Zatoichi meets Monkey!

ZatoichiI finally managed to see Kitano ‘Beat’ Takeshi’s masterpiece, Zatoichi, tonight. After missing it at the cinema, nearly buying the DVD a while back and forgetting to tape it off the TV a few times, I managed to record it the other night off Channel Four.

Well worth the wait.

Zatoichi (Takeshi) is a blind swordsman and masseur, who roams feudal Japan helping the helpless. It’s a violent, witty and tragic tale of revenge, directed beautifully by its star.

The music is noticeable but not intrusive, adding to the tension of scenes rather than guiding them or demanding emotion. I don’t claim to be an expert on Japanese martial arts films but this surely ranks as one of the better ones.

The last time I watched anything similar was a few years ago at the Filmhouse in Edinburgh, when they held an Akira Kurosawa season. I’d read that 1958’s Hidden Fortress was a heavy influence on 1977’s Star Wars and had to see it for myself.

MonkeyOne last thought on martial arts films and TV… I don’t know what it’s like for anyone else in their 30s brought up on the weekly adventures of Monkey back in the early 80s, but I still hold that up as something of a benchmark for these sort of things.

Monkey had some superb scripts that had both comedy and a touch of (occasionally heavy-handed) morality. Granted, UK audiences only got a roughly translated version, but even these managed to tug at the heartstrings once in a while, usually just after Monkey, Pigsy, Sandy and Tripitaka had liberated another village from demons during a bonkers, high-octane, dodgy effects-laden fight scene.

The fact that it’s stuck in my memory for 25 years suggests it must have done something right.

Anyone for ‘Zatoichi meets Monkey’?

And here’s the fantastic end title music…


The Street: Series Two, Episode Two

Timothy Spall, copyright BBCClaiming that British drama is is currently in the doldrums is something I’ve been guilty of recently.

It’s often difficult to compare favourably the high quality American series that come back year-after-year (after year) for runs of six months at a time with the fare offered up by British broadcasters. Ongoing drama tends to mean the soaps, propping up the schedules that are otherwise chock full of “Reality” series.

So it’s refreshing to see BBC One have brought back Jimmy McGovern’s The Street for a second series. Last week’s episode was a cracking start to the series, as David Thewlis (co-star of one of my favourite series, A Bit of a Do, with David Jason in 1989) played identical twin brothers, both living in the titular street.

Tonight’s episode starred another icon of 80s television, Timothy Spall (Brummie Barry in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet) as Eddie. A chain of events are set in motion within the first 10 minutes that would be funny if they weren’t so tragic.

Alongside Spall was Ger Ryan as wife Margie who finds a lump while in the shower. The dawning realisation that her life could soon be filled with chemotherapy and pity from her peers is portrayed with both deep emotion and stunning direction: a dream sequence on the bus, as other passengers told their stories of living with cancer, was captivating.

And as the characters in this episode go through their story they briefly mingle with characters from other episodes who will take centre stage in future weeks.

I hope the ratings are as high as they deserve to be and that season three is commissioned soon. Either that or Tim Spall gets his own show…it’s been a while since Frank Stubbs Promotes.

Happy Birthday Channel Four!

In the week of celebrations for Channel Four I’ll add my congrats here.

As the first real UK TV channel to launch in my lifetime (Channel Five and a million digital channels appeared much later) I can hardly remember a time it wasn’t out of my personal viewing schedule or the papers.

I can remember watching Brookside with my mum and that it was a world away from the cosier Coronation Street on the other side. Max Headroom was plain weird and The Crystal Maze was a revelation compared to the likes of the Krypton Factor or Mastermind.

Then, just as Nintendo and Sega were taking over the world, GamesMaster appeared with Dominik Diamond and Patrick Moore. This was cult viewing in my school, certainly amongst the geekier elements.

Vic Reeves Big Night Out was also required viewing in the early 90s, though I don’t remember being a huge fan – it was more a case of being uncool if you missed it. The Word was very risky, needing to be watched in your room on the portable telly.

And mornings weren’t complete without The Big Breakfast. Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush and TFI Friday were the natural progression.

There are loads more series that stick in my mind: Nightingales, the TV Heaven season, Sean’s Show, Whose Line is it Anyway?, Chance in a Million, Brass Eye…

But the one that probably remains with me most depicts the misadventures of three priests off the coast of Ireland. A true classic (a word I’ve been told I use too much, but this time I think a few million others agree) and the death of Dermot Morgan at the end of series three was truly a tragedy. In memory of Ted Crilly, here’s just one clip out of too many I could have chosen from Father Ted. You’ll enjoy it…ah you will, you will, you will…

DVD Review: The Greatest American Hero

Hailing from a time when CGI was but a glint in a computer programmers green screen monitor and Superman had just done great guns at the box office, The Greatest American Hero was an attempt to revitalise superheroes for a 1980’s TV audience. On a budget.

The series was following in the footsteps of other small screen superfolk: Wonder Woman had finished in 1979 and The Incredible Hulk was fast running out of pairs of new trousers at the time of GAH’s appearance in 1981. Creator/producer Stephen J Cannell’s (The A-Team, The Rockford Files) aim was to bring his own unique mix of humour and humanity to a new genre.

Greatest American HeroRockford Files fans were used to seeing Jim get beaten-up each week in the pursuit of justice and Cannell decided that in his new show it was the suit that had the powers, not the guy wearing it. You’ll believe a man can fly, but can he land in one piece…? All three seasons are now out on DVD.

The Pilot introduces us to high school teacher Ralph Hinkley (William Katt) who, while taking his class on a field trip through the LA desert, teams up with world-weary FBI agent Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp) as they encounter a UFO whose inhabitants gift Ralph with a magic suit. The problems start when Ralph loses the suit’s instruction manual. Cue much crashing into walls, accidental invisibility and slightly ropey special effects.

Season One introduces Ralph’s lawyer girlfriend Pam Davidson (Connie Sellecca) and his class of remedial class schoolkids. Thankfully most of the screen time is given over to the pairing of Katt and Culp, both perfect in their roles. Culp in particular is eminently watchable, with Maxwell’s Commie-bashing, post-Watergate attitude constantly at odds with Hinkley’s liberalism.

Highlights of the season include My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys, where Ralph, after a crisis of conscience, decides to give up “the jammies” (as Maxwell dubs the ridiculous red suit) for a quiet life. His meeting with TVs The Lone Ranger at a shopping mall makes him assess the concept of heroism and hero worship and makes interesting watching for all fanboys. Here’s Looking At You, Kid is another early classic, co-starring the original Mrs Robinson, Lost in Space’s June Lockhart as Pam’s mum.

Season Two is more of the same, but bumped up to a full complement of 22 episodes. Here the series format is fine tuned, with the classic episode The Beast in Black an exercise in prime-time horror. Ralph is now less bumbling, the scriptwriters ramping up the danger, not only to our heroes, but to the World at large.

Season Three would be a shorter season, and would be the end of the road for Hinkley and Maxwell. Only 56 episodes were made in total.

Up till now GAH has been something of an unknown entity to UK viewers, and there is little chance that these boxsets will be released on Region 2. If you’re a fan of sci-fi-cop-show-comedy series, want to make your friends jealous down the pub as they react with “never heard of it” or just want to immerse yourself in some classic 80s telly, then this is the series for you.

DVD Extras: Season One comes with just over an hour of new interviews with the cast. It’s also bundled with the unaired pilot for the proposed spin-off series, The Greatest American Heroine. It’s a curiosity, but doesn’t match the high standards of the original show. Season Two comes with an interview with composer Mike Post (the bloke who wrote the A-Team theme tune!) as well as, bizarrely, a Japanese language track on one episode. Why?

The Monocled Mutineer

Monocled MutineerWar, deception, mutiny and kidnapping! So shouted the headline of a Daily Telegraph advert on 1 September 1986 promoting the upcoming BBC1 drama, The Monocled Mutineer.

Mutineer tells the story of Percy Toplis who, by the age of 17, had led an itinerant lifestyle around the country and spent two years in prison for attempted rape. His release from jail in 1914 coincided with the outbreak of the First World War and saw his enrolment in the Medical Corps. From there his gets more complicated…

Written by Alan Bleasdale (Boys from the Blackstuff, GBH) and starring Paul McGann (Withnail & I, Doctor Who), the four-part series would go on to become one of the most controversial dramas ever to be screened in the UK, bringing down a Director General in its wake.

Never repeated since its screening in 1986 but recently released on DVD, this was my first chance to see what all the fuss was about. Covering a number of years and locations, as Toplis takes on the British Army at their own game, the series rattles along at a fair old pace.

While many of the scenes appear quite leisurely, typical of 1980s drama, the constant segues from one event/time period to the next did jar slightly. The BBC wardrobe department do their bit for King and Country in various battle scenes while the music helps set the mood throughout.

McGann gives Toplis a cocky yet charming edge, easily out-acting a fine cast that includes Timothy West and Penelope Wilton. While historical accuracies can’t be verified, any dramatic licence taken pays off and Toplis remains an enigmatic and engaging main character.

While it’s still an important, entertaining and memorable series, a documentary or commentary would have been welcome to help put the series in historical context.

A more in-depth account of the problems that accompanied the series in 1986 can be found over at

The Summer Of British Film

Summer of British FilmGood old BBC2. Just when Summer telly is looking dire, with endless episodes of B*g B*****r (I can’t bear to say, let alone write about a certain ‘reality’ TV show), along comes The Summer of British Film to restore the faith.

Following an interview with BBC2 Controller Roly Keating on the latest Observer Film Weekly podcast, where he was very enthusiastic about the season, I’m really looking forward to this.

Every week, starting on Saturday 28 July, there’ll be a new documentary in the British Film Forever series covering 100 years of British film. Episodes are split into genres:

  • Thriller
  • Romance
  • Social Realism
  • Costume Drama
  • Horror
  • War
  • Comedy

Best of all, to accompany the documentaries, BBC2 will also be screening around 60 films from the last 100 years.

I’m now off to finally invest in a DVD Recorder to make the most out the season.