Mike Leigh’s Meantime (1983): An Interview With Producer Graham Benson

There definitely seems to be something in the London air this summer. The Grenfell Tower tragedy and various other events have brought some deeply unpleasant issues to light (again).

Revisiting Mike Leigh’s 1983 TV film ‘Meantime’ recently, it seemed eerily relevant. A withering portrait of Thatcher’s Britain featuring a brilliant cast, it’s still a striking piece of work, at times very difficult to watch but also possibly offering cause for hope. Its essential Englishness also echoes through the work of Suede and Blur; an alternative soundtrack might include ‘My Insatiable One‘ or ‘Bank Holiday‘.

Mainly set and shot in Haggerston, East London, ‘Meantime’ focuses on two generations of the Pollock family: parents Frank (Jeffrey Robert) and Mavis (Pam Ferris); their sons Colin (Tim Roth) and Mark (Phil Daniels); Frank’s sister Barbara (Marion Bailey) and her husband John (Alfred Molina). Frank, Mavis, Colin and Mark live in a rundown council high-rise (Bryant Court in Whitston Road, where a two-bedroom flat now goes for £330,000) while Barbara and John have escaped to middle-class ‘respectability’ in Chigwell, Essex.

From Uncle John’s condescending opening line – ‘Barbara, the boys can take their shoes off and leave them in the kitchen, all right?’ (note that he doesn’t tell Colin and Mark himself) – we know we’re deep in Leighland. The performances are uniformly superb, with Roth, Daniels and Bailey possibly never better. Oldman delivers a remarkable turn as the skinhead Coxy, smashed on the Special Brew, looking for trouble but also deeply vulnerable, while Peter Wight is excellent as the insouciant, blithely idealistic estate manager.

Gary Oldman as Coxy

Mark, Colin, Coxy and Frank are stuck in a grim, sometimes demeaning cycle of unemployment, but there seems to be glimmer of hope when Auntie Barbara offers Colin a painting job in her home. Mark has other ideas. Anyone growing up in London during the early 1980s knew kids like Colin, Mark and Coxy. The latter two are quick-witted and sharp but totally wasted, with no structure in place for them to thrive.

Andrew Dickson’s soundtrack – a duet for tack piano and soprano sax – is unforgettable. And, for a director known more for his characters and situations than a visual sense, Leigh comes up with many striking images: Mark and Coxy dodging the falling detritus from a freshly-bulldozed block of flats; Colin wandering uncertainly in front of the Winston Churchill statue at Woodford Green; Coxy rolling around a giant, hollow metal canister, attacking its insides impotently with a stick; Mark chucking darts at a poster of a pouting Kim Wilde.

I asked legendary TV producer Graham Benson about his memories of working on ‘Meantime’.

MP: How did you come to the project and what was its genesis? I gather it was your first (and only) experience working with Mike Leigh.

GB: Yes, it was my one and only time working with Mike and a very enjoyable, rewarding time. The producer’s job is very much one of support, encouragement and of being there when needed in various aspects of the films progress. We initially wanted to make a feature film when I was running Robert Stigwood’s European film and TV company. We nearly got a deal with Warner Bros but the lack of script (Leigh famously develops his scripts through intensive improvisations in collaboration with the actors – Ed) scared the moguls. Eventually a combination of Channel 4 and David Rose together with Central Productions and Margaret Matheson delivered the commitment and budget. I am pleased and proud to have been a part of Mike’s journey and have to say that producing a Mike Leigh film was an example in my career of working with a supremely professional, responsible, collegiate and multi-talented film-maker, and a good-humoured, decent bloke to boot!

‘Meantime’ was made for Channel 4. It’s hard to imagine such a hard-hitting feature-length film getting shown on a terrestrial station today. Do you see that period as a golden age for British TV?

Well, Channel 4 were Mike Leigh enthusiasts as they remain now. He’s always had them and the BBC. I don’t see why it couldn’t be made now really. These days he has other places in Europe to go and get additional monies – for now, anyway…

The film showcases an incredible array of Brit acting talent: Marion Bailey, Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Peter Wight, Pam Ferris, Alfred Molina, etc etc. Did you have any casting input?

We discussed the casting as we went along. It was a stunning cast but they were all much less well-known then. Like so many others, they were cutting their teeth on hard-hitting UK dramas.

Though often a difficult watch, the ending arguably shows chinks of light – Barbara finally stands up to John and the two brothers seem to come to a new understanding. Is that how you see it?

Yes. Though it’s a bleak and critical view of Thatcher’s Britain, it is a hopeful film. The human spririt will win through. But we must be watchful, as we see today.

What do you think is the legacy of the film, if there is one?  

Oh, it proved Mike could handle a wider canvas and could deal with a slightly bigger budget. It solidified his method of working as a successful one and a genre all of its own. Soon afterwards he’d get his opportunity on the bigger screen.

Advertisements

David Bowie & The Snowman

bowieDavid Bowie’s 1977-1985 period was one of his most fascinating and contradictory. On the one hand, there were the ‘adult’ themes embedded in Heroes, Lodger, Scary Monsters, ‘The Elephant Man’, ‘Christiane F’, ‘Cat People’, ‘Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence’, ‘Baal’ and ‘The Hunger’.

But then there were the projects that were, on the face of it, more typical of a well-respected, part-of-the-furniture ‘family entertainer’; the 1977 Bing Crosby TV duet, the 1978 recording of Prokofiev’s children’s classic ‘Peter And The Wolf’, the ‘unthreatening’ pure pop of Let’s Dance and Tonight, the ‘Labyrinth’ movie and soundtrack, the huge investment of time and effort in various Band Aid/Live Aid ventures.

Were these karmic ‘atonements’ for those bleak Los Angeles and Berlin periods of the mid-’70s? Possibly, though his work had always touched on childhood themes, and he was apparently also very keen, whenever possible, to take on projects that his young son could enjoy.

snowman

So, in early December 1983, when Bowie was – albeit briefly – probably the biggest ‘rock’ star on the planet, he found time to contribute a touching, heartfelt introduction to Dianne Jackson’s film of Raymond Briggs’ ‘The Snowman’.

First shown on British TV 33 years ago today (I can remember how much of an event it was in my house), it’s yet another fascinating piece of early-’80s Bowie ephemera, and his involvement was surely quite a coup for the film-makers. Though ‘The Snowman’ has become a perennial Christmas favourite, it is often transmitted without the introduction. So here it is in all its glory. Merry Christmas.

Story Of A Song: Rolling Stones’ Undercover Of The Night

Rolling+Stones+Undercover+Of+The+Night+-+Stoc+141290bSo here it is: The Stones’ last great single. ‘Undercover’ is essentially a one-chord groove with powerful lyrics, stinging guitar licks, a memorable hook and notable video. 

Though Mick and Keef share a writing credit, the song was apparently largely a Jagger composition, with Richards later saying: ‘Mick had this one all mapped out. I just played on it. There was a lot more separation in the way we were recording at that time. Mick and I were starting to come to loggerheads…’ Guitarist Ronnie Wood concurred but also had reservations: ‘There was a great acoustic version which is the kind of song it should be. The final, polished version may have been Mick’s vision of the song…’

Reading between the lines, Jagger was clearly keen to bring outside players into an increasingly dysfunctional band situation. Recording took place during the summer of 1983 at Compass Point Studios in Nassau, giving Jagger the opportunity of using some great local players, many of whom light up ‘Undercover Of The Night’.

A raft of percussionists including Sly Dunbar, Martin Ditcham, Moustapha Cisse and Brahms Coundoul accompany drummer Charlie Watts on various instruments including bongos, Simmons drum and even a timpani (there are rumours that a complete different version of the song exists featuring a rhythm section of Sly and Robbie). Producer Chris Kimsey also enters into the spirit of things with an ingenious ‘dub’-style arrangement (or is that the work of Brian McGee, credited as ‘editor’ on the vinyl label?).

Jagger claimed that his lyric was heavily influenced by William Burroughs’ 1981 novel ‘Cities Of The Red Night’. The song is a disturbing vision of Latin America’s dirty war. This was, after all, an era in which thousands of ‘political prisoners’ were tortured and killed in the ESMA detention camp in Buenos Aires, less than a mile from the stadium where the 1978 football World Cup Final was taking place (according to many reports, the cheers of the fans obscured the screams of suffering prisoners).

Excellent documentary ‘The Shock Doctrine’ claims that many torture techniques used by the Chilean and Argentinian junta (including rape and genital mutilation) may have been ‘learned’ in the US-run School Of The Americas. Jagger manages to crystallise many of these disturbing aspects in a powerful lyric:

Hear the screams of Centre 42
Loud enough to bust your brains out
The opposition’s tongue is cut in two
Keep off the street cos you’re in danger
One hundred thousand disparos
Lost in the jails in South America

Cuddle up baby, cuddle up tight
Cuddle up baby, keep it all out of sight
Undercover of the night

The sex police are out there on the streets
Make sure the pass laws are not broken
The race militia has got itchy fingers
All the way from New York back to Africa

All the young men, they’ve been rounded up
And sent to camps back in the jungle
And people whisper, people double-talk
And once-proud fathers act so humble
All the young girls they have got the blues
They’re heading on back to Centre 42

Down in the bars, the girls are painted blue
Done up in lace, done up in rubber
The johns are jerky little GI Joes
On R&R from Cuba and Russia
The smell of sex, the smell of suicide
All these sweet things I can’t keep inside

Undercover, all out of sight
Undercover of the night

Julien Temple directed the controversial video, shot in Mexico City. As he relayed in ‘I Want My MTV’, his dealings with Jagger and Richards gave him a pretty stark insight into the state of their relationship:

‘I wrote an extreme treatment about being in the middle of an urban revolution, and dramatised the notion of Keith and Mick really not liking each other by having Keith kill Mick in the video. I never thought they would do it. Of course they loved it. I went to Paris to meet with the band. Keith was looking particularly unhappy. He was glowering with menace and eventually said, “Come downstairs with me.” My producer and I went down to the men’s room. Keith had a walking stick and suddenly he pulled it apart. The next thing I know he’s holding a swordstick to my throat. He said, “I want to be in the video more than I am.” So we wrote up his part a bit more. That was Keith’s idea of collaboration!’

The video was initially considered too violent for MTV (though they did eventually air an edited version after 9pm) and it was heavily censored when shown on British television, leading to a fractious interview on ‘The Tube‘ during which presenter Muriel Gray questioned Jagger and Temple about the extreme content and their motives for making the video.

‘Undercover Of The Night’ was released as the first single from the accompanying Undercover album on 1st November 1983. It got to number 9 in the US singles chart and 11 in the UK – not bad. No Stones single has gone higher since.

Marvellous Marvin Gaye: Five From 1983

marvin

Marvin entered 1983 with mixed emotions. His comeback album Midnight Love, released in October 1982, was a certified hit, with decent sales, good PR and an attendant single ‘Sexual Healing’ that was building up quite a Grammy buzz.

But there were plenty of other problems brewing: in his rather paranoid state, Marvin believed that pretenders to his throne like Teddy Pendergrass, Frankie Beverly (whom Marvin had mentored early in his career) and Michael Jackson were cashing in on his style and sound. The latter had even taken to wearing aviator shades and ‘military’ garb.

Elsewhere, Marvin’s relationship with his father had hit a new low. Bitter and resentful, he considered physically ejecting Father from the family home but decided instead to stay away completely.

The other problem was cashflow. Marvin was spending so much money on ‘extras’ that he had been forced to give up his houses in Bel Air and Palm Springs.

Despite all this, in the first few months of 1983, Marvin reminded the music world of his luminous genius and, against all the odds, provided a few career high-points.

Broke and entering an introspective period, he found himself spending quite a lot of time at his sister Sweetsie’s pad. It was there, on Saturday 12th February 1983, that he got together with chief musical collaborator Gordon Banks to cook up a version of the national anthem that he would sing the next day before the National Basketball Association’s All-Star Game. Despite the last-minute planning, there was no margin for error: Marvin’s performance would be broadcast live on national TV.

He not only pulled it off – he smashed it out of the park. Only Marvin could have come up something so singular. His huge respect for the athletes ensured that he raised his game accordingly. Funky, spiritual, heartfelt and yet controversial, it was a triumphant reading of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, and one of the highlights of his career. It still makes the hairs stand on end.

Less than two weeks later, on February 23rd, there was another personal milestone for Marvin when he was awarded his first Grammy awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. That the Best Male Vocal and Best Instrumental Performance awards were ‘only’ in the R’n’B category scarcely mattered. He had moved out from behind his Grammy nemesis Lou Rawls’ shadow and finally gained the acceptance of his peers, something that was extremely important to him. His speeches were heartfelt and touching.

His performance of ‘Sexual Healing’ was not an unqualified success (it was 10 or 15 BPMs too slow and Marvin seemed slightly uncomfortable), but it’s still essential and moving stuff.

Another very happy moment happened a few months later when Marvin appeared with Gladys Knight and the Pips on another TV special. According to David Ritz’s classic book ‘Divided Soul‘, Marvin and Gladys argued backstage about whose version of ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ to do. He finally deferred to her, but still turned in another joyous and brilliant performance.

Then, on 25th March 1983, the Pasadena Civic Auditorium hosted the ‘Motown 25’ anniversary concert, most famous for Michael Jackson’s spellbinding reading of ‘Billie Jean’. Marvin once again defied expectations and provided one of the highlights of the evening.

Though looking somewhat haggard, his blues/gospel piano playing and philosophical pronouncements on the value and history of black music were nothing less than captivating. His subsequent performance of ‘What’s Going On’ was perhaps perfunctory in comparison, but still essential viewing.

Tougher, tragic times were to come over the next year, but for a few months in early 1983, Marvin was seeing a lot of his professional dreams come true. No one could take that away from him.

Breakthrough Blues: The Robert Cray Band’s Bad Influence

Bad-Influence-coverHightone Records, released summer 1983

9/10

I was watching a newly-discovered Jaco Pastorius Q and A session from 1985 this week. Poor Jaco clearly wasn’t in the best of health, neither mentally nor physically. Apparently he turned up at the Musicians Institute in LA without a bass and had to borrow a student’s axe. But when he played it, despite the instrument’s shortcomings, he sounded exactly like himself. In other words, his sound was completely in his fingers, not in any amp or effects pedal.

It got me thinking about other players who always sound only like themselves, no matter what axe they use or what kind of music they’re playing. Near the top of that list would have to be the great American guitarist, singer and songwriter Robert Cray.

Tina Turner with Robert, 1986

Tina Turner with Robert, 1986

In guitar terms, he sticks pretty rigidly to his tried and tested sound: a Fender Strat plugged straight into the amp, no effects apart from a very occasional tremolo pedal, and very, very hard picking. But, in the process, on Bad Influence he plays three or four of the most electrifying guitar solos of the ’80s, proving himself a worthy heir to Albert King and Albert Collins. But his tough guitar style is a contrast to a fairly sweet, soulful vocals and songwriting which reflect the influence of Al Green and BB King more than Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker.

Bad Influence was Robert’s second official release, and it was pretty much the one that alerted the wider world outside of blues aficionados to his potential. The Robert Cray Band had built up a formidable live following in the early ’80s, touring relentlessly on the West Coast and in Europe. With the help of producers Bruce Bromberg and Dennis Walker, they were ready to take that consistency into the studio. And it certainly helps that there are no trinkets of ’80s production present on the album, no synths or dated drum sounds – Bad Influence mostly just sounds like a great band playing live in the studio, with the occasional addition of horns and Hammond organ.

Bad Influence is mainly known for its superb cover versions: Johnny Guitar Watson‘s ‘Don’t Touch Me‘ and Eddie Floyd’s ‘Got To Make A Comeback’, both slow 6/8 jams, the former angry and biting, the latter sweet and soulful. ‘The Grinder is another slowish 6/8 with a killer Cray solo. The CD version also comes with a great cover of the New Orleans R’n’B classic ‘I Got Loaded’.

The best-known songs from the album are probably the minor-key blues/funk standard ‘Phone Booth’ (featuring not one but two classic guitar solos), later covered by Albert King, and the title track which was subsequently covered by Eric Clapton on his less-than-essential August album (the two have collaborated many times since). Also essential are the super-funky ‘So Many Women So Little Time’ and Bo Diddley-esque ‘No Big Deal‘. Lyrically, my personal favourite is probably ‘Waiting For The Tide To Turn’, a kind of ‘ironic’ blues about procrastination. Vocally, ‘March On‘ is also fantastic.

To date, Bad Influence has (according to some accounts) sold over a million copies, showing how much the blues was a hot ticket in the ’80s. Cray’s two follow-ups False Accusations and Strong Persuader sold even more, but arguably placed more emphasis on production and songwriting than on uncut guitar playing. Production was also a bit of an issue on the Cray/Collins/Johnny Copeland collaboration Showdown, which could and should have been a classic. But no matter – Robert is the real deal.

Baby Boomer’s Story: Randy Newman’s Trouble In Paradise 33 Years On

randy newman

Warner Bros. Records, released January 1983

8/10

One of the recurring themes of Randy Newman’s interviews seems to be the question of how long songwriters can maintain high-quality work. He frequently compares himself to Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Robbie Robertson, Don Henley and Paul Simon, wondering if he’s keeping pace. Trouble In Paradise proved that he was certainly keeping up in the ’80s,  if not outstripping all of them.

After somewhat of a commercial breakthrough with 1977’s Little Criminals, Randy came seriously unstuck with the 1979 follow-up, Born Again. It featured a few minor classics but seemed rushed and controversial for controversy’s sake. So a lot was riding on 1983’s Trouble In Paradise, and it certainly delivered; song for song, it equals Sail Away or Little Criminals.

I have loved Randy’s music since I was in my teens. My dad would regularly play a track which had a lyric about a strange woman sitting in a rocking chair (‘A Wedding In Cherokee County‘). Once I had identified who was singing this brilliant and beguiling song, I went back and found as much music as I could, as you do.

Trouble In Paradise was the first one that really bent my ear. Randy unleashes a parade of shucksters, hucksters, bigots, junkies and unreliable narrators that would be right at home in a David Mamet play or Coen Brothers movie. In a neat irony, he also used the cream of the LA session elite (Jeff Porcaro, Jerry Hey, Nathan East, Steve Lukather, various Eagles and Fleetwood Macs) to sugar-coat his short stories; Trouble is one of the best-sounding bad-vibes albums in rock history, alongside Frank Zappa‘s Sheik Yerbouti and Steely Dan’s Gaucho.

Randy almost had a second hit single with the deceptively cheery ‘I Love LA’. I love the Cole Porter-style intro which leads into an ironic, ambivalent comment on the American Dream and some of its discontents. ‘Christmas In Cape Town’ is a disturbing portrait of Apartheid-era South Africa apparently written under the influence of Nadine Gordimer’s books. This song has haunted me for many years mainly because its images are unforgettable but also because I’ve never quite understood the perspective (or location) of the narrator.

‘The Blues’ is a wry, sprightly duet with Paul Simon which pokes fun at the plight of the oversensitive singer-songwriter, though Newman has claimed in interviews that he regrets writing the song. ‘Mikey’s’ is another amusing portrait of a racist, reactionary douchebag, with our narrator sounding off over a robotic synth-rock backing which seems to be Randy’s pastiche of new-wave rock. I love the way the narrator comments on the music, bellowing: ‘Didn’t used to be all this ugly music playing all time… Where are we, on the moon? Whatever happened to the old songs? Mikey, whatever happened to the fucking “Duke Of Earl“?’!

The hectoring continues on the hilarious ‘My Life Is Good’, a self-mocking vignette which eavesdrops on the life of an arrogant, rich and famous rock star. Springsteen gets a namecheck and Ernie Watts’ booming impersonation of Clarence Clemons is accompanied by Randy screaming, ‘Blow, big man, blow!’ Pretty weird and pretty funny.

Newman then proves that he’s a master of the gear shift with the inclusion of two devastating ballads, ‘Same Girl’ and ‘Real Emotional Girl’. The former, described by its author as a song about ‘two junkies in love’, is a heartbreaking portrait of lost innocence with a sumptuous string arrangement, indelible melody and sometimes dissonant harmonies. He’s just way ahead of his contemporaries here. The latter is an uncharacteristically tender portrait of a sensitive, gentle young woman who can’t help but get her heart broken. The middle eight is just sublime. Linda Ronstadt has performed this song from time to time.

‘Miami’, which kicks off side two, is the most musically expansive track on Trouble, featuring a delicious performance from Randy’s favourite drummer Jeff Porcaro, some intricate stop-start arrangements and eerie mandolins by Dean Parks. The two filler tracks on Trouble, ‘Take Me Back’ and ‘There’s A Party At My House’, are buried in the middle of side two, while ‘I’m Different’ is a self-mocking swinger with some lovely close-harmony backing vocals by Jennifer Warnes and Ronstadt. The closing ‘Song For The Dead’ is a devastating Vietnam War allegory features a mythological (dead?) colonel who has been left behind to say a prayer for his fallen comrades. The song bravely dares to send up a certain kind of American heroism, but still carries a hefty emotional punch.

Trouble In Paradise was not a commercial success, reaching only number 69 on the US album chart. That is a pretty shocking showing from such a major artist and one of the greatest songwriters. The failure seemed to chasten Newman – he jumped back into the world of movies, scoring 1984’s ‘The Natural’ and co-writing the screenplay for the Steve Martin/Chevy Chase vehicle ‘The Three Amigos’. Like his friend and frequent collaborator Ry Cooder, it seemed that film work was now funding an increasingly unpopular solo career.

Randy returned as a solo artist in 1987 to make Land Of Dreams, perhaps the only album of his that hasn’t dated well (though he told Paul Zollo in the brilliant book ‘Songwriters On Songwriting‘ that it’s his personal favourite). Then, over a decade later and against all the odds, he released one more near-classic, 1999’s Bad Love, crowning 30 years of songwriting consistency. He once told the writer Jon Ronson, tongue placed firmly in cheek: ‘My career has been a disappointment to me. I always hoped I’d sell millions of records. There are 40,000 people out there who just love me. But they may be surprised to hear I’ve been aiming beyond them.’ We probably shouldn’t feel too sorry for him.