Wednesday, February 28, 2007


A Surfeit of HRH

The urge to meddle is human. We see something we disapprove of and think ‘That isn’t healthy; it should be stopped!’ And it’s true that, when someone opens their mouth and the resulting activity is something I find difficult to swallow, I might be tempted to tell them what to do with themselves. But no. However bad for the digestion Prince Charles is, he should be free to say what he likes. I just object to having it forced down our throats. Mr Windsor, who coincidentally markets his own supermarket-sold brand of expensive ‘organic’ food, now wants to ban McDonald’s.

Apparently Charles came up with this brilliant notion while at the launch of a public health campaign in the United Arab Emirates. He asked a nutritionist,
“Have you got anywhere with McDonald’s, have you tried getting it banned? That’s the key.”
How insightful! Ban nasty common food, and everyone will magically turn to nice healthy banquets from the Prince’s own label instead, though I somehow suspect, not at the same price. Nothing like free competition! Normally it would be the word ‘nutrionist’ that would make me look carefully at a person’s qualifications, but whether she’s a fully trained medical expert or just someone with a dodgy diploma from the university of television, I’m sure Prince Charles will manage to know less than she does. Where science is concerned, I’d probably even give ‘Doctor’ (not a medical term) Gillian McKeith’s work more serious consideration than whatever ‘Prince’ Charles has cooked up. Still, there’s a sort of progress: it’s better to be told we have to buy his venison nowadays than be back in the days when we’d have our hands cut off for eating it, I’ll grant you. How he must miss them.

I don’t like McDonald’s. I don’t like their business practices, I’m not fond of their décor, and above all, I don’t eat there because I don’t like the taste of their burgers – but I’m not prejudiced against junk food, and I’ll occasionally grab some that I do like the taste of. Occasionally even something with a crown on the packaging (though not a ‘Duchy Original’)! Like everyone else, if I eat too much food that isn’t good for me, I’m big enough to take the consequences, and sometimes a size bigger. On the bright side, though my trousers may at times be a little tight for me, I can get in and out of them without the aid of three footmen and a shoehorn. It’s none of my business if someone wants to eat something I don’t like the look of – it’s not hurting me, and even if I felt far more strongly about it than ‘mild dislike’, that’s no excuse to have it banned, even ‘for their own good’. Choice is a fundamental tenet of democracy, but then, ‘Prince’ Charles is as well-qualified to talk about that as he is about science.

So it’s easy to think ‘Oh, just shut up’ when Charles comes up with another of these splenetic, unqualified outbursts. Each to their own taste, though. Let him open his mouth whenever he likes, just like the rest of us. But how about on the same terms as the rest of us? No automatic hotline to the Prime Minister – who needs no ‘celebrity’ prompting to ban things – no fawning media coverage as if he knew what he was talking about, no millions in state subsidy, no free ride to grumpiness at the world because he’s been kept waiting to get the country’s top job without anyone else having a say. Instead of telling us all what’s good for us, how about giving us a referendum so we can all say what we think of him, and have the chance to choose someone on the basis of what they’ve done instead of who their parents are? Give him a vote, too. And when the voting public decide they’d rather have Ms Mirren as head of state than Mr Windsor…

‘The Blogger Formerly Known As Prince’. It has a ring to it.

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Monday, February 26, 2007


The Talons of Weng-Chiang – The DVD

Thirty years ago this evening and four times as long ago in spirit, the BBC began broadcasting one of the richest slices of entertainment ever made for television. The Talons of Weng-Chiang brought Doctor Who to the Victorian era, with values very different to those of Mrs Mary Whitehouse. This eclectic extravaganza of efflorescent ectoplasm makes probably the all-round best Doctor Who DVD released so far, and certainly the one I’m most likely to pop on just to cheer myself up. So let me entice you through the fog alongside Tom Baker and Leela to see why it’s so special…

Just for once, you can read this whole thing without fearing the spoilers that in-depth analysis brings – I’ll save that for a later article. I’ve always been enthralled by stories that both celebrate and lampoon the traditional British Victorian feel, and this is about the most Victorian piece of Victoriana you’ll ever see. It’s very funny, too. Well, not Carry On Up the Khyber funny; more ‘character-based wordplay’ and ‘horrible black humour’ funny, but it makes me laugh. Long before Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill devised The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, this was mixing in and sending up every Victorian cliché imaginable: fog, muffins, Sherlock Holmes, Fu Manchu, music hall, Jack the Ripper, opium, hansom cabs, gin, Cockneys, Dracula, Leonard Sachs in The Good Old Days, Oscar Wilde, advanced scientific machinery made out of brass, monsters in the sewers… And, well, if some of those subjects don’t sound fitting subjects to be plundered for entertainment, Mary Whitehouse didn’t think so either, but it’s strangely irresistible, despite frequently being in terribly bad taste. It delights in the atmosphere of the period – not the real period, but a distillation of every film, every melodrama, every ripping yarn in which stiff-upper-lipped gents discover appalling things by gaslight.

It’s all helped by the most gorgeous, syllable-rolling dialogue from a writer with an enormous love of language, and a stunning Doctor and companion team who both undermine every Victorian affectation. Tom Baker’s Doctor dresses like a cartoon Sherlock Holmes and trades wicked put-downs; Louise Jameson’s Leela is highly intelligent, but with no ‘manners’ and absolutely no desire to learn them. Even if, just this once, she’s wearing a succession of outfits that cover her up a bit (with one very noticeable exception), having been told “You can’t go around in skins in Victorian London, you’d frighten the horses.” She still has her knife, though… Oh, and the look of it is fabulous, too; if there’s one thing the BBC has always been able to stage well, it’s a Victorian melodrama.
“Have I ever, in my thirty years in the halls, seen such a dazzling display of lustrous legerdemain? So many feats of superlative supernatural skill? The answer must be never, sir, never!”
I can remember a little from the first episode, first time round; these days we live in East London and can see the dark, sinister Thames from the window as I type – thankfully clear of any ostentatiously floating bodies – but I was very ill thirty years ago tonight, and saw it on my own individual telly in my own individual room in, er, the hospital isolation ward. Look, I wasn’t complaining – I didn’t have to go to school, and we only had a black and white set at home (I suspect my parents were more perturbed). With such delight in the dialogue, it’s no surprise to find the story opening in a theatre as the curtain falls, introducing us to the urbane stage magician and the ebullient proprietor scattering words like he’s being paid by the letter, rudely interrupted by a cabbie bursting in on them. Could the magician and his ventriloquist’s dummy have anything to do with the mysterious disappearance of the cabbie’s wife? What do you reckon?

Yes, if it’s all coming back to you now, it is indeed the case of the walking ventriloquist’s dummy, and very menacing it is, too (unlike the giant rats in the sewers, which are endearingly plush but not in the least scary). Appropriately for the year of the pig, the killer mannequin is both of vaguely Chinese design and – it later transpires – has the brain of a pig. It’s not just something to give you nightmares, though; the stage act with the dummy is great, and some of the magic tricks are ‘real’ (that is, done properly on stage and not just by camera edits). I’d pay to see more of the marvellously theatrical fun that’s the magic act, all the theatre manager’s preposterous dialogue is a joy to listen to, and the Doctor, after speaking few words of Chinese in Limehouse nick, even turns as if looking for applause. Then the whole thing is boosted by some lovely design and great location shooting: the old theatre really is an old theatre, the dark and sinister Thames at night really is the dark and sinister Thames at night, though it’s to be hoped the body the police drag out of it with a boathook at the insistence of a bloodthirsty crone was really just something faked up by the BBC designers:
“It’s a floater, all right… You seem to have got it, guv! ’Pon my oath, you wouldn’t want that served with onions – never seen anything like it in all my puff. Oooh! Make an ’orse sick, that would. Oh…”
No in-depth themes this week, but trivia from famous guides: according to everyone, it’s the only Tom Baker story in which he doesn’t wear his trademark scarf; according to About Time 4, the site of the House of the Dragon is probably below Westferry DLR station; and according to The Discontinuity Guide, “There’s a possible oblique reference to Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England,” but I suspect they made that up. And, all right, I admit I’ve never had the faintest desire to trawl through a pile of Engels to find out. Rather disappointingly, About Time 4 – which often includes ‘Other Sources’ – says nothing about Whose Doctor Who (below), nor the original author’s story and why Robert Holmes had to write it instead, nor the theory about the Master being in it, nor the way the book turns an obvious prostitute into a “waitress at a late-night gambling club”, nor even its co-author’s own audio play The Year of the Cat, featuring Mr Sin’s mannequin brethren. With all that missing, I can’t imagine why they do choose to mention the thoroughly uninspiring spin-off novel The Bodysnatchers.

DVD Non-Speaking Artistes

The DVD has rather a fine set of extras. The commentary may not be the best they’ve done but is still informative and entertaining, featuring three of the actors (Louise Jameson is particularly lively), the director and the producer. It’s difficult not to feel a little sad listening to it today – since the DVD came out in 2003, both John Bennett and David Maloney have died – but then someone’ll cheerily point out the giant pile of hay where a resident left his Porsche while they were filming on an otherwise impeccably antique street, or talk about how they filched the cigars their characters had (“Not a bad part, there was a practical cigar in the third act”), or remember of writer Bob Holmes that:
“His whole approach to the show was, ‘Let’s scare the little bleeders to death’.”
I was one of those little bleeders, and I loved being scared by it. This DVD’s from back when they still bothered doing subtitles for the commentary, too, and it was the first to have what are called ‘Production Subtitles’ – little factoids coming up on the screen – written by one Martin Wiggins. They’d had them before, but they’d always been rather dry; Mr Wiggins, fortunately, is much more readable, and as well as explaining how things work or what else people have done, he tends to bring in little bits that were cut from the script. I’m much more interested in that than the name, time and measurements of the studio in which it was all recorded (the typical subtitles from the other chap). So, thanks to this I know which scene was meant to be a cliffhanger but got moved – and the one that ended up on screen is a much better shock ending – as well as that Wen Ch’ang is the old Chinese god of literature (one of the script’s more obscure gags).

There’s also a second disc made up of solid extras. There are trailers, a photo gallery, some rather blurry behind the scenes footage that’s not really my cup of tea but might be yours, a whole 26 minutes of Blue Peter teaching you how to make a model theatre with Lesley Judd – gosh, I remember that, and her – and other offerings, but the one that I really enjoy is Melvyn Bragg’s The Lively Arts documentary Whose Doctor Who? It’s the ancestor of Doctor Who Confidential, but twice the length and with no pop soundtrack. I was too young to be allowed to stay up past 8 o’clock and watch it the first time round, so it’s nice to have a copy to hand now. There are interviews with an exciting array of middle-class professionals, with an incredibly po-faced group of students, and with an assortment of children, a couple of whom aren’t exceedingly posh. It’s a little time capsule into when the BBC took their programmes (far too) seriously, and it doesn’t have Stuart Maconie anywhere near it. There’s a sizeable ‘making of’ feature for The Talons of Weng-Chiang from the time, too. The bits that I still can’t help but feel excited by, though, even though I could now watch the complete stories just by taking them down from the shelf, are all the clips from old Doctor Who. Some of them are quite sizeable scenes, and they include some of the best or scariest the series has ever offered:
The Doctor scorns the first people who burst into his TARDIS
(An Unearthly Child)
Shop window dummies come to life and attack the high street
(Spearhead From Space)
The Doctor confronts a megalomaniac giant spider
(Planet of the Spiders)
The Doctor and Davros debate the morality of life and death
(Genesis of the Daleks)
The nasty villain we’ve all been worried about is horribly killed by an even nastier villain at the cliffhanger
(Pyramids of Mars)
The Doctor fights a mental duel with a monster made from spare parts
(The Brain of Morbius)
The fossilised hand comes to life and starts moving on its own at the cliffhanger
(The Hand of Fear)…
They’re worth fast-forwarding through a clinical psychologist for any day.

Even the mistakes aren’t too annoying: spotting the misprinted title isn’t hard, but really there are hours of fun for a pedant in finding just how badly the subtitler was defeated by the dialogue. Usually it’s funny bits that subtitles make a mess of – they tend to paraphrase lines to make them shorter, which may rob drama of a little of its poetry but which often ruins a joke completely – but here, whoever wrote the subtitles clearly didn’t have a script to hand and just couldn’t make head nor tail of all the choice Victorian phrases. The one that leapt out at us was when the theatre owner is trying to dismiss the sighting of a spook, betting “All Lombard Street to ninepence that’s what you saw.” Should I ever go deaf, I’ll make sure to remember it, rather than be stuck with reading “Old lumber sheet and ninepins, that’s what you saw.” Until that day, the rich language on this DVD will remain an enormous pleasure.

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Trident and the Trouble With Amendments

Good news for anyone keen to debate Britain’s nuclear weapons capability in advance of Liberal Democrat Conference this weekend: just in case you’ve not already heard, tonight from 7-9 there will be a web forum with Nick Harvey, the Lib Dem Defence Spokesperson. Hopefully it’ll provide a useful platform for informed debate, and hopefully on the issues, which might provide more light than the rather silly squabbles I’ve been complicit in as people’s tempers have started flaring. Opposing voice Colin Ross has also offered to debate with you all individually by e-mail (surely he can’t be getting too much sleep?).

One of the arguments around the Trident debate is an avoidable one, though. It’s that the ‘anti-Trident’ amendment just isn’t very well-drafted. The main motion calls for a 50% cut in Britain’s nuclear warheads, but also to extend the operational life of Trident and set out the basis on which any potential successor weapons system should be developed, should Britain in the future decide to develop one (spot all the various compromises of many different initial points of view). The amendment, however, seems to provide an answer to a different question. Most of the arguments in its favour are arguments for getting rid of Trident; the amendment, presumably so as not to frighten the horses, calls for Trident to be scrapped at the end of its current, non-extended, operational life. That’s about 20 years away (or approximately 40 years after the end of the Cold War). The amendment comes off the fence in ruling out a replacement to Trident, but gets confused; until 20 years in the future, it seems less in favour of disarmament than the main motion, as it doesn’t include the proposal to reduce Britain’s nuclear arsenal by half before then. I’m sure the amendment’s drafters didn’t mean to simultaneously more dovish and more hawkish than the main motion, but that’s what they’ve managed: while the motion can fairly be criticised as neither one thing nor the other but somewhere in between, the amendment is neither one extreme nor the other, but both.

The Liberal Democrats have been here before. Just last year, I was tempted to vote for the amendment to the Tax Policy Paper that would retain the long-held policy of a 50% top tax rate. Various online discussions at the time found me firmly put off the idea by not its opponents but its proponents. Instead of retaining the policy that the party had fought on at the previous General Election (and the two before that), the amendment was another confused mess. The advantage of the 50p rate was its clarity – it was easy to explain and campaign on. It was a huge mistake for the devisors of the amendment to muddle it up with a different threshold, in combination with lots of other taxes, being an additional tax instead of a replacement tax, including lots of complex calculations meaning it’d vary depending on what your local income tax is, and throwing large amounts of it to councils to fiddle their local income tax levels anyway… So I decided the amendment, while its heart may have been in the right place, was in fact barking. I voted for the new policy instead.

There have been many criticisms of the way the Liberal Democrats write substantive policy. One of the most common is that it takes a long time; usually it’s at least a year and a half from deciding what the subject should be (it only took Millennium a year to write his Manifesto), through formulating a balanced group including all shades of view, a variety of useful experience and outsiders without a vested interest, devising a consultation framework, taking in consultation, taking evidence to research policy along the lines that the consultation has suggested, drawing up a paper, having its rough edges filed off by the party’s Federal Policy Committee, sometimes kicked back by the FPC for a complete redraft, and then the final draft sent in to be voted on or voted out by whichever six-monthly Conference is next up. It tends not to be fast and exciting; but it generally has wide support and avoids really stupid mistakes (it generally does that. Not universally!).

In contrast to the incredibly slow and thorough (some might say tedious) deliberative process through which full policy papers are produced, amendments tend to be produced quickly, randomly, without support from expert drafters, and with no consultation. It’s possible that it may suit the FPC’s interests for amendments to be a bit shoddy and so doomed to fail in their attempts to change what the FPC recommends, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard an FPC member say ‘goody!’ when another rotten piece of writing that can easily be pulled apart is tabled. It’s actually quite depressing, because a badly drafted amendment that doesn’t do what it thinks it wants to do satisfies no-one. If it’s defeated – and they usually are – then the amendment’s supporters claim it was only on a technicality, and feel conned; the main motion’s supporters feel cheated, as they won but other people have an excuse to say they didn’t really; and the main body of Conference-goers feel let down, because they’ve not been provided with the clear choice on paper that all those persuasive speeches on both sides sounded like they were advocating.

In my time, I’ve written an awful lot of amendments to policy motions. In the period when I was Policy Officer and then Chair of the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students, I wrote more policies for the Conference agendas than anyone else barring the FPC. I found that the shorter and clearer the amendment, the better – and that amendments that deleted bits of the motion were those most likely to have unintended consequences. I don’t think I ever lost one of the many that, wearily, amended a motion to add “…and sexual orientation,” but I lost some of the complicated ones. Back a few years ago when the party was much more ambiguous about ID cards than it is today, I was one of the writers of an amendment to toughen up our position. I didn’t do a very good job of it, and the motion was passed unamended not, I think, because most people in the Conference hall disagreed with my intent, but because the amendment’s impractical drafting left enough holes that the motion’s proposers could pick it to pieces.

It strikes me that having a web forum to inform the debate is an excellent idea. But if there’s any point in the policymaking process at which a web forum would be really useful, it’s immediately after each policy paper and policy motion is published. The Liberal Democrats would have sturdier policy – tested by much more constructive amendments – if amendments were thoroughly discussed and debated so they made sense before they were submitted, rather than being dashed off the night before the deadline with a feeling that ‘People know what we mean anyway, and, oh, it’ll do.’ It usually won’t.

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The Valley of Fear’s Visit From Porlock

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

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

Moriarty’s Insinuations

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

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

Who Is “Fred Porlock”?

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

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

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

Knowing Holmes Too Well…

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

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

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007


Liberals Surge in Polls

I don’t usually set much store by opinion polls, but last night’s meeting of the Liberal Democrats’ Federal Policy Committee had news of such an extraordinary improvement in the opinion polls for the Liberals, which prompted a few little cheers (we were that excited) that I felt I just had to share it with you. Of course, under the Chatham House Rule*, I can’t reveal which member of the FPC revealed this detail to us, nor the name of the party leader who was cock-a-hoop about their sudden surge (apparently reflected in recent months across several polls, to be fair).

So join with me in celebrating that after decades of languishing in single figures (at one stage even falling below the 5% threshold needed for election), the German Freie Demokratische Partei has now soared to a towering 14% in opposition to the Grand Coalition of Mrs Merkel’s CDU-CSU and the SPD. Makes you think.

In other news about European Liberalism, the FPC last night also enjoyed a long and excessively fascinating discussion about the recent Congress of the European Liberal, Democratic and Reformist party – of which the Liberal Democrats in Britain and, indeed, the German FDP are constituent members – held in Bucharest. If you were one of the delegation from the UK, feel free to post a comment or e-mail me (click at the side of this blog) to explain just why you were unable to organise your way out of a paper bag. In particular, if you were one of the many delegates from the Liberal Democrats who didn’t bother showing up, nor bother finding anyone to go in your place and wield your (crucial) vote at the Congress, just what the bloody hell were you thinking? I ask only for information, and not because last night’s discussion suggested a bunch of amateurs who’d be laughed out of a students’ union debate, naturally.

*I try not to talk in jargon, so if you’re not familiar with the ‘Chatham House Rule’, it’s a way of permitting both free discussion without fear of personal comeback and free reportage of the discussion itself:
“When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”
Apparently one poor innocent lamb at the previous FPC meeting had never been to any Lib Dem policy discussions in his life before, and was so naïve he reported damning (and in one case, I’m told, even accurate) direct quotations from named individuals in just such a way as to advance his case and damage theirs in an article in the esteemed pages of Liberator. What luck that his obvious misunderstanding suited his agenda so well! The FPC last night greeted this unintentional faux pas with much love, understanding and genteel indulgence, but I thought it best to make it clear the terms on which gossip reports should be made of meetings so that the FPC as a whole can be held to account but individuals are not intimidated into mistrustful silence or circumspection.

26.02.07 update: perhaps unwisely in view of the nuclear exchanges in the comments, I’ve just made a tiny addition to this piece, so if anyone is tracking changes – in which case, you’ll note that this is the first alteration since it was first published last Wednesday morning – I’ll save you looking for what it might be. As I’ve just published another piece that mentions the FPC (and, as it happens, the Trident debate), I gave that an ‘FPC’ label and added the same three letters to the tags on here before realising it might re-open the specious ‘re-editing’ argument. Sigh. That’s it.

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Monday, February 19, 2007


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Ten days after the death of one of Britain’s best actors, BBC4 will start reshowing one of his most famous roles. Though as with many people it must have been House of Cards in 1990 that really bowled me over, I remember having admired several of Ian Richardson’s earlier performances too, and tonight at 10.30 (just after Charlie Brooker) there’s the first episode of an outstanding adaptation from a decade earlier, John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Mr Richardson appeared alongside Alec Guinness and a host of British acting talent in this intricate and compelling drama. See it.

This is an absolutely gripping serial, though I have to admit that – despite doing fabulous work – Ian Richardson’s brilliant array of acting ‘business’ doesn’t quite steal the show; not when Alec Guinness’ implacable authority means he can steal the scene by underplaying (or simply by putting on his glasses). However, it is Mr Richardson who steals the very opening scene, two minutes of four men arriving for a meeting before the titles roll. His Bill Haydon is the last to arrive, and despite Michael Aldridge’s pipe and Bernard Hepton’s loud shirt, it’s the way he balances his tea cup and saucer, closes the door with his foot and does every other thing to make sure you keep looking at him that immediately grabs your attention. It’s a deceptively important scene for the story; while the only words spoken are, appropriately, “Right. We shall start,” it both sets the tone and displays the key figures in the plot. The tone is not that of 24 or James Bond – you won’t find the camera cutting to a different shot every five seconds, but superb actors delivering well-crafted lines that gradually reveal the story through their characters. And the plot is that of a mole in the British secret intelligence service, with the four men shown to us before we know who they are making up the suspects for the Soviet agent destroying ‘the Circus’ from within.

This is very of its time, beautifully shot but with Britain dispirited and losing its way at the end of the ’70s. I said this wasn’t like James Bond, but in many ways the first half of tonight’s opening episode is a James Bond pre-credits mini-adventure ‘for real’ and gone horribly wrong. ‘Control’, the ailing head of the Circus, sends an agent into Czechoslovakia in the desperate hope of pulling out a senior defector who can identify the mole he fears. He gives the suspects the code-names Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Poor Man and Beggar Man so any news of them can reach him without them understanding the reference, but the mole is ahead of him and the operation is so disastrous that it instead brings Control down. The bulk of the story takes place many months later, with Control dead and his deputy, ‘Beggar Man’ George Smiley (Alec Guinness) clearly no longer a suspect by virtue of being also out on his ear. If you watch carefully for who gets which identifier and then look at the way those characters behave, you might deduce that ‘Poor Man’ is also out of the running, which may be why he’s not in the title of the story – the three plausible suspects throughout are going to be Tinker, Tailor and Soldier, though as you come to know them in later episodes one will be such an ostentatious fool you might be tempted to discount him. As in many of the best thrillers, it’s intricate enough that the villain is not obvious all along, but seems as if he must have been when finally revealed…

The surprising thing about the first episode is not just how gripping it is, how brilliantly played or how much is packed in at such a deceptively leisurely pace, but that the final scene in effect makes clear that it’s just the prologue, as a character tells his audience – both in the room where he’s being interrogated and those of us at home – “I’ve got a story to tell you; it’s all about spies…” Watch carefully, though, as many of the clues are there early on, with the all-important little details established as Peter Guillam, one of the agents not sacked but pushed to the periphery by the new regime, is sent to find the ‘retired’ and rather crabby George Smiley, considered by a worried Cabinet Office mandarin to be the only figure capable of investigating from ‘outside’ how compromised the Circus has become. So if he’s so good, how did he manage to be pushed out in the first place? The character’s potential weaknesses are heralded from the beginning as well as his brilliance; he was unable or unwilling to play the internal politics necessary to fight his own corner, through faithfulness (to Control, to his wife) and fairness (not wanting to think badly of those who brought down Control or are sleeping with his wife). In subsequent weeks we’ll see how these qualities have been exploited. Alec Guinness is outstanding as Smiley, making small talk that protests a lack of interest while ferreting out information, praising Guillam’s character in terms that hide a mild accusation (“I’m surprised you didn’t get thrown out with all the rest of us. You had all the qualifications: good at your work, loyal, discreet…”), and, at the close of the episode, turning in a moment from genial old buffer to pitiless inquisitor merely by gazing through his glasses.

I remember seeing a documentary on the serial where Ian Richardson recounted how Alec Guinness had a similarly mild-mannered but terrifying professionalism to that of his character; on arriving for the first read-through of the script, most of the cast gave it the usual knock-about levity, but one sobered them by being already word-perfect. Mr Richardson recalls a panicked, sing-song aside of “Alec’s learnt it” to Michael Jayston (who gives a terrific performance himself as Guillam). Despite the obvious star, you’ll still notice Ian Richardson, as indeed the script demands – with the serial starting ‘outside’ the upper echelons of the Circus and only gradually working its way in, we hardly see him to begin with, but his character is so noticeable that everyone talks about him even in his absence. Bill Haydon has “star quality” and “glamour,” “very dashing. Very audacious.” So when he does show up, his fey brilliance is a treat. Look out in the third episode, for example, for the way he draws attention to himself by sliding his glasses up his head, or slouching in a doorway to frame himself; he’s also at that stage part of one of the story’s most compelling sequences, as Smiley visits each of those ‘next in line’ on behalf of the possibly demented and messianic Control, only to be rebuffed in a different way by all three. In Part Four, as the top men become aware that something is up, watch Haydon’s priceless reactions as Guillam is interrogated. And of course he’s outstanding at the end, though when BBC4 last showed this I observed that the most mesmerising scene in the whole thing is the turning point of Part Six, when Alec Guinness and Michael Jayston face off against Bernard Hepton’s Toby Esterhase. Doctor Who fans may also notice the Production Assistant on this who borrows two of its actors when directing a much-regarded Who adventure of the ’80s, as well as writing a bit of the story into one of his Who scripts. Connoisseurs of fine TV from the BBC in the 1970s might just note the similarities and differences with Secret Army and I, Claudius – equally compelling scripts, very much more filming on location for this one rather than the studio, and the fun in spotting just how many actors they all have in common.

Ian Richardson

Following so closely on Mr Richardson’s sad and unexpected death, I suspect there hasn’t been time for this to be a ‘BBC4 tribute’ showing; my guess it that it was already planned, simply because it’s so good. That means, if we’re lucky, that there may yet be other pieces of great TV to come in celebration of this remarkable actor. I can’t run through everything he did for television and never saw him on the stage, but I particularly remember him stern and then quite mad in Gormenghast, sinister in the never-fulfilled Strange, authoritative in Murder Rooms and querulous in Bleak House. He was a rather good Sherlock Holmes in a couple of adaptations, doomed in part by their slightly inferior production (the cheap and nasty ’80s montage title sequences stick in my memory) but mainly through their being made just as Jeremy Brett started out in his portrayal for Granada; like Basil Rathbone before him, Mr Brett seemed simply the ideal Holmes for a generation. I know at least one Doctor Who author rated Ian Richardson so highly that there is an ‘Ian Richardson part’ in all of his books (his son Miles Richardson has also played a number of roles in Doctor Who audio plays himself, most strikingly the urbane, ambiguous Irving Braxiatel in the adventures of Professor Bernice Summerfield, and my condolences to him and the rest of the family). But if there’s one thing he’s remembered for, it’s the character that first hit our screens in November 1990, that of scheming master politician Francis Urquhart in House of Cards, its nearly as impressive sequel To Play the King and the slightly off-key concluding chapter The Final Cut.

Unlike Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, in House of Cards Ian Richardson is the undoubted star, and it was perfectly timed both for him and for political irony. In the previous decade, he’d matured from a fey, charismatic actor in middle age to a silver-haired figure with a commanding voice and real bottom. Several of my favourite actors really came into their own when older and suddenly hugely authoritative, but in parts with a hint of grand madness – William Hartnell and Graham Crowden also spring to mind – and F.U. became the ultimate in older politicians commanding absolute respect. One of my more infamous blog posts was during last year’s Lib Dem leadership election, urging Ming to be fearsome, to “put some stick about… as Francis Urquhart with a high moral tone.” You could see exactly why people might vote for Urquhart, just as you were drawn into siding with, well, a murderous Tory. Part of it was in the original books, but they serve as a lesson to anyone claiming that screen adaptations must inevitably cheapen their source material. Compared to Andrew Davies’ script (introducing the affair, the villain’s survival and even his best-known phrase), the book seems a little mediocre, and I suspect even Michael Dobbs would reply that I might very well think that, but he couldn’t possibly comment. The other vital ingredient to the creation of this sublime anti-hero came in Ian Richardson’s performance, sardonic, mercurial, and every word beautifully enunciated as he took us into his confidence and dared us not to root for him. Add to that the remarkable real-life irony in the serial being shown during the very weeks of Margaret Thatcher’s fall from power, yet dramatising the destruction of what to later viewers looks uncannily like her mild-mannered but useless successor. The only things House of Cards got wrong, in retrospect, were underestimating the stubbornness of John Major… And telling us there would be a Conservative Party politician of such brilliance on hand to succeed him. To this day, Ian Richardson’s greatest character looks more like a Prime Minister than Mrs Thatcher’s immediate successor ever did.

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Saturday, February 17, 2007


Young Cabinets Today…

‘Where have all the big beasts gone?’ asked Stephen Tall the other day, bemoaning the lack of substantial figures in the Labour Party beyond Gordon and Tony and summoning in aid the impressive politicians around the Cabinet tables of Harold Wilson or Margaret Thatcher. On the face of it this sounds persuasive: I have to agree that Mr Blair’s Cabinet are nonentities, and neither are there swathes of impressive Labour figures outside it. I wonder, though, if this isn’t one of those questions like ‘aren’t young people today a terrible let-down?’ that have been getting the same answer since Plato. Was Mr Wilson’s government unusual in having people that are actually remembered, or is this a genuine change? If it is, I think it came in before Mr Blair: surely it was Mrs Thatcher’s dominance that destroyed the ‘big beasts’ under her (or was it the media spotlight on ‘gaffes’ that annihilated free-thinkers?).

Stephen quotes Adrian Hamilton of The Independent and seems to go along with him in conflating the Thatcher-Major governments into one, but at the time Mr Major’s definitely felt like the fag-end rather than the big cigar of politics. My abiding memory of Mr Major’s Cabinet is that they were such nonentities even Spitting Image couldn’t think how to distinguish them and had to make a joke about it. ‘Which one’s Norman Lamont,’ they ask each other round the Cabinet table. ‘I thought it was you!’ he says to, oh, one of the other ones. I forget. The problem is solved with an innovation picked up from the table: Norman is the one with a yoghurt pot on his head. I may remember him because of singing in the bath and Edith Piaf, but not for his intrinsic charisma or intelligence; similarly, I can remember David Mellor for the unkind headlines about sex, but none of his political achievements, if he had any.

But as far as Mr Major’s Cabinet went, by then the Tories had… Who? Surely not Mr Hurd, whether he was deluded enough to think he could run for the top job or not (just look at the field for Labour Deputy; you can’t take the orange-hued apostate seriously, for example, merely because he’s running). Kenneth Clarke was an impressive figure, but Michael Heseltine already seemed a self-parodying anachronism, and – unlike scary, messianic Mr Blair, to give him his due – even the Prime Minister seemed over-promoted. And that was, as Conrad Russell used to point out, when he reached the giddy heights of junior minister at the DSS.

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Friday, February 16, 2007


The Avengers – The Fear Merchants

It’s almost automatic that I recommend The Avengers each week, but while tonight’s on BBC4 at 11.30 remains head and shoulders above most TV, some Avengers are higher up than others. An ‘automatic’ feel is indeed the downside to this story of hi-tech business efficiency. The first colour episode shown was remarkably silly; this one by contrast is severe and colourless (except for Emma’s hideous mustard smock), but for a story all about fear, curiously un-thrilling. It’s not a patch on next Thursday and Friday’s showing of Escape in Time, where they suddenly turn on the colour and the fun.

Steed puts out a light – Emma takes fright

So what does The Fear Merchants have going for it? Well, there’s an intriguing mystery to start with, as leading businessmen (no women; it’s the 1960s, and only Mrs Peel or murderesses are yet allowed to be tycoons) are literally scared out of their wits by such phobias as speed, naff model spiders and, er, mice, illustrated by an impressive array of big-name and soon-to-be-big-name guest stars including Patrick Cargill, Brian Wilde, Garfield Morgan, Bernard Horsfall and Andrew Keir. The mysterious rash of nervous breakdowns opens up into something strikingly modern, as the villains – look away now if you’re particularly concerned for 40-year-old spoilers, though there are no red herrings to make it a twist – turn out to be the Business Efficiency Bureau, a team of coldly competent management consultants willing to do anything to boost the bottom line.
“Efficiency isn’t a crime.” “That depends how it’s applied.”
Even someone phoning Steed hears “Your call is being answered by a recording device…” in what must have felt a wild sci-fi idea in 1967 (today it feels strange that it’s our hero that puts you on hold rather than the soullessly efficient hi-tech villains). Think yourself into the time, though, and there’s also a whiff of something from a couple of decades earlier: the BEB’s stark, horrible ‘efficiency’ has a hint of Nazism about it – or is Doctor Voss’ German accent an accident? And that, I think, is at the root of the problem I have with this episode. It feels clinical and rather unpleasant, and as a result no-one seems to be having much fun.

Patrick Macnee does his best virtually single-handed to make this entertaining, but he’s struggling against a script and plot devoid of the usual humour, and against design and direction with little of the usual diverting style. It’s rarely witty, playful or surreal, and though there are several eccentrics, they’re mainly among the ruthless business fraternity, making them rather difficult to warm to. It’s still not without the odd spark, with Steed enjoying himself in the role of a jumped-up bureaucrat from the very 1960s-central-planning-corporatist-sounding ‘Central Productivity Council’ (more points for his cover from the ‘Monopolies Commission’, putting Mr Raven on the spot for claiming that eliminating all his competitors would be good for the customer) while investigating the way the heads of our leading ceramics firms are suddenly breaking out into the screaming heebie-jeebies. But, well, ‘our leading ceramics firms’ doesn’t set your pulse racing, does it, and though it’s not his most gorgeous day for outfits, you realise something’s wrong with the design when he’s wearing, say, a charcoal pinstripe and grey tie, or a chocolate-brown overcoat, and you start thinking, ‘Oh, that looks nice’. Neither charcoal pinstripe nor brown are looks that I usually find among his most appealing, but virtually everything else looks simply horrid. The villains, for example, wear dark glasses, black suits, white shirts and ties or ‘clinical’ white coats, surrounded by white walls, yet don’t look remotely as bold as the brilliant stylings of the previous black and white season did – more that they simply forgot to add enough colour to the picture. And as for ‘eccentric tycoon’ Jeremy Raven’s beige cardigan in his beige office… Why go to the bother of switching to colour and obviously spending so much money on sets if they’re so drab they might as well be shot in sepia?

‘What of Diana Rigg,’ you may well ask? She has a few nice bantering scenes with Steed, some of them with rather contrived drilling and chiselling to show off her artistic side, and the closing gag where she affects to have run out of champagne and really frightens Steed is a treat. And there are two sets of chocolates. Sadly, she doesn’t get the chance to do the same sort of amusing play-acting he does here, merely – inevitably – ending up tied to another chair and threatened with just plain nasty torture. Her wardrobe is something of a torment, too, but not for want of trying. Early on, she’s seen in that simply horrible mustard-coloured dress with the most unflattering cut and white highlights, with the walls in the hospital she’s visiting using exactly the same colour scheme, making it surely one of the ugliest Avengers scenes ever committed to film. Then she turns up in a vivid purple ‘Emmapeeler’ catsuit which improves her look no end, before more unflattering dresses strike, in white with an ill-considered square chest or very pale lilac that just looks washed out. At the climax, of course, she’s been sewn into an outrageous black catsuit showing the maximum amount of flesh, with metal buckles and a distinct lack of practicality. Unused to filming in colour, were they just slinging every outfit they could think of on Mrs Peel and hoping one of them would work? ‘That looks good. That looks dull. That looks ridiculous but sexy. That looks hideous, and what were they thinking?’

I don’t have a problem with the determinist caricature of ‘everyone can be driven instantly mad by their convenient phobia’ – picking up something vaguely ‘real’ and exaggerating it out of all proportion is something that suits The Avengers. It’s just that six leading industrialists become gibbering wrecks and one flings himself through a window as a result, and we get to see it happen to most of them in sadistic detail, to piercing music. This gloating nastiness goes on and on for about half the episode, and really doesn’t appeal. Neither is it directed with enough oomph to make it tense or scary for the viewer, even when it comes to an elaborately staged but dreary fight involving lots of dirt and a bulldozer, and in which Steed somehow fools his assailant by getting him to fall for exactly the same feint he used to get Steed into it (though it seems to go on for ever, someone must have liked it. It turns up again in a later story that’s the nearest the series came to ‘So It’s Come To This, An Avengers Clips Show’). Were the colour cameras so much bigger and clumsier that they’d just not learnt how to shoot exciting fights with them yet, or was it down to the director or film editor not having the knack? Either way, so much of this episode drags that for once you get the feeling it would have been better at ten or even twenty minutes shorter.

Still, there are some interesting details with the Business Efficiency Bureau. Identifying the fatal weaknesses in their clients’ competitors with the help of reams of probing questions should put you off all those questionnaires constantly thrust in front of us in modern life, while their offices have sinister automatic doors and white walls only livened by sparsely typed inspirational phrases such as ‘Observation is the root of decision’ or ‘Analysis reveals motivation’. They’re not quite evil enough to have posters of dolphins, though. Perhaps my own fear is of hospitals, as I find the ‘operating theatre’ chic of their HQ distinctly off-putting, and the revelation that the harsh lighting hides someone who’s afraid of the dark doesn’t entirely convince me, as Steed appears to deduce it because the man wears dark glasses. Eh? Mrs Peel, it must be said, does stand up well to her lie-detector-aided interrogation, revealed as so extremely well-adjusted that for their purposes she’s without fear, having learned to live with them. To modern viewers, BEB head Mr Pemberton’s gloating peroration may be especially chilling:
“Our territory is the mind. Our merchandise is fear. The dark balloon we try to hide…”
Gosh! So they’re doing PR for the Tories, then? In the end, it’s not without its moments, but with neither the tension of the bolder black and white episodes nor the vivacious fun you associate with the switch to colour, this feels like a definite wrong turning. That it’s still not at all bad is a testament to the series’ quality, but it’s a relief that most of the episodes that follow are far superior – and next week’s is one of the very best…

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Sunday, February 11, 2007


Difficult To Swallow

Something in yesterday’s Guardian shocked me. That’s unusual, but I have to admit mainly because my regular Saturday Guardian does nothing most weeks but add to the piles of papers edging us out of the flat; I tend to read Charlie Brooker, and leave the rest. Yesterday, however, with no Mr Brooker there to read, I turned to the rest and found that a restaurant has successfully sued a food critic for a bad review. Paul Walter has given an excellent round-up of the story, but I should declare an interest before covering it myself: writing rude reviews is fun. I’d rather watch or eat something I enjoy and point other people towards why I enjoyed it, but warning people against a bad experience is just as important – while the best way of repaying a bad experience is to create a good one of your own in finding creative ways to express your disdain.

I like writing reviews. I like giving praise, too, and I’ll often choose subjects I’m fond of in order to encourage more people to look at them, and because that’s more of a challenge. It’s much more difficult to write something interesting if you’re being nice, so being nasty can be a break; it’s fun to let it out, and I admit it’s much easier to write a memorable review that way. Now, I generally try to steer a course between the earnestness of talking something up and the joy of putting it down, but sometimes it’s just satisfying to put the boot into something that genuinely deserves it. Not unfairly, you understand, but why be blandly reserved when you can write something that’ll make people smile, perhaps going a little over the top for comic effect? I don’t want to worry that – to take a completely random example – I couldn’t write about Primeval for fear that ITV might sue. Consumers have little enough power, and they should jealously guard their right to their own opinions.

There are plenty of reasons for reviewers to get into trouble. If you write a review of something you’ve not actually seen, read or tasted, or if you’ve been paid or treated to give a good review for your benefactor or a bad one for their competitor, you deserve a good hiding (well, all right, the days of your face reddening between your whiskers and striding off from your club to horsewhip the offending copywriter have gone, but it’s certainly a bad show). Like it should for anyone else, the law should frown on you if you incite hatred likely to inflame violence, or tell provable malicious untruths. But that’s as far as libel should go. Freedom of speech should work so that exceptions are unusual and specific against actual harm, and never just for ‘being a bit mean’, for poetic license, or even for your business suffering if people decide against you on a matter of taste. With the price of eating out today, a review is a service and almost a necessity. If a critic can’t exercise their own taste, what’s the point of writing? Who would read an opinion that they know is entirely under the veto of the ‘producer’? Is this to be extended to word of mouth, if you tell your friends you didn’t think much of a meal / book / programme / political party? And surely it’s not just me who finds the idea of restaurants imposing ‘gagging’ orders strangely unappetising?

I’ve only written one restaurant review for this blog – if anyone would like to take Richard and I to dinner, though, as long as you’re not a restaurateur with an interest I’ll give you a namecheck and we’ll eat heartily, purely in a spirit of investigation you understand – and what I said about EleganZe in Stockport was largely favourable. Despite that, the first article I remember writing that brought widespread congratulations was nearly ten years ago, and it was a restaurant review.

Liberal Democrat Conference came to Eastbourne in 1997, and back then I was part of a team writing the Gazette, a distinctly independent-minded free Conference magazine given out every day. You’ll not be surprised to know that I was writing the daily political analysis of motions for debate, which generally won praise from people of similar views and scorn from internal opponents. However, the Gazette team (including at least two of us who are now Lib Dem bloggers) went for dinner early in the week, and it was dreadful. The food was poor, the service was poor, and after we complained the manager followed us onto the pavement to harangue us. I won’t name the place after all this time – it’s probably changed – but I excoriated it in a review in the next issue. It’s the only thing I’ve written for a Lib Dem publication where people constantly stopped me to tell me how much they agreed with it. I remember one fellow member of the FPC at the time and peer who’d never knowingly agreed with me taking me to one side to express their delight. People were simply sick of restaurants profiting from the Conference trade that knew people wouldn’t be around long enough for a bad reputation to spread, and they all felt this was a long-delayed blow for the customer. What I wrote was fair enough – I reported the one dish that was popular – but damning. Two nights later we went back to the same street for another meal, and only one restaurant in a street full of them wasn’t open. I like to think that Liberal Democrats had voted with their feet in the intervening days and they’d given up that night.

If anyone still has a copy of that Gazette (and a more efficient filing system than my tottering stacks), let me know and I’ll reprint it in solidarity with Caroline Workman, albeit with the restaurant name removed to protect the possibly-by-now innocent. Best of luck to her and the Irish News with their appeal.

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How Much Does the Mail Hate David Cameron?

I ask ‘How much…?’ rather than ‘Does…?’ because the ‘hate’ is obvious. It’s their mission: to hate and pour bile over anyone not four-square on Planet Mail, and to terrify all those who actually agree with them (I often think Mail-readers must be like ghost train addicts, loving to shriek in pretend horror at illusory threats). This weekend, though, the Mail and Mail On Sunday seem to have mounted a co-ordinated attack on the Conservative Leader. They’ve dug up evidence of his drug-taking (gasp!) and reported in embarrassing detail his failed attempts to persuade Liberal Democrat MPs to defect (shock!). Hat-tips to Jonathan Calder and Peter at Liberal Review.

But what has Mr Cameron done to deserve this double-barrelled attack? He’s a a ‘nice young man’ who’s been well brought-up in a very wealthy Conservative family in the home counties, and is now a Tory Leader who can supply ‘nice young family’ pictures for their supplements. The trouble is, he’s also the Tory Leader who’s been making the most naked appeals to people outside the Mail’s twitchy-curtained definition of ‘proper’ people. He’s a traitor to Mail-ism, and what could be more worthy of their bile? It doesn’t help that Mr Cameron is making less headway than all these ‘changes’ promised, something the Evening Standard (coincidentally, part of guess which newspaper group?) last week reported Edward Leigh fulminating on. The hate-fuelled outpourings of the Mail and Mr Leigh may indeed be thoroughly off-putting to all those outside their enclave, but I think they just can’t help themselves. ‘Nice… Nice… Nice…’ they chant, unconvincingly. ‘HATE!’ Whoops, it just slipped out, but they feel so much better for it.

Naturally, the ‘story’ here that’s grabbed all the attention is the personal one about Mr Cameron – people from proper Daily Mail families, of course, never do drugs (did they not watch The Line of Beauty? Ah, of course; it was all fine in that until anyone told the papers, too). But despite the ‘news’ of Mr Cameron’s drug-fuelled escapades at Eton receiving virtually continuous coverage on News 24 yesterday and still causing a feeding frenzy today, I suspect it will wind up no-one who isn’t already on the Edward Leigh / Daily Mail axis of being wound up by Mr Cameron’s touchy-feeliness anyway – though m’learned friend Mr Calder may be right that the word ‘Eton’ receiving round-the-clock coverage may hurt him, surely not what the Mail had in mind – and, after all his carefully-crafted lines on cocaine during the leadership election, it can come as a surprise to no-one.

I’m not impressed, however, by the Tory line that it doesn’t matter what you do before you enter politics as that can have no bearing on your political career. Aside from all the many politicians who use elements of their life story or life experience to aid their chances – as Mr Cameron does when posing with his family – I don’t recall anyone telling me when I first stood for Parliament that it was the modern equivalent of bathing in the sea at Paphos to restore my virginity. If an MP was suddenly discovered, say, to have committed murder before they became a candidate, would they be able to shrug and make ambiguous answers about how people are allowed to make mistakes but that it has nothing to do with their public life now? I suspect posing as Aphrodite would be a novel and not entirely effective defence with the Director of Public Prosecutions. Bizarrely, the Conservatives’ line means that someone who’s committed a criminal offence, been arrested, found guilty, taken their punishment and been rehabilitated – but with their past criminality a matter of public record – should be in a worse position than someone who successfully covers it up until they become an MP. And in this morning’s TV news bulletins, Mr Cameron has in the same soundbite said that there are private things that should remain private – so if drug use was a matter of private choice for him, why is he in favour of locking up other people for making the same private choice? – and then gone on to mention his family, which is entirely private, except when he uses it in public.

The only tenable reason to say that breaking the law and getting away with it before you become an MP is fine is surely if you believe the law in question is wrong and are vocal in wanting to see it changed, but that corollary seems lost on the Tories who, as ever, wish to have their cake (another dangerous drug, according to some Tory MPs) and eat it. Until they say that young people outside the privileged world of the top Tories should also not be punished for drug-taking, why should we listen to them claiming one rule for themselves and a different rule for others? I’m also curiously unimpressed with the Independent On Sunday for leading with it too (is this the first time a book has been serialised in both the Indy and the Mail? They must each feel dirty); ‘another politician might be a hypocrite if we could pin him down to having a view on anything’ isn’t a story that’ll do much to advance their campaign for legalisation.

Despite all the fun that everyone inevitably has with talking about drugs, the attack story from the Mail with the more slow-burning chance to be damaging is his much-touted campaign for high-level Lib Dem defections. The Tories have been crowing about these for a year as if it’s already happened, and – as Liberal Democrats noticed about our own claims some half-a-dozen years ago – if you have to get your publicity about a defection ‘before it happens’, it isn’t going to. A few minor defectors have been hyped up in the last few months, and it’s suited the news cycle to mention the Lib Dems going to Tories rather than those who’ve gone the other way, but disgruntled councillors, ex-unwinnable-candidates or hangers-on have always switched parties and always will. They’re rarely of much significance, even when some of those who’ve recently left the Conservatives for other parties have lost the Tories control of councils as a result. An MP is quite a different matter, which is why parties are always so eager to parade their scalps. When senior Tory MPs defected to the Liberal Democrats or Labour in the ’90s, large numbers of Labour MPs to the SDP in the ’80s or a Labour MP to the Tories in the ’70s, they were rightly seen as signs of parties in trouble.

Peter Oborne reports the abject failure of the Conservatives’ Treasury spokesperson’s crass attempts to induce Liberal Democrat MPs to defect, apparently by springing an unprompted conversation along the lines of ‘Who could fail to love me?’ ‘Me, for a start,’ which is not perhaps the most tactically brilliant of manouevres:
“Osborne suggested to David Laws, LibDem work and pensions spokesman, that he should consider defecting to the Conservative Party. In return, he would be offered a shadow cabinet job. At this point, Laws politely and thoughtfully explained that he was not a Tory.”
This has to be damaging to George Osborne, both for the reflection on his judgement and for the fact that – the unforgivable sin in the new Tory pitch to win – he failed. While you get the feeling that, whenever he sees Mr Osborne appear on the modern moving television, Mr Oborne feels the need to bark ‘No relation!’ this is also rather bad news for Mr Cameron, reported as having given his personal authority to the approach (evidently, by sending his chief lieutenant). I can’t remember this sort of report appearing as breaking news before, which suggests the Mail really does have it in for them.

Richard suggested to me last night that this could be the first example of a defection that doesn’t take place actively harming the party that was too eager to claim it (at least outside of an episode of Spooks). It makes them look stupid, the approach to Lib Dems is liable to wind up Tory traditionalists, and is damages their claim to be ‘winners’ by providing a conspicuous own goal. Added to that, in the constituencies of Yeovil, Taunton and North Norfolk – all seats that the Tories would be desperate to regain in climbing their mountain to get back into power – Nich Starling rightly points out that the Conservative Leader has now given a fulsome endorsement to the sitting Liberal Democrat MP as preferable to whichever luckless Tory is selected to challenge them.

So why was the Tory Leadership so stupid as to make this move? Of course the benefits to them had David, Jeremy or Norman chosen to defect would be substantial, but wouldn’t it have been more sensible for some more subtle and deniable soundings to have been taken first to see if, you know, there was the remotest patina of interest or dissatisfaction with the party they were already in? After all, it would probably do the Liberal Democrats some good if, say, Ken Clarke and David Milliband were to join, but I suspect that if Vince Cable suddenly turned up in their offices on the spur of the moment and announced, ‘I’ve got a brilliant idea… Why don’t you sit with me!’ the resulting media attention would not be positive for the Lib Dems. The fact that you can’t imagine such a sensible figure making such an utter fool of himself says it all about the two shadow Chancellors.

There are several factors behind this huge misjudgement by Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne (oh, imagine how humiliating it must be if you lived in Tatton, and had exchanged Martin Bell for this shallow creation). The first is that they think, probably based on their life stories before they entered Parliament, that everything will be easy. Mr Cameron became Leader from nowhere, became flavour of the month in the press, and I imagine their overweening self-confidence sees the next general election in the same way. They didn’t bother slowly sounding out their Lib Dem targets because, well, who could possibly resist their charms? And, with their unfounded assumption that they’re coasting to victory, who could possibly not want a ticket to sitting in government with them? Surrounded by ambitious hangers-on eager to drop everything they stand for at the whiff of an opinion poll, they don’t seem to have considered that no-one – outside of a few small-time local politicians in areas where we’ve controlled the council for ages, but there can be precious few of those – has ever joined the Liberal Democrats with the primary aim of advancing their career. Well, not unless they’re exceedingly stupid, and Mr Laws is rather bright.

They look at David Laws in particular, and jump to yet another fallacy. As David “politely and thoughtfully explained” to Mr Osborne, he’s not a Tory. But, surely, he’s a former banker – he looks like ‘one of us,’ they assumed, so he must just have made a mistake and accidentally wandered into the wrong party. Wasn’t it all he needed for that nice Mr Osborne to point this out, and then the scales would drop from his eyes? Actually, no. It’s not the first time that Tories have jumped to this sort of fallacy. Just look at how they howled at David’s predecessor in Yeovil, because decorated army officer Paddy Ashdown should have been a Tory and it was an outrage that he wasn’t. In a mirror image of Labour at the time, they regarded Paddy as a ‘class traitor’. Look at the background of the new Tory elite, with their less confrontational style but much more old-fashioned wealth and privilege than the Tories of the ’80s, and you can see that though nowadays they’re more likely to bribe someone than rage at them, the principle’s the same. Liberals, however, do not come in ready-formed class packages. It’s a shame when some Lib Dems make the same misjudgments about David Laws, but he’s consistently proved that his ideas are Liberal ones. They’re not always the same Liberal ideas I have, but if you can’t see the same philosophical starting point, you haven’t been looking. Either that, or you only looked as far as his suit.

If I had to make a guess about defections in the near future, I’d be very surprised to see any Liberal Democrat MPs moving to the Tories, and almost as surprised if a Labour MP jumped ship. I think the days of predicting Tory defections to Lib Dem are over while Mr Cameron is able to talk up his reassuring fluffy nothingness, and no-one in their right minds would skip to Labour at the moment, surely. With several peers having already crossed from the Tories to UKIP, there’s probably an outside chance of MPs following them… But only an outside chance. The Tories show no sign of becoming any less anti-European in amongst their other fluffy poses, and any MP defecting to UKIP – as opposed to Lords who needn’t face elections – must know they’re likely to be choosing oblivion, particularly as if they’re extreme enough there’s a good chance they’ll get UKIP’s backing anyway. Besides, a lone frothing extremist waving goodbye while shouting about how much the Tories have changed under Mr Cameron would probably do even more to the Conservatives’ electoral chances than they would to those of UKIP. If I were Mr Cameron, I’d think about what I could do to prise away the more unappealing members of my own party as evidence of how safe I’ve become to vote for, rather than show up how meagre my appeal is to those in other parties.

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Thursday, February 08, 2007


The Avengers – From Venus With Love

Tonight at 7.10 (and tomorrow at 11.30) The Avengers come to BBC4 in color, along with several other changes from the black and white style. If you’re thinking, ‘But surely British television wasn’t transmitting in colour in 1967, so why make it like that?’ then the clue to the funding’s in the spelling! In a less dramatic change, this is my first New Blogger post, so if anyone knows how to make a heart symbol appear in a title…? Tonight’s episode is particularly silly, but dear to my heart purely because this week’s pile of murder victims are all astronomers.

Steed is shot full of holes – Emma sees stars!

…And one of the first changes you’ll notice is that those little ‘introduction’ lines above now appear on screen, just after the title (the ones in my reviews of the black and white Mrs Peel episodes were used in publicity for the show). Before then, though, you’ll already have spotted an absolutely smashing title sequence – guns, gold and roses – accompanied by an extended and more percussive version of the famous theme. Well, the main body of it’s the same and that great fanfare’s still there (an extra time, now), so I’m still happy. Another change comes straight after the obligatory opening murder and the title: each episode now starts off with Steed finding increasingly outlandish ways to tell Mrs Peel ‘You’re needed’. As we first see her – now in brightly-coloured catsuit rather than the white outfits of which I was so fond, and in a starkly red and white flat – practicing her fencing, just as we first caught sight of her back in The Town of No Return, it’s appropriate that Steed first proffers an invitation impaled on his umbrella. There’s also going to be a change to the regular pattern at the end, as Steed and Mrs Peel no longer find an eccentric vehicle on which to make their exit but chat instead, and the type of plots change, too: brighter in tone as well as film stock; clearly in an ‘Avengerland’ of Britain that never was rather than anything like the real world; and a significant recurring plot device that I’ll only mention a little later, once I start giving away spoilers for this episode…

It’s not unusual in The Avengers to have some select society whose members are being bumped off one by one, and this time it’s that well-known band of exceedingly rich amateur astronomers, the British Venusian Society – a group who believe in life on Venus, and wish to make contact with it. Blazing white lights are bleaching their hair and blasting them into another world entirely… Could the Venusians be a form of fiery, gaseous life that have struck Earth first? Is the Society’s head, Venus Brown, responsible for the deaths to cover up her misuse of all those wealthy donations? Or is there some other explanation to be found by Steed and Mrs Peel, investigating in the somewhat predictable guises of playboy and journalist?

Well, before I spoil the answer for you, while this isn’t among the best of The Avengers’ colour episodes, it introduces a lot of the elements that you’ll be seeing in later weeks. There’s a remarkable set of guest stars playing an extraordinary assortment of eccentrics. Hammer starlet Barbara Shelley is Venus Brown, in a selection of ludicrous outfits – horrible red and orange stripes, a barmy black wimple and red gloves… Jeremy Lloyd, later to write Are You Being Served? and ’Allo ’Allo, is impeccably dressed charming chimney sweep Bert Smith, full name Bertram Fortescue Wynthrop-Smythe (but he doesn’t get trade with his full name; sheer class prejudice)… Philip Locke is Dr Primble, the old gag of a nearly-blind optician with huge goggles, contact lenses, and glasses in his pocket, giving Steed a fabulous eye test that consists of having to identify a series of hats (mine wasn’t like that last week, but then I wouldn’t have been able to name them all anyway)… Derek Newark, who you may recall spent Inferno being either angry or on heat has the simpler role of playing nothing but angry… And, to confuse viewers of that particular Doctor Who period, moustache-wearing Jon Pertwee plays the Brigadier.

Should you have snapped up the DVD release of this episode before it was deleted, incidentally, even the subtitles are eccentric. Originally mastered by a French company, it had both subtitles and a soundtrack in both English and French. Confusingly, the dubbing and subtitles each used different translations; more confusingly still, the English subtitles were not a transcript of the original English dialogue, but, er, a re-translation from the French subtitles. The most striking idiosyncrasy for me was that astronomer Venus Brown had worked at “Dudrud Bank” instead of the spoken “Jodrell”. I’ve always appreciated astronomy in itself, but with my Dad working at Jodrell Bank, I made sure I told him to watch out for a stack of dead astronomers when he does the next planetarium show. But before you look at all those lovely star charts, back to the episode.

It’s all highly stylised, though not quite as colourful yet as it will be – most of the colour is in the outfits, and they’re not all good (I don’t like Mrs Peel’s pale lilac dress, nor Steed’s shiny maroon dinner jacket, though his deep grey suit is rather nice). The bizarre deaths don’t get much more bizarre than these, though; the music’s rather nice from the Holst-styled opening to the lovely new closing tag theme; someone’s killed with his own weapon; there are plenty of red herrings. They’re not drinking champagne in every episode yet, but we do see Emma sip a Pimm’s and accept a brandy from Steed (who drinks bottled beer), while the first astronomer killed has a drink to hand and Lord Mansford drinks whisky in his vault. Most importantly, there are lashings of playful wit. Particularly enjoyable scenes include Dr Primble’s eccentric eye test and way of making an appointment, and Brigadier Whitehead’s way of recording his memoirs for LP, dashing between sound effects gramophones – both Steed and Emma literally fall for his machine gun sounds. And Mrs Peel inevitably – there’s a spoiler coming; I’m getting near the end here, so watch out if you’ve read this far and not watched it yet – and Mrs Peel inevitably ends up strapped into a chair with a deadly laser pointed at her. “Excellent!” exclaims the villain. “Not from where I’m sitting,” she says, finding this mildly trying.

Ah, the villain, and the method of murder. There are three things to notice here, and the first (and apparently most obvious) is that it’s not Venusians. In the black and white Mrs Peel episodes, it might not have been that obvious, though – with robots, a man-eating alien plant and telepathic spies, this could have been a real alien at work too. But though this colour Mrs Peel season seems more ‘fantastic’ and less part of the real world, these ‘Avengerland’ episodes are in fact much more likely to boil down to a more ordinarily extraordinary explanation than the previous year’s occasional willingness to experiment with wild science fiction ideas. This is the year of hoaxes.

As you may have spotted a few lines ago, the ‘glowing white light’ that floats about is, it turns out, a laser. On a car. Well, I say a ‘laser,’ and so do they, but other than being a form of projected light (and, curiously, after we know it’s a laser it’s suddenly a cool blue beam rather than a huge round blaze), it seems to boast a remarkable array of superpowers that other lasers strangely lack. Marvel as, instead of burning, it bleaches your hair and anything you’re standing next to, as if someone has chucked a bucket of sinister white paint in your general direction; wonder as it makes everything in your vicinity get very warm, but only before the light actually shines; scratch your head as characters announce they recognise it by its uniquely distinctive sound (a clue: no). Despite the amusing eccentrics, the direction is rather flat, the story seems a bit slapdash, and I have to admit this use of technology is a bit of a sticking point. I’d much rather they did what they usually do and just made something up that doesn’t really exist; it’s much more distracting to be told something that does exist works entirely differently. Ah well. Rather bizarrely, they correctly predict that lasers will be used for eye surgery (just like Mrs Peel’s futuristic phone in her car. No, really, this was like jetpacks in the ’60s).

Hang on a minute… Eye surgery? Gasp! Then this week’s diabolical master mind was Dr Primble all along! And here’s the other thing to notice. Philip Locke is enormous fun to watch and is at the heart of the funniest scenes as well as giving us ‘demented villain’ – he gives a delightful beam as he trains his laser on Mrs Peel – but this all disguises his drearily prosaic motive. It’s the argument used too often about public spending on art, science or anything not universally popular: ‘You shouldn’t be interested in space, because we should spend all our money on schools and hospitals’. In this case, he’s been wiping out the British Venusian Society because one of their sponsors switched funding from him to them. However wildly the actor goggles to try and stop you noticing, his villainy is at heart Daily Mail-sensible. On the other hand, I may just be a bit wary of opticians wanting cash at the moment. It’s been more than a week since they took my money – not enough to fund a space programme – but my new glasses still aren’t ready…

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007


The Second 007 of ’007

It’s the 007th of the month again, and time for the next 007 James Bond films: this time, those of Roger Moore. In the last month Richard, Millennium and I have watched the DVD Special Editions of Dr. No and From Russia With Love… I’m relieved that I still agree with myself, and they look great, but the new Bond DVD menus aren’t a patch on the old ones. However, I’ve done no cheating; don’t worry, I still know nothing about music, so my reviews of the James Bond films and their songs will be just as ill-informed as before.

To remind you, as the James Bond series has an instantly recognisable musical style, I’m reviewing the music as much as the movies, with occasional glances at Channel 4’s recent countdown of the Bond songs, James Bond’s Greatest Hits, to see how much I think they got it wrong. Having done the first seven films last month, as far as Diamonds Are Forever, this time I’m looking at the middle seven of the fourteen ‘official’ movies so far, which happen to comprise all those featuring Roger Moore. The music takes a definite swerve here; the films have often got the same sort of panache, but instead of those strident, insistent John Barry scores, some of them are by other composers. Did they work? Well…

First, a little side-step. Who is the man in these movies anyway? Is he the same one as in (most of) the previous ones? Well, the first answer is ‘obviously not – he’s Roger Moore, and he looks quite different to Sean Connery. He also plays the role with a lightness of touch, an archness, that makes his character seem noticeably different’. The second answer is ‘obviously he is – he’s called James Bond, and he does pretty much the same thing for the same people. Suspend your disbelief a bit: it’s acting, so don’t expect him to be ‘real’, and don’t worry when they change the actor’. My answer is slightly different, and it’s something that Richard convinced me of years ago. The films make more sense – not ‘sense’, mind you, but more sense – if you assume that ‘James Bond’ is an adopted call signature, just like the licence number ‘Double-Oh-Seven’, a cover story to suggest there is one immortal, indestructible top agent. And some of the films seem to go out of their way to agree with that idea, while more of them try hard to say it’s always the same man (who must be in his seventies by now). And On Her Majesty’s Secret Service can’t make its mind up. That film also causes the biggest problems if you assume he’s the same character. The other Bonds just don’t seem like they’d ever want to settle down and marry; if you assume that Connery’s Bond has ‘retired’ and a new 007 been appointed, it also makes sense of Blofeld not recognising him. With that film ending with Bond broken and grief-stricken over the death of his wife, but Diamonds Are Forever seeing Bond not distressed but merely brutal, it looks to me like the second ‘Bond’ had a breakdown so the old one was brought back to brutally terminate the guy who put a ‘Bond’ out of commission.

The first Roger Moore film is Live and Let Die, and of all of them, that’s the one that most squarely suggests its makers thought ‘This is a different man taking over the job of James Bond’ (by The Spy Who Loved Me, they’ve changed their minds and are back-pedalling furiously, putting in lots of references to the ‘old’ him and dressing Roger up in naval uniform, but they start out differently). In this film, ‘Bond’ is noticeably different to the previous ‘Bond’ in many ways other than his face. He orders different drinks; has a different dress style; different mannerisms; different gun; and it appears to show Roger Moore being promoted to ‘James Bond’ at the start. No, no, hear me out. Instead of calling him into the office as on every other occasion, M simply turns up at an agent’s door with the words, “Good morning, OO7.” “Good –” – Moore does an obvious double-take – “Good morning, sir.” Richard believes he’s startled because this is the old bastard’s way of springing promotion on the man. Well, what else could it be? He’s not startled by M’s appearance (he’s noticed him as he opens the door), but by something he says. And we can take it as read that it’s morning… A couple of minutes later, M announces “By the way, congratulations seem to be in order. The Italians were most impressed by the way you handled the Rome affair.” Obviously it’s a prelude to enquiring after the missing Italian agent, but it could also be read as the success that earns his number. Notably, the Italian agent in bed with ‘James’ at no point calls him by name, and it’s only at the end of the scene that M and Moneypenny address him as “Bond” and “James”. Unlike all her appearances with Sean, Moneypenny doesn’t flirt with him, either – she’s more of a protective ‘older sister’ that’s more confident than he is (suggesting, again, that she’s been in the job a long time and he hasn’t). If you’ve seen Casino Royale, that’s Bond’s first mission, happening ‘now’ – so he can’t be the same man – but it manages to make it more complicated still. But that’s a story for next month…

Live and Let Die

One of the best-known and most-covered Bond themes, this is the only one where the title song’s by a star big enough to bring in his own composer for the main score of the film – as opposed to the other way round. Blazing skulls make the titles more memorable than usual as Paul McCartney and Wings give us a thrilling mix of rock and reggae in a discordant swirl of strings. The score is fine, too; not by John Barry, but in many ways a similarly punchy orchestral style, my only complaint is that sometimes the film could do with more of it, with several scenes suffering from little or no music. There’s a lovely bit of music that always sticks in my head from this film, a march heard as Bond meets Solitaire (and at other points) that’s part the James Bond Theme, part Live and Let Die and part a lush swagger that’s George Martin’s own.

Channel 4’s chart position was 3, and that’s pretty fair (I’d probably say 4).

The Film: Rather a good one, from the Bondless pre-titles adventure that sets up multiple murders. Roger Moore makes a different sort of Bond, with more obvious charm but also a more manipulative, cold side, and he’s nowhere near as arch as he’ll become. It’s the first film that makes a big thing of Bond’s preposterous visibility, but rather than everyone knowing who ‘James Bond’ is in the later, fourth wall-ish way, here it’s a sinister moment and racially underscored, as everyone we see in Harlem appears to be reporting to Mr Big that there’s a white secret agent going in. It’s a huge improvement on the book, too; I recently re-read it, and though I rattled through Casino Royale in a day or so, this took me a couple of months to wade through (with many other books in between). Ian Fleming’s sexism runs through the books, but the determined racism was really unpleasant, despite Mr Big being quite an interesting character and first of the huge, compelling Bond villains familiar from the movies. The film takes an entirely different approach, embracing the Blaxploitation style of the time as well as confidently mixing in other genres; Solitaire and Baron Samedi (shootings, coffin full of snakes and all) are simply magic, straight from a horror film. The villain’s impressive and, like Bond, wears an urbane mask – there are boats, alligators, heroin and real tension. The Bond women, however, are either treacherous or shyly passive. 8/10

The Man With the Golden Gun

This song from Lulu has more unsubtle innuendo than any other (beginning with “He has a powerful weapon…”) and, though it’s trashy, I have to admit it’s fun. Like many of the best songs, it’s got a nasty edge and is about the villain, too. Ask Alice Cooper, however, and you won’t hear anything good about it; he wrote his own song for the film, and one day I’ll get round to tracking it down. In the meantime, my favourite version of the song is actually an instrumental take in the style of a Western saloon that turns up a couple of times in the film. It just tickles me. The rest of the score isn’t John Barry’s best, however, with the other memorable bit the dramatic theme that sounds unfortunately like It’s Not Unusual

Channel 4’s chart position was 14, and again that’s about right (maybe 15).

The Film: After a fresh, hard-edged debut, this is a bit of a mess for Mr Moore, and instead of a confident assimilation of genres it seems so worried by the then-fashionable Kung-Fu ‘competition’ that it simply stops in the middle to do a tie-in at a karate school (the first Bond scene to cameo in a Doctor Who book, but with little else to recommend it). There’s an opening kill reminiscent of From Russia With Love, an entertaining villain and a lovely travelogue moment as Bond’s plane glides in to his island, but as for the rest… Bond’s a git in an indescribably hideous jacket – all right, I could describe it, but I’d have to look at it again – and Mary Goodnight is perhaps the most appallingly useless Bond woman of the lot. Christopher Lee is entertaining, but his ‘evil Bond’ assassin with the extra nipple appears to have no reason for doing anything he does. Why does he build a great big laser gun? What’s it for? Other than to prompt the gleefully delivered and trailer-perfect line “This is the part I really like” (as with the villain in The Ruby in the Smoke muttering, “Have I got your attention now?” some lines are just made to be used in publicity). His little French assistant Nick-Nack constantly bringing in assassins to keep him on his toes is all too like Clouseau and Kato, too. It starts the habit of Roger Moore’s quips being more memorable than his action sequences: “She’s just coming, sir” is the one everyone’ll know from this one. You may scoff, but it’s better than the film’s advertising tag, ‘The girls are willing – the pace is killing!’ 5 and a half out of 10.

The Spy Who Loved Me

Carly Simon’s Nobody Does It Better has a knowing confidence, though it doesn’t have quite the bite of a Barry song. It’s best as it lets rip towards the end (much like the slightly anaemic recent Scissor Sisters single with a much more Bondian film to its video – credits projected onto attractive male and female thighs – than its song). It’s a memorable title sequence, too, with Bond himself finally appearing in them along with naked goosestepping Russian ‘girlies’ and lots of guns. This is the Maurice Binder look (and even more sexist than it sounds. As he always was). The film’s score is a very different direction, but often rather impressive: the best bit’s the funky disco racing along with a bit of the James Bond Theme, and there’s strident music for tanker-swallowing, though without quite the majesty of Barry. Points for the bubbly, mysterious water music, too, though some of the musical puns on other famous film scores are a bit trite.

Channel 4’s chart position was 6, but it should have been about 14.

The Film: This was the first Bond film I vaguely remember seeing clips and toys for at the time; it’s that submersible car. It’s the first of them that comes across as a ‘Greatest Hits’ assortment, with a definite feel of the Sean Connery movies – it’s virtually a remake of You Only Live Twice – but also marking out the definitive tongue-in-cheek Roger Moore style. The pre-credits adventure grabs your attention as we’re introduced to new Bond regular General Gogol, the KGB chief who brings charisma and ambiguity to the series as the Cold War comes back, but more often than not with Britain and the USSR in uneasy alliance. With a nuclear submarine stolen, he calls in his top agent – who turns out not to be the sexy sub-Bond with the hairy chest, but his lover Anya Amasova, one of the strongest of all the Bond women (at least until she needs rescuing). And there’s still sexual innuendo (“something came up”), corniness (“But James, I need you!” “So does England”), a ski chase to great music and an incredible jump off a cliff with a Union Flag parachute even before the song cuts in. It’s all done with great verve, with amazingly huge sets from mad genius Ken Adam, a villain who wants to destroy humanity for nihilism (rather than the ’60s war for money) and the first appearance of metal-toothed henchman Jaws. Much of it’s great fun, and much of it’s a bit crass, but it is indeed ‘Bond – and Beyond!’ in which Moore is “Keeping the British end up”… If not keeping the creative juices flowing as fast. 7/10


Ah well, even Shirley Bassey can’t make this pleasant but rather treacly ballad memorable, and nor can the closing disco remix. The titles have fun with women bouncing a lot, though I’m not personally convinced they’re trying very hard. I might almost say the same about John Barry’s score for once, though he makes a few interesting choices and the music as they go into space is rather impressive…

Channel 4’s chart position was 20, and sadly that’s about right – perhaps as low as 22.

The Film: The last one was bigger than ever and outrageously successful; this one made even more money by getting even bigger – with exactly the same plot, which you may remember was originally from You Only Live Twice. The previous film having swapped ‘death in space’ for ‘death in the ocean’, this cleverly changes the scene to… Space! Hmm. It’s strangely dull (and occasionally nasty, especially when they kill off Bond’s early shag, who’s also probably the most appallingly sexist part in any Bond film), but the lasers were exciting when I was 8 and not allowed to see it. Yes, this is sub-standard James Bond by numbers, with added Star Wars. There’s no room for the novel’s plot (see Die Another Day for that), but we do get Jaws again, stupendously rubbish this time even on a cable car fight, a CIA woman who’d be rather forgettable if she wasn’t called Holly Goodhead, and a villain who’s essentially a tubby French Hitler. Still, while many of the people making the film seem bored and slapdash (not the ones putting up the huge 7 Up product placement boards, though, who really earn their money), the villain is amusingly languid in the style of Fleming’s accidie and naturally has all the best lines, my favourite of which remains his wish to put Bond “out of my misery.” It’s certainly better than the famous closing innuendo by bolas-purveyor Q: “I think he’s attempting re-entry.” 4/10

For Your Eyes Only

I was disappointed that James Bond’s Greatest Hits didn’t mention the most famous factoid about Sheena Easton’s song. It involves clamps, and it’ll be along in a minute. First, though, the song itself, and the song that isn’t. It’s not bad, and it opens with a certain mysterious longing tone, but it’s a little bland and sugary next to the best Bond themes. It could have been a song with a harder edge: they first approached Blondie, who turned them down when it turned out Bill Conti only wanted Deborah Harry, not the musicians, and she wasn’t going to be allowed to write the song, just pout for him. So they did their own, on album The Hunter, and it’s much better: a punchy challenge sung from a female Bond counterpart with, in Ms Harry, the most icy-cool voice in pop. Does the rest of the score make up for losing this? No. Far, far too many early ’80s porno funk guitars (though the Bond Theme survives one arrangement here, another makes even that sound cheesily unlistenable) and piping little ‘pah pahs’ instead of proper brass. Of all of the films, the music for this one has dated horribly. Close your eyes and just listen to the score, and you imagine people dancing on ice in neon-toned legwarmers. Open them, and discover to your horror that it’s not far from the truth. All right, there are some swirling strings when Melina shoots someone with her crossbow and more nice strings with a sinister bubbling fade after the ‘Countess’ dies. But, on the whole, I’d prefer the film entirely re-scored by John Barry, and I’d love to hear what he could add to the Blondie song, too. Oh, and the clamps? For the first time, the singer appeared in the main titles, Maurice Binder having taken a fancy to Sheena Easton. But, as her lips were to be in a fifty-foot close-up on cinema screens, the famous tacky titles obsessive made one small demand. She could only do it if he could fix her entire head in giant clamps to stop her moving a millimetre. And she did! She looks terrific in the clamps, but I’m afraid I still find myself thinking “But she hasn’t got Deborah Harry’s beautiful cheekbones. Or voice. Or song.”

Channel 4’s chart position was 5, but I’d push it down to about 19. It’s still all right

The Film: I can’t help thinking that, while the music saves many of the weaker Bonds, here it may drag this one down. So does my first impression of it. This was the first Bond I was allowed to see at the cinema, and while now I appreciate the decision to pull back from the excesses of Moonraker, when I was 10 the lack of lasers was a cruel disappointment. That’s a shame, as much of it is rather good in a low-key way and Roger Moore is much better understated than flash. They don’t seem to trust the serious tone to bring in the money, though, so they push in bits of slapstick that simply don’t work with the rest of the film. With Bond’s impressively ruthless moments and the thoughtful spy thriller elements, I suspect it really wants to be From Russia With Love, but it’s hamstrung by a lack of verve and of nerve, edging away from its darker places with silly moments instead. There’s a feint between two potential villains that partially works; Topol’s exuberant character comes over rather better than the usually magnificent but necessarily underplayed Julian Glover, while the end, as Bond is met with a smile from General Gogol, is rather interesting. Along the way there are three unusual Bond women (a slightly older but well-characterised one, one too young for Bond and the independent but slightly off-key Melina), only two really memorable sequences and, in place of M, James Villiers’ sound Chief of Staff and the same irritating minister as in the last couple of movies – who appears to have defected to Mrs Thatcher’s government. Oh, dear, Mrs Thatcher. The film’s last scene features a parrot saying rude things to a Margaret Thatcher impersonator, and it’s shoddy beyond belief. Then there are those memorable sequences, but not memorable in a good way: a ludicrous ‘comedy’ car ‘security device’ that blows it up when anyone touches it, and the only pre-titles sequence that simply makes me cringe. A sober, introspective moment at Bond’s wife’s grave is thrown away in a remote-controlled helicopter stunt, at the end of which Blofeld – lost in a legal battle with Kevin McClory – offers Bond a delicatessen “in stainless steel” and is dropped down a chimney. Hilariously. No, I’m wrong! So, the biggest problem for a relatively thoughtful film remains that most of the bits that take the mickey are so crassly ill-judged they jar horribly. “Bless me, father, for I have sinned.” “That’s putting it mildly, 007,” still makes me smile, though. 6/10, grudgingly.


Rita Coolidge sings Tim Rice’s All Time High, having been let off having to work the word ‘Octopussy’ into a song (but just swapping one hostage-to-fortune title for another, I fear). It lacks the venom of a great Bond tune, but she’s got a good strong voice and the strings are rather pretty, while the title sequence has fun with laser projections of a Bond silhouette turning into 007 then an octopus, inevitably crawling across semi-clad women (plus an amusing Bond held by multiple arms and some lacklustre dancing). As for the rest of the score, though… With a competing ‘Bond film’ that year, John Barry is back to do the score, and it’s terrific. Particularly the forbidding strings for the sinister twin assassins near the Berlin Wall, the rousing mix of Bondian and exotic for the balloon-led attack near the end, and of course the bomb. There’s a lot of deep percussion here… Swirling with percussive beats, and a deep, sinister circling beat underneath, repeating in steadily higher pitches. It starts off deceptively softly, but hinting at powerful strings (which do come in) – all the more effective for saying ‘something big is in reserve’ while Bond is trying to disarm a live nuke.

Channel 4’s chart position was 22, which is roughly right; it’s not bad, but I doubt I’d put it higher than 20.

The Film: Most reviews I’ve seen slate this movie, so I’ll come straight out and say that it’s my favourite of Roger Moore’s, and you’ll not be surprised that I think that magnificent score has a fair bit to do with it. The other main argument in its favour is the villain, or rather the villains – there are three key antagonists here, each memorable and with their own agendas, though loosely allied. Octopussy herself and her circus of beautiful, martial arts-expert women (naturally – I always think of their attack at the end in a friend’s words as ‘Revenge of the Bond Girls’) are smugglers and intriguingly amoral; when she’s eventually persuaded to switch sides, it’s convincing, and down to quite a lot more than the redemptive power of a Bond shag (being left sitting on a nuclear bomb rather puts her off her allies, as it would). Deposed prince Kamal Khan, played by ultra-smooth Louis Jourdan, is more a standard urbane-but-deadly Bond villain but very nicely played, looking for money, power and the main chance and tossing out bon mots to Bond: “You have a nasty habit of surviving.” Despite their charms, the best of the leading villains is Steven Berkoff’s General Orlov, a Cold War hawk fed up at the Kremlin’s moves towards détente who devises a dastardly plan to lay the West open to invasion, all the while chewing the scenery as only a Bond film could allow. He twitches and rants his way through the film in supremely watchable fashion, and when I’m (frequently) rushing for a train that I’m just too late for, I always have General Orlov shouting in my head, “I must get to that train!” as he does before being gunned down in front of General Gogol. Our familiar KGB (or is he GRU?) man gets his finest moments here, investigating Orlov’s theft of Imperial goodies then arriving by helicopter to sneer authoritatively at his dying opponent – though Orlov’s fanatical last line still steals the scene. It’s a good movie for henchpeople, too: I’ve mentioned Octopussy’s high-kicking circus, while Khan has strong-arm man Gobinda, not perhaps the most memorable of Bond heavies but with a great moment of disbelief when told to fight Bond outside a plane in flight. My favourites, however, are introduced in a thrilling sequence just as the titles fade: it’s East Germany, and a clown – in truth, 009 – is running through the woods, only to run into knife-throwing twin assassins, to fantastic music. Mortally wounded, he staggers through the window of the British Ambassador, his outstretched hand (still with a balloon hovering above it) releasing a Fabergé Egg that rolls towards His horrified Excellency. The scene always makes the hairs rise at the back of my neck, and it’s like an Avengers episode wandering into John le Carré.

In all my gushing about the good bits, I realise I’ve not yet mentioned James Bond himself. Well, as it happens, Roger Moore’s pretty good here too – most of the time. Ironically, one of the most tense, gripping pieces of acting he ever does is dressed as a clown, as he tries to disarm the bomb at the heart of the plot. On the other hand, he has a dreadful scene smarming over new MI6 secretary Miss ‘Smallbone’ and putting down a frumpy Moneypenny; it’s not a good movie for the MI6 lot, with Robert Brown making rather a forgettable M, and that tedious but mysteriously defecting minister back again. At least Q gets to fly a ludicrously entertaining Union Flag balloon, and he’s far from the silliest thing in it, as anyone who’s seen the ‘crocodile’ will testify. I’ve not even mentioned the pre-titles adventure involving a false moustache, a big explosion and a death-defying stunt in a mini-jet in Cuba an unnamed Latin American dictatorship, which is great fun but has nothing to do with the rest of the plot. Like the circus that provides much of the backdrop, if you don’t like one act, another will be along in a minute to make you wide-eyed. London! India! Berlin! The Kremlin! Elephants! Nuclear bombs! Hideously rubbish ‘comedy’ bits! Yet it all looks and sounds so good that it all comes together through sheer verve, rather than trying for a serious tone that’s undermined by intermittent jarring slapstick (the previous movie). In the week after the first official Bond premiere in China, I’m sure I’ve read that this one did particularly well in Russia: was it because it suggested Mr Brezhnev was an authoritative figure who was firmly in command and committed to peace, rather than a plodding old dictator who’d only stopped warmongering because he was being trundled to state events in his chiller-coffin by then? 8/10, astoundingly.

‘Never Say Never Again’

To kick off this ‘unofficial’ Bond movie, the song rushes over the opening sequence, as if trying to save money by combining the mini-adventure and the titles. I don’t mind the melody for the verses, as it carries a certain urgency that seems to be building up to something, but unfortunately there’s no pay-off; the chorus just subsides into the limpest, least exciting disco you can imagine. Channel 4’s chart position was 19, but it’s just so feeble that I’d suggest 24. The film itself necessarily lacks the vital ingredient that is the James Bond Theme (used to terrific effect in the competing Octopussy), and is far too fond of using ‘comedy music’ in the score, which I never find endearing, and the whole thing is – not bad, exactly, but curiously lacklustre. Produced by Kevin McClory, temporary victor of the legal wrangles over Thunderball, this has another go at that story and still doesn’t entirely make it work. Sean Connery isn’t bad (with the side-effect of making Roj look youthful) and has some good exchanges with his MI6 chums – told he’s eating too much red meat, white bread and dry Martinis, he offers to cut down on the white bread – but Kim Basinger isn’t nearly as exciting as she’ll become later in her career, Rowan Atkinson’s comedy bumbler is distracting rather than entertaining and Max Von Sydow’s Blofeld just looks bored. On the bright side, Barbara Carrera’s outrageous Fatima Blush is like Shirley Bassey as a villain, and it gets her a year’s gig on Dallas. Apparently it made rather less money than Octopussy, and I’m not surprised; I don’t know how much it cost, but it looks much cheaper. Perhaps most of the cash went on lawyers. Poor Mr Connery – he didn’t learn his lesson on not bowing out after You Only Live Twice. With Diamonds Are Forever already resembling a TV movie, if you polled most people on the street with ‘Did Sean Connery do a James Bond TV movie in the ’80s?’ the vast majority would say ‘Oh yeah, that Never Again thing,’ rather than remembering that in fact it limped onto cinema screens. 5 and a half out of 10, if it’s lucky.

A View to a Kill

Duran Duran work with John Barry on the big hit title song, and the co-operation aids both. It’s great fun, and provides a strong melodic hook that recurs throughout the film score, even turning into rather a beautiful love theme. It’s another good score throughout, right from the opening ski chase music, with rolling strings, Bondian brass and a hint of electric guitar (though you could give the California Girls moment a miss). There’s a gorgeous sweeping theme for Zorin’s airship, too – not only are airships cool, but you can’t beat Barry for music that says ‘what a magnificent vista’. The visuals don’t entirely measure up, though; before I get onto the movie, the title sequence features hilariously bad neon makeup and lasers, while the Duran Duran video famously has the Eiffel Tower, animated cameras and hamming from the band. I have a video for it cut together from Doctor Who clips that a chap did some years ago, and it’s much more fun…

Channel 4’s chart position was 10, and that’s about right – maybe 11.

The Film: Roger Moore’s last James Bond film, and it’s one too many, I’m afraid. It’s nowhere near as strong a story or as stylish a production as the last one, and Roger Moore at last looks simply too old for the part he’s playing. Dashing up the Eiffel Tower, mainly played by a stunt man, Mr Moore is clearly out of breath after taking just a few steps and turning in close-up. Still, Grace Jones looks terrific diving off the Tower and generally doing an impressive acting job as a psychotic, though Christopher Walken’s Max Zorin is curiously subdued (at least by his standards). It’s not that they don’t try with his villainous background: he’s a ‘mad Nazi superman’ working for the Communist Bloc turned arch-yuppie free-marketeer, so they covered all their bases. His plot’s essentially a trashy Goldfinger update in Silicon Valley, though, and you have to wince at his mentor, the bumbling comedy Nazi geneticist. No, no, no. On the bright side, Bond spends much of the movie bantering with accompanying expert Tibbett, played by The Avengers’ Patrick Macnee (with his having done The Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E. at about the same time, he’d finally managed to collect the set of the most famous spy series in the world). His death is quite affecting, which is unusual in a movie that also features a comedy Frenchman called ‘Aubergine’ and, in ‘Stacey’, arguably the wettest Bond woman in the series. Well, aside from Mary Goodnight. Then there’s a Russian agent called Pola Ivanova – which for a while in my teens seemed like what they were all called – an iceberg submarine with a Union Flag hatch, and such contrived gadgets as a terribly convenient cheque-detector and a cheeky little robot to peek at the ‘sexy’ closing scene. Not Roger Moore’s finest moment… 5/10

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