Travel & Popular Culture



Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story + Director Q&A – Hull Truck Theatre

30 May 2019

How to explain a sizeable turn out on a Monday night for something which had taken years to put together but we could now have watched anywhere. Maybe it’s the contributors who funded the film come to test the continuing commitment to the cause of Director Steve Sullivan after editing over 400 hours of film. Thankfully his enthusiasm had held up nearly as well as the comedy of Frank Sidebottom and the story of its creators complicated relationship to him. It can be difficult to sympathise with Chris Sievey. Here was somebody who could devise his own version of a video game in the 1980’s and create numerous comic books at the drop of a hat. It was however a papier mache head that he got stuck in because of his unique talent which provides the drama.

Off all the things this true original tried the one he seemed to desire success in the most was the one were his ability was most debatable. That Sievey’s band The Freshies were denied a crucial Top of the Pops appearance due to a BBC strike was characteristic bad luck but in reality the music was pretty standard new wave. A penchant for word play apparent in the titles that fronted these songs of Beatles influenced power pop perhaps most notable. As a metaphor for life’s frustration ‘I Can’t Get Bouncing Babies By The Teardrop Explodes’ is unremarkable. Having to go into the Virgin Megastore and ask the girl behind the check-out for it by The Freshies is awkward comedy gold and a taste of his real talent. Something which is cemented by the inspired perversity and defiant double bluff of sending rejection letters to record companies so they could just sign and send them back.

Cue Frank Sidebottom the perennial 35-year-old and millennial godfather who lived with his Mum in the Manchester suburb of a suburb Timperley. Originally a last ditch attempt to boost the fan base it soon became cottage industry surrealism’s gain. It wasn’t quite the passport to stardom that the cast of Manc sorts in the film doubt Sievey could have handled, but characters like a headless little Denise combined in worlds like Frank’s Fantastic Shed Show that were as fantastically realised as anything by Reeves and Mortimer. 

Much of the comedy is difficult to describe without it spoiling some of the impact generated by his mastery of a pratfall or sight gag. Some of the live footage which captures the supreme silliness features a chaotic stage invasion for a version of We Are The Champions in Wigan which topped anything I’ve seen for a ‘proper’ band recently. Or having my own drunken memories of being stood some distance outside the comedy tent at Reading Festival as 10,000 people sung ‘In my big shorts’ being jogged. His love for football or living life as a performance reflected in the stories of him taking his place with the suitably attired Timperley Big Shorts Sunday League team and coming on late in the game to try and get his head on it.

In some ways it’s the impact of the interviews with his estranged wife that highlight the excitement and frustration of living with someone who can’t accept the everyday that proved most moving. For his part Frank would have called notions such as writing about music being like dancing about architecture ‘bobbins’. Balancing accessibility with elusivity is however his appeal and in the post film Question and Answer session Sullivan recounted Sievey’s close range card tricks at half time in the middle of a pre plutocracy Man City pitch. The sheer chutzpah and desire to confuse by performing this absurdity as illustrative of his genius as anything.

Not surprisingly he saw the quirky Mrs Merton that Caroline Aherne played as his next door neighbour move up the comedy property ladder while he remained difficult to pigeon hole. Neither outcome seemed to help as his low rent descent mirrored hers, before in 2005 he launched himself into a five-year plan with as much thought as Chairman Mao but a significantly lower mortality rate. Part of this involving Frank conquering America by flying straight there and back for one gig in New York. With somewhat fitting irony but not before Chemo Frank was unleashed on the world Chris Sievey died in 2010.

Ultimately Being Frank hangs together on the blurring of the lines between Sievey and Sidebottom. That the writing of this causes consideration of which epithet could be a sign of success but was Sievey refusing to be photographed out of character about preserving the mystery or reflective of some sort of embarrassment? The film can’t resolve the cod psychology but the joyful just do it nature of the comedy is tinged with the feeling of a dissatisfied man in a fake head with a peg on his nose. A physical discomfort that may have contributed to the slightly unsettling aspect of his performance. Sullivan concluded the night with a roundup of his day. Met at the station by a Sidebottom obsessive he had been given a cut price Magical Mystery Tour of the Housemartin hotpots he had read about as a fan. This culminated in the Grafton pub where Paul Heaton took inspiration and a landlady that had previously not heard of Sidebottom had accompanied them to the screening. Somehow somewhere Frank is still working his magic.

Photo from the Manchester Central Library Archive Exhibition.






There Is No I In Jail

26 April 2018

Shortly before my arrival in Mumbai Sridevi Kapoor died. Evidence of a megalopolis, which makes the likes of Mexico City and Sao Paulo seem sedate, being affected was present in banners expressing thanks. A man showed me a photo of a sister who resembled her and said how the actress known simply as Sridevi was like a family member to him. The Bollywood legend had been dubbed Miss India so thousands gathered at brother in law and Slumdog Millionaire star Anil Kapoor’s home for the return of her body to Mumbai from Dubai after drowning in the bath and suspicious circumstances.

After I returned from the home of Bollywood Salman Khan was sentenced to five years in prison for poaching Indian antelope. Being released on bail maybe the start of a pattern which saw him acquitted of killing a homeless man in a hit and run incident which took place in 2002 but was not resolved until 2015. The accompanying fine of £109 is unlikely to trouble the so called Bollywood bad boy as last year he was the ninth highest paid actor in the world ahead of Tom Hanks and Samuel L Jackson. 

In my ignorance the closest I had got to Bollywood is the not very close ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. Now aspects of Danny Boyle’s story of good against evil and the sort of boy gets girl ending which culminates in a dance sequence on a platform at Mumbai’s Victoria Station do play like a homage to Bollywood film. In other ways Boyle quickly realised that any attempt to shoot on location in Mumbai is uncontrollable and he had to go with the energised delivery of lines in Hindi that buffed up actors would have appeared ridiculous delivering. This marriage of the traditional with the casting of slum kids may sound like the best of both worlds to a western cinephile.

Ironically the star that the young protagonists were most in awe of and Bollywood’s original angry young man Amitabh Bachchan didn’t seem alone in thinking the film portrayed them negatively. An ambiguity means that while people may have enjoyed the film some of the residents in the largest concentration of people on the continent are keen to dispel the image of criminality which the hero being chased around in a peculiarly Asian Trainspotting style may have fostered. In reality there is nothing to stop someone walking around on their own but guides who live in Dharavi and use the money for education can help usage some misgivings about treating the place as a tourist destination. With a population of a million people in not much over half a mile that makes it over twenty times more densely populated than Mumbai it also increases the chance of making some sense of this sensory overload.

An experience which saw two broadly distinct areas separated by aroma, intensity and a myriad of passageways. Varying from the narrow and congested with enterprise to the dark and dank which prove surprisingly disorientating as you return to an upright position in the Indian climate of seconds earlier a kind of industrial revolution hell was most pronounced in the recycling area. Here men who sleep in the units and consequently rely on bosses references for more than work break down and package up the things we throw away. Holding back the tide of rubbish which threatens to engulf the city and industries such as leather tanning which contributes hundreds of millions to the economy are what people feel challenges the stereotype of fecklessness that the word slum can conjure up.

In parts where families have lived for decades people who migrated from Gujarat produce pots in the sort of relative spaciousness that makes some contrast Dharavi with the street beggars they see as poor. On the overpass which foreigners are encouraged to use as a vantage point for photographs people ask for nothing more than the water you are carrying. On occasion I was told “Welcome to India” with the kind of glee that seemed to revel in the chaos but late at night when many Mumbai streets become places where people lay in lines trying to sleep as you pick your way over them there seemed absolutely nothing to celebrate.

It is then as much as when you are there that you see why the residents of Dharavi want to defend their community. When a building has legal status health care is available to the occupants and children get the sort of schooling which gives them a spoken English which is way more proper than mine. One particularly vibrant example of local culture is a wonderfully ramshackle building festooned with movie posters which gets particularly lively when it shows India playing Pakistan at cricket. 

A visit to the splendid if slightly faded glamour of the Regal Cinema is recommended for another type of Bollywood movie going experience. Its art deco fixtures and velvet curtains no doubt creating the perfect ambience for the over the top nature of many a three-hour extravaganza since it opened in 1933. With each performance broken up by a mid-point intermission that was traditionally time for a huge cigarette break the film felt like more of an event than any shopping centre multiplex visit. 

One that because I don’t remember what I read inadvertently saw me wandering into a screening of a particularly controversial and probably most atypical Bollywood movie around. While the language barrier meant I was very much immersed in putting my own interpretation on individual scenes the general thrust of Padmaavat seemed clear. A good guy who resembled Barry Gibb was vying with a particularly malevolent biker type for the affections of the girl in a splendidly camp as Christmas type way.

Indeed if you could disregard that this battle between a 14th century Hindu and Muslim ruler seemed to me a vehicle for every Islamaphobic stereotype going the film itself was sumptuously shot and involved a scale of throwing the entire kitchen at it bravado which exceeded even my expectation. In particular a dance sequence which saw the Muslim metal fella and his entourage engaged in some sort of frenzied St Vitus Dance which was admittedly being sound tracked by Slayer in my head.

It was however a dream sequence which saw him in a liaison with the Hindu Queen that caused the real problems. That Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali denied this is even in the film did nothing to stop a Hindu nationalist politician offering over a million pounds for his beheading and cinemas being attacked for showing the film when it was finally passed for release earlier in the year.   


After leaving the sweeping balcony and thinking that had been worth three rupees I was immediately brought back down to earth in what with hindsight could have been far worse circumstances. A particularly polite youth who explained he had moved to Mumbai to try and earn money for his family back in rural India needed the same amount to buy a shoe cleaning kit to work outside the fabulously ornate Victoria Train Station that features in Slumdog Millionaire. Feeling spectacularly uncomfortable in this impromptu episode of a global Dragons Den I may have contributed enough to pay for the brushes.

An early morning journey showed no matter how high the rich build they cannot outrun the smog that the poor are generating to pay for their apartments. During our well over hour long journey to SJ Studios in what is still central Mumbai everything teeters on the brink of gridlock before we are met by a no nonsense type of woman called Barbara who said that the industry was still in mourning for Sridevi but she would get us as much access as possible to what was going on.

This turned out to be more Eastenders than Bollywood as were manoeuvred into an ever tighter space to avoid the props and equipment which was being set up for the series father in law to deliver a piece to camera while someone held a piece of polystyrene in front of him to double for a table that would be added by CGI later. Any closer and I would have been eligible for the 1000 rupees a day that extras are paid before an unfortunate looking youth caused much silent amusement by squeezing through and into shot when returning with what looked like his dinner. That Barbara had been clear that we were dealing with some pretty highly strung artistic temperaments would have meant an intake of breath if that was possible. Instead time stood still as I waited for a diva tantrum and a flurry of dust as imaginary furniture flew but Dad handled it like the old pro he probably was and simply wandered over to join the people we were being photographed with.

Now if there has to be a hierarchy it might as well be dictated by who has the flashiest shirt but as otherwise I didn’t have the faintest idea who these people were, I could remain as cool as a cucumber could be in 35C. As we left the set and Barbara pointed out an actor’s trailer that was longer than a slum street my own rampant ego made me think I had struck a blow for masala boy and the rest of the crew who had to put up with his.

Since the leaking on social media of the moves from a film called ‘Happy New Year’ had meant that it wasn’t, people were not allowed to see a dance sequence being filmed. This left spirited demonstrations of Bollywood dance routines such as the obligatory run through of the Slumdog Millionaire finale to an eighties disco number even deemed a bit much by this most over the top of genres. Before each style the origins of it were explained before the instruction to take this and make it more ‘peppy’ was applied. An invitation to join the dancers for a run through needed to be met by the sort of gusto which left Barbara in her role as my portfolio photographer in danger of concussion.

While still possibly feeling the effects of this an invitation to a recording studio for a taste of the process which produces much of India’s popular music was duly accepted. In Bollywood the dubbing or playback of a great singer over the acting of a particularly photogenic face is seen as a win win for an audience who don’t place as great an emphasis on authenticity as some western ones. With ‘Titanic’ being the only Hollywood film to ever hit the Indian top five and people having enough gritty realism in their lives there seems to be more desire for the sort of illusions that Bollywood provides. Summoning this spirit through the choice of a particularly painful ‘Suspicious Minds’ was apt as in reality SJ Studios had seven sets such as a hospital or a jail and while they seem to have only been used for short sequences in film this only enhanced the splendid ridiculousness of the whole experience.

With my big break and attempt at method acting my way into a greater understanding of Bollywood proving elusive hanging around the Leopold Café was a last throw of the dice. Just down the road from the Regal Cinema and monitored by the same sort of armed security since the 2008 terrorist attack begun here this was the place where foreigners got asked to be in the movies. In the tome that is Shantaram an Australian bank robber escaped jail and ended up here. Author Gregory David Robert’s spent time as a Bollywood extra and the book had been rumoured to have Johnny Depp involved in a film adaptation but all anyone seemed interested in doing to me was selling expensive beer.

This gave me plenty of time to mull over what I had experienced and made me curious to see and discover more. Yes the portrayal of relationships can seem ridiculously wholesome and what appears to be the crow barring of a song and a dance into every story can interrupt the flow. Even so with previous interference in the country not going so well to wonder when India is going to see the light would be a cultural colonialism that constitutes a particular type of western arrogance. There are horror films, remakes of Twelve Angry Men and even silent movies out there but the vast majority of India’s film output is still Bollywood so it might be good to just celebrate the existence of this parallel world. 

Khomdram Gambhir Singh seems to be. Having moved to Mumbai from the state of Manipur about 2,000 miles away in 1978 and working in construction an accident left him turning to drink and sleeping rough. Then a clip of him singing old movie songs on the streets of Mumbai came to the attention of his family in the state of Manipur about 2,000 miles away and the police somehow managed to track him down. So forty years later hooray for Bollywood as it provides him and me with a traditional ending.

Inside the Zone of Alienation

7 August 2017

The mini bus for the organised tour that you had to take for a visit to Chernobyl was easy to spot in Maydan. This was plastered with radioactive warning signs and the guide was wearing a tee shirt with Chernobyl Hard Rock Café on the front and a list of the chemicals which followed the nuclear fire on the back. Like the ingredients for a Sex on the Beach in Benidorm but marginally more ominous. Plutonium, Strontium and that sort of thing.  

Some of our travelling companions and Hans Blix wannabees were busy hiring Geiger counters. Of course this is all meant to ramp up the excitement and make us feel dangerous. On the bus it was stories of foreign adventures which culminated in the travel trump card of someone maintaining they were going to try to get to the frontline in Iraq to finish their tour. Literally maybe?

After the two-hour drive north from Kiev to near the border with Belarus we got off the bus at the security post before the 30-kilometre exclusion zone and told not to take photographs. For the generation that something hasn’t happened unless it is photographed this proved too much of a temptation but luckily the guards didn’t seem to be taking an awful lot of notice. While we were waiting we liberally doused ourselves in the insect repellent designed to combat the sort of things which prosper in an area which has been left to overgrow for over thirty years. Now it either doesn’t work or I was too bothered about ruining my clothes as I ended up with a bite which looked like it was going to envelop my arm a couple of days later.

As we entered the zone my what seemed a morally dubious first thought was articulated by the man in front who made the observation that it felt like being in an episode of “The Walking Dead”. I would have said Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” but that is because I am pretentious. After this the first stop at one of the 200 villages which were evacuated in the aftermath of the disaster was sobering. Walking along a narrow path through dense foliage to a deserted house the sight of everyday items such as cooking utensils and discarded comic books undoubtedly haunting.

Outside one house was the rotting carcass of a Soviet era car which its owner would have waited on a two-year long list to acquire before being given 36 hours to leave it in April 1986. Inside what seemed like a village hall was a slogan extolling the delights of the command economy that roughly translated as “Let the Communists live for the future of humanity”. At this point the Geiger counters may have remained stable but the irony meter spun off the scale. Nevertheless it was people’s homes and about 1,000 mostly elderly “self-settlers” returned illegally but with the authorities turning something of a blind eye as one lady lived here until she died in 2015.      

Any idea to dash off a film script was completely extinguished by the when in the Ukraine moment of a trailer for “The Chernobyl Diaries” being played on the bus. Written by Onen Peli from “Paranormal Activity” the premise was that a group of twenty somethings on trips not dissimilar to the ones on our bus got stuck on theirs during an ill judged bout of “extreme tourism”. Following this the “liquidators” who had become radioactive zombie like creatures while averting a second blast which would have dwarfed Hiroshima finished them off in a way which would have clashed with many westerner’s notion of good taste.

Initially helicopter pilots from the war in Afghanistan flew over Reactor 4 while sand bags were dropped into it and thousands of miners dug underneath it in an attempt to create a cooling area. Other people worked in 45 second bursts clearing rubble or burying trees and houses in ditches before many died predictably horrible deaths shortly afterwards. Having dinner in what may have been the staff canteen I wondered what would have been my view of a group of tourists sat eating a three course meal. These are now mostly people who maintain aspects of an enormous dome that was wheeled into place over the original ramshackle construction last year and is forecast to contain contamination for about 100 of the 24,000 years the area has been declared to be radioactive for. There are limits on the hours these people can work but in reality the Americans on our trip will have been exposed to more radiation on their flight to Europe than on today’s tour. Areas were things have been buried produce “hot spots” but even the spectacularly titled “Death Claw” used for dropping things from the helicopters only caused a small spike in radiation levels.

Inside the 10-kilometre zone and after a cursory look at the new construction with some more photography flouting it was time for the town of Pripyat which was built in 1970 to house the workers and families of the power plant. Deemed a triumph of Soviet urban planning its flats and leisure facilities an anomaly Communist regimes are fond of escorting visiting dignitaries to. Having now gone to seed in spectacular fashion it was a mini bus of rubber neckers who because of the decay were not supposed to go inside the buildings anymore. We were even given a code word to alert each other if we spotted any officialdom: the thought of a flustered back packers shout of “Cheese Burger” echoing around the derelict Olympic sized swimming pool seeming like it might be worth a night in the Gulag. All that really seemed out of bounds was the hospital and possible bad taste destination too far where fire fighter’s clothes had been locked in a basement which had been broken into and was now consequently the most radioactive building in Pripyat outside of the reactor.

The tour seemed to be building to the show stopper which is the amusement park that has ironically become most synonymous with Pripyat and all the more poignant by the inauguration of the Ferris Wheel due on the May Day a few days after the disaster happened. Other particularly striking sights were the most distressing football ground this side of Elland Road and a previously uncharacteristically fully stocked Soviet era supermarket which looked like George Romero had forgotten to lock up after “Dawn of the Dead”.

If it’s not too ridiculous to judge “The Chernobyl Diaries” on an aesthetic level combining some stock Chernobyl footage with film of empty flats near woods in Hungary and Serbia unsurprisingly fails miserably in conjuring up anything like the reality of what could be seen as a triumph of nature. The return of animals to the area has seen wolves and pigs returned in the absence of humans while introducing wild horses in a bid to keep the grass down has clearly proved less of a success. In the aftermath of the explosion dogs were shot to prevent contamination and in “The Chernobyl Diaries” they tore tourists apart. Today in Pripyat perfectly placid dogs follow humans in the hope of food in much the same manner as anywhere else.  You will also not encounter the rampaging bear in the film as they probably only inhabit the Belarussian side of the exclusion zone but a large mural of one has been handily depicted on the side of a derelict building to keep visitors happy.

In the Ukraine the desecration of statues of Lenin in imaginative ways has an artistic element but in Chernobyl he remains completely intact and without comedy clothing to be eternally taunted by the mess they feel he started. The secrecy which characterised the Soviet Union being manifest in initial denials of the incident which was then seen as part of the dysfunctional system used by Gorbachev to highlight the need for reform. Back in Moscow he claimed he was told the reactor had been made safe enough to be put in Red Square. That must have seemed quite appealing over here as the guide directed my gaze towards what turned out to be a ballot box just inside a doorway and said it was the “most useless thing in the Soviet Union”. Its position did seem a little staged but with comic delivery this deadpan I wasn’t about to object.

After walking through what felt like something from a Dan Dare comic that was supposedly monitoring our contamination levels there was a video from a nu metal band who did seem to have been let loose in Pripyat on the bus. As we got off back in Kiev our top notch guide said with a wry grin “that we will see you after the next disaster” which bearing in mind the country is currently at war with Russia shows you how high the bar is here. Meanwhile me and the gang had already agreed to message each other about a reunion stride around Fukushima.

War, what is it good for?

28 January 2017

Films and tourism it seems. Whether either act as some sort of warning from history or simply provide vicarious thrills for the sort of men who cannot watch enough documentaries about Hitler I’m not sure. The Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies exhibition at the Imperial War Museum was never going to resolve this but it might have proved tempting enough to get him out of his chair.  

Establishing my credentials early on was the thrill of seeing manic GI’s in battle scarred Vietnam being complimented by the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” on the soundtrack. That Stanley Kubrick’s fear of flying meant he shot much of “Full Metal Jacket” in East London’s Beckton Gasworks only adding to the sense of wonder. It might also be difficult to reconcile principle to the tailor made trench coat displayed impressively here and worn by Clark Gable when he turned up for the Second World War.

Uncomplicated by any ethical considerations was the enjoyment derived from the 1941 Ministry of Information film “Hoch Der Lambeth Valk”. This combination of cockney knees up music with cut up footage of goose stepping Nazis in a way that is reminiscent of computer generated footage today ridicules Hitler and his fascist automatons in excellent fashion. Watching it in a museum in Lambeth and knowing cinema audiences of the time would wait for it to come around again even more strangely satisfying.   

The exhibition itself was timed to coincide with the War Office “The Battle of the Somme” footage which was watched twenty million times in six weeks during 1916 but it is perhaps the general change in tone during the hundred years it examines that is most illuminating. Somewhere around the midpoint of this period saw the gung-ho superseded by the nuanced. In America the involvement in Vietnam may have delayed this for a few years but Britain’s decline of empire slowly allowed for something more challenging.

Two films which were made only five years apart by David Lean and feature prominently in the exhibition illustrate this. It was maybe just too soon as 1957’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai” descends into an entertaining enough adventure romp that reflected little of the savagery of the conflict it was set in. Based on a fictional novel the plot entails British prisoners of war building a stretch of what became known as the Death Railway from Bangkok to Burma during World War Two. At the centre the struggle between two men hidebound by convention. The Japanese Colonel Saito played by Sessue Hayakawa charged with getting a railway bridge built and Alex Guinness as Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson eventually agreeing to help in order to demonstrate British engineering prowess.

The tourist industry which has grown up around the international success of the film is fittingly if depressingly deceptive. There are thoughtful memorials to war but this isn’t one of them.  People arriving in Thailand wanted “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and the town of Kanchanaburi obliged in 1960 by changing the name of a stretch of river nearby to Kwae Yai or greater tributary. With mini railway rides over a metal bridge which doesn’t even resemble its own World War Two self the area around it feels like a particularly tawdry theme park.  During the war the town ended 5 kilometres away from the POW Camp which is now the site of the car park for the market. With business dependant on it questioning the validity of all this produces some very defensive locals.

Unsurprisingly what Lean describes in a letter at the Imperial War Museum as “cardboard cut outs” satisfied nobody involved either. Australians who were forced to work on the railway and overlooked by the film found it becoming emblematic of their experience offensive. There was also no mention of what Commonwealth troops were doing in this part of Asia in the first place. After Lean orchestrated multiple cameras for the one off and entirely fictitious blowing up of the bridge the film had to be transported back to London by air rather than boat due to the Suez crisis. To many this Christmas viewing staple would have been better off left on the tarmac in Cairo where it was rediscovered after being lost for a week.   

By 1962’s “Lawrence of Arabia” Lean was tasking Peter O’Toole with crossing the canal to tell the British Army about an Arab victory against Turkey in the First World War. On arrival in Cairo his Bedouin companion is referred to as “wog” by officers straight from a malevolent “Blackadder” before British High Command tell Lawrence to lead a guerrilla army in a fight for an Arab homeland in Palestine after the war. O’Toole is memorably referred to as an “offstage roisterer” in an article from the museum but it is the machinations of Empire which provides the back drop to his most famous role. That and sand.   

Rather than a clichéd English eccentric the portrayal of Lawrence allows for something much more enigmatic. Sometimes corresponding more closely with Lawrence’s memoirs than historical fact major events from the inspiring declaration that “Nothing is written” to his participation in the massacre of Turkish soldiers on the way to Damascus are present and correct. This multi-faceted man on the verge of madness may have put film makers off in earlier decades but it was the psychological warfare of a British Government which had already agreed with the French on how to divide the Middle East which may have proved his and earlier attempts undoing.

After portraying the Arab Chieftain Prince Faisal in “Lawrence of Arabia” Alex Guinness took centre stage again in 1973’s “Hitler: The Last Ten days”. At the Museum his relief at the conclusion of filming is captured by a diary entry in which he describes himself as feeling “extravagant and light headed” when he removed the moustache and need to try and occupy the character of Hitler.  

America’s move towards more introspection in war films is represented by story boards from “Ride of the Valkyries” helicopter flight and the “Dealers in Death” playing cards which were left on their victims in 1979’s “Apocalypse Now”. Visitors to the Saigon area of Vietnam can easily visit the Cu Chi tunnels that the Viet Cong used to stage surprise attacks from. If the ever expanding western waistline makes it through a specially enlarged tunnel real Movies4Men aficionados can pay by the bullet to fire an AK47.  

There was no Wagner but the playing cards and a section on film music which featured the theme from “The Dam Busters” in the museum reminded me how elements were co-opted by the football fan experience of the eighties. At the other end of the spectrum and also represented here is protest musical “Oh! What a Lovely War”. Enduring a school production of this in a brand new comprehensive now seeming like something from a bygone golden age of education.

The stylised depiction of the quest to find Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now” and the insanity which surrounds it felt like an acknowledgement of the futility of conventional attempts to portray the horror of war. By 1998 Steven Spielberg was trying to show D-Day as realistically as possible in “Saving Private Ryan”. The start of the film being run alongside actual footage from the landings at the exhibition.

One appeal of war to story tellers like Spielberg is the way the protagonist learns about his new world. Discovering the situation in a different country alongside the viewer clears away the need for exposition and inherently provides a vehicle for drama. As flickering images of war becomes the war the portrayal of it in a heroic light will become increasingly difficult.  Here the debate about whether it is possible to make an anti-war film which doesn’t excite the viewer may reach a bloody resolution.

The 2016 film about drone warfare “Eye in the Sky” brings the century to a close at the Imperial War Museum. With this and the likes of WikiLeaks footage of air strikes in the Middle East the circle is complete.  From the dim witted big game hunting of Prince Harry comparing his killing of people to a computer game and drone warfare conducted from a building on the outskirts of Las Vegas the new armchair warrior is doing it for real.

The National Picture Theatre

8 April 2016

On the night of the 18th March 1941 the National Picture Theatre on Beverley Road was one of many theatres bombed in Hull during the Blitz. Taking refuge in the strengthened foyer or on the back rows under the balcony all of the 150 patrons escaped unhurt whilst the the area behind it was completely destroyed by a parachute mine. Being an easy target for the Luftwaffe in terms of location and defence this has almost passed unnoticed in the history of a “north eastern coastal town” which was attacked from the beginning to the end of the war and saw only 5,945 of 92,660 thousand houses escape bomb damage.

The bombing of Coventry is symbolised by crosses formed from melted roof nails sent around the world whilst in Hamburg the remains of the St Nikolai church tower is visible throughout much of the city. Drinking in the next door Swan Pub I was only dimly aware of the Theatre's facade distinguishing it from the many bomb sites that had littered Hull. It is however the theatre's status as the only remaining civilian rather than church or military bomb damaged building in Britain and the apposite nature of the film that had been showing when the curtain came down which is remarkable.

As a result 75 years after the bombing and a fund raising rerun of “The Great Dictator” at a sold out Kardomah94 I am meeting with The National Civilian World War Two Memorial Trust to discuss their aims. Having started in 1999 you cannot fail to be impressed by the commitment of founder member Tom Robinson and secretary Alan Canvess. As Tom puts it is to turn the remnants of the theatre into “ a place of education about the home front and how ordinary men, women and children were affected by the war” but while it's primary focus will be to honour Hull's civilian war dead it was good to hear a vision of a forward looking space prepared to consider the global impact of war on non combatants.

Unfortunately this couldn't be more timely in the face of the greatest humanitarian crisis in Europe since the Second World War and the prospect of forging links with the diverse population of the Beverley Road area is something the Trust would be keen to see. To this end a role as community hub or catalyst in the much needed regeneration of the area is possible. Alan feels all manner of period yet contemporary uses are up for discussion: “Growing your own veg, making clothes or an outdoor cinema as people are learning about these things now”.

It is even more apt to have these plans for the National Picture House as cinema played a pivotal role in the war as a source of news and morale raising entertainment. “The Great Dictator” auteur Charlie Chaplin was aware of the anti semitism in Europe and based his mockery of Hitler on the propaganda film “Triumph Of The Will”. Finding the fact he was born four days apart from Hitler in 1889 disquieting he nevertheless used his physical similarities to great effect. Described with characteristic stupidity by the Nazis as as “a disgusting Jewish acrobat” because his Little Tramp character fitted their racial profiling Chaplin's riposte went on to be his most commercially successful film with attendance figures of nine million people in British cinemas.

Now with the Council ready to use a Compulsory Purchase Order to buy the site sometime this year the Trust is readying itself for a big push. As Alan describes it they “need to see we can raise money” for the running costs whilst a “youthful input to take it forward with history qualifications or an interest in the the Second World War” to help facilitate the events and education is required.

Hitler is rumoured to have seen the film twice and whilst his reaction was not recorded the synchronicity of possibly the two most well known people in the world coming together in a street in Hull helps the story hang together. The real story is though that while Hitler may have won the battle and Chaplin had the last laugh it was the people of Hull with their humour and resilience who helped to win the war.


If you want to join the Trust, make a donation or get involved as a volunteer please consult the Trust website

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The Ego, The Id And The Third Man

5 March 2015

Vienna the self styled City of the Waltz. During the anniversary commemorations of the First World War there has never been a more prescient time to experience its more disreputable side. Rather than Strauss and his Blue Danube the soundtrack for an exploration of the cities dark side should be the “Harry Lime Theme” from cinema classic “The Third Man”. Set in Vienna a city has never played such a starring role in a film and Anton Karas' zither score could prove the most ubiquitous mental accompaniment. This will be more apt than the Tokyo metro using it to signal the boarding of trains but the 400 versions available to listen to at the 'Third Man Museum' may still prove challenging.

Written by Graham Greene “The Third Man” portrays a post war Vienna divided along Cold War lines and the mood of mistrust is wonderfully palpable. Summon the requisite amount of misanthropy to recreate one of the most iconic speeches in film when the enigmatic Orson Welles meets Joseph Cotton on the ferris wheel at the Prater Amusement Park. Looking down at the “ants” below “would you really feel pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?” Nearby is the Museum of Crime which whilst largely sign posted in German has enough self explanatory exhibits to make it worthwhile. Indeed the mummified skull of an executed man whose eyes seem to follow you around the room like a butcher shop Mona Lisa needs no translation.


By this point refreshment is in order. Into central Vienna and visit the Cafe Mozart to envisage Cotton's character meeting Lime's accomplice Kurtz but don't be fooled into thinking it was shot there as it deemed itself to up market to permit filming at the time. So shortly afterwards head to the area nicknamed the Bermuda Triangle which with it's refreshing absence of Irish bars and enough locals who look like they enjoy a drink makes for a decent evening.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the food. Prominent on every menu was the Wiener Schnitzel which didn't seem to be for the tourists as several Austrians were seen ploughing through it in what can only have been patriotic obligation. Another soundtrack to any stay in Vienna will be the sound of desultory hammering as someone tries to flatten the pork or veal usually sacrificed for the dish. The Schnitzel has it's roots in Byzantium where meat was eaten after being sprinkled with gold. This seems to fit a nation which was at the centre of world history until relatively recently but now finds itself a bit part player.

Having what can seem a disproportionate amount of history is highlighted by the Sigmund Freud Museum in the apartment he lived in prior to going into exile from the Nazis in 1938. It contains much of the original furniture and an audio guide which highlights his major works and least successful ventures. Despite his protestations the claim to have cured a friend of a morphine addiction by giving him cocaine had all too predictable results.


In the same area of medical institutions and the University is the Pathology Museum but be careful what you ask for when trying to find it. Part of a large hospital complex considerable time was spent following instructions to the Pathology Department before locating the imposing looking round building and 18th-century “fools tower” for people with mental health problems. Inside exhibits illustrate various pathological changes to body parts in an atmosphere of period decay or almost eastern bloc neglect depending on your disposition.

 The Viennese love a coffee but attempts to explore the myriad of options in the student area were hijacked by locals knocking back beer and schnaps. One gentlemen who described his condition as “delicate” insisted on spending an inordinate amount of time writing down offbeat visitor attractions before the waitress equally insistently transcribed his handwriting.Indeed the Karlsplatz Christmas market which forms part of the cities famous festivities has the quality of an alcohol induced nightmare with children in bird's cage fairground rides and buskers resplendent in Wicker Man style masks.

Less central but only the last stop on the U4 metro line is the enormous “Red Vienna” apartment block which runs the length of four tram stops and is where where communists retreated during the short lived civil war of 1934. Described to Graham Greene by friend and double agent Kim Philby their escape through the cities sewer system gave rise to some of the most famous movie locations ever.If you need to refresh your memory don't despair as “The Third Man” is screened at the centrally located Burg Kino indefinitely. As you leave in the early hours the flagstones might be glistening in just the right way and even without the spirit level prescribed by American Director William Wyler to Carol Reed one of those disorientating shots from the film will surely suggest itself.

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