BFI 100: 95 – Life is Sweet (1990)

BFI 100

Here we continue, what will probably eventually become known as, the ill-fated journey of watching each of the British Film Institute’s 100 best films of the 20th Century. Starting at 100 and working my way to Orson Welles’ The Third Man at number 1. I’ll try to keep these blogs relatively spoiler free and I’ll consider them only a small record of moving through this series.

© Thin Man Films

Before today, the only two Mike Leigh projects I’d watched were the phenomenal Abigail’s Party and 2008’s Happy Go Lucky – both of which I enjoyed immensely. Though I’d been told to watch Secrets & Lies, Naked and, number 95, Life is Sweet, I never took the time. Life is Sweet is at times dramatic, at times mundane, and at times funny. At first I felt I wasn’t going to enjoy it; Alison Steadman’s Wendy was irritating in her laugh and innuendos, Jim Broadbent unbearably optimistic, but it was the performances of Claire Skinner and – especially – Jane Horrocks that sold this story of a North London working class family. It’s certainly a film that will have me investigate more of Leigh’s films and of course, I’ll see Secrets & Lies when I reach number 40.

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BFI 100: 96 – The Wicker Man (1973)

BFI 100

Here we continue, what will probably eventually become known as, the ill-fated journey of watching each of the British Film Institute’s 100 best films of the 20th Century. Starting at 100 and working my way to Orson Welles’ The Third Man at number 1. I’ll try to keep these blogs relatively spoiler free and I’ll consider them only a small record of moving through this series.

© British Lion Films
© British Lion Films

Robin Hardy’s acclaimed cult horror, The Wicker Man is up next at 96. I’ve never been a big horror fan, though I’ve certainly enjoyed psychological horror movies more than slasher pics. Certainly for this reason, the Wicker Man really struck me – not to mention it’s set on a small Scottish island owned by Christopher Lee in what surely is a stand-out role as Lord Summerisle. The Wicker Man is a creepy story of paganism that builds slowly to it’s shocking end that, even though I knew it was coming, was captivating to the last shot. It is worth mentioning that the music in the Wicker Man plays a strong role – it almost feels like an additional character – with Scottish and English folk songs adding to the feeling of provincial island life. A particular favourite was Robert Burns’ Corn Riggs set to music written for the film.

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BFI 100: 97 – Nil by Mouth (1997)

BFI 100

Here we continue, what will probably eventually become known as, the ill-fated journey of watching each of the British Film Institute’s 100 best films of the 20th Century. Starting at 100 and working my way to Orson Welles’ The Third Man at number 1. I’ll try to keep these blogs relatively spoiler free and I’ll consider them only a small record of moving through this series.

Sony Pictures Classics

I expected big things from Gary Oldman’s multiple award winning directorial debut, Nil By Mouth97 on the list – and my goodness, I wasn’t disappointed. It starts comparatively lightly with the main cast in attendance for a stand-up show at a mid-90s working men’s club. From there, the story unravels with the seemingly-affable Raymond (Ray Winstone) showing himself to be domestically, and brutally, abusive. And we find that his brother-in-law Billy is struggling with heroin addiction. The film depicts much of the South East London that Gary Oldman experienced growing up and it’s occasionally a dark, tense, hard experience with precious little humour. Normally these “gritty British dramas” have become thought off as cliched Guy Ritchie-esque affairs that bore me senseless but this is an enduring, captivating watch and the performance of Kathy Burke in particular is astonishing.

As a good Lanarkshire boy I’m pretty handy with some creative swearing but even Glasgow’s adoption of the word “fuck” as a comma and “cunt” as a term of endearment; I was taken aback by the frequency of swearing on display here. According to Wikipedia, we have 82 uses of the word cunt and the film still holds the record for the number of uses of “fuck” per minute in a dramatic film. 428 in total, apparently.

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BFI 100: 98 – Small Faces (1995)

BFI 100

Here we continue, what will probably eventually become known as, the ill-fated journey of watching each of the British Film Institute’s 100 best films of the 20th Century. Starting at 100 and working my way to Orson Welles’ The Third Man at number 1. I’ll try to keep these blogs relatively spoiler free and I’ll consider them only a small record of moving through this series.

© BBC Films

Thankfully, Carry On Up the Khyber was only a blip, as the next film in the list (98) was extraordinary: Gillies MacKinnon’s 1996 film set in Glasgow, Small Faces. It’s an occasionally bleak, often funny,  at times brutal, and beautifully shot look at coming of age in the working class gang culture of the late 60s. Garry Sweeney, who many will know as the ned with the devil dug from Still Game is particularly good as Charlie. Laura Fraser – more recently seen sporting an American accent as Lydia in Breaking Bad – as Joanne is also excellent but it is Iain Robertson, in his first acting role, who – as Lex McLean, the 13 year old that the film centres around – is almost perfect. I’m ashamed to say that is the first time I’ve watched this film, despite it being almost 20 years old but it’s now certainly close to the top of my list of favourite Scottish movies.

“Glen, ya bass!”

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BFI 100: 99 – Carry On Up the Khyber (1968)

BFI 100

Here we continue, what will probably eventually become known as, the ill-fated journey of watching each of the British Film Institute’s 100 best films of the 20th Century. Starting at 100 and working my way to Orson Welles’ The Third Man at number 1. I’ll try to keep these blogs relatively spoiler free and I’ll consider them only a small record of moving through this series.

© The Rank Organisation
© The Rank Organisation

In sharp contrast to last night’s film which was captivating and moving, number 99 – Gerald Thomas’ appalling Carry On Up the Khyber – did nothing for me. Of course, the Carry On series is a dated, anachronistic series of spoofs based on innuendo and bawdy seaside postcard humour and it’s entirely possible it’s just not “my thing” – it can’t be so bad if it appears on a list of the greatest 100 British films. That said, for a comedy, it didn’t even raise a smile. Wikipedia tells me that “Colin McCabe, Professor of English at the University of Exeter, labelled this film (together with Carry On Cleo) as one of the best films of all time”. Colin McCabe is clearly an idiot.

When I started this series of films, I thought I might screenshot a particularly beautiful scene from each film and use it to illustrate the blog-post. For this film, the most affecting image was the title card proclaiming “the end”.

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BFI 100: 100 – The Killing Fields (1984)

BFI 100

Tonight, I began, what will probably eventually become known as, the ill-fated journey of watching each of the British Film Institute’s 100 best films of the 20th Century. Starting at 100 and working my way to Orson Welles’ The Third Man at number 1. I’ll try to keep these blogs relatively spoiler free and I’ll consider them only a small record of moving through this series.

© Warner Bros.
© Warner Bros.

At 100 sits a film by Roland Joffé that won 3 Oscars in 1985; The Killing Fields. The film stars the excellent Sam Waterston – most recently to be found in HBO’s The Newsroom –  as journalist Sydney Schanberg, covering the civil war in Cambodia; and beside him is Dr. Haing S. Ngor as Dith Pran, a Cambodian Journalist and translator. Ngor, himself, had lived under the Khmer Rouge regime and prior to this film had never acted professionally. I found the film particularly moving as it succinctly showed the uncertainty and human cost of the civil war, the joy of it coming to an end, and the horror of its aftermath. It’s a beautifully shot film but it has to be said, Mike Oldfield’s soundtrack has dated noticeably.

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Pop-up Books excite with debut single

News

“Polish Indie Pop Perfection”

Christmas Underground

“Elegant power pop vibes”

Destroy//Exist

For Fans of… Alvvays, Bernard Butler, Dusty Springfield, Teenage Fanclub

Warsaw’s Pop-up Books introduce themselves to the world with their debut single – a double-A-side featuring the joyous break-up anthem, “Without You” and the infectiously melodic sun-drenched pop of “You Are The Summer” – Out 7th June on Too Many Fireworks records.

Inspired by celebrations of past break-ups, “Without You” is a thumping, vintage wall of sound. Layers of guitars, keyboards, and strings set the stage for the warm, reverb-soaked vocals of Jules Jones, sounding every bit the Spector-esque pop star. Conversely, “You Are The Summer” is a citrus-slice of power-pop; a fuzzy, melodic ode to falling in love in the summertime.

Seattle-born Jones (vocals / bass) and Scottish emigre Neil Milton (vocals / guitar) formed Pop-up Books in in Warsaw in early 2019, and drafted in Poles, Tomek Dorobczyński (drums) and Maurycy Bór (guitar) to complete the line-up. Milton and Jones have already met some acclaim with previous bands, Ephrata, and The Frozen North, respectively; and together have been described as “Polish Indie-pop perfection” in a review of their Christmas single release as a duo, late last year.

• Without You b/w You Are The Summer is out on Too Many Fireworks on 7th June.

• You can find the band at their new website: wearepopupbooks.com

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Introducing Pop-up Books

News

It’s been a long time coming, to be fair, but I can finally tell the world about my new band, Pop-up Books.

The band has grown out of a collaboration with Warsaw-based, Seattle singer, Jules Jones. Jules and I met a couple of years ago when she moved to Warsaw to work in the film industry here, producing, and writing, as she does, with her partner, Sam. It took us quite some time to get our act together but towards the end of 2018, we released a Christmas single on too many fireworks together as Milton and Jones.

It had always been the plan to bring together a band to play retro, 60s-tinged power-pop, so we did just that; inviting drummer Tomek Dorobczyński and guitarist Maurycy Bór to join us.

We have called ourselves Pop-up Books, and we have begun to rehearse some music that Jules and I have written, alongside a couple of my own solo songs that I’ve ‘donated’ to the band.

You can find us @wearepopupbooks on most of the socials, and our website is http://www.wearepopupbooks.com.

I’m looking forward to seeing where the band might go in the future. In the next few weeks we will release our debut single, and we’ll perform at the TEDxWarsaw 10th anniversary event.

After that… new songs, new recordings, and many new shows, I hope.

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What’s in a Name?

On Being an Indie Artist

Names. They can mean everything or they can mean nothing to the band so titled, or indeed to their audience. They can be serious, political, witty, pithy, nonsensical knowing, ironic, or just ever so simple. Some artists must regret the choice as the weight of their decision dawns on them after the first few years. Others catch the zeitgeist and can come to represent their era or genre. Some names lose any relevance to the reference that produced it – when you think of The Rolling Stones, do you think that they “gather no moss?”, or when you think of Joy Division do you think of the Nazis and sex slavery? R.E.M., or Talking Heads become so synonymous with the bands, we forget those names represent other things.

There are recurring trends and these come and go. There may be a spate of bands using the definite article to prefix anything from a banal noun, to a kinetic verb. Recently there has been a spate of mis-gendered naming of bands, privileged cis white boys claiming irony as they name themselves anything from Girl Band, to Mean Girls, to Cheap Girls. Another example of a trend to come and go, being puns on other celebrity or band names; anything from Dananananaykroyd, to Chet Faker or Eltron John are fair game.

Back in the early 2000s, on their XFM radio show, Ricky Gervais and cohort Stephen Merchant often discussed band names, devising what they believed a sure-fire way to tell if an artist had a great name. Now play along at home, won’t you? Imagine yourself a stage-announcer, at Wembley stadium, something like Live Aid, maybe. You’re announcing the next artists to take the stage: “Ladies and gentlemen, won’t you please welcome to the stage… Queen”, or “The Eagles”, or “AC/DC”, or “…Led Zeppelin”. It’s somewhat less easy to hear: “Ladies and gentlemen listening around the world, won’t you please welcome to the stage… The Flatmates”, or “…Orange Juice”, or “…Arab Strap”. Of course, that I’d often rather be listening to the latter than the former is a discussion for another day.

Thinking back to my own band / artist naming endeavours over the years, I can think of some excellent, and some terrible names I’ve chosen for projects over the years. When Iain, Paul, and I first played together, for a short time we decided upon the moniker “Metronomic”, for a band that were anything but. After that, and somewhat incomprehensibly, we considered “Fourteen Minutes” to be a stronger choice. Thankfully, Andy came along and suggested the enigmatic, “Troika”. Not long after this, I joined a band with a fantastic name, “Skappah-flo”, loosely named after Scapa Flow, a body of water in the Orkney Islands.

Post-Troika, in 2005, Sarah and Dave of Valentine Records – a Manchester label of some repute, came to visit Glasgow and we got ourselves a little drunk, and with some friends tried to record a record in an evening. The names of those tracks have to be seen to be believed; “Tweemo”, “FC Cunto”, and “Kicking Bishop Brennan Up The Arse”, the latter a Father Ted reference that spawned the name of the project, and one of my favourite ever band names, “Nuns are people too”.

As I tried my hand at solo artistry, I did everything I could to avoid using my own name, the reasons for why, have long since evaded my understanding. I tried “A Crowd of One”, “Cinematica”, “Microcassette”, “twentysecondsbeforesleep”, and eventually settled on “beneath us, the waves” in 2009. It didn’t take me long to get bored of that one too, and before long I’d begun writing and performing under my own name.

When I was fortunate to find myself as the final member of a classically infused Varsovian post-rock sextet, we had a mythical struggle to decide upon a name. We each brought lists upon lists to rehearsal, and each suggestion had to win unanimous support. Not one did. One evening, after an enjoyable early rehearsal, I mentioned an upcoming trip home to Scotland, to which one of the band, I forget who – though I suspect Dave – commented on my trip hope to “the Frozen North”. As one, all 6 of us had an epiphany. That’s the name.

And so it was.

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The Ginger Bullet

Blethering

Recently, I have spent some time walking a dog. I stress, dear reader, that I haven’t lassoed a stray for the purpose. No, this is an animal slowly becoming my own – being, as she is, the ward of my girlfriend, Marta. It is with some interest, and no little amusement, that I realise Bajka, our doggy protagonist, has the personality of a toddler with all too easy access to a gallery of sugary drinks. An explosion of energy followed by an altogether more sedate nap.

This afternoon, as I waited beneath Marta’s flat, Bajka emerged from the stairwell with all the speed and purpose of a ginger bullet, her slender guardian of a “mother” pulled behind in her wake. Once the pleasantries had been adhered to (jumping, wagging, howling, barking, running, and eating – in that order) Marta and I set to walk Bajka around the less than perilous streets of Słodowiec.

Having once looked upon this paragon of canine charm with less than adoring eyes – frankly I once, astonishingly, thought her less than aesthetically agreeable – I realised, as her diminutive legs padded along with deft conviction, I was in love. Spending more time with this occasionally terrifying – and occasionally terrified – creature is turning me into that most sneered upon character: the cat-AND-dog person.

Now, I no longer know which way to turn. At home, I have a small, erratic, black devil to keep me company, and I love her dearly but she treats me with the disdain you would expect from a 4 year old cat. “Food, or you are dead to me”. And away, I have this panting, wagging, ball of childlike exuberance desperate to impress. Mind you, the prospect of bringing them together, does not fill mother or father with particular joy.

An early memory of my love for Bajka will forever be tied to an early memory of my niece Charlotte as a toddler. On both occasions I’m out with their respective mothers. On both occasions there was a lot of running around. And on both occasions, a lot of sleeping afterwards.

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