Retro Review: The Last Valley (1971)

***No spoilers***

Very few films have been set during the Thirty Years War that ravaged Europe from 1618-1648. I can only think of two, and this is one of them. But it is not really about that war, although it features a short battle scene. It is about what people will do survive, in a land ravaged by not only war, but the Black Death too. A time when wandering bands of fierce mercenaries were paid to fight for one religion or another, and would change sides for a better offer. It is also about the hypocrisy of religion, and how old beliefs and customs came to be associated with witchcraft, during an era dominated by opposing faiths.

Vogel, a wandering teacher, (Omar Sharif) is fleeing the pestilence and combat consuming the country. By chance, he discovers a fertile valley, and a village inhabited by prosperous and suspicious villagers with little knowledge of life outside their idyllic existence. Meanwhile, a mixed bag of mercenaries and deserters, led by a man known only as ‘The Captain’, (Michael Caine) is heading in the same direction, stopping on the way to kill, rape, and steal anything they can find. Vogel is taken in by the reluctant villagers, for fear he would tell on them if he was sent away.

When The Captain and his men finally stumble across the village, it seems the fate of everyone is sealed. But the clever Vogel steps in, persuading the village headman (Nigel Davenport) and The Captain to reach an agreement. The soldiers will protect the village from outsiders for the winter, and in return, they will supply women to service the sexual needs of the men, and provide adequate food and shelter for them all. An uneasy truce is declared, but tensions remain high, especially as summer approaches, and some of the soldiers feel they should return to the army.

This film shows its age now, but not in a bad way. Despite its ‘epic’ status, and big-name cast, it feels more like a Hammer film at times, especially during the parts concerning witchcraft. The supporting cast is on form too, with hunky Michael Gothard impressive as a baddie, and the scene-chewing Brain Blessed relishing an all-too short role. You also get the British actor Jack Shepherd, and the Greek actor Yorgo Voyagis as Pirelli. Throw in some more international stalwarts, and there is something for everyone, in a film destined to be shown all over the world. Female desire is dealt with by the inclusion of Florinda Bolkan, and Madeline Hinde. Direction and writing is in good hands too, with the experienced James Clavell.

One word of warning, and it’s not a spoiler. Michael Caine adopts a strange German accent throughout the film. Not his best choice, in my opinion.
That said, this is hugely enjoyable, and very different.
The trailer is almost as good as the film!


Retro Review: Brassed Off (1996)

***No real spoilers***

Sometimes, the ‘small’ films are the best. They may not create a storm on the international market, win awards, or plaudits for the cast. But they stay with you, enter your heart and soul, and strike a chord within you that can never be reached by the biggest blockbuster, or Oscar-winning classic. When the British make a very good film, few others can do it better. This is a fine example of just that, and one of the greatest little films I have ever seen.

The setting may be unfamiliar to those outside of Britain. Sorry about that, as it works so well, if you happen to be English. Ten years after the devastating miners’ strikes, mines are still closing. Private owners are taking over, and taking on the unions too. The Conservatives are still in power, and the traditional mining towns in the north of England are facing imminent disaster, with the closure of the last remaining pits. But they have hope, and a diversion too. That is supplied by their love of brass band music, traditionally associated with the different collieries around the UK. After a hard day at work, the band members will lose themselves in wonderful renditions of different styles of music, played on their beloved brass instruments. At weekends, they will compete against other northern brass bands, hopefully getting to the grand finals in London.

Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald looking very young and attractive) has been sent back to her (fictional) home town of Grimley, in the north of England. She is working undercover for the industry, seeking to establish whether the mine there should close, or remain open. She meets up with her former boyfriend, Andy, (Ewan McGregor) who is still working as a miner. He plays in the brass band, and Gloria auditions for a role too. Despite never having had a female member, the band are impressed with her undoubted talents, and she is accepted. Getting to know the rest of the miners, and becoming attached to Andy again makes her undercover job difficult, and her emotions are torn. The band leader, Danny, (a wonderful turn from Pete Postlethwaite) is struggling to keep his band motivated, and is also seriously ill.

Most of the film concerns the break up and reformation of the band, as they enter a regional competition to win a place in the Grand Finals in London. Gloria throws herself into helping them, as even though it seems the fate of the mine is sealed, they still have the desire to go out with a winning performance. This film works at almost every level imaginable. The locations are superb, the script sparing and sharp, and the political points are made, but not hammered home uncomfortably. Then there is the music of course, with the band’s performances supplied by a real mining band, the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. It harps back to the golden age of British cinema, with often laugh out loud moments contrasted by genuinely powerful emotions, real warmth, and a cast of wonderful characters you will really care about.

As well as those already mentioned, acting talent in abundance is supplied by Jim Carter, Philip Jackson, Stephen Tompkinson, Melanie Hill, and Sue Johnston. One of the finest British films ever made.

In addition to the official trailer, I am including a clip of Gloria’s audition. Please watch that too, because the music in that is one of my favourite pieces, the Concerto D’Aranjuez, and it is fantastic.

Thinking Aloud on A Sunday

What’s O’Clock?

This is a rather ancient expression for asking the time. You might see it in a Shakespeare play.
I woke up thinking about Time this morning, specifically how to tell the time.

When I was young, I was taught to say “Do you have the time please?” when enquiring of an adult. Telling the time was something I remember learning from a very young age. A wooden clock face, with moving hands, and coloured numbers. My Mum asking me constantly, “If the big hand is on-, and the small hand is on-, what time is it? She would place the hands close together around the dial, explaining “This is a quarter-past, this is half-past”, and so on.

By the time I was in the ‘big school’, (juniors) it was taken for granted that I could tell the time. Every classroom had a big clock on the wall, as well as one in every corridor, and in the school entrance. Time was important of course. We had to be in school by a certain time, go for breaks and lunch at other times, and we all soon learned the time that school finished for the day. I was too young to be given a watch. Rough play and football games would almost certainly have resulted in it being damaged or destroyed, and watches were expensive, in 1959.

In central London, there was no shortage of clocks to see what the time was. Many churches had four clock faces, as did the local Town Hall, most other public buildings, and lots of shops, who used the clocks outside to double as advertising their name. Between my school and home, I could probably have seen the time easily, at least five or six times. Once at secondary school, I got a watch, given as a treasured present for a birthday, or perhaps at Christmas. It was mechanical of course, with an audible tick, and it had to be wound up every night, when I went to bed. Later on, I was given a more stylish example, with a date function visible under a magnified section of the glass face.

By the time I was 15, I had to get two trains to go to school, so time became more important than ever. I was bought an alarm clock, to make sure I got up in time; it had an incredibly loud tick, luminous numbers and hands, and two jangling bells on top. Once washed and dressed, on went the wristwatch, checking that I was in time for the train. As I approached the station, the large platform clock became visible, and I would check my watch against it, in case there was a minute or two difference. When I left school and started work, that routine continued for a while, as I soon discovered than employers do not like their staff turning up late. Technology was moving on with me, and watches now had batteries, and no longer needed to be wound up. But I liked my old watch, so kept winding it happily.

Not long after that, I saw my first digital watch. A clunky, black-plastic affair made by Casio, with red numbers telling the time. I thought it looked awful, and stuck with my conventional leather-strap watch. Those new digital watches soon became so common, they were giving them away at petrol stations if you filled up, or you could buy them for next to nothing, even in street markets. But I saw a real issue. They had no hands. You looked at the red or blue numbers, and they showed the time in a digital format, such as 3:10. You could press a button on the side, and the date would appear, usually the wrong (American) way round, like 11/23.

Much later, I realised the full impact of this change. Young people were no longer learning how to tell the time. The big clocks on public buildings and shops were not corrected anymore, and many were left showing the same time forever. Clocks in schools and offices were changed to digital displays in the main, and not long after, the station clocks were replaced with digital alternatives too. But all this was nothing, once the mobile phone achieved its modern popularity. All phones can be set to show the time, in a digital format. Watches became redundant, for those with phones. Car clocks became linked to DAB radios, and no longer had hands either. With the exception of the iconic clock known as Big Ben, there were hardly any hands on anything that told the correct time. Digital time-keeping had arrived, on everything from a microwave oven, to the central heating controller.

Generations of people have grown up not knowing something as simple as how to tell the time by looking at a clock face.

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s very sad.

Significant Songs (189)


I think of this as a one-hit wonder, as I can never recall if Fairground Attraction had another hit, or if I ever listened to any more of their songs. However, vocalist Eddi Reader gained a large fan base, which she took into a solo career that continues to this day. As well as being a singer songwriter, Eddi branched out into acting, and also became known for her activity on the political scene in Scotland. In 2006 she received the M.B.E., for her services to the arts.

But I digress.

Back in 1988, songs like this one were not my thing at all. It was number one in the charts, and held placings in the top twenty for three months after that. It was also the winner of the Brit Award for Best Single, in 1989. I managed to ignore it for a while, but constant radio plays finally drove it into my head, where it has stayed ever since. When I hear it again now, I actually like it.

Significant Songs (188)

Can’t Take My Eyes Off You

It could be argued that the sign of a great song is how many other artists want to cover it. In 1967, this song was released by The Four Seasons, with Frankie Valli on lead vocal. A big ballad with an old fashioned arrangement, unusual even at that time. Nonetheless, I liked it immediately, and the catchy chorus was an immediate sing-a-long moment.

To say the song has endured for fifty-one years would be an understatement. It has been covered by over 200 other singers, the last one as recently as 2016. Popular on film soundtracks, most notably ‘The Deer Hunter’ (1978), and frequently used whole or in part by the makers of TV commercials, it just keeps going. Here is the original, followed by the same song used in Cimino’s film.

All together now…

Significant Songs (187)

Jump Around

The majority of songs featured in this series have some relevance to places, times, or events in my life. Memories, good and bad recollections, or just an overall reminder of a certain day or season. Generally, they are all here because I like them of course, but on this occasion I am featuring a song I don’t particularly like, and certainly have never owned.

I wasn’t a big fan of the Hip Hop genre anyway, and by the time this was released by House of Pain, in 1992, I was 40 years old, and rather irked by the fact that this track sampled the classic ‘Harlem Shuffle’, from 1963, as well as others from Junior Walker and Chubby Checker. The song was also heavily featured in advertising for Guinness beer in the UK, and became irritating, to say the least.

So, why is it here?

The simple truth is that like it or not, it is very catchy, and works well too. For over fifteen years, I have found it popping into my head often, usually when least expected. In all honesty, I have to confess that this is the sign of a very effective record. In the interests of balance and fairness, here it is.

Significant Songs (185) and (186)

Our House

Two songs with the same title. Twelve years apart, and they couldn’t be more different. One is from a ‘supergroup’ mentioned earlier this week, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. The other from a London band that started off performing Ska and Bluebeat covers, before becoming one of the most enduring and much-loved groups in Britain.

With the addition of Neil Young, CS&N became CSN&Y, in 1970. Their debut album, ‘Deja Vu’, was a big success, and went on to sell well over eight million copies. The ten tracks on the album feature songs written by various members of the group, in a range of very different styles. Although I liked both the album and the group, I found myself playing certain tracks much more frequently than others.
Especially this one. (This much later live performance is sadly the only one I can access.)

By complete contrast, the wacky Londoners who formed the group Madness were also often known as the ‘nutty boys’, and with good reason. They made the most of the video promotion explosion at the time, delivering some brilliant short films to accompany their single releases. In 1982, they released their fourth album ‘The Rise and Fall’, signifying a change of style and direction. This track was the biggest hit from that album, becoming one of the band’s signature songs to this day.