One Weekend, Three Entertainments

Christopher Fowler
Hopkins It's the season for indoor fun, so this weekend I checked out some popular entertainment; one play, one movie and a TV series. 'Westworld' was the show, and the first surprise is that we follow the robot hosts, not the guests. Not sure I'm entirely buying into the idea that they conduct normal lives away from the customers, though. I mean, why would they? Isn't Anthony Hopkins just doing a John Hammond with his park? Couldn't they fill the place with actors and the guns with blanks? But of course then there would be no slowly returning sentience - a subject which has lately become a cliche in itself. There's also a wild card in Ed Harris's superfan on a mission - basically Yul Brynner's role in the original. There are also plot holes galore - why do the scientists fine-tune some robots and fail to notice that others have been wiped out in their dozens by Harris? It's slickly made and good fun so long as it continues to balance futurism with the wild west (there's a reason why cowboy films died out, after all). Given that it's HBO there's a lot of tiresome nudity - surely we're sophisticated enough not to need this now - and weird swearing. The British swear organically (and imaginatively) rather than merely inserting random Fs into every other sentence. Attempts to give the whole shebang a bit of gravitas by chucking in Shakespeare quotes don't work as well as the cool idea of plotline planners and the robots' repeated scripts - a theme which could not have been made possible without video games. The jury's still out, but let's keep an open mind for now and move on. IMG_7529 My only excuse is that it was raining. My favourite thing to do when it's chucking it down is nip into a theatre and see whatever's on. I was going to catch Harriet Walter in 'Julius Ceasar'. I like Walter but it's not my favourite Shakespeare and the production has relocated events to a women's prison, which didn't sound uplifting on a pouring, miserable weekday. So instead, finding myself in St Martin's Lane, I got a return for 'Half A Sixpence'. I was thinking about HG Wells and remembering a warm glow from the film when I was a toddler. I like producer Cameron Macintosh; he's brave, so more power to him for putting this into the West End. But he's made two horrible mistakes. First, getting Downton Abbey's Julian Fellowes to rewrite the Wells's book. The story of a draper's assistant torn between a life of upper-class luxury and knowing his place works in the Wells original because you can understand why Kipps is attracted to this appealingly bright world, but you also see why he gives it up for something more comfortable. Here the upper classes are such ludicrous pantomime scum that you decide Kipps must be utterly dim not to see through them. Instead of a thoughtful, tricky choice, we get a lot of 'Cor Blimey guy you toffs are too posh for the likes of me an' no mistake' tosh, and the loss of subtlety wrecks the story. Cameron and Fellowes have not put enough faith in their audience. The second mistake is dumping most of David Heneker's beautifully crafted score for new songs from Stiles and Drewe which are so ordinary that you forget them even while they're being performed. They can be a talented pair when pushed to excel, but here invention has completely deserted them. There's one saving grace; a barnstorming, athletic performance from rubber-limbed 22 year-old Charlie Stemp, who delivers all the Flash, Bang, Wallop he can muster. You can't help thinking he's about to become a huge star - and that's reason enough for sitting through the show. Warning; ticket prices will make your eyes sting. Doctor-Strange-Comic-Con-art-featured Finally, 'Doctor Strange', the oddest of all the Marvel characters, makes it to the big screen (not for the first time - there have been two negligible attempts before) with Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ijiofor. We get an origin story; Strange is an arrogant surgeon who suffers a life-changing accident and humbles a little while mastering the dark arts in record time. Unfortunately we also get the usual the usual silly villain (Mads Mikkelsen) with a world domination plan that doesn't sound very thought-through, and an appearance of the planet-eating Dread Dormammu. Strange was always on the Marvel B team, featuring in the lower half of comic double bills. He survived numerous attempts to kill him off because artists obviously loved drawing him, none more than Steve Ditko, whose work is nicely echoed here in a couple of shots. He was probably a lot more fun to paint than to read. Strange is a problem character because he fights on the Astral Plane, and it's hard to care about his adventures when anything is possible. So sit back and relish the delirious effects, which owe a huge debt to 'Inception' graphics. Swinton (who never ages - I met her a few times in the 80s and swear she looks the same). Strange's biggest trick seems to be making catherine-wheels from his hands, although there are two great set pieces. A fight in a time-reversing Hong Kong street, and a confrontation based not on winning but on a sort of action version of filibustering. But you can only take so many wonderful effects before you hanker for a proper storyline. The one thing uniting all these entertainments is that they're all around 50 years old. It's incredible to think that I was reading the Dr Strange comic at 7 years of age, just as my grandfather would have been able to read Sherlock Holmes when it was first published in Strand magazine. Heroes take a long time to reach the mainstream.


SteveB (not verified) Mon, 14/11/2016 - 10:01

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I quite enjoyed Dr Strange...
Wish I'd kept the Marvel comics I bought back then :-)
I like Harriet Walter too but probably for different reasons!

SteveB (not verified) Mon, 14/11/2016 - 10:05

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

PS I can remember the Forsyte Saga on TV as a child, and as you say those times were then still in living memory.

Peter Dixon (not verified) Mon, 14/11/2016 - 15:55

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Its fairly sobering that the world is still in thrall to Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr Jeckyl and Mr Hyde and the biggest of them all Sherlock Holmes, who are all well over 100 years old. James Bond still hurls himself around the world of entertainment although its over 60 years since he first appeared. Will modern day creations have the same longevity?

American superheroes like Batman and Superman come from the 1930's an 40's, as does Captain America. A huge amount of the popularity of superheroes is because us children of the 50's and 60's loved these bright, brash American products that were so different from the often two-coloured British equivalents (contents: 1 army story, 1 navy story, four cartoons featuring any number of upper class schoolboys / troublesome tykes / funny robots or unusual aliens who can change shape and hide in kid's bedrooms, a boring story set in 3 columns...you get the idea), as I remember parents hated American comics with a vengeance and part of their appeal was the fact you had to smuggle them in to read under the bedcovers by torchlight.

The TV Batman series began to slowly influence public opinion, but I always remember my grandad being appalled at the sight of a man in tights and a cape leaping around the screen; 'look at that soft sod. They should put him in the army!' which seemed to be the answer to any individual who dared to be different.

Superheroes seem to have become the mythology of our times, replacing Greek, Norse and Roman stories with an equally flawed set of characters blessed or cursed by their powers.

Anyway, I'm waiting to get some grandchildren so that I can tell them Harry Potter is rubbish and will make their brains rot.

Roger (not verified) Mon, 14/11/2016 - 18:34

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I knew someone who said they'd been to the Astral Plain. The beer was dreadful.

Isn't it about time we had a hero with a world domination plan? After all, we've got a real-life villain with a world domination plan that doesn't sound very thought-through so he has to keep changing it.

Vivienne (not verified) Mon, 14/11/2016 - 19:50

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

We do seem to be stuck in a time warp. Maybe no one can really face predicting the future now, so 1930s futures will do. Children at a school were asked to dress in decades, 60s 70s etc and one group as the future. But in the 60s men were on the moon so shiny silver space suits would do for then, not the future. One girl had pyjamas, a bath cap and walking stick : the future for so many.

Read Kipps recently and this must have reflected Wells' own life. All the characters seemed real people. Julian Fellowes could not out-do the Veneerings anyway.

Ness (not verified) Tue, 15/11/2016 - 10:23

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I didn't have rain as an excuse for seeing the musical of "The Go-Between". Loved the book and the film but not the play. Hadn't seen Michael Crawford in anything since Phantom. It did sound like a bad idea at the time and I should have known as my near front row stall seat was suspiciously cheap. At least I returned after interval and had lots of seats to spread out on.

Helen Martin (not verified) Thu, 17/11/2016 - 17:40

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I remember the Forsyte Saga on tv and I was an adult at the time. I must be really old.