Der Hund von Baskerville (1929). Review

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Tonight was a special treat, as I finally got hold of the 1929 version of Hound of the Baskervilles, made as a silent film in Germany. This was a very late silent, and while it was popular in mainland Europe at the time, it never reached the UK or America as cinemas had converted to sound by that point. It is directed by Richard Oswald, the same director as the 1914 version of the story.  The 1929 film was found about a decade ago (after eighty years) and has now been restored and is released on blu ray and DVD (in one pack) by Flicker Alley.

The film is very good indeed. Sadly, a few bits early on are missing and replaced by stills, but not much. It is strange watching a film such as this as one can see how a film like The Cat and the Canary (1927) had been influenced by German expressionism, and then how THIS film was influenced by Cat and Canary. So we have German films influencing American films influencing German films! Carlyle Blackwell plays a surprisingly chipper Sherlock Holmes, which is rather at odds with much of the film that is dark in tone and looks like it came straight out of a silent horror movie. Cue lots of secret passages, hands emerging from wall, and even a Fu Manchu-like device  to try to kill off our hero.

Richard Oswald, who directed the film, is a fascinating figure. He wasn’t a top-tier director in Germany, but a surprisingly important one considering few today have heard of him. He was what might be called a jobbing director. He didn’t secure for himself a particular style, but he was the first director ever to make a film that challenged anti-gay laws in Different from the Others, a film that celebrates its 100th birthday this year. Bear in mind, it took the UK to 1961 to make Victim, a similar themed film!

Oswald also helped to pioneer the portmanteau fantasy/horror film genre – where short stories are joined together to make one movie. In 1916 he did this with his version of Tales of Hoffmann, and in 1919 did the same thing with Eerie Tales, which includes stories by Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allan Poe. If you’ve seen Corman’s Tales of Terror from 1963, this was in many ways the prototype of it. He also made other early horror films that no doubt influenced the expressionist horrors that followed. 1917 saw him direct the Picture of Dorian Gray and A Night of Horror.

Oswald was also the director who brought Conrad Veidt to the fore, giving him leading roles in both Different from the Others (as the doomed gay violinist who gets blackmailed) and Eerie Tales, and casting him as Phineas Fogg in his version of Around the World in 80 Days. Werner Kraus and Emil Jannings also got career boosts at the start of their careers thanks to Oswald. Sadly, despite all of this he is a virtually unknown figure, overshadowed by Wiene, Leni, Murnau and Lang – and, unlike some of those, when he sought exile in America, his career didn’t take off there.

The Flicker Alley release of Der Hund von Baskervilles is quite a treat. It not only includes the 1929 version, but also the 1914 version which was also directed by Oswald – but which I have yet to see. The blu ray/DVD combo edition is region free and will play worldwide. The downside is the price, especially if you are outside of America and get stuck with customs. I paid £25 for a used copy on ebay simply because it was being posted within the UK so no customs to pay, but you’re looking at nearly £40 if you buy it new and factor in customs – which is a lot of money for two films of the same story.

But there is no getting away from the fact that this is an important release, and is the second major “lost” Holmes silent movie to be discovered and released in less than a decade (the other being the 1916 film “Sherlock Holmes”). So never give up hope!

Review: It (Chapter Two)

Is it really three months since I last shared my inane thoughts with you? How time flies!

I saw “IT (Chapter Two)” tonight for the first time, having been too ill to get to the cinema to see it when it came out.

What in hell’s name are we meant to make of this likeable mess of a film?

Credit where credit is due – the film is nearly three hours, but it doesn’t feel it. It zips along rather quickly, in fact, but then it has got a lot of things to fit it. The telephone calls at the beginning of the film are done especially well, I think, and I like how they are linked through visual elements. Here we have nigh-on two hundred pages of the book condensed into ten or fifteen minutes of film – quite an achievement. In fact, I would return to the book more often if it wasn’t for the thought of wading through that lumbering section at the beginning. Also I’ve got to give credit to the fact that the acting is ten times better than how the adults were in the 1990 version (I still prefer the 1990 kids). In five cases, the casting is superb, and the performances believable. The casting and portrayal of Eddie is the exception here – nothing like what he was like in the book or the first adaptation, and that is a mistake. Ritchie doesn’t need a jokey buddy as Eddie is portrayed here. The whole point of the seven people coming together was that they were all so different. Eddie has morphed into a gym-fit second Ritchie and it doesn’t work, and nor is it logical.

MILD SPOILERS IN NEXT PARAGRAPH!

There are some other changes which are very strange. Much of the tension in the adult part of the book comes from the fact that Audra, Bill’s wife, follows him and gets caught by “It.” That is completely missing here, and a huge mistake I think. I’m not quite sure what the thinking was behind that. I also don’t know what the thinking is for changing Bill’s reason for not playing with Georgie when he was a kid. In fact, that change makes no sense whatsoever. He didn’t want to play, but was happy to spend several hours making a boat? That is completely nonsensical – and also goes against what we see in the first movie. It’s a twist too far which, thankfully, can be put to the back of the mind, but it seems odd that, considering how many problems the film has to surmount, time was given over to adding something in which didn’t need to be addressed.

SPOILERS OVER

But the main issue I had with the film is that it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, and that it misses the reason why the book is so acclaimed. The movie should have been serious and terrifying, and for much of the time it doesn’t come across as either because the so-called horror is so comic-book and juvenile. When Beverly goes back to her home and sees the old woman, she turns into what? A CGI naked eighty year old with boobs down to her knees that looks like Ann Widdecombe on a night out. What’s THAT all about? And then we have the animated Stan’s head. Again, absolutely ridiculous – and not in the book, as far as I recall. The fortune cookie sequence has always been problematic enough for its comicbook nature – both in the book and in the previous adaptation – but the new film seemed to have an identity crisis outside of this. There were times when it felt like a serious movie, times when it felt more like “House” or “Idle Hands,” and then it moved into an adventure movie at the end akin to “Raiders of the Lost Arc” or “Romancing the Stone.” At least there wasn’t a giant spider, I guess.

The other issue is the underlying message at the core of the book – that the clown/monster/It was a kind of representation of the corruption and failure of society. Floating Dragon by Peter Straub (written just prior to It) does exactly the same thing. And perhaps that element is why the second half of the story simply doesn’t work well on screen. It is missing its guts. Whereas the book has some gravitas, the film versions eventually turn into a monster movie and little else. What we get is enjoyable and likeable popcorn fodder – an epic, big budget, three hour B-movie, in fact, and the text of the book is much more than that, which is no doubt why it disappointed many people. No doubt the running issue of Bill not knowing how to finish his books was intended as an in-joke about this very issue – the last section of the book is notoriously hard to translate to screen. But even that attempt at humour was somehow heavy handed. And, despite the fact that the adult characters are better drawn, acted, and cast (for the most part), the film still only really shines when the kids are back on screen during the flashbacks.

Finally, it was interesting that the decision was made to include the gay-bashing incident at the opening – and even more interesting that it turned out to be the most horrific sequence in the whole movie, and not because of CGI. Many thought it would be cut – and a few years ago I think it would have been. But with hate crime increasing in western countries, it suddenly became more relevant again.

I would like to say that I was surprised by the level of violence in those few minutes of Xavier Dolan’s cameo, as it is really quite severe, but for some reason both American film and TV seem to have upped the violence quota in the last five or six years or so. I watched the first few episodes of Titans on Netflix at the weekend (no, I don’t think I’ll be watching the rest) and was rather shocked by the gratuitous violence in that as well. Even something as inane as Riverdale or as ridiculous as Supernatural has become seem all too keen to make their violent sequences as dark and bloody as possible. I’m not quite sure how I feel about this trend – especially considering three of those examples are either from comic-book adaptations or in that style of storytelling. Whatever happened to traditional comicbook violence? Perhaps I’m just getting old and squeamish, but I’m guessing I’m not alone in my thinking given the commentary there has been on Joker since it was released (although I confess I haven’t seen it).

Elvis and the Critics, 1976-77

This blog-post is a piecing together of a number of excerpts from the book Reconsider Baby. Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide. It takes the reader through Elvis’s concerts from March 1976 through to the spring of the following year, and concentrates on how these were received by critics and reviewers at the time, as well as the fans’ reaction to some of the negative reviews.

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Despite continued worries about Elvis’s health and state of mind, 1976 saw Elvis embark on what must have seemed like a never-ending touring schedule. The first tour was at least respectable.  Whereas Hurt was the only new song added for the tour, Elvis did at least sometimes pull surprises out of the bag such as Until It’s Time For You To Go and Steamroller Blues.    

At the afternoon show in Cincinnati, Elvis split his trousers (not for the first time) and left the stage to get changed, with J. D. Sumner introducing the band while he did so.  Billy Reed in the Courier-Journal wrote a lengthy column about the show which concentrated on Elvis’s weight rather than his singing abilities.  He quoted a female fans as saying “Lord, he looks like Raymond Burr, his face is so fat.  I came to see Elvis Presley and I get Raymond Burr.”  Elsewhere in the piece, the columnist referred to Elvis as “fat.  Not just overweight, but F-A-T.”  Later he calls him “Moby Elvis,” “the Great White Whale,” and “Whalelvis.”  The following week, numerous letters were published in response to the article, including one telling Reed to “drop dead.”  Despite the splitting of his jumpsuit, Elvis appeared to be in good spirits.  According to the report, when he returned to the stage after getting changed, he brought the ruined garment with him, laughing, and showing the audience the damage, telling them that the jumpsuit he had on now was the last one he had with him and so he needed to be careful.  The evening show, released unofficially, finds Elvis in solid form and giving an enjoyable show, particularly for the period, albeit with a shorter setlist than usual.

For the next six months, the tours continued. Nothing of significance was added to the setlists, except that the band introductions, and instrumental solos that went with them, now lasted ten to fifteen minutes, thus reducing the amount of time that the audience actually got to hear Elvis.  Sometimes there were solo numbers from Kathy Westmoreland and Sherrill Nielsen as well.  On occasion, a show such as that given in Memphis on July 5th would give hints of former greatness, with Variety noting that he had the audience “in his palm” after telling them “it’s the end of our tour and I have as much time as you want tonight.” Mid-show, he shows defiance at his critics, announcing That’s All Right and saying, “I’ve had a couple of people say ‘you can’t do that anymore,’ but by God you watch me.”  It is a surprisingly touching moment as Elvis goes on to sing a spirited rendition of the song, clearly trying his best for his hometown crowd and trying to convince them (and possibly himself) that everything was just fine.  In the end, he was on stage for ninety minutes.  It isn’t classic Presley, but it is Elvis being the best he could be at that point in time, and by the end, as he attempts It’s Now or Never, it is clear that he has used up all the energy he has, and is totally spent. 

Exceptions such as the Memphis show aside, for the majority of the time performances were merely passable at best, and, on occasion, they were disasters, with the singer seemingly half asleep and barely able to speak.  Reviewers and critics couldn’t work out whether to try to overlook the obvious shortcomings, or to voice their disappointment and, on occasions, pity.  Elvis’s performance at Long Beach in April 1976 was described in Variety as “unambitious,” and the singer appeared to be “indifferent.”  Most telling is that the writer states that “the most serious offense is attitude.  Program has remained basically unchanged for years.  Talk to the audience is minimal, while chatting to fellow performers onstage is excessive.”    Meanwhile, a review from the following month in Rolling Stone described Elvis as “weak,” and “that you go to see him as much out of reverence for the past as from expectation for the immediate future.” 

Reviews from the period continually refer to the Elvis of the past, and perhaps that was hardly surprising given the release of The Sun Sessions LP at the time.  Robert P. Laurence asked in a headline if “No Longer Young, Must [Elvis] Still Symbolise Youth,” before taking readers through a list of his achievements before stating  that the “gold record figures for Elvis singles cut off at 1972; that’s the way the Colonel wants it.” Little did the writer know that Elvis didn’t have any gold singles after 1972. A review of a concert in Minnesota also suggests that Elvis and his performances are entrenched in the past:

There’s also a ‘Let’s Pretend’ element to the show.  Let’s pretend that Elvis, dressed in a tight white jumpsuit extravagantly overlaid with rhinestones, won’t really be 42 next Jan. 8, that he doesn’t have a weight problem so serious he had to check into a hospital last year to drop about 30 pounds, and that his predominately female, mainly middle-aged audience is still teen-aged: chewing gum like mad, saying ‘Kid’ in front of each sentence and hurrying home from school to catch American Bandstand…What else for the 41-year-old millionaire, so establishment these days that Richard Nixon made him an honorary narcotics officer, but to parody the Elvis of old, once the epitome of teen-age rebellion and outrageous sexuality?

There is a sadness in some of these pieces of writing that it isn’t still the 1950s, that Elvis is no longer the anti-establishment figure that he once was, and, perhaps more than anything, that the audience members themselves (and therefore the writers) were no longer the same age as they had been twenty years earlier.  For even the kinder critics, seeing Elvis on stage with the added weight, singing songs about divorce rather than the excitement of first love, and tossing off renditions of his early hits with an acknowledgement of just how innocent those lyrics had been in most cases was a constant reminder that nothing remains the same, and everybody gets older, even rock ‘n’ roll kings. 

Meanwhile, there were other critics who were less interested in reminiscing and far more concerned with letting their readers know of the stark realities of the level of Elvis’s performance and his physical condition.  Dale Rice wrote that “an overweight Elvis merely went through the motions of what once must have been a polished performance.  The show lacked enthusiasm, and the only thing that sparkled was Elvis’ costume…Surprisingly, the songs didn’t bring people to their feet.  In fact, the audience response was far less than I had expected it would be.”  Unsurprisingly, the mail bag over the next week was full with fan’s reactions to his review.  However, this time, alongside the angry condemnations of what had been written, others were writing to agree with what Rice had said.  One person wrote “in our opinion your review was a perfect description of the concert.  We were extremely disappointed by that ‘fat, puffy, over-fed’ Elvis Presley.”  Another added “[Rice] reported exactly what we felt and saw at Elvis’ performance,” while Dene Snyder confessed that “Elvis was not much of a showman Sunday night.”  Such comments must have been worrying.  Negative comments from critics was one thing, similar comments from fans themselves was something else entirely.

The final tours of 1976 were, for the most part, an improvement on what Elvis had been delivering in concert during the previous six months.  The Chicago Stadium FTD release, containing the concerts from October 14th and 15th finds Elvis slimmer, sounding somewhat rejuvenated, and giving more controlled, careful vocals than earlier in the year.  In late December, another short tour would also find Elvis in good form, culminating in the famous New Year’s Eve show in Pittsburgh that was, to all intents and purposes, Elvis’s last great show.  In between the October and December tours were rather more routine efforts both on the road and in Las Vegas, with Elvis betraying signs of being bored and tired with the latter.

One thing that stands out during the reviews of these shows (and those during the first months of 1977) is the way critics talk about Elvis’s age.  Elvis was only in his early forties, and yet he is talked about as if he is much older.  “If Elvis is 41 years old, his voice doesn’t reflect it,” wrote Pat O’Driscoll in the Nevada State Journal.  Another writer asks if you can be “sexy at 42 with a weight problem.”  Elvis is being talked about as if he is in his sixties rather than his forties.  Perhaps this is, at least in part, because he had been in the public eye for such a long time, or maybe the reporting of health problems for the last four years had contributed to this somewhat twisted view of his age and what should be expected from him. 

If there had been an upswing in performance quality in late 1976, then it had disappeared by the first tour of 1977.  There are signs that he is still trying, not least by the inclusion of such rarities as Reconsider Baby, Moody Blue, Release Me, and Where No-one Stands Alone.  However, if the mind was willing, the flesh was weak, and the performances are marred by Elvis sounding out of breath and tired, and his speech slurred. 

With four tracks still needed for the next album, and Elvis unwilling or unable to take part in studio sessions, producer Felton Jarvis had no choice but to record Elvis on tour in the spring of 1977, in the hope that a previously unheard song would enter the repertoire.  Despite weeks of recording, only three new songs would be caught on tape.

Unchained Melody had been a part of Elvis’s live repertoire for a few months.  The performance featured Elvis playing the piano, something he only rarely did in concert.  The finished recording is stunning.  It presents Elvis in total command of his craft, with his voice sounding better than during most recordings from this period.  The almost rhapsodic arrangement works well and is grandiose without being totally over-the-top.  However, much of the magic of the recording was created after the event through the overdubbing process.  The original undubbed recording is surprisingly ragged.  For once, the overdubs had improved the original recording dramatically.

Little Darlin’ is a throwaway version of the 1950s hit for The Diamonds.  While this might have been fun in concert, and would have been suitable for a live album, the jokey performance had little place on the regular album where it ended up. 

The final song released at the time was If You Love Me (Let Me Know), a rather innocuous song that had been recorded by Olivia Newton John.  Let Me Be There had been a fun and infectious addition to the repertoire a few years earlier, but If You Love Me is not such good material, and Elvis’s performance (and the arrangement used) adds nothing to the subpar material. 

All three songs would end up on the Moody Blue LP, released in June 1977.  Despite the difficulties in putting it together, the album was a decided improvement over From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee – even the artwork was classier.  It remains a surprisingly enjoyable album that paints a rather positive portrait of Elvis in his final years.  Even so, Robert Hilburn was correct in saying that “no one in pop is operating as far beneath his potential as Presley.”  Dave Marsh was even less impressed, referring to the album as being “within a track of the worst piece of garbage Elvis ever recorded.”  Unsurprisingly, those who reviewed the album after Elvis’s death saw it differently.  Wiley Alexander wrote “there is not a bad song on the album.  It is one of Elvis’ best, and that’s saying a lot…It is full of class, but so was Elvis.”

Despite the pleasant Moody Blue album, Elvis’s concerts were getting more and more problematic.  A whole CD was released on the FTD label of the recordings made during the spring tours, and the quality of performance is often shocking, with Elvis struggling for breath and mumbling his way through songs. Something as straightforward as Lawdy Miss Clawdy had become laboured, and it is hard to believe that this is the same singer who had powered his way through the gospel-tinged arrangement in the Memphis concert just three years earlier.   Bridge Over Troubled Water finds Elvis struggling with his vibrato and veering out of tune throughout the performance.  Meanwhile, the Mystery Train/Tiger Man medley sounds utterly lifeless.  Also noteworthy are the slowed down arrangements, making the overall sound remarkably bare at times

His appearance was getting worse, as were the reviews.   Fans, however, still stuck by their man.  Greg Oatis, in the Toledo Blade, wrote a decidedly unfavourable review of Elvis’s concert in Toledo on April 23, 1977 (the night before Unchained Melody and Little Darlin’ were recorded).  He referred to the singer as a “parody of his past performances,” and said that several couples sitting near him in the audience left early, “evidently disappointed.”  He states that Elvis was a “little pudgy,” and that “the only standing ovation he got was when he quit singing.”

The next day, a new article appeared in the newspaper saying the review had stirred a “hornets’ nest of fans.”  It says that the objections were to Oatis writing that Elvis “has a bulge around his waist, that he can’t play the guitar, that he mumbles at times, and that the old pelvis movement isn’t what it once was.”  Interestingly, he also says that none of the callers said those comments were inaccurate, but “all said it was unfair to write those things about Elvis, and if he read them he would never come back to Toledo.”

This, however, wasn’t enough.  A week later, the newspaper printed eight letters from unhappy fans.  One wrote that “Elvis in Toledo was an honor.  Mr Oatis’ article was an embarrassment.”  Another thought the review was “thoroughly disgusting.”  Someone also thought that the article dealt “with the writer’s personal opinion of…Presley.”  Clearly this fan didn’t realise that a personal opinion was the whole point of a review.

Despite all of this, the poor reviews kept on coming.  After a concert on April 27th, Damien Jaques wrote: 

The greatest superstar doesn’t get lost in the middle of a song and have the band start over.  He doesn’t carry sheets of paper on stage because he doesn’t know the lyrics to a song, and then ask the audience to forgive him if he makes a mistake.  He doesn’t mumble and swallow lyrics, sing so softly that he can’t be heard and play almost exclusively to the few rows in front of the stage.  And the greatest superstar doesn’t walk off stage after 70 minutes of all of this, failing to return for even one encore.

Despite the fact that Elvis was clearly struggling, a deal was inexplicably struck for him to record an in-concert TV special in June 1977. It would provide a sad final chapter to Elvis’s career.


Harry Connick Jr: True Love. A Celebration of Cole Porter (CD Review)

There is good news for Harry Connick Jr fans: his new album, a tribute to the songs of Cole Porter, is his best work since Songs I Heard, released in 2001.  In truth, it doesn’t have much competition in that regard, because, after that album, Connick took a series of disappointing musical detours.  First, he recorded easy listening albums that were one thing that Connick had never been: dull and boring.  Then, he revisited the funk sound of some of his 1990s albums (which I never had an objection to), but the resulting album, Smokey Mary, seemed half-hearted and even regurgitated tracks from Star Turtle to make up its rather meagre running time.  Then there were forays into country(ish) and pop.  By this time, I had stopped buying Connick albums.  Listening to the tracks on Youtube or a streaming service showed me quite clearly that he had given up on the music that made him famous, and therefore I gave up on him. 

Until now.

True Love is a brilliant return to form, and his first release after changing labels to Verve.  It is unclear just what made Connick revert back to his earlier style, but it is most welcome, and from the opening bars of Anything Goes many Connick fans (and maybe ex-fans) will give a collective sigh of relief – because this actually sounds like a Harry Connick Jr album.  The wonderful thing about Harry’s earlier albums such as Songs I Heard or Blue Light Red Light, is that the arrangements on them were both slightly wacky and instantly recognisable as Connick’s.  In fact, I would go as far as to say that Connick’s writing for a big band had a style just as recognisable as Nelson Riddle or Gordon Jenkins had.  Luckily, the new album doesn’t see any attempt to change that style or to tone it down.  If you loved Come By Me, released some twenty years ago, then you will love this.

There are many highlights.  For example, the album opens with Anything Goes, with the big band sounding just as it would have done in Connick’s heyday.  Vocally, Connick sounds younger than he has done for years.  Sure, the voice is a bit darker, and the vibrato slightly wider, but he’s not a twenty-year-old anymore. What shines through this opening number, though, is that he sounds unshackled – and perhaps he is.  There is a sense here that a decision has been made to give up on trying to be commercial and reaching out to a wider audience, and of a musician just doing what he wants – and, in this case, it means using some slightly racy alternate lyrics about Grandma going clubbing, extra-marital affairs, and nudist parties.

I Love Paris is even better, with the orchestration and arrangement seemingly influenced by what would have been heard at the Cotton Club in the late 1920s or early 1930s.  The chorus taken up by the clarinet seems to cross that early Ellington sound with gypsy jazz, but soon (perhaps too soon) the baton is passed to saxophone, trumpet, bass, piano, drum, and finally trombone solos (with Lucien Barbarin as the guest trombone soloist). 

For anyone who has seen Connick live, or who owns the 20, 25, or 30 albums, it is wonderful to have a number here that spotlights his piano playing.  Begin the Beguine is bookended by a solo piano rendition of the song, with the band taking centre stage for the central section.  This isn’t as epic a piano solo as the ten-minute Avalon on the Swinging Out Live video, but the style and sound is the same – and one wishes that the decision had been made to make the whole track a solo.  As it is, with this being the only number without a vocal, it serves as a timely interlude before he swings his way through the remaining four songs.

Of those, True Love and You’re Sensational are the second and third songs here to be pulled out from the soundtrack to High Society (Mind If I Make Love To You was the first), but it’s the album’s finale, You Do Something To Me, which works best out of this final batch of numbers, as Connick’s arrangement has a kitchen-sink approach throwing in influences from his Sinatra-style vocal through to Latin and New Orleans elements in the orchestration. 

One can only hope that this is (in the words of Steve Allen) the start of something big.  It’s just a shame that it has taken so long to persuade Connick that this is what he should be doing.  It is understandable, of course, that artists do want to try new things and go down different avenues (I’ve written a book on Bobby Darin, and if anyone highlights that approach to a music career, it’s him), but the problem with that is that artists now make one album every three years rather than three albums every one year – and you can lose your core audience if you abandon them for years at a time.  Given his tour celebrating New Orleans last year, and now the new big band album, the stars seem to be aligning for Connick to make a musical comeback.   

Eddie Izzard at Norwich Theatre Royal: Review

The fact that Eddie Izzard is even coming to a relatively small theatre such as the Theatre Royal in Norwich instead of performing at arenas as he has done in the past, is perhaps a clue that he doesn’t have the audience pulling power that he once had. Or perhaps I could be generous and assume that he simply wanted to reach as many people as possible on this, his final tour before he attempts to become an MP.

Anyone who has seen the DVDs of his stand-up shows from the last eight years or so will know that he has lost his mojo a little. He doesn’t tell jokes as he’s not that type of comedian, and while his bizarre, off-on-a-tangent imagination was funny twenty years ago, it has become stale now, and his one-man sketches have now become so ridiculously long that they are stretched to breaking point and seem self-indulgent. (Talking of self-indulgent, I have never know a programme at a Theatre Royal show costing £10! And no, I didn’t).

For someone of my age that’s rather sad, for Izzard was THE comedian for me and my friends around the time I left home when I was in my early twenties. The VHS tapes (yes, that long ago) of Live at the Ambassadors and Unrepeatable were treasured and watched time and time again, and each time we laughed uproariously at the thoughts of cats drilling behind the sofa or wondering why people being chased by daleks simply didn’t go up some stairs which the daleks couldn’t get up. It was perfectly normal and common to quote Izzard in conversations, just as previous generations had quoted Monty Python. He reached his peak with the Glorious, Definite Article, and Dressed to Kill tours (on DVD), and then the sheen seemed to rub off a little and later efforts didn’t have the same sparkle.

In the first half of the show tonight at the Theatre Royal, there was certainly some of the magic of the early days. Not Izzard at his very best, but he had interesting things to say and he kept the performance moving along at a fair lick as he discussed William the Conquerer and why, if God created all living things, how come no animals other than humans pray. It was the second half where it fell to pieces, and it became a self-indulgent bore for much of the time – and even if Izzard isn’t always funny, he’s rarely been dull. Jokes and mimes were extended for far too long, and the performance seemed to lack shape. The final section, on Lord of the Rings, just ended suddenly with no great hilarious finale, and then it was “good night,” and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience thinking, “oh? that’s not an ending.” And it wasn’t, for he came back for an encore about space which was a damp squib, too. The same feeling occurred at the end of the first half, where he simply announced an interval at a time when he just seemed to be getting into his stride. It was almost as if he had a clock on stage, and the show was being run by that rather than being driven by the material. The issue of jokes and mimes being dragged on for too long has been raised by critics for quite a while now, and one wonders why some of those criticisms haven’t been taken on board.

With Izzard soon running to be an MP, the show would probably have been better if he got serious for a while and told the audience why he was doing that, what got him into politics, and what he thought of current politics. Just as when he, rather surprisingly, talked about the death of Princess Diana in one of his heyday shows, he doesn’t have to try to be funny in order to be interesting. There were indications he might go down that route when he briefly turned to his marathon runs, and the passing of his parents, but soon we were back to how Pingu might tell Bible stories. It is no coincidence, perhaps, that two of the biggest laughs were when Izzard told us traditional jokes told to him by his ninety-year-old dad.

All of that said, it was enjoyable (especially the first half), and I’m certainly glad to have seen Izzard in person and the audience seemed to lap it up – but whether that was because he was hilariously funny or whether it was because he was simply Eddie Izzard, is up for debate. There was a standing ovation from many in the audience at the end, but it felt less like an audience showing appreciation for a comedian at the peak of his powers, and much more like an audience paying tribute to, and giving support for, a man who has rightly become a national treasure and with whom fond memories of youth are attached.

Ella Fitzgerald: These Are The Blues (review)

There are a handful of Ella’s albums for Verve that more obscure or forgotten than the rest, and These Are the Blues from 1964 is one of them. Some of them, ironically, include some of her best work, such as the Whisper Not collection, but this blues album doesn’t fall into that category. It finds her in a small-group setting, led by Wild Bill Davis on organ.

The organ is the first of the issues with the album. As with the later with-organ album Lady Time from the late 1970s, it fails to give her the rhythmic drive that a piano-led combo or full big band can. It may be fitting for the blues, but it’s not fitting for Ella Fitzgerald. But then, for the most part, neither are the blues themselves.

The impression one gets when listening to the album is that Fitzgerald doesn’t really know what to do with these songs. She was fine with throwing in a blues song into an album project or a concert, but here she’s faced with ten of them. She was not a blues singer in the first place, although she successfully included them in her live shows from the ’50s onwards (maybe before). But in those cases, she took a blues number and moulded it into something that fit her. In the case of this studio album, she does almost the opposite in that she tries to fit the songs, and she often loses all identity. For a good third of the album she sounds more like Pearl Bailey than Ella Fitzgerald – check out the spoken “this house is surely getting raided” at the beginning of the LP for proof of that (and here how uncomfortable she sounds saying it). Elsewhere she sounds more like Dinah Washington, and she also sometimes seems to be channelling Bessie Smith. She was doing party-piece style impressions of Dinah and Pearl as part of her live shows around this time (normally in her version of Bill Bailey), and that can be fun – but it doesn’t work when she does it for a full song and in a serious number (and probably doesn’t realise she is doing it either).

In concert, even without the impressions, she could be remarkably impressive on a blues number. Check out her version of “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” that was the encore for her concert at Montreux in 1975. It is stunning. The same is true when she launched into what she often referred to as a “Joe Williams Blues,” a fast blues that she would ultimately turn into a masterclass in improvisation. But those are more about improvisation than blues.

On These Are the Blues, she occasionally does use the song as a launchpad for improvisation, most notably on Trouble In Mind when the faster tempo kicks in. But the song loses all meaning. This eight bar blues is essentially a song about suicide – but Ella can’t help but give it a happy ending. On the uptempo repeat of the verse with the lyrics “I’m gonna lay my head on some lonesome railroad line/Let the 2.19 train ease my troubled mind” she changes them to “I’m gonna lay my head on some lonesome track/But when I hear that whistle, I’m just gonna pull it back.” But at least the song DOES sound like an Ella number, unlike some of the others. Elsewhere she works through something like See See Rider at something of a snail’s pace, and with no obvious awareness of where it’s going. Even St Louis Blues, which she often sang in concert so brilliantly, is disappointing, sung at a slow pace and with Ella seemingly making up verses as she goes along, with half of them not making any sense – and for over six minutes.

The irony here is that there was a blues album in Ella. In 1996, a blues album was pulled together from her studio and live albums at Pablo, with whom she recorded from 1972 through to the end of her career nearly twenty years later. There, on a label with no intentions of bowing to commercial interests (check out the covers!), Ella worked entirely in the jazz genre, with Norman Granz placing her in various combos and bands. So on “Bluella” (as the compilation is called), we get her wonderful version of Fine and Mellow from 1974, sung with a combo; Basella, Duke’s Place with the Duke Ellington orchestra, and a stunning ten minute C Jam Blues with Count Basie and his band. If you want to hear Ella singing the blues, then that’s the place to go. These Are the Blues is out of print on CD – and, for once, that might be for a good reason.

Review: 13 Reasons Why (season 3)

This review contains spoilers.

You have to feel sorry for those associated with the making of 13 Reasons Why. Despite good intentions, it has come under fire for each of its three seasons. It has been accused of romanticising suicide, of depicting shocking events including rape and sexual assault in too much of a graphic way. It also has been blamed for children’s reaction to the show, despite the fact it is clearly not aimed at kids and that their parents should be to blame for not keeping an eye on what their pre-teens are watching.

The knives were out for the third season before it was released. Critics have asked why there needs to be a third season – a question I find rather odd when the same question isn’t asked of other TV shows. Does their need to be any TV series? And now that we have the third season, the critics have declared it depressing and monotonous – presumably because there is little within the new series that can be viewed as shocking or graphic. What’s more, some critics were arguing this in reviews published less than twelve hours after the series dropped – and we have been told that reviewers didn’t get copies in advance. And if that doesn’t tell you that reviews were written before the writers had seen the series, nothing will!

It certainly seems true to say that the third season is the least impressive so far. Dealing with the murder of serial rapist Bryce Walker, it seems overlong, baggy, and contrived. Much of this is to do with the introduction of a new character, Ani, who dominates the series. When she’s not on screen, she is narrating the action. But Ani is just a plot device. She is there so that we get to see what happened in Bryce’s house. She is, basically, our eyes and ears. But the plot device is clunky and jarring, as is the awful decision of using three different timeframes – Ani talking to the police, the post-murder scenes, and the pre-murder scenes. Again, it’s jarring, not helped by the fact that the makers decided to indicate time frames by going to black and white or by changing aspect ratios. Viewers are clever enough to work it out for themselves – they don’t need on-screen indicators in this way.

There has also been criticism (and in some cases, shock) amongst viewers on social media that a different side of Bryce Walker is shown in this series. But I would suggest this was a brave move on the part of the writers. Bryce was the only one-dimensional character in the first two series. Everyone else in the main cast were much more developed, whereas Bryce was just the bad guy. But people in real life are not good or bad guys. Everyone does good and bad things, some of us more good than bad, and vice versa. But those criticising the move to humanise Bryce are suggesting that people can’t change, and that redemption is never possible, and that some people have no redeeming features whatsoever. Bryce, in the end, doesn’t get redeemed. He tries, but finds it difficult to escape his old ways, and in the end that brings about his murder. Interestingly, I got similar comments from people when I wrote Breaking Down, a sequel to Breaking Point, my novel about homophobic bullying. In the sequel, the bully of the first book tries to make good, but it didn’t sit well with all readers. Likewise, in the first book, I had one of the victims doing bad things, and that was seen as problematic too. “But he’s the good guy,” I was told. Now, whether I or 13 Reasons Why managed to deal with this supposed redemption is up for debate, but it’s not as if Bryce suddenly becomes a good guy or stops doing bad things – as some commentators would have us believe. He’s still an arsehole, and now a self-pitying one.

But, for all it’s awkwardness and ridiculous length, 13 Reasons Why still remains the only programme willing to delve into serious, difficult teenage issues in this way. In reviews of previous seasons, I have highlighted how other TV shows aimed at the same age group give easy answers or gloss over difficult issues as soon as they have brought them up. In 13 Reasons Why these things are ugly, and messy, and life-changing.

There are some truly remarkable and important moments in this third season. Has there ever been a more honest portrayal of the aftermath of male on male sexual assault than in 13 Reasons Why? The moment in episode eight where Tyler finally tells someone face to face about what happened to him months earlier is devastating, brilliantly written, and stunningly acted.

The end of season two found Bryce basically getting away with rape thanks to the court system. I though this was a mistake. It would have been unrealistic to show him getting the punishment he deserves, but in this instance I thought it would pass on the right message to viewers, giving them the courage to report crimes against them. In this series, though, the show makes up for this thanks to the moving sequence in episode ten in which Jessica talks to the school about her experience and members of the school audience stand up and admit they were “survivors” too.

There will be a fourth and final season of the show next year – a rather odd choice given that the final episode of this season seems to wrap up the story rather efficiently. One has to wonder if the show could have gone a different route, perhaps the way of Skins, where a new series brings a new cast of characters and fresh storylines. Quite what the fourth season will bring is unknown at this stage.

13 Reasons Why is not perfect. It tries hard, and it makes some horrible decisions from time to time, but it is remarkably important. Teenage life is horrible – perhaps it always has been – and, if critics and adult reviewers are criticising the show, perhaps it is because it bares some ugly truths that we, as adults, don’t want to face. Bullying, rape, gun violence, sexual assault, drug addiction, violence, mental health issues – they are, unfortunately, part of teenager’s lives. We get them to put on their school uniform, send them off to school in the morning, and assume the school is looking after them for the six or seven hours before they come home. We, as adults, hate to be reminded that sometimes our trust in the school is a mistake. Schools can be ugly places. 13 Reasons Why throws that unsettling fact right in front of us, and it seems that too many (re)viewers would rather complain that the images are too graphic or shocking than accept that there is a problem out there, and that the depictions in the series are far closer to the truth than anyone wants to admit – and so we blame the show rather than the real life it is depicting.