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The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams

Published as Straw Dogs by Bloomsbury Film Classics, 2003, 157 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

I have not seen the film into which this was made and which provides the title for this reprint of the original text of Williams’s novel. The subject matter did not attract me. It still doesn’t. I only read this for completeness, because it’s on that 100 best list.

 Straw Dogs cover

In the run-up to Christmas a snow storm cuts off the village of Dando Manchorum in the English West Country. At a do in the village a young girl, Janice Hedden, goes missing. Search parties are organised. George Magruder, a US citizen, decides to take his English wife Louise and daughter Karen back home to Trencher’s Farm for safety before returning to the search. In the meantime Henry Niles, convicted child molester and murderer, has been thrown out of the van in which he was being transported from a hospital procedure back to the local prison for the criminally disturbed and is wandering the roads. Magruder’s car hits him and the family takes him back to the farmhouse till a doctor can come out to see him. When George finds out who Niles actually is he phones the police but due to the snow drifts they won’t be able to get there for hours.

Several of the locals, especially Tom Hedden, the missing girl’s father, convinced Niles must have abducted her, hear the news Niles is at the farm and they decide to take justice into their own hands. The siege of the title is their attempts to get in and those of George and, less so, Louise, to resist them. The beseigers are partly inspired by the tale of Soldier’s Field when some of their ancestors collectively killed the rapist and murderer of a young local girl but as none would talk weren’t subsequently prosecuted.

Niles himself, portrayed here as a bewildered, inadequate soul and of course totally innocent of abducting or killing Janice Hedden (though not the crimes for which he was incarcerated,) plays an off-stage part for most of the novel, locked in the Magruder’s bathroom before being stuffed into the loft.

The relationship between George and Louise is gone into in some detail but in the end reduces to the kind of sexual politics reflective of the decade in which The Siege of Trencher’s Farm was written (the 1960s.)

There isn’t really much insight into the human condition in these pages. The locals are depicted as very insular (which may be true to life) but the besiegers are more or less unthinking yokels – or else disturbed. I wouldn’t recommend the book to anyone unless they like descriptions of violence. It’s yet another crime book on that 100 best list. Presumably it’s only on there due to its – or the film’s – notoriety. It certainly hasn’t much by way of literary merit.

Pedant’s corner:- “worked as a mechanic as the Compton Wakley garage” (mechanic at the Compton Wakley garage,) hung (several instances; hanged,) Niles’ (Niles’s,) “‘he won’t say nothin’. all right.’ “ (comma after ‘nothin’’ rather than a full stop.)

Friday on my Mind 174: Born To Be Wild

One of those sixties songs that speak of their time, mainly due to the fact it was used in the film Easy Rider, from which the video here is an extract.

Steppenwolf: Born To Be Wild


Syncopy Inc. Directed by Christopher Nolan.

Since our move to Son of the Rock Acres we’re now close to a “proper” cinema, the Kino. It’s not a separate building though but part of Glenrothes town centre, though accesssed from outside. We still don’t go often but the good lady took a fancy to the new film about Dunkirk so off we toddled.

The film dispenses with any preamble or scene setting about the situation leading up to the retreat to Dunkirk and starts with a group of British soldiers moving through the streets of Dunkirk with paper leaflets falling down around them. One looks at a leaflet to see the phrase “We Surround You” and arrows pushing in towards the English Channel – presumably a facsimile of a real German propaganda leaf drop at the time and probably where Dad’s Army took the idea for its opening credits from. Suddenly the men are fired on and they start running – and dropping like flies. Eventually one reaches the beach and the hordes of men waiting there.

We then move to the situation at the Mole (Dunkirk harbour’s long pier) which features Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton, in charge of naval affairs there.

The action then switches to the “small boats” being requisitioned by the navy with particular emphasis on one boat. (Mark Rylance puts in a fine performance as the boat’s master but all of the acting was convincing.)

Then we are transported to an RAF patrol of three Spitfires flying to the Dunkirk area with the leader warning his team to keep an eye on fuel levels.

The film intercuts between these four scenarios at (ir)regular intervals and repeatedly shows the same incident but from the several differing viewpoints.

Most of it, though, displays a distinct lack of heroism, men fetching for themselves, queue-jumping, arguing, though others (Royal Engineers contstructing makeshift jetties out of whatever is lying about on the beaches for example) are trying their best to muddle through.

But that is how it would have been. For a soldier Dunkirk must have been anything but heroic. A frantic mixture of hope and fear and endurance with even rescue from the beaches no guarantee of a safe journey home what with the gauntlet of bombers and U-boats still to run.

If anything it is the efforts of the RAF pilots that the film emphasises – despite the complaint after a Stuka attack on the beach of “Where’s the ruddy Air Force?”

I could have done without the swelling strings (a very slowed down tempo for Elgar’s Nimrod) when the small boats started to make their appearance off the beaches, though.

It also seemed odd to me that Rylance’s small boat took its cargo back to Dorset – that’s a long way from Dunkirk and far from the nearest point in Britain. And I had the impression from my reading that the small boats were mainly used to ferry men from the beach to destroyers etc lying off-shore.

The film touches on the point of the soldiers feeling that they had let the country down and dreading the reception they would get on arrival only to find they were being greeted with cheers. It is still strange that the “Dunkirk spirit” is invoked by those who wish to big Britain up. As Churchill said at the time, “Wars are not won by evacuations.”

The second last image – of a burning Spitfire on the beach – seemed emblematic of a Britain that has lost its way and won’t easily find it again. At least in 1940 it only took four years for Britain to get back into Europe.

I saw in the credits at the end the name of one Harry Styles. I knew of the name of course but could not have put a face to it.

Oscar Fail?

I don’t watch the Oscar ceremony. It’s an event which garners publicity way beyond its actual significance or importance for weeks beforehand and I’m not much into films anyway.

Notwithstanding that I couldn’t avoid the aftermath of this year’s do and its wrong envelope saga. Lead item on both the radio and TV news all day.

So the story that was to be the big thing from the Oscars this year didn’t happen: overshadowed by an apparently inexplicable mistake.

My first thought on hearing of what transpired was to wonder if any of this year’s award winners made any anti-Trump comments in their respective acceptance speeches. If they did I haven’t heard a word about them. And naturally it occurred to me that anyone behind the scenes wishing to avoid any discussion that such comments may have caused would have reason to feel very pleased indeed at the actual turn of events.

It may just have been an almighty cock-up (the usual explanation for bizarre occurrences) but if it was a conspiracy to deflect any possible criticism of the recipients and the so-called Academy from T Ronald Dump and his supporters it worked beautifully. I still don’t know the content of any of the winners’ speeches – at least one of which usually makes the news.

If this was a dead cat it was certainly a beezer. Possibly the most dead cat* ever.

Pedant’s corner:- *Yes, I know if a cat is dead, it’s dead and can’t be any more dead. There are no degrees to death after all.

Debbie Reynolds

Given she was 84 it’s not too surprising that Debbie Reynolds has died. That it occurred the day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher, must make it harder for her son Todd, though.

As Kathy Shelden in Singin’ in the Rain she was not overpowered, as given her youth she might have been, by the male leads Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. Her performance in that alone would have secured her a place in public affection.

Here’s a song she recorded in 1959 that also became a big hit later for Engelbert Humperdinck. I prefer Debbie’s version.

Debbie Reynolds: Am I That Easy to Forget?

Mary Frances “Debbie” Reynolds: 1/4/1932 – 28/12/2016. So it goes.

Closing Time: Leonard Cohen, Robert Vaughn, Jimmy Young

I had intended to publish remembrance posts today in the one day this year between Armistice Day and Remembrance Day but 2016 just keeps piling it on.

Now it’s Leonard Cohen who has left us.

Not to mention actor Robert Vaughn – aka Napoleon Solo in the Man From U.N.C.L.E. but whose best performance was as a conscientious German officer, Major Paul Kreuger, undone by circumstances in the film The Bridge at Remagen – and, earlier in the week, a voice from my youth (though he was too soft-edged to be a anything like a favourite,) Jimmy Young, once a stalwart of BBC Radio 2.

I suppose everybody will be using Hallelujah to sign Leonard Cohen off. Here instead is one of his songs from 1992, Closing Time.

Leonard Norman Cohen: 21/9/1934 – 7/11/2016. So it goes.
Robert Vaughn: 22/11/1932 – 11/11/2016. So it goes.
Leslie Ronald “Jimmy” Young: 21/9/1921 – 7/11/2016. So it goes.

Café Society

Gravier Productions, Perdido Productions. Directed and written by Woody Allen.

Off at the unusual hour of 11 am to the local “Art House” cinema where about thirty to forty brave souls were gathered to watch Woody Allen’s latest.

And what a treat to the eye it was. From the first scene – a Hollywood party – we were drenched in Art Deco and the thirties. Lovely sets and costumes.

Booby Dorfman moves from New York to find work. After first being given the run around by his uncle Phil, a powerful agent, he is eventually given a dogsbody role. Phil asks his secretary Vonnie to show Bobby the town and of course Bobby falls for her. Vonnie is though, embroiled in a clandestine affair with Phil. Meanwhile back in New York Bobby’s brother Ben has forged a career as a gangster.

The working out of the relationships eventually leads to Bobby returning to New York to run a (legitimate) nightclub for Ben, where a few years later the past in the form of Vonnie and Phil intrudes to complicate things.

This is no Blue Jasmine but was a worthwhile experience all the same. A few Allen style jokes are thrown in though I was slightly disturbed by the ethics of playing gangland murders for laughs.

Once again from the opening titles this could not be mistaken for anything other than a Woody Allen film, the font of the titles, the (wonderful) jazz soundtrack, the worldview. It was none the worse for that.

It was unusual to see Ken Stott (playing Bobby’s dad) as a Jewish New Yorker but all the performances were excellent.

Dad’s Army

DJ Films. Directed by Oliver Parker.

Having said we rarely go to see a film here we are going to a cinema twice inside a week!

The good lady has long been a devotee of the Dad’s Army TV shows. She always tries to catch them when they are on repeat (which is every week it seems) even though I bought her the box set for her birthday or Christmas one year many moons ago; so we couldn’t avoid the new film featuring its characters.

It turns out there is a dedicated cinema only a couple or so miles from our new house. It had shut down for a while when we lived in Kirkcaldy but has since reopened and it was to there we went.

In the case of Michael Gambon as Private Godfrey and Bill Nighy as Sergeant Wilson the casting was spot on. Neither gave exactly a clone copy of the originals but conveyed their essence well. Bill Paterson as Private Frazer was maybe a bit too obvious a choice and Daniel Mays was a good enough Private Walker. Toby Jones – excellent as ever – was perhaps not quite bumptious enough as Captain Mainwaring. Neither did Tom Courtenay exude the bumbling nature of Lance Corporal Jones nor was Blake Harrison quite as petted as private Pike needs to be.

But this is to complain that the film isn’t the TV series. And it isn’t. There weren’t enough laughs for a start. A few giggles and the odd grunt. There were also some minor crudities which wouldn’t have appeared in the original (“They don’t like it up ’em” notwithstanding.) It was nice to see Frank Williams as the vicar still and the other surviving member of the TV cast, Ian Lavender, as a Brigadier Dier.

Like its predecessor film with that original cast, which didn’t really work, this version of Dad’s Army shows that 90 minutes is just too long to buttress the conceit of a 30 minute sitcom. The necessity for sustained plot weighs too heavily on the enterprise. Witness also the dire On the Buses films of similar vintage which nevertheless were a commercial succes. (Then again not one of the various TV episodes of On the Buses ever attained anything near the level of the poorest Dad’s Army one.)

The plot here consists in the presence of a German spy in Walmington-on-Sea and the intrusion of a woman from Sgt Wilson’s past onto the scene.

It is the women of the town, Cissy and Dolly (Private Godfrey’s sisters,) Mavis Pike (as played by Sarah Lancashire the best thing in the film – except when she had to simper) and Mrs Mainwaring who in the end win the day – not something I could have seen happening in a TV episode I have to say.

The best thing about it all, though, was the outtakes alongside the end credits, corpsing and such.

I wasn’t convinced by Capt Mainwaring’s non-uniform shirt and Sgt Wilson’s civvy tie; they both looked far too modern.

But there was one absolute howler; and it was repeated. Paris was twice mentioned as being accessible to Walmington’s inhabitants – by telephone the second time. In 1944? Pre D-Day? (The plot is entangled with the deception plan to convince the Germans that the invasion would be in the Pas de Calais.) No such communication was possible at the time.

Sunset Song

Hurricane Films, Iris Productions, SellOutPictures. Directed by Terence Davies.

We don’t go to the cinema much, life and children got in the way not to mention Kirkcaldy’s dedicated cinema closing down years ago now so we had only what passes for the local “Art House” Cinema to rely on unless we wanted a trek to Dunfermline.

However we couldn’t miss seeing the film of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic book Sunset Song. So it was off to the Adam Smith Theatre again. (But that’s also a longer trip since our house move.)

It is difficult for a film to capture the essence of Gibbon’s masterpiece. I suppose this one made a valiant effort but I have huge reservations. The human story of Chris Guthrie’s life was well enough done but though references to it were made via voice-over (and in the odd bit of dialogue) and there were cutaways to sumptuous views of the countryside the importance of the land to the novel (and Gibbon’s intentions for it) did not come across with anything like enough force.

I noticed that the church used – at least for the exterior shots – was actually the one in Arbuthnott (the village with which Gibbon is most associated) where his memorial is situated. I can’t vouch for the interior as I’ve never been inside. I did feel that the soundtrack choir singing All in the April Evening in the lead-up to the church scene was ill-judged; too lush by far. We also had the minister wearing a surplice; not at all likely in a Presbyterian Kirk. And that pulpit looked disturbingly modern.

Peter Mullan as Chris’s father gave his usual Peter Mullan hardman performance and Agyness Dein’s acting as Chris was fine but really her accent was all over the place. At one point I thought she’d said, “they were burning the winds,” when it was whins. (The h in “wh” words is aspirated in Scots and Scottish English; the sound is more like hwins.) She also pronounced the g in “rang” and for her to be unable to say “loch” properly verges on the criminal for someone playing a Scotswoman. None of the accents struck me as being particularly of the Mearns though.

I also felt the prominence given to Chris’s husband Ewan’s fate towards the end of the film made it seem more of a lament for the fallen of the Great War in general rather than the more particular loss about which Gibbon was writing, for which Ewan stood as a metaphor.

Watch the film by all means – it says a lot about the harsh times and attitudes of the Scotland of a century ago – but for the full Gibbon experience the book is certainly to be preferred.

George Cole RIP

I was sorry to hear about the death of actor George Cole today. Another figure from my youth (and not so youth) gone. Mind you at 90 he’d had a good innings.

In his two most famous roles, Flash Harry in the St Trinian’s films and Arthur Daley in Minder Cole was always intensely watchable.

He had the advantage of learning at the feet of a master. The clip from St Trinian’s I saw on today’s News had Flash Harry in dialogue with the headmistress, played by Alastair Sim (who in real life more or less adopted him,) and I couldn’t resist a giggle.

According to a piece on the radio Cole was well liked by film crews as he behaved like a gentleman to them. Courtesy is never a hindrance.

It struck me on listening to the eulogies that the character of Arthur Daley – in which incarnation Cole delivered the immortal line, “What is occurring, Terence?” as something unforeseen went on – might have been an inspiration for Del Boy of Only Fools and Horses.

George Edward Cole: 22/4/1925 – 5/8/2015. So it goes.

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