Saturday, 9 August 2014

The Great War: The People's Story

TV producer Isobel Charman is no stranger to making documentaries using diaries and letters read by actors. So, a perfect choice to make ITV's The Great War: The People's Story, a series marking the centenary of the outbreak of World War One, using the diaries and correspondence of some of those involved.

I spoke to Isobel (below) about her eBook, Alan Lloyd-The Lost Generation, documenting the life of an upper-crust young man from Birmingham who joined the army in the same month he was married.


What was it about his story that stood out from many of the others?

"We really needed a story that had the big beat points that distinguish it from the other ones," she explains. "So the Imperial War Museum suggested we look at Alan's letters... and it's staggering how the events of his personal life, they interplay with the chronology of the war.

"The fact that he gets married as the war breaks out; his wife is pregnant just as he leaves to go to the front. It has all the extra elements that made it amazing, but heartbreaking. So it leapt out from all the other obviously very touching accounts. It had all the extra ingredients, because those life moments were happening as the war was breaking out."

The Great War: The People's Story eBook releases. Available now from iTunes & Amazon priced at £4.99. ITV Studios Global Entertainment

I like the fact the eBook is a modern way of telling a very relevant 100 year old story

"Yeah it's exciting for ITV. This is a new venture for them, to publish in this way, and it's really exciting to be part of that; to bring history to people in this very contemporary way. That's what the whole project tries to do really; it's something that happened 100 years ago, but the people's stories are fresh, and suffering is something that... it doesn't matter when it happened, people can identify with it: suffering and heroism and loss. So the way the whole project has been done is to make it very contemporary, and publishing these eBooks is part of that."


Elizabeth Crawford is a writer and book dealer on women's history, particularly the suffrage movement. Her latest work is the eBook Kate Parry Frye - The Long Life of An Edwardian Actress and Suffragette.


In 2009, Elizabeth (above) had been told about Kate's diaries which were lying in a wet north London cellar.

The diarist had died in 1959 and they wound up with people who had no connection with her. 
Elizabeth saw that these damp diaries were packed with ephemera and flyers about the women's suffrage movement and knew it was right up her street.

The Great War: The People's Story eBook releases. Available now from iTunes & Amazon priced at £4.99. ITV Studios Global Entertainment

"So as a dealer I bought them, but when I got them home and dried them all out and started reading, I just got gripped," she explains. "I produced one book out of it, which was called Campaigning for the Vote, examining Kate's suffrage years."


The Great War: The People's Story eBook releases. Available now from iTunes & Amazon priced at £4.99. ITV Studios Global Entertainment

Kate was born in 1878 and kept a diary from the age of nine right up to her death, so there was no shortage of research material. 
Her father had come from humble beginnings before becoming an MP. 
"He'd founded a chain of grocery stores, so they lived rather well," explains Elizabeth. "They had a big house in Kensington, and another on the Thames, both of which were rented because that's what people did then."

However, it came as a shock to Kate when the money dried up. She worked for the suffrage movement, living in digs, while her family lived in rented rooms in Worthing. When her father died, she had a tough struggle to survive.

It makes for compelling reading, especially in light of pending Meryl Streep movieSuffragette, on which Elizabeth is an adviser.

By Christmas 2013, ITV suggested Elizabeth might want to write Kate's life story as well as their eBook, "So I then got to work and did it".

Elizabeth adds: "She was just one particular woman; nothing startling about her, except she was very determined. She wanted to be remembered, so she kept this fantastic diary, and it had a will of its own. Nobody could destroy it... and now her whole life story is out there for anybody to read."


Pamela Armitage Campbell (below) may be in the autumn of her life, but she has a spirit that is infectious.


I'm guessing she picked it up from her astonishing father, Reg Evans, the man whose life story is worthy of any big-screen movie.

The First World War hero was decorated for his bravery on the front line in 1915; he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal before suffering an injury that could have destroyed most people. 
He was shot in the face in February 1916, an injury which cost him most of his jaw and sent him away from the battlefields.

However, he refused to bow out of the conflict. After undergoing pioneering surgery and a period of recovery, he volunteered to continue to serve for the British forces in Russia. Regwas posted far away from home until 1920, long after his peers had been demobbed.

"I've had my father's letters for many years now," explains the eloquent octogenarian. "I've spent a lot of time on my own because my husband worked in Germany and I was living in France, so I would take them out periodically and type out the letters. It would take a long time because they were written on bits of paper; anything he'd had to hand in the trenches."

It was through these notes and letters that she not only managed to bond with her father but also her grandmother.

"They were mostly written to his mother so I got to know him very well, and I got to know my grandmother, who I'd never met through these letters," remarks Pamela. "Although there weren't many letters from her to him, his replies to her letters gave an inkling into the sort of character she was. The sort of person she was."

The Great War: The People's Story eBook releases. Available now from iTunes & Amazon priced at £4.99. ITV Studios Global Entertainment

A couple of years ago, Pamela was contacted by Isobel Charman with the idea of making a series for ITV. 
"She came up to the house here in Peterborough and was absolutely amazed by this mountain of information that there was, sitting here waiting to be used," explains Pamela. "So she read through quite a few of the letters..."

Eventually ITV series The Great War: The People's Story was born.

Pamela was so inspired as the project gained momentum, she thought the letters would make a great book in which she could "...write the rest of Dad's story from his birth to his death."

So she started to piece together the missing pieces of the literary puzzle. 
ITV helped get the book published, and now Reg's story can be read by the masses.

"It's been a rollercoaster," explains Pamela. "A complete rollercoaster, because I was only nine when he died, and he had been in hospital for about 18 months before that.

"Really my memories of him are as a baby and as a very, very young person. So to read and find out about his character and values he was trying to teach us as children, my brother and sister and I, to see him put them into practice those values in his own life in the war and in the way he treated men around him and under him and above him even, to get their respect was just absolutely amazing."

"Although he wasn't the only, or the greatest hero, he was a hero and he did go through the most traumatic experience, but he always came through with a smile or with a song or with some encouragement for those who were observing him, and would have been very hurt or sad for him," explains Pamela.

"Because from a very handsome man he turned into a monster really to look at. It must have been devastating."

"I don't know if he ever looked in a mirror. It doesn't say (in his letters), but it must have been devastating for his family and friends, and wonder what was ahead of him. What sort of life was he going to lead after that, after the war?"

While many books about the First World War centre on the horror of the conflict, Pamela is keen to point out her eBook also contains a lot of the humour documented in her father's letters. Eggs, for example, being sent to the troops wrapped in newspaper.

She adds, "I hope that people won't be put off and think, 'Oh, it's just another war book'. It isn't. It's a story of bravery, heroism and encouragement".

The Great War: The People's Story eBook releases. Available now from iTunes & Amazon priced at £4.99. ITV Studios Global Entertainment

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Transformers. The age of extinction review

"It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever..."

Thirty years ago, Kyle Reese offered those words of warning to heroine Sarah Connor in James Cameron's iconic sleeper hit The Terminator.

Having endured the fourth movie in Michael Bay's Transformers saga, it seems an apt description for a cast iron money-making machine.

The film series can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't fear critics, or logic. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you, dear film goer, stop (paying).

I've sat through the previous movies and was lucky enough to attend the LA premiere ofTransformers: The Ride, so more due to needing a rainy day movie than any desire, I settled down for Bay's latest slice of formulaic adventure.

The usual sights and sounds abounded.

  • Heroes running away from huge explosions in slow motion.
  • Uber photogenic pouty heroine in short shorts being ogled by the camera.
  • Robots ripping each other apart in slow motion.
  • Robots transforming to deliver a bit of exposition.
  • Characters stating the obvious before enacting said dialogue. "We've got to lose them in this corn field", before, er, motoring through a corn field to try and lose the villains.
  • Cool sound effects, with the exception of Mark Wahlberg's laser gun, which sounded like an asthmatic penguin.
  • Bay reworking the Armageddon sub-plot - over protective father warming to his prospective son-in-law after bonding over death-defying extra terrestrial threat.
  • A seemingly endless final battle so long some punters staggered from the cinema like they'd been stuck on a transatlantic flight.
  • A couple of great character actors (Kelsey Grammer and Stanley Tucci) possibly thinking of the cash while adding some depth to the lightweight plot.
  • Comedy characters slotted in to add some levity to the explosions. In this case a chubby Jurassic Park/Dennis Nedry-style Brit boffin. Fat guys. Always funny in Producer Steven Spielberg's world.
  • Oh, and Optimus Prime's recurring monologues about nobility... having wrecked a couple of major cities. In one scene he rides a Dinobot through a small Chinese wall, despite the fact he could have leapt it or gone round it.

Ah yes. The Dinobots and China. Kids love dinosaurs and robots, so it was a no-brainer we'd get those toys making an appearance in the franchise at some point. 
And with China being such a lucrative market, a third act which sees most of the country levelled was a smart move to keep those overseas cash tills ringing.

The Transformers Ride launch, Universal, LA

How does it rank against the other three films? Well it's possibly the best TF movie since the 2007 original. Long, yes; occasionally incoherent, (Mark Wahlberg seems to ignore full stops in his script), and it features some awful CGI - the enemy robots are made from gravity-defying blocks that appear to have no weight or heft, making them look like a bad video game cut scene.

However, as epic cinema goes, it was never dull. Irritating at times, especially during those obligatory Bay sunset scenes and the attention deficit disorder shots which cut every few seconds. 
(The obsession with super cars was like a feature-length Top Gear challenge, only without the wit. 
Only in a Michael Bay film can a Bugatti Veyron look mundane because of all the other super cars on show).

However, compared to Transformers 2 and 3, this was a slight improvement. A little like a (robot) bull in a slightly classier China shop.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Under the Skin The Review

How much exposition do you need in a film? Those clunky scenes when characters discuss plot, stitching Scene A to Scene B? Obviously film is a visual medium, so in theory nobody needs say anything. 

In Under the Skin, director Jonathan Glazer decides less is definitely more, keeping dialogue to a minimum as Scarlett Johansson’s alluring alien arrives in Scotland and begins patrolling the streets for men. 
In short, it’s Species with A-levels. 

There are bound to be comparisons with Nic Roeg’s the Man Who Fell to Earth, the last time an intelligent, erotic, surreal study of an alien’s arrival on Earth made such an impact. That was almost 40 years ago. 
Since then we've had plenty of alien visitor movies, but many were teen-friendly offerings designed to make pots of cash or satires such as Brother From Another Planet and Morons From Outer Space. 
Glazer had spent a decade developing the movie, distilling the source novel down to its purest form. And the result is disturbing, mesmerising and unforgettable. 

Johansson is terrific in one of the boldest roles of her career. Initially a predatory, blank avatar unaffected by empathy, her visitor merely exists to trap men and use them.
’Why’ would be spoilerific. 
How she does it is part Hellraiser; asking guys back to her dingy house where they are understandably seduced, and then live to regret it. 

Through it all the soundtrack throbs and pulses. The camera largely taking a back seat as we watch the visitor watching the locals, searching for her next target. 
It's as voyeuristic as Rear Window or Blue Velvet, and just as compelling. 

Arguably the best scene involves a loner with “nice hands”, as affecting as anything you've seen all year. It's at this point Johansson’s lethal ET starts to gain a degree of humanity. 
Yes, I could describe more of the plot, who the nice handed character is, and lots more, but better to let the movie wash over you. 

UTS is a haunting, waking dream of a movie. It may have made a modest impact at the cinema, grossing a couple of million dollars in the States alone, but given the limited number of screens it played on, and the arty sensibilities, there's perhaps little wonder. 

Like all cult films, it will prove far more indelible than tent pole movies which dominate the opening weekend box office then vanish without a trace. 
Hopefully we won't have to wait another decade for Glazer’s follow up. He's too great a talent to languish in whatever limbo space ScarJo’s alien was born from. 

Sunday, 15 June 2014

22 Jump Street. The review

The beauty of 21 Jump Street was it was a movie version of a TV series hardly anyone was desperate to see. 

The only place it could go was up, and was surprisingly hilarious.

So at the start of the sequel, 22 Jump Street, we wonder how much comedy is left to mine from that seam of TV-inspired nostalgia.

Surprisingly there's plenty, not least because the knowing script is happy to poke fun at the fact it's exactly the same plot, only this time set at college instead of school.

Once more, dream team Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are superb as the old school enemies turned rookie cop mates.

In a thrilling opener reminiscent of Beverly Hills CopMorton Schmidt (Hill) and Greg Jenko (Tatum) pursue a group of drug dealers led by Ghost (Peter Stormare). 
A truck chase that is both exciting and funny is rare, and this is both.

They fail in spectacular fashion, so Deputy Chief Hardy (the ever brilliant Nick Offerman)sends our heroes across the street to work for Captain Dickson (Ice Cube). Their mission: go undercover as college students and find the drug supplier of "WHYPHY" which killed a student who apparently bought it on campus.

Jenko befriends football players Zook (Wyatt Russell) and Rooster (Jimmy Tatro), while Schmidt falls for art student, Maya (Amber Stevens), much to the annoyance of her grumpy roommate Mercedes (Jillian Bell).

To reveal much more would be spoilerific. Safe to say, nothing is as it seems on campus; there are red herrings aplenty, one literal, while the comic timing is superb.

Having seen it after the woeful A Million Ways To Die in the West, which is often cruel and leaden in its delivery, there's a joy to the energy here.

The film-makers treat the audience with a degree of respect, and even though many of the gags seemed to go over the heads of many teenage cinema goers, for a fan of meta comedy such as Mike Myers' finest works, this was like catnip.

Hill may have dropped the ball with some comedies over the years (The Watch for example), but following his superb turn in The Wolf of Wall Street, here he's terrific as the likeable co-lead, the yin to Tatum's nice but dim yang, Jenko
The latter is happy to send himself up, not least with a great in-joke about the wonderfully silly White House Down, while his eventual reaction to a character (spoiler) half way through is comedy gold.

He also looks superb in the breathless action scenes, running, jumping, brawling. Okay, Hillmay be the star when they tour the interview circuit, but Tatum is a genuine movie star when it counts.

This may be a lads' comedy, but the two female co-stars, Amber Stevens and Jillian Bell, are brilliant: the former an even cuter, younger Zoe Saldana-alike; the latter a funnier, youngerMelissa McCarthy-alike. If there's any justice both will be in a possible 23 Jump Street and no doubt plenty of other Hollywood offerings in the coming years.

Superbly helmed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, two of THE most reliable comedy directors working today, this is the perfect antidote to any spring or summertime blues.



Follow Roger Crow on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RogerCrow

Saturday, 31 May 2014

The Edge of Tomorrow - The Review

The Edge of Tomorrow - The Review

For 30 years I've loved The Twilight Zone, a passion rekindled recently with the Blu ray box set. 
Those relatively cheap black and white dramas, many penned by Rod Serling, were either 30 or 60 minute ’what if?’ dramas. They created great premises for broader canvases, bigger budget, big screen offerings, some of which (Real Steel) were turned into A-list epics. 

The Edge of Tomorrow could have been another of Serling’s mini masterpieces, the ’what if’ tale of a soldier resurrected to fight an alien war on Earth. 

In this case Tom Cruise is William Cage, the cocky PR man railroaded to fight against an extra-terrestrial enemy. However, his unit is decimated in a Saving Private Ryan-style attack in Normandy, and Cage wakes up a few hours earlier to live the day over and hopefully glean enough information to defeat the enemy. 

Yes, it's a video game-style premise with Cage’s seemingly unlimited lives a handy perk as he tries to level up.
He's helped by Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), the poster girl warrior who may or may not know more about Cage’s condition than he first thinks. 
What follows, for the first two thirds at least, is a snappily paced mix of Groundhog Day, Starship Troopers, Aliens and The Matrix, as our heroes fight whizzing, murderous creatures with the aid of clunky exo-suits. 

At one point Cage’s automated metal skeleton runs out of energy and powers down. He steps from it and leaves it standing, an empty shell. And for me that is the third act. 

Whatever wonderful ’story battery’ powered this multi-million dollar vehicle simply runs out of energy and becomes a generic, by-the-numbers adventure, hampered by the same murky, digitally graded darkness that plagued X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Hunger Games 2. 
I'm so bored of action scenes taking place in darkness, especially when the antagonists are so abstract. 

Through it all, Cruise is his usual committed self, but Blunt steals the show as the fearless posh trooper, who lights up every scene she's in. 

In a nice nod to Aliens, Bill Paxton is the gruff Sergeant Farell, commanding his drop ship troops. The scope of the movie is impressive, and director Doug Liman handles the action with flair, but the ghosts of Mr and Mrs Smith and Jumper’s humdrum finales return to haunt us. 

Whether by design or accident there is a feeling we've been here before with Tom’s earlier work, notably Minority Report (outwitting the enemy with pre-emptive moves) or last year’s elegant but sterile Oblivion (hero attempts to destroy big alien brain intelligence thing and wipe out enemy forces in one fell swoop. Smart move, but yawnsomely predictable.) 

Sadly the final scenes are also a let down, as are the closing titles. Recent Marvel offerings Iron Man, Avengers Assemble and Thor: The Dark World have offered stylish, engaging credits, but EOT looks like it was created a decade ago with a generic closing song and a feeling that the budget had all been spent by the time those last bits had to be tagged on. 

I really wanted to like Tom’s latest. I adore his positivity and enthusiasm for big crowd pleasers like this, but feel that when you strip away the shell of the movie, you're left with a sub-standard Twilight Zone episode with a rubbish pay-off. 
A real shame.