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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (2/6/2023)

Updated: Jun 3, 2023

(Reviews of Mad About The Boy: The Noël Coward Story; Wait For Me; and The Old Man Movie: Lactopalypse)


When it comes to arts biodocs, nobody does them better than the BBC's Arena programme. In 1998, it broadcast The Noël Coward Trilogy (1998), which covered all aspects of The Master's career in episodes entitled `The Boy Actor', `Captain Coward', and `Sail Away'. Coward aficionados will still be glad to see Barnaby Thompson's BBC-backed Mad About the Boy, however, as it provides a timely reminder, five decades after his death, of the contribution that Coward made to British life and the legacy he left behind.

Narrated by Alan Cumming and with Rupert Everett reading extracts from Coward's writings, the documentary gets off to a brisk start with a blizzard of clips that includes Coward informing David Frost that he knew he had talent at the age of two. Indeed, it's in such a rush that it hurtles through the childhood in mother Violet's Pimlico boarding house that persuaded him to enter show business and become rich and famous.

Details of breakthrough West End shows like The Goldfish (1911) are given short shrift and there's no mention of such key mentors as Charles Hawtrey, Philip Streatfeild, or Esmé Wynne, with whom he began writing plays. We hear nothing of his first solo venture, The Rat Trap (1918), although Patrick Garland prompts Coward into discussing I'll Leave It to You (1920), in one of several expertly filleted chat show snippets.

A first trip to New York in 1921, with just £17 in his pocket, sees Coward discover the speed of Broadway dialogue delivery. He applied the lesson to The Young Idea (1922), but Thompson bolts on to The Vortex (1924), a succès de scandale about drug addict that allowed Coward to fashion the image of a debonair playboy that kept prying eyes away from dalliances with the likes of Jack Wilson, who became his long-serving business manager.

As the strains of Adam Lambert's irksomely over-egged rendition of the title ditty die away, accompanist Peter Matz muses on Coward's songwriting genius, while Cumming explains how the need to keep his homosexuality shrouded imposed a psychological burden that made it difficult for Coward to enjoy the success of his various plays, revues, and radio appearances that was all the more remarkable as he left school at the age of nine.

Mention is made that Coward was a voracious reader and we see clips of him performing some comic numbers. But references to hits like Hay Fever (1925), Easy Virtue (1926), and Bitter Sweet (1929), and are fleeting, while rare flops like Sirocco (1927) are airbrushed out. Rightly, much is made. however, of Private Lives (1930), which he wrote for child star pal Gertrude Lawrence and which proved pivotal in the development of a young Laurence Olivier. It's also amusing to see Coward's performance in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's Hollywood feature, The Scoundrel (1935), although he had been on screen before with a bit in D.W. Griffith's Hearts of the World (1918).

As audio insights from Cecil Beaton and John Mills contrast the manufactured facade and the real man, we learn about his selfless involvement with The Actors Orphanage. Over splendid home-movie footage of Coward and his devoted entourage at Goldenhurst Farm in Kent, Cumming avers that he could drop his guard here and take a break from being his own greatest creation. Yet, Coward hinted at the unconventionality of his situation in the ménage comedy, Design For Living (1932).

The plays don't really interest Thompson, hence the discarding of a decade's worth. Indeed, he only cites Frank Lloyd's Best Picture-winning adaptation of Cavalcade (1933) to suggest that it so firmly ensconced Coward within the Establishment that he became a natural spy during the Second World War. Scenes from Carol Reed's take on Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana (1960) serve as backdrop, as Cumming outlines how Coward's espionage and propaganda activities in Paris and Washington resulted in him being listed in Adolf Hitler's infamous Black Book. However, they also earned him the opprobrium of journalists who felt that he was gadding about the world during a national emergency.

A fund-raising mission to Australia led to bad publicity Stateside, when Coward described some wounded troops as `snivelling little boys from Brooklyn'. David Niven regales us with an anecdote about how Coward restored himself to the good books in Liberated Paris, as Thompson lurches back to consider the composing of `London Pride' and the making with David Lean of In Which We Serve (1942), for which he won a special Oscar. However, as Winston Churchill disapproved of homosexuality, he ignored George VI's recommendation of a knighthood. Thompson similarly overlooks Coward and Lean's exemplary wartime saga, This Happy Breed (1943), in order to ponder his unhappy love life prior to his relationship with South African actor Graham Payn, who is shown in a scene from Terence Fisher and Anthony Darnborough's The Astonished Heart (1950).

This romance coincided with Brief Encounter (1945), another collaboration with David Lean that saw the nation take Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard to their hearts, even though few knew the real subject of this aching study of forbidden love. However, the impish joy of Blithe Spirit (1945) doesn't fit into Thompson's narrative and he hastens on to the misfiring 50s, when Coward fell from vogue, saw friend John Gielgud arrested for cottaging, and lost both Gertrude Lawrence and his mother. Moreover, he also slipped into debt and pianists Norman Hackforth, Cole Lesley, and Peter Matz remember how Coward added cabaret to his CV and became the toast of Las Vegas by updating his repertoire.

An album of the show tops the charts and he becomes a TV staple, following a special with Mary Martin with a 1956 revival of Blithe Spirit with Claudette Colbert and Lauren Bacall. But, back in Blighty, he's persona non grata in a time of angry young men and a series of articles attacking the kitchen sink sagas of John Osborne and his ilk only served to make Coward seem old-fashioned and out of touch.

Tired of cold weather, creeping mediocrity, and paying the top rate of income tax, Coward decamped for Jamaica in 1956. He enjoys visits from the Queen Mother and a friendship with Ian Fleming (although he turned down the villainous role in Terence Young's Dr No, 1962). However, he resented being reduced to an outsider and relished proving the critics wrong with a National Theatre revival of Private Lives, starring Maggie Smith. He also addressed homosexuality for the first time in A Song of Twilight (1966), although he never came out publicly.

Another quiet triumph saw him play a monarchy-loving gangster in The Italian Job (1969), which was directed by the same Peter Collinson he had gone out of his way to help at The Actors Orphanage. One suspects this meant as much as the honorary Tony presented by Cary Grant or the knighthood that came three years before his death on 26 March 1973. As one US news report had it, he had spent a lifetime playing the English archetype and had managed to get away with it.

Guilty primarily of sins of omission, this is a human interest story rather than an assessment of Coward's achievements as an artist. This is a shame, as the content and context of the often class-riven plays are worthy of reappraisal. However, it this sincere discourse on Coward's personal travails prompts viewers to seek out other sources and the works themselves, then it's fulfilled its purpose.

Written by Thompson, Cumming's narration sometimes feels gauchely phrased and Wikiesque. But editor Ben Hilton makes solid use of the private archive, while the extracts chosen from the various plays, films, and TV shows are adept. The chat show plunderings are the highlight, however, as they reveal Coward's quick wit and the ease with which he wore his outer persona. Topping everything, though, is the Collinson connection, which will ensures that many will never think of Great Aunt Nellie in quite the same way ever again.


Director Keith Farrell has been busy since debuting in 2011 with the docudrama, Fág an Bealach/The Fighting Irish of the Civil War. In addition taking the occasional small-screen credit, he has also been commended for such shorts as A Terrible Beauty (2015), Rabbit Punch (2018), and Parents Together Forever (2022). Now, he makes his feature bow with Wait For Me, which earned him the Best Director prize at the Manchester Film Festival.

At the behest of her drug-dealing, caravan-dwelling father, Ged (Sean McGinley), Alison (Karen Hassan) agrees to work in the Halifax brothel owned by Max (Neil Bell). Heavily in debt, Sam (Aaron Cobham) accepts an offer from Max's sidekick, Barry (Theo Ogundipe), to instal CCTV cameras in all the rooms so he can spy on the girls and their guests. Madam Paula (Kelli Hollis) goes along with the arrangement, but it bothers Sam, who has ambitions to become a photographer. However, he is also spooked because girlfriend Lisa (Rebecca Atkinson) has just informed him that she's pregnant and he didn't take the news well.

Having let Sam take a couple of snaps in a windswept children's playground, Alison comes to trust him. Thus, when she misses a shift at the brothel, she asks if she can crash the night. Max isn't amused, however, and has Sam beaten for poking his nose in. Alison takes pity on him and makes him pack a bag, so he can lie low in Cleethorpes with her sister, Karen (Elva Trill), who is raising her niece, Ruby (Izobella Dawson), as her own.

Karen isn't happy to see Alison, however, as she wants nothing to do with the crowd Ged has landed her with since they came over from Ireland. However, Alison is keen to get to know her daughter and goes into a panic when she disappears at the beach. But she can't bring herself to tell Ruby the truth and gets confused when Sam pushes her away when she tries to kiss him. This makes Sam flashback to accompanying Lisa on her night beat helping street prostitutes, when she had come into contact with Ged after he had delivered a busload of migrant girls to Max.

Lisa wound up dead that night and Sam pays for crossing Max by having his hands smashed with a hammer after Barry had brought him back to Yorkshire in the boot of his car. However, Alison isn't prepared to tolerate her child being endangered. So, she gives Ged a bad fix for betraying her whereabouts and, having forced Barry to flee at knifepoint, she pays a call on Max.

He tries to dominate her, but she stuns him by revealing that Ruby is his daughter. Sam comes to her aid, as Max has a seizure. But Alison calmly kicks his auto-injector away and releases the girls from their rooms before urging Sam to vanish and forget her. As the film ends, Karen and Ruby visit Alison in jail.

Scripted by Bernard O'Toole, this isn't always the most convincing of thrilladramas. The plotline is flimsy, the characterisation sketchy, and the flashbacks are clumsily integrated. Yet it has its own integrity, as it resists exploiting the brothel situation for cheap titillation and strives to expose the iniquities of human trafficking. Sadly, Neil Bell's villains is too much of a caricature to generate much menace, but Ferrall shows how drugs can destroy families with resorting to too much contrivance.

Karen Hassan impresses as the woman trapped by her past, while Sean McGinley is seedily reprehensible as the father prepared to sacrifice his own kin in order to save his own neck. Aaron Cobham does what he can with an underwritten part and it's always good to see the excellent Rebecca Atkinson. Cinematographer Mike Staniforth does a nice job with the seaviews, but some of the interiors feel murky, while Phil France's insinuating score lets itself down with the odd sentimental flourish. As does the film itself, when the mostly steady Farrell allows the social realism to dip into soap opera.


One suspects that animators Oskar Lehemaa and Mikk Mägi are familiar with the works of Jan Švankmajer and Aardman Animation, as well as Matt Stone and Trey Parker's South Park (1997-) and Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar's A Town Called Panic (2009). Expanding their stop-motion web series, Vanamehe Multikas, to feature length, the Estonian duo miss no opportunity to indulge in a bit of social satire or gross-out slapstick. Yet The Old Man Movie: Lactopalypse also exhibits a conscience and a Surrealist glee in pushing the audience's tolerance to the limit and then going way beyond it.

A monochrome newsreel explains how people used to flock to the farm run by the Old Milker (Jan Uuspõld) for their dairy needs. But, one morning, he allowed his best cow to escape and, because it hadn't been milked, it exploded and caused a creamy mushroom cloud to form in the sky. Old Milker himself was seriously injured and vowed to wipe every cow off the face of the planet. But children were taught that `Milk Is Our Responsibility' and encouraged to drink it regularly.

Now, city siblings Priidik (Mikk Mägi), Aino (Oskar Lehemaa), and Mart (Mägi) come to stay with their grandfather (Mägi) on his farm. They find him milking in the barn and creep up behind, causing him to splatter them with an udder before collapsing face first into his bucket. Everyone thinks he's dead, but he wakes on his floating funeral pyre in high dudgeon because his grandchildren have interrupted his routine.

Returning to the barn, he feeds their phones to a flatulent pig and puts on a long-distance bottle-filling display, while the kids muck out the pens. Mart builds a robot shoveller, but it quickly breaks down and the siblings feel they're in for a rotten summer without their video games. However, they make things worse for themselves by untying the cow (so she can cool her udders in the trough) and forgetting to close the barn door.

Next morning, grandfather is distraught, as customers clamour outside and Old Milker glides into the barn in his electric wheelchair to remind his rival of the damage the exploding cow did to him (his blood is now buttermilk) before threatening to find the missing mammal and behead it to deliver the village from its milk addiction. He hires three men from the closed-down sawmill and barely listens in the van, as one describes how a lack of work drove him to drink and cost him his wife and eight children.

While Priidik and Aino hitch a ride on grandfather's tractor, the cow wanders into the woods after watching a rabbit cleaning its nether regions. It finds itself in the middle of a hippie festival and causes the revellers to freak out. Grandfather and Old Milker arrive and the former uses his metal bucket to stop the latter from taking a chainsaw to the cow. Aino fires up the tractor and drives into the melee, while Priidik leads the cow to safety and encourages it to make itself scarce.

Meanwhile, the villagers have discovered that the cow is missing and succumbed to hysteria, as they don't know how they are going to survive without milk. Mart builds a mechanical milking machine, but is disappointed by the yield he gets from a rooster. Back on the tractor, grandfather spanks Priidik and dismisses his idea about treating the cow with more respect, even though Aina agrees that his methods are old-fashioned and harmful.

Deciding to consult the Tree Spirit, grandfather is puzzled by a request to drive the tractor back and forth in a hollow in the tree's trunk. He's even more bemused when the satiated tree imparts the advice to sing if he ever finds himself stuck up a bear's bottom. As he drives on, the woodsmen arrive in their van and Old Milker gets so bored with the to and froing that he jumps out with his chainsaw and attacks the tree.

While Mart coaxes an alcoholic villager into his milking contraption, grandfather drives further into the darks depths of the forest. He soon runs into the ravenous bear, which swallows Priidik, who finds himself in the belly of the beast with a Transformers character named Jacob Cream and the cow. However, its udders are now glowing red and he realises that time is of the essence to prevent a lactic catastrophe. Priidik remembers the Tree Spirit's advice about singing and goads Jacob into belting out a rock anthem.

All sorts of critters are ejected via the ursine rectum, with Priidik being the last to pop out before it lumbers away. He pleads with his grandfather to enter into a new partnership with the cow and they zoom home on vodka power to find the villagers drinking drained alcoholic juice in the farmyard. They stop when they see grandfather and the cow. But the Old Milker is hot on their heels and he is bent on destruction.

Mart unleashes his milking machine, however, and it hoovers up Old Milker and attaches him to its pumps. He is reduced to dust, but his spirit passes into the robot, which is about to unleash its sour milk on the family when grandfather sticks his head up the cow's butt to form a new union of man and beast and he triumphs in a lactic jet tussle that culminates in the mechanism detonating. Suddenly, there's enough milk for everyone and the siblings decide they like country life and barn things after all. However, they still have to milk the cow-grandfather.

Riotous fun - despite sometimes not being as funny as it likes to think it's being - this is destined for instant cult status and there are bound to be clamours for sequels from all but vegan die-hards. Mägi and Lehemaa clearly had a ball letting their imaginations run wild with some of the things that go past your eyes. The encounters with the hippies, the insatiable tree, and the fartacious bear are splendidly outlandish, as are Mart's attempts to build an artificial cow. But it's the ingenuity of the claymation that makes this so watchable.

With their sightless eyes and immobile mouths, the humans are markedly less expressive than the animals. Yet each has a distinctive character, whether it's the sawmill trio rationalising Old Milker's increasingly grotesque requests by claiming a man's right to work or Priidik and Aino shaking their urban preconceptions to challenge traditional practices and the taking of wildlife for granted. The eco credential are only skimmed deep, but the chaotic craziness is all the better for their inclusion.

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