Thursday, March 13, 2014

ONE SHOT: review

Written & illustrated by Joe O’Byrne

 Through a glass darkly.

Review by Brian Gorman

Bolton-based playwright, actor, and film-maker Joe O’Byrne is something of a local hero on the Manchester arts scene. His series of plays based on the fictional housing estate Paradise Heights (an amalgam of O’Byrne’s hometown Bolton and his beloved Salford & Manchester) has garnered much acclaim, and been favourably compared with Jimmy McGovern’s tv series ‘The Street’, as well as the gritty urban works of Ken Loach, Martin Scorcese, and Shane Meadows. Now, as a big graphic novel fan, O’Byrne has released his next Paradise Heights instalment in the form of this mini episode, featuring arguably his most popular character, the hard man anti-hero Frank Morgan.

King of clubs.

 I’ve seen several of Joe’s stage plays, and been mightily impressed at how he can deliver a solid theatrical right hook with scenes of truly imaginative violence, yet often within the very same scene rip your heart open with breath-taking honesty of emotion. His characters are often broken, yet possessed of indomitable spirit. Frank Morgan encapsulates this perfectly; he’s Eastwood and Ray Winstone rolled into one. He can break every finger you have, yet look you in the eyes and shatter your heart with a few softly spoken words. Frank knows all. His greatest flaw is he knows himself too well.

‘One Shot’ opens with a cracking poem that perfectly illustrates the world of Paradise Heights. No-one can be trusted (not even the identity of the narrator, in this instance), and anything can happen if you let your guard down for even a second. O’Byrne crafts his words well. There’s the hard-boiled style of Mickey Spillane and Frank Miller, yet each sentence is shot through with a raw emotion and fearless intensity. The words flow from the page like gravel-infused honey, and you never know what’s going to happen next.


 ‘One Shot’ gives us a glimpse into the mind, heart, and tattered soul of a man with absolutely nothing to lose. This is a nightmare world, but a wholly recognisable one (which makes it even more disturbing), but with shafts of celestial light illuminating microscopic spots of hope, and the faint possibility of redemption.

O’Byrne’s illustrations are simplistic, and perfectly evoke Frank Morgan’s sinful and gut-wrenching inner and outer space. There are lots of silhouetted figures in bare, claustrophobic spaces. Precious little light breaks through the gloom, but it is O’Byrne’s words that are his greatest strength. The pages could contain simple matchstick figures, and the raw, unfettered, animal cry of Frank Morgan’s words would paint a multi-million dollar epic in your mind’s eye.

This is dark stuff indeed. Perfectly Frank.

'One Shot' is available soon. 

More about Joe O'Byrne:

Sunday, March 09, 2014

JAMES BOND IN THE MOVIES: A Personal Journey (Part 2)

Thunderball (1965) threw in everything but the kitchen sink, and was the first Bond movie to be co-produced by the infamous Kevin McClory. Back in the late 50s, Ian Fleming had written a script with McClory and Jack Whittingham for a pilot episode of a proposed tv series to be called ‘James Bond Of The Secret Service’. The series never materialised, and Fleming went on to adapt the script into a novel, renaming it ‘Thunderball’. McClory and Whittingham were a little upset when Fleming refused to acknowledge their contribution, but they eventually received recognition when credited on the new film. McClory demanded to be onboard as co-producer, alongside EON’s Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, and was allowed the rights to produce his own film version after EON’s rights elapsed in ten years time. In hindsight, this can be seen as rather short-sighted by EON, but nobody ever expected the Bond movies to last more than a decade. A great pre-title sequence saw Bond duking it out with a SPECTRE agent at a funeral. The agent, dressed as the dead man’s widow battles furiously with Connery, throwing tables, chairs, and a plant pot at him before being strangled with a poker. The sight of Bond punching what appeared to be a woman in the face was a great shock, and the fight sequence borders on parody as agent 007 trades punches with a man in a frock. The brutal nature of the fight stifles any potential sniggering at stuntman Bob Simmons (who had also doubled as Bond in the opening gunbarrels) wearing a black skirt, heavy make-up, and high heels. 

007 and a man in a dress.

Unfortunately we had another drippy leading lady in the shapely form of model Claudine Auger, but us schoolboys were amply compensated once again by the sultry Martine Beswick returning in a different guise as a fellow M.I.6 agent; in a bikini. We were doubly delighted by the kinky bad girl Fiona Volpe (played by Luciana Paluzzi) who nibbled at Connery’s ears in their bedroom scenes, and tried to kill him several times (once whilst riding a motorbike and dressed all in leather). Adolfo Celi as Largo was a suitably sadistic, eye-patch wearing bad guy – yet another employee of SPECTRE, and we got another glimpse of ‘Number One’ (face in shadow, seen stroking his white cat once again). 

Rik Van Nutter as 'Felix Leiter' gives Bond a hand.

Claudine Auger as 'Domino' with Adolfo Celi as 'Largo'.

Gadgets galore!

A long underwater battle had Bond flying through the water wearing a huge jet pack, and the action was aided enormously by John Barry’s atmospheric score. Tom Jones belted out the theme song, and was even reported to have fainted during recording, whilst screaming out the final lengthy note. Bond was massive now, and this movie was the biggest yet. In the shadow of Goldfinger, the film was an even bigger box office success but there was a noticeable dip in quality. The pace was a little sluggish at times, and Connery was beginning to look a little tired. In real life, Connery was growing bored with the role, and despised the intrusions on his private life by an insatiable world press. He was also getting pretty fed up with the larger than life stories, and the increasing reliance on gadgetry and gimmicks to get Bond out of trouble. Thunderball, like its predecessors, was a pretty faithful adaptation of the source novel, but everything was about to change on the next EON film.

The sound of Bond: Music maestro John Barry.

I bloody loved the Bond films! I taped them all on to audio cassette, and would be outraged if any of the family so much as coughed or even breathed too loudly while recording was in progress. At nights, I’d lay in bed listening to them through a single earphone, and remembering the images I’d seen on tv. Only this time, I imagined them in full colour – particularly Ursula’s blonde hair, Martine’s olive-skinned thighs, and Luciana’s luscious red lipstick. What were these movies doing to me? I was only twelve! Apart from the lovely ladies, exotic locations (I’d only ever left Wigan twice; to visit Southport and Rhyl), fantastic villains, and marvellous fist fights, the thing I was starting to love most about the films was the music. John Barry’s music. Monty Norman’s score for ‘Dr No’ was the weakest of the series, and that man was bloody lucky to have the hugely talented Mr Barry totally rip apart and rebuild his James Bond theme into something beautiful, ageless, and totally awe-inspiring. FRWL, Goldfinger, and Thunderball had superb theme songs, atmospheric melodies, and nerve-jangling action cues. Apart from the sheer energy, there was always an underlying melancholy that contrasted perfectly with the epic sweep of the individual scores. Fleming’s Bond, despite his expensive suits, exotic excursions, rich food, and devastatingly attractive women, was actually a pretty sad individual at heart. His job had him putting his life on the line regularly, killing people in cold blood, and enduring hideous torture (In ‘Casino Royale’, the debut novel, Bond has his meat and two veg pummelled by a sadistic Benzedrine-sniffing dwarf). In the novels, Fleming had Bond regularly musing on the shallowness of his existence, and the pursuit of instant gratification between his life-threatening missions. Barry seemed to totally understand this, and his music gave Bond an inner life that was rarely alluded to in the script (until, of course, Daniel Craig’s tenure). 

The young Ian Fleming. 

Fleming reads the US edition of his debut novel.

Fleming meets Connery on the set of 'From Russia With Love' (Fleming cameos in the film).

Rival film companies had begun to jump on the ‘Bondwagon’, and the sixties saw a huge increase in spy movies, most of which failed miserably to replicate the Bond formula. James Coburn’s ‘Derek Flint’ was a hit, but was an obvious parody of Bond. Flint was virtually superhuman, and ultimately cartoonish. Tom Adams’ Charles Vine in ‘Licensed To Kill’ tried to be 007 on a micro budget, and wasn’t a bad try. But Connery was head and shoulders above them all. Sean Connery’s Bond, EON’s production values, Fleming’s original stories, and John Barry’s music were a winning formula not easily copied.

James Coburn flashes the gnashers as Derek Flint.

Tom Adams as 'Charles Vine' in 'Licensed To Kill'. 

Vine in action!

Bond was massive in Japan, which led to EON’s choice of the next film to be Fleming’s melancholic and death-obsessed novel ‘You Only Live Twice’. 

A sombre story finds 007 seeking vengeance for the death of his wife in the previous novel (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), and tracking down his nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld – previously referred to only as ‘Number One’- to Japan. Fleming wanted to kill Bond off  by this point, and the novel ends with Bond presumed killed in action, and an obituary published in The Times. Much of the novel could not be used in the film script for various reasons (the most obvious being the fact that Bond is a widow at the start), and so a completely new story was concocted by none other than Roald Dahl. Yes, ROALD DAHL. The author of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The Witches, The BFG. Yes, THAT Roald Dahl. There was also another new director onboard in the shape of Lewis Gilbert, and a reluctant Connery back for a fifth time as Bond, and now completely and utterly pissed off with playing second fiddle to increasingly preposterous plots and, more importantly, long shooting schedules and endless publicity jaunts. 

Connery getting fed up with Bond.

A typical Japanese fisherman!

Filming in Japan would be the final straw for Connery, with Japanese photographers even reportedly following him into toilets. No surprise that the actor looks surly throughout, appears to be carrying a few extra pounds, and is mightily unconvincing when disguised as a Japanese fisherman. Thankfully, John Barry gave us another memorable theme song performed by Nancy Sinatra, who got the gig thanks to her recent hit ‘These boots were made for walking’. YOLT had a weak story which had 007 faking his own death in order to work more easily undercover in Japan (this is a ludicrous plot device, as when we first see him, post death, 007 is walking casually around the neon-lit streets of Tokyo, and attending public events such as a sumo wrestling match). We finally see ‘Number One’s face when he is revealed to be the aforementioned Blofeld, but it’s a little disappointing to see him played by the distinctly unthreatening Donald Pleasence (more usually cast as weasly, pathetic characters such as the short-sighted P.O.W. in ‘The Great Escape’). 

This is NOT 'Dr Evil'!

It was the end (for now) of Sean Connery as 007, but ‘James Bond will return in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’. Yep, the novel they SHOULD have filmed before YOLT. Thanks to the bright idea of exploiting the Japanese market, EON had made a rare miscalculation resulting in a missed opportunity of dovetailing OHMSS and YOLT, and instead had managed to give us the first lacklustre Bond film, and annoy their star actor into quitting. Was this the end for Bond? Did EON assume they’d be able to lure Connery back for OHMSS? It was 1967. The Summer Of Love. Was Bond now out of step with the times?

Who will fill Connery's shoes?

Some time around 1977 I sat down to watch ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ (1969), the first non-Connery Bond movie. All I knew about this one was that it starred “That George Lazenby bloke. Bloody idiot!” Well, that was what my Dad used to say about it. Apparently they’d replaced the irreplaceable Connery with a young Australian model who’d been ridiculed for years as the guy who failed as Bond. Yikes! Had EON done it again? Misjudged their audience and carried on the same crazy mistakes they’d made on YOLT? This was going to be interesting.
The trailers on tv looked great. Diana Rigg, best known as the sexy-as-hell Mrs Peel in another of my favourite tv series, The Avengers was playing Countess Teresa, the girl who marries Bond. Then there was Telly Savalas as Blofeld, who certainly looked far more threatening than Donald Pleasence. Plus the fantastic theme music (the first Bond movie without an opening title song), and the awesome looking ski chase sequences. 

"Merry Christmas, 007".

It was a shock to see Lazenby in action as 007, but I’d already seen lots of photos of him as Bond and he looked a pretty good substitute for Connery. Well, I sat down to watch OHMSS (in black and white, as usual), and was absolutely thrilled by the pre-titles scene. Here we had Bond driving his Aston Martin along a narrow road in the middle of the night, when he’s suddenly overtaken at speed by an attractive young woman in a sportscar. We see Bond’s hands on the wheel, his face in shadow, and the fact that he’s wearing a trilby. He’s wearing a hat while driving? Weird! Some superb fast-paced editing accompanies Bond as he rescues the girl from an attempted suicide by drowning, then battles a couple of thugs in a fabulously choreographed fight sequence , with an ace orchestral track by the ever-present and increasingly brilliant John Barry. 

Peter Hunt directs George Lazenby.

Bond wears a kilt.

This was fantastic! Then we came to the first shot of Mr Lazenby, and his first line to a groggy Diana Rigg; “Good morning, my name’s Bond. James Bond”. Well, this was different. Lazenby had a bright and breezy attitude, totally lacking Connery’s ruthless persona. Oh, dear. But he was good in a fight, and was obviously keen to be seen doing his own stunts. When Diana then leaves him alone on the beach, we have the first and only instance of the actor playing Bond breaking the ‘fourth wall’ as Lazenby looks out at us with a cheeky grin and utters the immortal words “This never happened to the other fella”. What? I’m sure I must have spluttered out my Horlicks at that moment. What did he just say? Even my dad laughed, and he only ever laughed at Benny Hill. The Bond movies were continuing to evolve, and OHMSS was the best yet, in my 13 year old opinion. I loved the whole atmosphere of the film, and with the only downbeat ending in a Bond movie (up until ‘Casino Royale’ in 2006, once again), it was certainly unique. Peter Hunt had been the brilliant editor on all the previous Bonds, and here he was promoted to full directing duties, and boy did he make a cracking job of it. Tightly choreographed fight scenes, stunning Alpine chase sequences, and a superb battle between Bond and Blofeld flying at (literally) breakneck speed down a treacherous bob sleigh run. 

'Blofeld' (Telly Savalas) meets Bond, but fails to recognise him from their previous film encounter!

True love at last.

This one had it all, and has remained my all-time favourite 007 movie. It also happened to be the longest Bond film, but such was the frantic pace, that I hardly noticed the time. And as for Lazenby? Well, I didn’t mind him at all; in fact it made the film all the more realistic to have someone playing Bond who wasn’t the all conquering Connery. Because I’d never seen Lazenby before (or much since), I found it quite involving to watch an unknown play Bond. I was appalled to discover, several years later, that it had been a relative failure at the box office (compared to the previous five films), and that Peter Hunt never got to direct another. So that was it for the 1960s. We’d had six Bond movies culminating in Bond sobbing at the untimely death of his new bride on their wedding day. 

A bleak ending to a fabulous decade of movies that redefined the action genre, gave us an immortal screen hero, and created one Scottish superstar. But OHMSS was to see the end of the (semi) serious Bond thriller. It was now the 1970s, and the world was in need of a few laughs.

“James Bond will return...”


Daniel Craig in 'Casino Royale' (2006)

A couple of years ago I wrote a series of articles for Starburst Magazine, to celebrate 50 years of the James Bond films. Here they are:

BOND @ 50
A Personal Journey

Fifty years of James Bond films. Who woulda thunk it, huh? In this celebratory year I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect on five decades of the EON produced 007 movies (not to mention the several oddities churned out by rival companies during those years). Rather than write a straight-forward account of the familiar facts and figures,  I’d like to share with you my personal experience of the Bond movies, as I have been very fortunate indeed to have seen them all in order of production.
I was born in 1964 in Wigan; as far removed from the glamorous world of Ian Fleming and his creation as it’s possible to get. Coming from a very poor family, I never got to see the earliest Bonds on the big screen, and so my first encounter with an EON epic came when ITV purchased the rights to screen every 007 movie way back in the mid 1970s. The closest I came to Bond was when my mum took the kids to the cinema on my birthday around 1970 to see Dean Martin as secret agent Matt Helm in ‘The Silencers’. I loved it. The colour! The exotic locations! The funky 60s music! The trouble was that my mum, Gawd bless her, had got the screening times wrong, and we actually walked in around halfway through the film! We then proceeded to watch the first part of the next screening (you were allowed to do that in 1970), and so my first cinematic experience was a pretty confusing and bizarre one. Nevertheless, I was blinded by the glamour, and it would be a few decades before I saw the film again and realised just how awful it was when compared to the Bonds.
I was a big fan of the original Fleming novels, which were passed around school along with the dog-eared dirty magazines that puzzled many a pubescent youth with their explicit depictions of the female anatomy. I remember well being totally confused by a full page photo of a lady’s undercarriage. My friends and I thought it was a malformed gentleman, and would only discover the truth many years later. But I digress. Back to the Bond books. I loved them. Probably as much for the naughty bits as the salivating descriptions of scrambled egg breakfasts and Beluga Caviar (whatever the heck THAT was!). Fleming wrote fast-paced, gritty and imaginative novels about a man with the outward charm of George Sanders, and the ice cold heart of a born assassin. We all wanted to be Bond; suave, tough, ruthless, and with an insatiable sexual appetite. So, by the time I saw my first Bond movie, I was well steeped in the character’s literary origins.
I was always aware of the films, as they were constantly in the newspapers, and there were the odd clips on 70s tv shows such as ‘Screen Test’ and ‘Clapperboard’. Everybody knew the Bond theme, and the songs were always on the radio. I remember my more affluent school chums excitedly recounting their excursions to see Diamonds Are Forever in the cinema; the closest I came was jealously pawing a toy Moon Buggy a mate brought in to class one day. The films were like a forbidden fruit to me, and I began to think I would never see one. Then ITV came to the rescue. With ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’ in cinemas at the time, I couldn’t believe it when I read the films were going to be shown on the telly. The telly!!

Riding on the bus to school on a damp morning in October 1975, I remember thinking that the streets would be empty that night when ‘Dr No’ (1962) was on. I was excited beyond belief, and it was all anybody was talking about at school. A James Bond film on the telly! Remember kids, those were dark days without the internet, Facebook, mobiles, etc. If you were living in a small Northern town back then you may as well be on a desert island. I’d read the novel, and I couldn’t wait to see it brought to life. Even though we only had a black and white tv, into which we had to put 10p in the slot at the back every couple of hours, I was entranced. Following the announcer’s introduction, the screen went black. Several small white dots paraded across, until one widened to become what appeared to be the view down the barrel of a gun. A man wearing a trilby hat and wearing a dark suit and tie walked into shot, he spun around and fired his own gun at us. Blood seemed to drip down the screen as our sight of the man wobbled. Blimey! I’d been shot dead by James Bond! The ‘gunbarrel sequence’ would become a classic Bond movie trademark, and here was I seeing it for the very first time. The opening credits with Maurice Binder’s dancing dots, enhanced by John Barry’s fabulous rendition of  Monty Norman’s theme, blew me away. I’d seen nothing like it before. Brought up on a diet of the ITC action tv shows, and my personal favourite ‘The Saint’, this was a dream come true for me. 

Sean Connery as Bond

I don’t think I’d ever seen Sean Connery before, but he was everything Bond should be. His introductory scene was a masterclass of Hitchcockian style and suspense. We see only the back of his head as he plays a card game in a smokey casino. A beautiful lady sits opposite him, as he beats her effortlessly. Obviously losing heavily, she orders another small fortune in chips. Then we hear the voice: “I admire your courage, Miss...?”. Close up on actress Eunice Gayson , who gives the icy retort “Trench, Sylvia Trench. I admire your luck, Mr...”. and here we go. Lift off!! We cut to the man opposite as he slowly raises a lighter to the cigarette dangling from the lips of his cruel mouth, and purrs “Bond, James Bond”. What an introduction! Connery had it all. He looked like a man who would break your face if you looked at him the wrong way. He had the confidence of someone in possession of the world’s biggest and most powerful tool (I’m talking confidence here, so stop sniggering at the back there!), and in the words of Tony Christie, he walked like a panther. James Bond had arrived on the telly, and I’m guessing the viewing figures must have been around 20 million. 007 had stepped down from the rarefied atmosphere of the big screen and was now crashing into our front rooms. ‘Dr No’ was a cracking start, and a hugely successful adaptation of the Fleming novel. It was also pretty sadistic stuff with Bond shooting an unarmed man several times in the back, date raping an enemy agent, and ordering a colleague to break a young woman’s arm. And of course we had Ursula Andress as the first and most iconic of Bond girls, Honeychile Rider. When she emerged from the sea in that white bikini, the entire male population must have given out a collective sigh (as well as readjusting their trousers). She looked stunning. Statuesque, dripping with feral sensuality, and ready to knife any man in the heart if he tried getting his hands on her cockles and mussels (and she carried a hell of a big knife!). And there I was. A mere 10 years old, watching the first ever Bond movie on the telly in a miserably cold maisonette in Wigan. We had no central heating, and there was only the coal fire in the living room for warmth. But that night, gathered on a winter’s evening in front of a flickering black and white tv set, I was in heaven. In the years before video recorders, you had to pay close attention. If you missed anything, you wouldn’t get a chance to see it again for a very long time. In those days we focussed intently on every moment, even to the extent of reading through the end credits while savouring that wonderful theme music. And there, right at the end, was the teaser announcement – ‘The end of ‘Dr No’, but James Bond will return in ‘From Russia With Love’. Wow!!!

From that point on I was obsessed with the Bond films, and safe in the knowledge that I would get to see each and every one of them over the coming years, in order (which IS a big deal!), kept me going as a shy, poverty-stricken kid who was always next to last to be picked for the football team during games lessons. I attended St Thomas More High School from 1975 to 1980, and believe me it was rough. We had the most sadistic P.E. teacher imaginable in the form of short-arsed Mr McGuiness. A man who told everybody, and with a straight face, that he been in the army, navy, air force, and the SAS (whatever that was!). Wigan in the 1970s was pretty grim. I remember loving ‘The Persuaders’ on tv, and saving up for the annual I’d seen in the local newsagents. I saved up a whole 15p, but when I took it to the shop I was told that the price sticker said £1.50. I was devastated. I would eventually find the book again a decade later in a second hand shop in Manchester, but it was rubbish. Most annuals were back then. All they seemed to consist of were terrible comic strips and dubious text stories, with vaguely connected articles on associated subjects such as ‘crime over the centuries’, ‘fashion in the 70s’, and sparse ‘Fact Files’ on Roger Moore and Tony Curtis. My weekly pocket money of 5p(FIVE PENCE!) enabled me to buy a Wagon Wheel and a small bottle of Coke from the mobile shop, and I was lucky if I got the occasional Whizzer and Chips comic book. Those were the days, eh?!
Around six months later I sat down to watch ‘From Russia With Love’. I’d been impressed by how closely ‘Dr No’ had stuck to the original novel, and I was to be delighted again by EON’s faithful adaptation of President John F Kennedy’s favourite 007 book. Once again we got the fantastic gunbarrel opening, and the first pre-credits ‘teaser’ sequence featuring Bond being stalked by night through the grounds of  an impressive mansion (in reality the gardens of Pinewood Studios). Actor Robert Shaw played the psychotic agent of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Donovan ‘Red’ Grant with an icy efficiency that would be the benchmark for all Bond henchmen to come. He strangles Bond quite graphically with what looked like a cheese wire drawn from his wristwatch, but the rug is pulled from under us when a mask is peeled from the dead man’s face to reveal an imposter. It was all a test, and a great teasing opening for the movie. John Barry had so impressed with his rendition of the James Bond theme that he was brought back to score the whole movie, replacing ‘Dr No’ composer Monty Norman. In the previous film, Barry had taken a few written notes for Norman’s intended Bond theme, and produced a barnstorming piece of music that would become famous the world over, and used repeatedly in every Bond movie to come. When one listens to Norman’s theme played during ‘Dr No’ it is pretty feeble when compared to Barry’s interpretation. The fact that Norman gets a credit (and royalties) on every 007 movie has always annoyed the heck out of me. That Norman disappeared into relative obscurity, while Barry became a 5 time Oscar-winning success with eleven Bond scores in total says everything.
FRWL (1963) was another thrilling espionage adventure, with Connery cementing the role of the globe-hopping, ruthless, womanising British agent. This was an intricately plotted tale with Bond the target of  the international crime organisation known as the Special Executive for Crime, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, headed by the mysterious figure referred to only as ‘Number One’. We only see this character’s hands as he sits stroking a white cat whilst giving out orders to kill Bond and ruin his reputation. This was all good stuff! Daniela Bianchi was a bit of a letdown as Bond’s leading lady, the Russian double agent Tanya Romanova though. Following the Amazonian goddess that was Ursula Andress was always going to be a tall order, and Ms Bianchi turned out to be a bit of a wet lettuce. Thankfully we had the exotic Martine Beswick as a fiery gypsy girl snarling and scratching her way into Bond’s affections. 

Connery with Desmond Llewelyn as 'Major Boothroyd' (known in later films as 'Q').

In one of the best fist fights ever seen on screen, Connery and Shaw battle it out aboard The Orient Express in a brutal and bone-shattering encounter, the likes of which would only be seen again decades later during Daniel Craig’s era. Interestingly, Connery and Shaw would meet again on screen in 1976’s ‘Robin and Marian’ (scored by John Barry), and indulge in an even more violent encounter on the battlefield. 

Robert Shaw as 'Grant' has 007 at his mercy.

Once again, I loved every minute. I was a little puzzled by Lotte Lenya’s character as the evil SPECTRE agent, Rosa Klebb, who has obvious designs on the innocent Tanya. I had no idea what a lesbian was back then, and the usually attractive Lenya’s appearance as an ugly, military uniform attired hag wearing huge black-rimmed glasses was certainly an unsavoury and highly prejudiced depiction. Never mind, at least she got shot in the back at the end!

Goldfinger (1964) was next up, and here was the one we’d been waiting for. Shirley Bassey’s lung-busting performance of the theme song had been a huge hit, and everybody knew the tune. Then there was the gadget-filled Aston Martin, the gold-painted Shirley Eaton (seen virtually naked; hubba hubba!), and the wonderful bowler-hatted huge oriental henchman, ‘OddJob’ (Harold Sakata). Plus of course the outrageously named ‘Pussy Galore’ (Honor Blackman)! 

Connery with Gert Frobe as 'Auric Goldfinger'.

This was the Bond movie I felt I’d already seen, such was the power of its iconic imagery. A change in director – Guy Hamilton replacing Terence Young – ushered in a more tongue-in-cheek approach which set the template for future Bond movies (reaching its farcical nadir during the Roger Moore era, and only being completely eradicated with the appearance of Daniel Craig’s ruthless 007 in 2006). 

'OddJob' at work.

Goldfinger was huge. The massive Fort Knox set, the car chase around Goldfinger’s factory (in reality the alleyways of Pinewood Studios) with Bond’s Aston Martin firing machine guns, emitting clouds of smoke, and spewing nails and oil slicks at its pursuers, and the climactic hand-to-hand battle with OddJob culminating in the man mountain’s electrocution by Bond. Hugely entertaining, and leaving one thinking “Well, where do we go from here?”

“James Bond will return...”

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


Albert Hall, Manchester
Directed by Sarah Frankcom
Until 14th July

Photo: Kevin Cummins

Closed to the public since 1969, Manchester’s Albert Hall is a superb venue for this staging of Shelley’s epic political poem ‘The Masque Of Anarchy’. A cavernous interior with a huge organ dominating the space created a quasi religious atmosphere – part cathedral, part football stadium. The relatively small stage area was mainly lit by candles, perfectly setting the scene for an impassioned battle cry for revolution from the lone performer, Maxine Peake. Rapturous applause greeted the diminutive figure of the actress as she made her way onto the stage clad in a simple white dress. Shelley’s poem was written in response to the events of Peterloo, the 1819 massacre of over a dozen innocent protestors by armed cavalry, which happened just yards away from the Albert Hall itself. Part of the Manchester International Festival, and in collaboration with The Royal Exchange, this was theatre at its simplest and most effective best; a single orator addressing a reverential audience with a call to arms for the oppressed and underrepresented people of England. Although some of the poetry could be hard to follow, and many of the names railed against are meaningless to everyone except the Peterloo scholar, this was timeless and highly relevant to today’s age of austerity. Fat cats are lampooned, along with the legal profession, the rich, the politicians, and the militia. Sarah Frankcom’s direction was simple – just let the performer speak; directly, forcefully, and supported by a subtle musical score (by Peter Rice and Alex Baranowski). The performance lasted around 40 minutes; testament to Ms Peake’s skill and stamina as her voice hardly faltered through verse after verse of dramatic, tense, angry, and at times tearful poetry. She had a vulnerable quality, with her slender frame, angular face, and often trembling hands. But she wears her heart on her sleeve, and is the perfect actress for this production. Maxine Peake makes it personal, and that makes it effective and jaw-droppingly heartfelt. Stepping down from the stage at the end of the performance, she carried a small candle as she made her way through the standing audience, and disappeared from view. One soul among many.

This review first published by


Town Hall Tavern, Manchester

Reviewed Sat 20th July


Billed as ‘Three of the best recent short comedies from across the North West’, this was 45 minutes showcasing new writing, and the three pieces contrasted perfectly. 

Jonah Walsh, Pat Marchant, and Jez Smith in 'Paradise Street'

First up was Tommy Warburton’s ‘Paradise Street’ (from Oldham Coliseum Firstbreak Festival), a heart-warming throwback to a gentler age of situation comedy. Set during the 1970s, this bore more than a passing resemblance to classic era Coronation Street, with a nod to the more contemporary ‘The Royle Family’. Jez Smith (giving a loveably nonchalant performance with seemingly effortless comic timing) led as amiable patriarch Alf, desperate to settle down for an evening of cheese and pickle butties and footie on the telly, when a sudden power cut forces the family to get out the long-neglected games box. Long-suffering wife Vera (Pat Marchant channelling Sue Johnston) relishes this unexpected chance to indulge in some quality time with the couple’s teen-age children, Gary (Jonah Walsh – a nicely-judged turn as the callow yet generous-of-spirit youth) and Helen (Lily Shepherd in a beautifully-mannered performance of great warmth and attention to detail). A brief cameo from Martin Henshell as genial neighbour Mike completed a lovely ensemble. This is good old-fashioned entertainment, and writer Warburton skilfully sketches in some instantly loveable characters with little trace of cynicism or any clever-clever postmodernist approach. What you see is what you get, and ‘Paradise Street’ lives up to its name; in an ideal world, this is where we’d all love to be. The actors gelled perfectly, and I would certainly relish seeing the family again someday soon. Director Daniel Thackeray had a steady hand on the tiller, and the slapstick moments never descended into farce. Extra kudos to Lily Shepherd for expertly reading in the role of Helen (due to a last minute non-appearance of actress Niamh Prestwich; thanks to a train delay).

Lily Shepherd in 'There's Only One Man, Utd'

Next up was ‘There’s Only One Man, United’ by Robert Pegg. Certainly a clever title, but one hopes it won’t become a victim of a misplaced comma anytime soon, as this is very much an anti-football, pro relationship piece. Lily Shepherd (this time directing too) took to the stage once again as an un-named (or at least uncredited in the programme) young woman, stranded in a rainy Albert Square while her ‘Red Army’ boyfriend celebrates the Premier League winning Man Utd, and the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. Clad in an ill-fitting plastic cagoule, and delivering all her dialogue into a mobile phone, our plucky heroine completely dismantles her hapless boyfriend’s lifestyle, constantly reminding him that he would never get into ANY ‘army’, red or otherwise, and that the occasion is about an old man retiring (“That’s what old men do; they retire!”). Her exasperation and righteous anger at being made to play second fiddle to a macho ritualistic event, is played out to marvellous comic effect, and Ms Shepherd creates a wholly sympathetic and very human character. This is a tremendous showcase monologue, and the actress delivered it brilliantly, stealing our hearts completely. As with ‘Paradise Street’, the audience were left with a warm glow, and a spring in their step.

Martin Henshell and Kaylea Simon in 'Sexytime'

Last but not least we had ‘Sexytime’ by Chris Jenkins, and here again was another humorous short piece that delivered totally believable characters in an expert mix of laugh-out-loud one-liners , and heart-breaking moments. Martin Henshell played the hapless Brian, a seemingly lazy, stay-at-home artisan caring more about his beloved dog than his hard-working and stressed-out girlfriend Sarah (Kaylea Simon). While Brian frets about ‘Dave’ (the dog) trapping himself in the bathroom, Sarah is far more concerned about getting the timing right in order to conceive a child. Tonight is the last chance they will have for a month, as Sarah needs to get Brian aroused ASAP. This is a great two-hander, giving both actors a range of emotions to work on in a pressure cooker situation, tightly directed by Paul Anderton. Martin Henshell is spot-on with his hangdog ‘what have I done now?’ expression, seemingly oblivious to his lover’s obvious needs, while Kaylea Simon is simply wonderful as the desperate Sarah, initially appearing as a ball-busting workaholic, yet evolving gradually into a desperate and vulnerable child-woman. There are some genuinely heart-breaking moments amid the chuckles and belly laughs, and Ms Simon conveys every emotion with beautiful economy of body language and facial expression.

This was a fantastic night at The Town Hall Tavern, and more than one star was born this evening, mark my words. Producers Daniel Thackeray and Paul Anderton have much to be proud of, and as part of The Greater Manchester Fringe Festival, ‘Cuts From The Fringe’ proved to be a tremendous showcase for new talent. I loved every minute.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


Written by J J Fletcher  Directed by Amanda Davies
Paupers Pit, Underground Venues @ The Buxton Fringe Festival
Until 14th July

In the tiny, claustrophobic space of The Paupers Pit on a sweltering July evening, Sheepish Productions' ‘The Last Motel’ is a perfect piece of theatre. A two-hander set in a specific location (a motel room), chronicling the events of a single, tense, dramatic evening. A surreal opening has a very agitated man, wearing a rubber chicken mask and brandishing a gun, enter a rather sleazy motel room. For a surprising amount of stage time he paces back and forth, wheezing, groaning, and muttering to himself. This is a disturbing yet acutely amusing opening with more than a hint of Tarantino and David Lynch. When this unsettling character then carries an unconscious and bound young woman into the room, we realise we are in the middle of a botched robbery and an accidental kidnap. The sheer bulk and presence of the man in the chicken mask, contained in such a small stage space, conjure up a nightmare world, and his callous treatment of his helpless captive creates a genuine atmosphere of menace and dread. Eventually pulling off the mask, we are introduced to Abalone (Gareth Watkins), a somewhat cack-handed petty criminal who has taken a day’s holiday from his job in a slaughterhouse to commit armed robbery. Here is a man clearly out of his depth, and Watkins is a quivering mass of nervous energy and sweating desperation as he stumbles about the stage in a state of abject helplessness.

Eve (Leni Murphy) awakens in some discomfort, and we are informed that Abalone has accidentally knocked her over in the street with his getaway car. He has little sympathy for her, and things look very bleak indeed until he takes her jacket off to reveal a black shirt and dog collar. Eve is a vicar, and immediately this changes everything for Abalone as he evolves gradually from a seemingly cruel and selfish individual into a child-like mess. The stage is set for a battle of wills, and there is much deliberation about life, choices, destiny, and fate. But is everything as it seems? Leni Murphy has a super cool stage presence and commands the space superbly. She has the measure of Abalone in no time, and it’s great fun to watch the actor’s face minutely displaying the tickings of her brain as Eve calculates just how to deal with the pathetic wretch holding a gun on her. Watkins is a perfect foil, as he towers over his victim yet is no match for her pragmatic intellect and verbal dexterity. The Last Motel is a curious mix of surreal humour, unsettling atmosphere, and sweaty tension. Writer J J Fletcher has created a perfect cauldron for his characters to do mental battle in, and it’s a superb platform for two very capable actors to flex their thespian muscle. This kind of material is notoriously difficult to get right, with its delicately balanced mix of light and shade. As a piece of work in progress I feel it has a great deal of potential, and with a tighter production can improve enormously. Director Amanda Davies has managed to orchestrate proceedings effectively in a confined space (set and venue wise), but the production is really at the mercy of the two actors involved. It is their relationship and close proximity to each other that the production relies heavily upon. I would have liked more face-to-face confrontation, and a more intimate relationship as Abalone is gradually dissected and skinned (metaphorically) by Eve. A few more performances always ensure a tighter production, and I’d be fascinated to see ‘The Last Motel’ again in the not too distant future.

Monday, April 01, 2013

BLADE RUNNER - On Stage in Manchester!!

Starting this Saturday 6th April 2013 at 3pm and 7.30pm. A brand new adaptation of the 1982 classic movie. Featuring my good self as LEON ("Let me tell you about my mother!")

Friday, March 29, 2013


Kings Arms Theatre Space at Studio Salford

Written by Mark Whitely   Directed by Ian Curley
Until 23rd March


 Rating: 4 stars


Two talented actors, a simple one-location set, a sharp script, and a trim-all-the-fat director add up to theatre at its most direct and unpretentious best. Mark Whitely’s tale of a couple of hours in the company of two cack-handed Salfordian burglars offers belly laughs a plenty, black Pinteresque humour, and a show-stealing budgie; what more could you ask for?

Callow youth Barry (David Crowley) is a sandwich short of a picnic, and is drinking in the last chance saloon (he’s on probation) with a wife and kids at home. Old lag Steph (Matt Lanigan), on the other hand, has accepted his lot in life and takes everything in his laid-back stride; until his meticulous planning begins to unravel, and the two find themselves dealing with a situation that nosedives faster than Manchester City’s current chances of retaining the Premier League title. A nicely unfussy set consisted of a central dining table, a full size working fridge, and small budgie cage, and provided a perfect platform for our hapless protagonists. Breaking into what they believe to be a flat full of valuable antiques (“cash in the attic”), with its owner away for two weeks in Majorca, Barry and Steph assume they have all the time in the world to help themselves, or at least Steph does as he makes a cup of tea, roots around for biscuits, and even considers relaxing with a sandwich or three. Lanigan’s Steph has the look of a man who’s seen it all before (and probably tried to nick most of it); he’s a career criminal who thinks he has an answer for everything. The actor’s hangdog, unshaven look and expressive eyes communicate every unspoken thought. He is superbly matched, and complemented, by Crowley’s performance; all adolescent energy, panicky mannerisms, and goofy facial tics (imagine Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates, but without the psychotic tendencies).  

Director Ian Curley allows the characters and situation to breathe, and there are plenty of pregnant pauses that add an air of gritty realism in to what could have been a broad, run-of-the-mill slice of working class comedy. There are moments of genuine pathos and poignancy as the two characters gradually reveal their inner workings and motivations. Steph’s revelations about his father are beautifully delivered by Lanigan who manages to steal our hearts even as he remains stubbornly unrepentant about thieving for a living. Crowley also shines when displaying his genuine love for his wife and children, and compassion for a terminally disadvantaged budgerigar. The two actors create a strong relationship, and ‘Thick As Thieves’ could easily act as a pilot for an ongoing series about this hapless pair; thick they may be, but they will steal your heart with consummate ease.


Tags: Mark Whitely, David Crowley, Matt Lanigan, Ian Curley, King’s Arms Theatre Space, Studio Salford, Salford, Manchester

This review previously published at www.thepublicreviews

Friday, February 08, 2013


The Epstein Theatre, Liverpool
Wednesday 6th February 2013


The legendary hellraiser gets the full one man play treatment in this touring production starring a very brave actor indeed (Rob Crouch) who takes on a hell of a job. Oliver Reed was a massive star, and a big box office success in the 60s and 70s, but managed to completely derail his acting career due to his enduring love of excessive drinking and bar room brawling. By the time of his death in 1999 (during the shooting of Ridley Scott’s epic ‘Gladiator’), Reed’s big screen stardom was little more than a fading memory, and he was far better known for shambolic appearances on tv chat shows, when it was difficult to tell whether he was actually drunk or simply playing the fool.

An expectant (though small) audience were kept waiting for around 20 minutes for the show to begin, heightening the tension impressively. It was difficult to guess whether this was an intentional artistic tactic or merely the Epstein Theatre holding the proceedings up for latecomers. The show eventually began with Crouch in a gorilla suit parading up and down the front row and cajoling the audience into a chorus of The Trogg’s ‘Wild Thing’. A fitting entrance, and very clever as it certainly threw us all off guard and allowed Crouch to eventually reveal his face whilst the audience were still getting over their initial shock. Crouch’s Reed arrived on stage fully formed, and from then on it was full speed ahead. Crouch has the rugby player’s build, and the clipped delivery but also brings a melancholic air to this most beloved of booze-soddened thespians. The set comprised a small well-stocked bar in what we imagine must be Reed’s home, and within minutes the actor had knocked back two small bottles of beer and handed out several more to the audience. A superb tactic, and one that served to get us onside immediately. As with all stage biographies, it is always a challenge to plough through the early years and attempt to reveal nuggets of experience that would shed light on the subject’s subsequent personality and public persona. Here we learned of Reed’s schooldays where he combined being a playground bully (in response, it is suggested, to his taunting by the other children for his undiagnosed dyslexia). Crouch effortlessly became the awkward schoolboy; baggy shorts (with a generous builder’s cleavage), half mast socks, and ill-fitting rugby shirt. Rattling through Reed’s youth it wasn’t long before our hero hit the bottle and began to idolise the macho American cinema actors who he identified with far more than their more refined English counterparts. To Reed, the likes of Robert Mitchum would always provide far greater inspiration than David Niven or Roger Moore.

Once we were into Reed’s big screen career the gloves were well and truly off, with Crouch gulping down an increasing volume of (one assumes real) beer, along with whiskey, vodka, and everything else he could lay his hands on. Tales of drinking competitions with Keith Moon and Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins were both colourful, tragic, and masterfully brought to life by an increasingly sozzled Reed/Crouch, and as we entered the final hurdle the alcohol was spraying the front row as the hairless gorilla staggered from one chat show debacle to another. Director Kate Bannister certainly put her performer through the mill with several scenes involving audience participation (one lady is persuaded to re-enact a talkshow anecdote as actress Shelley Winters, who famously poured a drink over Reed’s head on live tv). ‘Oliver Reed: Wild Thing’ is a real tour-de-force which builds and builds into a drunken raging whirlwind, and the standing ovation for Rob Crouch was certainly deserved.
This review originally published for