David Bowie Stars In Alan Clarke’s ‘Baal’ (1982)

The films of Alan Clarke generally go straight into the ‘once seen, never forgotten’ file. Features such as ‘Scum’ and ‘Rita, Sue And Bob Too’ courted huge controversy while his groundbreaking TV work including ‘The Firm’, ‘Psy Warriors’, ‘Elephant’, ‘Road’ and ‘Made In Britain’ shined a light on the darker corners of the Thatcher years to devastating effect.

Those films and many others adorn the superb new BFI box set ‘Disruption’ which gathers all his television work between 1978 and 1989. And what a pleasure to discover another lost classic inside: David Bowie’s remarkable turn as Baal, Bertolt Brecht’s anti-hero, adapted by Clarke and John Willett from the 1918 play. For some reason, it was scarcely mentioned in Bowie obituaries as one of his more successful screen performances – a serious oversight.

Bravely broadcast by BBC One at 9:25pm on Sunday 2nd March 1982 (‘cosy’ Sunday night viewing it wasn’t), ‘Baal’ was filmed at Television Centre (W12 8QT!) during the summer of 1981, just after Bowie had recorded ‘Under Pressure’ with Queen. According to producer Louis Marks, he didn’t take much persuading to play the role, jumping at the chance to portray the ultimate ‘super-punk’ and also already being a fan of Clarke’s work. He was also reportedly undemanding and eager to please on set, requesting only a car and bodyguard and receiving the standard BBC fee.

Bowie could also hardly look less ‘star-like’, with his battered teeth, dark eyes, ratty beard, grimy face and dishevelled clothes; he completely embodies the role of the amoral troubadour. Clarke captures him mostly in long shot with very lengthy takes in the classic ‘alienating’ Expressionist style, but the camera positively adores Bowie’s Baal with his alligator grin, dangerous sexuality and moments of sudden violence. He also delivers several plainsong ballads straight to camera in strident, superb voice, accompanying himself on banjo. The subsequent ‘Baal EP’, re-recorded at Hansa Studios with added instrumentation, even got to number 29 in the UK singles chart, Bowie’s last release for RCA.

‘Baal’ makes for fascinating viewing these days and you only wish the Beeb would take such chances again. Critics of the time were pretty scathing, but their comments make for amusing reading. It’s scarcely believable to think that only a year after it was broadcast, Bowie was rocking the zoot suit and peroxide blond quiff for the Let’s Dance media offensive. It’s also virtually impossible to think of another star of such magnitude who would take on such a bleak, singular project. A true artist.

Further reading: ‘Alan Clarke’ edited by Richard Kelly

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Wanna See Something Really Scary? Two Takes On ‘The Twilight Zone’

‘Wanna see something really scary?’ Day Aykroyd’s ‘Twilight Zone: The Movie’ catchphrase was an open invitation to me back in 1983.

I had just seen John Landis’s ‘Thriller’ video, George Romero’s ‘Creepshow’ and John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ and was rapidly becoming a ‘confirmed ghost story and horror film addict’, as Jack calls Wendy in ‘The Shining’.

Although ‘Twilight Zone: The Movie’ was briefly a big VHS hit in my house, these days it looks like a bit of a misfire (decent Joe Dante and George Miller sections, less-than-decent Spielberg and Landis). The Miller story was of course a remake of the superb Richard Matheson-penned ‘Nightmare At 20,000 Feet’ which starred William Shatner as the terrified passenger driven insane by the possibility that a gremlin is sabotaging his aircraft.

But I mainly loved the flavour of the 1983 movie’s Landis-directed-and-scripted opening and closing tags. I can still randomly remember chunks of dialogue, especially Albert Brooks’ little ad-libbed songs (‘Look at those two apes/This must be where they live’ etc…).

Then my recent Cassette Revisitation Program brought round The Manhattan Transfer’s ‘Twilight Zone’, recorded a couple of years before the movie was released. Jay Graydon and Alan Paul adapt the original source music (either composed by Bernard Herrmann or Marius Constant, depending on which websites you trust…) with aplomb and, though the track comes a bit too close to disco for my liking, I was really knocked out by Janis Siegel’s lead vocal; her phrasing and enunciation are really something.

And what a band: Graydon on guitar and production, Jai Winding on keys and Toto in the engine room. Graydon’s stunning harmonized solo should possibly have been in my ‘wackiest guitar solos of the 1980s’ list and Winding lays down some excellent Fagen-esque keys. I like the lyric too: ‘Unpretentious girl from Memphis/Saw the future through her third eye…’ Throw in a spot-on impression of Rod Serling (or is it actually Rod?) and you’ve got a nice little tribute song. Released as a single in June 1980, it made #25 in the UK and #30 in the US.

But anyway, where were we? Back to the movie. ‘Happy’ Halloween, heh-heh-heh…

The Crap Movie Club: Homeboy (1988)

One of the pleasures of reading Bob Dylan’s ‘Chronicles’ is the way he follows his trains of thought wherever they go, however obtuse. Possibly the most random is a mention of Mickey Rourke’s performance in his self-penned, almost totally forgotten 1988 film ‘Homeboy’, seen by Bob during the difficult Oh Mercy sessions:

‘He could break your heart with a look. The movie traveled to the moon every time he came onto the screen. Nobody could hold a candle to him. He was just there, didn’t have to say hello or goodbye.’

I’m a huge Mickey apologist, but I think Bob was way off the beam here. ‘Homeboy’ is irredeemable. It also signalled the beginning of Rourke’s 20-year slump. Clearly a ‘vanity project’ for our star (he started writing it during the ‘Heaven’s Gate’ shoot in 1980), it’s the film where Mickey started to believe his own hype and play the sort of parts which echoed how badly he obviously felt about the movie business.

‘Homeboy’ is a weirdly masochistic (at times reminiscent of Brando’s similar explorations in that area), relentlessly downbeat, funereally-paced, vaguely camp melodrama. The ‘plot’, such as it is, is almost identical to that of ‘The Wrestler’, the 2008 comeback that won Mickey his first Oscar. He plays Johnny Walker, a punch-drunk, third-division-south pugilist reduced to hawking his wares around Asbury Park for a few bucks with his portly coach in tow.

Possibly Mickey’s character is supposed to have endured some kind of stroke, because he spends the whole film squeaking out of the side of his mouth, rendering his sparse dialogue almost inaudible. Christopher Walken appears intermittently as the dodgy agent who wants Johnny’s assistance with a jewellery heist. Modelling a succession of deafening suits, he chews up the scenery a couple of times, dances a bit, sings a bit, clearly knowing this film is a heap of sh*t. At times amusing but not enough to rescue the movie, it’s a dry run for his superior turns in ‘King Of New York’ and ‘Wild Side’.

Poor Debra Feuer – Mickey’s wife at the time – underwhelms in the almost non-existent role of Johnny’s love interest. Eric Clapton phones in an always-too-loud soundtrack, obviously tossed off during yet another Albert Hall run, adding a few tired licks but mainly employing bassist Nathan East to improvise some fairly half-baked solo cues. Director Michael Seresin, previously the cinematographer on ‘Angel Heart’ (and recently one of the Harry Potter films), can’t seem to rustle up any convincing or memorable scenes. The final effect is sub-Golan-Globus.

Rourke has one great moment towards the end of the film though, possibly the one Dylan picked up on, where he peers up at his coach and tearfully asks (with shades of Brando again), ‘You think I coulda been good?’ But it’s too little too late. ‘Homeboy’ should probably have stayed in Development Hell.

Jerry Lewis (1926-2017)

Jerry’s recent death seems to have been rather passed over by the media. He was a massive comedy hero of mine in the late 1980s. In those days, you could turn on terrestrial TV of an afternoon and stumble across one of his movies.

My dad first introduced me to ‘The Disorderly Orderly’, his Frank Tashlin-directed 1964 hit, and I was a fan from then on (though even my teenage self quickly twigged that the quality of his ‘solo’ films trailed off pretty rapidly after that).

I loved the improvisatory schtick, lack of ‘character’ guff (though sentimentality was never far away), his verbal tics and physical manifestations. I also spotted some connections to other favourites of mine in the ’80s: the early films of Woody Allen, Chevy Chase, Martin Short, Tom Hanks, Steve Martin and, a bit later, Jim Carrey.

So here are a few routines from those movies watched in the ’80s that have stuck in my head, by way of tribute. It’s probably way too much Jerry in one go, but what the hell…

‘Cinderfella’ (1960)

‘The Errand Boy’ (1961)

‘The Nutty Professor’ (1963)

‘The Disorderly Orderly’ (1964)

‘The Family Jewels’ (1965)

‘The King Of Comedy’ (1982)

The Cult Movie Club: Southern Comfort (1981)

After the extended prologue, when Ry Cooder’s swampy blues riff slides in over a glorious widescreen shot of the Louisiana bayou, you know you’re watching a classic of its kind.

To this day, co-writer/director Walter Hill claims that the superb ‘Southern Comfort’ doesn’t directly allude to the Vietnam War, but it’s hard to conclude otherwise – set in 1973, his film concerns a motley group of weekend National Guardsmen whose sojourn into Cajun country (with the promise of prostitutes at the end of the road) turns into a desperate fight for survival when a foolish prank leaves them at the mercy of some particularly vengeful locals.

Hill prefers to call it a ‘displaced Western’, a film about escalating moral dilemmas in unfamiliar surroundings. That rings true too, but watching it again after ten years or so, I couldn’t help comparing it to John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’, another all-male classic about creeping, self-defeating paranoia, fudged leadership and dodgy group-think. ‘Southern Comfort’ might also be described as ‘The Warriors’ meets ‘Deliverance’. It’s that good.

This is a pre-irony, pre-CGI action movie, where men are men (the sort of men who might get a ‘phone call in a pub….on a landline’), decisions have consequences and vengeance is swift and fairly brutal. The action sequences are gripping, though never tawdry, and look extremely punishing for the cast – there’s a particularly realistic dog attack and a memorable quicksand incident. Apparently the shoot was long, cold and difficult, with camera tripods frequently sinking into the bayou.

The dialogue is fast and loose – the brain has to be in gear to pick up all the political/ethical nuances that fly by – and the acting styles deceptively ‘naturalistic’. Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe are superb as the reluctant heroes who must overcome their basically apolitical stances to become men of action and moral choice. Carradine in particular makes for a fascinating action-man (according to Hill, his character is a ‘Southern aristocrat’). The secondary cast of mainly unknowns (the ever-excellent Peter Coyote aside) is also superb.

But ‘Southern Comfort’ was a commercial dud on its 1981 release. Maybe, like ‘The Thing’, it’s far too stark a vision. But it certainly it spawned some new movie clichés and looks like an influence on many ’80s movies from ‘Aliens’ to ‘Predator’. It’s also a fascinating watch these days considering the state of the US – the film’s message seems to be that peace is impossible while there remain so many internal divisions and prejudices.

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.