Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 1990 Brilliant?

It’s the end of an era. With every year’s-worth of these nuggets I’ve aimed to say only positive things, but this year makes that difficult to manage: the BBC have cancelled the series and, though they aren’t admitting it, we know. In the books, Target are approaching their final novelisations too, but this year’s are not only of superb quality but, against all hope, herald something new. Survival is crisply written and evocative; Ghost Light intense and densely packed with detail; and in…

Doctor Who – Remembrance of the Daleks
“For one vertiginous moment the Dalek Supreme wanted to skip.”
Like one of the first Targets, this one of the last novelises an all-out action story and effortlessly beats it. Ben Aaronovitch’s stunning novel goes at a relentless pace (like its supercharged Daleks), but there’s still room for compelling emotion and extracts from never-written books.

If there’s one second-hand Doctor Who novelisation to trace, it’s probably this one. Let’s hope the New Year brings a CD talking book of this, too. The DVD of the TV story is probably best-bought in the comprehensive Davros box set, where it boasts many impressive extras (and special effects) not seen on the original release.

It’s 11.59pm on the last day of the ‘real’ year, and that, of course, means that I’ve posted this through the magic of cheating several hours ago. With luck, Richard and I will now be in Cambridge, though probably not this time watching The Curse of Fenric. You never know, though. But if you think 1989-90’s end of an era means the end of Doctor Who

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Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 1989 Brilliant?

Doctor Who’s last year on TV for a while is among the best, with a dark and complex feel, female empowerment and echoes of magic… In books we get The Nightmare Fair, on stage it’s The Ultimate Adventure, and what’s on screen is jaw-dropping. The Brigadier gets a final stand-off against a demon; Ghost Light’s evolutionary parable has great ideas, dialogue and characters; Survival is both domestic and otherwordly, and offers the perfect epitaph; and vampirism is reinvented in…

The Curse of Fenric
“Objects can’t harm us – it’s human belief. And you stopped believing when the bombs started falling.”
“I’m not frightened of German bombs.”
“Not German bombs… British.”
“On German cities. British bombs killing German children.”
Horror, war and politics mingle with influences from Norse mythology through Alan Turing to John Carpenter in a brilliant story so fizzing with ideas that it’s been a huge influence on Doctor Who ever since. The lead characters, performances and emotional grounding are superb, too.

This has one of the best DVD releases, not just crammed with the pristine original broadcast adventure, documentaries and other extras but featuring a second disc with a complete new movie-length cut of the story that in many ways is the definitive version. Or there’s the episodic special edition that makes this the story most worth tracking down the VHS for. And one day, I’ll learn how to override copy protection and do my own edit from the feature-length version, with the cliffhangers I want (and to make Richard’s favourite story just right for him). If you find the book, of course, that has whole new bits again…

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Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 1988 Brilliant?

The Doctor’s taking on mighty enemies: Remembrance of the Daleks is brilliantly made and intelligently scripted, from the pre-titles to the flying Daleks; The Greatest Show in the Galaxy mixes scary clowns and ancient powers; both have alarmingly large explosions. In shops, Doctor Who videos start affordable releases. And one night, the Doctor just turns up and topples an empire…

The Happiness Patrol
“Why don’t you do it, then? Look me in the eye? Pull the trigger – end my life?”
“Why not?”
“I can’t.”
“Why not?”
“I don’t know.”
“No, you don’t, do you… Throw away your gun.”
An impeccably liberal parable in which state-dictated happiness is no happiness at all – the dictator may seem like Mrs Thatcher, but her policies are sheer New Labour. Plus, her executioner’s a giant killer sweet, and there’s a wonderful moment with a foot and an umbrella.

There’s no DVD as yet (sometime in the next four years), but a second-hand search can track down the novelisation and the VHS.

You might also like to read Will’s The Sound of Empires Toppling on the many different targets of the satire here.

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Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 1987 Brilliant?

Sylvester McCoy is the Doctor in a series that’s brightly coloured and inspired by comics and modern life. Dragonfire brings streetwise new companion Ace and a host of film references (from zombies to noirish love and betrayal, and a villain’s horrible death from Indiana Jones), but I particularly love…

Paradise Towers
“Are these old ladies annoying you?”
“Are you annoying these old ladies?”
“No, she isn’t! …And I do wish you wouldn’t keep breaking down our door to ‘save’ us.”
“That’s the third time we’ve had it repaired, and it’s not as if we’ve ever been in any trouble!”
A scintillating script and grimy sets make good, old-fashioned Doctor Who inventive again – no longer in a stylised English village, but a stylised tower block. Bureaucracy gone mad, urban gang warfare, cannibal Mary Whitehouse types who’ll do anything to maintain their lifestyle… It’s a scream!

This one’s not out on DVD yet, so it’s worth tracking down the novelisation or the VHS… Rather disconcertingly, I once met the author through his ex, who was my ex’s disturbing landlord (‘with hilarious results’).

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 1986 Brilliant?

In theory there’s just one mammoth TV story (and another on radio) this year, though breaking into four mini-stories to kick down the fourth wall and put the Doctor on trial. Colin’s terrific, more mellow then more passionate than ever against the also terrific Michael Jayston, an evil, er, spoiler (go on, guess). The penultimate episode brings Colin’s greatest speech, amazing revelations and head-spinning weirdness, but the most memorable moment comes in…

The Trial of A Time Lord: The Mysterious Planet
“Planets come and go… Stars perish; matter disperses, coalesces, forms into other patterns. Other worlds. Nothing can be eternal.”
The stunning opening shot’s still one of the series’ best special effects, the score’s fantastic, a murderous mercenary’s like a seedy, greedy alternative Doctor – and the Doctor himself learns not to talk down to robots: they may be having an existential crisis and take umbrage.
“Hear how the Doctor condemns himself with his own words.”
[Update: Yes, after considering it below, that’s a little something appropriate from Michael Jayston’s character, too.]

The Trial of a Time Lord was released as one story in a VHS tin box titled, in some shops, “Trial of a Time Tin”; you might also track down The Mysterious Planet as one of four individual books. The best option, though, is as usual to buy the DVD, an extras-packed release of the whole Trial, with one mini-story to each disc (though there’s no isolated music, which is a rare let-down).

You might also like to read Millennium’s Mysteries of Doctor Who #1: Just What Is so Mysterious about Ravolox?

2011 Update: And now I have a full-scale review of Doctor Who – The Trial of a Time Lord: The Mysterious Planet on DVD.

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Monday, December 29, 2008


Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 1985 Brilliant?

More monsters, still more vivid villains and rich themes: cannibalism, transformation and television feasting on itself. Vengeance on Varos anticipates reality TV with an irresistible new villain; Colin Baker’s passionate Doctor is interested in everything, soaring when paired with Patrick Troughton against a chef fancying best end of Jamie in The Two Doctors (also, with The Myth Makers, an outstanding novelisation). In the comics, the Doctor’s having more hallucinatory adventures with an occasional penguin. And the postmodernism hits a stylish climax in…

Revelation of the Daleks
“Bring that woman to me. And while you are there, destroy that prattling DJ!”
Hobbies at the funeral parlour: sex, bitching, voyeurism and building armies of whited sepulchre Daleks. Hugely influential, this blazes with pitch-black humour, pop culture and the utter horror of ‘immortality’. Of many fabulous guest stars, Davros’ cackling and tempting steals the show (and your relatives).

Though this was one of the very few Twentieth Century Who TV stories never novelised, it’s been released twice on VHS and twice on DVD (complete with extras like documentaries and new effects), each second time in a Davros box set. The DVD Davros box set’s particularly worth buying, as it includes a mass of audio stories too, and several places are selling it for half price or less right now… Audio Who giant Big Finish is the best bargain as I write, offering it at £40 instead of £100.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008


Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 1984 Brilliant?

Monsters are back in a big way – old ones like Silurians and Daleks, new ones burrowing under the earth in Frontios, some as big as (actually, rather bigger than) your head in The Awakening, while in print there’s a renaissance starting for the Target books, too. Vivid style and colour collide in a more dangerous Universe, which does nice Doctor Peter a power of good: he steadily gains more edge, eventually getting mad as hell and exploding into Colin Baker in…

The Caves of Androzani
“Your sense of humour will be the death of you, Doctor. Probably quite soon.”
Peter’s best story unites ‘arthouse’ and ‘macho’, with a terrific script, dazzling direction, rattlesnake-eerie music and compelling actors. A cynical desert war, noirishly twisted love and graveyard humour meet for a revenge drama where everyone’s destroyed in a chain reaction from picking on an innocent.

You can read the book, but it’s such an extraordinary visual and aural experience that you should get hold of the old VHS or, better, buy the DVD, complete with an isolated score that it’s a pleasure to chill out to. The director’s so good he’s doing the new Doctor Who stories these days, too.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008


Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 1983 Brilliant?

There’s a party (with added hangover) mood this year for Doctor Who’s twentieth anniversary, the celebrations finishing up in a big get-together with five Doctors where everyone’s slightly the worse for wear (incidentally, a happy Christmas to all of you at home!). Stories of old glories turned sour carry echoes of vampirism and the Flying Dutchman: the melancholic Mawdryn Undead; the captivating Enlightenment, which mixes ships, space and soulless wanderers’ cocktail parties before climaxing in a festival that’s not quite what the participants want or expect, much like…

“He calls himself ‘the Doctor’, though personally I rather doubt it.”
A busy world looks forward to its biggest festival, but some party poopers claim everyone’s forgotten its true meaning. It’s true, but no-one’s happy when they find out what it is. Snakemas treats include future sit-com stars, memorably scary images and the Demonic Antiques Roadshow.

And, of course, at 6pm tonight there’s another festive multi-Doctor story. Or is it?

See if you can track down the VHS, or perhaps the book; it’s not out on DVD yet, but I’m betting that, when it’s eventually released, it’ll be in a double-pack with Kinda, the story introducing the evil Mara from the inside that we meet again here.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 1982 Brilliant?

Peter Davison’s time as the Doctor begins with a vibrant mix of stories and ideas, set to rather beautiful music. There’s a return to adventures in history with Black Orchid and The Visitation, and the divide between this vulnerable Doctor’s main themes opens up with arthouse stories like Castrovalva and Kinda, each exploring reality, identity and the dark places of the inside, versus macho stories like gripping Cyberman near-movie Earthshock. And in Doctor Who Monthly

The Tides of Time
“The scanners indicate a large, hollow plastic object… No means of propulsion… No mechanism whatsoever… In short…
“A giant toy duck!”
Steve Parkhouse and Dave Gibbons create rich worlds that journey from village greens through demonic maelstroms and magnificent Gallifreyan four-dimensional vistas to galactic wars. Mind-expanding, surreal and moving, this remains DWM’s greatest work, influencing many later Doctor Who strips and series writers like Paul Cornell.

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Originally printed in issues 61-67 of Doctor Who Monthly – which later became the Doctor Who Magazine that still continues today – this was reprinted in US comics, but the best way to read it now is the beautifully cleaned up 2005 Panini graphic novel collecting the complete strips of Peter Davison’s time, naturally titled The Tides of Time.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Four Christmas Books: Doctor Who Annual and Storybook, Beedle and a Tangerine In Your Stocking

It’s two days ’til Christmas and you’re in a panic over those presents you’ve not yet bought. So, in a last-minute attempt to help, I’ve been reading four thrilling books for this festive season: The Doctor Who Storybook 2009; Doctor Who – The Official Annual 2009; J.K. Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard; and The Tangerine Book, The Lib Dem Voice 2008 Annual (some mistake, surely). All of them are worth a read, though the least impressive is “The Official Doctor Who Annual”, which will neither take long nor be very satisfying. And all the others lack puzzle pages.

Doctor Who – The Official Annual 2009 and…

When I was a boy, The Doctor Who Annual was a regular Christmas fixture. I loved them, though they tended to be a bit bonkers and have very little to do with the TV series, either in the bizarre, abbreviated stories or in the pictures, which varied wildly in quality but usually had in common that they’d paid only for the Doctor’s image and so the other series regulars would look nothing like the way they were meant to. These days the rights of the old ones have reverted to the BBC, so they’ve started including them in pdf form on some of the DVDs: you can find The Dr Who Annual 1977 on The Hand of Fear, and I recently re-read it as a control sample to this year’s two competing new Annuals. It was the first I was ever given as a child, and while the stories are, I have to face it, terrible, the brilliantly surreal artwork still grabs me, especially on the dark, intense, absurd comic strips. But the fascination doesn’t just come in goggling at the art or wondering how the writers got paid, but in puzzling out the brainteasers – old Annuals tended to have off-the-shelf but incomprehensible things with matches that you were either really proud of finally working out or looked at the answers and tried it on other people to make sure they couldn’t get it either, though this one’s less copyable optical illusions – and reading the masses of educational articles about then-modern-day rocketry and the occasional feature on Greek mythology. Thinking Doctor Who was a mix of outer space and ancient myths seemed a slightly odd mix at the time, but it managed to anticipate the approach taken on screen by script editor Anthony Read by about a year…

So how do this year’s Annuals match up? And why are there two of them? Well, the Annual made a comeback in 2005 with the return of the TV series, with that summer seeing publication of The Doctor Who Annual 2006 from Panini, publishers of Doctor Who Magazine. It was fun and much in the style of the old Annuals, with thrilling adventures in time and space both in comic strip and text form joined by puzzles and informative features (including an outrageously fannish extrapolation of the canon from one Russell T Davies), though – unlike the way they used to work – this one had lots of pictures from the proper series and was largely accurate, which was forgivable if not quite in the spirit of the thing. This clearly sold so well that the following year the BBC decided to produce the Annual themselves, while raking in more cash by still licensing Panini to produce their Annual-format Storybook. I remain prejudiced against the BBC’s in-house Annuals for splashing the word “Official” about, as if Panini’s was some unofficial knock-off instead of something from which the BBC were getting a great deal of money. Reading the two for 2009, just as in 2008 and 2007, the BBC version will remain the season’s top seller, but it’s not a patch on the one put together with more thought and effort.

Take a glance at The Official Annual. Pictures of the Doctor and the Red Christmas Dalek slapped on it in shiny silver and pink – it looks more like the wrapping paper than a present. You immediately notice that there’s far more from the TV series than there was in 1977: it looks almost like an official publicity pack, full of photos and summaries of the stories. But there’s far less in the way of imagination, with a comparatively tiny amount of artwork and much larger type. I miss the factual features shoehorned in with little relevance to the TV series, though I suspect most kids won’t, and it really could do with a more challenging brainteaser than a maze with bees seeded through it to show you the way. So, my initial feeling was that it was talking down to kids to a far greater extent than the old Annuals.

Being an assiduous reviewer, though, I settled down to read it properly rather than just flick through and sniff at it, and I have to admit it drew me in. This year’s Annual has upped the fiction content rather than just the publicity pack-style slapdashery, and it’s all the better for it. There are even a couple of text stories, with Most Beautiful Music quite sober and reflective, and very Whoish. I can’t say I care for the artwork on them – and very simplified style that I can just about put up with on the comic strips – but at least there is some. The three comic strips, too, are all rather fun, and this year I’ve not read Doctor Who Adventures comic frequently enough to tell if they’re reprints again, so I’ll charitably assume not. The artwork style rather works for The Time Sickness, becoming stylised rather than merely simple, while Death Disco has an entertaining script and a great solution from Donna. The Greatest Mall in the Universe, though… Well, aside from being the weakest story, there used to be a time-honoured Doctor Who traditional of the ‘doubles’ story, in which the Doctor or his companion would land somewhere and either just bump into someone who looked exactly like them or their evil enemies would build a killer identical robot. And, of course, there would frequently be hilarious shots of the actor and their stunt double together as two versions that no-one on screen could tell apart but which viewers could see looked nothing like each other. Nowadays there are just biological metacrisises, which frankly do nothing for me, and parallel-Earth Mickeys, which are a bit too sensible for a good old-fashioned bonkers ‘doubles’ story, and each used far better camera trickery and CGI face-replacement to ensure no embarrassing ‘identical’ characters that are far taller or shorter, have completely different wigs or, on rare occasions, turn blatantly different faces full-on to camera. The only thing that made up for the lack of fun was that both actors got their shirts off, really. But, though if you want to see Catherine Tate topless you’ll have to go to the West End, The Official Annual 2009 has, at last, a return to the utterly bonkers and random ‘doubles’ story and, as a special bonus, though the two ‘Donnas’ look like each other, the artist’s exceptionally bland, waiflike, apparently teenage depiction of the character has the satisfying crapness that neither double looks anything like Donna.

Though the games and puzzles are exceptionally unchallenging – the blank page encouraging you to draw a picture of yourself with a sonic screwdriver is breathtaking – I very much enjoyed the six-page mini-Sarah Jane Adventures Annual nestling within, and the tips on making an Ood T-shirt were tempting. Some of the fact file bits are quite jolly, as are the old Doctor Who Weekly-inspired Know Your Enemy pages (the Adipose is so cute… Same with the Partners In Crime ‘poster’ page) and, particularly, the Intergalactic Guide To Planets and Places, which is at times slyly amusing if you know the stories. If you don’t know the stories, there are in-depth descriptions of what happened in about half of this year’s TV adventures, with the last three interlinked episodes slightly confusingly given backwards. The feature that made me laugh aloud and get Richard to play a guessing game, though, was the Alien A-Z, which has a number of characters that aren’t actually aliens, and is forced to use some unexpected letters (you wouldn’t expect to find the Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrojassic Maxarodenfoe under E for “Editor-in-Chief”) and then in the second half of the alphabet dive into the original series for inspiration. Any A-Z for kids today that omits Cybermen and includes Quarks gets my vote, even if Mr Bowdler wrote the entry on the Ood. So, not bad, but something lacking: for undemanding children.

The Doctor Who Storybook 2009

The Doctor Who Storybook 2009 has had far more care and creativity poured into it, and is all new material, though I feel the absence of articles on extinct pantheons, speculation on the future of airships and suggestions on what to do with matches all the more keenly for how enjoyable the rest of it is. Rather than variety of content, it boasts variety of contributors, with seven text stories and one comic strip, each written by a different author and each lavishly illustrated by a different artist – yes, there’s only one ordinary photo in the whole thing. Although slightly slimmer than the Annual, this has far more in it, too, with a much smaller type size that’s actually much easier to read than the Annual’s: not only is the text broken up by huge illustrations, but it’s in two columns, which is far easier on the eye than one big splodge.

After a rather fine cover painting of the Doctor and, er, a Donna with glowing teeth, you’ll see a flippant ‘letter from the Doctor’ in the style of the old Doctor Who Weekly, with new lead writer Steven Moffat appropriately taking over from Russell T Davies. You’ll be astounded to know that, in an innovative turn from his usual writing style, it’s all disjointed timey-wimey self-referentialism, but quite amusing. Similarly, Paul Magrs’ Hello, Children, Everywhere strikes out in the bold new direction of pastiching others’ fiction (this time the hot new up-to-the-minute targets of Enid Blyton and Walt Disney) – points added for Aunty Winnie’s appearance, but docked for the saccharine ending. I rather enjoyed both the James Moran’s story Grand Theft Planet! and the artwork by Daryl Joyce, which perfectly captures a grinning David Tennant. Mark Gatiss’ Cold interweaves The Ice Warriors and The War of the Worlds, with very striking art from Ben Willsher that repays several looks. Jonathan Morris’ comic strip The Immortal Emperor is all right rather than his best, but I enjoyed the art; Rob Davis clearly grew up admiring Ian Gibson’s work on 2000AD, and I liked the Count Scarlioni-esque prefiguring of the monster through his dress.

Possibly the best of the tales is Bing Bong, from the familiar pens of Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman (who also edits the Storybook), with crossovers to Sarah Jane and a central conceit that will have fuming commuters nodding in agreement. Daniel McDaid’s scrappy illustrations aren’t technically the best, but he has great energy, particularly for a great moment at the TARDIS console. The appropriately-named Keith Temple warmed me immensely with the old-Annual-feel Island of the Sirens, in which the Doctor (“Skinnyman”) and Donna (“Red”) mix and indeed flirt with Greek heroes, accompanied by strikingly stylised art from Adrian Salmon, probably the most gorgeous use of colour in the book. Nicholas Pegg’s story proves that inside a Dalek is an old softy, though (despite the book’s least interesting pictures) as it features a boy called Alex who loves history, I have a soft spot for it too. Finally, there’s Gary Russell’s The Puplet, another endearing story of children but with a deft mix of fairy-tale innocence, real world worries and humour (the sweepstake made me smile), illustrated by Andy Walker’s rather fine David Tennants. A collection to recommend, then – none of the stories quite made me go “Wow!” but, beautifully crafted, I really felt I’d got my money’s worth.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard

The smallest of today’s books, and the only one that’s no sort of annual, is J.K. Rowling’s book of Harry Potter-world fairy tales, The Tales of Beedle the Bard. Though it’s pocket-sized, I suspect it’s had a massive weight of expectations put upon it. I’m sure many will be disappointed that this isn’t another brick of the adventures of Harry and friends, nor even vignettes from their lives (notwithstanding text notes from Albus Dumbledore). I’m not disappointed at all – I’ve always loved fairy stories, and these match up rather well, despite one of them putting a Bruce Springsteen song in my head. My bookshelves have several books of fairy tales I loved when a child or an adult or both: Irish ones; Arthur Rackham ones; Aesop’s Fables; gay ones; Grimm ones… Anything but Hans Very Much Too Christian Anderson, and I get the feeling Ms Rowling has similar tastes. And, of course, some of it goes to charity.

This little book has endearingly hand-inked illustrations and features five stories, all Fifteenth-Century tales from a world where magic is real, with an introduction setting out just what sort of differences that would made to the tales themselves from our own fairy stories. One, The Tale of the Three Brothers, will be familiar to readers of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (and, to an extent, Chaucer), so I’m not sure I’d have placed it as the finale; the others, though, manage an air of familiarity that makes them fit in with older fairy tales (and, in one case, conjure up a feeling of The Wizard of Oz, with its message that the point of the quest is the quest).

The opening story, The Wizard and the Hopping Pot, probably isn’t the best of them on its own, but captures most deftly the feel not only of a fairy tale that you’ve read before in the distant past, but of one from the non-Muggle world. It also boasts the most enjoyable of Dumbledore’s notes (I always hear Mr Stephen Fry reading them), ranging in thoroughly postmodern fashion across how people change fairy tales to make them more socially conservative or simply Bowdlerise them to the point where they become nauseating. It also boasts one of the book’s two most memorable images, the Hopping Pot itself, and I enjoyed the slipper. Despite all that, there’s something about it that didn’t entirely endear itself to me – perhaps because the moral of social responsibility comes at the price of an overprescriptive father-figure who’s something of a git. Gosh, you don’t think the author gives money to Gordon Brown, do you?

The Fountain of Fair Fortune is probably the most predictable of the stories, but might well be one of the most popular; with its team of four friends, witch and Muggle, all helping each other out on a miniature quest, it’s the one that most resembles the shape of a Harry Potter book (if about 2 kilos lighter). Babbitty Rabbitty and her Cackling Stump wins the prize for strongly resembling a particularly famous fairy tale (one of the much better ones from an author that doesn’t do a lot for me), and for having the name most likely to have been coined by Monty Python. The Tale of the Three Brothers is also familiar from many sources, not least Harry Potter itself, but is nonetheless satisfying – it has the dark feel of several people coming to grief before good wins out over greed and glory. My favourite, though, has to be The Warlock’s Hairy Heart, which goes into definite Grimm territory and uses a variation on one of my favourite creepy magical elements, used in many mythologies and fantasy books and being in a different form a key part of the later Harry Potter books, too. I’m trying not to spoil this, but adults will find an irresistible message from both the text and the illustration that if you try to deny your heart, you’ll only be governed by your testicles.

Posted by Picasa The lovely Alex Foster reads…

The Tangerine Book – The Lib Dem Voice 2008 Annual

For the last of today’s books, I should declare that I know several of the authors rather well, and indeed that I have a tiny snippet in there myself. It’s an anthology of the best articles published on the collaborative website Liberal Democrat Voice throughout 2008 – well, technically from December 2007 to November 2008. If you read the site, you’ll have seen approximately 723 plugs for it already this month, but don’t let that put you off.

I’m glad, however, that it’s not been called an anthology, or an almanac, or any such improving title. “Annual” sounds much more fun, and in places it’s definitely fun to read, though if you give it to your kids to read as a reward for delivering their thousandth festive FOCUS leaflet they may feel very slightly disgruntled. A bar chart, a ripped-off Bird of Liberty (set in slightly the wrong place) and a – sorry, Will – rather inadequate drawing of a bus are no substitute for the Policy Unit Puzzle Pages, Join-The-Dots Lembit Öpik, Lynne Featherstone’s Cryptic Crossword, Colour-Me-In Nick Clegg pin-up and Make Your Own Vince Cable that I hope to see in next year’s edition. To say nothing of it being paperback and only half the size of any self-respecting annual, despite having the highest page count of today’s recommendations, and – most damningly – not having got the idea of an annual, which is that it should have next year’s date on it so as not to sound out of date a week after it’s been given as a present. The two Doctor Who Annuals above, published in the Summer, full of exciting stories with poor Donna, who’s shockingly now had her brain fried and won’t be travelling with the Doctor next year? “2009,” both of them.

Still, despite suggesting a little more work to get the annual format spot-on, I’m not going to start picking out posts that should have been there but aren’t. The Tangerine Book (pretty cover, by the way) has, I make it, 153 pages with 79 articles by 34 contributors, though writers on the Lib Dem Voice team crop up for a very high percentage of the content; turn to the Index and you’ll see that, for example, Stephen Tall’s entry is much longer than anyone else’s. That’s a fair amount to read through at Christmas, particularly without pictures, but still I’m told only about 4% of just over 2,000 articles made the cut. Goodness. I can’t think of any particular favourites I missed, though I have to admit there are at least a handful which really don’t seem to justify inclusion (thin month, was it?). Interestingly, the two most-represented months – twice the page count of any of the others – are July and September, suggesting a flurry of high-quality and guest articles. That’ll be, oh, Lib Dem Conference, and… Would it be cynical to suggest, the start of the blog awards season?

There’s much to recommend here, and a very wide range of topics – tips for campaigning, criticism of other parties, criticism of our own party, philosophy, policy debate, coverage of debates, awards results (though not, oddly, for the Blogger of the Year; I didn’t win, readers, so perhaps it’s just as well I don’t get a mention in the index for the shortlist), election entrails, the odd piece or speech from an MP, addresses from aspirants to party office, and quite a bit from well outside the Liberal Democrats and Britain. You can order it cheaply at £2.11 an e-Book, and though that’s the only way to get this one of the books for Christmas (as opposed to rushing into the queues tomorrow for the others), I have to say, what’s the point in that? A pdf’s not all that much different to just reading the original blog pieces, and they have added value. No, what you want is the published paperback for the New Year, £5.99 from Lulu (plus postage, but if you buy a second copy or any of their other books, the postage is fixed at one total). And it’s a different and more relaxing experience to sit back and turn the pages when you like. For people who’d not normally look at a computer, it might draw them in; for people looking for snippets of politics on their commute; and, for people like me if there are such things, the ability to read articles at one remove without feeling the rising need to compose and post an angry comment online. Though each has a url supplied, I’ve managed to resist the temptation, though I’ve tried a couple to see if they worked (they did).

It’s difficult to pick out a favourite from such variety, though I remember enjoying Will Howells’ Something For the Weekend: The Wheels On the Bus Go Round and Round at the time, and did so again in printed form (despite the absence of some of the more animated content). Stephen Tall’s liveblog of the Make It Happen debate was one of the most interesting reads; I’m an only moderately active blogger, and many of the articles featured here reminded me of articles I’d meant to write, but never quite got round to it. This time, I blogged the same debate in more detail but over a few more hours, and so could compare Stephen’s views (much less partisan than mine, but slipping through on occasion and in agreement, for example, on Tim Farron), odd mistakes (Simon Hughes being chair of the Federal Policy Committee – heaven help us!) and splendid turns of phrase (“The Hall simultaneously orgasms”). The first article, Stephen’s “Now’s your chance, Nick,” impressively challenges then new Leader Nick Clegg, and provides a few of the choicer entries in the extensive Index, which for once repays some reading: it provides much of the additional value to the tome, through leading or silly but always justified categories such as “BBC – poor election coverage,” “Clegg, Nick – springy hair,” (all right, that’s just one of nineteen for him), “dreary archipelago,” “curtain-twitching busybody,” “freakish oddities” and “Hughes, Simon – punctuality”. And you can look up “Malta” for yourself.

We get Tavish Scott’s pitch for Scottish Leader and Ros Scott’s for Federal President; I have to admit, though I can see the value of printing what the winner said they’d do, I’d have liked to measure it against their opponents, too, to give a better perspective on why the results were as they were (with a Scott already in Scotland, incidentally, do you think our new President was accidentally allocated the wrong name? Should she actually be Ros Lochall-Activiste?). Kirsty Williams’ victory in Wales came too late for inclusion, so expect that next year. Fortunately, there are selected and annotated excerpts from two of Nick Clegg’s more interesting speeches, as the only contribution appearing under his name in The Tangerine Book is surely one of the least interesting and most vacuous things he’s ever written – a clarion call to support the Bones Commission as the answer to all the party’s problems, without a single word as to why it might be so (just like Simon Radford’s piece on vouchers, which similarly advocates a panacea without any indication of why, how or where it would work). Chris Bones’ detailed follow-up piece from two months later should be much better, but spends too much of its time ticking people off for asking impertinent questions before they were ready, and telling us that the only possible way forward for the party is to swallow his recommendations whole, because we spend too much time discussing things. I can’t help feeling that this wasn’t the best-managed announcement in the world.

In case you missed the Blogger of the Year Awards, dear reader, the splendid Alix Mortimer was the very well-deserved winner from those shortlisted, and she contributes several excellent articles: you might want to turn to her entertaining and informative Diary of a Conference Virgin, which has a fascinating snippet from a focus group as well as gossip (and there’s more in that series online), or her sober and extremely practical After Baby P: what can be done? Richard Huzzey and Hywel Morgan show what being a Liberal site means in mounting strong defences of the rights of, respectively, Icelanders and BNP members. The lovely Alex Foster reminds us just how thoroughtly crap Labour is on gay rights when nobody’s looking and they’ve not been forced into equal opportunities by the courts; Sal Brinton gives the details of a Tory candidate’s appalling criminal hate campaign; and Mark Pack burrows away to discover all sorts of QI-style factlets, if QI were a Lib Dem broadcast, usually with tongue ever-so-slightly in cheek. Oh, and I get a couple of paragraphs in amongst a selection of summer reading; that Stephen Tall runs off with that entry, too, as he’s the only one who thought to include a tantalising quotation from his books. Hey! I usually do that in my reviews, and I’ve forgotten to here. Oh, well, too late now. I want to get this published by four in the vain hope that it’ll influence you rushing out to the shops.

A qualified hit, then. What, putting aside my Annualish predilections for a moment, could be done to improve it? Well, undoubtedly the biggest failing is the absence of any of the comments; it wouldn’t be terribly readable to produce great screeds of them, but it would be nice to have a taster, particularly when some pertinently shoot down the articles published. The next one could do with a few fewer articles by the editorial team, and more by women (and yes, the answer to that is to write for them. Whoops, I was asked again the other week and…). There’s also something much less forgiving about certain types of mistake in print on your shelf, rather than feeling more ephemeral on your screen. Typos, misused apostrophes, punctuation moving onto the line after a sentence (particularly annoying in a heading – stand up, Hashtag taxonomies: the last word in Tweeting
) and, in a couple of the less-well-written articles, repeated words or phrases evidently not there for effect but suggesting a clumsy vocabulary… A little polish from a copy-editor would be much kinder. I’d also slip in a blank line above and below the large quotation passages, to make the pages look less cramped.

My simplest suggestion, though, for The Lib Dem Voice Annual 2010 (as next year’s publication should be subtitled), would be for it to end with a single December entry – “10 Key Lib Dem Questions for 2010”. This one started with questions for 2008, salutary to re-read at the end of the year, but has none for 2009. And while looking back at what we got wrong is always entertaining / depressing, wouldn’t it focus minds more to look forward, too?

Christmas Eve Update: Millennium Dome, Elephant offers a Christmas present to Lib Dem Voice in the form of a Puzzle Page, ready for insertion to late editions of The Tangerine Book. Can YOU help the plucky pachyderm escape the tortured complexity that is the maze of Conservative policy? Uncannily, it looks exactly like it could fit into The Dr Who Annual 1977, too.

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A Charitable Tip To Christians At Christmas: Gag Your Bishops

Christmas is, more than any time of year, the season when Christianity gets a good press. Huge numbers of people who have no time for churches for eleven months simply like the Victorian traditions and warm, fuzzy bits of the Christmas story. I’m no longer a believer (sorry, Mum and Dad), but last night I was typing to a CD of A Carol Symphony (or ‘that music from The Box of Delights’). So what could possibly go wrong for Christianity at this festive time? Turning on the radio this morning and hearing the Pope and the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool – I’m an ecumenical critic.

If there’s one thing more likely to alienate people from Christianity at Christmas than the Daily Mail shrieking that the true meaning of Christmas has been lost (in between shrieking that there’s chaos / penury on the high street, and promoting its advertisers), it’s pontiffs pontificating, particularly in ways that are self-seeking, un-self-aware and, most of all, stridently attacking love and ordering people about.

Oh, No, Not the Pope Again

Imagine the winces around the breakfast tables of British Christendom, then, when this morning brings news that the Pope chooses Christmas to attack gays and transsexuals and anyone who doesn’t fit, by nature or choice, into his prescribed worldview of sex. Hey ho. Well, we all know the old fascist has a problem there. He’s been queerbashing for years, and we bash the bishop in return. No-one can ever believe that “love” is the founding belief of this loathsome bigot. Admittedly, this morning he’s trying to reach a new low in offensiveness, arguing that people who don’t procreate (and he doesn’t recognise that that’s not all of us anyway) will destroy humanity. As Mr Quist (another fan of Christmas) points out this morning, for the leader of the Catholic Church, this is in so many ways shaky ground. But perhaps I’ve misjudged him. Maybe he was just trying to prepare the ground for his softer side. Is there something you want to tell us, your holiness? Will the New Year bring the patter of little Benedicts?

Using Dead Children To Protect Your Job

Just this once, though, I found an Anglican Bishop far more offensive than Pope Benedict; after all, I’ve had years to get used to the old bigot. If you can stomach it, then, tune in to this morning’s Today Programme and find, from around ten to eight, Thoughtless For the Day, in which the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool starts off merely by being overpoetic and then uses a boy’s murder to make special pleading against disestablishing the Church of England. A more gut-wrenching piece of opportunism is hard to imagine: ‘Save my stipend, or the little babies will get it!’ Of particular note was his one, hurried reference to a Catholic priest who was also involved; because, as is well known, there’s hardly a Catholic to be found in Liverpool, and Catholic churches can’t survive without being organs of the state. Anyone would think that would completely undermine his special pleading. Still, it’s hardly the first time shameless clerics have stood on kids to assert their special rights.

Special Rights To Discriminate Not Popular In Court Shocker

In happier news, then, last week fulminating bigot and hypocrite Lillian Ladele had her demand for special rights over anyone else rejected on appeal. She’d claimed against Islington Council, her secular employer with responsibility for representing all citizens in the borough, that her own personal religious whims should allow her to pick and choose which bit of her secular job to bother to do and which citizens to decide to reject. A registrar, she’d refused to officiate over civil partnerships, claiming this was because her Christian beliefs meant that marriage could only be for one man and one woman, for life. Aside from the fact that, sadly, civil partnerships aren’t marriages, she blatantly perjured herself by having had no problem in marrying divorcees. Oh, but they’re different – they’re not dirty gayers, as her highly-funded-by-extremist-Christians lawyer coached her not to say.

As the lovely Cosmodaddy points out, Ms Ladele was time and again offered compromises by the Council, but she decided that her knee-jerk desire to treat people unequally was so important that the basic element of the Rule of Law that everyone should be treated equally under the law was in fact a Liberal conspiracy to discriminate against her, personally. How the original court case didn’t tell her she was not only wrong but a barking egomaniac is a mystery, but thankfully the Employment Appeal Tribunal decided that her claims were obvious nonsense. As usual, it’s religious bigots calling for special rights for themselves to take rights away from gay, lesbian and bisexual people. After all, can you imagine a court ever siding with a lesbian registrar refusing to marry Christians because they’re against her beliefs, or a Grand Wizard of the KKK in obeying his sincerely held belief that mixed-race marriages are morally wrong? If you want to be a bigot, do it on your own time.

Contrast these quotes. First, the astonishing lies from her lawyer:
“She wants to make it clear that, whatever other commentators may have said, this case has never been an attempt to undermine the rights of members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender communities.
“The evidence showed that Lillian performed all of her duties to the same high standard for the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender communities, as she did for everyone.”
Except for not touching them with a barge pole and refusing to do her job, obviously. To be fair, she was at least undiscriminating enough to accept gay council tax-payers’ contributions to her pay.

Then there was Justice Sir Patrick Elias, President of the Employment Appeal Tribunal, pointing out the “fundamental problem” with the original ruling that there had been religious discrimination (if a little unfair to anarchists):
“Let’s say I am an anarchist and I feel strongly that I want to go around blowing things up, but my employers object.
“It may well be that anarchy is my genuinely held belief. But it does not mean that my employer’s decision not to allow me to is discriminating against that belief.”
A Merry Christmas to all of you at home, and goodwill to all people, including the ones that self-styled Christians shriek false witness against, and here’s a seasonal song for you all.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

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Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 1981 Brilliant?

The ultimate in Who ‘concept albums’ reaches its climax in themes of decay and change; K9 leaves for the show’s first spin-off; BBC2 showcases The Five Faces of Doctor Who; and the comic strip brings urban decay without happy endings in End of the Line. On screen we see the extraordinary vistas of Warriors’ Gate, and Tom Baker handing over to Peter Davison in three stories across two years that all form one three-act tragedy, inexplicably not titled The Master’s Doctor Plan:

The Keeper of Traken / Logopolis / Castrovalva
“It’s the end. But the moment has been prepared for.”
An old and a new Doctor and an old and a new Master clash across time and space in a continuing story that’s first beautiful, then doom-laden, then intricate and personal. The threat telescopes in from the Universe itself to the Doctor’s most hearts-rending regeneration.

The three stories / one big story have been released as an excellent DVD box set, still inexplicably not titled The Master’s Doctor Plan; you should look for New Beginnings instead, packed with extras such as bitchy commentaries, enlightening documentaries and, my particular favourite, some lovely music that you can play on its own track. Alternatively, in the usual second-hand way, they were released separately on VHS and as three separate novels (of which Christopher H Bidmead’s Logopolis and Castrovalva are particularly worth seeking out), while Castrovalva alone had a set of thrilling View-Master slides.

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Monday, December 22, 2008


Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 1980 Brilliant?

A new regime begins with massive changes to the series’ visual and musical style and script editor Christopher H Bidmead’s vision of scientific fairy tales. The Leisure Hive’s stunning look and score introduces it with a boom, while the more sombre feel finds an echo in sting-in-the-tail comic strips like The Star Beast or Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s Business As Usual. But for sheer passion…

Full Circle
“Why can’t people be nice to one other? Just for a change? I mean, I’m an alien and you don’t want to drag me into a swamp, do you? [Pause] You do.”
A fiercely intelligent evolutionary fable where elders decide everything by revealed truth, only for the Doctor to ask all the awkward questions and take a moral stand. Great filming, design and monsters (some looking like us), an intriguing mystery – and swimmers in skimpy trunks! Ahem.

This story is the first in The E-Space Trilogy, and that’s due out in a DVD box set in the New Year; as the music is rather wonderful, I’m particularly looking forward to the isolated scores. In the meantime, you may be able to find second hand copies of the VHS or of the novel. Or even the View-Master slides.

Today, incidentally, is the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the BBC’s greatest ever evolutionary fable, one which terrified a generation, inspired more science fiction than you can name and is still, today, one of the most astonishingly brilliant pieces of television ever made. Happy birthday, Quatermass and the Pit, and if you haven’t seen it, go out and buy The Quatermass Collection on DVD right this instant.

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Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 1979 Brilliant?

The Doctor starts the year and ends a quest by upsetting Black, White and Mr Brown in prizing dossing about over knuckling down. Douglas Adams becomes script editor for imaginative, literate, often funny stories: free-trade fable The Creature From the Pit; space holiday disaster Nightmare of Eden; the gloriously tuneful City of Death. Doctor Who Weekly brings terrific comic strips such as (Judge Death and New Labour precursor) City of the Damned, and of course…

The Iron Legion
“Put your gas-masks on, citizens! It’s your favourite and mine… The Ectoslime! Will the Doctor be its CXXIV victim of the season?
“As ‘Eccy’ fans know, the monster stuns its victims with its odour before liquefying and drinking them!”
Comic legends Pat Mills and Dave Gibbons’ opening strip mixes robot soldiers, the grandeur that is an alternative Rome, and some I, Claudius. Watch for the rise and fall of General Ironicus and one moment of horror that seized my imagination (it’s in Part Three).

Fans of ‘Eccy’ from 2005 will notice that this does the “narrows it down” scene, too!

This strip originally ran in issues 1-8 of Doctor Who Weekly – which became Doctor Who Monthly within a year, and then the Doctor Who Magazine that still continues today – and is the first, one of the best and undoubtedly the most-reprinted of the lot, including summer specials, US editions and, cleaned up and the best way to read it now, a 2004 graphic novel from Panini Books titled The Iron Legion and collecting it together with several other Tom Baker Show strips.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008


Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 1978 Brilliant?

More Time Lords than ever this year, with one even joining the Doctor on his travels as he begins his quest for the Key To Time. There’s wit, playfulness and a kind of magic as the series hits its most fairy-tale and fun. There are false gods and fabulous female villains, and the best story could easily be Bob Holmes’ Copernican caper The Ribos Operation or Douglas Adams’ first television, the witty, inventive, brilliantly structured The Pirate Planet, but for me it’s this swashbuckling tale from David Fisher:

The Androids of Tara
“Next time, I shall not be so lenient!”
Imagine a Doctor Who summer holiday, with fabulous frocks, fishing and fencing with electric swords, where the big, serious quest is dealt with in a five-minute joke. Add a moustache-twirlingly wicked Count, a bargained-down bribe and a dash of sex, then sit back and enjoy.

As usual, there’s an out-of-print Target novelisation – as well as, in the short story collection Decalog 2, Paul Cornell’s sublime, hilarious sequel The Trials of Tara – and a deleted VHS to be sought, but if you can find last year’s extras-packed The Key To Time DVD box set, you really should, you know. A complete season of Doctor Who, it’s probably the best release so far, with this story (for example) boasting a rather lovely ‘making of’, a commentary, a location feature, a featurette on doubles… I’m holding out for a toy Count Grendel and Taran Wood Beast, though.

If you’re up when I’m actually posting this, or if you happen to read it in the next week, you should tune in at midnight tonight to Radio 2 (not a phrase I’ve ever before consciously typed) or at your convenience to BBC iPlayer to catch Christopher Eccleston reading the first of four horror stories (The Devil’s Christmas, across the next four midnights) – Charles Dickens’ The Signalman which, at another Christmas, Mr Eccleston described as the Doctor
“Terrifying! The best short story ever written!”
Though I prefer the much less terrifying and much more camp The Trials of Tara myself, I mention this here because, on the final disc in The Key To Time DVD set, you can find very much the same idea: Tom Baker reading short horror stories for Christmas in BBC2’s Late Night Story from thirty years ago this very week (though I recommend Saki’s Sredni Vashtar, which was never actually broadcast)…

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Like Chocolates? Like Computers? Then…

Look, I was tired, I was ill, I couldn’t get out of the flat… Oh, all right, I’m a gutbucket, Thorntons were doing a 25% off discount online and I just wanted to cheer myself up. Then, as well as my usual Viennese Truffles and luxury double cream mints, I saw this.

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Hey, it’s a server made of chocolates! What’s not to love?

Well, OK, it’s still overpriced even at 25% off, and it’s smaller than it looks in the photos, but it’s cool. And that’s without even eating any yet.

If you want the 25% off, incidentally, try entering XBN5, XBN6, XBN8 or XBX8 at checkout. Any of the four codes should work in theory, and at least one’s bound to in practice…

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Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 1977 Brilliant?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, December 19, 2008


Oliver Postgate

My Grandad would have been 98 today. He died a little over two years ago, but thinking of him today I can’t help also thinking of a man who died a little under two weeks ago – a man I never met, and who had very different views to my Grandad’s, but who feels rather like another grandparent to a generation. In his work with Peter Firmin on Smallfilms (a name with multiple meanings), Oliver Postgate captured the hearts, heads and imaginations of kids. Though “captured” seems almost as wrong as BBC newsreaders’ “The man who dominated British children’s television…” It’s difficult to think of a man for whom the word “domination” describes a less appropriate attitude.

I’ve been aware of Oliver Postgate throughout my life; not always by name, but always by voice. He created marvellous creatures and characters, utterly enchanting worlds – but perhaps the most memorable thing about him was the way he told those stories in such a uniquely wise, slightly wicked, and endlessly reassuring voice. It was, I suspect, the most beloved voice in Britain (sorry, Tom).

Though the Clangers were very slightly too early for me, mainly catching up with them in much later repeats, they always seemed the most magical of his creations. Like Noggin the Nog, I’d seen a little of them when very small, and spent years yearning for them (when’s Noggin out on DVD, then?). I loved Bagpuss and all the characters – the mice, the huge lazy hero, Professor Yaffle… In later years, incidentally, hearing that Professor Yaffle’s portrayal (like that of Davros) was based on Bertrand Russell managed to do perhaps more utterly strange things to my head even than Mr Postgate and Mr Firmin did when I was a boy. It’s because these days I can’t hear of Bertrand Russell without thinking, ‘But I knew his son,’ a friend and mentor who occupies… Pretty much the same sort of place for me as my Grandad and Oliver Postgate. Probably somewhere between them. And, of course, throughout my childhood I saw the many adventures of Ivor the Engine, usually hoping it would be one with the sweet little dragon.

You can still read Oliver Postgate’s own site, and that of his friends. When the news of his death at the age of 83 broke last Tuesday, there was such a huge outpouring of love for him and his gentle, pacifist tales that I couldn’t list all the different ones I’ve read. But, in no particular order, I took something special from Jennie, Nicholas, the BBC, several people in The Guardian, Mark Lawson, The Guardian’s “In Praise of…” (never more appropriately), Socialist Unity, Liberal Cynic (particularly for this revelation), and, in a rather lovely way, Charlie Brooker. His latest Screenwipe closes with a tribute to Mr Postgate, too, and you can see that again at 11.50 tonight on BBC4, following The New Avengers.

Mr Postgate had just never been forgotten, and I hope he never will be. Just a week earlier, Listen Against had closed with Ian McKellen reading the book of the week in the original Clanger; I took out my CD of Clanger opera, and looked up at the shelf where our own Clanger sits, lovingly hand-made by our friend David from the original template, passed on by Oliver and Peter when he interviewed them a few years ago (Millennium’s long-term readers may have encountered Ace Clanger before).
“Their scripts had to be written out in English, for Steven Sylvester and I to use Swanny whistles; we just sort of blew the whistles in Clanger language for the text that was there, so it didn’t matter much what was written. But when the BBC got the script, [they] rang me up and said ‘at the beginning of episode three, where the doors get stuck, Major Clanger says “Sod it, the bloody thing’s stuck again”. Well, darling, you can’t say that on children’s television, you know, I mean you just can’t.’ I said ‘It’s not going to be said, it’s going to be whistled’, but [they] just said ‘But people will know!’ … Years later, when the merchandising took off, the Golden Bear company wanted a Clanger and a Clanger phrase for it to make when you squeezed it, they got ‘Sod it, the bloody thing’s stuck again’!”
If there’s one Smallfilm that’s closest to my heart, well, naturally it’s a Clangers episode, and though I love The Iron Chicken, and The Tablecloth, for me it’s a less well-known one called The Seed. That voice, that look, that music, that kindly streak of satire, and there’s also a special place in my heart for the Sky-moos. Enormous, happy creatures with huge smiles, they eat everything in sight and then flap lazily away. They’re aspirational characters for me, really.

It seems silly to use the word “genius” about someone who was so unassuming, or “auteur” of someone who used home-made cameras in an old stable on a budget of £10 a minute. But Oliver Postgate was one of the most wonderful figures in television history. We’ll miss him. He made our childhoods – our lives – happier, gentler and stranger.
“Bagpuss, dear Bagpuss, old fat furry cat-puss
Wake up and look at this thing that I bring.
Wake up, be bright, be golden and light
Bagpuss, oh hear what I sing.”

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The New Avengers – Target!

It’s New Avengers night again on BBC4, and if ever there was an episode of The New Avengers to watch, try this one. I don’t mean it’s the best – it certainly isn’t – but if you tune in at 11pm, you’ll find arguably the most memorable of them. There’s a great central conceit of an ordinary street that’s really a target range that shoots back and kills you… Just not in the way you think. On the down side, that visually striking concept’s about all there is to it, but there’s a lot of fun in looking at it. It was even, er, homaged as the opening scene of The Avengers movie ten years ago and, wonderfully, it’s one of the bits they didn’t make a mess of (if you have the movie, look out also, particularly, for bits of The Town of No Return – some carried off decently, some utterly flat – and a complete failure of remaking The House That Jack Built).
“Yes, but it’s the one per cent that kills you.”
Perhaps the only thing that prevents this being the archetypal New Avengers episode is that it’s the last outing for the original titles, a mix of action sequences that’s nowhere near as memorable as the mighty CGI morphing British lion cranked up by mid-’70s supercomputers. If you want a distillation of The Avengers’ and The New Avengers’ later clichés, though, this is terrific. There’s one of the most definitive and postmodern ‘AvengerLand’ settings, with masses of location filming at a location that looks like a real village, but turns out to be as artificial as a film set. The pre-titles sequences opens with an array of British icons: a red telephone box; a London bus stop; a TARDIS… And can that be our heroes shooting at the desperate victims? Well, no, it doesn’t fool you for an instant, but it’s a fabulously bizarre set of images, anyway. Skipping to the end, there’s a particularly good use of ‘the villain killed with his own weapon’, and it’s an unusually good moment for Gambit, too. There’s ‘a traitor in the Department’ – a whole, improbable nest of them. And, above all, that ultimate Tara King and New Avengers cliché of ‘an Agent staggering in and dropping dead’ gets as big an outing here as you could ever want. If their Department was as small as the one in Spooks, Britain would be in crisis.

A Memorable Twist (But More Memorable Than Twisty)

Usually I try not to spoil even the most wafer-thin plot, but it’s really not a hard one to spot. Before even the theme cuts in, we’ve seen an agent on the shooting range that shoots back and then, gosh, dying, followed by (can you guess?) another agent on the shooting range that shoots back and then, gosh, keeling over in freeze-frame in the doctor’s surgery. Most of the direction, incidentally, is great, from a former stuntman, but after thrilling scenes in the village of death, someone falling over next to a doctor is perhaps not the most exciting image to go into the titles with. Still, that’s only a small complaint, and the military music it’s all set to works rather well, too. The main problem is, you can probably work out even from my summary of the opening sequence what the mysterious link between the deaths of top agents might be – and you’ll find it difficult to believe that our heroes, despite mysteriously dying agent number three even ringing them up and telling them “I’m already dead” and their taking mysteriously dying agent number four directly from the scene of the crime, it’s only after mysteriously dying agent number five and towards the end of the episode that our heroes finally realise that there might be something a tiny bit iffy about the firing range fake village. It’s not the most obvious mystery in the history of television (my beloved Richard would probably put in a bid for the second episode of Star Trek: Voyager, which we watched in company and at which he yawned and announced the ‘twist’ after about thirty seconds flat, after which the series never really engaged our interest again), but it has a good stab at it.

The trick is, of course – and look away now if you’ve switched your brain off – that though the agents being tested on the Department’s special firing range are shooting at all the animatronic targets on it, they’re being targeted at the same time, and the little red dots that the dummies fire back are – gasp! – less innocent than they seem. They’re actually just the back end of tiny darts of ice with a tincture of curare, and the entire staff of the firing range appear to be in on it. Although it’s apparently all paid for by the USSR cough, an unnamed rival organisation represented by someone called “Colonel Ilenko”, it’s actually a shining example of private enterprise: the villain came up with this brilliant idea and clearly undercut all the other bidders when the Department’s agents’ training course was outsourced. It does make you wonder about the security services’ security, though.
“The better the agent –”
“The longer he takes to die.”
“And the less likelihood of them ever tracing back to the cause of death.”
All the scenes of agents taking the test are gripping, thanks to athletic actors – the star of the show is, of course, Joanna Lumley’s Purdey, who not only gets 99% on the test (Steed having previously got 100% three times, with an appropriate suspicion of cheating) but demonstrates fantastic reflexes with a pencil – along with vivid direction and such a large, intricate outdoor setting that it doesn’t get too repetitive. While it’s a feast for your eyes, though, you have to turn your brain off, and not just because it takes the team so long to spot the bleedin’ obvious.

Your Dosage May Vary

The whole idea is that, with just tiny, melting darts of curare, agents receive such a small dose that it takes days for them to die, and apparently of natural causes – and, because most of the agents on the range are so good, they hardly ever get hit and so receive very few doses. The trouble is, though initially this makes a certain amount of sense, and when (through Gambit’s practical joke going just a touch wrong) one of the villains receives a dozen hits and expires on the spot you can at least see that he’s had a great many more doses than usual, towards the end all the rules seem to be torn up to try and raise the tension. Suddenly, the dosage is all over the place, as one shot can kill you instantly when needed, or not when it isn’t – why else does Gambit have to pass at 100% to get the antidote for Purdey and Steed? And as for the antidote… Well, Colonel Illenko’s been swigging the stuff all day, but when he gets shot, the one dose kills him in seconds. And the dying Bradshaw, the training centre operator who Gambit inadvertently shoots full of curare and who collapses at Gambit’s feet, tells Gambit he’s already dead if Gambit doesn’t go and get him the antidote in Steed’s hat. Now, at this point you’d expect Gambit might guess what was up, but no – anyway, later on he remembers this and goes to find one of the Steed mannequins to look for the bottle of antidote in the bowler. Better late than never, you might think, but on the way, passing through the firing range as they try their best to kill him (now, apparently, instantaneously), he fires at a Steed figure and apologises, then rushes on. But that one’s got a hat, just like all the others. Mike, how do you manage to head straight for the one hat that’s got the bottle in it? Have you read the script? It won’t surprise you to see that the best moment with a Steed’s hat does not, in fact, involve Gambit at all, but a woozy Steed who, staggering along fighting against the poison, feels undressed (ironically, for a celebrity naturist) and takes the dummy’s hat as he goes by.

This is also one of those New Avengers episodes that make Mike Gambit the lead. He’s not bad, exactly, but he does sometimes seem to have stepped out of a crasser series, and he’s easily the least interesting of the three main characters. The climax is largely built around his prowess on the course and his compelling eyes, or so the camera wants to tell us, and it’s an early fetish the series will soon outgrow. The episode as a whole features a great deal of male bonding between Steed and Gambit, racing horses to answer the phone or both being very alpha male over Purdey, which isn’t terribly successful. As I’ve previously written, this all means that Purdey tends to take a back seat – literally, in this case. With three Avengers and Steed made the older one who uses his brain (not much, here) and Gambit the butch one who handles the action, that really doesn’t leave Purdey much to do, so it’s all the more impressive that Joanna Lumley still grabs so much of this episode, even in a lime-green thing that’s just not her colour. But though she’s great on the firing range, her impractical skirts naturally have to be pegged up to show as much thigh as possible, and the script also makes clear she’s there less as a character than as a sex object. As usual, everyone fancies her. Dishy but doomed agent Malcolm Stoddard (you may remember him as a double – or triple? – agent being seduced and stabbed by Servalan in Blake’s 7, or more recently a Zygon on BBC7) is rather good, given that his part consists of little more than ‘drool over Purdey, fire your gun and collapse’, but after Purdey gets her own dose of curare, even her part’s reduced to Steed and Gambit fighting to see who can save her in the most macho way, and someone for the camera to pan up when she’s in her lingerie.

The main villains, at least, are rather fun. Underplayed almost as enjoyably as his Captain Striker in Doctor Who, Keith Barron’s languid entrepreneur Draker runs off with every scene he’s in (rather than Avengers histrionics or Cold War coldness, he seems to have stepped in from the ’80s to focus on the bottom line), aided by Deep Roy, who you may remember as Mr Sin from The Talons of Weng-Chiang or an entire tribe of Tim Burton Oompa-Loompas. Here, to no-one’s surprise, he’s the mute South American pygmy Kloekoe who’s supplied the curare, a device that was hoary in Sherlock Holmes stories, though he gets a great moment on a tricycle and a nicely delivered death scene. Robert Beatty’s Colonel Ilenko is a little strange, with a Russian naturally being played by an American, necessitating some rather forced exposition about his fake identity as “Paul Molloy”, and the marvellous Frederick Jaeger (who, despite being in both 1960s Cybernaut episodes, wasn’t hired for the earlier New Avengers tale The Last of the Cybernauts…??) had his part mostly rained off, replaced by the quite decent Roy Boyd as the one who gets accidentally killed by Gambit.

The members of the Department who aren’t in on the conspiracy, however, are a waste of space. Well, all right, I quite liked Mr Stoddard’s George Myers, but surely the least useful character is John Paul as the world’s most incompetent doctor, certifying people as in disgustingly good health and likely to live until ninety just before they keel over and expire, then calling it natural causes and blaming it on the service. I’m glad Dr Kendrick’s not my GP. Would you not think that a doctor working for a top secret organisation with an improbably high casualty rate would think five fit and healthy agents dying of exactly the same “natural causes” inside of a month, one in front of his eyes, might have something in common besides stress, especially as he’s not diagnosed any stress? Oh, but wait – perhaps he’s not the most useless character, when the (fortunately confined to one scene) guy in charge of Departmental records goes to absurd lengths to try and stop Gambit consulting any, let alone walking off with them. And he’s a comedy effeminate nerd who shouts “rape!” which is a contender for least tasteful moment in any Avengers episode (unfortunately, most of those are in The New Avengers) and makes you quite glad that the ’70s were thirty years ago. Quite apart from that gobsmacking piece of crassness, watching it in 2008 you find yourself wishing that the people in charge of today’s databases would be so desperate not to let anyone peek at them. It’s all a huge relief, then, when Steed goes outside the Department to consult the eccentric Professor Lopez, once a marvellous Pirate Captain in Doctor Who and here a proper Avengers obsessive, living in his own microclimate indoor jungle. Given the danger that Steed’s gone to ask him about, though, wouldn’t you be just a little worried when he absently slaps his neck?

Anyway, it’s all rather fun if rather dim. It’s got a great central idea, though you wish it would have a few other ideas along the way to support it, and it looks terrific. There’s a good spread of actors bounding about, and it even blows up a TARDIS. So, if you want to see one of the few New Avengers episodes that people actually remember, take a look on BBC4 at 11 tonight, and there’s a rather sweet tribute to Oliver Postgate from Charlie Brooker just afterwards…

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Thursday, December 11, 2008


Greater Manchester Referendum Shock: Stealth Dances Naked on a Harpsichord

Sometimes I really miss living up near Manchester. Deciding between which friends and family to live near, between seeing the Thames just outside or a distant Kinder Scout from the end of the road… And between a settled congestion charge and one that’s the height of controversy. If I still lived up there, my instinct would be to vote ‘Yes’, unlike most Liberal Democrats (split across the area, but tilting no) and, I suspect, most residents: my hunch is there’ll be a ‘No’ vote. Up there a fortnight ago, though, one ‘No’ argument angered me as a really stupid lie.
“Baldrick, you wouldn’t see a subtle plan if it painted itself purple and danced naked on top of a harpsichord, singing ‘Subtle plans are here again’.”
The referendum today is to decide on a proposed immense congestion charging area stretching right across Greater Manchester, with the sweetener of massive investment in public transport. The charge would only apply to drivers at peak times, making it more limited than the London charge, and the government’s offered a £3 billion incentive to kick off the public transport improvements, though a lot of the rest will come from long-term borrowing to make sure investment is in place (rightly) to make buses, trains and extended trams a better alternative before the charge kicks in to persuade people out of their cars.

I’ve not been following the congestion charge as closely as I should, but I’ve chatted to a few Liberal Democrats I know about the area, along with friends and family when I was up there last – and I read the papers, and saw the well-funded ‘No’ posters on every bill hoarding as I went past on the ‘Yes’-plastered bus on the morning nightmare of the traffic-clogged A6. It’s perhaps unsurprising that I’m instinctively for a ‘Yes’; it’d be a gross generalisation to say that drivers will be voting ‘No’ and those of us on public transport want ‘Yes’, but that’s both my instinctual and (almost equally unscientific) anecdotal finding. I don’t know the breakdown of different road users, but my bet’s on a ‘No’ for two very simple, interlinked reasons: the ‘No’ posters had one, very simple, not completely honest message, screaming that everyone would pay £1,200 more tax (and that this was the one tax you could say no to); and that, in a recession and with an unpopular Labour Government backing the referendum, people are unlikely to say yes both to a perceived tax hike and to Labour.

My instinct’s still to say ‘Yes’, though. Traffic’s been jammed solid along the A6 for as long as I can remember. When I was younger, fitter and about half my present weight, despite my natural indolence I’d frequently make a twenty-odd-minute run into Stockport, not just because it was cheaper but because in rush hour, it was frequently faster (if sweatier). I’ve never driven, but it’s not as if drivers are immune to traffic jams, nor the cost of them, in time and money; in 1992, when the Liberal Democrats were unique in UK political parties in coming up with the idea of congestion charges, our transport policies cited CBI figures that congestion cost business upwards of £20 billion a year. Both the cost and the queues have only got larger (much larger) in the last two decades.

So how come, then, that – for example – Manchester Lib Dems are split down the middle, Stockport and Bury dead against, and Rochdale Lib Dems are lonely ‘Yes’ campaigners? Surely something Lib Dems have been calling for for so long can’t just be opposed by all the Lib Dems it concerns because of nimbyism? Well, up to a point. I can’t help but feel cynical that, as with so many other green measures, excuses can always be found by members of a green party to make just this one the exception (and the previous one, and the next one)… But, from taking a look at the plans, of course the other parties are also split – well, Labour at least, as the ‘Vote Blue, Go Grey’ Conservatives have never in history backed an environmental measure until it was absolutely too late to stop it – and it’s no wonder. A lot of it’s to do with the different local effects; my old friend Iain Roberts points out that the charge offers almost no public transport improvements to the East and South of Greater Manchester, while its park-and-ride schemes mean such areas may actually get more traffic, and it’s pretty rare that I disagree with him, so he gave me pause for thought. It’s not just about the money, then – it’s that the scheme appears to have been inequitably designed, possibly imposed from on high, with very little to persuade some (coincidentally non-Labour-voting) areas to ‘buy in’. And, yes, I have endless but weary faith in the ability of the Labour Government to take a great idea and completely bugger it up.

I’m still a bit cynical. Wait until the perfect scheme to demonstrate your green credentials, and you can comfortably wait forever. But I accept that the scheme could be a lot better. There is, however, one ‘No’ argument that I saw around a lot a fortnight ago that really did get on my wick. Hello, then, to Bury Lib Dem Councillor Richard Baum, which makes me feel a little guilty. Lib Dem Blogs Aggregated (which I’m disappointed to say has illustrated that there’s very little debate about this issue in the Lib Dem blogosphere) has quite a few local-driven blogs, essentially extended interactive FOCUS leaflets, and they tend to be dull as ditchwater if you don’t live in their area. I feel guilty having a go at Cllr Baum, though, because his is one of the few of that variety of blog which I actually read; he’s a good writer, informative, self-deprecating, funny, and I enjoy his writing despite my only remembering going to Bury two or three times in my life. And I’ve never met him, but he comes across as a very nice chap. So apologies, Richard, because one of your many articles on the congestion charge swallows whole the daftest, stupidest lie from the ‘No’ campaign, and the one that really had me seething when I saw it on the bus (that I was in a traffic jam on the way to the dentist may have had something to do with my ill humour).

If This Is Your Idea of Stealth, Never Join the Commandos Or You Will Die

It’s all very well to be against tax rises. As I’ve said, I think you really need to take in all the other costs, too, but it’s a reasonable position to take. It’s all very well to be against local tax rises because you think people in your area can’t pay more, though it’s more than disingenuous to say that “the government” should pay it all because, shock, the government’s tax base is you and me, too, and with central government already controlling more than three-quarters of all local spending, frankly it’s well past time for more local responsibility. It’s all very well to criticise a tax for not being progressive, but really, aside from income tax, every other tax going is at best very clumsily progressive or usually takes no account of your circumstances. And the Lib Dems are the party that wants the lowest income tax rates, after about three decades of all parties slipping taxes away from direct income tax and to other ways of revenue-raising.

But, here’s the catch. From the Tories doubling VAT when Mrs Thatcher took office, despite promising they wouldn’t, all the way through to Gordon Brown’s hundreds of little dodges and wheezes, though the overall tax take as a percentage of GDP hasn’t changed very much, the way taxes are raised has changed enormously. It’s become massively more complex, and it’s shifted hugely from direct to indirect taxation. There are good reasons to make some of that shift: making work pay you more by letting you keep more of the money you work for, versus raising taxes on pollution, which we want to discourage, for example. But no-one can be kidded that that’s why we’ve seen the changes we have. Green taxes have been a microscopic part of the leverage towards indirect taxation. No. It’s much simpler than that. Since 1979, both Conservative and Labour Governments have cut income tax rates and raised taxes in hundreds of tiny fiddly ways because they want to look generous. They want to keep the same money coming in, but win votes by lowering the taxes it’s easy to see – because they come straight out of your pay packet – and raising all the ones it’s hard to spot. And, after a while, this constant sleight of hand trickery by both Labour and Conservative to give money with one hand and take it away with the other became so well-known that it got its own name. All the hundreds of complex, fiddly, near-invisible revenue-raising dodges are no simply called ‘stealth taxes’.

And then the ‘No’ vote to this Greater Manchester congestion charge got on this bandwagon by saying that a ‘No’ vote is ‘No to another stealth tax’.

Excuse me?!

Be against a congestion charge if you like. But a tax that’s had months of public consultation – a tax that will be taken from you directly – a tax that will have big signs up saying where you pay it (I live in London; they’re impossible to miss) – a tax that every party and paper has debated endlessly, not on discovering something in the small print of the Chancellor’s statement but for months in advance – a tax that, unlike every tax rise or cut in every General Election in British history will be the sole subject of a direct vote by the people concerned…

This is a tax that will only be paid by people who know exactly what they’re doing, and will only be enacted if a vote in which millions of voters get to have a say, and a say directly on that one charge, without the complications of party loyalty that made a nonsense of the claim that an election can be a ‘referendum’ on anything. It does exactly what it says on the tin, and people can’t say they weren’t warned. Of any tax in the history of Britain, this has had among the most comprehensive discussions, and has had the single largest and most direct vote on it, without exception, in the history of this country.

“Stealth” is a word which means precisely the opposite of what’s happening today in Greater Manchester. Much of the time when it’s used about taxation it’s effectively a synonym for ‘indirect’, and ‘indirect’ is effectively a synonym for ‘not income tax’… But that’s the thing about words that usually mean the same. They’re still different words, and sometimes this becomes quite stunningly obvious. Like when you’re doing ‘Replace All’ because you’d thought, say, that Mr P Allen was Mr Peter Allen rather than Mr Philip Allen, and when you make a hasty correction you find that elsewhere in your document you’ve now described something that’s fading away as ‘philiping out’. So on seeing so much ‘No’ propaganda attacking this “stealth tax”, both my politician’s and my pedant’s instincts were outraged.

Only three questions remain. Are the ‘No’ campaign really incredible liars? Or are they really incredibly thick? Or, if this is a stealth tax… Can anyone tell me what the fuck an obvious one would look like?

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