Dragons: Riders of Berk arrives on UK TV


There was some good news at the weekend for British fans of 2010’s animated film, How to Train Your Dragon, as the TV spin-off arrived on the Cartoon Network.

Dragons: Riders of Berk picks up a short time after the events of the Dreamworks film, when (and this is a spoiler if you haven’t seen How to Train Your Dragon) the Vikings of Berk and their dragon neighbours are living in harmony.

Well, as harmoniously as can be expected when you’re talking about flying beasties that breathe fire.

Now it’s up to the humans to stop killing the dragons and train them to help them in their daily chores, with the first double bill of episodes neatly reminding fans what had gone before while informing newbies what they’ve missed.

The young voice cast from the film has been retained for the TV series, including Jay Baruchel as lead Hiccup, while the adult actors are now Americans pretending to be Scottish as Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson are off doing bigger things.

Thomas Wilson (Biff from the Back to the Future series) is Bucket while ex-Doctor Who David Tennant is also due to pop-up in a future episode as Spitelout Jorgenson, recreating his role from the movie.

The series retains the computer generated look of the feature film and much of John Powell’s terrific score, a soundtrack I’ve been listening to regularly for a few years now. Composer John Paesano joins the series for weekly scoring duties.

Two seasons have been commissioned and 40 episodes are in the works, with season two to be called Defenders of Berk. Season one began in the US in August 2012 so we’re a bit behind, but judging by these first episodes it’s a programme worth sticking with and I can’t wait to follow the adventures of Hiccup, Toothless and co.

We’re also promised two new feature films in 2014 and 2016, meaning the How to Train Your Dragon franchise should be a long and fruitful one, something worth celebrating in this world of soulless sequels.

Dragons: Riders of Berk airs on the Cartoon Network on Saturdays at 10.30am and 6.30pm.


James Bond composer John Barry has died

The BBC is reporting this morning that one of our greatest composers, John Barry, has died at the age of 77 of a heart attack.

For James Bond fans this is a particular blow, as Barry is the man who brought us the distinctive arrangement of Monty Norman’s Bond theme on 1962’s Dr No and scores for 11 of the movies. His lush orchestral work on pictures such as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice stand as high points in both his career and cinema history, his compositions defining the sound of the espionage genre for generations of cinema-goers.


Barry also worked on dozens of non-Bond features, such as Midnight Cowboy, Robin and Marian, Dances with Wolves and Out of Africa, while giving us the memorable themes to TV shows such as Juke Box Jury and The Persuaders.

The tributes will no doubt start flowing very soon, but one of the first came from Barry’s heir to the Bond music throne, David Arnold, who wrote on his Twitter feed: “It was with a heavy heart that I tell you John Barry passed away this morning. I am profoundly saddened by the news but profoundly thankful for everything he did for music and for me personally.”

Oddly enough, today sees the release of two films on DVD here in the UK featuring his work.

First up there’s What a Whopper from 1961, in which Adam Faith writes a book about the Loch Ness Monster, while 1968’s Deadfall is a Michael Caine heist movie with a twist (well, a few twists really). I’m not sure if they offer the best tribute to Barry, but they certainly show his diversity.

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James Garner on the Archive of American Television

Over the holiday season I’m catching up with some long overdue viewing, much of it on DVD but part of it online. For the past year I’ve had a website bookmarked, the Archive of American Television, specifically their interview with my favourite actor, James Garner, and the time has finally arrived to watch it.

The Archive was set up by the Television Academy Foundation in 1997 to house over 700 interviews with the pioneers of television, with over 2,500 hours now online. One of my aims in 2011 is to reach back into the murky past of television and cinema as much as possible, and this is a useful way to find out more about the background of some of my favourite series.

First up is James Garner, star of Maverick in the 1950s (which I recently began watching), The Rockford Files in the 1970s and various films such as The Great Escape, Support Your Local Sheriff and The Americanization of Emily. Recorded in March 1999, Garner talks for around three hours about his life and career, including his appearance alongside Marlon Brando in Sayonara which saw him selected for the role of Bret Maverick in 1957.

Garner also discusses his subsequent blacklisting in the TV industry when he chose to sue Warner Bros in the 1960s (the first of many times he would sue a Hollywood studio) and the strain of trying to produce The Rockford Files when his health deteriorated during production.

The actor is tough but fair about those he worked with, including Maverick creator Roy Huggins, noting that he enjoyed the role but not the treatment from Warner Bros, who paid him a pittance compared to their earnings from the hit Western.

If you have three hours to spare, take a look at the six-part interview and listen to one of our finest actors in conversation.

Next up for me is the interview with the late, great, Stephen J Cannell, the writer-producer-director who sadly died this year and whose work I plan to revisit in some detail in 2011.

Robert Culp and more remembered by TCM

The annual TCM Remembers video has been released, a montage of stills and clips of film professionals who passed away over the last 12 months.

The death of actor Robert Culp was the big one for me this year, someone I’ve admired for the last 30 years in one way or another. I started out as a fan of the knockabout humour of The Greatest American Hero in 1982 before going on to recognise his more nuanced performances in films such as Hickey & Boggs and Hannie Caulder.

The death of Greatest American Hero creator Stephen J Cannell has meant it’s been a double blow this year for fans of that particular show.

Watch the full video, which also contains nods to Leslie Neilsen, Kevin McCarthy, Irvin Kershner and more, below:

New Road Runner cartoon online

Who doesn’t love a good cartoon? Thanks to /Film shouting about it, I’m pleased to present the latest Road Runner animation from Warner Bros, which appeared in cinemas over the summer.

Hopefully we’ll be seeing more of these at the cinema over the next few years as we all need cheering up after the 30 minutes of adverts and trailers which clog up a film’s running time these days.

Go Road Runner!


Event Review: Slapstick 2010


Returning to the blog after his epic Manhunt review, Walter Dunlop takes us through four days in the life of a silent movie buff…in Bristol…

I’m just back from Slapstick 2010 in Bristol and what a weekend. What a wonderful weekend.

There is absolutely nothing to match the experience of watching really good silent movies (like any genre, there’s chaff and quality in equal measure) in a full cinema with live music.

As an experience, it’s…intense. A raft of great films. Superb guests. Convivial atmosphere and friendly attendees.

The first screening, Buster Keaton’s “The Navigator” went down well, trumped by Harold Lloyd’s “Girl Shy” which took the roof off the cinema. 1200 people in kinks.

The Kenny Everett tribute panel brought the house down – an appreciative audience, Barry Cryer on spectacular form, and clips so well chosen that I’m going to dig out as many of his old Thames shows as I can find from the Dunlop archive here and glut myself on his work all over again as soon as I get a free night.

Bonzo Dog Doodah Band co-founder Neil Innes got a night to himself – and quite right too. A ninety minute documentary on the man, followed by Neil himself introducing clips from his career and singing, playing piano and occasionally indulging in some virtuoso Ukulele antics.

There was a German bloke in the seat behind me – I heard him say he’d turned up because he liked the confluence of the words “Bonzo” and “Dog” on the poster. He had no idea what he was about to see, no idea who they were.

After ninety minutes of clips and chat in which the words “anarchy”, “anarchic” and “free-for-all” were mentioned about two hundred times, I heard him say to his companion, “So – was this Innes man the leader?” Ah well, can’t win ’em all.

I met and spoke briefly to Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graeme Garden, stars of 1970s comedy series The Goodies. I had a lengthy chat with Neil Innes in the bar on Saturday night. He’s been a hero of mine for years, and he proved to be every bit as nice as his reputation suggests.

I asked him about the non-appearance of The Innes Book of Records on DVD. The BBC want a fifteen grand search fee for sourcing from their own archive, and they’ll charge any company that wants to release it 600 quid per minute. Not much chance of that, then.

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DVD Review: The Complete Lone Wolf & Cub Boxset


Opening with an execution and closing with an extended, balletic and bloody sword fight, the complete series of Lone Wolf and Cub films (plus “composite” film Shogun Assassin) collected in this gorgeous new box set could never be described as tame.

Sword of Vengeance (1971) begins the series in style, director Kenji Misumi deciding to ignore the inherently pulpy nature of the stories by offering a glorious assault on the senses with as a series of blood soaked fight sequences accompany our heroes on their escape from Shogun ways.

Wakayama makes for a stoic lead, barely uttering a word of dialogue throughout the series, his skill with a sword matched by Misumi (who would remain as director until the third film) and his ever-watchful camera.

The rest of the series, made over a two year period, maintains the high standard of the original, each film opening and closing with scenes of Lone Wolf and his son meandering through some new part of Japan.

Whether its dusty streets, golden desert sand dunes or, in the case of White Heaven in Hell (1974), mountains capped with thick snow, the pair trundle on indefinitely, taking on various enemies as they try to kill them with ever more ingenious techniques.

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Sean Connery in Person!

It’s tempting to think that the topics on this blog are getting samey, what with the title of my last post shouting about yet another ex-Bond who’s going to be appearing in public and who I have tickets for. This time it’s Mr Sean Connery.

Sean will be at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse on Sunday 24 August to present a screening of Sydney Lumet’s fantastic 1965 film, The Hill. I wrote about The Hill in February 2007 on this very blog (head over to have a look if you have a spare few minutes) and I’m delighted the Filmhouse have managed to secure the presence of Big Tam himself.

I hear he’ll be doing a 15 – 20 minute interview before the screening and I doubt there’ll be questions from the audience, but I’ll try and have one handy anyway. Visit the Filmhouse website to see if there are tickets left…

So with Sean in August and Roger in October, I wonder if George, Tim or Pierce can be persuaded to do any appearances in September, November or December, to round the year off in style?

Photo pinched from the Filmhouse website…

Roger Moore in person!

A simple post title there for a simple enough post – Sir Roger Moore will be live at the National Theatre on October 16 2008 and I’m going to be in the audience!

Out and about to promote his new book, My Word is My Bond, Roger will be interviewed on stage before signing copies for the masses. I can’t wait.

Although Roger isn’t my favourite Bond, I can appreciate what he did for the film series when he took over from Sir Sean. He was also in one of my favourite series, Maverick, back in the 50s and he’s been in so many great/cheesy TV shows and films that he’s a genuine national treasure.

I read his diaries written on the set of Live and Let Die a few years back and they are superb – if the new book is as funny it’ll be worth the trip alone.

I was also lucky enough to tour the Forbidden City in Beijing in 2001, and decided to use one of those pre-recorded cassette thingies with the voice of a tour guide pointing out areas of interest. I was stunned to discover that the English language version was by none other than Roger himself! I had the joy of a 2 hour visit to the Forbidden City with James Bond!

I’ll tell him that fascinating fact on the day. Maybe.

If you’re going, drop me a line and I’ll see you at the bar for a swift Dry Martini before the show…for Queen and Country.

Scotland’s Cinema History

A post on the Guardian Film blog on Friday, itself linking off to another site that looks at 8 Aesthetically Awesome Abandoned Movie Theatres in America, reminded me of a website I stumbled across a year or two back that did something similar for Scotland’s cinemas of yesteryear.

The Scottish Cinemas and Theatres Project is “dedicated to recording and archiving our historic cinema architectural heritage, and to act as a information resource for people interested in that often overlooked part of our social history.”, and it does it in fine style.

My first visit led to me spending an hour or more sifting through the photos of long gone cinemas, some of which are today pubs, theatres or simply gone, to be replaced by new houses or shops. There’s something quite sad about the fact that these places, the centrepoint of so many nights out and long awaited weekend trips to the pictures to see the latest movie from the Hollywood dream factory, are now just another part of history.

If you have a few minutes spare, please take a trip over to the site to see if there’s anywhere you remember visiting. Personally I remember well the ABC (at one time the 123) on Lothian Road, now the rather soulless Odeon, and the old Odeon on South Clerk Street.

I particularly remember going to the old Odeon on the evening of the premiere of the Sean Connery thriller, Entrapment. The street was cordoned off outside to allow the crowds to gather, and as each limo pulled up with celebrities for the red carpet, the students living in the flat next door to the cinema kept playing the James Bond theme on their hi-fi, waiting for Connery to arrive.

Catherine Zeta-Jones and husband Michael Douglas pulled up, waved at the audience and promptly vanished inside the cinema. A few moments later Connery arrived – to the strains of the Bond theme from those neighbours – and took a few minutes to greet the crowds. He then went inside the Odeon, grabbed Zeta-Jones and took her back outside for more photos. Good lad.

If anyone has any other memories, please leave them in the comments section below, otherwise head over to the Cinemas and Theatre Project site for a look-see.

Three Days of the Condor

Partly due to the tragic death recently of one of Hollywood’s old guard, Mr Sydney Pollack, and partly because it happened to be on Film Four the other night, I’ve recently finished watching the Pollack directed Three Days of the Condor (1976) starring Robert Redford.

Redford stars as bookish (well about as bookish as Robert Redford can get – we see him hold a book, but this is Robert Redford!) Joseph Turner, a.k.a. The Condor, a CIA operative working out of a nondescript apartment block in New York.

Turner’s section of the CIA are devoted to reading books, magazines and reports that are published around the globe, analysing them for anything that might pose a security threat to the USA.

Popping out of the office for lunch one afternoon, Turner returns to find his friends and colleagues all dead, murdered by Max von Sydow and his cronies. From here Turner goes on the run, at first trusting his bosses after phoning them for help, but soon realising that he’s now the prime suspect in the murder and he’s got nowhere to hide.

From the off this is a cracking thriller, New York looking as imposing and unfriendly to Turner as his own company turns out to be. Shots of the Twin Towers loom, eerily foreshadowing in the mind of any present day viewer the legacy that real-world US policy, touched upon here, would have.

Redford is a fine lead, effortlessly showing the confusion and mistrust of a man on the run. Faye Dunaway is also on great form as her character is drawn into the murky world of US intelligence.

Pollack’s direction is always alert for the interesting camera angle, his lens casting an eager eye over each new location. In fact a quick check of IMDB tells me that excluding the action during the opening credits, this film has approximately 1172 shots in 1 hour 53 minutes and 8 seconds, or an average shot duration of about 5.8 seconds – today Pollack might have used CCTV cameras to get the same effect.

I’ve been thinking about Condor for a few days now, it’s no-nonsense style and fast pace really having made an impression. I’m going to try and track down some more Pollack films over the next few months and see what else I’ve been missing.

James Garner: Legend of the West

James Garner. That’s the answer I always give when asked who my favourite actor is. Recently I had to try and justify this to someone who seemed to have some pretty major Garner prejudice.

James Garner as Jim Rockford

James Garner as Jim Rockford

Although I like my films and telly, I do try to steer discussion onto other topics when meeting new people, at least for a while. On this occasion I mentioned James Garner, only to be told I was wrong.

While trying not to appear too bothered with this slur, I felt I had to defend his honour in his absence. I like to think I did alright, even after a few Jack Daniels and cokes, but it left me thinking more needs to be done to raise the profile of America’s finest.

So I’ve dug out an article I put together last year for a film course I took (written just after watching The Americanization of Emily) and, before that, here’s what I said about Jimbo back in this blog’s first post:

The blog is dedicated to Mr James Garner: Bret Maverick in Maverick, The Scrounger in The Great Escape and LAs finest, Jim Rockford PI in The Rockford Files.

His work and style epitomise everything I like in my entertainment. Heroes that aren’t black or white, but black and grey. Characters that would rather talk their way out of a situation than fight (who would have the guts to fight someone with a gun in real life? A Garner character would rather leg it). Humour that is understated rather than puerile or OTT. And a bit of realism in amongst the nonsense makes for good entertainment.

And now the article…

James Garner: Legend of the West

For the lowly television actor, the road to movie stardom is one littered with casualties. For every Bruce Willis there’s a David Caruso, for every George Clooney a Matt Le Blanc.

TV audiences will happily sit down each week to watch their favourite show/actor/actress, so why should they pay money to go to the cinema to see them in their latest artistic endeavour? For James Garner, the road has been something of a hazardous one.

In 1956, Hollywood screenwriter Roy Huggins was working on an episode of anthology series Conflict. Huggins was in the stages of planning a new TV series, a Western different to the then-current glut of cowboy series. But he lacked a leading man.

While casting for Conflict, Huggins saw a new young actor in action, one James Scott Bumgarner. As Huggins remembers, “I really had stumbled on something wonderful, the rarest thing there is in Hollywood: an actor with an unerring instinct for a funny line.” That actor would soon change his name to James Garner.

Birth of a Maverick

Born in Norman, Oklahoma on 7 April, 1928, Bumgarner had served in the Army in the Korean War. Injured and awarded the Purple Heart, he ended up in Los Angeles, taking supporting roles in a host of TV shows and commercials. At 6’1”, dark haired and with a knowing glint in his eye, he was prime leading-man material.

Support your Local SheriffCollaboration between Huggins and Garner led to the creation of the both the role and the character type that would define the actor’s career: Bret Maverick, reluctant hero and gentle grafter.

Maverick brought something new to the Western genre: humour. The series divided its episodes between Garner’s character and his brother Bart, played by Jack Kelly. It soon became clear that Garner’s episodes were the more popular with audiences, his easy-going charm and laconic delivery of lines making him a primetime star. Then the movie people came calling.

During summer filming breaks, Garner started to make his mark as a leading man. Roles in Up Periscope (1959) and Cash McCall (1960) were diverse enough to show Garner’s action-hero and romantic lead credentials, while the 1960s saw Garner’s film career take off.

He was soon being offered scripts for a series of high profile pictures, including The Children’s Hour (1961), a complete tonal shift from most of his other work, The Thrill of it All (1963), second-billing to Steve McQueen in The Great Escape (1963), The Americanization of Emily (1964) and Support your Local Sheriff (1969).

At home on the Range

Most of these films allowed Garner to hone the characterisation of the relaxed, combat-shy Everyman, who’s idea of living an easy life is interrupted by events around him. While Robert De Niro may eschew the virtues of method acting, the ability to sustain a note perfect, reliable and audience-friendly character through each of his movies meant that Garner was seen as a safe pair of hands.

If the 1960s were a golden period in Garner’s film career, the 1970s brought new demands. Ironically, it was one of Garner’s friends and TV contemporaries, Clint Eastwood, who would help define the era in such films as A Fistful of Dollars (1954) and Dirty Harry (1971). Garner tried gamely to respond to this with A Man Called Sledge in 1970, a spaghetti western in which he played against type.

His own production company helped him develop more personal films, such as Skin Game (1971). It was as a cowboy that Garner had made his mark, and a cowboy it seemed he would remain. He returned to TV briefly in semi-western Nicholls (1971-1972), which bombed with viewers and critics, before making some little-remembered movies that didn’t appear to tax him.

Saviour came in 1974 from an old collaborator, in the shape of Maverick’s Roy Huggins who, had decided to do for the detective series what Maverick had done for Westerns. The Rockford Files brought something new to the genre of private eyes, and was to all intents an updating of Garner’s previous persona for a new generation. This return to the small screen would revive his career once again.

Moving on

Maverick (1994)Garner was once quoted as saying, “When I left Rockford in 1980 I decided I want to do films that have interesting characters, people with human emotions and feelings and I’ve been very fortunate to do that.” This seems to sum up much of his film career post-Rockford.

Cinema beckoned again with films such as Victor Victoria (1982) and Murphy’s Romance (1985), for which he was Oscar-nominated. He would go on to produce some of his most interesting performances in a number of acclaimed TV movies for which he was Emmy nominated, such as My Name is Bill W (1989) and Barbarians at the Gate (1993).

An appearance in the movie version of Maverick (1993) could be seen as something of a closure for the Maverick character, a dovetailing of his TV and film careers.

While it’s fair to say that Garner never had the cinematic draw of Clint Eastwood, his failure to break into the Hollywood A-list often attributed to his ‘safe’ persona that lacked the edge offered by contemporaries such as Steve McQueen, his presence has always been a sign of quality.

More recent appearances in films such as Space Cowboys (2001), Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002) and The Notebook (2004) have cemented his position as a respectable, dependable actor from old-Hollywood. His return to primetime television in family comedy Eight Simple Rules in 2004 showed that the small screen wouldn’t let him go and that perhaps that’s just the way he likes it.

To finish off, here’s a decent little interview with Jim on the Charlie Rose show from 2002:

Seance on a Wet Afternoon

Seance on a Wet AfternoonI came to a conclusion this weekend: Richard Attenborough is one of my favourite actors.

Nothing earth shattering there, I’ll admit, but I thought I’d mention it as this only dawned on me while watching 1964’s Seance on a Wet Afternoon last night.

Previously, the only reference I’d heard to the film was in the title of a 1973 episode of Steptoe and Son, Seance in a Wet Rag and Bone Yard.

Like most Steptoes it was, of course, brilliant: Harold still trapped by his old dad in that junk yard while the world carries on outside the gates, oblivious to the tragedy taking place every week…

But I digress.

Seance…stars Richard Attenborough as Bill Savage, husband to Myra Savage (Kim Stanley). We join the film partway into the hatching of their plot to kidnap the daughter of a local businessman, Mr Clayton (Mark Eden, fresh from playing Marco Polo the Doctor Who and years away from portraying tram-troubling Alan Bradley in Coronation Street) and his wife, Mrs Clayton (Nanette Newman).

Their plot – to kidnap the girl and then prove Myra’s clairvoyant abilities by having her carry out a seance where she can then ‘psychically’ reveal the victim’s whereabouts – is technically only Myra’s plot.

Myra’s influence over her husband is seemingly unbreakable, leading to the sort of ‘troubled’ acting that Attenborough does so well (see 10 Rillington Place (1971) for another example). He’s never at ease here, and neither is the viewer.

Director Bryan Forbes (whose translation of the James Clavell novel King Rat (1965) to the big screen I devoured one afternoon recently) had an eye for the mundane amongst the madness, realising that it’s in the detail – such as the spelling mistakes in the ransom note – that the viewer can identify with characters, while the bigger story develops around them.

It’s a superb film, with a haunting performance from Kim Stanley, for which she was Oscar nominated that year (she lost out to Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins), and boasting a fine John Barry score.

As I mentioned above, Dickie Attenborough cements himself in my mind as one of our finest screen actors, while his partnership with Forbes produced some memorable pictures: The Angry Silence (1960), The League of Gentlemen (1960) and Whistle Down the Wind (1961) to name but three.

And I still love The Great Escape every Christmas, even if it is just on DVD.

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…