Monday, 31 December 2018

Poirot Project: The Underdog (review)

This post is part of my 2016 2016-17 2016-19 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The second episode of the fifth (-ish) series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was ‘The Underdog’, and it was first broadcast on 24th January 1993. This episode was based on the short story ‘The Under Dog’ (note the slightly different spelling), which was first published in April 1926 in Mystery Magazine (and then in the UK later that year in London Magazine).

‘The Under Dog’ is one of the non-series Poirot short stories that appeared periodically in between the publication of novels. As such, it doesn’t feature Hastings as the narrator – like ‘Wasps’ Nest’ and ‘Problem at Sea’ – Hastings doesn’t appear in the story in person. (However, as in some of the other stories, Hastings isn’t entirely absent… but I’ll come to that shortly.)

The story begins with Poirot being consulted by a young woman called Lily Margrave. Lily is the paid companion of Lady Astwell, who has sent her to visit the famous detective and ask for his help. Lady Astwell’s husband – Sir Reuben Astwell – has been murdered, and his nephew Charles Leverson is accused of the crime. Lady Astwell is convinced that Charles is innocent, and so wishes Poirot to investigate and exonerate him.

The story’s set-up is charmingly comical. As Lily Margrave attempts to tell her story, the great detective appears not to take her very seriously:
‘His occupation at the moment struck her as particularly childish. He was piling small blocks of coloured wood one upon the other, and seemed far more interested in the result than in the story she was telling.’
There’s no real explanation for why Poirot is doing this – I think we’re just supposed to take it as one of his little eccentricities. It’s not really relevant to the story.

In outlining the circumstances of Sir Reuben Astwell’s death, Lily gives a brief sketch of his household – including his wife and nephew, his butler Parsons and his secretary Owen Trefusis. She eventually admits to Poirot that Lady Astwell is stubbornly sticking to her conviction that Charles is innocent, having developed an apparently irrational belief that Owen Trefusis is the guilty party. Lily Margrave believes this is all nonsense, and she tried to persuade her employer against asking Poirot to get involved.

This last point piques Poirot’s interest, and he instantly decides to go and visit the late Reuben Astwell’s home (named ‘Mon Repos’ in the story). And he’s taking steadfast valet George along for the ride.

Although this story doesn’t feature any of ‘the gang’, there are two familiar faces. As I’ve said, George plays his part in this case (more on that shortly). The story also sees the return of Detective-Inspector Miller (who appears in ‘The Lost Mine’, ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ and ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’). Miller’s schtick is that basically he doesn’t like Poirot – and Poirot doesn’t rate him much either. He’s like the anti-Japp.

In ‘The Under Dog’, Poirot hears that Miller is in charge of the case, and he makes a couple of snarky asides to remind readers of their animosity. However, he eventually has to make a trip to Scotland Yard to actually speak to the policeman, which he does with a certain degree of reluctance. I quite like Christie’s description of Poirot’s arrival at the Yard:
‘Detective-Inspector Miller was not particularly fond of M. Hercule Poirot. He did not belong to that small band of inspectors at the Yard who welcomed the little Belgian’s co-operation. He was wont to say that Hercule Poirot was much over-rated.’
While we do see the odd police officer respond negatively to Poirot in other stories, this suggests that, actually, detectives like Miller are the majority – it’s Japp (and the rest of the ‘small band of inspectors’) who are unusual in their collaboration with the little Belgian. Interestingly, I’m writing this post just after watching this Christmas’s prestige BBC Christie production – the somewhat controversial adaptation of The A.B.C. Murders by Sarah Phelps. In this version (to much hand-wringing from so-called purists), Poirot is presented as a now-discredited charlatan, with Inspector Crome painfully reminding him that it was only Japp (and, presumably, a ‘small band of inspectors’) who ever trusted the unexpectedly tall Belgian’s co-operation.

In this year’s A.B.C. Murders, Poirot has to prove himself to Inspector Crome (or, rather, he has to honour his own personal vow to bring justice for the dead – distractingly this Poirot has a similar catchphrase to Logan Nelson in Jigsaw… but I digress). However, in ‘The Under Dog’, Poirot simply plays Inspector Miller like a fiddle, using some of the least subtle flattery in his arsenal, and getting the detective to share certain details of his investigation. And then he completely blows Miller out of the water with a theatrical gather-the-suspects denouement that reveals the idiot police had it all totally wrong. No wonder most of the Yard hates him.

Poirot’s investigation isn’t just missing Japp, though. He’s also missing Hastings. In the first non-Hastings story Christie wrote – ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’, Poirot missed his friend with a deep melancholy that was really sad to read. Time seems to heal Poirot’s wounds, and he talks less about his friend’s absence in later stories (even – shock, horror! – not mentioning him at all in some stories). ‘The Under Dog’ is somewhere in between. Although Poirot seems to be coping with his friend’s departure, he can’t help but slip his name randomly into conversation. It’s not quite as cheeky as his Arthur-the-Dummy joke in ‘Problem at Sea’, but his meandering comment about hunting in this story seems like an excuse just to get nostalgic:
‘To catch the fox you ride hard with the dogs. You shout, you run, it is a matter of speed. I have not shot the stag myself, but I understand that to do so you crawl for many long, long hours upon your stomach. My friend Hastings has recounted the affair to me.’
Sorry, Poirot… what’s that got to do with the murder again?

In place of Hastings, Poirot is accompanied by his valet George. As always, he finds George wanting as a sidekick, but there’s some good Poirot-and-George interactions in ‘The Under Dog’, and there’s just a slight glimmer of the valet starting to step up to his role as New-Hastings.

At first glance, it seems that the ‘[t]all, cadaverous and unemotional’ George is just going to depress Poirot. When the detective starts to get excited about heading down to Mon Repos to hunt a murderer, George is unmoved:
‘“Shall I pack dress clothes, sir?”’
Poirot looked at him sadly.
“Always the concentration, the attention to your own job. You are very good for me, George.”’
But as things unfold, George finds himself caught up in the chase. In response to a comment from Poirot about a man with a ‘tropical temper’, George can’t help but correct his employer with an uncharacteristic anecdote about his Aunt Jemima (‘a most shrewish tongue she had’). Emboldened, he then directly asks – or, as directly as a gentleman’s gentleman can ask – to play a role in the case:
‘“Is there anything I can do in any way,” he inquired delicately, “to – er – assist you, sir?”’
It’s a short step from inquiring delicately to keeping nix while Poirot rifles through a suspect’s underwear drawer. A short step indeed.

I need to turn my attention to the ITV adaptation in a minute, so just a few other things to say about the short story. It’s quite a long short story (over three times as long as the Sketch stories), so I’ll have to control myself.

One of the things I like about this story is the focus on the servants – particularly the butler Parsons and housemaid Gladys – as valuable witnesses. Nevertheless, in order to get their statements, Poirot has to exercise his talent for making people feel at ease. His first assessment of Parsons is, pretty much, a comment on fictional butlers in general:
‘This Parsons, then, he will have the characteristics of his class, he will object very strongly to the police, he will tell them as little as possible. Above all, he will say nothing that might seem to incriminate a member of the household.’
This quote comes from early in the story, and it introduces the theme of psychology – and Poirot’s understanding of psychology – that runs throughout the story. Each time he is called upon to interview someone, he instinctively weighs up their personality and employs the best approach to make them trust him. With Parsons, Poirot is respectful and understanding of the man’s position. With Miller, he flatters the man’s intelligence and perspicacity. With Lily Margrave, he adopts the avuncular persona he often uses with young women (‘You will tell old Papa Poirot?’), and with Lady Astwell he validates her belief in her intuition. With Gladys, he allows her to think he is French (quelle horreur!), so that she’s willing to show him one of Lily Margrave’s dresses (‘We all know that Frenchmen are interested in ladies’ dresses.’)

It makes sense that Christie focuses on Poirot’s ability to read people here, as this is a case that hinges on an understanding of personality, rather than any hard evidence. In fact, Poirot fakes a clue (the blood-soaked chiffon), lies to most of the suspects, and eventually goads the murderer into making a misstep by pretending to find something of interest on the staircase. The story’s title turns out to refer to this study of personality. As Poirot reminds us repeatedly – and, as George’s Aunt Jemima story affirms – people with bad tempers aren’t the most dangerous. ‘Those who bark do not bite.’

And so… on to the adaptation. Not the most memorable episode of the series, and, by the standards of the series so far, not the most faithful adaptation either. However, the changes it makes to the story are certainly interesting.

‘The Underdog’ (all one word) was written by Bill Craig and directed by John Bruce. I believe this was Craig’s only Poirot script, though Bruce also directed ‘The Case of the Missing Will’ (speaking of unfaithful adaptations… but we’re not there quite yet!).

From the episode’s opening moments, it’s clear that the setting has been altered. Obviously, it’s now set ten years later – as with almost all the early series, the episode is set in the mid-30s – but it’s also now got a bit of an industrial backdrop, as the episode opens in a laboratory. Chief Chemist (not secretary) Horace (not Owen) Trefusis (played by Bill Wallis) is reading a letter from a German. Of course, this is intended to get our hindsight tingling. A chemist? Reading a letter from Germany? In 1936? Dodgy stuff. But before we can really take that in, the scene is interrupted by a dubious-looking chap (come on… he’s wearing a polo neck and a flat cap!) bursting in and setting fire to the lab.

This opener is quite far removed from the background to Christie’s story. In the source text, Poirot (and the reader) discovers the ol’ leave-your-partner-for-dead-and-steal-the-mine trick (seriously – is there anyone in Golden Age detective fiction who owns a diamond/gold mine and didn’t swindle their partner and leave them for dead in the bush?). Reuben Astwell is the mine-swindler, and Humphrey Naylor is the disgruntled former colleague (‘It was assumed that he and the expedition had perished.’ Obvs.).

Craig’s adaptation drops the mine, and replaces it with a storyline about synthetic rubber. Humphrey Naylor (played by Andrew Seear) is a research chemist, who had previously approached Astwell’s Chemicals with a formula for a new product, for which he needed commercial backing. Reuben Astwell told him that the formula didn’t work. Imagine his surprise when he found that, not only had Astwell’s nicked his work, they were planning to licence it under the name Astoprene to German chemical giant I.G. Farben. In a way, that’s worse than being left for dead in the Mpala Gold Fields.

I’m quite fascinated by the I.G. Farben subplot in this episode. It serves as both a red herring and the genuine motive for the murder. But it also allows for a return to the perennial background to the series – the impending (but never breaking) war with Germany. And, as in other episodes, we get some pontifications from unlikeable men about the probable impact. Reuben Astwell (Denis Lill) gives a lecture on the inevitability of war, given the ‘remilitarisation of the Rhineland’ (he’s also seen reading a copy of the Evening Standard bearing the headline ‘Hitler’s Pledge to Britain’), before concluding that such an event would have ‘economic benefits’ and stop people ‘scrounging on the dole’. During his rant, it’s clear that Astwell hates the Germans and thinks their warmongering is despicable. And yet, he’s still happy to do business with I.G. Farben, suggesting that – if war’s coming – Astwell wants a big piece of the economic benefit pie.

More sinister, in a way, is Horace Trefusis’s enthusiastic response to this. He positively salivates at the thought of the scientific advances that can be made in a time of war (‘New fuels! New alloys!’). I don’t know if it’s just me, but Trefusis’s fervour for upcoming scientific developments, coupled with the impending contract with I.G. Farben, has a really uncomfortable undercurrent. Hindsight, again, tells us what role I.G. Farben played in the Nazi regime, and I find it difficult not to be reminded of the ‘scientific developments’ pursued by subsidiaries of the company. In reality, I.G. Farben would indeed produce synthetic rubber, and they would do so at the Monowitz Buna-Werke factory, part of the Auschwitz complex. The Buna factory used prisoners from Auschwitz camps as slave labour in the production of rubber.

So, in ‘The Underdog’, I’d suggest that we have more than the now-standard reference to impending war with Germany. In this episode, the shadow of the Holocaust is just discernible. Poirot is uncomfortable with the conversation – and with Astwell’s tasteless ‘joke’ about an imminent invasion of Belgium – and sombrely states: ‘I myself have experienced first-hand the horror and destruction of war with Germany.’* Later on, we see Victor Astwell (Ian Gelder) tearing up his late brother’s contract with I.G. Farben in distaste.

Cheery stuff, eh? But that’s just the Underdog’s undercurrent. Let’s turn our attention to its… erm… overcurrent(?) now, shall we?

I get why the gold mine storyline is changed to the synthetic rubber one. For one thing, the mine story would seem a little old-hat for 1936 (were there any mines left in the 30s that hadn’t already been swindled away by cantankerous Golden Age millionaires?), and the rubber subplot allows for more of a comment on the series’ period backdrop. But there are other changes to the story that seem less clearly thought-out.

I’m okay with the change to the house – Christie’s Mon Repos (‘a big, solidly built red-brick mansion, with no pretensions to beauty’) is replaced by the obligatory modern art deco house (not sure if a real house was used for the exterior shots in this episode, sorry) – but the changes to the characters make less sense.

In Christie’s story, most people in Mon Repos are pretty fiery characters. Reuben Astwell loves a good barney; his wife is an ex-actress who still enjoys her histrionics; brother Victor has the ‘tropical temper’ and makes his appearance by yelling at his chauffeur. The only person who doesn’t lose it is Owen Trefusis, who is described thus:
‘At a big desk at the farther end of [the library] sat a thin, pale young man busily writing. He had a receding chin, and wore pince-nez. […] Mr Owen Trefusis was a prim, proper young man, disarmingly meek, the type of man who can be, and is, systematically bullied. One could feel quite sure that he would never display resentment.’
So… an underdog type then?

In the adaptation, the only person who really has a bad temper is Reuben Astwell. Lady Nancy Astwell (Ann Bell)’s past career as an actress is only mentioned once in passing by her husband – though we do see a couple of framed pictures of her in her heyday… looking a little like a young Gladys Cooper in one of them.

Gladys Cooper

Lady Astwell’s acting career (and resemblance to Gladys Cooper) is irrelevant to the plot here. It’s barely even a red herring. She’s the model of a sensible and level-headed wife, weighed down by the peculiar rages of her husband. Similarly, Victor Astwell is transformed from a chauffeur-roasting hothead to a mild-mannered ‘junior partner’, forced to endure the mad wrath of his unhinged older brother. Nancy and Victor appear to be cowed by Reuben, weathering the storm and – I think it’s implied – turning to each other for comfort. (It’s Victor who snaps the knife in the table in this version of the story, not Trefusis.)

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t Victor Astwell supposed to fancy Lily? Well not here. In another inexplicable change, Lily (Adie Allen) is now head-over-heels for Charles Leverson (Jonathan Phillips), Astwell’s golf-loving nephew. Charles is also under the thumb of his uncle, and only plucks up the courage to stand up for himself on the night of the murder (bad timing, really). Lily is a demure lady’s companion, behaving with decorum and modesty, and only slightly raising her voice when Astwell sacks her for rooting through his office.

In the end, the only person who actually seems to stand up to Astwell is… Horace Trefusis, who is more than happy to openly disagree with his employer on a couple of occasions. Although Poirot declares Trefusis to be an ‘underdog’ in the denouement – and Trefusis spits back that Astwell was ‘a bully’ – in fact he’s the only character that isn’t bullied. And, it turns out, he murdered Astwell for cold hard cash, as he knew he wasn’t going to get a penny from the I.G. Farben contract.

These changes don’t make for a bad story per se, but they do leave you wondering why the episode is called ‘The Underdog’. ‘The Reasonably Assertive Murder Chemist’ would have been a better title, but I guess that would’ve constituted a spoiler.

(I don’t really have anything to say about the picture above, except that I love the bit where Gladys (Lucy Davidson) discovers Astwell’s body. It’s pitch-perfect servant-discovers-a-corpse acting, complete with a dropped breakfast tray.)

Now, on to the character changes that we kind of expect from this series: the introduction of ‘the gang’. It’s just two-thirds of the gang this time though, as, despite the opportunity, Japp hasn’t been added to replace Miller in this episode. Instead, Miller is simply dropped, and the police are represented by a nameless local sergeant (played by Michael Vaughan).

However, we do have Miss Lemon, who replaces the minor character of Dr Cazalet of Harley Street. You see, along with séance, I Ching, tarot and automatic writing, Miss Lemon has an interest in hypnosis. She tries her technique out on Poirot early in the episode – with no success – but is later called on to reveal the secret clue lurking in Lady Astwell’s subconscious. This is a nice touch, as it fits with Poirot’s reliance on a hypnotist in Christie’s story, but also links to the TV character of Miss Lemon that the series has created.

Naturally, along with Miss Lemon, we also have Hastings. Sadly, though, I don’t think Hastings works in this episode. He’s not simply there as a replacement for George, but nor is he quite… Hastings enough. While he serves the purpose of getting the detective embroiled in the case in the first place (Hastings here is an old friend of Charles Leverson, who has invited him down to Abbott’s Cross for a golf tournament), the rest of the time he’s a bit too… dynamic for my tastes. He jumps straight into being a co-investigator, surveilling guests at their hotel, witnessing Lily’s delivery to Naylor, initiating a chase down to London and – inexplicably – knowing the train timetable off by heart. Shouldn’t Hastings be a bit less… you know… competent?

And on that note, I need to wrap this post up, as it’s ended up a lot longer than I intended (don’t they always?). Two final things:

Sadly, the loss of George from the adaptation means that my favourite scene from the story had to go. When Poirot decides to fabricate a bit of evidence proving that Lily went to Astwell’s study on the night of the murder, he tricks Gladys into letting him see her chiffon dress. He tears a tiny bit of fabric off, but in order to make it incriminating, he needs to make it blood-stained. Ever the martyr, he decides to use his own blood – and asks George to sterilize a needle and stab him in the finger. I don’t know which bit is weirder – Poirot’s screaming in pain at a tiny pin prick, or George’s unquestioning acquiescence. It’s a shame that couldn’t have been included in the episode.

On the plus side, we do get a welcome return of one of my favourite of Poirot’s accessories: the walking stick telescope! The perfect way to watch Hastings score a hypnosis-induced hole-in-one!

Time to move on to an episode I adored when I first saw it… ‘The Yellow Iris’

* Ironically, this was another aspect of the BBC’s A.B.C. Murders that pearl-clutching critics raged about – Phelps’s version of Poirot is explicitly shown to have ‘experienced first-hand the horror and destruction of war with Germany’.

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Review: Abertoir: The International Horror Festival of Wales 2018 (Saturday and Sunday)

13th-18th November 2018
Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Wales

And so... here's the final part of my three-part review of this year's Abertoir horror film festival, with reviews of the films (and events) we saw on Saturday and Sunday.

You can read the other two parts of my review here: Part 1 (Tuesday and Wednesday), Part 2 (Thursday and Friday)

Saturday, 17th November

Nicko and Joe’s Bad Film Club

I’ll be honest – I wasn’t looking forward to the first half of today. The first two things on the programme seemed like they wouldn’t be my cup of tea. First, there was something that was described to me as ‘a bit like Mystery Science Theater 3000’, and then we had something that a reviewer has called ‘the best zombie film since Shaun of the Dead’. I don’t really like MST3000 or Shaun of the Dead (seriously, don’t @ me), so I was expecting to spend the first half of the day watching other people laugh with a slightly baffled look on my face. How wrong can you be??? Turns out, these were two of my favourite screenings of the festival. First up: Nicko and Joe’s Bad Film Club… comedians Nicko and Joe put on a gaspingly awful film, and then give a commentary on why it’s so awful. They encourage audience participation, talking (jeering) and sweet-eating throughout. I suspect the reason I enjoyed this so much was that, unlike MST3000, Nicko and Joe’s style of comedy is much more my sense of humour (it’s a subjective thing, after all), and so their commentary had me laughing my head off. However, there’s more to it than that: their double act has a pitch and rhythm to it that makes what I’m sure is a carefully-honed comic routine feel like you’ve just wandered into an off-the-cuff chat between tetchy friends. The film screened was Demons of Ludlow – which is so very bad it’s almost impossible to describe (suffice to say a lot revolves around a haunted piano, and there are some… interesting directorial decisions). It’s tempting to say that the film was the real star here, but that would do a disservice to the comedians who presented it. I absolutely loved this!

One Cut of the Dead (dir. Shinichirou Ueda, 2017)

And so next it was the ‘best zombie film since Shaun of the Dead’. I’m not sure how to review this one, as One Cut of the Dead is a film that is best seen without any expectations. Even a hint of a spoiler would be massively unfair. Before the film began, we had an introduction from one of the festival organizers, who gave a bit of context. One Cut of the Dead is a (very) low-budget indie Japanese film. It initially opened on just two small screens in Japan, and the filmmakers had zero marketing budget. However, the film quickly garnered word-of-mouth publicity, and it went on to become a surprise hit. And I really do mean hit – I checked listings after the screening, and it’s in the Top 10 highest grossing films of 2018 in Japan (beating some really big studio productions). Gaz’s introduction also pointed out that the ‘one cut’ of the title refers to a single shot take – the first 38 minutes of the film is a one-shot take. And that was all the explanation we got – the only other thing Gaz said was that, no matter how we felt about that first opening take, we should just stick with it. Trust me, he said, something will happen after the first 38 minutes that will change everything. And so we did trust him. And we watched the first 38 minutes with no idea of where it was going… and then something happened that changed everything. And by the end, we’d fallen completely in love with this utterly unexpected, very funny, clever and audacious little film, and it was clear why it was such a runaway hit in Japan. I’m not going to say anything more about it, but you should definitely see this film. Trust me.

Assassination Nation (dir. Sam Levinson, 2018)

Well, what a contrast with the next film. Assassination Nation is quite a different beast to One Cut of the Dead – and my feelings towards it were rather different too. I didn’t enjoy Assassination Nation much, and to be honest the more I’ve thought about since, the more it’s annoyed me. It’s a flashy, garish and exploitative film that screams its (ultimately shallow) political message from the very first shot. In the town of Salem (yes, Salem), a hacker is set on revealing the town’s deepest secrets to the world (based on the premise that everyone’s secrets are stored on sim cards, and that the world would be the slightest bit interested in the mundane peccadillos of a small Massachusetts town). Things descend from here into Purge-like violence, and four young women are caught up in a cycle of accusation and retribution (because… Salem… do you see?). Assassination Nation falls flat in several ways. The main characters are unlikable and implausible. Given that we’d already seen Blue My Mind, the film’s depiction of teen girls and their friendships rang hollow – imagine Regina George’s Plastics with guns. The film’s attempts to signal its wokeness are also flimsy at best, and offensive at worst (a ‘lynching’ sequence, clearly evoking historic acts of violence, has a rich white trans girl as its victim and heroic survivor… while the film’s two black women spend most of their much shorter screen time simply screaming and crying). This feels like a film written by 40-somethings about how they imagine teens see the world – the ‘hacking’ plot mostly involves Gen Zs using technology like they’re Gen X (do kids today really say ‘for the lulz’?). The film then ends with the main character literally delivering the socio-political message direct to camera. Definitely not a recommendation from me.

Prom Night (dir. Paul Lynch, 1980)

After the rollercoaster of the previous two films, it was quite a relief to get back to a classic. The screenings finished a little earlier tonight, as there was a bit of a disco on. In-keeping with the festival theme, it was a Valentine’s/Prom Night affair… so there was really only one option for the pre-disco screening. During the Q and A with Sean S. Cunningham, I was struck by one of the inspirations he listed for Friday the 13th… Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. With the post-84 rise of the big-name supernatural slasher (Freddy has a lot to answer for), it’s easy to forget the And Then There Were None-ness of the pre-franchise slasher, but Prom Night is one of the films that really makes the template clear. The film opens in 1974, with a group of kids playing in an abandoned convent. A young girl tries to join in the game, but things go horribly wrong and she dies. The kids swear never to speak of it again. Jump to: 1980, and the preparations for prom. The kids are teenagers now, but it seems someone knows what they did last summer (okay, six summers ago). Strange pictures appear in lockers, stabbed with shards of glass. It’s only a matter of time before a masked killer arrives to follow through on the threats. Admittedly not the most well-loved slasher – and certainly far from the most violent – Prom Night has a charm and style all of its own. For me, it’s interesting in the way it plays up the ‘past crimes back to haunt them’ element over the expected hack-and-slash aspect (there are no gratuitous deaths here – though a couple are accidental). It’s an enjoyable bit of fun, and a great way to end another day of screenings.

Sunday, 18th November

Abrakadabra (dir. Luciano Onetti and Nicolás Onetti, 2018)

Abrakadabra is a mystery thriller in the giallo style, which pays homage to films of the 60s and 70s. It’s painstaking in its period detail – not just in terms of set dressing and costume, but also cinematography, sound design and direction. The film begins with the accidental death of magician Dante the Great during a difficult trick (you may be able to guess which trick he’s attempting – it’s a standard reference in pop culture films about magicians now). We then move forward 35 years, and Dante’s son Lorenzo (now also a magician) arrives in town for a show. Not long after this, of course, the murders begin. True to the giallo mode, the murderer is a shadowy, secretive figure who seems to haunt the protagonist (though he may also just be an innocent pawn in the killer’s game – or a patsy set up to take the fall). The murders are brutal, and all seem to revolve around the world of magic. Lorenzo is forced to investigate the deaths – and the death of his father – to work out how (if at all) he is involved in this twisted plot. I’m in two minds about Abrakadabra. I loved the film’s opening, and the denouement and reveal were really good too. Plot-wise, it was a lot of fun. However, the middle section did seem to drag a little, and I struggled with the stylized characterization (though this was somewhat redeemed by the ending). It’s a brave – interesting? – choice to make a film in a mode that, some would argue, ended its heyday over forty years ago, and there were times when the film threatened to tip into style-over-substance territory. This isn’t a satire or pastiche – it is a giallo film, but I’m not sure it really does much to update or interrogate that.

Silent Shorts Vol IV

Something a bit different next – the first time we’d seen it, but the fourth time Silent Shorts had been featured on the Abertoir programme. This was a selection of – surprisingly enough – silent short films, all of a horror (or comedy-horror) bent. The shorts were soundtracked by fantastic original compositions by pianist Paul Shallcross. Shallcross also provided some introduction, background and context for each of the selected films. The striking thing for me at this screening was the variety in the films. I was also impressed by the way each of them made use of techniques and technologies that were highly innovative for the time – a reminder of just how creative a genre horror can be. We began with Georges Méliès’ 1903 The Monster (and who doesn’t want to see a Méliès film on the big screen?), which makes use of practical effects, superimposition and stop tricks to create an illusion of magical transformation that almost makes you forget that cinematography was only eight years old at the time. Next, it was Suspense, a 1913 short written and directed by Lois Weber. Again, this film has some notable new technologies on display – it has an early example of a split screen and an ambitious chase sequence. The third film was a bit different – not least because it was made in the era of sound (and Technicolor), and so its existence as a silent black-and-white short is stylistic, rather than circumstantial. Meshes of the Afternoon is a 1943 experimental film that uses repetition of motifs, slow motion and non-naturalistic camera angles to create a study of the subconscious, evoking both surrealism and film noir. Finally, we had Dr Pyckle and Mr Pryde, a 1925 parody of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, starring Stan Laurel. You can probably imagine how that one went!

Scala Forever! A Presentation by Jane Giles

Next on the programme was another talk, and about something I know little about. Jane Giles is the author of Scala Cinema 1978-1993, a new book from FAB Press about the Scala Cinema in King’s Cross. Giles was a programmer at the cinema – which has variously been described as infamous, influential and iconic – and she talked us through the cinema’s history (from its predecessor sites to the King’s Cross venue) and what came to be its signature style. She also talked about Scala’s relationship with horror cinema, with some great anecdotes about some of the notable screenings. While the history of the cinema itself was really absorbing, I was also quite taken with one of the details about the venue – prior to its becoming the ‘legendary’ Scala Cinema, the venue had a short life as Cyril Rosen’s Primatarium, an educative ‘experience’ designed to raise awareness of primates and their habitat.

Anna and the Apocalypse (dir. John McPhail, 2018)

The final film screening of the festival! I can hardly believe it! The last film to be shown on this year’s programme was the British Christmas zombie musical Anna and the Apocalypse. Anna is coming to the end of her time at school and dreaming of going travelling (though her dad wants her to go to university instead) – but all that is about to change when the zombie apocalypse hits. Instead, she’s going to be battling for her life along with a band of other survivors – and breaking into song at various points. Sadly, this film did not work for me. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t think it really succeeded at any of the things it attempted. It’s a British film, but it has no clear sense of place. The accents are a mishmash of North-East and Scottish, and the town of Little Haven doesn’t quite feel like it’s in the UK. It’s a Christmas film, but it seriously lacks the promised ‘feel-good’ element that you want from a festive film. No one learns the true meaning of Christmas, and no one discovers that love and joy are more important than material things. (Mostly because of the zombies, to be fair.) It’s a zombie film, but it’s zombies-by-numbers. There’s nothing interesting or different about its undead. And while there’s a ‘don’t fear the zombies, fear the other survivors’ element, it involves the arbitrary and implausible madness of an individual (played at the highest possible pitch by Paul Kaye). There’s no real fear or angst here – just excuses for Anna (played by Ella Hunt) to stab zombies with a giant candy cane. Finally, it’s a musical (in the High School Musical fully-integrated mode), but the songs aren’t catchy or memorable. Sigh. Just call me the Christmas zombie musical Grinch.

Rob Kemp's The Elvis Dead

Although Anna and the Apocalypse was the final film screening, there was one last event on the schedule… a performance of The Elvis Dead by Rob Kemp. The Elvis Dead is Kemp’s award-winning comedy stage show in which he reimagines Evil Dead II through the songs of Elvis Presley. Now, I like Evil Dead II and I like the music of Elvis, so this seemed okay to me. Ironically, I found myself seated between one guy who likes Evil Dead but hates Elvis, and another guy who loves the King but hates Evil Dead. I felt like the middle of a Venn diagram. Anyway, Kemp’s performance is an energetic romp through Raimi’s film – with scenes projected behind him throughout the show – in which he plays both a version of Ash and a version of Elvis. The King’s hit songs are rewritten to capture the action and OTT emotion of the cult horror film. Kemp’s solo performance is exhausting just to watch, as he uses props, make-up and hairspray (fans of the film might guess when that last one is used) to mimic Ash’s various traumatic experiences. And then, he bursts into song. The rewritten lyrics are often very funny – and I can’t have been the only person eagerly waiting to find out which song would be used for the ol’ chainsaw/hand scene (and I wasn’t disappointed there!) – but it’s the interplay between Kemp’s on-stage performance and the film screening that I enjoyed most. It’s a very well put-together show, which oozes affection for and understanding of both its sources. I loved the show… but so did both the other people in our little Venn diagram, and that seems like a success to me. A great laugh, and a fun way to round off the festival. Hail to the King, baby.

And so, our first ever visit to Abertoir came to an end. We thoroughly enjoyed our week in Aberystwyth, and I'm really pleased we were finally able to make it to the festival. Work commitments allowing, we're really hoping to be able to make it to Abertoir 14 next year. Fingers crossed!

Review: Abertoir: The International Horror Festival of Wales 2018 (Thursday and Friday)

13th-18th November 2018
Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Wales

This is the second part of my review of the films we saw at this year's Abertoir Festival. As we saw a LOT of films during the festival, I'm trying to make my review more manageable by doing it in three parts. You can see my post about the films we saw on Tuesday and Wednesday in my previous post, but here are the films we saw on Thursday and Friday.

Thursday 15th November

Blue My Mind (dir. Lisa Brühlmann, 2017)

The first screening on Thursday was Swiss film Blue My Mind. This is a coming-of-age, body-horror-inflected transformation tale – and one of the highlights of the festival for me. Mia is 15 years old and going through some changes. She’s at a new school, struggling not to fight with her parents, and experiencing new physical sensations that she hasn’t felt before. Her body is also transforming – and it’s clear this isn’t a standard puberty. So far, so Ginger Snaps. But – though I am a huge fan of Ginger SnapsBlue My Mind offers something different, and something more. Desperate to mask the pain and confusion of her transformation, Mia turns to drink, drugs and sex as a distraction. And this is presented with a brutal rawness, which builds to a climactic scene that is truly devastating to watch. But Blue My Mind’s originality really lies in its depiction of Mia and her peer group. Mia isn’t a weirdo loner, but rather a slightly sheltered and awkward teen who wants to find somewhere to fit in. In a sleight-of-hand moment, Mia is rebuffed by the apparent ‘mean girls’ of the piece and a ‘good girl’ tries to befriend her. That’s not what Mia wants though, and she courts the friendship and attention of the ‘bad girls’. With incredible performances from Luna Wedler (as Mia) and Zoë Pastelle Holthuizen (as ostensible ‘Queen Bee’ Gianna), what unfolds is one of the most nuanced and honest portrayals of teen female friendships I think I’ve ever seen. This isn’t a film about ‘good girls’ and ‘bad girls’, it’s a film about girls. And it’s a film about one girl coming to terms with the fact that she isn’t quite like the others. Blue My Mind is a painful, horrific and beautiful story of transformation. Definitely recommended.

Cut and Run: A Brief History of the Slasher - a presentation by Steve Jones

The next event at the festival was a talk by Dr Steve Jones of Northumbria University on the history of the slasher film. This was a fascinating and entertaining trip through the origins and precursors of the subgenre, through the ‘classics’ to the video nasty era and beyond. Insightful and engaging, this talk really helped crystallize some thoughts I’d been having about slashers, but it also gave me loads of new information and things to think about. It’s always great to see an expert talk about a subject they’re knowledgeable about with such enthusiasm – but I was particularly happy to see that Jones didn’t follow the fashion of denigrating 90s slashers (like I Know What You Did Last Summer) and acknowledging them as simply ‘postmodern’ or ‘knowing’. As he pointed out, the success of those films doesn’t just lie in them being po-mo – it’s also because they’re actually good films.

Short Films Competition Part 1

Abertoir is part of the European Fantastic Film Festivals Federation and participates in the Méliès Awards cycle for short films. After watching all the short films screened this year, the audience voted, and the festival then awarded a Méliès d’Argent to the highest ranked film, which then goes on to compete for the Méliès d’Or later in the cycle. This year, the shorts were screened in two lots. In this first panel, we saw Caronte (Luis Tinoco, 2017), a visual effects-laden piece in which the story of a young girl’s family life intersects with that of a futuristic space pilot, and Reprisal (Mike Malajalian, 2017), a taut, edgy piece about a woman facing her husband’s return from combat. Miedos (Germán Sancho Celestino, 2018) is a monster-in-the-wardrobe story with a (unfortunately rather predictable) twist, while Post-Mortem Mary (Joshua Long, 2017) is a perfectly pitched and beautifully designed story of two Victorian post-mortem photographers undertaking an unsettling job. Centrifugado (Mireia Noguera, 2017) sees a woman apparently con and trap a young man in her apartment (though, again, the ending was a bit predictable); FlyTrap (Connor Bland, 2018) is a terse animation about a germaphobe trying (and failing) to deal with his flatmate’s unsanitary habits. Another animation, but much less successful, was Sunscapades (Ben Mitchell, 2018). This one is more a cartoon in the Ren and Stimpy vein – more comedy than horror, despite some violence – and not to my taste. Highlights of this panel were Who’s That at the Back of the Bus? (Philip Hardy, 2018), an absurdist but carefully paced piece about a woman on a bus spotting something in the mirror, and – my favourite short film overall – Baghead (Alberto Corredor Marina, 2017), a witty, compelling and bleak story about a grieving man who visits a witch that can channel the dead.

Last Man on Earth with Animat Live Soundtrack

The next event on the programme was a performance by Sheffield-based music producers and performers, Animat. It was an interpretative soundtracking of the film The Last Man on Earth, using original composition, remixes, dialogue from the film and sound effects to transform the film into a soundscape. The Last Man on Earth is the second least well-known adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend. Made in 1964 and starring Vincent Price, it is a fairly faithful adaptation of the novel, though it changes the book’s vampires into something more zombie-like and alters the protagonist’s relationship with Ruth, the infected woman he encounters, and the detail of his ultimate fate. Animat’s performance has the film screened in its entirety with their soundscape superimposed. I did find this an intriguing idea, and I was curious to see how the act of interpretation could be carried through soundtrack. In places, it works very well, with, for instance, repeated and echoed phrases (both musical and dialogue) creating an eerie emphasis on the futility and isolation of Robert Morgan’s (as the Neville character is called here) situation. Elsewhere, however, it falls a bit flat. The inclusion of certain pop songs didn’t really work for me, and this aspect was far less creative than the original scoring. I’m not sure it can really be called an act of ‘interpretation’ to play Michael Jackson’s 'Thriller' as zombies gather in the foreground outside Morgan’s house. The Last Man on Earth is an interesting film to watch if you’re familiar with I Am Legend and its adaptations, and I did find myself at times just wanting to watch the film ‘straight’. However, there were moments of very creative interaction between soundtrack and image that realised the potential of the performance and added a thought-provoking dimension to the screening.

Cam (dir. Daniel Goldhaber, 2018)

Cam is a horror film set in the world of camgirls (models/performers who stage – usually erotic – acts on webcam in exchange for money and gifts). I try not to read much about films before I see them at a festival, as I like to go in without knowing what to expect. So that first sentence was all I knew about Cam before the screening, and I will admit I had some reservations. I was worried it was going to be a ‘killer stalks sex workers’ type of thing, and the film’s opening sequence appeared to be about to confirm this. Once again, I should have had more faith in the festival programmers – by this point, we’d already seen some really interesting challenges to the weary stereotypes of women in horror, and so I should’ve known this wouldn’t be a gratuitous stalk-and-slash. I now know that Cam was written by Isa Mazzei, who drew on her experience of cam work and intended her film to be a more nuanced and authentic representation of the job. And it is certainly that – it’s also a smart and stylish horror film with great performances (particularly from Madeline Brewer as the protagonist). That’s right – this film has a protagonist, not a ‘final girl’ or a parade of screaming victims. And the horror in Cam is also different to what I expected. The ‘bad thing’ that happens to Alice (who works under the name Lola) is creepy and unsettling, with psychological terror taking the fore over a threat of violence. In many ways, the film is at pains to announce its newness – this is absolutely a story of the twenty-first century – but for all its techno-threat and techno-survival, it’s also well-grounded in older Gothic tropes. The madwoman is out of the attic and on the screen.

UK Premiere: The Black Forest (dir. Rodrigo Aragão, 2018)

A Mata Negra is a Brazilian horror infused with fabulist elements and heavy on practical effects. In the heart of the eponymous forest (‘black’ as in dark and scary, not as in Schwarzwald – we’re in Brazil here, not Germany), a young girl stumbles upon a dying man who begs her to wait with him overnight to complete a mysterious ritual. With the man is a book, and he makes her promise to read only the page he has marked – and not to delve into the book’s other secrets. Of course, as a dark fairy tale, we know that she won’t heed this warning. As we learn, the book is the lost Book of Cypriano, which contains within its pages dangerous spells that will give its owner power over life, death and wealth. Of course, when life takes a bad turn for the girl, she can’t help but turn to the book for the promise it holds. And things go very wrong. While the film’s premise seemed interesting enough, the overall effect didn’t quite work for me. Tonally, the film is rather uneven. It begins with a darkly sumptuous fairy tale setting – with almost-echoes of Guillermo del Toro – and a young heroine who seems to be all innocence in the face of a threatening world. But the film’s violence, which is conveyed by in-your-face practical effects, veers quickly towards schlock, with some sequences seeming almost designed to make the audience queasy. As the magic goes repeatedly wrong, and the young spell-caster seeks to correct her errors, the film loses a sense of story, descending into a series of set-pieces and escalating gore. The film’s ending is bizarre – not necessarily in a bad way – with a coda that is both incongruous and suggestive. But, sadly, this was not one of my favourites.

Okay, we arrived on Thursday's morning fully intending to stay until the bloody end. But it seems our stamina was still a bit lacking, so we couldn't hack the final screening of the night. This time, we missed Bloody Moon (dir. Jesús Franco, 1981).

Friday, 16th November

Summer of 84 (dir. Anouk Whissell, François Simard and Yoann-Karl Whissell, 2018)

After this next screening, one of our fellow festival-goers informed us (no idea how reliably) that Summer of 84 was actually written before Stranger Things, though it was released some time later. For this reason, I’m not going to draw any comparisons with Stranger Things, as that seems a little unfair and – to be honest – unoriginal, as I’m sure plenty of other will do that. Also, I don’t like Stranger Things (don’t @ me), but I did enjoy Summer of 84 so there’s no need for the comparison. However, I will compare it to The ’Burbs as the film treads some of the same ground as the 1989 film (but with very different tone and effect). Davey is a paperboy in the Oregon ’burbs during the summer of 84. The town is alight with news of the Cape May Slayer, a serial killer who’s abducted and murdered at least thirteen teenage boys over the course of a decade. Davey becomes convinced that his neighbour, a well-respected police officer, is the killer. As the adults around him – obviously – don’t share his suspicions, it’s up to Davey and his friends to investigate. The story unfolds with a slow, almost sinister, pace, with the light-hearted nostalgic touches giving way to the dark reality of exactly what is being uncovered. It’s also a coming-of-age story – with hints throughout that this is about more than just one boy growing up. There is a melancholy quality to the nostalgia in Summer of 84 – less prelapsarian idealism, and more the point of the fall itself (a final shot of a Reagan/Bush election sign in a neighbour’s garden subtly underlines this). Unlike The ’Burbs, Summer of 84 really does engage with the horror behind the white picket fence. Well-written, and with great performances, I really enjoyed this one.

My Bloody Valentine (dir. George Mihalka, 1981)

The next screening was another classic slasher, and, as with the other selections, it was an interesting choice. Not least as the festival organizers decided to show the uncut version – with a couple of additional shots/sequences restored that were removed prior to the film’s original release due to violence and gore. My Bloody Valentine is a (sort of) teens-in-peril horror (one of the slew of holiday-themed films that followed Halloween), but it’s not entirely in the clichéd mode you might expect. Set in the mining town of Valentine Bluffs, the film opens with the town planning its first Valentine’s Day dance for twenty years. Such festivities had been abandoned two decades earlier, when mine supervisors left their posts to attend a dance, resulting in a horrific explosion that left miners trapped. The only survivor of the accident – Harry Warden – was driven insane by the experience and subsequently murdered the negligent supervisors. He also vowed to commit further murders if the town ever held a Valentine’s Day dance again. Twenty years on, and Valentines Bluff is throwing caution to the wind and reviving the dance… it isn’t long before the blood starts to flow. A relentless killer in mining gear begins to pick off the townsfolk, leaving grisly gifts in heart-shaped boxes in his wake. Has Harry Warden come back to finish what he started? My Bloody Valentine is rather underappreciated and often-dismissed, but it deserves a bit more attention, not least for its setting and backstory. Valentines Bluff has a grim claustrophobia to it, and there’s an oppressive feel not found in the summer camp/house party genre offerings. While My Bloody Valentine is very much a bit of slasher fun, it’s also got a bit of an edge to it that makes it stands out from the crowd. Great choice!

Short Films Competition Part 2

Another panel of short film screenings next. Clean As You Like (Theresa Varga, 2018) is an off-kilter slapstick comedy about two friends who work as cleaners, and whose relationship is thrown off by the arrival of a man on the scene. Dialogue-free and heavy on the physical comedy, this isn’t really a horror film. Sadly, the humour didn’t work for me. Similarly, Zombie Time (Alfonso Fulgencio, 2018) – a Lego zombie animation – wasn’t really to my taste. The Dollmaker (Al Lougher, 2017) has a bereaved mother turn to a toymaker for a magical solution to her grief – this is nicely done, but a bit predictable. Also very well done is La Noria (Carlos Baena, 2018), an ambitious (and moving) animation. Both Milk (Santiago Menghini, 2018) and Here There Be Monsters (Drew Macdonald, 2018) start off strong, but lack punch. The former has a boy going to the kitchen for a late-night drink, finding his mother there, and then realizing that something’s very wrong. The latter has a bullied girl trapped on a school bus at the end of the day and running into something nasty. I really enjoyed The Blizzard (Alvaro Rodriguez Areny, 2018), an unsettling period piece in which a mother wakes up in a blizzard, separated from her daughter and facing an unspecified military threat. This film made great use of the short film format. Home (Paul Gustavsen, 2018) is an excellent creepypasta-esque film about a woman being woken in the night by her husband coming in from a night out (or has something else come in?). Finally – and the winner of the Méliès d’Argent at this year’s festival – was Skickelsen (Jonas Gramming, 2017): a mysterious man moves into an apartment with an appointment to keep. Stylishly shot and nicely creepy, this was a definite highlight and well-deserved winner.

Friday the 13th (dir. Sean S. Cunningham, 1980)

Next up was the (kind of) signature film of the festival… the original Friday the 13th! Admittedly, we’d already seen Part 3 earlier in the week, but it was time to go back to where it all began. I don’t know whether this film needs much of an introduction – or if there’s much I can say by way of a review that hasn’t already been said. But in the unlikely event that anyone’s reading this review who doesn’t know what happens in Friday the 13th… teen counsellors arrive to set up Camp Crystal Lake for the summer season and are mysteriously (and gorily) picked off one by one. The camp has an unfortunate history – stories of a young boy drowning in 1957, and then the brutal murders of two counsellors the following year, circulate – so this new crop of teens can’t say they haven’t been warned. And yet they pay no heed – they just turn up intending to have fun over the summer (something which, as the slasher genre tells us, is a dangerous thing to do). Given the sprawling franchise that followed, it’s easy to forget that Friday the 13th is, like a lot of non-franchise slashers, a whodunit with multiple suspects, including Crazy Ralph (who wanders around town talking about a ‘death curse’) and friendly camp owner Steve. But the film has a big reveal up its sleeve – and in the event that someone’s reading this who hasn’t seen the film (or the first ten minutes of Scream), I’ll just leave it at that. It’s hard to say what – exactly – makes Friday the 13th so iconic. Perhaps it’s that reveal, perhaps it’s Harry Manfredini’s score. Or perhaps it’s that the film is the absolute essence of the slasher genre and the template for so much that would follow.

Sean S. Cunningham in conversation with Stephen Thrower

The guest-of-honour at this year’s festival was Sean S. Cunningham, producer and director of Friday the 13th (among other things). After the screening of Friday the 13th, we were treated to an ‘audience with’ session, with Cunningham in conversation with Stephen Thrower and taking questions from the audience. This was an interesting session for a number of reasons. There were (as expected) some great anecdotes about Cunningham’s career, the making of Friday the 13th, the making of Last House on the Left, and his work and friendship with Wes Craven. But, also, it was really fascinating to hear a somewhat different perspective on the making of iconic horror films from what I’d heard before. It was clear that Cunningham is – at heart – a producer, rather than an auteur, and so his take on why/how horror films work was quite a different – and, at times, defiantly apolitical – take on the genre.

The Last House on the Left (dir. Wes Craven, 1972)

I wasn’t sure about watching this next one. I’ve seen Last House on the Left before, and I found it a distinctly uncomfortable watch. In case you don’t know, the film was a collaboration between Sean S. Cunningham and Wes Craven, heavily censored (and censured) at the time of its release for its depiction of violence and sadism. Two young women are abducted, tortured and raped by a gang of sociopathic criminals – and then the criminals take shelter in the home of one of the girls’ parents. The sexual violence and humiliation in the torture scenes is intense, and I was very wary about watching this one again. However, the festival organizers were very sensible in putting it on after the Q and A with Cunningham, as it helped to contextualize the film and offer ways to ‘think’ the film’s violence, rather than simply experiencing it. Despite really not enjoying it previously, I’ll admit I was keen to see if the film looked different with this added context and introduction. One of the things that I noted from the Audience with Sean S. Cunningham was the almost incongruous medley of desires that led to the creation of the film: the desire to create a ‘drive-in’ movie that would attract people to the theatre, the desire to rework Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring with a contemporary American setting, and the desire to comment on (rather than simply show) violence and its aftermath (and, depending on whose take you follow, the desire to comment subtextually on the Vietnam War). This incongruity results in a film that is difficult to read. Is it exploitation horror? Is it a political anti-violence rhetoric? What is the viewer supposed to take from it? Despite the introduction and context, I’m still not sure I know the answers.

The Last House on the Left is an uncomfortable way to end the night, but once again we couldn't quite manage the final screening of the night. This time we sadly had to miss the UK premiere of Party Hard, Die Young (dir. Dominik Hartl, 2018).

One more part of this three-part review to come. My next post will be about the films we saw on Saturday and Sunday.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

#40for40: Birthday Celebrations

So I turned 40 in August. I know, I know... I don't look a day over 21. But it's true. I'm now officially middle-aged. I couldn't decide what to do to celebrate. It felt like I should do something exciting and unusual to mark the Big 4-0, but all the ideas I had seemed to be things I've done before. Perhaps that's the problem with being so old... you've already had so many birthdays that you can't think of any celebrations you've not already done. Lol.

Anyway, I eventually came up with the idea of doing 40 small celebrations throughout the month instead of one big one. I thought this would also be a good idea as my friends now come from all the different bits of my looooooong life (I'm so old), and so finding one single activity that people would want to do is impossible. And so I embarked on my #40for40 plans... and here are my 40 celebrations...

1. Lion Club at North Manchester FM

I joined up with some of the other presenters at North Manchester FM who also have August birthdays for a celebration radio show. We took over the station for a couple of hours, shared a few stories, talked about being Leos (or, whether or not we actually believe in star signs), and played a bizarrely eclectic range of music. And we had a birthday cake (made by me)!

You can also listen to our Lion Club show here:

2. Blackpool with Castlerea

I had a day trip to Blackpool with the residents of the care home my mum and brother run. We spent the day wandering along the pier and the prom, and then we had fish and chips before we came home (I didn't have the fish - obviously). It was a lovely day - I do like to be beside the seaside.

3. Vintage Pearls at Stockport Plaza

Me and Rob went to the lovely art deco Stockport Plaza for afternoon tea and a performance of some old-time songs by the Vintage Pearls (who also got the room to sing 'Happy Birthday' to me!). We even had a glass of champagne as well!

4. Port Sunlight

On my birthday itself, Rob took me for a mystery trip out. We went to Port Sunlight! We had a great day looking round the village and museum, and then we visited the Lady Lever Art Gallery. We came home with loads of vintage soaps (and I got a couple of books on model villages in the Industrial Revolution too, because that's just how I roll).

5. Meal at Indian Ocean

After Port Sunlight, Rob took me for dinner at our favourite local restaurant Indian Ocean. And as it was my birthday, I got extra free Baileys!

6. Dinner with my Parents

I went for a family dinner with my parents - and my mum baked me a birthday cake!

7. Cocktails at El Gato Negro

My lovely friend Chris took me out for tapas and cocktails at El Gato Negro on King Street. The cocktails I had were Parma Violet and Lemon Sherbet - and absolutely gorgeous.

8. Cocktail Masterclass at the Fitzgerald

More cocktails! I went on a cocktail masterclass at the Fitzgerald bar in Manchester. Not only did we get a champagne cocktail on arrival, we also learned how to make three cocktails (one of which was a competition) and got an unusual selection of shots. My favourite cocktail was the Devil's Kiss - whisky, chilli aperol, and all served up on some dry ice!

9. Lunch in Edinburgh

With a slightly woolly head from all the cocktails, my next trip out was an ambitious one. Me and my mum drove up to Edinburgh for lunch with our cousin Joy. We had a lovely lunch - and it was great to get chance to see Joy - and we stopped at Biggar for ice cream on the way home. It's a good thing I don't turn 40 everyday... Edinburgh's a long way to drive for lunch!

10. Dinner with my Parents-in-Law

Another family dinner - this time with my parents-in-law. And look at all the cake we had!

11. Strangers on a Train at the Electric Cinema, Birmingham

This is somewhere I'd wanted to go for a long time. The Electric Cinema in Birmingham is the U.K.'s oldest cinema, and as luck would have it they were holding a season of Alfred Hitchcock films around my birthday. Actually, this wasn't really luck - Alfred Hitchcock's birthday is the same day as mine. Anyway, we went to a screening of Strangers on a Train as one of my birthday celebrations - and it was awesome. We went home via Cannock Chase, had a wander in the woods and visited the German Military Cemetery.

12. Lunch at Tampopo

I met my friend Kate for lunch in Manchester. We had some lovely food at Tampopo and then went for coffee.

13. Day Trip to Chester-le-Street

I went up to Chester-le-Street to see my best mate K. We basically spent the day hanging out in Durham and Newcastle, so I don't really have any pictures except these: a massive bowl of tofu and a very handsome cat.

Aaaaand that's all I managed. To be honest, it was exhausting. I don't know how I thought I was going to manage 40 birthday celebrations in a month. I kept meaning to plan more things, maybe extend it over a bit longer, but I was just too knackered to celebrate anymore and I had too much work to do so I just gave up. This must be what 40 feels like.