Call it superstition…

imageOnly it isn’t. It’s just something I have always done right up to now ever since I was a travelling adult. You know those ugly bar code sticky labels they put over the handle of your suitcase when you check in to fly? After my return journeys home I never remove that luggage label until the next time I fly very deliberately. Why? Not out of superstition or ritual but out of hope. The hope that I will get to make another journey and go on another adventure some day. I never take it for granted that I will.

Roman Holiday

imageI can’t quite believe I’ve got to my age and I’m only just about to do this now. In a couple of weeks time I’m going to Rome for the very first time.

In fact that will be only my second ever visit to Italy, a country that has always fascinated me and whose ancient history was the focus of my higher and university education. Long before I got to exam-level education I was as a kid reading about what the ancient Greeks and Romans got up to while my younger brother got a more rounded education on his skateboard with friends in the street. I was more fascinated by the Greeks than the Romans and was a key influencer in persuading my Ancient History teacher at College to arrange a class trip to Greece, which they hadn’t done before and so we did. One of the best trips abroad I ever made and still lives that way in memory now.

Italy and the Romans never grabbed me like Greece and the Greeks and so I’m only now heading out to what has been dubbed (in error) by some as the ‘eternal city’. That will only always be Jerusalem for me.

This trip will be a follow on from my unplanned and impulsive explorations of places I’ve never visited last year. I booked it last year on the cheap and then more or less forgot about it until now and only now I’m wondering whether I’m giving myself enough time.

imageIt will be a 3 night stay in a small city hotel in the heart of Rome a short walk from the Colosseum. I read that it will be noisy. I had initially in mind to see as many of the ancient sites I read so much about as a student. The realisation is only now dawning on me that as a Londoner I think I live in a city steeped in history. Rome was the ancient equivalent of a high-rise megacity while Londinium was, well, no more than a northern irrelevant minor city (a bit like Leeds today).

imageThen I remembered that I could nip across the border into another country again just a few miles from my hotel. Two-countries-in-ones were a theme last year and so it continues. The world’s smallest independent state, The Vatican, should also be a must on my trip. Not sure if I have to carry my passport as I step out of Italy and into the Holy See. I’m not a Roman Catholic and so the place will not be of any awe to me this side of my visit. I will be posting up my feelings t’other side though so let’s See.

imageFinally it just struck me that I’m going to the city one of my favourite films of all time was set and filmed in: Roman Holiday starring Hollywood legends Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. I know I will want to seek out some of the locations in that movie: the steps where she eats her ice cream after she cut her hair short. The cafe where she and Peck first had coffee, the fountain of hopes and, of course, the Mouth of Truth.

How much will I get to do without being disciplined at setting a pace that will enable me to capture and experience a Rome in that best of all cameras – my memory – will be up to me to manage wisely at the time.

Meet the new Ben-Hur

imageThe unthinkable (for me) is happening. The moguls of Hollywood have dared to mess with something which to me is sacrosanct and never to be touched by human hands again. They are re-making the legendary epic movie ‘Ben-Hur’.

imageFinancing was secured some while ago and now cast and crew have been appointed and filming is currently underway in Italy. How bloody dare they? Don’t they know that for nearly all my life the original multiple Oscar-winning 1959 version starring Charlton Heston in the lead role was and still is my favourite movie of all time? In my home it is compulsive viewing every Easter and every time I still have to choke back tears. Actually to be fair, the movie in production will be the second remake. The 1959 classic was itself a remake of the 1925 silent movie original and the studio that commissioned the 1959 version, MGM, is also behind the remake.

imageAll three films are based on the novel penned by Lew Wallace in 1880 titled ‘Ben-Hur – a Tale of the Christ’. I’ve attempted to read the book a couple of times but it is hard going and I never made it through. I’m told that the character of Christ depicted in the book has a much more constant presence than is portrayed in the 1959 film, yet the four or five appearances of the character of Jesus in that film have profound consequences on the entire plot. The character of Judah Ben-Hur (or Judah, Prince of the House of Hur) was played by the legendary Charlton Heston in my original (so from now on all references to the ‘original’ refer to the 1959 version). British actor Jack Huston (top picture) will play the role in the remake and his most recent starring role was in ‘American Hustle’ last year.

Ben-Hur is a multi-faceted story with themes that include the struggle for national freedom under imperial oppression, the tearing apart of friendship by opposing world ideology the struggle within the human soul between love and hatred, the redemption and healing power of forgiveness. As the book’s title infers, central to the plot is the relationship between God and man.

The original had budget of only $15M back then, a pittance now for an epic (the recent ‘Noah’ movie budget was $125M and for me money that could have been better spent on almost any other project). It was filmed in the biggest international studios of its day, including the famous Cinecitta Studios in Rome. Filming is taking place in Italy but I’ve not heard mention of where.

imageAlongside Jack Huston as the lead, his main adversary and once childhood best friend, Messala, will be played by fellow Brit Toby Kebbell (‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’, ‘Prince of Persia’). His casting, bearing in mind his pedigree in blood and gore gladiatorial movies, immediately sets alarm bells ringing for me as to where they might be taking this remake, though, yes, there may be a gory chariot race to re-create. Interestingly Iranian-born actress, Nazanin Boniadi (‘Iron Man’, ‘Homeland’) plays the lead female and Judah’s love interest Esther, played by Israeli actress (and Miss World 2nd Runner Up in her day) Haya Harareet in the original. Ms Harareet is the only member of the original lead cast still alive today. Brazilian unknown actor Rodrigo Santoro will play the part of Christ.

imageMorgan Freeman’s addition to the cast adds gravitas and the weight of a Hollywood A-lister to the production. He will play the role of Ildarin, the Arabian horse trainer who persuades Judah to race Mesalla in the infamous chariot race of death that became one of moviedome’s most iconic scenes of all time. How spectacular the new race scene will be, no doubt super-enhanced by 21C CGI remains to be seen.

imageThe appointment of husband and wife Mark Burnett and Roma Downey as the film’s producers leaves me with another dilemma. Mark is behind some of the most popular coast-to-coast TV shows in the US and he and Roma were the driving force behind ‘The Bible’ TV mini-series that drew record audiences in the US and was screened on national terrestrial TV in the UK and many other territories. I have met Roma (whom some will remember as the Angel in the popular US TV series ‘Touched by an Angel’). She and Mark are committed Christians. She is from Northern Ireland originally and he from England. She is a very lovely lady who I met and sat down with in the context of steering the media company I work for promoting ‘The Bible’ series when it aired in the UK 2 years ago. My dilemma is that while Mark and Roma are practising Christians who it has been reported want to bring the movie remake back to its roots in the clear Christian message of the Lew Wallace novel, ‘The Bible’ series production ended up splitting Christian audiences in the UK in terms of its production quality, interpretation and delivery while not really making any major impact on national audience figures (though good for the non-prime TV channel it aired on). I’m not sure at this time of writing and with only first impressions what sence of production values to expect from Ben-Hur 2.

imageLet me take stock a bit here though. MGM-Paramount are not strapped for cash and they invested a hefty budget into ‘Noah’, which ended up with state-of-the-art treatment and a BIG movie feel, even though it was not my cup of tea. Morgan Freeman is no lightweight even if he is playing a minor character (unless they are beefing up his part). A release date scheduled at the moment for February 2016 (awards season) may mean that there is some weighty impetus behind this production, though the release date may be too late for any possible Oscar nominations. Were it to be scheduled for release in the US in December 2015, then that might indicate confidence by the production team in possible awards success. Awards success is an important consideration in comparing the 1959 Ben-Hur with the 2016 remake. The original swept the board in its day with 11 Oscar wins and still holds the record for the most Oscars held by any one single movie (as opposed to a trilogy etc). Yes, Hollywood has changed and the chances of that happening again are as remote as Torvill and Dean taking to the ice again at the next Winter Olympics and scoring top marks across the board.

imageJumping off the fence, at the moment I’m a cynic of the Ben-Hur remake, not because I’m judging a book by its cover but Because they are remaking my most beloved film of all time. That alone is enough For me to fold my arms in disapproval with a determination not to be moved but it’s not that simple. My job will require me to engage with this film whatever I think of it come the time and I’m not looking forward to that.

Norwegian Smooth

imageI love cheese. It’s a permanent feature in my fridge in some form, whether as a block, pre-sliced or in foil wrapped triangles. I love cheese.

Open my fridge any day of the week and you will normally find a medium-mature cheddar in some form or possibly something Swiss but things have changed. My new best cheesy friend is Norwegian Jarlsberg and if you haven’t tried it maybe I can persuade you.

imageI had tried this sweet and nutty cheese before and it always struck me as a poor relation to Swiss Emmental or Gruyère. That was until I had a short stay in Norway’s capital, Oslo, last year. Over there, Jarlsberg is a part of daily life and can be present at breakfast, lunch and tea.

imageIn the UK, we consume £7million worth of this cheese that never makes it into our pre-selected supermarket Christmas variety boxes. It accounts for 80% of Norway’s dairy exports and is the most imported cheese into the United States where there is a huge appetite for its holey, creamy nuttiness. Jarlsberg has been around since the 1850s but saw a renaissance after 1956 under a closely guarded and secret recipe known only to the few and elite Norwegian producers. Wherever it is produced in Norway, Jarlsberg must meet a universal quality control standard before reaching the consumer. There is also a whole science and art involved in the creation of the trademark holes in the cheese, which you can read about here.

imageTwo key kitchen tools you will be guaranteed to find in very many Scandinavian homes and restaurants are a wooden butter spreader and a miniature metal cheese slicer. Cheese has always been at the heart of Nordic homes and due to the climate they have always been of the hardy, chunky kind far from the soft, spreadable cheeses of France, Italy and Southern Europe. Yet unlike our British way of consuming hard cheeses such as our beloved Cheddars, the Scandinavians are not into carving up chunks of cheese with their meals, hence the miniature slicers. Slim and delicate is better and is the secret to enjoying the delicate, light flavour of Jarlsberg. In Norwegian restaurants, you may see fine slivers of Jarlsberg appear as salad garnishes and with grilled meats.

imageLike Emmental. Jarlsberg, for me, tastes so much better at room temperature than straight from the fridge. Once a little heat permeates the block, the consistency becomes softer, more elastic and almost like a hard butter. Perfect for skimming with your mini Nordic slicer (if you know where to find one) and topping Rye seeded sourdough bread. It’s also a perfect melting cheese under the grill on toast when as with Emmental and Gruyère, the sweet and nutty flavour deepens and intensifies as it melts in your mouth.

Could there ever be a Christian suicide bomber? Done already.

imageJRR Tolkien once wrote about the dangers of adventures that potentially lie ahead when you dare to step outside your front door and follow the road…any road…to see where it goes. So here’s an unexpected road my fingers took me on as I opened my digital front door to Googleland this week.

I have no idea why the old 1960s ‘Supermarionation’ TV puppet series sprung back to mind this week. Along with Joe 90 it was the lesser known of the genre after the still highly popular Thunderbirds, which has seen a modern revival. Personally, I think Scarlet would do very well if brought into the 21st Century and there’s some irony in that considering it was set in a century yet to come.

While I’ve never forgotten the classic theme tune sung by The Spectrum, I had forgotten how Captain Scarlet had become the ‘indestructible Man’ the Mysterons couldn’t kill. So I set off into Googleland to find out and came back with more than I bargained for.

imageI found the very first episode on YouTube via Google and watched it through and now recall how Scarlet gained his secret powers which again make sense of the opening credits. The episode was first broadcast in 1967. I never saw it then but like Thunderbirds, the series was repeated many times in later years. So I watched it again and found myself entertained but then shocked to see a suicide bombing and attempted assassination as the plot unfolded. A suicide bombing as we know it today back in 1967? How far sighted were the show producers? I had to find out.

imageBack out into Googleland I soon discovered to my horror that suicide bombings are not a 21st Century phenomena. It is centuries old and one of its most infamous occurrences was in the name of Christianity. I uncovered a number of references to an incident during the Tenth Crusade as Christianity and Islam fought bloodily over the Holy City of Jerusalem. In a sea battle the Knights Templar, a mysterious Sect which historians attribute to Christianity, but which no Christian denomination would own today, sacrificed 140 of their number by blowing up one of their own ships in the midst of enemy ships to take many more of them out.

I also discovered an interesting article in the Sky News archives which claims suicide bombing is recorded in and therefore seemingly sanctioned by the Bible. Well not quite. They refer to the death of Samson as recorded in the Book of Judges 16:30 who took his own life while inflicting death on many more as he destroyed a pagan temple.

imageWe ought to know from living history that suicide bombings are not a 21st Century phenomenon, even if they are far more common place than ever before. The Japanese military inflicted the first 9/11 with Kamikaze pilots ploughing into the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour in 1941. The first modern day suicide bombing was recorded in the 1980s in Lebanon and they became most frequently used to kill and maim in Israel but also Sri Lanka by Tamil rebels.

I don’t believe Christians invoked the first suicide bomb. I know of the Knights Templar from a while back as I delved into their links with the Illuminati (go Google) who were most certainly nothing to do with my faith. I have, however, long held the fear that sooner or later an atrocity will be committed in the name of Christianity whether by a deluded individual or by others wishing to ignite inter-communal strife with a deliberate act to tar all Christians but then that reality is being experienced by the majority of moderate Muslims today.