Without wanting to sound like part of the generation that was allegedly ruined by spending hours in front of the goggle box, a childhood Christmas for me would involve watching television. What I saw would be outlined a couple of weeks’ beforehand by noting items listed in the Radio Times and TV Times, and then I followed the route of pre-circled programmes, planning entire days around the treats that had been scheduled for the Yuletide fortnight. I grew up in the Tyne-Tees region, which to me seemed like the most boring and unimaginative of broadcasters that made up the ITV network – Sunday afternoons were the worst, when those lucky enough to live in Granada-land got to enjoy Fireball XL5 reruns, which we did not get in England’s north-east, a preserve of dull manly northernliness, Rugby League and Bullseye. At Christmas all that changed. Tyne Tees’ declaration towards tedium melted away as they embraced the spirit of the season and showed us some good stuff. Christmas Day was the best. You got a big premiere in mid-afternoon, back at a time when the only time you got to see it previously was at the cinema, and that meant at least a three year gap between viewings of The Black Hole or Superman the Movie. And there was Bond. There was always a slice of 007 to go with your York Fruits and Terry’s Chocolate Orange, traditionally a hyperbolic Roger Moore caper that seemed entirely at home with the general sense of unreality you experienced on 25 December.
I mention this because these days I barely follow the schedules at all. I might still pick up a bumper, two-week Radio Times out of sheer loyalty and for the picture quiz, but now the holidays involve working through DVDs. There’s no shortage of movies hosted on the networks, yet the big hitters are invariably those kid-friendly CGI animations that hold little interest for me, the classics I really want shuffled to the hinterland of the schedules. Several years ago, BBC4 treated us to The RKO Story. It was subtitled ‘Tales from Hollywood’ and that’s exactly what we got, a genuinely absorbing six hours of golden age storytelling about a long dead studio, its origins and downfall, its stars, directors, moguls, and the genres it focused on that neatly divided the episodes. One chapter was all about the musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Another discussed the chillers produced by Val Lewton, and a further instalment went into the studio’s Noir output, linked as it was with the career of Robert Mitchum. Better still, each episode was followed by a related movie – I remember well being goggle-eyed at my first screening of Swing Time, on another night enjoying a double bill of Lewton horrors. All gems in their own way, never quite lost to time because there’s a hardcore of viewers who will always love this stuff and such a shame that there was nothing similar shown this time around.
Instead, it’s to discs I turn for the welters of classic Hollywood that really represent Christmas television to me, and while something is lost by being able to enjoy these films whenever I want to I can’t complain really. Not when such entertainment comes in the form of Grand Hotel, MGM’s 1932 entry that claimed the Best Picture Oscar and is clearly the sort of film they can – and will – never make again. They have tried, but it’s a forlorn effort because nothing can quite match the magical blend of opulence and innocence that made it such a fine two hours’ entertainment. Made during the Depression Era, it tapped into the popular need for cinema providing escapism from harsh reality by being set in the ravishing, art deco eponymous hotel, a place where we’re told ‘nothing ever happens’ and then of course it does. There’s one trick shot of the building taken from the top of its central atrium; otherwise the entire film takes place in either individual rooms or the reception, something of a revolution for the time as it was a 360-degree set. It’s about the little human dramas that happen constantly, from the penniless but heart-of-gold Baron resorting to theft through to the man who has little time left to live and so resolves to spend the last of his days in luxury. The parts of these characters are played by the Barrymore brothers, John and Lionel, a sign of the no expense spared approach MGM took to making Grand Hotel. The real pleasure is to be had from watching Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford star in the same film. The two women never appear together, a conscious decision that was made to not make one outshine the other, but it’s fascinating to see their characters have so many parallels with the actors’ situations at the time. Garbo plays an established star, someone so used to the trappings of fame that it tires her completely; this is the one that carries her famous declaration about wanting to be left alone. Crawford is a stenographer with ambitions to achieve fame, a canny reflection of her rising status within the studio. Who comes out on top is up to the individual viewer to decide; neither is short-changed by the script or direction. For me, those lamplight eyes and bawdy, knowing sense of humour make Joan Crawford unbeatable…
Amid the slew of Christmas movies, the one I enjoyed the most was The Bishop’s Wife, a title I had unforgivably never seen beforehand. It’s impossible to watch without thinking of It’s a Wonderful Life, which has risen through the ranks to become the number one film of the season and the two share cast members and have a similar stream of fantasy coursing through them. The tragedies that befall James Stewart aren’t replicated in The Bishop’s Wife, in which the central dilemma is David Niven’s young Bishop and the relationship problems he’s having with his wife, played by Loretta Young. Niven wants to find the funding to build a cathedral, an all-encompassing dream that has overtaken everything – his marriage, his purity of purpose in allowing the new church to become an edifice to its main benefactor, the film’s ‘villain’ Gladys Cooper. Enter Cary Grant as an angel, sent to answer Niven’s prayers, though they are not necessarily what he thinks they are. Grant starts going around spreading cheer, to Elsa Lanchester’s housemaid, to Cooper, to Monty Woolley’s History professor who’s been attempting to write a book about Ancient Rome for years, but mostly to Young. The twist is that Grant begins falling for this earthly lady – in one of the film’s very best scenes, he takes her ice skating, along with the taxi driver who’s driving them home, and they all have a whale of a time on the rink, a gorgeous sequence all about innocent joy and casting troubles aside. Who could dislike that? It ends well of course, and the film’s central message – that everything will be all right in the end – is one we could do with hearing more often.
Both these titles represent a lost time in the cinema, an ‘ethereal’ and misty eyed quality that no longer exists, though the behind the scenes stories were no less lurid than we have these days. I also caught Network, Sidney Lumet’s 1976 epic about broadcasting and all-encompassing cynicism that feels like it could only have been made in the seventies. The film’s a surprising amount of fun. When Peter Finch goes as mad as hell live on the news (a delightful, scenery chewing role for which he won the Academy Award, though – in one of those little ironies that his character might have viewed as entirely appropriate – he was dead from a heart attack before he could receive it) the viewer is invited to share in the years of despair and being messed around that have culminated in his outburst, only for the film to pull the rug from beneath us. Faye Dunaway’s moral vacuum of a producer learns that Finch’s moment of madness has led to a spike in audience figures, which prompts her to give him a daily ‘mad prophet’ slot, meaning his spontaneous rant has been repackaged as a choreographed and promoted slot of a news show that now bears little resemblance to responsible broadcasting. So many echoes to today’s media world in Network, though in reality its world weary view represented nothing new when it was originally made and if we happen to see the time before this period as a less jaded and altogether lovelier era, then I tend to think that’s because it’s how it was marketed and carried down. Real life was harsher, if anything.
Finally, in a complete break with the above I finally saw A Man Escaped, Robert Bresson’s intimate picture in which a French Resistance fighter finds a way to break out of his wartime prison. Mrs Mike bought me a copy of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die for Christmas, an irresponsible purchase because she knows I will instantly start planning a fresh slew of DVD purchases in order to catch as many titles as possible. This one was in there, of course, and it is undoubtedly one to see. Watching it, I found that everything I thought I knew about prison escape movies was wrong and this was instantly the best one. Bresson just got everything right, refusing to focus on Fontaine’s emotional story and instead following his practical planning, knowing that the tension of his efforts would kick in automatically as every anonymous footstep outside his cell could be the guard who figures out what’s happening, all those knowing looks from a fellow prisoner might be the man who rats him out… Famously, Bresson never used professional actors, sensing that a performer would automatically give a performance and therefore remove some of the film’s authenticity, and the decision works. Francois Leterrier is never required to ‘act’. He just ‘does’, and it’s in his narration and a flick of his eyes towards the cell door that carry everything we need to know about his deadly predicament.
It all makes me think about the future of this blog. 2017 marks the fifth year of its existence, granted one that has taken long hiatuses at times and perhaps it’s time to change its purpose. When I started it, the idea of discussing films about to be screened on television seemed quite smart, yet by now that limited scope and the narrow scheduling forces me outside the original remit more and more. I am tempted to follow the ‘1001 Movies’ route and chronicle my adventures in viewing here. An ongoing issue is the refusal of Freeview television to show more than a bare minimum of non-English language pictures, or silents, indeed its lack of recognition for much celluloid that was issued before World War Two, and as we know that’s a denial of what many perceive to be the Golden Age of cinema. It’s definitely something I need to think about. For long swathes of 2016 I let non-blogging commitments take over, principally work as my public sector job seemed to become much harder, demanded longer hours and left me an exhausted husk much of the time. To an extent that’s fair enough. We all need to put the bread on the table, after all. But giving myself up to a decent yet unloved job isn’t doing my life any justice, and without wanting to make a resolution of it I would like to commit to more frequent updates here. We’ll have to see how it all pans out.
If you are still reading at this point (I would not blame you if you weren’t!) then I’d like to end by thanking you for following the updates on these pages, and to wish you all the best for the new year. 2016 will not go down as a great one. Too much turbulence in the world; so many public people we have all loved gone. We can only hope that 2017 has better in store for us…