Movie Review (And Analysis): The Menu

I was feeling a little bored the other day and was looking for something to watch. Preferably something a bit light-hearted and amusing. There I was, just randomly scrolling through Disney+ and saw the thumbnail for The Menu. Now, before I do get into this, The Menu is definitely a film that you are better off going into as blind as possible. I had managed to avoid any and everything about this film, I hadn’t even seen a trailer. I’d even suggest not reading reviews, especially spoilery ones.

This review that I’m going to do here will be crammed with spoilers. However, I’m not getting into that just yet as I want to give you a rough idea of what the film is about before I really get into it. So, this is safe to read here and I will be offering a pre-warning before I do get to the spoilers. Look, I’d even suggest that you don’t click on the trailer that I am linking to right now.

Anyway, back to my build-up. I was just looking through Disney+ and saw the thumbnail for this film. I used to be a chef for over 25 years. I’m glad that I left the trade behind me as it was slowly killing me, but I still find myself drawn to shows and movies about it. So, feeling bored, I thought I’d watch a film about cooking and remind myself of the job that I learned to hate. As I said, I had no idea what the film was about and I didn’t even read the little synopsis that you get on Disney+ before pressing play, I just pressed play.

My first assumption of The Menu was that it was perhaps going to be a fictionalised drama of a Gordon Ramsay-type chef. World-famous, top-class food and a tale of a young boy growing to become a major player in the food business. In some ways, The Menu kind of is about that but it is also about something completely different. It’s okay, still no spoilers yet. I’m just going to do a brief synopsis of the flick before I do really delve into this (literally) course by course.

THE MENU SCREEN 1

So, The Menu tells the story of Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) an absolute master of his craft and chef known for creating some of the world’s greatest food and pushing the whole dining experience. He doesn’t just make food, he crafts theatre. Slowik has a very exclusive, very expensive restaurant called Hawthorn. The restaurant is on its very own private island and the only way to get to the restaurant is by boat and by very select invitation. Hawthorn is an exclusive restaurant for the rich and famous that only 1% of the 1% get to experience. After creating his latest menu, Chef Slowik invites a very select clientele to try his new creations. And that’s the basic, non-spoilery plot.

After I had finished watching The Menu, I was pretty much undecided. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to bother reviewing it. I didn’t dislike the film but I didn’t really enjoy it either. I was just very unsure. The film surprised me in a great many ways, but I could not honestly say that I outright liked it. Then, I just sat on my opinion for a few days and realised that the film just would not get out of my head as I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It must’ve had some kind of an impression on me, I just wasn’t sure what that impression was. I needed to re-watch it and form a better opinion. So I did. After the second watch and knowing the plot, I found myself spotting things that I had missed the first time around. After the credits rolled for the second time, I really appreciated what the film was, what it did and how well made it was. I really, really liked The Menu on subsequent viewings. It was far and away from what I was expecting and it really did hit me with some big surprises. That’s my spoiler-free review.

THE MENU SCREEN 2

And now, I do need to get into the SPOILER part of my review. From this point on, I will be giving away massive plot points and story details. If you have not yet seen the film and do want to be surprised, stop reading now. SPOILERS ahead as my lengthy course-by-course look at The Menu begins… [CLAP] now.


The film opens up with us being introduced to Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and his date, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy). Tyler is a dedicated foodie who has been lucky enough to get an invite from Chef Slowik to try out his new menu. He’s the kind of person who uses the word ‘mouth-feel’ as a descriptive. A bit of a prick, but he seems to know his stuff when it comes to gourmet food. The other invitees are famed food critic Lillian (Janet McTeer) and her editor Ted (Paul Adelstein). Wealthy regulars to the restaurant, Richard (Reed Birney) and his wife Anne (Judith Light). Second-rate and struggling movie actor George (John Leguizamo) and his PA Felicity (Aimee Carrero). Then there is the trio of business partners Soren (Arturo Castro), Dave (Mark St. Cyr) and Bryce (Rob Yang).

When arriving at the island, the rather curt and direct maître d’hôtel, Elsa (Hong Chau) makes note that Margot was not originally invited. Tyler had someone else as his +1 but that didn’t work out, so he invited Margot instead. Following a short tour of the island, Elsa leads the guests to Hawthorn where they are sat at their designated tables and served the first course. Hawthorn has an open-plan kitchen and the guests are invited to watch the chefs work, but they are told to not take pictures of the food. This is when Tyler decides to talk to the sous-chef and throw a few ‘chefy words’ around to show off that the knows what he is talking about.

AMUSE BOUCHE

THE MENU SCREEN 3

The first course impresses everyone, everyone except Margot. She struggles to see what all the fuss is about. Tiny portions of poncy ingredients, severed to look like a piece of art on a plate and not food. This is where you get to know the other characters a little as snippets of their stories and personalities are drip feed to you. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Elsa tells Chef Slowik that Margot is not an original invitee.

AMUSE BOUCHE:
Compressed and pickled cucumber melon, milk snow, charred lace.

THE ISLAND

Chef Slowik introduces himself to his guests before this course is served. The pretension is laid on thick as he tells his guest not to eat, but to taste, savour and relish the food. Tyler embarrasses himself a tad by talking as Slowik is describing his food and feels bad about it too. But, he sneaks a few naughty photos of the dish anyway, showing disrespect to the rules.

THE ISLAND:
Raw diver scallop, pickled local seaweeds and algae.

BREADLESS BREAD PLATE

After giving a speech on bread and its history, Slowik introduces the next course, a breadless bread plate. Several flavoured ‘dips’ that you may have otherwise eaten with bread… but here without bread. Trust me, the pomp and pretentiousness have only just begun. The trio of business partners, Soren, Dave and Bryce ask Elsa for some bread to enjoy with their emulsion drips on the plate. Only to be met with a direct and plain ‘no’. The trio play the ‘do you know who we are’ card and say that they work with (for) a Mr Verrick, a massive business magnate with a lot of sway. Still, Elsa tells them ‘no’. It’s about here when something just feels ‘off’ about this film.

THE MENU SCREEN 4

Over at Tyler and Margot’s table, she’s still not ‘getting’ the food and has not eaten a thing. Tyler makes a fool of himself (again) by reaching over to grab Margot’s plate, knocking off and smashing a wine glass on the floor. Chef Slowik comes over and questions Margot on why she has not yet tried any of his food. She says that there is no ‘food’ to try. She seems the be the only one who sees through all the bullshit of the menu. This annoys Tyler and he claims that Margot is making him look like a fool (when he’s actually doing a perfectly good job of that himself). Slowik leaves the couple to argue as he turns his attention to an old woman, sitting alone drinking wine in the corner of the restaurant.

BREADLESS BREAD PLATE:
No bread, savoury accompaniments.

MEMORY

At Richard and his wife Anne’s table, Anne thinks that she recognises Margot from somewhere, but can’t quite place her. Two-bit and washed-up actor George and his PA Felicity are having a bit of a disagreement over the fact that Felicity wants to move on to bigger and better things. She doesn’t want to be stuck as a PA for an ageing actor who can’t find any decent roles, doesn’t care anymore and she feels that her career isn’t going anywhere.

THE MENU SCREEN 5

This course is a deconstructed high-end taco made with very special tortillas. As Chef Slowik explains, the tortillas have been branded using a laser, to give each one a unique print on them, specific to each guest. Slowik says the reason this one is called ‘Memory’ is because he used to have tacos on Tuesday, (Taco Tuesday). This is when he tells his guests that the old woman drinking wine on her own is his mother. Slowik then goes on the tell a story from his past about his abusive father and how he stabbed him in the thigh. Perhaps a rather strange anecdote to bring up during a $1,200+ per-head exclusive, multi-course dinner, but hey-ho. Slowik’s mother continues the get drunk on wine, on her own. Some of the guests question the point of Chef Slowik’s abusive father story, and it is quickly brushed off as ‘theatrics’ and part of the dining experience.

The meal is served and the guests notice the individually, laser-printed images on their tortillas. Food critic Lillian has pictures of several restaurants on hers, restaurants that she helped close down via her reviews. Married, elderly couple and regulars to the restaurant, Richard and Anne have various pictures of their life. Including one of Richard with another woman. Tyler has pictures of him taking pictures of the food that were taken just a few minutes earlier. Proof that he has broken one of Chef Slowik’s cardinal rules… and that these chefs work really damn fast. This, to coin a phrase, is where the plot thickens, as there seems to be an ulterior motive for these guests being invited. This is about much more than just tasting a new menu.

THE MENU SCREEN 6

If you need further suggestion that something sinister is going on. George has a poster for one of his big movie flops (Calling Doctor Sunshine) on his tortillas, a swift reminder that his a bit of a flake and phoney. Though George laughs it off as a personal joke between friends, saying that he and Slowik are buddies. The trio of business guys tortillas? Well, they have documents of proof that they have been embezzling money for Mr Verrick the business magnate. Calling Elsa over the explain what the tortillas are, she does just that in her own unique way. The trio (suspecting that some kind of blackmail is going on) claim that they will have the place closed down in the morning, flexing their ‘do you know who we are’ card once more. This does not phase Elsa one bit. The trio realise that they are safe though because if Chef Slowik tries to turn them in for embezzlement, he would be turning Mr Verrick in and well, Mr Verrick is the one who actually owns the island and the restaurant that Slowik runs. Ergo, if Mr Verrick goes down, so does Slowik.

Margot goes to the toilet, still not having eaten anything, where she is confronted by Slowik. Noting that he knows that she has not yet eaten anything, Slowik questions why. He also reveals that he knows that Margot was not an original invitee and questions just who she is and tells her that she shouldn’t be here.

MEMORY:
House-smoked Bresse chicken thigh al pastor, tortillas made with heirloom masa, green salsa cubes.

THE MESS

Chef Slowik introduces his sous-chef, Jeremy Louden (Adam Aalderks) as the creator of this next course. Bringing him out to the restaurant in full view of all the guests. Slowik goes on the tell his guests that Jeremy is a good chef… just not great and that he will never be as great as Slowik is. After a bit of, what seems like ‘berating with love’ from Slowik, Jeremy pulls out a gun, places it in his mouth and blows the back of his head out. Yup, a chef just committed suicide in full view of these very exclusive guests. Who are (mostly and rightfully) shocked. If the previous course did not clue you in that something strange was going on, then this course most definitely does.

THE MENU SCREEN 7

After the initial shock of seeing someone blow the back of their head out, Chef Slowik tells them that it is part of the ‘show’ and the guest begin to question if it is just more ‘theatrics’. The guests continue with their meal, except for Margot. Richard tells Anne that he has had enough and that they are leaving. Only, the staff won’t allow that and cut one of his fingers off… this is no ‘theatrics’ and this film about a menu is definitely taking a very bizarre and bloody twist. The realisation that this is real begins to set in and the other guests panic. Chef Slowik and his crew are quite insane.

Margot decides to go and confront Slowik in his kitchen. He reveals that everyone is going to die tonight. Everyone including himself and his crew. He also says that he needs to know what side Margot is on, the pompous guests or the (let’s be honest) psychotic chefs. She still has to die, it just depends on which side she chooses to die on and gives her just 15 minutes to decide who she will side with.

THE MESS:
Pressure-cooked vegetables, roasted fillet, potato confit, beef jus, bone marrow. R.I.P. Jeremy Louden.

PALATE CLEANSER

George talks to the embezzling trio and suggests that they storm the kitchen and overpower Chef Slowik and his staff. Even though they are vastly outnumbered. Hey, it worked in one of his films. A little slice of evidence that perhaps George is not exactly in touch with the real world. George also reveals that he and Slowik aren’t friends at all, just bullshit from a desperate actor seeking attention and trying to stay relevant. While serving the palate cleanser of tea, Slowik asks his guests if they have any questions. The obvious one being ‘what the fuck is going on?’. Tyler asks if he can taste bergamot in the tea, seemingly oblivious to the violence and death that is going on around him and another excuse for him to show off his extensive food knowledge.

THE MENU SCREEN 8

Finally, someone asks ‘what the fuck is going on?’ and Slowik reveals his reasons for inviting the guests and why they all have to die. Food critic Lillian has to die because she ruined multiple livelihoods with her negative reviews that closed so many restaurants and her editor Ted, allowed it to happen. Regulars Richard and his wife Anne have to die because, even though they have been to the restaurant multiple times and have eaten Chef Slowik’s food, they have no idea what they’ve eaten and can not name a single dish that Slowik has ever cooked for them. They don’t care about the food, just the prestige of being invited to eat and such an exclusive restaurant. A massive insult to Slowik and his staff.

Slowik even admits that he is part of the problem for allowing the restaurant to be used by such shallow people as a means to further their own social status. That is when one of the business trio says that it is not his restaurant. The truth is that their boss, Mr Verrick owns the island and restaurant. Slowik admits that Mr Verrick ‘owns’ him, but only until very recently. Slowik reveals that he and his team have kidnapped Mr Verrick and then drowns him in the water around the island in full view of his guests.

THE MENU SCREEN 9

Time is up for Margot and Slowik asks to see her in his office so she can decide whose side she dies on. Slowik sees right through Margot and knows that she is not who she claims to be. He has noticed that she has been looking at Richard and that she knows who he is. Margot tells Slowik that she is actually an escort called Erin and that she has ‘serviced’ Richard in the past. Back in the restaurant, Slowik takes everyone outside.

PALATE CLEANSER:
Wild bergamot and clover tea.

MAN’S FOLLY

Now outside, Chef Slowik introduces another of his sous-chefs, Katherine (Christina Brucato) the creator of this course. Katherine reveals that Slowik has sexually harassed her multiple times in the past. He allows Katherine to get some payback and she stabs him in the thigh. Slowik then gives the men the chance to escape by giving them a 45-second head start before his staff comes after them. Katherine invites the women back inside to eat the next dish, while the men do their best to escape. Taking this as an opportunity to try and soften up one of the staff, the women praise Katherine for her food and she cries. Katherine soon snaps back into chef mode and tells the women that killing everyone was actually her idea as the finale for the menu. Margot tells everyone that she really is Erin.

THE MENU SCREEN 10

Meanwhile, all of the men make an attempt to escape… except for Tyler. He hangs around the outside of the restaurant until he is ‘caught’ and brought back. None of them do manage to escape and all are eventually rounded up and marched back to Hawthorn, Chef Slowik and their inevitable deaths. Felicity tells George that she has been stealing money from him, already making this struggling to find work as an actor even worse. George already knew that she was stealing money from him and she knew that he knew too.

MAN’S FOLLY:
Dungeness crab, fermented yoghurt whey, dried sea lettuce, umeboshi, kelp.

PASSARD EGG

As Lillian’s editor, Ted is the last of the men to be caught, he’s given a bonus dish to ‘enjoy’.

PASSARD EGG:
Egg, crème fraîche, and maple (a special bite for the last guest to be caught).

TYLER’S BULLSHIT

Chef Slowik can’t continue with his carefully planned menu until he sorts out a bit of an issue. He decides to test just how much Tyler knows about food and allows him to cook in his kitchen. Complete carte blanche to create whatever he wants. But first, Slowik wants to know why he invited Erin when she was not part of the original plan. It turns out that Tyler was made fully aware of Slowik’s plan to kill everyone because Slowik told him and swore him to secrecy. Tyler was still happy to come and eat the world’s greatest food, knowing that he would be killed at the end of the night. That is how much of a dedicated foodie he is, he was willing to die as long as he got to eat Chef Slowik’s food.

THE MENU SCREEN 12

Originally, Tyler was going to bring his girlfriend but they broke up before the big night and aware that Slowik does not offer single-seatings, he hired Mergot/Erin’s escort services knowing that she would die. Obviously, Erin does not take that bit of information well and tries to beat the shit out of Tyler, but is restrained by Slowik’s staff. This is when Chef Slowik invites Tyler to prove his foodie chops by letting him cook in his kitchen. Tyler makes a complete mess of it as Slowik embarrasses Tyler in front of his staff and guests and shows that the so-called foodie actually knows very little about food. Tyler is a complete fake and has signed Margot/Erin’s death warrant too. Not a nice fella at all.

After trying the inedible food, Slowik leans over and whispers into Tyler’s ear. Tyler leaves the kitchen and heads to the back of house, removing his tie as he goes. Chef Slowik, during a break in the perfect plan of his menu, asks to talk to Erin in the back of house. Slowik tells Erin that he needs a barrel for his finale, that it needs to be collected and that Elsa forgot to get it. So, he asks Erin to get the barrel from the smokehouse, outside of the restaurant and elsewhere on the island. Slowik showing that he trusts and thinks of Erin as one of his own and not one of the pompous, shallow guests. As Erin leaves to get the barrel, she discovers Tyler’s body after he has hung himself with his own tie.

THE MENU SCREEN 11

In the restaurant, before Chef Slowik can introduce the next course, he is interrupted by George. George wants to know why he has to die. Slowik tells George that he saw his movie, Calling Doctor Sunshine and that he didn’t like it. Not only that but he saw the film on his only day off in several months and how it ruined his day. Slowik says that George has to die because he is an artist who has lost his drive and passion for what he does, he’s a washed-up actor who does not care about the quality of the film he makes as long as he gets paid.

While getting the barrel, Erin explores outside of the restaurant and she finds Chef Slowik’s living quarters. Before she can snoop around, Elsa appears and attacks her, out of jealousy of Slowik favouring Erin and making her one of them. In the fight, Erin accidentally stabs Elsa in the neck and kills her. While looking around Slowik’s abode, Erin finds photos of his illustrious career, going back years. One photo shows a teenage Slowik working in a low-rent burger joint flipping burgers. It’s also the only photo where Slowik is smiling. Erin also finds a short-wave radio and calls for help. After a while, Erin returns to the restaurant with the barrel.

THE MENU SCREEN 13

Chef Slowik further explains why he is doing all of this. Why everyone, including himself, has to die. He says that he is a monster, a whore and that what he is doing is an act of purification. everyone at the restaurant (except for Erin) is guilty of something and they need to pay for their sins. Just then, a coastguard boat arrives and Slowik knows that Erin has betrayed his trust and called in help via his radio. The restaurant and guests are quickly cleaned up so as to not arouse the suspicion of the coastguard and make out that everything is fine. The coastguard recognises George as he is a fan of his films and asks for an autograph. George takes this opportunity to write ‘help us’ to clue the coastguard in that something is very wrong. Believing that they are now safe, that is when it is revealed that the coastguard is actually one of Chef Slowik’s line chefs. Slowik tells Erin that she can’t be trusted and is one of ‘them’ and will die as one of ‘them’, a taker.

TYLER’S BULLSHIT:
Undercooked lamb, inedible shallot-leek butter sauce; utter lack of cohesion.

SUPPLEMENTAL COURSE: A CHEESEBURGER

Before the final course can be served, Erin tells Slowik that she doesn’t like his food. She says that he has taken the joy out of eating and that his food tastes like it was made without love. She says that Chef Slowik has failed to serve worthy food and that even worse, she is still hungry. She asks for a cheeseburger, nothing fancy or pretentious, no ‘deconstructed avant-bullshit’.  Just a cheeseburger. Chef Slowik grants her wish and makes her the best cheeseburger that she will ever eat, for just $9.95. A bit of a step down from the $1,200+ per head that he is used to charging for his food. As he cooks the burger, Slowik smiles, he’s enjoying cooking for the first time in years. He’s taken back to when he was a teenager flipping burgers at a burger joint, one of the last times he was truly happy.

THE MENU SCREEN 14

Very satisfied with his food, he personally serves it to Erin. She takes a bite and enjoys his food for the first time. Erin then says that she can’t eat the whole thing right now and asks for it ‘to go’. Chef Slowik boxes up her food and allows her to leave. Her reward for reminding Slowik that he once loved making food, even a simple cheeseburger. Everyone else though? They’re still going to die.

SUPPLEMENTAL COURSE: A CHEESEBURGER:
Just a well-made cheeseburger.

S’MORE

The final course. A callback to simple childhood days, the s’more. Slowik tells his guests that they represent the ruin of his art, his passion for cooking and his life in some way. Graham crackers are spread around the restaurant, along with several dozen litres of flammable alcohol. The guests are adorned with shawls made of marshmallows and chocolate hats. The s’more, ‘the most offensive assault on the human palate ever contrived’ Chef Slowi says. To complete his version of the s’more, Slowik grabs a red hot coal from his chargrill, walks into the middle of the restaurant and drops it onto all that flammable alcohol. Everyone in the restaurant burns to death (including Slowik’s very drunk mother). The chefs in the kitchen turn the gas on and combined with the barrel that Slowik asked Erin to get for him, the whole place explodes killing everyone.

THE MENU SCREEN 15

S’MORE:
Marshmallow, chocolate, graham cracker, customers, staff, restaurant.

Erin has found a boat and makes her escape. She stops and watches the restaurant burn while enjoying her cheeseburger and wiping her mouth with a copy of Chef Slowik’s menu. End credits.


My Take On This

Okay then, so the first thing I need to address with this film is that (in case you’ve not yet worked it out) it is not a fictionalised drama of a Gordon Ramsay-type chef as I thought I might be. This is an out-and-out horror film. Not only that it’s a horror film about food that manages to side-step the most overused food-horror film trope of serving dead bodies to customers. There’s no cheeky Sweeny Todd-inspired angle here. The food is all ‘proper’ food that one would most probably find at an exclusive, top-notch and very expensive restaurant (and a cheeseburger). I honestly have to give The Menu credit for doing something very different with a tired, old format.

As I said, this isn’t a fictionalised drama of a Gordon Ramsay-type chef. It is more of a ‘imagine if Jim Jones was a top, world-famous chef’ film. Chef Slowik is a straight-up cult leader hellbent on killing… well everyone and even his own brigade of chefs and waiting staff are in on it. The Hawthorn restaurant and the island that it is on is basically Jonestown. Now, while this is most definitely a horror film, it’s a horror film with a great sense of humour. It is very, very black humour but still humour nonetheless. This was something that I overlooked when I watched The Menu for the first time.

THE MENU SCREEN 16

Watching this film for the second time had me noticing things I didn’t the first time. There are some great little details, such as in the opening. Tyler berates Margot for smoking and tells her that it ruins tastebuds and that she won’t be able to taste the food. Then later in the film, we see the food critic, Lillian smoking. A suggestion that her tastebuds are screwed, that all those bad reviews she wrote and closed restaurants with were not because the food was bad, but because she can’t taste anything properly. There are allusions to the seven deadly sins and more.

In our world, what Chef Slowik does is bat-shit insane. In the world of the film though, it makes a lot of sense and yeah, his guests did deserve to die. They are pompous pricks who have, in some way, destroyed Slowik’s life and career. Or they have contributed to the downfall of the people connected to them.

There’s a sub-genre of horror film that has become popular in recent years, elevated horror. For those not in the know, elevated horror are films that are less about dumb teenagers being killed by someone in a mask and wielding a large knife. They are horror films that don’t rely on cheap jump scares or throw buckets of blood at the screen. An elevated horror film is one that focuses on style, character psychology and other deeper or artistic themes. Basically, they are seen as horror films for those with an IQ. A bit on the pretentious side.

THE MENU SCREEN 17

Now, The Menu is most definitely an elevated horror flick. However, it’s also aware of what it is and has fun with it. You know how the original Scream exposed the slasher film genre and pointed a satirical finger at it? Well, The Menu does the same for the elevated horror genre but in a very different way. This is a film that highlights pomp and pretention, to then destroy it. All of the guests who die in the film have that ‘holier than thou’ attitude. They think they are above ‘normal’ people and use Chef Slowik, his food and his restaurant to further their own egos and social status. They are shallow, pretentious and selfish. ‘Takers’ as Slowik calls them. All of them are like this… except Margot/Erin.

That’s why she survived. She’s not ‘one of them’ and sees through all the pomp and ceremony. She didn’t eat the food because it wasn’t ‘food’. The cheeseburger saved her life because, just for a few minutes, she took Chef Slowik back to his roots. Before the fame, before the renown, before the pressure of outdoing himself each and every time to appease his peers. Slowik appreciated that, he saw that she wasn’t a ‘taker’ and gave him (even if only for a while) a bit of his humanity back. Elevated horror eh? Deeper than you think.

THE MENU SCREEN 18

However, I also think that the cheeseburger represented something more. Just going back to the whole elevated horror label. Again, they can be a bit ‘la-di-da’ and many people who watch them love to dump on ‘lesser’ horror films. I’ve read recent reviews for some elevated horror flicks that praise the depth and meaning of them, while choosing to call out the likes of A Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th as examples of poor and shallow horror films. Opinions are opinions and all that, but do reviewers really need to make themselves feel superior by belittling ‘leaser’ films to help praise another? I saw The Menu as a dig as those kinds of reviewers. The film is calling out pretension and does so by having its death-sentenced characters be the ‘do you know who I am’ types. The Menu may satirise the elevated horror genre but it does it in a respectful way, like Scream before it with the slasher genre. Also, I felt that the guests invited to the restaurant were basically representative of snobbish film reviewers who can’t help themselves by making out that the classics are shit because they are not ‘intelligent’ enough.

As for that cheeseburger? Well, there’s room in the world for Michelin-star food and all the pretension that comes with it. But, you know what? There’s nothing wrong with a good, well-made cheeseburger. Have all the snooty elevated horror that you want. There’s still a place for the Freddy Kruegers and Jason Voorhees of the world. Enjoy your deep, psychological character examinations and ‘arty’ blood in a film. You can still get a major kick out of Lionel in Brandead slaughtering zombies with a lawnmower and spraying gallons of claret all over the screen.

THE MENU SCREEN 19

Oh, and Ralph Fiennes as Chef Slowik and Anya Taylor-Joy as Margot/Erin were awesome. Brilliant performances and wonderful chemistry between them. I definitely recommend The Menu for a watch, maybe even more than one so you can pick up on some of the more subtle background details.

50 Years of The Way Of The Dragon

Originally released back in December of 1972 (hey, this can be my Christmas article for this year as I don’t have time to do a proper one), Bruce Lee’s The Way of the Dragon (Return of the Dragon in the US) was the best film he made. Now, this isn’t my favourite film of Lee’s, that would be Fist of Fury. I’d even say that the iconic Enter the Dragon was Bruce Lee’s most popular and most famous film too. However, I would happily argue that The Way of the Dragon was his best film.

Bruce Lee always wanted to tell stories that were deeper than your average kung-fu flick at the time. His opus would’ve been The Game of Death, which was to delve into the teachings of martial arts and Lee’s own philosophies. Alas, as you know, Bruce Lee died before he could finish work on that film and his vision died with him. The closest we would ever get to a deeper Bruce Lee film was The Way of the Dragon. For this picture, Lee didn’t just star in it. He wrote, produced and even directed the film, this gave him full creative control over the project. The end result was a film that had some great fight scenes and served as a showcase for Asian culture to the rest of the world.

Okay, sure, the plot of The Way of the Dragon isn’t exactly stellar. If anything, the plot is the weakest part of the film. Clichéd, trite and crammed with Italian caricatures and stereotypes (an Italian character actually exclaims ‘Mamma Mia!’ at one point). Basically, Bruce Lee travels from China to Italy to help protect his uncle’s friend’s restaurant from an evil mob boss who wants to take over the property by force. However, under that paper-thin story is a film with layers that many people miss. By the time 1972 came around and when The Way of the Dragon was released, Bruce Lee was a big star in China. A far cry from just a few years earlier when he was a struggling bit-part player in American TV shows. Lee changed Asian cinema forever and his influence is still felt today.

THE WAY OF THE DRAGON PSOTER

With this film, Lee got to show off his comedy chops, it wasn’t all about kicking bad guys in the face. See the opening of the film with Lee’s character, Tang Lung arriving in Rome. When Lung goes to the restaurant to get some food, he can’t speak or read Italian. So he just randomly points at the menu and ends up ordering loads of bowls of soup. It’s the type of gag that you might find in a Charlie Chaplin flick, but given a Bruce Lee twist. Unfortunately, if you watch the English dub of the film, the joke is lost as both Lee’s character and the server are speaking in English, meaning that the miscommunication gag does not work as originally, he is speaking in Cantonese and she in Italian. There’s a lot of this ‘fish out of water’ humour in the film and all of it is lost with the English dubbing. Always watch these films with the original dialogue, trust me.

One of Bruce Lee’s aims with this film was to show an Asian audience a bit of European culture. Bearing in mind that when The Way of the Dragon was being filmed, Lee was not an international superstar, yet. Enter the Dragon had not been released, or even filmed in 1972 and Bruce Lee was still very much only known in China. Asian films back then were only ever made in Asia and for an Asian audience. And so, the audience had never really seen much of the world outside of their own front door. Hence the film’s Italian setting and this is why there are a lot of establishing shots (a few too many), shots of the streets of Rome, plazas, statues, the famous Colosseum and more. These were used to help show off Rome to the audience back in China, who would never have seen anything like that before. Nora Miao’s Chen Ching-hua character taking Bruce Lee’s Tang Lung on a tour to see the sights was done more so for the Asian audience so they could see Rome, more so than for any kind of character or story point.

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Lee even managed to inject some of his own philosophies into the film and especially the Tang Lung character that he plays. Lung is humble, honest, loyal and above all else, tough. He only uses his skills if absolutely necessary. If anything, this was the closest that Bruce Lee got to playing himself on screen. Lee had become a bit ‘dismayed’ by how his last two films were made. Produced by the legendary studio Golden Harvest, Lee was never allowed to be as creative as he wanted to be. The studio picked the writers, directors and actors. As great as The Big Boss and Fist of Fury (my favourite) were, they weren’t really Bruce Lee films. They were just films with Bruce Lee in them. For The Way of the Dragon, Lee teamed up with (also legendary) film producer  Raymond Chow and founded Concord Production Inc. together.

Now a co-founder of his own film production company, Bruce Lee would be the creative driving force and Raymond Chow would be the head of the admin. Long story short and after Lee’s death, Linda Lee sold her husband’s shares in the company to Chow and Concord Production went bust by 1976. The studio only had two completed films too, The Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon (co-produced and distributed by Warner Bros.). Okay, so Concord also owned the original, unfinished footage from The Game of Death and produced a documentary called Bruce Lee: the Man and the Legend following his death. And I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent here. The point is that Bruce Lee had full creative control with The Way of the Dragon, something that he didn’t have with his previous films.

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As a director, Lee’s first film is far from perfect. There are scenes where characters literally line up to deliver their dialogue (you can even see them look at the floor for their marks) and it feels a bit over-practised and more than a tad ‘stage play-ish’. Very unnatural. But, Lee does use some great camerawork and includes some very interesting shots and angles. Taking a few ideas that he picked up while working in America and blending them with more traditional Asian filming techniques. The Way of the Dragon was a real coming together of cultures and styles.

The Way of the Dragon was a low-budget flick too. Remember, this was the first film for a new production studio. Both Bruce Lee and Raymond Chow had to put up their own money to found Concord Production Inc. and pay for this film themselves. Originally, Lee wanted to set the film in the United States, but the budget wasn’t there to cover the cost and Italy was cheaper. That low-budget does show a few times throughout the film. Another reason that there are plenty of establishing and lingering shots of Italy and Italian fountains, etc (other than to show an Asian audience some European culture) was due to those budget constraints. A lot of the time, Lee didn’t have filming permits or permission to film on location. So, he would often linger on a statue (as an example) just to get as much on film as possible before anyone came asking for a filming permit. He had to use what he could and as much of it as possible, for free.

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As previously mentioned, Bruce Lee chose to use a bit of comedy for the film. The scene where Tang Lung inadvertently picks up a (I’m not sure if she was or not) prostitute. They go back to her place and she disappears for a few moments, while we get a brief sample of Tang Lung’s kung-fu skills. The (maybe?) prostitute reappears and is now (almost) butt-naked. Lee’s comic timing here is wonderful as he makes a swift exit out of embarrassment. This more light-hearted tone is vastly different to the mostly humourless The Big Boss and Fist of Fury. The comedy also sets up Lee’s character well and lets you know that he is a likeable guy under the fact that he could kick your bum-cheeks with ease.

Also, to help give the film a wider appeal, Lee hired several non-Asian martial artists. Bob Wall (later to appear in Enter the Dragon) was one such casting choice. Then, of course, there was the casting of the living legend that is Carlos Ray ‘Chuck’ Norris. Norris was (at the time) multiple All-American Karate Champion and very much respected within the martial arts world. He and Lee first met at a karate competition while Lee was in America working on The Green Hornet in the late 60s. They struck up a friendship, worked out and trained together. When Bruce Lee became a co-owner of a film production studio and began working on The Way of the Dragon, he knew that he wanted his friend Chuck Norris as the big bad guy for the film’s climactic fight. Also, having such a well-known and respected American martial artist in his film, Bruce Lee knew that would help gain some international praise and help sell the film outside of China.

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There was another angle to using American fighters in this film. It gave Brue Lee an opportunity to express one of his many philosophies:

“Using no way as a way, having no limitation as limitation.”

Having the bigger and more brute-like, heavier fighters go up against the smaller but sleeker, more fluid fighting style of Lee was a way for him to show that there were no limits. No matter how small you are, you can overcome even the biggest opponents Or, to use Lee’s much better and more poetic example of this:

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash.

Be water, my friend.”

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Let’s get into the action now and look at how Bruce Lee shot the fights themselves. Again, using a mix of classic Asian and American filming styles, Lee created something very unique for the time. A double nunchaku fight is all well and good. But you need good choreography and a keen eye for what makes a great shot to make it look impressive on film. With his previous flicks, Lee couldn’t even do his own fight choreography. It was Han Ying Chieh who did the fight choreography on The Big Boss and Fists of Fury. Though Lee did get to make ‘suggestions’ with Fists of Fury and did influence several of the scenes. But with The Way of the Dragon, Bruce Lee was in full control.

You can really tell too as there is a real step up in quality when it comes to the action here. This may have been Bruce Lee’s first (and only completed) film as a director. But, when you look at the fight scenes from his previous films and compare it to The Way of the Dragon, there’s a real feeling that Lee wanted to push what made a good action scene. Take a look at the climatic fight at the Colosseum. Now, while establishing shots of the Colosseum were genuine the interior was not. You don’t need to be an expert to tell that the end fight took place on a set and not in the actual Colosseum itself. A rather poor-looking set, if I am being honest. Again, this goes back to the fact that the film was low-budget and that they didn’t have filming permits. It was cheaper (and safer) to shoot the scene in a controlled set than pay to film a lengthy action scene in the Colosseum itself.

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Now, some The Way of the Dragon fans would probably point out to me that there are some brief shots inside the Colosseum itself. Yup, there are. But, they were filmed illegally. Bruce Lee and his crew had to sneak cameras in, pretending to be tourists and they shot what little they could without being caught. When you watch the film these days, with a good HD transfer, you can really tell the set and matte-painted backgrounds from the real Colosseum footage.

Anyway, the fight itself. It has been suggested that Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris had a ‘real’ fight. Real as in that they actually hit each other but it was still choreographed, not that they had a falling out and decided to punch each other in the face. The two were good friends and trained together in the 60s, so there must’ve been a lot of trust between the two. Some of the hits do look like they connect (several, not so much), it is possible that some of the final fight was really a vigorous sparring session with some camerawork and editing to make it look more real than it was. Or, it could’ve been a real fight, of course. Chuck Norris has been asked about the fight and he said that:

“I enjoyed working with Bruce Lee in the film. It was a lot of fun, the fight scene is considered the classic martial arts fight scene of all time. So, it’s nice to be involved in a fight scene that everyone loves.”

Honestly, nobody knows if they did really fight and the only person who can answer that (Norris) never fully answers the question when asked. He just says it was great to work on it. I kind of like that though, it’s a nice little movie mythology.

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The big fight took up almost a quarter of the shooting script because Bruce Lee put so much detail into the choreography. It has been said that the climatic fight took around a collective 45 hours to shoot too, as Lee wanted it to be as perfect as it could be and did multiple takes until he was 100% satisfied. That’s a lot of punching and kicking each other in the face… if they did fight for real. Arguably, it is the best Bruce Lee fight on film and lasts over 10 minutes of screen time. All of that work that he put in really does pay off.

One of the things that I adore about the final fight is how they don’t just face each other and get into it right away. There’s a slow build-up, from Bruce Lee running around the Colosseum, looking for Chuck Norris. To, when they finally meet, face-to-face, then there’s the disrobing and warming up as these two giants, or gladiators of martial arts, ready themselves for battle. It’s a fantastic build up of tension that Bruce Lee uses here. At the time, with most Asian kung-fu flicks, the good guy just goes in fists flying and takes the bad guy out. Even Lee’s previous, films were guilty of this. Here, we the viewer are teased, tormented and made to wait for the big showdown. Before a single blow is landed, you know that you are in for something special because Lee builds the excitement and anticipation.

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This climatic fight is where Bruce Lee’s direction is at its finest. He may have been a bit stiff with some of the dialogue scenes earlier in the film and directed his actors as if they were in a stage play. But here with this fight, the martial arts master showed us how to shoot a great fight scene. There are a few times when Lee’s direction does slip back into typical Asian kung-fu fare. The snap-zoom, where the camera suddenly zooms in on an actor’s face, is a staple of Asian cinema at the time and Bruce Lee does use it quite a bit too. But then he also does things that were unheard of at the time.

There’s a decent portion of the fight that is shown in full slow-motion and with a good medium-distance camera, keeping both men in frame, so we can see these two titans actually fight. If you think about modern cinema now, that is never really used. Most of the time with fights these days, it’s all fast, frantic and close-up camera work. This is done to hide any possible imperfections and (usually) the fact that the actors are not fighters. Throw in a load of jump cuts and you have pretty much any modern-day fight scene. Here though, Lee wanted you to see everything, to see him and Chuck Norris display actual martial arts skills and in slo-mo too. Lee had confidence in both himself and Norris to deliver a fight that looked like a fight.

There’s also a great touch in this fight where Lee’s Tang Lung character is seemingly losing. Or, at least, struggling to win. This is because he starts the fight using a fixed martial art, Chinese boxing. After realising that this style is not working against the man-mountain that is Colt (Norris), he switches to a more fluid style of fighting. He starts bouncing around on his toes and becomes more ‘Bruce Lee-like’ and then, the fight begins to change. This (again) was Lee using his philosophy of adapting, using no way as way… being water, my friend. It even gets to the point where Colt tries to adapt to a more ‘relaxed’ form of martial arts, you see him bounce around on his toes a bit too as he tries to match his opponent. Of course, it does him no good because, well, he’s not Bruce Lee, is he?

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In the end, Colt’s face is blooded, his bones get broken and yet, he still tries to fight. That is when Tang Lung realises that this fight isn’t going to end in a knockout, this was to be a fight to the death. He even does a little shake of the head, a warning to Colt to not do this… yet he does. Left with no choice, Tang Lung breaks Colt’s neck. The camera zooms in on his face and there’s a look of disbelief and regret. A great bit of subtle acting from Bruce Lee that says a lot without a word of dialogue. Still, it’s a very fitting end that a fight to the death was held in the historic Colosseum (or a set of it). This fight really was very brutal for the time. It also felt realistic in terms of kung-fu cinema of the 1970s. Yeah, it’s a bit hokey now, a tad silly in places. But for 1972 this fight was truly ground-breaking and remains one of the best fight scenes caught on film.

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Now, 50 years later as I write this article and reflecting on The Way of the Dragon, only now does the massive loss of talent that was Bruce Lee hit me. This film was far from perfect but it does showcase that the man could write and direct a film, outside of the punching and kicking that he was famed for. As I said at the start of this, Fist of Fury is my favourite Bruce Lee picture and Enter the Dragon is, by far, his most popular. But The Way of the Dragon was his best. The melding of American and Asian film-making, the use of humour and Lee’s foresight to use the sights of Rome and respected martial artists to be his opponents was a stroke of genius. Then, let’s not forget his subtle use of his philosophies.

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It’s a damn shame that he died when he did, that we will never get to see Bruce Lee’s vision for The Game of Death as he wanted it to be. His opus that would’ve delved even deeper into his own philosophies and love for marital arts. I think that Lee would’ve gone on to have had a great filmmaking career if he had lived. Just imagine all of those 80s and 90s action films written and directed by Bruce Lee and starring Brandon Lee that we will never get to see. We will just have to take solace in his only completed film as a director, The Way of the Dragon. Bruce Lee’s flawed masterpiece.


Well, that is almost it from me for this year. I have one more article I’ll be publishing between Christmas and New Year, my now annual Indie Game Round Up 2022. But until then, I hope you have a good Christmas

Remembering Mary Whitehouse: The Queen Of The Snowflakes

This is an article that I have been thinking about writing for many months now. Mostly inspired by the fact that the world is slowly beginning to be filled with Karens and the rise of the snowflakes. You know, those people who endlessly complain and moan, while pissing on the cornflakes of people who just want to enjoy what they want to (legally) enjoy in terms of entertainment.

Pretty much every day, I hear of a story about a TV show or film being censored and edited, or steaming services removing episodes of a show because 6 people on Twitter complained about nothing. Comedians being ‘forced’ to apologise for telling a joke and more. In my eyes, if you don’t like something, then don’t watch it. Yet, it is the vast minority that is being heard over the majority. Let us adults decide what our delicate little brains can or can not handle. Still, all of these Karens and snowflakes are hardly a new thing, at least not for us Brits of a certain age. We’ve already lived through the dark ages of TV and film censorship. We had a Mary Whitehouse.

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Seeing as it is 21 years to the day since Mary Whitehouse shuffled off this mortal coil, I thought I’d write this article of ‘remembrance’. Not to honour or respect Whitehouse in any way. But more of a look back on her reign of terror as one of the most annoying and unpleasant people to ever force her opinions onto anyone.

Early Life

Mary Whitehouse was an art teacher in the 1950s. Her first foray into coming across as a complete bitch was when she wrote a lengthy article for The Sunday Times newspaper where she lambasted homosexuality and damned gay people with plenty of vitriol, real fire and brimstone stuff. Bearing in mind that homosexuality was illegal in the UK until 1967 and that gay people had no rights or voice then. So, her outburst wasn’t seen as shocking and blatant bigotry-filled hate speech back then as it would be today. In fact, it got a lot of support. Whitehouse continued her teaching career until 1964 when she gave up teaching to concentrate on her ranting full-time.

It Begins

Becoming angry with what was being shown on TV (well, the BBC mainly), Mary Whitehouse teamed up with Norah Buckland (the wife of a vicar) and created her CUTV (Clean Up TV) campaign in January 1964. Hugh Greene, who was the director-general of the BBC at the time, soon became her nemesis. In fact, Whitehouse described him as ‘the devil incarnate’ and blamed Greene and the BBC’s programs for (in her opinion) the decline of the country. Whitehouse said of Greene that:

“If you were to ask me to name the one man who more than anybody else had been responsible for the moral collapse in this country, I would name Greene.”

Any and anything would set Mary Whitehouse off. If the BBC aired a show that even dared to suggest the very possible idea of pre-martial sex (or even marital sex), she would reel off one of her many letters to the BBC and complain. She’d even get pissed off if a program dared to show characters drinking alcohol.

MARY WHITEHOUSE LETTERS

Mary Whitehouse set up a petition, which gained over 500,000 signatures, to be sent to the BBC over their ‘obscene’ TV programs. Her CUTV campaign was gathering some momentum and Whitehouse, as its figurehead, was becoming well-known in her own right. Regularly holding talks at Birmingham Town Hall, which were attended by 1000s, she would speak out against the ‘filth’ being shown on the BBC. At one such meeting, local writer David Turner, stood up and berated Mary Whitehouse for her views. Turner claimed that Whitehouse was a threat to the integrity of legitimate art. If only he knew that this was just the beginning.

Not too long after David Turner gave Mary Whitehouse a piece of his mind at that meeting, the comedy-drama Swizzlewick (which Turner created and wrote for) featured a character called Mrs Smallgood, an obvious parody of Whitehouse. This would be the start of a long line of TV shows calling Mary Whitehouse out and highlighting her forced opinions.

In 1965, Hugh Greene delivered a speech in which he spoke out against certain campaigners. He never mentioned Mary Whitehouse or her CUTV campaign by name. Still, it was pretty obvious who and what his words were aimed at. During that speech, Greene said that such campaigns could lead to:

“a dangerous form of censorship, which works by causing artists and writers not to take risks.”

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Mary Whitehouse’s CUTV thing only lasted until the end of 1965. Oh, don’t worry. She was not done yet, not by a long chalk. See, Whitehouse founded the National Viewers and Listeners Association (NVALA) which just replaced CUTV. It was the same shit, just with a different name. With the name change came some semblance of legitimacy too. With CUTV, Whitehouse mainly attracted supporters from bored housewives who were as annoyingly pathetic as she was. With NVALA, she got politicians involved. People like the former cabinet minister, Bill Deedes and Quintin Hogg (AKA Lord Hailsham) became supporters.

Mary Whitehouse would still hound the BBC with letters whenever she found a program to be ‘offensive’. Due to her political connections, she began to send similar letters to the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. Whitehouse and the NVALA were growing daily. Her letters to the PM were so frequent that it has been said that the staff at 10 Downing Street would often ‘accidentally’ lose her letters just so that they didn’t have to reply to them.

NAZI CAMP

In 1965, the current affairs show Panorama aired an episode where they covered the liberation of the Nazi Belsen concentration camp on its 20th anniversary. The same concentration camp where Anne Frank died. Of course, Mary Whitehouse found something to complain about. She said that the program was ‘bound to shock and offend’ and called it ‘filth’. She really did like to use the word ‘filth’ as a descriptive. How and why a program celebrating the anniversary of British soldiers liberating a Nazi concentration camp and saving 1000s of innocent lives could be described as ‘filth’ by anyone, I have no idea… unless you were a Nazi yourself. Not that I am suggesting in any way that Mary Whitehouse was a Nazi, honest.

Mary Whitehouse’s letters were usually epic rants about the ‘filth’ and ‘smut’ that the BBC would show. She would count unsavoury language in TV shows and list it. Now, this was the mid-1960s, so the language was pretty ‘off-colour’. Words like ‘bloody’, Whitehouse would count each and every use and record it in her letters. The classic sitcom Till Death Us Do Part was one of her main targets. Alf Garnett and his very ‘un-PC’ ways often rubbed Mary Whitehouse up the wrong way. In one of the many, many letters, she said of the show that:

“I doubt if many people would use 121 bloodies in half-an-hour.”

Johnny Speight, who created and wrote Till Death Us Do Part, had to pay Whitehouse and the NVALA ‘substantial damages’ and give a full apology after he suggested, in an interview, that NVALA members were fascists.

In the Alf’s Dilemma episode of Till Death Us Do Part from 1967, Speight had Garnett reading a copy of Whitehouse’s book, Cleaning Up TV. Seemingly on the side of Mary Whitehouse, Alf Garnett began to agree with everything that she said. This, of course, just pissed Whitehouse off even more. It was a clever and deft bit of writing. A lesser writer would’ve had the character ranting and raving at Whitehouse. But instead, a character that she despised of and continually complained about was now praising and defending her. How could she damn a character that thought she was right, as that would make her wrong? Though, the episode does end with her book being burnt.

MARY WHITEHOUSE BOOK

In 1969, Mary Whitehouse’s nemesis, Hugh Greene, left the BBC as its director-general. Whitehouse took great pleasure in taking credit for Greene leaving. Her continual letters must’ve eventually worn him down eh? Well no, Greene leaving the BBC had nothing to do with Whitehouse. In 1967 the chairman of the BBC, Norman Brook died. Brook and Greene were good friends and had a great working relationship. Anyway, Brook was replaced by Charles Hill, somebody that Hugh Greene really didn’t get on with at all. Still, Greene just wanted to retire anyway, so he did. His stepping down as the BBC’s director-general had nothing to do with Mary Whitehouse, even if she liked to claim that it did.

The Liberating 70s

The 1970s bought a whole load of more TV ‘filth’ for Mary Whitehouse to get writing letters about. The bawdy comedy stylings of Benny Hill became a major target for her and her letter-writing pen. Hill was famed for his use of sexy young women that were known as the ‘Hill’s Angels’ (yes, that lass off Frasier was one). These young lasses would often be wearing nowt much more than lingerie and swimsuits as they sang and danced on The Benny Hill Show. Out would come Mary Whitehouse’s pen and the angry letters began. It wasn’t just TV though as Whitehouse began to broaden her disdain for well, pretty much any and everything related to entertainment.

HILLS ANGELS

Music was another one of her targets. My Ding-a-Ling by Chuck Berry became a song that Whitehouse had an issue with. The song had always been a bit of a joke, a novelty song, a bit of fun. The story in the song is said to be about someone receiving a toy of ‘silver bells hanging on a string’. Look, here are the opening lyrics:

“When I was a little bitty boy
My grandmother bought me a cute little toy
Silver bells hanging on a string
She told me it was my ding-a-ling-a-ling, oh”

See, the song is about a boy getting a gift from his grandmother. Obviously, one could misconstrue the lyrics as being something more sexual and I am sure that was the intention of the song too. So obviously, Mary Whitehouse did see the song as being sexual and she tried to get the BBC to ban the song from being played on TV or the radio. As far as I can tell, she didn’t succeed. If going after Chuck Berry wasn’t enough, Whitehouse turned her attention to shock-rocker, Alice Cooper.

Cooper’s School’ s Out was slowly climbing the charts in 1972 and he was asked to perform the song on BBC’s premo music show at the time, Top of the Pops. Of course, Mary Whitehouse was having none of it. She began one of her campaigns to have the song and even Alice Copper himself banned from the BBC. The letters and the public speaking began, ‘filth’, ban this song and its singer! Whitehouse was outraged that such a ‘disgusting’ song and act could get publicity and be promoted by the BBC. However, her campaign backfired and if anything, actually helped School’ s Out in the long run. In fact, it reached number 1 in the charts here in the UK in 1972 and that certainly popularised Cooper himself. So happy with the result Alice Copper was, that he ended up sending a bunch of flowers to Mary Whitehouse to say ‘thank you’ for helping him become such a hit.

ALICE COOPER

Even cinema was not safe from the Whitehouse wrath. Everyone knows the story of Stanley Kubrick pulling A Clockwork Orange from the cinema in the UK, right? Apparently, Kubrick voluntarily had the film pulled because he was worried that copycats would try to be the next Alex DeLarge. That’s only a half-truth. Stanley Kubrick actually pulled the film because he was getting tired of a campaign against the film that had been building in the UK. I’ll give you one guess as to who started the campaign against the film, to begin with.

Now, A Clockwork Orange was supposedly linked to a handful of crimes by the press, including murder and rape. However, there was never any proof that the film was to blame. At least, I can’t find any. Oh, I can find snippets from the press back then blaming the film, but no actual proof that those claims were true.

There was even something called a ‘Clockwork Orange defence’ used in some court cases back then, where the lawyer of the accused would put the blame on the film, even if there was no link. In fact, in one case an old homeless man, David McManus, was beaten and killed by a 16-year-old boy, Richard Palmer. The press said the film was to blame. However, Palmer admitted that he had never even seen A Clockwork Orange to be influenced by it. But that didn’t stop the press at the time as they were the ones making the links, even if there were none.

CLOCKWORK ORANGE

All of the negative press coverage that A Clockwork Orange was receiving at the time (true or not) was what spurred Mary Whitehouse to launch her campaign against it. That campaign grew and grew, to the point where Kubrick and his family began to receive death threats (the irony eh?) and he even had protesters outside of his home. Fearing what these people could do, Stanley Kubrick got pissed off with all the negativity and had the film pulled. Pulled not because he was concerned about copycats, but concerned for the safety of his family, a concern that was created and stirred up by Mary Whitehouse and her NVALA group. When he was asked about the possibility of his film creating copycat crimes, Kubrick said:

“To try and fasten any responsibility on art as the cause of life seems to me to put the case the wrong way around. Art consists of reshaping life, but it does not create life, nor cause life. Furthermore, to attribute powerful suggestive qualities to a film is at odds with the scientifically accepted view that, even after deep hypnosis in a posthypnotic state, people cannot be made to do things which are at odds with their natures”

If there was one thing that really rubbed Mary Whitehouse up the wrong way in the 1970s, that thing was Doctor Who. Whitehouse’s main issue with the program was that it was too violent for children. The fact that Doctor Who wasn’t a kid’s TV show seemed to completely go over her head. Yeah, I guess children could watch the show, but that doesn’t make it a kid’s TV show, does it? Children can watch the news, but it’s not aimed at them and you wouldn’t consider it children’s television.

Whitehouse once described Doctor Who as being ‘teatime brutality for tots’ and that it contained ‘some of the sickest and most horrific material seen on children’s television’. It wasn’t children’s television though. I’ve never watched Doctor Who and even I know that. It got to a point where Philip Hinchcliffe, who was the producer of Doctor Who in the late 70s said:

“I always felt that Mary Whitehouse thought of Doctor Who as a children’s programme, for little children, and it wasn’t, so she was really coming at the show from the wrong starting-point.”

DR WHO SEEDS OF DOOM

There was one episode of Doctor Who called The Seeds of Doom where the then Doctor, Tom Baker, was attacked by a plant monster. Mary Whitehouse was so incensed by the violence that she went on to say:

“Strangulation by hand, by claw, by obscene vegetable matter is the latest gimmick, sufficiently close up so they get the point. And just for a little variety, show the children how to make a Molotov cocktail.”

I had to seek out this episode just so I could see for myself just how graphic it was… it’s not. As for the whole teaching children how to make a Molotov cocktail bit. Doctor Who was not a kid’s show, so it taught them nothing. It’s not like Doctor Who was trying to be Blue Peter. The episode doesn’t teach anyone how to make a Molotov cocktail. Even if it did, what kid in 1976 had open and easy access to glass bottles and paraffin liquid?

In another episode called The Deadly Assassin, Whitehouse made a complaint about the ending. To be more accurate, this was a four-part special and at the finale of part three, the Doctor is seemingly drowned and killed in a cliffhanger ending. It was this ending that got Mary Whitehouse’s dander up. She wrote one of her classic letters of complaint to the BBC saying that the drowning of the Doctor was too intense for children (in this, not a children’s TV show). The BBC showed that they had no backbone by giving Whitehouse an apology and they edited the master tape to remove the ending. This meant that whenever the episode was repeated, the Mary Whitehouse safe version had to be shown instead because the original no longer existed. For a while, it was believed that the unedited ending was lost. It was found years later and put back in for the DVD release in 2009.

DR WHO ASASSIN

Throughout most of the 1970s, Mary Whitehouse and her NVALA  protest group boasted more than 150,000 members. Considering the time, and as this was way before the Internet and social media gave any and everyone a voice, that was a hell of  a lot of miserable people moaning about music, TV and films. But, as the end of the 1970s came about, NVALA members dropped to around 30,000 members. Those dwindling numbers have never really been explained. Perhaps people’s perceptions were changed and all of those things that Whitehouse liked to describe as ‘filth’ slowly became the norm? Perhaps people just got tired of her ramblings and chose to ignore her? Either way, Mary Whitehouse still had a lot to bitch about as the 1980s began.

The Hateful 80s

Easily, the biggest impact that Mary Whitehouse and the NVALA had in the 1980s was the whole ‘Video Nasties’ movement. Now, I’m not going to go into great detail here, as this one thing alone could take up its own very lengthy article. But, the basics were that before Whitehouse got involved, VHS releases didn’t need to be passed for clarification by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) due to a loophole. This meant that before the 80s, videotapes of films were released fully uncensored and (usually) without age restrictions. Of course, Whitehouse didn’t like this one bit and a campaign was born to introduce a law that the BBFC would now have to classify VHS releases of films the result was the Video Recordings Act 1984.

VIDEO NASTY

This act tied with the Obscene Publications Act 1959 led to a lot of VHS films being heavily censored in the UK or even outright banned and soon became known as the Video Nasty list. 72 films were on the original list and a further 82 films were added to that list later in what became known as the (Director of Public Prosecutions) DPP List.

Now, while I am dead against censorship, I do agree that age restrictions should apply. However, if something is rated for adults, don’t go censoring (or even banning it) when it is for an adult audience. The Video Recordings Act 1984 had far stricter rules for films released on video than if that same film had been released in the cinema. So, even when films were released on VHS after a cinema run, they would still be edited a lot of the time.

Numerous films were given the ‘Video Nasty’ label and were cut or outright banned from release. It took until 1998 when the director of the BBFC, James Ferman, retired before the rules were relaxed. A slew of films from 1999 onwards began to see full and uncut releases here in the UK. Still, it was a dark time for entertainment here, an age of over-the-top censorship that lasted for almost 20 years. One that was headed up by Mary Whitehouse.

MARY WHITEHOUSE VHS

When Whitehouse was not busy getting films banned in the UK, she still had time to show her disdain for TV. In the 1980s, she had more channels to moan about too. Channel 4 launched in the UK in 1982 and Mary Whitehouse found plenty to get writing letters of ‘disgust’ about.

When it originally launched, Channel 4 was always seen as and intended to be a channel that pushed broadcasting boundaries (nowadays, they censor episodes of The Simpsons). They showed films and TV shows that the other channels wouldn’t dare to. Brookside was one of Channel 4’s flagship shows, a soap opera set in Liverpool that had a much harder edge than other soaps of the day. Stories involving, sex, violence and more. Very tame by today’s standards but in 1982, this was a red rag to a bull for Mary Whitehouse. She objected to Brookside using (what is now and even then) very mild swearing. Just as she did in the 1960s with Alf Garnett, Whitehouse would sit there, watch Brookside and list all of the swearing and then write a letter of complaint to Channel 4 and her political friends. It got to the point where Mary Whitehouse called for the resignation of Jeremy Isaacs, who was the founding chief executive of Channel 4 at the time. He stayed at Channel 4 until 1987 when he left to become the General Director of the Royal Opera House. And no, his leaving had nothing to do with Mary Whitehouse or her letters.

BROOKSIDE

Mary Whitehouse even had issues with the ITV show, Robin of Sherwood. A more up-to-date (for the time) version of the Robin Hood tale. It was a popular and very watchable show that was for family viewing, not children’s TV. This is where Whitehouse and the NVALA made the same mistakes that they did with Doctor Who, it wasn’t a kid’s show. Still, that didn’t stop Whitehouse from labelling the show as being ‘unsuitable for children’. Robin of Sherwood had things like sword fights in it, but no blood or any real or detailed violence to speak of. Think of it as a Robin Hood version of The A-Team, with far fewer cabbage cannons. But of course, Whitehouse became incensed by the ‘violence’ and felt that the show was anti-Christian too. The episode called The Swords of Wayland angered Whitehouse because she felt that it had a Satanic plot and villains. Then, The Greatest Enemy episode depicted a ‘resurrection’ of the Robin Hood character (not really) and Mary Whitehouse said that it was disrespectful to Christianity.

ROBIN OF SHERWOOD

During one of her many public rants, Mary Whitehouse was doing her usual of telling everyone that TV was evil and ‘filth’. Little did she know that Richard Carpenter, the writer of Robin of Sherwood, was in the audience. After Whitehouse had finished ranting about TV and the evils of the Robin of Sherwood show, Carpenter stood up and said:

“I’m Richard Carpenter, and I’m a professional writer. And you’re a professional… what?”

Apparently, the gathered crowd and Mary Whitehouse herself fell deathly quiet. He had a point though, she may have had some clout but Whitehouse was a nobody. Just a bitter old woman trying to tell people what they could or couldn’t watch.

MARY WHITEHOUSE 3

In 1989, Mary Whitehouse got herself into a bit of trouble. She was on the BBC Radio show In the Psychiatrist’s Chair and was talking about celebrated writer Dennis Potter and his controversial drama, The Singing Detective. For those not in the know, Potter suffered from psoriatic arthropathy and The Singing Detective’s main character also suffered from the same disease. The drama infamously featured a scene where a young boy saw his own mother having sex. So, Whitehouse made a connection that the reason why Dennis Potter suffered from psoriatic arthropathy was that he, as a young boy, saw his mother having sex with a stranger. I guess she had issues with differentiating between fiction and real life? Or, to use Mary Whitehouse’s own words, Potter’s mother:

“…committed adultery with a strange man and that the shock of witnessing this had caused her son to be afflicted.”

Now, I’m not a medical expert and I know very little about psoriatic arthritis, other than it being a disease that is very painful on the joints and can cause the skin to go scaly and itchy. I may know little about the disease, but I am 100% sure that you can’t contract it by seeing your mother having sex. Even if you could, Whitehouse just outright saying that was how Denis Potter came down with psoriatic arthritis was complete bullshit and based on absolutely nothing. Mrs Potter went on to sue Mary Whitehouse and the BBC for libel in 1990 and she won too. As an excuse, Whitehouse claimed that she had a ‘blackout’ during the interview and had no idea what she was saying at the time.

The End Of An Era, The Beginning Of Another

In 1988, Mary Whitehouse suffered a fall while gardening and injured her spine. She had to take it easy and began to step away from her anti-everything campaigns over the years. Eventually, she left the NVALA in 1994, after 30 years of moaning because a fictional character in a sitcom said ‘bloody’ on the TV. Mary Whitehouse lived out the rest of he life in a nursing home in Colchester before passing away 21 years ago today, aged 91.

Even though this is a pretty lengthy article, I have only lightly dusted off a few of Mary Whitehouse’s rants and raves. Trust me, she did a lot more than this brief highlight reel here.

MARY WHITEHOUSE 4

Over the years, a lot of people have made fun of Mary Whitehouse, even when she was alive. The Monty Python team had a pop with this animation. Barry Humphries’ iconic Dame Edna Everage character was partly inspired by Whitehouse. Caroline Aherne’s Mrs Merton character also came from Mary Whitehouse. In fact, Whitehouse was even a guest on The Mrs Merton Show in the first series.

Of course, there was also the BBC 2 topical comedy show, The Mary Whitehouse Experience. Not only named after the useless busybody, but the show was specifically given that title as it featured near-the-knuckle humour that would purposely rub Whitehouse up the wrong way. The Deep Purple song, Mary Long, is about Mary Whitehouse too. Really, Mary Whitehouse and the NVALA became more of the butt of a joke in the later years and were largely forgotten about.

STRIPE GREMLINS

It may be 21 years since Mary Whitehouse died, but she’s still here. You know that scene in Gremlins when the evil Stripe jumps into a swimming pool to make many more evil offspring gremlins? That is what happened to Whitehouse. She fell into the swimming pool and ‘birthed’ the snowflakes that we have now. Only, where Mary Whitehouse had to rely on letters and the postal service to force her cancel culture opinions onto others. Now, people have the Internet and (let’s be honest, mainly) Twitter. All of these little Whitehouses can now directly @ performer or a company and instantly vent their displeasure.

A comedian tells a joke that someone didn’t like and instead of just letting it wash over, they now send a Tweet. @ the comedian, their agent, the platform they told the joke on and there you go. Next comes the forced (and faux) apology, the grovelling from whoever was involved with the joke. TV shows from the past are now heavily edited with huge chunks of dialogue and even plot removed. Sometimes, the show itself is removed in its entirety. Yeah, some shows from the 60s, 70s and 80s (even some of the 90s) would not work now… but that’s the point. They were not made in the 2020s. They serve as a snapshot of those times. So, editing (or outright removing) these shows now makes zero sense. If you are going to be ‘offended’ by certain words and situations, then don’t watch.

MARY WHITEHOUSE 5

The thing is that Whitehouse’s NVALA still exists to this day Given a name change to Mediawatch-UK in 2001 after Mary Whitehouse’s death. The group no longer boasts the impressive number of members it did in its heydays of the 1960s and 70s. There are only around 5,000 registered members of Mediawatch-UK these days… but they do still try to piss on people’s cornflakes regardless.

Even so, I may not have agreed with Whitehouse and I do detest censorship and everything that comes with it. However, I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t admit to some kind of admiration for her and what she was trying to do. There is something to be said for someone who is willing to dedicate 30 years of their life to a cause (right or wrong), it’s commendable and shows a lot of determination.

Here’s to you Mary Whitehouse, the Mother of the Twitter moaners and the Queen of the snowflakes. Just look at what you have wrought.

It’s A Hell Of A Thing, Killin’ A Man: Unforgiven At 30.

The Western genre was huge decades ago. It really all began in the 1950s. Oh, I know that there were Westerns before the 1950s and the genre dates back to the early 1900s with The Great Train Robbery from 1903 being one of the first (there were even some Westerns from around 1895). However, it was in the 1950s and when John Wayne was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, that the Western genre really began to gain popularity.

JOHN WAYNE

By the 1960s, the genre had plateaued and began to fall out of favour as tastes changed… at least in America. In Europe, the Western was still a major draw and so the subgenre of the Spaghetti Western was born. These were a mix of various production companies over Europe working together to make classic Westerns with a more modern and European edge. I really should write a more detailed look at the Spaghetti Western subgenre one day. Anyway, Italian director Sergio Leone was one of the big Spaghetti Western filmmakers working in Europe in the 60s. Meanwhile, in America, a young bit-part actor by the name of Clint Eastwood, was struggling to find roles. At the time, Eastwood was appearing in the TV show Rawhide but could not break into movies. Long story short and Eastwood was suggested to play the lead in a new Spaghetti Western that Sergio Leone was making in Europe. That film was Per un pugno di dollari or, A Fistful of Dollars.

An even longer story short and Clint Eastwood stayed in Europe, did a few more Spaghetti Westerns and when they were eventually released in America a few years later, Eastwood became a major Hollywood star and the Western was reborn. From then, there was no stopping him as Eastwood ruled the box office for decades. Taking on iconic role after iconic role. I mean, Dirty Harry anyone? It was in the 70s when Eastwood also turned his hand to directing for the first time with the 1971 psychological thriller, Play Misty for Me. It turned out that not only was Eastwood a great actor, he was a damn fine director too. He began directing more and more films and his latest film as a director, Cry Macho, was released in 2021 when Eastwood was 91 years old. That’s a directing career of 50 years and more than thirty films. Not bad for a guy who couldn’t land a lead role in America in the 1960s.

Still, if I were to pick just one film that showcases Clint Eastwood’s talent as an actor and director, that film would have to be Unforgiven. Not only Eastwood’s best film but perhaps one of the greatest Western to ever be made too. Released back in 1992, Unforgiven is now 30 years old and I’m writing this article to celebrate its genius and take a look at just why it is so damn good.

While Unforgiven was released in 1992, it dates back a little further than that. David Webb Peoples was a film editor in the 70s as his main job, but he loved to write. In his spare time between editing jobs, he would sit down and pen screenplays. He got his first big job as a writer when Ridley Scott hired him to write Blade Runner in 1982. Still, back in the 70s when David Webb Peoples was working as an editor and writing in his spare time, he penned a Western film script with a harder edge than was being made at the time and that script had two working titles, The Cut-Whore Killings and The William Munny Killings. The script eventually found its way to Clint Eastwood in the 80s. However, he didn’t read it.

Instead, long-time associate of Eastwood, Sonia Chernus (she worked on Rawhide and The Outlaw Josey Wales with Eastwood) read the script and hated it. The script was overly violent and bloody with not much of a plot. Chernus told Eastwood that:

“We would have been far better off not to have accepted trash like this piece of inferior work. I can’t think of one good thing to say about it. Except maybe, get rid of it fast.”

Clint Eastwood trusted his associate’s judgement and didn’t read the script himself but, he didn’t follow her advice to ‘get rid of it fast’. Instead, he just put it to one side. A while later and when looking for a new project to work on, Eastwood picked up David Webb Peoples’ The Cut-Whore Killings/The William Munny Killings script and liked it. He recognised that it was rough and still need a lot of work, but he liked it. In fact, Clint Eastwood liked it so much that he felt not only should he play the lead but that he should direct it too. It was about 1986 and while Eastwood loved the script, he felt he was a bit too young to take it on. He decided to leave it for a few years and in that time, the script could be reworked and polished. Eventually, it became the shooting script for Unforgiven. From that rough script, Unforgiven went on to win four Oscars. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman) and Best Film Editing. Not bad for a flick that was once deemed so bad that it should be thrown away.

UNFORGIVEN POSTER

Unforgiven really is a wonderful piece of cinema that turned the Western genre on its head. Going back to classic films of the genre, the plots were always pretty basic. You had a good guy and a bad guy storyline and the Sheriff was always the good guy. With Unforgiven, Gene Hackman’s Sheriff ‘Little’ Bill Daggett was the bad guy, a really nasty bad guy too who was responsible for some of the most evil acts in the film. Daggett is even more violent than the cowboys that are responsible for kick-starting the plot of the film. Then, Clint Eastwood’s William Munny wasn’t exactly the hero in the white hat either. He had a history, a pretty bleak history. The film makes it clear that Munny is not or has not been a nice person and can never be redeemed for his past actions. The opening text crawl tells you that he is a known thief and murderer. William Munny will never be Unforgiven and there was this blurring of the line between being a good or bad guy in a Western.

Outside of the main two characters, Unforgiven is crammed with some amazing characters and performances. Richard Harris as English Bob, the legendary and ageing gunslinger is only in a few scenes, but those scenes stick with you. With Bob being followed around by Saul Rubinek’s W.W. Beauchamp, a very nervous writer wanting to capture the story of English Bob on the page. The whores that kick-start the story and their lust for revenge is so well crafted for such a simple plot. The Schofield Kid, played by Jaimz Woolvett is a wonderfully realised character that has all the bluster and front of a hardened killer, only for the exact opposite to be true. Of course, you can’t talk about the cast and characters of Unforgiven without mentioning Morgan Freeman as Ned Logan. One of William Munny’s oldest and best friends and an ex-outlaw with his own questionable past.

UNFORGIVEN NED

One of the great things about Unforgiven is how it handles the violence. There is no doubt that this is a violent flick, but it doesn’t necessarily take glory in that fact. If anything, it questions violence. Just going back to The Schofield Kid character and when he finally admits to having never killed anyone before and the whole ‘It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have’ speech. It’s a very powerful scene and I don’t think a film had ever brought up killing in such a way before, especially in the Western genre. Even before that iconic scene and before the ‘heroes’ are about to kill one of the cowboys who cut up Delilah Fitzgerald at the start of the film. You have the Ned Logan character tell William Munny that he can’t kill anyone. There’s a morality here and several times through the film, violence is questioned as characters try to make sense of what they are doing. The film almost feels anti-violence even when it is at its most violent.

UNFORGIVEN KID

All through that violence, we are rooting for a bad guy. Clint Eastwood’s William Munny was a horrible character with many flaws. As mentioned, the opening text crawl tells you that he was a murderer. Then, at the end of the film, we learn so much more as Munny even admits as much himself.

“I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed everything that walks or crawls at one time or another.” 

He’s a child killer and we, the viewer, are on his side. He’s not a nice person, or at least he wasn’t. A retired outlaw turned pig farmer, trying to look after his two children since his wife died. Yet, he can’t escape his old life. We, the viewer, are caught in a trap with William Munny. We want him to go back to his farm and take care of his children. But, we also want to see him get bloody revenge. We know that he’s been responsible for some despicable acts in the past and yet, we can’t help but support him. It takes some impressive writing to get the viewer on side with a self-confessed child killer. But it works because (as I said before) the supposed good guy, Sheriff Bill Daggett is evil. Really, there are no ‘good guys’ in Unforgiven, just different levels of bad guys and it gives us one of the most honest depictions of the Wild West on film.

UNFORGIVEN MUNNY 2

Then there is the pacing. Unforgiven comes in at over 2 hours and there are scenes that are slow, plodding. Very talky to help build characters. There are even times when the main plot just stops, as we learn more about William Munny. See the scene when he is talking to the cut-up whore, Delilah Fitzgerald and turning down her offer of a ‘free one’. For a good while, the main plot ceases to exist as Munny’s life and history become the focus. There are several scenes like this, where everything is slowed down and yet, the film never feels boring. It is constantly moving forwards, there is always something going on and the 2-hour runtime flies by, even when the film applies the breaks. You can really tell why this film won the Best Film Editing Oscar. Unforgiven has many a slow scene, but the film itself never feels slow and every single scene in the film deserves to be in the film. There’s not one wasted frame here.

UNFORGIVEN OPENING

You can’t talk about Unforgiven and not mention the cinematography. A lot of Westerns look good, purely based on the fact of their setting. With Unforgiven, you get that times a thousand. I mean, just look at the opening shot above. The scenery used and how it is shot is stunning all through the film. We get shots of beautiful scenery, sunsets and vistas that seem to go on forever. Scenes of people riding horses and talking, while awe-inspiring visuals engulf your eyes. But, there’s a wonderful juxtaposition going on as those beautiful shots are intercut with scenes from the film’s town setting of Big Whiskey. You can go from a prepossessing mountain range to the horseshit-filled streets of Big Whiskey. No more does this become apparent than in the film’s finale, shot at night and in the pouring rain. The use of light and shadow to show the good and bad sides of William Munny. The cinematography is astonishing.

And about that finale. Everything has been building to this for the last hour and 50 minutes. It’s been a slow but engrossing journey and we get to see William Munny as he was before he became a pig farmer. Cold, calculated and an unashamed killer. The last 10 minutes or so of Unforgiven are some of the greatest that you will find in any film. It’s dark, it’s moody and yet, there is still room for some light humour… before the slaughter of Sheriff Bill Daggett and his men. Brutal and brilliantly shot. then we get the closing shot, a mirror of the opening shot and Munny is back home on his farm and looking after his children.

UNFORGIVEN MUNNY

This ladies and gentlemen, this is why Unforgiven is the greatest Western film ever made. Even now, 30 years later, it is still a powerful and emotive picture.

Inside No. 9: A Perversely Humorous Retrospective – Series Six And Seven

Series Six

Well, this is it, the final stretch of Inside No. 9 and the last two series (so far). Originally airing between the 10th of May and the 14th of June 2021. I really have no idea what Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith have in store next. I did get a bit cocky before the previous series and thought I knew what to expect, but I was (happily) proven wrong. Time for me to get lost in some tales and really have no idea where this show is going to take me.

Wuthering Heist

WUTHERING HEIST

Columbina (Gemma Whelan) is working with a rag-tag group to carry out a good old-fashioned heist. Teaming up with Arlo (Kevin Bishop), Pantalone (Paterson Joseph), Mario (Dino Kelly), Hortensia (Rosa Robson), The Doctor (Steve Pemberton) and Scaramouche (Reece Shearsmith). Meeting in a warehouse so that they can go over their plan to steal some diamonds. The heist then takes place (off-screen) and we get to see the aftermath, in a kind of a Reservoir Dogs homage (see the poster).

Okay, I may have just compared this one to Reservoir Dogs, but it is also absolutely nothing like it. Yeah, it features a warehouse, a heist gone wrong and so on and that is all very Reservoir Dogs. However, the style and tone here are something very different. I had no idea exactly what Pemberton and Shearsmith were doing with this one. I knew they were celebrating a style, I just had no idea what it was. I had to do a little research and this episode is done in the style of Commedia dell’arte, an older Italian comedy where the actors all wear masks that denote the characteristics of the role they are playing, usually stock and social stereotypes. Yup, this one is an out-and-out comedy. A style of comedy that I was not aware of before and I admit, was completely lost on me. I really didn’t like this one on my first viewing, but it grew on me with subsequent views. Characters break the fourth wall and talk to the audience, they are fully aware that they are in an episode of Inside No. 9, they make really bad jokes, puns and more. There are some genuinely funny references and jabs at critics and even us the viewer. The structure and style of this one really did grow on me with multiple viewings. It’s a good slice of utter silliness, crafted perfectly.

Simon Says

Spencer (Steve Pemberton) is the writer of a massively popular fantasy TV show called The Ninth Circle. The finale to the show was somewhat ‘underwhelming’, according to the fans. One such fan, Simon (Reece Shearsmith) feels that the show could and should come back to put right what the finale did wrong. Simon turns up at Spencer’s place after witnessing him push an overbearing fan over, which Simon caught on video. That fan died after hitting the floor and Simon uses that to blackmail Spencer into letting him co-write a new finale and one, that he is sure, that the fans will enjoy.

SIMON SAYS

It is quite clear that this is an episode that uses the whole finale and fan backlash of Game of Thrones as its diving board. An episode that explores the whole idea of writing a TV show and one that is squarely aimed at toxic/annoying fan culture. As well as (I’m sure) more than a few subtle digs at ‘certain’ fans of Inside No. 9 itself, who think that they can tell Pemberton and Shearsmith how to do their job. I just need to go over this whole retrospective before I publish it and make sure I don’t appear in a future episode. Simon Says is (yet again) another brilliantly observed and written episode. It is also one that I really didn’t want to try and second guess, I was enjoying all the sly digs at fan culture too much. I just sat back and let this one wash over me and lead me to an ending that put a big ‘ole smile on my face. ‘Nuff said.

Lip Service

Felix (Steve Pemberton) checks into a low-budget hotel room, where he is often pestered by the nosey hotel manager, Eric (Reece Shearsmith). With Eric seemingly out of the way, Iris (Sian Clifford) arrives at the room. Iris is a professional lip reader that Felix has hired to spy on his ex-wife, who is meeting a mystery man over the road from the hotel. Felix wants his wife back and needs to know who this mystery man is and if they are seeing each other or not. What follows is a story that has more twists in it than Chubby Checker had in 1961.

This is one of those episodes that you really need to watch more than once. It is packed with clever lines, double meanings and hidden clues. There’s a brilliant scene where Felix is talking to his wife on the phone while Iris lipreads, so we can hear both sides of the conversation and still stick with Inside No. 9’s rule of staying in one location. It also leads into some classic gags. Yup, this episode has some good comedy in it but don’t let that fool you, this a dark tale and one that packs a hell of an ending. It also seems to merge about four or five different story genres into just under 30 minutes. What could be seen as a mess of storytelling is handled very well indeed.

Hurry Up and Wait

A new crime drama covering the real-life (within the Inside No. 9 universe, not ours) disappearance and supposed murder of baby Ryan is being filmed on location of where Ryan went missing 20 years ago. James (Reece Shearsmith) is a bit player with a small role in the said crime drama. He is taken to the green room while he waits for his one and only scene to be filmed. The green room just so happens to be a lived-in caravan that is still being used by the family who owns it, while doubling up as a green room for the show’s production team. James sits on the couch and practises his lines, when he is interrupted by the daughter of the family, Bev (Donna Preston). Bev is celebrating a birthday and she is very ‘socially awkward’. After a while, James pieces together numerous clues that led him to the conclusion that Bev is actually baby Ryan and that the mother and father of the family kidnapped Ryan and raised him as their daughter. However, James is having trouble getting people to listen to him and what he has discovered.

HURRY UP AND WAIT

You know, if someone were to ask me what sums up Inside No. 9 as a show, I would tell them to watch this episode. It blends reality and fiction by having Adrian Dunbar (famous for playing Ted Hastings from the criticality acclaimed Line of Duty) playing himself. The in-episode ‘factual’ crime drama about baby Ryan is written by Jeff Pope, who is a real TV screenwriter too. This one has comedy in it and satirises acting and TV show productions, Adrian Dunbar slowly stealing James’ lines is hilarious. Then, it also has a really fucking bleak and disturbing ending. This is exactly what Inside No. 9 is all about, leading you down the garden path and slamming the gate on you. Steve Pemberton plays Stan, the father of the family and he really gives off some disturbing Fred West vibes too. There is definitely something wrong with this family and they are hiding a secret. As James goes from a small bit player as a police officer in a crime drama, to full-on detective and works out the clues, you are really on his side and want him to bring this disturbing family down.

How Do You Plead?

Mr Webster (Derek Jacobi) is a massively successful but ageing, ill and dying ex-barrister. He is bedridden, hooked up to all sorts of medical equipment and his diet mainly consists of pills and more pills. Urban (Reece Shearsmith) is his nurse and tends to the soon-to-expire Webster as and when he is summoned. The two partake in a little roleplaying of a court case before the reason behind Webster’s staggering success as a barrister is revealed.

I believe that this episode makes Derek Jacobi the only actor to be in more than one episode of Inside No. 9 (discounting Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, of course). Jacobi voiced the director in The Devil of Christmas episode from series three, though you only heard his voice and never saw him. Anyway, this episode is a cracker and I had no idea where it was going until it was too late. Paring the hardnosed and cutthroat character of Webster against the much more angelic-like Urban makes for a good chalk-and-cheese dynamic. Just who is playing who here though?

Last Night of the Proms

LAST NIGHT AT THE PROMS

A family gather to watch Last Night of the Proms on the TV. There’s Mick (Steve Pemberton) and his wife Dawn (Sarah Parish). Brian (Reece Shearsmith), his wife Penny (Debra Gillett) and their utterly bored teenage son Oliver (Jack Wolfe). Oh, and let’s not forget Ralph (Julian Glover) as the dementia-suffering  and Tourette’s swearing father of Dawn and Penny. In the midst of all the rousing classical music merriment comes Yusuf (Bamshad Abedi-Amin), a strange man who has seemingly wandered in from a local immigration detention centre, or has he?

I don’t think there has been an outright bad episode of Inside No. 9 so far, but there have been some weaker ones. This is one of those. As far as I can tell, the Last Night of the Proms episode has a bit of a political/Brexit agenda and some not-very-subtle symbolism. I am avoiding spoilers for this retrospective but when a bloody dead body gets wrapped up in the Union Flag, all while Jerusalem plays, I just felt that perhaps Pemberton and Shearsmith were being a tad too conspicuous, maybe that was the point? Aside from some really great performances, with Sarah Parish being a major highlight. This was a bit of a weak end to the series that began in such a crazy but funny fashion and with some very enjoyable episodes along the way. But I tell you something, I’ll never listen to The Sailor’s Hornpipe the same way again.

Series Seven

I’ve made it, I’m now at the end of this retrospective and the last series of Inside No. 9, for the time being anyway. Aired between the 20th of April and the 1st of June 2022. I am hoping for a complete mind-fuck and so much rug pulling that I’ll need corrective surgery on my arse cheeks. I want to see some bleak storytelling, humorous dialogue and yeah, some endings that make me worried about the frame of mind that Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith are in. Let’s get cracking.

Merrily, Merrily

Three old university friends meet up for a reunion. Organised by Laurence (Reece Shearsmith), he invites Darren (Steve Pemberton) and Callum (Mark Gatiss) to a ‘party on a boat’. The boat turns out to be a pedalo, which the friends take out and across a lake. However and due to a misunderstanding with the invite, Darren turns up with his uninvited girlfriend Donna (Diane Morgan). That is when Laurence’s plans are thrown into disarray and it is revealed that the party never even existed and just what Laurence planned was is revealed.

MERRILY MERRILY (2)

Taking Inside No. 9’s rule of setting the story in one location, this episode is about as claustrophobic as you can get, all while still being out in the open. The four characters are stuck on the pedalo on the lake as tales from the past and present are told. With some great writing and the suggestion that Laurence’s party isn’t quite what it seems. We learn more about what these friends have been up to and how their lives have changed. Pemberton’s Darren character is brilliantly realised and his misunderstanding of the invite (and what a pedalo is) becomes all too clear with a great reveal. I have to admit that this episode led me down the garden path. I had a feeling that it was heading in one direction, only for it to deliver a resolve that is unexpected and bitter-sweet. A great opener for the series.

Mr King

MR KING

Mr Curtis (Reece Shearsmith) is the new teacher at a small rural school in Wales, overseen by the headmaster Mr Edwards (Steve Pemberton). Taking over from the previous teacher, Mr King. Mr Curtis loves teaching and tries all sorts of new teaching methods to get his pupils interested. However, Mr Curtis seems to be a bit too strict and his teaching style is vastly different to Mr King. One of Mr Curtis’ pupils makes an accusation against him and he has to try to clear his name. All while also trying to track down his predecessor, Mr King, to help him get a grasp of the kind of lessons that he was teaching the class.

This was one of those episodes that failed to fool me. If you have ever seen a certain British folk-horror film, then you will see the ending of this coming about 2 minutes into this episode. Still, that does not mean that there wasn’t a lot to enjoy here. This is another episode that is peppered with great humour, sharp dialogue and loads of clues. Mr King is one that really does warrant multiple viewings. Then there is the misdirection and you will go from rooting for Mr Curtis to really detesting him and more. Reece Shearsmith’s character is brilliantly realised and portrayed. Yeah, I may have correctly guessed the ending within a few minutes of the episode starting, but the journey to that ending was so damn enjoyable.

Nine Lives Kat

Katrina (Sophie Okonedo) is a tough detective working on a case involving a missing boy. She is also a bit of a cliché. A divorced single mother, alcohol problem and she struggles with a work/life balance. As the case begins to take over, Katrina struggles to keep a grip on her life, while she pours vodka on her cereal. This is when Ezra (Steve Pemberton) enters the story and he begins to clear things up… or make them so much worse.

I love writing, I love writing about writing and that is what this episode is all about. A very meta tale that explores character and storytelling in a very clever way. There’s some really bad and cheesy dialogue here, awful clichés everywhere, including a shitty jump scare with a cat. Just looking at this on the surface, this is the ‘worst’ written episode of Inside No. 9 yet… but it is supposed to be. It’s not like Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith completely dropped the ball here with the writing, quite the opposite in fact. The writing here is bad for a very good reason. The clichés are there to clue you into what is going on. This one is enjoyably bad and exceptionally wonderful at the same time.

Kid/Nap

KIDNAP

Shane (Daniel Mays) and Clifford (Jason Isaacs) kidnap Lara (Daisy Haggard), the wife of wealthy hedge fund manager Dominic (Reece Shearsmith). The duo plan on holding Lara for a £1.3 million ransom and if her husband refuses to pay, well, it could get very bloody. It soon becomes clear that Clifford is the brains of the plan, while Shane is not. Oh, and Lara is actually in on the plan as she is having an affair with Clifford. Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler, this plot point is revealed before you get to the halfway point. When Dominic calls the police, headed up by DI Ellis (Steve Pemberton), that is when the careful plan begins to go awry.

This episode can be viewed in one of two ways. You can watch this as a really bad kidnap thriller, or you can see it as a fantastic parody and clever observation of a really bad kidnap thriller. I’m pretty sure that the latter is the aim. An episode that plays up the comedy factor and one that becomes a comedy of errors, crammed with stock characters and stilted dialogue. The ‘twist’ that Lara is in on the plan is not even the twist of the episode either as this has more than just the one surprise. This is another one of the very few episodes that breaks the ‘everything in one location’ rule too, but still keeps everything together. It uses split-screen to show the other characters and locations but all while still keeping things anchored. Basically, if Brian De Palma ever directed an episode of Inside No. 9, it would look like this. Kid/Nap is an episode that you are either going to ‘get’ and be on board with its gritty-silliness, or it’ll go completely over your head and you’ll misunderstand the point.

A Random Act of Kindness

Helen (Jessica Hynes) is a single mother living with her teenage son Zach (Noah Valentine). Their relationship is not at its best as they bicker and argue constantly. When a sparrow flies into Zach’s bedroom window, a strange man called Bob (Steve Pemberton) picks it up and asks for help from Helen to nurse it back to health. Bob and Zach strike up a relationship and the teenager gets some much-needed tuition from the stranger in terms of his education. But, is Bob going to drive a wedge between Zach and his mother or bring them closer together?

RANDOM ACT

There really is a lot to cover with this episode, and the fact that I am actively avoiding spoilers makes this very hard to sum up. What starts out as a simple family drama evolves into something far more complex and intricate. The relationship between Bob and Zach is wonderfully explored and you get a nice physics lesson thrown in too. The plot here becomes multi-layered and much more complex, especially as it reaches its climax. This is an episode that really does display how great Pemberton and Shearsmith can be when armed with a word processor and an idea. Some razor-sharp writing and a story that is as deep as the Mariana Trench. What you get here is 28 minutes of TV that offers a story worthy of a feature film. The ending will leave you scratching your head trying to work out just who got a happy ending, or if anyone did. Still, as complex as the story gets, there’s a simple mother/son dynamic that is the driving force behind it all.

Wise Owl

WISE OWL

Ronnie (Reece Shearsmith) is a man-child with an obviously troubled past. He grew up with the Wise Owl public information films that taught him not to talk to strangers, play with matches and the like. These films have left deep and lasting psychological scars that have carried over from boy to man, Ronnie is borderline suicidal. A phone call from his mother sparks off memories that drive Ronnie to kill off his inner demons before they kill him.

After the damp squib of an episode that was the end of series six, this is how you end a series. Fuck me, this was this dark and amazing at the same time. If you are from England and of a certain age (like me) then the public information films of the 70s and 80s are forever ingrained into your subconscious. Things like Donald Pleasence playing Death and trying to kill children at a pond, or watching a kid get electrocuted at a power station when trying to retrieve a football. These memories are decades old and yet, still as strong as they ever were. Then there is the king of all public information films, Charley Says. It is those Charley Says cartoons that serve as the basis for this episode. The story of Ronnie is intercut with Wise Owl animations that are clearly massively inspired by the Charley Says cartoons. This is an episode that left a deep impression on me, like the Wise Owl did on Ronnie. Twit-you!


Overall

Series six and seven have been great. I have sat here watching these episodes and expecting a drop in quality, but it never happened. Yeah sure, some episodes were better than others but I never found one I outright disliked. For me, this is a testament to Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s scribing. Even if an episode didn’t exactly work for me (Last Night of the Proms), I can still appreciate the work that went into it. From meta and fourth-wall-breaking tales to mind-melting and straight-up WTF ones. Inside No. 9 had still managed to surprise me, seven series in. I’m not bored yet, I want more.

Overall-Overall

For me, Inside No. 9 is an astonishing piece of TV. I’ve recently read that it has been renewed for two more series, which will take the total to 9… perfect. It’ll also leave me with two more series to cover and keep my format of this retrospective too, thanks fellas. I think that is where they should stop too. I don’t like it when a TV show outstays its welcome and I do think that Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith should quit while they are ahead, go out on a high and avoid scraping the bottom of the barrel. Still, the end of the show doesn’t necessarily mean the end of Inside No. 9, an anthology film could be amazing if the duo come up with any new ideas for stories after series nine. Just think of an Amicus-stylised portmanteau film version of Inside No. 9. Pemberton and Shearsmith could have a lot of fun with that.

INSIDE NO.9 STEVE REECE 2

Still, now I have sat through all seven series and forty-three episodes (multiple times) and I now realise how angry this show has made me. See, I like to write, I’ve penned a few short stories and even a novel. Putting together a compelling short story is far more difficult than a longer tale. You have far less time to build a story, evolve characters and so on. So, to create so many great short tales here with Inside No. 9 and make it look easy, really infuriates me. I adore this show, I think it is amazing. But it has also taught me that I have a long way to go as a writer myself.

Halloween Picks

Okay, so to finish this Halloween special of my look at the entirety of Inside No. 9, I’m going to pick some of the more horror-based/creepy episodes that I feel are worth a watch over Halloween. Not necessarily blood-soaked gore-fests, but episodes that I think are scary or disturbing (and more) and that would work great as a nice little Inside No. 9 Halloween-fest. There is no real reasoning to this list (other than chronologically via series), no best to worst, etc. Just my suggestion of episodes to watch if you want something with more of a horror vibe in the run-up to Halloween.

INSIDE NO.9 STEVE REECE 3

Let’s get things started with the Tom & Gerri episode. A great yarn and one that explores mental health with a dark twist. The Harrowing next, for the fact that this looks and feels like a classic gothic horror film. There’s a nice bit of black comedy in this one and it has some genuine scares too. I think it would be rather remiss of me if I didn’t put The 12 Days of Christine on this list of Halloween tales. A big fan-favourite and one that really is a showcase for Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s writing. Séance Time is well worth a watch if you want something with a wonderfully creepy atmosphere and a few laughs.

Quite simply, one of the most creative and clever episodes next with The Devil of Christmas. I have a particular adulation for this one because I grew up with and love the kind of TV shows that it is paying homage to. Plus, it’s just a really well told creepy tale. I have spoken about the quality of the writing several times already but with my next pick, I have to praise it more. The Riddle of the Sphinx is fucking genius. Not only do you get a great story, you also get an amazingly designed puzzle of an episode that you really do need to watch more than once. Diddle Diddle Dumpling amazed me for its basic plot of a man and a shoe, but it ended up utterly enthralling and disturbing me at the same time. And sweet baby Jebus, what an ending!

DEARTH BE NOT PROUD

The finale of series three, Private View, was just delicious. There’s plenty of death and blood in this one, topped off with an interesting insight into modern art and a wicked sting in the tail. To Have and to Hold is one of those episodes that may not scream horror at you, but the story is still deeply disturbing. I just have to mention the Halloween live special that is Dead Line. Not one of my favourites, story-wise but it is just such an amazing piece of TV and brilliantly delivered. Death Be Not Proud works as a great twisted tale that is as bizarre as it is funny, as it is macabre. The Stakeout is an episode that starts out blood-soaked and tells you outright that one of the main characters is dead. What happens from then on seems pretty ordinary, but there’s a wonderful undercurrent of dread throughout.

I really do adore episodes that feel like they are going in one direction, only for them to lead you down the garden path and hit you with a dark ending, Hurry Up and Wait is one of those episodes. How Do You Plead? has a gothic, old-timey feel to it from the off. The story feels very grounded and leads to a hellish finale that both seemingly comes from nowhere and still feels very right. Mr King is an episode that (as I said in the retrospective) is dripping in the atmosphere of a certain British folk-horror flick. There were no surprises for me with this one, but I still really bloody enjoyed it. Nine Lives Kat because I do love it when writers explore writing. The cheesy dialogue and awful clichés are brilliantly placed for a good reason. Inside No. 9 has a bit of a reputation for going into some dark places, with the Wise Owl episode… fuck me! This is about as grim as the show has ever got (so far). The story is bleak the writing is jet-black depressing. Even when this show went to some horrific places, there was still some form of humour to be found. Not here, this is just dark and twisted from start to end. Okay, there is some really black humour here, if you enjoy laughing at baldy taxidermied rabbits.

INSIDE NO.9 STEVE REECE 4

Well, that’s all folks. My lengthy Inside No. 9 retrospective has reached its end. Well, until the last two series are made and aired anyway. All being well, I’ll be back to finish this in 2024.