Skip to content

The Hobbit is 81 years old today. It’s all about Bilbo.



Yes, The Hobbit was published on September 21st, 1937.  Perhaps it’s not the most auspicious anniversary.  Perhaps the eleventy-first anniversary will deserve a bit more of a party – a huge one with gift bags and amazing fireworks. September 21, 2048.  Keep the date.

And it wasn’t quite The Hobbit that we know today that was published in 1937 since the text was subsequently strategically revised so as to make it more consistent with the mood of Lord of the Rings.  The Middle-Earthlification of The Hobbit was a complex process.  How much of the original instinct and energy of a “there and back” children’s story is compatible with Middle Earth’s rich linguistic and mythological context?  A certain amount, to be sure, but truth is that The Hobbit is a stand alone story that inhabits a tradition of late 19th and early 20th century literature as securely as it does the…

View original post 372 more words


The Trailer to “Stan and Ollie” – Hopes and Fears.

Apparently, in the mid-twentieth century, London Bridge was a railway bridge.  It must have been, because this film shows Stan and Ollie crossing the river Thames in a train that can only be London Bridge, given the proximate and uncluttered view of Tower Bridge they get.  Stan points out Tower Bridge, deadpan – saying “Eiffel Tower”.

John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan look great though, as Ollie and Stan in their later touring years.  The whole affair seems to be stylishly mounted and I can see this film successfully inspiring a new generation to avail themselves of the inestimable legacy of the Laurel and Hardy film canon.

That said, the online Laurel and Hardy loving community has registered a concern with the central portion of this brief trailer.  There are harsh words exchanged here between our heroes that were probably never exchanged.  There are feelings of betrayal expressed that run counter to the direct testimony of the principles concerned.

You see people like us… people like me… cannot watch a film such as this with anything resembling critical objectivity.  We just have too much love in our hearts.  The reality is that we… I… love not just Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel but the space between them, the fizzing electrical field generated whenever these two unique humans were adjacent to one another.  There was a lot of conflict and trial and tribulation in the lives of Stan and Ollie.  They both had complicated romantic lives – Stan’s love life was almost ludicrously complicated.  But between Stan and Ollie there was intuitive respect and understanding.

Stan quarreled with Hal Roach.  Stan quarreled with a number of people and could be regarded as difficult to work with.  We are all the beneficiaries of Stan’s cussedness however.  Stan was that rarest of things, a control freak perfectionist who was not an egomaniac.  Their films were never better than Stan enjoyed the final cut, the crucial say-so – ultimate creative control.  He wasn’t looking for glory – he was looking for a version of integrity.

Look at many other comics working at the same time as Laurel and Hardy and you can watch them piling on the gags, operating on a percentage basis.  A great Laurel and Hardy film never does this, but instead commits 100% to a joke that Stan Laurel thinks is funny.

It is a bit hard to watch Coogan’s Stan accuse Ollie of being a “lazy-ass who got lucky” though, since a critical aspect of Stan’s skill as a writer and a director consisted of his profound appreciation for Ollie’s comic talents.  What was Stan doing sitting up late in the cutting room?  For much of the time he was making sure that Ollie looked as hilarious as he knew Ollie could be.  No one else would have ensured that Ollie’s exquisitely slow reaction shots got the time that they deserved.  Nobody else adequately understood the elegance and the pathos of Ollie.

That said, Jeff Pope has a story to tell.  And the rational part of me recognises that in order to celebrate love, you need to present love in crisis.  I have no doubt that this film will conclude with love triumphing, with moist-eyed audiences achieving a heightened sense of just how much these two men cared about each other. That’s what people will overwhelmingly feel as they spill out of the theatres.  The practical dramaturgical reality is that a story about two men who love and respect one another fairly consistently is not the stuff of drama.  Sometimes you have to manufacture a crisis just to see it resolved.  An audience that may not (yet) love Stan and Ollie as much as I do needs to see such love severely tested in order to properly believe in it.

So I will pay my money and go see the film and bite my lip during the bitter scenes and then recommend the film to all my friends – assuming it’s the film I think it is.  We can have the arguments about accuracy later – but while we’re having although very necessary and geeky and pedantic arguments, people who’ve never known the joy of Stan and Ollie may be initiated.

Odd note, writer Jeff Pope apparently started life as a reporter on the Ealing Gazette.  In an interview with Stan Laurel recorded a week after Babe’s death, Stan recalls that the first time he really triumphed on any stage was at the Ealing Hippodrome – which was on the Broadway on the site of the current W.H. Smiths – if anyone’s in the vicinity.

Why we love Samuel Johnson. On this his birthday.



Samuel Johnson shares a birthday with Christopher Ricks.  And Russ Abbot.  That’s pretty special.  He also shares a birthday with Matthew Prior’s death day.  Matthew Prior died on Samuel Johnson’s 12th birthday, which I’m sure ruined the entire party.

(Yes, the revision of my Matthew Prior book proceeds apace – thank you for asking.)

Poet, (one-off) dramatist, essayist, (one-off sort of) novelist, critic, biographer, lexicographer and ghostbuster… what is it about this behemoth that continues to inspire so much love?

As a critic, he’s to be cherished because he’s always challenging preferences and assumptions.  All readers disagree with Johnson on important issues, authors and texts. Like any great critic of anything, he has the power to make you think hard about why you like what you like and why you don’t like what you don’t like.  This kind of critical reflexivity is thoroughly opposed to the sort of “touchstones of…

View original post 346 more words

Leedle Gra Zells. A belated film review of Murder on the Orient Express.

I didn’t see this at the cinema. I thought about seeing it on a transatlantic flight but thought better of it.  I eventually found the perfect occasion to see it – as part of a family viewing night with attention focused on our twelve year old son who doesn’t know whodunnit in advance.

It is said that when a very elderly Agatha Christie saw Sidney Lumet’s remarkable 1974 adaptation of this novel starring Albert Finney, she expressed some disappointment with Finney’s rather discreet moustache, declaring that Poirot was meant to have just about the most magnificent whiskers in Europe.  Kenneth Branagh, who directed as well as starred in this new version, was determined that if nothing else, he was going to redress this particular disappointment.

The film is star studded.  Branagh, Depp, Dench, Ridley, Cruz, Jacobi, Pfeiffer, Colman, Uncle Tom Cobley, All… etc. etc etc.  But then, Agatha Christie adaptations pretty much have to be star studded, because we sort of want the murderer to be played by a high profile actor – which means that we need lots of high profile actors for the purposes of indirection.  For a good whodunnit to function we need multinodality, in other words, we need our attention to be constantly redirected – and a star-studded cast is more or less essential to achieve this.  Lumet’s 1974 film is even more star studded than Branagh’s – in fact it may be one of the most star studded films of all time.  Discuss.

Unfortunately, Branagh is not really in Lumet’s league as a director.  Very few directors ever have been.  What you discover very early on in this version, is that Branagh doesn’t really trust the cinematic appeal of claustrophobic drama – the spectacle of seeing desperate people in a confined space together.  Lumet’s curriculum vitae, on the other hand, shows a brilliant grasp of precisely this dynamic.  Time and time again in his career he revisited small and sweaty rooms – paying homage to theatre while deploying techniques that only film can offer.  Branagh, on the other hand, suffers from what looks like an essential loss of nerve. He does not really think that the aftermath of a murder on a train is exciting enough to sustain a cinema audience’s attention for two hours.  As a consequence, there are lots of exterior shots, lots of mountain scenery and when the final scene of revelation is staged, it is staged not on the train at all but outside at the entrance to the tunnel, with all the suspects arranged like Leonardo’s last supper – a table for 26 tableau that looks more like a sudden gimmick than anything else.

Michelle Pfeiffer is brilliant.  Why haven’t we been seeing Michelle Pfeiffer in more stuff this century?

This is the sort of film, as I say, that can only be properly be enjoyed if you’re in the company of someone who doesn’t know the ending.  An Agatha Christie tale is about nothing if it’s not about the economy of information release.  About two thirds of the way through the film, the boy shouted out the right answer.  I want to praise his powers of formal logic and dramatic intuition, but I can’t help but feel that he was assisted by the fact that the Armstrong (Lindbergh) connection was fully established half way through the film.  The boy got it right, but he didn’t seem to feel especially proud of himself for having got it right.

So.  We have Lumet’s version now and we have Branagh’s version.  And I have to say, Lumet’s version still wins.  And by more than a whisker.

Awake my St John… Happy Birthday Lord Bolinbroke.


Today is the birthday of a fascinating political figure.  Here he is as a dolled-up bigwig.


And here he is in “undress” wearing a turban.


The bigwig denotes public status, the turban – private abstraction.  The wig and the turban do not describe two different men, but rather complimentary aspects of an Augustan mover and shaker.

It is axiomatic that writers will complain that politicians don’t really care about aesthetics.  Ever since the reign of Emperor Tiberius, right up until ten minutes ago – the ruling classes are always presumed to be philistine by those claiming to speak for “the Arts”.

However, the reign of Queen Anne was a little different.  When people like Henry St John and Robert Harley were in charge – men of letters seemed to be blinking in the daylight of a rare historical moment when they seemed to be actually treated seriously by those in…

View original post 395 more words

Black Wednesday 26 Years On. I miss “The Economy”…



Yes, on this day in 1992, John Major’s government, only months after its surprise re-election, was forced to withdraw Britain from the Exchange Rate Mechanism.

The 1992 election is famous for the end of Neil Kinnock, the hubristic “rally” with its Queen soundtrack, and the surprising appeal of John Major standing on a box in a market place.   (Of course, the important thing about John Major standing on a box in a market place was that he was shown on national television news standing on a box in a market place.)

I campaigned in the 1992 election – knocked on doors etc.  In my constituency, the candidate I was championing actually won.  She subsequently resigned from the Blair administration over the invasion of Iraq.  I feel vindicated.

Norman Lamont, Chancellor of the Exchequer, was not a natural media performer.  A badger-faced problem deflator, he looked like someone who was…

View original post 415 more words

The “Battle of Britain” is still commemorated … but in Hard Brexit Britain – for how long?



With the Hardest of Hard Brexits looming, certain historical anniversaries are going to prove increasingly problematic in the national narrative of whatever bits and pieces of Britain survive the next few tumultuous decades.

History, of course, is always being abused and manipulated the louder it is being invoked, but there are some anniversaries that are so unequivocal as to present a nagging difficulty for Britain in the decades to come.

Today’s date, September 15, is the anniversary of a very large and decisive aerial engagement that perhaps offers the supreme symbol of any nation’s commitment to the future Europe.  Other episodes, like Dunkirk, can perhaps be customised to suit an isolationist “world” view, but the core grammar of the so-called “Battle of Britain” is far too passionate and sacrificially Europhile to submit to bend or warp to the new political reality.

In 1940, with France defeated (before Churchill’s proposals for…

View original post 363 more words

“As old as Sibyl and as curst…” the 1980 BBC Taming of the Shrew.


Yes, this is the one with John Cleese in it.  He is taller than the rest of the cast and uses his height to great advantage.  Many of Cleese’s mannerisms are entirely appropriate for the character of Petruchio but they are nonetheless entirely familiar.  He cuffs his servant Grumio about with relaxed confidence – almost as though he’s had extensive dramatic extreme cuffing underlings.

Now if I’d been director Jonathan Miller, or rather, some notional omnipotent Jonathan Miller – with absolute power to cast whoever I wanted, I could not have resisted the temptation to also cast Andrew Sachs as Grumio.  I would have been and gone and done that.  Actually, I probably would have tried to cast Prunella Scales as Katherine and Connie Booth as Bianca.  And before they had dragged me screaming from the premises of the BBC, I would have argued for a bold new staging of the play in 1970s Torquay.

But that’s just me.  Jonathan Miller has infinitely more artistic integrity than I.

The dominance of Cleese in this production is further emphasised by the fact that Tranio (Anthony Pedley, who also plays a fine Roderigo in the BBC Othello), when pretending to be posh Lucentio, affects the voice of  “Praline” – the character Cleese plays in both the Dead Parrot and the Eric the Half a Bee sketches.

So Cleese is very dominant here, to the extent that Sarah Badell’s Katherine seems a victim preordained – tamed before she even appears.  Petruchio is “acting” throughout the story, and you never think Kate’s shouting is going to put him off his stride for a moment.

As with all of these BBC Shakespeare productions, there’s the repeated pleasure of seeing familiar faces in unfamiliar roles.  Angus Lennie, best known as Steve McQueen’s best pal in The Great Escape – the one who goes “wire happy” and gets machine gunned half way through the film – has a small part.  John Barron, most famous as Reggie Perrin’s boss, is Vincentio.  Jonathan Cecil is delightfully vacuous as Hortensio and Joan Hickson (who rivals Margaret Rutherford as a contender for the title of definitive Miss Marple) is Hortensio’s rich widow of a bride.

The staging is conventional enough. The street scenes are very Andrea Palladio and the interiors are very Vermeer.

The issue with this production is its attempt at seriousness.  Perhaps all clowns want to play Hamlet, and if they can’t they can play Petruchio.  John Cleese in 1980 was at the height of his powers as a comic and most of these powers are on display in the form of trademark sudden movements, leaps, double takes, and sudden shifts of register and volume.  However, when he’s entirely alone, a very very serious Petruchio emerges, one with a very very serious purposes.

Because Cleese and Miller, who obviously knew each other very well, both agreed to try to take a supposedly altruistic view of the “taming” regime, stressing the fundamentally unhappy life of the Katherine of Act I.  From a modern point of view, Petruchio’s Orwellian insistence that Katherine accept his sole whimsical authority as to whether the sun is the moon or vice versa evokes an image of Donald Trump telling his fans not to believe the evidence of their own senses.  A Trump era production would have a kind of moral and political obligation to reference this association.

In any case, using starvation and sleep-deprivation as “therapeutic techniques” cannot help but make us think of gulags and suicide cults.  They ought to have made people think of those very things in 1980.  When Sarah Badell delivers her famous Act V speech in favour of female subjugation, you see the glazed look of a true believer in her shiny eyes.  Where is the Kate that once there lived?  Where is she now?  Perfectly dead?  Who wouldn’t rather be wed instead to Susan Penhaligan’s Bianca who though never as loud as the Kate of Acts I and II, has retained some spirit of resistance.  Indeed Penhaligan’s Bianca was never as demure as her father liked to think her.

There are different things you can do with this profoundly horrible speech in a modern production.  Kate can speak it ludicrously so that everybody knows it’s not for real.  You can have Kate speak it with a wink and a smile, implicating her as a full partner in a plot to fleece Lucentio and Hortensio.  Or, you can play up the subjugation to the point where patriarchy is more brutally exposed and the explicit “moral” of the tale is completely subverted.  But Miller’s production does none of these things and ends up looking like a rather desperate justification.

Jonathan Miller cuts the induction to the play, the Christopher Sly play within a play framing.  The induction dilutes any “reality effect” by emphasising frames within frames.  The induction suits Taming of the Shrew insofar as Petruchio, Tranio, Lucentio, Hortensio etc. are all play acting themselves.  Roles within roles.  Nothing anyone says is to be taken at face value.

In the same way that I will happily confess to enjoying Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady more than Shaw’s Pygmalion, I believe I probably enjoy Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate more than Taming of the Shrew.  Cole Porter, of course, does retain a play within a play framing device, and in this strange but crucial respect is a more faithful interpreter of Shakespeare than Jonathan Miller.

I have some thoughts about some other BBC Shakespeare productions in this series…


Troilus and Cressida:

Merchant of Venice:

Merry Wives of Windsor:


Twelfth Night:


Measure for Measure:

Henry VIII

Love’s Labours Lost:

Romeo and Juliet:

The Scottish One:

Much Ado About Nothing:

King Lear:

Here is Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Here’s Julius Caesar:

King John:

Here’s Richard II:

The BBC Richard III could not be more unlike the BBC Richard II…

Here is Henry VI Part III

Henry VI. Part Two:

Henry VI, Part One:

Here’s my review of the BBC Henry V:

BBC Henry IV, Part TWO:

But here’s my review of the BBC Henry IV Part ONE:

And the BBC Antony and Cleopatra:


Not to mention a sombre but intensely homoerotic Coriolanus:

Here’s Comedy of Errors:

And… All’s Well That End’s Well:

Helen Mirren in the BBC As You Like It:

The Pipes are Calling. Laurel and Hardy in “Bonnie Scotland”


I’ve yet to meet anyone who would pick Bonnie Scotland as their favourite Stan and Ollie feature – but I’ve yet to meet anyone who thinks it’s their worst film either.  There are some nice jokes and some elegant sequences to be found but the film doesn’t tell a story that you’re particularly invested in, and you’d much rather spend an hour or so watching almost any three Laurel and Hardy shorts back to back.

Most of Bonnie Scotland is not set in Scotland but in India.  Stan and Ollie have escaped from prison, a week before their release date, and stowed away across the Atlantic in the expectation that Stan is about to inherit a fortune.  Ending up with just a snuffbox and a set of bagpipes, they end up accidentally joining the British army and find themselves part of a Scottish regiment in India.  They spend some time exasperating their commanding officer James Finlayson before finally thwarting an attack on fort in a way that somehow (but not directly) reminds me of the end of Carry on up the Khyber.

Stan and Ollie formed part of the thin blue line of French colonialism in two movies, so here they are as part of the thin red line of British imperial enforcement.  This film’s crude’s stereotyping of the tribes of the North West frontier is of course very deplorable and highly representative of other films of the period, such as Charge of the Light Brigade (which is also proportionately far more about India than its title seems to advertise) made a year later and starring Errol Flynn.  However, Bonnie Scotland is above all a parody of such films and their conventions.  We are not watching depictions of indigenous Indians or Afghans but depictions of depictions of Indians and Afghans on film.

Stan and Ollie have no sense of the big picture here, no sense of “what they’re fighting for”.  Whenever Stan and Ollie end up in uniform, it’s always by accident.  They are without ideological commitment, though here as elsewhere, they are capable of demonstrating a sincere fondness for individual platoon members. Accordingly, there’s a romantic subplot to this movie that you will forget all about as soon as the credits roll.

So Bonnie Scotland can be summed up as a loose kit-bag of a film that has some nice things in it.

What you will remember are individual sequences.  You’ll remember Ollie sneezing himself into a river and then sneezing the entire river dry.  You’ll remember the strangely shrinking fish.  You’ll remember a new strange thing that Stan can do with his body involving sticking his finger in his mouth and blowing so as to levitate his helmet.

Above all, perhaps, you’ll remember dancing.  The dance that the boys perform when they are supposed to be picking up trash is delicious in his own right.  Even more representative is the way in which they transform a forced march into a far more delightfully choreographed column.  When Stan and Ollie subvert forms of military discipline, it seems to evoke a fleeting sense of a better world – in which skipping and dancing has overtaken marching.

A world in which the armies of the world skipped to Stan and Ollie’s steps rather than marched to the orders of deskbound generals, would be a more peaceful and loving world.  Stan and Ollie cannot win, of course – but they can at least give us a hilarious and heartwarming glimpse.


I have some thoughts about other Laurel and Hardy films


Thicker than Water

The Fixer Uppers:

Tit for Tat:

The Live Ghost:

Babes in Toyland

Them Thar Hills:

Going Bye Bye:

Hollywood Party:

Oliver the Eighth:
Sons of the Desert

Dirty Work:

Wild Poses:

Busy Bodies:

The Midnight Patrol:

The Devil’s Brother

Me and my Pal

Twice Two:

Towed in a Hole:

Their First Mistake:

Pack Up Your Troubles


County Hospital:

The Chimp:

The Music Box:

Any Old Port:


“On the Loose”:

Beau Hunks:

One Good Turn:

Come Clean:

Pardon Us:

Laughing Gravy:

The Stolen Jools:

Chickens Come Home:

Be Big:

Another Fine Mess:

The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case

Hog Wild

Below Zero:



Here is Night Owls:

Angora Love:

The Hoose Gow:

They Go Boom:

Perfect Day:

Men O’ War:


Unaccustomed as We are Are:

Bacon Grabbers:

Double Whoopee:

Big Business:

That’s My Wife:

Wrong Again:


We Faw Down:

Habeas Corpus:

Two Tars:

Early to Bed:

Should Married Men Go Home?:

Their Purple Moment:

You’re Darn Tootin’:

From Soup to Nuts:

Leave em Laughing:

Battle of the Century:

Putting Pants on Philip:

Hats Off:

Call of the Cuckoo:

The Second Hundred Years:

Flying Elephants:

Sugar Daddies:

Do Detectives Think?

Sailors Beware!:

With Love and Hisses:

Love ‘Em and Weep:

Slipping Wives:

45 Minutes from Hollywood:

Duck Soup:

The Lucky Dog:




Donald Trump and the Prophet Jonah


Well, it looks like he isn’t coming.  I say looks like, because the White House is sending mixed signals at the moment.  Nevertheless, reliable reports suggest that the Trump visit to Ireland has been postponed, and there may not be a window left in a one term presidency for it to ever take place.

And all we’re feeling a strange sense of relief and bathos.  Within six and a half minutes of the Trump visit being announced, the first large scale demonstration was being organised.  Within a matter of hours, thousands of people registered interest in attending it.  There was every reason to suppose that Dublin would have proved itself even more anti-Trump than London, allowing for Dublin and Ireland’s population being 10% of that of London and the UK.  There were even plans for the Trump baby balloon to come over – which some of us had mixed feelings about.  We were hoping for something a bit more original and indigenous.  When it comes to expressing abhorrence for misogynistic nativism, there’s nothing like a bit of healthy Hiberno-British competition.  Everyone’s a winner in such a contest.

And now we all stand down.  I feel a bit like the Prophet Jonah.  You’ll recall that after trying to evade the instruction to preach urgent repentance to the people of Nineveh by going on a cruise, Jonah then leaped to the opposite extreme when he eventually got to the wicked metropolis – by way of fishy detour.  Jonah invested so much of himself in fire and brimstone rhetoric that when God saw evidence of large scale repentance and said “fair enough” thus sparing the city, the sense of anti-climax proved unbearable for Jonah and he went into a prolonged sulk.  God has to create a shady gourd plant – then kill the gourd plant – just to give Jonah some sense of perspective.

I suppose we’re a theatrical species. We tend to want crises pushed to the most exciting extremity.  Trump’s visit has been cancelled, I’m sure, because Trump hates large hostile demonstrations.  Such demonstrations would also have persuaded Trump’s not insignificant Irish American following that the country they claim to feel an affinity for despises Trump.  As things stand, of course, scheduling difficulties will be cited, not popular hostility.  The cancellation of this trip is big happy news here in Ireland but small beer anywhere else.

Still, we won.  We won and we should get used to it.  The purpose of the threatened demonstrations was to assert that the politics of racialised and sexualised paranoia is rejected by the vast majority of the Irish people.  Trump’s been rejected.  Job done.

But somehow, like Jonah, we feel it’s all been a bit too easy and not really dramatic enough.  I’m also reminded of the end of V for Vendetta where the Palace of Westminster is destroyed at the end even though a velvet revolution has already been completely successful – just because the story needs a climax and we were all looking forward to a big explosion.

So instead of visual drama, we need to get back to agitating about our own housing crisis and the underfunding of the HSE – less garish and more complex traumas that won’t go away – even though the orange menace has.