Sunday, November 28, 2021


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


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


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


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.