It’s a Beautiful Thing

On our recent trip to London we strolled past the Greenwich Tavern, just outside the gates to Greenwich Park. Before it went all gastro-pub with real ales and posh nosh, it used to be a spit and fairy-dust bar called The Gloucester, with weekend drag to amuse the boozers and cruisers. I went a couple of times back in the day. It was fun.

The Gloucester of old featured in Beautiful Thing, a 1996 Channel 4 film. Shot on a rough and ready South London council estate during a heatwave, the screenplay was written by Jonathan Harvey based on his play of the same name and had a fantastic cast of newbies, many of whom have gone on to bigger things. It’s my favourite coming out tale – warm, grounded, gritty and witty – played to a soundtrack of The Mamas and the Papas. Here’s the trailer:

When we got back to the village, I dusted off the DVD and we watched it all over again for the umpteenth time. A beautiful thing indeed.

The Duke

In 1961 a portrait of the Duke of Wellington by Francisco Goya was lifted from the National Gallery in London. Only 19 days earlier it had been ‘bought for the nation’ for £140,000, a huge sum to shell out back in the day. But it wasn’t an ill-gotten gain to be fenced to a dodgy dealer. No, it was a modern take on robbing the rich to feed the poor, or rather to pay for their TV licenses. The thief sent a series of ransom notes to the authorities guaranteeing to return the Duke unharmed if elderly people were exempted. It’s a campaign that still rumbles on to this day. But who was the anti-hero behind the audacious heist? None other than Kempton Bunton, a middle-aged cabbie from Newcastle with a messianic sense of social justice.

And now there’s the COVID-delayed film, Duke, based on this extraordinary story and starring Jim Broadbent as Kempton and Helen Mirren as his long-suffering wife, Dorothy. Both deliver top-notch performances in a very British, very funny and heart-warming Robin Hood tale for the modern age. But does Kempton meet his Waterloo? The answer will surprise.

As an interesting footnote, the painting appears in Dr No, the first James Bond film, where it’s on display in the villain’s lair giving the impression it was stolen to order.

Another Death on the Nile

I love a whodunnit even when I know who did it. And who doesn’t know who did it in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile? It’s Kenneth Branagh’s second outing as the Belgium sleuth, with a tash so vigorous you wonder how it stays up. Branagh first cut his teeth as Poirot on Murder on the Orient Express back in 2017 where he introduced us to a more troubled, introspective private eye, quite different from the fastidious and slightly fey comic version we’ve come to expect. This time around we learn more about Poirot’s back story: a man scarred in every sense by the savage reality of the Great War. This isn’t quite as Agatha wrote it and, no doubt, purists will hate the update. When the elegant SS Karnak set forth once again on that fateful Nile cruise, many critics asked why bother? I, for one, enjoyed the choppy adventure.

Nuns and Nazis

I first watched The Sound of Music in the sixties at the tender age of seven. To see over the heads of the people in front of me, I sat on an upturned seat. Not that I saw that much anyway. I nodded off halfway through and didn’t wake up ‘til Dame Julie and co were heading for the hills.

Even though the film eventually became a Christmas staple on TV, I never actually sat through it. All I knew was that it was a tale of good versus evil with singalong tunes. And then the BBC exposed the truth about the von Trapps in a 2013 warts-and-all documentary. It turned out our heroes didn’t climb any mountain or ford any stream to escape the clutches of the nasty Nazis. No, they caught the 5.30 express to Italy. It was a bitter blow.

To restore my faith in the fairy tale, I jumped at the chance to see a new production at Norwich’s Theatre Royal by the Norfolk and Norwich Operatic Society. They’re amateur thesps but they always put on a good show.

As we necked our interval gins, I asked Liam,

So, when does the cute blond sing ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me?’

That’s from Cabaret.

Oh.

Seems I was mixing up my Nazis.

Overall, the production was charming, with some really sweet moments. Nuns and Nazis, what’s not to like? For us, the stand-out performance was from Sara Cubitt as the Mother Abbess. ‘Climb Every Mountain’ is a tough song to sing, and we held our breath as she warbled towards that devilishly difficult final note. Did she hit it? Oh yes. 

Belfast – Should We Stay or Should We Go?

I was a little nervous when I took my seat to watch Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical film about the life of a working-class family in late sixties Belfast. It was a time when the Troubles really exploded on the streets, and I was dreading being slapped about the face by the grim senselessness of sectarianism.

But despite the nightmarish backdrop, there’s something incredibly warm and generous about the film. Set to a Van Morrison soundtrack (with a little help from Love Affair’s Everlasting Love) and shot in radiant black and white, the tender and funny script has a simple question at its heart – leave for a brighter future ‘across the water’ or stay for kith and kin and all that’s familiar. It was a choice faced by generations of Irish people – including our own.

The sparkling cast really deliver – anything with Judi Dench gets my vote – and despite the eye candy that is Jamie Dornan, the stand-out performance has to be from Jude Hill as Buddy, the young boy around whom the story revolves.

Do they stay or do they go? Here’s a clue. Sir Kenneth Branagh is now one of the UK’s foremost actors and directors.

Here’s the trailer…