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Doctor Who: City of Death (parts three and four)

The great big question, of course, is not whether the Doctor, Romana, and Duggan will save all of human history by defeating Scaroth on the shores of primeval Earth four hundred million years ago, but whether our son would come to his senses and enjoy this story. Happily, he did, and even conceded that the first half was also pretty exciting. Of course he enjoyed Duggan. Heroes in Doctor Who who just want to punch and thump their way through the narrative are pretty rare, so Duggan’s fists-first approach resulted in a few giggles. When Duggan observes “That’s a spaceship!” in part four, how could you not just love the guy?

But our son is also very clear that Scaroth is, somehow, one of the creepiest and scariest of all Who monsters. “He’s just got one eye, and no nose, and no mouth,” he told me with some urgency. He also loved/hated the part where Catherine Schell unrolls an old parchment to see that one of the green-skinned, one-eyed splinters of Scaroth was hanging out in ancient Egypt with Thoth and Horus and, presumably, Sutekh, and I could feel our son’s skin crawl across the sofa.

Part four also has the delightful cameo appearance of Eleanor Bron and John Cleese as a pair of art snobs critiquing the TARDIS, as they’ve mistaken it for an installation in a gallery. When it dematerializes, Bron, without a note of passion in her quiet voice, calls the installation “exquisite,” having no real idea what she’s seen. I love this bit. It certainly takes you out of the story to see John Cleese making a cameo, but it’s so funny that it’s impossible to object. The whole production’s like this. If there’s a flaw anywhere, who cares.

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Time Bandits (1981)

Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits was made for an insanely small budget of just $5 million for a movie that looks so much larger than that. David Rappaport plays the unelected leader of a gang of time-hopping criminals who burst through an imaginative kid’s bedroom and bring him along on their adventures, and the cast includes John Cleese, Sean Connery, and Michael Palin, who cowrote the movie with Gilliam, in memorable parts, along with a who’s who of familiar faces in very tiny parts. Blink and you’ll miss Jim Broadbent, David Daker, and Neil McCarthy, among others.

I’ve never loved any of Terry Gilliam’s “solo” films, not even Bandits, which I first saw when I was ten. I admire it and I enjoy it, but it’s so prickly that I can’t embrace it. It’s not a comforting movie. It’s a weird, wonderful, deeply unpredictable, and occasionally funny movie, but it’s certainly not comforting. I remember just about everything in this movie getting under my skin and unsettling me when I first saw it, and then wanting to see it again as soon as possible, hoping for answers. This movie just refuses to provide any.

So I saw it several more times when I was in middle school, because HBO played it regularly for a while, and maybe once when I was in high school, and I don’t think I’ve seen it since. On the other hand, my wife thinks that she may have seen this movie more times than any other film, and our son just had his mind completely blown by it, so I’m definitely in the minority around these parts.

The world that Gilliam built in Time Bandits is incredibly vivid and incredibly ugly. Absolutely everything is dirty and wet. I like how all the costumes (designed by Jim Acheson!) are incredibly complicated but somehow never quite seen very clearly. A being called Evil, played by David Warner, has these hideous hench-guard things with black cloaks and the skulls of animals, but they never stay still long enough for us to focus on what they are, and subsequently dismiss them. So I think this all adds up to an experience that can get around the back corners of your mind and stay there, unsettling you. The scene where the heroes run down an impossible corridor with the booming face of the Supreme Being haunted me, the Supreme Being’s refusal to politely explain everything to Kevin bothered me, and the sad coda back in the present day – slash – real world gave me nightmares.

But our kid just loved it all, so never mind me when I was ten. He’s made of sterner stuff. He was so fired up by the movie that we had to banish him to the floor because he couldn’t keep still on the sofa and was driving me nuts with his kicking. When we got to the climactic battle against Evil, he was on his feet and jumping up and down like he was on a pogo stick. There was a small part of me that worried that seven might have been too young for this movie, and that part was as wrong as can be.

Our boy doesn’t seem to have very many nightmares, and doesn’t have trouble falling asleep after he’s seen something frightening that we’ve watched. Time Bandits caused me troubles, but I don’t think I’ll need to come back and edit this post with an addendum that the grisly fate of Kevin’s parents came back to bother him in the middle of the night.

In case you didn’t know this, Time Bandits was one of the first movies produced by George Harrison’s company Handmade Films, and he contributed the wonderful song “Dream Away,” which plays over the end credits and which I have always enjoyed. A year later, the song was included on Harrison’s 1982 LP Gone Troppo. It’s by far the best song on the record.

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The Avengers 6.15 – Look – (stop me if you’ve heard this one) But There Were These Two Fellers…

The brilliance of The Avengers is that it is said to be a program where absolutely anything can happen. So here, the veteran writer Dennis Spooner, who had contributed to Doctor Who and several of the ITC adventure series, decides to test that hypothesis and pushes the show farther into weirdness and farce than it had ever been before. It still doesn’t break. Now having said that, you can probably see the boundary from here. This is a deeply, deeply silly and hilarious episode, but it honestly doesn’t need to get any sillier than this.

If you’ve never had the great pleasure, “Look – (stop me if you’ve heard this one) But There Were These Two Fellers…” concerns a gang of “resting” vaudevillians who are targeting the board of directors of the Caritol Land and Development Corporation, a big firm that has just landed an extremely important government contract. But among their holdings is a defunct chain of music halls and palladium theaters, and a crooked Punch and Judy man who knows more than he’s letting on seems to have convinced the gang that by wiping them out, they can open the curtains on their old shows again. Jimmy Jewel and Julian Chagrin play the lead killers, and familiar faces Robert James and Talfryn Thomas are among the other “resting” artistes.

Not one line of this is played straight. Getting to the hilarious final fight, we get to enjoy some of the all-time great television death scenes. Years ago, I watched this one with my older kids, and my boy just about stopped breathing with laughter when Jimmy Jewel introduces some puffed-up aristocrat to his magic carpet trick. John Cleese plays a civil servant tasked with painting the copyrighted faces of clowns onto eggs, and Bernard Cribbins plays a gag writer who comes up with far, far more duds than winners, and they both meet hysterically gruesome ends. Both actors just had me in stitches before they met their grisly deaths. Cleese, in particular, is a delight in the role of a put-upon government worker who desperately wants to avoid letting any member of the public into his office.

Of course our son loved it. He laughed like a hyena in places. This would be a terrible introduction to The Avengers, but I can’t imagine anybody in the world not liking this. For a hour about one sick-in-the-head murder after another, it’s just so darn joyous, which makes it even more amazing that this could very well have been the program’s final episode! I don’t believe that ABC had renewed the show when this was made in March 1968.

As I mentioned last month, in the US, The Avengers was running opposite Lost in Space, and NBC’s The Virginian, which was crushing both programs. CBS gave the ax to Space, and in the usual sort of Nielsen circumstances, there was really no reason to expect that ABC would ask for more Avengers. By the spring of 1968, the spy craze was ebbing, Diana Rigg had moved on, and the ratings were dropping. But ABC did order a full 26 episode season of the program anyway, because something was going to happen in the fall of 1968 that was totally unlike the usual sort of Nielsen circumstances… but more on that another day.

That’s all from The Avengers for now, but Steed and Tara King will be back in August for more adventures. Stay tuned!

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The Goodies 4.4 – The Goodies and the Beanstalk

Forty-three years ago on December 24, the BBC showed “The Goodies and the Beanstalk” for the first of several times. It is probably the episode that audiences in the UK saw more than any other in the seventies. It was repeated often around Christmastime, to audiences as big as 11.5 million viewers. So to celebrate its 43rd anniversary, we watched it, leaving a very hyper and keyed-up little boy who laughed all the way through it and who’s going to have trouble enough getting to sleep tonight anyway.

In the summer of 1973, the trio got the go-ahead for a fourth series of six episodes as well as a separate 45-minute Christmas special, to be made entirely on film (with a sound recordist this time! They had money! Real money!). The special was broadcast as the middle episode of the series, and it gleefully sends up all the usual Christmas pantomime silliness.

The beanstalk in this version of the story is the centerpiece of the game show It’s a Knockout. The Goodies, destitute and having sold their three-wheeled bicycle for a can of baked beans, represent Britain in the competition and climb the beanstalk to find a retired zookeeper, played by Alfie Bass, pretending to be a giant and feeding chickens a formula that has them laying golden eggs. Zingers in the story this time are aimed at the Marx Brothers, Cole Porter, and Alfred Hitchcock, but the show comes to an end before John Cleese, appearing in cameo right at the end, can take the story into a parody of Aladdin, another annual pantomime tradition in the UK, as well.

Shooting on film the whole time gave the trio the opportunities for lots and lots of sight gags, sped-up film, and slapstick. I honestly didn’t think any of it hit the heights of their other work, but our son embraced the silliness completely and was hopping up and down in places. The climactic battle this time is with an army of geese, represented by models, miniatures, men in costumes, you name it. It must have taken forever to shoot, and amusingly – considering their decisive victory two years later in their 1975 Christmas special over Prime Minister Sooty’s puppet government – the geese are much more successful in antagonizing our heroes. But beans get dumped on people, Tim gets eggs dropped on his head, and Germans fall into a kiddie pool, so our boy was in stitches.

A note on the ever-present racy content in this kids’ program – look, John Cleese called it that, and he’s right about many things – this time out, we don’t just get surprise photos of topless girls, we get Tim raised by the beanstalk over a wall of a French nudist colony to see a few seconds of two naked ladies tossing around a beach ball. Can you imagine the BBC letting Tim, Graeme, and Bill get away with gags like this these days? The seventies, man. It was another planet.

Merry Christmas to all of you good readers! Take care and watch good TV!

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