Category Archives: Movies

And the lion shall lie down with…?

From our “this may help you win a bet in the pub” collection…

If you know the quiz show ‘QI’, you might imagine Stephen Fry asking “With whom will the lion lie down?”, and Alan Davies sheepishly responding “The lamb?”… before the claxons start, indicating a wrong answer.

Because if you look at Isaiah chapter 11, where the concept originates, you find rather different domestic arrangements:

“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”

So unless they were all getting cozy around the same campfire, I’m afraid lions and lambs aren’t prophesied to lie down together any time soon.  As is so often the case, someone came up with a snappier version later on, and that’s what stuck with us.

Now, is anyone else now thinking about that scene in Ghostbusters?


Griff Rhys Jones, in one of his books, talks about being given Coca Cola as a child when visiting the rather grand neighbours down the road, an Australian doctor and his wife:

“Real Coca-Cola was something we never saw anywhere else.  Not simply because it was an expensive luxury, but because, like American comic books and ITV, it was something inherently corrupting, although not apparently to Australians.”

This made me laugh out loud.  We also grew up with the curse of fake Coke, which was even worse than the real stuff, and with the same general understanding about comics and ITV. (I realise now, of course, that my mother was entirely correct on these points!)

For my foreign readers, ITV was our first commercial TV channel, and, though it started broadcasting in 1955, that was only in London.  It took a while to reach us, partly because we lived 30+ miles away from the capital, and partly because many early television sets only had one or two channel buttons on them, to let you switch between BBC1 and BBC2.   ITV had a stigma because it was commercial – supported by advertising – and we knew that the very best firms, like John Lewis, didn’t need pay for advertising because their products were good enough without it.

It wasn’t just us, though: this feeling was widespread.  A couple of years ago I heard somebody on the radio talking about his working-class childhood in a small terraced house in an industrial town.  He described how, if they were watching ITV when somebody rang the doorbell, they would switch to BBC2 before answering the door to avoid potential embarrassment.

Cartoons and comics were similar.  We weren’t allowed comic books, in general, being encouraged to read proper things instead, so the dubious and unsociable activities of characters like Dennis the Menace were things we only glimpsed in other kids’ comics at school.  And, for us as for Griff, cartoons and comics were particularly suspect if they had come from the other side of the Atlantic (unless they had first been vetted by the BBC).

All of this was very right and proper and I have absolutely no regrets about it.  But it does mean that, having married an American wife, I’m now discovering some Christmas children’s classics that had not previously come my way.  Even though we (thankfully) have no children ourselves, if you can’t re-live your childhood, or your spouse’s childhood, at Christmas, when can you?

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) is one I can frankly live without. The attempt to capture a Christmas spirit while ruthlessly expunging any mention of its religious origins leaves me cold.  A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) is rather better, though I do think Schulz is better in print than on film.

But, to my surprise, I find I rather enjoy Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), the stop-motion animation that has been a standard part of Christmas for millions of households for more than half a century, but which I hadn’t seen until fairly recently.  But I discover that its origins were highly commercial.

Concerning reindeer

Hermey the elf and rudolph

The original story of Rudolph actually dates back to the second world war, when a Chicago department store wanted a short Christmas book to give away to children.  Robert L May, an employee in the advertising department, came up with the story – here’s the original manuscript – and they printed more than two million copies.  

A decade later, perhaps not realising what they had created, his employers kindly gave him the rights to the story.  May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, was a songwriter, and May talked him into writing a song based around it… with the result was that May and his family, previously in serious financial difficulties, were able to live very comfortably for the rest of his life and beyond.

The enormously-expensive animation was funded by General Electric, who also produced four advertisments for their houshold appliances featuring characters from Rudolph.   An interesting bit of trivia is that, a couple of years before, GE had also invented the first (red) LEDs, one of which they were able to use to make Rudolph’s nose glow.

For me, part of the fun comes from the little twists.  Hermey, pictured above with Rudolph, is one of Santa’s elves – Wow, what a job, children! – and yet he’s downhearted because his real ambition is to be a dentist.    And the elves come up with a nice song for Santa, but he’s decidedly unimpressed.  “That ridiculous elf-song is driving me crazy!”

In this day and age, I guess kids might not be very impressed with the animation.  But it’s worth considering, while watching it, the vast amount of labour required to create each frame of an hour-long stop-motion animation, using the technology of sixty years ago.

We watched it again a few days ago, though, and one thing jumped out at me as not sounding quite right.  The young reindeer are referred to as fawns… and Rudolph will grow up to be a fine buck.  I went and did some reading and found out that my concerns were valid, and learned a few other things about reindeer too.

  • As I thought, reindeer are normaly referred to as bulls and cows.  Their offspring are called calves.
  • Reindeer, deer of the genus Rangifer, are the only deer that have successfully been domesticated on any scale.  Handy if you want them to tow a sleigh across the night sky, for example.
  • There are many subspecies of Rangifer and they occur in many parts of the world.  In North America, though, they are generally known as caribou, with the name reindeer mostly being reserved for domesticated animals.
  • Reindeer drop their antlers each year and grow new ones. For males, this happens in late autumn, while the females will typically hang on to theirs until after Christmas.

Now, since Christmas cards generally show reindeer with a fine set of antlers at Christmas-time, you could probably use the above to win a bet at the pub.  

“Will you buy me a pint if I convince you that Santa’s sleigh is actually towed by cows?”


For more background on ‘Rudolph’, see this article from the Smithsonian Magazine, and this piece from NPR

Bird’s Eye View

We’re on holiday in the Norfolk Broads, spending most of our time messing about in boats, but also enjoying the wonderful wildlife.

Who, us?

The birds are omnipresent, even in the garden of our riverside cottage, where this rather splendid goose has been sitting on her nest since we arrived. She and Tilly have decided to ignore each other.

Here’s what the village of Horning looks like, for anyone thinking of flying over:

(Link here if you can’t see the embedded video. If your computer and your network connection will allow it, I recommend viewing it full screen and setting the YouTube resolution to 4K.)

Our rental cottage comes with a convenient parking space, just outside the back door:

But there is another one too, if you prefer to arrive by car. It’s at the end of the little bridge, just past the heron.

Google Tip of the Day

Here’s a quick two-and-a-half minute video which might save you some time one day, if not now!

Measuring distances and areas in Google satellite view

(A direct link is here, in case you can’t see the embedded video.)

Buster Keaton working downstairs

Hope your browser can display this…

Love in Paradise

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my sadness that the Lovefilm by Post service was being discontinued, since nothing offered by the streaming companies could really compare with it.

Well, I’m delighted to say that my friend Phil Ashby pointed me at Cinema Paradiso, which offers an almost identical service, and may even have a slightly larger catalog. I signed up and copied over the entries from my LoveFILM wishlist, and I’ve already received one disk which wasn’t available on Lovefilm.

I still hope that someone will offer such a comprehensive catalogue using more modern technologies one day, but in the meantime, I’m a happy viewer again!

Broadsword calling Sister Maria…

A bit of movie trivia for you, linking two of the greatest films ever made…

Here’s Maria von Trapp with the children in The Sound of Music. All sing along: “The first three notes just happen to be…”


Now, you see that picturesque castle in the background? That’s Hohenwerfen Castle which, in a rather different climate (when you’d need more than old curtains to keep you warm), was the setting for Schloss Adler in Where Eagles Dare.


So now you know, and you can probably irritate your friends and family by pointing it out just as they’re really getting into the story…

Star Wars as a Ken Burns documentary

A very nice short video from the Washington Post.


(Scroll down linked page for video)

A tale of three cities

We watched My Old Lady tonight, starring Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith and Kristin Scott-Thomas. I thought it quite good, though slow-moving; a play that never quite stopped feeling like a play despite being rewritten for the screen. That’s both a criticism and a compliment. Paris, the city, is noticeably a real character in the film, too. This is true in many other movies as well, of course; the city somehow seems to lend itself to that.

The only place for which this is perhaps even more common is New York, which immediately makes me think of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or almost anything by Woody Allen, or… well, you get the idea. I don’t just mean that a movie is set there, but that the director was in love with the place, and its essence permeates every aspect of the story.

And that made me think about London. I realised that, somehow, it doesn’t seem to feature in films this way. It’s a very similar city, and of course many movies are filmed there, but I don’t think of people composing love letters to it in quite the same way as for Paris or New York. Rose thought that the films which come closest to having London as a central character are some of the old Sherlock Holmes ones. My only other suggestion was Mary Poppins!

If I’m right — and feel free to disagree — then why would that be the case? Is there something fundamentally different about London? Is it just that it’s filled with the British?

The long tail of streaming?

I recently tweeted that I had signed up for a (UK) NetFlix trial, but had found little that I wanted to watch, and had been put off by the necessity of installing Silverlight, so was going to return to my trusty ‘Lovefilm by Post’ subscription. This got a lot of responses from friends.

Some expressed surprise that a geek like me should embrace such a backwards technology. Some proposed AppleTV/iTunes or Blinkbox as better alternatives. Others persuaded me to persevere, and recommended the new House of Cards series and Breaking Bad as worthwhile (so I shall certainly give those a go).

Anyway, I went ahead, installed Silverlight on my Mac Mini media server, and we watched Encounter at Farpoint from NetFlix last night, and it generally streamed OK, though the quality was somewhere around VHS-level, I think; certainly not like DVD and a long way from the BluRays we now often get through the post. I’m guessing this is just a poor match of Microsoft software and Apple hardware, because we have 120Mbps broadband, and other streamed content plays very nicely.

So we could probably find an online service that worked – why do we stick to that primitive idea of physical media dropping through the letter box?

Well, streaming services, or at least online purchases, are clearly the future, but still cater largely to the mass-market, and we obviously land somewhere in the ‘long tail’. By way of a simple illustration, here are a dozen films we’ve watched and really enjoyed over the last couple of months. Some of them are slightly obscure, but others have big names and Academy Awards.

I thought I’d do a quick check and see where I could get them, either as a digital purchase or rental. I threw in House of Cards season 1 as well, though I haven’t yet seen it, but now intend to!

Film Lovefilm by post iTunes Blinkbox Lovefilm Instant NetFlix UK
Mud Y Y Y
Lincoln Y buy not rent buy not rent
The Impossible Y Y Y
It Happened One Night Y buy not rent
Hyde Park on Hudson Y buy not rent buy not rent
Untouchable Y buy not rent
The Kings of Summer Y buy not rent Y
Now you see me Y Y Y
A Late Quartet Y Y Y
The House of Eliott Y
Shackleton Y buy not rent Y
Moonrise Kingdom Y buy not rent buy not rent
House of Cards (2013) Y Y Y

Now, this isn’t quite fair, because I knew all of these were available from the postal service – that’s where we saw them. And I’m sure it’s possible to find a good list of things on the other services which are not available through the post.

But I guess my point is that, had we restricted ourselves to other services, most of these dozen excellent films would never have made it to our screen, especially if we didn’t want to cough up the money to purchase them outright.

I didn’t make any special effort to select these, by the way: they are not nearly as obscure as some films we watch: they just happen to be (roughly) the dozen most recent films of the… golly!… ahem!… 821 movies we have watched from LoveFilm over the years since we started subscribing. (We don’t have cable, and don’t really watch any broadcast TV.) We couldn’t, in fact, have rented the majority of those from iTunes, but if we had been able to, it would have cost us about £2900 (assuming we didn’t want HD).

Of course, the elephant in the room here is that with postal delivery you have to know, in advance, a list of things you want to watch, and not be too worried about when you see them. I’m blessed with a wife who enjoys finding good stuff and queuing it up, so we always have 30-40 items in the list. And we have a reasonable amount of control of what arrives when based on how we prioritise those.

Some other notes to explain why this works well for us…

  • We live about 20 yards from the postbox, so after we’ve watched something, I stick the disc in the pre-paid envelope and mail it off before we go to bed.

  • We enjoy watching the extra features and commentaries on DVDs – something you often don’t get with other forms of delivery.

  • If we can’t watch a DVD immediately, we can click a button and have a DRM-free copy of it in about 30 mins, complete with special features and commentaries. But that probably wouldn’t be legal, so of course we wouldn’t know how to do that.

  • We can often choose between BluRay and DVD (depending whether we want a modest gain in resolution in exchange for a big delay in startup time).

  • We don’t have to finish watching things within a given timeframe.

  • We currently have the subscription which give you up to two disks at home at any one time, so with that, and the disks we own, and the stuff that EyeTV has recorded for us, we are never short of choice.

  • On average, we probably watch two or three movies a week, meaning that each one costs us about 89p.

In fact, I think we may start moving to some combination of the pre-planned postal and the on-demand streamed systems, and Blinkbox looks like an attractive service, if the quality’s good – on some of the above, purchasing from Blinkbox costs about the same as renting from iTunes.

But we’ve also seen a lot of very good stuff for 89p that we couldn’t have seen anywhere else. And quite often, it’s in 1080p resolution. On other services, the resolution would be lower and 1080p would be the price…

Pram fans

I had to take a picture of these steps in Chicago’s Union Station recently.


If you’ve seen The Untouchables, you’ll know why. The ‘pram scene’ is a brilliant piece of cinema; you can see it here, though this clip is missing the long build-up which is part of what makes the original so effective.

Of course, it is itself an homage to the scene in Battleship Potemkin at the Odessa steps, but I didn’t know until today that it too had inspired a later cinematic tribute.

An amusing use for multi-channel sound?

If you watch old Blackadder, Fawlty Towers or Seinfeld episodes today, one thing that’s likely to stand out is the canned laughter. The fashion a couple of decades ago was to make this much more apparent than they do now. I say ‘canned’ laughter, but sometimes it was actually a live studio audience, but the volume levels are higher than today, and so it can be quite intrusive, or at least make things seem rather dated.

So, in these days of multi-channel sound, or alternative audio streams on DVDs, wouldn’t it be a good idea to allow viewers to choose their own levels for the laugh track? You could opt for the original 1980s experience, or a more subtle mix tuned to today’s tastes.

Now, what I don’t know, because I haven’t watched much recent comedy, is whether the nature of the recorded hilarity has changed, or just the volume — i.e. whether you’d need a complete new track, or just a volume control. But you could also choose where the laughter appeared in the surround space – are you watching the show from a distance, or are you surrounded by a laughing audience? And are you sitting in the front or back row?

All of these things should be easily tuneable now…

Though this does bring to mind the words of the marvellous Flanders and Swann, in the introduction to ‘A Song of Reproduction’:

People make an awful lot of fuss, anyway, about the quality of the sound they listen to. Have you noticed; they spend all that time trying to get the exact effect of an orchestra actually playing in their sitting room. Personally, I can’t think of anything I should hate more than an orchestra actually playing in my sitting room. They seem to like it…

That was 1959, by the way…

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser