Monday, April 23, 2018

Differently Abled

Perhaps I should run the London marathon.  After all, I'm meant to be trying to improve my fitness after my extended bout of ill health - it would give me something to work toward for next year.  That said, I've always maintained that running twenty six or so miles in one go just isn't good for you - an opinion apparently vindicated by the announcement that someone had died running yesterday's London marathon.  Mind you, these days you don't actually have to run the marathon, though.  I'd quite fancy doing it in one of those wheelchairs - not only is it much faster, but it looks like a lot more fun than running.  What I'd really like to do is get within sight of the finishing line, then leap out of the wheelchair and run the last few yards.  Just imagine the reaction of spectators and TV commentators as they think that they've witnessed a miracle.  Mind you, wheeling those chairs around must be pretty tough on the arms.  Perhaps they'd allow the use of a mobility scooter instead.

Now, before people start complaining that it is in very bad taste for someone to try and pretend to be disabled to try and get a cheap laugh, (not to mention winning a marathon without having to do any training), the reality is that I am disabled these days.  Thanks to my diabetes diagnosis, the government now classes me as having a disability.  OK, I know that I have Type 2 diabetes which is generally not that debilitating, but the Disabilities Act doesn't differentiate between different types of the condition.  So, I'm classified the same way as a Type 1 sufferer.  I can get free prescriptions, free eye tests and might be able to claim disability benefit (if I wasn't working).  I won't deny that I've exploited my new status in the workplace - pointing out to managers that they are now legally obligated to make 'reasonable adjustment' to working practices to take into account my 'disability'.  However, I also cannot deny that, like Homer Simpson, I don't actually consider myself 'differently abled', just lazy.  Hence my desire to do the London marathon in a motorised wheelchair.  Joking aside, there is no doubt that my spell of illness has, despite all my efforts at exercising more, left me physically weaker.  I certainly don't have the stamina I formerly possessed (although this might, in part be down to the beta blocker I take for my blood pressure).  Most perplexingly, I've found that my voice is now much weaker that it was before.  That at least has benefits - it gives me an excuse to speak even less to people at work.

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Friday, April 20, 2018

Night Train to Paris (1964)


Night Train to Paris is one of a number of B-movies co-produced in the UK by prolific American producer Robert Lippert and British producer Jack Parsons.   These films were typically shot in back and white, rarely ran over 75 minutes and usually featured a lower-ranked US actor alongside a host of the sort of British character actors familiar from TV.  They covered all manner of genres from horror to spy movies and crime to science fiction.  They greatly ranged in quality, including at least one minor horror classic in 1964's Witchcraft, along with the intriguing and surprisingly suspenseful The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) and the ambitious space opera Spaceflight IC1 (1965), not to mention the atmospheric semi-sequel Curse of The Fly (1965).   Despite the fact that the pair produced ten films in less than two years, on frantically short shooting schedules and tiny budgets, the quality, despite the odd dud like The Horror of It All (1964), was surprisingly high.  Quality-wise, Night Train to Paris sits somewhere in the middle of the Lippert-Parsons output - smartly enough made, but unevenly paced and not quite as atmospheric as it should be.

Cashing in on the spy-craze initiated by 1962's Dr No, Night Train to Paris is a low key tale of espionage which might well have taken its cue from the train sequences in the latter part of From Russia, With Love (1963), featuring, as it does, various secret agents seeking a McGuffin (this time a tape containing top secret information rather than a coding machine), being smuggled across a border by train.  Indeed, Night Train even features Israeli actress Aliza Gur, who had appeared in From Russia, With Love, (she fights Martine Beswick during the gypsy camp sequence), as a femme fatale.  Instead of Sean Connery, however, we have Leslie Nielsen in the lead as a former OSS officer now working in London as a travel agent, who finds himself drawn back into the world of espionage when Gur approaches him on behalf of a wartime comrade to get them immediate passage to Paris. Being New Year's Eve, it proves impossible to book a flight, so Nielsen instead manages to get them added to a party of models traveling with a photographer friend on the Night Ferry train.  (Coincidentally, Harry Palmer would board the Night Ferry in the following year's Ipcress File, as he attempts to escape England).  Before they can depart, both Nielsen's photographer friend and his wartime comrade are murdered by Eric Pohlmann's bulky enemy agent.  Framed for the killings and having been given the tape by his comrade, Nielsen is forced to board the train, with both Phlmann and police in pursuit.

Now, as numerous films have demonstrated, trains, especially those crossing international borders, can make excellent venues for both suspense and action films, (they are also very economical, budget-wise, with small, cheap to construct, sets).  Claustrophobic and totally self contained, the train setting is ideal for ramping up the tension, as the characters ultimately have nowhere to escape to: they are trapped together and the audience knows that they will be forced to somehow resolve their conflicts without resort to outside agency.  Unfortunately, Night Train to Paris never seems to make the most of the setting once the action finally moves to the train.  It doesn't help that the sets seem too brightly lit - night trains, for obvious reasons, generally aren't.  They also seem too spacious (although, to be fair, the Wagons-Lit stock which made up the real Night Ferry were slightly larger than standard UK passenger stock), undercutting the cramped and claustrophobic feel required for this sort of thriller.  The other problem is that the sense of momentum which usually comes with train-set movies is largely absent, with things grinding to a halt once the train is loaded onto the ferry.  (For those too young to remember, in those pre-Channel Tunnel days, the Night Ferry's coaching stock was actually loaded onto a specially built ferry at Dover in order to cross the Channel, being unloaded in France, before proceeding to Paris behind an SNCF locomotive).  More impetus is lost when the climax takes place, not on the train, but in some kind of pumping station at the French docks.  Whilst an interesting location, it feels too spacious, dissipating any tension built upon the train.

Nielsen makes for a reasonably effective, albeit bland and somewhat glib, hero, who finds that nobody o the train is who they appear to be.  His performance is hampered by the fact that, for much of the train sequences, he is forced to wear a 'disguise' of a set of 'Groucho Marx' glasses with attached false nose and eyebrows, (there's a New Year's Eve party going on aboard the train), in order to evade the police and Pohlmann.  Aliza Gur is very beautiful and predictably untrustworthy.  The best performance comes from Pohlmann, a German character actor with enormous experience of playing menacing foreign heavies, (interestingly, he'd provided Blofeld's voice in From Russia, With Love).  In the film's best sequences, his size is used to great effect as he pursues victims down narrow alleyways or train corridors, his bulk literally filling the confined spaces with menace, as it blocks any possibility of escape.  Most of the supporting characters, although portrayed by decent actors, are too sketchily written to make much impression.  That said, Edina Ronay is memorable as an insecure model and Andre Maranne, best known for playing Herbert Lom's Chief Inspector Dreyfus' assistant in the Pink Panther films, gets a larger role than normal, as the ill-fated photographer.  (His demise at the hands of Pohlmann is rather well filmed, playing out in shadows on a wall).

In the end, the film suffers from some poor pacing - far too much time is spent on the set up and it seems to take an age for the main characters to embark the train.  All impetus is lost again when the train setting is abandoned for the climax.  That said, it boasts crisp black and white cinematography that nicely captures some sixties London venues.  Indeed, the film does maintain a nice 'night time' feel throughout and, at just over an hour in running time, never quite outstays its welcome.  Not a classic, but very watchable, nonetheless.  The biggest mystery, though, is why, in 1964, the Victoria to Dover leg of the Night Ferry seems to be hauled by a steam locomotive when the service went over to electric traction in 1962, (it would, prototypically, have been hauled by what was later known as a Class 71 electric locomotive)?  You didn't think I could talk about a train-based film without some railway-related nit-picking, did you?

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Thursday, April 19, 2018

Forthcoming Schlock

The main thing I've realised after two weeks of three half days a week as part of my 'phased return' to work, is just how bloody boring it all is.  Really, even at only three half days a week (I go up to three full days next week) it is pure tedium.  How did I stick it out for so long?  Why did I stick it out so long?  (Actually, the answer to that is easy - my mortgage).  But enough about work.  Back to the schlock.  Of late, I've found Forces TV (Freeview 96) a rich source of schlocky old TV series.  Right now, for instance, a double bill of Hogan's Heroes has just finished.  I have to say that this is one series which hasn't aged well.  It feels very creaky and contrived.  Poor editing of the episodes showing tonight didn't help.  Still, it's always fun speculating about Bob Crane's alleged off screen antics and strange demise.  As I've noted before, Forces TV has already given airings to some classic eighties TV schlock in the form of Knight Rider, Starsky and Hutch and even Airwolf and Streethawk.   I've also enjoyed reruns of Danger UXB and UFO. Most recently, we've seen a rerun of the original Battlestar Galactica - a show I never really enjoyed first time out, but seeing it again now, I can't deny that it has a certain charm about it. 

It seems that there is more to come - over the past few days they've been trailing Mannix, the long running US private eye series from the late sixties and early seventies.  Despite its US popularity, the show never seemed to get a regular networked slot on ITV.  When I was a kid I remember it turning up late at night, usually acting as a filler to take the schedule up to close down on Saturday or Sunday nights, (those were the days when TV went off the air for several hours overnight).  Consequently, I never got to see that many episodes, but I fondly recall the catchy theme music and the fact that every episode seemed guaranteed to deliver at least one massive fist fight and several car chases.  I've subsequently caught up with a few more episodes in more recent years and confirmed that Mannix was, indeed, a pretty action-packed PI show.  The plots were pretty much standard fare for a US crime series of its era, but it was extremely well staged, with far more action than most of its contemporaries.  I look forward to catching up with many more episodes once it debuts on Forces TV.  Mannix, though, isn't the only new show they've been trailing: apparently Buck Rogers in the Twenty Fifth Century is also coming.  Not a great show, I'll grant you, but I do fondly remember it for those incredibly tight spandex suits Erin Gray used to wear...

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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Convertible Conversion?

I fear that I might be drifting into another midlife crisis - I found myself seriously entertaining the idea of buying a convertible.  I mean, if there was ever a style of car completely impractical for the UK, it is the convertible.  It isn't just the the fact that we don't really have he weather for them here, but I've long nursed a prejudice against convertibles, despite never having owned one.  Back in the day I owned a 1978 Chevrolet Camaro, built at the time when true convertibles couldn't pass US safety regulations.  So, instead of a soft top, US manufacturers came up with the T-top option for their sportier models.  This involved the vehicle being equipped with two removable glass panels in the roof.  When removed, they effectively exposed the occupants of the car to the open air, but left the rear part of the cabin intact and guaranteed the structural integrity of the car by retaining a small section of solid roof between the windscreen and rear window.  Whilst, to some extent, this succeeded providing the driver with something of the convertible experience when the panels were out, this arrangement came with its own problems.  The most notable of these was that the seals on the removable sections were never any good and leaked like buggery in heavy rain.  Moreover, unlike a conventional convertible roof, you had to find somewhere to stop the car in order to replace the panels if it started raining while you had them out.

On top of all that, despite the presence of the T-bar in the roof, I always felt deeply insecure when I drove the Camaro with the tops off, leading me to assume that I'd feel even less secure in a true rag top.  Besides, after the water leakage problems I had with the T-top, (a word of advice, never take a car with a T-top through an automatic car wash), I've always thought a convertible impracticable as I have no garage, meaning that any car I own is permanently exposed to the elements: I've always suspected that the canvas top would inevitably leak during heavy rain.  (To be fair, though, my current car, a Ford Focus, leaks when parked up in heavy rain, despite being a hard top.  The problem being that the seals in the rear driver's side door seem to have gone).  Yet, despite all of these reservations, I've found myself looking more and more at convertibles as I begin my long search for a replacement for the aforementioned Focus.  The latter is becoming ever more expensive to keep on the road, is a diesel (nowadays a major crime) and increasingly tends to cough up clouds of smoke.  I was amazed that it passed its last MoT so easily.  I suspect that it won't pass another with the new regulations aimed primarily at diesels which are about to be introduced.  Hence the search for a new car.  Actually, if I hadn't been ill for most of the first quarter of the year, I would probably already have replaced it.

The fact that I use my car for work has dictated that my choice of vehicle be relatively practical: hence a string of old Mondeos and the Focus.  But with my planning to ditch the job, the Focus' replacement needn't be so practical.  Which is perhaps why my attention has been drawn to the various second hand convertibles currently available.  Of course, being naturally cautious, the convertibles I've been looking at are Volvo C70s and Saab 9-3s.  After all, Swedish cars are safe and reliable, (and might not leak).  There are quite a reasonable selection of venerable examples of both models available in my area at quite low prices.  OK, I know that a lot of them have high mileages and will have endured a fair amount of wear and tear, but every so often one turns up with a long MoT and mileage under 100,000.  (That said, high mileages aren't such a problem for modern engines, which can easily do 200,000 plus miles without requiring major work - provided they've been serviced properly).  But, like I said at the beginning, perhaps this is just another of my periodic midlife crises.  Perhaps I'll end up compromising with myself and settle on a hardtop C70 or 9-3.  Then again, I have a sneaking suspicion that this convertible business is just something that I'm going to have to get out my system by owning one, even if only for a few months...

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Monday, April 16, 2018

Off the Beaten Path

Ever feel like you are gradually losing touch with the world?  Increasingly, I find events which, once upon a time would have held some kind of significance for me, completely passing me by.  They barely register on my radar.  As a for instance, I'm told that the Grand National was run over the weekend, yet I was barely aware that it had happened.  Now, I'm not a gambling man and have no real interest in horse racing, but the Grand National has always been one of those cultural events which traditionally we all take an interest in.  Now, the reason why the National has progressively fallen off of my radar over the past few years could lie with the way it has been treated by broadcasters. Back in the day, it was always on the BBC and, consequently, everyone knew when it was on, who was running, the whole damn lot, such is the reach of the national broadcaster.  Just about everyone is likely to tune into a BBC channel at some point during the week, so the chances of being exposed to a trail for something like the National was very high.  But then the TV rights to UK horse racing passed to Channel Four.  Unfortunately, Channel Four and its family of channels just don't have the same reach as the BBC: fewer people watch them, so fewer people were likely to be aware of when things like the Grand National were coming up.  Certainly, I began to lose track of it during this period.  Clearly, I wasn't the only one, as viewing figures for TV coverage of horse racing declined significantly.

But nowadays the rights lie with ITV, which has a similar reach to the BBC.  Yet still the event's visibility seemed low.  Then again, it might just be me - I don't watch a great deal on ITV, so my exposure to trails for horse racing are limited.  More than that, it just seems to be yet another event that I just don't seem to be able to muster any interest in any more.  The Boat Race is another such cultural event I've lost touch with, despite the fact it is still carried by the BBC.  Again, i'm not especially interested in rowing, but it was always one of those things you always watched, always knew the result of, watched the build up to - just like the Grand National.  Perhaps it is an age thing.  Then again, maybe it isn't just me, perhaps the decreased visibility of these once 'must see' cultural events is a reflection of the way society has become more fragmented: perhaps shared cultural experiences are a thing of the past, usurped by the connectivity of modern media as the cement which brings us together.  Then again, perhaps it is an age thing on my part.  I'm at an age now when i find myself completely out of touch with modern popular culture: I have no idea who most of the so called 'celebrities' who appear in the media are; I have no idea what is in the charts; contemporary film releases rarely hold any interest for me and most current 'must see' TV seems a turn off for me - too pretentious and self-referential.  I feel completely alienated by modern pop culture.  Increasingly, I find myself off of the beaten track. I've no doubt that my recent bout of illness which kept me off work for weeks contributed to a sense of isolation but, nonetheless, the further away from the mainstream I drift, the happier I feel.  Here's to being out of touch!

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Friday, April 13, 2018

More Trains of Thought

I was going to do so much today.  In the event, I spent an inordinate amount of it asleep, exhausted by my semi-return to work this week.  But I'm tired of talking about the state of my health and work.  Suffice to say that the post I had tentatively planned for today has been postponed as I simply don't have the energy or patience to write a lengthy piece right now, (it was another schlock movie write up, which will now appear at a later date).  Besides, I've spent far too long this evening looking at model railway stuff on eBay.  As always, most of it is wildly overpriced - just because something is old, doesn't mean that it is valuable: Triang, seventies and eighties Hornby, Airfix and Mainline items were mass produced, meaning that many still survive in the market in working order.  As I've mentioned before, the best bargains can come amongst the mislabelled items.  Often you'll find yourself the only bidder.  Likewise, items which would otherwise attract collectors if they hadn't been modified or repainted can often go for reasonable prices - I've bought both a Wrenn rebuilt West Country and a Hornby Dublo R1 for a song because both had been repainted, scaring off the collectors.

Anyway, today I've been perusing kit built locomotives.  To be precise, badly made kit built locos.  White metal kits often prove the graveyard of modellers' aspirations and the completed or semi-completed outcomes can sometimes be picked up cheaply.  Usually, rescuing them isn't too difficult.  More often than not, it is a case of completely or partially disassembling them, then rectifying defects before reassembling them.  In many cases, there is no problem with the assembly, but the paint job is hideous.  Again, fairly easily rectified by stripping and repainting.  One such item which attracted my attention today was a supposed 'kit built' 'S15'.  Now, I have no intention of bidding on it as, for what it is, it is already over priced.  But its construction interested me: according to the seller, it was built by combining a Wills N15 body kit with an old-style Hornby 'Flying Scotsman' chassis (minus the trailing truck), and a Triang L1 tender.  Now, for many years I've had a Wills N15 body and tender (quite well constructed and painted by myself, in my humble opinion), for which I've never managed to come up with a chassis.  (There was a chassis kit, but chassis construction is beyond my abilities).  So, the thought occurs to me that maybe I can pull the same trick - you can often pick up the old-style 'Flying Scotsman' chassis quite cheaply.  The valve gear would need modifying, but it could be a way to finally complete that N15.  Another project looms...

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Thursday, April 12, 2018

Half Dead to Half Alive

Three half days back at work this week have left me shattered.  In part, it is the effect of trying to put my body clock back into a work routine, after weeks of doing very little and allowing my body to fall into its own rhythm.  The beta blocker I'm still taking for my blood pressure has also, undoubtedly, played a part in making me feel tired, (one of its commonest side effects is increased fatigue).  Then there's the boredom.  I'd almost forgotten just how unfulfilling the job can be.  It doesn't help that I'm facing a mountain of work to deal with in terms of backlog - despite colleagues allegedly having been covering for me, I keep finding work that hasn't been dealt with.  It seems that all that has been dealt with are the most urgent pieces of work.  Clearly, when I've covered for colleagues on long-term sick leave, I've been doing it wrong: I've tried to deal with as much of their work as possible.  It's not that I'm ungrateful, but bearing in mind all the cobblers about 'appreciating the effect your absence has had on your colleagues' you get shoved in your face at the 'return to work' meeting these days, you'd think that the entire organisation had been put out by doing all of my work for me.

But that's the trouble these days: sickness is increasingly treated as a disciplinary offence, as if was some kind of voluntary act.  Nobody chooses to be ill.  Certainly not as ill as I've been.  The time I've had off hasn't been a holiday - I've spent most of it suffering side effects from various medications, enduring tests and worrying about my health.  Besides, before this lengthy period of sick leave, I'd taken only one sick day in twenty years.  So I'm hardly a serial malingerer.  Indeed, the fact that this time I was forced to take so much time off must surely be an indication of the seriousness of my condition.  Yet still they try to make you feel guilty about being ill.  Anyway, the long and the short of it all is that I feel like I've gone from being half dead to half alive.  But not to worry, I have a plan.  I mentioned it a couple of posts ago and involves my having to stick things out until early June.  Which might prove difficult, if this week has been anything to go by.  If things do get too much for my health, I'll just hand my notice in before June.  But if I can stick it out then, financially, I'll be in a far stronger position.  More importantly, I will have put one over on the bastards.  In the meantime, I'm not back in the office until Monday, so I've got tomorrow to try and get my strength back.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Come Back Peter (1969)


Christopher Matthews' name came up in conversation over the weekend, during a discussion of Hammer's Scars of Dracula (1970), arguably the weakest of the studio's Dracula cycle of movies, (weaker even than Dracula AD 1972 (1972) - and that's saying something).  Matthews was one of those young British actors who enjoyed a brief spurt of fame in UK exploitation movies in the late sixties and early seventies.  But even by the time of Scars, his star was on the wane, his character vanishing before the half way mark, leaving Dennis Waterman as the principal male lead.  Only a few months earlier, he had played a far larger role in the AIP/Amicus co-production Scream and Scream Again, where had effectively played the romantic male lead (although he was still laying second fiddle to stars Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing).  After Scars, his career was confined to a supporting role in the thriller See No Evil (1971), before descending into a welter of TV guest roles (usually playing receptionists and similarly unnamed characters.

But before either the Dracula film and Scream and Scream Again, Matthews had played the lead in the British sex film, Come Back Peter (1969).  This was a pretty common career path for young British actors at the time, with some (like the aforementioned Dennis Waterman), building successful and lasting careers.  Many others, however, like Christopher Matthews, quickly faded away.  Usually this was because, although they had the looks, the actors chosen to lay leads in these sorts of films lacked both acting ability and, more importantly, charisma.  Which was Matthews' problem - he was just too dull a leading man.  It didn't help that the sex film he appeared in wasn't really any great shakes either.  Whereas Robin Askwith, for instance, had made his early sex film appearances in films like Pete Walker's Cool it, Carol, which is quite stylish and reasonably witty,  Come Back Peter is a rather stodgier affair, featuring Matthews as an apparent lothario-about-swinging-London, who tools around in his E-Type, pulling birds.  (I'll spoil it for you: it is all a fantasy, he is really a delivery man for a butcher, driving around in his meat packed van).   It does feature the Collinson twins in their screen debut.

Come Back Peter's other claim to fame (or infamy, depending upon how you look at it), is that, following its original release, it was later re-released with additional hard core footage under the title Some Like It Sexy.  The new footage (shot much later), is notable for the fact that Matthews' stand in (seen only from behind in the sex scenes), has a notably hairier arse, giving the impression that he was shaving his backside between sexual encounters.  The addition of hard core footage, more often than not for foreign release versions) wasn't uncommon in British sex movies of the era.  More often than not it would be shot by a distributor, months, sometimes years, after the original production and inevitably used stand ins and body doubles.  It was frequently much lower quality than the original footage, looking grainy and poorly lit.  So there you go - when was the last time that anyone has devoted that many words to the career of Christopher Matthews?  Let alone a relatively obscure late sixties sex movie like Come Back Peter/Some Like It Sexy?

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Monday, April 09, 2018

Never Go Back

You should never go back, or so they say.  I'm not quite sure who the 'they' saying this are, but apparently 'they' are.  Anyway, I was reminded of this (apparently unattributed) saying today, when I went into work for the first time in several weeks, having been signed off sick since the beginning of January.  It was even more desultory than I remembered it.  Thankfully, I'm only doing three half days this week, in an attempt to ease myself back into the workplace.  Believe me, it took less than half a day today to convince me that the sooner I hand in my notice, the better.  Strangely, there are still some in management who expressed surprise when, today, I announced my intention to quit in he near future.  I don't know why they bother with the charade: they've been architects behind the shit I've endured for the past three or four years, not to mention the increased stress levels which resulted in my illness.  But just half a day in the office has left me exhausted.  Not just physically, either.  Being there reinforced the fact that I just don't want to do the job any more.  It has taken up too many years of my life already.  As I keep saying, I only carried on with it to get the mortgage paid and that's now done.

Foolishly, a part of me thought, what harm can another year do?  It's another year of National Insurance contributions for my pension and more money in the bank: a whole year of no mortgage repayments, the money going straight into my savings, instead.  Obviously, now I know what harm that another year can do: high blood pressure, a raised risk of a stroke and diabetes.  It really wasn't worth it - I should have left as soon as the mortgage was paid, or at the end of last Summer at the very latest.  Now, it's a case of ensuring that I've got another full year of NI contributions to my pension paid (working to the end of this month should ensure that), then getting out.  Of course, if I could stick it out until the first week of June, then my new leave year would kick in and I could take several weeks of paid leave in lieu of notice - basically get paid to go on my Summer holidays.  But I don't think that I'm going to be able to stomach it that long.  I really didn't feel as if I belonged there today.  Still, I'll have to give it some thought - I've only got two other half days in the office this week, so I've got plenty of time to ponder the matter.

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Friday, April 06, 2018

Wacky Taxi (1972)

With all the schlocky films I've caught up with of late, it might seem perverse for me to kick off a new series of intermittent write ups with an utterly obscure 1972 would be comedy, but this film was so utterly miserable in every department that it moved me to despair.  Almost.  Let's start with the title: Wacky Taxi (or Pepper's Wacky Taxi, as it was sometimes alternatively known), conjures up visions of some  kind of crazy, slapstick comedy about a taxi firm, involving all manner of crazy hi jinks by the zany characters employed as drivers.  A bit like Carry on Cabby, but set in San Diego.  Indeed, the presence of comic character actor John Astin, one time star of The Addams Family TV series, in the lead gets one's hopes up that this will be the case.  Sadly, I can tell you that, in reality, there is nothing 'wacky' about Wacky Taxi.  It isn't just that the production is utterly poverty stricken, poorly filmed and with tinny sound, (although, to be fair, as it is now a public domain film, the version I was watching could simply have been sourced from from a third or fourth generation video transfer), so much as it is utterly devoid of any apparent notion of how comedy (let alone wackiness) actually works.

The premise of the film is simple: a man dissatisfied with his job in a canning factory (the titular Pepper, played by Astin), walks out one day to pursue his dream of becoming an independent taxi  driver.  To this end, he buys an old wreck, paints the word 'Taxi' on the side, dons a cap and goes out onto the street looking for fares.  Without a permit, without a meter and without insurance.  Which makes him not 'wacky', as the makers clearly think, but utterly irresponsible.  Which, in turn, makes it very difficult for the audience to have any sympathy with him - he's touting for business in a death trap, endangering the lives of passengers and undercutting other honest taxi drivers.  For a brief moment, when Pepper alludes to the other drivers working for established taxi firms that are ripping customers off with their fares, it looks like the movie might develop into a 'little guy sticking it to the man' movie, which might have made Pepper slightly more sympathetic.  But this angle is forgotten about as soon as it is mentioned and what we get instead is a plot-less series of episodes depicting Pepper's various 'wacky' escapades with his various fares.  None of which are remotely amusing, let alone original.

The fact that we're given no context for any of Pepper's decisions doesn't help in terms of character development.  We don't really know why he hated his job at the cannery: was it the boredom?  Poor pay? Lack of union recognition?  We just don't know.  We just see him kicking over a cart full of cans as he walks out.  And why is he obsessed with being a taxi driver rather than any other form of self employment?  Again, we never know.  In fact, aside from the fact that he has a wife and children and apparently is utterly irresponsible, we never really learn anything about him and his motivations.  The film also suffers from serious lapses in internal logic.  We're meant to assume that Pepper uses as a wreck as a taxi and doesn't get a permit, insurance and so on because he can't afford it - yet he still manages to come up with the money to keep having the car repaired after its frequent breakdowns.  Where does the money come from?  With the car off the road, he can't be earning any money, so is he subsidising the repairs with his savings?  In fact, how is he even paying the rent on his house, let alone putting food on the table?

These breakdowns constitute the closest we get to plot development.  These and the theft of the car and Pepper's subsequent attempts to recover it.  (Which is ludicrous - who would steal wreck like his taxi?)  These attempts do nothing to endear Pepper to us - he simply goes around trying to break into complete strangers' garages before attempting to strangle Frank Sinatra Jr (he and Alan Sherman are the film's idea of guest stars), for no other reason than he imagines that Frank has something to do with the theft.  Not surprisingly, barging into an apparent random stranger's house, accusing them of theft on the basis of no evidence and then assaulting them, has dire consequences: the guy's friends give Pepper a bloody good hiding.  With no taxi and nursing the consequences of a beating, Pepper loses all sense of purpose and just mooches around aimlessly (again, how is he paying that rent and household bills?).  But don't worry, his eldest son and his pals find the taxi and Pepper is back on the road, unlicensed and endangering the lives of his fares.

But does Pepper learn anything from his journey?  Obviously not.  Indeed, in an ending which feels like it was tacked on because the makers couldn't think of any other way to end the movie, we find that it is only thanks to the financial intervention of his lawyer brother-in-law that Pepper actually becomes a legal taxi operator, setting up his own firm and playing by the rules.  Which completely undercuts the underlying message of the movie that you can do anything if you try (underlined by several irritating songs on the soundtrack) and that all the poor have to do to prosper is get off their arses and work harder.  (Not to mention flaunt all that nonsensical red tape and idiotic health and safety regulations).  Another thing which left me scratching my head was the question of exactly who the film was aimed at?  All the juvenile antics, not to mention the title and 'feel good' factor implies it was intended for a family audience,  The fact, however, that one of his fares involves taking a female Navy officer over the border for an apparent abortion, would seem to undermine this idea.  That and the fact that Pepper attempts to strangle an innocent man and takes a beating in return.  Not your average family fare.

I'm not sure why I feel so aggrieved about Wacky Taxi and its shortcomings - it isn't as if it cost me anything to watch.  I caught it when it was shown on my local That's TV channel over Easter when they gave up on providing local news for the duration.  But, even for something which has fallen into the public domain, Wacky Taxi is just so miserable, with no redeeming features.  Even John Astin can't seem to be bothered to do anything but go through the motions.  And who can blame him?  Even by Astin's standards - he has appeared in some real stinkers, with alleged comedy western The Brothers O'Toole springing to mind as a particularly poor example - Wacky Taxi is a desperate, barrel scraping, enterprise.

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