Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995, John McTiernan)


Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

An enigmatic man called Simon forces Lieutenant John McClane to complete a series of tasks and puzzles in New York City – otherwise he’ll blow up a school…

Source material: Whereas the first two Die Hard movies were adapted from unrelated novels, this one is based on a film script called Simon Says. Originally intended as a standalone thriller, it was then rewritten as a potential Lethal Weapon sequel. But after Bruce Willis rejected several storylines for a third Die Hard film – including an idea that was later used for Speed 2: Cruise Control – Simon Says was appropriated and retooled as Die Hard With a Vengeance.

John McClane: He’s in a bad way as the story begins. John’s back working as a cop in New York but has been suspended; he hasn’t spoken to his wife for a year, and spends the whole film with a monster hangover. Incidentally, between the previous Die Hard movie and this one, Bruce Willis had cameoed as John McClane in Loaded Weapon 1. One of the leads of that 1993 comedy film was Samuel L Jackson, who’s the chief guest star of Die Hard With a Vengeance. Both Willis and Jackson were also in Pulp Fiction together in 1994, though their characters only shared one scene and didn’t talk to each other. So as an in-joke during Die Hard With a Vengeance, John McClane quotes some lyrics from Flowers on the Wall, a song that Bruce Willis’s character listens to in Pulp Fiction.

Regulars: Holly McClane is mentioned a couple of times and we hear her over the telephone briefly. But this is essentially the only Die Hard movie with no recurring characters other than John. 

Villain: The film’s bad guy is only a voice to begin with – he makes calls to the cops and demands that John McClane play parlour games. They deduce that he’s German and clearly holds a grudge against John, yet no one puts zwei and zwei together… The character is played by a blond, athletic Jeremy Irons, who finally appears on screen after 45 minutes. Sadly, it’s a pretty irritating performance. Truly successful bad guys don’t think of themselves as evil; in their heads, they’re the heroes. However, Irons is a paid-up member of the Jonathan Pryce School of Villainy – ie, he thinks his character should be twirling his moustache and laughing manically. (The actor also does a naff American accent during one scene.) He has several lackeys, but none makes much impression. Eventually, it turns out that all the games and puzzles are just a distraction while Simon steals tons of gold bullion from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Why involve John McClane at all? Because Simon is the brother of the first movie’s Hans Gruber and wants revenge for his death.

Music: Michael Kamen returns for a third Die Hard score, and has perhaps too much fun quoting the tune of 19th-century song When Johnny Comes Marching Home.

Review: After LA in film one and Washington, DC in film two, the Die Hard series now hits New York – and it’s a very NYC-centric story. Manhattan, Harlem, Central Park, Wall Street, traffic jams, the subway, yellow taxis, coarse cops, rude businessmen – they’re all here! The spine of the story sees Bruce Willis’s John McClane forced to team up with Samuel L Jackson’s Zeus Carver, a smart, pragmatic shopkeeper from Harlem. They make a great, bickering team and we’re soon into classic mismatched-duo, buddy-movie territory. The characters bounce around New York, solving puzzles and trading sharp dialogue. It’s a lot of fun… for 45 minutes. Then the actual plot kicks in, Jeremy Irons shows up, and it all becomes very on-the-nose. The stunts get bigger, the villains’ plot becomes more convoluted, the terror levels are raised – but we’ve lost any Die Hard-ish distinction.

Seven sandwich boards out of 10

PS: I spotted an oddity while rewatching this 22-year-old film – the script mentions both candidates from the 2016 US Presidential election…

Screenshot 2017-09-25 12.55.03Screenshot 2017-09-25 12.56.55

Die Hard 2 (1990, Renny Harlin)


Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While waiting for his wife to land in Washington, policeman John McClane stumbles across a terrorist plan to seize control of the airport…

Source material: The plot of Die Hard 2 is taken from 58 Minutes, a novel written in 1987 by Walter Wager. A good, rattling thriller, it has no connection to either the first Die Hard film or the book it was based on. As well as rejigging 58 Minutes for John McClane and co, screenwriter Steven E de Souza took the opportunity to add a sly crossover with his earlier movie Commando (1985): both films feature the fictional Central American country of Val Verde. (By the way, Die Hard 2 is often referred to as Die Hard 2: Die Harder in promotional material – but that subtitle doesn’t actually appear on screen.)

John McClane: Our hero has become a minor celebrity in the two years since the first film. His heroics at the Nakatomi building led to interviews and TV appearances, though we’re told he struggled on current-affairs show Nightline. Bruce Willis is again superb in the role and the frequency of his wisecracks has only increased. “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” he asks himself knowingly as goes up against terrorists while wearing a dirty vest.

* John’s wife, Holly McClane (Bonnie Bedelia), is on a cross-country flight that’s approaching Dulles when the bad guys take over the air-traffic-control systems and stop all landings. The plane is going to run out of fuel, of course, upping the personal ante for John down on the ground. While the crisis develops, Holly gets an enjoyable little subplot with…
* Slimy news reporter Dick Thornburg (William Atherton) is – how’s this for a coincidence? – on the same flight as Mrs McClane. This causes an issue because a judge has ordered that she stay 50 yards away from him after punching him on live TV. When he deduces that there’s a problem on the ground, Dick calls his station and broadcasts the information – so Holly zaps him with a taser.
* Sgt Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) appears briefly when John phones home to LA to ask for his colleague’s help. Al’s eating a Twinkie, which is a call-back to the first film.

Villain: The leader of the terrorists is Colonel Stuart (William Sadler), who’s introduced via a bizarre scene of him doing yoga in the nude. The character is a cold, calculating baddie who’s nowhere near as dynamic or interesting as Die Hard’s Hans Gruber – but then again, who is? Stuart has several lackeys, including guys played by Robert Patrick (soon to be the T-1000 in Terminator 2) and Vondie Curtis-Hall (who later directed an episode of Firefly). Their plan is to secure the release of General Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero), a Central American fascist who’s being extradited to the US and is due to land at Dulles. Halfway through the film, a crack team of US Army commandos arrive on the scene, seemingly to defeat the bad guys – but then we later learn that they’re actually allies of Stuart. The squad’s leader is played by John Amos, later a semi-regular in The West Wing.

Music: Michael Kamen again provides the effective score. Vaughn Monroe’s Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow! plays the film out, as it had done in the first Die Hard movie.

Review: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This sequel shamelessly reuses most of the successful ingredients from the first Die Hard – a wisecracking John McClane, his composed wife, the slimy journalist Dick Thornburg, a group of well-drilled terrorists, a confined location at Christmas, some local police who don’t know what they’re doing – and the result is very, very near to being equally entertaining. The film has real drive and momentum, and crosscuts between the subplots with a genuine slickness. The action scenes are inventive and exciting. The dialogue is packed full of action-movie attitude. And while the antagonists feel a bit off-the-shelf, there are some other enjoyable guest characters. Instead of an almost empty skyscraper, this time we’re in a wintery, blizzard-struck airport containing 15,000 people. The place is run by the unflappable Ed Trudeau (Fred Dalton Thompson, a fascinating man who was a lawyer during the Watergate hearings, later a US Senator, and ran for President in 2008), while the local police force is headed by Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz), one of *the* great sweary/ranty/angry police captains in genre cinema. Meanwhile, a TV journalist called Sam Coleman (Sheila McCarthy) is on the scene to not only provide the audience with exposition but to also help John out a couple of times. So, while not reaching the Mount Olympus heights of the first movie, Die Hard 2 is a very fine action thriller in its own right. There’s a certain untidiness in some areas – a bit of unconvincing ADR here, some clunky dialogue there – and we miss a villain as good as Hans Gruber. But all in all, a very, very enjoyable film.

Nine sitting ducks out of 10

Downton Abbey: series 5 episode 5


SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Minko Spiro. Originally broadcast: 19 October 2014, ITV.

Isobel considers whether to accept Lord Merton’s marriage proposal, Rose meets a new man, and Simon Bricker comes to visit… while Robert’s away in Sheffield.

When is it set? Summer 1924.

Where is it set? The house. Dr Clarkson’s office. Violet’s house and back garden. York (including the crypt at St Mary Magdalene’s church). The Drewes’ farm. London (including Simpson’s restaurant).

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Mr Vyner (Louis Hilyer) is an inspector from Scotland Yard who comes to Downton to ask Anna and Mary about the day Mr Green was killed.
* Rose meets a young man called Atticus Aldridge (Matt Barber) when he helps her with her umbrella during a rainy day in York. He then joins her in visiting some Russian refugees – in part because his family has Russian roots. However, a pompous refugee takes against Atticus because he’s Jewish.
* After Tom says he sees no future in their relationship, Sarah Bunting quits her job so she can move to Preston.

Best bits:
* Mrs Patmore says, “I’ve got some good news for a change. An old aunt’s died… No, that’s not the good news.” (Mrs P has inherited a few hundred quid, which Mr Carson suggests she invest in a local building firm.)
* Poor Edith lashes out at dinner – her forced separation from secret daughter Marigold is clearly upsetting her. She’s then devastated when the Drewes moots moving away and taking Marigold with them. Soon after, Edith’s grandmother works out that something is amiss and confronts Edith. Learning the truth, she tells her to send the child to a foreign school. But we later see Edith make a secretive phone call to someone in London…
* Rosamund tells her mother, “I’m afraid you’ve read somewhere that rudeness in old age is amusing.”
* Almost every exterior scene takes place in heavy rain, which adds a bit of texture to the episode. It also means we get the sound of rain dubbed onto interior scenes just before we cut to some location filming.
* Simon Bricker visits Downton (again) to take a photo of a painting for a book he’s writing. Well, that’s his excuse: he’s clearly sniffing around Cora, and happens to stay at the house while Robert is away. Later, Simon sneaks into Cora’s bedroom in the hope of some action! Aghast, she asks him to leave… Meanwhile, downstairs, Robert is returning home unexpectedly. When he walks in on Cora and Bricker together, Simon at least admits that’s he’s not there by Cora’s invitation. But then he taunts Robert – so Robert punches him and they brawl.
* Hearing the commotion from her mother’s bedroom, Edith knocks on the door to ask if everything’s okay. Cora answers and calmly says that she and Robert were playing a game and knocked over a lamp! 

Worst bits:
* Sarah Bunting is surprised that Tom’s family don’t like her and she can’t understand why Tom keeps defending them. Really?!
* “You never told me what the inspector wanted yesterday,” says Mr Bates to wife Anna. Hang on, a married couple are both suspects in a murder investigation and a copper from Scotland Yard comes to interview one of them… and they wait 24 hours before discussing it?

Real history:
* Rose reads in the paper about a nudist colony called the Moonella Group, which opened in 1924 at Wickford in Essex.
* Violet says that Ellen Terry has nothing on Isobel when it comes to stringing out a moment. Terry (1847-1928) was the leading Shakespearean actress of the late 19th century.
* Mr Carson mentions American portrait painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) and British writer Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936).
* Rosamund says ‘Atticus Aldridge’ sounds like “the hero of a novel by Mrs Humphrey Ward”. Mary Augusta Ward (1851-1920) was a social campaigner as well as a novelist.
* Atticus’s family were forced out of Odessa in Russia during the pogroms of 1859 and 1871.
* Charles takes Mary to dinner at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, a high-class restaurant in London that began in 1828 as a smoking room.

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet uses some forced bonhemmie when Isobel twists her ankle slightly: “Lord Merton will have you on the table before you can say knife.”

Mary’s men: She heads to London to meet Charles Blake for dinner and he surprises her by also inviting her love rival Mabel Lane Fox. Charles wants Mary’s help in convincing her to give Tony Gillingham another chance.

Review: It’s a shame Richard E Grant’s stint on the show comes to an end with this episode. He’s been good value.

Next episode…

Die Hard (1988, John McTiernan)


Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Police officer John McClane visits his estranged wife during her office’s Christmas party. But when terrorists enter the building and take hostages, John finds himself the only person free…

Source material: Die Hard is an adaptation of Nothing Lasts Forever (1979), an enjoyable-enough potboiler by Roderick Thorp. Because the novel was a sequel to a book that had been turned into a film starring Frank Sinatra, Sinatra was asked to headline Die Hard too. But he had just passed 70 and retired from acting, so turned it down. The script was then retooled as a standalone story, and middle-aged Detective Joe Leland became the thirtysomething Officer John McClane. (It’s often been said that, at one point, Die Hard was going to be a sequel to the 1985 action film Commando and would therefore have starred Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, Steven E de Souza – the writer of Commando and co-writer of Die Hard – has denied this. He says the ultimately unmade Commando 2 was a completely separate script.)

John McClane: Die Hard’s hero is a dry, droll, cynical cop from New York. For overseas viewers who might not understand, it’s spelt out that he doesn’t have any jurisdiction in LA,  but he still leaps into action when trapped in a skyscraper with gun-totting terrorists. Cast in the role was Bruce Willis, an actor who was hot from witty TV drama Moonlighting, and he’s *perfect*. He gives McClane a wry smirk, plenty of sarcasm and bags of attitude. One of the key reasons why the character is such a success is that he’s not a Schwarzenegger-type Special Forces vet who can kill a platoon with his little finger; he’s just an everyday guy (albeit one who knows how to fire guns). He even gets an instant all-time-great catchphrase: the villain likens him to a cowboy, so he replies, “Yippie ki-yay, motherfucker.” A good indicator of what an amazing performance Willis gives is the fact he often talks to himself and yet the device never feels clunky or forced. That’s a difficult trick to pull off.

* Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedelia) is John’s wife. Six months earlier she moved across country for a new job; she’s been using her maiden name, which doesn’t please John when he arrives at her office at Nakatomi Plaza. Once the terrorists take over, she becomes the leader of the hostages and shares a couple of excellently frosty scenes with bad guy Hans. (In Nothing Lasts Forever, the lead character was visiting his daughter not his wife. But then they cast 33-year-old Bruce Willis.)
* We briefly see John and Holly’s young children, Lucy (Taylor Fry) and John Jnr (Noah Land). They’re at home being looked after by a maid called Paulina (Betty Carvalho).
* When John finds a two-way radio and contacts the outside world, he strikes up a connection with local policeman Sgt Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson). Unlike his LAPD superiors, the likeable Powell quickly recognises the severity of the hostage situation and also figures out that John must be a cop. Their friendship as they talk over the radio has real charm.
* Once it becomes clear that something is going on at Nakatomi Plaza, a news reporter called Dick Thornburg (William Atherton, efficiently slimy) starts covering the story. He’s an amoral shit who thinks nothing of manipulating children for his report.   

Villain: The story’s bad guys show up primed and ready. They move into the building stealthily and with little dialogue, killing security guards and making their way up to the floor hosting the Christmas party. The group has distinctive, memorable members – which always helps in a film with a crime gang – but the standout is still its leader. Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) is an icy-cool yet charismatic German in a Savile Row suit. There’s a great reversal of expectations when we learn that he’s not the political terrorist we all assumed him to be: he’s just after the loot stored in the building’s vault. However, when Holly accuses him of being just a common thief, he sharply replies. “I am an exception thief, Mrs McClane, and since I’m moving up to kidnapping you should be more polite.” Rickman gives a sensational performance of guile and confidence and poise in what was, remarkably, his first ever film. Actually, it’s difficult to think of a better-played, more entertaining villain in any movie.

Music: The near-constant incidental music was written by Michael Kamen, who’d previously provided great scores for Brazil (1985), Highlander (1986), Lethal Weapon (1987) and TV magnum opus Edge of Darkness (1985). It’s an excellent piece of work, creating tension and supporting action with aplomb. It’s especially good at taking us by the hand and guiding us through moments where we’re crosscutting between different scenes. Kamen also quotes Beethoven’s Ode to Joy when Gruber and the others finally open the vault.

Review: Like a million-pound sports car or a shiny new iPhone, this movie appears so effortless and elegant and pristine, but it’s powered by some extraordinary complex engineering. On the surface, Die Hard is an endlessly entertaining slice of popcorn cinema. There’s action, humour, drama, surprises, suspense and violence, and it’s all muscle, no flab. The film keeps opening up, starting relatively low-key as a group of criminals sneak into a Christmas party and ending up as an enormous action thriller involving helicopters, explosions and SWAT teams. It’s populated by vibrant, interesting, well-played supporting characters – cheeky young chauffeur Argyll (De’voreaux White), stoic company boss Takagi (James Shigeta), lairy businessman twat Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner), befuddled police chief Dwayne T Robinson (Paul Gleason), two arrogant FBI agents both called Johnson (Robert Davi and Grand L Bush). Everyone in this amazing cast gets line after line of acidic, colourful dialogue packed full of substance and swearing and wit. But look underneath and the film is even more impressive. A huge amount of skill, smartness and hard work has gone into making Die Hard seem so graceful. Narrative filmmaking is about the revelation of information – character details, plot developments, and so on – which must be drip-fed in a specific order and at specific times. Here, the pieces are moved around the chessboard with absolute precision, guaranteeing that we know exactly what we need to know at exactly the right time. We also learn about characters through their behaviour, while their choices drive the plot and action is always significant. Cinematographer Jan De Bont uses the anamorphic widescreen format for all its worth, throwing in extreme framings and telling the story through composition, lighting and purposeful camera moves. John McTiernan directs with a ballsy energy but also a light touch when needed. It’s simply a masterpiece. One of the very best action films ever made.

Ten machine guns (ho ho ho) out of 10

Downton Abbey: series 5 episode 4


SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Minkie Spiro. Originally broadcast: 12 October 2014, ITV.

Thomas Barrow takes drastic measures, Robert weighs up whether to allow development of his land, Lord Merton asks Isobel to marry him, and Simon Bricker comes to visit again.

When is it set? Spring 1924.

Where is it set? The house and the estate. York. The village, including the school and the churchyard. Violet’s house. Isobel’s house. Lots of places in London: Rosamund’s house, the venue of a dress show, Lord Gillingham’s flat in Albany, Piccadilly Circus, and Kensington Gardens.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Having been mentioned a couple of times, Mable Lane Fox (Catherine Steadman) makes an appearance. She used to be engaged to Tony Gillingham… before he chucked her in order to pursue Mary. Obviously there’s some tension when the two women meet.
* Rose’s father, Lord ‘Shrimpy’ Flintshire, returns to England to tell her that he and her mother are to divorce. He knows this will cause a scandal but he’s too unhappy to continue.

Best bits:
* Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes keep giving Mr Molesley extra chores because he’s made such a big deal about being considered the first footman.
* We learn that, 50 years earlier, Russian Prince Kuragin asked Violet to run away with him – but then her husband gave her a Fabergé frame with pictures of their children in it. It made her realise she loved him so stayed.
* Lord Merton’s proposal is sweet. He tells Isobel that he’s not asking her out of loneliness or selfishness; he’s genuinely fallen in love. He asks her to think about it rather than give an answer straightaway.
* Thomas Barrow’s been looking sallow and acting oddly, then Miss Baxter overhears him crying out in pain in a bathroom. She forces her way in and sees medical equipment. Later, she discovers that he sent away for a barbaric package designed to ‘cure’ men of being gay.
* While in London, Mary attends a fashion show – and Downton goes full-blown 1920s. It’s an Art Deco lover’s dream.
* Anna’s also in London (because Mary is) and takes the opportunity to visit Piccadilly Circus – ie, where Mr Green was killed. Is she returning to scene of the crime?! The sequence involves an impressive green-screen recreation of 1924 London.

Worst bits:
* Robert’s dogmatic resistance to selling part of the Downton estate contradicts his position when Matthew died – so we get a line of dialogue to explain why he’s changed his tune.
* Bolshy schoolteacher Sarah Bunting is invited to dinner yet again. Before the meal, Tom Branson specifically asks her not to antagonise Robert, but she can’t resist in repeatedly trying to embarrass him (while, you know, eating his food and sitting at his table). So he loses his rag and demands she leave. The worst thing about the storyline is that her progressive politics are spot-on and Robert’s reactionary lifestyle is grossly unfair – and yet he’s the one you side with.

Real history:
* The Russian Revolution of 1917 is why the Tsarist refugees cannot return home. The current Soviet regime has no desire to help them.
* Violet refers to the House of Fabergé, a prestigious jewellery firm formed in Russia in 1842.
* As part of her schooling, Daisy is studying the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw King James II of England (James VII of Scotland) overthrown in favour of William III, Prince of Orange.
* Edith has news from Munich. A trial of some thugs is going on – the thugs who got into a fight with Michael Gregson. “I’ve read about this,” says her father. “They wear brown shirts and go around bullying people. Their leader tried to start a revolution last year.” The brownshirted Sturmabteilung were the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party; their leader was, of course, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). Robert reckons they haven’t heard the last of them: “We pushed Germany too hard with our demands after the war,” he says as if he were a GCSE textbook.
* Mable Lane Fox makes an excuse to leave a conversation with Mary: she’s off to meet her friend Ralph Kerr, who she says gets tetchy if he’s left waiting. Kerr (1891-1941) was an officer in the Royal Navy. He saw action in both world wars.
* Cora mentions the Reign of Terror, a period of unrest in France in the 1790s. The then Lord Grantham was in France when it began but escaped with his art collection.
* Mrs Hughes finds a copy of The London Magazine (founded 1732) lying around.
* Robert and Miss Bunting’s row is referred to as the Battle of Little Big Horn by Mrs Hughes. Fought on 24-26 June 1876, the Battle of Little Big Horn was a major clash between Native American tribes and the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army during the Great Sioux War.
* Anna mentions Kier Hardie (1856-1915), the founder – and first leader – of the Labour Party.

Maggie Smithism of the week: “Hope is a tease, designed to prevent us accepting reality.” (“Oh, you only say that to sound clever,” says Isobel. “I know,” replies Violet. “You should try it.”)

Mary’s men: She heads for London – ostensibly to attend a fashion show – and bumps into Charles Blake. He asks Mary to dinner, where she reveals that she’s decided against a life with Tony. The next day she meets Tony by the Robin Hood statue in Kensington Gardens to tell him. He’s furious that she slept with him and is now dropping him, and refuses to accept that things are over.

Doggie! When Robert, Mary and Tom Branson inspect some Downton land, Isis comes too and has a fun sniff around the fields. She also gets a walk around the village.

Review: An entertaining balance of subplots: there’s plenty happening, as usual. 

Next episode…

Interview: a chat with Scoundrels authors Duncan Crowe and James Peak


Scoundrels is an incredibly funny comic novel that tells the story of two disreputable spies, Majors Cornwall and Trevelyan. Their daring, outrageous and surreal escapades begin at public school in the 1930s and stretch through the Second World War and beyond. Along the way, Nazis are defeated, pandas are hunted, and Cornwall and Trevelyan suffer some extraordinary indignities.

Having recently read and thoroughly loved the book, I spoke to authors Duncan Crowe and James Peak…

Hi there. Can you tell us how this book came about? Where did the idea come from?
DUNCAN CROWE: The idea evolved from a series of extremely rude, insulting emails James and I sent each other. Both of us replied as though we were outraged and the Majors developed from there.
JAMES PEAK: Yeah, the structure came about pretty organically. I wrote to Duncan, as an old Major, explaining that on my travels in Africa I’d persuaded the Ga People of Ghana to design his coffin in the shape of a giant phallus. He immediately wrote back, as another Major, accusing me of embezzling money from a children’s charity. The tone was set from there.

While still feeling fresh and original…
JP: Cheers! 
…Scoundrels reminded me of a few things – the Flashman novels, the Ripping Yarns TV show, the books of PG Wodehouse. Were any of those specific influences? Or did anything else inspire you?
JP: Yes, you’re bang on with all those. Also some adult, racy Roald Dahl books like My Uncle Oswald. And the brilliant Kyril Bonfiglioli’s Mordecai Trilogy. He’s like a dirty Wodehouse. We were both very influenced by spy fiction like Graham Greene and Ian Fleming, but also the daft brilliance of Viz comic.
DC: A mention should probably go to Blackadder too, and to the sorts of films, TV shows and books where British people are comically portrayed with ridiculous stiff upper lips – Bullshot, Bridge on the River Kwai – or capable of the sort of skulduggery familiar to Terry-Thomas or Peter Sellers.

I was initially picturing the lead characters, Victor Cornwall and St John Trevelyan, being played by Michael Palin and Terry Jones – perhaps because of the Ripping Yarns-ness of the settings. But the more I read, the more I started to imagine Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson. Do either of those fantasy castings ring true for you?
JP: That’s because of the horrific violence that they bear with fortitude, right? The Majors are, at root, a pair of grotesques who deserve everything they get. The other thing that’s great about Mayall and Edmondson is that the joke was always on them, which is (almost) always the case with the Majors.
DC: Michael Palin and Terry Jones: bang on. I also think Jason Isaacs would make a good Cornwall and Matt Berry, Trevelyan.
JP: Actually, I think Trevelyan would have been well served by a young Oliver Reed. Cornwall should be played by someone with the sheer physicality of Charles Hawtrey from the Carry On films….
DC: Oh, is that right?
JP: Yes.

The characters’ adventures cover a large sweep of 20th-century history, from a public school in the 1930s, through the Second World War, and into China, Japan, Africa, Mount Everest… What kind of historical research did you do?
DC: A little more than the casual reader might think. I suppose we wanted the Majors to support a version of history that was broadly historically accurate right up until the moment it moves into complete nonsense, and that line is not always signposted at the moment you cross it.

The two lead characters write alternating chapters of Scoundrels, which gives the reader two differing points of view on the events. Did you write everything together, or did you divvy up Cornwall and Trevelyan’s accounts?
DC: We start off writing in character – I write as Cornwall and James as Trevelyan, but by the end of the editing process it’s difficult to unpick who wrote what.
JP: We would always write chapters alone, originally, with the express aim of really antagonising the other, putting him in a situation he’d have a real job to write his way out of. We wrote for about six months without ever mentioning the project out loud, when we met socially in the pub or what-have-you… Of course, that worked for a while, but then the chapters needed fashioning into a narrative that would actually form a single, coherent story, so we had to start communicating about it. Then the editing process started and we tore each other’s sentences to pieces, adding jokes, details, reworking anything and everything that wasn’t solid. The ownership of each chapter became very muddled and, like the record collection of a long-married couple, impossible to pull apart without a long and protracted legal battle which would render both parties bankrupt.

It must have been fun knowing that each story could have a bias depending on which character is telling it…
JP: Yes, that’s the heart of it. We wanted readers to be faced with chapters spun entirely from self-interest and an eagerness to write something inarguable (as history is written by the winners) and that this is utterly rejected by the other Major. I love, writing as Trevelyan, putting Cornwall in really brutal situations, as once they are on the page, that’s it. They happened.
DC: Exactly – both Majors have massive egos and are determined that history shows them in the best possible light – but it was great fun putting Trevelyan through the wringer. No more so than the events at the end of chapter one. I didn’t set out to write something as horrendous as that, but as soon as the idea developed I couldn’t get it on the page quick enough. I couldn’t wait for James to read that. And weep…
JP: It came as a complete surprise – we’d not talked about at all. I actually wandered around the room shaking my head at what Duncan had done to him. It took me a long while to come back with a decent response.
DC: And what was great, though, was how Trevelyan dealt with it and then came back with a story of his own. I have to give him respect for his response.
JP: So I suppose its equal parts combative and collegiate. We’re setting each other up, but always confident that the other can deal with it.

The chapters are interspersed with letters from Cornwall and Trevelyan commenting on the writing process. Where did that idea come from?
JP: Well, we searched for a ‘wraparound’ to place their stories in, and settled on the idea that the Majors had sent the two of us, as editors of boutique publishing house Black Door Press, a manuscript which we HATED. We attempted to return it, but then found that by signing for it with the courier, we’d actually entered into an unbreakable contract to publish. It sounds convoluted, but makes the sort of sense we needed to give them the chance to communicate outside the chapters that make up their life stories, and the letter format worked well for that.

Was it fun to work out the structure of the book?
DC: Initially the structure was less linear as we were having fun plucking out random stories from the Majors’ history, but we soon realised that we need to follow a more coherent timeline so the narrative broadly follows their lives.

One of the best things about the stories is how brilliantly surreal and violent they can be – there’s a real sense of ‘anything can happen’. Was that an important part of the storytelling for you?
JP: Yeah, it was challenging to put each other in really grim situations from which the other had to escape. That said, it was really key that the violence, although horrific, has to be survivable and medically possible.
DC: Or at least just about medically possible…. One of the reasons the Paris-Dakar chapter comes first is that we wanted to set the boundaries early on for the reader, and establish how far we were prepared to push it. Once you’ve read that you know what you’re in for.

Do you have a favourite segment of the book?
JP: I’m fond of the whole Second World War section, where you start to realise that as well as a brooding enmity that has lasted a lifetime, the Majors have a grudging, brotherly respect for each other that explains why so much of their lives have been shared. I think Duncan did a bloody good job on the Fuffy Morningdew chapter, where we learn why Cornwall’s heart has calcified and that he can never love another woman.
DP: When I read James’s first draft of Around the World it literally made me cry with laughter. I tried to read some of it out to my wife and couldn’t finish the sentence. I also like it any time the Majors spend time in the club. I love the detail, the obscure rules and the other members.

What can you tell us about Black Door Press? The company was founded specifically for this book – is that right?
JP: Yes, although it’s owned by the Majors now, unfortunately. And they are terrible bosses.

What about the book cover? It’s superb. Who designed it? Did you have specific ideas what it should be?
JP: Michael Gambriel, the man’s a genius. He’s a Bristolian artist who is ridiculously accomplished. Everyone thinks Banksy is the best thing to come out of Bristol. Well, that’s bollocks: it’s Mike.
DC: Mike was very patient with us. The Flashman books was one of the references we gave him, and we mocked up some dodgy covers that we’d drawn… Thankfully he was good at interpreting our ideas and making them, you know, good.

And can we expect a sequel? This book is labelled Volume One: 1931-1951, and contains references to other escapades for Cornwall and Trevelyan…
JP: You can expect two! Their autobiography spans three volumes, each more eye-opening and wince-inducing than the last.
DC: Yep – we’ve planned the whole trilogy. By the end you’ll be crying hot tears of joy with an afternote of melancholy that two bona fide British heroes have been forgotten by the nation.

You can find out more and buy a copy of the book here.

Downton Abbey: series 5 episode 3


SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Catherine Morshead. Originally broadcast: 5 October 2014, ITV.

Violet finds out about Mary and Tony’s illicit week together in a hotel, Mrs Patmore gets an upsetting letter, and the investigation into Mr Green’s murder continues. Meanwhile, Edith continues to visit her secret daughter.

When is it set? We begin a week after the preceding episode ended, so in the opening scenes it’s circa Wednesday 30 April 1924.

Where is it set? The Grand Hotel in Liverpool. Downton Abbey. Violet’s house. The local churchyard. London, including Rosamund’s house and the National Gallery.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Rose invites some aristocratic Russian refugees to Downton. One of them is Prince Kuragin (Rade Sherbedgia), a man who flirted with Violet in St Petersburg in 1874. She’s rather shocked to see him again after so long.

Best bits:
* The name of Mrs Patmore’s late nephew is not going to be included on his local war memorial – because he was shot for cowardice – so she wants to get him mentioned on Downton’s. Carson, though not wholly unsympathetic, objects to commemorating a ‘coward’, which obviously upsets Mrs P.
* Spratt’s not-very-subtle hints to Violet that he has some gossip. “You’re testing me, Spratt,” she warns her butler. “Either impart this piece of information, if you can empower yourself to do so, or go.” He then tells her that he saw Mary and Lord Gillingham coming out of a hotel in Liverpool. (They’d been having a dirty weekend.)
* Cora’s gone to London for a few days, so Robert decides on a whim to join her. However, not knowing her husband’s on his way, Cora has dinner with her friend Simon Bricker. A jealous Robert is fuming when Cora finally comes home, but she points out that she’s not done anything wrong. Robert then cruelly says that he can’t believe Simon is only interested in Cora’s conversation.
* Because her butler knows Mary was in Liverpool, Violet has to come up with a cover story to avoid any whiff of scandal. She says that Mary was at a conference of landowners. Spratt turns to Mary and says, “I hope you found it interesting, m’lady.” Mary: “I learned a great deal that I never knew before.” (The gag would work better still if she were a virgin, of course.)
* A nice chunk of backstory is revealed about Cora. She came to London at a young age to find a husband, pushed into it by her mother. The family “weren’t really in the first rank” in Cincinnati or New York, where she lived as a child: Cora’s father was Jewish and their fortune new. “But I was pretty,” she jokes. “At least I can say that, now I’m an old lady.” She was overwhelmed by London society, but got a lot of names on her dance cards.
* Poor Edith is told to stay away from Marigold because Mrs Drewe is sick of her visiting the farm constantly.

Worst bits:
* Leaving the Grand Hotel in Liverpool – which, remember, is about 100 miles from Downton village – Tony and Mary are spotted by her grandmother’s butler, who just happens to be waiting for a bus outside. The very next scene, back in Yorkshire, is Isobel asking Violet where Spratt is. She says he’s in Liverpool for his niece’s wedding.
* Mr Green died 20-odd months ago, and only now has a woman come forward to claim she heard him say, “Why have you come?” to someone just before he fell under a bus.
* Also, Sgt Willis shows up to say the police now know that Green once told a friend that Mr Bates hated him – so again, an unseen, off-screen character has waited nearly two years before telling the police something important about a murder.
* Via some clunky plotting, Sarah Bunting attends the same party as a group of Tsarist Russians… and offends them. Of course she does.

Real history:
* Thomas has a copy of The London Magazine, a publication founded in 1732.
* The woman who’s come forward about Mr Green’s death says she was on her way to meet a friend by the statue of Eros in Piccadilly. Officially known as the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain, it was erected in 1892-93.
* Rose takes some Russian refuges to Haworth to see how the Brontes lived – ie, sisters Charlotte (1816-1855), Emily (1818-1848) and Anne (1820-1849), all writers and poets.
* In the same discussion, Russian writers Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) and Anton Chekov (1860-1904) are all mentioned. Robert also says his parents attended the 1874 wedding of Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia (1853-1920) and Queen Victoria’s son Prince Alfred (1844-1900).
* Simon Bricker takes Cora to the National Gallery (opened 1824) on Trafalgar Square in London and shows her the 1470-75 painting The Nativity by Piero della Francesca (1415-1492). The scenes were shot in the real museum. The Nativity hangs there still, though the gallery staff had to move it to a room that could pass for 1924.
* Robert books a table at Claridges, a high-class hotel in Mayfair that opened in 1812.
* Tom Branson mentions novelist Elinor Glyn (1864-1943). Her biggest contribution to culture was popularising the term ‘it’ to describe a person’s charisma or sex appeal.

Upstairs, Downton: The National Gallery also featured in an early episode of Upstairs, Downstairs called The Mistress and the Maids (1971).

Maggie Smithism of the week: When Isobel points out that servants are human beings too, the Dowager says, “Yes, but preferably only on their days off.”

Mary’s men: She’s just spent a week secretly staying in a hotel with Tony Gillingham. He’s all for getting engaged and announcing it, but she’s not so sure. Mary thinks he’s a nice guy, and her grandmother urges her to set a date for the wedding, but he just doesn’t enflame her passions in the way she’d hoped.

Doggie! Isis wags her tail as she walks along with Robert and Mary outside the house.

Review: There’s a lovely gag in this episode. Violet has been teasing Isobel about her admirer Lord Merton, and also castigating Mary for sleeping with someone before she’s married…. Then we meet an Violet’s ex-boyfriend, a rugged Russian prince. It seems she’s not quite so holier than thou…

Next episode…

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (2017, James Gunn)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

As the Guardians of the Galaxy finish a job for a bizarre queen, Peter Quill encounters his long-lost father who turns out to be a god – but not all is as it seems…

The influence of The Empire Strikes Back on sci-fi, sequels and sci-fi sequels has been enormous, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that – whether intentionally or not – this second Guardians of the Galaxy movie contains a number of echoes of it. We get a daring dash through an asteroid field and our heroes are split up into two groups. There’s a snowy planet and a character with a robotic hand. And most significantly, the plot is built around some major fatherly revelations…

We join the team mid-mission: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Drax (Dave Bautista) are fighting an enormous, octopus-like space alien, while Baby Groot (a young offshoot of the first film’s Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel) dances around to ELO’s Mr Blue Sky. In other words, it’s more of the same – just like the first Guardians flick, we’re being entertained with a charming mix of action, jokes, pop music and bright colours. It’s infectious, broad-grin-generating fun. But then, slowly, something happens. The film never loses its sense of humour (a good gag is always around the corner); the cast continue to be likeable and vibrant. However, the longer the story goes on the more vaguely disappointing everything becomes.

Peter’s long-lost father, Ego (Kurt Russell), shows up and takes the Guardians to a CG-heavy planet of wonders. He reveals that he’s a god and he wants Peter to join him in being godly and doing godly things. But then, after some sitting around, the Guardians discover that Ego is not that nice after all so they set out to destroy him. That’s it. Despite a terrific turn from Kurt Russell, the story never really takes flight. Peter’s father was a talked-about, off-screen presence in the first film. There was mystery over who he was and why he abandoned Peter as a child. But the answer – that he’s an eternal being who has planted his seed on planets throughout the galaxy for his own selfish ends – sadly doesn’t make for gripping storytelling. It’s a good idea to focus on Peter and give him some emotional trauma, but there’s a frustrating paucity of twists and turns. (Ego’s nice! No, he isn’t!)

More fun are the subplots. Gamora’s evil sister, Nebula, gets much more screentime than in the first film and actress Karen Gillan does a lot with it. The literal-minded Drax has a fun friendship with Ego’s nervy assistant, Mantis (Pom Klementieff). There’s a race of uptight, golden-skinned aliens who act as a deus ex machina. The first film’s villain, Michael Rooker’s Yondu, is brought back and retconned as a more-decent-than-you’d-thought anti-villain. (His death is surprisingly touching and the film ekes out as much emotion from it as possible.) Oh, and Sylvester Stallone (no, honestly) shows up as a pointless character who’s presumably being set up for a future sequel.

So while the spine of the film – Ego’s designs on universal power and Peter’s reunion with his dad – doesn’t especially linger in the memory, there are still plenty of pleasures. The Guardians themselves continue to be tremendous company, the new selection of 1970s pop songs on the soundtrack throws up some real gems, and the script is full of funny one-liners. It’s just a shame that the Empire Strikes Back-y-ness doesn’t extend to caring about our heroes’ emotions a bit more.

Seven galactic informants out of 10

Screenshot 2017-09-06 09.46.24 

Downton Abbey: series 5 episode 2


SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Catherine Morshead. Originally broadcast: 28 September 2014, ITV.

The damage from the fire that ripped through Edith’s bedroom is dealt with. An art historian comes to Downton, Isobel visits Lord Merton, while Robert and Carson clash over the planned war memorial.

When is it set? We start the day after the preceding episode. A line of dialogue from Rose tells us that the events take place shortly before, and then on, Wednesday 23 April 1924.

Where is it set? Downton Abbey. The local cricket ground. The Drewes’ farm. The Dowager’s house. Lord Merton’s home. The village. The Grand Hotel in Liverpool.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Footman Jimmy’s been given the sack after being caught in bed with a guest in the previous episode. He and Thomas Barrow share a touching moment as he leaves: despite their differences – remember the time Thomas tried it on? – they’ve become good pals.
* A local chemist (Roberta Kerr) sells Anna some contraception. She doesn’t seem to be overly keen on profits, though: she pointedly suggests that abstinence works just as well!
* Simon Bricker (Richard E Grant) is an art-expert friend of Charles Blake’s who wangles an invitation to Downton so he can view a painting. He’s recently been in Alexandria, hence his suntan, and swaps some flirty banter with Cora. (After Maggie Smith, Richard E Grant becomes the second actor from Gosford Park to appear in Downton Abbey. Gosford Park was a 2001 movie written by Julian Fellowes that can be considered Downton Abbey’s direct antecedent. Indeed, the initial plan was that the series would be a TV spin-off from the film.)
* Mrs Elcot (Naomi Radcliffe) is a local woman who’s conveniently on the spot to give Carson some food for thought when he objects to the war memorial being in the centre of the village.
* Local copper Sergeant Willis (Howard Ward) shows up to ask about Mr Green’s time at Downton. Apparently, a witness to his death has come forward…

Best bits:
* The tension between Robert and Mr Carson over where the village’s war memorial should go.
* Edith is still visiting her daughter, who’s living in secret with local farmers. Mr Drewe has come up with a plan: they’re going to pretend that Edith is the child’s unofficial godmother, so Edith tells her parents that she’ll help the girl financially. But there’s trouble in store: Mrs Drewe is clearly not a fan of Edith being at the farm so often.
* Mary’s subplot is good fun. She and suitor Tony Gillingham have decided to stay in a hotel incognito so they can get to know each other better. Only Anna knows the truth, and says Mary should take clothes she can put on and take off without help. “Well, I’ll have his help,” jokes Mary. “Honestly, m’lady,” replies Anna, “you’d better hope I never write my memoirs.” Mary then asks her maid for a big favour – can Anna source some contraception? “Oh, my God,” says Anna. “I mean, I beg your pardon, m’lady.” Anna is nervous – what if she’s recognised in the shop? – but manages to buy a cervical cap.
* When Charles Blake and his friend Simon Bricker are due to arrive, Robert says, “Do people think we’re some sort of hotel that never presents a bill?” Cora replies: “You’ve already made that joke.”
* Rose keeps dropping hints that she wants a wireless installed at Downton Abbey, but Robert plays a straight bat: “No.” Cora says she wouldn’t mind having one. Robert: “That’s because you’re American.” When it’s finally installed, the entire household listen to the King make a speech. “I suppose *he* can’t hear *us*?” asks a nervous Mrs Patmore.

Worst bits:
* Robert says the wireless is a fad and won’t last. Hashtag period drama.
* Cora and Rose want to invite Sarah Bunting to dinner. Robert is against the idea, obviously, given how rude Sarah was last time.
* A witness to Mr Green’s death has come forward. Two years after the fact.

Real history:
* Rose mentions the Russian refugees living in York. Robert says they’re scattered all over Europe. They’d fled after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.
* Dr Clarkson tells Isobel about the new drug insulin, which is going to make a big difference. “A diagnosis will no longer be a death sentence,” enthuses Isobel. Insulin had first been used as a medicine in Canada in 1922.
* Mary has a copy of Marie Stopes’s Married Love, an 1918 book on family planning.
* Simon Bricker is interested in a painting in the Downton collection by Italian Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca (c1415-1492).
* Charles knows Simon because they’re both members of Boodle’s, a London gentlemen’s club founded in 1762.
* Robert refers to Sarah Bunting as a “tinpot Rosa Luxemburg”. Rose asks, “Who’s that?” and Cora explains that Luxemburg (1871-1919) was a German communist who was shot and thrown in a canal. “We wouldn’t wish that on Miss Bunting,” she adds, looking at her husband. He just says, “Hmm.”
* When Robert criticises the Bolsheviks currently ruling Russia, saying that their savagery means they get no sympathy from him, Tom Branson rather lamely compares them to the English killing Charles I (1600-1649).
* In her attempts to convince Robert to buy a radio, Rose points out that King George V (1865-1936) is due to speak on the wireless to mark the opening of British Empire Exhibition, an event that ran at Wembley Park in London from 23 April 1924 until 31 October 1925.
* Cora mentions the fall of the Bastille, a key moment of the French Revolution that happened on 14 July 1789.
* Mary says she’s not “some overheated housemaid drooling over a photograph of Douglas Fairbanks”. Fairbanks (1883-1939) was an influential American movie star, director and producer.
* Robert bows to pressure and a wireless is installed in Downton’s lobby. The first thing it plays is a song by band leader Jack Hylton (1892-1965).

Upstairs, Downton: The servants of Eaton Place got themselves a new-fangled wireless in the Upstairs, Downstairs episode An Old Flame (1975), which is set in spring 1923 – ie, about a year before this episode of Downton. In both shows, the household’s cook is naïve about how the device works.

Mary’s men: She affects disinterest when Charles Blake visits Downton. He’s resigned to having lost Mary to Tony Gillingham, but implores her to be sure about it. “You’re cleverer than he is. That might have worked in the last century when ladies had to hide their brains behind good manners and good breeding. But not now.” Although Charles doesn’t know it, Mary has to plan to see if she is sure. Despite telling her family that she’s going on a minibreak with a female friend, she actually meets Tony in Liverpool so they can stay in a hotel together.

Doggie! Isis can be glimpsed sitting serenely as Cora shows a painting to Simon Bricker. Later, in a bad mood, Robert tells his wife not to let Simon flirt with Isis: “There is nothing more ill-bred than trying to steal the affections of someone else’s dog!” The next day, Isis joins Robert as he walks through the village.

Review: The subplot of Simon Bricker flirting with Cora is fun, especially the detail that Robert is blind to it – he just spots that Simon likes his dog.

Next episode…