Wednesday, 29 July 2015

THE GOON SHOW GUIDE: Series 5

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Welcome to this week's episode of The Goon Show Guide, our weekly examination of Spike Milligan's greatest creation. Hard to believe as it may seem, we're now halfway through the back catalogue, as we took a look this week at Series 5.
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When I was looking into the first three series a couple of weeks ago, I said that I felt The Goon Show didn't really take flight until Spike's writing evolved to a point where it wasn't just pastiching existing BBC programmes. It was inevitable that the show would start off poking fun at the outdated programme styles and subject interests of the BBC, and given the legal and social status of satire at the time, it was pretty brave. But on a purely narrative level, Series 4 is where the series really took off in terms of original storytelling, along the lines that I detailed in last week's blog.
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In what could be considered irony, Series 5 finds Spike returning to pastiche and parody in a big way, but this time his targets are celebrated works of literature. He always had a knack for subverting and satirising the plot, characters and attitudes in a given story while still representing its basic elements. In this series he takes aim at the likes of Beau Geste (in Under Two Floorboards), Nineteen Eighty-Four (in Nineteen Eighty-Five) and Robin Hood (in Ye Bandit of Sherwood Forest), generally with a great amount of success.
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Many of the episodes in Series 5 also see Spike having fun with Gothic touches. Episodes like Forog and The Phantom Head Shaver of Brighton see him striking that rare balance between a creepy, intriguing atmosphere and laugh-out-loud comedy. While Spike wasn't necessarily an out-and-out horror fan, he clearly understood how the horror and suspense genres worked and chose to send them up in an manner which is intelligent and insightful. Some of his choices are just inspired - for instance, having London fog cause the statues to move and begin relationships with each other.

Here, then, is a potted guide to (most) of the episodes from Series 5 for your enjoyment:

The Whistling Spy Enigma
Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat regularly cites The Ark in Space as the serial which "sums up" Doctor Who. This, along the same lines, is an instant classic which sums up most of what the Goons did. It's an episode that has everything - fantastic production, excellent manipulation of sound effects to create imaginative jokes, a twisty and hilarious plot, and plenty of memorable moments. From the recurring gags about whistles and chairs to Peter Sellers' sharp performance as Bloodnok, this is a fantastic episode which really stands up to repeat listening.


The Lost Gold Mine of Charlotte
Also known as Death in the Desert, this is a novel take on treasure-based adventure stories. The sound quality is very rough on this one, but not to the extent where you are taken out of the story or miss key gags. There are good running jokes about the portions of the map, but the highlight of the episode is hearing Grytpype-Thynne go mad and Eccles' response. It's a very fine episode, let down only by its overly abrupt resolution.


The Dreaded Batter Pudding Hurler of Bexhill-on-Sea
Another absolute belter of an episode, with one of the funniest and most memorable titles within The Goon Show. This is a very steadily-paced, well-structured episode which takes its central idea - a criminal striking people down with batter puddings - and milks it for every last possible comedic idea. But rather than just being zany about it (which could get old very quickly), Spike's writing still manages to keep the tension up, as though you were listening to a bona fide murder mystery, but with jokes. It's also distinctive for being one of the few occasions when Grytpype-Thynne isn't the villain.


The Phantom Head Shaver of Brighton
If you're a fan of The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town, this will be right up your street. Both of Spike's offerings effortlessly poke fun at the tone of Hammer horror movies, but this one manages to get away with a rare amount of dramatic irony. We're given a massive hint early on that Greenslade is the villain, who is shaving people's heads and passing the hair off as tobacco. But somehow the other characters are successfully kept in the dark, ensuring that the ending has punch.

The Affair of the Lone Banana
Beginning with a sped-up version of The William Tell Overture and ending with a wonderfully contrived explosion, this is a very strong episode with some classic Goon humour. Moriarty's wonderful shpeel about the different parties in the Guatemalian war ("there are no sides: we are all in this together") is trumped only by Henry Crun's spelling routine and Bloodnok's splendid cricket jokes in the final act. The chair gag, involving the song Three Goons in a Fountain, is also fun.

The Lurgi Strikes Britain
Fun fact: had it not been for the Goons, 'lurgi' would not have entered the English language as a catch-all term for illness or disease. The scheme at the heart of this episode is quite ingenious, and becomes all the funnier when the various cast members start leaping on- and off-mic doing the various lurgi sounds. While the plot is ultimately a tiny bit drawn out, there's plenty of great jokes to keep you entertained, not to mention a nifty twist at the end.

The Mystery of the Marie Celeste - Solved
One of Spike's earlier experiments with time loops or time travel, this episode sees characters from two different time periods interacting freely, just as they later would in the equally clever The Treasure in the Tower in Series 6. The innuendo-laden chats about bollards are just the right side of The Navy Lark and the Carry On series, while the running gag about money is pretty well-executed. The ending is both very fitting and surprisingly sombre.

The Last Tram (From Clapham)
This one is a bit of a Marmite episode. Its plot is not as interesting as many of its predecessors, revolving as it does around a rogue tram driver who won't retire unless he is presented with a marble clock. And there is an awful lot of quite deliberate padding in the first act involving the last tram ceremony. But if you can get beyond that, there's quite a touching story involving Neddie as the under-pressure official just trying (and failing) to please all the people all of the time.


The Booted Gorilla (Found)
This is a bit of a letdown. Like The Last Tram, its plot is nothing really to shout about, and the character interaction around it isn't enough to distract us from the fact that really there isn't much going on. The mistaken identities towards the end partially redeem this episode, but casual listeners will find the pacing choppy and the focus lacking.

The Spanish Suitcase
The Goons were never afraid of poking fun at other BBC programmes, or indeed their own audience; the opening of this story finds them tearing into both the punters and The Archers. The plot that follows is a nice twist on the prison drama, with Neddie being conned into taking the place of a convict so that our villains can get their hands on the titular suitcase. The running jokes about Seagoon's innocence and it "not being a pretty sight" are used very well.

Dishonoured, or The Fall of Neddie Seagoon
Spike's first of two bashes at adapting Beau Geste in one series. Dishonoured is the shorter and less successful of the two, with a plot which is choppy and convoluted, beginning in the River Thames and ending up in India. But despite a weak pay-off and a story that's difficult to follow, there are still plenty of memorable and funny moments, including Moriarty's gags about the River Police and the "street of a thousand households" routine, which is Englishness at its most culturally spineless.

Forog
One of the most Gothic horror-inflected episodes, complete with deep woodwind instruments to underscore tension. This is a great example of how, in the best episodes, Spike achieves the same compellingly dramatic tone that you would got in a straight sci-fi or horror story. His central idea about statues in London being able to move around when it foggy both precedes the Weeping Angels in Doctor Who and is very funny on its own. Sellers' deadpan Lord Nelson is especially hilarious.


Ye Bandit of Sherwood Forest
Spike tried several times during The Goon Show's run to adapt Robin Hood, and he never quite managed it. This, his first attempt, benefits from the intentionally hammy guest star Charlotte Mitchell, who plays off Sellers' Sheriff of Nottingham very well. But the rest of the story is a total muddle which isn't compelling and doesn't really go anywhere.


Nineteen Eighty-Five
George Orwell's masterpiece is affectionately tackled here, with Spike retuning his warnings against a totalitarian state into an attack on the BBC. There is an underlying sense of frustration to it, with Spike using the episode to get out a lot of his anger about how producers didnt 'get' the series. Some of the references to BBC programmes haven't aged well, but the torture sequences are still very funny: the programmes sound atrocious even if you don't know from whence each segment is taken.

The Case of the Missing Heir
One of the more basic episodes which relies on Spike's invention to lift it above generic convention. Long before Paul Verhoeven made his conspirators ballroom dance in Soldier of Orange, Spike had Grytpype-Thynne and Moriarty plot to assassinate a prince whilst impeccably doing the waltz. The actual action in this episode is pretty muted, but the sequence revolving around the phrase "we revolt tonight" is worth your attention.


China Story
If you can overlook the cultural stereotyping of the day - not an easy task, I know - this is a very funny episode which does a better job at tackling assassination than its predecessor. The story centres around an elaborate plot to assassinate a political figure using an exploding piano, upon which is layered unwanted singing about vagabonds and one of the most famous Goon Show jokes. Search for 'Tea House of the August Goon' to see what I'm talking about.

Under Two Floorboards - A Story of the Legion
Spike's second bash at Beau Geste follows the plot of the novel more closely. While this gives it more of a structure, how much you enjoy it will depend a lot on your opinion of the source material (and I'm not that keen on it). It's a little cluttered, but the final battle sequence involving the Foreign Legion and Arabs fighting all the way through Europe back to Neddie's home is very well-executed. Bluebottle also manages to stay alive for most of the episode.

The Missing Scroll (a.k.a. The Lost Music of Purdom)
This is one of Spike's stories which is closer to B-movie territory. Like The Lost Gold Mine, it's essentially based around the search for treasure, but the dialogue is more strongly rooted in adventure stories rather than westerns or war films, as would be the case with the far-superior Rommel's Treasure. The build-up is very good but the actual pay-off isn't acted all that well; you may need to give it a few listens just to get the joke.

The Sinking of Westminster Pier
This episode succeeds where The Starlings and later The Reason Why failed in satirising inept government. The inquiry sequence early on, where officials resign and immediately re-apply for their old jobs, is an insightful look into the incompetence of public bodies, who are so easily conned by private schemes initiated by the likes of our villains. The water sound effects are very nicely done, particularly in the sequence following the trip to Mortlake Brewery.

The Fireball of Milton Street
Were it not for an ending that ever so slightly drags, this would be a perfect episode. It manages to take an utterly ridiculous idea - people being afraid because the Sun is on fire - and turn it into a funny and endearing story about a village trying to save itself from destruction. Grytpype-Thynne's multiple roles are succinct and witty, while Neddie's mid-joke deconstruction finds Spike challenging audience expectations while still getting a massive laugh.

The Six Ingots of Leadenhall Street
Part-Ealing comedy, part-American gangster film, this episode owes a lot to both The Lavender Hill Mob and the sort of films that James Cagney made in his prime. The double-dealing involving the ingots is a lot of fun, especially when Eccles gets the chance to pull the wool over the other characters' eyes, in a move similar to that in The Mystery of the Marie Celeste. The ending involving Bluebottle and Greenslade breaking the fourth wall neatly disguises the plot running out of steam.


Yehti
A surrealist classic, and one of my all-time favourite episodes. Neddie is plucked from his pre-fab home in Carshalton to track down an Abominable Snowman whose tracks have been seen in Yorkshire. On his way he encounters houses with trains running through them, mysterious doors that lead nowhere and a host of weird characters. It's a fantastically funny episode, with all the characters' fears being played up to make the punchlines seem all the more relieving. Henry Crun is a particular highlight in his role as the forgetful station master.


The White Box of Great Barfield
A damp squib, in more ways than one. The plot has a decent conceit - Neddie being tricked into selling ice to Africa - but there is a lot of padding early on with the music hall comedians and the unfunny, seemingly-endless "son of Houdini" routine. While the circular storytelling works well in other episodes, this one is for very patient purists only.


The End, or Confessions of a Sennapod Tea Drinker
The series ends on a massive high (so to speak) with another classic. Neddie becomes addicted to sennapod tea and is forced to enter a recuperation centre after almost falling foul of the police. This episode is an excellent piss-take of melodramatic stories about drug use, sparing on the obvious jokes and making us both laugh at and feel for our protagonist. The hallucinations in the final act, where the characters become part of a film, are suitably anarchic and nonsensical. It's a great way to round off a very solid series.

Join me again next week, when we'll be diving into Series 6!

Daniel

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Dumbshow: Electric Dreams in Edinburgh

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The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is upon us once again, and in time-honoured fashion Dumbshow Theatre Company will be making an appearance. Having previously found success and acclaim with Clockheart Boy and The Pearl, this year the company is bringing their latest show, Electric Dreams, to an audience north of the border.
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For those who didn't read my last post on Electric Dreams back in May, the show is based on Naomi Klein's controversial magnum opus, The Shock Doctrine. The drama centres around Rose, who inexplicably has no recollection of the first 18 years of her life. Aided by a group of librarians whose premises could soon be closed down, she begins a journey of discovery spanning 1950s mind control experiments, the erosion of the welfare state and the second Iraq War.
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Having been honed and developed at the Camden People's Theatre, and trialed at a special performance in Derby only a few days ago, the show is now in its finished form and promises to be one of the highlights of the festival. Many of Dumbshow's familiar faces both on- and off-stage are involved in this production, including the excellent Rollo Clarke whose music for Clockheart Boy is truly beautiful. If your appetites need any further wheting, check out the trailer below:
Electric Dreams will be playing at the Jack Dome room in the Pleasance Dome in Edinburgh from August 5th to 30th, with the exception of rest days on the 17th and 24th. All performances start at 3.50pm and are suitable for anyone aged 12 and above. Click here to book tickets or visit Dumbshow's own site for more information. Enjoy!

Daniel

Monday, 27 July 2015

ACTION-ADVENTURE: Cradle 2 the Grave (2003)

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Cradle 2 the Grave (USA, 2003)
Directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak
Starring Jet Li, DMX, Gabrielle Union, Mark Dacascos

When cinematographers turn their hand to directing, the films that result often look appealing but lack the substance or storytelling skill of the films which they only helped to shoot. The career of Dutchman Jan de Bont is a classic case in point. As a cinematographer, de Bont lensed some of Paul Verhoeven's finest work, including Keetje Tippel and The Fourth Man, as well as lending his considerable expertise to the likes of Die Hard and Black Rain. With the exception of Speed, his directorial career has been poor, from the largely underwhelming Twister to his totally brainless remake of The Haunting.
 
It's a very similar story with Cradle 2 the Grave, directed by Polish cinematographer Andrezj Bartkowiak. His reputation within the industry is not as high as de Bont's, with his credits ranging from the engaging Prizzi's Honour to the risible A Stranger Among Us. But compared to the heights of his work in his original trade, this is a disappointingly unremarkable venture which fails to tell an entirely engaging story and doesn't make the most of Jet Li's talent.
 
In my now-ancient review of Westworld, I talked about the way that films directed by novelists often fall flat because they lack an understanding of how cinematic storytelling works. The issue, I said, was that writers "are so attentive to verbal content that they neglect the visual characteristics of great cinema." With cinematographers, it is to some extent the other way around: they understand how to light and assemble a shot so that it looks gripping or intriguing, but they can't string these shots together to serve a story. Often, as in this case, the story isn't distrinctive enough to merit all their visual labours.
 
In terms of its plot, Cradle 2 the Grave is pure meat and potatoes. It is a nuts-and-bolts action thriller with a heist at its centre, whose plot involves rival criminals coming together to face off a bigger threat. The supposed drama comes from the different attitudes and approaches of the characters, along with the conflict of being forced to work together. After a few minor skirmishes, including some kind of chase or other set-piece, the different groups finally agree to work together and everything builds up to the final showdown. That has been the template for hundreds of films, particularly since the likes of Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cop.
 
There's nothing inherently wrong with making a film within clearly defined narrative parameters, or with taking a genre which seems as old as dirt and trying to bring something new to it. Inception worked brilliantly because Christopher Nolan intrinsically understood the mechanics of the heist film; he know where he wanted to push the envelope, and he knew the means by which to achieve this. The point is, if you are going to make a genre film and don't have the talent to reinvent the wheel, you need to have sufficient skill or verve to put your own stamp on it.
 
The single biggest problem with Cradle 2 the Grave is that it is unremarkable to the point of being tedious. With the exception of one scene (which we'll come onto that later), there really isn't a single shot that you can identify as being unique or distinctive to the director. Bartkowiak is, with the best will in the world, a hack: he can put scenes together efficiently and compently, but he doesn't bring any energy or commitment to the overall project. He's not an utterly talentless hack, in the manner of Brett Ratner or Michael Bay - people who often can't even assemble a shot properly, let alone tell a story. But this film has no creative stamp at all, nothing to indicate that it was anything more than another day at the office.
 
To be fair to Bartkowiak and to the performers, a lot of the blame for Cradle 2 the Grave's nature lies just as much with the script. Channing Gibson, who developed the screenplay from John O'Brien's story, is at heart a TV writer, best known for his work on St. Elsewhere. Whatever he managed to bring to that series, his film scripts are incredibly formulaic and the dialogue is both unmemorable and unoriginal. His other credits, Lethal Weapon 4 and the remake of Walking Tall, are ample evidence of this.
 
The film is so much a product of the 1980s that it's a wonder why Bartkowiak didn't simply recruit the like of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone for the main roles. There's no inherent reason for DMX and Jet Li to be in this film: their characters are so generic and stereotypical that there's no reason for them to be of Black or Asian descent. The sub-plot involving the kidnapping of the protagonist's daughter was old hat even before Commando came along, and the film does nothing new or interesting with the buddy movie formula. Even the final showdown between Su and Ling, which is built up to quite a large degree, is very close to the final fight in Lethal Weapon (and makes about as little sense).
 
As for the performers themselves, they're all completely unremarkable. DMX joins the long list of musicians in general, and rappers in particular, who have a total inability to act. He's neither as obnoxiously annoying as Vanilla Ice in Cool As Ice, nor as goofily hammy as Ice Cube in Ghosts of Mars. Like many musicians who attempt to transition into acting, you never get the sense of him playing a character; he's just posing on screen as himself, as if he was too worried that if he actually gave a performance, people might forget who he was.
 
Other members of the cast are equally disappointing. Gabrielle Union gave a really good performance in Bring It On three years earlier, but here she has too little to work with and the scenes where she has to play the sexy role are clunky and exploitative. Anthony Anderson was fine in Romeo Must Die (also directed by Bartkowiak), but in this film he's relegated to a more comic background character, playing the sort of role once filled by the late John Candy. Most disappointing of all is Jet Li, who was fantastic in Hero just before this was filmed. While Li has never been Jackie Chan in terms of charisma, Zhang Zimou clearly knew how to channel his talents in a way that Bartkowiak never manages. As a result he's reduced to the 'wise, all-knowing Oriental' stereotype indelibly associated with Pat Morita.
 
All of this would be possible to tolerate if the action scenes were in any way gripping or memorable. But once again, the film settles for the ordinary (and boring), either acknowledging the fact that it's completely disposable or simply lacking the willpower to make a case for itself. The martial arts sequences are functional, and you can at least see a lot of the choreography play out since these scenes are paced and edited properly. But the chase sequences and the motorcycle jumps are generally uninspired, being a lot less exciting than the bike-based climax of Mission: Impossible II.
 
When John Carpenter was in his prime, one thing which always set his work apart was its visual style. Even though he was often working on very low budgets, his knowledge of camera angles, faith in special effects and use of anamorphic lenses made his films look like they were made for a great deal more money. Cradle 2 the Grave cost around $28m - around the same as Ghosts of Mars when adjusted for inflation - and yet it looks much cheaper than that in places. Daryn Okada may have lensed Stick It and Mean Girls, but here his angles are unengaging and much of the film looked needlessly washed-out.
 
The only truly memorable scene in Cradle 2 the Grave involves the death of Ling. Having been forced to swallow a capsule containing synthetic plutonium - our McGuffin for the evening - we see Ling convulse and hoarsely scream as his throat and face are burned into nothingness. The special effects are pretty memorable, falling somewhere between the cancer gun scene in Videodrome and the scene in Return of the Jedi where Han Solo is released from the carbonite. It may be gratuitous and over-the-top, but after all the predictable fodder that has gone before, it's arguably the best scene in the film.
 
Cradle 2 the Grave is as nuts and bolts as they come, filling 101 minutes with nothing in particular. Its story and execution are functional at best and derivative at worst, and most of the main performances are uninspired. But it serves its purpose as a disposable action film and is by no means the worst cinematic vehicle for a rapper that we've seen. It won't send you to the grave to see it, but you certainly won't be shouting about it afterwards.

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NEXT REVIEW: Hairspray (2007)

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

THE GOON SHOW GUIDE: Series 4

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Welcome to another edition of The Goon Show Guide, the weekly series in which I pay tribute to one of my favourite radio comedies. This week we're diving into what will become the regular template for this feature, tackling Series 4 as a whole having handled Series 1 to 3 last week.
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I should state at this point - perhaps disappointingly - that I don't own the complete Series 4 recordings. I've accumulated my collection of Goon Show episodes through various means - monthly downloads from TheGoonShow.net, downloads from other fansites, and being given compilations by good friends (Thomas Wales, I thank you handsomely). I am always striving to expand my collection - fanatical completist that I am - but I don't think this matters too much in relation to this feature. Unlike certain TV shows or films, I don't think you need to have heard every Goon Show episode either to call yourself a fan or to get an idea of how a particular series feels.
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As I mentioned last week, Series 4 for me is where the show really crystallised into the form that make it so successful. If anything, the amicable departure of Michael Bentine caused the remaining trio to focus more and develop their characters to a more satisfying degree. Despite having suffered a nervous breakdown, Spike Milligan's writing is much more structured and inventive, so that the anarchy was being channeled into some of the most brilliantly absurdist comedy you will ever hear.
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One of the big developments that came with Series 4 was basing each episode around a single concept or joke, from which everything else emanated. These were not 'high concept' episodes, in which the title was the entire story; rather, they were hysterical starting points to a journey which was always unpredictable, and though the show played with various generic structures, where you would end up was still anybody's guess. Spike would take a fantastic idea (for instance, a man hitting people on the head with a piano) and run with it as he saw fit, something you cannot imagine happening in this day and age.

Here, then, are my brief thoughts on episodes from Series 4:

The Dreaded Piano Clubber
A really good one to kick off the series. A murder mystery without the murder, this contains clear hints of Spike's future miniseries, The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town, which was written for The Two Ronnies. Both have Gothic elements and a villain with a bizarre form of attack, but this is consistently funnier and more efficient than its Hammer-inflected TV cousin. The banter with Eccles near the end drags a little bit, but the inquest scene earlier on more than makes up for it.

The Man Who Tried to Destroy London's Monuments
Like many of the early episodes, the sound quality is a little off with this one. After the initial skit, which is pretty unremarkable, the main story is top notch. Peter Sellers' impression of Sir Winston Churchill is really well done, as is Spike's take on the poet McGoonigall, but the highlight is the "someone knocking at the door" sequence, which gets progressively more hysterical. The running joke about the little green pins is also pretty well-executed.

The Ghastly Experiments of Dr Hans Eidelberger
A bit of a dud. Dr Hans (or Justin) Eidelberger was always one of the more forgettable occasional characters, and his counterpart Yakamato is an unfortunate stereotype in the mould of Fu Manchu. Components of this episode - chiefly mad scientists experimenting on Neddie Seagoon - would later resurface in The Great Regents Park Swim in Series 8, which is much funnier and far more memorable. The audio quality is very poor on this one too.

The Giant Bombardon
Arguably the highlight of the whole series. Original announcer Andrew Timothy had left, "fearing for his sanity", to be replaced by Wallace Greenslade, whose chemistry with the cast was so much better. The plot is a corker on its own - Neddie Seagoon trying to build a cannon to win the Crimean War - but the whole thing is lifted by the first appearance in the series of Valentine Dyall, whose oppressive voice makes the jokes hit all the harder. Watch out also for a coconut gag early on, which may have inspired a certain routine in Monty Python and the Holy Grail...

The History of Communications
This one is a bit of a grower. The opening sketch is funnier than its counterpart in 'Monuments, but the rest of the episode takes a while to settle in. Doing a parody of the fateful Siege of Khartoum is fitting given the Goons' military background, but the comedy doesn't gel together as well as on other military episodes, like Shifting Sands from Series 7. The football jokes are pretty dated too. One for hardcore fans who are willing to give it the time.

The Case of the Vanishing Room
A murder mystery, this time with a murder and a really neat central conceit. The idea of a whole room vanishing and re-appearing in Paris is a neat twist on the 'locked room' sub-genre (which later gave us Jonathan Creek). But there's plenty of standalone jokes if that's not your bag, particularly the routines involving the library and the doorbell. The ending is a bit abrupt, but up until then it's very hard to fault.

The Greatest Mountain in the World
Another of the weaker episodes of the series. The central plot - building a new mountain to be taller than Everest - definitely has potential, but the jokes aren't good enough to make it go the distance. The mole routine early on is overplayed, as are the later sequences involving the trip underwater. It's not an awful episode, just an underwhelming one whose sporadic moments of great energy aren't enough to hold our attention.

The Silent Bugler
The other major highlight of Series 4. An excellent parody of spy fiction which pokes fun at the Cold War and the ridiculousness of the genre. Sellers is on top form here with his various accents, but funnier still is his lengthy period of corpsing around 5 minutes in, showing how much fun he was having on the show. The musical gags are great, as is the immortal line about its titular villain: "If ever you hear nothing, like that, look out!". Definitely recommended.

The Saga of the Internal Mountain
The better mountain-based episode of this series, which this time finds Neddie trying to climb Mount Everest from the inside. While the resolution of the plot is trite - perhaps deliberately so - the build-up is well paced and has some very good gags. Sellers is on fine form here too, particularly the sequence featuring Grytpype-Thynne as a crooked money-lender. The comments about "having a sound mind" are also good fun.

The Great Bank of England Robbery
This is a really fine episode. The scope of the plot is pretty small - it's like a heist film in miniature - but Spike's script manages to wring every last drop of comedy out of these limitations. What really makes the episode is the underlying melancholy during the scenes in the pillar box: it's hilarious, but you could also make a really good dramatic play out of these characters being stuck there. From there the circumstances become all the more bizarre, and the last line is a killer.

The Starlings
An anticlimax to end the series, which suffers from not having an audience. The big idea this time is a weak one - fighting off starlings just doesn't have as much legs as some of the other plots. Spike tries hard with jokes at the expense of Parliament and the police, but this episode really drags and the running jokes about rice pudding all fall flat. One for completists only.

Join me again next week when we'll be moving onto Series 5. See you then!

Daniel

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

THE GOON SHOW GUIDE: Series 1 to 3

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Welcome to this week's episode of The Goon Show Guide, my weekly canter through the back catalogue of the comedy series which changed the landscape of British humour. Having laid down some of the foundations, and introduced our main characters, we are now ready to embark upon the episodes themselves.
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As a general rule, we'll be covering one of The Goon Show's ten series a week, but it makes sense to examine the first three series in one go. The reason for this is a sad and simple one: very few episodes from this period of the show survive. TheGoonShow.net, which has transcripts of every surviving episode, lists no recordings from Series 1 and 3, and only two untitled offerings from Series 2.
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The explanation for this is something with which Doctor Who fans will be very familiar. Before the advent of VCRs and the domestic video market, the BBC saw no real reason to keep programmes that had already been broadcast, whether on radio or more notably on TV. In an age where everything was still being stored on magnetic tape, storage space was at a premium. What's more, the actors' union Equity, fearing that repeats would put its members out of work, tried to insist that if a programme were repeated, the original actors should come back and perform it again from scratch. Until it created its Film and Videotape Library in 1978, the BBC simply wiped, burned or buried old tapes in order to keep down costs.
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The Goon Show wasn't by any means the only show to suffer from what in hindsight was an unthinkably short-sighted course of action. Many episodes from the first two series of Dad's Army remain missing presumed wiped, along with most of At Last, the 1948 Show, wherein The Four Yorkshiremen Sketch was first performed. But for the dedication of fans, most of Monty Python's Flying Circus would have been lost as well. Doctor Who arguably suffered most from the policy, with nearly 100 episodes still missing, mainly from the Second Doctor era featuring Patrick Troughton.
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With The Goon Show, however, it's not as much of a loss at least as far as quality is concerned. While the discovery of missing episodes will always be welcomed, the show in its early years was quite different to the form it had reached by the fourth series - and not in a good way. While later episodes mostly managed to sustain a plot over 20 to 30 minutes, the early episodes of Crazy People (as it was originally called) are very episodic, rising and falling on the quality of individual sketches.
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There are fans out there who regard these series very fondly, seeing it at the show's most avant-garde and adventurous period. It's certainly interesting to hear The Goons as a foursome, before Michael Bentine amicably left the group in 1953. But for me, the show doesn't really hit its stride until Series 4, when the main characters had crystalised and Spike Milligan had managed to channel his anarchy into imaginative storytelling, rather than just pastiches of BBC news reports or other programmes. Like the first series of Doctor Who, with William Hartnell, you can see hints throughout of the genius that would emerge, but it wasn't quite the finished article just yet.
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If you want a flavour of these first three series, have a listen to the below episode from Series 2. Alternatively, if you want to bring it to life yourself, The Essential Spike Milligan reprints the script for Series 1, Episode 1 in its entirety. If you want more on the BBC's ridiculous policies, I recommend this Doctor Who Classic by Nash Bozard from Radio Dead Air. I'll be back next week for an episode-by-episode breakdown of Series 4. See you then!
Daniel

NEXT WEEK: Series 4

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

GOOD BUT NOT GREAT: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2 (2011)

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2 (UK/ USA, 2011)
Directed by David Yates
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter

The final instalment in a film franchise often comes to define the franchise as a whole. The Return of the King cemented Peter Jackson's reputation as an extraordinary fantasy filmmaker who moved the goalposts for both cinematic technology and fantasy storytelling. Evil Dead 3: Army of Darkness and Spider-Man 3 both saw the wheels come off, with Sam Raimi throwing everything he had at the screen to disguise the fact that he had run out of ideas.
 
With Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2, we already had a fair idea of where we were heading, if not by the end of Part 1, then by the ending of Half-Blood Prince. Coming in somewhere between the dizzying heights of Alfonso Cuarón and Mike Newell and the disappointing lows of Chris Columbus, David Yates' instalments have had a lot going for them on a thematic or tonal level, but have also been hobbled by too much plot and a lack of weight in some of the main developments. Considering where the series began, the film is a triumph; considering where it could have ended up, the joy is much more muted.
 
Much like The Return of the King, much of Deathly Hallows - Part 2 is concerned with the characters' relationship with death. Even moreso than in the previous instalment, the characters find themselves in an endgame, where they are fighting against a seemingly inevitable outcome. Voldemort has never been as chillingly scary as Sauron, but in this film his desperation and panic over dying makes him more threatening. There are still times when Ralph Fiennes over-eggs it, but a lot of Voldemort's childlike fears of death and mortality are finally brought to the fore.
 
How precisely the film deals with death is quite a conflicted matter. As in the previous instalment, there is the seeming need for a lot of characters to be killed off simply as a means of ending their character arcs. Bellatrix Lestrange's demise is dealt with far too quickly to be satisfying, while more lovable characters like Remus Lupin and Nymphadora Tonks don't get the screen time they deserve to make the appearance of their dead bodies carry meaning. Having invested so much in many of these characters, dispatching them so fleetingly - even in a war - is a bit of a kick in the teeth.
 
To put it bluntly, Deathly Hallows - Part 2 attempts to strike the same kind of balance that Jackson sought in The Return of the King, but is only partially successful in doing so. On the one hand, it acknowledges the need to show the scale of the war and the extent of the atrocities taking place; it's happy, in other words, to give us the Potter equivalent of the Battle of the Pellanor Fields. On the other hand, it seeks to be reflective and introspective, bringing the conflict down to the level of Harry's conscience and his final connection to Voldemort.
 
Given Yates' dodgy track record with action set pieces, it's no surprise that the Battle of Hogwarts' treatment of death is the weaker of the two approaches. The special effects are all fine - you won't find the same wretched over-abundance of CGI that you'd find in the Star Wars prequels. But while Jackson's battles had pacing and structure, with clearly defined yet unpredictable movements, the Battle for Hogwarts moves in fits and starts and isn't all that memorable. Yates tries to include as many of the little moments from the books as he can, but he struggles to link them all together. If the Battle of the Pellanor Fields is like a Wagner opera - big, bold, brash and often breathtaking - this is more like a high school violin recital: still impressive in places, but timid by comparison.
 
In its more candidly introspective moments, however, the film takes flight and we find ourselves bonding with Harry a lot more than we would if he was solely in the heat of battle. Both the dream sequence in Kings Cross Station and the all-too brief sequence with the Resurrection Stone give the film the space it needs to breathe, reminding us of the emotional baggage which Harry carries and why he is fighting in the first place. It's to the credit of Yates and his colleagues that such scenes are allowed to take up so much time, when in a standalone or franchise-launching blockbuster, they would be lying on the cutting room floor.
 
The visual bleakness which Yates strove for in Part 1 is reinforced strongly here. The entire Kings Cross Station sequence borrows heavily from 2001: A Space Odyssey, using white light in a way that is intrusive but also comforting in the context of the action that surrounds it. The whole colour palette is more washed out, with the blues and blacks of the Hogwarts uniforms appearing dusty and battered even before the battle has started. This at least gives a semblance of tonal consistency, linking the battles and quiet moments together quite well.
 
The other big highlight of the film is the revelations regarding Snape. This is one aspect of the series in which what might be called 'the long tease' has worked: we have been held in suspense successfully for seven films, still unsure as to who Snape really is or where his loyalties lie. The revelations are powerful and moving in their own right, but Yates plays a clever trick by letting them unfold as memories. By using visual images, such as the flower unfolding in Lily's hand, he avoids it just being another exposition dump, and allows Alan Rickman the space he needs for Snape's death to matter.
 
Much of the film, of course, is still concerned with the hunt for the horcruxes, which give the first part a sense of structure and progress that it desperately needed. There's a very nice sequence right at the beginning where Hermione has to pretend to be Belatrix in order to enter her vault at Gringotts and take Helga Hufflepuff's cup (a suspected horcrux). Helena Bonham Carter demonstrates her acting chops in this scene, not just playing another version of the character but adopting Emma Watson's mannerisms and vocal tics perfectly. The scene is slightly spoiled by Harry's use of the imperius curse, but we can let that slide.
 
Unlike the last film, however, the search for the horcruxes seems less essential as Part 2 rolls forward. This is partially deliberate, since the horcruxes in themselves are a plot device rather than an end point, but it's also an admission on the part of the filmmakers that people are only really interested in Harry and Voldemort's confrontation. The progress from one horcrux to another is still entertaining, particularly Harry's self-sacrifice to Voldemort in the woods. But being the last film in the series, we still grow impatient for things to get to the point.
 
Having finally reached that point, the film has some difficult decisions to make. The final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort has to do a lot of things to pass muster. It has to be visually impressive, giving casual fans who aren't encrossed in the mythology an indication of its significance. It has to capture the different attitudes of the characters towards death, contrasting Voldemort's self-hatred and fear with Harry's more philosophical approach. And it has to last long enough to make it seem like a big deal, but short enough to so that it doesn't drag, as happened with the 'climactic' lightsabre duel in Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith.
 
Given the expectations of both fans of the books and people who have followed the films, it's inevitable that there would be some degree of disappointment. But the final showdown comes up short in all three parts, albeit by not quite enough to completely derail it. It's less visually impressive than the duel at the end of Goblet of Fire, and a little less threatening in places. The subtext is there if you look for it, but Yates is often too absorbed in trying to make wands a threatening weapon to bring it out in the build-up. And while it is better directed than George Lucas' lightsabre battles, it's ultimately too static and straightforward, giving the impression that it goes on longer than it does.
 
To an extent, the final duel sums up the film, taking characters which we have followed and seen develop, and putting them in situations which are somewhat underwhelming in terms of how they use said characters. Before the oh-so-controversial epilogue - a whole lot of fuss about nothing - we get one last example of this, where Harry decides to destroy the Elder Wand. This is more decisive and logical than the book (in which he simply buries it), but the film misses out on the chance to explore this dilemma in more detail, just as Harry's relationship with power was explored in Half-Blood Prince. We're not expecting moral quanderies along the lines of Genesis of the Daleks or even The Empire Strikes Back, but even a little something would have been nice.
 
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2 is a partially successful means to bring the curtain down on one of cinema's most enduring sagas. The cast are generally good as always, and David Yates deserves some credit for having so much introspection in amongst the bombast of battle. It's a flawed beast, like all the Potter films, letting us down in many of the key moments and being lazy when it really can't afford to do so. But as a means to say goodbye to a beloved character, it's not without merit.

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NEXT REVIEW: Cradle 2 The Grave (2003)

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

THE GOON SHOW GUIDE: Meet the Main Characters

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Welcome to the second instalment of The Goon Show Guide, my new weekly series devoted to Spike Milligan's finest achievement. Having set things up nicely in last week's introduction, this week we're going over a few basics about the characters before we dive into the series proper next week.
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Like many comedy series before and after it, the characters in The Goon Show were not set in stone from the very beginning. In the early series, back when Michael Bentine was still part of the cast, the show consisted more of a series of skits rather than having an overarching plot. Each of the four Goons was expected to play multiple roles, and there was no real continuity between episodes from the beginning of the run to the end.
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By the end of series 3, Bentine had departed and the show had begun to crystalise around a series of recurring roles. Harry Secombe's alter ego Neddie Seagoon emerged as a recurring fall guy, with the other characters either helping or hindering him over the course of an episode. Peter Sellers, being the man of a thousand voices, played such a large number of parts that on the rare occasions he was ill, the show would sometimes need four actors to fill in for him. There would also be supporting roles for the announcer, Wallace Greenslade, and occasionally for the musicians, jazz harmonica player Max Geldray and singer Ray Ellington.
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Here, then, are the main players in The Goon Show, whom we shall be encountering in great depth over the coming weeks:

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MAIN CHARACTERS
Neddie Seagoon (Harry Secombe)
A patriotic, honest but gullible idiot, who is often unemployed. Many of the episodes revolve around Neddie taking a job which leads to trouble - such as Napoleon's Piano, wherein he accidentally agrees to steal a piano from the Louvre in Paris. Many jokes are made about his height and weight - for example, in 1985: "I lost 10 stone. My weight went down to a mere 20 stone."

Catchphrases: "Hello folks", "needle nardle noo", "what-what-what-what-what?" (said very very fast), "I don't wish to know that" (a piss-take of a well-worn music hall routine of the time).

Major Dennis Bloodnok (Peter Sellers)
A corrupt military cad, idiot and generally lecherous old man. Bloodnok is Seagoon's former commanding officer - a reference to the fact that all three Goons served in World War II - but unlike Seagoon is a complete coward who would do anything for money. Bloodnok suffers from terrible flatulance, with explosions often following his own theme tune. On the rare occasions when the sound effects wouldn't work, Peter Sellers will fill the silence by shouting "I'm cured!".

Catchphrases: "Nurse, the screens!", "It was hell in there"

Bluebottle (Peter Sellers)
A lusty boy scout with a squeaky voice who almost invariably gets killed in every episode. A regular companion to Eccles, Bluebottle will regularly help people out for sweets - particularly Dolly Mixtures or Jelly Babies - and often uses weapons made out of cardboard. He is known for reading the stage directions out loud, and will often talk over the announcer. The latter often happened when he emerged unscathed from an episode, for instance in The Case of the Fake Neddie Seagoons or The Six Ingots of Leadenhall Street. 

Catchphrases: "Enter Bluebottle, waits for applause... Not a sausage", "You rotten swine, you deaded me", "I don't like this game".

Eccles (Spike Milligan)
A total idiot, the stupidest and most well-meaning of all the characters and a regular companion to Neddie. Eccles has a childlike understanding of the world, can barely read or write, and often falls foul of people in authority due to his lack of intelligence or self-preservation. When others tell him to shut up, he will often join in and carry on saying it until long after they have stopped. Despite this, he occasionally is lucky with the ladies, as in Yehti, much to the chagrin of Bluebottle. 

Catchphrases: "Hello der", "Fine, fine, fine", "I'm the famous Eccles", "Shut up Eccles", "it's good to be alive!" 

Hercules Grytpype-Thynne (Peter Sellers)
My personal favourite character. A suave yet sleazy cad, well-educated and always with a plan on his mind. Most of the plots, particularly in the later series, revolve around Thynne and Count Moriarty (see below) trying to con Neddie out of money, whether though a race to get older faster (Around The World in 80 Days), selling him the Moon (The Moon Show) or simply trying to steal a penny that he owns (The £1,000,000 Penny). The character is based on character actor George Sanders and there are big hints throughout the series that he is gay; for instance, in The Telephone, when Neddie asks why he and his friend don't get married (to separate people), he replies: "I would, but Moriarty doesn't love me."

Catchphrases: "You silly twisted boy, you", "Have a gorilla".

Count Jim Moriarty (Spike Milligan)
An unscrupulous member of the French aristocracy who has turned to crime to support his lifestyle. Moriarty started the show on equal billing to Grytpype-Thynne, but gradually descended from a criminal mastermind into a snivelling stooge. Moriarty is often found scavenging for food in dustbins, and cursing in utterly meaningless words; in The Gold Plate Robbery, he rants for about 10 seconds while being led away from the microphones.

Catchphrases: "Oooowwwww", "Sapristi nabolis" (and various other permutations of the latter).

Henry Crun (Peter Sellers)
An extremely elderly inventor-cum-government official, and partner to Minnie Banister (see below). Decrepid, frail, doddery and forgetful, he struggles to keep pace with the world around him, and frequent takes an awfully long time to complete even the simplest of tasks. Whole sections of the show involve circular conversations between him and Minnie, such as in The Man Who Tried to Destroy London's Monuments: he keeps telling Seagoon to stop knocking at the door, so that Minnie can tell him someone's knocking - only for there not to be.

Catchphrase: "You can't get the wood you know".

Minnie Banister (Spike Milligan)
A feeble yet immensely flirtatious old spinster who was once romantically linked to Bloodnok (in various ways). Minnie loves "modern-type" music - and all "modern" stuff for that matter - frequently getting on Henry's nerves by singing endlessly and calling him "corny". Minnie would occassionally take on a maternal attitude towards Bluebottle, such as in The Case of the Fake Neddle Seagoons. She is also terrified of strangers and being murdered. 

Catchphrases: "Henrrryyyyy", "We'll all be murdered in our beds!".
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MINOR CHARACTERS
Flowerdew (Peter Sellers) - An effeminate, very camp man, usually some kind of official.
Gladys (Ray Ellington) - A secretary or personal assistant whose gender is unclear.
Jim Spriggs (Spike Milligan) - A man with a falsetto voice who speaks as though he is singing, often repeats himself and calls everyone "Jim".
Lew (Peter Sellers) - A fast-talking Jewish showbiz agent with terrible acts. Based on Lew Grade, the TV impressario who amongst other things brought Thunderbirds to British TV.
Little Jim (Spike Milligan) - A timid child whose only line is "He's fallen in the water".
McGoonagall (Peter Sellers or Spike Milligan) - An awful Scottish poet, based on William McGonagall, who overemphasises and often convolutes the plot when trying to explain it.
Miss Throat (Spike Milligan) - A person (not a woman) with a gravelly voice, whose lines are usually one word or syllable long.
Tribal Chief (Ray Ellington) - One of the show's less PC characterisations (Ray Ellington was the only black cast member - we'll come onto that later).
William Cobblers, a.k.a. Mate (Peter Sellers) - A working-class jobsworth Cockney, who refers to everyone as "mate".

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Next week we'll be diving into the episodes properly, cantering through the first three series for reasons which I shall explain next time. Join me on Wednesday 15th for the next (hopefully more insightful) episode of The Goon Show Guide!

Daniel

NEXT WEEK: Series 1 to 3

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

THE GOON SHOW GUIDE: An Introduction

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It's been a little while since I've had a weekly feature on this blog, following the final instalment of Furuba Fridays back in April last year. As I mentioned in August, I've had to abandon or strip back a lot of the features I used to do on this blog in order to concentrate on both my job and my ongoing journalistic training. But now I feel the moment is right to do another regular feature, at least for a little while - and that brings us to The Goon Show Guide.
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I've made no secret in the past that I am a huge fan of The Goon Show. Having been vaguely familiar with the show during my teenage years, I became a compulsive fan from my first year as a student. My Mumbling On co-host Thomas Wales introduced me to a lot of the episodes and characters which are now my favourites, and there is an awful lot of The Goons in The Yesterday Show and particularly its sequel, The Adventures of Battenberg and Schnepps. My subsequent friendship with Peter Byrom further expanded my interest, leading me to accumulate all the episodes I could find.
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I've already declared my love for the series in various posts on this blog, from my Blog Spot on fansite TheGoonShow.net to this Letter of Note about Peter Sellers urging Spike Milligan to revive the show in 1980. But I think the time is right for me to go into a bit more detail about the series, going through some of my favourite episodes in detail and recommending the few bad apples that you should avoid.
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That's what I intend to do with The Goon Show Guide. Every Wednesday evening I'll be going through a set of episodes, usually a series a week, and summarising each episode in turn. Even though the episodes are the same length (or thereabouts) as the Fruits Basket Radio Drama I covered before, there's simply too many of them to do one a week: you would quickly get bored and I would quickly run out of things to say. I'll also indicate where you can purchase the shows for yourselves, share interesting stories about the making of the series, and point out where the shows may have directly influenced the comedians who came after them.
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I'll be beginning next week with a brief run-down of the main characters and a bit more background to give you an idea of what to expect. Until then, why not head over to TheGoonShow.net and download The Spon Plague for free, to give yourself an idea of what you're in for over the next few weeks...

Daniel

NEXT WEEK: Meet the Main Characters