May 27 1679: Habeas Corpus enacted

The Verdict.JPG

At first glance, the term Habeas Corpus might seem a bit Latin and dull, but in fact, the Habeas Corpus Act, which became law in Britain this day in 1679, was a revolutionary piece of legislation that prevented people from being thrown in prison without just cause. At its core, the Act “demands that a prisoner be taken before the court, and that the custodian present proof of authority, allowing the court to determine whether the custodian has lawful authority to detain the prisoner.” (Thank you Wikipedia.) In other words, everyone has the right to a fair trial.

I think that deserves a blog post — and a nod to some classic courtroom dramas. (I will say up front that there are lots more good ones that aren’t here — from A Few Good Men to Witness for the Prosecution; there are too many to include in one post.) 

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)  Where to begin with To Kill a Mockingbird? This was one of the very few books I read in high-school English that I enjoyed, and then later when I saw the film, I was blown away. This is a pivotal scene in the movie, where we see alleged rape victim Mayella Ewing on the stand being questioned by Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch. (3 min, 29 sec)

Twelve Angry Men (1957)  This is the granddaddy of courtroom movies. It stars Henry Fonda as the one doubting juror who’s just not sure a young Puerto Rican man accused of murder is guilty. The whole cast is a 1950s Hollywood who’s who, and this scene is especially telling. (2 min, 32 sec)

The Verdict (1982)  The Verdict is one of my favourite movies of any kind, which makes it my number-one courtroom drama. Paul Newman is SO DAMNED GOOD as a washed up, ambulance-chasing, alcoholic lawyer who gets a chance to turn his career around when he’s handed a case of medical negligence — in Boston, where the alleged negligence involves the city’s preeminent Catholic hospital. (Okay, now I’ve gotta go watch it.) (2 min, 40 sec)

Silk (BBC series)  If you’re a fan of any kind of British drama, chances are you’ve watched Silk. It  aired from 2011 to 2014, and was on Netflix for awhile — you can now buy it on YouTube. The term ‘silk’ refers to the gowns worn by Queen’s Counsel lawyers in the U.K. — Queen’s Counsel is a merit-based designation awarded to lawyers by their peers. This excellent TV series follows the lives of the lawyers in a busy London practice vying to ‘take silk’. Along the way, there’s lots of politics, intrigue, love, sex — and that’s outside the courtroom. Here’s a clip released before it aired on PBS: (1 min, 20 sec)

Law & Order  I think I spent the 1990s either watching Law & Order, getting ready to watch it, or just having finished watching it. And in fact, I went into labour with my daughter while watching it.  (Sitting in bed… a warm July night… trying to get comfortable… watching Chris Noth and Jerry Orbach do their thing… and suddenly I’m wondering if I have a bladder issue. Turns out it wasn’t my bladder….) Here, I’ve posted just the theme song, because it’s such a cool, memory-inducing tune: (1 min, 16 sec)


May 11 1969: Monty Python is formed

Monty Python opening

“And now for something completely different.” If you grew up in the 70s and 80s, you almost certainly know that statement, and that it was made famous by (cue acid-trip animation) Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, and Graham Chapman met while students at Oxford and Cambridge. There, they cut their comedic teeth, drawing in large part from the priviledged, raised-pinky social circles in which they’d grown up — and could parody so perfectly. From the process-for-the-sake-of-process Ministry of Silly Walks, to the bland monotones of “Yes, it was the middle one” (in How Not to be Seen), the Pythons could absolutely nail Britishisms like no one had before. (Little Britain does a very good job of it today, IMHO, albeit in quite a different way.)

I actually was not a die-hard Python fan (as much as some people I knew), and in fact wasn’t aware until now that several of the guys wrote and produced a children’s program from 1967 to ’69 called Do Not Adjust Your Set. (Forgive me for telling any hardcore Python fans something they no doubt already know.) It was the success of that show that prompted ITV to give them a crack at late-night comedy.

I have very fond memories of staying up late to watch Monty Python (the opening theme — including the giant farting foot — is playing in my mind as I type this). Terry Gilliam’s animation gave it a wonderful childish quality, and even though I didn’t quite appreciate the full extent of the humour at the time, much of it was simply so ridiculous (“Tis but a scratch.” “Your arm’s off!” “No it’s not.”) that it was just fun to watch.

To get into the Python sketches in any detail would be too much to take on in one blog post. I will, however, say that my own personal favourite is the Philosophers’ Football Match. My God — what a brilliant sketch. (When the gun goes off, and they all simply start strolling and pondering… It cracks me up every single time.)

According to Wikipedia, “The Pythons’ influence on comedy has been compared to the Beatles’  influence on music… three of the six Pythons members were voted by fellow comedians and comedy insiders to be among the top 50 greatest comedians ever: Cleese at No. 2, Idle at No. 21, and Palin at No. 30.”

Nudge, nudge, wink, wink — say no more, say no more.

The black knight scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail  Does this need an introduction? (Digging up this clip, I realized I’d forgotten about the coconuts… still can’t stop laughing.) (4 min, 26 sec)

How Not to be Seen  The PSA intro. The nothing shot of trees. And John Cleese’s BBCesque monotone: “This is Mr. E. R. Bradshaw, from Napier Court, Black Lion Road, London, SE14.” Too perfect. (2 min, 35 sec)

The Philosophers’ Football MatchHegel is arguing that the reality is merely an a priori adjunct of non-naturalistic ethics; Kant via the categorical imperative is holding that ontologically it exists only in the imagination; and Marx is claiming it was offside.” (3 min, 47 seconds)

I’m a Lumberjack  As a Canadian, I had to include this one. I get a mild kick out of the reference to dressing in drag: the Brits always seem to love that. (2 min, 40 sec)

Camelot: it’s only a model  This little snippet is another Python fave of mine. (12 sec)

May 6 1994: the day the Chunnel opened


While riding the Chunnel train is on my bucket list, I have certain misgivings about being in a train roughly 150 feet below the bottom of the English Channel. Yes, the idea of it is incredible, and it’s not surprising that the Chunnel — a.k.a. Eurotunnel — is considered one of the man-made wonders of the world. At the same time, seeing those black holes boring into the earth at Folkstone, and knowing you don’t see sky again until France… well, I find it a bit daunting. (And I’m not the only one.)

Though it sure beats the idea Albert Mathieu, Napolean’s engineer, had in 1802: he wanted to build a tunnel for horse-and-carriage travel, with huge ventilation chimneys stretching up above the water. Thankfully, the plan went nowhere.

In 1880, a Colonel Beaumont actually dug a mile-long tunnel into the Channel, but eventually gave up.

Around this same time, London was starting to build tunnels under the Thames. The first one — it was the world’s first underwater tunnel — opened in the city’s east end in 1843. Others were built later in the century and into the next. Some were for foot travel, others for cars, and many were for trains, especially the tube. It was only a matter of time before that engineering knowledge and technology would be applied to the English Channel.  

While the Chunnel is probably the world’s best known ‘super tunnel’, in fact, the longer and deeper Seikan Tunnel in Japan could be considered more of an engineering feat: it is 330 feet below the seabed and 790 feet below the surface of Tsugaru Strait. To be clear, however, more of the Chunnel’s track is technically under water, making it truly ‘the world’s longest underwater tunnel’.

History Channel documentary  This well-done documentary (back when the History Channel made good documentaries) takes you through the history and construction of the Chunnel, even touching on the politics between England and France. (44 min, 59 sec)

London’s first Thames tunnel  This is a video of a walking tour through the tunnel completed in 1843. It’s especially interesting when the guide goes into detail on working conditions for builders, at 1:42. (6 min, 18 sec)

The world’s top 10 underwater tunnels  I love short top-10 lists, and this fits the bill. It even comes with jaunty, kind of mismatched but still interesting music (there’s no voice-over). (2 min, 1 sec)

When England and France meet in the Chunnel construction  This includes live footage of the moment on Dec 1 1990 when English and French construction workers come together below the English Channel. (6 min, 53 sec — fast-forward to 1:30)

The tire-changing scene in 28 Days Later  I had to include it — an absolute nail-biter. Lesson: Never go into a tunnel during a zombie apocalypse. (2 min, 42 sec)

Apr 30 1945: The day Hitler committed suicide

Hitler 3

On one of the first really nice spring days here in Toronto, it feels a bit dark to be writing about suicide. On the other hand, the world instantly became a better place without Hitler in it, so, at the risk of sounding callous, maybe this post isn’t quite so dark after all.

If you ever want to get a sense of how the German army must have felt in the final days of World War II — the Allies closing in, Berlin in ruins, and utter despair at every turn — watch the movie Downfall. It’s as dark as dark gets, but it’s brilliantly acted and realistically produced. There is no Hollywood here. German actor Bruno Ganz plays the paranoid, delusional Hitler to a T, right down to his jangled nerves and twitchy hands. 

A good, full-length version of Downfall has become trickier to find on YouTube. I managed to locate a playlist of all the parts together in the first link below. Note: Some parts were ‘not playable in your country’ (Canada), while others were. You might have better luck. For a sampling of the movie, the two clips farther down under “We’re leaving” (both playable) give you a real sense of the futility faced by the Germans, and how, in the end, Hitler basically threw them under a bus — and took the easy way out.

Downfall (Der Untergang) — in German with English subtitles: (approx 150 min)

“We’re leaving.”  These two riveting clips from Downfall show us the incredible mass exodus (i.e. files being thrown out of windows) of Nazi headquarters in Berlin; the second shows us the quiet desperation inside Hitler’s bunker. (8 min, 19 sec)  (5 min, 53 sec)

An interview with Hitler’s maid (subtitled)  This sweet little 92-year-old woman has a menorah in her kitchen and a framed Christmas card from Hitler in the living room.  (14 min, 57 sec)

The Nazi Officer’s Wife  This documentary is based on the book; it’s narrated by Susan Sarandon. Austrian Jew Edith Hahn-Beer describes growing up in Vienna, then being forced into hard labor during WWII. She later manages to obtain fake German identity papers, and eventually meets and marries a high-ranking German officer.  (1 hr, 37 min)

The man who refused to salute Hitler   This is an odd little story about a man who refused to salute Hitler, and what happened to him. (You could probably watch the first 15 seconds, then skip ahead to 1:30 — while interesting, it’s a bit long-winded and probably could have been told in half the time.)  (4 min, 12 sec)

Apr 18, 1956: the day a movie star became a princess

Grace Kelly
Grace Kelly in ‘the dress’ she wore in Rear Window

She was the quintessential movie star and the coolest-ever cool blonde — and on this day in 1956, Grace Patricia Kelly of Philadelphia became Princess Grace of Monaco in a ceremony that was dubbed (pre-Charles and Di) the ‘wedding of the century’.

Kelly had met Prince Rainier III just a year earlier, when she was at Cannes promoting her Hitchcock-directed To Catch a Thief. As part of the promotion, a photo shoot was staged with the Prince. After the shoot, true to form, the cool Kelly said simply, “He is a very charming man.” The Prince’s Catholic priest played matchmaker and sent a thank-you note to Kelly mentioning “the deep impression this has left on him”.

And they were off. By January 1956, they were engaged, and on April 18th — just a week after Kelly finished shooting her final movie, High Society — they were married.

They had three children, Caroline (1957), Albert (1958) and Stephanie (1965). 

On Monday morning, September 13th, 1982, Grace and Stephanie were driving back to Monaco from their country home near the French border. Suddenly the Rover started to swerve erratically. Kelly was having a stroke. Stephanie tried desperately to take control of the wheel, but her efforts were in vain: Approaching a hairpin turn, the car sped up, crashed through a barrier and careened down a 120 foot slope. Rushed to hospital, Kelly died the following evening. Stephanie managed to escape with relatively minor injuries.

Grace Kelly was 52.

Her son Albert, now 60, remains Monaco’s reigning monarch today.

Grace Kelly marries Prince Rainier (3 min, 39 sec)

The hairpin turn at ‘Devil’s Curse’ (14 min, 27 sec) (Skip to 14:00; the turn is at 14:25. Kelly went straight.)

Grace Kelly’s funeral, with Princess Diana in attendance (4 min, 47 sec) (Diana is at :27, 2:45 and 4:02)

The best Grace Kelly scene ever (in ‘the dress’) (1 min, 2 sec)

Apr 13 1931: the Chicago tunnel fire

Chicago tunnel fire Apr 13 1931
Photo from Chicago Tribune archives

When I was a kid, maybe 7 or 8 years old, I crawled into a sleeping bag head first, and one of my brothers, as a joke, sat on my legs — essentially closing the open end of the bag and sending me into a squirming fit of screams and tears.

While I might have had some claustrophobic tendencies before, I think this little incident probably sealed the deal.

It also might have contributed to my lifelong (arm’s length) fascination for tunnels, holes, caves, and other dark, damp, confining spaces into which humans often are not meant to go — and from which they sometimes don’t return.

Such is the case with the Chicago tunnel fire of 1931. On April 13th — as luck would have it —  that tunnel was a very unlucky place to be. It was a sewer tunnel being built on 22nd Street, a major east-west artery in the southwest part of the city. Some workers lit a candle to try to find the source of a leak, and some sawdust ignited. The workmen became trapped, and city officials responded by sending team after rescue team down into the blaze. Many of them, in turn, became trapped and died.

The mere thought of being 35 feet below street level in a dark, smoke-filled tunnel makes me queasy. According to the Chicago Tribune, many of the firefighters went down without oxygen tanks or even masks. Ah, the good ole days.

Here is some archival pix of the fire from the Chicago Tribune, and below are a few videos of other claustrophobic-inducing places, especially on Friday the 13th.

Tunnelling under the Thames in 1958  If you like historic video, you must subscribe to the British Pathé channel, where this clip comes from. I so admire the men who did this very hard, very dangerous work. It is not for the faint of heart. ttps://  (1 min, 58 sec)

Kids in a train tunnel (and guess what comes through)  Who would DO this? I mean, I was a kid too, once (on a planet far, far away) and I like to think I was somewhat adventurous too. But I would never have walked into a dark, in-use train tunnel. (Though I did jump onto the subway tracks once — and it’s not what you think — but that’s a blog for another day.) I suggest watching the first 30 sec or so, then skipping ahead to about 7:00, when the kids are starting to scurry and get jittery — and then off in the dark, a whistle goes… (12 min, 28 sec)

Man trapped in a tuna cooker  I will say right off that while this involves a death, it’s a CGI re-enactment, and you can see what’s coming before it happens. Amazing (or not) how a seemingly simple human error could have such devastating impact.  (1 min, 22 sec)

Tight cave squeeze  This video comes with a warning (that is not mine): Do NOT watch if claustrophobic. Next to drowning, I think this is my own personal “worst way to go”. And in the words of one of the commenters: “What gets you thinking is the fact that somebody crawled through that the first time, not knowing if there was an exit they could climb out of…” (3 min, 55 sec)

Apr 8 2013: the day the Iron Lady died

Thatcher in Parl

When I think of Margaret Thatcher, I think of coal miners. I think of the movie Billy Elliot, and the scene where the son sees his dad in the bus driving through the picket line. I think of the 1981 song Ghost Town, by the Specials, which talks about riots and urban decay and “too much fighting on the dance floor” and “all the clubs have been closed down”. I think of the IRA, and hunger striker Bobby Sands. I think of the Falkland Islands, and the apparent Dave-and-Goliath conflict that erupted for a few weeks in 1982.

The Thatcher era was, to put it mildly, one of unrest and upheaval. The quintessential conservative, Maggie took no shit from anyone, be they miners in the Midlands or residents in some far-flung colony in South America.

While I never agreed with her politics, I admired her guts. And from a personal standpoint, she is part of my youth. I remember news clips of her with Reagan; I remember scenes of rioting; I remember IRA bombings.

The anniversary of her death today makes me think of all these things. Here are a few memory-joggers.   

“No, no, no.”   This is Thatcher at her best, asking rhetorical questions — and answering them. (1 min, 11 sec)

The poll tax riot   The poll tax was a flat, per-person ‘head tax’ first introduced in Scotland in 1989. On Sat Mar 31, 1990, shortly before it was to come into force in England and Wales, people from across Britain came to London’s Trafalgar Square to protest. Along the way, things turned ugly. (9 min, 28 sec)

Thatcher’s resignation   This vintage BBC coverage looks back at her reign, offering interview clips and live coverage the day of her resignation. In the presenter’s words, “the Thatcher era is over”. (13 min, 45 sec)

Billy Elliot — the strike / bus scene   If you haven’t seen Billy Elliot, you MUST!!! Superb acting, excellent soundtrack and one of THE BEST movie endings ever. This particular scene is of the strike at the local mine, where father and son both work. Both start the strike committed — then one caves. (2 min, 39 sec)

“Sink it!”   This scene from the movie The Iron Lady has Meryl Streep as Thatcher in the war room being advised on naval strategy in the Falklands — one ship in particular.  (1 min, 40 sec)