Inside Pitch

One of my new year resolutions still surviving is to start using things and stop saving them up for some unspecified event in the future. Nowadays, they get utilised or dumped. I trust I am not alone in this foible, speaking as a man who has completely unused pens and pencils, unwrapped CDs, untouched pots of ink, brushes that are still in wrappers and computer programs and games stored well away, awaiting call-up. This also means, in that vague way my mind works, that I am no longer saving 'good' books, if you are familiar with the concept. I grab them off the shelf, devour them, and move on. So as a result, having never read a word of his, on a recent holiday I read six books by Iain Banks. I took the first two with me, read them in day of incessant rain, and spent the next morning scouring the bookshops of a wet Limassol for what I could find. Yes, alright, I know he has been the darling of book reviewers for years but I have just discovered him. He's just a bit good, isn't he?

I was, like most, a little taken back at the dark nature of some of the books and doubt I would have enjoyed them as much if reading them in the English gloom rather than sitting next to a pool in the sun. The Joy Division of writing, if you like. Whatever, the stories are brilliantly conceived (even if some endings are a leetle confused) and the characters are so real. The love interest in Walking on Glass, for instance, was so well done it made me want to skip the other two plotlines even the one about impossible games! I stopped only for fear of ruining the ending but I'll admit I didn't fully understand it anyway, so that's alright then. I found each book very readable, almost as good as Boyd in this respect, and I loved the little diversions into philosophy it is good to know someone else thinks a little like I do (who isn't actually certifiably bonkers) and who understands the unmistakeable merits of leaving Patti Smith's Because the Night on repeat play. That's all I have to say, as I am a little overwhelmed. It makes much of the stuff I've been enthusing over look distinctly second rate. It's also hard to pin down a favourite; actually, the Wasp Factory takes some beating, The Crow Road is excellent, but I guess it goes to The Bridge on balance can you imagine the film of this one, with Ralph Fiennes and Madeleine Stowe starring? I still have Complicity, Player of Games and a couple of the science fiction volumes to read as soon as I get time, which I am told are better still. Hard to believe, but I'll live with the torment. Those who are old hands, thankyou for your indulgence.

In keeping with the 'read it now' policy, I have got through AS Byatt's Possession (wordy, but worthwhile), Nick Bantock's Griffin & Sabine trilogy (beautifully presented, but rather baffling), E.P.Jacob's La Marque Jaune (in which Iridium Oakleys were predicted by a good 40 years), both of Sister Wendy's books (fascinating views on the art but they did lead me to deliberate on the selfishness of the contemplative lifestyle(writes Mr Judgmental)), the new Woody Allen Reader by Linda Sunshine (excellent, if mainly old, stuff for the fan) and William Boyd's Blue Afternoon. I was hoping for great things after the outstanding Brazzaville Beach and, to be honest, I was a little disappointed. The standard formula is there: strong characters, mind boggling research and commensurate understanding of an obscure background subject. This time it concerns early surgery and the attendant horrors of poor hygiene and experimental operations. The story is fascinating but towards the end it becomes distinctly implausible (well, to me anyway) and the opening few pages have some uncharacteristically clumsy lines. Oddly, the book was much more reminiscent of the weaker parts of The New Confessions than Brazzaville's sub-thriller approach and I just have a hunch that Boyd wasn't at his best. Not bad, but he can do much better.

There was a time, probably back in the mid Eighties, when it was possible to watch Hill Street Blues, LA Law and St Elsewhere all in the same week. TV heaven for sure, though possibly topped recently by the irresistible triumvirate of Northern Exposure, Between the Lines and NYPD Blue. Typically, I have come to the former late on, but find it all the more pleasing for that. I don't know what it is about American mega-soaps but I usually have little success with them early on, yet pick them up quite readily about half a season (or longer) into the run. Perhaps they are just trying too hard to build the characters and background initially. Either way, this is one of the best programmes for years and it has built steadily into a witty, wise and gentle comedy. The latest phase, featuring the Bubble Man and the light philosophy motif, has been superb. And you get the incomparable Janine Turner into the bargain.

Between the Lines isn't quite as good as the critics would lead you to believe but it is damned impressive. Where it scores for me is in the humour, the powerful storylines, the down to earth characterization and the balls to show what may (or may not) go on in the upper echelons of the police and security forces. It also comes complete with large dollops of conspiracy theory which cheers up an old cynic no end. The scripting is spot on and the ongoing threads of story make for compelling viewing. I actually got to gnashing my teeth (not a wise move with my recent history) when I failed to set my timer for an important episode, only to find my reliable mate had done it for me. Brilliant stuff.

NYPD Blue is simply excellent, which is fitting because Michele Montagni said as much over two years ago when I had no idea what he was on about. I was worried that it would be somehow samey or lacking in characters, but the brilliant Dennis Franz carries the weight of any three Hill Street regulars, which is saying something, and the supporting cast (can they be anything else?) are quickly growing on me. The stories are more self-contained, which is good since it means you can safely miss an episode without losing half a dozen plotlines. What is really striking, apart from the first class acting, is the unusual but effective camera techniques. Lots of quick cuts, low angles and a powerful soundtrack that owe a large debt to Law & Order. This is unbelievably good television. Bochco clearly still reigns supreme, but does all this mean I am a closet soap fan?

I suspect the producers of Sherlock Holmes have been to a trendy film school that encourages baffling shots through smoky glass, vaseline or anything else that comes to hand. Or perhaps they were just so bored they didn't notice. Jeremy Brett seems to be heading the way of his character and must have been borderline loopy in most of the episodes. Much twitching was in evidence and I also thought his lipstick shade clashed horribly with his white foundation. And was I alone in thinking there might have been just a touch of overacting creeping in some quarters? Whatever, a series that has clearly run its course and is in danger of becoming too baffling and surreal even for those who understand these things I have long since just watched it for the spectacle, having failed from the very first programme to work out who on earth did it.

I got in some trouble last time from fans for condemning the awesome writing talents of Michael Crichton (despite my conceding that decent films occasionally result from his books and ideas) and realise I am likely to find myself in the same boat again over Bernard Cornwell. These comments are prompted by the new series of Sharpe which, on the basis of the first two films, have to be some of the best historical television for ages. Now while I haven't read these particular books (I may yet crack, probably on holiday), the others I've tried have been pretty poor so one must presume a talented screenwriter is on the staff. The upshot is exciting storylines, strong atmosphere, impressive scenery and Obadiah Hakeswill is a marvellous creation it will be interesting to see how he comes across in print. For me, they have the same excitement factor as, say, The Last of the Mohicans and even Sean Bean (late of the Roger Moore Acting Academy) has grown on me. And for once, even as an aficionado of the period and picker of nits extraordinaire, there appears absolutely nothing to complain about. Quite the opposite in fact. The uniforms and details are spot on, even inspirational at times (he says, itching to paint up some RHA Rocket Troopers). If there is a nagging sensation it results from feeling rather manipulated by the basic good vs evil storylines, and the death of Mrs Sharpe was a shock worthy of William Boyd, a man who doesn't seem to mind killing off his main characters if it suits. Whatever, superb entertainment (albeit right up my street), and I really hope they film the rest of the books. It is at times like this when I wish I were a millionaire so I could fund them myself if need be.

What may you ask has Peter Greenaway got in common with the Sex Pistols? Well, both have produced films out of which I would like to take snippets, and discard the rest. The Great Rock & Roll Swindle has some great music and Prospero's Books has, err, the books. These were a superb piece of design and kept my attention throughout a Greenaway film. Uncanny. The funniest (Natural Law Party broadcasts aside) and most impressive programme on TV recently was The Wrong Trousers, a brilliant piece deserving of an Oscar (though why these creative types feel they can't wear black tie when the situation demands, I have no idea), the most patchy was The Net (alternatively rivetting and puerile) and the saddest was the C4 Graham Taylor documentary. Initially I did feel sorry for the man as it seems to be a no-win job (literally, at times), but eventually I decided he and the powers that be were equally boorish. I had to laugh at the desperate exchanges between Taylor and Phil Neal who did a good impression of a parrot, "We've had it now." "Yeah, we've had it now, boss." And the swearing! Gosh. What jolly wuff sorts. Rounding out a good crop was From A to B, the show about drivers and their cars. I assumed that this had to be from the same camp as Signs of the Times and if it wasn't, it was a perfect facsimile. At times humorous or sad, at others just annoying in the same way as the drivers portrayed. Marvellous television.

I haven't watched much sport beyond the Five Nations really, but am now closely following my perennial favourites, The Masters, Grand Prix (motorcycling only, after the four wheeled carnage of May) and the Spring Classics. I had a worrying feeling after Milan San Remo that there was going to be a procession of Italians winning every race, which was confirmed by Bugno's superb win in Flanders, but the mould broke with what has to be the best Paris-Roubaix I have seen in years. Not that the race was close in the end, it was just the excitement of the racing, the never say die attitude of the riders and the general atmosphere. For a start it was wet, which always adds to the chaos and pain, and secondly it had to be the most eventful race for years I have had to adjust my 'Z Card' table in the forthcoming The Hell of the North as a result. The rides by Tchmil and Duclos-Lassalle were the gutsiest performances I've seen in any sport for some time, and it was true edge of the seat stuff. These guys really earn their money.

Wayne's World II is, to all intents, the same film as Wayne's World. Party. Bonus. This is good if you liked the first one, bad if you didn't, and great for Barry Norman who can come out with the old diversion about it being 'much better than the first one' (having completely missed both the point and the humour of that epic of filmmaking and slammed it as childish). The film is highly watchable but definitely flat in parts and, as one might expect, has all the plot strength of a porno movie with the mindless humping replaced by comic set pieces. Thankfully, it has at least half a dozen big laughs, not least the hilarious Village People skit and a classic dig at Kenny G, all of which will please the fans no end. The sad thing is that my hero Mike Myers thought he could get away with more ...Not jokes and since when did Golden Earring's Radar Love have anything like the cult status of Bohemian Rhapsody? Basically, it's the same old stuff re-cycled for our pleasure and if you enjoyed the first one (as you have spotted, I found it rather acceptable), go see it.

Striking Distance is an odd film. Watchable, but odd. Bruce Willis obviously had his dodgy script radar turned off and accepted a limp, predictable vehicle with NO FUNNY LINES. Incredible. It is also dark and even depressing from the start, so Bruce gets to smile just once or twice in among the usual action. Not your sort of film really Bruce, and consequently not really mine. There are some good bits, not least some excellent car chases and boat footage, but aside from a heavily telegraphed twist you might as well have been watching Starsky & Hutch Join the River Police. However, with a slightly more deft hand at the tiller and a few decent lines of script, this thriller could have been on a par with Silence of the Lambs. As it is, Striking Distance is merely average and predictable fare.

Mrs Doubtfire was a really funny movie. The plot line, concentrating on divorce and broken homes in a sort of upbeat, wholesome type of way, hardly mattered as it served only to provide Robin Williams with countless one-liners and a steady stream of sight gags. A little schmaltzy in parts, even for me, the very best bits were the cutting comments reserved for Pierce Brosnan, rival admirer of William's ex-wife. Perhaps inevitably, it was a little Tootsie-like but nothing could be termed derivative and it all worked well. Recommended.

Manhattan Murder Mystery is the best of the big screen films this time. Given his recent tribulations, it is surprising that Woody Allen can even get up in the morning, let alone produce what is easily his best film since Hannah and her Sisters. It represents, just as I wished might happen, a return to the classic humour and setting of Manhattan and Annie Hall, even taking the unexpected step of getting Diane Keaton back. What a woman. Could I have asked for any more? My sole gripe is that some of the dialogue between Allen and Keaton is confused and hurried and the sound wasn't up to much either, but it is very funny, the plot is excellent and it gives Allen the chance to deploy a fair number of killer one-liners. Some are re-hashed (from a way back) but there are some real winners as well. Sheer bliss.

Not much in the way of CDs this time; a couple of dance compilations (I've resolved to stop buying them before I'm 40) and Björk's Debut which, despite my being ready to dismiss it as utter tosh, is actually rather good in parts. I particularly liked Big Time Sensuality, Violently Happy and, most of all, Venus as a Boy which is the first pop song to make any impression on me in years not that I have any contact with the form any more, but you know what I mean. You somehow just get to hear them. Background music this time from En Vogue, Buzzcocks, Jam, Doors, B52s, M People, Misty in Roots, Siouxsie, Elvis Costello, Peel Sessions, The Motown Story, Redskins, Crowded House, REM, Freddie Hubbard, Ahmad Jamaal, Art Blakey, Was not Was, Fatback Band, Bon Jovi, The Smiths and Nirvana (not a smart move, Kurt). This paragraph is dedicated to Ranking Roger Barnes.

[Ed: Are you sure you used enough adjectives in Inside Pitch, Mike? A couple more excellents wouldn't have gone amiss...]

On to Father's Got The Shipfitter's Blues or back to the review of Rheingold.

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