Friday, July 25, 2008

Frank Serpico in Corwen

Talking of Frank Serpico - as unlikely as it might sound - he lived for a time (1979-80) in Corwen, north Wales. The original hippie cop co-founded an alternative learning centre there, based at a former workhouse. Students who attended Orissor College took courses in natural healing, the mind, the environment, and self-reliance skills.

As an undercover cop Serpico had worn his hair long, grown a beard, and generally looked like a hippie. So, it is interesting to note that after leaving the force he embraced some of the new age philosophies adopted by his undercover persona. According to writer Grahame Davies, who first alerted me to Serpico's sojourn in Corwen, the college was a source of curiosity to locals. It was also an open secret that Frank Serpico was in residence there.

Another source says that Serpico eventually had a disagreement with Orissor College and moved into a local bed and breakfast establishment. One website records Serpico's observations on the local police's technique for dealing with children who jumped off a bridge into the river: "The cops wouldn't say anything to them as long as others were around, but as soon as it got dark the police pounded the shit out them."

In the early seventies Serpico famously exposed corruption in the NYPD and even got shot in the face for his troubles. His biography Serpico (1973), penned by Peter Maas, became a best-seller and was adapted into a hugely successful film starring Al Pacino. After leaving Wales, Serpico eventually returned to upstate New York. He now lectures on the environment and has his own website.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Welsh Hippie Cop

I do like a bit of '70s true crime trash. Take Busted! (1978) by Martyn Pritchard and Ed Laxton, for instance. Welsh cop, Pritchard, spent five years undercover, hunting down drug dealers and hassling degenerate junkies. Donning hippie garb, he infiltrated squats, communes, festivals and demos. He was like a Welsh Serpico. Along the M4 corridor, no sandal-wearing dope peddler or acid-head was safe from his attentions.

During his investigations he encountered the IRA, the Mafia, and - inevitably - Howard Marks. A large section of this book is devoted to the part Pritchard played in the Operation Julie drugs bust. I love the whole mythology surrounding that case. It's incredible to think that LSD produced in Tregaron was being ingested by the likes of Timothy Leary on the west coast of the United States. You can read more about the case here.

Busted! is just one of many cultural artefacts inspired by Operation Julie. Other books have included Dick Lee and Colin Pratt's Operation Julie: How an Undercover Police Team Smashed the World's Greatest Drugs Ring (1978), and more recently Lyn Ebenezer's Welsh-language Operation Julie (2008). There have also been TV documentaries; some great articles in counter-culture magazines, such as, the International Times; and, of course, the song: Julie's Been Working For the Drug Squad, penned by The Clash.

As for Welsh hippie cop Martyn Pritchard, soon after Operation Julie, he retired from the police force to run a public house in the Midlands.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Richard Burton in The Klansman

You can count the number of good films Richard Burton made on one hand... and this ain't one of 'em. Pure seventies exploitational trash, The Klansman (1974), features every racial stereotype in the book - and a few more besides. With such crass stereotyping on show and oodles of violence (several rapes, murder, and a castration), this eye-poppingly non-PC film just simply wouldn't get made today. In fact, the 2008 DVD re-release has been cut almost beyond recognition.

Typically, Burton and co-star Lee Marvin spent most of the shoot (in California) getting completely hammered. It has even been suggested that if you observe the film closely, you can see that during certain scenes they are both clearly pissed. Burton got himself into further hot water, on location, for buying a ruby and diamond ring for an 18-year-old pancake house waitress. Although the Welshman insisted nothing untoward was going on between himself and the leggy, blonde, former Miss Pepsi of Butte County, his wife, Liz Taylor, wasn't convinced. She got into a huff and flew off to Hawaii.

Despite the flick's numerous shortcomings - not least Burton's lamentable Southern accent - I do rather like the film poster shown above. It depicts OJ Simpson, in his first ever screen role, aiming a gun at Richard Burton's head, while Lee Marvin looks decidedly uncomfortable in the passenger seat. The dubious tag-line at the top gives you some idea of the film's exploitational values. One contemporary US journalist said of the movie: it will set race-relations in America back 50 years.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Oh Dad! A Search For Robert Mitchum

Oh Dad! A Search for Robert Mitchum is not your conventional biography. In fact, it is not actually a biography at all. This is no objective account of the life and times of a Hollywood icon, but rather a subjective quest for a definition of masculinity.

The book is as much about Lloyd Robson as it is about Robert Mitchum. The Hollywood actor - a paradigm of machismo - serves as a link between the author and his own father. A troublesome three-way relationship that underpins the whole book.

But Oh Dad! is also a travelogue, a journey down the Eastern seaboard of the USA, as Robson goes in search of the undiscovered poetic Bob Mitchum. Yes, you heard right - Mitchum, badass actor par excellence, brawler, hop-head - was also a secret poet. He had a sensitive side, bless him, and Robson is determined to track it down.

The book really comes into its own as Robson hits the road - and the railroad track - in a bid to uncover Mitchum's little-known early life. The questing dynamic is perfectly suited to Robson's prose style. As a poet he has an acute sense of rhythm, which is here employed to excellent effect in conveying pace and movement. Oh Dad! has a strong beat sensibility, and even harks further back to proto-beat writers such as WH Davies. Mitchum himself, we learn, endured a stint as a hobo.

There is a strong gonzo dimension to this work too. As Robson ponders notions of masculinity he manages to frequently get stoned; or pissed; have sex with various women; become embroiled in the occasional argument; and rip-off a NY street drug dealer. Not the kind of exploits you ordinarily find in the pages of your average travel book.

Robson's engaging narrative is interweaved throughout with Mitchum quotes and dialogue excerpts. This makes the book textually interesting, but it also demonstrates what a dry and self-deprecating wit Mitchum actually had:

"You know what the average Robert Mitchum fan is? He's full of warts and dandruff and he's probably got a hernia, too. But he sees me up there on the screen and thinks, "If that bum can make it, I can become president." I bring a ray of hope to the great unwashed."

In fact, humour is one of Oh Dad!'s great strengths. Not only do we enjoy Mitchum's bon mots and Robson's various scrapes but also some great observational writing on cultural difference. There are ongoing jokes concerning your average American's ignorance of Wales, and the practise of rolling your own cigarettes, for example. With his finely-tuned poet's ear Robson is also able to pick out the rhythm and diction of the local vernacular, particularly down South, and playfully incorporate it into his own narrative.

As Robson gets deeper into his journey Mitchum himself threatens to burst out of the writer's subconscious and take corporeal form. There are even hints of mischievous night time appearances by the Hollywood legend. And it is on the fringes of a murky Florida swamp - through which Mitchum once escaped the long arm of the law - that the author finally confronts the object of his obsession. Robson - just about - manages to steer clear of an Iron John-type mythopoetic finale, and carry off what is an ambitious attempt to bring together travel and biographical writing.

*Oh Dad! A Search for Robert Mitchum is on sale now and is published by Parthian books.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Swinging Wales

This newspaper advertisement from 1967 recently caught my eye. It is promoting Adams Beach discotheque in Merthyr Tydfil. There are, of course, no beaches in Merthyr Tydfil - it being up a valley - but nightclubs are often about potential and fantasy, so hey, why not?

Ordinarily, nightclub ads will attempt to seduce the viewer with a glamorous picture or, at least, a promise of cheap booze and a good night out. But this particular oasis of hedonism is offering punters something more serious - a complete change of culture. "We are going to create our own scene - our own fashions - our own pop culture - our own happenings". That is an extraordinary thing to say. This is more than some cheap ploy to get the punters in, it is no less than a cultural call to arms.

In fact, the advert reads like a manifesto - a manifesto of swing. It desperately wants Adams Beach discotheque to be a Welsh focal point of the perceived zeitgeist. The amount of "swinging" that actually occurred in London and the sixties has, over the years, been called into question. But, clearly, whoever wrote the copy for this ad completely believed in the hype and mythology.

The advert is also a complaint, an expression of dissatisfaction with the status quo. But, more than anything else, it is a provincial cri de coeur: "Who said the Valley is uncool?" Also interesting is the way it makes an appeal not just to the residents of Merthyr Tydfil but to Wales as a whole. It is, after all, attempting to drum up a "swinging Wales" campaign. At a fundamental level it is patriotic: "Let's show them all".

The last word in the advert: "Interested?" is almost heartbreaking. You can tell that the whole enterprise is a triumph of hope and optimism over probability. Wonder if anyone actually heeded the swinging call, or went along to see them "day or night". Must admit, I'm tempted to pick up the phone right now and punch in the number 3362 to sign up for some retrospective swinging action.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Darkside Gallery

Lesbians with guns; daleks; cinematic monsters; cult icons; beautiful women who have forgotten to put on any clothing. Or as, ahem, Professor Heinrich Von Wolfsbane puts it: contemporary art for the seriously disturbed.

Check out the excellent Darkside Gallery and witness for yourselves the uber-cool artwork of Cardiff-based Mr Sul. But take heed, do not venture there if you like nice scenery, flowers, or Satan forbid, puppies.

I notice Mr Sul also does commissions. So, if anyone wants to order me a collection of Welsh porn star portraits (say, Isabel Ice, Kellemarie, Shay Hendrix and Sophie Dee); or a nice canvas of Neath's Ray Milland as The Man With X-Ray Eyes; or Lon Chaney Jnr as Welsh monster The Wolf Man - then please, don't let me stop you.

All of Mr Sul's artworks are original and non computer-enhanced. You can purchase items via The Darkside website.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Wales Book of the Year 2008

You may need to visit the hospital to have your toes surgically uncurled after viewing this horror show. As you probably already know 2008's Wales Book of the Year award didn't exactly go according to plan. Instead of reading out the name of the winner (Dannie Abse), hapless culture minister Rhodri Glyn Thomas inexplicably read out the name of the runner-up (Tom Bullough), and thus caused much embarrassment.

If it's any consolation to Tom Bullough he is probably now the most famous living writer in Wales. The Academi and Rhodri Glyn Thomas have inadvertantly conspired to give him more publicity than he would have enjoyed had he actually won the prize itself. Ordinarily the Wales Book of the Year barely troubles the national press but this year's monumental cock-up even (allegedly) made CNN.

Unsurprisingly a large amount of the column inches generated by the fiasco have implicitly been of the: 'couldn't organise a piss-up in a provincial brewery' variety. But, in the long run, this gaffe is unlikely to do the Welsh Academi any real harm. Publicity is publicity. The world is awash with literary awards and suddenly the Wales Book of the Year has some colour, a bit of history, and crucially, a reference point for those outside the narrow range of Welsh letters.

Not that this will be of any comfort to Tom Bullough. Who knows, he may now use his £1,000 runner's-up cheque to recruit a team of hot-shot lawyers to sue the Welsh literary agency for mental cruelty. Of course, the issue here is not about money but I'm sure if Bullough applies for one of Academi's writing bursaries - say, £9,000 - they're highly unlikely to turn him down. Get your application in now mate.

Literary prizes are an odd business anyway. In what sense is Dannie Abse's The Presence genuinely a Welsh book of the year? If the winning work was determined by something measurable, like sales, the nation's favourite tome would probably end up being the latest Dan Brown effort. What we actually have here is the: Wales Book of the Year in the Opinion of X, Y, and Z award. Change the three judges and, in all probability, you'd have a different winner. The whole thing is pretty arbitrary.

Of course, this award is really all about promoting Welsh fiction. An exercise in status-raising. So, why not just give the prize to the book which is likely to generate the most publicity? Last year, for example, it would have made far more sense to present the award to Byron Rogers for his RS Thomas biog The Man Who Went into the West rather than Lloyd Jones for Mr Cassini. This year the widespread media success of Nia Wyn's Blue Sky July ought to have been enough to earn her victory.

Sensitive souls will say: but surely you must always dish out such prizes on merit alone. But merit according to who? Trevor Fishlock and Mavis Nicholson? Why not just grab three 'judges' from the nearest pub and let them decide instead? In fact, why should the man (or woman) in the street be completely excluded from the whole process? After all, it is ultimately they who are subsidising the prize money and the swanky awards ceremony at the Cardiff Hilton. Academi might, at least, consider getting a member of the public to read out the winning name on the card.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Wolf Man

Anthony Hopkins is set to star in a remake of classic horror movie The Wolf Man (1941). People often forget that in the original film - as portrayed by Lon Chaney Jnr - the wolf man is actually Welsh.

The 1941 version is set in the fictional Welsh town of Llanwelly. It is the seat of the wealthy Talbot family (perhaps a nod to the Talbot dynasty after whom the town of Port Talbot was named). In typical Hollywood fashion the Welsh locals go around speaking with Irish, cockney or middle-European accents. Even characters like Dr Lloyd, Jenny Williams, and Gwen sound completely un-Welsh whenever they open their mouths.

Despite such anomalies, The Wolf Man is quite rightly regarded as one of the great horror movies of all time. Atmospherically shot, it has an outstanding cast with Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi and the wonderful Maria Ouspenskaya starring alongside Lon Chaney Jnr in the title role.

In 1943 there was a sequel: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Some people might think having two classic monsters in the one movie is over-egging the horror pudding somewhat, but there you go. Once again Lon Chaney Jnr starred as Lawrence Talbot; and again the film has a Welsh setting. It starts off with a grave-robbing in Llanwelly, followed by various scenes set in and around a Cardiff hospital. In desperate search of a cure for his lycanthropy Lawrence Talbot eventually flees Wales to find Dr Frankenstein in Vasaria. Which is a bit like asking Harold Shipman to sort out your lumbago.

In the new version Anthony Hopkins is set to play Sir John Talbot, father of werewolf Lawrence Talbot (portrayed by the aptly lupine looking Benicio Del Toro). Unfortunately, in the remake, the wolf man will completely lose his Welsh identity and mutate into an English monster. Cultural imperialism, I call it. The film is set for release in early 2009.