’ message and how the city came together to help find the terrorists and came together as a strong city –similar to London over ‘7/7’ and of course the Capital’s finest hour –‘The Blitz’.

The film is also very emotional. No more so than at its conclusion where the real life survivors of the bombing have their turn to record what the events meant to them-that it led to positive and not just negative things happening and the reigniting of  how good people respond to evil – and in that sense defeated terrorism. 

Emma tames 'the Beast'

Much has been written about Disney’s ‘Beauty & the Beast’ live action adventure remake; with the emphasis on how much of it is a feminist and diversity upgrade. This is due to its lead star (and the always lovely) Emma Watson’s desire to empower her character and the introduction of a gay character which has led to the film being withdrawn in some overseas markets.

The first thing to report however is that the movie is actually very good and you can probably disregard the political correctness that has steeped into the story. A lot of the reason why it is well worth catching is Emma Watson. She and her character Belle are front and central so she needs to be engaging and empathic –and she is.

The story -for those who don’t know -is based on the traditional 1700’s fairy tale where Belle, young, beautiful and a lover of knowledge (pretty much like her Harry Potter character Hermione in fact) is kept prisoner by the Beast (Downtown Abbey’s Dan Stevens don’t you know), who through a witch’s spell has morphed from prince to beast- as has his friends who turn into everyday objects such as clocks and cupboards.

The characters in the Beast’s palace are voiced by the likes of Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci and they add a lot of humour to the piece as does Kevin Kline as Belle’s over protective widowed father. Further support comes from Luke Evans as Gaston who is keen to have Belle as his trophy wife and his (very campy) side kick Le Fou (Josh Gad).

The theme of the film and indeed the original fairy tale is the epiphany that the Beast has when he morphs from arrogant prince to soulful and loveable lover of Belle-and that in the end ‘all is well’. As a musical it is less impressive than as a film in its own right. Although Emma Watson’s voice is very fine, the music from Howard Ashman and Alan Menken I found rather limiting and lifeless. True, they won an Oscar for it when it was used in the earlier 1991 Disney animated version- but it is not that inspiring.

That said, overall it is good fun and is clearly a huge success as it has taken over $430 million and is expected to gross in advance of $1 billion. Its main appeal will be to the young female audience it is aimed at and essentially the Frozen demographic. That is not me but I still enjoyed it- and so should everyone.