- The tagline of your blog is “Dreaming in Television”. What started your love for classic television programmes?
It’s likely something carried over from family/childhood, but I’ve always just felt more ‘at home’ with classic films as well as television (I’m a little younger than that, but I’ve always thought I’d have made a great 11-year-old a half century back). I guess the exciting ‘newness’ of TV in particular meant there’s an exciting ‘newness’ for the spectator too, like you’re enjoying something designed to make the most of its medium, from the diverse formats of ‘serials’ to things carried over from variety or the stage, acting styles, genres, sets, special effects, music, you name it: ways to create a ‘moment’ to be transported to. Another explanation I have is less serious-sounding but maybe more important, which that classic TV is a great comfort to me – it’s always been just what I need on rainy days. Even my blog name (‘You’ve Just Been Watching’) was inspired by the closing sequences of old Croft and Perry series like Dad’s Army: I feels it captures that collective warmth of inviting you, the audience, in ‘from the cold’ – while ‘Dreaming in Television’ maybe expresses how much I love the imaginative, fictional power of all these on-screen universes created so many years ago.
- You’ve written a “love letter” to Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple. What do you love about this classic iteration of the character, besides her “chin wobbling determination”?
I admit I’ve written lots of ‘love letters’ to her! It might be my love of offbeat actresses like Zasu Pitts, Athene Seyler, Irene Handl, Peggy Mount, Jean St. Clair, or Mona Washbourne, but I think I’d like to turn out just like Margaret Rutherford’s Marple when I’m older (just need the right cape-shawl now). And I love Rutherford in her other film appearances and cameos, but there’s something different in her incarnation of Agatha Christie’s pearly-haired lady detective. I feel like I’ve read this too, but when you watch her in Murder Ahoy or her other Marple films, you get the distinct feeling that Rutherford is acting, very seriously, as though she truly were Miss Marple: there’s hardly a hint of ‘the actor’ in her performance (though there’s also the contrary but not-contradictory feeling that she’s also, in part, just being herself). Whether or not this is intentional or even true, there really is an uninhibited, earnest ‘gusto’ to her screen presence, this septuagenarian meteor completely in her mystery-solving element. So maybe when Rutherford’s muddling through the countryside and charming/mystifying those around her, she’s also inspiring this joyful, life-affirming authenticity in those of us who love to watch her.
- If you were to recommend five classic films to a first timer, which five would you recommend and why?
Whenever I recommend a classic film I’m always a little apologetic or worried about how it will go over with folks more used to the pace/style of modern cinema, but there are a few I’ve managed to enjoy with others which I’d love a first-timer to try, too – The Magnificent Seven (1960): Kurosawa’s timeless original story turns out superbly as a great Technicolour Western (Yul Brynner looks pretty great in his cowboy hat and boots), and the adventure is as thrilling as it is unexpectedly moving. The Enemy Below (1957): I think it remains one of the most significant, balanced fictional treatments of WWII maritime battle, and its clever cat-and-mouse suspense is spectacularly gripping. The Lavender Hill Mob (1951): it’s one of the gentler Ealing comedies but I think it’s one of those wonderful examples of older comedies boasting more quiet subversive, anarchic sparkle than one might expect. Beware the Automobile (1966) is a uniquely unconventional, sensitively nuanced take on the ‘heist’ sub-genre, alternately character study, classic mystery, and tragic-comedy. And finally, La Grande Vadrouille (1966): starring some of France’s best-loved comics, this fantastic WWII countryside caper topped the country’s box-office for whole decades, and is just as exciting today!
- Why should be people care about “old” black and white movies?
Old movies are documents worth preserving and revisiting like great music, literature, and art: not necessarily as accurate frozen images of the times (although they often unintentionally preserve for us times and places, landscapes, even dialects that have since disappeared or changed beyond recognition), but insights into our social history, popular culture, the way narratives were interpreted or chosen, histories understood, peoples perceived, how certain audiences and/or filmmakers felt about the past, the present, and the future. And I think it enriches us as viewers of the screen – and spectators/actors of life as a whole – when we have these histories buoying us up, things that can renew and deepen our understanding of what we see and create today. It could be the vestiges of vaudeville and radio still present in comedy, the global cultural exchange of creative talent and waves of influence across continents that have been shaping our screens since, or simply that we can look back to find/re-discover a treasure trove of stories of achievement, loss, perseverance, exuberance, fantasy, love: things will feel surprisingly familiar but also different, that can also give us new, brilliant ways of seeing and looking at the universe, at people, and even ourselves.
- Who are your favourite filmmakers?
I love watching, thinking about, reading about/researching, and writing/talking about films a lot (I mean a lot), but I’ve realised I don’t have the cinephile’s approach to film, it’s just trying to find more of what I like or think I might like. There are so many filmmakers I really love, including: John E. Sturges, king of true ensemble adventures that resist ‘close-ups’ but are filled with the sheer power of the story instead; Richard Lester and Leonid Gaidai, masters of truly brilliant ‘60s Western and Russian slapstick/gag comedy (which I feel deserve renewed appreciation); Muriel Box, Britain’s most prolific woman filmmaker (I sometimes feel this inexplicable, personal responsibility to highlight her wonderful 1953 film Street Corner); Hussein Kamal, whose A Little Fear [Never Hurt Anyone] is a masterpiece of Egyptian cinema both in its direction and its enduring poetic impact; Tatiana Lioznova who so masterfully plumbs the emotional/political depths of longing and belonging in many of her works, every other one a cult classic; Vladimir Motyl, whose Zhenya, Zhenechka, and Katyusha so sensitively depicted wartime through a Walter-Mitty soldier; and the great Powell & Pressburger who so easily travel between mysticism and humanness, in ‘this world and the other.’
- What do you think of modern cinema?
It’s hard to answer in a way because I don’t really think about modern (post-90’s) cinema an awful lot; there are handfuls of gems I’ve fallen in love with over the years, but they don’t seem to preoccupy me as much. I don’t know if it’s the realism or commercialism, the approaches to acting or subject matters or direction or storytelling, or if I’m just ‘not with it’ (though that’s probably true) but I often feel slightly out-of-sync when watching newer stuff, nothing like the deeply familiar feeling and absorbed interest I have with my favourite classics. Maybe it’s more a case of what I love about older cinema by contrast: much like classic television, part of the glowing appeal of classic cinema is the fresh-ness of it, the rich pantheon of world film that portrayed – not always perfectly, mind you – people, places, stories, with less of the ‘tricks’ available to filmmakers today, but relying on creativity to take audiences on a journey. This might require un-cynical suspension of disbelief but I think that’s part of the magic and enjoyment: to see the model miniatures and matte/glass-painting scenery and still believe you’re on the moon, or underwater, or in Paris.
- If you could recommend a classic television programme to get a newbie interested, what would it be and why?
Oh so many shows! There’s one I’ve tried to recommend often without much success to date, but that hasn’t dampened my almost-evangelical enthusiasm for sharing the exhilarating wonders of The Phil Silvers Show (also known as Sgt. Bilko) with anyone who will listen/watch. The series’ then-stellar success conquered the likes of I Love Lucy and The Milton Berle Show in awards, ratings, everything, but has since faded into comparative obscurity (except amongst older fans in the UK). This will always mystify me because ‘Bilko’ is one of the most lightning-brilliant comedies of all time, thanks to the geniuses on- and off-screen. Silvers’ impeccable comedic timing, delivery, and energy almost spark off the sound-stage in this slightly off-kilter ‘service comedy’ world that show creator Nat Hiken had woven for him: a lovably cunning sergeant who expends incredible amounts of thought and energy into ‘making it rich’ in the army and Kansas of all places. The show established novel conventions of humour, half-hour plots and arcs, script, casting, character, all its own, influencing shows as recent or innovative as Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, but absolutely nothing makes me laugh as much as ‘The Phil Silvers Show’ for its chaotic, ‘human’ joy.
- If you could travel back in time and interview one classic television star, who would it be and why?
Not a day goes by where I don’t wish I could have befriended or at least met some of my favourite classic screen stars, but by now you can see how enamoured I am with Phil Silvers (he’s also the recipient of as many of my ‘love letters,’ haha), so it would be him! Silvers was already a well-known Broadway star before he got his show, and had made his way up in show business as a singer, burlesque comedian, movie actor, and entertainer. When we get to Bilko, we get this larger-than-life legend who is just mesmerizing to watch, a Catherine-Wheel firework around which the entire story, cast, stage softly radiates. His decades of experience gave us a man with an astute sense of timing, an engaging and multi-dimensional persona, an absolutely natural presence in every medium and every format. I’ve always felt deprived of more of Silvers’ brilliant on-screen potential, and would have loved to hear him reflect more on his fascinating life, get to know the gentle, sometimes-anxious, shy, and kind man who absorbed and transformed for us a character that was all mind and all heart – and thank him personally for the joys he’s given me!