Sunday, November 28, 2021

YOU WILL REALISE OUR AIM IS THE SAME [321]


It is well known that the line “infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me,” from the 1964 film “Carry On Cleo”, was not written by its scriptwriter Talbot Rothwell, but was borrowed, with permission, from Frank Muir & Denis Norden and their radio series “Take It From Here” (1948-60), which included the prototypical dysfunctional family sitcom The Glums.

Of course, “Carry On Cleo” borrowed rather more than that, namely the leftover sets and costumes from the blockbuster historical picture “Cleopatra”, for which 20th Century-Fox had moved production from Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, to Cinecitta in Rome, in 1961. 

“Cleopatra” would be released in June 1963, having first signed Elizabeth Taylor to the starring role in September 1959. Meanwhile, “Carry On Cleo” was shot in July and August 1964 for a release in cinemas in December of the same year. Ironically, “Carry On Cleo,” in both its thrift and haste, is actually closer to what “Cleopatra” was meant to have been.

The “Cleopatra” crew had left behind an opulent and elaborate group of interior sets, and a standing outdoor set that was overwhelming in scale, but were constantly deteriorating in the dire British weather, requiring daily touch-ups on paint and masonry, and tropical vegetation to be replaced for each day of shooting. When Taylor developed a cold, later a fever and meningitis, a better climate was required for all aspects of production, and with the 1960 Summer Olympics now over, Rome became a more favourable option once more. With the decision made to start afresh, the $600,000 set and other items were left behind.

"Carry On Cleo”, starring Amanda Barrie as Cleopatra, Sid James as Mark Anthony and Kenneth Williams as Julius Caesar, was concocted as a way of using what was left behind, injecting British bawdiness into more luxuriously appointed surroundings than normal. However, producer Peter Rogers and director Gerald Thomas approached the shooting of the film in the same manner as their other productions, using mostly medium and close-up shots that work for the comedic acting and dialogue, but making no use of their sets’ scale. Mind you, this was only the second “Carry On” film to this point to be shot in colour, and its poster had to be made less similar to that of “Cleopatra” to avoid legal action, so expectations perhaps have to be set accordingly.

However, "Carry On Cleo" was what "Cleopatra" was originally intended to be: a quick, $2 million, 90-minute romp starring Joan Collins, who had been tested extensively for the role, while also intending to get 20th Century-Fox out of a sticky position with their finances by remaking the script for the almost-entirely lost 1917 “Cleopatra”, starring Theda Bara. The ambition of producer Walter Wanger, following the success of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, and the subsequent signing of Elizabeth Taylor, caused the production to spiral into a $44 million behemoth that nearly sank the entire company, having been seduced by how much more they could have if they had bigger production values and bigger stars. The contractual obligation to use a widescreen film process owned by Taylor, Todd-AO, developed by her late husband Mike Todd, is one of the less likely sequences of words in the history of filmmaking.

A later film shot at Cinecitta, the notorious adult film “Caligula”, also had its set reused for a parody, “Messalina, Messalina!”, made by “Caligula” co-producer Franco Rossellini. The film was released in 1977, two years ahead of its target - like "Cleopatra", "Caligula", a film of similar opulence and reputation, had its own set of problems.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

AND THROUGH THE WIRE I SEE YOUR FACE [320]

In 2020, I bought a new television. My previous LCD TV, bought in 2011, was becoming clunky and slow in comparison for what I can now get for two-thirds the cost, in addition to a higher-quality LED screen. Connected to it is an Apple TV box, a Blu-ray player, and a secondary DVD player that allows me, living in Europe, to watch region 1 DVDs from the United States, a cheaper option than buying a Blu-ray player that covered this requirement.

 

However, I still expected to connect the DVD player via SCART, the only option available on it. What I had not banked on was the almost wholesale dropping of SCART connections from audio-visual (AV) equipment since I last had to buy a television. 

 

Known as Péritel in its originating country of France, and first appearing in 1977, SCART is the acronym of an organisation of manufacturers that created a shared AV connector standard, and the name of the connector itself. The intention of creating a shared standard was to simplify the connecting of different AV devices, whether they were analogue or digital, and to avoid incorrect connections. To that end, twenty-one pins were supplied to carry composite, RGB, S-Video and YPbPr component video signals, and analogue, optical or digital audio signals – your devices would then choose the best connection to make. SCART connectors also carry the control signals that allow, for example, a DVD player to be “woken up” from standby mode when your TV switches to its connection, and you could daisy-chain devices together.

 

This is something I did not realise until much later, because I did not know: for a long time, SCART leads were often the only connectors available to televisions in the UK apart from that needed for an aerial, and while we may be used to HDMI offering similar ease of use, HDMI is for transmitting digital audio and visual data, and not the analogue signals from older devices – there have been HD televisions and laser-disc players that used an analogue component signal of 720 or 1080 lines, but this was used mainly in Japan, where a version of SCART also gained traction, and was extremely expensive.

 

Where did this leave me, with my region 1 DVD player? There is a spare HDMI connector available on my TV, but the requirement to turn the analogue signal from the DVD player into a digital one that can be accepted by HDMI means that the cost of a converter was higher than I wanted to spend, while also requiring a power source to assist in processing the signal from analogue to digital. You can use the VGA connector that is now often included to turn your TV into a computer monitor, but while that will carry a component visual signal to the TV, it won’t carry the sound. 

 

In the end, I had to buy an adaptor to break out the composite signals from the scart lead to use the red, white and yellow AV connectors at the back of the TV. For the record, while SCART has not been a requirement on French TVs since 2015, which is perhaps what led to it being dropped elsewhere, the inferior composite signal and connectors created by RCA in the 1950s have apparently proved too ubiquitous on TVs worldwide to kill off.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

BLUE, BLUE, MY WORLD IS BLUE [319]


Sometimes, you only notice a trend when it has already fully established itself, leaving you to trail back to where it might have begun. My latest such realisation came in, well, the alcoholic drinks section of a local supermarket, one which still separates out the non-alcoholic versions of well-known brands into their own, comparatively tiny section.

I had been looking for Guinness 0.0, which is basically the standard draught Guinness with the alcohol filtrated out at the end of the production process, which has recently been reintroduced after a contamination issue led to its withdrawal in October 2020 after only its first two weeks on sale. I remember it tasted pretty much exactly like normal Guinness, if a little lighter, with notes of coffee – here’s hoping that wasn’t what was wrong with it.

The design of Guinness 0.0 cans is pretty close to those of the standard brand, except for stating “0.0” in large blue lettering, and blue bands on the top and bottom of the cans. The supermarket did not have it, but with the other non-alcoholic brands grouped together, I realised that similar design choices had been made on the packaging of other beer brands like Heineken, Beck’s (named "Beck's Blue"), Moretti and San Miguel, but also on Kopparberg cider, Freixenet sparkling wine, and Gordon’s and Tanqueray gin.

The shelves that inspired this article


While not a hard and fast rule – Budweiser Zero removes the red from the standard design to leave it in monochrome, and Carlsberg 0.0% outright replaces its green colour with blue – the use of blue highlights on existing branding, to emphasise the taste identified with the brand over the removal of a major element and selling point of that brand, is something that must have slowly sprouted over the last year, as brands latch on to a growing taste and trend. 


I rarely drink alcohol as both a preference and a rule, so the opportunity to avoid it altogether will make having a Guinness even more enjoyable, while I wait for Pimm’s to follow suit. Therefore, another interpretation of this use of blue is to indicate safety, that this drink you would only have in certain acceptable circumstances is safe to drink anywhere, at any time, without having to think about it. My reason for thinking this is intentional is having seen Heineken 0.0 on sale in a shop that otherwise did not sell alcohol, which was a high street branch of the newsagent-stationers-bookshop WH Smith – thinking about it further, the blue accents on the Heineken can made it fit in with the soft drinks stocked next to it.


Having said all this, I live in a country where the colour blue on food and drink packaging is more associated with a conspiracy theory that Walkers Crisps changed the bags for their cheese and onion flavour from green to blue, never acknowledging they changed it, when in fact they have always used blue, despite the majority of other brands use green.


Always read the label.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

LET YOUR JOURNEY START FROM HERE [318]


It is a fact of 1990s family life that some VHS cassettes were repeatedly watched until the tape wore out. My family had many: “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”, “Back to the Future”, and “Fantasia”. All would be replaced as time and home video formats progressed, but one tape, which became lost within the family home, could not be replaced until the film’s eventual DVD release in 2006.

It turned out our lost copy of what was being called “Laputa the Flying Castle,” recorded from a TV airing on 31st December 1988, was from the first occasion that a Japanese animated feature film had been shown on British television. That this was shown at 9.25am on the populist ITV network, more known for cramming their Christmas schedules with Star Wars, Harry Potter and James Bond, is even more remarkable. If they ever did it again, I am not aware of it.

 

A story of mystical cities, escaping kidnap and airborne pirates, “Castle in the Sky” was directed by Hayao Miyazaki and released, in 1986, as the official first film from Studio Ghibli, founded on the success of “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” two years earlier. Like much of Miyazaki’s work involving planes, airships and other flying devices, “Castle in the Sky” has become widely influential as a classic of the steampunk genre.

 

The flying island itself is lifted in name and concept from Jonathan Swift's novel "Gulliver's Travels," while also influencing the plot of wanting to harness the castle for political, nefarious ends, before ultimately crashing to the ground. Unlike Swift's satire, Miyazaki's Laputa was old technology and reason, overgrown and reclaimed by nature, to be left alone - it is allowed to escape at the end, but irreversibly marked by human hands.

 

The setting of a small mining town was familiar to British audiences. Miyazaki visited Wales in 1984 as part of the film’s research, and his witnessing of the aftermath of the Miner's Strike influenced characters as well as architecture. A later noted steampunk work, 2004’s “Steamboy”, Katushiro Otomo's eventual follow-up to "Akira," was explicitly set in Victorian industrial Manchester. “Castle in the Sky” would later be shown in Aberystwyth in 2011, a charity screening to support relief efforts following the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, using its original Japanese soundtrack.

 

Despite The Walt Disney Company’s release of Studio Ghibli’s films on DVD, our lost copy of the ITV airing of “Castle in the Sky” would not truly be replaced until around 2018, my sister having sourced a copy of the Japanese DVD version originally released in 2002 – I immediately asked her to order another one for me. This was the only place we could find the English dubbed soundtrack prepared by Magnum Video Tape and Dubbing, for use in Japan Airways trans-Pacific flights, and later in American art-house screenings – it is a straight translation of the original Japanese, with music and sound effects left intact. Pazu, the boy who rescues central figure Sheeta from kidnap, is voiced by Barbara Goodson, now best known as Rita Repulsa from “Power Rangers”, while Sheeta, who possesses a magical crystal of the sort that allowed the city of Laputa to fly, is voiced by Lara Cody, who later dubbed voices for English-language versions of “My Neighbour Totoro” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service”. This was the version I remembered from my childhood, even if it is not the film’s own original soundtrack, but I knew I had the correct version the moment I heard Pazu deliver a lunch at work: “meatballs for the boss.” As Proustian as a madeleine biscuit, I’m sure you will agree.

 

It was important for me to have the version of “Castle in the Sky” that I remember, because that version was the reason one of my formative experiences of watching a film – I was five years old when ITV broadcast it – has led me to be spoiled when it comes to the expectation of what an animated feature film can accomplish in scope of story, technical detail and emotion. Arguably, only Studio Ghibli have matched it since, and only Pixar have come close.

 

It is already noted that the English-language dub of “Castle in the Sky” now most widely available, recorded by Disney in 1998, took liberties with the soundtrack that were later revised and scaled back on further home video releases. The original sixty minutes of synthesised musical score, reworked by the original composer Joe Hisaishi into a lavish, and overwhelming, ninety-minute orchestral performance, was restored, as were periods of silence that were filled in with background noise. However, the increase in Pazu and Sheeta’s ages, from pre-teen to mid-teen, and lines that made Sheeta a potential romantic interest to the airborne pirates instead of a mother figure, were retained, perhaps because James Van Der Beek and Anna Paquin would have had to be recast. The original changes were authorised by Studio Ghibli, but with this now also being the English-language track on Japanese DVDs, following a re-release in 2014, it leaves only the original Japanese soundtrack as being the “correct” version available. Perhaps this is how it always should have been, but accessibility doesn’t usually require a rewrite.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

AND THE FORESTS WILL ECHO WITH LAUGHTER [317]


“Death Wish 3” is a 1985 action thriller film starring Charles Bronson as grieving husband turned Rambo-like vigilante Paul Kersey. I’ve had a DVD copy of it on my chair to watch for some time now. In fact, there are two copies – it was so cheap second-hand that I didn’t realise I ordered two copies by accident.

I am used to dissecting films both here and in my education, and the act of looking for something to learn, or to redeem, from any film I watch, means I must have developed a higher tolerance for what the casual viewer would otherwise call crap. I am not going to say that of “Death Wish 3”: it’s competent, it’s serviceable, it’s under an hour and a half, and I watched it until the end. It’s a Cannon Group film from the 1980s, and that was all that was expected of it at the time – it was, at least, better than their film “America 3000” from the following year, which I have reviewed previously [link].

The reason I bought this film was hearing that, to make savings in the budget, a derelict hospital in the Lambeth area of London substituted for the New York projects. It works well enough, but only if you remember to look past that fact afterwards, just like seeing the respected actor and director Alex Winter – Bill, of Bill & Ted – playing a thug. Other than that, Cannon films were very much of their time: its ownership under producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus spanned the 1980s, and the lower-budgeted action-led films they are most identified by exist purely to thrill their audience. Their business model was to sell the film to distributors first, then use that money to make the film – delivering maximum bang for their buck was where the profit arrived.

Having said that, thinking about “Death Wish 3” is probably not what Cannon wanted me to do. The violence is glorified, and Paul Kersey is celebrated for his kills, and it is all sanctioned by the plot, Kersey having been given free rein by the police commissioner in the first act. The film is very fast, its story having been set up within the first fifteen minutes, and every scene feels like it was once longer, but then pared down to the bone by editor Arnold Crust, a pseudonym for director Michael Winner. The gang of thugs in this film feel like the most cartoonish pack of rats that could have been written – they only look like people, and having no motivation to write them like people makes Kersey blowing them away that much easier to cheer, if you find yourself doing that. Don Jakoby objected to the rewrites of his script, his name in the credit replaced by “Michael Edmonds”. 

The final ten minutes is one explosion after another, until the gang finally retreats after they see what we assume to be the burning corpse of their leader. The police commander tells Kersey he should go, buying him a few minutes – the credits roll fifteen seconds later, the music starting like the theme from “Seinfeld” later sounded. Wasn’t that show also about “no hugs, no learning”?

Perhaps the easiest gauge of “Death Wish 3” is to look up the sequel from 1987, “Death Wish 4: The Crackdown”. Without watching it, I imagine the same action formula would have been followed, but because Cannon had overspent on prestige productions that did poorly at the box office, like Franco Zeffirelli’s “Otello” (1986), so future productions would be limited to budgets of $5 million, half the budget of “Death Wish 3”. Cannon could afford Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page to write and perform the music for “Death Wish II”, then have Mike Moran re-record it with synthesisers for the next one, but the fourth film is down to mostly reusing recordings from previous Cannon productions. Remember, Cannon also slashed the budget for “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” around this time, which I have also talked about [link].

I was about to write if there was anything I should take away from “Death Wish 3”, but its objective was solely to entertain me. I was diverted, so we’ll call it a score draw.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

YOU’RE STILL THE ONE [316]

Back in 2017, I wrote about BBC One replacing its channel idents with the “Oneness” series of group portraits, photographed by the artist Martin Parr [link]. I ended that article by saying: “…getting audiences to programmes do not rely on individual channels so much, unless you count the BBC iPlayer or Netflix as a ‘channel.’ For the BBC, Martin Parr’s new idents may be more important for the ’BBC’ on screen, rather than for the ‘One’.”

On Wednesday 20th October, the BBC unveiled new branding that placed their restyled logo at the top of screens, programme trailers and poster advertising, and their channel names in smaller letters at the bottom, underlining the inevitability of the move – all programme trailers end with “available on iPlayer,” placed prominently in the middle of the screen, just as “iPlayer” and “Sounds” replaced the “TV” and “Radio” categories on BBC Online. Long gone are the days of simple radio-like announcements over slides of upcoming shows. Moreover, the way the new logo is used highlights, at a fundamental level, the change in how we watch television over the last twenty-four years.

I have always changed my website’s logo and branding when it was needed, as proved by my 300th article showing five logos over five years [link], as I zeroed in on the most effective way of presenting myself and my work. Likewise, the BBC’s logo, a variation of three letters in three boxes since it was first introduced in 1958, has been modified as its uses have changed, from identifying a broadcaster to supporting the quality of British programmes sold worldwide, to being a mark of reputation to sell tie-in merchandise, to being a sigil for a British national identity portrayed through cultural soft power. 

As much as some people search for the opportunity to complain about taxpayers’ money being perceived to have been wasted on a logo change that is still superficially similar to the previous version, you have make changes when your current branding is found to have stopped working effectively. As stated by the BBC’s Chief Customer Officer, Kerris Bright [link], “Our research tells us that audiences think some of our services look old fashioned and out of date. They want a modern BBC that is easier to use and navigate to find the content they love and enjoy.” 

If people in its own country are saying that, then perhaps it was being said elsewhere. The latest BBC logo was introduced in April 2021 on an online streaming service aimed at North America, BBC Select, and on the Australian TV channel BBC Kids, six months before the UK saw it on screen. Because these are subscription services, their audiences are also, indirectly, paying for the new logo. Meanwhile, the latest Cadbury logo, using thinner lines and closer to the company founder’s original signature, was first seen on chocolate bars sold in Australia. 

A big feature of the BBC’s new branding, and one that has been introduced gradually for a couple of years, before reaching the logo, is the font. “Reith,” in its sans serif form, may not immediately be too different from the previous use of Gill Sans to the casual user, but the one-off cost of the BBC buying its own font, to use it as much as it wants, contrasts with the yearly fees to use Gill Sans, Helvetica, Futura and other fonts over the years. I could not find how much the BBC pays to use fonts, but I could also not find out how much Ikea saved in 2009 by switching their shops and catalogues from using Futura to Microsoft’s cheaper font Verdana.

 

The previous BBC logo was introduced in 1997. The logo that version replaced was deemed not to work when made smaller on screen – the lines under the blocks, and the spaces in the letter B, began to disappear. Its replacement was simplified, easier to reproduce and was more legible on screen.


What has changed since then is the screen. In 1997, people were still watching cathode-ray tube (CRT) televisions, beaming a raster pattern of electrons onto a fluorescent screen. LCD and LED televisions did become commonplace until 2006, when regular HD television broadcasts began in the UK. In 1997, the BBC still played their idents for their channels from laserdisc, with servers not being used until widescreen broadcasts began in 1998. They still only had two channels to worry about – the BBC News Channel began in November 1997, followed by BBC Choice in 1998. Aside from all this, watching television from a non-television screen only properly began when the BBC iPlayer download service began in 2005, only becoming a streaming platform in 2007, the same year Netflix began their own service – the flood of mobile, tablet and other connected devices began from there.


What made me realise this was using the BBC News app in beta mode. I knew about the new logo from the reports of BBC Select introducing it, finding that an upcoming update to the News app will use it. In using it, I found that the logo, placed at the top of my phone’s screen, placed its blocks further apart so they can animate more clearly: swiping down to refresh the page would stretch the blocks before reverting to their correct shape, and they would shrink to lines as I moved down the page, maintaining their presence as a constant reminder. 


I thought this animation was something cute at the time, because it is something you could do on your phone, but I didn’t think it would happen on television. With the blocks making the Channel 4 logo having been broken up and thrown about since it began in 1982, and with a new ident on ITV seemingly every week as part of an artist initiative, it is now time for the BBC to stop being defined by three static, immovable blocks. 


Now, they rarely ever sit: they move in, they fall into place, they move up, down, in and out. Perhaps this could have been done fifty years ago, but when BBC One and Two had idents that were live feeds of clockwork models, it wouldn’t have been practical. It certainly does not feel like the logo of a corporation that is approaching its hundredth anniversary in 2022, but that is entirely the point: this will be the last BBC logo made for a regular television screen, if not for a linear television channel. Next time: holograms, probably.


There is a lot to be said for the triviality of a broadcaster changing its logo, as I have proved, but because of the unique way it is funded, the BBC belongs to everyone, and it represents us all to the rest of the world. I want it to look its best.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

IT AIN’T NOTHING BUT A HEART-BREAKER [315]


I think I am writing this one more for my benefit than for anyone else.

 

The term “culture war” was coined by the German physicist, biologist and politician Rudolf Virchow to describe the campaign of the pre-German kingdom of Prussia, under Otto von Bismarck to reduce the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in educational matter. Translated from the German “Kulturkampf,” the term was repeated in American newspapers, later applied to opposing values, whether they be conservative or liberal, progressive or traditionalist, or urban or rural. The increasing polarisation in American politics along these lines was described in sociologist James Davison Hunter’s book “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America” (1991), which returned the term to widespread use.

 

When “kampf” means “struggle”, a less charged word than “war”, the choice of one word over the other implies an intent to win outright. Concord is never an option, let alone an objective. If one side is described as a deranged, totalitarian illiberal mob, then the other side must be too. Does it ultimately matter? Not if either side think they are having a good war.

 

I don’t believe “culture war” was a term ever needed in the UK until its own politics and culture experienced polarisation through the Brexit referendum - “cancel culture” and “woke” have similarly only entered common use in the media in the last five years since then. However, all the terms are snappy, emotionally charged and easy to apply to a headline, alongside “feud”, “blast”, “hits out at”, “shame”, “mob”, “cult”, “shock”, “ban”, “axe” and “row”. Any issue can be heated like a microwave dinner if the right words are chosen.

 

My preoccupation on “culture war” as a term comes from being, as a transgender person, the subject of a culture war. I am not on either side of the argument, I am what is being fought over – my rights are under question. This culture war appears to have begun in the summer of 2017, when the UK government announced a consultation on whether people can self-identify as their correct gender, instead of going through the court-based system to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate. 

 

It does not matter that this issue has apparently been resolved: the existing system is to remain in place, but applying will become online-based and substantially cheaper. It does not matter what my opinion of the issue is: if living your life authentically means you need to use whatever system exists, rather than waiting for enough minds to be changed so it can be replaced with one more dignified, you would do it – I know I did.

 

However, the opening of a government consultation on one specific issue became a wider argument on how a group of people should continue to fit into society – again, the Equality Act 2004 was not in question. The culture war that now exists seems to be more predicated on the use of words, from those that each side have for each other like “TERF”, “transphobe” and “gender critical”, to the checklist of what allows someone to be called a “woman” or a “man”, and whether you can change your sex at all. Framing this as a “culture war” implies that both sides are as strong as each other, but when the much of the reporting on the issue is on protecting the rights of celebrities like J.K. Rowling, Dave Chapelle and Piers Morgan to speak, it feels like the objective is to protect the most powerful people in the room - people who appear to be having a good war. Meanwhile, I need to be careful about how I speak in case it jeopardises any part of my life, from my job to friendships. 

 

The target of legislation is no longer the Equality Act, which already had regulations on access to single-sex spaces, to freedom of expression in academic institutions. My theory is this is more a symptom of tuition fees in universities, now over £9,000 a year, making students more into customers and stakeholders that demand more of their academic journey than I would have done when I started my degree twenty years ago.

 

I am not willing to engage in an argument over my own rights. There are enough books being published on the subject right now, such as “The Transgender Issue” by Shon Faye, and “Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality” by Helen Joyce. Both books were reviewed in the Culture magazine of “The Sunday Times” in August 2021 under the headline “Which side are you on?” With that headline, not mine.

 

Once again, I am writing here more for my benefit this time around.