Saturday, 17 December 2011


 I am sure that in time Danny Dyer’s brutally frank autobiography, Straight Up: The Real Me in my Own Words, will hit the bargain bins. It happens to all of the great thespians, old chap: Olivier, Guinness, Hopkins, all charity shop fodder soon enough. But for now, I can’t quite bring myself to part with the £7.99 required and have had to make do with occasional browses in W.H. Smith. I haven’t looked into the co-writing arrangements, but it does all look a bit Dyer by numbers. Film buff Mark Kermode comes in for a good kicking (on the page only, for now) for his imitations and savage mockery of the boy from Canning, with Danny (or his ghost) laying into the hairdo and suave smarminess and asking menacingly who would come off better in a dark alley stand-off. They should surely do a joint book tour.

If you can’t get it from the horse’s mouth, there is the redoubtable Martin Howden on hand with: The Real Deal – The unauthorised biography of Britain’s toughest star (£1.99 from The Works in Oxford).  Howden has given us similar tomes on Russell Crowe (surely New Zealand’s toughest star), reformed wastrel Robert Downey Jr, Joaquin Phoenix and Lily Allen, whose street wisdom was partly honed at posh progressive school Bedales, plus some Twilight-related vampire types. I suspect the Dyer volume took at least a long weekend to write, but it contains invaluable insights into the man described on the back cover as: “one of Britain’s most gifted and most uncompromising talents”.

What do we find out? Danny’s is West Ham until he dies, while frequent co-star Tamer Hassan is Millwall. Danny hails from Canning Town, but was born in Newham, which he describes, not very charitably as “a shit-hole, a real fucking concrete jungle”. Danny wowed Dame Helen Mirren as a tragic junkie-rent boy in Prime Suspect   and became fast friends with the great Harold Pinter while turning in often overlooked performances in Pinter productions. Danny swears a lot? He probably gets it from his beloved Nan, who used to rant at the telly, calling Scottish snooker legend Stephen Hendry “a c***”. Danny got his tackle out for Gay magazine Attitude, but they didn’t run the wilder stuff. Danny doesn’t like Hungary. Danny featured in an Oscar-winning short film, Wasp, directed by highly rated director Andrea Arnold, who recently gave us Wuthering Heights. Danny (surprise) reveres Ray Winstone.

Howden makes a case for our boy as a pretty decent sort of geezer, albeit a bit foul-mouthed in interviews, but a loving family bloke, into footie, doing the DJ bit and UFOs. Elsewhere, Danny has bitterly regretted a disgusting (ghosted) column in Zoo magazine, suggesting jilted or cuckolded blokes scar the women who have betrayed them. This is briefly alluded to in the last chapter: ‘A Difficult Year for Danny’.  He also had a nasty house break-in.

Putting all this aside, what of the work?  While The Guardian has meanly described Danny as “the byword for low-budget, no-quality Brit-trash cinema”, Howden nobly makes a case for most of the Dyer oeuvre, sometimes in the face of incredible odds. For example, he talks  with reverence of Danny being “one of the most distinctive faces and voices on British TV”, presumably because of his sterling work encountering Danny Dyer’s Deadliest Men and touring the Football Factories, although he lists many other lighter roles you might have missed.

In fairness, it’s not all bovver boys and f***** geezers.  Danny ain’t no one trick pony and has not ruled out having a go at Doctor Who should the opportunity arise. Can he be sad and sensitive as well as loud and leery?  I have witnessed Danny courageously enjoying ‘one off the wrist’ in semi-likeable Cardiff-based rave fest Human Traffic (his Mum bursts in), and doing his stuff quite decently in Foyle’s War, not a ‘c’ word to be heard. Then there are more stretching roles, as in  Borstal Boy, where Danny goes Gay with Brendan Behan and jolly football romp, The Other Half,  a newly wed with American wife at Euro 2004 with Vinnie Jones cast (against type) as a life guide. These are available at cut-price DVD emporia across the land. You should investigate.

But the prosecution has a pretty damning case at this juncture.  I regularly, enthusiastically visit the bottom of the barrel, but am not sure I could deal with Straightheads, Danny cast implausibly alongside a slumming Gillian Anderson as a handyman caught up in a rural rape and revenge saga. Kermode: “I can’t believe the funding or the will to make this film existed”. And what of The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, the Newhaven-based tale of feral youth at play, dominated by a gang rape scene?

Few have been queueing up to lavish plaudits on Pimp, the Soho sex industry faux documentary, described by The Daily Telegraph (0/5) as “soul-flayingly horrendous, even by the gutter standards of Britsploitation flicks featuring Danny Dyer”. I briefly owned this, but a discerning flatmate binned it or gave it away before it came close to the DVD player. I have, however, twice watched Danny as down-at-heel Pete, former drug user, criminal and alcoholic on the road to redemption in City Rats, proving his mettle by blowing away the bad man at the end. Also featuring Tamer Hassan (he is suicidal and rightly so), it’s another film of staggering awfulness, championed by the deluded as part of a new wave of hard-edged British cinema, but frankly embarrassing.

Saturday, 15 October 2011


A literary tribute to Britain's greatest bakery chain, with thanks to Jackie Collins 

Mmmmmmm.......those smells. Sauvignon didn't normally eat much during the day time. She looked at the designer watch Benito had given her at Zermatt. That had been some holiday. They had gone to ski, but had spent most of the holiday indulging in rampant sex in their chalet, shooing away the maids and cleaners, ordering up champagne on room service. "These are the only slopes I want to ski on",  Benito had joked, pouring Dom Perignon across her naked breasts. But Benito was gone, taken out by a gang-land rival in Napoli, his naked torso turning up in a dumpster. The watch from her dead suitor revealed it was already 12.15, way too late for breakfast but maybe brunch...

Friends were always scolding her for picking at salads, refusing dessert then slyly stealing a spoonful of chocolate mousse from them. "A little candy is fine and dandy", her best friend Beth would joke. Sauvignon didn't like to point this out, but Beth was heading into the O-zone, the spectre of obesity already there in her fattening thighs. Lucky she had a Toy Boy, Tony, with an obvious thing for Big Mamas. From what Sauvignon guessed, Tony liked nothing better than a hot afternoon of humping and pumping with Beth grinding herself into him. Chacun a son gout...

Trainer Josh was a stickler for macro-biotic stuff and occasionally joked he would put her over his knee if he found so much as a Snickers wrapper in her gym kit. If only....

"What you having?" The man behind the counter, no more than a boy really, sounded a little sharp and impatient.  Sauvignon quickly jumped to and took off her shades. "This is like a deli, right?" she asked, suddenly aware how out of place her accent sounded. "It's a bakery, love..." A middle-aged woman, kind and motherly, was tending to some brown rolls. "Do you have, like a menu....?" To her annoyance, Sauvignon was blushing. She heard something like a muffled giggle behind her. Two young  boys, both in school uniform, were sniggering. Freaking kids. No respect. She had heard that the UK, like the US, had given up on corporal punishment. Treat a lady like that in her old neighbourhood and Uncle Silvio would have been busy with his belt and these little rats would have sore asses for a fortnight after. 

"Excuse me....could I have a Belgian Bun?" A little old lady had pushed in front of Sauvignon. Where were the famous British manners? Jesus Christ. "Are you from America, dear?" the interloper asked, as her tasty sultana-filled bun with sweet lemony icing and a glace cherry on top was wrapped. Sauvignon put on her special "I'm going to be nice to you, because you're obviously quite poor" smile she normally reserved for beneficiaries of the Anaconda Foundation she met at its annual galas. "That's right. From Florida". "Lovely. You remind me of one of those ladies out of Dallas. What lovely skin you have". Despite herself, Sauvignon was delighted by the compliment. "Why, thank you". She was aware of a gentle conversational buzz inside the cafe. They couldn't be used to her class of person here. She could have been Jennifer Lopez.

"Have you made your mind up?" The man again. "Do you have pastrami on rye?" "You what? Sandwiches behind you. Next please". Sauvignon turned around awkwardly to confront a shelf of wrapped baguettes and sandwiches. She picked one or two up, studying their contents with a mixture of curiosity and contempt, wondering if these guys should be trusted with tuna and mayo.  "Have a bloomer, love". Belgian Bun lady again, on her way out. "Mind, I shouldn't say that", she whispered, clutching Sauvignon's arm. "Bloomers is what we used to call knickers in the olden days". 

"Wouldn't mind getting inside her knickers". It was one of those bratty school-kids. The nervous sniggers now turned into howls of laughter. "That is quite enough, you two. Get out". A young man, slick black quiff and leather jacket, was on the scene. Quick as a flash, he grabbed both boys and bundled them out of the door, pointing a warning finger as they scuttled off down the street. Sauvignon noticed that the boys didn't offer any protest. They clearly knew their assailant and wouldn't be coming back in a hurry. Sauvignon also noted the gentle hush that had come over staff and customers. The queue opened up and quiff man, rubbing his hands together, was quickly at the front, chatting away to the woman behind the counter. "Five years....out Tuesday. Wife done a runner. Can't blame the cow.....Now let me take care of our foreign guest". He grinned over at Sauvignon and wagged his finger at here, a clear come hither gesture. In other circumstances, she would have given him the finger, summoning her like some stray bitch. But he had come to her rescue. "Forget the sarnies, love. You look like you need warming up....How's about a Cornish pastie? We'll have a couple of Raspberry Ripple cupcakes for afters"......He laughed a throaty laugh and she was suddenly reminded of that old boyfriend of hers from back in the day....
(to be continued)

Sunday, 9 October 2011


A literary tribute to Britain's most loved bakery chain, with thanks to Jackie Collins

Sauvignon Anaconda looked in the hotel mirror, studying her naked form. Her make-up might have been smudged, but that was what came from crying herself to sleep. Fuck Frederico. She tossed her mane of auburn hair and put her hands on her hips. 41,  but nothing sad or saggy about those breasts. If Frederico wanted to get his hands on those he would have to beg, get on his knees, kiss her feet, kiss her all over.  But she knew the preening Monte Carlo millionaire’s son wouldn’t do that. He had phoned last night, all simpering apologies. He couldn’t make the flight. Business at the casino. Like hell. She could just see him, hanging up the phone, going off to get blown by some bimbo while he snorted cocaine. He had sent flowers, ordered her to carry on the party without him. But who wanted to drink champagne on their own? She had sat there in the hotel restaurant, dining solo, but the sea trout had tasted sour and salty. She had skipped dessert. She had thought about getting drunk, sinking a few bourbons and acting the wild child, party animal she used to be in her teens. Hell, even  now, on the wrong side of forty she could have had any of the male guests she wanted,  but they were a dreary, sexless lot. Not worth getting in the sack with. She had asked for a coffee, lit a first cigarette, then snapped at the waiter, camp as a row of tents, when he reminded her it was a no a smoking zone.

So that was her first night in England.  Dolled up in Dolce and Gabbiana to no avail. Alone on the silk sheets of a hotel bed in a Mayfair suite that cost $2,000 a night. Not even her favourite vibrator for comfort. Maria, the dumb Guatemalan housekeeper, had forgotten to pack it.There would be hell to pay when Sauvignon got back.

She was hungry, but had slept too late for breakfast. She showered, trying to clean herself of the frustration and disappointment, the numbing ache between her thighs. She was in London, she might as well see what it was about. 

Sauvignon decided to go casual. It had been raining yesterday, but looking out of the window onto Hyde Park she saw a bright blue sky. If only her personal trainer, the well-hung but elusive Josh, had been around to get her out running. She went for a pair of blue slacks and a cream coloured blouse. Federico had organised a limo for the duration of her stay. But she hadn’t liked the first driver. “Don’t get any ideas, mister”, she had snapped after he had ‘accidentally’ touched her butt while handing over a suitcase. You didn’t do that with an Anaconda. Not unless you wanted your balls served up in a rocket salad….

Sauvignon took the lift, dropped the key at reception and offered a brief smile to the doorman. Kind of cute these English retainers, all uniformed and deferential. She strode out onto the streets. Maybe she would go check out Buckingham Palace or Harrods. She clasped her handbag tightly as she walked. She had heard bad things about crime in London. A few years back, she had dated Derek, a Brit who had moved to Florida. There were rumours he was ‘connected’, but what the hell. The Anaconda family had made millions off real estate deals and had not been shy about using enforcers when the going got tough. Derek was always coy about his line of work. “Nuffin to worry your pretty little head about darling”, he’d grin, ruffling her hair. And he would chuckle. She missed his gritty, streetwise humour and the massive cock that went with it. What she didn’t miss were the long Sunday mornings when he would stay in bed, watching episode after episode of The Sweeney. 

Sauvignon was soon picking up the pace, sniffing the late September air. She had no map, no driver to show her the way. What the hell, it was an adventure. Suddenly she turned a corner and wow….the river, with Big Ben standing tall. She laughed, putting a hand to her mouth as she remembered this was what Derek called his manhood when he was up and ready. She was enjoying herself. He had talked about ‘Sarf London’, as he liked to call it, telling stories about his boyhood gangs, getting into fights, popping out for jellied eels, going to watch Millwall at home and getting a bit of what he called 'aggro'

She decided to cross over. It was getting towards midday now. The sky had darkened a bit. South of the river turned out to be a big disappointment. Not a hint of a designer shop. You couldn’t imagine Princess Diana out on these streets. Sauvignon was aware she stuck out amongst the down-at-heel people moving to and fro. She wanted a break, but where to go? This was not Beverly Hills or Malibu. No brunch at the Four Seasons. She saw a sign for the Elephant and Castle and was intrigued. That sounded kind of exotic. 

To her irritation, she realised it was now beginning to rain. Goddammit. Fuck the English and their weather. No umbrella. No limo. No raincoat. No freaking cell-phone. Not an elephant or castle in sight. She could always go into a shop and wait until the worst was over, but what kind of boutiques would she find here on what she saw was now the Walworth Road. She winced at the shoppers poring over bargain toilet accessories in a place called 'Poundland'. She thought for a minute of taking shelter in a launderette. But the people looked shabby and unwelcoming. Shit.

It was the smell that first got to her, a warm, bready aroma, taking her back to the Little Italy bakeries she had visited when she visited her cousins Lucianio and Garbriella in New York. Luciano had taken her virginity in the back of a yellow cab on 74th street. Gabriella had died of a cocaine overdose in Switzerland. Dumb bitch. Would she find find fresh canneloni here in deepest south London? "Are you coming in, or what?" A man held open the door for her. She got herself back from the streets of New York and nervously moved herself towards the back of the queue, not a place the Anaconda family was familiar with ... (to be continued).

Tuesday, 4 October 2011


A literary tribute to the finest bakery chain in the UK, with gratitude towards David Peace.


Breakfast, sweet fucking breakfast. Sweating and shit-scared on Kirkgate. I look at the clock. 8.15. Shakin Stevens singing “Merry Christmas”. Have this and get over to Wakefield cemetery. The Breakfast Special: mug of tea and a bacon roll, ketchup seeping out under the flap. Take a first bite. Blood and vomit. Think of Pauline Batty. Skull bashed in with a spade. Sip the tea. A Bradford sewer. Clear throat. “That will be £1.35, love”. Fumble for change. “Are you alright?” Lady at the counter can see I'm out for the count. Crinkly grey hair, glasses. I nod. Catch my reflection in the window, count the bruises. Matted blood on the scalp, mixed with mud on the pavement where they kicked me. Man in a white raincoat orders a Belgian Bun. Cherry looks like a small of pool of blood. White icing like a cold slab of mortuary flesh.

“How’s it going, Dave?” Shit. Turn round. PC Bob Bates. Last seen in the municipal car park at Selby. “I’ll beat the crap out of you”. And he’d done just that. Bates sits down opposite. “Two sausage rolls for 99p. Can’t go wrong with that. Here, have one”. Reaches over and tries to cram the gritty flesh and pastry into my mouth. “Suck on that, you bastard”. Tasting blood and gristle, gagging, crumbs flying across the table. The cafĂ© empty. Woman with glasses has gone. “I’m a soup and sandwich combo man myself”. Look up. Detective Sergeant Harris. Known to his pals as “hard as fuck”. Did most of the kicking in Selby. Handy with an iron bar kept in the car boot. Pushes face close up to my mine. Stink of cheap whisky in the moustache. Dips in his bag. “What have we got today? Hello. Gone a bit exotic with the Soup and Sandwich combo. Tuna bloomer and…what have we got here? Ah….a minestrone”. He takes the lid off the plastic cup, pours the soup over my trousers. Orange-brown firewater. Cock burning. Carrots and peas and God knows what else blending with the piss seeping down my inner leg. Black rain pounding on the windows outside. “This is nowt”, says Bates. “Wait until lunchtime”. “Gents is back there”, grins Harris. “Welcome to the north”.

Saturday, 24 September 2011


As the leaves fall from the trees and the nights draw in, succumb ye not to autumnal gloom. For come November, Gilbert O'Sullivan will be back from his gigs in Japan, ready to wow the faithful at venues like the Auditorium in Grimbsy and the Pavillion in Bournemouth. For myself, I rather fancy the Opera House in Manchester, with a Chinese meal afterwards.

In a perfect world, Gilbert would be across the table, toying with his shredded duck, explaining what "Ooh Wakka-Doo-Wakka-Day" is really about  and thanking me for years of loyal support. A birthday in 1973 was hugely enriched by younger sister's poem (and accompanying sketch of the singer-songwriter): "Gilbert O'Sullivan is here today to wish you a very happy birthday. He will sing you your favourite song, 'Get Down'. I am quite sure you will not frown". But there was, sadly, no copy of the record in question attached.

I fear Gilbert himself has done quite a bit of frowning down the years. Even the poster announcing his tour dates has him looking a little sullen and menacing. It's great that the hair is still there. It's just a pity he looks as if he has business to sort out at the undertakers rather than looking forward to a good sing-song. 

Whetting our appetite for the tour, BBC 4 recently gave another outing to one of those self-indulgent, largely affectionate 70s Pop retrospectives. Leo Sayer, Demis Roussos and David Soul all played ball, reminiscing fondly about their ups and downs. Barrie White, 'the Walrus of Love', was sadly no longer in the picture. Gilbert did not show, but allowed his daughter to chip in quite cheerfully. 

The ever admirable Paul Gambaccini was the pick of the pundits and waxed lyrical about Gilbert as a supremely talented tune-smith, mysteriously  "missing in action" since the early   1970s. Gambo knows about these things and a quick bit of Googling turned up a sympathetic interview he had done with Gilbert for Rolling Stone in the early 1970s when  the man born Raymond Allen  had topped the American charts for six weeks with Alone Again, Naturally and appeared to have the world at his feet. Did you get that? SIX WEEKS. It came second only to 'American Pie' in the top-sellers that year and went on to be covered by Nina Simone, Shirley Bassey, Neil Diamond and um...Donny Osmond. Gilbert has guarded the song's legacy carefully, refusing its use for adverts and karaoke  and winning a 'landmark' copyright victory against rapper Biz Markie when he 'stole' a chunk of it. Said Gilbert:  "the one thing I am very guarded about is protecting songs and in particular I'll go to my grave in defending the song to make sure it is never used in the comic scenario which is offensive to those people who bought it for the right reasons". 

You don't mess with Gilbert, as became abundantly clear in the excellent RTE-made documentary Out on his Own: Gilbert O'Sullivan, also screened by BBC4, bless 'em. Gilbert made it clear he didn't much like having the camera crew around, but allowed them to film him in concert in Tel Aviv, making sweet music in Nashville, poring over old lyrics, chatting to fans and going (sometimes painfully) down memory lane, particularly when we got onto legal battles with his former manager and snide reviews. He was an intriguing mixture:  wry, sardonic, regretful, self-deprecating, bombastic, modest, arrogant....Not much twinkle-eyed blarney there, but despite being lauded as Ireland's first UK chart-topper (is that true?),  the young Gilbert (sorry, Raymond) relocated to Swindon at an early age. 

The man doesn't fools gladly and woe betide anyone who asks him about comebacks and the gaping gaps in the discography. A wicked headline from one bruised paper: "A Moan Again, Naturally". Mean, but not far wrong. 

"I write pop songs, end of story", said Gilbert at one point. But how good are his pop songs? 
To my eternal shame, I never bought anything when the man was in his prime, investing an insulting 50p on a 'Best of"....on cassette from a charity shop in Kelso a  few years back.  I expected something at best endearingly naff, but repeat listenings to said compilation revealed Alone Again,  Naturally to be exquisite,  so too the Morrisey-covered Nothing Rhymed. Get Down and Clair  are silly, but rather  nice. Matrimony, Ooh Baby...? Well, if you must. But 50p seemed a pretty good bargain. 

It may, of course, be worth dipping into the more hidden recesses of the O'Sullivan archive, or maybe not. A Woman's Place is in the Home is not, I fear, meant ironically. I have always been intrigued by the Clair b-side, What could be nicer? (Mum, the kettle's boiling), Gilbert always having an eye for the domestic detail, not something you could say for David Bowie and other contemporaries. "Freak out in a moon-age day dream but let's have a nice cup of tea first". 

Gilbert does sometimes get out of the kitchen to go global, but with mixed results. Fans enthuse greatly about All They Wanted to Say, Gilbert's admirable take on 9'11. Lovely tune, but dip into lyrics: "I don't know what makes a man, or a woman think that terrorism isn't evil" and it starts sounding like the winner of a school competition for a song about peace. Will it sound better at the Grimsby Auditorium as the devoted hold their mobiles aloft? It's surely worth finding out.

Friday, 23 September 2011


Wearily predictable, but very necessary, the first thing I had to do after paying an extortionate West End £12.30 to see the much-feted film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy  was to nip into a nearby HMV to buy……Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a mere £7 if you’re interested. You know the one. The peerless Sir Alec as Smiley, shuffling along in overcoat and scarf; the Russian dolls; the choir boy at the end of every episode, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant“ etc; dear, departed Beryl Reid snivelling her way to a BAFTA. One of the BBC’s finest hours, we have forever been told, an adaptation that raised the bar for all others and did much to enhance John Le Carre’s reputation, not just the master of the spy thriller, but a superb chronicler of human foibles. Where is that Booker, or even the Nobel?

The author himself gave his blessing to Gary Oldman, Colin Firth et al and even graces the film with a small cameo (I missed it). But I wonder what he makes of the broadsheet frenzy over TTSS (as we Le Carre lovers have long learned to call it). The reviews I have seen have been pretty pro (bar a splendidly vituperative  kicking from Peter Hitchens in the Daily Mail), but have also been accompanied by a slew of promotional material, extra supplements, Le Carre retrospectives, audio book discounts (anyone for The Honourable Schoolboy? it’s TERRIBLY good). For John (nee David), who normally hides out on the Cornish coast and recently gave a ‘last ever’ interview to the redoubtable Jon Snow, I would find some of the hype a little embarrassing. I think George Smiley, at least the Alec Guinness version, would have been less than enthused.

It is probably unfair and pointless to make too many comparisons. If memory serves me correctly, the BBC’s TTSS ran over seven weeks in  the autumn of 1979, less than six years after the book came out, before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and the Pink Floyd released The Wall. Was it before or after Sir Anthony Blunt’s exposure as a one-time Soviet agent? Anyway, it was very much bound up with that era. Making a film on all this in 2011 is the equivalent of shooting something in 1979 based on 1947, the summer of Compton and Edrich, when the Cold War was just getting going. 

Much has been made of the film version’s seventies references. The Circus team and their connections inhabit a London that is relentlessly down-at-heel, with lousy furniture, everybody smoking and no hints of the Thatcherite yuppification to come. A nice in-joke has one agent reading a copy of Jackie (“Dear Cathy and Claire,  I think my best friend is a Soviet mole, what should I do?”), although it should probably have been a Mayfair.  The defunct Wimpy hamburger chain also features.  It’s altogether less genteel than what we huddled around the TV for in the last days of the 1970s. I even suspect that some of the chaps here didn’t go to public school. I certainly wouldn’t have messed with Oldman’s Smiley, a man you could imagine sitting happily through torture sessions. 

Oldman seems to have wowed the critics and will doubtless pick up some prizes a few months down  the road. If you grew up on Gary as Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears, or as (gulp) Sid Vicious, finding the middle-aged version turning the Circus inside out is a bit of a stretch. But he is pretty good. John Hurt makes a wonderful spy boss ‘Control’, Mark Strong a valiant, complex Prideaux, the book’s most tragic figure. The younger generation, Stephens, Cumberbatch, Hardy, were all fine as far as it went. Then again, you wouldn’t expect duff performances from the top-line thespians assembled for this outing. Were Colin Firth not already so ubiquitous and praised to the skies (although I have never forgiven What a Girl Wants) I would probably have found his foppish Bill Haydon less irritating. At least we were spared Stephen Fry and Liam Neeson.The end result is fine, as far as it goes. But if this turns out to be one of the films of 2011, as the posters keep telling us, it's been a pretty thin year.

But time to re-renter the Cold War comfort zone. Rewind gently to 1979 and it all comes back so quickly. Here we are in Lacon’s garden at dawn with daughter practising her violin. Here comes Hywel Bennett’s sleazy, but righteous Ricki Tarr going AWOL again. Beryl really goes for it, in her cups, fresh from playing Matron in Rosie Dixon Night Nurse, castigating her ‘dunderheads’ and wittering pointedly about treachery at the Circus.
Beryl is long gone. So too are most of the mole suspects, the potential ‘Geralds’: gone: Ian Richardson, the vain, languid Haydon; the always good Terence Rigby, who went from Z Cars to the Circus to become Roy Bland; Michael Aldridge, who featured implausibly alongside Madonna in Shanghai Surprise. Bernard Hepton, marvellously prissy, nervous and manipulative as Toby Esterhase, is still with us. Ian Bannen, my personal man of the match in a strong field as Prideaux, died in a car-crash in Scotland. Your starter for 10: in which film did he turn up as a Soviet intelligence chief?

The BBC version was treated with rather sickly reverence at the time, bar some gentle lampoons from Private EyeYou do need quite a lot of patience and a rewind button. What did that raised eyebrow signify? Was that really Karla?  A belting first episode, introducing Smiley as book-lover, spurned spy-master and stoical cuckold ("give my love to Anne"...) and showing Prideaux coming horribly unstuck in "Czecho" is a belter. Then it's off to Lisbon with Ricki and the games of bluff and double-bluff begin. The dialogue is consistently arch and elliptical (none of these chaps would describe  'Witchcraft', the fake material supposedly coming from Moscow as 'shit', as they do in the film), but darlings, it's all about the nuances. Scriptwriter Arthur Hopcraft, the football writer's writer, does a frankly beautiful job. For many of us, this was our first entree into Le Carre's world and we are in no hurry to leave. 

DVD extras are often a mixed bag, but here you get the author offering childhood reminiscences, memories of his own days in espionage and Cold War afterthoughts (withering on Kim Philby). It remains magnificent. Best consumed along with tea and chocolate cake on an autumnal Sunday afternoon, with the rain pounding against the windowpane. 

Thursday, 22 September 2011


Prior to each screening, Sky Atlantic kindly warns viewers that The Borgias may contain “violent and distressing scenes as well as scenes of a sexual nature”. Fair enough on the bonking and battering alert; an awful lot of throats are cut and hearts stabbed, while the average episode will net you at least four couplings, if no actual copulation. But ‘distressing’? Even the least discerning viewer will rapidly twig this is not a documentary about gender-based violence.

The real distress is for historians, still recovering from The Tudors and Rome, who will find much to quibble with, and for those who can’t believe Neil Jordan, producer and writer of this drivel has come to this. This is the same Neil Jordan who delivered Mona Lisa, flawed, but still magnificent, The Company of Wolves and Michael Collins. True, he also made the execrable In Dreams and High Spirits, but The Borgias ? It’s almost as shaming as something the other Jordan, our Katie Price,would put her name to. And he did it all in the name of art and history. From an interview with

“Nobody can start a war without appealing to some god. Almost nobody. And I just think religion, and power, and politics, go hand in hand. One is a mask for the other. And it amazes me in a strange way how little the world has changed from the Borgia era to the present day. Tony Blair could not invade Iraq without an appeal to God, you know? And I think religion is the thing that will always be there, because people have this strange need for certainty, and nothing can destroy it for them”.

You don’t say, Neil.

If you have Sky (and I mainly don’t, honest…), The Borgias is worth visiting, but I would check out a youth hostel or honest B & B rather than spending your hard-earned ducats on a room at the papal palace. It’s all here: corruption, intrigue, incest, betrayal, beautiful opening sequences, delicious locations (Hungary, not Italy, but there you go), lots of nubile lovelies and…..Jeremy Irons, as the Pope, no less.

If you are going to turn up in this kind of twaddle, at least enjoy. Steven Berkoff has a high old time as Savonarola, but then again Berkoff has never agonized about the ‘crap factor’. He was in Rambo, for heaven’s sake. Jeremy actually looks pretty bored by proceedings, given dull lines about securing new territory for The Vatican and trying to supervise a difficult family unit. “We need the union more than we need riches... Perhaps it is time to strengthen our ties with our ancestral homeland”. We would all rather see him strengthening ties with the lubricious females on offer, particularly after his bedroom heroics in Damage with Juliette Binoche. Sadly, marriage to Mrs Borgia is not what it was. Joanne Whalley is predictably feisty as the Borgia mum and looks to be enjoying herself. Then again, if you’d been been married to Val Kilmer in real life and been shot dead in The Edge of Darkness, hanging out with the Borgias can’t be too demanding.

Of the newcomers, much has been made of Holliday Grainger, like Whalley, a Mancunian, but I find her pretty drippy, despite her fondness for a bit of rough. The young male Borgias all sound like posh young cockerels trying way too hard. Some of this feels like stumbling into a sixth form play, albeit with an 18 certificate. “I can neither read nor write”, says a humble spy, recruited by Cesare. This is difficult to believe, given that he sounds like he went to Harrow.

Emmies galore for all concerned, with American critics and gushing audiences apparently convinced they are watching another HBO gold-plated classic, helped on its way by spurious Jordan references to The Godfather. Rubbish to that too. Michael Corleone would have come down like a ton of bricks on a family that got on like this.

I speak with some bitterness, for I can remember all too fondly the original Borgias, not the 15th century bunch, but the hugely implausible, but always entertaining family that arrived in 1981, courtesy of an Anglo-Italian-Australian (?) co-production, announcing themselves with some clunky brass and a falcon, a title sequence that probably cost about fifty quid. There is, to my knowledge, no box set available, but you may get an occasional clip on YouTube, plucked from TV hell compilations. There is also royal biographer Sarah Bradfords's  book (you guessed it, The Borgias), probably well down her CV. This gives some idea of the treasures on screen, but is hard-going. Here is Lucrezia contemplating her destiny: "Now, at long last, the revulsion she felt at the scenes of that night had brought to the surface her subconscious desire to escape from the passionate thraldom in which she had lived". 

Back to the screen.  Most critics gave up on it after the first episode, some asking spiky questions about the BBC’s involvement in this toxic Euro-pudding when Granada on the other side was giving the nation luxurious dollops of Brideshead Revisited. Some concern too for John Prebble, distinguished historian and authority on Scottish clans who was script-writer in chief. Thankfully, Clive James popped in from time to sympathise with the cast and to try (hilariously) to make sense of papal pronouncements and bedroom shenanigans. I watched every episode and the repeats and was delighted when a friend presented me with a quartet of downloaded DVDs close to thirty years after Cesare and his clan marched into Rome.

Alexander VI was played by Adolfo Celi, a highly distinguished actor and director in his native Italy, but best known on these shores for being James Bond’s adversary Emilio Largo in Thunderball. Later he was best known for moaning “God forgive me” as he mounted a protesting Lucrezia, “father, what are you doing?” Lucrezia was Anne-Louise Lambert, a young Aussie actress, brilliant in Picnic at Hanging Rock, but all at sea in Rome, having a rotten time in the bridal chamber and equally miserable as a nun. At least she escaped Home and Away. She later retrained as a psychotherapist.

If cast members were routinely humiliated, what of historical figures? I doubt whether Leonardo da Vinci, played by Malcolm Hayes, would have reckoned much to his five-minute cameo. He swirls around, looking like an old hippie, while the fabulously nasty Cesare, played by Oliver Cotton, pours bitter scorn on his talk of aviation. Machiavelli gets a little longer, watching bemused as Cesare fires his crossbow, the bolts ripping into criminals and vagrants in the square. “I think you’ve made your point”, the author of The Prince hints as Cesare’s tally goes up to four. But the would-be Lord of the Romagna zaps another two for good measure.

This Cesare made a point of killing sister’s husbands and boyfriends, saw off brother Juan, rowed endlessly with his father and was master of ceremonies at a pre-wedding orgy, where whores ran around on all fours picking up chestnuts with their mouths. He rarely let you down, nor did his enemies. Quizzed on whether he had received “letters from Cesare Borgia”, a rival warlord proclaimed with pride: “I wiped my backside with them”.

Much more recently, Cotton turned up as Michael Heseltine in a drama about Thatcher. But he was disappointingly subdued. How one wanted him to turn to Sir Geoffrey Howe and snarl: “be loyal to me Geoffrey, or I shall slit your belly and spill your guts”.