All posts in Celebrations

RIP Robin Williams

morkI’ve slowed down a bit with posts here, we both have. We’re all grown up and busy with work. But my two most recent posts have both been tributes to funny men who had a huge influence on me. This is truly turning out to be an emotionally mixed year.

image06When I started working for Borders Books in what must’ve been 2001 by my guess, I quickly discovered I was something of a workshy layabout. We were split into around 8 groups of five people and had to fill up the newly built shop from top to bottom. Three floors of books, music and DVDs. To this day I’m always left uneasy about coincidences but I met a guy that day who seemed to be my film and television twin. Our tastes crossed in so many areas, although music probably wasn’t one of them comedy clearly was. Over the two weeks of sorting that shop we bonded over our combined love of Bill Murray, Rik Mayall and Robin Williams.

picture-of-robin-williams-and-michael-gambon-in-toys-1992--large-pictureMy mate Kev (Kevin Stayner, hi Kev) seemed to have the same, weird and probably autistic trait I had when it came to Robin Williams and a few other actors: the need to find every single performance by that actor. Not just film or TV, but appearances on Letterman, even Oprah and anything else that was out there. Kev and I had both taped Mork & Mindy off-air and weirdly had typed identical labels for each series. We knew them so well, word for word, scene for scene. I finally met someone who knew about Seize the Day! (Fielder Cook, 1986) and Moscow on the Hudson (Paul Mazursky, 1984). Kev and I were freakish, long-distance Robin Williams twins and what’s comforting about this is I know exactly how Kev feels today and he can empathise with me.

Bobcat Goldthwait, Robin WilliamsThe appeal of Robin Williams is a hard one to pin down these days because it’s true to say he made some pretty awful films. Like any performer you have good and bad patches. In his case, his really bad Patch was clearly labelled as such. But my first exposure to him was on Channel 4’s repeats of Mork & Mindy. Here we had a pretty dreadful sitcom premise bizarrely springing from Happy Days and more bizarrely entwined with Laverne & Shirley even though they’re set in different decades. Mork was a child who didn’t fit in and found the world a confusing, dishonest and sometimes dangerous place. What better role model for a kid? Mork would try to apply naive logic to modern day problems and fail. He wanted to help, he wanted to do the right thing and most important of all: He wanted to have fun while he did it. This made Mork an ideal best friend.

936full-dead-poets-society-photoBy the time Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989) came along, folk were hailing Williams as a surprisingly good straight actor. No surprise to me – I’d seen his previous films. There were some dark moments in Mork & Mindy as well and the comedy toward the end only worked with the pathos. Mork coming to terms with death, drug use, homelessness, mental illness – there were some hardcore lessons to be learned in life. In one cathartic episode Mork has to interview Robin Williams on TV about the pressures of fame. These days we know what Williams was going through at the time. Clearly on drugs, drinking too and dogged by depression.

4520231_l5The World According to Garp (George Roy Hill, 1982) runs a close second in my favourite Williams films. A very early performance and based on half a beautiful book, it’s Williams at his best. He gets to do the comedy, he gets to do the rage and he gets to prat about with John Lithgow. That Williams never took a role in Third Rock from the Sun is one of life’s great shames.

worldsgreatestdadjpg-2a4706a62d84da8b_largeHe was a bloody good actor but he was making straight films at a time when audiences had become cynical. Dead Poets Society at the time was dismissed as sentimental, but these days is being hailed as a classic, rightly so. In fact that accusation of sentimentality runs through so many of Williams’ choices: Awakenings (Penny Marshall, 1990), What Dreams May Come (Vincent Ward, 1998), Jakob the Liar (Peter Kassovitz, 1999) and even Mrs Doubtfire (Chris Columbus, 1993). In fact those choices probably say a lot more about his state of mind over the years than anything else.

25He’d still dip into the comedy roles too, even making a Disney film tolerable in Aladdin (Ron Clements, John Musker, 1992). One of his most recent films was World’s Greatest Dad (Bobcat Goldthwait, 2009) which is the blackest of comedies tragically about suicide, or not as you’ll see if you watch it.

Robin Williams in 1978But all of this comes a close second to his frantic, Marmite stand-up work. He was a dangerous man to interview. Not many people would be brave enough to have him live on prime time. I had a great collection of Letterman appearances over the years, all of them he’d just go that bit too far during. He loved an  audience and knew how to work an audience. His shows never felt scripted and certainly seemed improvised but I reckon this was all part of the act. His stand up was frequently character-based, be it a camp dance instructor or an angry redneck he’d channel all these characters and more in just 30 seconds of jokes. His earlier shows where he’s fueled with cocaine are a tough set to watch, but his more recent shows show him sober and are more structured, almost observational. Unusual for him. An observant mimic and occasional impressionist, sure, but suddenly he’d become a ‘What’s that all about?’ comedian and was doing it so much better than the current generation.

db173160-baa4-11e3-aa1f-3d31b431f253_104510_D1931bJust as there was with Rik Mayall, I had this feeling that there was still more to come from Robin Williams. His best work seemed ahead of him and for him to take his own life lends his comedy a new, darker and tragic edge. The tears of a clown has long been a cliche I’ve loathed, and when you have a performer like Tony Hancock you can deal with it better in a grumpy, dissatisfied screen character. But Robin Williams’ characters were always so full of life and optimism. Even Seymour Parrish was looking for something better!

Any logical, sensible person knows there isn’t an afterlife – life isn’t that fair. But if there were pearly gates, and Williams did shuffle through them, I do hope the first thing he heard was a loud ‘Mork!’ followed by a man in white robes, pushing his way past imaginary crowds to get to him. Exidor will look after him.

Rest in peace, Robin. Thank you for being my childhood friend and introducing me to a grown up friend.

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RIP Rik Mayall (1958 – 2014)

Rik Mayall

It’s virtually impossible to understate the importance of Rik Mayall in shaping who I am. Anything I ever wanted to do or be was influenced by him. I pronounce words like ‘sand-a-wa-hitch’ and ‘sue-iss-you-ide’ the way he does, I giggle any time I see glacé cherries. I can’t look at a chess board without thinking about him. If I hear something vaguely saucy I’ll screw my face up demon-like the way he did. If I get hurt by someone I’ll loudly declare ‘Ah ha! Missed both my legs!’

 

Rik Mayall Comedian ActorIt’s not just me. Almost everyone I know does it. A whole generation united in mimicking Rik Mayall’s unique delivery. Nobody will say ‘Let’s do it!’ without verbally twirling ‘Do-oo-oo it!’. Even a straightforward ‘Bastard!’ has to be yapped like an angry puppy.

 

These examples are all from programmes he did with Ade Edmondson and his other Comic Strip semi-regulars. Rik would snigger at ‘semi’.

 

Rik MayallBut there was so much more to his career and his unique talent than just shouting, knob jokes and getting smacked with rubber frying pans. He had a real gift for comedy, something infinitely enviable that it’s very difficult to pin down. His stage persona for example in his early stand up days, the notorious ‘Theatre’ poem and his angry delivery. Patient on stage, his timing perfect, knowing when to raise an eyebrow, when to pause, when to carry on. Always ensuring the audience would laugh when he wanted them to and not over the jokes. It’s impossible not to laugh at that one set. As if the poem wasn’t ridiculous enough, his absolutely intolerance of the audience’s laughter is infectiously brilliant. Every last protestation is another belly laugh.

 

 

If he were just a wildly comic clown or a decent stand up it would be enough, but he was more than that. He was a damn good actor. His performances in Rik Mayall Presents… (it can’t just be me that’s unable to read the name Siobhan without saying ‘Sy-oh-ban, shee-ob-un…’) and Jonathan Creek show a real knack for drama and his various performances on stage are unforgettable.

 

He managed to make the insufferable and irritating likeable. Lord Flasheart shouldn’t be likeable, Gideon Pryke shouldn’t be likeable, even Alan B’Stard is meant to be the most unlikeable thing of all: a politician. But you side with him due to that effortless charisma and charm that comes from his performance.

In 1991 Rik had something of a public humiliation when Drop Dead Fred (Ate de Jong) dropped dead at the box office. But its performance in ticket sales shouldn’t be seen as a reflection of the film or of Rik’s performance. He’s wonderful in it. He gets to do all the things he’s good at and he does them well. It’s a genuinely good film and one I couldn’t wait to show to my daughter who at six years old adored it. This took her in turn to Bottom and then The Young Ones and then anything Rik turned up in really.

 

Rik MayallHe was totally unique, there will never be another one like him and he will be missed. I’ve never felt so sad at the passing of someone so important from my childhood viewing. Most of my heroes died at an age you’d expect them to. Spike Milligan, Peter Cook, Norman Wisdom, Peter Cushing – they were all old men who lived full lives and careers. Rik Mayall died at 56. I was so sure his best work was yet to come.

 

 

 

Big AND clever.

Swearing in films hit something of a peak in the early-to-mid nineties where it became virtually impossible to watch a film without a ‘fuck’ or a ‘motherfucker’ every five minutes. While not in itself offensive, the laziness of the writing and often reliance on the actor’s part for a bit of improv swearing just became too much. We hit a point where suddenly big action films that once relied on continuous ‘fuck’-streams were suddenly well-spoken and with not much of a dip in quality.

hughfuckSuch happy, friendly, chirpy fodder like ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ (Mike Newell, 1994) is awash with comedy ‘fucks’ right from the start. A few years earlier an equally popular British film, ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ (Charles Crichton, 1988) had also employed a good ‘fuck’ as a joke. Even earlier still, the esteemed (though not in the cinema) ‘Withnail & I’ (Bruce Robinson, 1987) had some amazing ‘fucks’ on offer.

Modern films have employed a new method of swearing. One won’t do, it has to be a string of swearwords, often some made up, delivered with the sole intention of making an hilarious bleeped soundbite at the MTV Awards. Kevin Smith’s films, once original and fun, got tired very quickly. Jason Lee’s lines in ‘Mallrats’ (1995) are smoothly delivered and character-driven. His brilliant inappropriate “What? Like fucking?” during the gameshow is delivered with a massive smile. But flash-forward to 2006 and nothing’s changed. A row in a diner about someone using the phrase ‘porch monkey’ feels ten years old and wholly inappropriate to the film playing out (mind you, this is also a film with donkey sex as a plot point!).

One of the earliest shocks I had watching a film was ‘Christine’ (John Carpenter, 1983) where a character called someone a ‘cunt’. Never heard it in a film before. My parents were livid and turned it off. They did the same several years later when they overheard me watching ‘Street Trash’ (J. Michael Muro, 1987). Now it’s commonplace in not just most films, but also TV series. Fair enough it’s HBO, but ‘Californication’ has more ‘cunts’ in it than ‘EastEnders’ has ‘slags’. Compare this to the days of ‘Cagney and Lacey’ where Christine’s outburst: “Sweet Jesus, Mary-Beth” was censored.

And on the subject of censorship, the exciting and intricate, almost seamless methods employed by ITV in the UK to censor some films, or at least lessen their offense is admirable. Here’s a deft piece of work – I bet you can’t spot the join:

That said, ‘piss’ and ‘shit are commonplace on ITV and Channel 5 in the afternoons now. Just as they crept into children’s films in the eighties, ‘The Goonies’ (Robert Donner, 1985) and ‘The Monster Squad’ (Fred Dekker, 1987) both had prepubescents swearing away throughout.

pescifuckThe aforementioned improv problem is one that troubles me though. Poor actors like Joe Pesci are given to believing that improvising around a character requires the repeated insertion of  ‘fuck’ between words in order to be in some way convincing and this technique continues right up to ‘Reservoir Dogs’ (Quentin Tarantino, 1992) and beyond into the ‘noughties’ with those endless bloody awful British gangster films which generally consist of gravel-voiced hard-men or well-spoken softies swearing like dockers for 90 minutes.

But it’s the British film industry (Gawd bless yer, ma’am!) that’s spawned something rather unique in cinema: Professional swearers. Three spring to mind who do it better than anyone else in the world: Richard E Grant, Rupert Everett and the legend that is Sean Pertwee. They can make any swearing fit classy, funny and dignified. Everett even pulled it off in Europe in the likes of ‘Dellamorte Dellamore’ (Michele Soavi, 1994) and bought some chums along with him to the UK to give a terrific tumbling of ‘fucks’ in ‘B. Monkey’ (Michael Radford, 1998).

Richard E Grant we all know from ‘Withnail & I’, a film which is positively punctuated with profanity – and not once is it offensive, right down to its majestic but terrible ‘cunt’. He can sneer a ‘fuck’ out like no other and always sound like he means it.

pertweeSean Pertwee on the other hand never sounds like he meant to swear. His ‘fucks’ seem to be overflowing from his mouth. His early ‘fuck’-drops in ‘Event Horizon’ (Paul Anderson, 1997) are nothing compared to his full-on rages in the likes of ‘Dog Soldiers’ (Neil Marshall, 2002) and ’51st State’ (Ronny Yu, 2001). He carved a niche for himself as the UK’s proudest swearing export.

But is all this swearing really necessary to deliver plot or could a film with no swearing in it reach a wider audience without harming its message? ‘The Breakfast Club’ (John Hughes, 1985) tells the story of high school kids who want to fit in but don’t want to fit a mould. A vital message to most kids, but it’s never going to be heard by the age group it’s aimed at because the word ‘fuck’ crops up so often in the script.

Would John Bender’s impersonation of life in his own home be equally emphatic if his father was yelling back “Shut up” instead of “Fuck you!”? Probably not.

By the same token, wouldn’t intergalactic hard man Han Solo be a bit more convincing if instead of calling Jabba the Hutt a “… slimy, worm-ridden piece of filth” he just called him a ‘fat cunt’?

Perhaps the most obscure case of a film rendered virtually incomprehensible by going out of its way not to swear would be the Charles Bronson film ‘Murphy’s Law’ (J. Lee Thompson, 1986).

Excuse the bloody awful intro to this one, the compilation more than illustrates the point that sometimes, swearing IS necessary in a film:

Open with a song!

Not enough films these days have a decent song and dance number. Balls to your musicals, your MTV generation video-cack and your Kevin Smith post-ironic Clerks II embarrassment … sometimes you just need an unashamed, cards on the table dance number.

No film does it better than ‘Adventures in Babysitting’ (Chris Colombus, 1987) which wonderfully does it not once but twice. Midway through the film we’re treated to the oddest gang-survival tip: sing your way out of the rough house. But it’s the opening where the magic happens:

It’s vibrant, joyous, face-slappingly attention-grabbing and performed with absolute gusto by brief screen-bother Elisabeth Shue.

A couple of years earlier, Steven ‘I still make films’ Spielberg pulled off the same trick with ‘Temple of Doom’. A weird, full-on dance number which drifts into Busby Berkeley territory emphasising the fantasy nature of the film and no doubt going part of the way to justifying an inexplicable PG certificate in the UK.

Another nod has to go to ‘Heart and Souls’ (Ron Underwood, 1993) which I intend to wax lyrical about later this week. It’s perhaps too brief to be counted as a musical number, but it retains that joyous, celebratory feeling that I’m banging on about. Unashamed pleasure which the aforementioned ‘Clerks II’ simply doesn’t have. It’s a clumsy, awkward, crow-barred musical number which seems as shallow as the sequel itself. This is how you do it, Kev:

Our final nod will go to wheelchair/alien McDonalds fun fest ‘Mac and Me’ (Stewart Raffill, 1988). It defies explanation.

Bring back this unashamed joy to your films. It doesn’t require a musical for a character to burst into song. Just judge it right, gauge your audience and don’t do what Kevin Smith did with ‘Clerks II’.