Tuesday 31 August 2010

CLiNT - The Saviour of British Comics?

I've touched on this before in a previous post, but way back in time, Britain had a great comic industry. In fact you can go back as far as the 1800's to the original 'penny dreadfuls' . The format may have been rather different back then, but the idea was much the same - a selection of original stories that continued week-on-week ('anthology' comics). In fact one of them, 'Boys Own' comic, ran from 1879 through to 1967.

In 1920 the popular 'Film Fun' comic was launched, giving readers a glimpse of how comics would soon look. But a huge turning point came in the 1930's when DC Thompson released two new titles:- The Beano and The Dandy. Their impact on the British comic scene was incredible, and even now, they are almost always the titles people will think of when you mention British comics. These two comics paved the way for more important titles to hit the shelves (e.g. The Hotspur, Radio Fun and Knockout).
The 1950's and 1960's must be the heyday of the British Comic - The Beezer, The Eagle, Battle, Whizzer and Chips, The Topper, Tiger, Victor, Valiant, TV Century 21, TV Comic, Bunty, Jackie, Buster, Wham, Pow!, Smash! and many more were all released during this time. I view the 1970's particularly fondly, as this was my era - but although there were plenty of titles to chose from every Saturday morning (Krazy, Cheeky Weekly, Plug, Whoopee!, Monster Fun, 2000AD, Shiver and Shake, Cor! Roy of the Rovers, plus a number of those comics from the previous decades still going strong), things were on the wane, and whilst there was plenty of quantity, the quality did not match that of the 50's and 60's.
Despite being around for many decades in some cases, nearly all of these titles died in the 80's (and those that didn't had gone by the early 90's), and by the end of the 90's only 2000AD, The Beano and The Dandy remained. And that's still the story today. There is no British comic industry any more. A few new titles have tried their luck over the years, but all have failed to reignite this great British tradition. Sure, you'll find racks worth of comics in your local WH Smiths, but apart from the three mentioned above, they are all TV Related titles. The top 10 selling comics in this country are currently (monthly sales figures included in brackets):

• The Simpsons (81,862)
• VIZ (76,408)
• Ben 10 (74,013)
• Simpsons Comics Presents (63,172)
• Doctor Who Adventures (53,559)
• In the Night Garden (60,060)
• The Beano (46,656)
• TOXIC (40,235)
• Doctor Who Magazine (35,374)
• BeanoMAX (29, 067)

So bar the Beano (which is terrible now by the way!), no original characters and stories, and certainly no original continuing stories to grip readers for months on end.

This week sees the release of a brand new 100 page monthly 'anthology' British comic - CLiNT.
This is the brainchild of Mark Millar - one of the UK's biggest and best comic writers (for the US market of course!)... The Authority, Nemesis, The Ultimates, and of course the now legendary Kick Ass all came from him.

The title is taken from a well known 'no-no' in the comic industry, you never call any characters this name, as once hand written and 'inked', it can look like a very different word indeed! So best just steer clear (see also 'FLICK'!). And that just about sets the scene, for what looks to be a rather racey, teenage to adult aimed title.

Mark has described CLiNT as The Eagle for the 21st Century, and has been very clever in how he has pulled it all together. He's seen other try and go to the wall, due to failing publicity, and the difficulty involved in getting new titles into WH Smiths (do you know you have to PAY WH Smith to stock your comic\magazine these days??! REALLY!). So Mark has called in the big guns...

• Titan Magazines to publish and distribute - one of THE biggest and most successful in the country (they also happen to own the comic shop chain Forbidden Planet, which is handy when you are starting up a new comic!)

• Jonathan Ross as a writer - Most people know that JR is a genuine comic nut. His collection is legendary, and his monthly comic pile at Forbidden Planet is over two foot high!! (Mondo's seen it!). But Ross completely 'gets' comics, and during his BBC sabbatical (for Manuel-gate) he sat down and wrote a peach of a comic - Turf (prohibition era gangsters, vampires and sci-fi). I've been buying the American release of this gritty, dialogue heavy title, and it's simply stunning. Turf is now being given it's UK premier in the pages of CLiNT. It's worth buying CLiNT for this strip alone. Never exactly a shrinking violet, you can bet your life that Ross will also provide much needed fanfare and promotion for this new title too.

• Frankie Boyle as a writer - An unknown quantity in the comic world, but certainly an edgy performer on the stand up comic world. His new strip - Rex Royd - is exclusive to CLiNT (Millar describes it as "imagine Lex Luthor, as seen by Frankie Boyle").

• Kick Ass (Volume 2) - Mark Millar is premiering the new Kick Ass story in CLiNT - A real scoop, as this is even ahead of the US market - Marvel don't publish issue one until well into October. The only thing is, how on earth is volume two going to compete with the first series - one of the greatest comics in recent years.

• Nemesis - A second Millar classic, getting it's debut printing in the UK.

There are more strips than this, but I think it would be fair to say that the above are very much the 'selling points'.

At first glance, I have to say I was a little disappointed at the cover... which with it's use of photos rather than artwork, just looks like one of a dozen or more magazines aimed at the same age group. A flick through CLiNT shows that it isn't strictly all comic strips either, with articles and interviews covering all the usual subjects (film, TV, comedy, games etc). It's bound to irk the traditional British comic lover, but then maybe Mark is being clever here too. There obviously aren't enough 'traditionalists' about to keep a new title afloat anymore, so he seems to be tapping into the 'lad-mag' market a little bit too.... but if it's the difference between this title surviving or failing, then it's a compromise I'm happy to take.

And lets just for one little moment imagine that it IS successful.... it could be the lighting of the blue touchpaper for a whole new generation of British Comics - all be it a million miles away from the Beano and the Dandy!

If you see CLiNT on your travels, give issue 1 a go, if only for the Jonathan Ross strip. Your country's comic industry needs you! And at £3.99 it's a bargain - There's a full USA issue of Turf and Nemesis within (25 odd pages of each), which on import would set you back £6 alone. Jonathan Ross and Mark Millar are launching CLiNT at WH Smiths in Victoria train station this Thursday (2nd Sept) at 4pm. You can find out more information over at the official CLiNT Website

And here's the trailer for Issue 1 (yes, even a comic gets a trailer these days!)


Monday 23 August 2010

More Memories of Southend Cinema!

Over my (almost) three years of blogging, there is one post in particular that sparked a considerable amount of interest - my piece on the Odeon cinema in Southend. It still holds the record for the most amount of comments i've received for a post, and I've had dozens of e-mail's over the last 12 months from readers who have somehow stumbled on it. It's how occasional guest editor Stephen Pickard (who now regales us with memories from his life spent in the film industry) found my site, and it's also how cinema historian and Southend Odeon patron Carl Beckwith recently found me too. E-mails went back and forth, but Carl's knowledge and information was far too good to be wasted just on me. So he kindly offered to put some of his memories of the Odeon and the ABC down for me to publish here. He also had a number of fabulous interior shots of the Odeon, which he has kindly allowed me to include below. I don't believe these pictures have been published before. So, almost exactly a year after my original post, it's over to you Carl...

The Odeon/Astoria Southend was by far the finest cinema I ever visited. One only had to look at the back of the building's 'fly-tower' where scenery was dropped down to the stage and compare the size with the Cliffs Pavillion Theatre's much smaller proportions to realise that the Odeon was on a par with London theatres.

(the Odeon's fly tower can be clearly seen in this rear shot,
taken just before the building was demolished)

I first visited the Odeon as a child to see The jungle book when it was a single-screen venue. I remember the cinema closing and the front entrance being boarded-up whilst being altered to make way for the twin-screen layout and the 'Caters' supermarket. On re-opening, the art-deco 'stepped-arches' ceiling with the concealed lighting was still in place in Odeon screen two. That lighting, the large sweep radius of the front of the auditorium's proscenium, and the serenely slow opening of the curtains (with the purple to green sequenced tab lights) made for a most up-market standard of cinema experience compared to other venues. House lights went down slowly, leaving the ceiling's atmospheric lights to remain whilst the curtains opened up, tab lights fading and ceiling arches slowly dimming by this time. In the comments section of Piley's original Odeon post, one contributor said that after the 'twinning' conversion, it was much smaller inside. Piley commented that it seemed large enough to him from memory. Well, Odeon 2 was the circle extended forwards; the central left to right of auditorium aisle-way, sixth row down from there towards the screen, was in fact the old 'front-row' seating of the original front circle. So, the new 'Odeon 2' carried the racked 'stadium' seating plan from this sixth row of seats and down quite a considerable distance further on. So much so that the new screen area was only some 10-15 feet short from the original proscenium arch, (stage surround), and only a little higher up from the original stage area, (the supermarket in the old stalls area of the pre 1970 theatre had a very low ceiling). Therefore, Odeon 2 auditorium still retained a spacious perspective, comparable to when seated in the 'circle' seats of the original venue. Only if sat looking at one end of the front of the balcony (front circle) back into the stalls and circle or sat in the front stalls looking back would these differences have become more apparent.

Presentation at the Odeon was first class; overseen by the strict but most professional managerial standards of Arthur Levenson (Arthur Levensons wife was the cousin of one-time Leigh-on-Sea girl, Joan Sims of 'Carry-On' fame). He was at the theatre in 1951 for a while, went to a London cinema (possibly the Gaumont in Kilburn), and returned to Southend and managed both the Odeon and the Ritz (opposite Palace hotel) from the early 60's until his retirement, around 1987.

(here is Arthur Levenson with the Beatles, taken at the Odeon)

In 1985, the Odeon celebrated it's 50th anniversary with a stage put in place in front of the screen curtain to facilitate a parade of 50 years of Southend 'Carnival Queens'; the annual crowning ceremony used to take place in the pre 1969 theatre when it had full stage facility and 2,750 seats and standing for 250! They gathered the 1985 queen right back to the 1935 one (who they had to fly in all the way from Canada!).

During this time Roger Moore's last Bond film (A View To A Kill) was released, and Arthur Levenson wanted to delay the release by a week, so as to open the 50th anniversary celebration night with this spectacle of a film. Unfortunately, the film renters would not allow it, and they told him that if he wouldn't show the Bond film on the release date (one week before the 50th celebration night) then they would give it to one of the other local cinema's. Such dictatorship! In the end, he had to use 'Return to Oz' for the big night, even though he had 007's 'Q' (Desmond LLewellyn) demonstrating Bond gadgets! He did it without using the microphone too, such were the fabulous acoustics in the building. Also, there were letters read out from well known actors and actresses well wishing the event, including Dame Anna Neagle, who remembered visiting the Astoria/Odeon over the years when coming to the town.

A friend and I visited Arthur Levenson to set-up a small 'in-foyer' exhibition the evening before the 1985 '50th' anniversary function. Not one to normally consort with everyday people unless known to him personally, he briefly showed us some impressive 'interior' colour 60's photographs of the cinema/theatre, probably taken after the re-fit around 1960 when they darkened the auditorium, spaced the stalls rows of seats apart for greater legroom, made-over the foyers and corridors with that 'modern' 'Festival of Britain' post '51 look. They also put 'stars' as lights in the ceiling - disconnecting the concealed lighting in the art-deco ceiling arches until re-connecting them, post twinning the cinema in the 70's (anybody remember the stars?! I know that twin brothers Peter and John who used to work as projectionists at the Ritz Southend, claimed a few of these when the building was being converted in 69-70!).

One Odeon fact I didn't realise was from contributor Stephen Pickard, who stated that the 'Cinemascope' (2.35:1 ratio) screen in the Odeon before the conversion was around 52 or 54' wide. My friend who was the last projectionist there from 1972 until retirement in the 1990's said Odeon 2 had a 45' screen in place; still very large and with the correct 'curved' profile which these awful multiplexes don't have. The new venue Odeon has the same chief projectionist that worked at the original Elmer Approach venue; a highly accomplished and professional technician who probably now doesn't get the same job satisfaction, working for a McDonalds style of operation as when at the highly 'standards-driven' original venue.

Unlike many cinema's, the Odeon was managed with high standards right to the end (by Diane Brissenden, formerly Arthur Levenson's deputy), remaining in a good standard of condition, never tired looking or any sign of 'tattyness'. Just before closing it's doors, I had the opportunity to go inside with my camera.

Moving away from the professionally run Odeon, I will always remember the ABC after it's dreadful twinning in 1980-1. Before 1980, the 1962 ABC interior transformation from the 1920's Rivoli interior (which itself had private family boxes in the front of the balcony) had those impressive brass 'spider' lamps - one big one in the middle and four smaller ones; one in each corner of the high ceiling. Then there were the two diagonal clocks - one either side of the proscenium arch amongst the diagonally set tiles. It was a cheap conversion when twinned and the grandeur of the '62 interior was lost forever.

(ABC opening night in 1962)

When the ABC was twinned, the projectionist, a nice old boy called John, who had worked there back to the Rivoli days, hated the switch to 'automation' and could be found in the cinema's basement 'Marine bar' during a performance. My dad used to have a drink with him at the Oakwood in Eastwood sometimes. John claimed the cinema had a ghost and was quite adamant about it's existence! Later, there would be younger projectionists and the standards were not the same as the strictly managed Odeon.

A guy called Dean Wren managed the ABC during the 80's and one of his projectionists liked to strip-down the then new 'Dolby' processor and exiter-lamp not long before 'curtains-up'. Dean used to get bad nerves and told us that he would go and shut himself away in the loo after seeing the projectionist (Martin) with all the projector parts straddled across the floor, struggling to put it all back in place ready for the show!

One night, a premier late-night screening of 'Rambo - first blood part 2' was to be presented at around 11:00pm. There was a new trainee projectionist working for the first time that night on his own. The auditorium was filled-up with a typically 'geezerish' audience. The automated system started with lights going down, curtains opening, curtains closing, lights going up. Again, the same - but no film. Eventually, the film started but with a frame bar across the middle of the screen! By this time, the audience had had enough and began to shout "WE WANT RAMBO - WE WANT RAMBO". Eventually, Martin was woken-up and brought in to rescue the show. I think it was about 45-minutes late, Dean was nowhere to be seen!

The projection box in the downstairs screen at the ABC was so low that you could put your hands in front of the port-hole and stick your fingers up on the screen; rude signs, etc... So many times, the ABC's projection work fell down with all sorts of little incidents; wrong lens in place, masking not set, (normally down to the previous projectionist on shift not advising that they had altered the settings on the 'automation' to the next shift).

There was a fantastic week of Essex cinema events in early December 1985, during British Film Year. On the Monday we had Pete Townshend appear at the ABC for a premier public screening of his film 'White City'. We had a private function in Chesters basement club in the High-Street with him whilst the cinema showed a Who film for the first half. Then over to the cinema where he got up on stage to introduce the film, then another private function down in the Marine bar.

On Wednesday, the magnificently all-original 1930's interiored State Cinema, Grays, re-opened it's doors, having found a new owner to re-open it after Mecca closed it in the February before. The film presented was 'Back To The Future' and TV crews were out in force covering the opening 'live' on the 6-o'clock news. 2,200 seats all taken and only £1.50 a seat! Manager, projectionist and head of staff all in Suits and bow-ties.

Friday, it was off to the Classic/Cannon in Westcliff for the first ever showing in England of 'The Glen Miller Story' (1954) with the soundtrack transferred from it's original American release in 4-track magnetic sound into Dolby Stereo. A private function was held in the former circle lounge (screen 2 upstairs lobby) with the local RAF taking collections and a late pal and former member of the BFY committee, Southend chapter, George Halle, an ex RAF man himself in attendance. On stage in screen 1 (which still had a stage in front of the screen) before the film, during our private function, was the Norman Langford band. Amongst the guests at the private function were Herb Miller, Glen's brother and Herb's son, who to this day I believe tours with the Glen Miller Band. What a cinetastic week that was! I still have the Essex Radio 'Words and Music' programme recording with all these events covered, including an interview with our BFY chairman, ex Deans school teacher (for those of you who went there; I read earlier in the thread), Roger Pearce.

Sincere thanks to Carl for some wonderful memories of Southend's cinemas, wonderful stuff!


Here's my previous post on the history of the Odeon cinema in Southend

Here's Stephen Pickard's first guest post, where he recalls his time working at the Odeon cinema in Southend


Tuesday 17 August 2010

Silvery - Railway Architecture

Perfect timing... Just as I'd finally worn out my copy of Silvery's first album, their second offering drops through the letterbox. And if you liked their debut 'Thunderer and Excelsior', then you're going to love the follow up 'Railway Architecture'. Another 14 insanely addictive tracks of their trademark brand of indie (sm)art Rock.

Opener 'A Deconstruction of Roles' sets the pace perfectly, and we are off on another madcap roller coaster ride, courtesy of James Orman and his vaudevillian vision. Silvery's world is a bit like being inside one of those more 'substance induced' surreal episodes of the Avengers in the late 60's... one minute you're in John Steed's apartment knocking back the Bolly, and the next you've fallen through a secret door, down a 'wall of mirrors' corridor, and landed in a garish Victorian funfair where Silvery provide the quirky soundtrack.

It's Music Hall for the 21st Century via a glammed up Bowie, a psyched up XTC\Dukes of Stratosphear, a Modern Life'd up Blur, and a sparked up Sparks.... Yes, it's all that, and yet it's so much more too. Silvery walk a clever line, it's arty avant-gardism, yet always remains completely accessible. They never take that fatal extra step into overblown self indulgence, and there's the trick. The end result is intelligent, witty, 3 minute (and less!) perfect pop songs that are instantly attached to your brain. Just check out gems like 'Identity', 'Two Halves of the Same Boy' 'The Naked and the Dead', 'Sparks and Fire' and 'Ropes and Fire'. This album also finally gives a home to their originally 'download only' cover of 'You Give a Little Love' (from Bugsy Malone), which is pure genius.

So climb aboard the Silvery Flyer for a First Class express trip to Railway Architecture... this ain't no sleeper!

Buy 'Railway Architecture' at Amazon

Link to the Silvery Website

Link to Silvery at Blow Up Records

See Silvery live at Blow Up club (Denmark St, London) this Saturday, 21st Aug.

Here's Identity from the new album:

The Naked And The Dead:

You Give A Little Love:


Monday 9 August 2010

The Essex Brother

Since those early 1960's 'reel-to-reel' tapes of my uncles were unearthed last year (containing a recording of them performing on BBC radio), there has been a steady trickle of Essex Brothers bits and bobs being found in the family. I particularly like these three pictures which have surfaced recently. The first two were sent home from America. My cousin has been slowly clearing out my aunts possessions since she died a few years back, and came across these photos in a draw somewhere. The final one is a picture of them signing autographs! and it was discovered by Mick's partner Kath. I keep saying Mick, because that was his name (obviously!), but I and everyone else only ever knew him as Vic!

Another cousin has taken hold of the 78's that have been found, and she and her husband are converting them, cleaning up the tracks, and making them ready for another family CD!

When I concluded the story about those tapes, I mentioned that uncle Vic's partner Kath had given me 11 tape cassettes containing various recordings he'd made in the 80's and 90's. I said that I'd convert them to CD for her, and it turned into some project! Over the next few months I retrieved no less than 168 songs from these tapes, and also the late 1960's\early 1970's mini-album that one of my other uncles had unearthed.

These are mostly all home recordings, but on the whole the sound quality was still pretty good, and all it needed was a quick levelling of volumes to turn these into a nice set of CD's for the family. I was also able to re-arrange the tracks to give each CD a bit of a theme... All the Sinatra\Easy Listening songs together, all the Johnny Cash\Country and Western songs together etc etc.

In the end I produced sets of 8 CD's for my aunt, my dad and his remaining siblings (and a set for me of course!), and I'm pleased to say that everyone was delighted with them - particularly my aunt. I only wish I'd though of doing it when my uncle was still alive, I'm sure he'd have been chuffed to see his old recordings turned to CD. Uncle Vic died in 2006, aged 65.

I'm really pleased to now have these in my collection, and it's a lovely memory of one of my most favourite uncles. Vic was still singing in pubs and clubs right up to his death, and listening to these recordings it was interesting to hear how his voice matured over the years. What started out as a poppy 'Everlys' sound in the late 1950's, was by the end a rich, velvety tone, with more than a hint of Bing Crosby about it at times! Anyway, here's a few of the songs that I converted for the CDs. I don't know much about the origins, all I know is that the first two were made with an organist called Steve!

The Story Of My Life:

Old Cape Cod:

Count Your Blessings:


PS - The full story on those 'reel-to-reel' tapes that were unearthed is here (Part 1), here (Part 2), and here (Part 3).