Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Mesrine and why Robert Mitchum was in the dark - Reviews #51

Desperately Seeking Susan (Susan Seidelman, 1985) is an appealing, unconventional film about a shy, put-upon young married woman (Rosanna Arquette) who swaps places with a free-spirited man-eater (Madonna) after a bump on the head. A dated dramatic device, perhaps, but it's such a sweet, sassy and otherwise well-plotted affair we'll let it slide. The film inhabits a similar universe - and employs the same neon aesthetic - as Scorsese's ever-underrated comedy After Hours, but this is an altogether gentler affair. Sure it plunges its heroine into a seedy world dominated by shady, peroxide hitmen and amorous conjurors, but it's in many ways preferable to the yuppie nightmare she's been living with all-time wanker Mark Blum. At least here she's got love on her side, courtesy of kind-hearted Aidan Quinn (the psychotic drug-addled baddie in the Richard Dreyfuss-Emilio Estevez buddy movie Stakeout). Arquette, who played the lead in the classic John Sayles romcom Baby, It's You, is perfect as the doormat desperately seeking excitement, and while Madonna isn't a great actress, she's both hugely charismatic and ideally cast as the manipulative, posing, sex-obsessed Susan. Also look out for John Turturro in an early role as a nightclub compere. A little gem from out of left-field, this one, with an engaging storyline, memorable characters and a disarmingly peculiar sense of humour. (3)

Trivia note: The new Madonna song on the soundtrack is Into the Groove. Not one of her best singles of the period, but still pretty damn decent.


MGM's scoring supremo of the '50s Andre Previn said producer Joe Pasternak had "the gift of mediocrity", fashioning unchallenging musicals that satisfied a mass audience. That's underselling the films Pasternak created around Canadian singing sensation Deanna Durbin at Universal in the late-'30s, and his finer pictures after pitching up at MGM, but the words do have a certain resonance when you watch something like Hit the Deck (Roy Rowland, 1955). Employing the "sailors on leave" template familiar from Follow the Fleet, Anchors Aweigh (that's the one where Gene Kelly dances with Jerry Mouse) and On the Town, the film sees Tony Martin, Vic Damone and Russ Tamblyn finding love with Ann Miller, Jane Powell (another Pasternak protégée) and Debbie Reynolds. It's rarely exceptional, as Pasternak's rival Arthur Freed's films so often were, but the plot is easy to take and there are a handful of enjoyable numbers, headed by Miller's sizzling 'Lady from Bayou' and Tamblyn and Reynolds' number in the scary fun house, which offers a spin on the celebrated routine in RKO's Damsel in Distress. The male leads are far less interesting than their female counterparts (Martin is no Sinatra and for all his talent Tamblyn is no Gene Kelly, though Danone may be preferable to Jules Munshin), but the support cast is particularly strong, with Walter Pidgeon excellent as Tamblyn and Powell's father - his near-arrest is very amusing - and an unrecognisable J. Carrol Naish playing an Italian flower shop owner. Gene Raymond, a minor leading man in the '30s (see him in Flying Down to Rio, the first Astaire-Rogers teaming, or The Smartest Girl in Town), has a thankless role as a cad. (2.5)


This is getting really boring now.

Federico Fellini delighted in the fact that his name had "become an adjective". It was a myth he bought into, but the more Fellini-esque he became though - creating dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness films that were freewheeling, freeform and fatally flawed - the less interesting the result. 8 1/2 has some stunning moments, but every time it starts to get good the director seemingly tires of an idea and curtails it. Don't worry if the next diversion isn't to your taste, though, there'll be another along in a minute. Fellini's Roma (Federico Fellini, 1972) has the same (lack of) structure, but the opposite problem, with several weak sequences that go on forever. A portrait of the capital shown through the imagination of a young boy, the wide eyes of an adolescent and the jaded viewpoint of a 50-year-old, it promises much but delivers relatively little. The scenes of the younger Fellini are mostly very good, particularly the richly-evocative music hall sequence, while the "fading frescos" set-piece - set in the modern day - is an absolute knockout, loaded with symbolism. But the unbearably tedious traffic jam is a sign that it's not all going to hit the mark, an impression hammered home by the artless scenes of exposition utilising the film crew (a terrible stock device), the never-ending prostitute conveyor belt and a final half-hour that's almost exclusively rubbish. It's difficult to know if the misfiring sequences are simply too personal to make sense, or just self-indulgent rubbish (perhaps those two things are the same), but the film reaches a particular nadir with the clergy-on-the-catwalk fiasco. Is it supposed to be a comment on the wealth of the church? If so, it's simultaneously vague and heavy-handed. If it's a hark back to the gleeful subversion of Bunuel's L'age d'Or, shouldn't it be funnier, or in some way satirical? And does it really have to take 15 leaden-paced minutes? I admire Fellini's originality, his vision and his unconformity, but not his speechifying, self-satisfaction and pointless post-modernism. It's the latter traits that take precedence here. If Fellini-esque refers to Nights of Cabiria, it's high praise indeed. But if it's Roma, then perhaps not. (2)


I know it's small, but I'm afraid I have to use this picture.

Topkapi (Jules Dassin, 1964) is among the highlights of the '60s caper-comedy boom, which also produced Charade, Gambit, Arabesque and How to Steal a Million. Helmed by Jules Dassin, the French filmmaker behind heist movie blueprint Rififi (with its legendary silent central set-piece - all 20 minutes of it), it's clever, stylistically showy and deliciously tongue-in-cheek. Maximillian Schell is the criminal mastermind who recruits a team of amateurs as he plots to steal a priceless emerald-studded dagger from an Istanbul museum. He's nicking it for Melina Mercouri, his nymphomaniac former lover, whose fondness for men is exceeded only by that passion for jewels. Schell's protegees include alarms expert Robert Morley, strongman Jess Hahn and human fly Gilles Segal, while whimpering, half-Egyptian tour guide Peter Ustinov and drunken servant Akim Tamiroff (one of the great character actors of the Golden Age, whose fans included Orson Welles) also buzz around. Ustinov's an unwilling plant for the cops, who thinks the group are terrorists. Tamiroff comes with the villa where they're staying; he's convinced they're "Russische spies". It takes a little while for the film's disparate pieces to slot into place, and the variety of European accents can be a struggle, but the second half is utterly superb, with a heist sequence that's tense, funny and mirth-inducingly ingenious, and a gem of an ending. Ustinov got an Oscar for his hilarious turn as the incompetent Arthur Simpson, but the whole ensemble does a neat job, and Tamiroff is very amusing as the bitter, suspicious, misguided, constantly slurring would-be informant. Particularly when he starts talking about fish. (3.5)


Mesrine: L'instinct de mort (Jean-François Richet, 2008) aka Mesrine: Killer Instinct is a fast-paced, stylised biopic charting the rise of Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel), the murderer and media manipulator who became France's most wanted man. It begins with a methodical, initially cryptic sequence set in 1979, then flashes back, tracing Mesrine's service in the Algerian War and his relationship with his father, whom he derides as a collaborator, before enquiring: "Do balls skip a generation in this family?" Mesrine is hard to root for, beating women, spouting racist epithets and sticking a loaded revolver in his wife's mouth, while the movie's mid-section follows the crime/punishment film template too rigidly to be truly gripping, but the piece builds to a truly gobsmacking, nerve-shredding climax with a lo-fi prison escape that consists simply of the hero attempting to snip through surrounding fences with wire-cutters. Cassel is absolutely excellent in the lead, carrying the film on his shoulders and compensating for a script that sometimes skimps on its characters' motivations. Gerard Depardieu, as Mesrine's mentor, is a little underused, but adds weight to the supporting cast, his first meeting with Cassel being particularly memorable. (3)


Mesrine: L'ennemi public n°1 (Jean-François Richet, 2008) aka Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 goes one better, with deeper characterisation and an incisive narrative laced with pitch-black humour that examines Mesrine's escalating egomania, fuelled by a troubling relationship with the press. The suspense sequences are expertly mounted and seamlessly incorporated, while Cassel's vivid central performance builds on his impressive showing in the first film, fairly twinkling with danger. Sleight him and he'll either josh with you or whack you - frankly there's no guessing which. The first movie was exciting and well made without always displaying a coherent viewpoint. This second part is altogether more satisfying: an impressive evocation of spiralling malevolence that's also largely honourable in its presentation of Mesrine - necessary when you're accusing the media of complicity in his crimes. Richet looks like one to watch; Cassel has been for years. (3.5)

For a review of Cassel's breakthrough 1995 film La Haine, go here.


The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak, 1945) isn't blessed with the neatest mystery or the strongest script, but it contains one unforgettable performance and several scenes of mounting terror that are among the most intoxicatingly frightening ever filmed. Dorothy McGuire is a mute house servant who starts to believe that a serial killer is living in the place. Offing B movie favourite and future creator of the autograph fair Myrna Dell in the opening credits, the murderer targets women with disabilities (Dell had a limp), making the silent, traumatised McGuire a likely target. At first just the killer's Lugosi-ish eyes are shown, eerily made up in the silent movie manner. That's no accident - Siodmak expertly exploits the possibilities of having a heroine who can't speak, particularly in the film's greatest sequence, where McGuire runs to the top of the house, smashes the windows and screams, only for no sound to come out. The systematic removal of her character's safety net - her doctor boyfriend goes out on a call, her ailing guardian is asleep, the maid is passed out drunk - is skilful, leaving just McGuire, the killer and the director's boundless imagination. The film isn't as well-scripted as Val Lewton's '40s horrors, but there's an obvious parallel in the way it reaches a dizzyingly zenith during the brilliantly-constructed set-pieces. The erratic Siodmak, who did great work on The Killers, Criss Cross and Cry of the City, while also lending his talents to misfires like Christmas Holiday and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, is probably more closely associated with film noir than any other director. He certainly brings a noirish sensibility to this fusion of crime picture, horror film and gothic melodrama, aided by Out of the Past cinematographer Nicolas Musuraca, who Robert Mitchum famously said "lit by matches" ("The fact was that the high-priced stars back at the studio like Cary Grant, they got all the lights, so ours were lit by cigarettes," he said later, by means of sardonic elaboration). There are a pair of backwards tracking shots that follow Rhonda Fleming and later McGuire through a cellar that are just incredible. It's not the technical proficiency itself that's impressive, but the cranking up of the viewer's unease through a really smart, unobtrusive little trick. Indeed, the whole film is stuffed with imaginative ideas, like the shocking moment where we see a mouthless McGuire through the killer's warped gaze. But even Siodmak's considerable magic wouldn't count for much were it not for her remarkable central performance, as good a turn as you're ever likely to see. She's touching, ethereal and utterly heartbreaking, lending the inspired ending an emotional wallop. Stage legend Ethel Barrymore, who went on to play a similar part to her one here in the Frank Borzage noir Moonrise, is excellent in her key role, and Elsa Lanchester provides slightly unsuitable comic support (her patter worked better in The Big Clock), while George Brent - an actor I struggle to like - Kent Smith and Gordon Oliver round out the cast. It's a shame Siodmak and McGuire weren't handed a mystery quite befitting their talents - you can solve this one about 20 minutes in - but the results are still frequently astounding. (3)

For a review of the extraordinary Elia Kazan film A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, featuring Dorothy McGuire as the mother, please go here.


SHORT: Field and Scream (Tex Avery, 1955) is a hunting-themed cartoon made near the end of Avery's stint at MGM, with a very high hit-to-miss gag ratio. As a wooly, lentil-eating pinko, I found the subject matter a bit uncomfortable, but there's no questioning the quality of the jokes. (3.5)


That is not what this is.

SHORT: The Fall Guy (Pete Smith, 1955) - No Smith short has really ever lived up to the first one I ever saw, Sports Oddities, but this collection of clips culled from earlier shorts and featuring his stuntman of choice, Dave O'Brien, is diverting enough. It was A Smith Named Pete's last Specialty film. (2.5)

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

More stars than there are in the heavens - Reviews #50

Here's a review of the star-spotters' dream that is The Stolen Jools, plus where the genre went next and some stuff about my computer habits which I've decided to bore you with.

SHORT: The Stolen Jools (William C. McGann, 1931) is a slapdash early talkie short, but for any fan of the period it's a must, with arguably the finest collection of stars ever assembled for a film. Or at least for a film bankrolled by a cigarette company to fund a TB clinic. Sure, the plot is woeful and the writing is sloppy, even inane, with stars repeatedly introduced by someone saying "Aren't you..." and then their name, while the best bits are over way too soon. But you do get Buster Keaton being knocked over, Wheeler & Woolsey taking the law onto their own hands, Jack Oakie telling a cop that Fay Wray is Jack Oakie, a fun in-joke about Winnie Lightner's signature tune Singing in the Bathtub, and Joe E. Brown yelling. The cast also includes stars Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck (and then-husband Frank Fay), Bebe Daniels (and spouse Ben Lyon), Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Laurel & Hardy, Edward G. Robinson, Norma Shearer (it's her "jools" that get pinched), Victor McLaglen, Edmund Lowe, Warner Baxter, Richard Dix, Maurice Chevalier, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Loretta Young, Richard Barthelmess, character actors Eugene Pallette, Charles Butterworth, George E. Stone, J. Farrell MacDonald, Gabby Hayes and the entire Our Gang gang. It wasn't the first all-star movie, Warner's The Show of Shows (featuring Lightner's hit song) and Paramount on Parade were earlier full-length features that did a similar thing, but those films were restricted to showcasing a studio's roster of famous faces. The charitable nature of The Stolen Jools meant the biggest stars from MGM, Warner, Paramount and RKO could all appear - pretty exciting for inherently trivial star-spotters like myself.

The all-star model would reach its artistic and commercial zenith during World War Two, albeit within the constraints of the studio system, in the shape of Warner's Thank Your Lucky Stars - perhaps the most purely entertaining film I've ever seen - and Paramount's Star-Spangled Rhythm, along with lesser entries like Hollywood Canteen (Warner), Stage Door Canteen (RKO) and Follow the Boys (Universal). These big-budget extravaganzas weren't made solely for philanthropic purposes, but performers do seem to have been lent from one studio to the next with more grace than usual. The all-star film enjoyed a colourful renaissance in the '60s with How the West Was Won, The Longest Day and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, though there were no cast-iron classics to speak of.

I watched tons of Daffy and Bugs cartoons on YouTube last year and was enjoying some classic Lee & Herring on the comp just the other day, but Stolen Jools is the first film I've caught on the internet this year. It seems revealing - or perhaps merely an indictment of users' attention-spans - that at the time of writing 45,000 people have watched the first section of the movie, and only 4,000 bothered to catch the final part. Perhaps they just tuned in to see Wallace Beery. You can watch the film here. The print quality is poor, but we're lucky to have this curio at all, since it was considered lost for many years - even if in all honesty it merits a (2).

Curb their enthusiasm - Reviews #49

Hellzapoppin' (H.C. Potter, 1941)
- This screen translation of the biggest Broadway hit of the '30s mocks Hollywood convention, then bows to it anyway, burdening the gag-heavy script with a needless romantic strand and going overboard with the musical interludes. Which is a pity, since the opening 15 minutes are perhaps the most joyously anarchic in Golden Age comedy - truly the free-for-all promised in the title song, where "anything can happen and it probably will". We begin with a snatch of a glossy production number, before a lever is pulled and the glamorous chorines are cast down a water slide and into Hell. As these lost souls are prodded up the bum with tridents (the pointy things beloved of demons, not the submarine-based nuclear deterrents), our stars pull up in a taxi. "That’s the first taxi driver who went strictly where I told him to go," Chic Johnson laments. The driver gets out. He is a midget. Johnson shoots the taxi with a blunderbuss, then asks the projectionist to run back the film. He does. Johnson shoots the taxi again, at which point it turns into a horse and the cabbie rides away. Enjoying it so far? Good.

We pull back and we're in a film studio, the quips flying thick and fast as Johnson and Ole Olsen bicker with 'director' Richard Lane and meek screenwriter Elisha Cook, Jr. about the direction their movie should take. As they walk from set to set, their costumes changing seamlessly, there's a deliriously silly photography gag, followed by one about Citizen Kane ("I thought they burned that thing," Johnson mutters, looking at a sledge). Watching clips from the picture Lane is pitching to them, the stars initially offer their own commentary, before arriving in the film-within-a-film. It's at that point that the interest-free plot kicks in - a tedious love triangle - and the laugh-rate slows, despite the best efforts of Martha Raye and Mischa Auer. That's not to say there isn't still plenty to enjoy - the 'Stinky Miller' segment, in which the cast implore a member of the audience to go home to his mother, the staggering Lindy Hop dance sequence, an old man repeatedly trying to deliver a tree - just that there's generally a couple of duff jokes for every inspired diversion, and more than that during the putting-on-a-show climax. The bear's funny, though. And Frankenstein's Monster. All in all, Hellzapoppin' isn't consistent or self-confident enough to match peak Marx Bros fare like Duck Soup or A Night at the Opera, but it's admirably off-the-wall, with a delightful distaste for the fourth wall and much else to revel in despite the faint feeling of an opportunity missed. (3)

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Inception and the wonder of Wendy Hiller - Reviews #48

Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) - Director Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to The Dark Knight is an intelligent, meticulously-plotted actioner - and a real breath of fresh air. In 2010, we’re used to blockbusters that play out by numbers, take us for idiots or try to sell us watches. This mind-bending, riotously original film reminds us just what mainstream cinema can do. Leonardo DiCaprio is a tormented “extractor”, skilled at entering the dreams of the rich and powerful and plundering their subconscious minds. On the run after the death of his wife, he’s given the chance to return home: if he can plant an idea within the mind of tycoon’s son Cillian Murphy. So, recruiting gifted student Ellen Page, he and fellow extractors Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy construct and enter an elaborate dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream scenario, a head-scratching succession of vivid worlds, each fraught with danger. It isn't perfect - the scenes between DiCaprio and wife Marion Cotillard sometimes drag and the snow-bound sequences are confusingly staged - but it's frequently exhilarating, fairly humming with invention. Scorsese’s Shutter Island also saw DiCaprio trapped in a labyrinthine case, as the music pounded and the spectre of his late wife loomed large. But while that film unravelled midway through, this one builds in excitement and ingenuity as it progresses, augmented by superb direction and some fine action set-pieces, with a few incisive thoughts about the nature of fantasy and reality cast into the mix. As a lightning-paced thriller, it was never going to be an acting showcase, but the performances snugly fit the piece, the ensemble - including Ken Watanabe, Michael Caine, Pete Postlethwaite and the excellent Hardy - smartly employed to serve the story. And what a story it is. (3.5)


The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear (David Zucker, 1991) - This lacklustre sequel sees Leslie Nielsen and co doing battle with a cabal of shady industrialists who are trying to thwart a new green energy policy. Despite that oddly admirable (if simplistic) eco agenda - this from a filmmaker who went on to film campaign ads for the Republican party - it's a pretty poor showing, with the cast mugging relentlessly in the absence of decent material. Indeed, you'll feel like you've been mugged if you spend any money trying to catch it, particularly by the time Nielsen takes to scrubbing Richard Griffiths' bottom in front of the President. The opening credits are good and the closing ones hilarious, while Nielsen's interrogation scene ("Right, who else is dying?") and his noir description of Presley are fun - but that's five minutes of chuckle-worthiness across an hour-and-a-half, and it isn't really enough. That's not to say that there aren't a lot of gags - there are bloody hundreds - but the majority are tired and predictable and most of the non-sequiturs are idiotic. And I can't watch O.J. Simpson without wincing. (2)


Major Barbara (Gabriel Pascal, 1941) has introduced me to the delights of Wendy Hiller, a remarkable performer born just down the road from where I grew up in Cheshire. Hiller, who I'd previously seen in I Know Where I'm Going and The Man For All Seasons without really clocking her, was G.B. Shaw's favourite actress and now she's one of mine too. I'm sure she'd be delighted. Sparky, passionate and with fire in her eyes, here she achieves a heightened expressiveness - coupled with remarkable, singular diction - to produce one of the most moving affirmations of faith I've ever seen on screen (Richard Burton in Becket is another personal favourite). Hiller is cast as a Salvation Army worker who entrances professor Rex Harrison whilst fighting off the rapscallion tendencies of her arms-dealer father (Robert Morley). But although the dialogue is glorious and Morley provides support for Hiller's wonderful performance with a typically devilish characterisation, the propaganda purposes of the film become readily apparent as the plotting - and rhetoric - goes completely off the rails in the final third. A pity, as it touches true greatness for the first 90. Robert Newton is compelling, though perhaps slightly over-ripe, as a trouble-magnet whose soul needs saving, while David Tree and Marie Lohr make for a hilarious comic team. (3.5)


So then I watched Hiller's breakthrough film, Pygmalion (Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, 1938), which had the same writer and producer, as well as featuring the only other pairing of Tree and Lohr. It's a more conventional outing than the later film, similar to Hollywood romantic comedies of the period and sharing a basic plot with Capra's Lady for a Day. Leslie Howard is Professor Higgins, the egomaniacal Svengali figure who bets he can transform Covent Garden flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Hiller) into a lady in just three months, then becomes smitten with his creation. Perhaps the film can't quite match the majesty of Major Barbara's opening hour-and-a-half, but it forms a more coherent whole, blessed with incisive plotting, lyrical dialogue and pitch-perfect performances. Howard was annoying in Intermezzo, insufferable in The Petrified Forest and even worse in Gone With the Wind, but given the right material - ideally comic - he was a wizard. His turn in It's Love I'm After is utterly immense, one of the finest in '30s comedy, and he delivers more of the same here, becoming a whirlwind of malignant self-obsession, spewing bile and arrogance. You could argue that Shaw's epigrams are unnecessarily caustic - while the script contains a couple of lunacy gags that make the skin bristle today - but Howard's serio-comic grandstanding makes it all seem palatable. He's matched, perhaps even surpassed, by Hiller, whose performance as Eliza is surely definitive: funny, moving and utterly sincere. This is high-grade entertainment, powered by two wonderful stars, and with a good deal to say about life, love and how to pretend you're not a Cockney. (4)


Miss Firecracker (Thomas Schlamme, 1989) is a spirited indie film, with a strong cast making the most of distinctly variable material. Holly Hunter plays a damaged young woman who dreams of emulating stepsister Mary Steenburgen's success in the Miss Firecracker beauty pageant. Meanwhile, their brother Delmont (Tim Robbins) tackles a few demons of his own, while apparently remaining oblivious to the effect he's having on the town's womenfolk. It's sometimes amusing and occasionally arresting, with a handful of genuinely special moments, but more often than not it's muddled and slow, with underwritten characters and plot strands that don't go anywhere. (2.5)


Le château de ma mère (Yves Robert, 1990) aka My Mother's Castle is a hugely enjoyable continuation of the story begun in Le gloire de mon pere, charting the early life of French writer Marcel Pagnol and his burgeoning love affair with the mountains of Provence. It can't quite match the earlier film, since its episodes are generally less remarkable and their incorporation is more disjointed, but the performances are delightful (only Julie Timmerman's wooden showing lets the side down), and the cinematography and music glorious. It concludes with a gutting epilogue that's sensitively filmed and carries one of the heftiest emotional clouts I've yet encountered in movies. (3.5)

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Theatre review: Alan Bennett at the Royal Hall, Harrogate

Sunday, July 25, 2010

There's something entirely winning about Alan Bennett’s familiar, unassuming persona.

He might be among the most talented, versatile and influential writers of his generation. He might be one of the top draws at this year’s Harrogate International Festival. And he might have just sold out the Royal Hall.

But, shuffling onto the stage in a tweed suit and green tie, he’s not giving his show the big sell.

“I’m going to read bits of plays and things from my career - such as it is,” he says.

And for the next hour-and-a-quarter, seated meekly in a black leather armchair, he does just that, providing a whirlwind tour of a singular back catalogue that encompasses novels, theatre, TV and films - all stamped with that trademark blend of pathos and wry humour.

The resulting show is breathlessly funny, but also remarkably candid, down-to-earth and even outspoken, incorporating a heartfelt defence of “two institutions we are going to have to fight for”: the NHS and the BBC.

After a few teething problems with the microphone (“You’ll have to talk among yourselves,” he says), Bennett starts with a gem from 1968’s Forty Years On, an uproarious account of T.E. Lawrence’s life supposedly written by a fradulent confidant.

A man called Graham

Next up is an excerpt from Getting On, with its genuine - if knowing - tribute to the welfare state. It segues seamlessly into a new piece, written in his dressing room before coming on, that earnestly and passionately pleads for the audience to safeguard its institutions.

He speaks of the state as “nurturer” and “saviour”, saying: “For my generation, brought up in the ‘40s and ‘50s, the state educated us, so that everything I have I owe to the state.”

Habeas Corpus merits a brief diversion, before we’re treated to the evening’s highlight, an extended reading from A Chip in the Sugar, the memorable Talking Heads episode narrated by Bennett’s Graham, a damaged soul whose relationship with his mother is shattered by a figure from her past.

“If there’s one thing mother and I agree on, it’s that red is a common colour, and the whole place is done up in red,” he says, as the audience considers the impossibly ornate interior of the Royal Hall - much of it in red - and bursts out laughing.

After selections from Telling Tales and his 2004 play The History Boys, there’s a 15-minute Q&A, taking in technology (“I don’t see how you can take a screen to bed with you”), the Queen (“She’s magnetic”) and regional accents (“The accent that’s still slightly a joke is Wolverhampton, the others all get by”).

Bennett reveals that he wouldn’t have attended university were today’s funding system in place and recalls his father’s pride as he watched other members of the audience laughing at Habeas Corpus, though he says the reaction to his later work would have been mixed - “He didn’t like anything he called ‘cheeky’.”

He closes with a reading from Untold Stories about his battle with colon cancer in the late ‘90s that’s rich in melancholic humour.

'Greatest hits'

It ends a wonderful night’s entertainment: a ‘greatest hits’ package mixing the familiar and the new; both painfully frank and painfully funny.

Bennett’s peerless ear for dialogue and his gift for articulating his audience’s feelings are perhaps summed up by a passage he reads from The History Boys.

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you,” he says.

“And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead.

“And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours."

With a set that comprised the first half of the evening, pianist Alessandro Taverna gave an ecstatically-received performance.

Apparently having just as good a time as the audience, he played selections from Beethoven, Rachmaninov and Moszkowski, with highlights including a delicate take on Chopin’s Nocturne in B major, Op. 62 and an exuberant “Carmen Fantasy” by Busoni.

He concluded with several uptempo pieces by Viennese pianist Friedrich Gulda, which brought down the house.
This article was written by Rick Burin and appeared on Page 33 of the Harrogate Advertiser, July 30, 2010.