Wednesday, October 10, 2018

George Fairbrother's Favourites and Recommendations

A range of reviews, lists and recommendations can also be found at George Fairbrother's IMDB, BookBub, Goodreads, Amazon and other social media pages.

Link to all at;

Patrick O’Brian and the Aubrey Maturin Series

In my opinion, for what its worth,  Patrick O’Brian, as a historical novelist, is in a league of his own. His unmatched talents are showcased in his series of early nineteenth century naval adventures, featuring Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend, surgeon and spy, Stephen Maturin. The series of twenty-one novels, the final of which was not completed, and was published posthumously, was described by William Waldegrave as;

“…one of the greatest cycles of storytelling in the English language...”  

Bernard Cornwell, no slouch when it comes to historical
fiction himself, wrote of volume nineteen, The Hundred Days;

"...When he is on this form the rest of us who write of the Napoleonic conflict might as well give up and try a new career..."
For those like me, who came to O’Brian without having read, and therefore having been acclimatised to, the style of Jane Austen or her contemporaries, Patrick O'Brian can be tough going at first.  But I strongly urge persistence, because once you become used to the narrative, which is written in the way that it might have been around the time of the adventures themselves, there will be no going back. Once you are comfortable with the style, one of the most endearing aspects is the embedded humour, which is not always easily discerned during a first reading.
Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey
To anyone tackling O’Brian for the first time, my suggestion is to select the fourth and fifth instalments in the series; The Mauritius Command, and Desolation Island.  In fact, I would actually suggest beginning with the latter. I found that having acclimatised myself with these two volumes for a start, I could go back and tackle the first books, Master and Commander and Post Captain, which were for me a little too  intimidating first up.

An enjoyable  film adaptation, Master and Commander-The Far Side of the World , starring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany in the title roles, and directed by Peter Weir, was released in 2003.  Although a critical and commercial success, the film sadly did not perform quite well enough at the box office to warrant further instalments.

See more about the film adaptation at IMDB;

Our Friends in the North and When the Boat Comes In

Our Friends in the North, written by Peter Flannery, features four friends from Newcastle, and follows their tumultuous lives over a period of around thirty years, from the Labour election victory in 1964.   

The principal characters are played by Chris Ecclestone, Gina McKee, Mark Strong and Daniel Craig, aided by an ensemble of great supporting artists. The evolving politics, industrial upheavals; the end of the Post-War Consensus and Thatcher years, and the resultant social and economic changes are key factors within the story. It’s well worth researching the historical background that underpins the narrative, and in particular the real life inspiration for a number of the supporting characters.  Eagle-eyed readers might have noticed the dedication in the first of the Armstrong and Burton novels, The Banqueting Club.
​James Bolam plays the lead role, Jack Ford, in When the Boat
Comes In; a brilliantly and  intricately constructed character, and as complex and enigmatic as Patrick O'Brian's Stephen Maturin, although for very different reasons.  The story follows the fortunes of Jack himself, his friends, the Seaton family, and fictional Tyneside community of Gallowshields, from the end of the Great War through to the late 1930s. 

An ongoing theme is the personal legacy of the Great War, particularly as to how it affects the main character, and how he's not above cynically trading off his war experiences to further his own interests, in business and socially. But as the cycle progresses, and society appears to move on, it becomes apparent that he cannot. The character of Jack Ford is a perpetual enigma; just when you've come to the conclusion that he is irredeemably awful, he does something - an act  of generosity or unselfish kindness - that totally changes your mind. This complicated balance is kept up over all four series, and I'm not sure is really resolved even in the final scenes.  

Another standout performance, for me, amongst an ensemble of incredibly talented actors, is John Nightingale who played Tom Seaton.  He sadly passed away in 1980, at the age of just 37.
Jean Heywood, Malcolm Terris and Roger Avon, prominent cast members of When the Boat Comes In, each have brief but memorable cameos in Our Friends in the North, linking the two programmes  nicely together. (In my own mind, at least.)

Find out more, by following the links to IMDB here;

Sharpe  (Based on the novels by Bernard Cornwell)
Another favourite, and a fascinating example of how a series of novels and the accompanying dramatisations can co-develop and feed off  each other.

The stunt work and action sequences, particularly those shot at night, are extremely well done, and Tom Clegg (1934-2016), whose credits also include The Sweeney and McVicar,  must be one of the most underrated action directors of all time.  The often harsh conditions in which the actors and crew worked, particularly in the post-Soviet Ukraine,  gives these series of films a confronting sense of realism, enhanced by the haunting voice of folk singer John Tams, playing Rifleman Hagman, and who also provides  the musical soundtrack.
Sean Bean (Sharpe) and Daragh O'Malley (Sgt Harper)
The title character was originally to be played by Paul McGann, but he was in injured early on, playing football during a break in filming.  He was duly replaced by Sean Bean, whose performance went on to inform the character in future novels , and whose commitment to the role,and to his colleagues, attracted  unanimous praise and admiration from the crew, his co-stars , the audience, as well as from Bernard Cornwell himself, whose novels inspired the series. The supporting cast are an essential part, including Daragh O'Malley  (Sgt Harper), Jason Salkey (Rifleman Harris), Michael Mears (Rifleman Cooper) , Lyndon Davies (Rifleman Perkins) the afore mentioned John Tams, along with many others, both regular and guest actors.
Nine years after Sharpe's Waterloo, (1997), director and production crew, along with a number of surviving characters  and a contingent of the stuntmen that had been such an integral part of the original sequence of films, returned for Sharpe's Challenge, then later Sharpe's Peril, two stories set in India.  Easily as good, and in places, even better than the original series.

Typically British - A Personal Journey Through British Cinema
A documentary by director Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, The Queen) , and a comprehensive introduction into the post-silent world of British cinema.  The opening quote sets the tone, as Stephen Frears considers an observation attributed to  French director Francois Truffaut, that there is great incompatibility between the words British and Cinema.

Well, bollocks to Truffaut, is Frears's succinct response.

The World War Two propaganda machine is touched upon, celebrating the unspeakably moving, yet understated acting of stalwarts like John Mills, and of the emerging documentary movement, but the particular focus is on the post war period and the New Wave, through the eyes of Stephen Frears himself and a number of his mentors and contemporaries, including Alexander Mackendrick, Alan Parker, and Michael Apted.  Writer and critic Gavin Lambert offers a priceless rant about the class-bound repression of Brief Encounter, and the how the demise of Jack Warner in The Blue Lamp seemed to signal that other voices – and dialects- were soon going to be heard. Social changes were underway in Britain, a fact reflected in the emergence of stories from the working class point of view.  Trains were replaced by buses, while factory workers united in defense of conditions in The Man in the White Suit.  

Tea break! We had to fight for it!

We’re introduced to Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Ken
Loach.  The discussion contemplates whether or not Ken Loach's Kes is the best film made in Britain since the war (as far as 1994, at least); then meanders from Woodfall Films to David Lean; from Goldcrest to  white hot  plays by Granada; and from  the BBC’s iconic Wednesday Play series to successes and failures in Hollywood.  There is an overwhelming sense of frustration that a significant amount of great work was done for television rather than cinema, a wasted opportunity resulting from restrictive union rules and short-sighted, risk averse studio executives.
Stephen Frears also discusses how Lindsay Anderson's If, on which he worked as an assistant, was a very different take on the relationships between teachers and their students, from the good-natured yet restrained mischief caused by short-trousered troublemakers in some black and white movies of a previous generation. If culminates in a student uprising that results in the  headmaster being shot. I wonder if Lindsay Anderson or the young Stephen Frears could have even contemplated the reality of school shootings that would emerge years later.
A theme in common for a number of British directors is the strong desire to make British films telling British stories, with Alan Parker conceding that the reason he wrote his successful Bugsy Malone was out of frustration, as  his other projects were being derided as too parochial.  A number of directors have, understandably succumbed to the  allure of greater opportunities, both creatively and financially, to be found in Hollywood.

Frears concludes, rather pessimistically that, for the most part, people want to see  American films. But, he acknowledges, just as Four Weddings and a Funeral  steams into view, that success is always just around the corner.

By the Sword Divided
Another great period drama from the BBC, two series were made between 1983 and 1985.  It follows the fortunes of a Royalist family, the Laceys, during the English Civil War.   As the title might suggest, they are torn apart by their opposing politics, with ultimately deadly results.  This for me is one of the occasions when the combination of a great script and convincing performances elevate the result to something far greater than the sum of the parts.

I've read some  commentary that says that it is heavily biased towards the Royalist perspective, although I disagree, and think they give both sides a fair and sympathetic representation. The characters are wholly relatable in a modern sense, which is not always the case even in the best period dramas, and the human cost of the conflict is a key part of the story.  There are some stand out scenes, including a witch trial and the political machinations surrounding the trial and execution of the King.

Please Sir (1971) directed by Mark Stuart

A perhaps slightly surprising addition to the above, but this movie from 1971 is one of the few occasions from the period of remaking television sitcoms for cinema, that  the vibe of the original series was captured so beautifully.   This is one of my favourite movies of all time in actual fact, because the fundamental themes are about being nice to your friends, sticking up for them, and consciously including  and taking care of those who are different and that are less fortunate.

Like many of the comedies of the day, particularly those made by ITV franchises, there is a good deal of very unsubtle social commentary.  Class divisions, inner-city poverty, and race relations form an ongoing theme, but are dealt with comically and you never feel like you are being preached at.   

It also doesn't hesitate to poke fun at the attempts of people of liberal sensibilities to readily accept allegations of racism, and to over compensate with their sympathy.  A black student, Wesley, played by Brinsley Forde, is accidentally left behind when the coach, enroute to the school camp, departs without him after a roadside stop. He is picked up by Penny (Jill Kerman) and convinces her that he’s been the tragic victim of his white fascist teacher who is also his slumlord.

When they catch up to the bus, the very benign - and scrupulously mindful of other cultures - Mr Hedges (John Alderton) attempts to thank her for taking care of their  student, and she lets him have it; Trevor Huddlestone was right about people like you. Swine!

Please Sir - IMDB

A Dance to the Music of Time

A 1997 BBC adaptation of the seemingly endless cycle of novels by Anthony Powell. Essentially it is about a group of privileged, upper middle class literary types, who manage to coast through life without seeming to do very much at all, with a couple of notable exceptions. Despite this, it's totally compelling, particularly the episode that is set in World War Two.

Anthony Powell was well placed in the literary and party scene of the 1930s, and many of the characters are based on people he knew during his life and career, literary and military. The Anthony Powell Society has a fascinating page detailing the real life inspirations for many of his characters;

You can listen to Anthony Powell himself chatting to Roy Plomley in 1976, on the BBC Desert Island Discs programme here;

Simon Russell Beale as Widmerpool
A degree of tolerance, along with a suspension of disbelief, is required to enjoy the final instalment, although it actually improves after the first viewing. The principal character Nick Jenkins (based on Powell himself) had hitherto been played by James Purefoy, but Jenkins was recast with John Standing for the final episode. This could be a little disconcerting at first, particularly as James Purefoy had created such a likeable character, and had anchored the narrative of the first three episodes. Some of the other essential characters - ones that weren't recast - tended to age at their own rate, regardless of the timeline. JG Quiggin (Adrian Scarborough) and Kenneth Widmerpool (Simon Russell Beale) seemed to age about half century in the decade or so after the war, whereas Pamela Flitton (Miranda Richardson) barely developed a grey hair. The makeup, now far more obvious with HD television, was not good at all, particularly on the standout character, Widmerpool, otherwise played superbly all the way through by Simon Russell Beale (pictured).

Despite these flaws in the final episode, this remains one of my favourite dramas of all time, largely because the actors bring the characters to life so beautifully.

IMDB has some preview clips, as well as the usual cast summaries and reviews. Link here;

Photo Credits; IMDB and Amazon

In memory of Rick Parfitt, rhythm guitarist, songwriter and vocalist with legendary British band, Status Quo, who passed away on Christmas Eve, 2016

Remembering Bob Willis, England fast bowler, who passed away 
December 4th 2019, Aged 70.


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