Monday, April 30, 2012

 

The Avengers – My Wildest Dream


Someone in the office you want to kill? Aggresso-therapist Dr Jaeger offers a harmless way to relieve your frustrations. What could possibly go wrong? The Avengers – My Wildest Dream gives you The Manchurian Capitalist, a disorientating, violent thriller of board members killing each other in dreams, all witnessed by Steed and Tara. Guest stars include Peter Vaughan, Edward Fox, John Savident and the mighty Philip Madoc, who sadly died last month, as did stylish director Robert Fuest, who gives the episode real (or is it hallucinatory?) punch: dizzyingly shifting points of view; stunning fight sequences; showing off striking sets…
“It’s a – dream! It’s all a dream!”
My Wildest Dream was one of the episodes that first got me into The Avengers when I discovered the series in the middle of Channel 4’s mid-’80s repeats (even taping the thrilling fight and car chase after Vengeance On Varos and The Mark of the Rani to fill up one of my precious Betamax tapes), and for me it’s still a favourite. You can find it on Disc 3 of The Avengers – The Complete Series 6 DVD Box Set, or Disc 32 in The Avengers Complete 50th Anniversary Collection – I’ve previously offered tips on which The Avengers DVDs to buy – while original viewers in 1969 had a slightly harder job: because of concerns about the violence having too much oomph, it was shown on a different day than usual and much later in the evening. Even though there’s only one tiny spot of blood (the BBFC now classifies it a PG). Surprisingly, this was made quite early in Tara King’s season of The Avengers but held back until close to the end, despite being one of her best – Linda Thorson is at her most mature and confident, looks cool, has great timing and gets a fantastic fight, so this fits right in with her later episodes, generally her best and a fabulously strong run.

Though he remained as consultant for a while longer, My Wildest Dream was the final script by Philip Levene, one of The Avengers’ most prolific and defining writers, his scripts known for their humour, teasingly science fiction elements and general outrageousness. This, however, while witty in places, is uncharacteristically down to Earth and tense – while for me Tara King’s season of The Avengers is one of the two that best balance the silly and the sinister, this threatening psychodrama weighs heavily at the sinister end and is easily Levene’s darkest, revisiting his Death’s Door drugs and dreams but with considerably more palpable danger (plus a dash of Brian Clemens’ Honey For the Prince). And that’s greatly boosted both by Robert Fuest’s vividly in-your-face direction and Philip Madoc’s unsettlingly bipolar performance…


Robert Fuest and Philip Madoc

Artist, designer and director Robert Fuest started off on The Avengers as a set designer right in the early days, on Ian Hendry episodes that no longer exist – though you can see his designs in the surviving episode The Frighteners, and pictures of some of his work in the photo galleries for the Season 1 and 2 DVDs – and came back with a bang at the other end of the ’60s as a director in his own right, instantly becoming the best of the Series 6 helmsmen across the seven Tara King stories he directed. He returned for The New AvengersThe Midas Touch and The Tale of the Big Why, though he’s probably most famous for the two Dr Phibes films he directed in between. Yes – they were his idea. Marvellous!

My Wildest Dream was actually Fuest’s first Avengers episode in the director’s chair, though the first of his to be broadcast was Game, a story so highly regarded it was chosen to launch Tara King, and which I’ve previously raved about for its Op-Art inventiveness and superb eye for colour. My Wildest Dream is less quintessentially Avengers, not having the same immediately joyous wacky appeal, but for me it’s even better. The cinematography is simply outstanding, with lessons learned from those 1961 Avengers taped in poky sets – watch for those inventive camera angles that liven up, say, Nurse Owen talking by showing her in her own desk mirror, or his instinctive affinity for shadows – but getting every advantage from the bigger budget, whether it’s roving cameras inside cars on location or the rapid cross-cutting stabbings that still make you jump even if what you see is rarely what you think you see. That other most prolific, defining Avengers writer Brian Clemens clearly loved Hitchcock as an influence on his scripts, but if ever there were a Hitchcockian Avengers director in his pace and energy, his inventiveness, and his gleeful black humour that nearly but not quite goes too far, it was Robert Fuest.


My Wildest Dream – Philip Madoc Having A Bad Day in 1969
 
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While Bob Fuest has always been one of the most outstanding contributors to The Avengers for me and here hits his stride so perfectly that it’s difficult to believe it was his first time, on the other side of the camera there’s the final Avengers performance from another of my favourite irregulars in the series, Philip Madoc of the gorgeous voice and predatory grin. While in his five Doctor Who screen roles he was usually the guest-starring villain, in his five Avengers episodes he was usually a little lower down the cast list, but still making a memorable impact. I love his understated Dutch banker who quietly realises when the game is up in Death of a Batman and his scene-stealing Soviet agent in The Correct Way to Kill (for which, when I reviewed it, I was for very personal reasons particularly sad that fellow actor Peter Barkworth had just died; since then, tragically, all that episode’s male guest stars have passed away), but it’s his first and his last appearances in The Avengers that are his most striking for me. Startlingly young and smooth in 1962’s The Decapod, he unleashes that fabulously wolfish grin as an ambassador who may or may not be the villain – while in 1969, his uncanny, unhinged business executive Slater persistently steals the show (and is framed on probably my favourite Avengers set just to make sure you can’t ignore him).

For my other favourite series, in Doctor Who it’s strangely Philip Madoc’s first and last TV roles that are his least impressive, while in between this great actor created two utterly terrific but unrecognisably different villains (as Jack Graham suggests in his tribute on Shabogan Graffiti). Both The War Games with Patrick Troughton and The Brain of Morbius with Tom Baker are outstanding stories, with Time Lords the ultimate villains in each but Madoc’s roles more memorable still: the War Lord, the cold alien conqueror who comes in after his junior villains have been fighting to outdo each other and dominates with underplayed, deadly, quiet wit; and egotistical surgeon Mehendri Solon, determined both to bring his master back from the dead and to establish himself definitively as the maddest scientist in history greatest doctor in history, enjoying every word as he declaims, sneers and insults his way through a horrible but very funny Frankenstein pastiche.
“Your name will also go on ze list! What is it?”
“Don’t tell him, Pike!”
I’d provide an overview of Philip Madoc’s career, but he’s been in everything. A champion of and the definitive portrayal of The Life and Times of David Lloyd George; DCI Noel Bain in his own detective series, A Mind to Kill; a long-running lead role as Cadfael on the radio (and, like his TV counterpart, the Master – or is he?); probably most famously for an actor famous for his guest roles, the U-Boat Captain in The Deadly Attachment, Dad’s Army’s finest episode, who visibly almost corpses as he rejects the idea of nasty, soggy chips, wanting them “Crisp – unt light brown.” I wish Channel 4 would show again or release 2003’s eerie Y Mabinogi, for which he provided a (Welsh) voice of legend and which I’ve only seen once, in the middle of the night. And it’s telling that, on the joyous news last month that Alan Garner was at last to return to his Alderley Edge tales – the first two being such a major part of our childhoods – the first thought for both Richard and I was that, sadly, Mr Madoc would not be around to record Boneland for CD in the gorgeous way he’s read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, each of which we’ve recently listened to together.

I think there was only one event I knew of at which I might have met Robert Fuest, and I wasn’t well enough to go; there were a handful at which I could have met Philip Madoc, and though I was too ill to make most of them, I’m so glad I made it to a shonky pool hall in Barking in 2008 on the DVD release of The Brain of Morbius. Though he was pleased to recall praise from other actors for his sinister War Lord, he was very clear that Dr Solon was his favourite Who character, for the script, for how much he had to do, and for how much fun it all was (miming dropping and picking up an evil brain). I remember him being presented with his own copy of the DVD, and saying sotto voce to fellow guest Cynthia Grenville as she passed him hers,
“Now, Cynthia, if I sign that, it’ll rub straight off.”
“Oh? Why?”
“Because you haven’t taken the wrapping off.”
Asking which one it was when presenting him with an earlier DVD release of My Wildest Dream, I told him:
“You go a bit mad in this one. Peter Vaughan had been injecting you with new drugs.”
“Ah, yes. He was always doing that.”
But what I most remember was when I apologetically passed him our DVD of Doctor Who – The Power of Kroll to sign, knowing his opinion of it, and all the backstory why (and why he was much happier that his real final Doctor Who roles, many years later, included classier audio dramas like Master and Faction Paradox). Philip bared his teeth at it and asked, carefully enunciating each word, “Is this the one by the sea-side?” as if not quite actually saying ‘Why do you wish me to autograph a turd?’ Though he perked up mildly at the feature about him, A Villain For All Seasons, I felt I had to justify myself:
“I know you don’t think much of this one, but I always find your performance very entertaining. It’s the way you look permanently pissed off – you seem to be playing someone who’s looking at his boss and thinking he could do a much better job of it.”
I was rewarded with that full, dazzling, dangerous, wolfish grin.
“Just very good acting.”

That Golden Moment
“I feel so much better, Doctor. I feel so much better.”


My Wildest Dream – Drenched in Red
 
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From the disturbing, disorientating teaser to the charming, funny tag scene, My Wildest Dream brims with superb moments, taking in Tara’s most breathtaking fight sequence and probably my favourite – and one of the most barking – of all Avengers sets along the way. But the scene that sums up this episode for me may just help explain why some censors and schedulers took fright. It’s less a golden moment than a crimson one, with two brilliant guest stars and stunning direction that both surprises and shocks.

Boardroom tensions have been just a little edgier than usual at Acme Precision Combine Ltd; undergoing unconventional treatment from the sinister Dr Jaeger, one board member has already stabbed a rival then fallen to his own death while apparently believing himself to be in a dream, and now Philip Madoc’s Slater seems to be going down much the same path to conclude his own clashes with Henry Winthrop. And, as they did the first time, Steed and Tara have had a mysterious tip-off and dashed to the scene in Steed’s Great Gatsby yellow Rolls (ahead of being incredibly fashionable in the ’70s, and tipped to be so again this year). Winthrop’s home, The Lodge, is a great find – like a giant witch’s hat, it’s very distinctive, a memorable setting for a murder. We hear Howard Blake’s swirling music and sinister bass beat, as we did the first time, as Madoc explains in gleeful voiceover how Winthrop lives alone, the camera cutting from him in Jaeger’s surgery, reflected in his own knife, to his legs striding up to the house, to viciously guillotining Winthrop’s picture in his red-lit darkroom – an inspired piece of substitute violence – before he stabs, Winthrop dies, our heroes burst in —! Only for Winthrop to turn, developing film in hand, surprised but very much alive, Slater’s attack being just another drug-induced fantasy acted out with his aggresso-therapist. Or is it?

Of all the five members of the Acme Board, Slater and Winthrop are by far the most entertaining, thanks to Philip Madoc’s superb turn as a man who, doped out of his head, is the one who most enjoys it all and then is most miserable in withdrawal (only in being separated from his dreams and his doctor, of course – what do you mean, ’60s drug metaphors? It’s not a metaphor, he’s just drugged to the eyeballs) and, as his main rival for direction of the company, the marvellous John Savident. Another man of many memorable guest parts, he’s probably best-known for Coronation Street – never mind – and here he grabs the camera in just one scene, surprised by the intruders, shocked by news of deaths in the company, but preeningly confident that it’s just a false alarm and, if not, he can handle anyone with the gun he keeps to hand.

But outside, in another car among the daffodils, Jaeger’s cool, calm orderly Dyson is losing his cool and his schedule as he frustratedly tries to bring the lurching, incoherent Slater round just enough to prod him out of the car and into the Lodge. Tara sees him go, just too late, and the hallucination plays out all over again, Winthrop gasping horribly and lurching right into our faces like – sorry, I’m quite fat, too, but it’s an irresistible simile – a harpooned whale just as our handily unimpeachable witnesses burst in once more and, satisfied at acting out his fantasy again, Slater thanks his doctor, smiles, and offers his knife to them to put away for his next go…

The Avengers has always shown death, and frequently great violence, often of a fantastic nature, which the directors imply rather than present in gory horror – people shredded, bloodlessly, in The Hidden Tiger (with which this has a twist or two in common) or The Winged Avenger spring to mind – but while those make you fill in the blood, the sheer speed and savagery of the stabbings in this episode, the way the camera plunges around, even when most of the time it’s only dummies that the knives are plunging into, makes this far more startlingly visceral than earlier stories that should, in theory, have been more gruesome. And of all the scenes, this one’s the most striking, in part because all four actors are compelling, but also because in the darkroom everything already looks like it’s drenched in blood – and it’s the only moment when Fuest really pushes it as we see a splash of proper blood on Winthrop’s beached front and Slater, fascinated, pokes his finger in it for a moment to look at it before turning to Steed and Tara. He’s going to have a hell of a comedown…


Steed and Tara

I love The Avengers and, unlike some, in particular the sixth series with Tara King – that glorious fanfare opening with knights, roses, running along the bridge in sunshine and colour to open every episode, and with mysteries solved by Patrick Macnee at his most urbane and authoritative and Linda Thorson wide-eyed but winning through. Both lead actors are on top form in My Wildest Dream, with Linda Thorson especially giving one of her best performances: here, Tara is resourceful, witty, stunning in one of the series’ most physical fights and puts off an unwelcome admirer with considerable style (and a cheer from me when she throws him flying). She even gets to do such effective detective work in following leads that Steed gives her twelve out of ten.


My Wildest Dream – Pop Art Fight
 
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It’s a great day for Steed and Tara’s outfits, too. Tara’s given two looks with culottes, which really suit her, a pleasant pale blue and white ensemble and a terrifically cool one with a leather jacket that she looks far more comfortable in than if she was forced into one of Cathy Gale’s old catsuits (something Diana Rigg never liked). That’s what she wears when checking out Slater’s optical workshop at Acme, when Fuest’s direction really lets rip in a massive Pop-Art punch-up between her and Dyson, as both hurl each other across an enormous room filled with blue, red and yellow glass, framed through jagged broken glass and targets and then finally leaping out through the door and into an almost as kinetic car chase, all to the accompaniment of some of Howard Blake’s most exciting music and then Laurie Johnson’s (which I remember from the likes of Something Nasty in the Nursery). Outstanding. The follow-up fight’s briskness is a bit of a let-down, not to mention showcasing unsafe taste in decoration, but you can almost hear her saying, ‘Well, haven’t we done this?’

Steed, too, looks good – particularly in grey with a striking copper tie, but also in his dark blue suit, blue shirt and maroon tie or rich chocolate-brown suit with trademark deeper brown collar and matching tie. He can even get away with a yellow shirt and olive-brown suit, just as she manages to look businesslike in a bright kimono, though both of them have brief bad moments (ironically, the only outfit she’s complimented on on screen is a green tartan best left to a Scottie dog, while it’s a good job that the closing tag scene has such wit and warmth to distract you from his hideous brown striped trousers and roll-neck). His best scene here, on the other hand, is far more laid-back than Tara’s physicality – once she’s tracked down Dr Jaeger, he goes in for the kill. Or, far worse, the piss-take…


Bad Therapy
“You’re not in my dream. Go away.”

My Wildest Dream – Observation
 
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Madoc is outstanding as he’s pulled from one reality to another, always told what to think by forceful medical figures, confused but sullen and resisting – and never more memorable than once he’s been whisked away after killing Winthrop, to be discussed by Steed and Tara with pompous Dr Reece, who believes everything in the world can be dealt with by “New drugs, you know,” and who keeps confronting him with the nasty reality. It’s a good scene in itself, as everyone simply insists on their own point of view and has no interest in listening to the people they’re talking to, but it’s elevated to brilliance by Fuest’s direction and Robert Jones’s hilariously untherapeutic set design. Yes, rather than being put in a comfy bed on a friendly ward with flowers round a little window, Slater has been put in the Observation Room. And I can never help but hoot as Reece stalks away from Slater, both of them still talking across each other, and the massive white space with a threatening red stripe down the middle, pointing to the patient, is revealed, the word “OBSERVATION” picked out in large, unfriendly letters along the whole back wall. Just to perfect it, it doesn’t have a door, but another wall, which simply glides in front to snap shut and leave poor Slater stranded. Walls just shouldn’t move like that. And Reece’s moving phone mounted on it does strange things to your head, too.
“A catharsis! A release of all repressions and hatreds! A man lives out his dream – his wildest dream!”
Peter Vaughan is another of my favourite actors, another I’d love to meet, and another with a list of roles as long as your arm. Probably best-known as Porridge kingpin Genial Harry Grout, today (like top Avengers guest star Julian Glover) he’s reaching a whole new audience in Game of Thrones, though not so far in its sexposition scenes, high fantasy’s answer to the Topless News Channel. And his Jaeger here is utterly compelling, a self-confessed quack who genuinely believes that he’s ahead of his time, a pioneer. He is a real doctor, too – but of what (perhaps Valeyard is a German title)? Intense, mesmerising, vaguely Germanic, he’s My Wildest Dream’s other outstanding performance, in a role that has much in common with Ronnie Barker’s Mr Cheshire in fellow Avengers classic The Hidden Tiger – an obsessed, focused, brilliant technocrat (and a bit round-faced and in Porridge)!

While Laurie Johnson does a splendid job taking over the music for The Avengers once it goes into film from Series 4 onwards – not least in providing the main title them with that perfect fanfare – for some of Series 6 he was busy with a musical and recommended new composer Howard Blake, later of Flash Gordon and The Snowman fame; this was the first of ten episodes for which Blake provided much of the score in a similar but sharper style, and arguably his best (up with Who Was That Man I Saw You With, which provides the opposite bookend to his Avengers soundtrack CD release).

Between them, it’s Peter Vaughan, Howard Blake and of course Robert Fuest who seize our attention from the first here in a gripping teaser sequence as the first member of the Acme Board narrates his stalking his ideal victim to a harsh jazz beat, up the fire escape, into his room, a vertiginous spin and plunging his poniard in to stabbing brass – then reeling out into reality, disorientatingly now set to floating, dreamlike music, where it’s only a dummy with the man’s face that he’s knifed, egged on by Jaeger’s shouting and injections. After which he’s picked up for work by none other than the man he’s just ‘killed’… Dr Jaeger believes so passionately in himself that he’s the centre of the episode for most of the way through, dominating members of the Board and the voice that keeps urging, compelling. Madoc’s scenes with Vaughan crackle with conviction as two superb actors spur each other on – one sweating, sullen, in denial, then finding release; the other lashing out with sheer charisma to force Slater into accepting his point of view, revealing his innermost fears and hatreds, then delighted as he makes a breakthrough:
“Excellent! That’s really excellent, Mr Slater! ‘Kill’… ‘Destroy’… And ‘erase’! I particularly like ‘erase’!”
And as his ‘patients’ stab and stab again the dummies with the faces of their tormentors, though you know it’s only a dummy, though you know no-one’s really being murdered – this time – you can’t help feeling queasy at the violence with which sawdust gouts out onto the glass table through which we’re seeing Jaeger’s rapt face.


My Wildest Dream – Even Stabbing A Straw Man Looks Disturbing
 
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Of course, it all falls apart. That’s what happens when Steed walks in.

From the moment Steed charmingly praises Jaeger’s receptionist, Janet Owen – “What a nice voice you have. Soothing” – and she’s one of the least charmed respondents in TV history, and Jaeger makes the mistake of letting this relaxed, charming man who claims to think he’s a horse into his consulting room, Jaeger’s galloping downhill faster than you can say ‘woo’. Suddenly, the Doctor is in need of some aggresso-therapy of his own. And the other big guest star you’re likely to recognise might just help…


Not Liking Steed, and Simply Not Like Tara
“Who is it you hate?”
“Steed.”
“Who is it you hate?”
“Steed.”
“Who is it you hate?”
“Steed!”
Oh, poor Teddy. No, scratch that – the Hon Teddy Chilcott is an utter git, a self-obsessed upper-class twit who’s clearly met Tara at one of the parties she hates and just will not leave her alone. It’s rare that any of the Avengers get a love interest, and here she’s very plainly not interested – even in Edward Fox. Handsome but querulous, he disapproves of her “cloak and dagger nonsense” and even more so of Steed. The impression is that he just doesn’t want a woman to work, but it is perhaps possible that he’s particularly pissed off by secret agents – might he afterwards be so scarred by this experience that he applies himself to the secret service in order to control them, and winds up M? Never! But, sexist git as he is, the way Tara simply keeps ignoring him is very funny, from her replying to his fishing for a compliment (“Persistent,” she suggests), to her priming Steed with excuses to get away, to the marvellous moment when he lies in wait to surprise her with flowers… And his despicable follow-up, where his sexism is notably only sustained by false advantage, the swine, and exactly how he gets his comeuppance. Then, satisfyingly, he’s beaten up for a third time, now by Jaeger’s nurse / receptionist, and deployed as a sinister pawn in which, at last, you can see Fox as the Jackal to be.

Nurse Owen is, though, the only element of My Wildest Dream that doesn’t entirely come off for me – and not just because I never warm to a sinister medic called Owen. She starts off as the intriguing voice on the phone that keeps propelling Steed into the plot, giving him tip-offs that are just too late to save the murder victims, and when called on to be cold and enigmatic, Susan Travers is perfectly decent. My problem with her comes when she gets to do the action scenes – also rather well – and also gets many costume changes: striking in dark blue with red stripes at collar and cuffs; all right in pale orange frock; nasty in pale mud; sofa-like in brown stripes. Paired with an older, authoritative man (ignore Dyson, who in his sharp suit and shades just wants to be Alfie), too, it suddenly becomes obvious who she’s meant to be – who else gets all those outfits, intelligence, and to knock men out? She and her partner are evil reflections of Tara and Steed. And though they’re both quite serviceable, they just don’t have an ounce of the charisma needed for those parts. He even has a fat, ugly car. Our heroes agree, too, as at the climax Tara wallops one villain in passing and the other’s easily carpeted. But that does make the ending a little unsatisfying; I like to imagine them recast with actors a little less dull and, once all is revealed, being something more of a challenge.


My Wildest Dream – At Last, Champagne
 
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The tag scene as Tara psychoanalyses Steed is, of course, light, frothy, bubbly – in a word, champagne. As a boy, little John confesses, he would creep to his father’s study for a splash of soda water. He really wanted lemonade, but his father wouldn’t have the palate-rotting stuff in the house. This tickled me when I saw it as a boy, because I remember similarly stealing into the kitchen by night to make some Andrews’ Liver Salts, not because I liked the taste, but because at least it fizzed! So, wonders therapist Tara, does that explain his liking for…?
“No, the insatiable craving, the perpetual desire, the uncontrollable urge to lay my hands on a bottle of champagne, that’s a very very different reason…”
“Dare I ask?”
The bottle pops.
“Because… I happen to like it.”
They drink, and cue the music!

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Saturday, April 28, 2012

 

Advise and Consent (1962) and The Best Man (1964)

A US political thriller from the early ’60s with Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton and Burgess Meredith, if you were watching BBC2 this time last week you’d have caught Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent. It’s a gripping film, but always blurs in my mind with Franklin Schaffner’s The Best Man from two years later (either side of the far more famous The Manchurian Candidate). While one was written by a conservative and the other by a liberal, they’re remarkably similar in outline: Henry Fonda wants to get a high position; a secret from his past; a dying President; and gay blackmail. Both are strong films, if not stunning – the former more interesting, more complex and shaded in its characters, the second more black and white (though they’re both, in fact, monochrome) but more coherent and driven. They were both unusual in their inclusion of homosexuality at the time – though as a shameful secret, of course – and in their political corruption, though both are more ‘moral’, more hopeful about the system, than the ’70s glum, paranoid conspiracy movies that Frankenheimer’s ’60s thrillers heralded.

Advise and Consent
“Fortunately, our country always manages to survive patriots like you.”
This is a tragedy of history; a dying President wants to secure his legacy by appointing a liberal intellectual Secretary of State who can negotiate for détente (before the term was in use) with the Soviets, but time is catching up with him and the history of everyone involved is creeping up on them. This one’s taken from a 1959 bestseller and Pulitzer Prize-winner by Allen Drury, its title a reference to the US Senate’s role in confirming Presidential nominations, and the crucial candidate is Fonda’s Robert Leffingwell. The film’s key players, though, are really two wily old Senate hands, both from the same party (clearly the Democrats in both films, though unnamed in either, from the days when both parties were much broader churches though, as one old President confesses, still required to ‘talk Church’) but old opponents, the Majority Leader Walter Pidgeon and the cantankerous old conservative Charles Laughton, here in his final screen role, both of whom are willing to do rather more than make speeches to get their own way. Laughton’s Seab Cooley is a virulent anti-communist who sees Leffingwell as a fifth columnist and goes all-out to stop his appointment, both in fiery speeches and in far more dangerous gimlet-eyed observation and plotting. Pidgeon’s Majority Leader is an urbane fixer for his President with a more charming manner but no less ruthless an instinct. And the twin hand grenades tossing between them are the secrets that suddenly near exposure about Leffingwell and the idealistic junior Senator Brig Anderson, hand-picked to see the nomination go through but doing his job rather too conscientiously.

Burgess Meredith, always a terrifically watchable actor, later to find enduring fame as the ’60s Batman series’ Penguin, and aiding the film in muddying the novel’s more strident conservatism by his history as a leftist actor not long since Blacklisted, shows up at the nomination hearing here to explode Leffingwell’s past – testifying that, as young men, both were part of the same Communist cell. It’s a small but vital performance, jittery, passionate, lost; part sneak, part victim. And Leffingwell calmly blows him apart by proving each of his details wrong… Before confessing to the President that while the man may have misremembered names and places, his accusation was true. The President, though, is determined to wave this aside and keep pushing him, just as Cooley is now more determined than ever to push back. And, while from that point Fonda (in theory the focal point of the movie) fades curiously into the background, it’s after this that both push Senator Anderson too far.


Advise & Consent
 
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Don Murray is excellent as Brig Anderson, a young, handsome, upright Mormon who has details of Leffingwell’s Communist past thrust on him… And is then blackmailed in turn for his love affair with another man back when he was in the army. There are some implications, perhaps to make him more favourable to the audience or the censor, that he was only ‘situationally homosexual’ – but it seems to me that there are more than enough hints about his “unexciting marriage” to suggest that he was merely doing what so many gay men did then, and some still do, particularly if seeking political office. This was the first US film to show a gay bar – seedy and shameful, of course, and his literally tossing his ex-lover into the gutter where he belongs! is hardly pro-gay, not to mention then following the traditional plotline for all fictional gays of the time, and yet Brig is handsome, honest and more moral than anyone else in the film, none of which are attributes commonly associated with the Hollywood homosexual (even today, if you can find any). He’s a remarkable contrast with the film’s boo-hiss character – not the Alger Hiss character, that’s Fonda’s – the slimy, blackmailing Left-McCarthy Senator Van Ackerman, who in an interesting choice comes over much more as the cowardly thin streak of nothing that characters coded as gay were portrayed as, while it’s sexy, hairy-chested gay Brig who’s the butch one (the poster, above, bizarrely airbrushes him into a plucked chicken).

Part of the appeal of this film is that it doesn’t pull its punches – but also that it’s more complicated than the headlines allow. The only really despicable character is Van Ackerman, and I suspect he’s the closest to Allen Drury’s original conception: on the one hand, he’s there to scream that people who want to do business with the commies are nasty, unprincipled, untrustworthy and probably misled; on the other, it’s not difficult to see the evil McCarthy figure being one of the far left as Drury protesting too much, while through Twenty-First Century eyes the liberal being the extreme gay-baiter brings a wry smile against a Republican field for which the entry fee is strident homophobia. Perhaps the film’s intriguing balance and layers of character and politics are down to director Preminger’s occasionally deflecting the original text, whether through casting or slight plot changes – and the gay character being a Mormon, too, suggests for US politics today a less black and white approach than many would want to believe (the real-life model, incidentally, was the blackmailing by his fellow Senators of Lester Hunt of Wyoming over his gay son). And if you want a few entertaining incidental details, watch out for the minor Senators – not least an ancient old man who was a real five-term Senator, and a sparkling young woman who, yes, really is Betty White…

The Best Man
“It’s not that I mind you being a bastard. It’s that you’re a stupid bastard.”
Franklin Schaffner’s film has less complicated morals, a much more clean-cut ending and the disadvantage of coming second to Advise and Consent, both on the big screen and in Gore Vidal’s original play coming a year after the former’s book; it’s difficult not to think that it must, at least, have been aware of the crossovers with its predecessor. And yet it still manages to play for bigger stakes – not a Secretary of State, but a potential President – and by choosing Henry Fonda again, it has the confidence to face its critics right down, just as it has more balls-out models in American politics of the day. The central question here is who would make the best President between two candidates, and rather as if caught in Captain Kirk’s infamous transporter accident, one is liberal, moral, but vacillating, the other sexy, confident and a sociopath. But, the film and its aged President say, you need both intelligence and the killer instinct, so could the worst man be, politically, the best? And is this really more about who is the worst?

Henry Fonda’s William Russell here is a far less compromised character than his Robert Leffingwell – and far more his own man than a counter to be moved around between bigger players. Notably, rather than having literally vanished by the end of the movie as an illustration of his powerlessness, here he’s called on to make the crucial decisions and, eventually, makes one. And he’s no ex-Communist – instead, his opponent has got wind of a long-ago nervous breakdown, in some ways still more of a taboo for a political figure today than being gay is (and one that would explode in two Presidential elections’ time after the film was made). And, like the charming Senate Majority Leader in the first film, he’s having an affair – several of them, it seems – though, of course, as long as it’s a woman not your wife you’re involved with the club doesn’t seem to mind in either film, while even the suggestion of a man not your husband (or, worse, that is your husband) would be guaranteed to send voters screaming for the hills. Not that either film has many women, nor any who make an impact on the central plots – I’d wonder if there’s a deliberate subtext about the similarly homosocial environments of politics and the army, but I suspect it’s merely that in the early ’60s no-one in Hollywood or Washington bothered to think that women might make the decisions. At least Russell’s wife has some clout to her, though the ‘What women don’t like in a First Lady’ nagging activist is there only for stereotype and comic relief (when a similarly themed film was made in 2000, with Joan Allen as The Contender, note that the ‘slut-shaming’ is still directed against women, as with gays, and never at straight men who shag around, and whether she did or not). But it’s all the men who do the real machinations, from the jumpy public relations chief to the sharply observed “progressive liberal” Southern governor.


The Best Man
 
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The most mesmerising figure here, though, is Cliff Robertson’s Joe Cantwell, Russell’s rival for the nomination. Apparently Vidal based Russell largely on Adlai Stevenson and Cantwell on Nixon, but while the Russell’s ‘philandering’ suggests a subtext of Kennedy for him, Robertson’s looks and charisma (and hawkishness) suggest a subtext of Kennedy for him, too, throwing sparks into what is plainly a Democratic Party in-fight. You may have seen him in later years as Spiderman’s Fonda-role-alike Uncle Ben (as well as another Batman villain in between); here, he’s terrifying, and when old President Art Hockstader pretty much tells him that with great power comes great responsibility, you can tell that the younger Robertson role doesn’t believe a word of it. It’s ironic that it’s Russell who has the documented mental health issues, as the one with the evident problem here is confident, blazing-eyed, even, Joe Cantwell, whose sociopathic inability to listen to other people extends even to not noticing Lee Tracy’s star turn old President telling him he’s dying.

And the gay plot? Again, this film chooses a simpler path, though the one that might have been expected to turn some of the audience to Joe Cantwell’s side then would ironically turn more stomachs four decades later – again, there’s the ammunition to blackmail him with stories of men shagging together when deprived of women in the army. Can Russell use this against him? Not because it’s anti-gay, you understand, but that blackmail even of that sort of thing makes him wring his hands. Try it, says the terrifying Cantwell in a twist; I have an alibi. Yes, I was named in the investigation into all those gays at that army base… But I wasn’t one of them. I was the one who accused them all. Back then, perhaps Gore Vidal was both ducking the censor by not having any actual ho-mo-sexuals and subtly trying to position the most strident homophobe as the villain; today, the first makes me think the film’s not as confident as it thinks it is, but the second explodes into making you think, this man’s really repellent. What a piece of Santorum.

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Friday, April 27, 2012

 

Judge Dredd – The Complete Case Files 01

The galaxy’s greatest comic, 2000AD, has just turned thirty-five, and this week it’s thirty years since I started reading it. So where better to start again than with this chunky 300+ page reprint volume, taking in the whole first year of the grim future law officer who’s still 2000AD’s star, Judge Dredd? Set in the huge Mega-City 1 of a century ahead, covering almost the whole of the former USA’s Eastern seaboard, these stories are sometimes primitive, building Dredd’s world, often funny, already with some remarkable artwork, and where everything from TV to family to the Olympics can kill you…

This omnibus graphic novel is the first of a superb series collecting the whole of Judge Dredd (ish) in chronological order, and with many advantages over previous reprints – it’s the whole thing; it’s a very thick volume; it’s quite a cheap price; this one has several ‘extra features’ at the end – and only a few downsides (with the cheapness comes a slightly smaller page size than original publication, making some panels a bit cramped, and while most of the stories here originally opened with two colour pages, this is only black and white, something more noticeable on the few pages for which they clearly didn’t have the original proofs and are printed in glorious grey murk).


Meet Judge Dredd
 
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I Am the Law!
“Mega-City 1… 800 million people and every one of them a potential criminal. The most violent, evil city on Earth… But, God help me, I love it.”
You can tell it’s early days when Judge Dredd is still saying “God” and not “Grud”; 2000AD soon discovered, like Battlestar Galactica, that they could get away with as much profanity as they liked as long as they made it up (strangely, the end of this volume’s ‘covers gallery’ of Dredd featured on the front of 2000ADs of the time has only three of his six, and one of those omitted has an early use of “By Stomm!”). Of all the Dredd compilations – and this “Complete” series alone now has about twenty volumes – this is the crudest and simplest, but one of the most interesting, as it gradually builds Dredd’s world in the nightmarish sprawl of the Mega-City that from the start is far, far more than just a giant New York, with Carlos Ezquerra’s fabulous weird swirling citiblock designs, even if they’re not yet named as such. And the giant of the giant city, Dredd himself, is also still not yet fully formed as the most capable, most implacable, the most feared and famous of the Judges – though he’s rapidly getting there.

Mega-City 1 is ruled by the Judges – although there’s an element of democracy hinted at here, with a City Mayor, the civil administration doesn’t run anything important, and democracy ended in what used to be the USA with the Atomic Wars that laid waste to much of the country (most of this, by the end of this volume, still yet to be explained). Yet despite nuking the Republican heartlands, the remainder of the country still turned fascist to fight the crimes of 800 million kettled and mostly unemployed citizens. In this selection covering the complete run of Judge Dredd stories from 2000AD issues, or Progs, 02-60 – he was only trailed in Prog 1 – there’s the implication at first that the heavily armed, heavily trained, and just plain heavy Judges are a rare elite, with a remarkably tiny board of remembrance for those killed in action and criminals handed over to an ordinary police force (though still no courts). This soon falls away, leaving a vast Judge force in sole charge, giving out instant, brutal justice.

Co-creators John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra make very different contributions here: Wagner writes much of the volume, his scripts head and shoulders above pretty much everyone else’s (in later years, he writes pretty much the whole saga himself, usually with a long-time writing partner but under an array of pseudonyms to give the impression of a much wider authorial staff); Ezquerra, however, creates the stunning vistas of Mega-City 1 and Dredd himself but, pissed off that they didn’t bother to use one of the stories he drew as the first one and so giving the impression someone else should get the credit, only draws a handful here and then refuses to return to the strip for five years. Still, he starts the whole thing off, and every time I see his grittily textured, striking compositions, they appeal to me like no other comic artist.

Perhaps if I’d started reading 2000AD at the very beginning, I might have thought differently, but when I picked up Prog 261 five years in, in the week starting 24th April 1982 (they’re now up to Prog 1780), Judge Dredd was in the middle of what for me is still his most stunning saga, the 26-part The Apocalypse War, which you can find in what I reckon is definitely the strongest reprint volume, The Complete Case Files 05. And that marked Ezquerra’s triumphant return, with him and Wagner responsible for every frame and every word. The only break, as I’ll come to, was a story that turns up in this very collection. So for me, John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra are simply the business for Dredd, as they should be. I associate many of the stories in this first volume with years spent slowly building my collection backwards, saving up pocket money and trawling through the boxes of Back Progs in Manchester’s long-gone shop Odyssey 7, where finds from the past were always exciting and Nik Kershaw’s Wouldn’t It Be Good was for some reason always playing. It’s still a ridiculously evocative song for me to this day…

The Standout Story

This ought to be a difficult choice, as I’m fairly confident this volume has more stories in it than any other – simply because Judge Dredd started off as one-issue short stories, and soon grew into much larger, longer tales. So the obvious selection here would be by far the longest, the precursor of all those much, much longer epics to come, the nine-issue Robot Wars storyline; but that has its problems, for me, so no. That leaves one other obvious choice, a much-reprinted, much-lauded one-part story that’s still seen as a crucial part of Dredd’s history (and is much-copied even in this volume). And, all right, I will pick that one. But I’ll start by cheating, and also picking another that I actually prefer, and that for me is more a sign of Dredd to come…

You Bet Your Life!
Walter! Turn that off this instant!”
“B-but Judge Dwedd – this is Walter’s favouwite pwogwamme!”
“It’s also so illegal that I could have you dismantled for even watching it. They kill people on that show!”
Judge Dredd co-creator John Wagner has always been his best writer for me; like Doctor Who’s Robert Holmes, he’s cynical, violent and very funny, and this little one-part story has the sort of vicious satirical bent that Dredd will tend to grow into. Despite being published as early as Prog 25, it was also one of the first Dredd adventures that I read – because it has the rare distinction of being ‘repeated in prime time’, republished not only in compilations like this but in 2000AD’s own weekly Dredd slot in Prog 268, remarkably the only week when that massive half-year epic The Apocalypse War took such a toll on its consistent creative team (again, John Wagner writing) that they had to skip a deadline. And it doesn’t seem at all like part of the relatively crude early Dredd still finding its way; with its grinning talk-show host, stupid venal contestants – among the few citizens this early on to get characters beyond ‘thug’ – and their horrible deaths satirising TV greed and violence, with Ian Gibson’s gleeful art suiting it all perfectly, this is Judge Dredd fully formed. Only an improbably good role for his service droid Walter gives away that it’s from quite early on – and that role in itself points to a problem with Robot Wars, which ends with Walter being given his freedom and equal status with humans. This is a Mega-City with much incidental death in the call of duty, but no death penalty; just read that quote above again. A fwee wobot, eh?


Open the Box!
 
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The Return of Rico
“Good morning! Mega-City Justice H.Q.! Please state your business.”
“My business is personal! I want to speak to a Judge… Judge Dredd!
“I’m sorry, sir. The Judge is out on patrol.”
“Just tell him I called… My name is Dredd… Judge Dredd!
“But, sir, that’s impossible… There’s only one Judge Dredd!”
Rightly regarded as a crucial, classic Judge Dredd story, this was first published in Prog 30 but has fallout for decades, from the remarkably similar John Wagner exploration of the same theme, Mutie the Pig, to a sillier revenge tale in Red Christmas and then an outright piss-take with Walter’s evil brother Gus – and those are just the ones in this first volume! – to a darker version in the sprawling epic Necropolis and even a completely bungled attempt in the ’90s Judge Dredd movie. At 6 pages, The Return of Rico is the longest single-issue Dredd to this point, hardly extensive but cramming in a huge amount… Mike McMahon’s art is unusually moody and introspective, giving the noirish story a striking air from the first. But the crucial contributor here is 2000AD’s founding editor Pat Mills, the only writer in this volume of the same calibre as Wagner, though with a very different, more passionate, feel: his Dredd has more of a heart, his stories less funny, and the whole thing generally less satirically fascist. Here, the Judge Joe Dredd we all know’s identical clone brother ex-Judge Rico Dredd returns for revenge twenty years after Joe shopped him for turning bad. It’s a simple basic idea, but done with more depth and experimentation than any of these other early stories – with flashbacks to their childhoods, which you can hardly call childhoods, showing Rico as the more capable cadet and, improbably, Joe-the-later-best-Judge-ever giving him credit for pulling him through training – and a brilliant, terrible reveal of what those twenty years did to Rico. It has its flaws, and its side-effects: the song reference at the climax dares you to snigger; Rico’s timeline is a mess, with Mutie the Pig, as it happens, revealing that the Dredds are only 33 here, and in later years completely screwed when his daughter turns up; and Mills’ more human, yet more uncomplicatedly heroic Joe Dredd is less powerful and less disturbing than Wagner’s faceless embodiment of authority. Yet for all that, it still packs a punch.

And you can read it for free on the 20000AD website.

Something Else To Look Out For

Reading Dredd’s first year all in one go, it’s a striking mixture of creativity and repetition. Much of Dredd’s world is in place from the very first; much of it comes in in dazzlingly ingenious slices of the future, with many stories essentially a one-shot framing device to say ‘Look what new mad thing we’ve thought of!’ And yet, alongside this fountain of new ideas and designs, most of the stories are very short, action-packed and not exactly deep, while on top of that there are themes that repeat over and over again, with those echoes of The Return of Rico only scratching the surface. And at the same time, if you’ve got used to Judge Dredd from any point after the first couple of years, some elements and ideas are mysteriously absent, with little character given to the citizens, later to become the crazed backdrop of the series, and the towering blocks in which they live similarly anonymous.

Most strikingly, the Judges themselves are smaller both in number and in appearance: Wagner’s concept was pretty much of ferocious bikers as law enforcers; Ezquerra’s brilliant designs gave the Judges a far more distinctive look, covered in icons and shoulderpads (less Dynasty than American football, with one shoulderpad absurdly but inspiredly moulded as an eagle); but at this stage they still look more like slim bikers in figure-hugging lycra bodysuits than the massive figures we become used to as their accessories expand to ludicrous size and their bodies fill out to suit them. And for that expansion, the artist here who deserves singling-out is the one who started as an Ezquerra-wannabe, Mike McMahon, yet to discover his full style. Yet even in the very first story published (another which you can read online for free), controversially drawn by McMahon, just look at the size of Dredd’s boots as he talks to the “Grand Judge”… Judge Dredd himself, yet to acquire the nickname “Old Stony Face”, for this brief volume looks young and slim, but don’t get used to that; like the rounded helmet that for the moment frames it, his ‘baby face’ will soon get sterner and straighter. And he’ll have a much bigger chin.

At this prototype stage, many of the stories weren’t named on the page, and to make it more confusing to find them, there’s no contents page to these volumes – though, thankfully, there is just that on the 2000AD website. And those repetitions coupled with that lack of titling can sometimes make The Complete Case Files 01 confusing to flick through if you’re dipping in and out of them and perhaps haven’t read any for a week. ‘Haven’t I already read this one, but with a slightly different last page?’ you might ask yourself. For a start – and from the start – a lot of the stories are incredibly butch. Judge Dredd doesn’t yet have his reputation with the reader, and barely with the citizens, for being the ultimate iron first of law and order, so they try very hard, over and over, to make you believe it. In that first story, Judge Whitey, thug “Whitey” Logan is a Judge-killer to show how macho he is; Dredd insists on going in to tackle him alone to show how much more macho he (and by extension the Judge force) is. It’s not a bad opener, though it is very, very butch, and McMahon has some impressive action art – with the very first frame cropped from a pilot by Ezquerra – with only the lack of scale of the “Devil’s Island” prison (no Iso-Blocks this volume) disappointing. But then, a little later, there’s The Solar Sniper, which is almost exactly the same story, combined with introducing the City’s Weather Control; and, to bring the theme full circle, Whitey then breaks out with the aid of his own weather control. Similarly, Dredd is determined to take on Call-Me-Kenneth (butcher than the name suggests) and many others alone, as well as resigning a few times in a strop before realising that the City just can’t make it without him – a habit he grows out of, and when he resigns much, much later, it’s with real impact and its own secret spin-off. It’s perhaps unsurprising that with so much testosterone soaking the pages, this volume is by far the weakest for any women characters: no-one’s thought to have women Judges yet, incredibly, and such women as there are tend to be prettily posing receptionists, so hurrah for old “Green Fingers” Ma Mahaffy, the evil gardener who actually does something for herself.

Antique Car Heist, one of the less successful stories, comes from the terrific and terrifically weird artist Massimo Belardinelli. Unfortunately, his style doesn’t suit Dredd at all, nor his bike, but thankfully the mistake made so early (and so ludicrously contained) where Dredd removes his helmet in fact cements the character in never, ever doing so, making him the literally faceless embodiment of the Judges. Frankenstein II isn’t a great story, but introduces the idea of stealing people’s organs to keep the rich healthy – not yet named as organ-leggers – and has some great McMahon art of Dredd firing his bike cannons… Though one strange side-effect of Ezquerra not working on the strip for most of its first five years is that it’s only when he returns that he shows what the shiny cone he put on the front of the bike is for: until then, many artists use the machine gun bike cannons either side of the front wheel, but you never get to see the big laser above it in action. A two-parter that makes much of his bike, The Mega-City 5000, doesn’t seem like an important story, but will become so; it’s another very macho one, with a bike race and Dredd joining in to show that he’s got a bigger – motorbike – than anyone else. Except that Bill Ward is the only artist to draw Dredd’s Lawmaster as a bit tiny, and Dredd all spangly, which may just possibly be a critique but I suspect just isn’t any good. Fortunately, the second half of this brings in the clean, dramatic style of Brian Bolland, arguably Dredd’s most fan-beloved artist. It still has a problem in retrospect, though; not only is pretty much the same story done again, again, but better in Land Race, but it introduces the character Spikes Harvey Rotten, a big, black-bearded biker in the Hell’s Angels mould who appears to be dead at the end. In every way, this seems a little strange if you read The Complete Case Files 02The Academy of Law is a more interesting two-parter, setting up the Judges’ separation from their families and giving us a new black Judge, Judge Giant, in a rare tie-in to another 2000AD strip (in this case, the Harlem Heroes).

Perhaps the most intriguing one-shot stories are those which explore a weird bit of Dredd’s world: The New You face-change parlour comes early, reimagined later in the book as The Face-Change Crimes, a far superior, far funnier Hollywood skit with glorious artwork from Brian Bolland; The Brotherhood of Darkness borrows from Beneath the Planet of the Apes to have near-blind mutants coming in from the as yet unnamed atomic wastelands; a little later, more weirdly, lastingly and satisfyingly, there are the very similar Troggies, coming up from the old (as yet unnamed) Undercity to prey on the citizens and, worse, croon at them, the evil decaying hipsters; there are futzies, people who go suddenly mad from ‘future shock’; New Labour-like crimes of smoking or, worse, selling 2000AD; just how many exciting different types of bullets Dredd’s gun can fire; I’ve said before how much I love Dredd’s informant Max Normal, who isn’t; and robots. Lots of robots. From robot hotels to robot cars to giant robot apes to robot rebellions, pretty much all of them are bad news, but they also provide this volume’s biggest storyline.


The Neon Knights
 
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Robot Wars and Law on the Moon
“You can’t die if you’re not alive, George. Now get into those flames!”
The Robot Wars saga, eight episodes and a prologue, plus later sequels, is Judge Dredd’s first epic, and though later ones have run to three times that length, it already shows some of the strengths and weaknesses of the better-known, more frequently reprinted ‘Dredd epics’. It’s written by John Wagner, and drawn by… Four different artists, only some of whom get it, and all of whom have wildly different styles. Even Ezquerra, who mostly turns in impressive work on his episode, throws away the first appearance of Walter the Wobot, while his big, brutish design for the villain is swiftly replaced by something blandly handsome and forgettable. Ron Turner, an artist from an older generation, does some interesting stylised metallic shading and baroque big robots, but just isn’t right for the Judges; McMahon is dependable; but it’s the flowing style of Ian Gibson which unexpectedly comes to the fore here, simply because he’s just so good at coming up with strange droids, as well as giving this grim story an uncharacteristically dark and dirty style (with a few funny caricatures on top). Gibson does a lot of work in this volume, occasionally as “Emberton” (such as when a character’s named after him), usually stylish, occasionally slapdash – I suspect because he could be a very fast worker, and while his work on the likes of Halo Jones is famously beautiful, he was also sometimes tapped to do things in a hurry when other artists simply couldn’t deliver, suffering as a result – but this, other than one great splash-panel of Dredd bursting in in a later story, is his most striking here. The inconsistency of the artwork, though, is distracting even when individual episodes are impressive, and the script is surprisingly inconsistent, too.
“Death to the fleshy ones!”
Most notably, while Mills later returns to the topic of slavery in America with different metaphors and more politics, Wagner’s robot revolution is all over the place. Initially, we see the robots as suffering victims and the human oppressors set up for a fall; Dredd, the satirical fascist hero who’s meant to make you feel uncomfortable is suddenly the noble one; yet the characterisation of the robot leader Call-Me-Kenneth as a mad brute throws away any shades of grey (though making this self-styled messiah a carpenter is a touch that gets past the censors), as to make you side with the fascist state its enemies have to be even worse; and the end of the story leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. Robots who aided the humans in the war are given pleasure circuits, but then told to get back to slavery and presumably not given much time to enjoy them; the lisping drinks wobot who basically falls in love with Dredd, Walter, is given his fweedom – but instantly rejects it, wanting to be the Judge’s slave. After which Dredd kicks him around, puts him down and sneers at him for being a robot for the next half-dozen years, many of them admittedly entertaining (not least the terrible jokes of the Walter the Wobot – Fwiend of Dredd comedy spin-offs which are reprinted at the back of this volume, though frustratingly incomplete), until the writers get either bored or ashamed and he mysteriously vanishes from the series. Elvis the Killer Car is essentially the same story later in the volume, a little more playfully and surprisingly going for four episodes while mostly running on empty, but it’s unsurprisingly Pat Mills who writes the more socially conscious sequel, The Neon Knights, in which men in hoods go round beating up robots and “robot-lovers” with what I’m sure they told the censors was nothing like a burning cross. You may be able to spot the subtext there. The Ape Gang, on the other hand, has Wagner’s simian Mafia led by Don Uggie Apelino and, though it’s witty and inventive and McMahon has fun with it, it ends up as, oh dear, more slaves stripped of personhood (and, peculiarly, reprinted with a late-’80s 2000AD ad).
“Don’t do it, citizen! Littering the streets is an offence!”
The oddest set of stories here are those where Dredd is appointed Judge-Marshal of Luna1, the United Cities of North America Colony on the Moon; in theory, this is for six months, though if you count the Progs you’ll note they get tired of it well before then and are presumably gagging to get Dredd back to Mega-City 1. Though, again if you read volume 2, it doesn’t entirely work out that way, as it’s another year on before things really get back to ‘normal’. In the meantime, this is essentially an excuse to do a different side of America: first the big city, now the Wild West. There’s a mild story arc with Moonie Fabrications, not that it matters much, but largely an excuse to mix up lots of Western and other national stereotypes, from Dredd’s subtle Deputy Judge Tex, to the even less subtle Mexican Judges, to the seriously not subtle at all Sov-Judges from a rival Moon Colony. But without Mega-City 1, they tend to be more forgettable than most, despite exceptions: the very silly Red Christmas, with Dredd’s brass neck and electric nose-wipers; Wagner and Bolland’s glorious The Face-Change Crimes, which could easily have been set back in the Big Meg, and the same team’s The Oxygen Board, with lovely art and an ironic idea which conversely makes the best use of the Moon; most memorably, their twin tales The First Luna Olympics and Luna 1 War, which set up a much longer-running story arc that will become explosive four years later and, amongst other things, depict sport as war by any other name and vice versa, and show the Olympics as hilariously disastrous for the Brits. We’ve got all that to look forward to. I wish it was on the bloody Moon… Where was I?


The First Dredd
 
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This volume ends with an abrupt Return to Mega-City 1 in a clever little idea for a story, followed by one packed story that re-establishes so much about Mega-City Dredd, from dodgy robot politics to horrible law and order New Labourism. Don’t show it to Yvette Cooper, or she’ll demand extra police powers. And then, of course, those extras: more Walter; not enough covers; and, fascinatingly, the pilot Judge Dredd story, drawn by Carlos Ezquerra, dropped for its violence – Dredd gives summary executions like a robot, which they decided might get the new 2000AD closed down like its effective predecessor Action and switched to lots of shooting but no death penalty – but with some great art, above all the vast Cityscape on the final page that clearly formed the blueprint for all the other artists to this day.

The whole book, then, is packed with great ideas and weak ones, great artwork and weak, satire, violence and things that make you go ‘Oh’. But, most of all, it’s packed. Judge Dredd is the best-known and longest-running British comics character of the last third of a century; this volume shows you how he started, with 336 pages for about fifteen quid. And a lot of it’s even good. Bargain!

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Monday, April 02, 2012

 

“I am a Liberal and I am against this sort of thing” – Time To Remember What We Stand For

It looks today like Lib Dem Ministers have learnt the wrong lesson from history. Recent history is of the vast majority of Lib Dems supporting the Coalition even when some things it’s done have been sickening, not just because of the give-and-take of agreeing to some revolting Toryism to get good Lib-Demmery through, but because most of the nasty stuff has had a simple justification: there’s no money left, so we’re forced into it. But plans to attack civil liberties aren’t like that. They’re not forced. They’re actively choosing to do something illiberal, wrong and against all our Liberal history. So wake up, Minister, or you’ll suddenly discover the point at which every party member outside Westminster tells the Coalition to fuck right off. This is your most dangerous moment, so stop being so bloody complacent and going with the flow.

Many Lib Dems, rightly, think it’s important when in Coalition to communicate more clearly what we stand for, so we’re not submerged at elections. Well, it’s even more important to remember what we stand for for the people inside the Coalition, and Lib Dem Ministers should take a moment to think about our history as their civil servants urge them to just act like “the Government” always acts. We all knew that the Tories’ discovery of civil liberties in Opposition would melt away once they had all the goodies of power back in their hands and all the whisperers of the security state back in their ears. We all know that one day it would be up to you, Minister. Today, Lib Dem Ministers, remember that you’re Liberals and what the fucking point of being there is.

The latest news on Government plans for new cyber-snooping powers are virtually indistinguishable from anything Labour came up with, or any other securocrat-written authoritarian rubbish that’s always put forward by “the Government”. Yes, Labour would have done all this instantly and it took the Coalition two years to go native. That’s not good enough. It’s not worth all the pain of being in Coalition to mildly delay being just like Labour. You’re even trampling the Coalition Agreement on which this Government was founded, signed in the heady days when the Tories still said they believed in freedom.

Hearing on the news that the Liberal Democrats may have some concerns but “support the plans in principle” is exactly the sort of thing that makes me wonder – for the first time – if we ought to vote down the Coalition. There’s a lot it’s done that I don’t like, and I daily feel personally scared by the approach to benefits (because I’m still waiting for my next ATOS summons). But there’s a difference between every choice being a nasty choice, every cut a painful cut, because Labour destroyed the economy, and signing off on something that isn’t forced on you by financial necessity but deliberately turning the Coalition into an authoritarian force for evil (and not saving but wasting more money to feed the securocrats’ wet dreams!).

I’ve often wondered what my own “Red Lines” would be. I’m not grateful to Lib Dem Ministers for drawing them for me.

A fortnight ago, Minister, Liberal Democrat Conference said exactly what we thought about governments thrashing civil liberties and spying on our privacy (and one of the key movers of that motion, Julian Huppert MP, is worried today). You were there, Minister. Had you already seen your briefings? Did you decide it was wiser not to hear the Conference pre-emptively tell you, “No, Minister”? Or did you simply nod, applaud, and then flush it out of your brain as you went back to your desk at the Department of Doing Things the Way Governments Always Do Them?

Today, some Lib Dems are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. We like you. We’re glad you’re in Government. But it’s difficult for most of us not to start shouting when you say stupid things like “the Liberal Democrats support the plans in principle”. We do not. Millennium Dome, Elephant does not. Richard Morris does not. Jennie Rigg does not. Neil Monnery does not. Zoe O’Connell does not. Charlotte Henry does not. Mark Valladares does not. With every minute of this ticking time bomb, more Lib Dems will not. These are not just the usual suspects. If you want a party to come back to when you return to your constituency at the weekend, stop this thing now.

Freedom isn’t always popular. The securocrats are already shouting ‘Look – terrorists!’ and ‘Look – paedophiles!’ as if that answers every question. The papers and the Labour Party will be foaming at the mouth for more, more, more. But there is absolutely no fucking point in being Liberals if we don’t stand up for freedom.

Before the last General Election, I stood up and told Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander that I was deeply worried when they’d written a draft Manifesto in our name that stopped talking about “Freedom” and replaced it with “Safety” and “Strength”. You can watch my speech in which I pointed out just who that sounded like (you might think ironically, in hindsight). And, afterwards, I was told I had a point, and they’d listened, and the real Manifesto would be better – and it was, a bit, though I might have hoped that when it came to the first Manifesto since 1992 that I hadn’t been on the Policy Committee to write bits of it, I wouldn’t be proved to be the only member of the FPC who remembered to put in a little thing like “Freedom”.

Remembering Liberal Democrat history isn’t just about learning from the triumphs, avoiding repeats of the disasters and celebrating our tribe. It’s about remembering that the only reason we’re still here: the only reason Liberals survived after nearly a century of splits, near-oblivion, faltering revivals and then near-oblivion again is that we stood for something no-one else can ever be trusted with. Freedom.

Minister, don’t betray that trust, or you might just destroy your party.


Just a few weeks ago, Mark Park came to me with the idea of an article about Party history, one that would let people know that the arguments we have today are ones we’ve had before, that principles we hold today are ones we’ve held before, that splits we’ve had today are… As yet, nothing like as bad as we’ve had before. We threw around some ideas and – horrors – constrained by a tight word limit we wrote six bullet points for the party newspaper, Liberal Democrat News a week and a half ago. Last week, Mark republished it on Lib Dem Voice. But before I republish it myself below, today it seems appropriate to remember a seventh moment from our history – not from an MP, not from a Minister, but simply from an ordinary party member who threw back for a time what “the Government” always does.

Stopped by a securocrat and told to do what he was told for no reason other than that’s what securocrats always do, Clarence Henry Willcock (no, no relation) said
“I am a Liberal and I am against this sort of thing.”
And freedom prevailed.

Nick, you once said he was one of your heroes. Let him be again. Remember your history. Remember what you stand for. Listen, again, to Lib Dems telling you that freedom is more important than strength and safety. Say “No,” Deputy Prime Minister.


Some Thought-Provoking Reminders of Our Liberal History

Paddy Ashdown once admitted to under-estimating the importance of a party’s history:
“A political party is about more than plans and priorities and policies… It also has a heart and a history and a soul”.
Yet there is no “history of the party” training session for the keen Conference representative nor history briefings for new members. So here are six snippets from the party’s history to entertain, elucidate and illustrate our heart and soul in ways that should still strike a note today.

1. Impressive Firsts

The first Jewish Member of Parliament was Liberal Lionel de Rothschild, elected in 1847 but not able to take his seat until 1858. The first atheist MP was Liberal Charles Bradlaugh, elected in 1880 and finally able to take his seat in 1886. Both fought in Parliament and in multiple elections in order to establish their rights. Also, Robert Throckmorton, elected MP for Berkshire in 1831 as a Whig and then Liberal, was the first Catholic in Parliament for more than 300 years, following the Relief Act of 1829.

The first Asian MP was Liberal Dadabhai Naoroji in 1892. The first female Liberal MP was Margaret Wintringham in 1921, when she succeeded her deceased husband in a by-election. The first female Liberal MP without such a family route to Parliament was Vera Woodhouse in 1923. The first out gay Liberal Democrat MP was Stephen Williams in 2005.

2. Left/Right Confusion

Wanting to make deals with Labour isn’t historically associated with being left-wing. It used to be people seen as being on the party’s Liberal Party’s right (such as Richard Holme) who were keenest on deals with Labour. Conversely, being pro-market forces has not historically been associated with being pro-Conservative. During his time as Leader, Paddy Ashdown both pushed for a much more hard-edged free market attitude and also saw the Liberal Democrats as being part of a common centre-left political mission with Labour.

3. Disputes We’d Rather Forget

The longest and most bitter row after the Liberal Party and the SDP merged to form the Liberal Democrats in 1988 was not over philosophy, policy or even personalities – simply over the word “Liberal” (with no distinction between ‘social’ and ‘economic’). For a while, the new party was named the Social and Liberal Democrats; a mouthful, this was officially shortened to “the Democrats”. Most of the party rebelled and insisted on “Liberal Democrats”. It took several years, an all-member referendum and a constitutional amendment before the name simply became “Liberal Democrats”. Then everyone could get on with shortening it to “Lib Dems”…

4. Heroics We’re Happy To Remember

In 1989, with the new-ish party badly split, a very distant fourth in the European Elections and described by Leader Paddy Ashdown as within the margin of error of nothing in the opinion polls, the most unifying issue the party became known for was a liberal policy on immigration. With Hong Kong about to return to Chinese rule, the Lib Dems were united in saying that Hong Kong residents were entitled to British passports. In contrast, the Conservative Government said only the richest could buy their way in; the Labour Party voted with rebels on the Conservative far right to keep every single one out.

5. Policies That Have Gone From ‘Eccentric’ To Conventional Wisdom

In 1992, the three issues Jeremy Paxman threw against Paddy Ashdown in interviews repeatedly as proof that the Liberal Democrats were extreme and out of touch were Hong Kong passports, green taxes and (what were then called) gay rights. One issue passed; the others are now the mainstream.

6. Avoiding A Coalition Didn’t Work Last Time

The Liberal Party for a short time kept the Labour Party in office in the late 1970s after it lost its majority in the House of Commons. The so-called Lib/Lab Pact was seen by most in the party as at best a missed opportunity and at worst a failure as it did not contain a list of significant policy promises. PR for the European Parliament was lost as the deal only promised a free vote, not the support of Labour MPs.


* Yes, the Liberal Democrat tradition is lists of three things to remember. But there are two of us, OK?

Thanks to Mark Pack for the idea and the drafting, and to Oranjepan for reminding us about Robert Throckmorton.

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