John Carpenter: Master of atmospheres

ON Twitter he is known as @TheHorrorMaster, but the man behind the seminal ‘stalk’n’slash’ thriller Halloween is no run-of-the-mill film-maker.

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As anyone familiar with the work of John Carpenter knows, he is also an accomplished producer, writer, director and, of course, a prolific composer and musician.

He is one of the very few left on my wish list of people to interview… but where to start?
Actually it probably is his incredible soundtracks that would get first nod.

On October 22, Carpenter will play some of those live, and demonstrate his performance skills at the Usher Hall, touring for the first time ever to promote the albums Lost Themes and Lost Themes II. The concert will also highlight the recent release of limited edition 12 inch vinyls of his iconic themes – Halloween, Escape From New York, Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog.

Like many of my generation, I was a teenager when Halloween introduced me to Carpenter’s wonderfully skewed take on the world around him. The heightened realities he created on screen, often with limited budgets, were dark, exciting and raw.
Needless to say, I made a point of seeing each new movie as it emerged, whether in the cinema or on VHS video.

Clear from that very first viewing of Halloween, was that Carpenter’s scoring is intrinsic to his story-telling; his music sets the pace, the feel for what is to come and colours the narrative.

Escape From New York in 1981, for example, boasted a brooding, futuristic melody, while 1987’s apocalyptic supernatural thriller, Prince of Darkness, was suitably doom-laden. A year later, They Live, juxtaposed Carpenter’s dystopian vision of an Earth controlled by aliens with a laid back, smoky, jazz vibe.

Another change of style for Vampires in 1998 introduced an arrangement that would not have been out of place in a spaghetti western, while 2001’s Ghosts of Mars opened with gritty, yet ethereal, strains.

It’s the Halloween theme, with its simple but effective piano and ever growing sense of tension, however, that remains Carpenter’s signature piece and remains one of the most spine-chilling pieces of music ever. Nothing, it seems, screams ‘sinister intent’ quite like a good old-fashioned piano melody.

Lost Themes and Lost Themes II, released on Sacred Bones Records, prove Carpenter can’t only score his own films, but also ‘the movies in your mind’ claims the press release. It’s not an empty boast, as those with tickets for the Usher Hall will find.

Time to revisit Carpenter’s back catalogue of movies before that, I reckon.

 

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TV3’s Red Rock comes to BBC One

EVENIN’ all! From Dixon of Dock Green to Z Cars, The Bill to Cuffs, nothing beats a good old-fashioned cop show, the grittier the better.

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The outcry when the BBC axed Cuffs, their recent well-recieved Brighton-set crime drama, after just one series, pays testament to that. There was even a #BringBackCuffs campaign on Twitter.

Fans embarked upon a similar crusade following the demise of The Bill, the long-running ITV series that made household names of characters like Sgt Bob Cryer, Sgt June Ackland and PC Reg Hollis as they trod the Sun Hill beat for 26 action-packed years.

Despite that, British TV has a love hate relationship with police procedurals. Cuffs may have been banged up for good after just six episodes, but Glenn Chandler’s Glasgow set Taggart ran for 30 years – a world record – and even visited the Capital on occasion. Likewise, The Bill might have boasted an astounding 2400 episodes, but the ill-fated Holby Blue lasted just two series and 20 episodes.

The BBC’s 1998 Liverpool 1, which starred EastEnders’ favourite Samantha Womack, Scot Williams, Mark Womack and Carry On legend Leslie Phillips, also lasted two series, but chalked up just 12 episodes – all of which are set to be released on DVD on 25 July – such is our craving for a good cop show, it would seem.

Next week, a new relief of coppers comes to BBC One, or guards to be exact – Irish police officers. Red Rock, Ireland’s answer to The Bill, is now in its third series in its homeland.

Made by TV3, it’s billed as ‘a continuing drama based around a busy Garda station, charting the life and dramas of a community through the eyes of those who police it.’ Sound familiar?

The series debuts on BBC One on Monday, running weekdays at 1.45pm, and thinking about it, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover the BBC had Red Rock on its radar when Cuffs was dropped from schedules – it’s cheaper to buy in drama than to make it, after all.

That said, a sneak preview of the first two episodes reveals Red Rock to be compelling stuff. Set in the fictional Dublin seaside suburb of Red Rock, the action centres around the local Garda Station and two feuding families, The Kielys and the Hennessys.

Like Cuffs, the mix of police work and private lives is a winner that manages to err on this side of being a soap. The drama opens with the discovery of Darren, one of the Kiely boys, badly injured after an assault, and it’s not long before warring families are up in arms with the cops trying to keep the peace as tensions grow.

Like all good cop shows, those upholding the law are as troubled, and at times as downright dysfunctional as the criminals they’re charged with bringing to justice.
With no punches pulled, and dark, gritty story lines ahead Red Rock is set to be compulsive viewing.

Don’t be surprised if, before long, Garda Paudge Brennan and Garda Sharon Cleere are right up there with Dixon and Cryer.

 

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Running with the Gang in Toronto

AIR Canada Rouge fly direct to Toronto from Edinburgh in less than seven hours… with a strong tail wind. Discovered that last week, courtesy of the Fringe.

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The biggest ‘arts’ fair on the planet has long boasted of being a doorway to the world, which is how the I Ran With The Gang company, including Alan Longmuir, the original Bay City Roller, came to be cruising at 37,000ft over the North Atlantic en route to Move Back, a Bay City Rollers Fan Event at which we were all to be guests of honour.

Not bad for a Fringe show written in five days and staged in 10 with the help of Edinburgh entrepreneur Billy Lowe.

That was in 2014, and less than three years later, fans from across Canada and North America were descending on the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel, downtown Toronto to immerse themselves in the I Ran With The Gang experience.

The show, set to enjoy a third Fringe season at Le Monde Hotel, George Street, this August, tells the story of Alan Longmuir
, a plumber from Edinburgh with a love of music that would take him around the world and back with his band, the Bay City Rollers.

A sell-out hit when it premiered, the reactions of audiences that first year reinforced my belief there was still love out there for the Capital’s 70s tartan pop sensations – their reunion gigs last year proved that was indeed the case.

In Canada, it quickly between apparent that love is global. Passionate about everything Rollers, it made for a nerve-wracking international premiere – with just one original cast member, two debuting actors and a couple of new songs… well, time would tell.

If emotions were running high backstage, it was nothing compared to front of house.

The spell the Rollers cast on a generation was brought home during a rehearsal at which one of the event organisers burst into tears as the play came to a close. At first I feared they’d hated it… until I noticed they were also smiling.

The same thing happened at the dress rehearsal, and again on the night, when tears flowed freely.

And that’s the real magic of live theatre, the Rollers and their musical legacy.

I Ran With The Gang rekindles emotions and memories of formative years, a time when adult troubles were still distant, although one attendee explained her tears came from another place; badly bullied as a teenager she confided it was her love of the Rollers that got her through some dark times.

“I’ve got my boy band back,” blubbed another.

When I first wrote the piece, the idea was to transport audiences back to a time when life was simpler, I had no idea of the emotional impact that would have and, of course, that is all to the credit of the Bay City Rollers and a young plumber from Edinburgh, who just wanted to make music.

I Ran With The Gang returns to Le Monde Hotel, 5-28 August, 0131-226 0000

 

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Tony Benn – My Father, The Hero of Leith

IN 2000, I called the Houses of Parliament and asked to speak to Tony Benn. It wasn’t planned, just a spur of the moment thing to ask about his father, William Wedgwood Benn, MP for Leith.

Despite being busy, and my call being unexpected, he chatted for an hour. I’ve managed to track down the feature that resulted, you’ll find it below, a tribute to the last of the great conviction politicians.  

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By Liam Rudden

TONY Benn can barely conceal the pleasure in his voice. But then it’s not often that he’s asked to talk about a subject that is quite this close to his heart. It’s all because someone wants to know more not about the Labour maverick himself, but his father – William Wedgwood Benn.

So it’s with a great enthusiasm that he launches into his family history. “Father was first elected to Parliament in 1906, to represent the East of London, including Tower Hamlets and the Stepney Area,” he says.

“But on my birth certificate it says, ‘Occupation of father: Member of Parliament for Leith’.”

The Labour veteran is obviously a very proud son, and soon it becomes clear why. Wedgwood Benn represented the constituency of Leith from 1918 to 1926. These were truly turbulent times during which the Port finally succumbed to the rough wooing of it’s larger neighbour, Edinburgh. It was the sad end of a valiant struggle that the Liberal MP Benn had taken to the very heart of Parliament, all to no avail. On October 21 1920, Leith Town Council sat for the very last time. 

His son recalls: “He gave a most passionate speech in the House of Commons, which I have some-where, and argued, very strongly that Leith should retain its freedom.”

Ultimately the amal-gamation of the two communities came as a great disappointment to Wedgwood Benn.

“Well, he’d fought very hard and he’d been defeated,” says Benn, “but that’s all part of politics.

“Still, he often used to speak about ‘The Battle For Leith’. He had very strong ideas on the subject, very much along the line that Leith had the right to govern itself, rather like the Irish right.

“I mean, I’m putting it in the same category as that because he was a democrat to his fingertips. Democracy! That was what he believed in more than anything else.”

Fiercely protective of his Scot- tish ward, Wedgwood Benn, who later became Viscount Stansgate, proved to be an unexpectedly popular repre-sentative for the people of Leith.

Even now his name is mentioned with a fond respect seldom associated with the politicians of today.

“You know, I still get letters from people saying, ‘I remember your father, the Captain’,” he says. “It was his rank in the Army, and after the war it was all he was ever known by. People still write to me about him, and any letters about my father I always keep.”

 

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A distinguished war hero, ‘The Captain’ had led a daring life even before accepting the Leith challenge. Joining the Middlesex Yeomanry at the age of 37, he qualified as a pilot before transferring to the RAF where he continued to carry his Army rank. In 1918 he parachuted as the first spy behind enemy lines, and shortly before returning to Parliament was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross, the French Croix de Guerre, and the Italian Military Cross.

His son continues the story: “During the war, he was still a Member of Parliament, but while he was away they redistributed the boundaries, and someone else was edging into his constituency. His father, my grandfather, who was himself a Liberal MP, said to him: ‘Do the high and sublime – don’t fight a colleague.’

“He was then offered the job of joint chief whip by David Lloyd George, but turned it down, preferring instead to be adopted as the Member for Leith, which he did for the next eight years.”

It was quite a major undertaking for the London-based politician. “At that time you didn’t have a rail warrant you know,” says Benn. “Every time you went up to your constituency you had to pay your fare out of a parliamentary salary of £400 a year.”

Despite protecting the Port from afar, his integrity was unequivocally acknowledged by those he stood for. Their affection was never more evident than in 1920 when he married Margaret Holmes, Tony Benn’s mother.

“The people of Leith were very generous, and gave them wonderful presents,” he says. 

Disappearing for a second, he calls: “I rather think that I’ve seen a plaque with something on it . . .”

He returns with his mind put at rest. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” he says politely, “but my memory has been confirmed. The Leith Liberal Association gave them a beautiful canteen of silver cutlery for the table. I still have it.”

On his next visit to Leith, ‘The Captain’ was accompanied by his new wife. “My mother was 20 years younger than my father,” Benn reveals, “and I remember him telling me that he took her with him to visit a local school. There, he asked, ‘Do you know who I have got with me today children?’ And they replied, ‘Yer daughter’,” chuckles Benn, his east coast accent uncannily accurate.

Benn adds that his father threw himself into Scottish life with a passion.

“He loved Scotland, and as the Member for Leith he was very active in the Liberal ‘Wee Free’ group, who were non-Lloyd George Liberals. He was always bitterly opposed to Lloyd George because he had formed a coalition with the Tories, and father never believed in coalition, except during wartime. In fact, he fought and won the 1918 election campaigning against the Lloyd George ticket.”

However, in 1926 his nemesis David Lloyd George became leader of the Liberal Party. On principle, William Wedgwood Benn resigned from the Liberal Party and joined Labour.

“He also resigned his seat that very same day,” Benn points out. “He said, ‘I cannot sit in Parliament when I was elected as a Liberal, and am now Labour.’ He shook hands with the Speaker, and joined the opposition benches.”

Regretfully, he adds: “They don’t do that nowadays.”

It’s clear that his father played a pivotal role in shaping his son’s future. 

“He had a tremendous influence on me,” says Benn. “He was a radical Liberal, and so was his father – my grandfather was elected in 1892 as a home ruler for Ireland.”

As an example of his father’s politics Benn adds: “He made his maiden speech on the public ownership of the Port of London. You know, those old Liberals were so far to the left of New Labour that today they’d be expelled.

“He worked with Lloyd George on the National Insurance Act – this was before Lloyd George defected to the Tories – and he was a great believer in the Welfare State, and a supporter of home rule for Ireland, and India.

“All those ideas influenced me very strongly. Indeed, when I was a little boy he took me to No 10 where I met Ramsay Macdonald, he was 30 when I was five. I have very strong memories of my childhood and of Father. He only died in 1960.”

Born in 1925, Tony Benn himself was too young to join his father on his trips up north, but has more than made up for it since.

“I have been to Leith many times,” he says, “and attended many meetings there, especially when Ron Brown was the local MP.”

Nostalgically he muses: “Being half Scots myself – my mother was from Paisley – my heart beats faster whenever I cross the Border.”

But straight-talking as ever, Benn laughs, as he adds: “And if things get any worse under New Labour I might just take political asylum in Scotland.”

Originally published in the Edinburgh Evening News, October 10, 2000

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Flying Tartan Lassie

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I remember the day it happened, the day I fell in love with Virgin Atlantic. It was a flight from London to Los Angeles – a busy flight, yet the cabin staff made it fun. Nothing was too much trouble and before we knew it we were half way across the world.
The return flight was even better. So, as you can imagine, when Virgin Atlantic announced their Little Red service from Edinburgh to Heathrow, I for one was chuffed.

Of course, as anyone who flown with Little Red knows, the route is actually operated by Aer Lingus on a wet lease – the Irish company provide the planes (with names like Tartan Lassie) and crews, which are then branded Virgin Atlantic.
The service is none the worse for that. Bizarrely, when I fly to Dublin now with Aer Lingus that service is operated by Aer Arann, but I diverse.
The great thing about having Virgin Atlantic fly from Edinburgh is that I can now book right through to New York, without having to change carrier. That’s got to be a good thing.

Anyway, here’s a wee column I recently wrote about Little Red’s inaugural weekend, complete with Love Hearts… and crisps!

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Liam Rudden: Curtain up on Little Red

LOVE Hearts. Remember them? Tiny little packets of Love Hearts. That’s what the stewardess handed out as my Little Red flight began its descent into Edinburgh. A nice wee nod to the golden age of air travel, when the distribution of boiled sweets throughout the cabin ahead of take-off and landing was de rigueur.

Little Red, is the impressive new Edinburgh-London service from Virgin Atlantic – the ideal way to treat yourself to a theatre break. A short hop, in airline parlance, the 60-minute flight to Heathrow provided the perfect mode of travel for my trip to check out The Lamplighters at Chiswick’s Tabard and the following day, Quasimodo, at Islington’s King’s Head.

Both shows, in pub theatres that would be lucky to hold 90 people, restored my faith in what live theatre is capable of being. The Lamplighters, a whodunit-turned-supernatural-thriller by Edinburgh-born Godfather of Tartan Noir Glenn Chandler – well he did create Taggart – twisted and turned to deliciously unexpected resolution, while Lionel Bart’s Quasimodo, receiving its world premiere, demonstrated just how vital a production can be. The seven-strong cast brought a whole heap of love and potential to the project, which now needs an angel to put some money into it so that it can be developed further.

Of course, you could just as easily pop down to London to catch one of the big new West End shows, so many of which never venture north of the border, or when they do, it’s years later. Book for travel now and you’ll find prices from £107.97 for the return trip.
I’m sure there used to be a Love Heart imprinted with the words ‘Fly Me’. If there isn’t, there should. Maybe Richard Branson should get on to that.

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First published on 10/04/2013 in the Edinburgh Evening News

http://www.edinburghnews.com

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Memories of JNT

JTN_305“Hello…” The pips went. A handful of 10p pieces at the ready, I fed the payphone.
“Hello,” I replied, quickly, before the hotel receptionist on the other end hung up, “could I speak to John Nathan-Turner please.”
There was a click and a burr, “Putting you through…” and then another “Hello.” A different voice this time, guarded, distant and dry. Aloof.
It was 1985, I was 21, and that was the first time I spoke with JNT, then producer of the BBC sci-fi series Doctor Who. As a freelance feature writer at the time, working for the likes of Marvel’s Doctor Who Magazine, our paths were destined to cross numerous times over the next few years, but on that first occasion we met because John had agreed to appear as a guest at The Time-Lord and The Thistle, a fan event I’d co-organised.
He was in Edinburgh to for the Book Festival at time and had generously agreed to come along for the afternoon. Resplendent in his trademark Hawaiian shirt he proved a great raconteur with tales of Seville prostitutes high on his agenda – it wasn’t long after the screening of The Two Doctors, which he had shot there.
Always one to go on gut instinct, my first impressions were of a funny, but by turns charming, arrogant, calculating and vulnerable man. “Damaged,” I thought. That same year he came to see a musical I was appearing in at the Edinburgh Fringe. He said he loved it… I heard later he fell asleep half way through. He took some of us for drinks afterwards. He behaved, although he did offer the spare bed in his hotel room to one of the party who had a long journey home. Even then we were aware of his reputation.
My first impressions of John never changed, he was driven by his mood and I never found him easy. There was a coldness about him. The last time we met was in 1991/2 at the Paisley Arts Centre. I was sitting in a dressing room, chatting with Tom Baker. Tom was enjoying a refreshment and in particularly candid mode. As we talked he shared his opinions on fandom, they were not flattering, before turning his attention to the show itself.
It was as he began to regale me with tales of his predecessor, Jon Pertwee, that John re-entered the room. He wasn’t happy and as Tom’s opinions became more and more brutal, so John’s gesticulations for me to leave grew more and more frantic. Tom was having none of it. So I stayed. John, furious, stormed off threatening, “You’ll never do another interview about Doctor Who!”
As it happen, I did, many of them, but that was the last time John and I ever spoke.
By a strange quirk of fate, I only met Gary Downie once, a year or so later at a 30th anniversary fan event John had organised. Again I was covering it for DWM. Gary made me laugh. The archetypal bitchy queen, he couldn’t help himself. Janet Fielding was my interview subject, spiky and blunt, she had just made a crack about wobbly sets as we returned to the melee of fans waiting in the foyer, and Gary was not happy.
Mincing down the corridor towards us, clipboard in hand, he loomed large. He was wearing Cuban heels, if I recall correctly, which made his approach all the more comical. “Bitch! My sets never wobbled!” he declared with just a touch too much venom.
Bizarrely, it was two years before my first encounter with John, that I met Richard Marson. Wearing my actors hat, I was appearing in Recall UNIT, Richard Franklin’s spin-off Mike Yates play, which ran at the 1984 Edinburgh Fringe. Marson was covering it for DWM.
It was reading his new book, JN-T: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner (available http://www.miwkpublishing.com) that triggered these, and more, memories of the man.
Taking in all 380 pages over two nights, The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner is an immersive read. Marson starts by exploring the circumstances that made John the person he became, before giving a unique insight (he followed the same career path with Blue Peter) into the job that made him famous, or infamous, depending on which side of the fence you sat.
Marson himself understands the value of watching from the fringes, only participating in the story by default, which allows him to present a detached, yet detailed view of  the larger picture. Events, and more importantly people, are seldom one thing or the other, after all. The complexity and chemistry of relationships is never simple, Marson illustrates this beautifully with contradicting quotes from those who loved and loathed John.
At a deeper level, however, Marson’s book is a rare and damning insight into the pursuit of power and the machinations of the BBC. It’s all the more valuable for it. His ability to get people of position to speak on the record in such a staggeringly candid terms is quite remarkable and a testament to his skills as an interviewer.
Not everyone shows themselves in a good light.
Equally, for anyone who was around Doctor Who fandom in the 1980s, JN-T: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner is a must read, if only to be reacquainted with many of the bizarre and downright hilarious characters who populated that world; the head of the BBC phoning a local library to break news of the series’ return to the head of the DWAS, had me in tears.
Marson meanwhile, walks a fine line as he charts the life of JNT, balancing opinions throughout. He uncovers the person, rather than the figure-head John became. Again it’s not always pretty, yet the picture he paints is of a insecure and ultimately tragic life. John’s need to be loved, indeed adored, is sad, as is his compulsion to seek solace through a hedonistic life-style.
Of course, many of the stories Marson explores have been ‘whispers’ for decades now. Some are elaborated on nicely, others denied with such off the cuff disregard that you wonder…
That said, reading this book certainly left me more sympathetic to the John I knew vaguely as a person. Less so to the John I knew as a producer. But then Doctor Who is JUST a TV show and as such a tiny part of the larger picture that made John Nathan-Turner the person he was. A point worth remembering perhaps.
 
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Stefan Booth

Former Hollyoaks, The Bill and EastEnders star Stefan Booth took time off from Chicago last week, to support a cause very close to his heart, Kidney Research UK. He popped into the Medical Research Council’s Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine at the University of Edinburgh (MRC) where he met researcher Dr Peter Hohenstein (pictured). Here’s my piece in which he explains why Kidney Research is so important to him.

http://www.scotsman.com/edinburgh-evening-news/edinburgh/spotlight-on-1-2257940

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