Sunday, January 17, 2010


Serendipitously, last night I idly turned on the TV, and found myself 5 or 6 minutes into a High Definition version of David Lean’s epic film, Lawrence of Arabia. Nearly 4 hours later, it ended, and I sat back quite entranced. For the last I don’t know how many years, it has sat at either No.1 or No.2 at the top of my favourite films of all time, alternating with Ridley Scott’s BladeRunner. The film is now 45 years old, and I must say that the remastered version, funded I suspect as a labour of love, by Steven Spielberg, is a magnificent transformation.

I sat about five feet from the screen, so that the TV image filled most of my Field of View, and the effect of the landscape which unfolded before me was quite overwhelming. Anyone who says that the optical quality of a film is not important and that the story is the only thing that matters should have been sitting alongside me. I found it breathtaking, and there were several occasions during the evening when I could only gasp at the beauty what I was watching.

It’s a bit of a cliché, because only because it's true, but the landscape Lean captures on film deserves Star Billing alongside the actors. He captures the absolute nothingness of the place, its remorseless and unforgiving size, the searing heat of the Sun, and the insignificance of man’s place in it all, quite superbly.

Forget the story for a moment, and just ponder the unmatched cinematography (courtesy of Freddie Young), the inch perfect screenplay written by Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons was another of his), the editing (unsurpassed in my limited view) of Anne Coates, and Maurice Jarre’s musical score which surely sets the standard for epic films, and you almost couldn’t fail to produce a classic.

There are scenes in the film which I think will live with me for ever – two involving the humble matchstick, one in HQ in Cairo (see the YouTube clip below) and the other with O’Toole (Lawrence) and Claude Rains (Dryden - the superbly devious, suave and many faced symbol of the British Government in the Middle East) which ends in one of the greatest film transitions ever. One minute you are held in a close-up of Lawrence holding the last throws of a burning match and instantly you cut to the same orange of the flame except now you're looking at an orange, sand and sky only, burning shot of the desert, a couple of seconds before a shimmering sun rises for the day over the stark bare horizon, a shot which Lean holds for ages. If that’s not perfect film-making, then I don’t know what is. Even though it’s mid January here, I could feel the heat of the desert suddenly warming my room up.


I could go on and on about many other bits of the film which please and delight me.

Omar Sharif’s long drawn out first ever entrance into films starts with a microscopic dot of a man in black on a camel on the desert horizon and ends up with the death by shooting of Lawrence’s companion. “My name is for my friends” is Lawrence’s response, when Sharif asks him who he is. Best entrance ever? I know of no better.

The charge of Lawrence leading his men into Aqaba, having crossed the uncrossable desert, and taken the town from the undefended side - undefended because no-one thinks an attack could be mounted from that direction. The camera then swings round after seeing the cavalry charge which captures the town, to show a fleeting, momentary glimpse of the unmoveable guns installed to protect it all pointing uselessly out to sea. Nothing is said, but the camera’s image, no more than a second, tells us all.
And there are more -the discovery of the Canal, the "No Prisoners" charge, the explosion, derailing and routing of the Turkish railway train, the desert meeting of the men on the two camels following the recovery of the fallen soldier - all moments of great pleasure. They won't mean too much if you haven't seen the film, but that simply means you should watch it.

The film is full of such moments, and even at nearly four hours long, for me it ends way too soon. Even so, it’s the series of conundrums in the underlying story in the end which binds it all together. The actors are, to a man (mainly because there are no women in it) all excellent, but it’s the enigma of Lawrence the man which digs away at you all the way through.

Terrorist or Freedom Fighter? Genius or Mad Man? Self serving publicist or One in a Million Soldier? Historian, archaeologist, linguist, writer, fighter, leader, embellisher of the truth? Some of the answers to this list are known, some not.

Ninety years later, with as much known about him as there probably ever will be, there are still conflicting views about him. Perhaps that’s why the story has so many twists and turns. Yes, the film has to be a work of fiction in the end. The dialogue is Bolt’s, the images are courtesy of Young and Coates, and the structure is David Lean’s and Sam Spiegel. But the start point and the end point of it all is Thomas Edward Lawrence – a fascinating and complex human being if ever there was one.

Friday, January 15, 2010


Sometimes, posts on this blog are like buses. You wait ages for one, and then two come along together. This is simply an update to a couple of relatively recent pieces – the Ghosts of Blogs Past.

Firstly, musing musically over Christmas about a late 2009 post about CDs/LPs where each track hit the bell, made me think of two more. So, in order to maintain some form of editorial completeness, these are offered for posterity. The real reason for their non-inclusion was probably something to do with the gentle alcoholic haze in which that post was put together not actually aiding my aim of Total Artistic Recall.

ABC – Lexicon of Love – one of the best albums of the Eighties – still sounds fresh 25 years on.

Eagles – Hotel California – Yes, I know it’s right down the white line in the Middle of the Road, but I still think it’s terrific. I remember playing it about a dozen times in one day not too long ago. It absolutely reeks of whatever it reeks of.

And Secondly, a culinary update for fellow Mars Bar Afficionados.

Following my purchase of several thousand of the Limited Edition Dark Mars Bars and my subsequent creation of a structured stockpile in several secret locations, I developed a plan to consume my strategic stock of them on the strict basis of One per Day.

You will no doubt be overwhelmingly impressed to hear that, as long as tomorrow is May 1st 2010, my consumption is absolutely dead on target. Self Control of an exceptionally high order, I think you'll agree.

Just thought you’d like to know.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Well, “The Wire” is finished and I still think of it as a piece of televisual genius. To me, the storyline was so overwhelmingly encompassing in the way that it dealt with the real, big problems of today with each of the five series given over to one over-arching theme. The balance of good and evil in everyone of us, contrasting the good in the bad with the bad in the good, the disappearance of heavy industry in Western Society, and the despairing effects it has on people whose life are being destroyed with it, the emergence of an original uncorrupted vision and the gradually corrupting effects of the taking of power within complex American conurbations, the potential of enlightened Education to change, or fail to change, underprivileged children almost on the toss of a coin, and the diminishing capability of the newspaper Media to mould and lead public opinion as they come under pressure from the presence of new forms of information dissemination.

Powerful stuff indeed, welded together by a near flawless cast, brilliantly realistic and unremittingly honest dialogue, fabulous photography, editing and cutting all combining with a beautifully paced way of telling the story. I found it quite spellbinding, and still think of it almost every day.

How to follow that? I’m in the middle of the "Sopranos", and it’s very good, but it’s not a match for McNulty and his colleagues. So perhaps a change of direction. Cue Christmas. Cue pressies.

I think I must be losing the odd marble or two, but I ended up with two Box Sets to watch – “Mad Men” and “Shaun the Sheep”. The Sublime and the Ridiculous you might think, although I’m not sure which is which yet. My current view is that it’s going to turn out to be The Sublime and The Sublime. I’ll hold fire on the adventures of our ovine friend until a later date, as I’ve only watched 16 of the (8 minute long) 42 episodes so far, although I have to report on an interim basis that I haven’t collapsed into fits of hysteria so much and so consistently for many a long year. And it’s supposed to be a Children’s programme!

Back to “Mad Men”. HBO famously passed on it, and it ended up being produced by another American Studio – AMC. It’s a period drama set in the very early Sixties in a large American Advertising Agency on Madison Avenue (hence “Mad Men”). You are transported perfectly back to the age of Triple Martinis at work, colleagues who have at least two faces, a perfectly caught demonstration of casual sexism, pre Martin Luther King racism, a mind boggling amount of alcohol and cigarette smoking, and a macho-ness among the almost exclusively male elite in the organisation which is like an alien culture today. To think it was only two generations ago makes you realise just how frighteningly quickly the way of life can change - perhaps one of the reasons for the “They don’t know they’re born” attitudes of Grumpy Old Gits of my age.

The real irony of the whole production is that everything goes on with a security of belief in the way it is, which is unerring in the eyes of the protagonists. And yet, a couple of years hence their World is about to undergo a total seismic change in social attitudes. And we have the luxury of the hindsight which shows us these Ad Men, whose job it is to mould, change and manipulate the American Public in their chosen direction, being totally oblivious to the tornado which is about to hit them. As a clue, the closing credits to the last episode of Series 1 is Bob Dylan - "Don't think twice, It's alright". Just hum the words to yourself to get the drift.

It’s a series where nothing happens. Or at least, nothing seems to happen. Seen mainly through the eyes of Donald Draper, a Senior Ad Exec, we see the glossy Ad World colliding with family relationships where wives are almost fashion accessories, where business “relationships” between Secretaries and executives are acted out in a completely different universe from the home environment. Gradually in Series One, we start to see behind the slick Draper Business Persona, and glimpse what is washing around underneath.

It’s very underplayed, with a lovely feeling of the time. A huge effort has gone into the accuracy of the production values, and to very good effect but in the end, as always, it’s the people in it who grab your attention. The almost black and white stereotypes you are invited to observe gradually dissolve into a range of fragmented shades, and simplicity is slowly replaced by complexity.

I find it quite beguiling, and have devoured Series 1 in a bit of a rush. In our house, Father Christmas got his knickers in a bit of a twist when he wrapped my presents, and sent me two copies of Series One, when I remember quite distinctly asking him (very politely) for Series One and Series Two. But his franchisee (Amazon, I believe) is currently looking to find a spare reindeer to hot foot it through the snow send a replacement Series Two down my chimney.

I can’t wait.