Tuesday, May 24, 2016

From O. Reader


I am a great fan of British B pictures - those “quota quickies” that the British film industry was obliged to make in the 1940s through to the early 1960s as support for the big picture - which often came from America. They were cheaply and very quickly produced and many directors and actors cut their teeth on them. Watching them today - in glorious grainy black and white - it is great fun to see famous thespians of later years playing the cinematic equivalent of Shakespeare’s third murderer in Macbeth.

One series we are currently enjoying all over again on DVD was called “Scotland Yard”. These were three reelers, designed to last half an hour when the big picture was a bit long (and a total performance was rarely allowed to exceed three hours). Nearly 40 were made, and they were all crime investigations, and all were introduced by the solemn faced and sonorous toned Edgar Lustgarten who also acted as narrator.

Lustgarten (we always used to call him Edgar Last-Gasper) was a lawyer, writer and broadcaster, and a fixture on British radio for several decades. And I would always listen to him in his various radio series of famous crimes, trials, and scandals, with him often playing all the parts.

One of the best, which I quite often revisit, was about William Joyce, “Lord Haw-Haw”, the radio propagandist for the Nazi regime, who was hanged by the British as a traitor in 1946.

Joyce was a familiar voice over the airwaves throughout the war; broadcasts that many Brits found amusing. Lustgarten was involved in propaganda broadcasts back to Germany, using the pseudonym Brent Wood to hide his Jewish background, and the two men reportedly indulged in oblique verbal sparring at times. However, for the public, the dialog was somewhat one-way. Listening to Haw-Haw in Britain was a popular entertainment; listening to British broadcasts in Germany could be punishable by death.

But Lustgarten did this radio documentary about Joyce, and got the voice impersonation off (as the Brits would say) “to a T”. (As an aside, had Joyce been captured a few years after the war, he would have probably served a token sentence, and then written his memoirs. Unfortunately for him he was captured in the full flood of post-war retribution, and was convicted of treason. Since technically he was never a British citizen, but Irish-American, his conviction and execution has caused legal misgivings since. And his wife, who also broadcast propaganda and certainly WAS British, was never charged. But as one authority put it - in the climate of the times, better men were executed for less. Americans who broadcast for the enemy like “Tokyo Rose” and “Axis Sally” got away far lighter in comparison.)

Anyhow, we were talking about Edgar Lustgarten. Actually, we were talking about British B pictures in which he appeared. I really must keep to the point. Whatever that is.

These little films started with the dramatic tones of - “SCOTLAND YARD”. Americans should imagine a token rip-off from the introduction to “The FBI” or “Dragnet”. We would go through doors into the secret rooms of Scotland Yard where about three men in a small room would be using state of the art technology - maps on tables, magnifying glasses, that sort of thing - and then we would home in on a file that said “The Driscoll Case” or similar. Cut to Last-Gasper, I mean Lustgarten, who would introduce the story.

They were all filmed at Merton Park Studios, home of another long running B series based, loosely, on the work of Edgar Wallace. The studio was tiny. So we would have the police in their headquarters, the size of small closet. The villain had maybe escaped to somewhere exotic - say, Morocco. Cut to stock footage of airplane in the sky, then stock footage of Morocco, and then police headquarters in Morocco - the same closet now decked with slightly different furniture and British character actors with unconvincing make-up and even more unconvincing accents. By the end of thirty minutes the crime was solved, and Lustgarten would pontificate over the end credits.

It was great fun. It never failed.

And the sheer limitations of the form gave the whole series a new lease of life when TV took over. That reliance on close ups and few characters - created by threadbare budgetary considerations - actually made them ideal for the small screens of early TV and they all had new lease of life.

Modern films with their emphasis on CGI and action and bloated lengths and surround sound quite often leave me cold. But creaky old movies with creaky old plots and ghosts from the past in the casts - I can enjoy them time and again.

I think I’ll put one on the player right now.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Five Plus One

My daughters and baby half-sister, as I see them:

Amy and the Old Guy

From Occasional Reader

The last couple of days

Mrs O and I must be the epitome of aging groupies. We have taken an interest in the singing of Amy Goddard for some years. There is a family connection. But it means that over these last couple of days we have travelled around 400 miles to attend a concert launching her second album.

I don’t do “out and back” in a day now - and anyhow, the gig ended somewhat late. In fact, by the time we helped dismantle everything it was very late indeed. So we stayed with relatives.

Usually when I stay in other people’s homes there is something that goes awry. About the only thing that happened on this flying visit was the shower. No - I didn’t break it - but I clambered in without my spectacles and looking closely about found that all my soaps and stuff were somewhere else. So, assuming that the household would not mind me borrowing, I peered myopically at various tubes, and it appears I then elected to wash my hair with someone’s Super Exfoliating Facial Scrub...

Amy’s second album is nearly all self-penned, and for this show she had a guitarist I’ve known for years, a back-up singer and percussionist, a hammer dulcimer player (a bit like a piano with bits missing that goes out of tune at the slightest change in temperature), a flute/whistle player, plus her own collection of guitars, in various tunings. Apparently you soon run out of linking jokes if you try and tune between numbers (“it was in tune when I bought it”...“I always wondered what these twirly things were for...”) so each instrument had its own tuning, and Amy’s husband was back-stage tuning up and doing the roadie bit. The venue was full, and at least three radio D J’s from specialist programmes (one linked to Canada, America and Australia) were there, which bodes well for future plays.

Making real money from performing folk music can be problematic unless you are early Bob Dylan. (Joke: how do you become a folk singer with a small fortune? Answer: start off with a large fortune). In these days of streaming even megastars often sell few albums, so CD sales aren’t the way. You can wear yourself out traveling around the country doing gigs, which is not Amy’s choice of life style. Or you can get played on radio, and there are a surprisingly large number of stations in Britain alone, let alone world-wide that have a need for this kind of product. Codes built into the CDs send information on plays to a central source, and the artist and songwriter gets royalties. A number of plays plus at least four really good reviews on specialist sites so far bodes well for the new album which has only been out for less than a week officially. Of course, if a megastar hears Amy’s work and decides to record something she’s written, I suspect she is not going to complain. But writers rarely write for the money. There are far easier ways to earn it. They write because - well, it’s part of them. But if it sells, no-one in their right mind is going to be churlish and grumble.

And - in the, “it’s a small world sometimes”, category - long-suffering readers of my stuff may vaguely remember how I carry on about a late American singer-songwriter, John Stewart. At Amy’s show, in my own guest slot, I did one of his numbers. At the interval I was immediately waylaid by an old guy (which probably means ten years younger than me) who had met Stewart, knew his wife, had been interviewed on radio about the man, and - and - yes, had actually been to - Bolinas. Huh? That will mean absolutely nothing to readers here. Only because I am what we can in the UK “an anorak” could I trade reminiscences and hold up my end of the conversation. Amy too could wade into the debate of minutia because she had to contact the Stewart family for permission to do one of his numbers on her first album and arrange royalties.

So a good time was had by all. We paid for cover to look after my mother while we were away. She will be 97 in June. She’s now outlived her first husband, my father, who was a fitness freak. She’s managed that age after her parents were told she’d not survive beyond five, and has spent a life time of eating the wrong foods and talking about, but not actually, taking exercise. (Her idea of slimming was always eating large unhealthy meals followed by two token low-fat biscuits afterwards). Anyhow, the last time we went away my daughter visited to hold the fort with her husband, and then she was taken ill and they had to stay with her for three days - kindly not telling us until we got back from vacation. This time all that has happened is that the carers have broken one of the sides of her bed. She can’t fall out, although it doesn’t look too safe. So that is a job to get sorted on Monday when the place that supplied the bed re-opens. So now it’s a takeaway meal, glass or two of red, and crash out, while hoping to make a killing selling obscurities on eBay.

So that’s our last couple of days. How were yours?