Monday, 16 October 2017

GETTING CADLED: A REMEMBRANCE OF KEVIN CADLE

My friend and colleague Kevin Cadle died unexpectedly yesterday, aged 62. I've written an appreciation of my man for nfluk.com, you can find it here. It was a shock, especially since he was supposed to do our Talksport show that night, and I was looking forward to doing his Sportsheads programme this week. Just saying that reminds how much of our careers in this business depends on relationships: Kev brought me aboard on Showtime Sport's Euroleague basketball (it was in 2003 and 2004, not the late Nineties as I misremembered) and I was able to throw some things his way: it was true that we talked about that old time feeling of working together regularly just a couple of weeks ago: you just never know what will happen.

As some of you may remember, Kev replaced me on the Sky NFL show. Sky being Sky no one ever bothered to inform me of this, but I was lucky enough to have Channel Five pick up the late night Sunday and Monday games soon after, and the rest was history. The Sky NFL producer was on holiday, and had assumed someone else would let me know; meanwhile Kev and I had lunch in Primrose Hill when he knew but I still didn't. The next time we got together (which curiously enough was by accident, and on Primrose Hill) we had a talk. Kev hadn't wanted to bring the subject up, because he felt embarrassed and, assuming Sky would have had the grace to inform me; he figured I was being polite and not bringing it up either. That we stayed friends says all that needs to be said.

The photo above was taken just about a year ago, after the NFL game at Twickenham, when I interviewed Kev on stage to help promote his memoir, The Cadle Will Rock. In the middle is Karl Baumann, who was our producer on WLAF/NFL Europe. I'd tell the Amsterdam story now, but this isn't the time or the place.

But it makes me smile. I've got others; the Frankfurt concentration camp one is my favourites. Maybe someday. And this is the absolute truth: no sooner had I posted this than my email showed a request from Kevin to connect on Linkedin. He'd Cadled me one last time! This morning someone posted a picture of Kev and Cecil Martin carving the Thanksgiving turkey, a Sky tradition which I believe was Karl's idea. It was high sports comedy, and it got better every year. When I saw the photo I started laughing out loud. And then I cried. RIP Big Guy.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM: WRONG TURN ON RIPPER STREET

NOTE: This review contains some spoilers, but that shouldn't matter because the film offers its own spoilers early on.

It's the East End of London, before the Ripper murders, but the Limehouse Golem is a serial killer who has already killed a prostitute, a Jewish scholar, and a family in the rag trade. The police have no clue, but the public and press are clamoring for results so Scotland Yard hands the investigation to Inspector Kildare, a detective who has gone nowhere in the Yard because he is 'not the marrying kind', and thus will be gladly sacrificed to the public as the murders multiply.

But as Kildare joins the case, he is presented with a domestic poisoning, of playwright John Cree by his wife Lizzie, a former music hall star in the female impersonator Dan Leno's shows. And the two cases turn out to be connected, as Kildare discovers in the reading room of the British Museum, where Thomas DeQuincey's infamous essay on the art of murder has been annotated by the Golem himself. Which limits the list of suspects to Cree, Leno, Karl Marx and George Gissing.

Does this not sound like the skeleton of a tremendous film? It is taken from Peter Ackroyd's novel Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem, and the possibilities are endless. A conflation of the Ratcliff Highway murders about which DeQuincey wrote, and the story of James Maybrick, the Ripper suspect poisoned by his wife, Ackroyd's book was a rich mining of the nuances of Victorian sexuality, as well as a turn about performance, creation and fame. Screenwriter Jane Goldman said it was a long-time dream of hers to adapt the book for the screen. But that long-time does not appear to have been used in considering what would be the best way to do that.

The biggest problem is that the story's big twist, the identity of the killer, is made obvious a third of the way through the film, and that leaves the viewer hoping that some more exotic twist may be in the offing—a bit of stagecraft magic from Leno, perhaps, or a demented Kildare turning out to be the killer. The latter would make great sense, not just because Bill Nighy sleepwalks his way through the role, perhaps thinking he's already played a Peter Cushing role at least once. His eventual awakening would be welcome,  because Kildare's closeted sexuality could have spurred exactly the sense of murderous rage the killer shows. Though of course how it would apply to the victims chosen would still be problematic. It's interesting that Alan Rickman was originally cast in the role, but had to bow out as he grew ill.

Oddly enough, the movie is content to leave most of those questions of sexuality lurking in the background. Leno is a female impersonator; Lizzie starts her career playing men. Kildare's assistant turns out to be sympathetic to his sexuality, though nothing is made of this. Uncle, the theatre manager played by Eddie Marsan, turns out to be a sado-masochist not above blackmailing Lizzie into servicing his needs. The acrobat Aveline (played with bitchy menace by Maria Valverde), who loses Cree to Lizzie, then joins the household, taking the pain of wifely duties away from Lizzie. This is a rich broth of sexuality in conflict, but most of it goes nowhere. Perhaps they were worried about revealing the twist too son were they to reveal too much, but because they point you so obviously in the direction of the real killer that's no excuse.

The story is told through imaginings by Kildare of the various suspects carrying out the killings, and through Lizzie's own story, told to Kildare as she awaits first trial and then the noose for poisoning her husband. Kildare's protective attraction to Lizzie is hard to figure, except that it's necessary for the plot, but we see Lizzie abused sexually as a young girl and then punished brutally by her mother for having been abused. Orphaned at 14, she makes her way into the theatre, and with the unfortunate death of Leno's midget foil takes over that place in his act and becomes a star.

So as Lizzie directs Kildare's Inspector Knacker, we lose further opportunities. Karl Marx is played by Henry Goodman in a fake nose wig and beard as if he were a music hall character, he adds nothing to the film; nor does Morgan Watkins' George Gissing, though he is shown in an opium den and explains he's married a fallen woman to try to save her.When you consider the way director Juan Carlos Medina sets the scene, half Hammer horror and half Ripper Street, to show us all the degradations of the East End, you might expect to get more than a knowing nod to where each of those characters came from.

But in the end, it is Lizzie's film, and Olivia Cooke rises to the challenge by channeling her inner Kate Winslet, almost to the point of parody. The directors' and her real interest seems to be the music hall and the backstage world; obviously that is where Lizzie has come alive, but it turns out to be a thing much deeper than that and we're never really convinced of that. And when the denouement comes, a lot of heavy mascara is no substitute for character. You might have expected a bit more of Dan Leno, who is played well enough by Douglas Booth, though as with Marx or Gissing, the film always backs off giving him more character to explore. Even in the film's final scene, in which Aveline dies in an accident, playing Lizzie in the noose, you wonder if there's something you missed—though the film immediately tells you you haven't, by going to a celebratory shot of Lizzie, though you obviously have.

It's that kind of movie. Gratuitously violent at times, well-set up at others, it in the end goes around in circles, to no point because the audience knows too well where it is going to end up. It would have been easy to have made the journey more worthwhile.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

GOD OF WAR: EPIC HISTORY, MARTIAL ARTS & WESTERN MOVIES

It's a nice piece of synchronicity that the next film I saw after Blade Of The Immortal was God Of War, a Chinese wuxia war drama based on historical events of the 16th century. The film opens with Chinese soldiers under General Yu Dayou (Sammo Hung) being defeated by Japanese pirates who are preying on the coast of China. Yu is stymied by a lack of tactical imagination, inferior troops, and the politics of the Ming dynasty. Young General Qi Jiguang (Vincent Zhao) arrives to take charge, and wins the chess game against the pirates, driving them away.

So far, so simple. The battle scenes are done well, and the tensions within the Chinese camp have a nice parallel with the Japanese invaders: the 'pirates' are largely ronin, battling for plunder and women, being supervised by samurai. The young Lord Yamagawa (Kaisuke Koide) is offended by this affront to the samurai ethos, but the commander, his sensei Kumasawa (Yasuaki Kurata) is playing his own chess game with a sort of zen patience which General Qi visually is shown to echo.

With the battle won, General Qi eventually wins his argument to recruit and train his own army, why General Yu is arrested by the Ming government. And when the Japanese return in force, Qi is put in a dilemma of having to defend three towns, including the one where his army's families have been left behind, against a vastly superior force.

Fans of non-stop action will be disappointed, not least because Sammo Hung plays such a small part (in fact I was half-convinced he would be released from prison and ride to the rescue in the final scenes). He and Zhao get one scene, in the prison cell, where they display their individual fighting skills, but Hung's presence, his calm acceptance of his political fate is somewhat wasted here. That kind of fighting is not the point, however, because God Of War is a real historical drama, and so intent on proving the superiority of the Chinese to the Japanese it resembles wartime propaganda. That it was scripted by four writers reflects a somewhat disjointed structure, as it veers between action, intrigue, and even domestic drama. But at its best it reminded me of John Ford and his cavalry trilogy. Not only are there distinct echoes of Fort Apache in the training scenes (borrowed by Kurosawa for The Seven Samurai, then again by John Sturges for The Magnificent Seven), but it's easy to see Capt. Kirby Yorke in General Qi. I might be stretching things to suggest a brief homage to Chariots Of Fire in one training scene, though without the Vangelis.

I found the historical backdrop fascinating, and the Ming subplot intriguing. Even more compelling is a subplot which recalls Ford's Rio Grande: General Qi's petulant and impulsive wife hen-pecks the great leader, before his men (including the leader of the miners Qi has recruited to form his new army) but when the Japanese attack comes, and his base city has to be defended by its population, Lady Qi (Regina Wan) stops being Maureen O'Hara and turns into a warrior as well.

The battles are exciting, with new technologies introduced, three-eyed muskets and multi-pronged lances disguised as tree branches, as well as a 'Crouching Tiger Cannon' which is a bit deus ex machina, but for all the explanation, cheerleading, and historical details, what makes God Of War work is the interplay of characters, and the final showdown between Qi and Kumasawa reduces the vast scale of the drama down to great man. It's effective. Zhao is hamstrung somewhat by his need to play humility, but Kurata is outstanding as the Japanese sensei, and Wan, who is the centre of virtually every moment she's on screen, is worthy of O'Hara in her fiery scenes, and dynamic in her fight scenes. Ryu Kohata gets to have fun as the leader of the ronin, and the leader of the miners is played by Sammo's son Timmy Hung, which ensures another individual fight with Qi.

It's uneven, and fans of non-stop action might be bored, but God Of War is a sort of thinking man's wuxia, a return to form for director Gordon Chan, and a showcase for some personal conflicts within an epic backdrop.

GOD OF WAR is released on blue-ray, DVD and digital on 16 October.

This review will also appear at DVDChoices.co.uk

Monday, 9 October 2017

TAKASHI MIIKE'S BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL: LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2017: 1

This is apparently Takashi Miike's 100th feature film, and as such made its London debut as the Gala show  of the 'Thrill' Strand of the London Film Festival yesterday. It's an epic swordsman movie, with supernatural overtones, and like most of Miike's work, based on other sources, in this case a manga series by Hiroaki Samura. It's very different from Miike's last LFF entry, Yakuza Apocalypse, in 2015. Like that film, which I discussed on our late, lamented Americarnage podcast, but about which I didn't write, there's a serious theme behind the over the top treatment of violence. Apocalypse was somewhat derivative of blaxploitation and early vampire tropes, everything from Solomon Kane to Kolchak. 

But the basic theme, equating the Yakuza with vampires, was a thread that tried to hold the whole thing together, at least until the face of the ultimate apocalypse, a giant soft frog, appeared. To music that sounded like Ennio Morricone scoring the Teletubbies. I found my screening notes, and I'd actually scrawled 'some weird shit coming out of nowhere', which is a good description of Miike's work.

For someone who works so quickly, Miike can make some incredibly artful cinema. Blade Of The Immortal opens in black and white, a homage of sorts to the 50s. Manji (the name echoes Clint Eastwood's 'Joe Manco', The Man With No Name') is a samurai who is tracking down his sister, who's lost her senses after seeing her husband killed by Manji, under orders from his master. The kidnappers kill her, in a scene echoing The Wild Bunch, before Manji literally disposes of the entire bunch, somewhere between 70-100 (I lost count). He is dying, but a witch feeds him 'bloodworms' which heal his wounds, rejoin his severed hand to his body, and basically render him immortal.

Fifty years later, and in a fine, cold-toned colour, he meets a young girl (Hana Sugasaki, shown right with Miike)  whose parents (her father is a samurai sensei) have been murdered by a group of swordsmen, the Itto-ryu, who eschew the honourable tactics of samurai, insisting on winning at all costs. He eventually agrees to avenge them on her behalf.

What follows is interesting, but to be honest it's a bit boring. I wrote that after yet another one man against dozens fight. Despite the set-up, which would augur some internal, as well as external battling, Blade Of The Immortal really becomes a kind of Kill Bill, or Kill Lots More Bill. The presence of Kazuki Kitamura here does little to avoid one making that connection. But seriously, there doesn't seem to be any substantial difference between the Itto-ryu and other fighters, particularly those from the government, and there is no real examination of the samurai code. Nor, despite the strains of facing an immortal life thanks to witchy worms, does Manji appear to try to figure much out. It's superficial compared to some of the work of Beat Takeshi, where existential questions of samurai loyalty and life's meaning often haunt the story, or even to Miike's own 13 Assassins, a film which draws quite heavily on westerns (my review is here) or Yakuza Apocalypse.

Takuya Kimura is fine as Manji, but the show is mostly stolen by Sugisaka as the young girl he eventually equates with his long-gone sister. The villains are all impressive, especially Sota Fukushi as the androgynous head of the Itto-ryu, particularly when he gets the tables turned on him by sneaky Imperial bureaucrats. Miike presents the Tarantino-like anachronistic costumes, and there is a good bit of his trademark dark humour. But one wishes Miike would have done more to condense the story into its main lines: graphic novels are told quickly, although series do meander. But I get the feeling that for number 100, Miike was looking to go full Tarantino.

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

OJ SIMPSON: SPORTING WITNESS

I was interviewed by the BBC World Service programme Sporting Witness, to talk about OJ Simpson as he was being released from prison. My part of the programme was to put his football abilities into context, though I also experienced his charisma first hand at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, where he was accompanied, I think, by Paula Barbieri (I'm not sure because he never introduced her, and there was a certain uniformity to some of his women: having just written about Hefner, you could see OJ buying into the whole Playboy Philosophy. Just check out his house before his lawyers gave it the right-on make-over!) You can link to the show here; it was produced by Simon Watts and it's worth a listen.

Monday, 2 October 2017

HEFNER VS FEMINISM: SAMIRA AHMED (AND ME) IN THE GUARDIAN ON PLAYBOY

Samira Ahmed has written a piece on Hugh Hefner for the Guardian, on the place of Playboy and Hugh Hefner in the culture wars of the 1970s. You can link to it here. I'm quoted in it a few times. As I had just written on him for TLS and talked about him on BBC Radio 4 Last Word (see previous posts) we wound up discussing part of his place in our respective cultural developments--mostly at the point where, as I mention in the TLS, Hef had ceased to a 'revolutionary' and more a marketer widening out from the middle-brow middle-class which was his original target with Playboy.  As you might glean from the quotes, the discussion was spirited and fun: where it should have taken place was on BBC Radio 4 Front Row, but sadly Hef didn't schedule his death conveniently enough.

The first black playmate actually arrived in the pages of the magazine, via the Chicago Playboy club, in 1965: a better way of looking at the racial mix of playmates might be to consider how close they adhered to the template that Hef had established. I always assumed Hef thought of himself as a classic liberal as far as race relations went, but that didn't change what were his fetishes regarding the girl next door. I loved Samira's take on the London Playboy Club, and her parents' visits their on business (it was the only place in London to get a decent steak, she told me they said). As I said, we should've had this talk on the radio!

I thought Samira's take on IVF, that women use it because they are forced to wait for men's immaturity to pass, was a bit harsh. I would have guessed that a bigger factor was women's desire to get ahead on the business ladder while they are young, knowing that motherhood is most often a set-back on the corporate ladder. This is, of course, the ethos of a male-dominated world, and it raises a basic dilemma about feminism, and indeed other liberation philosophies: do you work to change society's mores, to open up opportunities for all, or do you reach out to grab your fair share of what society offers, within the existing mores. Samira mentioned Gloria Steinem and Debby Harry as former Bunnies with different attitudes; you might look at say Erica Jong's Fear Of Flying and the 'zipless fuck' as a way of simply appropriating the Playboy philosophy for women.

And the Guardian, being the Guardian, spelled hippie 'hippy' in the copy, meaning that even though it was my quite, when I saw 'hippy chicks' in print my first thought was confusion over what being broad-beamed had to do with anything. But they have made the same 'correction' to my copy when I've written for them too!

HUGH HEFNER: MY TAKE ON BBC LAST WORD

I appeared on Last Word last Friday, talking about Hugh Hefner, and the literary side of Playboy, which I was also writing about for TLS. You can link to it here. I mentioned Alex Haley, and they had a great quote from Hefner mentioning George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi party; in my piece you can read the story of the that interview. It's a fascinating radio show: I wish I'd heard the other quotes included, but of course, as with the TLS piece, it goes into the wider picture of Hefner and society...and the London Playboy Club.

I BUY IT FOR THE ARTICLES: HUGH HEFNER, PLAYBOY, AND LITERATURE

I've done another essay for the TLS, about the literary content of Playboy; it was published yesterday and you can link to it here. It was frustrating to write in one sense: Hef turns out to be a a major figure in the culture of my lifetime, but also one who serves as a lightning-rod for many of the debates about that culture. I could have gone off any any number of tangents, but quite rightly TLS wanted to keep the focus on the written context of the magazine.

I hinted at the Howard Hughes analogy: remember Hughes designed bras, had countless affairs with starlets (sort of the equivalent of playmates and bunnies) but also with numerous big-name successful
actresses. He was a more active version of Hefner's playboy prototype, but like Hef he wound up living in a cocoon (in Hughes' case a germ-free one) indulging himself with movies. I might have to explore that one a little farther.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

THREE THOUGHTS ON THE NEW SEASON: MY LOST NFL PROGRAMME PIECE

As many of you know, I work on the NFLlive every Sunday night and the NFL show Tuesday nights, both for Talksport radio. The host is Nat Coombs, who has also been my partner on Channel 5, Channel 4, the BBC and of course in the Americarnage podcast. Last week, before the kneeling story broke, the NFL office in London asked us to offer some thoughts on the 2017 season, to appear in the programme for this Sunday's Wembley game between the Dolphins and the the Saints.

I wrote my three and passed them over to Gnat, who added his and sent them along. A few days later, the editorial director informed him that the essay wouldn't appear in the programme after all; there would be just a short piece about our shows on Talksport.

My part of the piece was concerned mostly with the macro-level of the game; I was looking for what I thought might be longer term trends recognizable this season. So I thought I'd post my part of the story here, while it still has some relevance. You can check for yourself to see whether the points make sense, and more importantly whether they actually do establish themselves as trends.

IRON MIKE'S THREE THOUGHTS ON THE 2017 SEASON (after two weeks!)


1. THE QUARTERBACK SHORTAGE

It's actually a more complicated issue, because it's really more of an offensive shortage. A lack of quality QBs is exacerbated by a lack of road-ready offensive linemen, running backs who can't pass block, and receivers who burst on the scene because they can win one-on-one match-ups, but can't necessarily read defenses or run the complete route-tree, though as the NFL does move toward a more basketball-like one on one downfield game, more rookie receivers can make an impact. And linemen playing in some pass-happy systems have trouble adjusting to the complexities of NFL line play; often they've played almost no time in a three point stance.

This is down to the growing gap between concepts in college football and the NFL. Although the pros have adapted some of college's recent offensive innovations, spreading the field to find one-on-one matchups, the NFL is too balanced, and teams too talented, to go lock stock and barrel to the various spread systems eliminating from college, just as the NFL never went wishbone when that was all the rage in college 40 years ago. But what is happening is college offenses are featuring offenses whose quarterbacks don't learn the complex reads and don't need arms as powerful and more importantly accurate as the NFL demands. There is a need for quality quarterbacks; there are not 32 quality starters, and there are precious few quality back ups. Yet Colin Kaepernick remains unemployed.

2. A NEW SORT OF PARITY

Given item one above, the concept of parity seems to be changing. Teams who can build long-term, develop players while they are on the roster and fill their rosters with role-players who fit their system have a huge advantage. What do the Steelers, Ravens, Seahawks, Packers and Patriots, to name the most obvious year-in and year-out contenders have in common? Relative stability in the front office and coaching front. You need to understand your system, coach your system, and play the salary cap game well, but it gives you a huge advantage. You also need to have the security to make some mistakes.

The other huge advantage, of which Seattle and Dallas currently can take advantage, is being able to get a rookie quarterback who can deliver play worth $20 million per year on a rookie salary cap budget. Paradoxically, this works against the idea of parity, because it makes the concept of bringing a QB along within the system more wasteful of financial resources with each year your rookie QB doesn't start. So the impetus is to throw your rookie, who may give you a better chance of winning anyway when your starter is a journeyman, into the breach before he's been coached into readiness, and risk, on a bad team, his developing David Carr syndrome, bad habits if not gun shyness after taking beating after beating.


3. VIDEO GAME FOOTBALL

Between Madden, Fantasy Football, and Red Zone, the NFL in the digital age offers a much wider set of entertainment options than just the game at the stadium or on television. But it has, to some extent, changed the sense of what the audience expects from its football. Watching the amazing 49ers-Rams shootout on week three's Thursday Night, a combination of the usual Thursday short-week sloppiness and tiredness, combined with some remarkable throwing from the two unheralded passers, and bullish running from both teams, I thought immediately how this was the best advertisement, in a way, for the 2017 season, and an answer to the many critics who were already trying to write the year off after the first two weeks. Yes, in their colour rush jerseys, the Rams looked like animated bananas, and at times the game looked like Arena ball, so in one sense it was like a Madden game played out in full. But it offered sceptics everything the NFL promises in a game, not just on Red Zone, on any given Sunday. Or Monday. Or Thursday.

Monday, 25 September 2017

TRUMP, NIXON AND THE NFL: THE TLS ESSAY

I've written a small essay for the TLS on Donald Trump's call for owners to fire any son of a bitch who kneels during the playing of the national anthem. You can link to it here. There may be a little too much background detail about the situation, but we had to assume the audience was not very NFL-savvy. And I did explain that Don DeLillo's End Zone makes the point that while football is like warfare, only warfare is really like warfare, which why, in end, we were in Vietnam. But that didn't make the cut.

I thought about mentioning that Trump's speech came at the Wernher von Braun Research Hall in Huntsville, named after the former SS Sturmbahnfuhrer who masterminded the US space programme. But that would have been a cheap shot. Bad.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

NOTES ON THE EFFECTS OF BIASED DEBATE ON THE JET-LAGGED

I've been quiet on IT the past two weeks, mostly because I returned to the UK and went right into a job voicing highlights of the US Open tennis, which involved working in the middle of night. Hence I have remained effectively jet-lagged for the past two weeks, and formulating coherent thoughts about things (other than the NFL, where I continue to pick all the games for nfluk.com, and am now doing a twice a week --Friday and Monday--betting and general column for Betfair) has proven difficult.

Except when I am provoked, especially on the political side. Hence I've produced a couple of longish moans on facebook, which might be considered curmudgeonly by the cruel-minded, but which I will share here just to let you know I am still engaged....

HILLARY'S BOOK & THE 'BERNIE BOYS'
The most popular hook for media coverage of Hillary Clinton's book about the 2016 election has been her blaming the loss on Bernie Sanders.Well toast that on the log fire. I posted a link to a November New Yorker article which detailed how actively Bernie campaigned for Clinton; only Bubba and Chelsea were out there more for her. So here was my reaction:

On behalf of Bernie Bros of all genders (and Barack Boys, or don't you remember when she tried that one briefly in 2008, until someone pointed out the ambiguity of using 'boy' in the Bog O context?) can we all now please woMAN up and accept that Hillary deserves at least some of the blame for losing to the most unelectable candidate since Barry Goldwater? Or George Wallace?

Blame Russians, blame a Republican Party whose success relies on disenfranchizing voters, blame Comey, blame Comey again, but it is time to STFU about Sanders. He was out there campaigning while the Perezes and Wasserman Schultzes were hiding from voters they drive away because it's so obvious who they don't give a shit about. And yes, it's true, Bernie walked the walk for Clinton...

TOUGH ON BREXIT AND THE CAUSES OF BREXIT

Then I unluckily caught a few moments of Any Questions on Radio 4, and caught a Brexit 'debate' where the central issues were issues that are non-issues, but no one, on any side mentioned it.  I had caught a few minutes of another edition of it, or Question Time, or Ask Dimbelby or whatever they call it, the previous week. Jacob Rees-Mogg was on, fulfilling the BBC's obligation to the licence payer to give multiple platforms to 'entertaining' right-wingers. One of the audience questions asked, in a joking way, about people having too many children. It was aimed at the fecundity of JRM, but I wonder if it might better have been posed re Richard Dimbelby, being thankful he didn't have six children because then there would have been four fewer jobs for non-Dimbelby presenters on BBC. Anyway, here was my reaction to that fraudulent Brexit con job....

How many times do I have to repeat this? There should be no debate about EU migration. Under Schengen, UK controls EU migration. Any EU citizen unable to show means of support after 3 months can be sent home. BUT the UK is too lazy, like its work force, to enforce a policy which isn't abused on large scale AND the politicians, particularly on the right, don't want to sacrifice their wrapped in union jack Little England xenophobia and appeals to bigotry.

As to the economic advantage for low-paid hard-working British families (TM).  Do you really think British companies will rush to hire British workers at high wages? Is there any single point in history, including the massive need for wage slaves during Industrial revolution at its peak, when this has EVER happened in GB? Name one. Right, I knew you couldn't. Listening to Dumbelby and panel 'debate' immigration is a painful joke. Are they ignorant? Or do they prefer an ignorant electorate?

Sunday, 3 September 2017

DAVOS SYNDROME: NIALL FERGUSON TWISTS & MARK MARDELL LIMBOS IN COMO

Yesterday on BBC Any Questions, David Dimbelby trotted out the BBC's next Funny Tory PM Hopeful. Not content with having given Boris Johnson a platform, and paying him, at every possible opportunity, the Beeb has now turned to Jacob Rees-Mogg, another Etonian with the shuffle and the stammer who as usual drew chuckles and smiles but no serious challenging from his host. Not even when he stated, with a cloud of persiflage, that the UK had no legal obligation to pay anything to the EU; an echo of Bojo's dare for them to whistle. I was stunned how even his political opponents simply let that one by; one doesn't expect Dimbels to do anything.

But it was funny later when one of the audience asked a question about having many children, clearly a light-hearted attempt to draw more humour from the new Tory clown. I would have liked one panelist to ask a hypothetical to the chair: what if Richard Dimbelby had had, say, eight sons? Would any of the current BBC news presenters actually have jobs?

Then I was listening to BBC's World This Weekend today, Mark Mardell hosting the show from the Ambrosetti Forum, a Davos-like conference sponsored by the major 'consulting' firm on Lake Como. They were concentrating on Michel Barnier saying he was 'warning', not blackmailing, the UK, rather than concentrating on his explanation that the Brits owe money they committed to in 2014 through 2020, and they needed to meet their obligations. Was Rees-Mogg listening? The current Brexit 'debate' is, like the issue and campaign itself, being conducted not for negotiation purposes with the EU, but for party political positioning within the UK, which is why it is doomed. And when it falls apart, as it surely will, the Brexshiteers will rachet up the bellicosity, wrap themselves in Union Jacks, and boast of battling for Britain against Johnny Foreigner.

But more worrying was the programme's last twenty minutes, a calculated symphony of far-right propaganda which segued cleanly from Geert Wilders cheering on the Brexshiteers, to Niall Ferguson (not a huge leap as segues go), who was given a huge chunk of time to proselytize for the far-right with his usual exercise in disingenuousness, to use a polite word.

Asked about Trump, Ferguson built up a clever comparison with John Kennedy. Kennedy, it turned out, was the one with the chaotic presidency who rushed to the brink of war. There were little twists and glib half-truths littered around as character assassination, none of which Mardell challenged, but the essence of the argument was this: Kennedy's mindless aggression nearly launched nuclear war on the planet. Trump, on the other hand, while he signals craziness (remember Kissinger's advice to Nixon, about acting crazy so the Commies won't dare do anything? Forget not that Ferguson is one of Kissinger's hagiographers) is not actually crazy, but in reality being well-served in the serious stuff by advisers like General Mad Dog Mattis and General McMaster. Thus we should watch what they do rather than what Trump says.

Now Ferguson presumably knows full well that during the Cuban Missile Crisis Kennedy had to fight like Ali against Liston to hold off the generals and admirals of the Joint Chiefs, led by Gen. Mad Dog Curtis LeMay, all of whom wanted to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the Soviets. If he doesn't know he can read the transcripts, not only of their meetings with the Presidents, but a revealing transcript of their discussions among themselves. They uniformly excoriated Kennedy for his weakness.

As we know, Kennedy steered us away from the brink, and soon exiled LeMay to NATO where he couldn't cause more trouble. And as we remember, Ferguson is not an historian as much as a propagandist who cloaks his militant far-right world view in the trappings of twisted history. But what was even more spectacularly fraudulent was his conclusion: that he wished, in a way, Trump would be MORE like Kennedy, and send the carriers to Korea. Which made his entire false comparison of the two men meaningless, except as a flashy and hypocritical false equivalency.

Mark Mardell offered no recognition of this. He didn't question any of Ferguson's 'history' of JFK. He didn't notice the oxymoron. He didn't show any awareness of history or current events. He was in Como, lunching with the heavy hitters of world business and their well-paid acolytes, and became yet another victim of Davos Syndrome, a well-fed variation of Stockholm Syndrome which seems to afflict those fronting BBC shows from such resorts especially hard. The canteen at Broadcasting House offers little to match.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Motion (Imprint A Poem

Back in the summer of 1977 I wrote a poem called Imprint (Motion. It was supposed to be published in a British magazine which then folded, so it appeared in November 1977 in the Canadian magazine Moosehead Review. It was, I saw in retrospect, about the way I perceived changing and perhaps frightening relationships. But when I was looking at it this summer, I came across the manuscript of an earlier poem, out of which, or in reaction to which it sprang.

Motion (Imprint was originally written in November 1976, when I was still in Montreal, then worked on over Christmas in Connecticut. I reworked it in 1982, in London, then apparently set it aside and forgot about it. I can see how another poem, Imprint (Motion, which I wrote the following summer, relates to it, but right now I much prefer this new older one, which seems more innocent and indeed hopeful. I did some revising of it this summer, including in South Dakota where somehow the imagery came clearer to me.

So here it is, published for the first time, in somewhat seriously different form from when it was written 40 years ago.


Motion (Imprint


The living are those
Whose chill breath we see

When atmosphere conspires
To reveal their traces

Frozen hands find steamy
Mouths, obscuring faces

Behind voices, emerging desires
Almost silently, almost invisibly




Sunday, 20 August 2017

DICK GREGORY: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Dick Gregory, comedian and activist, and latterly health-food advocate, is up at the Guardian online. You can link to it here; it should be in the paper paper soon.

It is pretty much as I wrote it, some time ago for the paper's files. That they wanted a piece in stock is a good indication of just how important Gregory was, asa ground breaker in show business both on racial grounds and as a cross-over into activism.

I did do a quick update and polish on it, and then some of the piece was cut for space. What was lost was partly a speculation on my part about the causes of his activism being directed into more and more wide-ranging conspiracies: it seemed to me despite the relative success of his original civil rights activism (and to a lesser extent his opposition to the Vietnam war) he grew cynical about the actual lack of actual change in his lifetime.

I also speculated about the drive which caused him to spend so much time away from his family while he pursued his causes, leaving his wife Lillian to raise their 10 children. It seemed a strange recapitualtion of sort of his own father's behaviour; Presley left his wife after each of their children was born before finally leaving for good. It was nice to note that this point was made in some of the other obituaries I saw today.

Gregory made his high school track team literally by running alongside the team outside the fence surrounding their field. I found this interesting because his move into nutrition echoed his early success in sport. He met his wife while he was attending college, where she worked in the offices. At the peak of his success they bought a 400 acre farm in Plymouth, Massachusetts--Gregory said he wanted to be ready to drive off the white people next time they landed. But twenty years later they had to sell the house, and move into an apartment, a sign of how his public profile had fallen.  The support of Michael Jackson didn't help; after Jackson's death Gregory insisted he was murdered.

I didn't think there was a need to explain what a write-in vote is, but I would have liked to write a little bit more about Godfrey Cambridge, who was overweight himself and died of a heart attack on a movie set at 43. Because Gregory gained weight after that, I didn't see a direct connection. They were comedians who made white folks think, and Gregory, uniquely, was one who challenged that thinking to be put into action. RIP.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

AT MOUNT RUSHMORE: My London Review of Books Essay

Sunday in the National Park with Donald. I wrote about the encounter Nate and I had at Mt. Rushmore with the Trump triumphal float last Sunday. It's up at the London Review Of Books blog; you can link to it here.

I had originally begun with a long paragraph starting with the protests and deaths in Charlottesville, and giving a summary of how, over the past 50 years, America has got to this point, but the piece as published is better without the attempt at historic analysis, which in any case I have written here before.

Viewing Mt. Rushmore, we felt the America the way people used to believe it was, or at least should be. Even a cynic like me could feel sincerely about the promise and the greatness of the nation. The Trumpmobile crew were gleefully tearing about everything about that America, under the guise of making it great 'again', and without the slightest sense of irony, celebrating that destruction. They were feeling empowered, almost strutting in the face of those whom they knew they were offending, and to watch them empowered further by the park rangers broke my not so knee-jerk patriotic heart.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

REMEMBERING TY HARDIN

While wandering around 1880 Town in Midland, South Dakota today, I came across a copy of the famous photo of the Warner Bros.' TV western stars drawing their pistols. What made this one special was that it was autographed by Ty Hardin, who at that point was playing Bronco Layne in a series that had originally been a replacement for Cheyenne, when WB had contract trouble with Clint Walker, and now was rotating through schedule spots with Cheyenne and Will Hutchins' Sugarfoot.

But it reminded me that Hardin died last week, and I wanted to write something then, so it's a good excuse to say a couple of things about him now. One thing I hadn't known was that he was a football player. His obits said he got a scholarship to Blinn Junior College, then attended Dallas Bible Institute before joining the Army. Then he enrolled at Texas A&M and, so the story goes, played for Bear Bryant there. It's hard to check, because he didn't graduate, but the stories I read said he played tight end, in the days before that was a position. He registers no stats as a receiver from 1954-56, when A&M had John David Crow, Bobby Joe Conrad, and Jack Pardee. I did find a picture of him in a football uniform, but I don't know who's it was and he looks younger than a post-Army Ty Hungerford.

What I did know a bit about was how fragile his career was. It resembles, in some ways, Clint Eastwood's early career, except that Hardin made a couple of bad decisions, whereas Clint made a couple of good ones. But they got into TV by luck, more or less. Both were hired originally because of their good looks, as beefcake. Clint was one of the last of Universal's apprentices, and he had been trying to get into acting. Hardin (or Orison Whipple Hungerford, Jr. as he then was named, though Ty was his family nickname) was spotted by a Paramount scout at a costume party (he was a cowboy) and was signed to a contract. He had bit parts in a couple of films, including Last Train To Gun Hill, billed as Ty Hungerford, when, like Clint, he got lucky and landed a TV gig.

Hardin met John Wayne, and  when he tried to get the Ricky Nelson part in Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo. Wayne introduced him to Hawks, who was with William Orr of Warners. Hawks didn't give him the part, but Orr soon bought his contract. Warners changed his name to Hardin, gave him acting lessons, and introduced him into the Cheyenne series as Cheyenne's cousin. He was an instant hit, and Bronco ran for four years. His best film part was in Merrill's Marauders, and it looked like he was on his way. After Warners, he was getting 'exposure' roles in big films like Battle Of The Bulge and PT 109, where he had a blonde goatee, but not yet any serious starring parts.

Then Hardin made a couple of bad decisions. One was to pass on a western role offered by an Italian director, Sergio Leone. He wasn't the only actor to either pass or want too much money, and of course the part eventually went to Clint.  The next one was to pass on the TV show Batman, ironically because he had a comittment to film in Spain, on a  sort of spaghetti western, Hugo Fregonese's Argentinian Savage Pampas.

Hardin played the lead in Riptide, a series that was made in and set in Australia, but was shown in the US. He was in Custer Of The West, and in a weird British circus horror film, Beserk, with Joan Crawford. But his career stalled. He made three disposable spaghetti westerns in 1971, and then worked only intermittently, though he had a part in a TV movie remake of Red River, which starred James Arness and Bruce Boxleitner in the John Wayne and Montgomery Clift roles, but had parts for other old western TV stars like Hardin, Guy Madison, Robert Horton and John Lupton. Hardin was tall and good looking, but unlike Wayne or Eastwood, never really learned to control his image on screen.

Off screen was another story. His third wife was Marlene Schmidt, the East German-born Miss Universe of 1961. Ironically, she went into the film business after they divorced. In all Hardin had eight wives, and ten children. Which may help explain why he had problems with the IRS, which helps explain why he helped found the Arizona Patriots, which sounds like football team but was an anti-tax, anti-government Tea Party type group that evolved into a militia. In 1986 they were raided, and accused of planing to attack a federal office in Utah. Hardin wasn't charged with any crimes, but the group disbanded.

The photo above is not Hardin as a militia leader, but a fan show where he appeared alongside Clint Walker and Will Hutchins, and he was the only one not quite in costume. I find it tremendously nostalgic, especially now, viewing a Wild West town that only moderately appeals to my 13 year old.

Hardin died at 87. It is easy to imagine scenarios in which he was a successful film actor, or a busy TV star. But his other difference from Clint was lacking Clint's study of the business, and his nous for it. Clint's acting and directing careers are actually meshed into his producing career; he became virtually a studio himself; this would have been beyond Hardin. On the other hand, there aren't many people, not even Clint, whose obituaries will say 'he is survived by his eighth wife; his previous seven marriages all ended in divorce.'  And I found, while writing this, a reverse angle of that famous photo, an earlier unused take. Those were the days.

Monday, 7 August 2017

RICHARD LANGE'S SMACK

Rowan Petty is a grifter on a downward roll. He’s eking out an existence in Reno, pulling phone scams for a guy who he had originally brought into the business. His wife left a long time ago, his daughter doesn’t speak to him. It’s the holidays, and that’s a bad time to try to cold call people to detach their money from them. So one cold night on the street he meets Tinafey, like the comedienne, but all one word, a hooker with a smile, and pretty soon he’s helped her out of a jam, and he has to make a decision.

I first came across Richard Lange’s short story collection Sweet Nothing when I was judging the Crime Writers Association’s Dagger award, and I pushed one of the tales, Apocrypha, to which we gave the prize. And Smack works for the same reasons his stories do.

Grifters live in a world where decisions you have to make outside the grift can always lead to trouble. An old friend, or colleague, of Petty’s, approaches him with a score. Don’s been on the downward spiral too, ever since his wife died, but he picked up a tip on a big cache of money smuggled out of the Middle East and being stored in LA by the brother of one of the thieves. Petty had turned it down, but it’s the holidays, he’s sick of working for someone, and his daughter’s in Los Angeles. So he says yes to the job, and invites Tinafey off for a holiday trip.

Of course, it’s no holiday. No sooner has he started to reconcile with his daughter, she’s in the hospital, and the job, which looked hinky in the extreme, becomes more attractive, even after parties unknown start butting into the action. From this point, Lange weaves a tale which involves battered veterans, con men, his ex-wife and her brawny enforcer of a husband, and those various crooks who might get in the way.

It’s a classic noir, where it’s almost impossible to get what you want, and in which every possible road out turns into a dead end. Petty’s a scammer, and used to be a good one, but he’s not a hooligan, and the world of violence is one he’s always wanted to avoid.

Lange makes this work not in the way he resolves the plot, but in the way he draws his characters. He controls the pace of the story beautifully, letting the twists grow naturally, and letting the reader experience them through the eyes of those characters, particularly Petty, but also the soldier Diaz, whose original scam this was, and who’s coming to collect. There's a constant sense that trust is a fungible commodity in this world, and of course the grifter's world is in some ways a metaphor for our own.  The tensions are internal, and the real beauty of the story is the way the reader begins to root for Petty, an amoral thief whose life involves cheating marks, to succeed in something far more serious. The Smack is an exercise in finely pitched writing, and the kind of noirish tale you relish even as you dread turning the page to get closer to its conclusion.


The Smack by Richard Lange

Mullholland Books £14.99 ISBN 9781444790047

This review will appear also at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Friday, 4 August 2017

BILL GRIFFITH'S INVISIBLE INK

Bill Griffith is a cartoonist, most famous for Zippy the Pinhead, who began life in underground comics and became a successful syndicated strip, the four panels a day kind of thing we used to read in the newspapers, and the funny papers sections on Sundays. One day, living in Connecticut, he gets an actual letter, hand-written and posted, from his uncle in North Carolina, who has boxes of family memorabilia, if Bill is interested.

Invisible Ink is the story of what is a Pandora's box of memory and investigation. Years before, Bill's mother –his uncle Alan's older sister—had confessed, moments after his father had died, to Bill and his sister, that she had carried on a long-term affair with the man she worked for, a cartoonist called Laurence Lariar, for whom she worked as a secretary. Now, looking through his family's past, Bill begins to put together a fuller picture of his parents: his often absent (in the military) and generally angry father, and the the mother whom he knew, even at an early age, was no June Cleaver.

The thread holding this all together is Lariar, and the unlikely synchronicity of Griffith's following in his trade. He tracks Lariar's career as a writer as well as a cartoonist, as a hustler on the fringes of the entertainment world, because it's a world he understands. And through that he gets to draw his mother into sharper focus, the needs her affair filled, the expectations, or maybe dreams, she had of happiness. He discovers his mother's own writings, and that also lets him understand better his father. And of course, himself.

Griffith's story is told brilliantly. It encapsulates the world of the Fifties and Sixties perfectly; growing up in Levittown, the promise of more life in New York City, the social strictures, the built-in repression, and behind it all that underlying sense of unspoken frustration that might be seen to define his parents' generation (and who knows, maybe all). He tells the story with great sensitivity, and using Lariar's cartoons as well as his own to illustrate it, and show the ways in which cartoons reflect the world in which his characters are living. It's a memoir too, of the kind of passion we feel at his age, of wanting to know more about the things we maybe half-understood at the time, then thought we understood when we were adult, but realise only as we start to reflect on our own lives and possibilities and pasts, that perhaps we didn't understand them at all. That maybe we didn't really know what it was about the people we are supposed to love most, because we are supposed to be their greatest loves. Bill finally gets to meet his parents, and they are different people from the ones he knew growing up, and different people from the ones he's discovered through his research. As perhaps we all are.

'How did they become two different people over the course of their marriage?' Griffith asks himself, and us, and Uncle Alan, who says 'I don't know, Bill...it's a funny world'. This is a fascinating, tender book, which leaves you looking at it silently, with your own cloudy memories coming back, sombre and joyful, and with a nostalgic sadness welling up behind your eyes.


Invisible Ink: My Mother's Secret Love Affair With A Famous Cartoonist
by Bill Griffith
Fantagraphics Books, $29.99, ISBN 9781606998953

Sunday, 30 July 2017

JUNE FORAY: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of June Foray, the voice-over artist who was most famously the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel and Natasha Fatale, is on line at the Guardian now; you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper tomorrow.

It appears pretty much as written. I'm not sure why they describe WBZA radio in Springfield, where Foray got her start, as a 'music station', in the 1930s it was a radio station, producing and broadcasting all kinds of programmes: any station with its own WBZA Players was obviously producing drama. I couldn't find out whether BZA's programmes went out on thr NBC Blue Network; the station was leased by Westinghouse to NBC, and was a sister station of Boston's WBZ. Reading other accounts of her early life it was difficult to get an exact chronology of which programmes she did where.

It was tempting to throw in lots of the great stuff from Rocky & Bullwinkle, George of The Jungle, and Dudley Do-Right, or to trace the series' roots back to Jay Ward and Alex Anderson's Crusader Rabbit, where Crusader and Ragland T Tiger were prototypes for Rocky and Bullwinkle (and Dudley Nightshade for Snidley Whiplash). I hadn't been aware of Mel Blanc's exclusivity on voice credits on the Warners' cartoons; it was a shame. That's Chuck Jones (left) and Blanc with June.

There were some connections I didn't include, like Bill Scott, the voice of Bullwinkle, who worked with Foray on Speaking Of Animals. Or the stuff she did with Stan Freberg, a comic genius of radio, advertising and records. That's her on the right, in between Daws Butler and Freberg. When she performed on Carson's Cellar she was doing skits and sketches, playing the Imogene Coca role from Sid Caesar's show, and she was funny. It was before my time, but you can find a bit of it on the You Tube. I remember the Talky Tina episode of Twilight Zone (but didn't recall Telly Salvalas!). I don't remember the High Priestess Sabaka, and I watched Andy's Gang as a kid, and loved Gunga ('such is so, sahib') and Rama ('ayee Gunga!'). I will have to search out that movie. It even has Boris Karloff! And the one role I wish I had mentioned was voicing Wheezy, the zoot-suit hyena in Roger Rabbit.

She was a pro, she worked constantly, always gave the client what they wanted and moved on. She also made great efforts on behalf of her fellow workers in voice and animation, and that was something she should be admired for doing. That's her posed with (left to right) Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Fritz Freleng and Bob Babbitt. While I was researching the obit, I read a couple of pieces about her by Mark Evanier, whom I remembered as a comic fan and then writer, and who co-wrote her biography. I got the image of a tiny dynamo always in motion or on voice. It was that image I held with me as I wrote the obit. RIP.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

BOSTON'S OTHER BABE: BABE PARILLI, THE QUARTERBACK'S LIFE


Looking at the life of Babe Parilli, who died recently, was more compelling than I'd thought it would be, for not only was Parilli probably the first star the Boston Patriots ever had, and one of the biggest names in the early years of the AFL. Parilli was known as a leader, an erratic but strong-armed quarterback not afraid to take chances, and was a decent runner, especially in his early years. He was also good looking and known to enjoy a good time. Babe was in many ways a poster boy for the life of NFL quarterbacks in the 1950s, and of those retreads and journeymen who populated the position in the early years of the AFL as well.

The Babe was, until Tom Brady's 2007 season, still the Pats' record holder for TD passes in a season; Brady had broken his yardage mark in 2002. Parilli's 1964 season was one of the biggest of any AFL season, 3.465 yards and 31 touchdowns. The shortlist of great Patriots' quarterbacks is very short indeed. Steve Grogan is the gridiron embodiment of the franchise for its first four decades, gritty, tough, trying hard but not talented enough. Tony Eason, Drew Bledsoe and Parilli each led the Pats to one championship game, and each lost that one. Bledsoe's probably the number two, and I'd be tempted to list the Babe at number three; they were in some ways pretty similar: pocket passers with big arms who trusted their arms maybe more than they should. Pats fans tend to put Grogan up there, and ignore Eason who was basically a two-year wonder, with a bad year in between. Which, as it happens, was very much the Parilli pattern.

Vito Parilli was born May 7, 1930, in Rochester Pennsylvania; the fertile area which produced so many great quarterbacks: Johnny Lujack, John Unitas, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, etc. He was recruited by Bear Bryant to play at Kentucky, where he followed George Blanda. Parilli ran Bear Bryant's T-formation perfectly, where ball-handling was his first responsibility; he got the nickname 'Houdini Hands'. His second  responsibility may have been running, but he was a good passer and probably the best QB in the SEC following the time Billy Wade played tailback at Vanderbilt. He told the story of playing with an injured arm against LSU; Bryant put him what amounted to a shotgun formation, he was never touched, and the Wildcats won the game. He took Kentucky to wins in the '51 Sugar Bowl over undefeated Oklahoma and in the '52 Cotton Bowl over TCU. Those wins probably put Bryant on the watchlist for SWC teams; after the '53 season he would be hired by Texas A&M.

The Packers drafted Parilli with their first pick in the 1952 draft, which was odd since they had drafted Tobin Rote of Rice with their second pick in 1950. Rote was a good but erratic passer, and a tremendous runner. Parilli and Rote shared the job in '52 and combined for 26 TD passes (Babe 13/17 Rote 13/8) which should have augered well for the future. Don't forget, in these days defenders could contact a receiver from the line of scrimmage until the pass was actually in the air; completions were a lot harder to come by. But in '53 Babe slid to 4 TDs and 19 picks; Rote played along with 5/15, meaning they combined for 34 picks with only 9 scores.

The New York Times said Rote played in Canada in 54-55, but he was actually in the Air Force, and when he left the Packers traded him to Cleveland in a package for QB Bobby Garrett of Stanford, whom the Browns has drafted first overall in the '54 draft. Garrett, it turned out, stuttered. Scouting wasn't what it is today, and Paul Brown found this too much. Garrett never started a game, played in a few for the Packers, and was out of the league. Paul Brown got Parilli because he was looking ahead to when Otto Graham retired, although Graham's backup, George Ratterman played well the next two years (in '55 Brown had to lure Graham back with a huge $25,000 deal). With Graham gone in '56, Ratterman took over, and in the fourth game suffered a knee injury that ended his career. Parilli took over, got four starts, and then was injured himself. Tommy O'Connell played the rest of the year as the Browns finished the year 5-7, their first-ever losing season.

This was life in the NFL in the Fifties. Although Parilli had loved Bear Bryant he didn't really get along with the cutting and sarcastic Paul Brown, so in 1957 Brown traded him. Back to Green Bay. It was 10 player deal that some say included the rights to Bobby Garrett. This kind of stuff happened all the time. George Blanda hated Bears' owner/coach George Halas with a passion, and Halas, whose evaluation and use of quarterbacks was always suspect (he ruined Johnny Lujack, dumped Bobby Layne, and dumped on Blanda, all of whom he had at the same time in the Forties behind Sid Luckman). Anyway, Blanda once traded Blanda to the Colts, to Blanda's delight, then bought him back a week later.

The Packers had picked up Parilli intending to trade him on, so instead they traded Tobin Rote to the Lions. Bobby Layne got hurt that year, and Rote stepped in to lead Detroit to an NFL title. Coach George Wilson decided he didn't like Layne, and the next year he traded him to Pittsburgh, where the Steelers turned into winners while Rote turned into a pumpkin, turning in 5TD 19 int passer rating 29.8 season. In 1960 Rote was playing in Toronto, where he threw 38 TD passes and led the Argos to a divisional title (actually, the championship of the Inter-Provincial Rugby Football Union).

Parilli mentored and relieved Bart Starr, a 16th round draft pick, and actually won the first game at Lambeau Field, then called City Stadium. But when Vince Lombardi arrived, Parilli was gone. Babe said it was because he'd beaten Lombardi at golf, and Vince didn't want to pay him the one dollar bet. He claimed Lombardi told him “that will be the last dollar you ever get from me.” He landed with Ottawa in the CFL, but played behind the great Canadian QB Russ Jackson and the veteran Frank Tripucka. Tripucka's another one of those crazy Fifties stories. He was drafted in the first round by the Eagles in 1949: then traded to Detroit in mid-season without having played a down. You wonder if they scouted him or just figured that a star QB at Notre Dame was worth a first-round pick. The Lions sent him to the hapless Chicago Cardinals, who traded him to the even more hapless Dallas Texans. Tripucka saw the light and bolted for Saskatchewan, where he played for Frank Filchock and, apparently, was making a lot more money than he ever got in the NFL.

But in 1960 the American Football League was launched, and they needed quarterbacks. Tripucka had retired and was assistant coach to Filchock in Denver. After a couple of practices, they realised he was much better than the guys they had, so he became the starter. Parilli signed with Oakland, where he shared the job with the starter Tom Flores, a local product of College of the Pacific who'd been cut by the CFL the year before. George Blanda was signed by Houston and led them to the championship, beating Jack Kemp and the Los Angeles Chargers in the final. Tommy O'Connell resurfaced as the starter in Buffalo, and got injured in the first quarter of the first game against the New York Titans, whose starter Dick Jamieson was benched in the first quarter for Al Dorow.

In 1961 Oakland traded Parilli to the Boston Patriots, whose QB in 1960 had been Butch Songin. Songin, a hockey and football star at Boston College, had last played football in 1954, for Hamilton in the CFL. That's the kind of league it was. They split time in '61, but in '62 Parilli took over and had what may have been the most efficient season of his career. Completing 55.3% of his passes, 18 touchdowns and only 8 picks, and a passer rating of 91.5, which is probably the equivalent of something at least ten points higher today. The next year Babe regressed to 13 scores and 24 picks, but the Patriots went all the way to the AFL championship game, where the Chargers destroyed them 51-10, with Keith Lincoln having a game for the ages. The Chargers, whose coach Sid Gillman supposedly spied on the Pats to get their game plan, were quarterbacked by, wait for it, Tobin Rote, whom Gillman had signed because he'd lost Kemp and thought John Hadl wasn't yet ready. Rote had suffered his usual reversion to below the norm in Toronto, and been released after the '62 season.

Parilli had that big year in '65, then two more typical Parilli years. In 1968 the Pats traded him to the Jets for Mike Taliaferro, who had lost his job to Joe Namath. Namath was from Beaver Falls, Pa, about five miles away from Rochester, and the first quarterback he idolized growing up was Babe Parilli. Parilli was a perfect backup for the Jets; under Weeb Ewbank he was consistent when he had to play. He did the holding so Namath didn't have to risk injury, and the New York press made as much of his ball handling as Jim Turner's holder as the football writers had made of his ball-handling at Kentucky. When the Jets won Super Bowl III, Parilli got his championship ring at last, and as an AFL original, and as a typical gypsy QB of the NFL's Fifties, he deserved it.

After the 1969 season, Babe retired. He was a quarterbacks coach for the hometown Steelers, mentoring Terry Bradshaw (whose first few seasons' stats could be mistake for a Parilli years). He then  coached in the World Football League, and later for many teams in the Arena League, which was the kind of game made for the Babe Parillis and Tobin Rotes of the 50s NFL. He retired to Colorado, where he died July 15th. RIP. 


Thursday, 27 July 2017

IRON MIKE: THE EARLY YEARS

Nat Coombs had been saying how he wanted to spend some time on his show talking about how I got into the business of sports broadcasting, and I was going to be in the studio this week to try. But thanks to Southwest Trains, I didn't dare try the trip into London to do The Gnat Coombs Show Starring Gnat Coombs on Talksport 2. But thanks to the miracle of modern communications, I called into the show for the second hour. Gnat wanted to talk about how I got into the business, which meant my going through some of my antics as sports editor of UPITN and director of programming in Europe for ABC Sports, and VP Europe for Major League Baseball, and then my first years on camera or microphone for Screensport and Sky.

You can find the programme here, I'm on 53 minutes in if you're listening after the newsier parts of the show are a little dated. I'll be in the studio with Gnat next Tuesday, August 1st, and we'll probably discuss the reaction and I will tell the story of the Transatlantic Wrestling Challenge, and my work as a heel announcer....

Monday, 24 July 2017

THOMAS KRUITHOF'S SCRIBE: EXISTENTIAL CONSPIRACY

Duval is a little guy, slaving away while everyone else in the office celebrates, and then he's handed a glass of champagne and a request for a report the following morning. But none of the files are where they should be, and after a few more drinks, and a fruitless night, he explodes.

Two years later he's been out of work since the incident, he's a recovering alcoholic, and out of nowhere he's offered a job. He's to sit in a room alone, listening to audio cassettes of wiretaps, and transcribe the tapes on an IBM selectric, leaving the papers on the desk at night. Then he hears something worrying, which turns out to be a murder, and suddenly he's at the centre of a conspiracy.

To this point, Scribe suggests any number of films about surveillance in which the unexpected or awkward is overheard or seen, those like The Conversation, Blow Up, Blow Out, or more recently, The Silence Of Others. But there is a crucial difference, in that Duval is not an evesdropper (apparently, the original international title for this film) himself, merely middle man, functioning anonymously in a room otherwise empty but for his cassette player and typewriter.

This is the material of Kafka, or Melville's 'Bartleby The Scrivener', an existential tale of a man lost in the system and faced with a decision about whether to go on or resist. Calling him by just his surname suggests a sort of anonymous everyman status. But the question soon becomes less existential and more political. The typewriter itself recalls other conspiracy films from the past, All The President's Men or Three Days Of The Condor, and those point the way to where Scribe is actually heading.

That path is set up very cleverly, with clues dropped in. There is an election in progress, and a slick candidate whose slogan is 'La France est la Retour', a sort of Gallic 'Make France Great Again'. There is also an ongoing French hostage crisis referred to in the background.

Scribe's title in French is La mécanique de l'ombre, which might be translated as 'the mechanism of the shadows'. This recalls the TV series Spin, whose French title was similiarly The Men In The Shadow, and signals an ongoing sense of unsettling conspiracy and 'deep-state' in France. And the real strength of the movie is the way it combines that sense with the more personal shadows hanging over Duval. He's admittedly apolitical, an office-man whose self collapses when he's lost his job. He is in that sense, a modern man, an average Jo in France, lost in the shadows.

This is director Thomas Kruithof's first feature (he also co-wrote the script) and he maintains a firm grip on the mystery. Alex Lamarque shoots the film in a brilliant collage of shadow and blankness; it moves between dark and less dark, and never undercuts the mood. The score by Gregoir Auger is more geared toward the traditional thriller, but works. But because this film is about blank slates which need to be filled it, it revolves around some fine performances: Denis Podalydes is exceptional as Clement, who hires Duval: all control and domination, even when he's engaged in crucial bartering with the authorities, but especially with Duval. Simon Abkarian is a tremendous contrast, all unleashed menance and energy, alternately affectionate and threatening, as the man who drags Duval deeper into the world of spycraft. They are like two magnets pulling Duval in opposite directions, until a third figure enters the frame, a government man played by Sami Bouajila, all bureaucratic menace, but with a lower energy than the other two.

But the key to the film is Francois Cluzet's Duval. I wrote when he starred in Tell No One about his being the French Dustin Hoffman, and the comparison is even more telling here. He acts with small movements of the face, little tics, which make the scenes between him and Clement as effective in their way as Hoffman and Olivier in The Marathon Man. As in Tell No One, he has to deal with forces well beyond his control, which in the end comes down to a crucial moment which I won't give away. The situation is made possible by the addition of a love interest for him, a fellow recovering alcoholic, played with more brilliant understatement by the Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher. But just when she seems to be impinging on Duval's existential dilemma, she becomes a plot device used to exert pressure on him.

How much you wind up liking Scribe will depend on how much you appreciate its resolution. The French October Surprise is something you should not be surprised by, but it basically slides by as if it were inevitable. Duval's own situation, again, is presented by allusion, which I took as an open-ended question: the idea is that nothing has really changed, nor will it. I might have enjoyed Scribe as a more existential drama, I might have enjoyed it more as an all-out thriller. Yet it is a beautifully constructed conspiracy thriller that, despite its smaller focus, and in an almost throwback way, is successful in its own terms.

Scribe (La Mechanique de l'ombre) France 2016
directed by Thomas Kruithof, written by Kruithof and Yann Gozlan with Marc Syrigas and Aurelie Valat
On general release

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)