Gig review – Koyaanisqatsi with Go Go Penguin

Gig review – Koyaanisqatsi with Go Go Penguin

Hull City Hall

I can’t remember the last time I saw Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio’s stunning art house film from the early 1980s. I remember buying it for a friend’s birthday or Christmas present in 1994, so it was way before then. In fact it’s been so long, I feel like I’m watching a different film when it’s screened at Hull City Hall.

The major difference this time is the score. Philip Glass’s seminal soundtrack is absent, replaced by an original live performance by Go Go Penguin. And boy do they earn their money.

The three-piece tackles such a labour intensive work, I’m exhausted for them during some of the full on bits. Or maybe that’s the painkiller kicking in for my broken wisdom tooth. Either way it’s like watching a new film.

When the movie was released, time lapse footage of anything was a rarity. Cities and landscapes on fast forward were a stunning sight, with cars flowing to and from cities like red and white blood cells pumping through a heart. These days I shoot time lapse all the time on my iPad or phone. Back in the days before digital, I imagine the process cost a fortune. Little wonder the movie needed a big backer and few were bigger than Francis Ford Coppola in the days when he was a force to be reckoned with.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan of the maestro, but when a sniffy wine salesman shot me down in a Californian vineyard back in 1995 for trying to buy a ’small’ bottle of Coppola’s wine, I’ve had a chip on my shoulder about the name.

(In retrospect the Scooby Doo tee-shirt and Hawaiian shorts probably didn’t help my case in such a buttoned up, conservative vineyard).

I digress.

Koyaanisqatsi without the Glass score feels like watching Jaws without John Williams’ masterful soundtrack. It’s good but it’s not right.

However, as an accompanying film for a fine chunk of jazz, it works a treat. A shame nobody has shot a homage in Hull to celebrate the City of Culture. (I did film some great time lapses outside the venue in the spring, which almost begs for a highbrow classical score. Great way to pass the time if you love people-watching and are waiting for a friend or relative to arrive).

Did it wow me? Yes and no. Love the film, great new score, but I’ll admit I was sidetracked by earache, and not because of the excellent musicians.

I’m glad I went, but I wouldn’t rush to see it again. Koyaanisqatsi is one of those movies worth a look every few years, or in my case decades, preferably with the original score. I’d like to see Go Go Penguin provide backing for other arthouse classics without much dialogue.

That said, maximum respect to Chris Illingworth (piano), Nick Blacka (double bass) and Rob Turner (drums) for their bold interpretation of a 1983 classic.

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Book review – Miller and Max

Book review

Miller and Max

By Luke Buckmaster

I was a fan of Mad Max before I even managed to see any of the films. In the early eighties, a time before I could watch what I wanted, when I wanted, I wondered how good Mad Max was based on magazine photos and movie posters.

In 1982, when the sequel was released, the 14-year-old me was given tantalising glimpses of the stunning production design and explosive action sequences.

In an age of video nasties, Mad Max was lumped along with other notorious offerings such as The Evil Dead as a movie which would corrupt youth and ’was capable of bringing down society as we knew it’.

Of course there was far more to the Max saga than just amazing stunts and cool costumes.

Thanks to Miller and Max, Luke Buckmaster’s book about creative genius George Miller and the movies which made his name, I finally get a warts-and-all insight into one of the most influential movie sagas ever made.

Without Mad Max, there would’ve been no Wild Boys video by Duran Duran; Gary Numan’s early 1980s look would have been very different, and pretty much every post-apocalyptic straight-to-video offering would have been erased from history. (Give Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone a look, and ignore the rest).

Like Star Wars before it, the first two Max movies rewrote the book on fantasy cinema.

Understanding how it came about is obviously a compelling read. Buckmaster, like any good biographer, starts his tome with an action scene (involving an out-of-control rocket car) before flashing back to Miller’s youth.

It’s occasionally a hard read because of the Australian slang that slips in, but as someone who’s loved Aussie cinema for decades, it’s great to get a fresh, Antipodean take on a filmmaker and franchise that changed the world.

Buckmaster’s tone at times is ’telling you over a pint down the local’ rather than some highbrow document designed for academics, though he does slip into the realms of purple prose occasionally.

In retrospect, the ’pub chat’ is exactly the right way to go even if it lacks the panache of superior director biogs such as Dale Pollock’s George Lucas tome Skywalking, or Peter Biskind’s peerless Easy Riders Raging Bulls (a must for any fan of seventies cinema).

Miller and Max is also a fascinating guide on how to get a low budget movie off the ground, though more photos would help boost the book immensely (there are a few colour stills in the middle). The Mad Max saga has never been something which can be assessed entirely in words. Action scenes are a purely visceral experience and translating them for novelisations for example is often a futile experience. (Amazingly Terry Hayes, who wrote the first movie’s novelisation, was hired to co-write film two).

I love other nuggets of trivia gold, such as the fact that when actor Tim Burns auditioned for a part in the first movie, he told a Tommy Cooper gag. Miller’s casting process involves actors telling him jokes so he can see whether they understand structure, drama and the climax of a story. Smart move.

I’m also amazed by the chaos that ensued in October 1977, the first day of shooting, when around a thousand cars had to be stopped on the Geelong Freeway for the inaugural scene. The man in charge of doing so had not figured out where the production crew were going to park, let alone deal with such an enormous logistical nightmare.

It’s stories like the Cooper joke and this nightmare scenario that help Buckmaster’s book come alive. He’s certainly interviewed plenty of cast and crew for the 273-page offering, and for the most part, the whole thing ticks over like a finely tuned engine.

I love the fact a 21-year-old Mel Gibson, fresh out of drama school, was genuinely scared of his ’villainous’ co-stars. They took method acting to another level by biking huge distances before day one of filming, and staying in character when the cameras weren’t rolling.

Like any first time filmmakers, thanks to a huge amount of naïveté, getting that modestly budgeted action thriller from script to screen involved a lot of blind luck, hard work and occasionally life threatening mistakes, but while cast and crew may have sufferered a steep learning curve, they also raised the bar to stratospheric levels for the sequel.

Film one became a monster hit, and until 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, the most lucrative movie ever made based on the tiny budget and huge box office returns. A sequel was inevitable, and seeing how that was put together, inspired by Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (which also inspired George Lucas while making Star Wars) is fascinating.

Until 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road was released, Mad Max 2 was easily the finest post-apocalyptic action adventure ever made. Renamed The Road Warrior for America (as many folks in the US had never seen the first Mad Max), it left audiences around the world gobsmacked. The mash up of Road Runner, Peter Weir’s cult seventies movie The Cars That Ate Paris, and classic Western Shane fast tracked Miller and Gibson into the big leagues.

A shame film three was more style than substance, and Miller’s career in the 30 years between Beyond Thunderdome and Fury Road was an unusual mix of Faustian fantasy (the excellent Witches of Eastwick), little-seen medical drama Lorenzo’s Oil, (based on the pioneering work of Hull biochemist Don Suddaby), and kids’ offerings such as Babe 2 and the Happy Feet movies.

Given the fact Fury Road was another huge success, and both Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron gave such terrific turns, I, like countless fans, are desperate for a fifth Max film.

For a man in his seventies, George Miller is still showing up-and-coming film makers how to make the best action movies on the planet, and I’m thrilled there’s finally a book that pays tribute to his work.

Just a shame Miller himself doesn’t shed any light on his oeuvre, like one of Faber and Faber’s excellent film biogs, but this is still a well crafted tome which is well worth the investment.

Film Review – ‪Geostorm‬

Geostorm

Starring Gerard Butler, Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris

Directed by Dean Devlin

Certificate 12A

Geostorm might well be the stupidest film of 2017, but it’s also one of the most enjoyable. It stars Gerard Butler, so you know you’re not going to need many brain cells to understand the plot. And as it’s co-written and directed by Dean Devlin, you also know there’s going to be plenty of fireballs, scenes of chaos in international locations and cars trying to outrun carnage.

And the film does not disappoint. Every few years, either Roland Emmerich and Devlin, together or separately, seem to remake their 1996 classic Independence Day, using assorted plot devices to cash in on that movie’s success.

So after the not bad The Day After Tomorrow in 2004 and the wonderfully silly 2012 in 2009, we now have a scenario in which Butler is Jack Lawson, a genius mechanic who created Dutch Boy, an orbiting platform capable of preventing or creating bad weather for the sake of the world. Or something.

This is a world where revamped space shuttles now have the ability to fly like star taxis to the International Space Station, and self-driving cars are designed to make life easier. (Hmm, self-driving eh? Wonder if that’ll come in handy later).

However, when Dutch Boy apparently malfunctions and a village is wiped out by a frozen death ray, Butler, a sort of multi-tasking Desperate Dan in civilian clothes, is assigned to put things right. Trouble is, he’s been sacked from his own project and his brother Max has taken over, leading to much bad blood between the Lawson siblings.

So Butler sets up home in Florida in a shiny steel caravan (which looks like it was delivered to site and unwrapped the same day) and Max turns up in a car, which looks like it was driven straight from the showroom, to recruit him. Funny how I buy the outlandish effects more than everyday weathering on vehicles.

Max (Jim Sturgess) is dating a member of the American Secret Service, and she may or may not be a spy. In fact every other character may or may not be involved in a major cover up which causes things to malfunction and lots of people to die.

Is the American president (Andy Garcia) in on the conspiracy? Who knows?

Okay, I do, but this is one of those movies where half the fun is guessing who’s the bad guy or girl.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Butler, but he does a good job here, lumbering around, spouting B-movie dialogue while Sturgess is fine, but as one dimensional as a cardboard standee of himself that might advertise the film in some far-off cinema.

Good support comes from Alexandra Maria Lara, an actress who reminds me of Marion Cotillard. Could she also be a spy? Yes, everyone could. Well, almost everyone. (*Spoiler at the end).

Of course the real stars of the film are the effects, a series of explosions and set pieces either on the ISS (think Gravity meets Moonraker via 2017’s Life, turned up to 11) and you get the idea.

Providing some kick-ass glamour is Abbie Cornish, who looks like she’s escaped from the series of 24 set in Washington DC. She’s a fearless, sexy, smart, invincible force of nature who you definitely want on your side when people are trying to kill you, or the elements are.

Oh, and it’s nice to see other of the world’s major landmarks that weren’t wiped out in the Independence Day movies, 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow under assault from huge waves and the like.

There’s a basic rule of thumb with these movies. Dry places get wet. Cold places get hot. And so on.

For all its faults, stupid dialogue and convoluted action scenes, on a dull November afternoon, it brightens my day a treat, not least because there’s only two of us in the cinema, and the other bloke sat several rows away is polite enough not to spend any of the movie surfing the ‘net like most screenings these days.

There’s at least 30 seconds when I actually feel something for the characters, which is remarkable considering how much like computer game avatars they all are. And full marks to Ed Harris and Andy Garcia for keeping straight faces throughout. But that’s why they get paid millions of dollars.

This will crop up on ITV2 or Channel 5 every few weeks in the future, but if you get the chance, see it while you can on a big screen with decent sound.

Oh, and if you want to rule one person out of the mystery, here’s a dreadful spoiler of a pun.

*It’s not much of a shock to discover (the) Butler didn’t do it.

7/10

Film Review- ‪Murder on the Orient Express (2017)‬

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Starring Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley

Certificate 12A

How good is a joke when you know the punchline?

Well, that depends on the comedian of course, but though not a joke, the ’punchline’ or denouement in Murder on the Orient Express has been around for decades, and knowing the outcome of Agatha Christie’s classic thriller does derail the latest version somewhat.

It’s 1934, and in a terrific opener, famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) solves a theft in Jerusalem, and travels to Istanbul. Receiving a telegram from London about a pending case, Poirot must return home, with his friend offering him a place on the Orient Express.

Once on board, we meet the eclectic characters, including unpleasant American businessman Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp). He’s received threatening letters from a mystery party, and after Poirot refuses to become his bodyguard, the eponymous atrocity occurs.

However, the killer cannot escape as fate intervenes. The train is derailed during bad weather and shudders to a halt on a bridge.

Among the suspects are Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), Governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), Dr John Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr), Edward Henry Masterman (Derek Jacobi) and Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench).

No shortage of possible killers then, and while the first act is like a glorious Christmas present of a film, boasting stunning wrapping, lavish bows, glitter and tinsel, once the content is revealed, the drama is almost as stationary as the train. Suspects are interviewed, backstory fleshed out and there’s the occasional jump scare.

Branagh may be an unlikely Poirot, but he does a great job as the ’tec with the extravagant ’tache.

For a third of the movie, it’s hard to take my eyes off that astonishing facial hair. It could star in a spin-off movie, it’s so voluminous and characterful.

As ever, his direction is fascinating, especially an overhead scene in which the body is discovered.

By the time Ken reveals his third act, the movie gathers a little steam again as the big reveal is unveiled.

It’s certainly not a bad movie, oozing class and style. The players, including a perfectly cast Daisy Ridley and Judi Dench (whose eyes seem to X-ray the soul) are especially terrific, but there’s just something about that second act which nags me as much as my toothache.

At one point Poirot sympathises with Masterman for his own toothache, and it feels like one of those fantasy scenes in Last Action Hero or The Purple Rose of Cairo where characters on screen start talking to a cinemagoer.

It might be sacrilege to suggest that the story isn’t as great as Branagh’s 1991 blockbuster Dead Again, which remains a stunning, often hilarious thriller. This ticks enough boxes to make it well worth a look, including Poirot’s chuckles over Dickens and a mirthsome use of the word ’fudge’, but CG cold air for exterior talking scenes in the frozen wastes would have helped, and there’s no escaping that Polar Express feel during some of the train shots.

So, great cast, beautifully shot, terrific Patrick Doyle score and a nice nod to another Christie classic near the end. But not quite the masterpiece I’d hoped for.

7/10

Film review – Numb

Film review

Numb

Starring Jamie Bamber, Stefanie von Pfetten and Aleks Paunovic

Directed by Jason R Goode

Husband and wife Will (Jamie Bamber) and Dawn (Stefanie von Pfetten) are in dire financial straits. The job he was counting on to salvage their future has disappeared due to a market collapse. (Not that she’s aware of that until later).

They head home on the winter highway back to their city, and pick up siblings Lee (Aleks Paunovic) and Cheryl (Marie Avgeropoulos), hitchhikers on their way to start a new life.

In the best jump scare of the movie, they nearly collide with an old man wandering on the highway, hypothermic and frostbitten.

While searching for his ID, they discover a pile of cash, a hand-drawn map with GPS coordinates, and a single gold coin inside his coat.

Will and Dawn reluctantly go along with Lee’s plan to report him to the police as a John Doe and pocket the money.

Venturing into the snowy wilderness in search of the buried gold, what unfolds is a tale as old as the hills. It’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre for the geocaching credit crunch generation.

I’m reminded of the superior Wind River, not least for the vast wintry landscapes and eclectic characters in search of a goal. In that case it was a murder mystery. Here’s it’s good old fashioned gold.

For the most part it’s a pretty solid thriller with good performances. There’s clearly an expert attached, telling the filmmakers what a savvy protagonist needs to survive in the wild, but at times there are huge leaps of logic. A knife through a boot doesn’t generate much of a response from a lead character, but it hardly matters.

It’s the sort of film that might crop up on Channel 5 around 9pm. A straight-to-VOD or DVD offering that is competently made, well acted and the script isn’t bad. The finale is a tad cheesy, but the Canadian landscapes are impressive and it keeps me watching throughout. It also makes me yearn for superior similar offerings like No Country for Old Men and marvellous 1988 Sidney Poitier thriller Shoot to Kill (aka Deadly Pursuit), which sadly never seems to be on TV or Netflix.

This won’t change your life, but if you want a chilly chunk of escapism for a frosty night, then it ticks the box admirably. and at 90 minutes it certainly doesn’t outstay it’s welcome.

7/10

Film review – Elle

Film review – Elle

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Certificate 18

Starring Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny

Paul Verhoeven has never been a director to make safe, family friendly films. His work has long been outrageous, though it was only when he made the move to Hollywood 30 years ago that many sat up and took notice. Sci-fi satires RoboCop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers inspired clones and remakes, while Basic Instinct kick-started a wave of mainstream steamy thrillers, most of them dreadful.

By the time he made Showgirls, the Hollywood dream had soured. Hollow Man, his spin on The Invisible Man, was trashy sci-fi involving a disturbing assault scene, and the first few seconds of his French film Elle also proves hard to stomach.

But this is not the Verhoeven of old. His work has matured like a Dutch cheese. And there’s a big difference between cheese and cheesy in this tortuous analogy.

When Isabelle Huppert’s heroine Michèle Leblanc, the head of a successful video game company, is sexually assaulted in her home, Michèle’s reaction is matter of fact. Understandably shocked and sickened, but she carries on with her life.

Reacting to such a horrific attack is obviously traumatic, but why is she so business-like about it? Why does a woman later dump a tray of food over her? And is the tech wizard who clearly hates her at work responsible for her assault?

There are so many questions, and before long what I thought was going to be another disposable thriller soon turns into a compelling, gripping experience.

Based on a novel by Philippe Dijan, who also inspired eighties art house favourite Betty Blue, this boasts a stunning turn from Isabelle Huppert. (She was in her early sixties when she made this and looks at least a decade younger).

The quest to find her assailant may be the core of the story, but it’s the characters that orbit around her who help make this more than just another revenge thriller.

Michèle’s mother and young lover, her son and psycho pregnant girlfriend and assorted friends and liaisons help make the drama live and breathe. Okay, elements become a little like a soap opera, but not in a bad way.

I’ve no doubt Hollywood are lining up a remake, and like Americanised versions of classics Nikita and The Vanishing, it will probably be underwhelming.

This will no doubt polarise viewers, and anger some, but what Michèle does and doesn’t do in the aftermath of her assault proves a fascinating character study of a victim recovering from far more than that opening attack.

It’s good to see Paul Verhoeven back on form with one of the best thrillers of recent years. However, without Isabelle Huppert’s stunning turn, the movie could have been that forgettable drama I’d feared.

8/10

Theatre Review – Vampires Rock – Ghost Train

Vampires Rock – Ghost Train

Grand Opera House, York

“What the hell have I just seen?” asks my partner as the curtain descends on a post-Halloween mix of music, comedy and wafer-thin story.

We’ve long had different views on entertainment. I love that thrown-together, low budget grungy feel of production, as well as high end stage shows like Bat Out of Hell (which we saw earlier in the year in Manchester).

Rachel prefers the polished stage show, and during our half-way analysis of Vampires Rock – Ghost Train, we dissect what’s great and less great about the show.

I’d known a little of what to expect after seeing Iconic earlier in the year, Steve Steinman’s other stage show paying homage to cult films. That was a much slicker production in places, but as enjoyable.

Of course amusement parks are meant to be cheaper, grungier and this show reflects that.

I love the vocals, she’s not a fan. I like the Phoenix Nights-style feel of comedy. She doesn’t get it. But that’s the thing about humour. It’s always subjective.

Okay, John Evans, Baron Von Rockula’s comedy stooge Bossley, looks like he’s escaped from a bad kid’s party, but he can belt out many a great track, so it’s not a bad trade-off. And when vampire hunter Van Halensing (or Van Halen-sing, who knows?) turns up, there’s no prizes for guessing who it is.

The ghost train analogy is apt. A scary, fun ride. I’d say it’s more like jumping on a mine car from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and holding on as it careers down a rickety track, picking up speed until we reach that finale. All the time it’s on the verge of coming off the rails. At times it seems to skip the track, or script completely.

The show takes a while to get going, but that’s true of many great stage productions. The weakest element is the story, or lack of it. Like Iconic, VRGT needs a more polished book or script to make the comedy fly. The groanworthy nods to classic rock songs won’t win any awards for subtlety, but while the script may need a bit of work, it’s great soaking up the wealth of rock classics.

By the finale, everyone is on their feet clapping and singing along, and the fact the theatre is packed is testament to the show’s enduring success in all its incarnations.

Like a certain other pantomime that rocks up in York every year, this has that repeat factor which fans keep coming back for more.

It’s pure panto, mixed with rock opera, jukebox musical, end of the pier show and for me at least, it’s glorious fun.

It might not have the multi-million dollar budget of Jim Steinman’s Bat Out Of Hell stage show, but it has the same spirit, and as I have a stupid grin for most of the show, it definitely ticks a lot of boxes.

Dancers and vocalists Hayley Russell, Penny Jones and Victoria Jenkins do a terrific job, and nice to hear a different take on that well worn classic Holding Out For A Hero.

By the time Stars in Their Eyes veteran Steve plays out with his terrific take on Bat Out of Hell, I’m more than happy we made the trip.

On a very grey, dull November night, this is just the splash of (blood-soaked) colour I need to ease my autumn blues.

And full marks to the band who belt out the string of ’iconic’ tracks.

The show returns to York in 2018, but also plays Hull at the start of the year. I can think of worse ways to get over one of the most depressing months on the calendar.

If you don’t emerge from the theatre with a big stupid grin, get someone to check your pulse as you might be dead.

Film review Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok

Directed by Taika Waititi

Starring Chis Hemsworth, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hiddleston

Certificate 12A

Back in 2011, when Kenneth Branagh was making Thor, I was keen to see how he would tackle one of Marvel’s best loved comics characters.

The result was a solid blockbuster; a little talky in places, but the movie really came alive when the eponymous character arrived on Earth, fell for boffin Jane Foster and tackled a generic robot destroyer.

It rightly made stars of Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, and paved the way for terrific sequel Thor: The Dark World. Another great mix of fantasy and comedy with Hemsworth and Hiddleston stealing the show again.

Wisely Marvel gave the saga a rest for four years while prepping more helpings of Captain America and Avengers.

So now we catch up with the god of thunder in a movie which throws out the rulebook and starts afresh. There’s no Jane Foster, sexy sidekick Darcy or seasoned boffin Erik Selvig. Most of Thor’s allies are also removed in favour of assorted monsters. This owes more of a debt to Guardians of the Galaxy than the previous Thor movies, and the style change may be deliberate as Marvel preps its biggest film, the two-part Avengers: Infinity War, which will see just about every member of the MCU involved in a smack down with the galactic godfather, Thanos.

Hiring Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows) as director was a stroke of genius. He brings an irreverent tone to the saga which is irresistible. At one point when the brilliant Jeff Goldblum is doing his eccentric bonkers routine as intergalactic villain Grandmaster, I’m laughing so hard I miss about five gags.

Getting rid of Natalie Portman was also a good move. Great actress, but I found her bland in the series. Newcomer Tessa Thompson is a terrific heroine. Smart, funny and lends the saga much needed femininity amid the testosterone. Cate Blanchett also has a great time as the antagonist, and even though her by-the-numbers dispatching of countless Asgardian troops is okay, it’s her bitchy comments that prove more effective. She chews whole chunks of scenery like a ravenous lioness.

And Hemsworth reminds us why he’s far more than just a gobsmacking six pack and set of biceps. His comic skills are excellent. Seeing improv so funny in a film this epic is a welcome breath of fresh air.

There are times when it feels like a couple of other movies. A bit of Lord of the Rings here, Warcraft there. But there’s also plenty of the usual Marvel staples: fight scenes; boss monster; dogfights in funky fighter craft and a lot more. It’s all expertly done and rounds out a great year for comic book movies with Spider-Man Homecoming and Guardians of the Galaxy: vol 2 fine additions to Marvel’s cinematic universe.

Obviously the presence of Hulk and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is a major selling point (in a storyline inspired by the comic Planet Hulk), but Taika Waititi’s rocky gladiator Korg steals many of the best scenes. Again, his improv is often side-splitting.

And as usual, stay through those closing credits for an extra scene or two which should keep fans intrigued over Thor’s future. Even if you’re not a fan, there are so many gags here, it’s guaranteed to brighten the bleakest autumnal day.

Good luck topping this Justice League. You’re going to need it.

8/10

Slade & Fame – A Chat with Dave Hill (part one)

I grew up living in the next street to Dave Hill from Slade. It was a pleasure to chat to one of the most glam rockers of all time about his new book, Slade’s pending tour, starring in the greatest rock film of all time, and why ’without Slade, there would’ve been no Oasis’.

At one point Slade were the biggest group in the country. How did you keep your feet on the ground?

Well I think it was more than this country. It was generally the world, except for America. We were as big in all these places I’ve been to like Australia and Russia.

You can’t comprehend what it was like in the rest of the world. Obviously you can comprehend in England because the people you run into and the reaction of people you know, and newspapers and Top of the Pops.

I grew up on a council estate and the roots of the band were very much ’blokes around the corner’.

My life story comes out next month (November), so I’m in the midst of preparing for that. Nod, our singer, has done the foreward; Noel Gallagher has done the afterward.

I met him (Gallagher) once at the airport and I kept in contact. And he said something quite interesting. He said “If there was no Slade there’d be no Oasis”.

Also he said something that I thought was really poignant. “I saw them (Slade) as people that lived in a council house down the road from where I was”.

The root of it is we had the background of stability. We had good families, and when we made it… nobody can prepare you for what fame does to you. Becoming famous I don’t think we ever realised the roster of number ones we would’ve had.

But our manager Chas Chandler, who was Jimi Hendrix’ manager, believed in us immensely. He saw us as the follow on from the Beatles. He said in his mind we were that kind of group. You know, ’working class people who made it’. We got writers; we got abilities; and we got an image, which was a lot to do with our success.

I wouldn’t say anyone can cope totally with fame. Fame isn’t natural. Suddenly you’ve gone from being a boy from school; you play guitar, you’re in a band… I was a bit of a duffer at school. I wasn’t like a popular kid. And suddenly I’ve gone to extreme fame and found my reason to be so to speak; Top of the Pops. And suddenly you can’t go to the places that used to go to. You’re either going to get mobbed or annoyed, so we had to become a little bit isolated from being too exposed walking down the road.

I was still living at my dad’s house when I had two number ones. I moved and my dad was still signing the autographs. I thought that was really great (laughs).

To be continued

Hotel Review – Conrad London St James

Five star hotels are pure fantasy. The posh coffee maker I can’t afford advertised by George Clooney. The bed that feels like sleeping on a cloud compared to a bed of nails. And the monsters and robots in the lobby that remind me of countless movies.

Okay, you won’t find the latter in most hotels. It’s a sculpture that catches my bleary eye the minute my partner and I check into Conrad London St James.

It’s around 1am, and I’ve been looking forward to this stay for months: for a couple of nights we get to live like film stars.

Friday evening, and after finishing work, Rachel and I have jumped on a train from Howden, East Yorkshire and two hours later, we’re at King’s Cross.

After a late meal and evening of music in Belgravia, we’re dragging our case a mile up the road to one of the fanciest hotels I’ve experienced. I’ve stayed in quite a few in the capital, but never this good.

The last one featured a chunky TV with no reception, and a huge cigarette burn in the duvet.

No such problems at the Conrad London St James.

Gladys on the night shift is the personification of charm as we check in. The reception sculpture of a figure climbing a ladder going nowhere is certainly an eye catcher. As is that stunning piece of art as we head for the lifts. I spot Woody from Toy Story, but maybe I’m seeing things.

We find our room on the fifth floor and the reveal is not disappointing. A spacious, luxurious area with everything you’d expect. Clooney-endorsed coffee maker; supremely comfy bed; vast (flat screen) TV; glorious bathroom with TV volume control, and a spacious shower (a choice of standard or waterfall).

Obviously there’s all the facilities needed for business types, with ports for laptops and the like, and a cheeky minibar.

Hotel minibars are always a minefield regarding what’s free and what isn’t, so slotting a small bottle of wine and tub of Pringles in with the free coffee and tea is a clever move for the owners.

(It’s worth checking the handy in-room dining booklet to ensure you’re not paying a fortune for stuff that looks complimentary and isn’t).

I initially thought paying around £215 a night for any hotel room is extreme, but that’s pretty cheap for the location and calibre of room as a friend later reminds me.

And the location is perfect for those who want to be in easy access of key sightseeing locations. Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament are just around the corner.

After a good night’s sleep (once I’ve fiddled with the quiet air con), we check out the breakfast.

It’s already in full swing by the time we arrive and remarkably the gap between tables is pretty tight.

However, the food and service is excellent. Quality muesli and other cereals and a help-yourself hot and cold buffet ensure there’s plenty of choice.

I go for the full English: sausage, bacon, scrambled egg and hash browns, with a side of salmon. There’s plenty of croissants, pastries and other goodies, so little chance of going hungry.

As mentioned, that service is something else, even if it’s just a case of watching A-list hotel staff in action. One of the waiters looks like he was personally styled by Tom Ford, he’s so immaculately turned out.

Not that we’re desperate for more food, but we also have access to the executive lounge should we want it. It looks like a VIP departure lounge at Heathrow, but a nice retreat if you just want to chill inbetween meetings or shopping.

There’s no trouble finding the Tube when it comes time to head across town to Chiswick. The station is literally across the road.

Following an afternoon of fine dining six miles away, we return to freshen up and face a dilemma. We’re booked in for a meal (yes, another one) at the hotel restaurant, but want to see a West End show. The eatery opens at 6pm, and most big shows open 90 minutes later. What to do?

Thankfully we’re seated at 6pm sharp and order a ’quick’ meal. Carlos, our culinary guide, gives us a crash course in some of the hotel’s finest wines as we sample a selection of whites and reds.

I order a Blue Boar Burger as we’re in a rush, but am soon treated to a delicious bowl of cod in miso as well. Rachel samples a starter of sweetcorn, rice and asparagus with a hint of wasabi, followed by her main: Artichoke with Woodland Mushrooms, Ricotta, Spinach and Toasted Almonds.

We realise we’re not going to make that West End musical, but as none of the current shows really float my boat, I’m happy to sample the excellent food instead.

I’m stunned this restaurant is the same place where we had breakfast. Just a simple change of lighting alters the mood completely. It helps that we now have a spacious dining area of course, and I get a chance to soak up the elegant decor.

The place is spotless as you’d imagine, and though it’s still early, I love the atmosphere. Having a laugh with Carlos and our excellent waitress Marisa is that extra special ingredient not on the menu. Banter. It’s the difference between a good hotel/restaurant and a great one.

After successfully finding a good play in the West End, we return and soak up our last few hours in this extraordinary hotel.

I linger over that lobby sculpture – a stunning array of spray-painted action figures (including Woody from Toy Story, King Kong and many others) in an amphitheatre. It reminds me of the fantasy lifestyle all around me.

Our final breakfast on site is early, so there’s plenty of room at the table near where we had dinner.

After dropping our case at reception, we enjoy a brisk autumnal walk to Tate Britain, where a Ray Harryhausen exhibition pulls me in like a tractor beam. The surrounding area is a feast of landmarks, from Westminster Abbey to MI5. Along the way we see Ewan McGregor’s new film Christopher Robin in production, and are reminded of Samuel Johnson’s oft-quoted line “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”

Case collected, we bid farewell to the mother of all hotels. The fantasy is over but it was terrific while it lasted.

As we both have big birthdays next year and fancy pushing the boat out, our days of decadence at St James’s Park’s premier hotel are now more of a new chapter than the closed book it once was.

Highly recommended.