Free films on TV 3/7/21 to 9/7/21


At one time, the Guinness Book of Records used to say that ‘Yesterday’ was the most recorded song in history, with more than 2,000 cover versions on record. Then someone remembered Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’, with more than 30,000. Sorry, Paul. 

Richard Curtis likes to write big commercial movies, and Danny Boyle doesn’t mind directing them. After War Horse, Curtis had a few lean years, so with Yesterday (2019) he took no chances. It’s a juke-box musical built around Beatles songs, which must have seemed like a pass key to Fort Knox. 

After a global power cut lasting a couple of seconds, Jack (Himesh Patel), an unsuccessful young musician, wakes up to find he’s the only person – apparently on the whole planet – who knows the songs of John, Paul, George and Ringo. So he sets about building a career around them. At the same time, Ellie (Lily James), his manager, an adorable schoolteacher with a nice house in desirable seaside Suffolk, is desperately in love with him. 

It’s a typical Curtis confection. Funny, warm-hearted, well-observed on the banter level and set in that strange fantasy country, Curtis Island, where everything and everyone is really rather lovely, including Ed Sheeran, who turns up to play a version of himself, generously helping Jack (a much greater talent, he thinks) to stardom. The stars are very attractive, the music is well-performed, and the whole thing is forensically targeted at anybody with access to a bank account: Beatles fans, anglophile Americans, soppy teenagers, lovers of alternative reality fantasy, Sheeran followers and unashamed romantics like yours truly. The couple take for ever to get together, and despite Jack’s megastar erotic allure, they stay true. Chastity has been story juju since the Old Testament: it’s the longing. 

Unfortunately for Universal Studios, all this algorithmic craft doesn’t quite come off. Curtis goes all out to be uplifting (he’s the Wonderbra of British screenwriting) but the material success and musical brilliance we are asked to applaud is built on dishonesty and crass record company hype. He has to contrive a happy ending both for the couple, with Jack’s integrity restored, and for the fans, whose love of this heartfelt music is based on the false narrative they’ve been sold. Beauty is truth, Richard, to quote John Keats.

I won’t tell you what happens, but you can probably guess it involves a church, a lot of white organza and a sing-song: none of that rings true, either. By the end, I found this feelgood movie weirdly depressing, like a trip to HMV or longterm use of SSRIs. But don’t let me put you off. It’s a well-made film that says a great deal more than it intends about the relationship between art and commerce. If I get round to it, I plan to write some more about it on my blog: The Beatles are so interesting. Can I recommend a book? One, Two, Three, Four: The Beatles in Time by Craig Brown. Not scholarly, but lots of funny and revealing anecdotes.

Yesterday can be seen on Sunday (4/7) at 20:15 on BBC1. (Also on BBC4 on Friday at 23:25.) It’s also on Netflix. 

World Cinema

On Sunday (4/7) at 00:55, BBC2 has Summertime (2015). Recently we listed An Impossible Love, my favourite film of the year so far. It’s still on iPlayer. This is Catherine Corsini’s previous feature, when she was more determinedly ideological. A young woman moves to the French countryside and meets a feminist leader. Intense lesbian sex and smoking duly follows. At 02:45, Film4 has My Life as a Courgette (2016), the excellent animated feature about a Swiss children’s home, which CFS showed in 2018/19 to warm approval. Written by Céline Sciamma, who made the acclaimed Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

On Tuesday (01:15) at 01:15, Film4 has Mommy (2014), which our taciturn film expert described in one word: “unbearable”. I haven’t seen it. A fierce family drama about a violent teenager’s intense relationship with his widowed mother. By Xavier Dolan, who has his fans. 

Laurel and Hardy

Talking Pictures is celebrating “100 Years of Laurel and Hardy”, a somewhat arbitrary milestone, based upon Oliver Hardy’s arrival in the cast of the Stan Laurel comedy The Lucky Dog. They weren’t a team until a few years later. Watching them now, it is astonishing to see their grace and delicacy, as well as the character traits that influenced every double-act thereafter. Both are idiots, but in different ways. The films are also startlingly violent, which modern audiences find uncomfortable. Viewers at the time understood the conventions of clowning, having been brought up on music hall and circus. 

Tomorrow (3/7) at 09:10, it has Brats (1930), a clever technical achievement, with the pair playing children as well as their parents. At 16:00, there’s The Music Box (1932), the one everyone remembers, about the pair lugging a player piano up a lot of stairs. It lands on Ollie’s back, it drags him down 133 stairs, and he gets straight up. Stan kicks a woman in the behind. She slaps him. A policeman whacks them both with this truncheon. What larks! At 16:40, there’s Pack Up Your Troubles (1932), a satire on army life, set during the US’s brief involvement in WWI. 


On Sunday (4/7) at 16:00, there’s Another Fine Mess (1930), with the pair as vagabonds hiding in a rich man’s house. A remake of their silent debut as an official duo. At 16:35, there is Sons of the Desert (1933). The duo join a fraternity but have trouble getting away from their wives, a perennial preoccupation. 

Stephen’s Picks

On Sunday (4/7) at 11:20, Talking Pictures has The Grapes of Wrath (1940). John Ford’s adaptation of the John Steinbeck dust-bowl novel, with Henry Fonda. A renowned classic, but – whisper it – a little tedious. (Also on Thursday 11:50.) At 15:00, Film4 has The Great Escape (1963), with Steve McQueen and his fence-jumping Triumph TR6, painted to look German. (Also on Friday at 13:10.) 

On Thursday (8/7) at 20:00, BBC4 has The 39 Steps (1935), Hitchcock’s adventure classic. Robert Donat, as Richard Hannay, is the prototype for all of the director’s innocent men on the run, and Madeleine Carroll is the original Hitchcock blonde. (Also on Friday at 02:35.)

Other modern films of interest

Tomorrow (3/7) at 23:00, BBC2 has Pride (2014). Well-meaning, somewhat sentimental comedy-drama about the 1984 miners’ strike, with a London Lesbian and Gay group being formed to show solidarity. They go to a Welsh mining village where they meet a mixed reception. Widely praised, except by Nigel Andrews of the Financial Times, who gave it one star out of five and described it as “a parade of tricks, tropes and tritenesses, designed to keep its balance for two hours atop a political correctness unicycle”. Miaow!

On Wednesday (7/7) at 01:55, Film4 has Le Week-End (2013). Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent go to Paris for a second honeymoon. Funny and thoughtful film about marriage and middle age from one-time wunderkind Hanif Kureishi. Directed by Roger Michell, who made Notting Hill with Richard Curtis (see above). At 22:00, BBC4 has Raising a School Shooter (2021). Unflinching documentary from the husband and wife team Frida and Lasse Barkfors, who interview the parents of three boys who turned guns on their own classmates. They include Sue Klebold, whose son Dylan was one of the Columbine killers: he also killed himself. 

On Friday (9/7) at 22:00, BBC4 has The Beatles: Made on Merseyside (2018). At 23:05, Channel 4 has Amy (2015). Compare these music documentaries with the frothy Yesterday. The Beatles’ film is workmanlike but worthwhile: cheerful old Scousers talking about the boys they knew in Liverpool and Hamburg in the years before they conquered the world. Amy is quite different, an intense and artful look at the life and career of the doomed chanteuse Ms Winehouse, whose talent did not protect her from her own self-destructiveness and a toxic environment. The film, by the director of the acclaimed Senna, was initially welcomed by her family, who turned against it when they realised how they were coming across. 


Tomorrow (3/7) at 13:05, 5 Select has The Witches (1990). Nic Roeg’s edgy adaptation of Roald Dahl’s black comedy, with Anjelica Huston in the lead, supported by Mai Zetterling, Rowan Atkinson, Bill Patterson, Brenda Blethyn and puppets by Jim Henson, father of The Muppets, who produced the movie. 

On Friday (9/7) at 18:00, Talking Pictures has The Winslow Boy (1948). Famous Terence Rattigan adaptation about a father’s legal battle to vindicate his son, who had been accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order and expelled from naval college. The real boy, George Arthur-Shee, died in the First World War and is listed on the war memorial in Woodchester, outside Stroud, where the family lived. At 22:35, BBC1 has Out of Sight (1998). Steven Soderbergh’s lively adaptation of the Elmore Leonard thriller, with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. I recommend Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing to all my scribbling friends, with reservations. “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” 

A date for your diary

As I mentioned last week, I have been in touch with Tony Palmer, director of the truly excellent documentary Holst: In the Bleak Midwinter. I am going to show it at the Playhouse on the composer’s birthday, September 21, with the legendary film-maker in attendance. It’s an intensely moving film about music, internationalism, faith, class, education and, along the way, about Cheltenham. More details later. This is nothing to do with Cheltenham Film Society. It’s my project, and everybody will be welcome. 

John Morrish, Stephen Ilott, Finn Candy-Waters