Weekly Pic | 9th Jan | That Time I Was Right Here* 

40 years ago | *ABC Cinema, Wigan, UK | 9th January 1983

The ABC in Wigan, just before the UK release of E.T., December 1982. Photo: Frank Orrell (Wigan Observer)

Forty years ago, we went to the cinema.  It doesn’t sound that big a deal now.  It wasn’t really that remarkable then, If I’m honest – except for the fact that it was only my second-ever trip to ‘the pictures’, to watch the film that everyone was talking about: ‘E.T. – The Extraterrestrial’.

In spring 1981, I’d had my first cinema experience, watching ‘Superman II’.  I remember being wowed by the action on screen and bitterly disappointed by the taste of the exotic hot dogs served in the foyer.  The experience had clearly stuck with me because I distinctly remember giving the same counter a wide berth, this time.  

The other difference this time was that I was very aware that this was not just a film but a major event.  That the mere fact I was going to watch it carried its own level of kudos.  The film had been hyped for weeks and radio, television and even daily conversations seemed to consist of very little else.  It was probably the first blockbuster film release that I was old enough to understand as such.

Predictably, I loved the film.  At the age of nine, I was probably in the ideal demographic for it.  Looking back, there was something else that may seem largely superficial now but at the time felt hugely profound: the chase scene at the end involved BMX bikes, something most school-age kids were very impressed by, in the early 1980s.  

By embracing something that was so clearly part of the zeitgeist, Spielberg was able to make his story all the more compelling to his target market.  It felt to us as if the conversations we were having on our playground were actually shaping Hollywood films.  It may not be too much of a stretch to say that they were – in a way.  Although we, like everyone else, thought it was just our school that was so ‘influential’, when, by definition, it was every school.

I remember getting the novelised version on E.T. in paperback from the school book club, not long after and devouring the written story.  I think I still have it.  It’s still one of a small number of films that, if I happen upon it while flicking around the channels, I will feel the urge to watch it to the end, every time.  ‘Jaws’, ‘Educating Rita’ and ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ being other notable holders of that particular accolade.

It also imbued in me a love of cinema itself.  Even the grotty old Wigan ABC fleapit (where twenty years previously, my Dad had watched Roy Orbison and The Beatles) was enough to light a passion which still burns today.  Only years later did I learn that my Grandad, great-uncle and great-Grandad owned a cinema in Standish (‘The Palace’) for 30 years so it kind of is in my blood.

A pandemic and home streaming have reduced my cinema-going in recent years but I’d still rather take in a quirky movie in a theatre than watch a so-called ‘must-see’ series.  Unlike the eponymous ‘E.T.’, ‘Home’ is not my preferred venue, when it comes to film consumption.  Give me the chance to go to a cinema any day – and ‘I’ll be right there’…

If It’s Not All Right, It’s Not The End

My email to Simon Mayo & Mark Kermode on the occasion of their last ‘Wittertainment’ film review show on BBC 5Live…

Dear “Goodnight From Me” and “Goodnight From Him”,

I like to think of myself as a LTL (approx. 13 years) but, this being a church, I’m aware that there will always be those, ‘holier-than-thou’ sorts in the front pews who would claim that such a figure makes me, at best, an MTL johnny-come-lately.  Irrespective of that, I’d like to thank you for well over a decade of film-based entertainment and belonging that I’ve rarely experienced in all my years as a consumer of content elsewhere.

I must admit that, as a film-review-curious listener in the late noughties, I’d once decided I couldn’t listen to the analysis of a Contributor who was prone to outrageously self-aggrandising phrases like “there are other opinions – but they’re all wrong”. Someone who, it was suggested, looked like both Mark Lamarr and Jesse Birdsall but who seemed to have even less of Lamarr’s accessible warmth or, indeed, Birdsall’s easy charm.  Even though the show’s Presenter was that vanilla guy from Radio 1 and ToTP, this show felt like it could only add disharmony and discontent to an already perfectly lovely Friday afternoon.

I’m not sure what was the cause of my Damascene conversion but when it came, I quickly found myself utterly hooked.  Perhaps it was the regular in-jokes, combined with a healthy irreverence towards corporate mainstream cinema – ‘Matthew Mahogany’ and ‘Orloomdo Bland’ were notable examples of the genre.  Undoubtedly, the reaction and involvement of the audience (complete with their impressive qualifications) established this as a club worth joining.  Increasingly, I began to download and save podcasts for long drives – much to the regular consternation of The Good Lady National Accounts Manager ‘Er Indoors.  

Over many subsequent years, this addiction has allowed me to discover that the appeal of a good movie show was not simply about citing obscure, nerdy trivia or making fatuous comparisons, beguiling as all that can be.  I learned about the importance of the ‘Five Laugh Rule’ – which became adjusted for inflation to the ‘Six Laugh Rule’ – and I learned to listen to films as much as watch them, to find their references and metaphors in all the places beyond merely the dialogue. 

I’d like to thank you for giving me the notion of analysing “the heart” of a film, for explaining how science fiction is designed to be a lens through which to examine the most fundamental aspects of humanity and for instilling the appreciation that an ambitious idea that falters is far better than a safe one that succeeds.  In all instances, these lessons apply not just to stories played out on film, but to life itself.  

Kermode & Mayo on the BBC – for the last time

Along the way, I’ve become unable to watch most Harry Potter films without interjecting a “Hello!” (code-compliantly) whenever Mr. Isaacs appears on screen, I’ve become much more sensitive to the avoidance of spoilers (even ghosts and sledges) and I believe I’ve learned more about ‘The Exorcist’ than I will ever need to know.  

I’d also like to thank you, belatedly, for the most enjoyable lawn-mowing session of all time – as fate decreed that mowing the lawn was what I would be doing when I pressed ‘Play’ on that most hallowed Kermodian rant: the review of ‘Transformers 2’ in June 2013.  Like the assassination of JFK, all who experienced it will forever remember where they were when it happened.

And so, as this particular story comes to the end of its Second (or possibly First) Act, the time has come for me to have to refer to my fruit-based device to see how and where I may find the next port of call of the cruise liner that is the Good Ship Wittertainment.  I’m sorry that it will not be on Five Live.  Even if it was an Itch that occasionally needed scratching, It seems that Crossing The Streams was indeed as “bad” as we were warned it would be, by another Good Doctor, all those years ago.

The last 13 years of being a Wittertainee have flown by but, at risk of achieving total protonic reversal, I must say that, thanks to you both (and all the supply teachers and producers)  I have enjoyed myself – and I see that it is, indeed, later than I think.

Tinkety-Tonk etc,

Paul Bentham

BSc. (Hons), [Marketing], orange belt [karate] 

PS I was always with Mark on the ‘WTF’ feature.

‘1917’: My Wittertainment Email

On Tuesday 14th January 2020, I watched ‘1917’, the Oscar-nominated film by Sir Sam Mendes.  The next day, I sent this email to ‘Kermode & Mayo’s Film Review’ – “The BBC’s flagship film show”, known to its army of fans as “Wittertainment”.  If you’re familiar with the programme, you’ll be aware of a) the conventions of the letters they receive and b) the fact this one did not get read out.  If you’re not familiar with the show, you’ll have no idea whatsoever why I’m taking this opportunity to say ‘Hello to Jason Isaacs’

On with the email…

Dear Triple Alliance and Triple Entente,

[LTL, MTE & great-great nephew of Corporal H. Latham (1893-1918)]

I’ve been looking forward immensely to watching ‘1917’ ever since I first saw the trailer, several months ago (back when it was the work of plain old ‘Mr. Mendes’) and, like many others, I was particularly struck by the revelation that the whole film is played out “in a single shot”.  As an admirer of his last notable example in the oeuvre (the opening sequence of ‘Spectre’), it seemed an impossibly bold ambition for a mainstream action film to have; one that would have to be seen to be believed.

Tonight, I went along with my Mum and my 15yr-old son to the local complex to see if the film could possibly live up to, not just its own considerable hype, but also a level of expectation commensurate with its now double-Golden-Globe-winning, ten-times-Oscar-nominated status.  Bitter experience has taught me not to expect anything so exalted so readily and I sat down with my code-transgressive nachos (eating them compliantly quickly, before the trailers started), steeling myself for a certain level of inevitable disappointment.

I needn’t have been so cautious.  Barely a few trenches into our heroes’ mission, I felt quite able to ‘pack up my troubling concerns in my metaphorical kit bag and smile, smile, smile’ – except when I wasn’t grimacing, jumping or otherwise emotionally investing.  The accuracy of period detail seemed incredibly high, a task made all the more difficult – and necessary – by the fact that so many 2020 film-goers who watched ’They Shall Not Grow Old’, in 2018, are now far better informed of the most intricate elements of this century-old period in time.

At times, I must confess the ’continuous shot’ schtick did feel more like a burden than a device – I occasionally found myself unable to forget about its existence, waiting for the next cleverly-masked transition or spending more time thinking ‘how did they do that?’ than, I’m sure, would otherwise have been the case.  I then realised that even these distractions were not that different to the ‘what-have-I-seen-this-actor-in?’ kind of reactions that can impede the suspension of disbelief in any film.  Perhaps a second viewing would see this effect lessened.

Eventually, I was able to ignore the technical appreciation enough to inhabit the world with the characters – ironically, just as the technique is designed to encourage.  The experience was, at times, not that dissimilar to watching someone playing a ‘first-person shooter’ video game – which I’m sure would add to the level of peril and investment for many viewers.  Another point to make is that the ‘real-time’ plot delivery necessarily requires more exposition, which I found I could forgive more easily than I would for a more conventionally-edited film.

Given its specific slice of time, the film noticeably comprised a rich tapestry of landscapes, colours, settings and textures. The twists were well-disguised and profound and, even when the MacGuffin quest had reached its conclusion, there was still time for one last revelation to encourage a reappraisal of the whole thing.

Perhaps a less generously-spirited review may suggest this is a film that’s a little too clever for its own good.  However well acted and choreographed, It’s possible a more orthodox telling of the story would have felt less obtrusive in many ways – but it’s also likely that it would also have made for just another war movie.  Ultimately, I felt relieved that the boundaries were challenged and that Sir Sam was fully justified in making such an audacious production constraint his hill (or should that be ridge?) on which to die.  As The Good Doctor has often said: “I’d rather see someone try – and fail – than not try – and succeed”.

I’m not sure it’s the best film I’ve seen all (Oscar) year – ‘Joker’ asks more profound questions and answers them more adroitly – but it’s certainly deserving of its ‘Best Film’ nomination for realism and ambition alone. All in all, we all agreed it was a fine use of two hours and, like many of the best film-going experiences I’ve had in recent years, the ability to say I wasn’t disappointed was all I’d hoped for – and the most pleasing thing to be able to confirm.

Tinkety-tonk and down with the Kaiser, etc.

Paul Bentham BSc.(Marketing), tea drinker Emeritus.