Saturday, January 27, 2007



…It’s Richard’s birthday tomorrow (my beloved, and Millennium’s better-known daddy), but he doesn’t like anyone to know.

Tiptoes quietly away from computer…

…Trips and falls with a yell because my vision is impaired and I cannot see…

…Realises Richard’s out so I’m still technically stealthy.

The one time I was able to organise a variety of birthday party for him was by inviting some people round to watch a few videos and DVDs in May 2004. He didn’t notice that it was on the day I’d worked out was his thirty-three and a thirdth birthday. Strike when they least expect it, I say! He’ll probably start getting very suspicious around the time of his two-thirds-of-a-century, but I have a few decades to plan that yet…

The line-up I insisted on showing was Robin of Sherwood: The King’s Fool, Doctor Who: The Crusade (partly in reconstructed format, the BBC having tossed some of it in a skip and set light to it as part of their, ah, idiosyncratic 1970s archiving policy) and The Lion in Winter. They’re all stories set in the 1180s and ’90s, but they have something else in common… On the version of the invites I showed to Richard, it was headlined ‘Plantagenet Night’. A couple of days before it was due, he said with some puzzlement, “But they’re all Richard I.” “Are they?” I responded innocently. Good job it was on the phone; I can never keep a straight face.

Hopefully he’ll have a lovely birthday, and won’t notice me advertising it until it’s too late. Nyah hah hah hah hah (in the absence of an html tag for ‘wicked laugh’).

Corks, he’s back!

Switch the lights out and make a wish.


Friday, January 26, 2007


Six of Ood, Half a Dozen of the Other

I’m not one to cast aspersions, or indeed spells, but some might find it significant that last night (while starting work on the last in my thrilling series on religion) my glasses dropped in two. This doesn’t make it impossible to type, but bending forward to peer close to the screen isn’t doing my back or neck muscles any good. Bah. I have, however, been cheering myself up with the latest Doctor Who Adventures comic. Not only do I suddenly appreciate bright colours and very large letters, but this one comes with a free pack of Doctor Who playing cards.

Usually I’d recommend Doctor Who Magazine as a better read, but today the kids’ version is keeping me entertained. Usually I just smile at how many old monster gags they get into their ‘spot the whatevers’ cartoons, but they do have a remarkable number of ‘free gifts’. Usually these are a bit tacky (literally, with the amount of stickers they give away), but some are rather fab. Richard thinks the playing cards fall into the tacky category, but who could resist the Six of Ood?


Admittedly, they’re not perfect. The printing’s a bit cheap (shock), and while suits of Ood, Daleks and Cybermen are clearly ideal, I’m less sure about the Slitheen (probably have picked the Reapers instead, for a race of monsters from the new series with a memorable silhouette). All the aces are K9s, the Kings are Doctors, the Queens Roses, while the Jacks… Are Mickeys. Some mistake, surely? All right, he deserves a place, and it’s certainly a fetching photo of him, but when there’s a TARDIS traveller called ‘Jack’… Grumble, grumble. Perhaps they just didn’t want to encourage the kids to watch post-watershed Torchwood by mentioning Captain Harkness, but if so, how come there are a couple of photos of him and even a mention of his bottom in this very issue?

My subscription copy came yesterday and, as they have the worst subscription service in the world, for a fortnightly magazine there’s just a chance that you might still catch one of these in the shops. Where they were last week.

Well, it’s more diverting than squinting at opticians’ websites, trying to focus on store-finder phone numbers, making multiple phone calls and still repeatedly being told, “We could fit you in for a test next Wednesday…” But I want to be able to see now (stamps foot)! Posted by Picasa

Thursday, January 25, 2007


The Problem of ‘Accident’

After writing several articles about ‘process issues’ around religion, you might think I’m not interested in the main arguments, but in fact I’ve been involved in theological debate from an early age: it’s probably where I got my training in how to argue obscure Doctor Who lore, and certainly the foundation of some of my politics. So (at the risk of sounding like John Humphrys) I’d like to invite any religious readers to engage with a theological problem I have. While the most frequently raised trouble with God is ‘The Problem of Evil’, I founder on the problem of ‘Accident’.

You’ll have heard of ‘The Problem of Evil’. Put simply, if God is all-good, all-powerful and all-knowing, and has created everything – all fundamental tenets of the Christian faith, in whatever flavour – then how does he permit all the evil that goes on in the world? Benevolence and omnipotence should demand that he’s able to set everything up so that people simply can’t do terrible things to each other. The two answers I’ve heard most often are that ‘God has a plan’ (and moves, no doubt, in mysterious ways), or that without the capacity to do evil, we would have no free will, so it’s worth the suffering that goes with it as the alternative would be a universe of zombies. Each has had their adherents in different branches of Christianity. Brought up in a very religious family, going to two churches every Sunday and to denominational state schools, I can’t remember when I first came across these arguments, but I must have been familiar with them from quite far back. You’ll probably be unsurprised that I never had much truck with predeterminism, but found the arguments for free will persuasive. So, round one to God.

I’ve listened on and off in recent weeks to Milton’s Paradise Lost on BBC7 (whose idea was it to strip it across 41 quarter-hour episodes?), and other than particularly enjoying Ian McDiarmid’s Satan – superb, but tricky that he gets far more persuasive arguments than the ‘good guys’ – it reminded me of an argument that followed on for me to the Problem of Evil. That’s such an old problem now, around for thousands of years, that while I think the central argument is still a live one, it’s easy to miss that some of the issues caught up in it aren’t live any more, at least outside of some of the more backward states of America.

I can remember the first time I ever met a Creationist. I say that, but it’s almost certainly not true: in eighteen years of mixing with devoutly religious people, both Catholic and Baptist, I’d probably met several. It’s just that, with a deep respect for science as well as religion taught to me at home and school, and evolution presented as fact and Genesis as important but fable in both, it never occurred to me to ask anyone. ‘Do you believe the Earth is only 6000 years old and God buried dinosaur bones whole like a cosmic Jeremy Beadle?’ would have seemed as insulting a question to ask as ‘Do you believe the Earth is flat?’ or ‘You think the Moon is made of green cheese, don’t you?’ Despite my upbringing, then, I was profoundly ill-prepared when – aged 17, and newly out – I was put up overnight with three other guys for university interviews. None of us had ever met before, but it turned out two of them were Creationists. I made a very bad impression, because it took me some time to realise they weren’t having me on. In my defence, I did genuinely jump to what I thought was the only reasonable conclusion, a practical joke, and that’s why I kept laughing. Understandably, they took offence. Then I mentioned I was gay and, obviously, I was ‘the first one they’d ever met’ and, rather than being amused, they were terrified and their arguments became even more defensive than before. The fourth guy just pretty much hid under the covers and tried to avoid the shrapnel.

Anyway, back to the Problem of Evil. While the core of it remains a powerful theological argument – for and against – there are peripheral elements that seem to me to have been knocked out by the unfashionableness of the literal truth of Genesis, and this is down to Original Sin. I always had a problem with the idea that all of us are born intrinsically disordered and wrong, in need of forgiveness and salvation for, er, just being alive. It seemed to me a fundamentally nihilistic view of human nature. I look for the good in people, but this wasn’t even morally neutral: what’s the point of free will if you’re ‘naturally bad’? Isn’t that cheating? But the bigger problem I had, crystallising for me alongside a host of smaller things (from church institutions to Bedazzled) that made me more than sceptical, was not evil but accidental suffering. And I finally realised that it’s Genesis that’s responsible for this issue getting far less discussion than evil does – aside, obviously, from the fact that evil is easier to personify, given poster boys from the Devil to whichever dictator is ‘the new Hitler’ (and before then, presumably the new Napoleon, Charlemagne, and so on) – because, for philosophers of the Church all the way up to the Nineteenth Century, the answer was obvious. It was simply an offshoot of ‘Evil’: everything was perfect, literally Paradise; Adam and Eve sinned; evil came into the world, and with it as punishment, ‘Bad Things’. The world fell with Adam and Eve, and created pain. Evil was the important issue to discuss, because everything else was a side effect of it.

However, for a Twentieth-Century boy (as was) like me, the problem came alive. Evil I could understand; free will, I accepted. But the problem of ‘Accident’? Nobody chose it, it’s nobody’s fault, and for most of human history we’ve made not a fraction of the impact on our environment that we do now, even if you want to claim punishment for eco-sin. Take God as benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, as I was always taught, and I just can’t see the get-out clause: if he set up a system that’s always caused such horrible things to happen to so many people for no reason at all, then is God a) a git, b) incompetent or c) vanishing in a puff of logic? Answers on a postcard, please.


Why Should I Want a Bigot to Smile Politely?

Splitting yesterday roughly equally between typing blog pieces and doing arm exercises to enable me to keep typing, I reflected that during the months when I’ve barely been able to type at all many of the blog articles going no further than my head were to do with religion. I remember thinking it was probably for the best, as once I got started I’d never shut up: ah well, too late now. Before my next substantive piece on religion, then, I thought I’d detour to wonder why we have anti-discrimination legislation in general, whether the Catholic Church objects or not.

You’ll have noticed, of course, that the Catholic Church doesn’t object to banning discrimination on grounds of religion, yet, despite the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster claiming his Church “utterly condemns all forms of unjust discrimination, violence, harassment or abuse directed against people who are homosexual” (when it’s famous for having directly practised every single one of those things), not only does he still want to hang on to all the remaining bits of legal discrimination, but his Church has opposed every single one of them being peeled back over the years: adoption, partnership rights, Section 28, gay sex, gay association… I wonder which of those many, many forms of discrimination, violence, harassment and abuse are now, like Galileo, issues on which the Church grudgingly lets slip it may have been mildly in error, and which they still agree with but no longer think they can enforce? When the language of “utterly condemning” discrimination leaves so many opt-outs to support full-blooded discrimination, who can tell what they mean?

Whoops, religion again. It’s just that if anyone else is a bigot in public nowadays they get shouted down, but if a religious leader’s a bigot in public people say it’s a point of high moral principle, even if they have the power to hurt an awful lot more people along the way. It also gives people the handy opt-out that, so long as they remember to dress up their bigotry in religious clothing, they step from ‘BNP bigot’ to ‘modern martyr’ – without having modified their discriminatory behaviour! Bless.

It’s ironic that the Catholic Church is trying so hard to undermine anti-discrimination legislation, as one of the most striking cases where it was needed was in banning discrimination on grounds of religion – rightly inspired in large part by the ill-treatment of Catholics in Northern Ireland. It was a huge step forward when the ‘No Catholics!’ signs were taken down, and it’s just a shame when the Catholic hierarchy (as opposed to their less bigoted flock) remain, as ever, cheerleaders for the ‘No Queers!’ signs thirty years later.

I was recently asked by a friend (who happens to be gay, though I don’t know his religious persuasion) about the whole issue of anti-discrimination legislation, with so many protests from bigots ‘of conscience’ about their sincere and angry wish to discriminate against lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and anyone they think looks a bit fey in the provision of goods and services. Unlike all the religious protesters, however, who want to sue the cassocks off anyone who doesn’t like them but want to deny their own hate objects any legal protection, my friend’s crisis of conscience was about the fairness of such legislation on principle, rather than being conveniently happy with the self-serving bits.

His problem was that he couldn’t quite convince himself that “it should be illegal for private individuals to discriminate against other private individuals on the grounds of their sexuality”. Now, he passionately believes people shouldn’t discriminate, and could see the logic in extending equal treatment for all different sorts of minority groups, but he just doesn’t like banning things. I have sympathy with that. “Anti-discrimination law in employment is fair enough and in public services,” he told me, “but I have this awful, nagging voice in the back of my head complaining that homophobes running guest houses should be free to turn down gay visitors if they want. I wouldn't want to stay at their guest house anyway, and I'd rather market mechanisms punished them for it than they were forced to serve me but secretly spat in my breakfast...”

So, here we have an example of a genuine moral dilemma, someone dreadfully conflicted between different principles and – perhaps the litmus test of a real moral question rather than puffed-up Pharisaic posturing to conceal bigotry – trying to work out if he should oppose something that would be in his own interest, rather than conveniently protecting his own interests but slamming the door on others’.

I have no sympathy with those complaining they’ve been ‘discriminated against’ because they’ve been deprived of their rights to bully, beat or burn people they don’t like the look of. I have no sympathy with those who claim ‘their consciences are offended’ because they can’t force people they hate to sit at the back of the bus, or lynch them if they get uppity. But those are very squarely actions in the public sphere. Should the state force you to, say, invite someone you dislike into your private home?

There may always be times when someone you dislike will intrude into your private affairs with the state’s permission rather than your own – but you can’t veto a gay police officer, a black social worker, a woman benefits official or a Protestant bailiff. There is a reason why anti-discrimination remains on the ‘public’ side of the debate, too. It’s not about private individuals discriminating against other private individuals in an entirely private sphere, but about how a free market operates in society. There’s a clear dividing line here. No-one’s saying you should invite people you dislike into your circle of friends or have them round for tea, and no-one should – but advertise that you are inviting people into your property for money to provide a service, and the situation is quite different (unless you’re in the habit of charging your friends). Imagine, for a moment, a world back to ‘No Coloureds’ signs in the windows, where anyone can refuse to serve anyone anything because they don’t like someone’s skin, sexuality or faith. Trade is a social act, and it has to follow certain rules: you don’t cheat your customers, you provide the service you claim to offer, you pay taxes, you don’t destroy the environment, and in return the state gives you a level playing field and your own public services to facilitate your trade… In what way is ‘offering a service to the public means offering a service to the public’ different in kind?

Requiring you to treat everyone equally has an element of social instruction, true, but the alternative is requiring every bigot to advertise their bigotry loudly, or run the risk of people turning up and being turned away if they’ve not made explicit enquiries. Let’s face it, with the modern telephonogram you can’t pretend that people just turn up on spec to see a place and can see a sign in the window right then. Assuming a phone enquiry rather than just clicking buttons on the Internet – ‘Do you feel there is something about you that may aggravate my bigotry? Click I AM SCUM Yes / No’ – then why should a consumer have to run through everything about themselves just so the owner can abuse them? ‘Oh, my partner’s male. Is that OK? Fine. And black. Is that going to be a problem? Oh, good. But you don't like Catholics, you say? Well, that’s me out…’ How would that work, in every hotel, in every pub, in every shop? Wouldn’t it mean nasty rows on a daily basis that made society a whole lot more fractured and wasted a lot of police time; would it be breach of the peace for someone being discriminated against to loudly call the proprietor a ‘****’, for example, or only if the owner hadn’t got a sign up to advertise their ‘conscientious objection’ (something tasteful like ‘No Pakis’)? If they didn’t have a sign, could they be sued for posing as a non-bigot? Doesn’t society just work better if the state straightforwardly says, for a free market to work, you have to treat everyone the same? It seems to me that that’s a lot easier in terms of regulation, a simple ‘one size fits all’, than the minefield of having to police every row.

If you don’t like banning things, isn’t it better to have one order from the state un-banning everyone than a million tiny bans?


Church Latest: Protect Hate, Hate Love

At last, after centuries of taking pot-shots at each other (often literally), the Catholic Church and the Church of England have found common ground: persecuting gay people and children. They’re horrified at the idea of same-sex couples being happy, and have opposed every single removal of state-sponsored bigotry that used to give their churches’ views special rights. But we’re all used to that. Of many disgusting things about their united gospel of hate, the worst is that they are desperately proselytising to keep vulnerable children suffering in care, instead of giving them a chance of happiness with loving same-sex parents.

Astoundingly, much of the press has swallowed the line that condemning vulnerable children to stay locked up in care (with all its misery and poorer life chances) because church leaders want to throw out prospective adopters through bigotry is “discrimination against Catholics”. It is not. It is refusing publically funded Catholic organisations the special right to peculiarly harm children and enact their prejudices against adults.

The pleadings of these particular churches and their leading advocate in government, the ironically-portfolioed minister for equality Ruth Kelly, for Catholic adoption agencies to be exempted from the new equality laws have absolutely no merit. They are simply special pleading for the state to fund and approve the sort of bigotry that a civilised society is moving on from, wanting to keep abandoning victim children at public expense while whining of ‘victimisation’. It’s handy that Cardinals wear red, as that makes it easier to spot which character from Alice in Wonderland Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s upside-down approach to language is borrowed from. Every other adoption agency must decide on the suitability of prospective adoptive parents on the basis of how well they can look after vulnerable children, many of whom wait years – or forever – to find a loving home. Brought up Catholic, I am ashamed that the issues about which that Church cares most in today’s Britain are for special rights to keep bigotry enshrined in law and keep children who need loving parents from those loving parents. Many thousands of Catholics share that deep moral repugnance at the shameful bigotry of their Church.

There are not enough adoptive parents to meet the needs of all the children concerned; the Catholic Church wants to keep turning away suitable parents because of their own prejudices and no objective criteria; this is simply monstrous. That is the core of the argument that they attempt to dress up as morality.

The Churches and their collaborators, however, pretend there are other arguments to defend their bigotry. The first is to call on Church tradition. The Biblical tradition from which this comes has curiously been ignored when permitting, for example, eaters of shellfish, wearers of hats, sufferers from various medical conditions and women speakers in the Church, so they’re left with the elaborations on it which make up Church history. A swift glance will discover huge changes throughout the two thousand years of the Church – my Mother still remembers masses only ever said in Latin – and many other special rights it has exercised through the ages. The trouble is, almost without exception, the special rights the Catholic Church used to exercise in law are now ones met with embarrassed glances and protestation that that was hundreds of years ago and now should be ignored, save for the bits from hundreds of years ago that should still tell everyone else what to do (I know, it’s hard to keep track of how both of those arguments can be true). While the Catholic Church likes to imply – against every single piece of evidence ever found – a link between gay people and paedophiles, there are similar embarrassed glances when the Church is confronted with the mass of evidence that, if any single-sex group appears to have such a high tendency towards child abuse that it’s almost an intrinsic moral disorder, it’s Catholic priests. How do the people who conspired to let this keep happening have the nerve to pose as moral?

Obviously, the Catholic Church is in a tricky position. When asked to justify their special pleading to be above the law, all their spokespeople (sorry, spokes-men, obviously) can keep parroting is that “this is the Church’s teaching,” which is a ‘because it is’ response to avoid the actual ‘we are in fact bigots’ explanation that the Church teaches that gay people are worth less than straight people, and are in fact intrinsically disordered and evil (the Vatican, 2002 – hard to believe it’s the right millennium, isn’t it? Ironically, the Church hadn’t started preaching homophobia in a big way yet by 1002).

The other trouble with “this is the Church’s teaching” as an answer is that relying on ‘this is our history’ rather than ‘this is our rational argument’ opens up two thousand years of very mixed morality to scrutiny. There are howls of outrage when the Catholic Church is compared to the Ku Klux Klan merely because most of their public pronouncements these days are just like the KKK’s in trying to hang on to the vestiges of state persecution of mixed race same sex couples, but the Church standing its whole argument on its history makes that outrage difficult to maintain. Picture the scene in court: ‘Archbishop, you argue that the reason you wish to discriminate against gay people is that you must uphold hundreds of years of Church teaching and practice, yet you also claim any comparison to the Ku Klux Klan offends you. Archbishop, remembering your hand is on the Bible, have those hundreds of years of Church teaching and practice never included men in pointy hoods burning gay people alive?’

They can’t talk their way out of this, but you still can’t talk ’em oudda anything (hat-tip to Mel Brooks).

The Catholic Church, however, is not alone in this. Another Church takes exactly the same line. Well, not exactly: they say ‘me too!’ today, but in fact their own adoption practice will comply with the law; they talk at length about tolerance, and how “It is vitally important that the interests of vulnerable children are not relegated to suit any political interest” and then call for bigots to keep getting state funding to leave children in the lurch. Gosh, who could it possibly be, facing so many different ways at once?

No, it’s not a trick question. Of course it’s the Church of England. I have never been a member of the established Church. They merely speak on my behalf, take my taxes and make my laws (but don’t question their special rights over the rest of us: that would be ‘discrimination’). Fortunately, long-suffering Anglican Paul Walter has helpfully digested the bandwagon-jumping nonsense from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York so I don’t have to read the whole thing.

There are several possible explanations for their me-tooism, and try as I might, I can’t think of a flattering one. The most obvious is simple self-interest. The Anglican Church has long been a subject of humour in Britain for being a bit ineffectual; today, it’s a joke internationally for its new most famous aspect, splits over homosexuality. So this issue, enabling them to defend religious homophobia while not actually requiring them to put it into action themselves, is perfect for heading off those pesky evangelical bigots who think there’s too much of that peace and love nonsense and not enough hellfire, while whispering behind their hands to their glum more liberal brethren that they won’t really follow through.

This morning presented the unedifying spectacle of Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, portraying a law against discrimination as “discrimination”, claiming that “We’re totally against discrimination, absolutely no doubt about it,” but that this is a “balancing act” so as not to offend those who are totally in favour of discrimination. Fitting in well with the Today Programme, he made a number of ludicrous claims, completely avoided answering the key question asked of him, and spoke from a hypocritical combination of self-interest and naked prejudice.

The killer question was, of course, when Dr Sentamu was asked by John Humphrys whether he’d support someone’s right of conscience to turn black couples away as adopters due to disapproval of their race. Dr Sentamu proved his moral fortitude by consistently avoiding anything remotely like an answer to that question – as well he might. After all, he was on the programme purely to oppose laws against discrimination. These laws will apply in the same way as those we’ve had for three decades against racial and religious discrimination. I disagree with but respect those who would make a principled case against those anti-discrimination laws as well because all such laws are wrong; he does not. The black Archbishop Dr Sentamu is happy to be protected from bigots by such laws but appalled that the same protection should be extended to the targets of his own bigotry. Why does he not speak for the consciences of those who are ‘victimised’ by existing legislation, which forbids the genuine, deeply felt actions of many sincere people who, while not black like Dr Sentamu and not sympathetic to that aspect of the Archbishop, while also perhaps of a conflicting religious denomination to Dr Sentamu, share with him a deep, sincere, loathsome bigotry. Instead, confining himself only to special protection for homophobic bigots, his warning of too many laws “When you intervene too much in people’s private lives…” will be greeted with sheer disbelief by all those whose private lives have been intervened in over the years by church-driven legislation not just on adoption but on marriage, divorce, abortion and every other sexual subject with which religious posers are constantly obsessed.

Dr Sentamu’s claim that adding another strand to the law victimises the consciences of bigots is simply a lie. In a free society, no-one’s views should be battered into conformity, but anti-discrimination laws aim to protect the religious and irreligious alike not from thoughts but from actions. They are not an attempt to change the private views of bigots, but to prevent public behaviour which causes actual harm to other people. In the words of Dr Martin Luther King Jnr, a church leader who stood against rather than in favour of bigotry:
“Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.”
There are many actions which, in all conscience, people feel their religious beliefs demand they take. I’ve already mentioned the killing of gay people, but I could add the murder of heretics and disbelievers. Sati. Suicide bombers. Terror in Northern Ireland. Bombing abortion clinics. The churches whose teachings provided the moral underpinning of racial supremacy for Apartheid South Africa. None of these are simply medieval examples; all of them have had the wide support of genuine belief and conscience in living memory; most of them still go on today. All of them are evil, and I suspect even the bigots’ apologist Dr Sentamu would agree.

As Millennium said:
“There IS no clash of rights here… The RIGHT to freedom of religion means that Christians are COMPLETELY ENTITLED to believe any thing that they want to… BUT that SAME RIGHT means that Christians do not have and never have had the "right" to IMPOSE their beliefs and rules on anyone else. So saying "the regulations aim to over-ride [my] conscientious objections" is just to invent rights for yourself that do not exist.”

“The right to boss people around is NOT a human right.”
Unfortunately for the Catholic hierarchy’s hopes to keep us in the Middle Ages, the Church of England appears pretty much their most reliable ally (pretty disastrous for anyone, really). It used to be that you could rely on at least one of the Houses of Parliament, but no longer. When even the House of Lords won’t uphold religious homophobia, no wonder they squeal so loudly you’d think the sky was falling. And how charmingly tasteful it was that the mob howling their disappointment at the removal of state sponsorship from their bigotry waved lit torches, when you’ll remember that people of exactly their views and exactly their denominations used to cap their state-sponsored bigotry by burning gay people at the stake. ‘Ah,’ the subliminal message was surely meant to convey, ‘those were the good old days’. Tragically, this deeply conscientious evocation of the Inquisition was misunderstood by most viewers as ‘What a scary mob of murderous medieval loonies’.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007



The Prime Minister has announced a compromise with Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu, who on this morning’s Today Programme claimed that “We’re totally against discrimination, absolutely no doubt about it,” but that a “balancing act” was needed so as not to discriminate against people who are totally in favour of discrimination.

A comprehensive overhaul of anti-discrimination laws to avoid offence to conscientious bigots like Dr Sentamu begins today. Among the first measures announced are that hoteliers who don’t wish to cater to ‘that sort’ (delete ‘sort’ as applicable) will once again be permitted to display ‘No Coloureds’ signs as they were before the anti-conscience discrimination introduced by nasty Old Labour in the 1970s, but with the compromise surely acceptable to all right-minded people that the hoteliers will be required to provide leaflets detailing where ‘that sort’ can stay instead. Such as brochures for Barbados.

Gay-run adoption agencies are to be permitted to turn away couples who admit to a religious orientation, as in all conscience the agencies believe that enforcing bigotry, superstition and self-loathing on kids is child abuse and vulnerable children must be protected from it.

The valuable work done by the British National Party in reaching out to those in the community who cannot, in all conscience, share public services with people who are insufficiently white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual or foaming at the mouth to meet their high moral standards will be supported through government grants.

A multi-faith outreach team will receive charitable funding to reach out, seize and kill heretics, blasphemers and apostates, as clearly set out as a matter of conscience in each of their holy books. The Government has agreed a compromise in which beating or stoning is to be used, as burning would not be in compliance with the UK’s emissions targets. Negotiations are finding a sticking point in whether all non-believers may be ritually murdered, or merely those who originate within the specified religious group, which of course the Government agrees is a matter for the consciences of the communities concerned. ‘However,’ Mr Blair announced, ‘I’m pleased that in a positive example of inter-faith dialogue, the religious denominations involved have already agreed their own timetable to start butchering each other as heathen only once they’ve successfully co-operated to eliminate each of their own communities’ nay-sayers, critics and free-thinkers.’

Some Christians petitioning the Government, however, have been given short shrift. One group claims to base their ideas on a little-known fundamentalist Christian text called the ‘Bible’, and faddishly abandon traditional Church teaching that only sexual obsession is next to godliness in favour of cult oppositions to bearing false witness, attacking mums and dads (including gay ones), selling on stolen peerages, incessant images of Tony, killing (even in far-off oil-rich countries), and bearing false witness in order to get Parliament to agree to mass killing (notably in far-off oil-rich countries). Their request to be able to deny access to practising members of the Labour Party on these grounds has been denied. ‘It is ridiculous for them to claim that this is anything to do with conscience,’ said Mr Blair. ‘They are merely posturing for political reasons.’

More on this story later (and no fake quotes from Dr Sentamu were involved in this post).

Sunday, January 21, 2007


If Labour Does It, It Can’t Be Wrong

Labour has a problem with the law. That’s obvious, you say: they campaign on ‘law and order’ rhetoric, but after several crime bills every year inventing over 3,000 new crimes (that’s one every day for the police to memorise rather than getting out tackling real criminals), but the whole criminal justice system’s still such a failure that today the Home Secretary’s announcing to the House of Commons Sunday Telegraph that, having run out of other people to blame, he wants to split his department in two. But their fundamental problem is that they don’t believe in the Rule of Law.

The whole idea of the Rule of Law is that the same rules apply to everyone. Everyone has to obey the law because it gives everyone equal protection, and will punish everyone equally, without fear or favour. That means the Rule of Law is just as much about controlling rulers as about them controlling those they rule. From John Locke onwards, a key building block of Liberalism has been that power must be bound by rules to guard against bullying in general and arbitrary government in particular. It’s not about subjecting people to the law, but making everyone play by the same rules, strong or weak, majorities or minorities, governments and citizens. Similarly, equality before the law means not concocting rules specifically to penalise a particular group. If the law picks on people unfairly, what reason do they have to obey it? Every individual must be treated on an equal basis as an individual by the law for a Liberal society to win respect for law and society, not compel it. The obvious result of this is that there’s always a tension between governments and the law, because it stops them doing everything they want. How could it be otherwise? That’s what it’s there for.

What makes the current Labour Government different is not that they try to find ways of getting around the Rule of Law or try to tilt bits of it for partisan advantage, but that they’re assaulting it or discarding it across the board. Of course their Conservative predecessors had problems with the Rule of Law too – whether it was crooks like Jonathan Aitken lying in court, others using government to make themselves rich or the government abusing legislation to mount vicious attacks on groups it hated, like travellers or gay people. But undermining the courts, the police, the whole legal process, and a flagrant belief that the law doesn’t apply to them across the whole of government… That’s new.

I say ‘new’, but in some ways it’s almost like a return to medieval notions of absolute power. The ‘divine right of kings’ is a bit of a simplification (the notion was more that anyone in authority was ordained by God, from the king downwards), but several different lines of reasoning seem to have led the Labour Government to develop a similar view. The public think of them as crooks – and, often, so do I – but the key to their criminal pathology is that they don’t. Or, at least, Mr Blair and his true believers do not. They just believe that terrible creed, that the end justifies the means.

There are three main roots to Labour’s belief that, whatever they do, they should remain irreproachable. The first is the old leftist utopianism, that as they were going to create the perfect society, anything would be justified to get there. The belief in the perfect society has disappeared, but the attitude of mind remains – perhaps that’s why those who were the fiercest of old utopians, former Communists like John Reid, who are among the most ruthless in government. The second is their long period in Opposition, when Labour eventually decided that abandoning anything was worth it to get elected – so, in power, it’s only a small step to believing that any action is worth it to stay in power. The third, and in many ways the most disturbing, is that I suspect Mr Blair does have a frighteningly messianic belief in the rightness of his cause – and, if you are absolutely right, any minor wrong in pursuit of the greater good becomes a noble means to an end.

That all serves to explain why, despite all the lies, corruption and contempt for the legal system, there is still a curious integrity to what looks, on the surface, to be a desperately crooked Labour Government. There’s very little evidence of them making money individually: what they do, they do for the cause. Some of them are starry-eyed true believers; some have just convinced themselves. Both sorts will react with outrage if you accuse them of immorality (one lot in defensive funk, the more dangerous sort because they genuinely believe they can do no wrong). As Nixon said, if the President does it, it’s not illegal.

If anything that aids the Labour cause is right, then anything that obstructs it must be wrong. And so follow the deeply felt moral objections to judges, forces of conservatism, impertinent journalists, impertinent police investigations, protesters, liberals and laws. If they are roadblocks to ‘progress’, well then, they are simply wrong. It’s not merely that they believe themselves above the law, but that – as evidenced by the unprecedented way in which they tinker with it – the law itself is just an occasionally inconvenient means to their ends, itself to be denounced when it gets in the way. Churn out new laws as if every day is Day Zero. Sneer at hundreds of years of legal protections. Juries find the wrong way? Do away with jury trials. Judges give sentences that suit the case instead of the headlines? Attack the judges. Don’t have the evidence to bang up people they know are guilty? Do away with evidence and detain people without trial. If the law is too fair and thorough, use mob rule and ASBOs to criminalise people for non-criminal acts, on hearsay instead of evidence, on whim rather than beyond reasonable doubt. Set out to have all citizens, guilty until – well, no-one but Labour is innocent – guilty and so to be DNA-tagged and forced carry cards to be permitted to walk around their own country. If it’ll make the business of controlling everything easier or look better in the headlines (and so keep them in power longer), it’s morally justified and anyone who disagrees with something morally justified is, surely, deliberately evil.

So many of Labour’s problems come straight from this attitude. When Mr Blair said his government would be “purer than pure,” he meant it, and he still does. In the bright light of his ultimate aim – to stay in power – everything else is bleached. If they sold peerages for millions, it wasn’t for an immoral gain, but for money Labour needed, and so a minor transgression becomes a moral duty for the greater good. I don’t know whether the Prime Minister’s Director of Government Relations, Ruth Turner, is innocent or guilty. But in the Prime Minister’s eyes she is entirely innocent either way, because she was doing something for the greater good. Whether she broke the law or not is entirely immaterial. Either way, Mr Blair is not lying – he’s telling a greater truth. When the police arrested someone first thing in the morning, without warning – as they might do with anyone on suspicion of perverting the course of justice, who could reasonably be thought to be disposed to dispose of evidence – the howls of outrage from such figures as bullying Mr Blunkett, happy to attack police, judges or any other thought criminals, were entirely justified in their own minds. If criminals are arrested, it should be with the maximum publicity and without worrying about evidence or prejudicing any trial – Labour must be right, and seen to be right. If Labour people are arrested – well, that’s an evil theatricality, aimed against the forces of good. Unsurprisingly, yesterday’s midday news had an interview with someone from the Police Federation who had a different (so, by definition, wrong) view, attacking the government on behalf of rank and file police officers: “What sort of undue pressure are they trying to bring?” he asked. “Senior figures in the government shouldn’t expect better treatment than ordinary members of the public.” You see, that’s his fatal mistake.

The same comes of Mr Blair still believing he’s right in ordering the legal system to stop investigating the Saudi bribes scandal. The unions give Labour money, which is an absolute good, and they want the investigation stopped; the Saudis give Labour moral support in the war against whatever it’s said to be a war against, which is an absolute good, and they want the investigation stopped. On the opposing side, what are there but a few laws, and what good are laws if they put themselves against the side of good? When the Liberal Democrats criticise that for undermining our moral position in the world, that’s a failure of leadership – failing to see that anything is justified to aid the big picture. When the OECD says the Labour Government is breaking an anti-bribery treaty, it misses the point that the Labour Government has no intention of being corrupt. Oh no. The Attorney General announces with typical doublethink that dropping the investigation “doesn’t mean we are backing off in any way from our commitment to tackling international corruption.” And, as Jeremy Hardy’s version of Mr Blair used to say when believing in Christianity and sacrificing to the Devil by the full moon, I see no contradiction in that. The only reason that Ruth Kelly stands out in wanting different laws so Catholic organisations can be state-sponsored bigots over adoption is that, in a slightly off-message way, she’s not doing it in the interests of the Labour Party but of some other believers who think the law must support them and them alone.

Anyone who disagrees is wrong. Anyone who criticises or exposes is damaging Labour – which is wrong. Anyone who defends or allows any of those things is wrong. And isn’t it wrong to tolerate evil? So, while the rules don’t apply to them, and it’s none of our business to ask why, only they are the arbiters of good and evil. Any other criminals or critics – in the Labour lexicon, the two are interchangeable – must be shown no mercy, due process or not. Labour people cannot do wrong because what they do is in the cause of a greater right; but nobody else can make this decision, and only most glaringly in their infamous disregard for international law. No other consciences are valid, because that would be to permit evil.

There is an alternative point of view.

It is that the state must be bound by the same rules as everyone else. That however powerful they are, however rich they are, whoever their friends are, everyone must be constrained by the Rule of Law, or no-one has cause to obey any of it. All power must be answerable to the people, which needs the people to know what it does in their name, and it to be checked by the same rules that check us all. And the end does not justify the means, or there’s no law at all. You can either believe in the Rule of Law or the Rule of Labour, but when they come into conflict one must take precedence.

In a completely unrelated development, tomorrow the Liberal Democrats launch a new campaign to tackle crime.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007


And Now… The Verdict

The Trial of Tony Blair comes to Channel 4 tonight. It’s worth a look but doesn’t quite meet its promise, much like the repeat afterwards of The 30 Greatest Political Comedies… In which Michael Howard gives the world’s worst impersonation of relaxed bonhomie and co-host Charles Kennedy patently can’t bear the sight of him. The Avengers: A Sense of History is also on tonight, boasting outstanding guest actors (Nigel Stock, Patrick Mower and Jacqueline Pearce, Servalan herself) but with the script a rather limp political thriller. Alistair Beaton’s political comedy-drama has a more lively script but much less engaging leads.

I’m not disparaging Robert Lindsay, who gives a fine performance as a twitchy, haunted, but still sanctimonious Tony Blair. Tune in at 10 tonight and you won’t see an impersonation, but a character sharing a name and many attributes with our Prime Minister. In many ways, though, he’s more sympathetic than I suspect the real man is, borrowing much from Mr Lindsay’s earlier character of Michael Murray in GBH, ranting Derek-Hatton-a-like turned MI5 stooge turned nervous breakdown. For me the most convincing acting performance as ‘the real’ Tony Blair remains Tony Keetch back in a dramatisation of the Hutton Inquiry, but I suspect I find it easier to watch an obviously fictional version without throwing things at the screen. Paradoxically, he’s both a more rounded character – making it easy for the viewer to get involved with him – and more of a caricature. There is no cheap shot missed about how we expect these people to behave, with Tony obsessed with shredding details of Camp David meetings and Labour donors (there seem to be peerage jokes every few minutes), Gordon obsessed with hating Tony but feeling impotent to do anything about it, and Cherie hating Gordon right back, torn between distancing herself from Tony and wanting to be supportive, but mainly obsessed with money. Admittedly, her nicking the light bulbs from Downing Street and the huge piles of bags of shredded evidence are funny, but they don’t tell us anything we don’t already know from such informed sources as Steve Bell cartoons and Dead Ringers.

With the jokes such obvious targets, I suspect we laughed rather more at it on Monday night – its first outing, on More4 – than it deserved. We’d had a bit of a comedy warm-up that had put us in the mood to be entertained, recasting the white dreadlocked twins from The Matrix Reloaded with twin Robert Robinsons (hmm… Hysterical to us, but perhaps you had to be there) and just having watched the climactic episode of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin in which Reggie finally breaks and, before faking his own death, stages the world’s first loganberry slick in attempt to give his boss CJ heart failure with ‘rivers of blood’. Come to think of it, CJ is of course played by John Barron, and if you tune in to BBC4 at 7.10, he’s in The Avengers tonight as well. But back to the silly programme…

While Tony Blair is naturally the focus, and a slippery reptile he is too, The Trial of Tony Blair is even harsher to other three leaders: Gordon Brown can barely get himself elected even as Labour Leader, lacks all charm and is so indecisive that, asked where his killer instinct is, confesses he doesn’t think he has one (he eventually drops Tony in it only via his aide, who gets the British Ambassador to the UN to abstain in the shiftiest, least courageous way possible); David Cameron is a vacuous idiot sick of his bike and trying to rap; and Ming Campbell, er, doesn’t even get a namecheck. It’s difficult not to despise everyone involved, and I’m a little tired of political dramas like that. It doesn’t help that the actor playing Mr Brown looks like a cross between Christopher Plummer in a Hitler haircut and Droopy, or that even I can do a better impression of Mr Balloon than Alexander Armstrong manages.

This uncertain hour and a half offers two different openings, both involving Tony Blair giving an important announcement. It’s 2010, and in one he’s finally addressing the nation to step down as Prime Minister, the act that kicks off the rest of the drama; but while he has no problem with delivering this mealy-mouthed, self-serving flannel, the very first scene we see is taken from the end, a few months later. Mr Blair is in the confessional, desperate for absolution before he’s driven off, but even with his escort to The Hague waiting outside and a priest sworn never to reveal what he says he’s unable to admit out loud that his mortal sins were wrong. And that, of course, is the thread of the drama: the wish-fulfilment fantasy that the Security Council will set up a UN Special Tribunal on Iraq and that there’ll finally be a legal examination of Mr Blair that he can’t fix.

The outgoing Prime Minister plans his exit in exactly the terms any stand-up satirist would offer us, trying to work out what would look best for the cameras. “Can I cry?” he wonders. But then there’s the first spot-on moment, as he leaves Downing Street in a pitch-perfect evocation of his entrance thirteen years before, with broad smiles to fast camera shots of an excited (but this time, entirely hired) crowd as Walking on Sunshine plays. Then the parody turns cruel, as he spots among the actors a man holding a sign condemning 800,000 dead in Iraq. If that sounds like Banquo’s Ghost, there are similar suggestions that perhaps only Mr Blair can see him – he’s certainly given to ever-more intrusive visions of protestors, suicide bombers and, finally, his victims – and he’s seen obsessively scrubbing his hands, then with a splendid use of Mirror in the Bathroom as he slips into delusion, unable to bear every news broadcast announcing more dead in Baghdad.

It’s now that Mr Blair finally takes the plunge to become a Catholic convert (there’s an acerbic little scene where a venal priest gives way to his wish to cut a few corners), because while of course he always did the right thing, in a very Blairite piece of doublethink he’s now also seeking forgiveness for his sins. That selfish desire comes across as his only genuine religious motive in this, despite the overly religious tone that puts his publisher off his autobiography. The publisher (the impressive Tom Burke, who you may remember as Casanova’s son) complains that Mr Blair felt the hand of history on his shoulder 29 times: “Actually, I think it was probably more than that.” Working on an early draft with an aide, Mr Blair declaims, “My guiding principles were… What would you say they were?” in an echo of his inability to answer Alan Beith’s similar question a few years ago, before being prodded into settling for the grandiose but meaningless “Doing the right thing, and standing up to evil.” But however often he repeats this mantra, his quest for forgiveness underscores that he doesn’t believe it, as does his constant snapping that “Iraq is not my legacy”. Yet in seeming more shifty than messianic, Robert Lindsay’s Tony Blair has a more sympathetic and human madness than the real one; I’d like to believe that our Prime Minister has doubts, and really is haunted by the idea that he might have got Iraq appallingly wrong… But I think he really does have scarily messianic self-belief, and the reason he refuses to tolerate all opposing views is not the terrified defensiveness of many of his underlings, but sheer inability to comprehend that anyone could fail to agree with him without such rejection of self-evident truth being deliberately evil. The fictional Tony Blair is terrified; the real one is merely terrifying.

Though some of the gags are quite amusing and the examination of a troubled soul gives us occasional drama, the political detail is very uncertain. I can believe that, with Labour boosted in the opinion polls by nationwide relief that Tony Blair has finally gone, he’d leak a damaging e-mail purely out of worry that Gordon would get a bigger majority. But, of course, Mr Blair appears to be the most public proof ever displayed that it’s not the size that matters, but what you do with it. Again, this Tony Blair keeps insisting that Iraq is not his legacy, but is obviously unable to provide any alternative answer; what else has the real one done? Been an incompetently Orwellian minor Tory Prime Minister whose protracted period of absolute power has left nothing but the most mean-spirited of marks.

Mr Blair is shown throughout as a lonely, isolated figure: the Labour Party regards him as electoral poison; the US has hung him out to dry (their Ambassador telling him that Hillary, with an eye to re-election, will be saying unpleasant things about him in public but doesn’t really mean them is possibly the funniest scene in the whole thing); he’s left with just two aides in a huge, empty office space looking out over the Tower of London (where traitors used to await execution). It’s a shame, then, that new Prime Minister Mr Brown appears to have just one aide, vaguely implied to be Tommy Sheridan for no particular reason, making Mr Blair seem busy and popular by comparison. Much is made of the Blairs’ money worries, but even with affected religious mania putting off a British publisher, surely he’d still appeal to the religious right in America, and if John Major can coin so much, I don’t doubt that Tony Blair would be rolling in it from US lecture tours (even if George is in rehab and unable to do much directly – well, what else is new).

However uncertain and contradictory the tone may be, it would take a heart of stone not to take a little pleasure in some of the jabs inflicted on the ex-Prime Minister. Brian Haw and his stand follow him to become his megaphone-bellowing ‘neighbour’ outside his house in Connaught Square; arrested for war crimes and escorted to the nearest police station, Mr Blair complains that it’s humiliating when the desk officer demands to swab his mouth for DNA. He refuses, and is told he can’t: “Who brought that in?” he shouts. An obvious point, but well made, and well-deserved. In the New Labour Bible, of course, his outrage is perfectly justified: such an indignity could never be forced on a nice person, as only bad people would ever be subject to any police powers and, being subject to police powers, by definition you are bad and deserve anything coming to you. His expression says it all: ‘I didn’t mean me!’ It’s very satisfying to see Mr Blair told to shut up at his own extradition hearing, too, with the presiding judge the ever-authoritative John Woodvine. As it happens, he played the remarkably similar but rather deeper role of Prior Mordrin in 1987’s post-Thatcherism, post-new civil war drama Knights of God. He starts out as a dominating, charismatic leader with terrifying religious fervour, but by the end of the series has descended into messianic lunacy, with his number two leading a revolt against him and the whole thing falling apart (and, goodness, Nigel Stock’s in it too, as well as The Avengers tonight. It’s like some huge TV conspiracy). His gradual disintegration over 13 weeks is one of the most towering performances I’ve ever seen on TV, though whether he more presciently resembles Mrs Thatcher or Mr Blair is difficult to judge.

There’s a certain amount of pathos at the end, when Mr Blair suffers from heart trouble the night before he’s due to be taken to The Hague (on recovering, he at last comes full circle to that rejected confessional booth we saw at the start), and pleads with Cherie not to call an ambulance: a final admission that he knows no-one believes a word he says, and he’ll just be seen as the boy who cried wolf. Naturally, his snobbish reaction to NHS casualty is calculated to keep us from empathising with him for more than a minute or two, but there’s one last blackly comic scene when, like a gangster visiting someone not long for this world – whether from their medical condition or other means – Mr Brown brings Mr Blair lilies on his hospital visit and tells him that, of course, no-one believes his “Pinochet stunt”.

Perhaps the most damning criticism of Mr Blair presented here is the implicit one. There have been complaints that it ends with him being driven in a mobile prison cell under heavy escort towards The Hague, and we never get to see the actual ‘trial’… But surely the point is that the whole process is not about the trial itself, but about how desperate he’d be to avoid it ever coming to that because the result is a foregone conclusion. Just look at the way Robert Lindsay acts guilty throughout. The clear message is that if Mr Blair were ever put on trial for war crimes, not just Mr Blair and everyone else in the drama but every viewer already knows what the verdict would be.

Millennium’s verdict, on the other hand, is less predictable…

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Friday, January 12, 2007


The Avengers – The House That Jack Built

Did you celebrate The Avengers’ birthday week by watching it last night? No? Luckily, the same episode’s on again on BBC4 at 11.30, and it’s as good as they get. Normally I’d recommend this series for the dialogue between the leads as they swan about having fun, but this is different: Mrs Peel is alone; it’s more tense psychological drama than amusingly witty; but what’s really outstanding is the visual style. Brilliantly filmed, designed in sharp mod monochrome, Emma trapped in a psychedelic maze like an evil TARDIS may make it just about the most ’60s-looking of all ’60s television.
Steed takes a wrong turning – Emma holds the key to all
Tune in tonight to see it start with a murderer’s escape from prison – topical, I know, but as it’s fantasy, warders spot him immediately and give chase – and find out just why he ends up wishing he hadn’t eluded his pursuers… I first saw this repeated in around about 1985, and I was completely hooked. I’ll tune in again later, refresh my memory and write more of a review in a few days (and yes, I know that’s really cheating, but it’s so much fun I want to watch it properly. And besides, typing is more than usually awkward at just this moment, as I quite literally have a pain in the neck). In the meantime, you’ll find perhaps the ultimate example of that favourite Avengers juxtaposition of the antique and the ultra-modern within The House That Jack Built. It’s hugely atmospheric, looks terrific, and is as close to a miniature movie as TV ever makes. “You will be quite – quite – mad!” Enjoy.

This House has Finished Construction!

Prompted by Millennium on Friday 9th February, this review was updated in stages, but was eventually finished in slightly less time than it takes to build most houses…

There’s a sub-genre of Avengers tales with this sort of theme, isolating one of the leads in psychological drama rather than pairing them to amuse us. It’s an idea that seemed a particular favourite of one of the show’s principal creative forces, writer / producer Brian Clemens. They’re not to everyone’s taste; if you’re expecting your futuristic adventure show to supply light, witty eccentricity and instead get something grim and oppressive, you might recoil – yes, young Torchwood, you may very well look shifty at the back there – but while these would be trying every week, their rarity makes their bitterness palatable. It’s a good job, or they’d rapidly become repetitive (Don’t Look Behind You and the rather gorgeous The Joker are all but identical, and both share with this that the female lead is lured to a spooky old house, in which a strange young man is not the real danger to her), but there’s something about putting our heroes to the test once in a while that means the best of them are simply the best of the series for me. I’d put this story up with Pandora and Dead Men Are Dangerous as my very favourite Avengers, and it’s thanks to a superb script, a striking atmosphere and, particularly, an already strong character who wins out against all that’s thrown at them.

Mrs Peel is left a house by her Uncle Jack, and drives off to take a look at it. Well before she reaches it, however, there are signs that not all is as it seems. Automated cameras (more obviously sinister in 1966, as not yet ubiquitous) watch her progress through some lovely driving in the countryside, while Steed finds that the key she’s been sent has strange properties – ruining his photos, stopping his clock, and for her jamming the car radio – and a call to her old lawyer swiftly makes it clear that whoever’s this legacy may be, it isn’t her Uncle’s. You automatically assume that, as in other episodes of this type, her enemy is very much alive, but the script plays rather subtly with different types of legacy.

One of the most disturbing scenes is when, penetrating deeper into the House, she finds “an exhibition dedicated to the late Emma Peel” from her birth to death, narrated by a ghastly glowing death-mask. It turns on how she inherited her father’s company at 21, yet her life story as presented here springs from financial reports of “the amazing Emma Knight” taking control of Knight Industries straight to her obituary – perhaps Mr Clemens knew he was saving up any specific details of her late husband to give himself a free hand for a future episode, but it emphasises both her isolation and the suggestion that she had it easy because of her wealthy family. The embittered villain, then, ‘bequeaths’ her a lonely death in madness, with none of the advantages (or love) that he sneers at her for. And yet, of course, her crime is that rather than just resting on her father’s decisions and retaining his automation expert, she made up her own mind and sacked him, part of her making the company a bigger success than ever (besides, the rest of the series implies she get bored running a big industry and made a name for herself writing on applied sciences instead, then in helping out Steed). Though the House is meant to demonstrate that she’s not superior on her own, in fact it proves the opposite, bringing to the fore not just her past accomplishments but her central strength. With nothing to fall back on but her intelligence and determination, she still wins through. When Cornelltoppingday’s The Avengers Dossier calls it “rather horrible in the drooling department,” that surely misses the point. Emma barely loses her cool here, and never her dignity. The loveliest scene is at the end, as Steed arrives to escort her out in a beautifully underplayed way, but that’s merely moral support… The ‘damsel in distress’ has already rescued herself.

There’s rather more to this episode than putting Mrs Peel to the test, however. This is a story where I suspect even the heterosexual men watching will find the design as memorable to look at as Emma. In an episode full of remarkable images, the one everyone remembers is ‘the House’ – centrally, the striking Op-art patterns of the corridors in which Mrs Peel finds herself trapped. It’s perhaps the best use of black and white in the whole series, with Mrs Peel well-dressed in white to stand out against the harsh patterns of the maze in a similar concept of contrasting monochrome psychedelia as the same year’s Revolver artwork. And part of the reason this is so memorable is that it’s not (as with Dr Armstrong’s lair in The Cybernauts, the series’ other great parable of automation spiralling out of control) presented as sinister sci-fi as soon as you reach it, but as a twist, springing something shockingly ultra-modern on you by hiding it inside a grand old lodge.

At the heart of The Avengers is a fusion of ‘old and new Britain’ – Steed and Mrs Peel, wit and action, postcard villages and swinging London – and frequently the threat our heroes are sent to investigate is one in which things are going too far into conservatism or too far into modernisation (ex-colonists trying to retake a newly independent African state, say, or building robots to create a cybernetic police state were both definite no-nos in the series’ fourth season, from which The House That Jack Built hails). The eponymous House cleverly looks like one threat from the outside but is actually the other, making it almost as much a mix of old and new as the Avengers themselves. When Mrs Peel drives up to it, we see a stern, grand old house, sheer white with a black tracery foreshadowing the later revelation that it is (literally and metaphorically) a whited sepulchre, while she opens the door to a long corridor lined by suits of armour. Add an old-fashioned phone ringing with nobody there, sinister stuffed birds and the sound of a music box, and it’s all in line to be a ‘spooky old house’ from central casting. Yet there have already been contrasting clues; the sudden appearance of a lion in the House when the escaped prisoner breaks in there, the strange behaviour of the key, the cameras at the roadside triggering an automated switch of the road signs… We’ve just not paid them sufficient attention because of a particularly good use of Mr Clemens’ favourite blind in the more ‘traditional’ lonely old house stories, a sinister youngish man forcing himself into Mrs Peel’s company (I’ll come to him later). Here, instead of distracting attention from the real human villain, he’s distracting us from the nature of the House itself, and it’s appropriate that it’s at the moment he’s as distracting as humanly possible – his dying scream – that Mrs Peel opens the inner door that plunges her into somewhere completely unexpected.

Inside the House

The story’s key moment comes fifteen minutes in, when Mrs Peel steps through a door and finds herself in another world, though one quite the reverse of Narnia. With corridors and ‘control rooms’ patterned in stark monochrome and concentric circles, it’s exactly the sort of ’60s look I’ve always loved. The design is extraordinary, and perhaps the most memorable and self-contained of all the ‘worlds’ The Avengers summons into being (there’s a similarly stark ‘Observation Room’ in My Wildest Dream, but this set is so extensive it makes you forget for a while that there’s anything outside it). The Op art high-tech look is matched by an all-pervasive two-tone electronic hum, while at the centre of what seems like a ‘control room’ is a strange plinth with a dome mounted on top of it that houses a revolving light. I’ve always thought of it as some sort of ‘control console’, even though intellectually I know that it’s meaningless as a ‘device’, with its true meaning not in anything that it ‘does’ but as part of a huge set-up designed to drive Emma to madness. That I still can’t help thinking of it that way shows both how much our brains strive to make sense of even deliberately meaningless objects, and emphasises what’s surely a deliberate reference to the TARDIS. With Doctor Who a couple of years old reached the height of its early ratings success when this was made, for The Avengers to feature a mysterious high-tech environment with a ‘control device’ in the centre (rather than as usual along a wall) topped by an intriguing glass-covered device, surrounded by circular patterns in severe black and white, set to an electronic hum and with the whole thing inside an old-fashioned exterior and apparently bigger on the inside than the outside… Well, I think they knew what images they were playing with, though it wasn’t until 1981 that Doctor Who made a similar recurring nightmare of the ‘real’ TARDIS. The difference between the TARDIS and the House, of course, is that while the interior of the Doctor’s ship is vital to it and disguised to avoid attention, this place is a dazzling mirage created entirely to demand Emma’s attention.

She tries to run from this bizarre creation, but there’s no escape in running. The corridors off the ‘control room’ zig-zag away and end in shadows; these are less strikingly designed than the main room, though they have a peculiar repeated metallic carving that suggests a pattern of broken hearts, going back to the disdain for human emotion underlying the House. Memorable as the architecture is, though, it’s how it ‘acts’ that gives it its real impact. Mrs Peel wanders down a corridor, only to find exactly the same ‘control room’ with its spinning ‘console’ at the far end; marking it with lipstick, the camera tilts giddily as she runs back through the labyrinth, where her own lipstick cross greets her. The sense of claustrophobia as she tries to escape is overpowering, and even when she appears to reach other parts of the insane internal geography, they only add to the disorientation. One window shows stars outside; when she finds her way to another, she seems to be looking out from an impossibly high angle across the road she drove in on, but in broad daylight. Just as it seems the tension of being lost in the same corridor will become unbearable, the ‘control room’ is suddenly replaced by a spiral stair set within the concentric rings that the camera turns down with her, again putting the audience almost in Mrs Peel’s place, all while cruel laughter rings. Suddenly, she’s out of the technological madhouse and back into the ‘old’ house.

The whole episode is a showcase for Mrs Peel’s resourcefulness, and with both story and House all about her, the few other characters who appear are really there less as characters than to create an effect on Emma. For the first half of the story, the key figure to Emma is Withers, a deliberately sinister scoutmaster who steps out in front of her car – also part of the iconography, with her wearing a white jacket in her white car, shot against a white sky – at exactly its stopping distance to demand a lift. His part as the ‘strange young man’ who appears to be the threat is emphasised by his Nazi-tinged round wire glasses (with a uniform), his cold manner, his spiked pole and knife, and the generally unsettling effect of a grown-up boy. Dropped off before she gets to the House, he follows her in, drawing a gun, and naturally she seeks him to blame for her predicament on finding his scouting paraphernalia scattered around those bizarre corridors. Of course, he’s actually a friend, despatched by Steed to watch her back without letting on, and (this being The Avengers) he’s taken that rather to extremes. He doesn’t do her any good, though, as his significance to the plot comes principally in his death. The moment of his actual death and the delayed realisation that he’s been killed bookend that extended ‘maze’ sequence, underlining the real threat behind the surreal visuals. She goes into the labyrinth to investigate his scream, but that only becomes evident later when she sees him spiked with his own pole (how, exactly?) as she emerges back into the ‘old’ house. Finding his body is the turning point, half-way through; with her only ‘suspect’ dead, she stops running and starts thinking. She swiftly spots that the rooms are rotating on rollers, but though this illustrates her using her head it’s the only moment where the drama doesn’t quite hold me. All right, it’s the moment to catch your breath before the tension builds again, but I’m not completely convinced by the stylistic device of hearing Mrs Peel ‘thinking aloud’, and not at all convinced by the explanation of the rooms; as there always is in Scooby Doo, there’s plenty that the ‘explanation’ doesn’t cover. So I’ll just stick to the thought that there was LSD in the sprinkler system.

Though the episode revolves around the Op art maze, there’s not nearly as much of it as most people remember. It’s a little like Gerry Rafferty’s song Baker Street, where everyone remembers the saxophone solo and a great many people will swear blind the whole thing’s an instrumental; like the song’s lyrics, people tend to forget much of the second half of The House That Jack Built where Emma goes on the offensive. Once she’s made up her mind, she’s able to peel away the House’s layers, and though the psychological horror of the story remains, her reaction to each successive discovery – whether her own ‘obituary’ or the grisly secret at the House’s heart – is determination mixed with anxiety, not terror. Counterpointing Mrs Peel is first Withers (not up to the job and swiftly killed), then escaped prisoner Burton, a second ‘red herring’ set up as the villain stalking Emma but soon shown to be just a broken victim of the House. His tangled, child-like repetition of the rhyme “The House That Jack Built” and his oblivious death are quite chilling, as a “Bad, bad man” is left with nothing more than a pathetic desire to go back to prison. When Mrs Peel reaches the heart of the House and sees the camera’s staggered zooms on Keller’s prophecy that “You will be quite – quite – mad!” Burton is crouching to one side as a ‘here’s one it made earlier’ demonstration.

Jack in the Box

The House’s ‘real’ control room contains two versions of the master mind behind it all, one ‘twist’ rather conventional, one still shocking. It’s all been set up by Professor Keller, the expert Emma sacked for his extreme views on ‘total automation’, to get his revenge and prove his point. The whole House is one giant machine designed to send her mad and get her eventually to kill herself, proving (he claims) the superiority of “Automation to the ultimate degree” over humanity. She will lose her mind and die, while his ‘perfect’ machine will continue to run on solar power “for ever”. Though the hidden computer centre is slightly disappointing – very much the conventional wall-sized computer and dial-covered consoles every other series was picturing the time, as opposed to the insane flair of the Op art ‘control room’ – the voice of the House remains frightening in its implacable calmness as it promises “You will feel no pain. No pain.” Professor Keller himself is considerably more frightening. While Mrs Peel and the audience have already concluded he’s deranged from the whole set-up and his charming little recorded messages, the glowing death-mask that ‘spoke’ to her earlier was the real giveaway. Yes, when she finds her way to the centre, hears Keller’s greeting, and whirls and fires, she’s a little late. “I am dead,” the TV monitor tells her, and though Professor Keller has left her many charming pre-recorded poison pen proclamations, the man himself is sat unmoving in a glass mausoleum. It’s another striking image, the lighting making him appear hollow-cheeked and deathly, and the idea of the villain being dead even before the start of the episode is exceptionally macabre (it’s not uncommon to find “a dead man who isn’t dead” in The Avengers, but the reverse is rarer and rather more creepy). When Mrs Peel succeeds in destroying his creation’s ‘mind’ instead, the ‘storm’ that assails her – howling, buffeting wind, flashes as if of lightning, and Steed tossed about in the entrance hall as if on a stormy sea – make it seem more like his vengeful ghost than a machine, and its passing takes what’s left of him with it. The final horribly memorable tour de force comes when the House’s destruction cracks Keller’s glass case: not in one shower of shattered glass, but in three shots as it first splinters, then becomes at last so crazed with fractures that he can no longer be seen.

The House That Jack Built is a masterpiece of visual style and psychological horror, but it has a few less obvious themes and a life-affirming close. With repetition used to disturbing effect within the story – the revolving rooms, the computer’s words, Burton’s broken mumbling – it’s also been echoed in other stories, and not just in The Avengers. With the House’s most famous feature so clearly inspired by the TARDIS, when Doctor Who came up with ‘Professor Keller’ as the Master’s cover in a 1971 story, it’s easy to fancy that Mrs Peel’s enemy left the Master his identity in return for the evil Time Lord lending him a TARDIS for Emma. Less tenuously, The Dr Who Annual 1975 features a similar story with the heroes trapped in a surreal, hypnotic machine; it’s called The House That Jack Built. I can’t think where they got the idea from! Even last year, the series was doing a wealthy, dying scientist obsessed with the replacement of humanity by his artificial creation, from beyond the grave (though admittedly, Cybermen can be a bit smaller than a house thanks to the 21st Century’s more compact technology).

Though I’ve talked about Avengerland’s distinctive theme of the clash between old and new here, there’s also a strong element of another of the series’ favourite themes – breaking the fourth wall. Here, unusually, it’s to horrific rather than comic effect: the obviously back-projected lion that attacks at the beginning is obviously back-projected not, as in most series, because a real lion would be too expensive or dangerous to use, but because within the story it’s a back-projection (with more fake lions outside the House prefiguring what you’ll find inside – and, reinforcing the new-hiding-inside-the-old theme, the lions without captured in stone, the one within captured by camera). Keller addresses Mrs Peel from a television screen, which means of course that he’s also talking directly to the camera and to all of us at home; and the whole underlying point of the House is that, like the artifice of a horror movie, technology is being used to create the effects that scare you, and it isn’t real.

More soberly, with the thrills coming more from the slowly building tension than the action-packed fight sequences found in most Avengers, although in many ways this story’s more violent than usual it’s also more moralistic about the futility of violence. All three people who venture deep into the House carry guns, which do none of them any good: Withers the secret agent, Burton with his stolen prison guard’s shotgun, and even Mrs Peel, unusually willing to wield her shiny revolver. It is Burton’s last shotgun shell that eventually blows the machine’s ‘mind’, but Emma uses her intelligence to make an improvised bomb rather than just blazing away (though admittedly it still undermines the feel a little – I’d have had her lash up something electronic to give it a brainstorm instead). Keller gloats that Emma’s mind and body will both be extinguished, while the machine carries on; of course, that plan fails, but even if it had succeeded, what would it have been for? The machine has no intelligence or creativity, and with Emma dead, no purpose. Similarly, Keller throwing the last few months of his life into creating this grandiose trap makes his own death meaningless. Mrs Peel’s victory champions determination over determinism and, in an understated and tender way, love over death, hate and emptiness. With all the other men in the House violent (and doomed), when Steed arrives at the end he doesn’t start shooting or punching, just holds Emma’s hand in a moment of human contact that proves her right.

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Monday, January 08, 2007


‘Tried in His Absence’

So, at last Mr Blair has been forced into condemning Saddam Hussein’s execution, noticing the biggest news story in the world last week after everyone else in the world*. Thinking about that execution, the thing that most shocks me about it still seems to have had little airtime. While there’s been endless argument about the way it happened or whether it should have happened at all, what really appalled me was when it happened. That’s not as arcane as it sounds, and nothing to do with the festive season. It’s to do with the obscene farce of his ‘continuing’ trial.

Even aside from the principle of not committing judicial murder, the practical issue of not turning him into a martyr, and the shameful way the execution itself was carried out, what shocks me is that the Iraqi government thinks it’s fine to execute someone and then carry on trying him ‘in his absence’. It’s a phrase I’ve heard used by several of their spokespeople in the last week.

If someone escapes from justice, say by fleeing the country, then trying them in their absence is perfectly reasonable. If the state has them securely locked up, then deliberately prevents him answering the charges in the most final way possible, ‘trying him in his absence’ becomes a sick joke. He hasn’t absconded; it’s the government itself that has made him absent, in a pretty permanent sort of way. Any claims of a fair trial once he’s already been found him guilty and killed are going to be met with stark disbelief.

Like the conduct of the execution, this can only help those who wish to portray a mass-murdering dictator as a victim. It’s not just morally indefensible, but crassly stupid, too. Keep him in the dock being faced by the evidence of all his crimes, again and again, and he could bluster and grandstand all he liked but would still sink beneath the weight of his victims. Pretend to put him on show trial when you’ve hanged him so he can’t answer back, and everyone minded to will smell a rat.

If a state has someone in custody, and in the middle of a judicial process, and kills them anyway, the trial should stop. It stands to reason that, by killing someone, the state gives up its moral right to continue questioning them in court.

Midday update: Though the airwaves may not have considered this issue much, perhaps the diplomatic channels have been buzzing since I wrote this piece last night. The Iraqi High Tribunal has now dismissed all charges against Saddam Hussein, though the genocide trial of six co-defendants resumes. Let’s hope they don’t make the same mistake.

*The Prime Minister (and, a few hours before him, the Prime-Minister-in-Waiting-and-Waiting-and-Sulking-and-More-Waiting) really has no excuse. It doesn’t take a week for orders to come from Washington by boat nowadays; there’s the Morse telegraph and everything.

Sunday, January 07, 2007


The First 007 of ’007

Happy newish year, and though the producers of the James Bond films have missed their chance with 2007, I can’t turn down a pun. Especially not on the 007th of January, even when that’s actually the 46th birthday of The Avengers (celebrate with the stunning The House That Jack Built, on BBC4 at 7.10 this Thursday). Despite knowing nothing about music – can’t read, can’t play, can’t identify most instruments – I know that Bond has an instantly recognisable musical style (how many film series can say that?), so I’m going to review the songs as much as the movies.

Having failed to watch all the films in the run-up to Casino Royale last year and review them in depth – largely because arm problems knocked my in-depth reviews on the head – I’ve now been inspired by listening to the Casino Royale soundtrack CD and seeing last week’s repeat of James Bond’s Greatest Hits. This Channel 4 programme gave a countdown to the most popular Bond tune, apparently measured by opinion poll, so I’ll take each in turn and say why they got it wrong (generally) before giving a quick overview of the film from memory.

Simon Guerrier watched all the Bond films and reviewed them last year, but I’m not going to look up what he said for the moment for fear of being influenced. With Millennium having just received the first seven Bond films on DVD special edition, too, we’ll be watching them all again, so this is my last chance for a while to write from half-remembered prejudices rather than informed observation. Hurrah! And, as there are now twenty-one Bond films (plus a couple of off-cuts), taking the first seven in a bundle made sense, with the seven Roger Moore films to follow in a while.

As well as finding a different angle to just doing film reviews, there are other reasons I’ve picked the Bond sound as my starting point, despite my unwise lack of musical qualifications. It encourages me to keep my film reviews short (famous last words) and enables me to write it in little chunks, as I still have problems typing for long stretches, but I’ve found that if I try to write a long piece in several separate bursts I tend to lose my thread even more spectacularly than usual. The main reason, though, is that music is a vital part of the Bond films’ identity – you always know one when you hear them. It isn’t just the weaker songs that have often been saved by those trademark strings and brass beefing them up, but the weaker films, too. Not that most of the first seven needed saving…

Dr. No

Well, the theme from the first film is the big one, isn’t it? The James Bond Theme shoots down a gun barrel to become one of the most instantly recognisable pieces of music in film history, and it runs through the films like the letters in a stick of rock. Like the Doctor Who theme, you can pluck out any of several different elements of it and everyone’ll still know it in a second; you only need to hear a few beats of the bass line, say, in one of the films and you immediately sit up, thinking ‘Bond’s about’. Sinister and spectacular, it even survives first being heard segueing into a half-hearted calypso number. The rest of the film seems sparse in part because there’s far too little music in it, though (hang on ’til the next one and the orchestration’ll get far more lush).

Channel 4’s chart position was 8, incredibly, but it should have been at least number 2. There’s only one that can possibly beat it…

The Film: It’s an impressive prototype, surprisingly brutal though a little dry (albeit with the interplay between Bond, curmudgeonly M and flirtatious Moneypenny so cracking it’s difficult to believe that element’s from the first film). Sean Connery’s good, perhaps looking a little slight as yet but rather nice when stripped; the villain’s suitably aloof and sinister, with a great voice and a memorably horrible end; and Ursula Andress looks great in the sea before her character becomes simply wet. Somehow it doesn’t quite have the verve yet, but once Doctor No himself enters the scene, you glimpse what the series will do best. 7/10

From Russia With Love

In a defining move, the Bond Theme reappears, and this time the gun barrel blasts us into the first pre-titles sequence in the series (and though it’s a mini-adventure, it’s not one of Bond’s). Then there’s a shimmying theme that introduces that other Bond staple, dancing naked women with pictures projected on them. It’s rather fun, but a bit easy-listening – though not as much as Matt Monro’s cheesy slice of 1950s croon. He’s got a lovely voice, but somehow, a love song with a great happy smile suggests they’ve still not quite hit it yet.

Channel 4’s chart position was 4, which frankly astonished me. Maybe it was the ‘granny’ vote for that nice Matt Monro? I’d have placed it around 18, with ‘the shimmy’ version a bit higher at 13ish.

The Film: With a good claim to be the best film in the series, this is a taut international spy thriller, though in some ways it’s one of the least ‘Bondish’. The biggest divergence from the book is also the aspect that’s most ‘Bond movie’, and a twist that makes the films seem far less dated than the Fleming originals: the villains aren’t the Russians, but SPECTRE trying to stir up the Cold War for their own benefit. In fact, none of the films have simple ‘us against them’ plots, with the Cold War tending to be SPECTRE’s cash cow in Mr Connery’s films and a source of ambiguous allies in Mr Moore’s. A great anti-Bond villain (rather like most of the ones later faced by Pierce Brosnan) and an evil lesbian with spiked shoes help, but though the Bond woman here is remarkably pretty, she’s soporific. I prefer women characters who do more than breathe “Oh, James” and be grabbed by the villain. 9/10


The song. With that tune, that performance by Shirley Bassey and brass that blows your socks off, a song is born so big that every other Bond theme lies in its shadow. Taken with John Barry delivering one of the most thrilling scores in cinema history, Goldfinger creates its own musical genre. There’s a certain sort of hard-edged, swaggering brass, added to lush strings with a sense of longing, that anyone who’s ever seen a Bond film will hear and know where it comes from. Though the production on the actual song is a little sparse, it’s still the ultimate Bond song: not just the sheer confidence in the way that brassy and Bassey demand your attention, but (like many of the best songs) there’s something a little nasty about it, sung about the villain rather than Bond. Unsurprisingly, this got some great moments in Channel 4’s James Bond’s Greatest Hits: former Bond co-producer Harry Saltzman is portrayed as the franchise’s Trotsky, only mentioned to be reviled – yes, this was the song he tried to stop because he thought it was one of the worst he’d heard in his life – but the best line in it came from the writer of one of the other Bond scores, summing up that terrific “Wah wahhh-wah” opening: “If you’re dead, you wake up for that.” Absolutely.

Channel 4’s chart position was number 1, and quite right too.

The Film: And this is where they refine the formula into (forgive me) pure gold, aided by a witty script, that flamboyant score and Ken Adam’s huge, barking sets (and Millennium orders me to mention the car). Almost every other Bond film takes its cue from here, but none have yet bettered it. Bond does a whole film in miniature before even the credits have rolled, and almost everyone is on top form: Sean Connery is outstanding in a performance so perfect you don’t notice he’s barely in the second half; Oddjob’s the first of the really iconic henchmen; but two people steal the film. Gert Frobe (and whoever dubs him) has enormous charisma as Goldfinger, a strangely relaxed but powerful villain with more quotable lines than the rest of the films put together, but even above “This is gold, Mr Bond,” “Except crime!” or “No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die,” the most awesome line in the film has to be “My name is Pussy Galore,” and no-one on Earth but Honor Blackman could deliver it with a straight face. Independent, charismatic and with a voice like razor blades in honey, she’s still the ultimate Bond woman. And then there’s the woman covered in gold… Any weaknesses? Some of the early driving around in the Alps goes on a bit, perhaps, but it’s at least 9 and a half out of 10.


Clearly an attempt to do another Goldfinger; though not quite barbed enough, it’s still got a great swagger, and – being sung about Bond, this time, and by a man – can’t avoid a startlingly homoerotic feel. There’s another song associated with the movie, Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which provides much of the melody for the score but, though with its own slinky charms, lacks Tom Jones’ power. The score for the film though, as I remember, relies a bit too heavily on John Barry’s ‘007’ chase theme (you probably remember it best from Little Nellie’s aerial battle in the next film). It’s a good rousing piece, but not every two minutes.

Channel 4’s chart position was 18, but it should have been about 9. Come on. Tom Jones nearly died to make this track (famously, that final high note was so overpowered that he fainted).

The Film: In theory, it’s big: free-market terrorist franchise SPECTRE gets atomic weapons and that big table with the electric chairs, but its pacing’s too slow and too many actors are miscast. There’s another forgettable ‘good’ Bond woman and a less forgettable ‘bad’ one, a grievously misused Guy Doleman (the most languidly English-accented actor in the business, playing someone called ‘Count Lippe’) and the hilariously eyepatched Adolfo Celi as the villain. A good plot, almost worth all those legal challenges, let down by a curiously dull production and simply not being very amusing. 6 and a half out of 10.

You Only Live Twice

An achingly beautiful song, and in its own way Bond’s biggest UK hit, half-taken to number one by Robbie Williams as the strings for Millennium [the single, NOT the more famous ELEPHANT, MM]. Nancy Sinatra’s style is heartbreakingly sweet rather than brassily acid, but the lyrics still seem Bondish, and the volcanoes help. The film has another really terrific John Barry score, too, particularly for the space sequences and a strident arrangement of the title music as Bond takes part in an epic fight across the tops of dockyard buildings, shot from the air in a glorious cinescape.

Channel 4’s chart position was 7, and again I’d say that’s about right.

The Film: For me, the only one that competes with Goldfinger, and the one where they lift off completely from Ian Fleming’s original. It’s fantastic, and as far over the top as they ever go without losing it. This has nothing of the book’s pseudo-medieval sado-masochistic revenge fantasy, instead supplying us with a full-sized rocket base inside a volcano (genius designer Ken Adam at his most gloriously insane) to make the ultimate in the-real-villains-are-the-ones-who-see-the-Cold-War-as-a-business-opportunity plots. Though he only appears late in the film, the mastermind behind this scheme has such presence and such brilliant lines that he commands the whole thing. SPECTRE boss Blofeld is finally revealed as scene-stealing Donald Pleasence, stroking white cat, plunging henchpeople into piranha, creating an irresistibly idiosyncratic pronunciation of the word “annihilated” and sweeping off on his own private monorail with a “Goodbye, Mr Bond!” All this, and ninjas attacking too. This is what you remember all Bond films as like (partly thanks to Austin Powers), though you can try to forget Sean Connery’s improbable Japanese disguise, and you won’t need to try to forget the local woman Bond ‘marries’ (the one who dies half-way through is far stronger). 9/10

‘Casino Royale’

Just a word about this hideous mess of a film, famous as probably the most exorbitant waste of talent in the whole of the ’60s. And think of all the competition! Apparently the producer got the rights to the first book, got jealous of the success of the main franchise, and got it into his head that trying to wreck it by sending it up would be a good idea. Nah. The music I remember for it is that jaunty little ‘James Bond goes to Casino Royale’ number, silly and disposable, but Channel 4 picked out Dusty Springfield’s The Look of Love from the middle of the film. So how did a lovely song by a great singer get to just number 21 in their chart (which you might, after all, have expected to stop at 20)? A gorgeous love song it may be, but I suspect that, in a failed film and with neither the bravado nor the poison of the ‘proper’ Bond style, those polled didn’t even remember any more than I did that it had been a ‘Bond song’ (and I won’t be so unkind as to give the film a mark out of ten). But now back to the real films…

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

John Barry claims to have pulled out all the stops to establish the ‘Bondishness’ of the new lead through his score, and it works. The unusually downbeat ending has one of the series’ most unusual songs, Louis Armstrong’s gentle, elegiac We Have All the Time in the World (a big hit in the ’90s with Guinness), while the title theme (a big hit in the ’90s for the Propellerheads) is bold, driving and utterly magnificent, echoed in the triumphant score for sequences like the extended ski chase. Stunning.

Channel 4’s chart position was 12 for We Have All the Time in the World, but it should have been about 8, and I’d have pushed the glorious main title theme as high as 3.

The Film: The first time they recast the lead, and George Lazenby’s not bad (especially when dubbed by George Baker); though they didn’t intend it to be a one-off, it really works as a new Bond who loses his wife, has a bit of breakdown and has to be replaced again. But more on that theory later. Telly Savalas isn’t bad as Blofeld, though all he beats Donald Pleasance in is height (marvellous the inches they can put on with surgery). A less stylish and extravagant film than the previous one, with a less stylish and extravagant SPECTRE plot (close to the book again), but satisfying. Diana Rigg’s another grown-up Bond woman, which is a relief, though she mostly does ‘suffering’ rather than ‘sassy’. 8/10

Diamonds Are Forever

A gorgeous shimmer of a song, with Ms Bassey being marginally less barbed but much more naughty. Mr Barry claims he told her to think ‘penises’ when she sang ‘diamonds’, but even without that information from Channel 4 and going back to assuming it’s just a song about greed and independence, the innuendos are as striking as the beautiful melody. David McAlmont did a rather fabulously diva-ish cover that got nowhere, too. Oh, and (hilariously) this is another one that Harry ‘Leon’ Saltzman tried to ban. Though, to be fair, he was spot on in spotting how filthy it was.

Channel 4’s chart position was 2 – I’d probably put it at 5ish (only because the others are so good), but it seems churlish to put it down. It’s still great.

The Film: Oh dear. Graceless and brutal, this utterly fails to live up to the classiness of the song. The Bond woman’s at least a little sparky for an innuendo-inspired bimbo, but the plot’s all over the place, and has a catastrophically feeble ending for Blofeld, the series’ biggest villain literally left hanging as if they’d forgotten about him. And speaking of Blofeld, Charles Grey is fabulously camp but insanely miscast: potentially a great Bond villain, but a terrible Blofeld, in no way the same character as the others. I take a certain guilty pleasure in the creepy gay hit-men on occasion, but it’s all pretty crass, as if a US network was doing a cheap Bond knock-off. It’s a Bond TV Movie. 5/10

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