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Stephen keeps meticulous records, and he recalls giving top marks to Stronger (2017), tomorrow at 23:05 on BBC2. So I watched it. It tells the true story of a man called Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenaal), who lost both his legs in the Boston Marathon terrorist bombing of 2013. The film shows his struggles with the demands of society, that he should represent the defiance of America in the face of attack, as well as his own feelings of sorrow, inadequacy and self-pity. His working-class family, headed by alcoholic mom Patti (Britain’s Miranda Richardson), aren’t much help: she keeps thrusting him into the media and facilitates his drinking and apathy. He manages to get back together with his former girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany), but the relationship doesn’t run smoothly. 

Both Gyllenhaal and Maslany do well, but I wasn’t keen. The US critics mostly liked it, and Rotten Tomatoes says that it “transcends inspirational drama clichés”, but I thought it wallowed in them, offering nothing we haven’t seen in superior films like My Left Foot (1989) or Born on the Fourth of July (1989). Interestingly, it was a box office flop, bringing in a pitiful $8m against its $30m budget, so the US public didn’t much like it either. The previous year had seen Mark Wahlberg as a fictional FBI agent investigating the crime (potentially a much more interesting story) in Patriots Day. Stronger might have worked, but it presents a truly horrible picture of blue-collar New England. Bauman’s gigantic family do little but drink, shout, and gawp at sport. 

Soon after the pressure-cooker bombs, the slogan ‘Boston Strong’ is seen everywhere, presented as a spontaneous expression of the city’s pride and defiance, and for a while there is a productive tension between that boosterism and Bauman’s rather sensitive nature. But director David Gordon Green shies away from it. Instead, the under-achiever’s story arc is bent to comply with the all-American virtues of goal-driven machismo and the pursuit of money, embodied in professional sport. It culminates with the legless hero throwing the first ball at a packed baseball match featuring Boston’s Red Sox and everybody chanting ‘Go Sox’. Sox = socks: not much use in the circumstances. I still don’t know whether the writer was making some kind of point or whether nobody noticed the inappropriateness. Afterwards he rolls through the crowds, as sports fans flock to him seeking benediction and even healing. 

For me it was a great relief to turn to Shane Meadows’s This England (2006), the feature film that spawned several Channel Four series. It opens with a montage of the tumultuous events of the early 1980s – the Falklands, High Thatcherism, strikes, the launch of TVam, the Royal Wedding – over The Maytals’ ska hit ‘54-46 Was My Number’. You know immediately that you are going to see something more engaged and engaging than Stronger’s routine marshalling of American psychological and cultural formulae. 

Again, working-class life is to the fore, and Meadows’s fictional Midlands town is uglier and more unpredicatably violent than the Boston of Stronger. All this made the writer/director a pioneer of the miserabilist genre that later declined into caricature: but his direction and dialogue are, from the off, full of life, insight, dark humour and ambition. For those who haven’t seen it, it centres on the curious paradox at the heart of skinhead culture: they loved the music of the West Indies immigrants, while embracing the white supremacist politics of the National Front. 

The story centres on Shaun, a bullied 12-year-old whose Dad has been killed in the South Atlantic. He is played by Thomas Turgoose, then 13, in his first film: he had apparently demanded £5 before he would audition for Meadows. The assorted skinheads, druggies, drunks and vandals would go on to become lynchpins of British TV: Stephen Graham (never better),  Joe Gilgun, Rosamund Hanson and Vicky ‘Line of Duty’ McClure. It also has a brilliant soundtrack of pop and ska hits, which puts Michael Brook’s generic score of Stronger to shame. A pity, because he can do better: he used to play guitar with the likes of Brian Eno, Robert Fripp and David Sylvian. That’s before Tinseltown’s aesthetics set in.

If you haven’t seen it, or even if you have, give it a look. It’s on Monday (26/7) at 00:00 on BBC4.    

World Cinema

On Sunday (25/7) at 00:30, BBC2 has Marguerite (2015), which CFS showed in 2016/17. A gallic riff on the story of Florence Foster Jenkins, the socialite ‘singer’ whose voice stripped a lot of paint between the wars. Starring glorious Catherine Frot. Slightly more thoughtful and touching than the enjoyably knockabout Streep/Grant version. 

On Monday (26/7) at 00:50, Film4 has The Square (2017). Art-world satire in Danish, Swedish and English from Ruben Östlund, with Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West. Our Film of the Week in June 2020. 

On Friday (30/7) at 23:15, Film4 has Why Don’t You Just Die! (2018). A pitch-black Russian revenge comedy, packed to the brim with ludicrous cartoon violence, including a man having his legs bored with a power drill before getting up to fight back. I hated it. Considered for CFS 2021/2, but rejected. 

Stephen’s Picks

All Stephen’s picks this week are on tomorrow (24/7). At 18:35, Talking Pictures has Contraband (1940). Michael Powell spy thriller set in blacked-out London. American scholars claim to detect a very British delight in bondage and mild fetishism. At 22:30, BBC4 has Killing For Love (2016). The 1985 murder of Virginia society couple Nancy and Derek Haysom, and the subsequent conviction of their daughter and her German boyfriend, caused a sensation. This documentary questioned the court proceedings, which were the first to be shown on US national television. At 23:05, ITV4 has Crank (2006). British hitman Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) is targeted by the LA Triads, who inject him a drug that will kill him if his heart-rate drops. Inventive, lively, funny, silly. (Also on Monday at 23:40.)


On Saturday (24/7) at 18:45, ITV2 has The School of Rock (2003). Much-loved rock musical starring Jack Black and a number of bearable showbiz kids. Directed by indie favourite Richard Linklater, who went on to make the remarkable Boyhood (2014). At 21:00, Film4 has Unsane (2018). Claire Foy (Queen Elizabeth II before she morphed into Olivia Colman) stars in this Stephen Soderbergh thriller, playing a young woman who accidentally commits herself to a psychiatric hospital and can’t get out. Then things get really bad.

On Tuesday (27/7) at 01:50, Film4 has Leaning Into The Wind (2017). Documentary with and about the landscape artist Andy Goldsworthy. Nice work if you can get it. At 22:00, Sky Arts has Margaret Atwood: A Word after a Word after a Word is Power (2019). The life and work of the Canadian author of The Handmade’s Tale and many better books. 

On Wednesday (28/7) at 23:15, BBC2 has Chappaquiddick (2017). Feature about the death of young political worker Mary Jo Kopechne, who drowned in Ted Kennedy’s car when he drove off a bridge in Massachusetts in 1969. A TV movie, essentially, but I enjoyed it. 

On Thursday (29/7) at 22:35, BBC4 has I Capture the Castle (2003). Glossy 1930s romantic drama with Romola Garai and Rose Byrne as sisters trying to save their eccentric English family from penury by bewitching a wealthy American. From the novel by Dodie Smith, who wrote 101 Dalmatians.


Tomorrow (24/7) at 12:00, Talking Pictures has The Long and the Short and the Tall (1961). War film set in Malaya in 1942. Starring Laurence Harvey (originally Skikne), the South African heartthrob discovered by Sid James, with Richard Harris and Richard Todd, both of whom despised him. Directed entirely indoors by Leslie Norman, Barry’s Dad. 

On Sunday (25/7) at 10:00, Talking Pictures (again) has The Night My Number Came Up (1956). Another Leslie Norman film, this time about an RAF officer who dreams his plane is going to crash. With Michael Howard and Sheila Sim. At 22:00, the same channel has Personal Services (1987), Terry Jones’s amiable comedy inspired by Cynthia Payne, whose semi-detached suburban brothel was known as ‘The House of Cyn’. I once had to ring her up and ask her how she lost her virginity. I don’t think that was a new experience for her, though it was for me. Starring Julie Walters. 

On Monday (26/7) at 00:10, Talking Pictures (again) has The Heart of the Matter (1953). Graham Greene adaptation set in wartime Sierra Leone, starring Trevor Howard. 

On Wednesday (28/7) at 22:00, ITV4 has Death Wish (1974). Widely-condemned vigilante movie, directed by Michael Winner and starring Charles Bronson as an architect who goes on a killing spree after his wife is murdered and his daughter is gang-raped. One of the rapists is played by 21-year-old Jeff Goldblum, in his first film appearance. He never made that mistake again.

On Friday (30/7) at 21:00, Great Movies has The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991). Second in the crime spoof series. This is the one where Detective Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) slides along a banqueting table with Her Majesty the Queen (Jeanette Charles, who enjoyed a 40 year career as a royal lookalike). Funny.   

Laurel and Hardy by Stephen Ilott

Tomorrow morning (24/7) has the best of the week’s selection of Laurel and Hardy on Talking Pictures. Helpmates (1932) at 09:00 has Ollie leave Stan in charge of his house while he goes to the station to fetch his wife – not a good idea! This is a comedy masterpiece, showing them to be masters of both visual and verbal humour. Teatime with Laurel and Hardy has Way Out West (1937) at 16:00 which reveals their talent for song and dance. ‘On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine’ became an unlikely Number Two in the UK charts in 1975, while their dance to ‘At the Ball, That’s All’ is also a delight. Way Out West is probably the most fondly remembered of their feature films, with plenty of laughs to be had. It is followed at 17:15 by Private Life of Oliver the Eighth (1934) in which Ollie finds himself the potential eighth husband of … a serial killer!

Unfortunately, while Way Out West benefited from concentrating on the duo, the producers of their next film, The Swiss Miss (1938), showing Sunday at 16:00, lumbered them with poor subplots. They do have some good comedy sequences of their own but on the whole the film is a disappointment. This is followed by the silent short Do Detectives Think? (1927) at 17:35. In this they wear bowler hats and and are on their way to becoming the team as now remembered.

Them Thar Hills (1934), showing on Tuesday at 11.45, is one of their best shorts and was so successful that there was a follow up, Tit For Tat, the following year. Our Relations (1936) gets a repeat showing at 18:35 on Tuesday.

Holst – In the Bleak Midwinter

Tickets for our screening of Tony Palmer’s brilliant documentary Holst – In the Bleak Midwinter on September 21 are now on sale at the Cheltenham Playhouse box office. They cost £10.

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