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Communicating Doors- another Theatre 62 triumph

The latest Theatre 62 production that I and my close friends saw was the splendid Sir Alan Ayckbourn play written in 1994 Communicating Doors. Its genesis is an interesting one as Ayckbourn was inspired by the series of J B Priestley’s time travel plays (think The Inspector Calls (1946)) and wanted to write something about what lay behind hotel room doors. The play is for him a light and optimistic piece of work and plays on various films like Psycho and of course Back to the Future.

Anyway in this production that we saw about halfway through its run takes places in three time zones – 1998, 2018 & lastly 2038. It starts in 2038 with Prostitute and Dominatrix Poopay -real name Phoebe –( the very buxom Alice Heather) being let in to ‘service’ businessman Reece (Rob Chambers), except he does not want her for sex but to witness his confession of having asked his psychopath assistant Julian (the outstanding Howard James) to murder his two wives.

Now this is where the real fun starts as Poopay/Phoebe discovers that by going through a particular door she ends up in the same hotel room but 20 years earlier where she meets Ruella (Janet Sharrock) who is Reece’s second wife. Here she tries to convince her that she is going to be murdered and eventually they hatch a plan to change history –or is that to make history?

This involves them going forwards and back including to 1998 where first wife Jessica (Ruth Aylward) is on her honeymoon and like Ruella, she has to be convinced that Reece is going to do her in via the nasty Psycho like mother fixated henchman.

If this sounds rather complicated you have no need to worry as most of the audience just accepted that you can travel through time via a hotel like Tardis and we were able to settle down and just enjoy the capers of a ‘Sexual  Consultant’ trying to tell a middle class and high class group of wives that their hubby is trying to get them murdered. As in most Theatre 62 productions there were laughs galore -especially when Julian ends up underneath a sofa and having to be carried out by the wives yet to be killed and a good bit of slapstick where everyone almost ends up falling from the hotel window! The whole thing was very well directed by Kerry Heywood and designed by Alan Matthews.

Of the ensemble cast, Howard James continued his fine form as the nasty Julian who seemed to have a real distaste for women (blame his mother), as Phoebe/Poopay Alice Heather needed to be good and she was. Good support was given by Janet Sharrock, Rob Chambers and Ian Evans.

The Last Journey -one worth making

The latest gem uncovered by Talking Pictures TV is what on the face of it is a standard ‘quota quickie’ –The Last Journey (1936), but look more closely and you will find an especially memorable human interest thriller.

It is part of what you might call the ‘disaster movie’ genre especially that of the ‘runaway train’. The Twickenham Films production’s plotline is fairly simple – Julian Mitchell plays a train driver due to make his last GWR (steam) train run to ‘Filby’ and  ‘Mulchester’. Reluctant to retire and driven crazy by the (false) idea that his wife (Olga Lindo) is having an affair with is fireman (this is a steam train after all!) played by Michael Hogan , he determines that this trip will be a final one (“No return ticket- this is The Last Journey!”) he screams at Hogan.

However the 66 minutes of the film go quickly as writers John Soutar, H Fowler Meare and Joseph Jefferson Farjeon create as quirky a group of passengers that many a screenwriter could wish for.

Amongst those on board we have a bigamist (the dapper Hugh Williams), a grand stutterer, a likeable bonnie and clyde duo (Eliot Makeham & Eve Gray) robbing their way across GWR, a ‘brain doctor’ (always handy when you have a mentally ill train driver on board) as well as a lady roaming the third class coaches getting people to sign ‘the pledge’ (it is 1936).

Few of the cast made it big and managed to get out of these kind of ‘B’ movies, and whilst the acting is often of the highest ham order, it is a really engaging ride with them.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Last Journey is its director Bernard Vorhaus. Although a New Yorker by birth he was a mentor of the great David Lean and was busy in the 1920s making B films for Republic Pictures and then across the Atlantic including The Last Journey. He also made some important instructional air films with Ronald Reagan. However for Vorhaus, it was not Reagan’s politics that rubbed ofs as he affiliated himself with Communism which led him to be blacklisted in 1951 and moving back to the UK. Rather than resurrect his career on our shores like fellow blacklister Cy Endfield (director of films such as Hell Drivers also on the wonderful Talking Pictures TV), he decided to renovate buildings in England.

Vorhaus’ work was rediscovered in the 1980s when he had a retrospective at the British Film Institute and shortly before he did at the ripe old age of 95, his memoirs were published.

So, The Last Journey is probably his best work and is a very diverting hour or so,

The Bridge Series 4 - Saga is back......................(no spoilers!)

“Echo stutters across a room, trembling noises that come too soon…” Yes, with that haunting theme song from the Choir of Young Believers, you know that The Bridge is back for Season 4.

I was fortunate enough to get tickets to see a preview of the opening episode of Series 4 (don’t worry –there are no spoilers here!) at the BFI in London, and not just that, the screening was followed by an onstage interview with Q&A of Saga herself (the luminous Sofia Helin), her side kick Henrik (Thure Lindhardt), together with creator Hans Rosenfeldt and the series lead writer Camilla Ahlgren- that is one definition of Heaven!

So to Series 4. I will not say much except to say that the series is shown on BBC2 (yes, promoted from BBC 4) in May over 8, rather than 10 episodes. It opens two years on from Series 3, where fans will recall Saga was being investigated over the death of her mother, whilst she joined Henrik to find his lost twin daughters.

As with all series of The Bridge, it opens with a shocking crime and the duo themes that we will be following across all 8 episodes are very real and current ones –in Sweden and Denmark but also here in the UK: Identity & refugees. Who for example is Saga were she not a detective? , is Henrik anyone if he cannot find his daughters and across the real Oresund Bridge you now have to show ID to travel across the countries because of the open borders that Sweden now have and the issue surrounding the refugee crisis.

I will only say that if episode 1 is any indication of the rest of the series, then we and the other 1.5 million UK viewers who cannot do without our Saga fix each Saturday night are in for a wonderful treat, so strap yourselves in!

 The onstage interview afterwards with the cast and creative team was excellent and Sofia Helin and Thure Lindhardt in particular were in splendid form. Some very interesting things flowed from their interview by Daily Telegraph writer Benji Wilson and we learnt a few things:

  • The series is written and made for the Swedish and Danish audience despite the very welcome success in the UK and the writers always ensure that a real current topic is featured to reflect the times and the culture that they live in;
  • Sofia Helin is not allowed to keep her trademark leather trousers or her 1977 Porsche 911S that she drives around Malmo;
  • Both Helin and Lindhardt chose The Crown as the British TV that they most admire (“you don’t need a Danish king do you? Shouted out Lindhardt!)

The level of fangirl and fanboy interest in The Bridge came through at the Q&A afterwards with some questioning why certain Danish swear words are translated incorrectly on the English subtitles and one person insisted that the series is in effect a fairy tale and that Saga is really the Ice Queen- which totally bemused the actual creator and lead writer of the show, who didn’t really know what he was going on about.

What did come through though was the love that audiences have for the series, the plots and especially the fondness for the unique TV character that is Saga Noren.

The Knack -perhaps not worth knowing?

My latest sojourn to London’s South Bank was to see with a fellow cineaste was to the National Film Theatre to see something from their Woodfall Films’ season. Woodfall was a British production company that effectively created the British New Wave explosion of gritty, realistic dramas in the 1960s like Saturday Night & Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey and Kes.

The only film in the season that had any real appeal was The Knack…and how to get it (1965). It was directed by Richard Lester and starred a very young (23) Michael Crawford, Rita Tushingham (who seems to have been in every British film in the 1960’s), Ray Brooks and a new name to me Donal Donnelly.

The film amazingly won the main film prize at Cannes at the time and was named the Outstanding Comedy for 1966 (when it was released), but I think it fair to say that The Knack has not aged well. It is a time capsule of a movie and centres round the activities (or non-activities in the case of Michael Crawford’s character) of super stud Tolen (Ray Brooks) and his menagerie of very willing female lovers –including amongst them Jane Birkin, Jacqueline Bissett, and Charlotte Rampling. Tolen shares a very art deco house with timid schoolteacher Colin (Michael Crawford) who objects to the amount of womanising that his house mate gets up to– mainly because he has no experience of girls. Between them come two interlopers – the obligatory girl from the north (Tushingham) and a new tenant (Donnelly).

Based on a play by Ann Jellicoe, the film has two parts to it. The first 30-40 minutes where Richard Lester channels the Beatles films he directed (A Hard Day’s Night) with a lighter touch and a sense of ‘Swinging London’. He adds in a Greek Chorus of London characters telling you what was wrong with young people and this is where the film flows as Crawford’s character tries to learn ‘The Knack’ on how to get a girl. Brooks’ character is a Rocker turned Mod who appears to have an amazing effect on every blonde or brunette in the capital –although Brooks’ tips would be seen differently from the space of 50+ years.

His observations to Crawford are that women want to be dominated and that “girls only get raped who want to be raped”. Richard Lester uses the second half of the film to centre on the rape issue when Brooks tries it on with Rita Tushingham, leading to her running away claiming to all and sundry that she has been raped (she hasn’t). The film makes a lot of fun of the rape issue (in one scene Tushingham goes up to a housewife and tells her she has been raped and her response is “not today thank you!”- I suspect a younger, more feminist audience would struggle understanding this attempt at 1960’s humour.

In the end I think I was disappointed with The Knack. It had its good moments when it focussed on the London of the middle 1960’s, and you can see where Crawford got a lot of his Frank Spencer moments in the stunts that he performs with a lot of exuberance, but its last 30-40 minutes waned and it got bogged down on who was going to bed the Tushingham character first.

Rita Tushingham was as always excellent but she was very typecast as the plain girl from the north trying to find swinging London and after her role in Dr Zhivago (which she made in the same year as The Knack, her roles in films dried up.

Unlike Michael Crawford, Ray Brooks’ later career stumbled and probably peaked after he starred in Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home (1966) and one of his later film appearances was in Carry on Abroad (1972). He is perhaps better known now for his TV work in series such as Big Deal (1984-86), Growing Pains (1992), voicing Mr Benn for Children’s TV, and EastEnders (2005-2007).

Director Richard Lester although an American, based himself largely in the UK and hit the big time when he directed The Beatles’ films including Help (the same year as The Knack) before he made a number of blockbuster movies such as Juggernaut (1974), The Three (& Four) Musketeers (1973-1974) and co-directed Superman II (1978). Lester effectively retired after his close friend Roy Kinnear tragically died in a horsing accident whilst Lester directed him when making The Return of the Musketeers (1988).