SUTEKH – THE HERETIC

Part of the Gods And Monsters saga from Cutaway Comics, Sutekh – The Heretic is a one-off tale featuring the Egyptian god of death, the Tythonian Beast himself: Sutekh the Destroyer.

Rescued from oblivion, fallen God Sutekh the Destroyer leads an unlikely army of liberation to free a far flung galaxy from the clutches of evil demon Azag. But will the found adoration of billions of freed slaves be his undoing?

Publisher Gareth Kavanagh picks up the story: “It was an irresistible chance to introduce Sutekh, the Egyptian god of death into the narrative. The dramatic potential of a one-shot having him wreak havoc was ideal for Ian to get his teeth into. And then there’s the potential of pairing Sutekh and Omega against each other in future volumes… it’s going to be epic!”.

Written by IAN WINTERTON (Demon of Eden, the Ballad of Halo Jones stage adaptation) with art by ADRIAN SALMON and lettering by COLIN BROCKHURST. OMEGA & SUTEKH is presented as a full colour prestige format comic with extras and a VAM disc packed with goodies.

Sutekh comes in a prestige comic together with an Omega adventure, written by MARK GRIFFITHS, with art by JOHN RIDGWAY. It can be purchased at the Cutaway Comics site here.

To view a trailer, animated by Mel Meanley, and written and directed by me, featuring Gabriel Woolf — who played Sutekh in 1974 Doctor Who story The Pyramids of Mars — click here.

A MEETING ON THE COMMON

Commissioned by Doctor Who fanzine Vworp Vworp!, A Meeting On The Common is an adaptation of the opening chapter of David Whittaker’s 1964 novel Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure With the Daleks. Written and directed by me, with stunning animation by Mel Meanley and atmospheric music from Andromeda Burrowes, it stars the voice talents of Steve Noonan, Adam Grayson, Helen Stirling and Kerry Ely.

It can only be watched on the DVD that comes free with Vworp Vworp! issue 6 which can be purchased here. Or, on YouTube, watch the teaser and the trailer.

TV REVIEW: Star Trek – Discovery – S01E1 & S0102

First look Netflix review: Star Trek – Discovery: Season 1 Episodes 1 and 2

On 25, September 2017
REVIEW OVERVIEW

Sonequa Martin-Green 10
Story 9.5
Excitement 9.5
OVERALL 9.6

Pitch perfect: this is TV trek that’s every bit as good – and maybe better – than JJ Abrahm’s feature film reboot.

Set phasers for goosebumps as Discovery’s cold open sees would-be Klingon prophet T’Kuvma (Chris Obi) giving a chilling declaration – in subtitled Klingon for extra Trekkie titillation – to his followers. His intention is, evoking ancient Klingon messiah-god Khaless, is to unite the 24 warring Klingon houses and declare war on the ever-encroaching Federation. His battle-cry ,“Remain Klingon”, some have noted is similar to a certain President’s insular cry of America First.

From there we travel to a distant desert world where our lead Michael Burnham (The Walking Dead’s Sonequa Martin-Green – excellent; she’ll be a show-in come awards season) and Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) do what all Star Trek crews do in pre-credit sequences: nonchalantly save an alien civilisation from extinction in a manner that is both exciting but pleasingly swift. Dialogue is snappy, the production values first-rate and the cast all pitch-perfect. Better yet, the quality doesn’t waver – this is TV trek that’s every bit as good – and maybe better – than JJ Abrahm’s feature film reboot.

The clue to the show’s apparent success (we’re going on the first two episodes here) can be found in the credit sequence. Though undoubtedly modern and stylish, it’s chock-full of classic Trek iconography. Similarly the music, which occasionally recalls the menace of the Daredevil theme, is liberally sprinkled with musical motifs from the classic series’ scores. This approach continues into the show proper, as sound effects first heard in the 1960s bleep and whoosh on the soundscape, and the spaceships and uniforms all look like those on the original show. Only better.

Set a decade prior to the starship Enterprise’s five year mission, the narrative of Discovery is kicked off by the Federation’s first encounter with the Klingons in a century (events which included those seen on the franchise’s last TV outing in 2005, Enterprise). Detailing those events is hard without committing spoiler crime, but suffice to say the action of this two-part opener takes place close to an accretion belt (where new planets are slowly formed, science fans) around a binary star system. We also spend some time, via flashback, seeing how Michael came to serve under Captain Georgiou seven years previously.

Michael is an outstandingly well-drawn character, and the fact she’s subtly steeped in Trek canon only adds to that strength. In the most basic way, she’s a mix of Kirk and Spock. Born human, she’s orphaned by Klingons (Kirk’s son, famously, was killed by Klingons) and adopted by Spock’s father, Sarek (James Frain, best known as the evil Theo Galavan in Gotham), and raised to be ultra-logical. She thus embodies the show’s age-old examination of logic versus emotion and, by the end of the second episode, she makes a decision that is, in a way, based on both at once. She wants to save her friends and believes doing so is “more important than Star Fleet’s principals”.

As well as the strong central characters, the two-parter is powered by a ticking-clock narrative that barely lets up. It’s never less than thrilling and, it has to be said, much more violent – whether hand-to-hand fighting or in a fantastic epic space battle – than most of Trek has ever been. Then again – there is a war on. Or is there? I guess we’ll find out.

Better than any Trekkie could have hoped for, Discovery is also accessible to casual viewers. Its storylining is so brilliantly tight, and the plot hurtles in truly unexpected directions, that most people will be desperate to beam down to Episode 3 as soon as humanly – or Vulcanly – possible.

This review was first published on the website Vodzilla. To read it there, together with many more of my reviews, click here.

INTERVIEW: DIRK MAGGS on ‘SANDMAN’

ENTER SANDMAN

With Audible’s Sandman adaptation due out in July, Ian Winterton spoke to radio drama pioneer Dirk Maggs about his 30 year quest to turn Neil Gaiman’s ground-breaking comic book into an “audio movie”.

“I will show you terror in a handful of dust.”

These words, featured in print adverts in 1988, introduced the worl d to a new comic book series from DC’s Vertigo imprint: The Sandman. Written by a then largely unknown Neil Gaiman, it told the tale of Dream, known to many as Morpheus, one of the seven Endless. A dizzyingly brilliant blend of mythology, history and fantasy, it quickly transitioned from cult hit to mainstream success and Gaiman, along with Alan Moore and Frank Miller, became part of the late-80s graphic novel renaissance.

Unlike countless other comic book creations, Sandman was never adapted into other mediums – until now. But it’s not a film, or a TV series or a video game, but an audio drama, with no less a legend than Dirk Maggs at the helm. A pioneer in

the field these past 30 years, his innovative and varied body of work includes radio versions of Batman, Spider-Man, Superman and Judge Dredd.

“I discovered early on,” he says, “in the late 80s, early 90s, that I had a knack for taking comic book material and editing and massaging it in such a way as to make driving, exciting audio which sounded just like a film but had no pictures – which were created in the listener’s brain. We expanded into Dolby Surround, we introduced especially composed scores – it was all happening.”

Of all the superheroes getting what Maggs describes as his “audio movie”, there was one above all others that he was desperate to adapt: Sandman.

“DC at that time were based in New York City,” Maggs recounts, “and I hit it off especially well with their Business Affairs Manager, Phyllis Hume, a feisty no-nonsense Brooklynite who had a wonderfully dry sense of humour and didn’t waste praise where it wasn’t earned. She told me to read this ‘amazing’ new series coming out on DC/Vertigo. I read the first issue and was blown away. It was a monumental work of literature written for a 22 page comic book –punchy, direct, uncluttered by stereotypes, and exactly the sort of material I knew I could turn in amazing audio.”

He pitched it to the BBC and… they passed.

“It was frustrating,” he sighs, “but Neil wasn’t the figure he is nowadays and they were wary about having too much comic book entertainment – wary of ‘dumbing down’,  perhaps. It made no sense to me because it was ready made for the audience the BBC networks – particularly Radio 4 – supposedly wanted to attract: anyone under 50, basically. I pitched it several times over the years, but they just couldn’t see it, not even when Neil became a respected and applauded novelist and screenwriter.”

Disappointing though this was, Dirk’s correspondence with Gaiman turned into a friendship – and they discovered that they had both been close to Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who died aged just 49 in 2001.

“Neil was mentored early on by Douglas,” says Maggs, “while he changed my life when he chose me to adapt his later Hitchhiker novels for radio.”

While Sandman remained elusive, Maggs’ friendship with Gaiman bore other audio fruit as the years 2013-2017 saw BBC radio commissioning audio movies of Gaiman’s Neverwhere, Stardust, Anansi Boys and, co-written with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens.

This flurry of activity coincided with one of the stranger consequences of our internet age: the return of audio drama. Though it had never gone away for UK citizens, thanks largely to BBC Radio 4, audiences across the globe rediscovered this lost artform. And were willing to pay for new content.

Enter Amazon’s audiobook arm, Audible, brandishing chequebook. Maggs, with his reputation for turning properties with cult cache into unmissable radio, was tasked with adapting Alien spin-off novels. The results were astounding and, as many reviewers noted, far superior to the dreary prequels being churned out by Ridley Scott at the same time.

Then it happened – DC contacted Maggs and Audible: would they like to adapt Sandman?

“I many ways it’s perfect that we’ve had to wait,” is Maggs’ philosophical take. “Neil says he’s glad, too, because we’re better at what we do. The Sandman is like a good wine – it grows richer and more complex the older you leave it, and I don’t think I could have brought out half of its quiet complexities 25 years ago.”

And there’s the added bonus of Amazon-Audible’s deep pockets, which enabled Maggs to assemble a huge cast, including many “very famous” actors – none of whom Maggs can yet reveal.

“Strictly embargoed, I’m afraid,” he says. “But all I’ll say is it’s strange we didn’t record in Los Angeles considering the Hollywood talent we secured.”

Of Dream, himself, Maggs won’t be drawn, except to say that the actor in question was his first and only choice.

“Oh heck, what can I say? He was always there. He has exactly what Dream needs to come to life … and he is amazing.”

Recording was divided between London, New York and Atlanta, Georgia – the location of The Walking Dead’s production base. If there’s a conclusion to be drawn from that, Maggs is keeping his lips firmly zipped. Either way, it’s “by far the biggest cast” Maggs has ever had on a single project.

“I make it 70, on a quick head count. All are brilliant, there really are no exceptions. Everybody brought their ‘A’ game. In the ensemble sessions last October we had up to 15 people at any one time in a studio built for a third of that number. But everybody was so into the material, and the characters and stories themselves are so gripping that where possible I ran the whole story in one go, recorded voices-only to the mics. It was absolutely enthralling to hear it performed like that. And it wasn’t just the stars who made it sing – the whole ensemble absolutely soared into the realms of Dream. Listening to it now, in post-production where I’m currently labouring, it’s all sounding amazing.”

One cast member who has been announced is Neil Gaiman himself, on board as the narrator. To create the narration, Maggs made the inspired choice to draw, not only on the words printed in the comic books, but Gaiman’s actual scripts.

“It is one of the most exciting things about this project,” Maggs enthuses. “The scripts are  a window into what is going on in Neil’s mind, as he is writing the stories. And they are poetry. There’s a scansion to his writing, a rhythm that can be gentle or formal, from blank verse to iambic pentameter – and of course Will Shakespeare does feature in two of the stories in this first series. Part of the joy of the process was to hear our actors – some senior Shakespearian ones too – breathing life into these lines, lifting them off the page, giving them that rhythm. There were times in studio where shivers ran up my back as dialogue I had only ever read off the page burst into vibrant, living existence.”

Maggs even incorporated a passage from Gaiman’s private papers.

“It’s never been heard, or read by anyone but Neil,” Maggs explains. “He wrote some background on the creation of Dream’s talisman, his Ruby, and I placed it during the confrontation with Doctor John Dee, because it’s the subject of the story and it is beautiful and riveting.”

The whole experience has been a “privilege” says Maggs. And not, it would seem, just for him. Gaiman himself has quietly expressed a joy at revisiting stories he wrote 30 years ago, though he doesn’t recognise the person he wrote them as himself. Maggs says:

“At the end of a particularly good mixing day a short while ago I emailed Neil and said, ‘This stuff just comes alive – damn, you’re good.’ He came back saying he’s not sure he recognises the person who wrote it because it was so long ago. I assured him that whoever that person was, they had created magic – and it translates beautifully into our strangely visual realm of pure audio.”

A slightly shorter version of this feature appeared in SciFiNow in April 2020.

“DO WHATEVER THE TV TELLS YOU…”

INTERVIEW: Cast and crew of Brit body-horror ‘Await Further Instructions’

Is there anything more terrifying than being stuck in the house – unable to so much as wander onto the patio for a crafty cigarette – with your own family? Yes. Imagine that scenario but ON CHRISTMAS DAY. Such is the inventively claustrophobic premise of Await Further Instructions, which sees grumpy patriarch Tony trapped inside with his nearest and not-so-dearest over the festive season. The force imprisoning them is some sort of sentient black goo, and the only contact they have with the outside world comes from the ever-vigilant television. Its first message: AWAIT FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS.

Melding savage satire with gleefully grim gore Await… has been a hit at horror fests across Europe and beyond. VODzilla caught up with the team at Manchester’s Grimmfest back in October and discussed our trust in TV, dysfunctional families, body-horror and Brexit.

IN CONVERSATION: Ian Winterton with Gavin Williams (screenwriter), Johnny Kevorkian (director), Jack Tarling (producer) and Grant Masters (lead actor).

So, congratulations on a brilliantly taut horror film. How did it come about?
Gavin Williams: I had the idea 10 years ago, New Year’s Eve 2008, and I was travelling down with my then girlfriend and I’d bought an album by a band called The National and this song comes on called Apartment and the lyric is ‘Stay indoors until someone finds you / do whatever the TV tells you’ and that rattled around my brain and I started thinking it was a good set-up for a horror film
Johnny Kevorkian: They can’t work out what it is – is it terrorism or whatever – they can’t get out and they then have to figure out…. It communicates with them via the TV. It sends them their first message ‘Await further instructions’.

It was conceived of during the festive season and is set over Christmas – was that always part of the idea?
GW: Not immediately but when you start developing an idea, you take the premise to its logical extreme to up the tension, the conflict. One thing about being an independent filmmaker is you’ve got no money so you look for an idea can you make cheaply. This was set in one location, so it has that idea of conflict baked into it. My first thought was it was a horror film so lots of teenage kids trapped in a house but then I realised it had to be a family – the hierarchy of that, and dysfunction that can be transmitted down the generations. So it soon became about being stuck in a house, unable to get out, with your family. For most people that would be bad enough but when you think ‘When would that be the worst possible time to happen?’ then the answer is Christmas.
Especially with racist granddad – Game of Thrones’s David Bradley.
JK: Getting him attached to the project was a highlight. And he was, of course, utterly brilliant.

With Granddad’s racism, and his antipathy towards his grandson’s Asian girlfriend, and also Grant’s character, Tony, the father, stuck in between the older and younger generations, how much did recent events play into the film?
Jack Tarling: You mean Brexit? Well, the funny thing is, it was shot in 2015 so it was pre-Brexit. But these things don’t come out of nowhere. At the time David Cameron’s talking about migrant swarms coming into the country and that sort of thing so, looking back, it was in the air. And, of course, on the TV.
Grant Masters: There’s also the religious aspect to my character. There’s media indoctrination but then he’s influenced by something older – religious indoctrination. Which, obviously, is heightened because it’s Christmas.
GW: And TV is sort of this god, too, that you dedicate your life to for hours and hours each week.
The uninvited guest.
GW: Yes. The TV is the antagonist but, in a way, the family do it to themselves. This is what society is – all this bad stuff simmering away just under the surface.
JK: What was good was having quite a long rehearsal period – on the set – so the actors can come together to really feel like genuine family.
GW: Also, as I was first working the idea up, the Credit Crunch was kicking of, and there were lots of people on the TV hearing that there wasn’t any money in the banks and so going down to the banks and queueing up outside banks themselves. So the panic and paranoia that the media can generate and, broader than that, the idea of technology and how, as a layman, a lot of it you can’t understand. If the TV tells you something, is it safer to follow instructions?
JT: There was a delay after the shoot because we had to wait our turn for the CGI and various other things – but that delay has helped us a lot in a way because we’ve since had the rise of nationalism, Brexit, Trump. I keep saying I’d like to shake Trump by the hand.

Ugh. You don’t know where they’ve been.
JT: [Laughs] No. Maybe not then.

The single location really works and it’s testament to your set designer that it’s all actually shot in a studio – you really can’t tell.
JT: We hear that a lot. To get cast and crew into a real house with all the equipment wouldn’t leave much room for creativity.
JK: Yes, Nina Topp, our production designer, was brilliant. We basically shot it outside Yorkshire on three stages. One whole stage was the living room and kitchen, and then the stairs and the upper level, and then the final phase. It meant I could design the shoot down to the last detail – the set was designed to incorporate room for cameras to make certain shots. I had to work all that out beforehand and Nina’s design took all that into account.
JT: It’s a studio in North Yorkshire, about half an hour out of York. The shots of the town is actually a village about 20 minutes away called Hemingbrough.
Thanks to IMDb I can tell you that Await Further Instructions is the only film to have ever been shot there.
JT: [Joking] Maybe I’ll use that as part of the marketing…

It’s testimony to the writing that, although there are all these current issues swirling about beneath the surface, it’s not too on the nose. For this reason – social commentary coupled with very gory body horror – it brings to mind the films of John Carpenter and David Cronenberg.
GW: It’s all those things – it’s about a range of issues which will give it more of a shelf life.
You shot the whole thing in five weeks?
JT: Yes, and a week of that was the end sequence.
It’s hard to talk about without spoilers but this very much focuses on Tony…
GM: How much can we talk about it without spoiling it?
JT: Well, the sort of techno-Hellraiser transformation is up there on the poster. There are certain things we really don’t want to reveal, but if we don’t let people know that there is going to be some juicy horror, then the audience might not buy a ticket. The poster lets people know to expect some Cronenberg-style body-horror, but the wider story, why they’re locked down in their house, we don’t want to give that away.

The film boasts some very effective in-camera visual effects which adds to its Eighties horror vibe.
JK: The Fly is very much an influence – the transformation. But all that Eighties horror, yes. Using practical effects, before CG. Everything you see on screen here is practical effects – we’re using puppeteers, wires, prosthetics – it was physically all there.
GM: Dan Martin did the effects – all the stuff on me. He came in and put it on me every day. And we had technicians on set and a puppeteer for some sections. He’s worked on stuff like Ben Wheatley’s High Rise and A Field in England, and he was working on something massive at the same time and he kept coming to our set and saying, ‘I much prefer doing this’.

In this era of bland 12-certificate so-called horror movies, there are some refreshingly horrific scenes. The in-utero baby and the skeleton, for instance… But it’s still only a 15 – what do you have to do these days to get an X-certificate?
JT: Well, to be honest, I wouldn’t want it to get an 18 as that would limit its commercial potential.
So, Tony, how was that last week of the shoot? Gruelling?
GM: I’ve worn extreme make-up for a few stage jobs before but this was the first time I’d done it on film. I had to be on set for 4am for a week – different layers of the prosthethic s had to be put on. The worst thing was the contact lenses – constantly having to drop water into my eyes. But, really, I loved it. What actor wouldn’t? And being the monster was a real key change after four weeks of playing grumpy dad.
JK: The last film I did had 25 effects shots and this has more than a hundred – and most of them practical effects. I loved the fact that, in the script, you really don’t know where the story is going to go. So many scripts you get to read are samey and wouldn’t be a challenge to do as a director – this was the opposite.
JT: But it’s the characters first – they’re real and three-dimensional. That way the situation, the horror, has more emotional impact. Mike Leigh meets David Cronenberg somebody said…
GW: I’m very, very happy with that description.

This interview appeared at VODzilla.co here

JOHN MACKENZIE on 25 YEARS of THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY

A pleasure cruiser chugs up the Thames in the mellow sunlight of a beautiful summer evening. On board, a handful of journalists sip champagne on deck, watching London slide past – the Eye, the Town Hall, swanky apartment blocks and, up ahead, that little slice of Downtown Manhattan, Canary Wharf.

“I love it,” enthuses John Mackenzie, a film director who looks like a weather-beaten version of Jeremy Beadle. “I think it’s fantastic. I love high-rise buildings. I want them to spread up the river some more.”

Having been in the business since the late sixties, Mackenzie’s best known for classic Brit gangster movie The Long Good Friday, the Special Edition DVD release of which has prompted today’s jaunt.

Back in 1980, according to Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine, Docklands represented “more acutely and extensively than any area in England the physical decline of the urban city and the need for urban regeneration”.

In a word, it was a shit-hole. Mackenzie knows better than most how radically Docklands has changed. Not only was the site utilised for its grimy locations, but it was integral to the plot. The film’s antihero, Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins), is a gangster desperate to turn legit who sees the undeveloped wasteground as the key to his salvation. Twenty-five years on, it adds an air of prophecy to an already outstanding film.

“We deliberately set it in Docklands because we knew it was going to be huge,” Mackenzie tells Hotdog. “We didn’t know how but we knew it was going to be developed.”

We’re below decks now, in a dining area that, alarmingly, recalls the room in the film where Hoskins brutally thrusts a wine glass into the neck of Derek Thompson, who later found fame as Charlie in Casualty. He’s just one of many ‘faces-of-the-future’ that further bolster the film’s visionary credentials. There’s Dexter Fletcher, Helen Mirren, Eastenders’ Gillian Taylforth and, as a homoerotic hitman, Pierce Brosnan. Mackenzie humbly attributes this talent spotting to “great casting director”, Simone Reynolds.

“Brosnan… As soon as we put him on the
screen… click.”

“She wheeled ‘em in and I picked ‘em. I’m a great believer that some people are born for celluloid. Brosnan was. As soon as we put him on the screen… click.”

With a first-rate supporting cast and a phenomenal performance from Hoskins, …Friday was considered an unequivocal success by all involved. Except the backers.

“They thought it was unpatriotic and pro-IRA,” Mackenzie recounts. “They thought they’d have their cinemas bombed. I said, ‘If it’s pro-IRA, why would they bomb it?’ They decided they’d sell it as a package for TV and chop it down from 105 to 70 minutes.”

If that wasn’t insulting enough, the company took the astonishing decision to dub over Hoskins’ allegedly impenetrable Cockney accent.

“I was so incensed when I heard about this that I went crazy in a corner of Soho,” laughs Mackenzie. “But, as it turned out, that was our ace card because they’d just gone too far. Bob was going to sue them and he got all sorts of high-profile actors like Alec Guinness willing to stand up in court. They got scared and so, when George Harrison and his Handmade company got involved, we were able to buy it pretty cheaply.”

A modest hit when it was eventually released, …Friday has since come to be recognised as one of the best British movies ever. Its influence can be felt in numerous other films, both homegrown (Lock, Stock) and foreign (Pusher). Given its popularity, it’s perhaps unsurprising that rumours of a sequel have been rife. Surely this would ruin the film’s audacious ending?

“I killed Harold 25 years ago and he’s staying dead.”

“It would,” agrees Mackenzie, “which is why I would never do one. But I’ve been inundated by Bob and Barry [Hanson, producer]. Because you never saw Harold get killed, they want him to have jumped out of the car or something. But there’s no way I’m going to cheat like that. I killed Harold 25 years ago and he’s staying dead.”

This article appeared in Hotdog Magazine in 2005.

STUART & DUMPLINGS

Starring: Louise Jameson, Mina Anwar & Sam Barnard

Set during the current Covid-19 crisis, and filmed under lockdown using Zoom video conferencing software, Stuart & Dumplings tells the story of Stuart, a young Doctor Who fan with Down’s Syndrome who’s receiving an online cooking lesson from his grandmother, with his social worker/care manager, Khadija, also in on the call. The ensuing conversation is both funny and moving, as it lays bare the stresses and strains of life in lockdown. Written as a direct response to the current crisis, the film is designed to be shot using only laptop webcams, with all cast and crew continuing to isolate throughout.

Written by Ian Winterton, with input from actor Sam Barnard, who plays Stuart, the film is being made to raise awareness and funds for the Down’s Syndrome Association. A spokesperson for the charity said:

“After reading the charming script we are really looking forward to watching this short film. We think many people will relate to it as the story reflects what many families have experienced in recent months. We are very grateful to the Stuart and Dumplings team for deciding to make the film freely available but asking their audience to donate to the DSA – thank you.”

The film also stars Louise Jameson (Doctor Who, EastEnders) as Grandma, and Mina Anwar (The Thin Blue Line, The Sarah Jane Adventures) as Khadija. It is directed by Gemma North, produced by Lauren Sturgess and James Steventon of Bamalam Productions and, for Room 5064, Ian Winterton. Executive Producer is Gareth Kavanagh, Creative Director of Room 5064 Productions.

INTERVIEW: ALAN BENNETT, RICHARD GRIFFITHS & JAMES CORDEN on ‘THE HISTORY BOYS’

“Leeds back then was very black and sooty,” says Alan Bennett. “When I first went to Cambridge, it just seemed like something out of a fairy story. It just looked so wonderful.”

Though these words might not be altogether loyal to the city of his birth, Bennett has done more than most to put Northern England, and Leeds in particular, on the map. With a few notable exceptions, his plays, monologues, screenplays and novels are distinctively Northern. The History Boys is no different, telling as it does the tale of seven working class Northern sixth formers who are studying for places at Oxbridge. Bennett admits that the story has its roots in his own life.

“I went to Leeds Modern, a state school, and they didn’t normally send students to Oxford or Cambridge, although it did often send pupils to Leeds University. But the headmaster happened to have gone to Cambridge and half a dozen of us tried and we all eventually got in.”

Unlike the characters in his play, the film version of which hit cinemas last week, Bennett couldn’t have cared less about Oxbridge.

“It wasn’t the Holy Grail,” he says, “in the sense that I’d never been to Oxford or Cambridge. Also, unlike in the play, the masters at my school had no idea what was expected of us during the entrance exam so we just had to busk it, really.”

The History Boys has been an incredible adventure, and not just for Bennett. Directed by Nicholas Hytner, who also worked on play and film of Bennett’s The Madness Of George III (famously renamed The Madness Of King George for its cinematic release, lest dull-witted Americans think its the third in a trilogy), it was an instant hit when it played at London’s National Theatre. A film version was greenlit, starring every principle actor from the stage version. Once shooting was over, the production moved on to a triumphant Broadway run, garnering awards galore, including a Tony for Richard Griffiths. His troubled teacher Hector, who believes in learning for the sake of learning, is an astonishing creation. Was it, like many of Bennett’s parts, written with him in mind?

“No,” says Bennett. “I had no idea who could play Hector, no notion, really. And then Richard came to see us. As soon as you’ve chosen somebody, it obscures anybody else who you might have thought of. It’s like going to a place where you’ve never been and having a picture of it in your head and then going there in real life and having that picture wiped out by reality.”

Griffiths does indeed inhabit the role completely, although his own experience of academia is a million miles away from Hector’s.

“I went to the drama school at what became Manchester polytechnic,” he says.  “I was working in Littlewoods in Stockton-on-Tees and handling money and being very good at mathematics. They sent me off to college to get some qualifications so I could come back and be a manager. I did an arts course instead. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just blundered into it.”

That blundering led to a celebratory career that has seen him become one of the UK’s best known actors. And, with The History Boys’ success in New York – which garnered Griffiths a Tony Award – he’s set to become famous in the States for more than just being Harry Potter’s nasty uncle. But the child-hating side is something he likes to play on. He talks of his eight young co-stars with mock vehemence:

“I don’t think those boys know the meaning of the word respect. There was certainly no visible demonstration or awareness of the word. The insults they used were usually fairly scatological and involving issues of personal hygiene and sexual mores. I would have them all beaten regularly.”

Of the eight boys, the best known is James Corden, a familiar face from films such as Mike Leigh’s All Or Nothing and Kay Mellor’s TV drama, Fat Friends. Cheeky and confident, he’s the very embodiment of the youthful impetuousness that Griffiths pretends delights in finding so infuriating. As Corden explains, it was all done out of love:

“When you find yourself working with people who have had such an impact on you growing up,” he says, “there are two things you can do: you can either put them on a pedestal or you can take them down a peg or two. We thought the best way to show our love and respect was to be absolutely vile and horrible to them.”

Bennett finds this both hilarious and understandable.

“The writer is quite low down on the hierarchy, really” he says, “but the fact that they took the piss out of Nick, who is also the director of the National Theatre, I would have thought was slightly more risky. They might never work again.”

Considering the success of The History Boys, this seems unlikely. Indeed, even if the film isn’t a huge box-office success, their lives will never be the same again. Corden is philosophical.

“Whatever happens in the future, I know that we’ve had this amazing time and I’ve spent two years working with seven other people who will be my friends for life. And that’s not just luvvie speak, that’s genuine. If we didn’t all get on, none of us have been contractually obliged to go with the project all the way; none of us had to go to New York, none of us had to sign on to do the film. But we all did.”

 

He does admit that there have been a few arguments.

“You’ve got eight young egos thrown together – you’re bound to have a few fights. There’s been a point when I’ve hated every single one of them, but it never lasts long. One thing is, if you’re throwing a fit, you’ll have seven people laughing at you and calling you Diana Ross.”

For Bennett, it takes him back to his own early career in the 1960s, when he first became a household name writing and acting in Beyond The Fringe.

“I spent three and a half years working closely with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and, even though we didn’t see each other that often afterwards, whenever we did we went back to that relationship because we had that shared experience. That wasn’t so good for me, because back then I was always the one who got sat on.”

Though he delivers this last with a wry smile, one senses that he’s acutely aware that everyone in his anecdote is dead. Always of a morbid bent and a notorious hypochondriac, Bennett seems more aware of mortality than ever, especially given his recent revelation that, back in 1997, he almost lost his life to colon cancer. He’s even unwilling to properly enjoy the success of History Boys.

“Being a writer, you’re always thinking about what to do next,” he says. “It’s much easier to follow something that hasn’t been as successful. Success slows you down, really. But at the moment I’m very conscious that I’m getting on a bit. I just want to get as much done as I can.”

This feature first appeared on the FilmFour website in 2006

NETFLIX UK FILM REVIEW: ‘EXTINCTION’

Everything is not what it seems in Netflix’s surprising, though-provoking sci-fi actioner.

On the back of the woeful Cloverfield Paradox and the disappointing How It Ends, Netflix latest sci-fi commission at least has the distinction of being watchable. It’s no masterpiece, though. The plot is smart, in a sort of sub-Philip K Dick short story sort of way: in an unspecified near(ish) future family man Peter (Michael Peña, excellent) is beset by nightmares of an imminent alien invasion that – when a murderous attack fleet descends from the sky – he comes to believe are, in fact, prophetic visions. The truth is more complex (and pleasingly clever) with a series of great reveals at and after the midpoint.

Before that, this is more of a straight-forward action flick, as enemy foot-soldiers go door-to-door in Peter’s apartment block, gunning down everyone they see. It’s brilliantly done and the tension is palpable as Peter, his wife (Lizzy Caplan) and two adorable kids (Amelia Crouch, Erica Tremblay) battle their way from the block down into the city’s tunnels and, they hope, to sanctuary with Peter’s boss David (Mike Colter). But on their tail is an apparently vengeful soldier, intent on recovering the gun Peter stole from him during an early altercation.

To fully discuss Extinction would require a mahoosive spoiler, but suffice to say everything is not quite what it seems on the surface. Anyone thinking this is just another War of the Worlds re-run will be surprised at the destination the movie takes us to. It’s deftly plotted and all the jigsaw pieces slot into place come the closing few minutes, with an ending that’s morally complex and thought-provoking. It’s all done and dusted in 95 minutes, which would normally be a big plus point. Here, though, you’re left feeling they could have given us a little more breathing space to digest the twists and turns; instead, in hurrying to its conclusion, it snaps the audience away from the story just as they’re getting their heads around it.

This is a far cry from truly masterful sci-fi chamber pieces such as Ex Machina or Moon, but there’s lots to recommend, not least the cast and the visual effects.

This review appeared at VODzilla.co in 2018. Find it here.

VOD FILM REVIEW: ‘DEAD NIGHT’

For those in need of scares and splattery gore, Dead Night fits the blood-soaked bill.

A favourite of the horror festival circuit this last year, Dead Night is an entry into the much-crowded sub-genre of splatter-gore. Very 80s in tone, it delivers its palpably nasty sequences with glee, providing chuckles along with some very effective jump scares.

The plot is corny, of course: a wholesome family unit – Dad recovering from cancer – head out to a remote cabin in the woods, built on a spot renowned for healing. Suffice to say, not a lot of healing takes place. The set up for the ‘bad stuff’ is unnecessarily complicated, beginning with a prologue taking place in 1961, which, with a gruesome murder and a horrific scene of demonic childbirth, sets the pleasingly nasty tone – it’s hard to achieve an R-certificate these days, but Dead Night gets there in its opening minute. From 1961, we fast-forward to 2015 and meet mom Casey Pollack (Brea Grant, best known as Daphne in TV’s Heroes; excellent) as she drives her husband James (AJ Bowen), two teen kids Jessica (Sophie Dalah) and Jason (Joshua Hoffman). Accompanying them is Jessica’s buddy, shy Becky (Elise Luthman).

From this very standard set-up, Dead Night does try something different structurally. We’re suddenly shown a TV, flickering out in a clearing in the woods, that’s playing TV show Inside Crime – a documentary detailing the butchering “three years ago” of the Pollacks by notorious “axe mom” Casey. While it apparently lets us know early on that nobody makes it out alive, nothing is quite as straightforward as that – especially when a woman named Leslie Bison turns up at the cabin.

Played with trademark élan and menacing camp by horror legend Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, Chopping Mall, You’re Next amongst many others), Bison first appears as a prospective candidate for senate in 2018 during an ad after Inside Crime, but we then see how she infiltrates the Pollacks’ cabin and unleashes hell. It’s all very silly, and becomes increasingly ridiculous – and less frightening – as it progresses. It does deliver some fantastic scares and lashings of gore and 80s-style body-horror, all achieved with impressive old school, in-camera effects – heads crack apart, zombie-things shuffle along with broken limbs and weird blobby-spiky things bury into people’s necks. In short: it’s nuts. For those in need of scares and splattery gore, Dead Night fits the blood-soaked bill.

This review appeared at VODzilla.co in 2018. Find it here.