Sunday, August 21, 2011

Norman Wisdom - The Bulldog Breed

Norman Wisdom @ Saturday Buddha

I have always looked back with huge fondness to my childhood holidays on the Isle of Man. I remember seeing Jaws, Live And Let Die, The Island On Top Of The World and Orca - Killer Whale in the cinema there at the time. Also the professional wrestling at the Villa Marina and the most politically incorrect waxworks in history. More than anything else though I remember the sheer numbers of people who were holidaying in July and August. From the Fifties right through to the late Seventies it was a hugely popular destination for people from all over the British Isles and, in the older days, with certain cities predominating the makeup of visitors depending on the summer week that the factories traditionally shut down.

In general though the island has always maintained a low profile - even the horrific Summerland disaster of 1973 which left 50 people dead is barely referenced let alone mentioned these days. The Isle of Man is probably most famous for its retention of corporal punishment by birching up to 1976, its tax haven status and as being the home of Norman Wisdom for the latter period of his life.

Wisdom - comedian of choice for Charlie Chaplin and the people of Albania - appeared in around twenty feature films during his career. The movies themselves have naturally dated but the sheer talent of the man cannot be doubted right from the Class War classic Trouble In Store of 1953 to the final What's Good For The Goose in 1969 where Norman the banker leaves his dreary life of suburban hell with his frigid wife to hook up with very young teenage hippy girls and dance along to The Pretty Things at the Screaming Apple Club in groovy Southport.

1954's One Good Turn contains punk anarchy on the Brighton train which predates The Ramones' first album by 22 years and Jimmy the Mod in the Quadrophenia movie by a quarter of a century. The scene in The Early Bird where he eats an apple spiked with drugs and begins to hallucinate is one of the truly classic moments of British comedy to rate with Harold Steptoe berating his elderly father for using such words as "rape", "vibrators", "spunk" "cock", "nipple" and "bristols" in an innocent family game of Scrabble up Oil Drum Lane. Steptoe Senior's commentary on the changing face of London in the October 1965 episode Crossed Swords may well not see the light of day in broadcasting compliance terms ever again.

Wisdom's 1992 autobiograpy My Turn is an often extraordinary read with regard to the poverty of his London upbringing, brutal beatings from his father, walking to Wales to look for a job down a mine and spending Christmas Day alone and unloved as a 14-year-old in a boy's hostel.

Alike with George Best, the public tributes on various websites following his death were of blanket affection. One gentleman noted that his movies were the solitary moments of happiness in a childhood destroyed by sexual abuse at the hands of his father. Likewise that Norman's valiant character who always stood up to the snobs, managers, bullies and general wankers of this world inspired him on to a successful career in the Royal Navy. This was certainly not the only comment of its nature from people remembering unhappy childhoods that he managed to brighten up for an hour and a half.

Norman Wisdom was not dissimilar to Ulster's James Young in his rare ability to blend pathos with quick-witted and fast-paced humour. They had a talent that was utterly unique and crossed the generations in terms of appeal. Likewise they came from a time and place - and an industrial world grounded on brutal life practicalities  - that now seems to have been obliterated down to the last physical and metaphorical atom.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Mary Millington - Another Girl Another Planet

Mary Millington @ Saturday Buddha

One of the great determiners of radical national decline in the Seventies in the United Kingdom - alongside the hopeless battle against inflation, industrial unrest and terrorism - was the fact that one of the biggest grossing British movies of 1977 was the sex comedy Come Play With Me which ran continuously for four years at the Moulin Cinema in Great Windmill Street in London's Soho. The same year in the USA Annie Hall, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Saturday Night Fever were released.

In the course of the past few years we have seen the reissue of all three of Mary Millington's mainstream cinema releases on DVD, another edition of Simon Sheridan's superb Keeping The British End Up history of the genre, a high profile documentary Respectable and a blue plaque in Soho's Great Windmill Street to her memory.

Of the main movies themselves, Come Play With Me may not be the sort of thing you want to watch with your mother but you could probably get away with watching it with your father these days even if he was a comedy vicar. The hot sexual dynamics of The Playbirds in turn are capped by the constant presence of Windsor Davies, one of the That's Life lackeys and Dave the barman from Minder in almost every scene as police officers. Likewise the political incorrectness of some of the dialogue is up there with the lyrical content of the first three albums by The Stranglers. Confessions From The David Galaxy Affair does stand out slightly from the others it must be said as containing possibly the worst piece of character acting in British dramatic history from the late husband of the late Diana Dors - Alan Lake.

The movies however do have significant historic importance in throwing light on the extraordinary censorship of the time in Great Britain which was so out of kilter with mainland Europe. Sheridan's book notes how so many hardcore scenes were shot during the making of these frothy asexual comedy romps for sole inclusion in the dirty foreign export versions. Likewise - and as is so typical of bloody everything in the past three decades of our country's social history - these British movies were contemporaneously marketed in one of the leading UK portfolios of adult magazines (which included one title named after public decency mandarin Mary Whitehouse herself) as containing extreme sexual content to be avoided by those of a nervous disposition. Do you ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

Outside the context of the three movies as discussed - and the dark netherworld of satanic carnal sin she briefly shared with Alfie Bass, Irene Handl and Cardew Robinson - Mary Millington herself certainly lived the unexpurgated sexual dream (or nightmare) every bit as much as Linda Lovelace or Marilyn Chambers. Sherdian's earlier biography covers this in considerable detail from her initial forays into pornography in order to fund her mother's healthcare through to her suicide at the age of 33.

However in contrast to the scene in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights where a cocaine-fuelled pool party takes place for porn industry habitues - against the scorching background of a Californian sun and Eric Burdon and War's dreamy Spill The Wine - the posthumous and utterly tasteless documentary of Millington's life True Blue Confessions includes footage of public jazz magazine browsing at what is clearly suggested to be the actual sex shop she ran in a seedy South London street.

With all the erotic intent and measured sensuality of a labored and indecisive chip shop order for battered sausage, Millington frankly underscores in the narrative that:'s a myth about the Dirty Raincoat Brigade....they really don't exist...customers aren't dragged in...they come in because they want to...and they want to be able to take it away and read it in the privacy of their own homes...they should have the right to do that...there are hundreds of thousands of very lonely men...they've no chance at all over ever picking up a girl...but they can buy sexy magazines and take them home and masturbate while they look at the pictures which gives them the relief which I feel they need.

Such a commonsense and indeed quintessentially British contribution to the history of adult cinema from beautiful long-lost Mary Ruth Quilter (1945-1979) - Britain's once and future Golden Girl.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Alex Hurricane Higgins - Don't feel sorry for me, I stood on top of the world

Alex Hurricane Higgins @ Saturday Buddha

Yesterday I was reading how the surviving family of snooker legend Alex Higgins has criticised Belfast City Council in light of the lack of a permanent memorial to their brother alike the naming of the city airport after George Best. Disappointingly I also recall a while back how the public subscription appeal for a statue to Best was saved by a substantial donation from a businessman.

Higgins' character was obviously of more flamboyant and unreserved bent than Best and one must assume that there was more of a cross-generational appeal to even a playboy as regards a hellraiser. That let alone without broaching some of more particularly outrageous moments of Higgins' life story - up there with Elvis's 1977 CBS Special or Amy Winehouse Live In Belgrade - regarding death threats to team mates and scatological comments to one particular teenage snooker wuenderkind.

Nevertheless Higgins' talent was certainly utterly unique amongst the chaos of his life and times. Likewise his final autobiography was genuinely moving, funny and utterly contrite.

The Belfast Telegraph's Gail Walker captured Higgins' appeal beautifully in a magnificent obituary:

Somehow, he managed to create his own piece of Belfast wherever he went, a scale model of the city exact in every detail from the good looks, the charm, the rakishness and the genius, right down to the tiny detail of the pig-headed, sometimes stupid, gable-wall uproar...More than anyone in the public eye, Higgy was a Belfastman, soaked in the city he was born in. It was that which we recognised here — Higgy made it under the wire of our different religions and allegiances, infiltrating our affections, simply because we knew that if his genius was his own, his flaws were all ours.

More pithily - though perhaps just as genuinely felt in similarly Belfast fashion - another poster on a Northern Ireland-orientated internet forum noted "He was a wanker - but he was our wanker".

Either way the family's disappointment certainly hints at how modern society - even one as self-analytical, emotional and pathos-loaded as Ulster - is gradually moving more and more away from what were once very fundamental historical codes of communal awareness and pride.