Archive for Sylvia Syms

Keep On Truckin’

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2008 by dcairns

The HOT TRUCK-BASED ACTION continues at Shadowplay.

HELL DRIVERS is a wonderfully unbalanced, testosterone-oozing compendium of macho posturing, undercranked vehicular montage and political subtext, nicely organised up until a rather flat ending.

In brief, Stanley Baker is an ex-con who gets taken on by euphonically-named haulage firm Hawlett, where drivers are encouraged to take insane risks and break the law in order to keep their jobs, delivering loads of gravel. This may in fact be the finest gravel-themed action film I’ve ever seen. While the racing around isn’t too convincing, the seething rivalry between Baker and the man Sylvia Sims always calls “the terrible Patrick McGoohan” is very enjoyable, and there’s an inescapable leftist slant to director and co-scenarist Cy Endfield’s film — the conflict between profit and human well-being is a central one to our existence, and it’s front and centre here.

The film actually has more steaming, heavily-accented manhood than it knows what to do with: in addition to Baker and McGoohan, there’s a strong Scottish infusion from Gordon Jackson and a nubile Sean Connery (a svelte young David McCallum also breezes by on crutches), Sid James and Alfie Bass provide cockney comedy (yes, I know Sid was South African but still…) and then there’s Wilfred Lawson, sporting a form of speech previously unknown to the world, combining RADA, Bradford and malt whiskey. In an age over-blessed with drunken actors, Lawson actually sounds inebriated at all times, no matter what role he’s playing. He’s the man who added an unscripted line to Shakespeare: “If you think I’m pissed, wait till you see the Duke of Buckingham.”

We also get Herbert Lom as a sentimental Italian and William Hartnell as the crooked boss, a man so mean he throws tea out of the window. He also shouts EVERY SINGLE LINE, like Steve Martin in THE JERK, which is wrong but amusing and actually somewhat effective. Hartnell is always a fascinating presence.

To balance the roiling manliness, we also get lusty Peggy Cummins, who’s almost as enjoyable here as in GUN CRAZY. It’s hard to freeze-frame her without making her look freakish, because her face is in constant, Botox-free motion. The effect is lovely and lively and natural, but hard to capture in stills. Also, her voice eludes the frame grab, that delightful warm throaty sound with its blend of accents. When she shares a scene with Baker, there’s flaming chemistry and unbridled Welshness of a kind rarely glimpsed in British cinema. When she dances with him the lust is palpable. But she’s his best friend’s gal, so Baker curdles and fumes, hooking his sexual frustration to his truck engine and blasting off with maximum overdrive.

Patrick McGoohan, in his dual position as Road Foreman and Resident Psychopath, essays a Belfast/Cro-Magnon accent and slouching posture that had Fiona christening him “the Hunchback of McGoohan”.

With accent, scar, nickname (“Red”) and slouch, he has enough to satisfy the most ambitious ham actor, but pads his role with belching, twitching, barking and everpresent ciggie hanging from lip. He’s atrocious, unbelievable, and compulsively watchable. Baker wins points just for resisting the urge to goggle at his co-star’s every gesture.

Stan the Man holds everything together with his customary INTENSE ANGER, focussed inwards, simmering on a low heat, always ready to explode. My old friend Lawrie used to profess himself baffled at Baker’s knighthood, but to me the reasons for celebrating S.B. are many and obvious. He brought a kind of unabashed machismo to British cinema, which had been accustomed to mostly rather mild, lightweight actors. Alongside that, Baker brought authentic proletarian qualities — he hadn’t lost his accent at some southern drama school. And that meant he was authentically and blatantly Celtic also. He prepared the way for Connery and Harris, as well as being the original angry young man. Though somewhat neglected today, his work set changes in motion that transformed the face of British screen drama.

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Cliff Richard IS Bongo Herbert

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2008 by dcairns

 bachelor boy

Yeah, I laughed too, but that is the premise of this film (EXPRESSO BONGO) and we must ACCEPT IT UNQUESTIONINGLY.

Anyway, the good news is that Sylvia Syms is still VERY MUCH ALIVE, and first became VMA on this very day, some 74 years ago, and is still working. Long may she reign.

I saw S.S. talk at the Edinburgh Film Festival many yonks ago, and I remember her forthright and robust humour. During a lull in questions she ran through her entire C.V. — “ASYLUM, in which I get dismembered: I still get fan mail about that one. THE QUARE FELLOW with the terrible Patrick McGoohan…” I like McGoohan… but then I’ve never worked with him. Reminds me of Alan Bennett on Christopher Plummer: “Christopher is his own worst enemy, but only just.”

Look but don't touch.

Syms plays a burlesque artiste in Val Guest and Wolf Mankiewicz’s pop-culture spoof EXPRESSO BONGO, and shares the stage with go-go girls in pasties, mini-kilts and G-strings during an eye-poppingly bizarre “history lesson” number. No G-string for our Sylvia, though: as a highly-paid Featured Player she gets to wear Proper Human Underpants as befits a star. As a Scot, I detest all forms of Tartan pageantry, so I quite liked seeing it dragged through the sewer like this. There’s another good and weird tartan musical number in Bunuel’s first Mexican film. Nobody does Tartan like the Mexicans.

Mary Queen of Scots

Syms played a lot of what Jean Simmons calls “poker-up-the-arse” parts, which is not an Edward II kind of thing, but a reference to the straight back required to play stiff middle-class WIVES (Syms does this very well in the commendable VICTIM), so it’s great to see her excel here as a nice working-class girl who happens to earn a living in porn.

Guest’s movie HITS THE GROUND RUNNING, with titles spelled out in neon signs, restaurant menus and sandwich boards (production designer Tony Masters is the real mega-talent on this film — he went on to 2001 while Guest went on to CONFESSIONS OF A WINDOW CLEANER), and within instants we spot a nubile Burt Kwouk (“No, Cato, now is not the time!”) buying a hot-dog from a Soho stand, where eleven years later he will be seen working, in Skolimowski’s DEEP END. And they say there’s no such thing as progress.

a sandwich in soho

absolute beginners

And then we meet Laurence Harvey as a very yiddisher agent on the make (such ethnic overtness in a lead character would have been impossible in a Hollywood film, even one about Jesus). He’s like Tony Curtis in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS or Richard Widmark in NIGHT AND THE CITY, except that the movie is more like THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, a brash, lurching satire about music and mammon.

Teen pop idol Cliff Richard (real name Harry Webb) plays teen pop idol Bongo Herbert (real name Bert Rudge) with his customary adequacy, but with a surprising Elvis sneer that was soon honed from his act as he went safe and mum-friendly. B.H. is Harvey’s discovery/creation, and we follows the ambitious fifty-per-center as he exploits the hapless naif through the London media world of 1960.

This is where the film works as a time machine: first, by transporting us back to a bygone age when Soho was the only spot where a cup of espresso could be obtained. We get real T.V. presenters and a checklist of then-current entertainers and location shots of an all-but vanished habitat. There are also topical film quirks, like a split-screen phone conversation between a semi-dressed Harvey and Syms, mirroring PILLOW TALK from the year before (Guest had a long-standing aim to get sex into British cinema, it seems).

But the film (Prophetic Cinema Alert!) also projects forward into the future, our present: in his desperation to leave no aspect of human life unexploited, Harvey yolks his prodigy to the cash-cow of RELIGION, having him sing a maudlin number about shrines and Madonnas: Mankiewicz and Guest obviously view this melding of pop and church as grotesque, vulgar and tittersome (and are laughing at how Jewish moguls churn out cynical Christian propaganda),  but it’s the exact path followed by Sir Cliff in subsequent years, and the results are just as awful, though more degrading to music than to faith.

(Cliff today is a still-virginal, botoxed crooner, who would surprise nobody if he came out of the closet, though I hasten to add that he’s not in the closet so far as I legally know and if he was he’d no doubt be sprinkling Holy Water in it and generally doing Good Works.)

Cliff went on to a film career of feelgood musical pablum (under the directorial aegis of Sidney J. Furie, among others) and thence to playing a plastic puppet in THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO, which is really typecasting when you think about it.

not gay

My favourite line in EXPRESSO BONGO: “And now, straight from New York, Hollywood and Las Vegas, we are very happy to be able to afford the fantabulous, the fantastico, DIXIE COLLINS!!!”