Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Peter Sumner: That Aussie Bloke in the first Star Wars flick

It was only a small part, but even recently Peter Sumner’s few words in "A New Hope" were still resonating, somewhat in jest, regularly on Sydney radio. Sometimes at the tail of Jonesy and Amanda’s WSFM breakfast show,  his voice would be heard saying, “I’m Peter, and I still don’t know why TK-421 has left his post.”

I first saw Peter perform live in Celluloid Heroes at Sydney’s Theatre Royal in 1981. By then he was already a very well established and respected actor. It was a thrill to see his performance live after watching him on TV for so many years…and of course, he was the only Aussie in the first Star Wars film.

Travelling through the UK at the time, his agent in Britain put him forward for the small role, shooting over two days, at £60 for each day. “I’ll take it!” he said.

Australian-born but educated in the U.K., Peter developed an impressive line-up of both production and performing credentials. Working during the sixties for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in radio as a writer and program assistant, he soon moved to ABC-TV as a writer, producer and director of over a hundred studio programs.

During the eighties and nineties he became a household name for his roles in productions such as “Spyforce” (with Jack Thompson) “Certain Women”, “Heartbreak High”, and “The Dismissal” where he played a cracker version of Bill Hayden. And of course, the pre-schoolers loved him on PlaySchool.

Peter was one of the great performers, not only because of his talent, but because his broad production experience meant he understood the ‘engine room’ of the business. Few know that apart from playing Lt Pol Treidum in Star Wars, he also had an uncredited role off screen, controlling the Dianoga Monster - the garbage compactor monster.

Like all great actors, he had a terrific vocal range, a talent not lost on advertising agencies and documentary makers who put his pipes to good use. His voice was in high demand particularly during his later years, and agencies across Australia did what they could to keep him on their books.

Audio recordings are great legacies, and apart from an immense catalogue of TV and Film credits, his voice will forever remain distinctive, inspiring and engaging, as heard in this compilation:

Peter Sumner: 29 January 1942 – 23 November 2016

SMH Obituary

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The First and Almost Forgotten Bond, James Bond

Great actors have made their mark by playing the role of James Bond, the Ian Fleming creation who travels the world, protecting the interest of good over evil. Most movie aficionados can name the actors who have played Bond in their career, usually best recalling the actor who first introduced them to the franchise.

But mention “Barry Nelson”, and shamefully even the most ardent of Bond fans might be left scratching their heads.

It’s probably worth recounting how the Bond character came about, which will explain how Barry Nelson landed the role as the first Bond. There are 3 versions of Casino Royale in the on-screen Bond world, and Barry played the lead in the very first version. It was the 1954 television adaptation of the novel of the same name by Ian Fleming that first introduced the character to the screen. Yes, James Bond began on TV.

Barry Nelson as 'Jimmy' Bond in the 1954 version of Casino Royale 

CBS paid Ian Fleming $1,000 at the time for the rights to the story. Due to broadcast restrictions, the adapted version lost many of the details found in the book, although it retained its violence, particularly in the final scenes. Here’s a brief look:

The hour-long Casino Royale episode aired on 21 October 1954 as a live (yes, live!) production, starring Barry Nelson as secret agent James Bond, with Peter Lorre in the role of the villainous Le Chiffre.  The Bond character in Casino Royale was re-cast as an American agent, described as working for "Combined Intelligence", supported by the British agent, Clarence Leiter, played by Australian Michael Pate. As such the Anglo-American relationship depicted in the book is reversed for 1950s American consumption. The full version as broadcast can be seen here:

But it was 4 years later when the Bond franchise we are more familiar with today began to gestate. CBS invited Fleming to write 32 episodes over a two-year period for a television show based on the James Bond character. Fleming agreed and began to write outlines for this series. When nothing ever came of this, Fleming grouped and adapted three of the outlines into short stories and released the 1960 anthology For Your Eyes Only along with an additional two new short stories. From here, Dr No, the first actual Bond film, starring Sean Connery, was raised.

The 1954 version of Casino Royale with Barry Nelson in the lead was lost for decades after its broadcast until a kinescope version of it was located by film historian Jim Schoenberger in 1981. MGM subsequently included a version on its DVD of the 1967 Casino Royale, where David Niven plays the lead in a rather satirical take on the franchise. 

David Niven with Ursula Andress in the 1967 version of Casino Royale

Monday, August 15, 2016

Did You Say "Dance"?

Either through history or by pure luck, ordinary or unexpected dance routines create a story that makes them more impressive than the actual moves.

Vamping Vicar

The classically trained multi-instrumentalist Richard Coles established The Communards in the 1980s with falsetto singer Jimmy Somerville, and appears in this clip as the geeky bespectacled keyboard player wearing a double breaster. What makes this surprising is that (for those outside the UK who don’t know), Richard is now the Reverend Richard Coles, a Church of England minister, as well as a sometime BBC broadcaster. In this clip, we see the ever rhythmic Somerville eventually undertaking an expert dancefloor exit to make way for the youthful Reverend busting a few retro moves on the disco dancefloor.

Jackman Drinking Tea

After undertaking more Broadway performances of The Boy From Oz than anyone can remember (just shy of 400 actually), one would hope that Hugh Jackman can actually tread the boards. The talent of this performer is remarkable considering the genres he crosses, from a camp Aussie cabaret singer to Wolverine in the X-Men. In this TV commercial we find Jackman bored in a Tokyo hotel lobby finding inspiration in a bottle of iced tea.  We think the idea was pinched from a concept mentioned at the end of this list, but eitherway, there’s no doubting Jackman’s talent in both his acting expression and his footwork.

Bizarre Boogie with a Bot

One of the most bizarre scenes in Ex-Machina is also one of the most memorable, as well as being one of the most telling in terms of the antagonist’s nature. Nathan is an internet genius and has recently lived a most solitary life. But his attitude towards women is entirely summarised in this short piece. Oscar Isaac said he and Sonoya Mizuno worked for ‘many hours’ with British choreographer Arthur Pita, and you might almost agree that Oscar wins the dance-off. The moves cement the character’s narcissism in needing to be considered superior in everything he does…even though he isn’t. The incredulous look on Caleb's face is priceless (explicit language warning).

Saturday Night Satire

It’s a complete piss-take, but successfully pulling off the flashback dance scene in Airplane! (known is some countries as Flying High!), Robert Hayes performs a strikingly good Travolta from Saturday Night Fever, outclassing a rather awkwardly moving Julie Hagerty (…which, to be fair, could be the extent of the character’s talent). Hayes also showcases his ability to juggle while obviously being suspended by wires.

Kilmer’s Best Moves

The same filmmakers (Abrahams and the Zucker brothers) seem to have a thing for getting their leading men to dance, as seen when Nick Rivers (played by Val Kilmer) needs to ‘cut a rug’ in order prove to the local resistance fighters that he is not, in fact, Mel Torme (see the film to have that little subplot explained). In Top Secret, given that Kilmer does play a 50s style performer, it would be expected of the character to be able to undertake substantial hip swingin’, but there certainly is a bit of physical acrobatics (again with wirework) required of Kilmer to perform the routine. He even attempts the moonwalk atop a table, although the scene is eventually carried by professional dancers who moments prior appeared to be mere patrons at the local pizza cafe.

Bestie Boogie

Ginnifer Goodwin stars in Something Borrowed as Rachel, a woman who sleeps with, then falls in love with her longtime friend Dex (Colin Egglesfield). This is a problem because unfortunately Dex is engaged to Rachel's best friend Darcy (Kate Hudson).  According to Goodwin, they rehearsed for a couple of weeks before filming began so it would be second nature by the time that scene was shot “But I was really nervous about that scene because we're breaking out into a dance, but we're not a musical. It's actually one of my favourite scenes in the movie because I think it's really a perfect example of why these two are good friends.” All the more reason for the heartbreak when the awkward love trist is finally discovered.

Hugh Grant for PM

In Love Actually, Hugh Grant (playing the UK PM), dances to a song on the radio. According to director Richard Curtis in an interview with The Daily Beast: "[Hugh] was HUGELY grumpy about it...because there was no way he could do that in a prime ministerial manner. It was originally a Jackson 5 song, but we couldn’t get it. We didn’t shoot it until the final day and it went so well that when we edited it, it had gone too well, and he was singing along with the words.”
If you watch closely, just before being interrupted, Grant is seen ‘barrelling’ the camera, an unplanned gaze directly down the lens. This is known in the business as ‘breaking the 4th wall’ and usually results in the scene being re-shot or cut from the film.

Walken’s Weapon of Choice

Spike Jonze’s pure brilliance in casting Christopher Walken to appear in Fatboy Slim’s Weapon of Choice music video is easily considered genius. Hollywood is sprinkled with Walken’s dance routines, being a recognised dancer throughout his career. But for the culture of the time, fans of Fatboy Slim might have known little of Walken, let alone his dancing history. Although a stand-in is used for some routines, and the wirework is obvious, the grim and sullen nature of the environment (a hotel lobby that at the time was on the verge of refurbishment) is brightened for just a few minutes by this obviously agile yet mature 1.83 metre tall individual adding deadpan colour to the moment. Despite an enormous body of work, this could be the dance performance for which Walken is ultimately best remembered.


Thursday, May 26, 2016

Hey Hey The Monkees' HEAD approaches 50 years old

In a few years from now, in what will feel like the blink of an eye, the industry that includes motion picture arts and sciences will begin announcing the 50th anniversary of HEAD, a film that ‘showcases’ THE MONKEES, a manufactured music group of the 1960s.

The band evolved from the creation of the TV series of the same name, based around the zany everyday antics of 4 guys who happened to be musicians, wanting Beatles-like success. With the TV series launching on-air in 1966, Davy Jones, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork and Mickey Dolenz starred in the series, and although they were hired as actors cast to play musicians, Mickey Dolenz himself later said, “The actor-musicians soon became a successful real band.”

The sitcom was cancelled in 1968, but the band continued to record music through until 1971. The Monkees have actually sold more than 75 million records worldwide and had international hits including "Last Train to Clarksville", "Pleasant Valley Sunday", "Daydream Believer" and "I'm a Believer". At their peak in 1967, the band outsold the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined.

For that reason, after the series ended, producers of the TV show decided ‘the band’ needed to feature in their own movie, given the success of efforts made by the Beatles with their “Help” and “Hard Day’s Night” cinema releases.

But anyone expecting a similar kind of cinema experience with Head was deeply disappointed, and that reflected in the box office takings for the film. The producers commissioned Jack Nicholson (yep, THE Jack Nicholson) to assist with scripting and producing the film, and anecdotes suggest the ‘storylines’ (or lack thereof) were developed with the band while on a long weekend bender. That appears obvious when watching the film.

The motion picture itself is the ‘antitheses’ of the TV series and the manufactured history of the band. The boppy "Hey Hey" theme song from the TV show is replaced with a spoken alternative, tearing shreds from the superficial nature of the TV production, the lack of storyline in the film, and the buckets of money made by the band. At one point in the film, during Michael’s birthday scene, he’s asked how it feels to be a millionaire so young. He then describes how revolting it is, similar to how he feels about Christmas.

Exposing the failures of the establishment at the time, raising the hippie culture of free love and drug experimentation, poking fun at the Beatles’ reverence to Eastern spiritualism, and pointedly cutting-in vision of brutal Vietnam warfare,  the film intended to comprehensively demolish the group's carefully groomed public image. In one scene, Peter Tork is heard whistling “Strawberry Fields.”

But watching the film, with almost 50 years of hindsight, the obvious subtexts are strikingly confronting. It’s an anarchistic romp painted within a nose-thumbing late-1960s psychedelic motion picture. It’s tainted with loathing for the entire ‘franchise’ and aspects of the world at that time.

Indeed, much that is represented as being ‘wrong’ during that part of history could be easily translated to today. On more than one occasion in the film, a Coca-Cola vending machine is destroyed via large calibre gunfire, perhaps in response to rising corporatisation and consumerism in the US. In another scene, screaming fans invade the stage during a performance, tearing clothes off the band, which are then revealed to be department store mannequins – another statement about the band’s manipulated and manufactured past.

Many of the scenes break the ‘4th wall’ revealing the film-making process in action, with some shots set around an obvious film lot with gigantic warehouse-like studio exteriors. In this, there’s little respect given to the magic of traditional film-making, while at the same time using the medium of motion pictures to make a statement. In fact, the film makes many statements. It’s a great time capsule of subversive versus conservative thoughts of the 1960s decade.

Watching through ‘modern’ eyes, the messages apparent in the film are significant, albeit interspersed with frivolous skylarking. The film is worth another look as it approaches the 50th anniversary.

The Monkees' latest album "Good Times" is now available and enjoying favourable reviews.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Flight Test

Sydney - Adelaide

Virgin Australia Boeing 737-800 Flight # VA0422 


In the Air
As a Velocity member, you can earn Points on eligible flights with Virgin Australia and their airline partners, to over 600 destinations worldwide. Fare type and earn rate restrictions apply. Find out more about how you can earn Points in the air.

On the Ground
You can also earn Points when you make a booking with Virgin Australia’s global accommodation, car hire, travel and insurance partners. Plus, if you use a Velocity co-branded credit card to make your purchase, you earn Points twice – once on your card, and again with their partner. Find out more about how you can earn Points on the ground.

Bonus Points 
As a Silver, Gold or Platinum member, you earn a Points bonus when you book with selected Velocity travel partners, plus on flights with Virgin Australia and their partner Etihad Airways. Find out more about earning Points bonuses.

Economy seat 22C – aisle. 
·         78cm (31in) seat pitch
·         43cm (17in) seat width
·         10.16cm (4in) recline
 Fully booked flight.

Left on time at 12:55.
Arrived Adelaide 14:35 on time.   

On the 737-800 in economy class: 168 leather seats, 3-3 configuration

Virgin Australia is on a per piece based baggage allowance as per fare type and Velocity membership level. If checked baggage exceeds the weight limit of 23kg (where applicable) it attracts overweight baggage fees (option to pre-purchase or pay overweight fee at the airport) and will only be accepted and loaded onboard at the airline’s discretion.

Each piece of baggage must not weigh more than 32kg, or exceed a total linear dimension (length + width + height) of 140cm, per piece. For information regarding baggage items that exceed these limits, take a look at Virgin’s Oversized Items section. My checked baggage was 12 kgs

A bit tight considering the fully booked flight. A number of non-seasoned travellers boarded the plane from the wrong end and therefore wrestled against the tide to make their way to the correct end of the aircraft to take their seats, amongst other travellers trying to load their cabin baggage into the overhead lockers.

Virgin still seems to suffer from the ‘budget airline’ label, popular with infrequent flyers juggling bags, boarding passes, purses and fluffy slippers. Should one item be discovered as accidentally dropped in the aisle during boarding, a ‘swim’ against the current ensues to locate the aforesaid item on the floor among the legs and feet of other boarding passengers, with the partner of the 'swimmer' shouting directions.

I suffered only a few shoulder jostles and paunchy stomachs in my lap as people reached for a vacant space in the overhead locker above my seat. The guy in the seat across the aisle bent over to remove this shoes while standing in the aisle, shoving his butt in my face.

Having had the ticket booked and confirmed via the client's travel agent, there was no check-in required online. However as I had a bag to check-in, this was undertaken at a self-serve “kiosk” at the airport. Parts of the dispensed baggage ticket must be retained (the bit you would normally peel-off and discard) as that serves as the receipt for your bag. Throwing it out is a mistake you only make once, although the check-in clerk can issue another if required, as well as your boarding pass if you forget to collect it from the same kiosk. In-flight, mobile phones must be switched-off although their wi-fi component can be used to access the entertainment system once underway. No USB charging points appeared to be available.

BYO iPod or Android tablet. There are no seatback entertainment units. If you have a Windows laptop, Microsoft Silverlight media player should work, but no guarantees. Silverlight doesn’t work on Edge, so you have to fallback onto boring old Internet Explorer. Good grief. Try this link for more info.
Forget it if you have a Windows phone or tablet.  It.Just.Doesn’t.Work.
You must download Virgin Australia’s entertainment app for iPhone or Android before departure. It cannot be downloaded in-flight, and no flight-to-ground internet connection is available. The selection of entertainment options is world class, but the app automatically shuts-off your device’s speaker so as not to disturb other passengers. Plugging-in your headphones is supposed to re-enable the audio, but not on my Android tablet. After a while of fiddling, I gave up and watched an old Lucille Ball movie (The Long Long Trailer) I had previously downloaded, the highlight of the flight.

Complimentary food is provided on all domestic flights. The menu varies from flight to flight, and the sales pitch “guarantees you’ll always be offered something delicious.”
All Economy passengers receive complimentary tea, coffee and water on all Virgin Australia flights. The male flight attendant poked a plastic box under my nose, which I passed along to the passenger beside me, and another to the passenger in the window seat. But that’s where it ended and I remained empty handed as he proceeded to serve other rows. I guess everyone gets tired of their job eventually. I decided not to demand my rations as the ‘snack’ appeared to resemble a slice of ham wrapped in flatbread, with an entire surface area of about 1.5 inches square. The next trolley did offer me a cup of tea, which I accepted. Black with one sugar. Meals are also available for purchase from the retail menu.
Virgin Australia also offers a selection of complimentary beer, wine, cider and soft drinks on all Australian domestic flights with a scheduled departure time between 5pm and 7pm, Monday to Friday.

Not the most pleasant of flights, and considering Virgin’s shift to being a ‘full service airline’, other airlines of the same mantra perform much better. This is a pity as the Virgin brand is much loved by me. Should the airline be a ‘budget’ carrier, I would have rated this experience much better. Inadequate vetting of carry-on luggage, poorly co-ordinated boarding of passengers and a less than observant flight attendant meant I was pleased to deplane from this sub 2 hour experience. At least the passenger in the row in-front didn’t recline her seat.

Tested by Tim Stackpool, travelling to a speaking engagement.