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Jacques Tati – The gentle anarchist and his films

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Jacques Tati, born Jacques Tatischeff, was an accomplished mime artist from a very young age. The legend of French comedy cinema would re-enact complete “action replays” of entire sporting events for his family and friends – taking on the role of the teams, the referee and sometimes the entire crowd. Despite his love for sport, the music hall beckoned and he was a popular mime star in his French homeland by his early twenties.

By the early 1930’s Tati was starting to make little incursions into the world of film, his 1931 short (written by, directed by and starring Tati) Oscar, Champion de Tennis fell short in terms of technical quality but in the main character there could be seen the kernel of the character who would become Francois the Postman and most famously Monsieur Hulot.

EARLY DAYS AND SHORT FILMS

In 1934 Tati made a second short called On Demande A Brute (English title They Want A Beast) which saw him directed by the great Rene Clement and Charles Barrois and in the fine form of a man who accidentally finds himself taking part in a wrestling match. This was followed by two more shorts in 1935 and 1936 with Gia Dimanche aka Happy Sunday (directed by Jacques Berr) and Soigne ton Gauche (Guard Your Left, directed once again by Rene Clement). 1938 saw Retour a la Terre (Return to Earth) which once again took complete control of.

Whilst none of these shorts have stood the test of time, they are too rough in quality for that, they do all have plenty of themic echoes of his later work – the countryside, children, even meddling postmen!

Like all other European film-makers at this time work was curtailed by the second world war. Tati spent much of the next six years in the village of Sainte-sur-Indre. This would provide the setting for his first bona fide classic Jour de Fete.

THE SCHOOL FOR POSTMEN

Once the war was over Tati quickly got back into film making, he financed a short called L’Ecole de Factors (School for Postmen) in 1947 by appearing in two other French films (Sylvie and the Ghost and Devil in the Flesh) and then began concentrating on his first feature Jour de Fete. When it appeared in 1949, having been built up meticulously by Tati making heavy use of preview screenings and running different gag sequences and different scenes to find what worked best (something that is standard practice with major film makers today but rare at the time). Jour de Fete was a major critical success winning the Grand Prix du Cinema at Cannes in 1950.

jacques-tati-hulots-holiday

Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday

By now Tati was focusing on the creation of his greatest character yet, the everyman that is Monsieur Hulot. A man who ambles through life unwittingly leaving chaos in his wake. Filmed over a couple of years (and released in 1953) amidst quite a bit of financial difficulty, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is set in the village of St Marc-Sur-Mer in Brittany. Despite the air of improvisation that hangs over Hulot, Tati was absolutely meticulous in his preparations with months spent on location before filming even began.

A MAN OUT OF THIS WORLD

Like his most obvious pastiche Mr Bean, Hulot lives in a world that just isn’t quite suited to his awkward style, however desperate he is to fit in (witness the tennis match in Holiday or the garden party in the follow up Mon Oncle). Above all else though it is in isolation that can only truly find inner peace of a kind.

Mon Oncle (My Uncle)

Mon Oncle (My Uncle)

Holiday, with it’s lack of dialogue was a massive worldwide hit, meanwhile Tati was already working on a follow up in the shape of Mon Oncle which spent nine months filming and then over a year being edited. It’s here that the gentle anarchism of Hulot (and Tati) is most evident. The march of progress may be everywhere but it is not a march Hulot is going on, easy to see why Hulot became a much loved figure for a whole generation of sixties drop-outs.

Tati spent over three years and at the time a massive one million pounds on his next movie Playtime, going so far as to construct his own immaculate city in the studio. However when it appeared in 1968 Tati’s anti-urban tale seemed like it was going over old ground. It looked amazing but lacked soul and humour.

Tati's last big screen outing was in Traffic.

Tati’s last big screen outing was in Traffic.

Traffic, Hulot’s last big screen outing, was back on firmer ground. Tati’s character was driving from Paris (along with a veritable convoy of new cars) to a motor show in Amsterdam – with every conceivable problem, from traffic jams to crashes, getting in the way.

Apart from one seldom seen 1974 production called Parade that Tati made for French TV, that was it. Tati died in 1992 but his legacy and and genius remains. His work much copied (especially in the UK by Benny Hill and the aforementioned Mr Bean) but never bettered.

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Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess

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Xena Warrior Princess

What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.

Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.

Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.

Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.

Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?

Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.

Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Character: Xena

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Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife

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McMillan And Wife

Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.

Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.

And wifey?
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.

Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.

Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.

Tragedy?
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.

What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.

Other characters
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.

Famous guest stars?
Kim Basinger

The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.

Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.

Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.

Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.

The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.

A winner?
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.

Distinguishing features?
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.

Do say
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.

Don’t say
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.

Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.

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Classic TV Revisited: The Royal

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The Royal

The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.

The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.

Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.

Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.

Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”

A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.

First broadcast: 2003

Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden

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