MEMORY LANE: On being British

By Ray Bennett (November 1999)

LONDON: We British cherish our loonies and it it’s no surprise that the House of Lords has lasted so long.

Only last week, a bill was passed in the House of Lords than deprives hereditary peers – traditionally a strange and eccentric bunch – of the right to vote on government bills. The event was marked by one lord leaping onto the Woolsack, or throne, of the house in order to manifest his objection.

The incident was, of course, seen on television and much was made of it in the press, It was a little like Roberto Benigni leaping onto Steven Spielberg’s chair at the Oscars – not treasonable but a bit outrageous.

Most people here agree it’s time for the House of Lords to change but, being British, some felt the man’s behaviour was a brave defence of the right of the descendants of ancient robbers,  land barons and slave traders to tell people how to live their lives.

There are seven hundred and fifty-one ‘peers by succession’, seventeen of them female, and the current plan is that all but ninety-two will be sent packing. It’s a new broom but there is a lot of discussion about what exactly what should be done now with the House of Lords.

Being British, this will take some time.

Meanwhile, on Monday, Greg Dyke stepped into the BBC for the first time as the director-general designate taking over from Sir John Birt, You might think that the outgoing D-G would take off and leave the new man to it but, being British, he plans to stick around until next April when Dyke takes over formally.

At the same time, there has been a noisy campaign by the British papers over a French ban on British beef. They wanted U.K. consumers to spurn all French agricultural products – from Champagne and Brie on down – in response. A handful of stores and restaurants announced they would serve only English cheese and Spanish bubbly but, being British, most people just went on with their normal purchases.

Seventy-five thousand of them cheered the ‘despised’ French when they pulled off the upset of the decade by beating New Zealand in World Cup Rugby.

Then there’s the major effort going on here to interest the populace in going out and spending large amounts of money at high-priced events being staged on what is called Mellennium Eve. Being British, most people appear to have decided that they will stay at home thank you very much. Video stores will be doing a roaring trade.

[A version of this column appeared in The Hollywood Reporter; the image is from the film ‘The Ruling Class’]

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Recalling ‘Lou Grant’ star Ed Asner 

By Ray Bennett

LONDON: Ed Asner, who died aged 91 on Aug. 29, had a very long and successful acting career on television but he told me he couldn’t get arrested for the big screen. 

‘I have run into downright discrimination against me because of being a TV face,’ he told me in 1979. ‘Director George Roy Hill is recognised as being totally averse to using someone from TV. Barbra Streisand and Jon Peters didn’t want me for “A Star is Born”. Same with “The Godfather”. Henry Winkler and John Travolta seem to go back and forth but with me it’s “Go fuck yourself. Now.”’

After a strict Jewish upbringing in Kansas City, he began acting on radio while at the University of Chicago inspired by actors such as Spencer Tracy and Fredric March. He had many screen credits but real success did not come until he played TV newsman Lou Grant on ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’. He said that was a good thing.

‘Oh, yeah, oh fuck yes. Oh, Jesus. I would not call one shot different,’ he said. ‘I’ve done vastly better than I ever allowed myself to think. My goal was to work enough to enjoy the favour of my peers and make enough to send my kids to college.’ 

The hit comedy ran for seven years and when it ended CBS offered Asner his own show with the title character now city editor at a major daily newspaper. He knew that turning Lou Grant into a newspaperman in a one-hour drama would be a stretch for all of them.

‘Little did we know what an iceberg we were sailing into,’ he said. ‘My identification with the character might draw viewers initially but not until the show began to win people on its own would it work. We made a lot of problems for ourselves and it made that first year pretty fucking bleak.’

Asner was a political activist and union supporter and when CBS cancelled the newspaper drama after five seasons, he said it was due to his left-wing politics. 

When I spoke to him, ‘Lou Grant’ was riding high and he won two more Emmy Awards to go with the three he won on ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’. 

While he was in Toronto, the city’s tabloid newspaper, the Sun, invited him to spend a day pretending to be the city editor. He regretted it immediately. Someone at the paper remarked to him that the Sun, which ran a pinup on Page 3, proved anarchy works.

Asner told me, ’They certainly have that. I don’t think that’s the best way to run a newspaper. I’m disappointed with a few heads whom I respect. By this, I have learned. Before I ever do it again I will be sure to hold my publicist’s genitalia over the fire until we’re sure we’re doing the right thing.’

Asner won two more Emmy Awards for the miniseries ‘Roots’ and ‘Rich Man, Poor Man’ and a late highlight of his career was providing the voice of crusty widower Carl Fredrickson in the Oscar-winning Pixar animated feature ‘Up’. 

‘I never try to kill my options,’ told me, ‘but the stuff I’ve done on TV has, for the most part, been more interesting to me in terms of challenges, in terms of character.’

His most recent feature film at the time, eight years earlier, had been a wonderful picture titled ‘Skin Game’ with James Garner and Lou Gossett (pictured with Asner below) as best friends and conmen who exploit the racism of 1850s America with a unique swindle in which Garner’s character sells Gossett’s as a slave and then frees him.

The film flopped and Garner told me it fell through the cracks because of a change of top executives at Warner Bros., who were to distribute the film.

Asner said, ‘I don’t know. There’s a perfect case of a studio stumbling over itself and not properly selling a good movie. What a fucking waste! Lou Gossett, Susan Clark and Jim were just beautiful. They put to very judiciious comical use every funny character man in Hollywood and in an appopriate sense … villainous funny characters. I loved it, I really did. The vast marjority of people I know who saw it, saw it on a plane. You always know that’s the death knell.’

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‘Dear Evan Hansen’ to open Toronto International Film Festival

By Ray Bennett

The Toronto International Film Festival has selected Stephen Chbosky’s ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ (pictured), based on the hit Broadway show, to be its Opening Night film on September 9. Zhang Yimou’s ‘One Second’ will close the festival on September 18.

Artistic director and Co-Head Cameron Bailey said there was no question that ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ was the ‘ideal film ‘to launch this year’s festival. ‘This film is ultimately about healing, forgiveness, and reaffirms how connected and essential we all are to one another. We couldn’t think of a more important idea to celebrate this year as we come together once again to share the power and joy of cinema in theatres together.’


Opening Night Film

Dear Evan Hansen Stephen Chbosky | USA | World Premier

Closing Night Film

One Second Zhang Yimou | China | North American Premiere

Belfast Kenneth Branagh | United Kingdom | World Premiere

Clifford the Big Red Dog Walt Becker | USA/United Kingdom/Canada |World Premiere

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain Will Sharpe | United Kingdom | Canadian Premiere

Jagged Alison Klayman | USA  | World Premiere

Last Night in Soho Edgar Wright | United Kingdom | North American Premiere

The Mad Women’s Ball (Le Bal des folles) Mélanie Laurent | France |World Premiere

Night Raiders Danis Goulet | Canada/New Zealand | North American Premiere

The Survivor Barry Levinson | USA/Canada | World Premiere

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BFI celebrates the films of Robert Altman in major season

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Robert Altman movies spanning five decades are to be screened in a major season at the British Film Institute. Running from May 17 to July 31, the programme will present 34 films in chronological order including ‘Nashville’ (above), which also will be released in select cinemas across the U.K. on June 25 in a 4K restoration. Continue reading

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Peter Ustinov: a man of many voices

ustinov x650

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Playwright, filmmaker, actor and raconteur Peter Ustinov, who was born 100 years ago today and died on March 28, 2004, was convincing in movies playing many different nationalities. One reason for that was because he was a wonderful mimic. I first met him at a cocktail party in the mid-80s in Toronto when he was promoting ‘Death On the Nile’, his first outing as Hercule Poirot with that strange Belgian/French accent. Given the vast range of dialects he had mastered, I asked him what had been the most difficult accent to imitate. Ustinov thought for a moment and said, ‘A Glaswegian Chinese man’  and he proceeded to give an hilarious example. Continue reading

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When Adrian Lyne fled from a screening of ‘9½ Weeks’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – British director Adrian Lyne, who turns 80 today, is known for his provocative films about sexuality but a preview audience for ‘9½ Weeks’ made him run for his life. Continue reading

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When David Puttnam got tired of making movies

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Aside from being English, David Puttnam and I have two things in common. We are both devoted to Tottenham Hotspur Football Club and we each obtained three O-level GCEs at school. He, of course, had an illustrious career as an Academy Award-winning producer of hit movies and became a fine politician working within the Labour Party to boost education and the British film industry as a member of the House of Lords. I did not. Continue reading

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Nick Nolte on learning to work sober

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Nick Nolte, who turns 80 today, warned me of the dangers that lurked in Los Angeles. The Iowa-born actor had an explosive impact playing rebellious fighter Tom Jordache in the hit 1976 TV miniseries ‘Rich Man, Poor Man’, based on Irwin Shaw’s terrific novel. He played rough-edged and rowdy characters in ‘The Deep’, ’48 Hrs’ and ‘Teachers’. He also made more thoughtful pictures including ‘Who’ll Stop the Rain’, ‘Under Fire’, ‘Cannery Row’ and ‘Heart Beat’. Continue reading

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Larry King on his lucky heart attack and love of smoking


By Ray Bennett

Longtime TV interviewer Larry King, who died today aged 87, almost didn’t make it to 60. He told me: “I got a lucky break. I had a heart attack.”

One dark February morning in 1987, King signed off his overnight national radio talk-show feeling uncommonly sluggish. Worried, he cancelled a date and drove home through the Washington, DC, snow. His doctor told him to take some Maalox and go to bed. Pain soon awakened him. Pain in his right arm and shoulder that fast became ferocious.

He went to the hospital where doctors told him that right then and there he was having a heart attack. King said,“I was lucky because it would have been unlucky not to have the pain because then you have no warning.”

In fact, he had plenty of warnings but he ignored them. He said: “I was 54. I ate what I wanted and I smoked heavily. I knew my father died of heart disease. I knew I had a heart problem. I just never thought I’d be going into an emergency room.” Continue reading

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Why Robert MacNeill stopped getting angry about poor English

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Canadian newsman Robert MacNeill, who turns 90 today, shared my fascination with how English was used on radio and television. In 1986, the urbane and articulate co-anchor of the news programme ‘The MacNeill-Lehrer Report’  on America’s PBS-TV had spent the previous three years exploring the impact of the English language around the world.  MacNeill was co-writer and narrator of ‘The Story of Engish’, a $3 million BBC co-production that remains available on DVD along with an accompanying book with the same title. Continue reading

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