Throw Momma From The Train – TV Hell – tape 960

First on this tape, Throw Momma From The Train. It was Danny DeVito’s first film as director, and it’s a brilliantly weird black comedy.

It opens with Billy Crystal as Larry Donner, clearly a blocked writer, sitting at his typewriter, and never getting further into his novel than the first line, “The night was…”. It occurs to me that they typewriter is a so much more dynamic and visual thing to represent his struggle. He keeps pulling the pages out of the typewriter and tossing them into the wastebin. If he were working at a computer there’s be nothing as physical and dynamic to represent the struggle he’s facing.

Things are made so much worse when his ex-wife, who apparently ‘stole’ his book and published it herself, is on Oprah. She’s played by Kate Mulgrew. He really hates her. I’m not sure him screaming at the TV calling her a slut is something that’s aged well – if it was ever ok.

Meanwhile, Owen (Danny DeVito) is also trying to be a writer.

He’s living with his mother, a monstrous woman played by Anne Ramsey. I’m not sure she was an actor of enormous range, but for this kind of role she was unsurpassed. She doesn’t treat Owen very well, and he fantasises about killing her, fantasies we see played out in his imagination.

Larry teaches a class in creative writing. His students aren’t very good. Raye Birk as Pinsky has written a book entitled “50 women I’d like to Fuck” (retitled “50 women I’d like to Pork” in this TV showing). “It’s a coffee table book.”

I love this shot of Owen writing in bed under his sheet. DeVito has a very visual style. Helped, no doubt, by Director of Photography Barry Sonnenfeld.

Kim Greist plays Larry’s girlfriend Beth, who is struggling with his mood swings and obsession with the success of his ex wife.

There’s a funny but weird moment, with Beth trying to persuade Larry to relax. They’re sitting on a children’s train, and she tries to persuade him to smooch, but he’s too uptight. And then he notices Owen sitting just behind them. Owen wants to talk to Larry about his story, but Larry, not surprisingly, isn’t in the mood to talk right then.

But later, he does talk to him, and tries to explain why a murder-mystery in three pages, with only two characters, and one’s dead by the middle of page two, isn’t much of a mystery. He tries to explain about motive, and alibi, and suggests that Owen look at Hitchcock, for ideas how to create alibis and remove motive from the crime.

So Owen watches one of Hitchcock’s classics, Strangers on a Train, in which two men meet on a train, and one of them persuades the other that they should swap murders, since they both want someone dead, but they would be the prime suspect if they did, but not if they swapped victims. “Criss cross”. And I’ve only just realised the significance of the earlier scene on the children’s train. This is a really clever script, from writer Stu Silver, who wrote a few episodes of Soap.

Rob Reiner makes a brief appearance as Larry’s agent. Or should that be former agent, as he’s dropping Larry because he hasn’t written anything. And to make matters worse, he’s taken on Larry’s ex wife as a client. This pre-dates their collaboration two years later in When Harry Met Sally.

After watching Hitchcock, Owen has got it into his head that Larry was telling him they needed to swap murders, so he heads to Hawaii, where Larry’s ex Margaret is now living. He gets into her house, but is interrupted by her current beau before he can kill her, so has to hide.

Later, on a boat, she drops one of her diamond earrings, and is reaching over the side to try to get it, as Owen is approaching.

We then cut back to Larry, who has been sitting on a rock by the sea all night. Which means he doesn’t even have an alibi for the night before.

Owen calls Larry from Hawaii – calling for short times from different phones so the calls can’t be traced. He tells Larry that he’s killed Margaret, so now it’s Larry’s turn to kill his mother.

Larry meets with Owen when he returns. As they’re driving, Larry tries to get Owen to understand what he’s done. “You killed somebody. You killed a person, you’re a murderer, you took a life.” “You’re right. You’re right, I’m no good. How could I do that, I’m a sick, sick per – COWS!” I love this non sequitur so much.

There’s also the scene the next morning, at Owen’s house, where he’s just served Larry breakfast, when his mother comes in. “Who’s this?” “This is cousin Paddy. He’s going to be staying with us for a while, isn’t that nice?” “You don’t have a cousin Paddy.” There’s a pause. “You lied to me” says Owen, and whacks Larry with a frying pan. You can’t beat a good bit of slapstick.

My favourite scene in the film is when Owen shows Larry his coin collection. Larry’s not interested, but Owen insists. It’s just a seemingly random collection of everyday coins. “Nickel, Nickel, Quarter, Quarter, Penny.” “Are any of these coins worth anything?” asks Larry. No, says Owen, but then he explains the story behind each coin. They’re all coins he got in change when visiting somewhere with his dad. They’re not rare, or valuable, but each one means a specific memory for Owen. Just lovely.

So now, Larry has to kill Owen’s mother. Obviously he doesn’t want to, but the madness of the situation seems to be pushing him towards it. But when Owen leaves to go bowling, for his alibi, Larry tries to tell his mother that Owen is mad. But she’s fast asleep.

He looks for evidence that might prove Owen killed Margaret, but as he’s looking, Owen returns and there are policemen outside the house. They want to talk to Owen about Larry, as they’re looking for him in connection with his wife’s disappearance. Owen thinks Larry has left the house, so he invites them in, without realising that Larry is still there, hiding in the larder. There’s a great back and forth scene where Owen believes Larry has double crossed him, and is trying to get the police to notice Larry hiding in the larder, but in the end, his mother interrupts them.

There’s a second attempt at murder, involving the door to the cellar, but inevitably, it’s Larry who ends up plummeting down the steps.

Larry can’t take it any more, so he decides to take a train to Mexico. Owen and mother join him. This is where there’s a perfect payoff to the opening scene. We already had a great payoff earlier in the film, when he decides “The night was humid” was acceptable, and then he starts to read out Owen’s latest story in class, which starts with the same words, and he ends the class early. That’s a great payoff. But here on the train, Larry is talking to Owen about beginnings. “Do you say ‘The Night was humid’ or do you say ‘The night was moist’? That’s writing.” And Owen’s mother looks up and says “The night was sultry.” Larry freezes, and the music does an unmistakeably Hitchcock riff. Is Larry going to crack and take out Momma?

Anne Ramsey really is brilliant. She storms through a carriage where a nun and a priest are hosting a Bingo session, shouting “Bingo Bastards”.

Through a slight contrivance, Larry ends up desperately trying to stop Momma from falling from the end of the train.

After saving Momma, she’s not at all grateful, and kicks him off the back of the train.

Recuperating in hospital, Larry is watching the news, as his ex wife Margaret has returned from the dead after an adventure. She had fallen off the boat – Owen hadn’t done anything. And she’s sold the rights to her ordeal for $2m. So Larry is still having dreams/nightmares about murdering her, until he realises what he needs to do. He writes it all down as a novel. called “Throw Momma From The Train”. Finally his writers block is gone.

There’s another great gag as we see Larry finishing his book, and the camera pans from this typewriter, past his almost finished manuscript across his desk, and one of the things there is Pinsky’s coffee table book.

Just as Larry has finished the novel, Owen turns up. He has news. He’s written book, it’s going to be published in two days, called “Momma and Owen and Owen’s Friend Larry”. “It’s all about you and me and Momma, and our experiences together.” This is the last straw for Larry, just as he’s finished his own novel, and he almost strangles Owen before he sees Owen’s book. It’s a pop-up book.

This film also has the classic 80s movie ending, with all the principals (except Momma, who died naturally) together on the beach.

This is still such a great movie. Large seams of pitch-black comedy, contrasted with some genuine pathos, with some Hitchcock references for good value. Do try to watch it if you ever get the chance. COWS!

BBC Genome: BBC One – 31st August 1992 – 21:35

After this, a lovely trailer for Film 92.

Then, recording switches straight over to BBC2, where TV Hell is in full swing. This was an evening of programmes looking at the worst that TV had to offer.

First, a short piece from Victor Lewis Smith. My tolerance for VLS isn’t high, so a short programme like this is probably ideal for me. Also, I get the impression that he hates a lot of stuff, and I am finding that kind of thing more and more tiresome as I get older. I want to hear from people who love stuff.

After this, a really cracking documentary, Storm in an Eggcup. It’s the history of TV AM, from its hubristic launch, with the ‘Famous Five’ presenters, through its Greg Dyke/Roland Rat period, to the loss of its franchise because of the Conservatives’ terrible rules on franchise renewal, there’s plenty of frank opinions on the events.

I’m not convinced the framing device, having Loyd Grossman doing a ‘Through the Keyhole’ thing at various places related to the events, is that strong. It’s a bit arch, and the story it frames is easily string enough to support itself.

To explain for my younger readers (haha only joking, I doubt I have a single reader who’s under 40) TVAM was the winner of the first ITV franchise for Breakfast Television. ITV was created as a group of local TV stations, which would provide a mix of local programming and peak-time network TV. TV AM was different, being a channel that would broadcast throughout the UK, in the breakfast time before the regular channels start – around 9am. Yes, kids, TV used to start after you went to school or work, and in the 80s, the idea of having the TV on at breakfast was new and exciting.

TVAM’s bid leaned heavily on the Famous Five, five well known, well renowned TV broadcasters.

Some of them made sense, like David Frost, a past master at all kinds of broadcasting.

Michael Parkinson, likewise, was an immensely popular interviewer.

Angela Rippon (not interviewed for this feature) was one of the first (and certainly the most famous) woman news readers.

Anna Ford, likewise, was (I think) News at Ten’s first woman news reader. And certainly the most famous at the time.

Rounding out the Famous Five is Robert Kee. Yeah, me neither. Vaguely familiar from the occasional Newsnight, I think he was more impressive amongst TV folk than the general audience. More a proper journalist than a TV presenter, hence his slightly lower fame factor.

Not part of the on-screen team, but an equally important part of the founding of TVAM was Chief Executive Peter Jay, another seasoned broadcaster. He’s fairly frank during the interviews here.

It always surprises me how quickly it all went wrong, though. Ratings were sliding right from the start, and a mere six weeks from launch, Peter Jay was ousted from his position as CEO by major shareholders Jonathan Aitken (then a Tory MP) and his cousin Timothy. Jay was forced out, agreeing to go on the understanding that Jonathan Aitken would take over. But since Aitken was an MP, he soon had to stand aside for his cousin Timothy. Peter Jay says “If I had known that not Jonathan but somebody else who I will not name was going to run the company…” Interviewer Ray Snoddy interjects “It’s a matter of public record that his cousin Timothy Aitken became chairman.” “So you say. Had I known that not Jonathan but somebody else was going to run the company, I would not have had the confidence, indeed, precisely the opposite.”

I have to say, Timothy Aitken does project all the elements of being a cunt. He’s interviewed somewhere sunny, with palm trees, and I know it’s the sun, but he also has that surly, squinty look. The TV AM Press officer calls him “fantastically aggressive… An absolute driven, explosive personality”. All of which is clearly code for him being a cunt.

By the way, the afore-mentioned press officer, Howell James, is the star of this documentary. He seems absolutely delightful.

In comes former LWT man Greg Dyke to try to improve the fortunes of the station.

He brought in Anne Diamond and Nick Owen.

And, more infamously, Roland Rat. Who, unlike Rippon and Ford, was interviewed for this programme.

Greg Dyke was eventually forced out, when more boardroom shenanigans went on. It’s really interesting to hear Anne and Nick talk about the time, and saying how much Dyke meant to the people there, and the kind of leader he was. “We would have all died for Greg”. I started working at the BBC in 2001, while he was Director General, so I was there when he was forced to resign over the BBC’s reporting of the UK Government’s Iraq dossier, and I can honestly say that the attitude inside the BBC was very similar to Anne and Nick’s here. He was a man you were happy to have in charge.

John Stapleton tells the story of how he was the only TVAM reporter in Brighton when the IRA blew up the Grand Hotel, and all he had was a telephone, and no outside broadcast facilities.

I must admit to a frisson of Schadenfreude at the end of the story, when TV AM lost their franchise in the next round of auctions, because the rules were that highest bidder wins, and they bid too low. The next day, the then chairman, Bruce Gyngell, read out a letter he had received from Margaret Thatcher expressing her sadness at the event, in part because ti was her legislation that led to it. This is the only known documented sighting of Thatcher being sorry for anything, and even then it’s only because her daughter Carol was working there at the time.

Here’s someone else’s upload of the documentary. It’s really good.

Following this programme, there’s another quite famous programme which was shown here for the first time. Mainly For Men was a pilot for a possible series that seemed to want to be a TV equivalent of a ‘Men’s Magazine’ of the time, like Mayfair. Pretty girls, features about cars, and shark fishing, you know the kind of thing. It really is quite awful, and it’s no surprise it never got anywhere near being broadcast.

The night’s programmes ends with Trading Places, a series of clips of celebrities turning up in odd places. There’s some gems in here, including the excruciating time that David Mellor made his son duet with him, and that time that Larry Hagman couldn’t remember the words to his own song, on the Royal Variety Performance. This also includes the framing sections with Angus Deayton and Paul Merton.

BBC Genome: BBC Two – 31st August 1992 – 19:30 (entire TV Hell night).

After this, there’s a trailer for forthcoming comedy (see last video).

Then, the tape ends after a few minutes of Diane Keaton’s Heaven, a documentary about people’s images of Heaven.

14 comments

  1. Jim, you have a single reader under 40. (Only just, mind.)

    I was fairly young, then, but I do remember TV-AM. Paul Gambaccini did music and film reviews, did he not? I recall watching clips of an awful lot of music videos for the first time on TV-AM, like ‘Sledgehammer’ and the Young Ones’ version of ‘Living Doll’. It was only when I was in my teens that I realised what an innovation it was (which again proves your point, I suppose!).

  2. I loved that TV Hell theme night. They got John Peel in for a “worst of TOTP” thing called Rock Bottom, in the days before we all found out what the worst really was.

    1. They repeated Rock Bottom on primetime BBC1 about six months later and it got an incredible audience, about 13 million viewers or so.

  3. I bet Pinsky would be right at home on on Twitter.
    Our dad took(Mum and I) to see “Throw Momma From The Train,” at the drive-in – it was the support for “Colors.” (Sounds weird but they had “Toy Story” as the support for “Operation Dumbo Drop.”)

  4. Ah, the cake of good livin’.

    Anyway, Danny DeVito is a fine director, but his films are so misanthropic that I have trouble enjoying them. Even Throw Mama gives the impression that he would be happy with every character dead to teach them a life lesson. Mathilda, his children’s movie, is basically people-hating for kids. Death to Smoochy is one of the most bad tempered and intolerant comedies ever made. And so on.

      1. Yes! I went to see War of the Roses as a teen, expecting a fun comedy, but not expecting a massive “fuck you!” to both the characters and the audience. Seriously, that ending is so bleak the humour just evaporates. It’s kind of admirable.

  5. I was absolutely blown away by TV Hell at the time, it really was the most fascinating and interesting evening of television I’d ever seen, and I was desperate to see it again. It was a great day a few years later when I got the whole evening from a friend on some long play VHSs. Of course, it’s all on YouTube a million times now.

    It really stuck with me because a lot of it was really quite scary and unsettling, and despite a lot of the stuff only being a decade or so old (Triangle was eleven years old at the time, for example) it looked like it came from another world. I think that’s why it would be so hard to do something like TV Hell now, because while there are a lot of bad programmes on television, they don’t look obviously crap. A lot of the shows on TV Hell just looked awful, and were technically dreadful.

    The TVam doc, and the whole story of the station, is fantastic. Ian Jones’ wonderful Morning Glory is a fascinating book about the whole sorry affair. Jay got kicked out very early on because, as explained in Morning Glory, it was totally under-capitalised so if it didn’t work out on day one it was pretty much set for terminal failure. It was such a battle even to get on air.

    Howell James went on to be Head of Press for the Beeb, and according to those who worked there at the time, he was indeed an absolutely lovely bloke.

    1. Same here, it was a riveting series of programmes, a mickey take of the Frank Muir TV Heaven, I think? The A-Z was the highlight, especially for someone like me who loves old – sorry, classic – TV and films.

      But it was all good, so well-researched, unlike the “what can we find blurry clips of on YouTube?” equivalents we too often get now. I notice Caroline Wright’s name in the credits, she still keeps up the quality in her work.

      1. Indeed. I work for the Beeb now (partly thanks to being inspired by things like TV Hell) and I keep meaning to go to Caroline Wright’s desk one day to say how much I’ve always admired her work.

  6. My first memory of TV-AM was when I was 5 and seeing Anne and Nick on the sofa before heading off to school. Remember seeing a lot of Roland Rat in the summer and lots of guests being interviewed. I remember seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger coming on to promote Commando like he did on Wogan and Anne pointing out the size of his hands. There was also Timmy Mallett with Wide Awake and Wacaday.

    My brother and I watched VLS’ TV Offal and despite it being in very bad taste, we found it hilarious. Inside Victor Lewis Smith though was a bit too lewd for my tastes.

  7. Not to turn this into a competition, but I’m 27, so now you’re up to three ‘younger’ readers. (And nothing makes me nostalgic for my childhood quite like VHS, or a Saturday night BBC line-up that includes Bugs.)

    Although I found a grey hair this morning, so perhaps the blog’s cursed power is extending.

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