“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot. To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it!” – Charlie Chaplin
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’” – Samuel Becket.
As Chaplin showed, there has always been a dark aspect to British comedy and, indeed, there is also usally a sharp, shot of humour in British dark fiction. Tragicomedy that errs on the side of the tragic, perhaps.
A perfect home for life’s perpetual failures, then.
Think of Alexander Mackendrick’s classic 1955 film The Ladykillers where a group of gangsters hole-up in a cute little old ladies house and take turns trying to kill her. They fail, of course.
Or try the eponymous character created by comedian Tony Hancock in the 1950s who, on radio, on television and in film, tried his hand at so many different activities and failed. One episode –The Bedsitter – teeters dangerously on the precipice of bleak existentialism. The Bedsitter is a one-room set, one-man-show, where Hancock endlessly flips through a Bertrand Russell tome trying to find meaning in life, but fails, of course. As Hancock said: ‘Stone me, what a life!’
And more: Sixties sit-com The Worker had the perpetually unemployed Charlie Drake regularly annoying Mr Pugh at the employment centre, trying lots of jobs and failing at all of them. One of the United Kingdom’s longest running television series, Only Fools and Horses, featured wheeling and dealing market stall traders whose scams always failed but who genuinely believed that ‘This time next year, we’ll be millionaires.’
Indeed, if the shiny happy American comedy series Friends had been made in the UK it would probably have ended up more like Sartre’s No Exit since hell truly is THOSE people.
So, if crime fiction is about bringing order to chaos and noir is about bringing chaos to order, then perhaps British comedy is pure noir.
Or maybe, it’s just the weather.
They say that all small boys are influenced by their big brother’s music collection, and while that may well be true of me, I was also influenced by my family’s taste in other forms of entertainment. Luckily I grew up in a time when television and radio weren’t as youth focused as they are now and I could enjoy the same shows as my parents and siblings, such as Will Hay, Ealing Comedies and Tony Hancock. During the miners’ strikes in the ‘70s there were power cuts. Which meant no telly. Reading comics by candle light and listening to an old transistor radio. Radio 2, usually, since my parents were of that age group. The Navy Lark, Round The Horne and, of course, Hancock.
Tony Hancock – the easiest comedian for charades – and I share the same birthday, May 12th. Whether or not we share the same death day remains to be seen, of course, and let’s just hope we can put that little fact-finding mission on hold for a while, eh?
One of the UK’s major television and radio stars throughout the 1950s and early ‘60s, British actor and comedian Tony Hancock killed himself on 25 June 1968. He overdosed on booze and pills and left a suicide note that said:
‘Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times’
Indeed, Hancock’s eponymous character on radio, on television, and in film, regularly tried his hand at countless activities and endeavours that invariably failed.
One episode – The Bedsitter – teeters dangerously on the precipice of bleak existentialism. The Bedsitter is a one-room set, one-man-show, where Hancock endlessly flips through a Bertrand Russell tome trying to find meaning in life, but fails, of course.
In the most famous episode of his television show The Blood Donor, ‘the lad himself’ proudly donates a pint of his particularly rare blood only to end the episode by cutting himself so badly on a breadknife that he needs a transfusion of his own blood. The recording of the television version of The Blood Donor proved to be problematic as Hancock had recently been involved in a car accident and suffered from concussion so that he had to read his lines from autocue.
After the American failure of his film debut The Rebel, Hancock broke with his long time writing team of Galton and Simpson, who were responsible for most of the great writing in Hancock’s shows, as well as ditching his long-term agent, the splendidly named Beryl Vertue. This pretty much led to his career decline.
Disappointment was always breathing at the back of Hancock’s neck, it seemed.
Hancock, and other character actors, are regularly in my mind when I’m creating characters. Quigley, the hit man in my yarn The Bucket List, was partly inspired by the image of Tony Hancock stalking the streets with a gun.
Hancock could be said to be the perfect noir comedian, in fact. I’ve said before that crime fiction is about bringing order to chaos and noir is about bringing chaos to order, and Tony Hancock’s comedy is pure noir. A natural loser. When I started writing I wanted to write small, odd stories about small, odd people – like Hancock.
Like his fictional incarnation, Hancock was prone to introspection, a concoction of egotism and self-doubt which he bared when he was interviewed in the BBCs Face To Face programme in the early 1960s.
Spike Milligan said of Hancock that he was a ‘Very difficult man to get on with. He used to drink excessively. You felt sorry for him. He ended up on his own. I thought, he’s got rid of everybody else, he’s going to get rid of himself and he did.’
As Tony Hancock said: ‘Stone me, what a life!’
(This first appeared at Tom Leins’ blog as part of his Under The Influence series)
Like 2015, 2016 was another great year for telly. I watched a lot of good TV this year, most of it American and mostly crime fiction. Second seasons can be problematic, as True Detective showed, but Fargo’s second season was even better than the first – cinematic, sharp dialogue, great music and top turns from Kirstin Dunst et al.
Better Call Saul was also on top form in its second season, bittersweet and painfully funny.Great characters, acting and writing. Happy Valley had another powerhouse performance from Sarah Lancaster and quality writing.
Marvel’s Luke Cage was probably the coolest show this year and with the best soundtrack. It dithered off a bit toward the end but still had a lot of punch.
Hap and Leonard was all loose-limbed charm, great acting, razor-sharp dialogue, and great music. Capturing the spirit and feel of Joe Lansdale’s great books.
Goliath gave the boring old legal thriller a kick in the eye. Billy Bob Thornton was particular appealing as washed up Billy MacBride but the rest of the cast were no slouches either.
Ray Donovan is probably my favourite telly show. It’s now the fourth season of TV’s most gleefully nihilistic and cruelly funny show. Great acting and top work from directors like John Dahl and writers like Michal Tolkin.
(This first appeared as part of my Review of 2016 at Vic Watson’s place.)
One of the things I did during my brief jaunt to The Big Apple in 2001 was to walk from Times Square- where I was staying – and down Broadway to place my hand on the Brill Building. And I did. It was a hot summers day and I burnt my hand.
It’s a fantastic looking building, of course, but that wasn’t the reason for my pilgrimage.
You see, not a lot of people know this- not even Michael Caine – but once upon a time, I wanted to be a songwriter. Indeed, after the band Oceans 11 split up in the mid ‘80s, me and guitarist Peter Ord decided to write songs together. Like Bacharach and David. Goffin and King, Fagan and Becker. But, of course, nothing came of it.
In the 1960s the Brill Building, though, was a hit factory that housed some great songwriters. Including the ones that I mentioned above plus Paul Simon, Laura Nyro and more.
And Allison Anders’ wonderful Grace Of My Heart is the story of that era, that great period of musical creativity. Well, it’s a fictional amalgam of a couple of people’s stories-mainly Carole King, I think – and it’s a gem.
Music is by Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell, Burt Bacharach and others and it’s a smashing story, very well told, with fine performances from Ileana Douglas, John Turturro, Matt Dillon and others.
“Noir is closer to Laurel and Hardy than it is to Agatha Christie”
At the recent Alibi noir festival in Slovenia. Here’s me on RTV 4′s arts programme, Glasnik, talking about noir to journalist Petra Skok. With Renato Bratkovič, Neven Skgratic, Eddie Vega, Andrej Predin and the impression of Richard Godwin.
More about the festival soooon …
It was announced a while ago that Acorn Media, who are the main distributor of British TV programming to North American consumers, had acquired a 64% stake in Agatha Christie Limited. This means that those delicate folk across the pond will have hours of Miss Marple and Poirot to nibble on while they wait for BBC’s latest incarnation of Sherlock or the Inspector Morse prequel, Endeavour.
In comparison to these, it looks like America is the true home of cutting edge, hard-boiled crime television, with series like Breaking Bad, Southland, The Shield, True Detective, Sons Of Anarchy and The Wire, while the United Kingdom, just knocks out frigid cozies with stuck-up, Latin quoting police detectives.
However, for over forty years British television has also looked at the country’s grubby underbelly and produced plenty of gritty crime writing.
While we may think of sixties and seventies British TV cops as sophisticated post James Bonds, Frank Marker-who was played so brilliantly by Alfred Burke in the sixties television series Public Eye–was no Simon Templar, Jason King or John Steed, I can tell you.
Public Eye ran for 10 years – from 1965 to 1975- with almost 100 episodes and although I haven’t seen it since then I remember it quite well and very fondly. Public Eye, was true Brit Grit as Marker moved from a dingy office in London to another flea pit in Birminghamand eventually to Brighton, and I can still picture him walking along a wind and rain swept sea-front, looking like something from a Morrissey song.
Marker looked like a soggy mongrel, with a face so lived in that squatters wouldn’t stay there. He was a walking hard luck story too, getting knocked about by the police as well as criminals and even being framed and sent to prison.
Not a lot of peace and love there, then.
The seventies was a time when music and film were doing some pretty ground breaking and experimental stuff and, in the UK at least, so was TV. The BBC’s Play For Today, for example, is looked back upon with dewy eyed reverence these days. And so it should be. There were plays by Dennis Potter (Blue Remembered Hills), Mike Leigh (Abigail’s Party), Alan Bleasdale, John Osborne. Some of them were terrifying to the young mind- I still cringe when I remember the harrowing and brilliant Edna The Inebriated Woman. Others were hilarious –Rumpole Of The Baily, which spawned the television series.
And some were rock hard.
I was 13 in 1975, when Philip Martin’s controversial Gangsters aired, and it was great. Gangsters was true Brit Grit television. Set in Birmingham, it was a multicultural crime story about illegal immigrants and corrupt politicians. And I loved it. There was a violence, swearing, nudity! What more could you want?
The next day at school everyone was talking about it. The subsequent media furore only added to the buzz.
Gangsters was such a success it was made into a series with theme music from the prog rock band Greenslade. It told the story of Kline, played by super-craggy Maurice Colborn, ex SAS, fresh out of prison and trying to go straight. And failing. By season two, the series really took a turn for the mental, though. The title sequence now had blues singer Chris Farlow belting out the theme song and looked like something from a low budget Kung Fu film.
Indeed, it went down such a weird path that it even had writer Philip Martin regularly appearing as himself and dictating scenes to a typist. And later he appeared as The White Devil, a hit man dressed as W C Fields (a role originally intended for the comedian Les Dawson!) who eventually killed Kline.
Gangsters, which had started off as a hard hitting social realist crime drama , ended fantastically with the characters walking off the set, shots of the writers literally tossing away the script and a ‘That’s All Folks’ caption appearing on screen.
‘Daft!’ said my sister in law, who watched it with me. And she was right, I suppose, but then ‘daft’ isn’t always a bad thing, is it?
In one play and the two seasons of Gangsters there were drug addicts, hit men, sleazy night clubs, triads, murders, racist comedians, the CIA, strippers and all manner of urban rough and tumble. And W C Fields.
And on to the nineties.
Cracker was a Granada TV series that was created by the writer Jimmy McGovern which ran from 1993- 1995. A mere two years, yet it made a great impact in that short time.(Okay, there was also a fine Hong Kong set special in 1996 -and another in 2006,which I didn’t see.)
The star of the show was Scottish comedy actor Robbie Coltrane, who was previously best known for a cracking- see what I did then? – performance in the BBC’s version of John Byrne’s Tuttie Fruttie and for throwing a chair through a pub window.
Coltrane played Fitz,a brilliant, hard-drinking, heavy – smoking, bad- tempered criminal psychologist who worked as an assistant to the Manchester Police Force. “I drink too much, I smoke too much, I gamble too much. I am too much.” Top man.
Coltrane was mesmerizing. The stories were gritty and twisty and moving -even when they pushed the boundaries of melodrama. The rest of the actors involved were spot on too; in particular Christopher Ecclestone as the young detective learning more about life’s underbelly than he wanted. And Robert Carlyle was super impressive as the bitter, disillusioned Albie in the amazingly intense story ‘To Be A Somebody.’
Later, there was a watered-down U.S. version with Robert Pastorelli as Fitz. Pastorelli is a good enough actor but it really was a decaffeinated version of the original.
One of British television’s great creations, George Bulman first appeared on the small screen in 1976, in Granada Television’s hard edged crime series, The XYY Man, based on the books by Kenneth Royce. The XYY Man in question was a cat burglar called Spider Scott who was trying to go straight but regularly ended up getting caught in the MI5’s grubby web.
Doggedly on Scott’s trail was the real star of the show, Detective Sergeant George Bulman, brilliantly played by Don Henderson. Bulman was gruff and eccentric: He always wore gloves. usually had a menthol inhaler stuffed up his nose, carried his things in a plastic supermarket carrier bag and endlessly quoted Shakespeare.
It was a good series, too, but Bulman owned the show and when it ended, after two series, it was logical that Bulman and his sidekick Willis (no, not THAT Willis ) were given their own spin off show, Strangers.
Strangers –with a brilliant jazzy theme tune – started off as a pretty good, straight ahead, cop show spiced up by Bulman’s oddball character. But as the series progressed it became quirkier and quirkier, finding its form in season three when the brilliant Mark ‘Taggart’ McManus became Bulman’s boss.
The last episode had Bulman going undercover in a jazz band and featured music by Tangerine Dream and Pigbag. And the title quoted Jean Cocteau ,‘With these gloves you can pass through mirrors’- and saw Bulman trying to ditch his OCD by taking off his gloves and buggering off with McManus’ wife.
And when Strangers ended, after five series, there was still no stopping Bulman, who returned to star in his own show, Bulman. He was now an unofficial private detective working out of an antique clock repair shop with a spiky Scottish sidekick, occasionally working for a dodgy government agency or Mark MacManus. Bulman’s eccentricity was even more to the forefront in this series and the stories were comfortably off the wall.
I’ve heard from doctors that they can’t watch hospital series like ER and Casualty because of the medical inauthenticity of some scenes. Policeman surely say the same thing about the CSI franchise (okay EVERYONE says the same thing about CSI Miami). Dinner-ladies probably thought the same thing about Victoria Wood’s classic comedy series dinnerladies, for all I know.
But these glitches don’t bother me of, course. I find it easy to immerse myself in a story. Most of the time. Except, there was one scene in this cracking British television series, that jarred.
But first of all, the SP on Whitechapel.
Whitechapel was a British crime series about a rough and ready bunch of veteran East End coppers, headed by D S Ray Miles (the ever brilliant Phil Davis) and played some familiar and tasty character actors.
Well, all goes pear shaped (see how I’m getting into the lingo?) when they get a new boss, D I Joseph Chandler (played by Rupert Penry- Jones). Chandler is a fast-tracker who they think has walked into the job through having the right connections. And is he also very, very posh – a full-on blue blooded toff, even. Invariably, he doesn’t fit in with the rest of the team and clashes with Miles more than somewhat.
And things get worse when Chandler calls in a batty Ripperologist, Edward Buchan ( a top turn from the League Of Gentlemen’s Steve Pemberton) to help in his first high-profile case – a Jack The Ripper copycat.
This Whitechapel first two-parter was great fun- full of Gothic atmosphere, blood and gore, quirkiness, black humour and genuine chills.
The series was a great success and it was deservedly recommissioned. But how do you follow the Ripper story if you want to use the same copycat killer idea again?
That’s right- you bring back The Kray Twins.
Not a bad set up, but this story didn’t seem to have the same bite as the Ripper story. And Buchan is not only a Ripperologist but an expert on the Krays? Mmmm …
They also used some weird CGI to make one actor look like both twins. And they got the location of a famous East End boozer wrong! Everyone knows that The Grave Maurice was in Whitechapel Road but they said it was Commercial Road. And the pub that they used as a stand in for the presumably defunct Grave Maurice, looked nothing like it. Still it was enjoyable enough tale, had its tense moments and some nice East End locations and atmosphere.
But where do you go in season three if you want to follow the same formula?
Well, you don’t have any other Whitechapel killers as famous as Jack The Ripper and The Kray Twins, so they did a sensible thing and focused on murders that echoed obscure and less well-known East End killings. And some chillers there were too, including a locked-room-mystery and fun reference to Lon Chaney. Also, this and later seasons were split into three separate two-part stories which worked really well.
So, a cracking fun series with nice chemistry between the cast, funny, quirky moments, suspense and gore, and some smashing, ripping yarns.
And since then? Well we’ve had Luther, Top Boy, Happy Valley and the splendid Scott & Bailey. Also, Howard Linskey’s cracking Geordie gangster novel The Drop is being adapted for television by none other than J J Connolly of Layer Cake fame. And let’s hope we can find a new generation of crime writers to put some more Brit Grit back on the box.
(Bits of this have previously appeared in the Noircon 2014 program, at Sabotage Times and Pulp Metal Magazine)
‘This website will celebrate the vitalilty and variety of British cinema in the 1960s (whilst straying back into the 1950s and on into the 1970s, and sometimes just covering interesting British films from any era). In general I have taken the definition of the 1960s from Dominic Sandbrook’s ‘Never had it so good’, which starts the era in 1956, and goes through to summer 1970. In cinematic terms, this is about right – although Room at the Top wasn’t released until 1959, the literary impetus for such films goes back a few years – and the early 1970s films such as A Clockwork Orange, Villain and of course Get Carter feel very different again.
There are articles and pieces on various topics, some obvious (but I think worth including) such as the New Wave of the early 60s (completely redone March 2013) and some not so obvious, such as pages on the influence of 60s films on The Smiths and the film club I ran in Abu Dhabi. The website is now branching out more into other areas of British cinema, such as the page on the ‘spiv cycle’ of the 1940s or a new piece on the filn adaptations of the so-called low-life writing in the 1930s.
There is a feature which I will add to as often as I can on ‘unsung films’ such as The Small World of Sammy Lee, The System, Deep End, Charlie Bubbles and The Boys, pages on recommended books and DVDs – and a section on adaptations of not-so-well-known books into more famous films such as To Sir, with Love and Get Carter.’
Apparently there was an earlier attempt at a television spin-off of the Coen brothers’ blackly comic film classic – this time starring Kathy Bates – but I never saw that and approached this television series with a degree of trepidation.
Well, I was more than pleasantly surprised. Black comedy is a delicate balancing act and Fargo cleverly slides that razor’s edge between noir and comedy, violence and slapstick, and the cruelty inherent in both. And Fargo is true noir. Crime fiction is about bringing order to chaos and noir is about bringing chaos to order. In crime fiction the ordinary man in tested by circumstances and becomes some sort of a hero. In noir he becomes a villain.
Hence Lester Nygaard – played by Martin Freeman – is a great creation. Great performances and characters abound and Bill Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo is a particularly marvellous bad guy. The writing is as tight as a snare drum and it’s a beautiful looking show, too.
(This first appeared over at THE KILLING TIMES)
My current favourite Bad Girl is a cop. Of course, crime fiction – whether it’s in books, films or on television – is over-populated with strong-willed, impulsive, foul mouthed, chain smoking, heavy drinking, bed-hopping cops. But with Detective Constable Rachel Bailey, in the gritty British TV series Scott & Bailey, that cliché is given a kick up the jacksy because the cop in question is a woman.
Rachel Bailey – a firecracker of a performance from actress and series co-creator Suranne Jones – is a wild card, indeed. From the offset we see she’s trouble. She’s having a fling with a barrister and risks losing her job when she uses the Police National Computer to check up on him. Discovering that he’s married, and that she’s pregnant, she blackmails him into letting her live in his swanky apartment. She later commits perjury and jeopardies a murder inquiry.
In a misguided attempt to stabilise her life, Bailey gets married to a boring but nice childhood sweetheart. Any stability is short lived, however, as she quickly rushes into a drunken one night stand and pretty much moves into the home of her partner DC Janet Scott, creating friction within Scott’s family. Friction which ignites when she drunkenly shags one of her colleagues in Scott’s home.
Rachel Bailey is 100% trouble and one of the strongest characters on British television at the moment.
(This first appeared over at Crimeculture)