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.

Altman (right) is my favourite film director and I agree fully with the view of the BFI in announcing the season: ‘Using irreverent humour and focusing sympathetically – but never sentimentally – on losers and loners, he overturned the conventions of genre revealing a culture obsessed with money, celebrity and power. Independent and iconoclastic, Altman continued to make fresh, intelligent, thought-provoking films throughout his fifty years in the industry.’

The season, ‘Robert Altman: American Outsider’, will include not only classics such as ‘MASH’, ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’ (with Julie Christie and Warren Beatty, above), ‘The Long Goodbye’ (with Sterling Hayden and Elliott Gould, below), ‘The Player’, ‘Short Cuts’ and ‘Gosford Park’ but many offbeat favourites including ‘Brewster McCloud’, ’Images’, ‘Thieves Like Us’, ‘California Split’, ‘Buffalo Bill and the Indians’, ‘3 Women’, ‘Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean’ (with Sandy Denis, Cher and Karen Black, bottom picture) and ‘Kansas City’.

The season will include an illustrated online presentation by programmer Geoff Andrew, ‘Robert Altman, Outside and Innovator’ on May 24 and an online panel discussion, ‘Women in the Films of Robert Altman’, on June 17. 

The filmmaker had many regular cast members such as Shelley Duvall (below withBud Cort in ‘Brewster McCloud’), Lily Tomlin, Elliott Gould and Paul Dooley and he worked with great cinematographers including Vilmos Zsigmond – ‘‘McCabe’, ‘Images’, ‘Long Goodbye’– and Paul Lohmann – ‘California Split’ (with Gould and George Segal, above), ‘Nashville’, ‘Buffalo Bill and the Indians’. As the BFI also said, ‘Altman repeatedly proved himself an influential innovator, experimenting with multitrack sound, overlapping dialogue, complex camera movements, freewheeling narratives and large casts of actors, many of whom he would work with multiple times. He also was a canny critic of American society and the myths that country perpetrated through movies.’

The BFI noted that health and safety measures – including social distancing and the wearing of face coverings – will continue until government guidance advises otherwise. Full details of all measures in place to protect visitors and staff are available on the BFI website.

On-sale dates: Tickets for screenings taking place between May 17 and  June 30 will go on sale to BFI Patrons and BFI Champions on 3 May, BFI Members on May 4 and to the general public on May 6. Tickets for screenings taking place in July will go on sale to BFI Patrons and BFI Champions on May 31, BFI Members on June 1 and to the general public on June 3.

Here’s the screening list:

THE JAMES DEAN STORY (Robert Altman, George W George, 1957) SAT 29 MAY 15:30 NFT2 / MON 7 JUN 20:50 NFT2

THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK (Robert Altman, 1969) SAT 29 MAY 17:50 NFT1 / TUE 8 JUN 18:00 NFT1

M*A*S*H (Robert Altman, 1969) MON 17 MAY 20:30 NFT2 / WED 19 MAY 14:30 NFT1 / SAT 29 MAY 20:45 NFT1 / THU 10 JUN 18:00 NFT1 / TUE 22 JUN 14:30 NFT1 / MON 28 JUN 20:40 NFT2

BREWSTER MCCLOUD (Robert Altman, 1970) SUN 30 MAY 19:00 NFT1 / SUN 13 JUN 16:00 NFT3 / FRI 18 JUN 17:50 NFT3

MCCABE & MRS MILLER (Robert Altman, 1971) FRI 21 MAY 14:30 NFT1 / MON 31 MAY 18:30 NFT2 / WED 2 JUN 20:45 NFT1 / SUN 20 JUN 18:30 NFT3

IMAGES (Robert Altman, 1972) TUE 1 JUN 20:50 NFT2 / SAT 12 JUN 15:30 NFT2 / FRI 25 JUN 18:00 NFT2

THE LONG GOODBYE (Robert Altman, 1973) SUN 23 MAY 18:20 NFT3 / THU 27 MAY 20:50 NFT1 / WED 2 JUN 14:30 NFT1 / MON 7 JUN 17:50 NFT1 / SAT 19 JUN 17:30 NFT1

THIEVES LIKE US (Robert Altman, 1974) THU 3 JUN 20:40 NFT2 / TUE 8 JUN 20:30 NFT2 / MON 21 JUN 17:50 NFT2

CALIFORNIA SPLIT (Robert Altman, 1974) FRI 21 MAY 17:50 NFT3 / MON 24 MAY 20:50 NFT1 / MON 31 MAY 15:45 NFT1 / SUN 20 JUN 15:40 NFT3 / THU 24 JUN 14:30 NFT1

NASHVILLE (Robert Altman, 1975) FROM FRI 25 JUNE Seniors’ matinee + intro by Geoff Andrew MON 28 JUN 13:50 NFT1

BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS, OR SITTING BULL’S HISTORY LESSON (Robert Altman, 1976) SAT 5 JUN 17:30 NFT2 / SAT 26 JUN 15:10 NFT2

3 WOMEN (Robert Altman, 1977) WED 26 MAY 20:40 NFT2 / SAT 5 JUN 20:30 NFT2 / THU 10 JUN 14:30 NFT1 / SAT 19 JUN 15:00 NFT2

A WEDDING (Robert Altman, 1978) TUE 18 MAY 20:40 NFT1 / FRI 11 JUN 18:00 NFT2 / WED 23 JUN 14:30 NFT1 / SUN 27 JUN 18:10 NFT2

QUINTET (Robert Altman, 1979) SAT 12 JUN 18:10 NFT2 / WED 30 JUN 20:45 NFT2

A PERFECT COUPLE (Robert Altman, 1979) TUE 1 JUN 17:50 NFT3 / MON 14 JUN 17:50 NFT3 / WED 16 JUN 20:45 NFT3

HEALTH (Robert Altman, 1980) TUE 15 JUN 20:45 NFT3 / SUN 27 JUN 12:15 NFT3

POPEYE (Robert Altman, 1980) SUN 13 JUN 12:50 NFT1 / TUE 29 JUN 17:50 NFT2

COME BACK TO THE 5 & DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN (Robert Altman, 1982) THU 3 JUN 17:50 NFT1 / SAT 19 JUN 12:30 NFT3

STREAMERS (Robert Altman, 1982) SUN 6 JUN 13:00 NFT3 / MON 21 JUN 20:40 NFT3

SECRET HONOR (Robert Altman, 1983) WED 16 JUN 18:00 NFT2 / SUN 27 JUN 15:50 NFT2

OC & STIGGS (Robert Altman, 1985) WED 9 JUN 20:40 NFT3 / TUE 22 JUN 18:00 NFT2

FOOL FOR LOVE (Robert Altman, 1985) SAT 5 JUN 15:10 NFT3 / SAT 12 JUN 20:40 NFT3

BEYOND THERAPY (Robert Altman, 1986) + LES BORÉADES (Robert Altman, 1987) THU 24 JUN 17:50 NFT3 / TUE 29 JUN 20:45 NFT2

VINCENT AND THEO (Robert Altman, 1990) SAT 3 JUL 12:40 NFT3 / TUE 13 JUL 20:30 NFT3

THE PLAYER (Robert Altman, 1992) SAT 3 JUL 20:40 NFT1 / MON 12 JUL 17:45 NFT1 / WED 28 JUL 20:30 NFT1

SHORT CUTS (Robert Altman, 1993) SUN 4 JUL 11:30 NFT1 / SAT 17 JUL 19:30 NFT1

PRÊT-À-PORTER (Robert Altman, 1994) SAT 3 JUL 17:40 NFT3 / MON 19 JUL 18:10 NFT3

KANSAS CITY (Robert Altman, 1996) SUN 4 JUL 15:20 NFT2 / THU 15 JUL 17:40 NFT2

THE GINGERBREAD MAN (Robert Altman, 1997) FRI 9 JUL 20:40 NFT3 / SAT 17 JUL 17:50 NFT3

COOKIE’S FORTUNE (Robert Altman, 1999) TUE 6 JUL 14:50 NFT1 / WED 7 JUL 20:40 NFT1 / TUE 27 JUL 17:40 NFT1

DR T & THE WOMEN (Robert Altman, 2000) SAT 10 JUL 15:00 NFT2 / MON 26 JUL 20:30 NFT3

GOSFORD PARK (Robert Altman, 2001) SUN 11 JUL 15:20 NFT2 / SUN 18 JUL 18:20 NFT1 / FRI 23 JUL 14:30 NFT1

THE COMPANY (Robert Altman, 2003) TUE 13 JUL 17:50 NFT2 / SAT 31 JUL 11:50 NFT2

A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (Robert Altman, 2006) SUN 25 JUL 12:00 NFT3 / SAT 31 JUL 17:50 NFT3

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Peter Ustinov: a man of many voices

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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.

He displayed his uncanny gift on many television shows and on Sept. 9, 1999, he gave a dazzling display at the Park Lane Hotel ballroom in London where the late Stanley Kubrick was honoured by the Directors Guild of Great Britain. He mimicked several of the characters in “Spartacus” – from Kirk Douglas to Laurence Olivier to Jean Simmons to Charles Laughton to Tony Curtis to Kubrick himself – as he described what it was like to work with the director. It brought the house down.

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A double Oscar-winner as best supporting actor in “Spartacus” (pictured above, 1960) and “Topkapi” (pictured below, 1964), Ustinov won a Golden Globe for best supporting actor in “Quo Vadis” (1951), three Primetime Emmy Awards, a Grammy Award and Bafta’s Britannia Award for lifetime achievement.

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Born in London of a rich mix of Eastern European stock, he was a theatre and opera director, stage designer, author, newspaper and magazine columnist, radio broadcaster and TV presenter. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1990 and had honours from more than a dozen other nations plus citations from UNICEF, which he represented for many years.

Many of his films are forgotten now but there are several that warrant attention for film buffs willing to dig for them. Here are 15 to watch out for.

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Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile (above, 1978): Ustinov’s first appearance as detective Hercule Poirot is very entertaining and the villain actually comes as a surprise. A fine cast has fun on a cruise ship as Poirot seeks the murderer of a pompous millionairess played by Lois Chiles. Bette Davis is a posh American socialite with Maggie Smith as her downtrodden companion; Angela Lansbury plays a writer with a taste for alcohol, Jack Warden is a manic Swiss doctor, I.S. Johar is an offbeat ship’s manager; Jon Finch plays a Bolshie upstart and David Niven plays Poirot’s No. 2, Col. Race.

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Hammersmith is Out (1972): Trashed by most critics, it’s a variation on the Faust legend as Richard Burton plays a mental patient who promises the world to a gullible young man (Beau Bridges, pictured above with Elizabeth Taylor) if he will help him flee the institution where he has been placed. Ustinov directs and plays a doctor while Taylor plays one of the young man’s greatest temptations. Roger Ebert said it was “one of the year’s best comedies. It is also, while it’s at it, one of the year’s best satires, but it doesn’t lay the satire on very heavily.”

hot millions x325Hot Millions (1968): Pleasing comedy about a con-man (Ustinov) released from jail who scams his way into an insurance firm’s computer system and sends himself claim checks. His life is complicated when he falls for a clumsy clerk played by Maggie Smith (pictured). Stanley Kauffmann wrote in the New Republic that while the film did not make him laugh out loud, at the end he realised he had been smiling for almost two hours.

The Comedians (1967): One of Graham Greene’s finest novels comes unstuck in the film version, which the novelist adapted for director Peter Glenville. Lots of cynicism and sex the-comedians x325in Haiti during the reign of violent dictator Papa Doc Duvalier. It’s fascinating, though, to see a wonderful cast struggle with the material including Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Alec Guinness, Paul Ford, Lilian Gish, Georg Stanford Brown, Roscoe Lee Browne, and James Earl Jones. Ustinov plays Ambassador Manuel Pineda. Time Magazine said there are enough moments of “transcendant drama” to make it worthwhile and to be forgiven easily for its other sins.

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Lady L (1965): Ustinov writes and directs a colourful saga from Romain Gary’s novel about an elegant older woman played by Sophia Loren who reflects on her many dalliances with an assortment of men over a long, lusty career. Paul Newman (pictured with Loren) and David Niven co-star with Ustinov in a cameo as Prince Otto of Bavaria.

Topkapi (1964): Greek filmmaker Jules Dassin directs an entertaining and suspenseful caper movie about a raid on the Istanbul museum to steal a precious dagger. Co-written by Eric Ambler, based on his 1963 novel “The Light of Day”, it stars Ustinov with Merlina Mercouri, Maximilian Shell, and Robert Morley.

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Billy Budd (1962): Splendid, atmospheric tale of cruelty on the high seas as Ustinov directs and co-writes with Dewitt Bodeen and uncredited Robert Rossen, based on the play by Louis O. Coxe and Robert H. Chapman. Ustinov plays Royal Navy Post Captain Edwin Fairfax Vere who wavers as ruthless taskmaster Robert Ryan, as Master of Arms John Claggart, demands the death of innocent merchant seaman Billy Budd, played by Terence Stamp in his second film. Melvyn Douglas is the sailmaker and Paul Rogers, John Neville and David McCallum play ship’s officers.

romanoff and juliet x325Romanoff and Juliet (1961): Ustinov directs a screen version of his own play and stars as the representative of a middle-European country at the United Nations during the Cold War. John Gavin and Sandra Dee (left) play modern versions of Shakespeare’s fated couple.

The Sundowners (1960): Fred Zinnemann directs a rambunctious family drama about travellers in the Australian outback during the first part of the 20th century. Ustinov stars with Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum (pictured below), Glynis Johns, and Aussie star Chips Rafferty.

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Spartacus (1960): Stanley Kubrick’s intelligent epic has stood the test of time with Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, John Gavin, Tony Curtis, Herbert Lom and Charles Laughton (pictured with Ustinov).

We’re No Angels (1955): Delightful, if sentimental, yarn directed by Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”) with Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray and Ustinov (below) as three escapees from Devil’s Island who are taken in by a kindly villager and do their best to repay his kindness despite their penchant for criminality.

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beau brummel x325Beau Brummel (1954): Glossy adventure with Stewart Granger as the 19th century dandy who insults the Prince of Wales (Ustinov) and is surprised when the neurotic prince takes him on as an advisor to spite the yes-men that surround him. Mostly, it’s a romance between Granger and Elizabeth Taylor with Robert Morley as King George III and a very young Rosemary Harris (pictured with Ustinov left).

Quo Vadis (1951): Opulent Roman epic directed by Mervyn LeRoy about a general (Robert Taylor) in love with a Christian hostage (Deborah Kerr) in the face of despicable behaviour by the Emperor Nero (Ustinov, below).

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odette x325Odette (1950): True-life war story of a legendary woman, played by Anna Neagal (right), who risks her life when she joins the resistance during the Nazi occupation of France and undergoes torture to make her reveal her accomplices. Ustinov co-stars with Herbert Wilcox, Trevor Howard and Marius Goring (pictured with Neagal) as a Nazi intelligence officer.

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The Way Ahead (1944): Highly praised film that was made to boost the U.K. war effort although it wasn’t released until D-Day 1944. Directed by Carol Reed (“The Third Man”), the script by Ustinov and novelist Eric Ambler follows a group of men called up for the infantry at the outbreak of war. David Niven (left), Stanley Holloway, James Donald, and John Laurie lead the cast. Ustinov plays a cafe owner. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called it “a splendid picture” and “ a warm and touching tribute to the British Army infantryman”.

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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.

Like Ridley Scott, Alan Parker and others, Lyne had graduated from making TV commercials to feature films with ‘Foxes’, a coming-of-age tale starring Jodie Foster, and ‘Flashdance’, a ground-breaking pop musical starring Jennifer Beals (right) in 1983. It was a massive hit and In 1986 came ‘9½ Weeks’ starring Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger (above). It was based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Ingeborg Day published under a pseudonym, Elizabeth McNeill, about a woman who has an affair with a man named who abuses her sexually for mutual entertainment.  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’.

I met him first in Chicago on a junket for ‘Teachers’ and talked to him again in 1985 ahead of the release of a black comedy titled ‘Grace Quigley’ starring Katharine Hepburn in her last leading role as an elderly widow, lonely and suicidal, who hires a hitman (Nolte) to kill her. When I asked about his rambunctious image, he said, ‘It’s a fast pace. It’s not so bad when you’re working. Then, it’s justifable to be a little extreme. You know, actors are extremists. That’s what Katharine says. Hepburn. Quote her. I called her a natural. She said, “Oh, no. I’m an extremist.” It’s when you’re not working … if you carry on that behaviour when you’re not working, you’re not gonna survive.’ Continue reading

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Larry King on his lucky heart attack and love of smoking

Larry-King

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.

He told me he used to get angry about poor English but not any more as he had gained new respect for its strength and variety. ‘I get much less annoyed,’ he said. ‘I no longer send memos to our reporters when they use “criteria” as singular because I’ve learned from really plunging into the history of it. That is the way this language has developed over hundreds and hundreds of years. There is an instinctive welling-up of adesire to simplify the language. Foreign words by the thousands have found their way into English and whatever inflections they had in their original language – case endings or plurals or arbitrary gender – get wiped out because the English-speaking common man ultimately has no patience with that kind of complexity.’

Through every generation, MacNeill observed, there have been people who deploted what was happening to the language. ‘That is not new. Everybody who today is dismayed and fretting that the language is going to hell, that TV is ruining it, Madison Avenue is ruining it, and when they say “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should” that’s an outrage and shouldn’t be allowed because it’s corrupting our language and ruining the precision of our wonderful inheritance, they should know that people have been saying things like for centuries.’ It took him, co-writer Robert McCrum and director William Cran 26 months of reporting and filming in 16 countries. McCrum, who had the idea for the series, was an English novelist who said he took as his yardstick the words of novelist Anthony Burgess who described the language of Shakespeare and Joyce as ‘a language all thrown together that is gloriously impure’. 

English has come a long way from its beginnings two-thousand years ago with a savafe tribe in northern Europe that practised human sacrifice and worshipped Mother Earth. MacNeill traces its growth through the English of Chaucerm and the various invasions especially the Norman invasion. Which he says had the effect if enriching and simplifying the language and set the stage for its great development in the Elizabethan period. ‘ The series illustrates how the English language asserted itself all over the world, in India and Africa but also in places such as the Soviet Union and Japan where the vocabulary is called ‘Russlish’ and ‘Japlish’ respectively. The international language of technology is Englsh and every commercial pilot and air traffic controller in the world uses English.

Episodes trace U.S. regional dialects back to their regional British origins. In one episode, Peter Hall, director of the National Theatre in the U.K., speaking at Stratford-upon-Avon , complains that modern BBC English is not adequate for Shakespeare. What the Bard intended and spoke himself, Hall says, was a language borne of England’s West Country and now heard clearly in the voices of Maryland, Virginia and Eastern Canada. Hall mimics that voice in a line from ‘Henry V’ – ‘O for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.’ ‘That,’ said MacNeill, ‘was the language of Walter Raleigh from Devon. He spoke that way and Shakespeare in one of the plays even parodies Raleigh’s way of speaking. And, of course, it was Raleigh who found the Virginia colonies.’

Later in the episode, the camera approaches Tangier Island from Chesapeake Bay to a low-lying American fishing village, crab boats by the shore, and the voice of the local preacher. MacNeill says, ‘You say, where have we heard that? Oh, yes, we just heard it from Peter Hall. What you hear is a dead-ringer for that sound of English. The people of Tangier Island and other parts of the Eastern shore speak a dialect today that, to British ears, sounds very much like the speech in Devon, Somerset and Cornwall. It is Elizabethan English very little modified.’ Other varieties of American English are traced back to their roots. Sunbelt English as it is spoken in the U.S. southeast has a direct line traceable back through Applachia and the Eastern Seaboard through to Northern Ireland and lowland Scotland in the language of Scots poet Robert Burns. ‘That episode is a very moody one, as is the chapter on Irish Engish and the effect of Irish Gaelic on the language,’ MacNeill said.

MacNeill, who is from Nova Scotia with Scottish ancestry, partnered Jim Lehrer (see photo left) from 1975 to 1995. Before that, he worked for many years in the U.K. and then moved to the United States. At the start of the ‘The Story of English’, he explains that his own manner of speech is a result of those influences. Still, it is clearly a voice from the States or Canada and that the BBC pause when it came to who should narrate the series for British viewers. In the end, they agreed and MacNeill said, ‘It is appropriate to the thrust of the series that English no longer the British language.’ In one episode, Englishman Robert Birchfield, then editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, makes the outlandish (to the British) assertion that it is American English that was now driving the language. He says that if America were suddenly obliterated then the English language would fade.

One chapter explores that in detail: the language of Shakespeare, the King James Bible and the spread of English to America. ‘We look at why the accents in the southern colonies were different from the original accents in the north,’ MacNeill said, ‘where they came from in England and how they spread out from there and were modified.’ Another chapter looks at American Black English. ‘That’s a news story in this country and a controversial one,’ MacNeill said. ‘We call the episode “Black on White” and trace the development of Black English from the earliest days of the slave trade through plantation Creole to the present-day forms. We see how Black English affected the southern accents and White English in this country. It’s a fascinating story in itself.’ While MacNeill said he believed that varieties of Engish only enrich the language, he did not say that anything goes: ‘Black English is one of the areas where pleas have been made for a special kind of tolerance, that it should be an accepted standard ad kids should be allowed to write it and use it,’ he said. ‘But at the end of the “Black on White” episode, a Black school director from Philadelphia stresses that it is imperative that we teach standard grammatical English because Black kids are going to need it to get on in anything in the world.’ 

Any discussion of the language raises the issue of profanity, which MacNeill said was accepted more widely but was hardly new: ‘Some of the oldest humour in English is extremely bawdy, in Chaucer for example. I think we’ve all become less prudish about it. The story of London’s Cockney showing up in Australia is bawdy in places and rollickingly funny as Cockney and Australians tend to be.’ Early in the series, the fourth word of the term ‘SNAFU’ is bleeped more out of a sense of fun, MacNeill said, ‘In some later episodes, particularly the Cockney/Australian one, there is what many people would regard as quite a lot of profanity. Some of the Austalian colloquialisms are particularly ripe. One phrase is “as unpopular as a fart in a phone box”. Things like that, common everyday expressions in Australia, are left in.’ Such richness was widespread in America too, he noted. He did not accept the notion that television was causing regional accents to fade: ‘It isn’ happening. It’s not true in Britain and it’s not true here. Contrary to conventional wisdom, television is not ironing out regional dialects.’ He had a firm belief in the ruggedness of English and he said he did not share the fears of those concerned about the incursion of Spanish into the United States.

‘Some think that you weaken your sense of nationhood if you permit rival languages to compete,’ he said. ‘They point to Canada and Belgium and they fear that if Spanish made enormous inroads then it would somehow dilute or attenuate the national identity of this country. I think that is so inconceivable that I do not worry about it.’ He pointed out that in the urgency of America’s founding fathers trying to break from Britain, there was a movement to make German the official language of the United States since German-speakers were then in the majority. There also was a movement to make Hebrew the official language. English prevailed as it did in Britain even though for 250 years after the Norman invasion in 1066, the official language was Norman French. ‘English remained the language of the common man and It has always been drivern by the comman man’s energy and impatience with complexity,’ MacNeill said. ‘I know there are lots of people in this country who would have liked the series to bash people over the head for misusing the language but I think it’s just part of a long historical trend. I think the language is in good hands.’

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Mel Gibson, great filmmaker, shame about the demons

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – I’ve spent time with Mel Gibson, who turns 65 today, and always found him to be genial, open and likeable even though he gave me a clue about his demons in an interview in 1984. It’s a shame they got the better of him as he is a good actor and a formidable filmmaker (‘Braveheart’, ‘Apocalypto’). Continue reading

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Jack Elam on westerns, auditing, acting … and that fly

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – With his blind left eye, American character actor Jack Elam, who was born 100 years ago today, made a perfect villain in hundreds of TV shows and feature films but he told me he was a better auditor than he was an actor.

He started out in the film business as a chartered accountant and worked as an auditor for Samuel Goldwyn Studios and General Services Studios: ‘I do believe that I was as good an auditor as there was when I was an auditor. I was as high a salaried auditor as there was so I knew my business. I felt a very great self-respect as an auditor, which as an actor is pretty hard to feel because you might like what I’m doing and the other fella doesn’t like it at all. You say, jeez, I thought you were great in such-and-such and he says he thought it was a terrible fucking thing and you were awful. There are no matters of opinion in audting. If the sonofabitch balances, you can shove it up your ass, your opinion. You can go fuck it, you know?’ Continue reading

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My chaotic encounter with composer Ennio Morricone

By Ray Bennett 

LONDON – The late Ennio Morricone was a giant in film music but the Italian composer could be a difficult man as I found out when I went to interview him in London.

He was in town for his 75th birthday concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 2004 and he also had a new album to promote. Titled ‘Focus’, it featured Morricone and the Portuguese Fado singer Dulce Pontes and so I was to interview the two of them. Continue reading

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