Tuesday, April 30, 2013


Broadchurch and How To Spot A TV Murderer

Did you guess whodunnit in Broadchurch? Having saved it up, Richard and I binged on the whole series over the weekend, and I have a few thoughts on its themes and surprising quality below (with implicit spoilers if you’re good at clues). Or what about other murder mysteries? Have you ever wondered how to spot the murderer in a TV detective series? Or specifically whoprobablydunnit in Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Father Brown, Inspector Morse and more? I reveal Richard and my (almost) infallible Rules of Suspicion: what’s the number one biggest giveaway of the TV murderer attempting to divert suspicion?

Richard started this long ago when he told me the three general and specific rules for spotting whodunnit in Agatha Christie. He’s right about them, too. Though I did correctly predict Broadchurch’s in Episode Two (albeit after wrongly being convinced Mark and the Rev Paul were shagging, particularly when the former stormed into the latter’s church as if in personal betrayal), I’m usually not a patch on Richard for spotting the murderers. What I am pretty good at is spotting themes in particular authors’ writing. Between us, we’ve come up with three rules that catch bang to rights an awful lot of whodunnits’ off-the-shelf attempts at misdirection, and several more specific ones after watching too much of particular detectives…

Richard and Alex’s Rules of Suspicion

Whoever throws around the most vicious accusations is probably the murderer. Any child will be able to tell you the rhyme that warns of this.

Whoever is too nice is probably the murderer. But you don’t come to a murder mystery to stoke your faith in human nature, do you?

Whoever is the victim of a murder attempt but manages to survive when all around them fall is almost certainly faking it to divert suspicion.
If anyone manages to survive an ‘attempt on their life’ while the detective is there as a witness, the chance of their being innocent approaches zero.

Richard and Alex’s Detective-Specific Suspicions

Sherlock Holmes
*Except in terrible adaptations that turn Irene Adler into ‘a villain’ because the terrible writers are threatened by an intelligent and independent woman, so she has to be evil.

Agatha Christie

Father Brown


Inspector Morse

SS Sturmbannführer Kessler

Midsomer Murders


Implicit spoiler warning: in case you’re just skimming across this article and might pick up something vital at a glance, I’m not going to mention names of suspects when I say something that implicitly implicates or clears a particular person, though you can probably work out who they are if you’re reading more closely.

I have to admit that I came to Broadchurch with some wariness. It was an ambitious drama series with many good actors in it, so I wanted to give it a go; but on the other hand, police procedurals aren’t really my thing (particularly horrible depressing Daily Mail-ish paedo-scare misery-porn), most ITV drama I’ve seen over the past few years has been deeply unimpressive, and Chris Chibnall as a writer has often been much worse than that. I have in the past been so critical of Chris Chibnall’s writing (Torchwood Series One being its nadir) that I came to Broadchurch fearing the worst, though with a little hope from his two Doctor Who episodes last year which while no triumphs for me felt conspicuously like he’d been trying harder and, despite having serious problems with the end of each, I’d quite enjoyed until the last five minutes. In Broadchurch, remarkably, his writing seems to have grown up, even down to a dramatically and morally satisfying conclusion.

The obvious part of the series’ success lies in telling two overlapping stories well: a whodunnit police investigation; more importantly, the harrowing emotional effect that has on a community. And it achieves the latter with generally very effective writing and in letting the various characters in that community breathe, as well as giving most of the recognisable suspects their own moments of suspicion and plenty of what on the surface seem like red herrings. The two leads were, of course, strong performances, with David Tennant seeming like he’d not slept since giving up Doctor Who and Olivia Colman moving from Hot Fuzz to everywoman in much darker places, but none of the actors and few of their actions struck false. The emotional realism reinforced the well-plotted mystery, with almost all the clues feeding back into the eventual pay-off from the in-your-face damaged characters to the intriguingly off-key early question of the deleted messages. For me it made the right choice, too, in the ending being all about the effects on the people, rather than just catching the murderer (something achieved through a combination of chance and, at the last, choice, rather than brilliant policework). It meant the writing was both straightforward in terms of how we understood and empathised, and shot through with ambiguity in no character being plain good or bad – that is, going some way to capture the complexity of life, even if that occasionally led to mixed messages (hugging is fine and natural and you should be ashamed for being suspicious of it / but also a danger sign of suppressed evil, for example).

And yet there were other, slightly postmodern touches for people wanting more layers: references such as naming Wessex Police’s DI “Alec” “Hardy” for Wessex’s Thomas Hardy and one of his best-known characters, Doctor Who quotes in the dialogue (to match the large cast of Doctor Who actors) and the faintest whiff of Twin Peaks that ITV would let you get away with; genre-aware – up to a point – DS Miller hanging a lampshade on her superior’s stereotypical broody detective schtick; the recognition about the viewer that we will recognise certain actors and say ‘Ooh, it’s them – they must be significant’, which the first episode foregrounded by giving us opening minutes of the soon-to-be-bereaved dad’s happy tour of all the famous faces in the village, then closing with a montage of those same faces in the dark, alone, troubled and suspicious, all but slapping on subtitles ‘FAMOUS SUSPECT #1…’

For me, though, the most interesting – and the most successful – extra layer was the thought that had gone into giving it a moral outlook that underpinned the drama without being overpowering.

Broadchurch – The Underlying Themes

What most impressed me about the series was that it dealt with a horrible, tabloid-friendly, always-reported-black-and-white sort of story as a much more thoughtful narrative. Even as the show drew me in, I was sceptical that it was trading on a fictional form of rubbernecking misery porn even as it had its cake and ate it with ‘…But of course journalists are evil reptiles’ to show false piety. But by the end, Broadchurch had shown itself to be something much deeper than that, and perhaps even with a touch of genuine piety.

Rather than just take the easy road of saying how shocking Daily Mail Daily Herald hacks are but subscribing to their worldview, it offered two more unusual turns. Though of course the Daily Mail Daily Herald journo was indeed a repellently cynical parasite, it not only gave her a redeeming feature – in days when even some of the media are strapped for cash, wanting to put the work in rather than just regurgitating or twisting words from press releases (though I scoffed at her apparent shock that her story was sexed up for the front page). More strikingly and more bravely, it implicitly (but no less strongly for that) critiqued not just the form of the Daily Mail Daily Herald but its values. The ‘paedo scare’ was shown as an irresponsible witch hunt that claims an undeserved life; and the ambiguity of the eventual repressed killer leaves further questions hanging, even the possibility that the climate of fear contributed to the killing. And, going back to the main body of the series, it showed throughout how tomorrow’s careless chip paper can harm many people along the way. We’re spared most of the feeding frenzy at the end, but we already know how horrible it will be.

There was a deeper morality to the series than media ethics, however. Broadchurch was at the same time a very modern story and very old-fashioned in its underlying themes, to such an extent that I wonder if the writer has a Christian faith informing his work. Part of it might be the name of show, in plain sight. Part of it was that the vicar for once seemed more or less credible as a vicar – at least in his two sermons, after a piss-poor attempt at the Problem of Evil (perhaps he just bottled giving the line on that to a grieving mother, which you might take as extra motivation to find courage to do the right thing in the penultimate episode even when faced with the worst threat someone can make today). But it was also that as every character’s secrets peeled away, all of those ‘red herrings’ echoed and reinforced each other until at the end it wasn’t just the grammar of whodunnits that made the killer’s identity clear, but the morality of the series that led inevitably to it. Over and over, we were told how destructive adultery was (even in the heart) and that betrayal by your partner was the series’ original sin. It was a murder mystery where you don’t work it out from the clues, but from the themes, asking the viewer by the end: how can you not have known? While the characters themselves weren’t black and white, it’s hard not to see the overwhelming near-universal guilt and the way that almost anything a character vindictively slags off rebounds to be found unwittingly in their own lives as a stern morality from the omnipotent author.

So Broadchurch Wasn’t Perfect…

There was one suspect who, though a decent performance, I found so improbable in concept and their red herring so unconnected to the themes of the rest that their only proper dramatic function appeared to be to illustrate DI Hardy’s gradual collapse. Conversely, we didn’t see enough of Tracey Childs’ rather fabulous police boss with her cool pedeconferencing sporting shades and ice cream, but she was saddled right up front with one of the minor mysteries so awkward that I wondered throughout if it would ever have a payoff (a practical rather than a thematic one): why didn’t Ellie get the job? The series starts with DS Miller returning from three weeks of holiday, scattering presents among the jolly coppers, before being abruptly called away by the Chief Superintendent to be told that she’s not been promoted. Despite being told before she left that they needed a female DI, that she was local and that she was a shoo-in, in her absence the situation had changed and someone else had already been appointed a week ago. A male DI with an apparently conspicuously awful record about which no-one would speak. For a minute, I thought that the explanation had to be that the murder had taken place a week ago, they’d had to get someone in fast, and so Ellie would be the viewer’s point of view in a town suddenly gone horribly wrong – but, no, it was all still to come and there was no motivation at all for dumping on her. That made Hardy’s appointment such a bizarre turnaround that it suggested psychic powers not for Will Mellor but for Tracey Childs, with her able to see into the future of the case or indeed into the minds of TV bosses who might have said, ‘I know we promised the lead to a woman character actor but really we need a big name male star’.

DI Hardy belatedly explaining the missing link (and pendant) in the infamous Sanbrook Case was in many ways necessary – for the drama, for the viewers, giving his motivation, showing he’s a good copper really (or was: seeking redemption through doing another job he’s literally not fit for suggests he no longer is), and to put in place the last major piece of thematic reinforcement for the series’ underlying original sin. But, as he’d been silently taking the blame until now to protect two other people, and as even without naming the guilty party the press are going to find it bleedin’ obvious, why come clean now and ask only for a couple of days’ delay from the local rag? This was so clearly a deathbed confession that, the viewers having heard what we needed to, there was no dramatic need for it to be published as well: you expected his caveat to be not ‘give me a couple of days’ but ‘after I’m dead [in a couple of days]’. Was he scripted to keel over at the moment of triumph, as many earlier scenes had hinted, but then the producers realised they might have a hit on their hands and asked for a rewrite to preserve the unlikely but now promised sequel?

All in all, though, Broadchurch was a surprisingly impressive and thoughtful series, and once again proves the old Sherlock Holmes adage that I’m glad I don’t live in the countryside.

[Oh, joy, Blogger’s doing its thing where it either prints all my text in one splat or gives random massive gaps if I force in breaks again]

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012


Liberal Voice of the Year? Speak Up Now!

Or, how do you solve a problem like Mark Littlewood? 2012 began with Liberal Democrat Voice criticised first because the shortlist for its “Liberal Voice of the Year” included only one woman, and then because someone many people didn’t like won. The two problems with this are that the shortlist emerged from nominations people submitted, with only one woman receiving enough from readers; and that the winner arose from votes cast on the site. So if you want a better nominations line-up, right now, this week only, is the time to tell LDV (and to then affect the winner, vote).

The other problem with the Liberal Voice of the Year award is that, of course, it’s designed to promote pluralism… And, as the rather unfortunate comment war when the last winner was announced demonstrates, nothing promotes tribalism like a call for pluralism. To be shortlisted, a person must not only receive at least a certain number of nominations from readers, showing at least some support to start with, but be a non-Lib Dem who’s advanced liberalism in the past 12 months. And if they’re not a Lib Dem (let alone if they are), by definition not everyone’s going to think they’re a Liberal. And complain. Mark’s win only provoked this in an exaggerated form, as he’s both a former Lib Dem and one associated with a particular branch of the Liberal family (some might say the mad aunt in the attic, but remember, there weren’t enough women nominations). Belated congratulations to Mark. I personally didn’t vote for him, but neither was I outraged by his victory, even if he has owed me money for more than two years now (if you’re reading, Mark, remember: you may have had a Pyrrhic victory, but a bet’s a bet).

So, What Can You Do?

If you want more women on the next shortlist, or more Liberals to your own sort of taste, or (ideally) both, nominations are only open this week (prompted via their readers’ survey, though I’m sure you can just email them). So think of some good candidates, and send them in. Then, if they’re shortlisted and you want them to win, why not spend the first two weeks of January – when the votes are a-clicking – writing promotional pieces to big up your candidate? Each year, a list appears, and plenty of people don’t know who they are until the missiles start firing when the ‘wrong’ one wins. Though, incidentally, as far as women candidates go, though this year’s shortlist didn’t promise much, in the previous four years two of the winners had been women, so the voters can share a little of the praise. Though I personally like 2012’s sole woman entrant, it looked like despite the complaints no-one was rallying round the sole woman, in theory a big advantage in a first-past-the-post election (and, LDV, that is in your gift to change, unlike the names or the result). She got just 4%.

It might even be an idea, if you have a brilliant nomination, to write a piece extolling their virtues today, and encourage everyone you know to nominate her or him, so they get to the starting gate this time.

Anyway, I didn’t join in the slanging match over Lib Dem Voice’s treatment of women this January, perhaps because this January I was too busy putting my head in my hands at Steven Moffat’s in Sherlock. Hurrah! An independent, sexually confident lesbian character! Plus, a faithfully non-villainous version of a famous character from the original stories who’s always traduced by every single ‘reimagining’ into an evil villain, because an independent, sexually confident woman who fascinates Sherlock must be evil. And, being a naturist, I wasn’t even going to complain about her being naked for extra Moffatitillation. That’s how happy I was until three-quarters of the way into A Scandal in Belgravia, when the non-villain was revealed as evil, and the lesbian fell for Sherlock, and the independent woman needed rescuing by our (male, if thankfully not butch) hero. Oh, Mr Moffat. If only all your writing was as honest and plausible as Lesbian Spank Inferno.

But I digress. I’ve already done the ‘chiding Lib Dem Voice over the Blogger of the Year Award’ thing, so this time I’m chiding you, dear reader. If you didn’t like last year’s choices, why not get your act together? Lib Dem Voice don’t rig the nominations or the vote. But you can, if you try! Be creative.

Personally, I’m good at writing an argument, but poor at choosing a hero. So I don’t have a whole series of ready-made nominations to start you off. I’ve racked my brain, and – having followed US politics obsessively for much of the year – here are, at least, two, for balance both women and both from a rather different branch of liberalism to Mark. What do you think of Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren, who was responsible for the only defeat of an incumbent Senator (rather than incumbent party) this year, and whose populist economic message in effect defined the whole Democratic campaign this time? Or Senator-elect Tammy Baldwin, the first out lesbian – or, indeed, the first out LGBT person of any description – ever elected to the US Senate? Can you do better? Get thinking.

The other alternative that springs to mind is, of course, one that on two counts is probably ineligible: a sister party of the Liberal Democrats, within the UK, with many members in common, and a group rather than an individual. But when, today, Liberals are under potentially deadly repeated physical attack from fascist thugs on the streets of the UK, they are Liberal heroes.

You can support them at the Alliance Party website.

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Monday, November 28, 2011


Sherlock Holmes – Murder By Decree

Last Saturday night, ITV3 showed Murder By Decree, the 1979 film pitting Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper (not to be confused with Hammer’s earlier variation on the theme, A Study in Terror). Of all the many films that tried to make a serious attempt at defining Holmes between Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett, this is perhaps the most critically acclaimed and certainly the one that takes itself the most seriously. Yet though I rather like Christopher Plummer’s soulful Sherlock, the film’s achingly fashionable – for 1979 – Ripperology and conspiracy theories in general just test my patience. Spoilers follow…
“He seems to take a delight in keeping his subjects waiting. I suppose, since after all he is only the Prince of Wales, we should not expect the same degree of courtesy.”
“And since you are only the prince of detectives, Holmes, I don’t think you should presume to criticise a man who one day will be the King of England!”
My Puritan Streak

There are many reasons why this film gets on my wick, despite several fine actors, one or two of whom even give fine acting, and it’s to do with both style and substance. The narrative feel of the thing is a mess, not aided by a thoroughly unsatisfying excuse for an ending, nor in aiming for ‘realism’ by shooting almost the whole film in the dark until the last twenty minutes, making the picture even murkier than the script. But it’s the script that’s my main problem (just as it’s the reason many others praise it).

Essentially, the reason the narrative is a muddle, the reason the ending is an anti-climax, and the reason it takes itself so appallingly seriously all come down to the same central conceit: this purports to be an undiscovered adventure of the famous fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, but in fact he’s merely grafted on as a framing device for a very expensive docudrama of the trendy Jack the Ripper theory of the time.

My prejudices are showing here a little; I’m not one of nature’s great Puritans, but such a Puritanical streak as I have tends to come out about ‘true crime’. It’s probably not very logical to delight in many fictional murder mysteries and crime capers while sniffing at the tasteless exploitativeness of anything like the same plots if based on real criminals with real victims, but it’s my instinctive reaction. So while I can understand the idea behind this sort of film – hey! Let’s mash up the two biggest ‘popular legends’ of Victorian London to make big box-office! – I can’t help being a little biased against it from the start. A fictionalised stand-in for the Ripper, with a different name and in a work which promises nothing more than fiction, has nothing like the same effect on me, but if it’s purporting to be the real horrible misogynist murderer as ‘glamorous history’, I don’t like it. And so without the most extraordinary brilliance driving it, and it hasn’t, this film is almost precisely calculated by its po-faced presentation of both Sherlock Holmes and Stephen Knight’s schlock history book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (tasteful title, there) as ‘true’ to fall between two stools. It’s at the same time too serious, and not serious enough.

The Hairpiece From Hell

As well as being made to cash in on ‘ninety years of the Ripper’, this was the end of the ’70s, and glum conspiracy ‘thrillers’ in which the establishment is riddled with nasty murderers and the hero never wins and is lucky not to end up dead in a ditch at the end were very much in vogue. So it’s not surprising that the decade ended with a big conspiracy movie ‘exposing’ the entire British nobility as behind a Masonic conspiracy over the Jack the Ripper murders (the only surprise being that, unlike the book it’s based on and several later Holmes-less dramatisations, this film bottles it and changes the names of the aristocrats they claim committed the murders, while happy to slander openly various public servants of the time they name as the Ripper’s friends in slightly less high places. Surely not forelock-tugging by the producers?).

The problem, on its own terms, of making The Parallax View for the previous century is that they decide to put Sherlock Holmes in it so people will flock to the cinemas to see it. And Sherlock Holmes is in complete conflict with a grim, ’70s-style conspiracy movie. Those have to end up bleak, despairing and insoluble; he has to end up victorious by means of his brilliant brain, and not end up floating face-down in the Thames or framed for murder and blamed for it all in the end (he is, of course, arrested for murder at one point here, but it’s such a lacklustre attempt that the charge slides off him in the very same scene). Well, at least seeing as it’s not one of those books in which Holmes turns out secretly to be Jack the Ripper, Moriarty and Queen Victoria, or any other of those dreary ‘twists’ telegraphed from the cover. Shove these two immovable narrative forces up against each other, and what do you get? One of the most rambling, pointless and unintentionally hilarious scenes ever committed in a Sherlock Holmes film, as the film’s excuse for an ending shifts from briefly bloody to protractedly preachy against the “madmen wielding sceptres.”

Unable publicly to bring the Ripper to justice (just a bloody end in the dark that no-one can mention) or even to name him, but equally unable to have Holmes fail, the film’s ‘climax’ is twenty minutes of a handful of haughty men declaiming quite bad but very long dialogue at each other in a vast Masonic hall deep within the Palace of Westminster. No, seriously. Christopher Plummer is the only one who comes out of it with any dignity, and probably an award for being able to deliver this tosh with a straight face. His Holmes is compassionate, socially concerned, and thankfully clean-shaven; the Prime Minister, of course, is a stiff, cold liar who refuses to take any responsibility for having in effect said ‘Who will rid me of this troublesome woman?’; but even his ludicrous whiskers (concealing John Gielgud, and I bet he wished it was a full face-mask) can’t compete with Anthony Quayle’s giant curlicues of pubic hair arranged at random all over his head. In Hammer’s ‘Holmes versus the Ripper’ film A Study in Terror, Mr Quayle had played the decent, dependable moral heart of it; here, the difference in his part and performance are so blatantly mirrored in his appalling wig that I wonder whether the hamming was playing up to the hairpiece or vice versa. Along the way to this meandering shouting match, David Hemmings’ scheming closet Radical is almost as bad – and almost as ludicrously coiffured – as those he wants to bring down, while Donald Sutherland’s goggling psychic tries hard to be worse.

The decent, dependable moral heart of this film is, of course, Holmes, with Christopher Plummer giving rather more sides than the usual cold fish or hyper aesthete, actually carrying off a Holmes who weeps over Geneviève Bujold’s sad fate rather than making us go, ‘Oh, come on’. James Mason’s older, stiffer Dr Watson isn’t so lucky; contractual obligations for every Watson of the second half of the last century make them all ‘an attempt to move on from bumbling Nigel Bruce’ (though I rather liked him), but the elderly Mr Mason seems so weary that he gives the impression, once removing the shadow of Mr Bruce, of having nothing to put in his place. The only excuse I can think of is that with Watson usually taking the part of Holmes’ narrator, he’s the one ‘watching’ the whole thing on the part of the viewer and so is postmodernly as fed up with it as we are. Between them, they have one quite endearing scene with a pea, but it’s thin pickings in a very long two hours.

A Study In Terror and More

In all, it’s not a patch on Hammer’s more lurid but much more entertaining A Study In Terror from 1965, despite sharing the same case, murderous aristocrats and even some of the same cast (notably, not just the Jekyll and Hyde performances of Mr Quayle and his stylist but Frank Finlay as Inspector Lestrade). James Hill’s direction gives a much more lively and colourful film – and it’s a good half-hour shorter – while its utter disregard for historical accuracy and open desire just to tell a thrilling story means that it’s not just free of the later film’s visual sludge but its turgid narrative sludge, too, and is as a result far less offensive. The film has far more satisfying twists, details (despite the ludicrous title “the Duke of Shires”) and an exciting climax, none of them purporting to be true, and the actors are given much more interesting things to do than strike a pose and recite indigestible chunks of bad history at each other. The late John Neville’s Sherlock is quite sparky and energetic, if without Mr Plummer’s depth, while Donald Houston’s Dr Watson is, by contrast to Mr Mason, awake. John Fraser gives one of his most striking performances; Adrienne Corri is terrific; Robert Morley does the sort of enjoyable schtick he was always asked to do; and viewers who’ve come to this movie second may be surprised to find Anthony Quayle acting in this one.

Or, from the same sort of between-the-definitive-Holmeses period, there’s Robert Stephens’s languid detective in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which hopefully will be released on Region 2 one day with some of the mutilated bits restored, or Peter Cushing’s various and interestingly different takes – I do wish they’d release The Masks of Death, an eerie and little-known mystery that’s always stuck with me despite its jingoism. Or, if you must, From Hell, which nicks from the same Ripperology as Murder By Decree but doesn’t throw in Holmes to try and glamorise it (though Alan Moore and Johnny Depp going several rounds in the same sort of glum conspiracy thriller isn’t going to have anyone rise to the surface at the end).

On the bright side, if you want to compare legendary British icons of a particular sort of period that never really was but which we can all picture, then Holmes and history both got off lightly in Murder By Decree. Channel 4 this afternoon showed Siege of the Saxons, surely the worst King Arthur movie ever made that doesn’t have Clive Owen in it. It’s a pale shadow of The Black Knight, and it’s difficult to think of greater damnation than that.

If you want ‘canonical’ Sherlock Holmes, incidentally, I’m still rather proud of my piece on The Valley of Fear’s Visit From Porlock

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Sunday, January 04, 2009


Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 1994 Brilliant?

The most marvellous thing Doctor Who brings me in 1994 is Richard, obviously, but you can’t buy one. Low-budget video Shakedown – Return of the Sontarans beats any BBC Sontaran story, while the Master returns in a book (but which? Dun-dun-dahh…!). New Adventures highlights include Conundrum’s fun and games, Tragedy Day’s telethon satire (and openly gay character), and hugely entertaining Sherlock Holmes-Doctor Who-Cthulhu hustle crossover All-Consuming Fire. And with Sylv’s Doctor doing brilliantly, a new range beckons for the rest…

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures – Venusian Lullaby
“‘Remember us, Doctor,’ he breathed. ‘I beg of you, remember us all.’”
What would you do if your world was doomed? Paul Leonard offers black humour, desperation, horror and acceptance from the series’ most perfectly alien race and culture in a perfect novel for William Hartnell’s Doctor, a grand historical tragedy from the history of another world.

This is one you’ll have to track down second-hand to read, and you really should, you know. For some reason, Billy’s Doctor seems to be the most author-proof of the first six Doctors in print, with more of ‘his’ original novels succeeding than for the others, and this is the best of the lot.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008


Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 1977 Brilliant?

One newcomer writes mad messiah murder mystery The Robots of Death and the series’ finest ghost story, Image of the Fendahl; others include the woman in the leather bikini and the tin dog, who with the bloke in the scarf become Doctor Who’s most iconic silhouettes… I learn to read on books like The Dalek Invasion of Earth and the horror-and-ellipses-packed The Ark In Space… While in Victorian London…

The Talons of Weng-Chiang
“On my oath! You wouldn’t want that served with onions – never seen anything like it in all my puff. Urrhh, make an ’orse sick, that would. Oh!”
Doctor Who in the inner city: gangs, guns, stabbings and drugs’. Hurrah! Feast on the richest of dialogue, fruitiest of characters and vilest of villains, with one whole episode a brilliant conjuring trick. It’s one of the most utterly entertaining pieces of television ever made.

Second-hand shopping might turn up a novel with an hilarious cleaning-up of an obvious on-screen prostitute, a script book, an edited video… But you want the double-disc DVD, one of the best releases going and with some superb extras. For some, the height would be the 26 minutes of Blue Peter teaching you how to make a model theatre with Lesley Judd, but for me it’s something amazing: a special behind-the-scenes documentary on Doctor Who, with loads of clips of old stories to pack it out, and all from 1977, a year that also saw complaints about the BBC, the economy going bust and Doctor Who being incredibly popular – how times change, eh?

But that’s not all. This year, my inner gleefully bloodthirsty five-year-old self was overjoyed to see that The Talons of Weng-Chiang has now also inspired the most unsuitable toys for children ever to hit the supermarkets (well, the Slitheen dress-up skin suit comes close, but it doesn’t come in Slitheen size for me to wear it). Nearly two decades ago, I saw a boy in a video shop trying to decide between this and a Who story I don’t think much of (I only write nice things in these posts, so I won’t name it); I knelt and convinced him that this story was dark and scary, then stood and convinced his mum that it was half as long again for the same price. These new figures are much the same. Tell parents that you get a full-sized figure and a half-sized figure for the same price as the other single figures; tell kids that you get a knife-wielding psychopathic doll and a sex killer war criminal with interchangeably masked and hideously scarred heads. As I said, a fabulously unsuitable toy purchase, which I recommend to every household this Christmas.

Some months ago, incidentally, I wrote of a faulty component on assembling my ‘collect and build’ K1 Giant Robot, part of which comes with the unbeatably unsuitable Magnus Greel and Mr Sin. I’m delighted to report that Character Options’ customer service team got back to me within a week, and not only replaced the faulty part but sent me a complete, fully assembled Robot (so I now have some spare arms and legs. Sigh. If only I did). Here it is, looming in the background of those two psychotic star figures and an assortment from 1975 and 1977.

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And finally… Eagle-eyed viewers may have spotted that my plan to write one of these every day through to the end of the year came to a grinding halt three weeks ago, when I got very ill for a week and very washed-out afterwards. Last week my embarrassing ailments scored a hit with a broken toe. Tonight, a little less grumpy, two toes strapped together and trying to catch up a bit, I’d like to say particular thank-yous to Neil Fawcett and the lovely Nick, who respectively posted an encouraging blog piece on why Doctor Who was brilliant in 1977 and wrote me a fantastic e-mail doing every year from 1963 to 2008 in one go. Both warmed the cockles of my heart, and both picked The Talons of Weng-Chiang as certainly as I did.

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Monday, February 26, 2007


The Valley of Fear’s Visit From Porlock

Porlock is an infamous name in literature; the place from which a traveller hiked to interrupt Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s delirious poetry. It complicates another fantasy as a character in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s last Sherlock Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear. “Fred Porlock” is a lieutenant of Professor Moriarty’s and an informant for Mr Holmes, setting up an entertaining puzzle to start the story and to tell the reader ‘Moriarty is involved, so this is important’. But he’s a puzzle himself: why does he want to tip Holmes off, what good will his tip do, and who is he anyway?

BBC7 is in the middle of broadcasting every single one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. These radio plays star Clive Merrison as Sherlock, and they started them off a few weeks ago with two-part adaptations of the four novels. I’ve been half-listening to several of them and, half-listening to The Valley of Fear, I was surprised to find that I didn’t recognise it. Turns out that, very unusually among these stories, I’d neither read nor seen it, so I listened a little more carefully. I’ve read it since, too. Well, I spotted one obvious twist at once and the other very late – some effective misdirection by Sir Arthur over at Birlstone House – but, thinking about it, Porlock and Moriarty made up a lingering puzzle afterwards. Stop reading in two paragraphs from now, by the way, if you don’t know the solution to The Valley of Fear and don’t want it spoiled (another mystery is why, despite the ubiquity of Moriarty in Holmes’ screen adaptations, this one’s hardly ever been made; I suspect it’s the large section in the American mining town that both causes a problem for UK filming and absents Holmes for even longer than in The Hound of the Baskervilles).

Moriarty’s Insinuations

Moriarty’s a peculiar character in the Sherlock Holmes stories; he’s only introduced in The Final Problem to kill Holmes off, and the novel I’m examining, the only other one of the original stories to feature him, was written two decades later. It’s set before The Final Problem, so there’s no suggestion from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that Moriarty returns from the dead (though there are a couple of contradictions with the earlier-written, later-set tale and its aftermath). His involvement in The Valley of Fear is merely a bookend that adds extra weight to it, and – retrospectively – makes Moriarty seem more like the ever-present figure he really wasn’t in the original tales, though the adaptations starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes also insinuated him into The Red-Headed League, rather successfully. Yet he’s the villain that seized the public imagination. If you see a Sherlock Holmes film, odds-on it’ll either be The Hound of the Baskervilles or feature Moriarty, who does keep coming back from the dead in the Basil Rathbone films; I suspect it’s because a villain who’s the equal of Holmes seems much more interesting than the ones he can destroy from his armchair (perhaps Irene Adler just isn’t villainous enough to have caught on in the same way). It’s a little like the over-use of the Master and the Daleks in Doctor Who – if you’re going to have a big event, everyone wants the arch-enemy or the scary monster.

Moriarty doesn’t carry out crimes in person, at least not in the original stories, but instead makes plans for his own huge criminal syndicate and acts as a consulting master criminal to others. Both aspects of his ‘work’ crop up in The Valley of Fear. “Fred Porlock” is a lieutenant in Moriarty’s organisation, and Moriarty has been sub-contracted to locate someone for a vicious American gang. We hear that Moriarty pays his chief of staff, Colonel Sebastian Moran of evil memory, the enormous sum of £6,000 a year (more than the Prime Minister), so if “Porlock” works closely with him, why are Holmes’ occasional bribes of a tenner by post sufficient to prise anonymous warnings from “Porlock”? They can’t add much to his wages from the Professor, and they imperil his life. Holmes suggests that “Porlock” has been experiencing pangs of conscience; so how did he rise so high under the ruthless Professor? Now, the opening chapter – in which Holmes receives a coded message from “Porlock”, then another which instead of supplying the key writes in fear and haste to say that he may have been discovered and Holmes should forget it all – is very entertaining. It’s great fun to read how Holmes deduces the way to break the cipher anyway. That makes it easy to miss that those carefully disguised words are ones like “danger”, “is”, “soon” and the like, but the words written in full (as they don’t appear in the book that provides the key) are “Douglas” and “Birlstone”. If “Porlock” was afraid of incriminating himself, it wasn’t the carefully enciphered words warning of some vague danger that would do so – it was the name of the man and the place under threat of murder that would stand out, and those are the very words he writes down clearly. In fact, never mind the cipher; a message from Moriarty’s underling, delivered in fear and at deadly risk – you’d know it was some urgent warning, so wouldn’t you try and chase down “Douglas” and “Birlstone” anyway (though Holmes doesn’t have to start on this trickier piece of legwork, as a police inspector bursts in at that very moment to tell of the murder of a Mr Douglas at Birlstone House)?

Who Is “Fred Porlock”?

I was discussing this with Richard the other evening, and he came up with a theory. The answer to both his motive and his apparent mistake lies in the question of who “Porlock” actually is. “Porlock”, suggests my beloved, is Moriarty himself. He sought out Holmes and contacts him only by post; though Holmes has on occasion penetrated Moriarty’s organisation, he’s never met “Porlock”. Perhaps Moriarty, knowing Holmes had begun to investigate him, decided to return the favour. How better than by checking if Holmes was clever and interested enough to pick up on the hints of an ‘informant’ spoon-feeding him disposable drops of information? And, of course, he makes Holmes pay for the privilege; as with the mole’s misinformation through a tainted source in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (part two on BBC4 tonight), something you’ve paid for always seems worth more than something given for free. The supplying of vital inside information just too late to be useful is familiar from the ‘stings’ in several episodes of Hustle, too.

Richard having put his hypothesis on the basis of the cryptic ‘warning’, I can find several pieces of supporting evidence within the story, and none that contradict it (unless you don’t wish to believe Sherlock Holmes could be taken in). What if Moriarty has more of a motive for tipping off Holmes on this particular case than just to add a touch of verisimilitude, too late, to Holmes’ ‘source’ should he wish in the future to use “Porlock” as a channel for misinformation? Well, look at how The Valley of Fear ends. Mr Holmes successfully deduces that Mr Douglas has not in fact been murdered, but instead killed his own intended assassin and dressed the body (of similar build, and with a horribly blasted face) in his own clothes in order to make other prospective killers believe him already dead. “Douglas” is another false name in this case, cover for a brilliant detective to escape retribution from the gang he rounded up, so – his cover blown – he flees to South Africa at the end of the story, but is lost “overboard” just as a sardonic note arrives for Holmes from Moriarty (unsigned but unmistakable). Moriarty has been hired to find a very clever detective, one who has already avoided death many times. What if the latest assassin should fail? Moriarty’s reputation rests on his omnipotence, and Holmes observes at the end that the “accident” is a sign that Moriarty does not allow himself to be associated with a failure.

How does Moriarty know that Douglas has evaded death at Birlstone? Even two rather competent police officers – Holmes, for once, gives them both credit – assume they’re investigating Douglas’ murder. But what if Moriarty decided to make absolutely sure that all had gone to plan in the case of a brilliant detective’s death by setting an even more brilliant detective to investigate it, reversing the usual ‘set a thief to catch a thief’? He has no way to foresee that the circumstances will turn out to be so bizarre that a leading Inspector will call Holmes in anyway, so “Porlock” sends Holmes a note to pique his interest, timed to arrive just after the attempt occurs. And it is indeed Holmes’ investigation that allows Moriarty to make sure of his own man.

Knowing Holmes Too Well…

Perhaps the writer of the radio adaptation with Clive Merrison had his own suspicions; while he doesn’t blame “Porlock”, in that version, unlike the book, Holmes does berate himself for the death, saying it’s all his own fault. That version, too, suggests Moriarty’s omniscience; the ‘American’ half of the book is told by a narrator in the third person, rather than in Watson’s subjective tones. In the penultimate scene of the radio play, this manuscript is delivered into Moriarty’s hands along with news of the “accident”. Suddenly, you recognise the voice of narrator Ronald Pickup now as the voice of Moriarty, and of course the scene closes with Moriarty starting to read it aloud – the first line we’d heard spoken at the opening of part one, bringing the tale full circle. This suggestion of Moriarty’s all-pervasiveness within the story, incidentally, was given an eerie little twist for me; with the first part broadcast on a Friday and the close the next Monday, who should walk by me on the street in the intervening weekend but Ronald Pickup? It’s as if the man was, appropriately, everywhere while the story was still underway. In the best of the Basil Rathbone films, too – the period mystery The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Moriarty diverts Holmes from the ‘mundane’ job of guarding the Crown Jewels by concocting a deliciously complex, clue-strewn and attention-grabbing murder. It’s occurred to other authors, then, that Moriarty might take advantage of Holmes’ jackdaw mind.

You want another piece of evidence from The Valley of Fear itself? Well, how about two in the name “Porlock”. When not occupied by an exciting case, Mr Holmes suffers from such ennui that he keeps his brilliant brain entertained by flooding it with cocaine. “Porlock” is, as I said at the beginning, famously associated with a traveller who interrupted a drug-fuelled flight of fantasy. Perhaps Moriarty is mocking Holmes’ reliance on recreational drugs by supplying him both with tidbits interesting enough to jolt him out of his hallucinations, and with a name suggesting someone else who did just that. Perhaps it’s an expression of fake solicitude, of mocking ‘sympathy’. ‘Poor Sherlock,’ Moriarty might have oiled, seeing this brilliant brain with nothing to divert it. ‘Poor Sherlock… Porlock.’

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