Thursday, April 26, 2007


An Eighth of a Century Later…

Today’s our twelfth-and-a-halfth anniversary! After a late night when my beloved serenaded me to sleep with the Kroll song, Richard and I were up early for a romantic morning of presents, wondering what to do for dinner, discussing Doctor Who and shouting at the Today Programme. Awwhhh. Thanks to Liberal Democrat Blogs Aggregated, too, for giving us a special private day to ourselves and discouraging anyone from peeking in at our blogs; at least, both mine and Millennium’s have vanished from the listings (so much for his latest on Sir Mr the Merciless and mine on free Doctor Who books!).

After a horrible journey in to work this morning with a fire on another line overloading the DLR, poor Richard’s not home yet this evening, so I hope the trains have been faster and less packed. Still, I have dinner ready to go when he gets in, and one of the presents that took too long in the post has finally turned up for me to wave at him when he gets in (the unlikely concept of a Philip K Dick cartoon). What other presents have there been, you’re wondering? Knowing my taste for melodrama, I now have another film of Richard III; knowing my taste for film noir, I now have both The Blue Dahlia and The Black Dahlia. It was only after I’d opened them that my beloved realised he’d given me Richard and Flowers, bless him! While I’m afraid my own gifts couldn’t really compete for instinctive puntastic ability, I did think he’d be amused by a bag of chocolate. Not just any bag, you understand; Richard frequently gives our relatives dainty little selection bags from Clarins, so when I saw a similar arrangement with romantic chocolates at the overpriced but classy Hotel Chocolat, I couldn’t resist giving him a taste of his own medicine. The fact that the shop was entirely staffed by slim, pretty young men had nothing to do with it – not my type, though I have to admit the Carry On side of my nature was sorely tempted when they glided round me (their sole customer at the time) with little trays of chocolates, asking “Would sir like a taste?” Fortunately, I was able to restrain my tongue and just use it to appreciate their chocolates, so I’m here to greet Richard rather than in court on a sexual harassment charge.

And here he is! So I must go to prepare more chocolate (and other things). Toodle pip! Oh, and most importantly – an eighth of a century later, I still love him very much. Here’s to a quarter of a century!


Wednesday, April 25, 2007


Free Doctor Who Books (…With A Small Catch)

One of the many lovely things about Doctor Who being a big TV success again is that people are buying the books in huge numbers, too. Right now, you can also get some for ‘free’ – some online, some with a magazine (requiring cash). So, should you? For me there were two golden ages where Doctor Who novels really seemed to matter: the scintillating New Adventures, aimed at older readers, which came to an end ten years ago yesterday after keeping the series going once the television dropped it; and the cheery Target novelisations of the original TV series itself. Happily, these are the very book ranges from which you can now obtain a selected few for free. Read on to find out just how and, perhaps more importantly, which ones you should try to lay your hands on…

Now, BBC Books have been publishing their own range of novels, nicely produced hardbacks featuring the two latest Doctors. In fact, there are three new stories of the Doctor and Martha just out in the last week or so, and while I’m particularly looking forward to reading the one with childhood terrors the Zygons, I’ll get to them shortly rather than dashing out for them on day of publication. So far, you see, this line’s been… OK. Aimed at children like the Target novels, but of a length closer to that of Virgin’s New Adventures, I quite enjoy them, but as far as I’m concerned they’ve not yet hit their stride. The best of both of my favourite book ranges can punch alongside the TV series; these BBC Books so far look very feeble alongside the new series. They lack either the depth and inspiration of the New Adventures – whose authors included half a dozen of the new TV series’ writers – or the crisp, well-told stories of the Target novelisations. Well, with one exception, which I’ll come to later and contrast with the least appealing of the new books.

Doctor Who – The New Adventures Ebooks

Rather than indulging my love for the New Adventures novels, I’m going to skip past those swiftly and then look in a bit more detail at some of the Target books. The reason for that’s simple enough; the magazine with Targets attached won’t be on newsagents’ shelves for long, but four of the New Adventures, and four other books from the same stable, have been redone as Ebooks on the BBC website and are in general likely to be around for a while. Having re-read a couple in the new online editions (I recommend Lungbarrow; not my favourite of those available, but intriguingly rewritten as well as supplying author’s notes, not to mention saving you a fortune on eBay), today I’ve picked out another in celebration of the range that came to a tragic end a decade ago with So Vile a Sin. The one I’ve just started on is Nightshade, an early novel by the League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss (both a writer and an actor for Doctor Who on TV these days), and though hardly the most groundbreaking of stories, it has a place in my heart as the first bit of Doctor Who to scare me since the ’70s. This chilly paean to Quatermass and Doctor Who like Mr Hinchcliffe used to make now has new illustrations, notes by the author and, most excitingly of all, even MP3s of the long-deleted Cybertech ‘soundtrack’. Ever since the lovely Mike Fillis gave me a copy, I’ve loved that ‘Nightshade TV Theme’…

Anyway, you can pick the Ebooks up at leisure, but pop into your nearest newsagent and, with luck, they’ll have a Doctor Who-related magazine or two. The one with the free Target novel attached is SFX’s latest special, SFX Collection – Doctor Who: The Ultimate Unofficial Guide to New Who, and in the way of these things it’s more a free magazine to pick up with a book bumped up to about the same price as the new BBC ones; for the most part, it’s not the most enthralling read. Far more worth dipping into is the latest Doctor Who Magazine special, a fabulous pile of gossip labelled In Their Own Words Volume Three, 1977-81, but don’t let that put you off. Mini-reviews of the magazines at the end, but before then, at last to the point. The SFX specials come with a choice of fifteen novels. Which should you pick?

First off, I suspect there’s very little quality control gone into the selection of free books in the SFX goodie bags. I imagine they simply found a supplier with a pile of remaindered books and picked out at least one for each Doctor (original series vintage), which is as fair a way to do it as any. They’re definitely not the best – perhaps one or two might be at the top end of the range – but, again with an exception or two, they’re not the worst of them. The mix of quality is about as thorough as the mixture of Doctors. There are a good few monsters around, too, though while Cybermen appear, you won’t find any Daleks. And there’s a good selection of authors, with most of the Target regulars represented (omitting only Ian Marter, a bloodthirsty childhood favourite) to illustrate the styles that came round most often, not to mention the clichés: if you buy more than one, look out for recurring chapter titles such as Attack, Escape or Trapped! Here they go, in the order in which the original stories were broadcast…

The Free Target Doctor Who Book Selection With SFX

Doctor Who – Marco Polo

Starring the Doctor (William Hartnell)
A greatly extended very early story of the Doctor’s encounter with the famous explorer in China makes a surprisingly short novel by comparison, though John Lucarotti does quite a good job of it. It moves more quickly on the page than the TV’s weekly variations of ‘see the sights of Cathay / the Doctor breaks into the TARDIS / Tegana’s discovered to be a baddie / he sets Marco against our heroes’, though less stylishly. I enjoy the additions of all Kublai Khan’s endearments to his Empress (Richard never responds to them), and it’s interesting to compare the two ‘versions’ – here, written once the TV series had been going for a couple of decades, important points are redrafted to give the regulars more of a starring role, presumably because everyone expected it by then, as if making little changes to bend it more into the shape of a Who story. A nicely characterised little adventure in history, if you pick this one up.

Doctor Who – Galaxy Four

Starring the Doctor (William Hartnell)
From a highly experimental period of the show where they went for big concepts but limited characters, this story saw our heroes land on a doomed planet where two other parties of travellers have crashed. The Rills are ugly but good, the Drahvins are wicked but ‘beautiful’, and that’s pretty much the whole story. It’s not the most layered morality tale. The book’s only got four chapters, straight from the TV episodes, which makes it less digestible than many; there’s some rather poor internal dialogue and a fair bit of backstory added, but it’s just not terribly interesting, with a final line that’s too melodramatic to take seriously yet not over-the-top enough to be entertaining. Fortunately, it boast a fabulous cover, easily Andrew Skilleter’s campest work, featuring ‘beautiful space women’ against a blazingly colourful planet. It’s worth getting for that alone.

Doctor Who and the Tenth Planet

Starring the Doctor (William Hartnell)
“The last thrilling adventure of the first DOCTOR WHO,” as the back will tell you, this is also the first story with the Cybermen – back when they even had names, plus a particularly bonkers planet pictured gloriously on the very striking cover. Right from Gerry Davis’ often-reused Cyber-intro, this is an exciting, macho tale (James Bond clip and all), with little changes to make it up-to-the-minute and beyond – for 1976 – as the Cybermen attack a polar military base. These Cybermen are nowhere near as eerie as on TV, but if you like your blood-and-thunder…

Doctor Who and the Cybermen

Starring the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton)
Ahh, well, this is the first book I ever read, and I love it to bits, even if it’s a bit flat and pretty much The Tenth Planet again (though like several of the very early books, this adds pictures – even if only the one of a Cyber-silhouette and the one of them rising into space are much good – but has even less brain). On TV, this story was made as The Moonbase, and could be called the first ‘production-line’ Who story with no innovations; the book’s similarly functional, but from the opening of the TARDIS as a ship in a stormy sea, rather endearing. With the Doctor accompanied by Ben, Polly and Jamie, it’s rather a strong line-up, and Polly gets a stunning ‘the deb strikes back’ moment as she destroys Cybermen with The Nail Varnish Remover of Death. I was so impressed when I read about it that my Mum had to stop me playing with nail varnish remover to try to dissolve things… Read it to see why it was so particularly suitable for me to learn to read while alone in hospital.

Doctor Who and the Mutants

Starring the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee)
At last we come to a book with the brisk, crisp, deceptively simple style of Target top writer Terrance Dicks. For reasons that passeth understanding, one of the biggest rivalries between Who fans is the vitriol thrown between those who champion Jon Pertwee and those who favour Sylvester McCoy. Yep, some things are a mystery even to as dedicated a fan as me. Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, both have stories that tend to be rather disappointing on screen (with glorious exceptions), but they come alive in the books. For Sylv, it’s the magnificent New Adventures; with Pertwee, his stories are vastly improved as the best of the Target novelisations. The Mutants is perhaps the definitive example of a Pertwee novel told with gusto that was a terrible disappointment when I finally got to see it, and arguably the best script by Dave Martin (who died just a few weeks ago) and Bob Baker, even if it’s always felt more like one from Malcolm Hulke. It tells the future as if it’s history – picked up by the New Adventures, too – in a resolutely anti-colonialist / anti-apartheid parable, which only really lets itself down with the Star Trek ending. Still, with the book you get a great monster on the cover, but escape the rotten actors, dodgy effects and seeing aliens that organically evolve frocks, sequins, rainbow lighting and shoulderpads (who said drag queens were unnatural?).

This book also makes me a little bit sniffly, remembering when I first got it. It was in a swap for a weirdly exciting ‘spaceship thing’ I’d found on some waste ground – in truth a GAS RING – in Mrs Rigby’s classroom at primary school, from my friend Jon Good, another Who fan and brilliant cartoonist who died much too young. So I always think of him.

Doctor Who and the Green Death

Starring the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee)
Target’s other great scribe was Malcolm Hulke, and this was the only story he novelised that he’d not written the original script for. You can’t spot the joins, though, as it’s full of well-drawn characters with rounded lives and a homily for the way we live today. This was a particularly effective homily, as a TV tale of big-business-will-poison-you that people remembered as ‘the one with the giant maggots’ becomes, in novel form, the story that turned me into a green liberal before I was ten. Reading it now, of course, I notice all the self-contradictory, romantic socialist propaganda instead. Sorry, Mac! That bit didn’t work, but never mind. The TV story is truncated in parts to make way for character, but that’s all to the good (even when he drops my favourite scene), and the gay relationship is even more obvious than on screen. So this is rather a good one to pick, even if the pictures are rubbish…

Doctor Who and the Seeds of Doom / Doctor Who and the Deadly Assassin

Starring the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker)
Ooh, bargain! I’m looking out for this one, as it’s two books stuck together, though I haven’t spotted an SFX carrying it yet. The Seeds of Doom’s by fantastic Who producer Philip Hinchcliffe, and though he’s merely a functional prose writer, it’s still pretty tense and fast-moving. Missing an actor’s charismatic turn as the villain, as a whole less stylish but also less insanely macho than the TV story, there’s possession, horror and an enormous killer plant to enjoy, though oddly it loses most of the comic relief. Famously, one of the chapters is titled ‘Cottage Under Siege’; find a copy to see whether that’s actually true.
The Deadly Assassin is another Terrance Dicks, based on a script by the great Bob Holmes, and, well, this was the greatest story of them all on TV. In the book, it still fires off a great many ideas but doesn’t display so many remarkable styles as the disorientating, brilliant TV story as the Doctor returns to his home planet but finds himself a hunted fugitive. Though the satire is toned down here, the repeated hallucination of the early chapters is still strikingly effective, as are the action sequences as the Doctor is hunted through a surreal wilderness and, of course, the story’s complete re-imagining of the Master, a villain who’d become rather a cliché and was given a whole new lease of life (or living death). It’s far from the best of the novel range, but the crisp storytelling based on such an extraordinary script still makes it an impressive read.

Doctor Who and the Power of Kroll

Starring the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker)
Again, Terrance adapts Bob, but this time it benefits from the page, with the dialogue, setting and a rather effective little prologue all standing out rather better than in the slightly lacklustre TV story. Part of the quest for the Key to Time, though that’s not a huge part of the plot, it’s a tale of industrial beastliness to alien ‘natives’ and not the most original in the world, but, hey, the characters work rather well, and there are religious maniacs and a huge giant squid to enjoy – even if Terrance takes the edge off the nasty ending! The Doctor’s casual brilliance seems perfect, too. Appropriately for a story all about money and religion, I knelt in WH Smiths in Stockport and read the whole book when it first came out, refusing to buy it in protest at the outrageous 10p price hike to 85p. Sigh…

Doctor Who and the Armageddon Factor

Starring the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker)
A slightly abrupt Terrance retelling of a Bob Baker and Dave Martin story that suffers without its guest star’s bombastic charisma – the character’s an intriguing mixture of Churchill and Hitler – but is improved by losing all those beige corridors. This is the climax of the Key to Time series, and quite exciting, really. All about the horrors of war, it’s sometimes a little too enthralled by it to get that across, and at times it seems like a cover version of Genesis of the Daleks as well as echoing elements from other of the Key to Time stories. It sags a bit in the middle, though much less so than on screen, and some of the mythic elements of the story come over rather better; on TV, this was a striking mixture of absolutely brilliant and quite disastrous, but the ending wins it for me when the Doctor realises that no-one should be trusted with god-like power… Not even God.

Doctor Who – Castrovalva

Starring the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison)
Christopher H Bidmead (a writer not known for his shy hesitancy in singing his own stories’ praises, known to one friend of mine as Jesus H Bidmead) adapts his own script for the Fifth Doctor’s first story here, a beautiful scientific fairy tale that’s curiously text-dense for a Target novel. There are masses of long paragraphs of description or internal dialogue, and in a typeface that’s not as easy to read as some, though the story’s rather interestingly told. I’ve always been tickled by a line summing up a feeling I know all too well:
“He stared with the distant gaze of a man watching his departing train of thought from an empty platform.”
Doctor Who – Time-Flight

Starring the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison)
Peter Grimwade was a superb director, but though he was one of the few Who directors who wrote stories as well, asked to express his vision in script form… Well, let’s just say this story isn’t universally loved. I remember reading this book in the hope that it would give it a new life seen as it was in his head (though the dialogue would still be terrible). Did it? Well, no, and I still can’t work out just what he thought he was doing other than advertising Concorde, but while it’s still no epic it massively improves on the TV “crap”. Thankfully, the writing style makes a fairly feeble story bearable. The Doctor’s a bit daft, the Master’s a ridiculous cackling loon, and with help from and for Earth authorities, posh male companions and the Master plotting a diabolical scheme with aliens, it’s like a Pertwee story lost in the ’80s. Quite entertainingly written, but empty.

Doctor Who – The Twin Dilemma

Starring the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker)
The Sixth Doctor’s first outing, just about the only thing this story had going for it on screen was Colin’s verve and enthusiasm. Well, it looks better in the book, but was the hackneyed script exposed? Actually, no. Half of the book’s taken from the first episode, which is hugely expanded and characterised while the rest’s cut down in the biggest departure from the televised story of any of these books. Adaptor Eric Saward was the most macho and bloody of Doctor Who script editors, and here he attempts to marry that style with pastiche Douglas Adams. It’s hardly an unqualified success, but at least it’s interesting.

Doctor Who – Delta and the Bannerman

Starring the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy)
A whimsical story that on screen was a showcase for ’50s music and not one that ever appealed to me; it should have been played like the TV Batman, but instead of arch, was wide-eyed and took itself terribly seriously. Just not very convincingly. And as for the ‘funny genocide’… Perhaps it would have been better with a straightforward ‘the Doctor’s holiday’ approach and drop the villains? Anyway, does writer Malcolm Kohll bring out the lighter, wittier touch this story needed when adapting his own script in a book? Nah. There’s a nice little prologue, but after that everything goes wrong. Dreadfully written, the only thing anyone’s ever remembered it for in my hearing is the misprints. If you avoid one, it should be this.

Doctor Who – The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

Starring the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy)
Now, this is more like it; Stephen Wyatt does an entertaining job of adapting his own much more successful piece of whimsy, one that a lot of people rave about. Scary clowns, futuristic hippies and strange gods fire the imagination (even if the Norse mythology doesn’t tie up to the next book, peculiarly), though the end’s a little too pat. It’s a good read, though I’m not quite sure about the writing style; he addresses the reader directly a lot of the time, which I always raise an eyebrow at. Not bad, though.

Doctor Who – The Curse of Fenric

Starring the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy)
This Second World War vampire tale was another absolutely terrific story on TV, and a very popular book – certainly a big influence on the New Adventures. I wonder why Ian Briggs never wrote one of those? It’s certainly very good, though the book’s no match for the TV version (the author improves his own Dragonfire rather more). There’s a lot of inventiveness here, with the story fleshed out with fragments of other styles such as Norse mythology, The Arabian Nights, Beowulf and Dracula. It’s probably the best of the books on offer as a book… It’s just that it’s better style on DVD.

So, if you see them on the shelves, which one will you choose?

If you see this next one of the new BBC Books at your local bookshop, though, I really wouldn’t advise it:

Two New Doctor Who Books – of Varying Quality…

Doctor Who – The Price of Paradise

Starring the Doctor (David Tennant)
I said earlier that the new series-linked Doctor Who novels from the BBC have so far been a comparative disappointment, flabbily talking down to their readers rather than the crisp, well-told stories of the Target novelisations, with one exception; I’ll come to that in a moment, but first, the least appealing of the new books. This one’s by Colin Brake, an eco-parable about the damage we do by not living in harmony with nature on an idyllic planet that’s already been thoroughly taken apart by Richard on young Millennium Dome’s blog (look out particularly for what he says about human sacrifice, how fusion works, and why the ‘allergy’ idea had no sense of proportion at all). For me, it started all right – a bit bland, but serviceable – but as the ‘point’ became obvious, it just went horribly, horribly wrong. When I was a kid, Doctor Who seeded a lot of my political ideals. Goodness knows what I’d have got if I’d read this one. Look at the series: the Doctor’s a traveller in time and space, always interested in new people and places, and helping them out. It’s easy to lift out of that internationalism, individual freedom and environmentalism, and the new series has added more strongly than ever before an optimism about humanity (as well as our dark side). This story? Don’t travel anywhere – it’s wrong and evil. May as well dump the series, eh? Humans – they’re wrong and evil. Our very souls are unclean. Even the orphan who fits in slavishly is just racially evil. Then the ‘natives’ are entirely characterless, with the planet the real personality, and what is its character? If I was feeling generous, it’s that God’s still in charge in Eden, and a jealous god – but, no, this is Doctor Who and the BNP Planet. It’s revolting, and entirely out of step with the ethos of a series that’s all about openness to new things and seeing the best in people. Oh, and it opens by paraphrasing ’80s blandster Phil Collins at his most sanctimonious. Think twice: if you want an eco-parable, find a copy of SFX with The Green Death stuck to the front and leave this well alone.

Doctor Who – Made of Steel

Starring the Doctor (David Tennant)
At last, a new series book by Terrance Dicks, and you know what? It really works. I thought Only Human and The Stealers of Dreams from the new BBC Books were very good, too, but this book has one huge advantage: it isn’t huge. From the £1.99 Quick Reads series like last year’s rather good I Am a Dalek, aimed at getting people reading who usually don’t, this reads as if it was effortless to write. After reading so many other people trying to pull off the same sort of thing, it patently isn’t! Now, I like my Who novels long and deep, or short and crisp, and Terrance doesn’t do ‘deep’. Straightforward, undemanding and entertaining, at 99 pages instead of 250 this is the perfect length to capture the feel of a TV episode, while the others are too long for what they’re trying to do but too unambitious to deliver anything ‘bigger’ and just plod on. I’m hoping Richard will come along with a full-length review, as he’s done with a lot of the new novels – so I won’t nick his brilliant observations about the title or why the Cybermen bicker – but here’s a whistle-stop tour. The Doctor brings Martha back to her own place and time, only to find survivors of Cybermen from the battle of Canary Wharf in last year’s TV season finale Doomsday. Guess the London landmark where they’re hiding out (I hooted)? Much of it recalls old Doctor Who as much as new, but there are simple but elegant lampoons of both versions of the series, as well as amusing dismissals of Primeval and Torchwood (while the whole thing shows up Cyberwoman terribly. But then, so do most things). It’s not a great part for Martha, though she’s good when she’s in it and her history with the Cybermen adds to the story, but Terrance surprised me by absolutely nailing David Tennant’s speech and persona as the Doctor. The way he deals with a bullying military policeman had me punching the air, though describing them as “gorillas” is back to Terrance’s ’70s novels, along with the stock ‘ambitious woman’ characterisation. On the whole, though, it’s enormously refreshing, perhaps the most entertaining Who novel Terrance has written for about a decade and a half, and certainly the best of the new series novels so far. With the new series moving along at a hell of a lick on TV, perhaps the novels all need the discipline – hark at me! – of being much shorter.

One of my biggest disappointments with Doctor Who publishing last year, incidentally, was that – unlike the 2005 series – there was no script book. I like televised Who stories on my bookshelf, as well as on the telly. If they’re not publishing the scripts any more, they could hardly do better than get Terrance to briskly novelise them. After all, it’s worked before.

…And Those ‘Doctor Who Special’ Magazines Themselves

SFX Collection – Doctor Who: The Ultimate Unofficial Guide to New Who

As long as you pick up one of the right Target books with it, the book’s the main thing to get this for, but it’s not bad. It’s just… Not terribly interesting. Less an in-depth guide to the new series than a cross between tepid description and DVD commentary, it covers the 2005 and 2006 seasons, plus Torchwood and Sarah Jane Smith, with the aid of pie charts not very amusingly depicting the ‘Anatomy of an Episode’ – though it did make me laugh about Cyberwoman. It looks a bit tacky, too (one of the few striking pages is an advert for all the Doctor Who DVDs; see if you can spot which one is missing. It’s like the ‘odd one out’ puzzles in Battles in Time comic). On the bright side, the micro-guide to spin-off websites isn’t bad, and there’s one thing entirely worth buying it for right near the end. There’s a joint interview and photos with Doctor Who’s original producer, St Verity of Lambert, and current creative supremo Russell T Davies. Lovely!

Doctor Who Magazine – In Their Own Words Volume Three 1977-81

And finally, the other new magazine special edition on the shelves. On the face of it, this doesn’t sound very promising either; interviews from three decades of Doctor Who Magazine selected and cut down to reprint the best bits. Amazingly, it’s brilliant, and though I can’t remember the last time I read a magazine cover to cover, I did here. Covering all but the earliest years of Tom Baker, this is the best of the three they’ve done so far, despite losing most of the amusing photo-captions, brilliantly assembled and highly entertaining (just be careful before you show some of the anecdotes to children). Look out in particular for the way lines from different interviews are chopped together so they seem to answer each other, often to ironic effect, and for anything by the barking but startlingly honest Tom Baker. In other news, directors are unfairly bitchy about scripts, writers named Chris praise their own scripts to the skies, and Graham Williams and Douglas Adams come across as having died far too early (and poor Graham seems to have been under a curse as Who producer. The Curse of Callaghan, perhaps). The highlight, though, is none of these things, nor even the great selection of pictures. It’s the still jaw-dropping selection of interviews from Lalla Ward, variously Romana in the series, Richard Dawkins’ wife and (very briefly) Tom Baker’s. This magazine would be worth reading for her eye-watering account of Tom’s proposal alone…

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007


The Lords’ Appointments Commission Isn’t Toothless – It Just Didn’t Bite

You may have heard about Lord Laidlaw, a Conservative peer and donor who’s said to be the second richest person in Scotland and – gasp! – a tax exile. The BBC reports that, three years after agreeing to become a UK resident to gain a peerage, he still hasn’t done it. The Lords’ Appointments Commission will “name and shame him in a forthcoming review” (so what’s this morning’s leak news?), but the Today Programme said they’re otherwise “powerless”. I know what you’d expect me to say: ‘Tory donor, filthy rich, tax exile, cash for honours, scandal, holds up shocked mittens’. Actually, it’s not quite that simple. My biggest problem is not with Lord Laidlaw, but with Lords’ Appointments Commission.

I don’t approve of peerages, with donations or without. I was delighted last month when the House of Commons voted to replace the whole bunch with people who can be elected and held to account – though, unaccountably, the Lords didn’t agree. But despite Lord Laidlaw sounding, in a one-line summary, like one of the dodgier members of a wholly dodgy House, I’m wary of reports that throw everything at one individual. In part, it’s because that distracts attention from the need to throw out the lot of them and replace them with people we can choose to throw out, or not, on a regular basis. In part, it’s because the story contains some elements in his favour.

Obviously, if we’re going to have legislators on the basis of some whim, bung or ancestry rather than because they’ve won an election (sorry to keep banging on, but my dictionary and I have rather old-fashioned notions of what a ‘democracy’ might mean), having a legislator called ‘Laidlaw’ is as good an excuse as any, and better than most – I mean, can you think of a more brilliant name? More seriously, the BBC’s Business Editor reports that Lord Laidlaw has written to the Lords’ Appointments Commission to say that he does still plan to move, but that personal reasons have delayed it. Well, I can understand that; I’m quite attached to our flat and wouldn’t want to be forced to move from that either, though tragically it’s not worth £700-odd million, and involves us already paying taxes. And, very much in his favour, he’s said he intends gradually to give away his vast personal fortune to charity. Knowing little about him except for this story, that makes him sound rather a good egg, major donor to the Tories or not. Against him, there’s the fact that he told the BBC’s Business Editor “I have made it a rule never to speak to journalists.” Well, I suppose being a snooty git who considers any enquiries from the people they rule over to be the height of impertinence comes with the job, too (see ‘objections to House of Lords, general’, above).

So if Lord Laidlaw is a laudable philanthropist who simply has an unfortunate record of giving some of his largesse to deeply undeserving causes, what’s my real problem? It’s with this report, swallowed wholesale by journalists, that all the Lords’ Appointments Commission can do is “name and shame” tax exile peers they’ve previously rubber-stamped, and that they’re brave, noble individuals who are “powerless” to take real action such as, say, revoking a peerage. Well, aside from their being there as an artificial life-support for the concept of government by patronage, I have no sympathy whatsoever for their sanctimonious bleatings today. Their cowardly leaking that they’d like to revoke Lord Laidlaw’s peerage if they only could is shameful. The fact is, they were not powerless when it mattered – just incompetent. The Commission had all the power they needed to prevent a tax exile from becoming a peer. They could have heard his evidence that he intended to move at some point, and answered: ‘Fine. And six months after you’ve done so, provide us with the evidence you’ve settled here and we will give you your peerage.’ But they didn’t bother. This cowardly, lazy and incompetent bunch are now saying – out of the corners of their mouths, as of course their “review” remains “forthcoming” – that it’s all someone else’s fault. No, it’s not. It’s theirs, and rather than criticise someone else, they should be apologising for giving him the nod in the first place when it was their duty to have stopped him. Just as all but about 0.0001% of the tens of millions of us in Britain have no say on the Lords themselves, we have no say on this small group of people who are supposed to choose whether our potential lawmakers are ‘worthy’. Today more than ever, it’s clear they need holding to account, too.

In other news, the ‘war on drugs’ (immensely tasteless, with all the real wars about) has completely failed, as drug use remains high and a major source of criminality. Well, goodness me, bless my muffins, who’d have thought, I don’t Adam and Eve it, etc. Expect the Labour Government to sound just as faux-shocked as their Lords’ Appointments Commission as they rush round to blame everyone else but themselves and ask for new powers with which to waste police time instead of getting to the root of the problem. As long as drugs have an effect on people, people will take them. And as long as they remain illegal, criminals will take those people’s money. Like ‘Who gave the go-ahead to a tax exile peer,’ this is not rocket science.

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Sunday, April 15, 2007


A Blissful Saturday Evening

For some people it’s being out in the sun, for some it’s great food, for some it’s their loved ones… Well, Richard and I had a very agreeable walk in the sun this afternoon and enjoyed our steak and chips this evening, but what we took the greatest pleasure in was our own company. And the television. You knew, didn’t you? We both thought tonight’s Doctor Who, Gridlock, was absolutely marvellous, so for once I’ve got some (spoilertastic) observations before Millennium gets there. Then watching Any Dream Will Do let us indulge our inner Statler and Waldorf to the full…

So, did you see Gridlock tonight? If not, what on New New (etc) Earth were you doing? We warmed up with some fabulous old telly, and even some of Carry On Up the Khyber – would I take that film with me to a desert island if offered just eight? I might, you know – but Doctor Who still knocked them all into a cocked hat for sheer joy, and as I’m going to say a little of why, if you don’t want to know the result then look away now. Well, I’m told it’s a special milestone with tonight’s story, as Doctor Who – already the longest-running sci-fi series in the world, even if you take out the years in which it was inconveniently missing from the screen – passes Star Trek and all its multifarious spin-offs in terms of number of individual episodes (I’ve not counted them, so if someone’s worked this all out on their fingers and got it wrong, please take my apologetic shrug as read. I’m enjoying this evening far too much to start researching Star Trek series online). The lovely Mr Matt Davies, who may or may not resemble Tobey Maguire, tells us with uncanny timing for Gridlock that it’s also the 75th anniversary of the Highway Code. However, tonight I’m more concerned with another milestone anniversary – if you’ve not seen Doctor Who, you really should stop reading now – that technically passed a few weeks ago. It’s the fortieth anniversary of the first appearance of legendary Doctor Who monsters the Macra, and I whooped aloud when their giant, crabby forms appeared through the swirling traffic fumes beneath New New (etc) York.

After last year’s fortieth anniversary re-imagining of the Cybermen, by the way, I’m hoping for a pattern. That means I’m holding out for multi-functional hovering robots popping out deadly accessories from all angles as their spiky heads spin and spin; yes, with an exciting 2008 remodelling in my head that mixes an Imperial Probe Droid and a malignant penknife, next year expect the Quarks. You read it here first.

I’ve always been very fond of the long-lost 1967 story The Macra Terror, and I’d intended for months to write a review of it for its fortieth anniversary. I’d even started writing bits of it, and was delighted when I found a new (and fabby) Reconstruction was available, just in time. I can now reveal, though, that a week or two before I posted my humungous review (well, the Macra were the largest monsters built for the old series, and it seemed an appropriate way to celebrate them), someone let slip a ‘hint’ about a returning old monster. Though I’d been desperately trying to avoid spoilers, obviously my Who-honed brain instantly turned the supposedly cryptic clue into ‘Damn, that must be the Macra’. I considered abandoning my review as a result, but at least I’d worked it out, as once I published my review a couple of people said things along the lines of ‘So you’re tying that in with this year’s surprise monster return, then?’ and I’d have been rather dischuffed if the surprise had been spoiled quite so blatantly. Fortunately, when Richard heard there was a story coming up called ‘Utopia’, he had immediately and convincingly pegged them to turn up there, so I was still able to be surprised and delighted when the Macra were revealed half-way into tonight’s show. Hurrah! Even the spoiler hadn’t managed to spoil it for me.

There’s a bit of me that wanted a bigger part for them than ‘monster in the pit’, but I can see the logic: if you’re having secret monsters under a human settlement in the far future that live off toxic gas, if they hadn’t used the Macra people would just have said, ‘Oh, they’re just like the Macra.’ Like the Slitheen and the Foamasi. And, in the end, I think the Macra were rather well-used. There are echoes of the earlier story without repeating the plot – the Doctor overturning the system and freeing everyone, of course, but also touches like a traffic hologram replacing jingles, or people being trapped without being aware that they’re trapped, despite the rumours that everyone knows but daren’t repeat. And, no, they weren’t behind (beneath) it all this time, but the setting actually turned that to a strength for me rather than a disappointment. In 2005’s The End of the World, the Doctor has a witty adventure in the year five billion (see if you can guess one of the main events taking place in it), encountering among sundry non-human people the wicked Lady Cassandra, who’s technically the last human but has had so many changes that she looks like a huge, stretched skin – the most striking image in a gloriously rich set of visuals. After all that, I found that most people pretty much looking human in last year’s visit to New Earth in five billion and a bit was a bit of a let-down. Along with some extra effort at diversity among the human-ish and non-human but also people this time – five billion and a bit more – and, hurrah, an old married same-sex couple and some naturists (we’d fit right in), the Doctor observing that the Macra had, over billions of years, devolved to the level of snapping beasts was a very welcome reminder that change happens, as well as that ‘progress’ and evolution are not always linear synonyms.

For readers of my review of The Macra Terror, incidentally, though I’ll leave the in-depth review of Gridlock to Millennium, I have a couple of observations relating to theories there. I noted that there isn’t an explanation of where they come from in the original story, and that some people suggested there’s a circle of oppression in which the humans they exploit forced them underground in the first place: no, says Russell T Davies, they were all over the place and did this sort of underhand aggression quite a lot. And as for my going into how they were the Colony’s psychosis made manifest… Well, perhaps they were the same for the car people, de-evolved and bestial and simply surviving, just as the gridlockees just went round and round aimlessly. OK, that’s more of a stretch, particularly with so many associations of the underworld / afterlife and how blind faith keeps them going (both misled and ultimately keeping them alive until they’re redeemed), and I’m not sure how to fit a crab psychosis in with the religious allegories…

I did love the huge energy of it all, with the Doctor hopping down through the cars – that joyous kinetic feel was superbly balanced by the relentless horror of the gridlock itself, and it all segued beautifully into the heart-wringing requiem for the Face of Boe and the Doctor’s people, and the fantastic spectacle of the city coming, out of all that death, back to life. In all, the story had just as many moods as last year’s New Earth trip, but here they complemented each other rather than clashing. I enjoyed all the undermined expectations, too: the Macra not being the main antagonists once revealed as at the bottom of the gridlock, for example; the real reason for the cars being sealed off; the nun with the gun turning out nice (seeing a preview image, I’d assumed she was out for revenge); the motive of Martha’s kidnappers, and so on. Admittedly, we’d guessed precisely the Face’s secret, but it would have been a disappointment otherwise, wouldn’t it, and the Doctor’s talk with Martha was another movingly bittersweet moment. I laughed, too, at Martha teasing the Doctor for taking her on the same dates he took Rose, but then, I would.

And, of course, when Any Dream Will Do was over and we were able to watch our recording of Doctor Who Confidential, it was a treat to hear Russell talk about 2000 AD as another inspiration (and not the only artistic reference, either). Issues are tending to pile up unread now, but there are a few early years of the galaxy’s greatest comic that are fixed into my head – as well as thinking of New New (etc) York as a bit of a futuristic urban Alice with a dash of Coruscant, the wild tone had reminded me of 2000 AD. I’d spotted Max Normal as soon as he said it was deliberate, but though of course Mega-City One (Judge Dredd’s home city, name-checked tonight) is the original New New York, the whole thing reminded me rather more of Terror Tube mixed with Halo Jones’ Hoop… That holographic traffic announcer was the spitting image of Swifty Frisco. The whole thing had a flavour of the dear old New Adventures, too, while firmly setting itself at the heart of the new Doctor Who series. Beautiful.

I thought Smith and Jones was terrific – fast, exciting action, but with stunning images, a great (and amusing) villain and altogether making a brilliant introduction, easily the best ‘new season’ opening episode since the Doctor returned in 2005 and among the best the series has ever delivered. Perhaps because I had such high expectations for it (I love adventures in history, and was really looking forward to TV Doctor Who from that particular author), The Shakespeare Code was a relative disappointment; lots of individually fun bits (Bad Queen Bess was a scream), but neither Shakespeare nor the witches convinced me. Bearing in mind that I love all Doctor Who to bits, I had relatively low expectations of tonight’s story, so perhaps I’ll change my mind after a second watching – with most of my Who reviews I like to sleep on it, usually (like Rip Van Winkle) for a couple of decades – but for now, I’m still bowled over. It’s rare that a story keeps surprising me and is both moving and fast-moving, but the rest of the season’ll have to do very well to get better than this. I’m hoping it will, of course.

I hope you were excited by the closing Dalek trailer – a haunting line for the Doctor just before the music cut in – and, in daytime TV style, the last time I wrote about Dalek Sec Any Dream Will Do wasn’t far behind. So it proved tonight, as we watched the whole thing and, I’m forced to admit, were completely caught up in it. Tragically, I’ve even warmed to Andrew Lloyd Webber after years of thinking of him as a Tory git, and the level of talent among the potential Josephs was remarkable. No, not that sort of talent, though I admit that most tastes for different varieties of handsome young men are catered for, from blond and plastic, through waiflike and pretty, to rough and chunky. Even if they’ve evidently and off-puttingly all shaved their chests. I’ve not make my mind up on the chap with the most star quality yet (Richard may have done), but several of them were really impressive tonight. Rob stole the show from the first with a belting voice and a great physical performance; Johndeep and Daniel sung beautifully; Anthony had another great voice and, as was pointed out, practically made love to the microphone; and Seamus, despite the apparent disadvantages of looking rather like Jesus, having a slightly tired voice, and by all accounts being a bit of a tosser, had enormous charisma. It’s pure coincidence that four of those five would be the four out of the twelve most to my physical taste, of course (running from the youngest to the oldest, though neither of them look it!). Of the others, Ben, who I identified last week as ‘vampire boy’, looked far more alive with a dash of orange and gave another great physical performance, though he may have had the weakest voice of them (probably why he was nearly voted off), while Keith was endearingly cheeky, Craig too cheesy, and Lewis like a factory model printed off from Paul Nicholas in Hair (remembering an old clip from The Rock’n’Roll Years)… Wholesome, blond and bland. I have a terrible feeling we’ll be following these young men all the way through.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007


The Avengers – The Correct Way to Kill

This evening’s edition of The Avengers (BBC4 at 7.10, and again tomorrow night at 11.50) is one of the most amusing and – with its impeccably polite killers, an army of deadly agents inspired by Steed’s fashions, and Emma meeting her Eastern Bloc match – one of the most ‘iconic’, though hardly the most original. The US-financed colour episodes from 1967 were really getting into their swing, so writer Brian Clemens decided he’d like to show American audiences some of what they’d missed in the early ’60s with this direct remake of black and white Honor Blackman episode The Charmers, the first of three and a half such rewrites. With the beautifully filmed Mrs Peel shows “in color” by far the best-remembered, most-repeated and most often commercially available of The Avengers these days, it’s a fair bet that this version is better-known than the original version. But is it better?

Steed changes partner – Emma joins the enemy

This story certainly has a scintillating script, though writer / producer Brian Clemens deserves most of his credit for it for the 1964 rather than the 1967 version, but there’s also impressive work from (appropriately) Ealing Comedy director Charles Crichton and a startling array of guest stars – Philip Madoc, Peter Barkworth, Anna Quayle, Terence Alexander, Timothy Bateson, Michael Gough – with even Steed and Emma’s outfits almost uniformly delightful this time out (thanks to Pierre Cardin and Alun Hughes). Added to all that talent, it certainly had a lot more money put into it than the visibly much cheaper version made more crudely on videotape. Now, by this stage you’re going to imagine my punchline to be that the cheapie prototype has a raw power to it, but that the stylish and expensive remake loses the chemistry and is a terrible flop. Actually, no. Both of them are splendidly crafted and highly entertaining pieces of television – but the earlier one, while less polished, remains the more stylish…

More (sigh) to follow…

Meanwhile, for anyone trying to get in touch, again please use the e-mail link in the sidebar. My main e-mail address remains inaccessible, despite my being told by my ISP that it was a temporary problem and everyone’s service would be restored by “tomorrow evening”. That was a week of tomorrows ago now… Anyone with the misfortune to share Breathe as their ISP has my sympathy.

…And after a slight interregnum, I’ve caught up [readers may be reassured to learn that we did eventually find a better ISP. And for this particular piece of television, it seems apposite that it’s Waitrose].

Iconic Avenging

It’s not hard to understand why this is an iconic episode: The Avengers defies a simple description, but is often called a comedy spy series, while I’d describe it as a fantasy of Britain. This is one of the most comedy scripts (even more noticeable in the more down-to-earth 1963-4 series as a clear signpost of what was to come), one which unusually revolves around spies from ‘the other side’ rather than mad scientists and mad conservatives, and as for a fantasy of Britain… The villain wants to take over the world with an army of Steeds. It even starts on a foggy cobbled street at night by gas lamp, as a rather nastily-outfitted Russian member of the other side with an accent – which all of them share (to verifying degrees of plausibility) but no-one mentions – waits for two impeccably attired chaps in suits and bowlers just like our hero’s to come round the corner, accompanied by an inappropriately (or is it?) martial fanfare. They have important information to sell – but, being British, can’t do so until they’ve been properly introduced. So, is this a topical tale of traitors? It seems so for a moment… But then it looks more complicated, as their raise their hats to their contact – and shoot him dead with silenced pistols, leaving him in the gutter as they walk briskly away and the episode’s title is revealed as the punchline: “The Correct Way to Kill”. The music’s far better with Laurie Johnson than the 1964 version, of course, as is the title, and this teaser scene’s much more to the point – establishing the Cold War and the perfidious stiff upper lip. Yet while upper-class killers Percy and Algy are one up on the less memorable lone well-mannered warrior of the earlier production, I can’t help thinking it was more subtle and stylish when fencing practice turned suddenly deadly was presented as a complete mystery. As the episode goes on, too, you notice that the army for whom Percy and Algy are prototypes are all trained in foils; that the episode ends with an exciting pair of fights with foils; and that this opening scene rewritten with guns… Lacks its earlier symmetry.

So, we have a mystery. Who is killing off the Soviet other side’s agents? And why? Steed and Mrs Peel meet on that cobbled street in the clear daylight, and two of them look rather good on it. I don’t usually go for pinstripe, but Steed’s is in a rather plush grey that always suits him, while Emma’s in a striking blue top and very vibrant orange blouse and skirt (very Pet Shop Boys). It’s not what you’d expect her to be wearing, but she looks terrific in it. That street, though, looks even more like a studio in ‘daylight’; unusually for this period of The Avengers, the whole thing’s filmed on studio sets*, and perhaps it’s a little let down by their ranging only from ‘quite intriguing’ to ‘functional’ rather than up to ‘outré’, meaning that while this episode is visibly much less cheap than the 1964 production it’s still one of the cheaper ones by 1967 standards (perhaps they spent the budget on the star-studded guest cast?). Anyway, Steed is rather peeved to recognise Groski in the gutter:
“You mean he’s not one of ours?”
“No. He’s one of theirs. One of their top agents.”
“That makes a change.”
“Yes, but it’s embarrassing. If he had been naughty, they might have had the good manners to have popped him off in his own country.”
“Leaves us with all the paperwork.”
It’s just not cricket. He hopes they don’t do it again… But, of course, they do, dispatching agents in a lift and then a revolving door, with Emma pulling Steed up on repeating his same testy observations about purges and unethical behaviour…
“We need a drink.”
That you haven’t said.”
Which, knowing those two, I frankly find unlikely. Still, that gets us back to Steed’s flat for the scene that sets up the dynamic of most of the plot: Emma notices a lurking presence and, tethering Steed to declaim a mish-mash of poetry and prose, lures in and clobbers Philip Madoc’s agent Ivan, who wants to shoot our hero (while Steed saves, then offers, the red wine). And it’s not just that he’s fed up with schoolboys reciting Casabianca – in a twist on who’s usually ‘the Avengers’, he’s been sent to kill Steed in revenge for the others. But Steed hasn’t killed anyone all week! With Ivan convinced, they realise that someone is setting the two sides against each other and decide to work together – Emma being assigned to work with Ivan, and Steed given a new partner who’s the most Russian Russian ever shown on TV without anyone ever saying the word “Russian”. And so the hi-jinks ensue. With an increasing level of spoilers from this point on.

Stars From the Other Side

I’ve said this has a set of great guest actors and a script full of witty lines, though the two don’t always come together to make great parts. The late Peter Barkworth gets little to do but sneer and shoot as assassin Percy (and Graham Armitage still less as Algy, though the only other TV I really know him from is Doctor Who’s The Macra Terror, coincidentally broadcast the same day), while Timothy Bateson has virtually nothing but being testy, then jumpy, then murdered in a blackly comic way. Philip Madoc’s Ivan is on paper a more shallow part than the 1964 equivalent “Martin” and probably the slightest of his five Avengers roles, but he mines something memorable from not very much, not only making the most of his meagre lines but with a flickering wolfish grin, many significant looks, lots of business with his coat and an ability to insinuate himself into the foreground so that, when he does get something to say, you listen. Not long after they kill off Ivan, the traditional mid-episode shift of scene takes us to SNOB and Terence Alexander’s Tarquin Ponsonby-Fry, a larger role but almost his polar opposite – where Ivan was mostly gloomy with a predatory smile, stating his opposition to Steed but eventually helpful, Ponsonby-Fry lights up with admiration at Steed’s style but, for all his smiling worship, wants to give him a short, sharp, stab in the back.

The two biggest guest roles are both from the other side: Anna Quayle’s formidable Olga (wearing a complete Russian bear) and Michael Gough’s spymaster Nutski (“My friends call me Nutty”). Olga is a more heavily armed, more ideologically pure and far less knowing Mrs Peel, introduced to much admiration from Nutski (“And they say that today there is no moral fibre among the younger generation”) and with much hostility to Steed (though she thaws slightly by the end, the tag scene suggesting a degree of cultural exchange and offering a good shaggy dog of a party manifesto). She’s the biggest change from The Charmers – not as subtle, funny or lush as Fenella Fielding’s Kim Lawrence, but with a completely different character and different set of lines she’s able to make the part her own. And I suspect it may have been written that way, as Anna Quayle had had a hit on stage with a very similar Soviet part in Stop the World – I Want To Get Off. She has the disadvantage that where Kim’s unpredictability would throw Steed, Olga’s blunderbuss fanaticism doesn’t worry him at all, though her utterly straight absurdity and reactions direct to camera for his more outrageous moments are still priceless. While there’s a running joke about his asking for her to be more “subtle”, that’s something someone might have said to Michael Gough, as his characterisation of Nutski starts with the name and goes upward. Where Warren Mitchell’s 1964 equivalent Keller is grubby, Nutski is hammy, and only in part because his plan is significantly inflated here (like his little tribute to The Great Dictator). Perhaps Michael Gough, a superb actor with an amazingly long résumé, just wanted to differentiate his performance from last season’s Dr Armstrong in The Cybernauts (Emma gives a twirl to that role here as one of her several homages to that particular episode)? He still gets many of the best lines, and Merlin’s hanging crocodile, but somehow he’s less funny by being just that bit too over the top, right from his first greeting to Steed – and aside to Ivan:
“What a delightful surprise! What a pleasure to see you again! I told you to kill him.”
Imitation and Flattery

Steed and Emma are still at the centre of all this, despite so many scene-stealers – not least because even the villains recognise that they are the best in the world. Everyone mysteriously seems to have the same Enemy Identification Boards boasting rather lovely publicity shots of each of them, with her tickled at their labels; and while Steed is the more obvious model for the evil of the Third Way, that might just be because Mrs Peel is too high a standard to meet. The killers trained at Sociability, Nobility, Omnipotence, Breeding, Inc. (like FOG, SMOG and ABORCASHATA, I can’t resist an acronym) are all men, and all doing Steed the compliment of becoming dangerous agents with bowlers and swordstick brollies but with added fascistic taxi-hailing… But they’re all taught by a woman, who’s clearly deadlier. SNOB, as it should, has the best of the sets, rich-looking golden panelling outside, fashionable paint sketches within.

Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg live up to their roles as ever, both seemingly enjoying an episode in which even the baddies hero-worship them. Steed has enormous opportunities for fun paired with Olga and then admired by Ponsonby-Fry as so much better than his protégés even in defeat, with Patrick Macnee happily every bit as suave as the script demands, and while Emma has less time to form double-acts with Ivan or Nutski, Diana Rigg gets some sparkling moments on her own (as well as a fabulous reaction to what Hubert Merryweather does, in a gag that literally up-ends a role from the earlier version). Emma wins the outfits, too in an episode where neither of them have a bad one – though Emma’s lilac trouser suit isn’t too striking and Steed’s slightly-too-dark-for-him navy suit is, shockingly, accessorised by a non-matching black bowler, even Steed’s cravats are stylish, and while Emma’s vibrant dark blue and orange from earlier in the episode is her best outfit here, to prepare for the inevitable fights she swaps round the dominant colours for an even more vivid orange Emmapeeler with dark blue trim. If I have a complaint, it’s that neither are at their most dangerous – perhaps they simply assume beating imitations will be a breeze. So, for example, Emma’s delivery of “I can assure you, my cheek will be nowhere near his jowl” can’t help but sound secretly indulgent, lacking Cathy’s fiery whiplash the first time, and though their individual swordfights at the climax are neatly choreographed – particularly Emma and Olga at last perfectly in sync – something in me says they’re the wrong way round; Emma gets to be stylish but looks too easy, while Steed’s fight with Ponsonby-Fry sees the two smashing and slashing as if their foils are broadswords or cutlasses, making it more about strength than style. It’s a rare moment where they slip into sexual stereotypes, and also for me Steed seems more dangerous when he looks like he’s not trying, and Emma when beating men at their own game.

Perhaps that’s part of the sense that, in polishing The Charmers, they’ve filed off some of its edge. Other than Ponsonby-Fry’s creeping, it’s mostly so light and frothy that there’s not much sinister, despite a rare outing for Mrs Peel’s first season’s old ‘mysterious’ music in a colour episode and two effective ominous moments, one a ‘hanged man’ in the foreground as Steed and Olga enter Winters’ shop (though the proprietor is much jollier than the creepy old curmudgeon once in his place), and another a brief use of writer Brian Clemens’ favourite ‘undertaker’ motif. It’s certainly not threatening when the diabolical mastermind’s plan suddenly grows to preposterous proportions. He’s revealed as none other than triple-crossing Nutski himself – not merely frustrated, as Keller was in 1964, with being an underfunded station chief and looking to exploit both sides, but suddenly a Bond villain who wants to take over the entire world! I like the idea ‘How would a Russian take over the world? By being just like the British’, and that we’re secretly very unsporting, too, but it’s a bit of a leap, and Michael Gough is both too much and not enough. If you want a bonkers villain who throws around a globe, plots world domination and declaims “this is merely the beginning” like he means it while still being funny, I have the terrible confession that Sean Connery slices much better ham in The Avengers movie (though in general that’s far less successful than The Correct Way To Kill). For what’s been – for 1967 – a relatively small, relatively (relatively) rooted in reality spy spoof, it seems to climax in a failure of nerve and try to puff itself up to something it isn’t. The villains want to be the Avengers, but bigger, and badder, and fail; the producers want to do The Charmers, but bigger, and better, and… Nearly succeed. But not quite. It’s still funny, stylish and a solid piece of Avenging, but it tries just that little bit too hard.

*There’s just one brief scene filmed in a real dingy, wet street as Ivan’s nasty car drives up; establishing it shows us that the other side are a bit cheap, but it hardly adds to the style of the thing.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007


A Person’s Right To Choose

Natallie Evans today lost her final appeal to put her freedom of choice entirely above her ex-partner’s and use embryos fertilised with him before she became infertile. It’s heart-rending to see her distress, but while I feel sympathy for her, I have none for her abhorrent demands. If a man with testicular cancer hounded his ex-partner through the courts to force her to implant and carry his last-chance embryo right up to birth, would any news outlet have given him a couple of seconds, let alone – as News 24 did this afternoon – reverentially broadcast an entire press conference?

This case seems a tragic moral dilemma, but despite having followed several stages of it – even having an impassioned argument with my Mum last year on the failure of Ms Evans’ previous appeal – it’s always seemed to me that reproduction by demand would completely destroy the rights based on consent that have built up in this country. Ms Evans has said she’s “distraught” after the ultimate and overwhelming European Court ruling against her demands, while Mr Johnston said “common sense had prevailed.” Both of these statements are true. This poor woman desperately wants a child, and took precautions before ovarian cancer and its treatment left her infertile. My heart went out to her, seeing her on TV, but I’m also deeply disturbed at the way it’s all been reported. Modern news reports grab viewers by going for the ‘human interest’ story, and what story could be more sympathetic? Add to that that she’s so plainly distraught and sincere, while her ex-partner Howard Johnston comes across as less emotional on TV. No wonder I’ve heard him called ‘heartless’ – the narrative of television and the tabloids requires a villain, and a ‘cold, nasty man’ refusing the wishes of a ‘tragic, weeping woman’ fits the bill. But this is a tragedy for both of them, and that stereotype does her as few favours as it does him. She’s going to have to cope with this result, and every media outlet telling her ‘You must be right because you looked more upset’ will not help. Neither, I hope, will it change the law. Government by the Jeremy Kyle Show and who can produce the most visible emotion terrifies me. The law at the moment is firm, but it must be to keep a balance when two people’s rights are in conflict. Almost every legal argument about sex boils down to one person having desires and the other not wanting to fulfil them. It would be horrific if the law were suddenly to side with the person making the biggest noise and leave no freedom of choice.

The couple’s embryos were frozen in 2001; the couple split up in 2002; since 2003, Ms Evans has been fighting in the courts to use them by removing Mr Johnston’s consent. Her lawyers’ argument that he’d consented to the creation, storage and use of the embryos and shouldn’t be allowed to change his mind sounds reasonable for a moment, but hang on. Imagine that man with testicular cancer had fertilised embryos with his partner, and – because she’d previously agreed – demanded that she be implanted with their embryo and carry it to full term. No, not embryo; embryos, surely, if that imaginary couple, too, had agreed to fertilise six. Imagine him weeping, her stony-faced. I’d find it hard not to sympathise with him. But I’d never for a moment believe he should have the ‘right’ to take away her choice, and I can’t for a moment believe he’d get through the first stage of the courts, let alone end up in a higher level of European Court than I’d even heard of until today.

The law requires both partners to give consent and allows either of them – as it was made clear to both of them at the time – to withdraw consent up to the point at which an embryo is implanted for just the same reason, surely, that it makes the identical requirements for non-IVF-aided pregnancies: sex and reproduction should never be forced on an unwilling partner. When Ms Evans said:
“I am distraught at the Court’s decision. It is very hard for me to accept the embryos will be destroyed,”
she tugged at our heartstrings, but her wishes are her own, and a child takes two. She’s in a tragic situation, but even the greatest feeling can’t enforce your feelings on someone else. Mr Johnston was completely right to say:
“I feel common sense has prevailed. Of course I am sympathetic, but I wanted to choose when, if and with whom I would have a child.”
If two people married, say, with one promising the other that they would have children, but changed their mind after the marriage, could the deprived partner sue to demand unprotected sex? If this court case had gone through, I can’t see an argument against it. The BBC website quotes Anna Smajdor, a so-called ‘Researcher in medical ethics, Imperial College, London’ as saying:
“There is something deeply amiss here. Ms Evans is not allowed to have her embryos implanted without her ex’s consent, yet he – effectively – is allowed to have them destroyed them without hers.”
I feel the need for a lot more research into Ms Smajdor’s ethics before I know just how to refute her grandiose assertions. Perhaps she is against abortion in all cases? Or is she against abortion except with the express legal consent of the father? Or is she supporting an ethical double standard where only women have any reproductive rights at all? Something is amiss with the BBC not to have checked whether she’s a religious fundamentalist, a supporter of a huge extension of fathers’ rights, or a supporter of removing fathers’ rights in their entirety. Because from her statement, she could be any one of the three. There have been many arguments against abortion over the years, or in favour of restricting abortion to the consent of ‘the husband’ (it’s rarely a call from groups that would approve of a woman becoming pregnant outside marriage). If a woman decides to have an abortion when her partner desperately wants a child, that, too, is a tragedy. But, in the end, it’s the woman that has to carry the baby, and while of course it’s better if they can agree, not all of life can be happy for everyone and the final choice has to put people’s right to say no above the right of others to force a ‘yes’. Just as you can agree to have sex, but change your mind when it comes down to it, you must have the right to say no until the last possible moment about undertaking the huge emotional (and legal, and financial) responsibility of having a child. Usually biology dictates that the last moment for a man is considerably before that for a woman. When the biological processes are on hold, the decision has to be as well; biology is what gives women the veto, not moral superiority.

The law has made huge strides in the last half-century in taking control of women’s lives and bodies from church, state or husband and setting it firmly with women themselves. In particular, abortion is legal and everyone now accepts rape can occur within marriage as in any other relationship. It is staggering to suggest that these hard-won reproductive rights for women should have no equivalence for men, or that overturning them can be done without harmful consequences. A woman can choose to end her pregnancy, whatever her partner might want, because ultimately it is a choice over her body, not his. The only point at which a man has a choice is before a woman becomes pregnant. That choice should never, ever be taken away from women or from men. A woman is no longer taken to have given irrevocable consent, through marriage, to every sexual demand. Rolling that back so that, once a sexual relationship has been agreed, one partner can take advantage of the other whatever their objections seems horrific to me, whatever the circumstances and however deep the passion.

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Sex, the SNP, and Time To Shut Up

There’s been much mirth in the last few days over an SNP MP being involved in a ridiculously minor so-called ‘sex scandal’ (not something you’d even have noticed if you walked by and didn’t happen to recognise those involved). This sort of Schadenfreude is very tempting when the subject is a particularly sanctimonious sort whose party is embroiled in a ‘cash for bigotry’ scandal, but – at the risk of sounding like a puritan of the Isles – there’s no moral accomplishment in resisting something unless you’re tempted by it, and this is a sexual temptation that Liberals should resist.

I wrote last year that, despite all the many, many things John Prescott deserves to be sacked for, his sexual activities should not appear on the list. ‘Sex scandals’ are always funny, at least for people not in the scandalee’s party, but they shouldn’t be sackable offences. Or, to Liberals, offences at all, so long as what’s gone on isn’t rape or underage, or otherwise a clear legal offence without consent. So though whenever I, too, see a ‘Bigot caught with trousers down’-style story and want to laugh like a drain – I’m not made of stone – I have to ask, what good is it going to do to criticise someone for something that’s none of my business, and no problem for me?

Making censorious remarks; saying they’re fair game because of hypocrisy (and, let’s face it, unless someone has a 100% libertarian record, that’s an easy charge to stick on almost anyone); po-facedly talking about ‘human frailty’; just having a good nasty laugh… They may all seem like quite different responses, but run them by a general audience, and you know what? I’m guessing the nuances will be lost, and all those comments come out with exactly the same meaning: ‘We’re prudes, and sex is bad’. And that has two effects, one bad for Liberals in principle and the other bad for Liberal Democrats in practice. It makes Britain just that little bit more conservative, drip by drip. And the next time one of us is ‘caught at it’, our own nuances will be lost, and the public will just think we’re all the same and call us hypocrites.

James Graham has been doing an excellent job in skewering the SNP. He upset a lot of them by stating the bleeding obvious, that nationalism is about excluding people, though not even a single SNP apologist has been able to defend them taking money from millionaire bigot Brian Souter then by a mysterious coincidence instantly dropping all support for not having gay people picked on and vulnerable kids turfed onto the streets. Fancy! I notice current-number-1-artists The Proclaimers have already dumped the SNP in disgust, and presumably none of James’ interlocutors could bring themselves to say how happy they were that their party has been bribed into a blind eye to bigotry. Now, I can imagine James was particularly chuffed to see a story break about the SNP MP who, rather than merely offering tacit support for bigotry, was a proudly declared and active bigot. Yes, he’s a bigot who votes to hurt other people because they don’t meet the religious standards he chooses to impose on their and their families’ lives, but – shock! – he’s ‘fallen short of the ideal’ himself. It’s a good job James wrote his piece rather than delivering it to camera, as he’d probably have had difficulty not rubbing his hands with glee as he said that “unfortunately” Mr MacNeil “does fail the hypocrisy test”, making his “private life fair game”.

Sorry, James, but I can’t agree. You don’t do Mr MacNeil any good by crowing about it – well, fair dos, none of us particularly want to (OK, perhaps a little good; it’s probably too much to hope that he might experience a moment of Damascene revelation on discovering that, actually, he doesn’t like people attacking him for his sexuality either, but as I consider it morally worthwhile to retain a sliver of optimism for his redemption, it’d be wrong to join in with the kicking). You don’t do his family or the young women involved any good – well, maybe you consider them collateral damage. But you don’t do the cause of Liberalism any good, either. For a little short-term tactical hit on the SNP, you’ve made a poor strategic and moral decision: if you’re saying he’s done wrong, you can ultimately only do so by siding with the petty, small-minded, vindictive loathers of freedom that he champions. While this may be a defeat for him, it’s a victory for the bigoted theocracy he espouses.

Once again, I suggest we all queue up to say, ‘So what? They were adults, they knew what they were doing, and it’s none of your business. Good luck to them – each to their own.’ So we might upset a few curtain-twitchers. Well, they’re unlikely to vote for us anyway. But we mark out where we stand and encourage people not to feel the shame that bigots and busybodies want to get their kicks from in inflicting on those who have fun that hurts no-one.

And from last year’s article about Mr Prescott, which still sums up my views:
What’s happening now is nothing to do with public interest. It’s more the ‘Mum’ test; it’s taken as read that it’s a scandal if a paper publishes something you wouldn’t want your Mum to read about / look at. Well, big deal. I’ve done plenty that falls into that category, and if you haven’t, reader, you should get out more. More to the point, so have the most faithful and well-behaved husband and wife who have children. It’s just rubbish to say that’s a ‘scandal’.

I’m not going to suggest we adopt as our formal slogan, ‘Liberal Democrats: the party that says sex is all right’. Still, we’ve had worse, and – if slightly tongue-in-cheek – I’ve yet to hear a better suggestion for one likely to make people sit up, take notice and think, ‘Oh, that’s what the Lib Dems are for, and I like it.’
Update: Since posting this, I’ve spotted that Liberal Review made several similar points this morning. James has responded to them, too – see what you think.

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Pie in the Sky

Correspondents have occasionally wondered why I spend so much time plugging enthusing about programmes on BBC4. Well, I am an unabashed BBC fan, though while the show I make a point of recommending every week that I get round to it – The Avengers, on Thursday and Friday evenings – is now a BBC4 fixture, it’s actually the finest show ever produced by ITV. This afternoon, I can return the favour; if you tune to ITV3 at 3pm, you’ll see Richard Griffiths starring in the opening episode of one of the BBC’s most entertaining ’90s series, Pie in the Sky. Though they’ll be showing the series on most afternoons, if five episodes a week is too much for you, they appear to be repeating them at the more sedate pace of one per week, with the first story on again this Friday at 8 in the evening, and Saturday at 4.25 in the afternoon (something to watch while hoping the football finishes in time for Doctor Who).

In case you missed Richard Griffiths’ big starring role – in between Bird of Prey and Withnail and I and Harry Potter and big stage parts – Richard and I took to it because, I suspect, Richard likes detective dramas, but we both like food and gentle comedy. Mr Griffiths stars as Henry Crabbe, a Detective Inspector who longs to retire and open his own restaurant. With him being the unwilling brains to his slimy, grasping Assistant Chief Constable, naturally any dreams of leaving his police job for good are pie in the sky, and so that, inevitably, is the name of his restaurant. I’m particularly fond of pies, so my mouth always waters when I see Henry’s famous creations appear on screen; assistant chef Joe Duttine is mouth-watering in a different way, though I’m also very attached to Henry’s wife Margaret, beautifully played by Maggie Steed. There’s a lovely relationship between these two splendid characters, and they always made Richard and I go ‘Awwwhhh’. In a completely unrelated fact, she’s also the only accountant I can remember a leading man being in love with – obviously something we should see on TV much more often ;-)

This afternoon’s opening episode, The Best of Both Worlds, sets up the premise of the series but is rather darker than most of the subsequent stories, concerning police corruption and machiavellian plots wrapping round good-hearted Henry both from Michael Kitchen’s ruthless crime boss – he steals the show in foodie confrontation with Crabbe – and from the odious Assistant Chief Constable Fisher, who sees an opportunity to keep Henry under his thumb and solving his cases. Still, Henry and Margaret are wonderful together from the off, Constable Cambridge has instant star quality, and watch out for the fabulous scene where Henry interviews prospective assistant chefs for his kitchen.

Watch out, too, for the second episode, with its hideous hotel and a waiter who’s plainly too good for it (Crabbe turns down a pre-cooked, boil-in-the-bag dinner: “Excellent choice, sir”). That’s on – variously – tomorrow afternoon and the weekend after next. It sets up the pattern of the series, with glorious foodie detail, Henry doing the right thing, and a small victory over Freddy Fisher with several fine comic moments along the way. It would be easy for a series with such a gentle and old-fashioned view of life out in a country town to be rather conservative, but instead it takes a thoughtful and, indeed, liberal approach to policing and rehabilitation. While it’s Henry and Margaret that may make Richard and I so very fond of the series (they were probably the first TV couple we empathised with, and that was even watching the series together when we weren’t yet middle-aged), there are many memorable later episodes to come. Richard particularly remembers Devils on Horseback, because he likes cooking them; I was watching a bit of The Mystery of Pikey the other day, looking out for guest star Ian McNeice, who signed our copy of the DVD at Tenth Planet on Saturday. As well as being quite charming in person, incidentally, he talked about how lovely Richard Griffiths was to work with, and recommended Equus in the West End. Other Pie in the Sky stories to look out for off the top of my head include Lemon Twist’s sending up of management consultants (hard to do, I know), the wine-fancying and fantastic guest stars of Doggett’s Coat and Badge, Coddled Eggs, with an interfering food inspector, and the terrible things done with sausages in Pork Pies. And, if you remember the rather bittersweet final end of the series, a late piece of wish-fulfilment has now made it to the big screen; Freddy Fisher ends up shot by James Bond, so he comes to a suitably bad end.

Oh, and of course it’s the finale of Life On Mars tonight. Richard and I are both very excited, and – with eight hours to go – have so far managed to avoid spoilers…

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Sunday, April 08, 2007


The Most Perfect Eating Machine Ever Devised

A Happy Easter to all of you at home! Richard and I are just off for dinner with family, but he’s already given me something edible this morning – yes, after last year’s rival Dalek and TARDIS eggs, M&S have this year produced a larger black Dalek Sec Easter Egg, as well as one of the two competing Dalek double-egg-cups this season (strange idea, I know). It’s the big one that’s impressive, though. Not just the photo-illustrated sloping shape, but that it’s a Dalek casing with something “Organic” within: surely that makes it the most accurate Dalek model yet released? And, if you press the little button at the bottom, it shrieks “Exterminate!” Or, indeed, if you have it in a shopping bag and jolt it the merest smidgeon, causing all your fellow train passengers to jump…

Meanwhile, Millennium has permitted Richard to review the first Doctor Who episode to feature the words “Elephant” and “Millennium”.

Incidentally, as well as enjoying Doctor Who, we recorded Doctor Who Confidential and watched something else while it was on last night – blasphemy, I know, but we were strangely intrigued by Any Dream Will Do. All that back-to-back trailering with the Doctor Who Theme, and with John Barrowman, had clearly wormed its evil way into my psyche.

Three things struck me about it. One is that the scene where, of all the judges, John Barrowman is chosen to walk among the poor young men singing their hearts out and tap them on the shoulder to announce their doom. Aside from the torture all the lads were going through, John’s nobly suffering expression as he carried out their executions – ‘I have to be the Angel of Death because I know It Must Be Done, and I must stand above mere mortal emotion to do my terrible but necessary duty’ – was so exactly that of Captain Jack in Torchwood that I wondered if he’d been given that task purely because his other famous role would add subliminal extra weight to it. Then there’s the young man who, while as handsome as most of them, seemed so preternaturally pale that, with his black hair and dark eyes, it may have been unwise for him to dress in black with a ghostly white shirt like grave clothes adding to his vampiric appearance (well, we had just seen the second vampiric alien in two weeks in the preceding Doctor Who episode). When he swapped this for one with thick red and purple stripes, it was very difficult not to think ‘Blood!’ He needs building up. I recommend a chocolate Dalek. My last observation is that the oldest judge (a heavy grey-haired man with an evil smile) reminds of Anthony Zerbe, so I expect him to be revealed as the villain in the last episode. Possibly by Columbo.

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Thursday, April 05, 2007


Gordon and Tony?

Britain’s sulker-in-chief has a problem. Well, obviously he has many: the ‘rob the poor to bribe the well-off’ Budget, the inconveniently-timed ‘we told you so’ over his clobbering pensions, all the cheery affability of a bulldog raised on lemons… Take your pick. Perhaps the most crucial problem for Gordon Brown’s chances of election in his own right, though, is one he’s had for over a dozen years. The problem’s name is Tony Blair, but while the problem’s nature used to be that he was too popular for Gordon to beat, now he’s too unpopular for Gordon to be associated with.

Richard, Millennium and I were watching Newsnight on Tuesday – never good for our respective blood / stuffing pressures – and it was one of those particularly unenlightening editions where the guests were semi-detached spin-doctors for each of the parties. Surprisingly, I had a moment of enlightenment as a result (it can’t have been deliberate on any of their parts). With the launch of the various local election campaigns, each of them was spinning like mad while attempting to give the impression of ‘telling it like it is’, which largely meant that each was doing their best to look like the regretful bearer of sad but unavoidable news about the others’ leaders. So far, so predictable. However, it was when they started to discuss Gordon Brown that things got interesting. I suspect in particular that it was while watching the (clearly Blairite) Labour spin-doctor’s self-contradictory self-destruction on trying to claim that Gordon Brown was lovely, wonderful and magnificent, and that’s why the best thing for him would be for somebody, anybody, dear God, please, to fall out of the sky and squash the bastard flat before he becomes Prime Minister and destroys Tony’s legacy (I paraphrase, but by surprisingly little).

Gordon Brown will be the next Prime Minister. There’s simply no-one else in the Labour Party who’s been allowed to develop his stature or ability, and though that’s something of an indictment – just as it’s an indictment of a party with pretensions to democracy that a conversation between two men over a decade ago decided their next two leaders, and no-one’s been allowed to challenge that since – I’d be astounded if anyone else serious even stands, let alone has the faintest chance of winning. What’s much more up for grabs is how long he can stay Prime Minister, as that’s not something a quiet deal can arrange. That’s where the problem of Tony Blair comes in, and it crystallised for me watching Newsnight the other night.

I used to agree with the received wisdom, vaguely, and through not having thought about it much, that Labour’s best chances lay in Mr Blair and Mr Brown working and campaigning together, because each of them reaches the parts the other doesn’t. But I’ve decided that’s actually bollocks, outside of the Labour Party. Yes, when they appear together and say how marvellous they are, it’s a signal to their would-be-warring followers to calm down and stop strangling each other, and of course there’s a lot to be said for keeping your party united (or, at least, making it appear less terminally split). The trouble is, for people without a direct stake in the Labour Party, I think Mr Blairledum and Mr Brownledee appearing together is a very bad idea.

Think about it.

A large number of the population (and I hold my hand up to this, though unlike many of this group I’m not a former Labour supporter) have a visceral dislike of Mr Blair. Whether it’s specifically over Iraq, or simply that they can no longer believe a single word he says, he is pure political poison. Analysis of different politicians’ willingness to answer the question, published today, reveals to no-one’s surprise that Mr Blair’s snake-oil evasiveness is (along with John Reid’s bullying hit-and-run technique) at the bottom. The Times’ headline oddly spins that “Gordon Brown is best of a bad lot for straight talk,” and although that’s not actually borne out when compared against non-Labour politicians – Ming Campbell, Nick Clegg and David Davis all answer the question rather more often – Mr Brown’s advantage is that he’s less wriggly than Tony Blair. He’s still as evasive as David Cameron, which is rather a lot, but it bears out my instinct that when Mr Brown finally takes over, whatever his own many faults and evasions, not only he will be seen as someone with more substance but there will be a huge sigh of relief around the country that he’s not Tony Blair.

But what, you might ask, about those people who also politics reasonably closely, but unlike the first lot think that Mr Brown is a surly brute (and probably one of those horrid socialists, despite all evidence to the contrary) while Mr Blair is a class act? Yes, it’s true; despite everything, even people who should know better still see Mr Blair’s talent and will pine for his smarmy gifts. All right, I admit he’s a brilliant communicator, and though I can’t stand him, what can Mr Brown do to follow that style? Well, pretty much nothing. He just hasn’t got it, and if people are looking for a new Mr Blair, there’s already an inferior copy on the market that has little of the same appeal. They will still go to Mr Cameron, though, because ‘little’ of Mr Blair’s charm is better than ‘none’.

Then there’s a third group of voters, probably rather larger than the first two who are leaning in a particular way already. That group haven’t made up their minds, but could vote for Labour. There are probably quite a few things they’re not happy about with this government, but they’re not sold on the alternatives. They can see some appeal in both Mr Blair and Mr Brown, but they also know – because they’ve heard it so often – that the two hate each other’s guts, and every time they see them on TV together they just say, ‘Who are they trying to fool? What a pair of fakes’.

So while Mr Brown and Mr Blair being seen together, smiling and getting on and reading from their carefully prepared spontaneous notes about how each admires and respects the other may have resonance within the seething cauldron of bile that is the Labour Party, it’s a killer vote-loser to anyone else. Tony Blair standing next to Gordon Brown is a reminder of what things have been like with Mr Blair, and whether that’s reminding people that Tony was good or that Tony was bad is immaterial. People who can’t stand Mr Blair will be put off by Mr Brown’s closeness to him. People who admire Mr Blair will measure the two of them up when they’re with each other and find Mr Brown wanting. And people who just have a head on their shoulders will simply find their fake bonhomie offputting, because they don’t like people putting one over on them.

It may be a giveaway that both the Newsnight report from the Labour election launch and the different parties’ commentators all repeated variations of ‘This is their last campaign together’. No-one doubts it. But why? Surely Mr Blair will want to campaign his heart out alongside his old friend Mr Brown to win Labour that fourth term? They may as well have said, ‘This is the last time each of them will ever need something from the other enough to overcome their mutual loathing’. Inside the Labour Party, Mr Brown laying claim to continuity will avoid warfare over Mr Blair’s ‘legacy’. But in the country, ‘continuity’ with Mr Blair will be poison to his chances.

Mr Brown’s only hope is to present himself as a change: the only hope to win support from people who can’t stand Mr Blair, his lies and his war; the only hope to win support from people who liked Mr Blair and think Mr Brown has no chance of matching him if he makes the mistake of trying to do so; the only hope to win support from people who are a bit fed up with this government and want to feel there’s a change, but haven’t made up their mind to trust someone else.

So, being the ‘change’ is what Mr Brown has to do. Can he do it? I don’t think he can. His record is Mr Blair’s record: between them, they devised New Labour and led the country, and if the most powerful Chancellor in history thinks they didn’t get it right, it’s too late now. He can hardly distance himself from his own ‘achievements’ – after all, take away his variable but much-trumpeted economic record, and what does Mr Brown have to fall back on? His charisma? And perhaps there’s even a deeper reason. Mr Blair has been pure poison in politics and to the Labour Party for years now, and all Mr Brown has ever done is sulk. He just doesn’t have the courage to make the split. I may be wrong, but when power is finally prised from Mr Blair’s cold, deadly hands, I don’t believe Mr Brown will even then have the killer instinct to say, ‘Right. You all know a lot of things went wrong with Tony. With me, it’s going to be different.’

NB – If anyone’s been trying to drop me a line this week, while my Hotmail account (see the sidebar) is still working fine, my ISP’s been having all sorts of problems. That means my main e-mail address, for those who know it, is currently bouncing. They promise to fix it by tomorrow evening, but don’t hold your breath! Please try sending any messages again in a few days, or to the addy given at the side here.

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