Film 2020: A Month in the Country


Of the various BBC Play for Todays and C4 films I’ve used to extend Film 2020 beyond its natural and impending end, A Month in the Country is the most genuinely film-like even as its concerns and its slow pastorality identify it as a television programme. It is a (mostly) faithful adaptation of J.L. Carr’s Booker Prize nominated novel, once reviewed here, with what we would now regard as a stellar cast, Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh and Natasha Richardson, but which was then young actors, talented, destined to rise but here effective novices. And the film is better for their inexperience, as each brings a freshness to their performance, unaffected by fame.

The story takes place over the summer of 1920, in and around the North Riding town of Oxgodsby, a rural community, a place of peace, stillness, eternity and solidity (ironically, most of the film’s outdoor scenes, which are beautiful, are filmed in Buckinghamshire). Birkin (Firth) is a picture restorer, hired by bequest to uncover and restore a long-covered mural in the Church. He is also a War veteran who, like many who survived, is tortured by his experiences, which present themselves physically as a facial tic and a pronounced stammer.

Another veteran, archaeologist James Moon (Branagh) is living in a bell-tent outside the graveyard, hired on bequest to discover the bones of Piers Hebron, an ancestor buried anonymously outside the graveyard for reasons unknown that will tie into Birkin’s assignment. Moon’s torments are less visible, though they run deep: he suffers agonising leg cramps, has dug a foxhole for himself to sleep in, for safety, and then there’s the nightmares.

Birkin’s task is opposed by the Vicar, the Reverend Keach (Patrick Malahide), who fears a superstitious distraction, correctly it is implied. He is cold and distant – Mallahide conveys this superbly, just by how he speaks, in clipped sentences that seem to trail off, as if Birkin is not worth speaking to. The Church offers Birkin nothing but his payment, in exact detail: Birkin sleeps on floorboards in the belfry.

It’s not very exciting as stories go but that is the whole point. Birkin and Moon are damaged men, ruined men, men who have undergone experiences unimaginable to the men who went before them. Moon is outwardly the more cheerful, self-composed. He’s slightly shy and hesitant in talking but he talks where Birkin listens. Both keep what they have gone through within themselves even with each other.

But in Oxgodsby, Moon is the outsider, keeping himself to himself. Both men are outsiders, Londoners in what might be expected to be the insularity of Yorkshire, but in contrast Birkin is drawn into the community. First by the Ellerbeck family, who are Chapel (Methodists), whose religion is more severe and challenging that Keach’s didactic refinement, but whose immediate warmth and willingness to provide Birkin with comforts is as natural and instinctive as can be imagined.

And Birkin is taken here, there and everywhere, experiencing all of the community. It’s far more noticeable in the film than the book, but Birkin is put upon at every turn, to do this and that: umpire the local cricket match, preach at the distant Chapel, visit the dying girl.

But it’s all part of this one summer. Birkin becomes part of Oxgodsby, however temporarily. He takes part, he is treated normally, and slowly the tics and the stammer diminish. Only diminish, not disappear.

There is another reason behind this and that is Alice Keach (Richardson). Alice is the Reverend’s wife, at least fifteen years younger, and a very beautiful young woman. Even Moon – who we will learn late on in the film, spent the last six months of the War in military prison, notwithstanding his Military Cross, for “buggering his batman” – recognises her as a stunner. And Richardson is truly lovely, clear-eyed, brown-haired, slightly rounded of face, shy of manner.

What she’s doing with Keach is inexplicable and unexplained. He’s not worth her, for all his intellectual piety, she deserves someone nearer her own age. Birkin, by virtue of who he is, is the ideal solution, but that would be to trash the story. Birkin is married, to an unfaithful wife who has run off with another man but whose letter asking to try again (again) will draw him back to London at the end. But in the end, he is too withheld to make a move, and she too doe-eyed female to initiate something that will breach all her vows. The affair never reaches a single touch.

In the centre is the mural. It’s a vast allegory, the Judgement, of men and women, angels and devils. Birkin does not believe in God but the subject, and the quality of the art (created specially for the film by Margaret Noyes) fascinates him. He is drawn to a falling figure in a corner, disfigured by a crescent scar, and to a rough area not done by the artist.

The answer is simple: the artist fell and was killed before the mural was complete. And when Moon discovers the stone coffin that contains Piers’ bones, the mysteries fuse. Piers Hebron was a Muslim convert, and the artist.

Stories like this have no real end. They are epiodes in a life and thus merely phases. The end, in physicality, is moving on, Birkin back to his unfaithful wife, Moon to a dig in Baghdad. The Keach’s remain, as will the Ellerbacks, the Cloughs and Douthwaite. Emily Clough has tuberculosis: her death will follow. Perce Ellerback died in the War. Not even permanence was untouched or unchanged. We have lived through a summer that was an idyllic dream in a world where there is no longer any room for idylls: such ease will not last.

The film creates an aatmosphere into which we sink, gratefully, so it’s such a crashing disappointment to see it blow it in the last few moments. In the book, Birkin never goes back. The film endswith Birkin walking away, across fieds as dry and sunny as they were soaked and grey on his arrival. He looks back at the Church where an old man is approaching, carrying a book. The old man pauses and looks at him, before entering the Church. He is Birkin, seen across time, carrying the book in which Birkin pressed the rose Alice Keach gave him. The Church is a blaze of light in which he sees young Kathy Ellerbeck and her brother Edgar before the light suffuses everything and he walks into it and dissolves.

I shall fast forward thriough this bit next time I watch A Month in the Country.

That the film exists, and can be watched, is a matter of luck. It was neglected for decades before a random 35mm print was discovered, the same way old and wiped Dr Who episodes have been found, and the first DVD was withdrawn due to copyright issues. But, even after that nonsense at the end, I am very grateful to have the chance to watch this film, and film it is, ultimately. It deserves to be better known. It takes you there and shows you the surface, but it lets you see the writhing emotions everyone keeps hid, leaving just what they are to your imagination. And it shows you why Messrs Firth, Branagh and Richardson became stellar, when they were unspoiled.

Lou Grant: s05 e04 – Hometown


Bright light in a dark town

Though there was a low-key polemic to this episode, what mattered in this story was the personal story that came out in almost a rush near the end, as Lou, back in his hometown of Goshen, Michigan, to administer the affairs of his late Aunt, admits a sordid, indeed nasty detail of his past to someone he once hurt very badly.

‘Land o’Goshen!’ used to be one of those phrases people would utter as a substitute for even the mildest of swear words. Blimey, blinking heck, Heavens to Betsy. You don’t hear it now because people just say fuck, heedlessly, wherever they are. I had to look up the phrase to discover that Goshen is the area of Egypt where the Israelites were confned before their flight. It’s an appropriate name for the small town where he grew up.

At first sight, Goshen looks ldyllic, mid-western America, the little towns of wide streets and elegant wooden houses looking like they grow out of the land rather than are built upon it. But this is 1981. Towns like Goshen are dying by inches. Empty storefronts, the tomato cannery closed four years ago and, on the day Lou visits, intent on being in and out as fast as possible, the glass-bottling plant closes.

That brought back a memory, a self-catering holiday in the Lakes in 1991, in the Wicham Valley, Friday night and going into Millom for fish’n’chips, walking deserted streets at 6.30pm in an air of puzzlement at the lifeless atmosphere, the complete absence of anybody but ourselves, except in the chipshop we found. We later found that that was the afternoon the ironworks, Millom’s sole industry, closed.

That story, the dying town, the LA based business that closed a town’s industry because it wasn’t making enough profit and ‘only’ 250 jobs would be lost, interests the Trib, and Charlie assigns Lou to report it since he’s on the spot. The Union chapter, led by Paul Policzinski (Robert Prosky, pre-dating his run on Hill Street Blues) decide to try to buy the plant and set up themselves and, in a slightly implausible happy ending, the tight-fisted Banker on the City Council is the one who argues for Goshen to put its money where it’s mouth is and back the men. Not many people in 1981 were going out on limbs like that.

But that’s not where the story is heading. As soon as one of the town’s sons is known to be back, the town knows. Lou’s not nostalgic, not in the least. Given his way he’d have done everything from Goshen and not gone at all. Small town boy looking to obliterate his past? Unhappy childhood? Why is he so resistant to meeting his old girlfriend, Carol Kuzik (Georgeann Johnson) and so eager to escape her when he does meet her?

It takes a trip to the cemetery to break things down. Lou lays a spray of red roses on his aunt’s grave, but he’s bought three: his parent’s graves are nearby. And just across the way is the walled-off section that is the Catholic side of the cemetery, complete with a statue of Madonna and child.

Carol comes eagerly when called. Though she and Lou were old sweethearts, she never went inside his house. Lou talks about old things that wake him at 4.00am. Like why he left town without saying goodbye to Carol.

There was a reason. The sound of Carol’s voice as she asks if she’s finally going to find out. Lou tells her she was the first girl he ever seriously thought of marrying, conjuring up naive, unrealistic images as he walked ver to her house, then arriving and knowing he never could.

Prejudice. Bigotry. Carol was a Catholic girl. And she was Polack. She wore a scapular, though she took it off when they were preparing to kiss so they wouldn’t be struck by lightning. Lou’s parents would never have stood it. Though he doesn’t quite admit it directly, Lou was also affected by that bigotry. Marrying Carol was never possible, as was telling her why. So he ran off.

It isn’t nice. It’s hateful. And of course the woman Lou eventually married was Catholic. And Ukrainian. But the honesty at last, and Lou’s obvious and unforced disgust at himself, is a catharsis that allows the pair to regard the issue as settled after all this time. They’ll never see each other again, but now they never need to. Lives have travelled too far down separate routes that there is no way back to the divergence to begin again.

That makes three strong episodes, two of them personal, in four already in this final season. A very good average. Let’s keep this up.

A Time with Townsend: John Rowe Townsend’s ‘Hell’s Edge’


Hell’s Edge, John Rowe Townsend’s second novel, published in 1962, is a complete contrast to the later The Intruder. Though it is a realistic novel, set in a small, smoky, West Riding town among working class folk with their feet on the ground, it has the form of the traditional children’s adventure, with a ‘treasure’ to be found. More importantly though, for all the book is set in Those Satanic Mills, there is a sunniness and an optimism all the way through it that makes it joyful reading.
The book’s twin leads are Ril Terry (short for the exotic Amaryllis) and Norman Clough. They are chalk and cheese and meant to be and part of the fun in the book is of their accommodation to each other, fuelled by the flexibility of youth and, in Norman’s case, an increasing interest in his very distant cousin.
Hell’s Edge is the nickname throughout Yorkshire of the town of Hallersage, tucked into and across the mouth of a valley leading up to the moors. It’s an old town, a Yorkshire town with all that implies (especially to prejudiced Lancastrians!), full of dialect speaking Yorkshire folk, speaking their minds and dropping their aitches at every turn.
Norman, the only son of Fred and the voluble Florrie, is nearly sixteen. He’s brighter than he first looks and very much more than he lets himself be. The lad’s both a Yorkshire chauvinist and a reverse-snob, resentful and dismissive on principle of anyone even so slightly out of his class, there being an unbreakable barrier around his working class that no-one can pass in either direction. Enter Ril.
I’ve got to be honest, the Amaryllis bit has not worn at all well. The full name is unrepresentative, a touch of artificiality that’s out of place in the story, and the everyday Ril is an out-of-place name in a world where the most exotic name on offer is Celia.
Ril is, like Norman, fifteen. She comes from down south, from Belhampton, a smallish coastal resort under the shadow of the Downs. Her mother has passed away ten years previously and she’s been brought up by her father Robert, a gentle but relatively ineffectual man. She’s been educated at a Progressive School, namely one without rules where the students only study what interests them in a manner that suits them. Despite all that, Ril is turning out an intelligent girl.
Ril loves her life in Belhampton, her school, her friends, the town, the country around it. But her father, who is a Clough by distant cousinship, has taken a job as a Lecturer in Hallersage and he and Ril are moving there. Florrie is determined to welcome them as family, because family sticks together. Norman is determined not to like Ril in advance, having decided for her what she is and how little she has to do with him.
That’s alright, Ril has decided in advance, though not quite so dogmatically, that she doesn’t like Hallersage and Yorkshiremen.
The first part of the book is Ril and Norman breaking down the barriers between them, though Ril finds it a lot easier to adjust her responses, encouraged by the whole-heartedness with which everyone else welcomes her, and accepts her into Hallersage. It doesn’t hurt that there is a treasure to be found, and that Ril is determined to pursue this and Norman slowly comes round to supporting her whole-heartedly.
The thing about Hell’s Edge is that it’s cramped for space, public space. The Grammar School that both children attend has no playing fields either in its own grounds or within easy reach, requiring a long journey by tram (loved by Ril the romantic, regarded as outmoded by Norman the practical) across town. But there is a remedy, and that is connected to the History that Ril loves and Norman sees as useless. This is the Withens Estate.
The Withens are the local land-owning family, the Lords of the Manor, so to speak, landowners to about half of Hallersage, the half that’s not owned by Alderman Sam Thwaite, a great, bursting, buoyant, massive man who drops his aitches further than anyone else, but who’s the mainspring for anything that happens in the town. Long ago, in the era of Enclosures, the then Withens seized the common land used by the town and incorporated it into the estate. Protests arose, resulting in the Transporting of the ringleaders to Australia. One of these was Caradoc Clough. The Withens Estate is enclosed by a very firm wall.
The Estate chokes Hallersage. And the Withens, whose Latin motto is translated several different ways in the book, all of which come out as ‘This is mine, keep your hands off it’, won’t give anything up, won’t sell anything. But there’s a rumour, an old family story among the Cloughs, that not long before he died, Sir George Withens came to Caradoc Clough, regretful of his action in seizing the town’s land, and intent on doing something, albeit not by his Will, that would have been too simple, to redress the situation. What that is is anybody’s guess. But it’s Ril’s obsession. Old Great-Aunt Martha, granddaughter to Caradoc, a 98 year old living link to him and then, who sees in Ril her young sister returned, gives her the clue – ‘Not behind the Night Thoughts’. Ril is determined to find out the truth.
Seemingly, she has an advantage. The latest Withens, the last Withens, is a Governor of the Grammar School, as is Sam Thwaite. Her name is Celia and she’s a beautiful young blonde, under thirty. She’s also a bored young woman, constantly zipping off to the South of France, dissatisfied with life and, rather more sympathetically, a woman who has learned not to trust friends, because invariably they turn out to be friends because she’s rich, because they want something off her.
Discovering Ril and Norman sneaking into the Estate to swim, Celia’s interested enough to invite them to tea. Norman, the reverse snob, refuses, with typically Yorkshire speak-my-mind bluntness. i.e., he’s bloody rude about it. But his sometime boss, the shyster car dealer and repairer Roy Wentworth worms his way in by giving Ril a lift and being invited to stay for tea.
Ril likes Celia, who is simultaneously sophisticated and awkward, confessing her loneliness and her mistrust of those who seem to be friends. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Ril is after. After getting the clue, which will mean examining the Withens Library, she writes to Celia, asking to visit it and is naive enough not to work out why neither that letter not her two follow-ups get answers. Celia Withens has to spell it out to her.
This is where Norman comes into his own. He’s fully on his cousin’s side by now and he leads her to Withens in dark of night so that the two of them can break into the House and access the Library. In short, our two heroes turn burglar. But it’s all in a good cause.
The burglary is both a success, in that Ril retrieves a hidden envelope expressing Sir George’s wish for the enclosed land to be returned to the Town, and a complete shambles, with the burglars finding themselves being chased from pillar to post by Celia and her escort, the slimy hopeful Roy, and nearly causing massive disaster and death by bringing down the bell from the Bell Tower. Both do get away, but it’s all for nothing: the letter has no legal weight whatsoever.
Yet. Bring it to Sam Thwaite. Celia’s already keeping the exact events of the night and the Bell Tower’s collapse to herself, and the confident Sam’s confident that, with its contents to hand, and with the Estate’s solicitor, Thomas Cassell, understanding the implications, terms can be negotiated for the sale of the land to the Council, for a proper and fair price, no-one robbed on either side. The ending’s going to be happy. Until the exact moment Celia rebels.
Perhaps Roy is to blame, for having simultaneously offered his hand in marriage and, as a second option, inviting Celia to invest in his business. Celia’s had enough. No, she’s not going to give up the land, she’s leaving Hallersage for good, she won’t listen to reason because reason has been swamped by her feelings of betrayal by everyone around her. She drives off westwards in her sports car, heading for Northern Airport (Ringway). Sam’s party follows in his Rolls, and a good job too, because Celia goes off the road: it is Ril who finds her unconscious body on the hillside.
So Celia goes to hospital where wiser counsels prevail upon her. Hallersage will get its land, and will also get an ambitious scheme to bring its Town Centre into the Twentieth Century whilst retaining the best of the old. It’s all been a success.
But at the height of this, the peak of Ril and Norman’s joint success, there comes a worm in the apple. Ril receives an invitation, to stay a week with one of her old friends in Belhampton, to return to the place that she still, inside, thinks is home. Her instant joy, her impolitic celebration of it and Belhampton, is thoughtless to say the least, and disrespectful of everyone, and especially her cousin, who has made a place for her in Hell’s Edge.
The outcome is, of course, predictable. Ril has changed. Her friends have moved on without her. Belhampton isn’t quite what she used to see it as being. The gentle, almost feminine Downs are suddenly lesser in her sight than the Yorkshire Moors. Ril has become a Yorkshirewoman (poor girl) without her knowing. She returns after the weekend.
Norman’s glad to see her. He’s changed too. The boy who couldn’t wait to leave school and get a job as a motor mechanic, doing practical things, is staying on through the Sixth Year, looking to study Engineering. He’d like to start seeing Ril as a girlfriend instead of a cousin, but she’s not ready for that yet. Norman doesn’t quite come over as disappointed as I would have in the same circumstances, but Perhaps I’m expecting the wrong reactions, more of a Malcom Saville instant spark. Anyway, Townsend wrote a sequel two years later, I’m sure we’ll find out more in that.

 

Person of Interest: s05 e04 – 6,741


A resourceful woman

Shaw is back!

There’s a twist to this episode, hinted at throughout and not quite as concealed as it might have been, and thus not so much a surprise as in a perfect world it would be. I’m going to reveal it at the bottom. But not here.

Helter-skeltering through Person of Interest first time, I read somewhere that Sarah Shahi was originally going to be absent for something like eighteen months, which would have meant her return somewhere either late Season 5 (would have made for a brilliant season finale) or early Season 6 on Earth-2. Which became untenable with the reduced final order, so here we have her back, as intense and cynical as ever, and every bit as active.

‘6,741’ is Shaw’s show. It starts with her undergoing an unwilling operation, to have a microchip implanted in her skull, to make her compliant, turn her into a good little girl who’ll tell kindly old John Greer where to find the Machine. It fails, in wonderfully dry, undemonstrative manner: Shaw, after nine months imprisonment (nice touch there), is still Shaw.

Indeed, she’s more so. After a second operation, implanting a second chip, Shaw sits and broods and calculates, as a result of which she escapes. It’s a proper, wonderfully destructive escape, Shaw at her most Shaw-like, improvising like crazy, breaking things, breaking people, stealing a boat and returning to New York.

Of course, she needs to get the chip out of her head, and she needs to find her friends. So she phones in a call suggesting she’s about to murder an innocent and ineffectual drugstore clerk, knowing it will attract Samaritan. It does. Shaw defends herself, but she is not totally Shaw: she’s crippled with bouts analogous to epileptic fits, flashing lights, flashback visions, mental distraction, physical unsteadiness. Is she alright? This one lets the last Samaritan retriever get the drop on her. No need to bring her back actually alive… until the traditional offscreen shot fells him.

Enter two familiar figures, responding to a Number. Not expecting to find a friend. Root is almost overwhelmed.

But even without her confession of having been chipped, Root and Reese are cautious, paranoid you might say. They won’t take Shaw to a safe house or to the Machine: is she compromised? Rousseau said she’d been broken.

They take Shaw back to Root’s place, for Root to look after her. This leads to some wonderfully passionate and excited love-making (or, as one imdb reviewer puts it, nasty lesbian sex, and he/she doesn’t mean nasty in a favourable sense).

But Shaw feels her team-mates’ distrust and won’t put up with it. She’s still having the fits, even after her chip’s been extracted. Shaw will not be controlled by anyone else. She leads everyone in a direct attack on Samaritan that seizes Greer. Greer, the Primary Asset, the ex-MI6 Agent who won’t do anything without an out. Greer will have a kill-switch and he will have it on him. Or in him: a chip implanted in his arm.

But it’s all a trap. Greer talks his usual, imperturbable, self-satisfied bollocks but this is directed to Shaw, his ally, his asset, the one who set up this trap to murder all her friends.

It’s breaking down. Shaw shoots Greer. Escaping, she and Reese wind up in a dark alley. Reese suspects Shaw of warning Greer. She shoots him in the back, kills him. This is absolutely the last point at which you should have realised where we are. Shaw is nervous, sweating, disoriented. Root comes to her. Shaw takes her to a kid’s playground. She fought being broken by constructing a safe place to go to in her mind: this park, Root. Root was her safe place. But not any more. Shaw is driven to kill Root. Her only escape is to put her gun to her own head and blow her brains out.

We return to Samaritan’s hospital. The simulation has failed. Once again Shaw fried her own brains without getting them anywhere near the Machine’s whereabouts. At least it took her a whole hour longer to kill Greer this time. They try again, from the beginning. This one is simulation 6,742…

This is one dark, intense and horrific episode of Person of Interest. Sameen Shaw hasn’t just spent nine months strapped to a bed, she’s spent that nine months under intense psychological torture intent on breaking who she is and re-creating her as an ‘asset’. Just think for a moment: this simulation, taking place in her head, is the six thousand, seven hundred and forty-first time she has been induced to believe she has escaped, has been taught to see herself as suspect and unreliable, and been driven to destroy herself to protect her friends. Sameen Shaw has experienced dying 6,741 times. So far.

This is more than frightening. How many of us could survive that a handful of times?

I’d also like to come back to the love scene between Root and Shaw. Their relationship, Root’s flirting, was the cause of much adverse comment during the season, from unreconstructed types who didn’t want to think about such things let alone see them. Root and Shaw were women, and that was enough for the neanderthal brigade. They shouldn’t even be in an action, macho show, they’re girls!

So this scene, and that’s as far as you’re going to get, was always going to be an intolerable provocation. And all you get is Amy Acker in a black bra, the visual metaphor of crockery being knocked off a dining table and smashing on the floor (??!), and a side-by-side face-down scene in orgasm afterglow. And it never really happened. Some people…

The Infinite Jukebox: Mary Hopkin’s ‘Temma Harbour’


Looking back, it seemed clear that the biggest mistake Mary Hopkin made with her short commercial career was to agree to be the UK’s representative in the 1970 Eurovision Song Contest. Though she brought a sweet and honest voice to the chosen song, ‘Knock Knock Who’s There?’, and came second only to Ireland’s Dana with the equally sweet and innocent (and superior) ‘All Kinds of Everything’, it was a last hurrah for the young Welsh woman discovered through Opportunity Knocks and mentored by Paul McCartney.
Hopkin was never totally comfortable being positioned as a pop chanteuse, neither with McCartney nor his successor, the commercial producer Mickie Most, trying to direct her music. She came from a folk-singing background and family and, after her Eurovision song, and a final, low-charting top 20 hit, she simply disappeared from the business, and has chosen her own musical path and projects ever since.
I heard ‘Those were the Days’ when it was a hit, and often, but then it was so ubiquitous, there were creatures beyond the orbit of Saturn’s outermost moons who could have hummed it note perfect, but I don’t know if I ever heard the similarly-McCartney-penned follow-up, ‘Goodbye’. For my first sustained exposure to Hopkin’s singing, I came to ‘Temma Harbour’.
It’s the forgotten one, the single between the McCartney songs and Eurovision, forever overlooked. To me, it’s first and foremost a part of that period of the first, undirected enthusiasm, my baptism in music, and of more significance than any of her other singles could be, but it’s also more than that. There’s a freshness, a spirit to the song, a sense of the place about which Hopkin sings.
The song was written by drummer and singer Robert Wilson, who took the name of Phil Kinorra as part of Brian Auger and The Trinity, the line-up that recorded ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ with Julie Driscoll, and was recorded by him under the name Philamore Lincoln. Hopkin’s version isn’t a million miles different but Hopkin’s voice is far better suited to the faraway mood of the song, and she can really sing, which Lincoln, with respect, couldn’t match, half-growling his original.
Most’s arrangement is lighter and fresher, opening up the song with well-judged strings, first creating a swirl that introduces the melody after Hopkin’s delicate but almost negligible acoustic guitar intro, creating the space for Hopkin’s voice to celebrate a kind of restrained ecstacy out of the world.
For Temma Harbour is both a place (that always struck me as being some remote Australian cove, because it is, it’s in Tasmania) and a state of mind. There’s a strand of an earthy paradise, a place beyond the world, free from its demands. In a giant lemon tree, she sings, alone my friend and me, we both climb down and cross the sands until we reach the sea.
And the waves grow higher, higher as we sway and dance, and the mood elevates and creates a headiness more than wine, for the way Mary feels makes her want to take a chance. What chance that may be is locked in our individual hearts, in whatever worldliness we want to bring to this place, but as we contemplate our thoughts we are taken to the heart of things, Mary celebrating Temma Harbour, climbing coconut trees, catching fish, lighting fires, drinking wine, and gently, tentatively testing out the companion who shares this place with her. If you say you like me, and I like you…
For this may be a real, real place but Mary is testing whether the friend who is beside her can be the other half of that idyll, if the fantasy of Temma Harbour, of treehouses and blue sea spray can be extended into a real life in which two are on a wavelength. That’s the chance she’s singing of taking, not the one you were thinking about, not the, shall we be polite and say ‘hedonistic’ option you were imagining.
It’s the combination of Hopkin’s voice and Most’s airy arrangement, keeping the musicians distant from her voice, like the distant guitars that on the wind begin to play. Hopkin carries the melody in her lovely, pure voice – by God that girl could sing! – and Most sets a gentle rhythm upon which he builds a counter-rhythm of melodic bongoes, a flute solo over the last chorus and coda, and those hovering strings, swirling like the breeze that brings the guitars from afar.
All goes to bringing Temma Harbour to us for the course of the song, just as Martha and The Muffins took us to lonely, wind-swept, isolated, sunset Echo Beach. Can Mary really bring another into this dream vision she carries within her? With a voice like hers, you want her to be happy as much as she does, just so she may sound like this.

Film 2020: School for Scoundrels


It is a truth universally acknowledged that on a bright, golden September Sunday morning there is little better than a dive into nostalgia.

School for Scoundrels was released in 1960. I don’t know when I would have first seen it, 1963 at the very earliest, these being the days when there was a bar or an agreement upon feature films being seen on television for three years after they appeared in the cinema. Whenever it was, it was Sunday afternoon, once Sunday television had been opened up to relative freedom as the grip of the Sabbath was being gently released: those quiet and uneventful Sundays of Mother cooking roast dinners, Father tuning the car, the somnolence of Britain away from the stress and activity of the six non-special days of the week.

Though it’s far from its purpose, the film captures that splendidly, sinking into its time, one I barely remember, having been a child at the time, but which is nevertheless burned into me because I was a child at that time and this was the world I was born into.

School for Scoundrels starred a fourway cast of Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas, Janette Scott and the under-utilised Alastair Sim. It’s based on Stephen Potter’s once famous Gamesmanship books, sketch books of situations turned to one’s advantage, justifying the film’s sub-title of or; How to win without actually Cheating.

Carmichael is Henry Palfrey. The film starts with his arrival at Yeovil train station and following, across abandoned and waste ground, of a series of pointing finger placards that direct him to the College of Lifemanship (prop. S. Potter) where he is going to learn how not to be a loser. Alastair Sim is Potter and is wonderful because he is Alastair Sim.

Palfrey (this is the Fifties, men addressed each other by their surnames, just as I did my schoolmates when I went to Grammar School in 1966, it was ingrained) is a gentle, easy-going and therefore put upon soul. He runs a family firm whose employees ignore him, and at which he is ruled by the Chief Clerk Gloatbridge, with constant reference to Palfrey’s ‘late Uncle’. He loves tennis but has been dropped from the weekend match. Everyone takes advantage of him.

But Palfrey has met April Smith (Scott), a nice-looking, slim-figured young woman, bumping into her as he leaps aboard a London bus from which she is alighting (the old fashioned, open-platformed buses with conductors). He invites her to dinner at a really swanky restaurant that refuses to seat them at first, because his name is mis-spelled, and then because they are late – from this faffing around. Enter Terry-Thomas, playing his usual snake-like lecherous smoothy as Raymond Delauney, who sets out to seduce April under Palfrey’s nose.

This includes inviting her to watch a ‘friendly’ game of tennis with Palfrey in which Delauney drives April in his hot-spot Bellini sports car (actually a re-shaped Aston Martin – even the car names are a glorious nostalgia) and one-ups Palfrey every step of the way, humiliating him in front of April,

The plot therefore is very simply. Palfrey enrols at Yeovil, learns all the ploys, and is accompanied by Potter on his ‘field trials’ in which he turns the tables on the crooked Welsh car dealers (Dennis Price and Peter Jones) who originally conned him into buying a total lemon of a car, getting them to take it back in exchange for a nifty little sports model and 100 guineas (guineas, ye Gods!).

He also asserts himself as the boss of his firm, by the simple expedient of introduing an error into the cash register to make a total £10 out before setting out to totally infuriate Delauney over a return match, not to mention screw him up over April. It’s beautifully played, with Carmichael investing Palfrey with a slightly artificial confidence overlaying a genuine confidence, turning up in tartan flannel shirt and old and baggy trousers, playing with an ease and deliberate slowness with one hand in his pocket to the ever-increasing frustration of the properly be-whited Delauney, getting increasingly unnerved at how everything is going against him without understanding how or why.

From there, Palfrey segues perfectly into taking April out for a drink, which metamorphoses into a drink at his flat, during which he employs a ploy telegraphed from earlier in the film to get her to spill her whiskey and soda all down her dress. April has to change into Palfrey’s over-sized dressing gown whilst her dress is being dried before the fire, from which it is but a step to decoying her into the bedroom to avoid being seen in compromising circumstances, a laugh at how sexless a woman looks in a man’s dressing room from ‘Uncle Henry’…

I’d like to drop out for a moment to coment on how backwards-looking this section is. The truly sexless atmosphere of the film, and its comedic naievete spares the film, but what we have here is a pretty basic demonstration of how to trick a woman into bed. The Potter book this is based upon is Woomanship, whose actual sub-title is quoted, being, ‘How to be one-up on a woman without actually marrying her’. It’s a precursor of the infamous book, The Game by Neil Strauss, and it’s a queasy undertaking. I confess that it’s only my nostalgia, slipping back into the time of the film, understanding its essential innocence, that keeps me from being heavily criticial of this section.

But Henry, on the point of sharing a very passionate (but still closed-mouth kiss) with an attractive woman, who is wearing only his dressing gown and her underwear, in his bedroom, not a yard from a double bed… catches sight of himself in the mirror and repents instantly. He wants April to dress and he’ll drive her home. He can’t go through with it.

Which makes all the difference. Because Delauney has seen Potter at the tennis club, trailed him and, offscreen, bearded him. Delauney pounds on Palfrey’s door, calling him out as all manner of cad, rotter and rat (for wanting to do to April what Delauney wants to do) and acting all possessive to her, here to save her, exposing what Palfrey’s done: from couch to bedroom in three easy steps.

April recognises how she has been betrayed. But Henry stopped, Henry reversed himself. And that made the difference. Potter shushes Delauney, who can’t understand why he, from so utterly winning a position, is suddenly the loser. Potter sees the birth of a new ploy but it’s not. Henry loves April, and April loves Henry. And now they’re kissing, in a room full of people, one of whom, Mr S. Potter, is seriously embarrassed. It’s the one thing that Oneupmanship cannot defeat: sincerity. And it is dreadful.

And Alistair Sim approaches the camera and addresses it, apologising to the audience for how things have turned out, and then his face twists in pain as he addresses the Orchestra, who are filling the air with romantic music as Henry and April kiss and hug and kiss and hug (lucky blighter) with Sim telling the band to stop that infernal din…

And the last shot is the train station at Yeovil and the pointing finger signs, but the man who’s gotten off the train is Raymond Delauney…

Ah, nostalgia. School for Scoundrels isn’t really a film, in the sense of a story. It’s just a string of cyncically funny ideas from three of Stephen Potter’s books given a rough shape. The film is about set-ups, sketches, and in the case of the final sequence, rather dodgy ones too. It’s heaped with familiar British actors and actresses making cameos with skill and professionalism, and it’s graced with a strong principal cast whose combined abilities elevate the film.

Like I said, Alastair Sim, a great and subtle comic presence, is under-utilised: at greater length his ability to undercut comedy with a faintly cynical aspect would have made the gamesmansip even funnier, but perhaps that would have been at the expense of the film’s essential innocence. Janette Scott, a very popular actress of the period with a wide range, whose fame has not carried on in the manner of her three co-stars, is also undercharged. She’s a perfectly lovely, fresh, self-possessed and genuine girl of the late Fifties, utterly natural, but April Smith’s role is entirely passive by the nature of the story. April is the ‘prize’ and she is acted upon throughout, which is a shame but only to be expected.

Ah, nostalgia. One definition is the art of seeing the past through rose-tinted glasses, more potently when it comes to your own past. School for Scoundrels is a film that saw the present through rose-coloured glasses so the two tie up together nicely. As I get further away from the beginning of my life I find it increasingly important to capture as much of it as I can. This still sunny, golden Sunday morning has been perfect for it.

Batman: Three Jokers 1 – addendum


A good idea, or what?

A little bit of early morning abstract thought when waiting to come round left me with a few more considerations about the current Geoff Johns/Jason Fabok miniseries.

I said in the main review of issue one that what interested me about the story were the questions, such as: Why are there three Jokers? That’s what came into my head from a slightly different perspective, as What’s the point of having three Jokers?

When the idea was first mooted, as a throwaway line from DC Universe: Rebirth, it was instantly fascinating. It seemed full of possibilities. That it has taken four years to realise has weighted the notion down with more clear-headed consideration. The delay has made it feel unimportant and peripheral. It’s deflection into a Black Label project has undermined the idea since Black Label comics – as I understand them to be, having never bought one before – are only in continuity to the extent that reader reaction supports cherry-picking the most favoured ideas into the DC Universe.

What’s the point of three Jokers? The Joker is and always has been an iconic figure. He’s Batman’s main enemy and his polar opposite. The Batman is a detective, a creature of rationality, and the Joker is Irrationality personified. He is protean, unpredictable, sinister and comic. He is comedian and killer and madman, and the point of this mixture is that he is all of these things and at once.

Breaking the Joker down into three characters inevitably diminshes this and him. The only hint Johns gives in issue 1 is that each Joker represents a factor, which to my mind not only undermines the Joker but destroys him instantly. Yes, the Joker has been portrayed in many different ways down the eighty years he has existed, bt then again so have Batman and Superman so why don’t we have three (or more) of them?

If Johns intends to break the characteristics of the Joker down into three people, each one a separate aspect, he is doing the Clown Prince a massive disservice. He is making him ordinary.

There’s no evidence yet of what Johns is actually doing. Another option is that all three are but slight variations of one another, but that also undermines the concept. It more than just terebles the implausibility if all three are created the same, or if they have different origins it removes the Joker’s uniqueness, not to mention the question of how likely it is that one Joker will collaborate with another, let alone two more.

I stress I’m not yet ragging on Johns. He has two issues to demonstrate his ingenuity and come up with an explanation for his idea that has weight, promise and freshness. My mind is open until then. Though shaded by my lack of enthusiasm for his other work, which has never wholly convinced me.

But short of some genius move, I think the idea of three Jokers is a bad step per se, that cannot help but damage the integrity of the character irretrievably. And there have been enough stupid moves by DC that have done stuff like that in recent years.

Lou Grant: s05 e03 – Reckless


Yes, ossifer?

After two strong and direct episodes, each with a clear storyline, we were back to the A/B model this week, with a diffusing effect. Granted, the two storylines were more equal in weight than has been seen for some time, giving the B story more strength than usual, but as always, two competing threads ran the risk of not cohering, and failed to totally convince.

It didn’t help that the supposedly comic open, of Lou waking up at home with an appalling hangover that rendered him semi-human, cod cliche joke about putting his shoes in the fridge, etc., was more disturbing than comic. The drinking theme continued, as if he’d never entirely sobered up, and it resulted in him being busted for drunk driving, after being pulled over by the Police for having a busted taillight, caused by giving Charlie a lift.

The need to give Charlie a lift was the catalyst for the A story. Charlie’s car was busted into in broad daylight, with no-one ‘seeing anything’. The irate Charlie proposed, with hearty police support, and lukewarm support from Mrs Pynchon, an anonymous tip-line, Private Eye (some people’s imagination is sooo limited), run by the Trib. An anonymous caller with an English accent phones in a tip about a murder.

On the one hand, we have Lou, who is guilty, going through the programme, consisting of community service that causes him to miss a great game, accompanied by Billie to report on the same, culminating with the two taking the drunk driving test run: a deliberately difficult course to be driven sober at top speed before the drivers are then rendered legally intoxicated with free, Police-bought beer, before driving the course again, with predictable outcomes.

This relatively straight expose of the risks of drunk driving and how quickly you hit that drunk stage had the necessary effect: nobody stopped drinking until they were blootered but at least they now took cabs or, for a comic ending, all begged lifts off Rossi.

Who was the major figure in the A story. Rossi’s uncomfortable with the whole Private Eye thing, his natural suspicions about everything automatically, and seriously, anatomising its possible flaws. The murder tip identifies a suspect whio becomes an accused, an accused whose right to confront his accuser is being denied by the absolute privacy afforded the tipster. Who will get $2,500.00 for a conviction. Doubts set in immediately.

Rossi tries to find the tipster, in breach of the conditions of Private Eye, This outrages Charlie, especially when Rossi’s investigations threaten to undermine everything by his failure to find a woman with an English accent associated with any of the houses from which the murder could be seen. Lou sends him back to recheck, whereupon he finds, by chance, the Englishwoman realtor selling the empty house…

So, the tip was solid, the suspect was guilty, Private Eye worked, but it could so easily have been the other way round. that’s enough to shake Charlie, whose enthusiasm for the scheme is now wavering, and when a civic group offers to take it over, the Trib jump at it.

It’s a reminder of an older time, once again, where you could talk about journalistic integrity without horse laughs. Yes, I know, the Trib’s reporting staff are ideals, paragons sans fear, sans dishonesty, for whom chequebook journalism is an anathema, and it went on then, but wouldn’t you just love to think that the modern crop might investigate the tips they pay for instead of writing them up as stories because they sound good, not because they’re true.

Both strands were decent stories but there was little or no synergy and each ultimately detracted from the other. Still, let’s give the last season a bit more time to show it’s more episodes 1/2 than 3, eh?

A Time with Townsend: John Rowe Townsend’s ‘The Intruder’


It’s over four years now since I heard mention of, and immediately ordered on Amazon, the 1971 Sunday tea-time serial, The Intruder, based on the John Rowe Townsend novel of the same name. We watched it avidly, week in, week out, my mother, my sister and me. We enjoyed it, or at least I did, as a story, but we watched it because it was filmed in Ravenglass, and Grandad Crookall was born in Ravenglass, and they still recognised our name in the Village in those days.
After watching the series, I found the novel in the Library and borrowed it. At pushing sixteen I was getting a bit old for children’s writers, but under the steely glare of my mother, who wasn’t going to let me grow into a man any time soon, there was no crossing to the adult Fiction side yet. (No, I was sneaking into the Front Room when she was out, and poring over Dad’s books in the low bookcase he’d built all along one wall, and reading some bits of Dennis Wheatley: I’ll write about that one day, maybe).
The book was different from the series, as you might expect, but I enjoyed it. Townsend was a more serious, naturalistic children’s writer, who didn’t deal in thrillers but children in real situations: I wasn’t reading beneath my age as usual. I borrowed other books, as many as the Library could offer. They were a mixed bag, some satisfied me more than others. Besides, by 1972 he’d only written ten books so I couldn’t have read more of them than that, and once I was allowed to cross over – all it took, to my immeasurable surprise, was complaining once that I couldn’t find anything to read and I was casually told to try the other side – I forgot my children’s authors.
Not forever, obviously.
But after four and a half years of waiting for my Amazon order to be fulfilled, I have come to the conclusion that the DVD is never going to be released. The series, though good, never hit the heights of the classic in that slot, The Owl Service, and I suspect that the enthusiasts like me who remember it happily (and who want to gaze again at Ravenglass, fifty years ago) are too low for commercial viability. I’m keeping the order open, just in case.
But if you can’t watch the series again, why not read the book? And whilst I can’t remember the other books I read then, though one random scene remains vividly in my mind, source unknown, there were two linked novels I do recall enjoying, and reading more than once, so a quick trawl of eBay and Amazon got me the three, and an enjoyable little spell of reading, and blogging.
Having written the above, a chance connection brought back to mind a possibility for the book of my vivid memory, which turned out to be accurate so that too in is the bag for this short series.
The Intruder was Townsend’s sixth novel, published in 1969 and, like Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, very quickly picked up by Granada for an eight-part Sunday tea-time serial. It’s set in and around Skirlston, a coastal village on the edge of the Lake District, which has a similar past to Ravenglass. But that’s where the comparison ends.
Townsend sets the tone for the book in a short, opening chapter, a single page, describing Skirlston in grim and overwhelmingly depressing terms that hang over the book like a pall. The effect is intended, and it’s apposite to the story Townsend has to tell, but it certainly doesn’t make the book light reading.
That story centres upon Arnold Haithwaite. Arnold’s aged about sixteen. He lives with his ‘Dad’, Ernest, at Cottontree House, named for the West Indian cotton tree growing up the front of it, which is the village’s small general store, as well as a small-time, unattractive guest house. Arnold fishes on the sands, does odd jobs but is mainly a Sand Pilot.
The Sand Pilot does the job of its equivalent across Morecambe Sands. Arnold guides trippers from Skirlston across the shifting sands, channels and currents of its bay, to the derelict former Church on Church Island (which is only ever a real island in full flood conditions) and back. Arnold’s not the real Sand Pilot: this is the Admiral, Joe Hardwick, who’s getting on in years and stomach. Joe is Admiral of the Sands under the official appointment of the Duchy of Furness (the recently invested Prince of Wales), but in five years time he will officially hand his title down to Arnold, when the latter is 21. It’s all agreed. Arnold may be young, but he’s as much an expert in the sands as the Admiral.
So this is Arnold Haithwaite, whose real beginnings aren’t known. He’s not Ernest’s son: that was Frank, long dead. Ernest knows where Arnold comes from but he won’t tell, not until it’s time, which looks like being never. It’s not a big thing with Arnold, though it does concern him, who he really is. This mystery sets up the story.
Because there’s a man who wants guiding from Church Island to the village, where he’s going to be staying overnight at Cottontree House.
And even before he drops his bombshell, there’s something disturbing about the intruder. He’s a middle-aged man, nothing much to look at, ordinary, except for his glass eye. But there’s an atmosphere around him. The way he bridles at Arnold, attempting to guide him safely, because he doesn’t like people telling him want to do, his talk about being a businessman, not that he looks like it, with access to funds and big plans that Arnold could have a part in. There’s something off about him, something that exists at an angle to ordinary life.
Then, after learning Arnold’s name, after checking papers in his own pocket, the intruder gives his own name. And it’s Arnold Haithwaite.
Fifty years on, it doesn’t seem like much of a revelation. There can be more than one Arnold Haithwaite in the world. Arnold isn’t too bothered about it immediately. When the intruder – who I will now call Sonny, given that the only person in the book who knows him from outside, his supposed girlfriend Miss Binns, says that he usually goes by Sonny Smith – tries to drown Arnold on the crossing, which he denies later, things change.
Because Sonny claims to be Ernest’s nephew, by his later brother Tom. Sonny claims to be family. Sonny wants to look after his aged uncle, to improve Cottontree House. Sonny wants in, and Arnold out. Sonny wants to undermine Arnold at every turn, Sonny is the one who wants to be the only Arnold Haithwaite there is.
And Sonny has big ideas and a dislike of being laughed at or contradicted. Sonny’s going to transform Skirlston, turn it into a luxury resort, with a marina and an underground car park where the Admiral can take tickets, dressed up in a comic uniform. In this he’s fantasising: between the bay and the solid bedrock on which Skirlston exists, his ideas are beyond possible. It would actually be cheaper to try removing the village in its entirety by some kind of cosmic scoop and dropping an entirely different piece of land in its place.
Sonny doesn’t see it like that. Sonny sees people who disagree with him as enemies, obstructers, knockers. The Admiral can’t stop laughing at the very idea, which means he is unable to take Sonny seriously. Ernest falls for being looked after, staying in bed, breakfast brought to him. He’s getting steadily weaker, the longer Sonny feeds him, rallies a bit when Sonny returns to Cobchester for a few days (Cobchester is Manchester) and starts to weaken again the moment he’s back.
Arnold only has two allies, or rather one and a half. These are the Ellisons, Jane and Peter, 15 and 13 respectively. They’re staying at the equivalent of the Manor House whilst their father works as an engineer at the Nuclear Power Plant under construction up the coast. Their mother is a brilliant caricature, captured in a few speeches as the self-imagined epitome of sweet reasonableness and progressive parenting that treats children as adults, but behind it a clear snob and social climber.
The children befriend Arnold, though it’s more Peter than Jane. Peter is very intelligent, very proactive, encouraging and determined to help but he’s 13 with all that implies about his effectiveness. Jane, on the other hand, is a very attractive but distant, self-centred young woman who spends most of her time either being tutored in Latin by Jeremy (Jeremy!) or else going out on long drives with him, with her mother’s blessing (he’s called Jeremy, with all that applies to class distinctions) despite the fact he’s got to be at least eighteen, and is spending so much time alone with a girl under sixteen. Read into that what you will: I have.
Arnold is helpless. Sonny outmatches him on every level, but then Sonny lives in another world, with the advantage of conviction in what he is doing, untroubled by our reality. Peter trails him secretly to Cobchester, discovers Sonny’s ‘residence’ in the derelict Gumble’s Yard (Townsend’s first novel in 1961) but has been known to Sonny all along, and comes very close to being dropped into the canal, and not to swim. Sonny’s world may be Sonny’s alone, but he can impose it on anyone in his immediate vicinity.
Arnold gives up. He’ll leave Skirlston, fins a live-in job at a farm, finds just such a job. And between Peter and Miss Hardy, who owns the Manor House where the Ellisons live, and who is on first name terms with the Duchy Agent, puts Arnold on the trail of the truth, of who he really is.
Arnold is so defeated, he refuses to pick up this trail. Peter has to drag him into it. And in its way it’s a sordid truth. He’s Ernest’s grandson, son of Frank and a flighty hairdresser named Beryl, an illegitimate child, hence the hushing up as it’s not respectable.
But Arnold’s reached a point that he doesn’t care, even before Beryl’s sister points out that it’s just as likely, in fact more likely, that he’s actually the son of the Cardiff seaman she ran off with after abandoning. Arnold has been defeated. He’s given way, going elsewhere, inland.
Peter has one last card to play. The Duchy Agent is visiting Miss Henry. Peter drags Arnold and his story before him. He’s not impressed by heredity, even before Arnold admits his likely alternate parent, but the news that Sonny is renaming Cottontree House as Bay Lodge Private Hotel, and that he intends to cut down the cotton tree rouses the Agent. He storms down to Cotttree House, to see Ernest. Arnold has to let him in at the back. The moment he sees Ernest, he’s off to demand a Doctor. Arnold stays behind. With sonny.
And Sonny is not pleased. Sonny’s world is brushing up against the only authority that can crush it, the Duchy that owns everything and which means to keep Skirlston as it is and always had been. Even so, Sonny won’t recognise obstacles. And Arnold has collaborated. It’s not enough that he go away.
Arnold runs, out into the Bay that he knows, the storm, the rising tide, the flood, pursued by Sonny who means to drown him. But this is Arnold’s world, here is where he is, incontrovertibly, Arnold Haithwaite. Against his conscience as the Sand Pilot, he leads Sonny on, partly trying to escape, partly leading him to his death.
He ends up at Church Island, now an island, cut off from sands and land. Jane is there, self-centred, self-hating Jane, whose recklessness has stranded her here and Jeremy the other end of the Causeway. Jane who will die for her own ignorance if it were not for Arnold and his knowledge, finding a bolt-hole above the floodwater streaming into the Church. Alive and holding each other all night. In the morning, there is Sonny’s body, his official identification by Miss Binns, and another surprise.
Townswend provides two endings for the book. The second one is a single page chapter, an epilogue, three years on. Skirlston is still Skirlston, what it was. It’s further dead and only time remains before it is dead completely. Ernest lived another two years. Arnold is now the only Sand Pilot, officially acknowledged, but he cannot be appointed Admiral until he is 21. Peter and Jane have moved on with their father’s next job. Peter’s intelligence means he is rising. Jane failed Latin. She has not seen Arnold or Jeremy in a long time, but occasionally she thinks of each of them. Arnold is courting Nora Desmond, a girl of his own age, a very minor background character seen twice in the story. The Sand Pilot job will last his life and that’s enough. Skirlston is still what it was. Nothing has changed it nor ever will. We have gone round in not a circle but a diversion that means nothing.
The other ending was the contents of Sonny Smith’s wallet. He was a fake, an obvious fake, always making his claims about being Arnold Haithwaite, being Ernest’s nephew after he’d been given the information to utilise. But his real name is Arnold Haithwaite, and he was Tom’s son. The Intruder was who he pretended to be all along and the copper confirms it and says that he doesn’t know who ‘our’ Arnold is.
From beginning to end without going anywhere that makes a difference. You may ask yourself then what was the point of the story. There I can’t help you. You must read and decide for yourself. The Intruder is a grim and gloomy book, depressing reading throughout. Ravenglass was, physically, the ideal choice for location filming, but Ravenglass, then, now and forever, is not the dead and dying Skirlston in any respect. Just a place, but another world.
I still want to see the TV series. As far as I remember, it followed the book fairly faithfully. Milton Johns played a superb part as Sonny, and I’m sure Jack Woolgar featured as Ernest. I’m pretty confident that the relationship between Arnold and Jane was played up far further romantically than the book ever suggests. I do know that Norma Desmond was plucked out of the background and placed in an active role as almost a fourth wheel to the teenagers, in opposition to Jane as far as Arnold was concerned. Just release the boxset and let me find out properly.
I don’t think I’ll re-read the book much but I will keep it. It deserves its plaudits and the award it won. But I don’t recognise it as the fringe of the Lake District that I know, even as I do recognise it as part of the move in Children’s publishing away from the middle class lives and adventures of the likes of Malcolm Saville. It is exactly of its time, in that part of the Sixties that was not optimistic, bright and forward-looking but representing the kind of lives the Sixties was supposed to rescue us from.

Person of Interest: s05 e03 – Truth be Told


A normal life

Within this episode, Person of Interest came as close as it could to reminding us of the sleek, elegant, tightly-plotted procedural we first discovered. There was a Number of the Week to be investigated, Alex Duncan (Stephen Plunkett), to be tracked and traced at close range by John Reese in a secure cover prepared in advance by Harold Finch. Why was he taking photographs of classified documents? Was he a spy, betraying people who will die? Was he in danger from his actions? Questions we used to relish finding answers to.

But this is season 5. It’s short. What would have been twenty-two, twenty-three episodes have to be got through in thirteen. Phantom branches, stories set in motion, have to be cut off. Nothing is what it seems to be any more. Even Finch’s monologue to introduce the episode is perverted, intercut with the voice of Greer, twisting the words to speak them from Samaritan’s perspective.

The episode started in flashback, to 2010, Reese still a CIA agent. He and Kara Stanton are assigned to investigate a Major in Afghanistan, suspected of involvement with a missing shipment of Stinger Missiles, Major Brent Tomlinson. They’re assigned by Special Agent Terence Beale (Keith David).

In the present, Reese is trying to lead a more normal life. He’s late for a lunch date with Iris Campbell and her parents because he’s punching out a would-be killer in the toilets. Then he’s trailing Alex Duncan, until the Number is picked up off the street. By the CIA. By Beale.

Root is working too. She’s sent by the Machine to become a UPS package deliverer, wearing those dark blue mid-thigh length shorts that could make anyone look ridiculous. Why is she doing that? Because a massive number of packages from electronics companies are being diverted to an incorrect address before being re-routed to their proper destination.

Reese has a problem. The flashback is moving forward inexorably. He and Stanton invade Tomlinson’s quarters. She does the talking. Reese stays still and silent. Tomlinson talks, cynical but straight, the innocent man, until he starts to bluster and Reese shoots him. Only afterwards does Stanton find the money. Reese didn’t know where it was, obvious as the hiding place had become. But he knew that Tomlinson doth protest too much.

And he’s determined to pull out Duncan, despite the fact that if Beale makes him – and we know he will – it will spell disaster. John Reese is dead, and he’d better stay that way. But Reese has a Number to protect. He will not be deflected by considerations of his own safety. He gets Duncan out, temporarily.

But for long enough to find out why Duncan was snooping. It was about his older brother, Paul, dying ‘heroically’ in action yet in circumstances the military won’t reveal. Why? How? Time and again the questions that demand answers. The answer was that Paul Duncan was on assignment under a false name. That of Brent Tomlinson.

It’s an answer Reese can’t give him. But it’s an answer Terence Beale might, capturing Reese, a Ghost, and Duncan, with intent to quiz. Beale taunts both, coming close to spilling beans that Reese is determined to keep in the pot. Duncan knows his brother was under investigation. Reese tells Duncan that his brother was innocent, and did die, heroically, in a late air-strike. Beale, for reasons of his own but, on the face of it, a mixture of surprise and amiration, backs him up. Alex has the answer he wants, the only one that will shut him down, end his quest, allow him to move on. Reese gets him away.

Root enlists Finch to check one of the packages now heading to the right address. They discover malware, serious malware, that steals all a computer’s data and sends it to Samaritan. It does more but what it does is unknown. Finch doesn’t want to touch it, fearful of the risk. But the Machine has sent another Number, a long one, all in binary. It’s an Emily Dickinson poem, about metamorphosis. About Change.

Root runs the malware on an isolated laptop, to see what it will do. They are in a War. They have to change. They have to take the Risk or they’ve already lost. A strand put in place.

Beale pops up at the end, on the street. Duncan is far away and if he’s ever hassled again, the story of ‘Brent Tomlinson’ will come out. As for Reese, Beale’s omitted him from his report. What for? Good question, to which there is no real answer. Respect for Reese. An understanding that what he is doing is not far removed from his old job but directed towards saving, not taking lives? Beale likes the idea of knowing that Reese is out there, a Ghost. Pity Beale never comes back.

One final flashback, to set up the ending of a phantom branch. Kara Stanton tells Reese why he was chosen: because he has had no family since his adoptive mother died. Because he has no-one to go back to. Neither does she. People like them, they don’t get to lead a normal life.

So John Reese puts an end to his attempt to lead a normal life with Iris Campbell. She accepts with rather more equanimity than I might have expected, but then she reads people for a living, and anyway, time is running short, both in this episode and in overall terms. No time for this story, a thread laid in planning for six seasons, to be cut off when all you get is four and a half. Mr Reese, we have a new Number. You don’t get to lead a normal life.