Cold War: Stories from the Big Freeze

In all the fuss over BBC salaries this week, I heard nothing about the quality of the presenters and the relative merits of their salaries.  Bridget Kendall came to mind as an example of the very best of BBC journalists.  I wonder what she got paid!

This second series of ‘Cold War Stories’ was essential listening.  Just like the first series broadcast on BBC Radio Four last year, it is made up of fifteen minute episodes, each relating a specific event in the Cold War, with contributions from people who actually took part.  It takes off where the last series ended with the death of Khrushchev and follows on chronologically, taking in events such as the fall of Saigon, the Prague Spring, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and the birth of Solidarity in Poland.  There are also episodes on the proxy war in Africa and the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  Later episodes cover the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Bridget Kendall is now Master (!) of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. Her expertise in Russian made her an outstanding journalist for the BBC and this series reminded me of her contributions to bulletins when a trusted voice was essential.

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Eyewitness

This Norwegian television series broadcast by Channel Four in Britain, in the excellent ‘Walter Presents…’ strand, was a superb thriller.  Henning and Philip are two school boys who have fallen in love.  They intend to keep their relationship a secret so head to a cabin in the woods using Henning’s well-known excursions for motocross rides.  Unfortunately, they are interrupted when a gang arrives with a prisoner in the boot of the car.  It is obviously an execution situation between rival gangs but it goes wrong when the prisoner gains the advantage and kills the others.  He then spots Philip and Henning so heads their way.

This is the scenario that turns into a police investigation; one that would be easier to solve if both Henning and Philip revealed their involvement.  Scared of being outed as gay, they continue to keep quiet even though they know that their information would help.  To make matters worse, Philip’s foster-mother, Helen, is the chief investigating officer.  With her husband, Sven, they look after Philip and presume every sign of odd behaviour has more to do with his concern for his mother than anything else.

Over six episodes, we see the investigation make headway despite some difficulties. When the killer turns up in the most unexpected place, the heat is turned up and the tension increases.  Two young men, desperate to keep their relationship secret, and a police investigation stymied by lack of important information makes for a high-class drama.

‘Eyewitness’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

A Horse Walks Into A Bar

BlogHorseWalksBarNovels by David Grossman build layer upon layer until all becomes clear.  It takes time for the fog to clear and to see the essential point of one of his novels and this latest story is no exception.  ‘Fog’ is not the right metaphor, though, because Grossman writes with great clarity.  In this case, a comedian takes the stage to perform his act and a special guest in the audience watches and comments on what can be seen.

The comedian, Dovaleh Greenstein, is telling jokes and stringing the audience along with a story from his youth.  The story is more tragic than funny and the audience has its patience stretched at times.  This is where the insights of the invited guest come in.  We see how other audience members react.

There are jokes here, some of them effective but the main point is to watch the stand-up comedian use the forum for a confessional about an event that proved pivotal in his life. The book must be read to gain the experience and it is for readers to assess how far this story is also the story of a nation.

David Grossman’s novels are in my hinterland.   What’s in yours?

Moonstone

This novella by Icelandic writer, Sjon, is an interesting exploration of a young man making his way in the world.  Gay and prepared to take money for favours, our hero exists in Reykjavik in 1918 when a terrible flu epidemic hit the city.

This tragedy serves as a background to a story of a young man, Mani, who is in love with the cinema because it offers dreams of another life and who becomes an apprentice to a doctor during the worst of the crisis.  He goes into houses to find people at the edge of death or, in some cases, finds their corpses instead.

Mani is not ashamed of being gay and enjoys his encounters with his men as much as he likes the cinema.  This is not an anguished coming of age tale or rather the anguish is confined to the terrible events in the city.  Yet, there is an encounter with a Danish sailor at the independence celebrations.  It is this meeting that sends his life off in another direction.  Mani may be happy to be gay but he lives in a society that does not share his pride.

In such a short book, Sjon covers issues of belonging, identity and the threat on society from outside.  Flu, homosexuals and the cinema all act as alien influences in 1918 Reykjavik.

There is a coda that serves to connect the story to the author.  It explains, at last, the sub-title of the book: The Boy Who Never Was.

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The League of Gentlemen

This film from 1960 was a favourite of mine when I was growing up.  I must have seen it many times over the years, always on television and never minding that it was in black and white as the original film was.  Growing up in the 60s, one of the big differences between cinema and television was that the ‘pictures’ were always in colour while television was black and white. The films they showed on television back then were nearly all black and white so we didn’t miss out!

This film starred the great Jack Hawkins as a former army officer who hatches a plan to rob a bank.  He enlists other former officers, all in difficult circumstances who use their skills to gain entry to an army base in Dorset where they acquire weapons and supplies.

The film is a caper.  It was directed by Basil Deardon whose cast included Richard Attenborough, Nigel Patrick, David Lodge, Bryan Forbes and Roger Livesey.  Bryan Forbes also wrote the screenplay.

Such is the fun of the film that I wanted the thieves to get away with it.  However, the police are on to them and the ending, when it comes, is very clever.  The telephone ringing in the penultimate scene is highly effective.

Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?

I loved this television comedy series from the 70s, broadcast on BBC television.  There were only two series of ‘Whatever…’ but there had been a series before that called ‘The Likely Lads’.  I was too young to see that so only knew the characters Terry and Bob through the later version.

Set in Newcastle, the series was about two friends who took different paths in life but maintained a friendship.  As was the way with 70s sit-coms, the comedy came from the pretensions of Bob, the aspiring middle class one, and Terry’s down to earth views on his friends new place in the social order.  The first series started with Terry returning to Newcastle from the army.  Bob is about to marry Thelma, someone who isn’t keen on any continuing friendship with the uncouth Terry.

The series were broadcast between 1973 and 1974. There had been about a six year gap between ‘The Likely Lads’ and the return to see what had happened to Terry and Bob. Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais were the writers of both versions.  I also liked the theme tune called ‘Whatever Happened to You’ which was co- written by La Frenais.  James Bolam played Terry and Rodney Bewes played Bob.  Brigit Forsyth was Thelma.

The programme had a strong theme of nostalgia for lost youth which appealed to me when I was young.   Looking back, that seems odd- and the characters themselves were not that old.  They were, though, on the cusp of settling down to mortgage and marriage so perhaps that is the rite of passage that set off the nostalgia.

‘Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

 

Carry on Teacher

The final scene of this film moved me when I was a child.  It all seems a little sentimental now but the moment when Ted Ray stepped out to face his pupils who had wrecked his chance of promotion to prevent him from leaving them is one of my all time favourite film moments.

I was a fan of the early Carry On films.  This 1959 film was the third in the series that eventually totalled thirty-one.  I saw it on British television in the 60s since it was released in cinemas before I was born!  The black and white story of an ambitious headteacher who sees the arrival of inspectors as his opportunity to snatch the headship of a brand new school is a good one.

Two of his pupils overhear him telling a teacher that, should he get the job, there will be opportunities for others.  They decide that the only way to keep their headteacher is to ensure the inspection is a disaster and they enlist their friends to make sure it is.  The comedy comes from the thwarted efforts of the head to impress and the inability of the teachers to cope with the breakdown of order.

In the current British education system the inspectorate is a malign growth and there is little to amuse there but this is from a kinder age and the story leads to the final scene which I loved as a boy.

The ‘Carry On’ films continued into the 60s and 70s and I loved most of them until the bawdy humour became distasteful.  Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques and Charles Hawtry were favourites of mine but, in this film, Ted Ray was the star. It was his only ‘Carry on’ role.

‘Carry On Teacher’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?