Saturday, February 28, 2009

Wendy Richard of "Are You Being Served" and Kelly Grocutt of ELO

Wendy Richard, best known for playing Miss Brahms on Are You Being Served, and Kelly Groucutt, one time bassist for the Electric Light Orchestra, both recently passed on.

Wendy Richard passed on February 26 at the age of 65. She had suffered from breast cancer for quite some time.

Wendy Richard was born Wendy Emerton in Middlesborough, Yorkshire on July 20, 1943. As a baby the family moved to Bournemouth, Dorset. They later moved to the Isle of Wight, and finally to London. There they operated the Shepherds Tavern, above which Richard grew up. Her father committed suicide when she was only eleven. Richard attended St. George's primary school and later the Royal Masonic School for Girls at Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire. Richard left school when she was 16 and received a job as a junior salesclerk in the fashion department at Fortnum & Mason (the same position later occupied by Miss Brahms on Are You Being Served). Richard eventually attended the Italia Conti stage school, occasionally working part time at such department stores as Dickins & Jones and Selfridges. At seventeen she received her first jobs modelling for various women's magazines.

Richard would make her first appearance on television in 1960 in a television special for ATV, Sammy Meets the Girls, featuring Sammy Davis Jr. This was followed by appearances on such shows as Hugh and I and Harpers West One. Richard's first taste of success came when she had a speaking part on the pop song "Come Outside" by Mike Sarne in 1962. The song went to #1 on the British charts, but Richard would ultimately see only £15. In 1964 she not only guest starred on Danger Man, but she also had a part in The Beatles movie Help!. Unfortunately, Richard's role in the film would end up on the cutting room floor.

By 1965 Richard would have a regular role on the soap opera The Newcomers. She would spend the next several years appearing in various Carry On... movies, and on TV shows such as Up Pompeii and Dad's Army. It was in 1982 that Richard first appeared as Miss Brahms when the pilot for Are You Being Served aired on Comedy Playhouse. The series began in earnest in March 1973. With only a few breaks, Richard would appear in Are You Being Served for the next thirteen years. Miss Brahms spoke in a thick Cockney accent, and despite being proud of her working class background, always longed for a life of luxury. Richard would reprise her role as Miss Brahms in the short lived sequel to Are You Being Served, Grace and Favour. In 1985 Richard became one of the original cast of EastEnders, playing matriarch Pauline Fowler. She remained with the show for 21 years, until 2006. She also appeared on the shows Spooner's Patch, Not on Your Nellie, and Benidorm. For her contribution to drama, Wendy Richard was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE).

I have always been a big fan of Are You Being Served and Wendy Richard contributed to that success. As Miss Brahms she was the perfect foil for the flamboyant Mr. Humphries (played by the great John Inman) and the irreverent Mr. Lucas. Richard had a gift for musical comedy, with a great grasp of timing. I do not think anyone else could have done quite so well.

Kelly Groucutt, once bass player for the Electric Light Orchestra, passed on February 19 at the age of 63. The cause was a heart attack.

Groucutt was born Michael William Groucutt on September 8, 1945 in Coseley, Staffordshire. Groucutt left school at age fifteen to take work at a sheet metal factory. To simply make it through the day he sang along to the songs that played over the factory's intercom. A co-worker suggested that he form his own rock band. Groucutt then taught himself to play both guitar and bass. He formed the band Rikki Storm and the Falcons, and later played in such bands as The Midnights, the comedy band Sight and Sound (in which he impersonated both Gilbert O'Sullivan and Nancy Sinatra), and others in the Birmingham area.

In 1974 Groucutt was performing with the band Barefoot at the club Snobs in Birmingham. Jeff Lynne, Bev Bevan, and Richard Tandy of the Electric Light Orchestra visited one night. Listening to Groucutt's bass, the band invited him to be their bass player on their tour for the album Eldorado. It was when Groucutt joined ELO that he became "Kelly Groucutt" instead of "Mike Groucutt." The band already had two members named Mike (cellist Mike Edwards and violinist Mik Kaminski), so the group called him "Kelly," a nickname given to Groucutt by his father.

Groucutt was not only a good bassist, but had a great voice as well. He would not only provide backing vocals on the vast majority of the Electric Light Orchestra's songs, but he sang lead vocals on the songs "The Diary of Horace Wimp," "Above the Clouds," "Poker," and "Sweet is the Night." Kelly Groucutt would eventually record his own solo album, Kelly, released in 1982. The album featured several ELO members, including Richard Tandy, Bev Bevan, Mik Kaminski, and Louis Clark.

By the time of the album Secret Messages (released in 1983) Jeff Lynne and Kelly Groucutt would have a disagreement over the band's royalties, in which Groucutt felt he should be sharing. Sadly, Groucutt's contract specified that he had been hired only as a salaried employee. Groucutt sued and ultimately won £300,000, but he had to leave the Electric Light Orchestra.

Following his tenure with ELO, Groucutt wrote the theme song for show MiniPops. Sadly, it was not used as director Mike Mansfield decided not to include any theme music. He also wrote a song for the EP We Love Animals, a benefit for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSCPA). In the wake of ELO's breakup in 1986, Kelly Groucutt and Mik Kaminski formed OrKestra. The goal of the band was promote the Electric Light Orchestra's classic songs while recording new ones of their own. The band would eventually release two albums, Beyond The Dream and Roll Over Beethoven.

It was in 1988 that Bev Bevan approached Jeff Lynne about doing another Electric Light Orchestra album. After a legal struggle between Lynne and Bevan, a settlement was reached and Bevan formed ELO Part II. OrKestra and ELO Part II would tour together and eventually the two bands merged to form a new ELO Part II. After Bevan left the band and sold his rights to the ELO name to Jeff Lynne, Lynne forced ELO Part II to become simply The Orchestra. Kelly Groucutt would perform with both ELO Part II and The Orchestra.

Although he was not an original member of ELO, for me Kelly Groucutt will always be part of the classic line up of the Electric Light Orchestra. This was the line up that recorded such classic albums as Face the Music, A New World Record, Out of the Blue, Discovery, Time, and Secret Messages, as well as songs for the Xanadu soundtrack. It is my firm belief that it was his backing vocals and his bass line that helped transform ELO from a cult band to a roaring success. He will certainly be missed.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Philip Jose Farmer R.I.P.

Philip José Farmer, best known as the author of the Riverworld and World of Tiers series, passed this morning in his home in his home in Peoria, Illinois. He was 91.

Farmer was born on July 26, 1918 in Terra Haute, Indiana. His family moved frequently when he was a very young child. In 1920 they moved to Indianpolis and then Greenwood, Indiana. In 1922 the Farmer family moved to Mexico, Missouri where they lived for a year before settling in Peoria, Illinois. It was in Peoria that Farmer would grow up and there that he would spend most of his life.

Farmer was an avid reader even as a child. He was nine years old when he discovered both L. Frank Baum's Oz books and Greek mythology. Farmer was 15 years old when he started reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Jules Verne. It was also when he was fifteen that he first encountered the hero of a brand new magazine entitled Doc Savage. By his senior year in high school Mr. Farmer had already developed some of the ideas that would become the basis for Maker of Universes, the first book in the World of Tiers series.

Following Farmer's graduation from Peoria High School, he attended the University of Missouri to study Journalism. Farmer had to leave college during his first year when his father went bankrupt. He later attended Bradley Polytechnical Institute in Peoria, majoring in English Literature. He would eventually transfer back to the University of Missouri, as Bradley Polytechnical Institute did not have classes on classical Greek. It was in 1941 that Mr. Farmer enlisted in the Army Air Force. He did not make it through flight training and by 1942 asked to be discharged from the military.

Philip José Farmer took a job at Keystone Steel & Wire Company that same year, where he would be for the next 11 years. The year 1946 would see the publication of his first story, "O'Brien and Obrenov," in the March issue of Adventure. In 1949 he returned to college, this time to Bradley University. He would graduate the following year with a degree in English. In 1952 Mr. Farmer's taboo breaking story "The Lovers" was published in the August issue of Startling Stories. Startling Stories December 1952 would see the publication of his story "Sail On! Sail On!" In 1953 he attended the 11th annual Worldcon. There he gave a speech entitled "Science fiction and the Kinsey Report." He also won the Hugo Award for Most Promising New Talent.

It was that same year that Farmer won the Shasta Publishers' contest for his novel I Owe for the Flesh, what would become the first novel in the Riverworld series. Unfortunately Shasta's editor Melvin Korshak continually told Farmer that Pocket Books wanted rewrites, while never paying him the $4000 prize money. In the end Shasta never published I Owe for the Flesh, editor Melvin Korshak, and Mr. Farmer lost his house. Farmer continued to write, however, with several novelettes and novellas published in 1953.

In 1956 Farmer and his family moved to Syracuse, New York where he was a technical writer for General Electric. In 1957 Farmer published his first novel, The Green Odyssey. When Farmer got a job as a technical writer for Motorola's military electronics division, the family moved to Scottsdale, Arizona. It was in 1959 that Horace Gold of Galaxy magazine approached Farmer about writing a science fiction novel containing sex for a new line of books planned by Galaxy-Beacon. The novel which resulted, Flesh, was published in 1960 and would be the only novel published in the prospective new line.

The Sixties would see the publication of some of Farmer's most famous works. In 1965 Maker of Universes, the first book in the World of Tiers series was published. In 1966 the novelette Riverworld, the first work in the Riverworld series was published. The first Riverworld novel, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, would be published in 1971.

It was also 1971 that saw the beginnings of the Wold Newton family with such articles as "The Arms of Tarzan (published in Burroughs Bulletin #22, 1971)," "The Two Lord Ruftons" in The Baker Street Journal, December 1971, and "The Obscure Life and Hard Times of Kilgore Trout" in Mobeius Strip 11. The Wold Newton Family is a concept which incorporates many different literary characters created by many different authors. In the fictional biographies Tarzan Alive (published in 1972) and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life (published in 1973) Farmer developed the idea that a radioactive meteorite fell in Wold Newton, Yorkshire on December 13, 1795 and caused mutations in the passengers of a passing coach. Their descendants would be gifted with above normal intelligence and often abormal strength, as well as a desire to do good and fight evil. Among their descendents would be Tarzan, Doc Savage, The Shadow, Bulldog Drummond, and so on.

Beyond his fictional biographies Tarzan Alive and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, Farmer would utilise classic characters many times. The Wind Whales of Ishmael, published in 1971, was a sequel to the novel Moby Dick. The Other Log of Phileas Fogg, pubished in 1973, filled in the gaps in time in Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days. The Adventure of the Peerless Peer would team up Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan (when it was republished in 1984, the Burroughs estate complained and Farmer replaced Tarzan with Mowgli from The Jungle Book). Farmer would write no less than three novels featuring Doc Caliban and Lord Grandrith, thinly veiled versions of Doc Savage and Tarzan. He also wrote Escape from Loki, the authorised novel telling of the meeting of Doc and the Fabulous Five. With Kurt Vonnegut's permission Farmer wrote the novel Venus On the Half-Shell as Kilgore Trout, the fictional writer appearing in many of Mr. Vonnegut's works.

Over the years Farmer would win several awards. In addition to being nominated several times, he won three Hugo Awards (for Most Promising New Talent in 1953, for Best Novella for Riders of the Purple Wage in 1968, and in 1972 for Best Novel for To Your Scattered Bodies Go). In 2000 he received the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award at the Nebula Awards ceremony. He also received the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 2001 and the Forry Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2003.

Philip José Farmer was a groundbreaking writer in the field of science fiction. Prior to the Fifties sex was nearly unknown in science fiction prior to the Fifties. With "The Lovers" Farmer wrote what may well have been the first science fiction story which actually featured sex as a theme. His novel Flesh was even more open in exploring sexual themes. While Farmer took science fiction out of the pulp era into the modern era, he was also piviotal in seeing to it that the heroes of late Victoriana and the 20th century pulp magazines were remembered. Not only was his idea of the Wold Newton Family a significant piece of crossover fiction, but it enabled many characters to be remembered (Bulldog Drummond, Allan Quartermain, Lew Archer, et. al.) who may not have been remembered quite so well. Not only did Philip José Farmer help innovate science fiction, but he also helped preserved the literary heritage from late Victoriana and the pulp era.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The 81st Annual Academy Awards

Last night was what may have been the most disappointing Academy Awards ceremony I have watched in a long time. For much of this was because many of the awards did not go to the nominee who deserved them the most, but most of it was the ceremony itself. There were very few golden moments in this year's Oscar ceremony

One of the few bright spots in this year's ceremony was host Hugh Jackman. He was charming and funny--I can imagine women across the globe were swooning over him. He had some fairly good lines, particularly his jokes about Australia. And his skill was put to good use in an opening number which was essentially a parody of Billy Crystal's old opening numbers and a poke at the bad economy. Sadly, his song and dance skills were put to ill use in a salute to musicals. While I did not have that much problem with the execution of the number, I did have a problem with the choice of songs (with all the great musicals from the past 70 years, why bother using songs from Grease and Flashdance>?). At any rate, the only real complaint I have regarding Jackman is that we saw too little of him.

Another bright spot was the introduction to the screenplay awards with Steve Martin and Tina Fey. They were both extremely funny, to the point that I think they should co-host the Oscars one day. Another high point was a short film by Judd Apatow featuring Seth Rogen and James Franco, which was very funny. The montages were particularly well done this year, including one devoted to action movies and another to romance (although it featured a few films, such as The English Patient, that I do not consider particularly romantic...). There were a few good acceptance speeches as well. Danny Boyle's acceptance speech for Best Director was amusing, as was Kate Winslet's acceptance speech for Best Actress. Also amusing was Simon Beaufoy's acceptance speech for Best Adapted Screenplay. As to the most touching acceptance speech, that had to be the one given by the family of Heath Ledger when they accepted his award for Best Supporting Actor.

As to the low points of the ceremony, there were several. I do not know who thought of the idea of having the Oscars for the various Acting categories presented by five different past winners, but if it was up to me they would never work on another Academy Awards Ceremony again. The presentations for the Acting categories just seemed to drag on and on--in fact, I think the presentations may have been longer than most acceptance speeches! Perhaps the absolute lowest point of the night was the In Memoriam sequence. This year it was accompanied by Queen Latifah singing the song "I'll Be Seeing You." This meant that there was no audio during any of the clips. To make matter worse, the camera would pan between tiny screens, often making it difficult to see the clips. To me this was an exceedingly bad idea. It was tacky, tasteless, and, quite frankly, disrespectful to those who had died in the past year. The In Memoriam sequence should be observed in silence, with no sound except for the audio of the clips themselves.

As might be expected, some of the speeches were also low points for the ceremony. In fact, the two worst speeches were both acceptances for awards for Milk. In accepting the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, Dustin Lance Black expressed views that were blatantly political. Sean Penn did the same when he accepted the Oscar for Best Actor. I have always maintained that politics has no part in the Oscars. It detracts from the awards themselves to the point that I find it annoying. It doesn't matter whether I agree with the views the individual is expressing or not, I still don't want to hear one word of politics expressed at the Oscars.

As to the awards themselves, I was very disappointed at times, as they often went to nominees who did not deserve them. Indeed, this was particularly represented by the sweep Slumdog Millionaire made of several awards. Now don't get me wrong. I like Slumdog Millionaire, but it simply did not deserve to win many of the awards which it won. I will not debate whether it deserved to win Best Picture and Best Director (although frankly I think it deserved neither), but I think there were awards which it won which I do not think anyone can really argue it should have. I mean does anyone, even those who voted for it, honestly believe that Slumdog Millionaire has better Sound Mixing than The Dark Knight, Wall-E, or even Wanted? Does anyone, even those who voted for it, honestly believe that Slumdog Millionaire has better Editing than The Dark Knight, Frost/Nixon, or even The Curious Case of Benjamin Button? Quite frankly, there were all too many instances of Slumdog Millionaire winning awards which it simply did not deserve. Indeed, the only Oscar I believe it really deserved was Best Adapted Screenplay.

Lest anyone think I am picking on Slumdog Millionaire, I must point out that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button also took awards which I feel it did not deserve. Given that much of the ageing of Button was actually done with CGI, I do not see how anyone could possibly think that it had better Make Up than Hellboy II: The Golden Army. I would also question how anyone can honestly think that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button had better Visual Effects than Iron Man or even The Dark Knight. To me this is as nonsensical as Slumdog Millionaire winning Sound Mixing or Editing, if not more so.

I must also say that I objected to two of the Acting awards as well. While I do think Sean Penn did a good job in Milk, I honestly do not believe that he did a better job than Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. While I do not necessarily agree with this, however, I must say that it does not bother nearly as much as Penelope Cruz winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. While I think that her performance in Vicky Cristina Barcelona was good, I do not think it was so remarkable that she deserved to even be nominated for Best Supporting Actress, let alone win it. What makes it all the more worse is that she beat out Marisa Tomei, the actress who truly deserved to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the fantastic performance she gave in The Wrestler.

Now I will confess that there were many instances where the most deserving nominees did win. While I love Kung Fu Panda, I think Wall-E truly deserved the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. And while I would have rather Kate Winslet been nominated for Best Actress for Revolutionary Road, her performance in The Reader was perhaps the only high point in that film--she truly deserved to win. And I do not think anyone is about to complain that Heath Ledger did not deserve the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. His performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight was truly astounding. I was also very happy to see The Duchess win the Oscar for Best Costume Design. It really deserved it.

Over all, I must say that it was perhaps the most disappointing Oscar ceremony I have seen in a long time. Indeed, I think I might have tempted to shut the television off if I had not been chatting with the folks at Row Three (thanks again, guys!). Of course, that brings me to another complaint I have about last night's telecast on the American Broadcast Company. Why does Canada get better commercials during the Academy Awards than we do here in the United States?!