Saturday, July 29, 2006


Sex Again

I’ve just heard Nick Harvey on Any Questions condemning George Michael for cruising for sex because “It’s not a good example.” Sigh. Nick grudgingly admitted it wasn’t against the law, but why couldn’t he have sounded as liberal as the Labour and Tory MPs on the panel, each of whom used a variant of ‘not my business’?

Criticising anyone else’s consenting sexual activity is not just wrong but a bloody stupid thing for a Liberal to do. Repeat: “So what? They were adults, they knew what they were doing, and it’s none of your business. Good luck to them.”

Aside from anything else, aren’t pop stars supposed to set an example of doing things your parents don’t want you to do?

Friday, July 28, 2006


Doctor Who – Inferno

A pretty good little Doctor Who story is out on DVD this week – 1976’s The Hand of Fear. With so many features on them, we’ve only just finished watching last month’s release which, appropriately for the current heatwave, was Inferno. From 1970, early in Jon Pertwee’s time as the Third Doctor, it’s the nearest Doctor Who ever got to a full-blooded disaster movie. This two-disc DVD has some impressive extras, but it’s mainly the gripping story of an attempt to drill deep into the Earth for new energy while the Doctor’s flung sideways in time to a fascist Britain.

“If you break through the Earth’s crust now, you’ll release forces you never dreamed could exist. Listen to that! That’s the sound of this planet screaming out its rage!”
For me his passion in delivering those lines at one of the story’s cliffhangers is Jon Pertwee’s finest moment as the Doctor. He’s the tall one with the fluffy white hair and swirling cape, exiled to Earth and getting all establishment alongside the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (that is, the army, but a teeny bit more liberal), and I tend to have rather mixed feelings about him. Here, though, he’s terrific, matching up to the intensity of the story. Like the later, more brightly-coloured The Green Death, this is an environmental fable before such things were fashionable, though it’s less concerned with looking at the issues behind alternative energy than with making a horror story.

Britain’s energy crisis – no, that’s not a new issue – is to be solved by an alternative power source from deep inside the Earth, discovered by the typically unpleasant Professor Stahlman (yes, he’s even got his name from an eeevil job lot) and named with typical modesty as Stahlman’s Gas. With his project nicknamed ‘The Inferno,’ you won’t be surprised to learn this turns out to be a bad idea. You might be more surprised to learn it’s rather intelligently written and strikingly well directed, and mostly looks terrific. However, it’s not because of the disaster that this story is so frequently raved about, but because the Doctor spends half the story stuck in an alternative Britain where all his friends are fascists. While ‘our’ 1970 is showing its age a bit, the fascist scenes still have complete conviction. Ironically, if you remember the Brigadier and his friendly UNIT soldiers, this is where you see them at their best. And, as it’s a double-disc release, it’s a double-length review, too. No fainting at the back, there! I’m having enough difficulty keeping going in this heat as it is…


Before I look at the story in depth and to provide a gap in case you don’t want it spoiled for you, what’s the whole double-disc package like? Well, as usual with Doctor Who there’s something far better than a bare-bones release. Back in the days before home video, the BBC used to destroy a lot of their programmes once they were no longer selling them to other stations. As a result, there are still large gaps in 1960s Doctor Who, though once into colour in the ’70s the series was more fortunate. Because a lot of countries switched to colour later, all that’s missing are a few episodes where the BBC chucked out the colour originals, but kept black and white prints for sale. You might notice the picture on Inferno looks slightly softer than usual, but it’s far better than the VHS available a few years ago, and better still than the monochrome prints the BBC had before that. Yes, they’ve lovingly cleaned up the picture and even restored the colour, so it’s difficult to realise what a state it had been in. The DVD cover makes good use of colour as well, a fiery photomontage featuring the Doctor hanging off a wall and the brooding, eye-patched face of the alternative universe’s Brigadier… Though adding in a mutated technician on a gantry, too, makes it just that little bit too busy and it would have been better off without it (after all, that picture alone was good enough to be turned into the cover painting of the novel).

Extras include two 35-minute documentaries, the first a hugely informative one on the making of Inferno, ‘Can You Hear The Earth Scream?’ It’s quite well put together, despite the odd error, but in need of an actor with a richer voice and more confident delivery for the voiceover (sounds like somewhere they cut corners to keep within budget. I wouldn’t do it again). The other’s on the early years of UNIT, and also pretty impressive, with an engaging set of interviews. Between them and the full-length commentary track on all the episodes (not one of the most scintillating), you’ll learn several times that villainous Professor Stahlman, actor Olaf Pooley, didn’t like his monster make-up, and feel for the late Douglas Camfield, who worked so hard directing this story he put himself in hospital. Widely regarded as the old series’ best director and the only one who regularly had such a huge impact on his stories I’d not blush to call an auteur, he was hugely talented but sometimes a bit too macho for me. When he suffered heart problems, producer Barry Letts took over; I tend to think of him as all right, but lacking a hard edge, yet through some strange alchemy he finished off Mr Camfield’s work tremendously well. I also felt for poor Caroline John, who plays the Doctor’s assistant Dr Liz Shaw, or “Miss Shaw” as she was invariably known in these high days of Who sexism. Told she was to be ‘let go’ (though she’d already planned to leave) because, essentially, her character was too intelligent and she was too tall for Mr Pertwee to ‘protect’, she still seems insecure about whether she was any good. For most of the reasons the producer thought she was unsuitable, ever since I was a small boy reading about her in books I’ve loved this strong, independent character, and growing up to see her on screen she’s won me over completely. Should you ever meet her, do tell her that she’s appreciated.

This story also contains possibly the single most often-told Doctor Who anecdote. The Brigadier’s cold alternate self, Brigade-Leader Lethbridge-Stewart, wears no moustache but has an eyepatch across a long duelling scar. Filming his first scene, he swung round in his chair to reveal himself – only to see all the other actors facing him with eyepatches of their own. Actor Nicholas Courtney carried on without batting his single visible eyelid, while the pranksters corpsed at their own humour. I don’t know how I first came across that story, but, boy, there have been a lot of references to it over the years, and I’m glad to say it’s told twice here to keep it alive for future generations, in person in a documentary and in on-screen notes across the appropriate episode. These factual notes are a third way to watch the whole story through, usually the last we come to (after ‘story’ and ‘commentary’), and a bit of a lottery. They’re always informative, though written alternately by two different chaps, and while they both know their stuff, one has a fluid and amusing writing style but the other would have justified this story’s working title of ‘Operation Mole-Bore’. Fortunately, this time round the text is by Martin Wiggins and consistently engaging to read.

Add to that quite a few other extras, including a deleted scene with Jon Pertwee as a sort of Lord Haw-Haw, a photo gallery and even a pdf of the 1971 Doctor Who Annual (hurrah, one of those I don’t have, though not a great set of stories), and it’s well worth getting hold of, even if it weren’t for…

The Story (Spoilers)

There were four Doctor Who stories in 1970, the series’ first year in colour, and they’re probably the series’ most consistently high-quality run (creating a problem, in some ways, for the Third Doctor’s time in that only a couple of stories in his remaining four years could match up to any of these four). All four are pretty top-notch, though not absolutely to my taste; I like Doctor Who in fairly large part because it’s about an anti-establishment lead who travels anywhere in time and space doing whatever he wants to do, and there’s always going to be something a bit limiting about being exiled to Earth and hanging around with soldiers. Inferno’s one of the three coming in at an enormous seven episodes, too, leading to one of the silliest criticisms from fans, that they’re too long by definition because of some arbitrary running time. As if there’s some rule in drama that all stories have an identical perfect length. I’ve read long novels that feel like too much has been left out, and read short stories that could do with cutting down. Here, two of these seven-part stories certainly justify their length, while the other almost treats each episode as a separate mini-epic, and all three of them wear their episode count better than most of the later Jon Pertwee stories that weigh in at six parts and tend to feel slow and bloated on it.

Most reviewers tend to think Inferno’s the highlight of that year. Well, I think it’s terribly good, but I’d rate a couple of the others higher. It’s a strong story with much to recommend it – two great unexpected elements (the alternative Earth and the result of the Project there), a couple of truly great cliffhangers (though a couple of rather abrupt others that suggest the director’s looked at his watch and said, ‘Cue monster – end’), all accompanied by unsettling Radiophonic noises rather than music and with an unrelenting pace right up until the final episode… Where, sad to say, it all falls to pieces a bit. Still, points for the confidence that it was going to be good enough to risk having a character say of the drilling, “There’s never been a bore like this one!” and for no-one watching to agree.

It starts at a sprawling and impressive industrial complex, and pretty much stays there throughout, which gives an air of claustrophobia despite the place’s size. UNIT, formed to fight alien and unusual menaces to humanity, is rather peculiarly in charge of policing this alternative energy project, almost as if they know that within a few minutes greenish goo will start leaking from the centre of the Earth and mutating men into psychotic Primordial monsters. What are the odds, eh? Unusually, the most sympathetic character is Sir Keith Gold, the civil servant nominally second in charge (from this point in the series, anyone to do with the government tends to be a buffoon or a villain, or both) to Professor Stahlman, who’s an ill-tempered autocrat even before he gets a slight touch of the goo. The big advantage of Stahlman is, of course, that he gets even the likes of me firmly rooting for this most arrogant of Doctors, as Jon Pertwee’s version at last meets someone so utterly rude and objectionable that he seems fine in comparison.

A character clearly meant to be sympathetic but who I have to fight back my own Primordial psychopathy towards is Greg Sutton, well-played but from a rotten script as the bluff oil rigger called in to give advice that won’t be heeded. No, that side of him’s fine. The problem’s that, on meeting Stahlman’s PA Petra Williams, he immediately hits on her in the least subtle way, then when she notes she actually has work to do, he turns to Sir Keith with an “I’d say I’ve just been snubbed, wouldn’t you?” I’m amazed he’s not just been decked, after all but asking her ‘Get your jugs out, love.’ I’m only thankful that the lead sexist git in this story isn’t the Doctor, as it will be for much of Mr Pertwee’s reign; though the series is often damned unfairly for sexism, the early ’70s is the only period where it really is dreadfully sexist, probably because of a backlash against rising feminism. Despite being set ‘a few years in the future’ at the time, this 1970 has dated, along with the ‘safe, dependable’ power source for the drilling, which is of course nuclear. Ironically, though he’s rude to everyone in almost as repetitive a way as Greg is macho, Stahlman is the only man who doesn’t patronise the women.

Anyway, before long the odd goo-infected technician or soldier has gone greenish-blue in the face and a little hairy, and started screeching. One of the few failures of the direction is that we see a couple of these Primordial mutants well before the first cliffhanger, which – consisting entirely of a shock ‘reveal’ of a mutant – is rather lame as a result. No such complaints, though, when they go chasing around the scarily tall gantries and gasometers, which all looks absolutely stunning. By Episode Three, there’s a thrilling chase sequence, the first big action scene for this ‘man of action’ Doctor with a fight on a car and then up high, and when a mutant is shot from the top of a building and topples to the ground… Phew. It was, in fact, a record-breaking stunt fall of the type you usually only get in Bond movies, co-ordinated by the excitingly-named stunt team credited at the time as providing “Action by HAVOC” (Richard still wishes that the alternate universe had credited “Havoc by ACTION”).

Meanwhile, Professor Stahlman has been refusing to listen to advice and accelerating the drilling to a dangerous speed. When the Doctor catches him sabotaging his own computer to prevent the safety readings getting out, Stahlman’s response is just to cry “That man should be locked up!” You can see him gagging to be in a fascist state. Bit of a clue, there. Alternatively, you can see him as a playground bully who doesn’t like it when the Doctor stands up to him, and cuts off the power to the Doctor’s own experiments in a fit of pique. Oh, yes. Well, the Doctor gets bored just striding about the place being supercilious, so he’s been trying to get his disabled TARDIS to work. Rather improbably, he’s only using the control console from his time-space machine at the moment (imagine flying, not a spaceship, but a desk; a bit chilly without windows and things), presumably to save money on sets, but he gets it working enough to fling him to Earth, just not our Earth, and get stuck there without power.

The Other Earth (Spoilers)

At this point, of course, it all becomes rather less influenced by Quatermass and more by 1984 and the sort of sci-fi tales of parallel worlds also borrowed by Star Trek’s Mirror, Mirror. If it seems familiar, it’s not a device Doctor Who used very often, but it does crop up again in a fairly major way in the two Cyberman stories that have just been in the new series and, before that, in the late ’80s when Sylvester McCoy was the Doctor (several of his stories have direct nods to Inferno). Oddly enough, I recently decided to watch a Jon Pertwee and a Sylvester McCoy story back-to-back, thinking of each, ‘I’ve not seen this in ages and I remember it as fair-to-middling but quite fun,’ only to find my opinion of one sharply rising and the other sharply declining. But that’s another story (or two).

On this other Earth, greater efficiency means the drilling is a couple of days more advanced, but unfortunately ‘greater efficiency’ is synonymous with ‘fascist police state’, where cheery Sergeant Benton is a thug, Dr / Miss Shaw is a much better-dressed and impressively wigged security officer and Nick Courtney’s authoritative, unflappable but likeable Brigadier has become the very, very effective Brigade-Leader. Oh, and Stahlmann is… Exactly the same, save for an extra ‘N’ on his name and a shave. While ‘our’ 1970 hasn’t aged well, fascist chic stands the test of time rather better, and while it’s a thoroughly horrible place to be, by accident or design it’s suddenly no longer sexist (though I think I’m right in saying it’s all-white). Section-Leader Elizabeth Shaw gets far more respect from those around her than perpetually-demoted-from-her-doctorate-Miss Liz Shaw did, and instead of being the feeble ‘dollybird’ secretary in the vile blue wallpaper-pattern frock, Petra is now “Dr Williams” in the same white coat as the other scientists, Deputy Director of the Project and far better able to stand up for herself.

The scenes in the alternative universe are much-raved about and equally mocked after long familiarity, but really, they are brilliant. The Doctor tries to bluff his way around the new Republic (name-dropping the – executed – Royal Family goes down even less well than usual, after place-dropping Krakatoa in ‘our’ world), and while it’s entertaining to see this most establishment of Doctors suddenly very much on the wrong side of the authorities, before long you can’t help but take it soberly. We see him tortured, which is a shock and played dead straight, and he gets a chilling reply from the Brigade-Leader when he can’t prove his identity:
“But I don’t exist in your world!”

“Then you won’t feel the bullets when we shoot you.”
It’s a great line, with the performance utterly different to ‘our’ Brigadier and deeply unsettling. First he’s laid back, then an authoritarian bully, then finally goes to pieces with his world, and Nick Courtney does the acting of his life; Caroline John, too, is superb, getting recklessly charismatic with her own sort of swagger when freed up by her society’s disintegration (though, distractingly, she has a much better hairdo inside than on location). It’s difficult not to conclude that it’s so much better in this world – horrid, of course, but far more gripping.

Oh, yes, that social disintegration. Well, in the almost unbearably tense cliffhanger that closes Episode Four, the Doctor gives a desperate warning but is held at gunpoint as the countdown reaches penetration-zero. It’s utterly compelling, and from that moment, the series can do something it could never normally get away with: the world is doomed. There are earthquakes and lava as the Earth’s fury is unleashed, and gradually everyone comes to realise it and panic, with the impression that the dictatorship is doing much the same thing ‘outside’. In the apocalyptic heat, I even warm to Greg Sutton, who becomes impressively pessimistic as the heat overwhelms his knob and forces him to think with his brain instead. With the fascist state abandoning all at the site to die, Greg’s rebellious streak explodes into reckless put-downs and an angry mock-salute. He shoots his mouth off to so many people that he makes the Doctor’s case rather more persuasively than the Doctor does. Not that anyone much is listening, nor that it can do much good for his world…

It’s not just earthquakes and lava, though. In the heat and expanding gases, the infected staff mutate into full-on Primords, personifications of the planet’s rage or, as some might have it, shaggy dogs. Admittedly, they’re a bit cuddly for zombie werewolves, but it’s still very disturbing when Stahlmann forces a technician’s face into the slime or spreads it over his own, and when – on hearing his guttural calls – Petra shouts “He needs help!” Richard makes the more pertinent observation, “He needed help before. Now, he needs dogfood and flea powder.” Actually, thinking about it, my beloved didn’t take that completely seriously, but though Episode Five consists in retrospect entirely of Greg finding different ways to shout, ‘We’re all going to die!’ it moves at a hell of a pace. We get occasional flash-asides to the less advanced drilling in ‘our’ world, too, where I have to admit I found Stahlman’s accidentally ironic complaint that “I’m literally dragged from my work by one of your ape-like minions!” far too entertaining.

The best of the story, however, remains in fascist Britain. The two whole episodes of the Earth crashing to its inevitable destruction are stunning – it keeps building the tension instead of having blown it at the end of the countdown, as you might have expected. It’s partly the red filters over the camera, but largely the reactions of the characters to their doom that has your heart in your mouth. Every character, put to the test, blazes as brightly as the hellish heat haze now smothering every exterior shot as the world begins to burn. Elizabeth Shaw is beginning to believe the Doctor and want to help him get enough power to return to ‘our’ world and warn it; the Brigade-Leader is starting to believe he’s going to die, and losing it. “All right, Brigade-Leader, we’re still here,” she sails, facing him down superbly. The Doctor, incidentally, gets a rather distracting line about people who aren’t impressed by his flying table expecting a spaceship “with Batman at the controls,” which makes me wonder… Do they show Batman in a fascist state, then? Mind you, a huge, handy notice says ‘NUCLEAR REACTOR SWITCH ROOM,’ so perhaps the ’60s Batman really is shown there and inspired their signage. But it’s the tension between the fascist bully-boy who’s discovering his inner coward and the fascist torturer discovering her inner decency that really grab the attention: “Hysteria won’t help us.” “Nothing will help us! We’ll all be burnt. Alive.” Before long, he’s trying to shoot Greg, but his gun’s empty. “Brigade-Leader’s shooting blanks!” Richard pointed out. “Subtle metaphor.” Of course, he reloads in time to threaten the Doctor into taking him away, only to be shot in the back by Section-Leader Shaw. It’s still a shock to this day.

The (Anti-)Climax (Great Big Spoilers)

So, after six episodes of building doom, the Doctor narrowly escapes as the world is destroyed in a rush of lava, along with all the ‘alternate’ characters we’ve come to know. It’s one of the most effective sequences Doctor Who has ever produced, as just for once the Doctor loses and, yes, it’s the end of the world as a result. Unfortunately, after this climax of tension at the end of the penultimate episode, there’s nowhere much for the final episode back in ‘our’ world to go, and even with a built-in anti-climax it badly fumbles it. It’s simply quite badly written all of a sudden, to a much greater extent than most weak endings in Doctor Who.

The first thing that goes wrong is an intellectual problem (repeated in this year’s otherwise excellent season finale Doomsday, but it’s taken from here). Now, it’s rather nicely played, and it superficially seems to be a good little dramatic moment, but when the Doctor comes round after making it back he murmurs that there must be
“An infinity of universes, ergo an infinite number of choices… So free will is not an illusion after all. The pattern can be changed.”
I don’t want to get too intellectually demanding at the end of such a long review, but though it’s supposed to be rousing after the bleakness of the end of the world, this ‘infinite universes’ palaver as a justification for free will just doesn’t work. It’s not an answer to determinism, more a cop-out; if everything happens, then nothing matters. The Doctor both wins and loses all the time, and why bother doing anything if you know that one of the infinite yous will if you don’t? There’s a superb novel by Graham Dunstan Martin, Time-Slip, in which someone takes the ‘infinite worlds’ theory as foundation for a post-apocalyptic religion absolving God of blame. Of course, before long defendants are arguing that ‘If there are infinite possibilities, then every one must come true, so I might be the one of “me” that was forced to commit this murder to keep it infinite.’ Richard and I were surprised, then, to hear on the slightly dull commentary track (one speaker over-enthusiastic, one waspish, one cheery, one simply dull) that the producer and script editor of the time agreed with us. Why did they let the line go in, then?

The next problem is a dramatic one that suddenly becomes obvious after the end of the (other) world. I’m so used to the brilliant Doctor fixing things that it took me a long while to spot him fixing something he really shouldn’t have. Yes, because the obsessive Stahlman is rushing things, there’s an accident and the Doctor comes up with a repair in the alternate world that saves the drill breaking up, twenty miles down, that would irreparably wreck the Project. The same thing’s about to happen in ‘our’ world and the Doctor deliriously supplies the same solution here. In other words… You know this thing that’s going to destroy the world? Without the Doctor, it couldn’t have kept going. If he’d not been there, each time, the Project would have destroyed itself and the world been saved. Even if it only meant a long delay, before the government could put millions more in to have another go the Project Director would raise those tricky-to-ignore safety issues by becoming a rampaging werewolf, so it would have been off either way.

There’s a promising moment as the Doctor pulls himself together and warns Sir Keith of disaster, haunted by having already seen it happen, but unfortunately everyone from that point acts in the way least calculated to stop the drilling. A victim of Stahlman causing an accident that nearly killed him, Sir Keith not only has begged ministerial authority to slow down, but should now be able to get the Professor arrested even without a fascist state. The only trouble is, he’s got no backbone to stand up to Stahlman. So, naturally, the Doctor goes off without listening to him and, abandoning brain altogether, just shouts at everyone to stop, then picks up a hammer to smash the place, after which even the friendly Brigadier looks embarrassed and accedes to Stahlman’s cry for two burly soldier boys. “You see, completely demented!” Sir Keith politely accuses Stahlman of attempted murder, and asks him to stop on the minister’s behalf. It might have been helpful to bring the odd policeman. “You can have as many inquiries as you like, Sir Keith – after we have penetrated the Earth’s crust.” He then orders everyone else out! Yes, the Doctor acts like a loony before the Professor does, and leaves it all to Sir Keith to be a wet fish. What timing. “I have no authority to intervene,” mumbles Sir Keith. But you do, you great haddock. That’s what you went to the minister for. Fortunately, just as Sir Keith is worrying about procedure and that there’s no proof, Stahlman handily transforms into a hairy, scary Primord. At long last, ‘our’ Petra does something and shuts it all down just in time, but, oh no, there’s a safety delay. Instead of ratcheting up the tension, though, the Doctor goes in to fix it, then comes out at ‘minus 35 seconds’ (35? 35? What sort of a number’s that? Have they never seen a Bond film?), without us seeing what he did, just like that. A bigger anti-climax is hard to imagine. Sir Keith, of course, now obeys the Doctor’s orders, the danger having passed.
“Sir Keith, I think you’d better give orders for that shaft to be filled in straight away.”

“I certainly will.”
It’s only happened because Stahlman chose the most convenient moment to stop his uncanny resistance to the green goo and metamorphose in front of everybody. There can’t be as much tension as when the Earth really is doomed earlier in the story anyway, and the Doctor’s got curiously little to do here: be unconscious, rant, be dragged off, then solve it all ‘off’ with a wave of his sonic screwdriver. Surely with Stahlman so repeatedly and ostentatiously bonkers, there’d be a case to relieve him or at least sit the man down? Yet, after no-one dared challenge how vital it all was, suddenly they unilaterally abandon the government’s multi-billion pound investment as if a switch has been thrown. It’s ironic that the ‘other universe’ seems more real than the one we’re used to, but at least there the Doctor persuaded people, albeit too late. Here, his crazy desperation is too crazy to be useful and not crazy enough to be heart-rending, but the inescapable problem is that the cast have rowed back from knowing they’re doomed, and it’s impossible to replace that drama. Then the threat is not just averted, as we knew it was bound to be, but averted in such an offhand way that we can’t help but feel cheated.

Oh, and Greg and Petra end up together. I know we’re meant to see it as ‘love will out’, but he comes over today as a boorish chauvinist ‘rightly’ winning over the ‘frigid’ woman instead. The one consolation is that the woman he drives off with at the end isn’t Liz. Don’t scoff. Think of the role Petra fills, and how several female companions have been written out (shudder). Liz Shaw’s last scene, instead, gives no hint that she’s leaving but just some ham-fisted ‘comedy’ to let us laugh about how jolly it’s all been. Hmm…

So, I think Inferno’s terrific. Just not quite all the way through. For once, Doctor Who does a dark, character-driven, metaphorical piece masquerading as an all-action disaster movie, and the tense, brutal ‘sidetrack’ has, of course, all the best bits. There’s a remarkable mix of claustrophobia inside and huge, high industrial scale outside that’s not matched anywhere else in the series, and as a huge plus, though we sometimes get to hear about societies on the brink of collapse this is the only one I can think of when the story kicks it over the edge and then lingers horribly on the pieces. It’s just a shame that the ‘pre-climax’ is so much more exciting than anything in the final 25 minutes; while the climaxes of so many Doctor Who stories are let-downs because they just blow everything up, this is a let-down because it doesn’t.

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, July 26, 2006


The Ruin of Two ‘Glamorous’ Prime Ministers, Fifty Years Apart

Fifty years ago today, Egypt’s President Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. The British Prime Minister compared him to Hitler, and mounted an invasion with a remarkably small number of allies; it all ended in tears. The BBC website’s ‘Eden: A man under strain’ calls him a man who “entered Downing Street as… dashing and glamorous” but left “with his reputation in tatters”. Anthony Blair must be wishing comparisons with Anthony Eden weren’t so glaring on this anniversary. I wish they weren’t, too. Mr Eden’s tragedy was that he didn’t have America on his side. Mr Blair’s is that he does.

Comparisons are, of course, slightly unfair – to Mr Eden. Mr Blair is still hanging on by his fingernails, and every day he and Mr Bush remain in power is another day that poison grows against our countries in much of the world. The poison grows for the Labour Party here, too, and while that’s been an opportunity for our party, I can’t pretend it’s healthy for democracy. A large body of voters who used to support the Labour Party now loathe and despise it; Labour ministers respond with arrogance, bile and locking themselves into wilful denial. Yes, I want Labour to lose support, but not like this, not for any party, even though they’ve brought and are still bringing every tiny bit of it upon themselves. And they’re deluded if they think it’ll just go away; sure, feeling won’t be as strong as it was immediately after the invasion, but again, I can’t help but remember Conrad Russell telling me that, as he was wrestling with a move from Labour to Liberal half a century after the First World War, his father told him that “he could never vote for the party of the Somme”.

I wrote a few months ago about how the superficial analysis of the mid-’90s thought Labour and the Lib Dems were much the same, because 18 years of Tory government meant different opposition parties could see the same egregious faults. Few people think we and Labour are particularly close today, and while their relentless authoritarianism keeps digging away, the biggest individual mover has been the war in Iraq. While a few people are now talking about the Tories moving closer to us, but that’s one of only several directions in which they’re casting glances, and not yet policies. Again, Iraq is perhaps the most glaring example. Are they still more gung-ho than the government, as they were at the time? Are they retrospectively opposed to the war, as they were for the Dunfermline by-election? Or do they say it was the right thing to do, but with some hand-waving about how it wasn’t done well (checks watch: still Mr Cameron’s position of the hour).

These are the eerily prescient closing words of the Epilogue to Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism, published in 1999. If you haven’t read it, you might go there first; it’s quite short – but this paragraph, written several years before it became starkly relevant, still sends shivers up my spine:
“At present, though this is not a Liberal government, and on many issues we must oppose it accordingly, it is closer to us than the alternative, and it would be foolish not to recognise that fact. Yet this fact is not eternal. We are no closer to Labour now than we were to the Conservatives in 1955, which is perhaps the year of greatest closeness to them in my memory. The next year, we had Suez, and the closeness vanished in a puff of smoke. What will be in the next puff of smoke?”

Labels: , , , , ,


Slow Newsnight Day

Along with several others, my post about Ming’s turn at the Circus Maximus has generated attention in blogs by Newsnight Deputy Editor Daniel Pearl and (…nearly) top Tory Iain Dale. I actually noticed these at the weekend but, whoops, I’ve been too clobbered by the heat or generally slothful to write about them since. Anyway, I thought I should wave. I suspect Mr Dale is rather more familiar with blogging than Mr Pearl: one knows above all that bloggers are hugely partial and love to be read; the other’s charmingly naïve (and thinks a fluffy elephant’s a top Lib Dem).

Yes, I know, this is blogging about blogs about my blog about a television appearance to tackle media spin, so it’s all got a bit ‘Blog Will Eat Itself’. Apologies to those of you wanting something more substantial, like The Avengers. To put it into perspective, I’d recommend a series of blog articles on this issue by the excellent Stephen Tall, who kindly describes me as “impeccably fair”. Among his pieces, he notes that the members of the public who took part in the programme have been far more positive about Ming than the world of journalism, which is just as incestuous but rather less generous than the blogosphere. He also replies to Newsnight’s Daniel Pearl, including raising some questions about his programme. Unaccountably, four days later Mr Pearl is yet to respond.

Another reply to Mr Pearl comes from my good friend Millennium Dome Elephant. His Very Flurry Diary was one of the two ‘Lib Dem blogs’ to which Mr Pearl linked (eventually; although I’d read his article, it was some time before he fixed his links and I realised I was in there). It’s a little strange that none of the 150 replies to Mr Pearl’s article note that he thinks a fluffy elephant is a prominent Liberal Democrat, nor that he illustrates “Two very contrasting views on LibDem Blogs” (well, I’m on Lib Dem Blogs Aggregated, at least) with, er, two views that generally agreed. It’s nice to be read and talked about, but I wondered just how balanced that was – I know, I know, I’m such a Liberal that I worry about balance even when it’s being provided by my other half’s fluffy elephant and me. I’ve scratched my head and had a look at our blogs, and I think I know the answer to why he picked us. Like everyone else, Mr Pearl and his chums at the BBC like to be talked about. A cursory glance at either blog will find, of all those in the latest Ming debate, probably the most enthusiastic support for the BBC. For example, I’m watching The Avengers on BBC4 as I type and I suspect you’ve noticed my partiality to Doctor Who; meanwhile, Millennium’s generously allowed Richard to write probably the most incisive reviews on the Internet of the new Doctor Who series. So thanks, Auntie Beeb, for plugging two of your fans.

Either that, or Millennium’s fan Mr Frank Luntz – who felt the need to give Millennium the longest reply of any Lib Dem blogger after he was caught being a stealth Republican – has encouraged all his (possibly former) friends at the Newsnight office to read The Very Fluffy Diary ever since. Any day now, one of them will probably slip and refer to the Tory Leader as “Mr Balloon” (please feel free to).

Anyway, hello again, Daniel!

Meanwhile, if you’ve not seen it, Iain Dale’s Diary is a teemingly busy blog – I don’t know how he finds the time; it’s a hugely impressive output – that’s fun to read for its vitriolic anti-Labour gossip, and from which continuing Tory sleaze is mysteriously absent (I’d ask you to guess the party of this fearless crusader for truth, but I’ve already blown it, haven’t I?). Mr Dale describes me as “a little more generous” to Ming than Rob Fenwick; blimey, I thought, was I that mean to our dear Emperor? You can tell Iain was a little worried Ming did pretty well by the way he jumps on poor old Paul Walter for being upbeat: take a look at how he characterises Paul’s comments with ludicrous hyperbole; then says Paul’s losing his marbles; then, unlike Paul, uses ludicrous hyperbole of his own to describe Ming. When someone goes so out of their way to squash something, you wonder why – as Goldfinger nearly said, once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is frightened the enemy’s getting their act together.

Sadly, Iain didn’t put a link on his blog to Millennium. It’s possible he thinks he’s too dignified to respond to a cuddly elephant. Either that, or he’s worried about a new satirist on the block.

In moderately good news since last blogging, the government has announced the abolition of the Child Support Agency, after only about a decade of the Lib Dems calling for it to go; well, I say abolition, but apparently it’ll still be around for a few years to look after… All the people who have already been complaining about it. I’m not quite sure they’ve thought this through.

In unremittingly bad news, I’ve been trying not to blog about what the Israeli military and Hezbollah are throwing at each other and everyone in between; what is there to say? But getting tired of bombing civilians from the area and declaring war on the United Nations is appalling even by the standards of the Israeli army. Words fail me.

Monday, July 24, 2006


The Avengers This Week

The Avengers is on tonight at 7.10, BBC4. Yes, I know it isn’t Thursday; for this week only, it appears, they’re on Monday to Thursday with four different episodes – Death at Bargain Prices, Castle De’Ath, The Master Minds and The Murder Market (the last is repeated Friday at 11.30pm). So, this week I’m reviewing them all in a bundle: none are quite top-notch, but tonight’s Death at Bargain Prices is the most entertaining, and if you must miss one, Wednesday’s The Master Minds is a bit flat. Start tonight, then, with merry quips and something nasty behind Yogi Bear.

The Avengers – Death at Bargain Prices
Steed fights in Ladies’ Underwear – Emma tries ‘feinting’
An agent’s mysterious death, not unusually, leads Steed and Mrs Peel to strange goings-on in a department store. Soon she’s a shop assistant (selling Daleks and ladies’ underwear, one of which gets Steed strangely excited), serving under such guest villains as Andre Morell, TP McKenna and Allan Cuthbertson, who you may remember twitching in Fawlty Towers. Morell’s embittered old business tycoon steals not just the scenes he’s in but an atomic bomb specialist (that’s not good news). Mrs Peel has one of her most memorable fight scenes, choreographed to the music, no less, but really this is Steed’s story. Patrick Macnee gets to display a remarkable variety to his character: petulant child complaining of a bruise (“I think baby’s too big,” Mrs Peel remarks of him as he examines a pram); keen-eyed agent drawing out the diabolical mastermind; fop who ends a dirty fight distressed he’s broken his umbrella; and of course something of a charmer, his sly suggestions met with disdain by Mrs Peel and considerable interest from the woman in the food hall. I wouldn’t try cooking the recipe for steak, stilton and burgundy that he comes up with, though. Bit of a grey mess when I tried it… Ahem.

It’s not entirely perfect; with not quite enough plot to fill out what’s pretty much an episode in one location, it feels a bit like one of the Cathy Gale stories with the plot reduced and set-pieces boosted, so of the early Mrs Peels it’s the one with the most transitional feel. The old-fashioned nature isn’t helped by the sinister nature of a store receipt from a Sunday; yes, imagine! And if they thought department stores were scary and depersonalised, I wonder what they’d make of Internet shopping? Directed by Ealing stalwart Charles Crichton, his light touch makes a real treat of some cracking dialogue between Steed and Mrs Peel, though – look out for how she gets out of calling him “Ostentatious” or his innuendo in seeking her out on the shop floor – and we even get to see our heroes as puppets, as well as enjoying a few remarkably sinister sequences. One of my first Avengers memories is the death of a character in the jungle (yes, in the middle of the store), and the episode begins and ends with particularly deadly lifts…

The Avengers – Castle De’Ath
Steed becomes a strapping Jock – Emma lays a ghost
Many aspects of Britain appear in the rosy mirror of Avengerland, and though most of them end up looking curiously like the Hertfordshire countryside, this time it’s Scotland. Oh, boy, is it Scotland. From the opening montage of windy moors, daunting castle and a bizarre death to keening bagpipes, it’s clear this is going to be as much a picture-postcard Scottishness as Doctor Who’s Terror of the Zygons: kilted historian Jock McSteed – not necessarily his real name, eagle-eyed viewer – intends to write a book about the massacre of Glen De’Ath and Black Jamie, Thirteenth Laird and now alleged ghost; modern consultant Mrs Peel wants to market the place. She’s from ABORCASHATA –
“It’s the Advisory Bureau On Refurbishing Castles And Stately Homes As a Tourist Attraction”
– and you get the feeling it’s the result of a bet with Steed to see whose comedy cover story could be the more outrageous. They are, in fact, very entertaining, and a friend of mine still can’t hear it mentioned without screeching “Mr McSteed!” and “Mistress Peel!” in the most appalling cod accent and wanting to have fun with swords and crossbows. Gordon Jackson’s severe laird gives the whole thing a bit of gravity and really sets off the ‘porridge’ scene, though it’s slightly disappointing that the initial mystery (a frogman being four inches taller dead than alive) gives way to such a banal plot, less red herring than simply fish. Arguably there’s a bit of a wannabe Bond villain’s secret base, too, but then there’s also a car that Bond uses later, so that’s about even.

If, incidentally, you’d rather eye up Patrick Macnee than Diana Rigg, this is the nearest my favourite celebrity naturist gets to a nude scene. Not only do you get to see his legs in that kilt, but he’s even topless at one stage. He makes a fine contrast with the villain; I shan’t say who it is, but you can spot he’s a bad sort because he – oh, I can hardly bring myself to say it – quite clearly wears something under his kilt in one scene. I know, call himself a Scotsman. I’m sure you’re aware that proper answers to “What’s worn under a kilt?” can include “Nothing is worn, it’s all in perfect working order,” “My boots” or “Good girls / boys don’t ask, and bad ones find out for themselves,” but never “white undies”.

The Avengers – The Master Minds
Steed becomes a genius – Emma loses her mind
A junior minister is caught red-handed in a treasonous theft, dressed as a horseguard, but doesn’t remember a thing about it… Unfortunately, of all the stories this week this is the one you’re least likely to remember, too. It’s not that it’s bad, exactly, but there’s really very little spark to it, and Steed wears a nasty cardigan (same in the next one, but here there’s less fun to distract me from it). Still, rather a jaunty piece of music as he turns up to investigate, and guest Bernard Archard’s impressive nose and eyebrows get the attention. The plot’s to do with the evil reality behind MENSA, sorry, Ransack, the organisation of geniuses being subjected to mass hypnosis in the gym (I always knew going to the gym was bad for you). Steed has Emma cheat for him to gain entry and enjoys himself with some good visual jokes in the girls’ school the group’s hired for the holidays, but it’s all a bit thin. You might enjoy watching the big bizarre fight, though, or of course Mrs Peel on a trampoline.

This episode is, incidentally, by Robert Banks Stewart, who went on to write Doctor Who’s Terror of the Zygons (and Castle De’Ath isn’t the only Avengers episode of this period from which he later borrows).

The Avengers – The Murder Market
Steed seeks a wife – Emma gets buried
The first one filmed with Diana Rigg, and it’s in at the deep end; Steed suggests the widow Peel should remarry. Don’t panic – this one’s dastardly deaths revolve around the Togetherness Marriage Agency (isn’t there one in Carry On Regardless, too?). It’s light and frothy and lots of fun, which is just as well, seeing as how many people meet their grisly ends; top marks for the woman shooting her victim by an aquarium, with water pouring out of bullet holes behind him as he slides to the floor. You’ll recognise inspiration from a certain Hitchcock film, though this one makes an organised business of exchanging murders (there you go; Gaydar seems quite innocent after all). Emma wants “stamina” from her ideal partner, and also suggests one for Steed:
“A mixture of Lucretia Borgia and Joan of Arc.”
“Sounds like every girl I ever knew.”
Guest stars include arch comic actor Patrick Cargill, a chap called Edward Underdown, about whom Mad About the Boy was apparently written (not that you’d notice), an early appearance by the splendidly sinister John Woodvine (given little to do) and a very early appearance by blushing bride Penelope Keith (don’t blink). Just for a change, the men are all camp and harmless, so there’s a nasty fight between the principal women at the close. There’s an unusual twist on the plot favourite of ‘A dead man who isn’t dead,’ too, as Mrs Peel is killed by Steed. Again, I don’t feel I’m spoiling things too much to say you needn’t panic, and that the main effect of this is for her to try and fail not to get too tipsy dancing round her own coffin.

I’ll probably be back to writing reams about each episode next week, but just in case you’re the reader who feels I’m skimping this time, you might like to try The Avengers Forever site, which is packed with all sorts of goodies, including reviews and – gasp – photos. These modern things; they’ll never catch on… Except on Millennium’s Diary, which Richard tells me Millennium plans more stunning special effects for later. You heard it here first.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, July 21, 2006


David Maloney and Peter Hawkins, RIP

I’ve just seen the news that both director David Maloney and voice artist Peter Hawkins have recently died. David Maloney directed much of the best and scariest of Doctor Who; Peter Hawkins was the original voice of the Daleks, the Cybermen, Captain Pugwash and even Bill and Ben. Both made my childhood much richer, and without them, I doubt we’d have the superb new Doctor Who. To cheer myself up, I’ve read reviews of the latest series by two lovely men (and you might also watch Charlie Brooker’s Screen Wipe tonight on BBC4, like a blog but noisier. And funny).

David Maloney was a prolific Doctor Who director, one of the most impressive as well as one of the most reliable. I wouldn’t quite call him an auteur, but you could often recognise his style, inventive but not flashy, equally suited to whatever story was put his way, scary or surreal, studio or location. Very confident in getting the best performances out of his actors to make sure telling the story always stayed centre-stage, he also had certain visual ‘signatures’ – a love of freeze-frame cliffhangers to hold a scary image in your mind and upset Mary Whitehouse, for example, willing to turn the lights down for stories that were literally as well as metaphorically dark, gas-mask motifs long before The Empty Child, and endlessly inventive in finding ways to make even the TARDIS’ materialisation look interesting (in reflection, in fog, in a slow panning shot…).

Though it’s his bleak battlefields and filmic style that come first to mind, there’s a lighter touch in much of his work, too, with frequent sardonic humour; perhaps surprisingly for a director remembered for giving Doctor Who a serious, ‘realistic’ feel, he also devised the trippiest sequences going, with his own unique brand of gritty surrealism. He was, I’m sure, the director most likely to get complaints from Mrs Whitehouse and most associated with the original series’ move towards horror in the mid-’70s, the period of the show that I started with when a small boy and I still hold most dearly to this day. So much of the joy in my life has been down to him.

Some of Mr Maloney’s outstanding pieces of work include the surreal fantasy story The Mind Robber and the grim epic The War Games at the tail-end of the ’60s. The first time I saw his craft on screen was with the slow-motion massacre that opens Genesis of the Daleks with the point that it isn’t going to glamorise war like many gung-ho stories, a point lost on many who complained about it but not on the many who put it among the best stories in Doctor Who’s 43-year history. Aged just three, I was enthralled. I still am. The same distinction is given to the macabre but hugely entertaining Victorian extravagance of The Talons of Weng-Chiang, and of course my own favourite story, the creative, satirical, noirish The Deadly Assassin. Add to that the dark fable Planet of Evil, with its brilliantly shot alien jungle, and he was responsible for a brace of stories that I loved in childhood and have simply shown more layers as I’ve grown up with them. He just seemed to put in so much care and attention to making TV that you’d watch and remember; after Doctor Who, he went on to scare more people in 1981 with still the best adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, and successfully produced the first three years of cynical BBC sci-fi Blake’s 7. Among his work on that show he directed Star One, the climax of its second season and still the most stunning ‘season finale’ I can think of. Like The Mind Robber, Genesis of the Daleks and The Talons of Weng-Chiang, you can now buy all of Blake’s 7 on DVD.

Peter Hawkins mainly affected my childhood through an early delight in Captain Pugwash, and through his successors at Doctor Who carrying on the sort of voices he’d originally devised, especially for the Daleks. In later years I was able to hear his work on the series in the ’60s, where he defined the sound of the Doctor’s most famous opponents, a feat of invention nearly as important in creating them as Ray Cusick’s brilliant design. I was also won over by his original Cyber-voices; eerily sing-song rather than booming, their intonation is the least human, which, complete with chillingly wrong body language on screen, still makes the originals for me in many ways the most disturbing.

Condolences to their friends and families.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I shall put on something scary, funny and with the lights turned right down…

Labels: ,

Thursday, July 20, 2006


The Avengers – The Cybernauts

Tonight’s Avengers on BBC4 (7.10, or 11.30 tomorrow night) is one of the strongest, and arguably the most famous. While there are plenty of guest actors who’ll have you going, ‘Ooh, it’s him!’ – most notably villainous Michael Gough, with his marvellous voice and wolfish cast to the mouth – it’s not the humans it’s remembered for. This is one of the few distinctly sci-fi episodes, and despite several red herrings along the way it’s not much of a spoiler to say that it does what it says in the title. Tune in to see implacable armoured robots smashing things.
Steed receives a deadly gift – Emma pockets it
There’s something about scary monsters that seizes the imagination, even if the Cybernauts didn’t wrest control of The Avengers in quite the way that the Daleks did Doctor Who. I don’t know how I knew about them from long before I ever saw them, but know them I did; having been captivated by some of the mid-’80s Avengers repeats when I was at school that were my introduction to the programme, I know that this is the one I really wanted to see when more repeats and video releases finally came round in the mid-’90s. When, in the colour Mrs Peel season, Emma sits at home watching an old Avengers episode on TV, naturally it’s this one; while Doctor Who has made use of many ideas from The Avengers, inveterate borrower that it’s always been (not least the very, very bad attempt to do The Avengers that I’m trying to review for something else right now), the Cybernauts are the most obvious influence and helped inspire such famous monsters as, particularly, the Autons and the Cybermen. So do they stand up today? Actually, yes, they do.

The Cybernauts return twice to menace the Avengers, their only recurring foes, but I reckon this is still the best use of them. The plot revolves around them, from making sense of the fashionable concern with Japanese electronics to the villain’s disturbingly ‘rational’ plan, and the screen presence of great lumbering men with solid silver faces is much enhanced by claustrophobic black and white, outstanding direction and a music score so good that I once made a friend through it. I can’t hold a tune in a bucket, but I remember meeting a chap down the pub and talking Avengers; before long, we got onto this episode’s great music, and one of us just started humming the urgent, strident theme that accompanies the metal men. The other joined in, and we knew we were on the same wavelength (as well as scaring everyone around us). It repeatedly holds back on the full fanfare, tantalising us with just a build-up until near the climax of the episode when the music really gets going, much as the director hold backs on the ‘reveal’ of the Cybernauts themselves. They’re not a wildly imaginative design, but what they do have is presence, right from the first moments as one smashes through a door. We get an impression of massive bulk, a powerful fist (a guard, hit, tumbles splendidly), invulnerability to pistol shots and point-blank shotgun fire from the business tycoon it’s pursuing, and then just the huge dark shape moving from the camera as the victim falls, neck bent. And as for that whipcrack sound each time it hits out…

This is a brilliantly directed piece of TV, full of tension that builds towards a stunning set of climaxes, though it knows how to let in lighter moments along the way. Look out for Steed moving past dividing walls, shown by a bobbing bowler, or what comes of Hammond’s prissy precision in tidying Steed’s flat, and of course Steed managing to have an improbable amount of fun just spinning around a lift. All this is aided by an impeccable cast, with Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg in good form, despite her wearing rather a frumpy outfit for much of it (and, trivia fans, I have a feeling this may be the only time this year they don’t drive off together). That ‘Ooh, it’s him!’ factor includes actors like Frederick Jaeger, John Hollis (the bald guy from The Empire Strikes Back and, oh, everything), Bernard Horsfall (one of those character actors who always gets it right, including four roles in Doctor Who, three superb), Burt Kwouk (you know him, don’t you?) and, of course, the compelling Michael Gough as diabolical mastermind Dr Clement Armstrong. A wheelchair-bound megalomaniac who wants to spin the clock forward to a world of mechanisation, he inspired Dalek- and Cyber-creators Davros and Mr Lumic, and though he only appears half-way through, immediately dominates and remains centre-stage until the end. As with many utopians who know exactly how to ‘perfect’ the world, what’s terrifying about him is his utter certainty.

This is the first Avengers script from writer Philip Levene, as well as featuring some much-used plot devices, one of which will be a SPOILER. Mr Levene goes on to create most of the series’ more outrageous fantasy episodes, often very amusingly; this is slightly less witty than most, though still surprisingly playful for so many brutal murders (even in visual jokes like Jephcott’s toys and the ‘worker’ Cybernaut). It introduces the Avengers plot device of ‘carrying something around that will destroy you’, which is going to turn up in a startling number of guises from now on and even in a Doctor Who story of around the same time, featuring a Cybernaut-on-Cybernaut-style monster fight, then a few years later in one of the most Avengers-influenced Who stories, by a sometime Avengers writer (your challenge for this week, Will, is to spot which stories these are). The SPOILER, coming now, is perhaps predictable in another version of the Frankenstein myth; it’s a very overused Avengers cliché for the villain to be killed with his own weapon, though the way Armstrong goes out at the hands of his own creation is considerably more stylish and appropriate than the sometimes wearying ‘Oh, look, he happens to have fallen on his own gun / sword / giant block of butter, and it went off’.

I tend to particularly enjoy Philip Levene’s Avengers scripts, though it’s more for their playfulness than their occasional science fiction overtones. The Avengers is surprisingly hard to pin down as to ‘what sort of series it is’, but sci-fi wouldn’t really spring to mind. Though it’s happy to borrow and play with some of the trappings from time to time, for every killer robot, there’s a fake time machine to say it’s all pretend. While it concerns espionage, secret files and murder far more often than sci-fi, calling it a ‘spy series’ misses the point too. They’re having too much fun to be James Bond, let alone George Smiley. A comedy thriller, then? Well, that’s not too far off, but though it’s often not to be taken any too seriously, it adds drama to humour in unexpected ways. A series to tune in to be amused by, certainly, but I can’t imagine it with a laughter track. Breaking other people’s formulas and inventing its own, I’ve called the series a fantasy of Britain, but the best way of summing it up remains to tune in and watch this unique and wonderful show itself.

Next week, they’re showing no less than four Avengers episodes. Eek!

Labels: , , ,


Answering the Question

Ming Campbell was the subject of an unsympathetic piece on Newsnight last night, and Lib Dem bloggers are divided on how well he performed. Excuse me for not falling over with surprise at either of these facts. My view is that he was right to appear on it, and handled it pretty well. His biggest selling point was that he actually answered the questions, clearly and with substance. It won’t solve all his problems overnight, but to people fed up with Mr Blair’s shiftiness it may turn out to be a better answer than more evasions from another slick charmer.

Rob Fenwick goes for the jugular with his question, ‘Is Ming Campbell the Liberal Democrats’ IDS?’ ‘No,’ is the answer, but the fact that it’s become the media question of choice is obviously dangerous territory for the party and needs an answer rather than blanket assertions of confidence (not least because Rob looks at some of Ming’s strong points, too). Well, let me cut straight to the jugular too. Is Ming as damaged as IDS was, and would dumping and replacing him leave the Liberal Democrats in a stronger position? Absolutely not, to both. Dumping and replacing another Leader would make us an even bigger laughing-stock than the Tories were (and they were), with absolutely no obvious ‘safe pair of hands’ ready to take over – if you think Ming’s a problem now, remember that he was ‘the answer’ for those getting rid of Charles, so I’d be exceptionally wary of asking the question a second time. A new Leader would not be the answer, but fuel for the fire.

The ‘IDS’ tag is an easy taunt to fling from a media who want to make another Leader ‘the story’, but it has far less to go on than with the original. Ming’s far more organised and effective at the helm, and – whether you think this is a good or a bad thing – can’t be accused merely of telling the party’s core supporters exactly what they expect to hear all the time. He has nothing like the problem among his MPs that Mr Duncan Smith had, though (even in hindsight) Simon Hughes participating in a self-fulfilling prophecy wasn’t being prescient, merely giving the media exactly the quote they wanted in order to fuel a media-spun story, and he shouldn’t have been so daft. Even presentationally, well, few of Ming’s months as Leader so far have been among his best, but do you remember how bad Iain Duncan Smith actually was? If I were to apply a critical comparison in those terms, I’d say he’s our Michael Howard: he needs to trade on being old and aggressive as ‘experienced’ and ‘a fighter to be feared,’ because both of them are about as cuddly as rattlesnakes.

I think Ming was right to go on Newsnight. Yes, he might have got more votes sitting on a morning sofa talking about recipes with Elspeth, but once a Leader under fire disappears into the bunker and everyone reports he’s too scared to come out again, well, he may as well haul the coffin lid on top and hold it down. Besides, Ming is never going to be more lovable on a sofa than that ‘nice’ ‘young’ Mr Cameron in his open-necked shirt. Ming’s best hope is to be serious and trustworthy and to stake out real answers on issues like the environment, even if some people don’t like them. He did that.

He stood up to the questions pretty well, though I’m a little alarmed at how nervous he often seems on starting an answer. I’ve done a small number of TV interviews, and I know they’ve always frightened me; the way I got over it was to up the voice level and keep going, talking over someone if necessary because I knew I’d be all right once I got into full flow and could concentrate on what I was saying rather than whether or not I’d get to say it (Kiron Reid once told me off for bullying John Sopel in an interview where I was determined to get my point across in just that way). With Ming’s infinitely superior experience and polish, it was worrying that I recognised exactly the same signs, and that he’s tended to look so much less assured since becoming Leader.

On the more impressive side, he’ll have got respect from viewers for overruling Martha Kearney’s constant attempts to build up a narrative without giving him a say by simply cutting in with, “If I may answer the question,” then actually doing so. One of Mr Cameron’s whingeing ways is to moan that the questioner is being terribly unfair not to let him waffle on for as long as he likes without substance, and Ming’s approach was entirely different. I suspect Mr Cameron’s answer to a difficult question – running scared of taking any position, he whines ‘Pity me,’ followed by trying to filibuster to the end of the interview – will look even more lightweight than usual if Ming ever gets to be put side by side with him. Ming will not be as charming, but increasingly his USP appears to be that he answers the question. After a decade of Mr Blair, that may be a bigger ‘battle asset’ than oozing charm.

Charles Kennedy has a different type of charm, more homely and less slick (alternatively, less professional), and he might have got the audience on his side; but if the implicit criticism is ‘You’re not up to the job,’ I suspect that (as Paul Walter has it) showing you are indeed up to it on points of substance is probably more important than a warm, fuzzy feeling. Ming is not as lovable as Charles. Well, nobody who voted for him thought he was; but then, neither of the other two candidates on offer had that gift either. Yes, there were points when I winced at him talking women down, which didn’t look nice, but don’t underestimate the two gifts Ming displayed last night: the ability to answer the question fully and with substance, in an age where politicians are reviled for ‘never answering the bloody question’; and the ability to give answers succinctly. Charles would usually have done the first very well, but had a tendency to waffle in interviews (I know I’m a fine one to talk). So, each get two out of three on approachability, substance and brevity.

The other question about Charles was partly answered by Ming when he pointed out the party is doing far better under him than the early stage under Charles, and did better under Charles than in the early stage under Paddy. I joined the Liberal Democrats immediately after merger in 1988, and I can remember my sighs of relief if I’d pick up my Dad’s Observer and that week’s opinion poll put us above 5%, or more than a couple of points clear of the Owenite SDP. Ming could also have given a more personal and less flattering answer about his predecessors; if you think twice as many people wanting Charles as wanting Ming is a bad poll result, I suspect it wasn’t until about 1990 that polls stopped saying people put Paddy a long way behind David Owen. It’s very rare for any incoming Leader to get immediate poll support, and that’s almost entirely down to the media giving them constant, glowing reports: I can think of just two, and you know which two they are. One of them is in the process of ending unhappily. The other’s not as talented.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


Happy Birthday Professor Quatermass

One of the most important pieces of television ever made was broadcast 53 years ago today, and anyone who loves TV should say ‘thank you’. It was the first episode of The Quatermass Experiment, not just the BBC’s first science fiction but, in days when its limited drama transmissions consisted almost entirely of theatrical adaptations, almost the first original drama on British TV. Not only do the Quatermass serials still hold up today (particularly the third, Quatermass and the Pit, a strong contender for the best TV drama ever made) but their influence is colossal, not least on Doctor Who. Thanks to the DVD revolution, too, you no longer have to squint at 23rd-generation bootleg copies, as almost all of it’s been cleaned up and made available to buy.

Professor Bernard Quatermass headed the British Experimental Rocket Group, pioneers in space exploration but with more to say about our human condition than about their never-reached other worlds, more terror than glamour and more intelligence than ‘schlock horror’. Across three hugely popular thriller serials in the ’50s, another in the ’70s, three Hammer films, a radio drama / documentary series in the ’90s and even a BBC4 live remake of The Quatermass Experiment last year, he’s been played by quite a few actors: Reginald Tate, John Robinson, Andre Morell, Sir John Mills, Brian Donlevy, Andrew Keir and Jason Flemyng. For my money, the definitive Quatermass is a choice between Reginald Tate’s original, a grim, careworn engineer, and Andre Morell’s flamboyant scientist and speechmaker, much more the template for Doctor Who; a superb actor with real star quality, my heart says he’s the best but my head thinks Tate’s more downbeat portrayal is the most believable. As it happens, you can see Andre Morell today on Channel 4 shortly at 1.35, starring in Seven Days to Noon, a tense, thoughtful early nuclear thriller (and an influence in itself on The Quatermass Experiment).

To put the importance of The Quatermass Experiment into context, in 1953 award-winning author Nigel Kneale was given the BBC’s entire annual budget for original scripts – a whole £250 – to come up with it. He’s still going as a famously grumpy old man, and deserves statues across the country. As crucial and innovative a writer as HG Wells, amongst his other work he managed in a roundabout way to both create and warn against Big Brother; his 1954 adaptation popularised Orwell’s 1984, and 1968’s The Year of the Sex Olympics predicted reality TV and how ghastly it would be. In fact, ‘how ghastly it would be’ is his running theme – Mr Kneale’s not the cheeriest of bunnies, with dystopian paranoia his hallmark in stories dripping with ‘it could happen here’ totalitarianism, pig-headed militarism, space being filled with inscrutable terror, old superstitions coming to get you, mass hysteria, the collapse of civilisation, ‘young people today’ being unbearable and science the only light in a dark world / hostile universe, though it won’t save you. League of Gentlemen member, Doctor Who writer, Quatermass guest actor and fan, Mark Gatiss says in a documentary included in The Quatermass Collection DVD set that:
“I think Nigel should have a five-minute slot on TV where the Epilogue used to be, entitled ‘I Told You So’.”
The Quatermass Experiment

It’s rather scary to think that it’s exactly 53 years now since 1953’s ‘Contact Has Been Established’ introduced us to Quatermass. There’s a lot worth watching in that first episode, though you can see how early the BBC’s drama-making was; it’s very slow and technically primitive, like a play on the visual wireless. It livens up in switching from frightfully posh leads to the lost, crashed, first British spaceship, surrounded by TV cameras and bewildered ordinary people, then really gets going in the second part, which is so much faster and so fizzing with ideas and characters it’s as if it’s a completely new show. Look out for a charismatic journalist and Quatermass hitting his stride as he takes on the police, who jump to the obvious conclusion when three men go up and only one appears to have come down. It’s not the obvious answer. The writing is full of brilliant detail, from the wife’s affair but now feeling she can’t leave her sick astronaut husband, to the building tension of what happened to his co-astronauts, to the eeriness when it’s found that his fingerprints are merging into theirs. In short, they encountered something in space that assimilates any life, and what’s come back is an amalgam of the three that goes on the run as it starts to change into something horribly alien. Not that you can see this, of course, as it all went out live and the BBC didn’t record the last four parts.

All is not lost. The DVD set thoughtfully provides the script, and you can also buy the Hammer version and last year’s BBC4 remake. You’ll notice from the script that BBC4 abridges it, while Hammer butches it up and, essentially, lobotomises it. The Hammer film – often called The Quatermass Xperiment – has a fantastic performance by the possessed astronaut and a terrible one by American tough guy Brian Donlevy as the suddenly macho professor. It starts with more verve, but loses all the subtlety, and while there’s good stuff in it, the ending misses the point entirely. To see how it ought to be (oh, how I wish I could have seen Tate in it), go straight to the BBC4 live version. Originally, the climax took place in Westminster Abbey, to terrify viewers who’d just seen it for the Coronation; now it’s switched to the Tate Modern, possibly in tribute to the original lead. While it sometimes feels curiously dated – where the original pushed the boundaries, this is as backward-looking as a modern-dress Shakespeare – there are many good scenes in the new version, not least where David Tennant gets called ‘Doctor’ on screen for the first time (cheating, they’ve now removed another actor fluffing his lines on the night). Perhaps Jason Flemyng’s a little young for Quatermass, but his final scene was one of the most gripping TV moments of the year. Instead of letting the army blow up the ‘monster’ (disappointingly unseen) he goes inside the gallery to talk to the men absorbed inside it and appeals to them to die, to dissever from it. It’s an enthralling piece of utterly human drama, and he’s absolutely superb.

Quatermass II

Possibly the most famous thing about this serial is the continuity announcer; while at the end of one of the first story’s episodes we glimpse a 1953 announcer in ballgown, so cut-glass she makes Maureen Lipman seem like a chav, here there’s an unseen but thrilling male voice intoning:
“Before we begin the fourth episode of Quatermass II, we’d like to say that, in our opinion, it is not suitable for children, or for those of you who may have a nervous disposition.”
Though it starts slowly and falters in the final episode, whenever I watch the middle instalments of this 1955 drama of zombie-like possession and official conspiracy overwhelming a huge industrial plant, I can’t help feeling the announcer is still quite right. It’s probably the most terrifying television ever made. Look out for the family paddling near the plant and what happens to them for it; the Select Committee marked for possession; the PR man who falls into the burning slime; the journalist fighting alien influence to make his final call; Quatermass creeping down to see the ammonid things in the tanks; the truly horrible use of human pulp in the pipes… Even the weaker closing episode, with the action removed from the monstrous technological location, has a fantastic monologue as Quatermass tries to persuade a possessed friend suddenly returning that his kind will be disposed of too, or the terrified screams of a man lost forever in space.

This is the most paranoid and disturbing of the lot, as the mostly friendly authorities helping chase the infected man on the run in the first serial turn obstructive, murderous and under alien control and it’s Quatermass who becomes the lone man. It’s also perhaps the one Hammer captures best, with its trimming of the script getting in the way of the plot least and probably improving the climax, though Donlevy is still terrible (Nigel Kneale constantly bitches about him, from his drinking to his hairpiece being blown off to hover like a giant bat). I still prefer the original’s nail-bitingly horror, with The Doodling Man showing you how to do more with a conspiracy in three hours than The X-Files managed in nine years…

Quatermass and the Pit

Watch this. Very simply, get it and see it. It might not beat the heights of Quatermass II for sheer terror, but for style, inventiveness and sustained quality, it might just be the greatest piece of television ever made. It’s hard to believe, seeing how polished the production is, that it was made only a few years after the brilliant but primitive first story; and it’s not only a highly intelligent piece of drama, but explicitly champions intelligence over brutish instinct. Again, it takes the stakes deeper: at first, we went into space; then they came to us; now we find they’ve been here so long that we’ve become them. ‘Aliens interfering with the course of human development’ has since become a tiresome sci-fi cliché to dodge responsibility for human actions, but here it’s fresh and enthralling. Five million years ago, Mars was dying. Unable to adapt Earth to their needs, its inhabitants adapted Pliocene apes with a Martian inheritance of bigotry and violence. The discovery of the ancient spaceship at the bottom of ancient superstitions of black magic is brilliantly counterpointed by Quatermass’ disgust at the all-too modern military takeover of his exploration project, no longer to found colonies but to site bases and missiles on the Moon and, of course, Mars.

Look out for the pig-headed Minister who refuses to listen, preferring to rationalise a German propaganda scare to accepting the implication
“That we owe our human condition to the intervention of – of insects?”
Watch jaw-droppingly unearthly sequences like the engineer who ‘wakes’ part of the spaceship’s psychic potential being hounded by it, as wires and plates throw themselves at him, and even when he collapses in front of the local church, the ground ripples as if to swallow him… There are terrifying riots as even Quatermass succumbs to the herd instinct, with Andre Morell terrific in the lead, whether possessed or giving his final speech to camera, brimming with moral authority, that if we don’t learn to control our Martian inheritance,
“this will be their second dead planet.”
That 1958-9 story was the end of the three awesome originals, though there was rather a good adaptation by Hammer, this time fortunately starring dour Andrew Keir as the professor. Keir also took the part in the radio mix of drama and documentary of the times The Quatermass Memoirs, broadcast a decade ago and just out on CD. These bridge the gap to the final TV series…

Quatermass (sometimes called The Quatermass Conclusion)

Worth a look, though lacking the inspiration of the BBC serials, this took most of the ’70s to get on screen and was eventually made by ITV (a ‘big event’ to relaunch the channel in 1979 after a long strike). Set a few years into a hideously dystopian future, everything’s gone to hell in a handcart, with rotten governments, the streets awash with young gangs and Quatermass an embittered old exile (a part for which John Mills has the authority but is really too lovable). Crowds of superstitious young people are wandering to stone circles to be beamed to another world; or, perhaps, just harvested for aliens who like us as caviar, or perfume. It’s less about the unknowable alien and more about Mr Kneale’s fears of a sick society, and savagely anti-superstitious, if slightly confused by a sideline in ‘but religion’s all right’. Though there are flashes of brilliance and some terrific sequences – notably the old Wembley Stadium as a great stone circle – the tone’s uncertain, meandering (there are two versions, one twice the length of the other, both recently out on DVD though now apparently deleted) and far too reverent. There’s not enough tension and too much that’s ponderous, not least in the over-solemn electronic music that plays a large part in making it so relentlessly downbeat and not all that entertaining. There are some good actors along the way to the very final conclusion, including a pre-Manimal Simon McCrocodile, but the underlying message that ‘Young people are evil. All of them. They'll destroy the world, you know,’ gets rather wearing. And that's just what Nigel Kneale thought of hippies. Goodness knows what he'd have said if he'd peered out of his window at any passing youths more recently than ten years before this was made, and spotted any punks.

The Quatermass Connection

Any Doctor Who viewer, of course, will find Quatermass not just outstanding but uncannily familiar. Mr Kneale has frequently castigated Doctor Who for, er, paying homage to his ideas and for terrifying children (imagine!) and once sniffed that “I could have thought of something better in the bath.” Given how carefully he’s cultivated his curmudgeonly public image, there are strong reasons to believe he secretly rather likes the show. The show certainly likes him, borrowing half-hour episodes with cliffhangers and the horror of possession in the ’60s, giving us lashings more possession and Earth-bound ancient horrors with alien explanations blowing up tensions between science and the military in the ’70s, then starting the ’80s with numerous stories of Kneale-ish mass hysteria and even direct references to ‘Bernard’ and the ‘British Rocket Group’ by the end of the decade. While all the stories have ideas and twists of their own, the similarities perhaps reach their peak in stories such as The Ark in Space and The Seeds of Doom (borrowing from The Quatermass Experiment), Fury From the Deep and Spearhead From Space (borrowing from Quatermass II), The Dæmons and Image of the Fendahl (not unlike Quatermass and the Pit), Frontios for several of them and of course Mark Gatiss’ novel Nightshade, centring on a fictionalised version of a Quatermass actor. There are definite signs, too, in the new series (not only in the stories by Mark Gatiss, though one of those even had an accompanying Doctor Who Confidential documentary with a section celebrating Quatermass); the emphasis on domestic detail and TV to ground a story in reality found throughout Kneale’s work is remarkably, ah, prescient of Russell T Davies’ approach to Doctor Who. Some fans may also note another anniversary, as it’s ten years today since the publication of the first Who novel by Lawrence Miles, another grumpy man bursting with ideas that have been thoroughly pillaged by other Who authors, including for the new series. But he’s for another article, another day.

So pick up a copy of The Quatermass Collection DVD set, and don’t be put off by the tacky packaging. What’s inside is sheer class, with some splendid extras. If you’ve ever wanted to see any TV drama with ideas, start here. It’s where British TV started on it, after all.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, July 13, 2006


The Avengers – The Gravediggers

Tonight’s Avengers on BBC4 (7.10, or 11.30 tomorrow night) is a particularly fine one, though feeling a little bittersweet today. After those remarkable titles and theme, it kicks straight into high gear with one of the most memorably bizarre ‘teaser’ scenes, as funereal and then eerie music accompanies something very strange happening at a grave. Watch out in particular for an outstanding way to take tea on a train with eccentric philanthropist Sir Horace Winslip, part of an extended exploration of his country house (much of it to that ‘mysterious’ music again). Oh, and Mrs Peel’s dressed as a nurse, if you like that kind of thing.
Steed drives a train – Emma is tied to the tracks
Hospitals, funerals and trains all come together in this distillation of high technology, nostalgia and strange little English villages with names like Pringby. It’s pretty much textbook Avengers, with a mystery centring on the series’ favourite standby, a ‘dead man’ who isn’t dead… Steed’s improbable ‘cover’ this week is to represent the ‘Footplateman’s Friendly Society’, but Mrs Peel isn’t the only one in a nurse’s uniform, and neither is she the only one who may not have her patients’ health first in her mind (particularly when one of the patients is a young and thuggish Steven Berkoff). You’ll also see stern and scary Caroline Blakiston as the sister (known to a generation as leader of the Rebel Alliance), as well as one of my favourite glamorous ‘60s actresses, Wanda Ventham. I’ve always thought she has a terrific and reassuringly un-twig-like screen presence, and after meeting her at a signing a couple of years ago, she’s also genuinely nice to talk to. Another strong guest actor is Ronald Fraser as Sir Horace, whose reaction to Mrs Peel’s silent movie peril at the climax never fails to crack me up. His requiem for the post-Beeching railway system now seems less quaint nostalgia than foresighted opposition to decades of the government getting it wrong on transport, though perhaps his way of reacting to it is not entirely wise…

Other memorable moments include undertakers running out like firemen and a remarkably odd operation (“Forceps… Scalpel… Blowtorch”) in a cracking script from Malcolm Hulke. Growing up, he was one of my favourite authors, with a set of beautifully characterised Doctor Who books that are among those I’ve read the most. A little older, I was able to see tapes of the TV stories they were based on, and found them frequently disappointing; his scripts often lacked the pacing of his books and seemed much too long. If that’s the case, he benefits enormously from being given a taut 50-minute episode to write here, rather than delivering plots drawn out to three times the length. On the other hand, by a long way his two best Doctor Who stories are his longest, which are absolutely cracking at total lengths of three and four hours respectively. So what do I know?

I’d drafted this last week, but was loath to publish it when it came to it, because I’m just about to leave for the funeral of someone who was a lovely Liberal and almost as glamorous as Mrs Peel (not to mention just as fond of champagne). Today the black humour seems rather blacker. But, then, inappropriate levity has always been one of the ways to deal with death, and I’ll always remember her at her funniest, so if I’m back in time I’ll watch The Avengers. I hope you do, too.

Labels: , ,


Bad Timing

One of the Labour Party’s favourite pieces of hypocrisy is to pose as the class warriors they once were, hoping to claw back some of their deeply disgruntled core voters. This was on view yesterday in the Nat West Three debate, as the government ignored that pesky ‘innocent until proven guilty’ thing to smear the Lib Dems and Tories as defenders of, woooh, scary nasty rich people. Two problems with this pose: doing over bankers with alleged millions to suck up to a Texas multi-millionaire President isn’t backing the little guy; and the unfortunate timing of wealthy Lord Levy’s arrest.

I don’t know if the Nat West Three are guilty of any wrongdoing. I don’t know if Lord Levy is guilty of any wrongdoing. I’m prepared to treat each as innocent unless and until they’ve been fairly tried and found guilty of any British crimes under British law. But look at Labour’s reaction to ‘the class enemy’, that it doesn’t matter if there’s no evidence under British law and if the USA has no business trying them, they can just be posted off to receive less favourable treatment than American businesspeople would and it probably serves them right. Then look at their reaction to their chief ‘getting dodgy cash from even richer people’ dealer being arrested, that they’re shocked and appalled and it’s grossly unfair. A Liberal view is to stick up for fair treatment for everyone, rich, poor or even Labour. The Labour Government’s approach is to do anything their friends say, even if it’s George Bush and even if their friends aren’t reciprocating, and loudly criticise the justice system if it has the temerity to think the same laws that apply to the rest of us apply to them.

The Liberal Democrats were the only party that voted against the extradition rules when they were brought into force, and Lib Dem Shadow Home Secretary Nick Clegg has been doing sterling work in Parliament against the lop-sided 2003 Extradition Treaty. He certainly won the debate yesterday, when at the close even our shameless Government could only find four Labour MPs – about 1% of their total numbers – shameless enough to vote for their argument. I’m sure all readers know that this treaty grants fewer rights to British citizens than to American citizens, and that though its terms have been incorporated into UK laws the US Senate still thinks even extradition agreements that are lop-sided in the US’ favour are too unfair to US citizens to ratify.

The Nat West Three are the first big case under the new rules, but there are plenty of others coming up. If you want to do something to protect their rights to a fair trial, please write personally to the Solicitor General and ask him to support Nick Clegg’s Extradition (United States of America) Bill that would repeal parts of the Extradition Act 2003 and bring an end to these unfair extradition procedures:

Mike O’Brien MP
House of Commons

Update: There’s now a direct link to this Lib Dem campaign in the array of ever-changing buttons I nervously let the party stick to the side of my blog. Go on, give it a click.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


The Empire Strikes Jack

Suffering Doctor Who withdrawal symptoms on Sunday, Richard claimed spin-off series Torchwood (starring Captain Jack) was available in movie form, and dragged me out of the flat to see it. Imagine my disappointment when Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest featured the wrong Captain Jack*! All right, that’s a fib – I enjoyed it enormously. And in deference to the rest of Keira Knightley’s ouvre, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that every boy in possession of a rip-roaring aquatic adventure, must be in want of a giant squid. This one had tentacles to spare for the main villain. Hurrah!

It’s a great Kraken, and worth the price of entry (if not the inflated price of popcorn and pop), but I loved the gently stirring facial fronds of Bill Nighy’s Davey Jones still more. A splendid performance, matched by a splendid look. I didn’t quite think the same of his ship and monstrous crew; rather less mobile, rather more barnacle-encrusted, and when everything in sight is covered in the same slimy growths they’re rather less visually distinguishable and interesting than the hard-working make up and computer effects crew might have hoped. If anything, I’d have lost much of the CGI and made it more of a straightforward swashbuckler; much as I love Star Wars, it was Richard who spotted most of the similarities to that, while I wanted more The Adventures of Robin Hood / Treasure Island. It’ll be no surprise, then, that my favourite scenes are towards the end, as a brilliantly choreographed three-way swordfight provides the most exhilarating swashbuckling I’ve seen in many a long year. That much of it takes place inside a turning wheel whirling across the scenery suggests that one of the best uses of CGI is not in creating improbable monsters but in making stunts go just that bit further than anyone but some of the giant-leaping loonies who’ve worked on Bond films can ever go.

A lot of the plot is a bit much, too. There’s so much effort in throwing thrills at you – cannibals! Sea monsters! Voodoo Lady (black magic child)! – that it wanders for a while and consequently goes on a bit. I’d have been tempted to lose the whole cannibal section, though I can see why they didn’t; it provides several of the funniest moments, including the gag after the end credits and the best giant kebab joke you’ll ever see, but I can’t help thinking it needed a sterner editor to keep to the plot.

But it’s churlish to complain when it was simply so enjoyable. The movie is, of course, stolen completely by Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, whose lurches across the screen make it impossible to watch anyone else. This is a shame for Orlando Bloom, who gets the nominal leading role but is much too strait-laced to be very watchable. He is, of course, very pretty, accounting I suspect for the remarkably high level of heterosexual coupledom in the cinema, but that just doesn’t do a thing for me. A friend of ours who looks rather like him beats Mr Bloom hands down in the sexiness stakes, because our friend is much more enormously… disreputable. A normally strait-laced actor who benefits from growing more disreputable here is Jack Davenport, who plays one of the wicked British (hey ho) but has fallen off the wagon and done himself a power of good. As pretty much everyone else in the cast comes with ‘disreputable’ fitted as standard, this makes for a lot of fun for a film. I think it may even be one of those sequels better than the original.

Add to that a MacGuffin taken from one of the oldest and most potent myths of how evil sorcerers protect their lives, and a very splendidly rousing theme that we’re still humming a couple of days later, and I can thoroughly recommend it. It’s very undemanding except of your time, and for that I fear you should part with a few pennies – and many pounds – to get some fizzy pop to go in with, or you’ll be hallucinating from dehydration in this heat by the time you’re released.

And, yes, there was one Star Wars reference so blatant even I got it – that the second movie ends on a cliffhanger (I won’t spoil it and say quite what), though it’s slightly less shocking about the fathers that appear. There’s even a striking last-minute cameo, though it mildly surprised me by not being Keith Richards (if his absence isn’t a spoiler!).

*I wonder if there’s any Captain Jack / Captain Jack slash fiction out on the internet? Er, I only ask in order that I can condemn it if it’s there, because it would of course be very, very bad. I hope that’s clear.

Labels: , , ,

Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?