Another week of rumbustuous fun as Sarah shows that she’s not to be taken too seriously as an American spy (after all, she’s only a woman) and Jake goes undercover in the grand tradition of complete unpreparedness as we shift from a private adventure to grand Nazi treachery.
It’s a minor thing but I really do not like how Tales of the Gold Monkey opens each episode with a mini-highlights reel of stuff from the episode. It’s a relic of adventure series, especially American, where the viewer has to be dragged in upfront by a promise of what’s to come, capturing the eyeballs before they can change the channel to something else.
It’s an archaic practice that has died out now but in these days when I take great pains to avoid spoilers ahead of episodes, it’s frustrating to be treated to an inbuilt one. Then again, what can I do about a thirty-five year old series? Just because it did enough to remove most of the element of surprise from the story?
The episode started with some spectacular storm scenes, torrential rain, forked lightning, a gigantic cartoon bomb plastered with swastikas and lacking only the burning fuse being hauled into an underground cavern by native slaves overlooked by arrogant Germans. And the Goose carrying Dr Johnnie Kimball (a forebear of Richard?) to Bora Gora.
Kimball’s the perfect, slightly sleazy American, his face a sheen of sweat (everybody except Sarah and Bonne Chance Louie wears one, under the South Pacific sun), complete with powder blue light suit and panama hat. He looks like a baddie to begin with, precisely because he doesn’t look line anything but the kind of guy traveling the islands, out for himself.
Meanwhile, a quartet of natives have escaped from the slave island, a volcanic lagoon, taking with them one of those shining silver canisters that we instinctively recognise as containing a radioactive isotope, which they have lifted from a safe. The poor primitives think it is God, but if it is God then it is Shiva, the destroyer of worlds. Once the canister is unscrewed, an unearthly blue glow dominates the screen.
We are foreshadowing history here. The German experiment is in trying to build a master bomb, pre-atomic, big enough to destroy an island when detonated. Kimball is a traitor, defecting to the Germans to help them. Sarah has her orders, transmitted by radio from an American destroyer, relaying them from Manilla.
Everything comes together quickly. Jake sees the outrigger in the ocean, lands the Goose (in shark-infested waters!), rescues the last surviving native, the one clutching the cylinder, and with the help of Corky and Kimball, gets him to Bora Gora, but not in time to save him. There’s a ridiculous but amusing little sequence as the cylinder passes from hand to hand: Corky picks it up absent-mindedly, Kimball gets him ‘snottered’ and nicks it, Sarah vamps him back to her room where she promptly Mickey Finn’s him and retrieves it, only for our resident idiot German spy, the Reverend Willie to pilfer it our of the window and return it to the visiting Germans when they come to collect the defecting Dr Kimball (he’s got to be at least an Uncle…)
This is where things shift rapidly. Manilla spills the beans to Sarah that Kimball is actually a double agent, not a real defector. That puts our favourite redhead on the spot. You see, because she’s a woman and therefore not trusted to be efficient, like a man, she’s over-Mickeyed Kimball, giving him not the prescribed thimbleful but a whole jigger’s worth, and now he’s dead to the world. And guess which freelance, unshaven, plane-flying guy has to impersonate Kimball, despite not having any of the skills or knowledge Kimball has to offer (hell, nobody, not even the show, knows what Kimball’s actually there to do)?
So Jake heads off in a power launch, with Corky flying the Goose to track him, and Sarah relaying info to the destroyer, until Jake’s transferred to a U-Boat. Meanwhile, Willie’s spotted that the guy in the powder-blue suit joshing with the Germans is someone he knows and is agonising over whether to dob Jake in, given that our man Cutter will be executed on the spot, and Willie likes Jake (so does Princess Koji, but she’s not in this one). Unfortunately, Louie tips Willie’s hand towards his duty, not knowing what his advice is being sought for.
This information arrives just when Jake is about to be exposed anyway. Our fanatical German scientist is a keen duellist and Kimball only happens to be a former American fencing champion, which Jake is not (I love the way in which Jake is being played as a genuine and imperfect amateur, and not a multi-talented prodigy). Instead of running Jake through, Herr Doktor will leave him on the island, with the natives: the bomb will go off in about forty minutes…
But forty minutes is ample time for a) Corky’s dodgy memory, prodded by Jack’s bark – two barks definitely is ‘yes’ – to backtrack yesterday’s course to find the island, and b) Jake to come up with a plan, prodded by Corky’s chance remark. They can’t defuse the bomb, they can’t evacuate everybody in the Goose, but they can use the plane to haul the Black Pearl far enough out into the bottomless lagoon to spill it into the water. Ninety seconds of tumbling downwards into the depths and the only effect of the bomb is to displace a lot of water skywards, from where it descends to drench everyone. “Oh well,” says Corky, “I needed a bath anyway.”
And that’s it apart from a clearly worried Jake ironically foreshadowing like mad, asking the now-awake Kimball if a bomb of that size really is possible? No, assures Kimball, but we don’t need our knowledge of 1945 to tell us that he isn’t being completely honest…
It’s as I said. It’s a compilation of cliches, given the odd little twist here and there, but it’s a fond and affectionate recreation that gets the balance right of the level of modern irony and too-clever-for-this. Bellisario is no Lorenzo Semple Jr, whose Batman and then-recent Flash Gordon nakedly revealed his contempt for the stupidity of those who loved the original material: we are invited to recognise the flaws and the deliberately ignored logic because these are the fundaments of the form and the aim is recognition and delight.
There are some aspects of the show that have not worn well in the intervening years, and I’ve already alluded to the way Sarah’s being played as ‘a mere woman’, but I’m not going to get into those here, but rather later in the series. It’s enough to recognise that Tales of the Gold Monkey perfectly fits those words of John O’Neil, writing for The Undertones:
It’s been a while since I’ve felt sufficiently irritated by the Guardian‘s patented brand of garbage that I indulge myself myself in one of these kickings, but here we are again, with another piece of egregious stupidity.
The recent death of Adam West has brought forth an outpouring of nostalgia and genuine affection for a man who, by all accounts, was an intelligent, thoughtful and genuinely nice person, whose career was effectively blighted by the one role for which he was known. Most people who worked with him have made it clear that he was a talented actor, capable of much more subtle work than was required by his role as Batman/Bruce Wayne, but which was denied him because of his indelible association with the ‘Biff! Bam! Pow!’ TV series.
People have been falling over themselves to praise West’s portrayal of Batman, and to contrast it with the modern day interpretations that take the character seriously. Naturally, I disagree. But that doesn’t make these people wrong. Nor does it make their affection solely justifiable by nostalgia. I say again, they like that Batman, I don’t, and there is nothing more to be said.
However, a guy named Jack Bernhardt clearly thinks there is much more to be said, and he says it here. Please go read: I’ll still be hear when you return.
At base, it’s the same old story that has inspired many previous ‘Crap Journalism’ posts. Person has Opinion. Person mistakes Opinion for Universal Truth incorporating bitchy put-downs of everyone – usually the overwhelming majority – that disagrees with him or her. Advancement of human knowledge: zero, even if the opinion being offered is of some kind of merit.
In a way, Bernhardt’s contempt for anyone who regards not merely Batman but any superhero in any way remotely seriously is apt for someone defending the 1960’s series, because it exactly mirrors the attitude of the people making Batman for the character, the concept and, most appalling, the audience who bought the comics and wanted to see a decent treatment of the character onscreen.
This is not to say that a less-than-wholly-reverent approach to a character is an abomination before God, or at least that part of the audience that represents the concept. I have seen hundreds of spoofs and parodies and send-ups and absurdist deconstructions and I have seen plenty that I found hilarious. Without exception, the ones that have worked best, for example, The Princess Bride, are done by people who know and understand the subject matter, who can be completely aware of its inherent flaws, weaknesses, absurdities yet still share some level of enjoyment of the original. This gives them the insight to accurately, vividly and perceptively take the piss, without ever extending that disdain to the audience, because they know why people love these stupid, silly and flawed things in the first place.
Producer William Dozier and writer Lorenzo Semple Jr., thought Batman’s fans were morons. They despised them for the crime of liking the character, of seeing something of worth in it, and they set out to effectively fart in that audience’s face. Batman runs unconvincingly around a pier, carrying a bomb so cartoonish it only lacks the word bomb in big white letters painted on it. People get in his way, nuns, a woman with a baby carriage. They are ridiculously oblivious to a man waving a cartoon bomb around. Even a gaggle of fiendishly cute ducklings frustrate Batman’s attempts to dispose of this bomb before it goes off and, guess what, kills everybody horribly.
Bernhardt thinks this makes Batman a likeable, punning character and, get this, genuinely anti-authoritarian. He seems not to notice that by creating this scenario, the people involved are pissing all over a character they cannot sustain belief in for a moment, and which they cannot understand anyone with their level of sophistication, intelligence and taste holding any belief whatsoever. So does Bernhardt, whose piece reeks of superiority.
If he likes this version of Batman, let him. The series was made, it cannot be undone or changed, and I’d be very wary of it if it were. It was a comedy, but there is no real humour, or point, in any comedy that exists simply to say, “You’re all so fucking dumb for liking this.” There is no purpose or comedy to be made from ripping into something you can’t understand because by definition, you’re not so much going to miss the point as going to miss that there ever was a point to begin with.
And as with Dozier and Semple, so too with Berhardt, the only thing remaining from your supposed enthusiasm for your opinion is your overriding smugness at having one.
As you know by now, there’s this thing between me and Quark-episodes. I just don’t respond to them, so it doesn’t really matter how good or otherwise they are, I do not have enough interest to grade them.
According to the programme itself, ”Body Parts’ shows how deep and complex a character Quark is, and examines him as to his moral principles and self-examination. According to me, Quark is about as deep as a dried-up puddle, the worst kind of comic relief character, i.e., he isn’t remotely funny, and the story was a complete miss.
For form’s sale, I’ll outline it. Quark is diagnosed as having a rare and fatal Ferenghi disease. In order to raise money to pay off his debts, he sells his vacuum-dessicated body for 500 bars of latinum, a secret purchase by his archenemy, Brunt, FCA. But by the time Brunt arrives to claim his merchandise, Quark has found out he was misdiagnosed and isn’t dying after all. Brunt, who despises Quark for his un-Ferenghi ways, insists on his goods. Quark hires Garak to kill him (a ‘plot-twist’ that’s left dangling by the crappy and seriously twee ending) but decides he wants to live. So he breaks the contract, causing himself to undergo complete confiscation of assets, not only for himself but his entire family but, in an ending that ignores every implication of the plot in favour of tugging at your heart-strings in the hope that whilst sobbing into whatever strong drink you’re consuming just to get through this heap of tat your brain will be on vacation, all Quark’s ‘friends’ drop by to restock the entire bar with stuff they just happen to need to story somewhere convenient, leaving the Ferenghi businessman speechless at generosity of a kind that, as a determined Ferenghi businessman, he spits on with disgust.
I’m not even going to pick this apart. It’s a crappy idea centred on a crappy characters and written so as to avoid any of the logic of the situation it sets up. It diskards it.
There is a perfunctory B story, forced upon the series by events, namely Nana Visitor’s rapidly advancing pregnancy. Ms Visitor was now at the point where either Kira had to become pregnant or she wouldn’t be filmed below the neck. Fortuitously, Keiko O’Brien was pregnant, so ingeniously the pair and Bashir are off on a brief Gamma Quadrant mission, during which there’s an explosion that injures Keiko, enough so that to save the baby, the Doctor has to transplant him from Keiko’s womb to Kira’s.
From where, Bajoran pregnancies only lasting five months, it can’t be re-transplanted.
It’s a clever device to incorporate Ms Visitor’s real-life enceinment, though given that this is the penultimate episode of season 4, I was unsure as to its necessity. I assume the pregnancy would overlap the start of season 5, in which case it makes more sense. It’s also an intriguing situation, one pregnant (heh heh) with human possibilities, as Keiko suffers from losing her baby to another woman, but the notion deserved more space than that allotted to it as padding in an otherwise turgid affair.
Next week, another season finale. It has to be better than this snorer.
You know what to expect when you go to see a Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie: just leave your brain behind and settle back to enjoy furious, breathless pace, a barrage of high-quality CGI and, if it’s the Guardians of the Galaxy, a barrel of laughs. So I had a great time this afternoon, hiding from the stifling heat in a cinema in which there were about a dozen people and I, in row D, the most advanced.
Actually, the best bit of the film was the opening scene, by which I don’t intend to slate any of the rest of it, but it had me laughing my head off. We open on a planet known as The Sovereign, populated by gold-skinned, gold-haired, very religious and self-satisfied douchebags, led by Ayesha the High Priestess (played by Elizabeth Debicki, of whom I was not previously aware, who made a serious impression on my, er, sensibilities).
The Guardians have been hired to prevent an incredibly large space squid from stealing certain valuable McGuffins, I’m sorry, batteries. Everyone’s getting prepared, including Rocket Raccoon, who’s hooking up the sound system for some more Seventies tunes, when Drax the Destroyer protests. For once, Peter Quill, Star-Lord, agrees, at which point the monster arrives and the battle commences.
But we don’t get to see it. Instead, the camera focuses on Baby Groot, the living tree whose sole line of dialogue is the Librarian-like, “I am Groot”. Little Groot fiddles with the plugs, connects them at the third attempt and, with the battle raging above, around but mostly behind him, proceeds to dance, adorably, laughably, obliviously, to The Electric Light Orchestra’s ‘Mister Blue Sky’.
Now ELO are far from my favourite Seventies band, and indeed ‘Mister Blue Sky’ is the very song that saw Jeff Lynne and I part musical company irrevocably, but here is little Groot lost in the music whilst bits of the fight fly, crash and blast past him, and all he does is dance on, and the camera never pans out and it’s all so ridiculously silly that you can’t help but be in a good mood for the rest of the film, none of which quite comes up to that but hey, you can’t be sublime all the time.
It’s a high speed, slambang affair, hopping like mad, during which Quill discovers that his missing father is actually Kurt Russell, no actually Ego, the Living Planet, an immortal Celestial. Quill’s immortal too, as long as he doesn’t quibble with Daddy’s plan to expanding himself so that he isn’t just this planet anymore but the whole goddam universe. Which, naturally, he does. Quibble, I mean.
It’s save the Galaxy time, folks! After they’ve done it twice, Rocket reckons they can put their price up.
As for the rest, there’s plenty of colourful character, patented quipping, genuinely funny interactions and lines, the wringing dry of every piece of fun possible, and all of both highly professional and highly effective. If you go in expecting to be entertained , along with being run through the odd emotional gamut every now and then, you’ll be fine. Expect great significance or moral ambiguity, and you’re better off going to see the film next door.
There’s more room for Karen Gillan this time, as Nebula, though she’s still blue and bald, though after a sisterly chat with Gamora, the Galaxy’s Greatest Assassin, not quite to psychopathic. And Pom Klementieff puts in a fine turn as the naive empath, Mantis, though the latter’s creator, Steve Engelhart, is righteously distraught that, except visually, this Mantis has no resemblance to his character.
And I’ve already mentioned Elizabeth Debicki, haven’t I? Seriously, she’s Eddie Cochran levels of Somethin’ Else.
I’m glad to see she’s going to be back for Vol. 3, in respect of which she appears to be growing a monster and a killer she plans to call Adam. Oh-ho! say all the fans simultaneously: Warlock, we presume.
I’m not going to go into this film in any greater depth because it doesn’t require it. It’s been criticised for not being as ‘fresh’ as the first one, and sure it’s a whole heap of ‘more of the same only different’, but I watched the first one three years ago and I can happily sit down to something like that every three years or so.
And having seen the trailer for it, I am so going to go see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and not just because it’s got Cara Delivigne in it. Super space opera on a budget fit to match the original French comics, which were Star Wars long before Star Wars. I think that’s going to be fun, like this.
The text below was sent to the SKWAWKBOX by a Twitter follower. The people of Liverpool have a particular affinity with the victims of the Grenfell fire, because they know what happened at Hillsborough, how the Establishment tried to blame the victims – which they see happening already over Grenfell Tower – and because they know how hard it is to get justice when the rich and powerful close ranks.
One Liverpool man wrote his thoughts on Grenfell Tower, on how it fits in the overall pattern of what’s happened to this country over the last three decades or so. It’s powerful. It’s damning.
And its final lines need to be a wake-up call for a country that has tolerated the Establishment narrative for far too long.
The SKWAWKBOX is provided free of charge but depends on the generosity of its readers. If you found this information helpful…
There is an active Malcolm Saville Society, established over twenty years ago, for fans of his work in general and his Lone Pine Club series in particular. This was not the only series Saville wrote in his prolific career, though by far the longest: The Jillies and The Buckinghams ran to six books each, aimed for the same general children’s audience as the Lone Piners, whilst the Susan, Bill books were for younger readers and the somewhat later Marston Baines series for older teenagers.
But Saville is and always will be remembered for the Lone Pine Club, and for the simple but heartfelt ideals that the Club represented and by which they lived: to be true to one another, whatever happens.
Re-reading the series these past several weeks has been an enjoyable experience, and in general I think that whilst the series went on too long, a number of the books stand up well even today. In the Introduction, I compared the Lone Pine books to those of the Famous Five and the Swallows and Amazons, in terms of appeal and longevity. Having re-acquainted myself with them, my overall impressions remain unchanged. Though they are the most dated in terms of dialogue and setting, the Swallows and Amazons books are still the finest, and the Famous Five the least fulfilling.
Even during his lifetime, Saville’s books were accused of being out-of-touch, and middle-class. Revisions inimical to the overall quality of the series, and poorly executed, were forced upon him. Later books became increasingly ineffectual as Saville struggled to comply with demands that he reflect the world of the Seventies, demands that were beyond his understanding in the eighth decade of his life.
But what distinguishes Saville’s work from both his contemporaries is that, from the very outset, dealing with boys and girls no more than fifteen years of age, in the middle of Wartime, he was prepared to acknowledge attraction, and encourage and develop this over a series of books, books meant for readers to whom those kind of attractions would largely be foreign or even embarrassing, and yet make these natural and enticing.
In reviewing the books individually, I’ve pointed out various unignorable drawbacks. They are repetitious, with one or more of the Lone Piners – usually the youngest, the Twins – being taken prisoner by the villain in nearly every book (the single exception is Seven White Gates, where there is no villain, in which case the Twins promptly get themselves trapped underground in the caves). And the number of criminal gangs, or missing treasures the Lone Piners have to deal with is beyond implausible.
Nor are Saville’s villains particularly convincing. Since they cannot do any genuine damage to the Lone Piners, they have to bluster ineffectually, or get smarmy and think they are talking the children round with sweets and treats. Actual violence is very brief and, until the latter half of the series, kept mostly offscreen. There are frequently natural disasters at the end of the book, few of which are genuinely threatening, especially the ones where landslips are caused by underground water forcing itself to the surface.
The fact that the series appeared over thirty-eight years, with the background to each story contemporaneous each time, causes insoluble problems that Saville deals with mostly by ignoring them for the duration of the book. Needless to say, it’s the earliest adventure that causes the most problems: in The Secret of the Gorge the loss of Tom’s parents in an air-raid is mentioned for the only time, a dozen years after the war was over, whilst in Not Scarlet But Gold, Jenny asks Alf Ingles what it was like in Shropshire during the War.
But things like the State Forest appearing between a summer adventure and a Xmas one are disconcerting.
This aspect of the books arises from Saville’s passion for realism: though he invents personal settings, such as Witchend and Seven Gates, Onnybrook and Barton Beach, in all other respects his backgrounds are real, are places his readers can go to see, and his introductions emphasising these are little short of invitations to do so.
Because the stories taken on a tangible realism in this respect, instead of being Blyton’s generic countryside scenes, or even Ransome’s Lake, which is a pot-pourri of real places drawn into a fictional conglomerate, the reader is being invited to see the stories on a more realistic level. And because Saville recognised, from the outset, that his children could be and would be more than just sexless figures interested only in the thrill of the adventure, the Lone Pine Club books encourage the reader to take them more seriously, more concretely.
In keeping the children more or less the same age until the last half dozen, Saville was complying with the wishes of his readers, who he always encouraged to write to him, and whom he always answered personally. Even with Not Scarlet But Gold, the ages of the characters had not changed (there is a substantial caveat coming up below as to that statement) but what has changed is that Saville is now prepared to complete what his writing has implied for over a decade and a half, and to have David and Peter recognise how much they have always meant to each other.
After this, the older Lone Piners do start to age, very very slowly, breaching their seventeenth birthdays and, by the final book, even going so far as to be eighteen, which, by 1978, was the age of majority. In official eyes, as well as their own and their audiences’ recognition, David and Peter, Tom and Jenny, Jon and Penny are all now adults, and in recognition of that the adventures of the Club come to an end.
But this is not the only way in which Saville does play fast and loose with time throughout the series. I’ve already commented that Miss Ballinger is arrested for smuggling in The Elusive Grasshopper, but by Lone Pine London she’s already been released, built a very successful and internationally famous legitimate business and constructed a well-established criminal enterprise (given how successful Madame Christabel is, one has to ask Why?!), yet the Warrenders are no older.
And of course the other inconsistency is what I’ve termed the time-flux, between the relative ages of the Lone Piners. Since it isn’t really of any significant bearing on any of the stories, I’ve commented on it humourously, but the slow shift between the several characters, the way Penny’s age goes up and down across her sixteenth birthday, and especially Jenny, after being introduced as about twelve to Peter’s fifteen, winding up being older than her best friend, is slipshod to say the least.
The biggest accusation, and the one to which Saville’s fan club reacts most aggressively, darkly muttering ‘political correctness’, is that the books are out of touch and the children too middle class. Frankly, when two-thirds of your cast go to boarding schools, I don’t think you can afford to kick against that suggestion.
I’d be more inclined to respond by pointing out that the Lone Piners between themselves treat each other absolutely equally. There’s not the tiniest suggestion that Tom or Jenny are inferior to their friends because they are working boys and girls: Tom’s duties on the farm and Jenny’s duties in the Post Office are only an issue insofar as they restrict their freedom to go wherever they choose. There is only one adventure in which Tom and Jenny appear outside of Shropshire, when they visit Dartmoor in Where’s My Girl? and that has to be contrived from Tom’s injury when thrown from the Combine Harvester.
And I would also be defiant about it. The Lone Piners are products of their time. They’re not working class or street kids, nor are they worse for not being so. Times and tastes changed, and the publishers’ reactions to that were stupid and hasty. The books palpably suffered from Saville being forced away from his natural instincts.
The problem was that he lived longer than Ransome and Blyton. Blyton was a book machine, a force of nature who could resist anything her publisher demanded whilst Ransome, though surviving to 1967, had ended his career two decades earlier, roughly when Saville was publishing The Secret of Grey Walls. His books were established.
Others before me have treated the Lone Pine series as an extended love-story between David Morton and Petronella ‘Peter’ Sterling. It’s a perfectly valid and indeed unavoidable approach. The series begins with David Morton on the first page, but the Club begins when Peter appears from nowhere, on her pony, the Shropshire girl, at one with the land and the birds and animals. She accepts the Mortons utterly, the self-reliant girl who has, until now, had all she ever needed, but has now found what she never knew she wanted, a family to wrap around her.
Except when she is unsettled, by the threat to her lifestyle of having to leave Shropshire, by David’s and her own adolescent awkwardnesses and the attentions of a handsome young man treating her in the way David has not yet thought to do, Peter is utterly straightforward, complete from the beginning. All she has to do is grow and the only growing she needs is age.
In many ways, Peter is an idealisation. Everyone loves her, everyone relies on her, everyone trusts her, and in turn she gives her friendship instantly and unquestioningly to everyone (once she is completely assured that Penny Warrender has no designs on her David). For several books, until Not Scarlet But Gold we are constantly assured that very soon people are going to look at her and see a very beautiful young woman, and in the last half dozen books, once she and David have settled that their futures will run together, she is frequently idolised as the true founder and inspiration for the Club.
Yet Peter is nothing unreal. Saville places her on the ground as just a very natural, very open woman. She is brave, even when a situation has her scared. When others are in danger, she acts instinctively and instantly, before anyone else. She trusts in David Morton absolutely, and has done from the very beginning, and except when the two of them have their utterly natural difficulties, transitioning out of childhood into adulthood, he is worthy of her trust. He never so much as looks at another girl: his worst and most selfish action is directed at Penny, thoughtlessly.
Against this central pair, the other two relationships are interesting, but pale reflections. Tom and Jenny emerges out of nowhere: she isn’t introduced until the second book, in which Tom arrives on the scene very late on, and they share no scenes. There is nothing more than a mention of her hanging adoringly on his every word afterwards: we don’t even get to see them being introduced.
But by The Secret of Grey Walls, they are as acknowledged a couple as David and Peter, having formed a good and reliable friendship with overtones of an early affection on both sides between books. It’s only natural, not just because they are of a similar age (once Jenny stops being three years younger…) and have no other options to pair off with, but also they have much in common. They go to local schools (we assume Tom does have some schooling) and without the Mortons around, they have only each other for friends.
But though Tom and Jenny’s relationship is kept more low key, with Tom frequently shown as a little embarrassed by Jenny’s open enthusiasm for him, it is still a two-way thing, and just as real as David and Peter. Tom, after the early books, does display a certain slight distance from the Club, because he is a working man, but never from Jenny. The pair go through their final tribulations during Man with Three Fingers, where Tom briefly kicks against the restrictions of his limited life, and Jenny, for all her determined love for him, acts at her most juvenile over what she perceives as threats to the future she dreams of, but once she is assured openly by Tom that she is his girl, she crosses the bridge into adult acceptance that she cannot be the only thing in his life, and that it is more than enough to be the main thing.
The Warrenders are a different case entirely. They’re introduced as a pair to begin with, and a pair long-established before they ever arrive on stage. Jon and Penny are cousins, but for an indefinite period (later defined as three years, though by that time, Saville has created the impression that it has been for much longer), they have virtually been siblings. And they are very different characters, and by no means compatible in the way that either of the other two pairings are. If they weren’t presented as a pair upfront, it would be very difficult to imagine the two taking to each other.
Jon, tall, fair-haired, intelligent, lives with his mother, who was widowed in the War. Penny, a year younger, with coppery curls, has lived with her Aunt, Jon’s mother, for years because her parents live and work in India. That background is apt for the time of their introduction, but once India has achieved its independence, it’s an anomalous situation that gets increasingly anachronistic, but which Saville maintains, perhaps because bringing Penny’s parents home would split the pair up.
Penny, who is a true redhead, volatile, effervescent, flirtatious, open, looks up to and worships her elder cousin who, in turn, looks down on her and treats her for the most part with casual contempt and mockery. Some of that is sibling rivalry, but not enough of it to excuse the way Jon treats his cousin. Penny’s affection for him, and her reliance upon him, is obvious, but it’s not reciprocated in kind by Jon, except in very rare moments. And he’s inordinately slow to see how Penny feels about him.
His callousness comes to a head in Mystery Mine, when no sooner do he and Penny arrive in London than he and David unapologetically decide to shove off alone and leave her with no-one but the Twins and Harriet for company. He never sees just how rotten he’s been.
The Warrenders next appear in Treasure at Amorys, in the immediate aftermath of David and Peter accepting their feelings. In the following book, Tom and Jenny make their commitment. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who expected Jon and Penny to go through a similar experience but they don’t: not then and not after. Jon finds the prospect of Penny going to India, meeting someone and getting married ‘disgraceful’, which is an odd choice of words, but it doesn’t spur him to do anything about it.
Some kind of unacknowledged step appears to have been taken between that book and Rye Royal but I find it significant that just when Saville chooses to return to Dartmoor, which is Warrender territory, they are excluded on fairly specious grounds, and their appearance in Home to Witchend is marginal, and perfunctory, distinguished only by Jon giving Penny an out and out snog, with no words said.
And that’s it.
Personally, I think Saville erred in making Jon and Penny cousins. As I’ve mentioned in passing, there was a stigma about cousins marrying, based on the incest taboo and a mistaken belief that the proximity of genetic structure among cousins was guaranteed to produce physically or mentally disabled children. Saville had no intention, at first, of allowing his children characters to develop to the point of actual romantic relationships, and I rather think that it was the changing times, and the growing maturity of young people that, as much as the writer’s instinct to let their characters grow, that led to Not Scarlet But Gold.
But Jon and Penny were always a problem. I remember, when young, believing that their arc was taking the same curves as the other seniors, but re-reading the books, I can see that I was putting in things that Saville wasn’t. Ultimately, their part of the story is unsatisfactory. A twenty-first novel was needed, in which the Warrenders genuinely confronted their feelings for one another (and in which Jon finally shows that he has them), but in this aspect the series was incomplete.
Which brings me next to Richard and Mary, the Twins. Everybody’s favourites, except me. I cannot recollect anything about how I viewed Mary and Dickie when I was much closer to their age, but as an adult I would cheerfully consider drowning them! To call them rude is to ignore such words as appalling, impossible and uncontrollable. They are absolutely paranoid, egomaniacal, obsessive and unashamed liars, and they are supposed to be heroes? They are also stupidly reckless and ignorant, completely uncaring of the effect their idiot propensity to get themselves kidnapped by the bad guys, over and over and over and over again, has on the people who love them, God knows why. And they never learn a single lesson, regarding themselves as complete heroes, the only people who ever solve mysteries, and completely justified in doing whatever they want.
I am not happy about them.
By the time of the final book, the Twins have been allowed to age for the first time since between Mystery at Witchend and Seven White Gates. It makes no difference. They promptly go off on their own, into a ‘secret’ valley, and come close to being affected by another water-forced landslip. This whole sequence is artificial, lacking any real connection to the story and included just to give the Twins something to do. It’s pure formula and it’s tedious in the extreme, but it also serves to expose the Twins’ essential weakness, that they are not fit for anything else. They do not grow because the remotest sign of growth debars them from their fixed roles, and there is nothing for them to grow into.
With everyone turning adult, the Twins take it into their head to create a New Lone Pine Club, one that will belong to them and will be in their image. Harriet will transfer over with them, and Kevin and Fenella, the daughter of Reuben and Miranda who at last finds her voice in this book, but the new club will include Nicholas Whiteflower, who has appeared in one book, written twenty years before, which shows the extent to which the barrel is being scraped.
Apparently, after Home to Witchend, Saville was asked to write another Lone Pine book and started to plot one out. Thankfully, it never materialised, especially if it would have featured the New Lone Pine Club, because the thought of an adventure in which the Twins are the club leaders is too horrifying to bear. Unless Harriet planned a very early coup, I could foresee nothing but disaster.
Ah, Harriet. Poor Harriet. I had no real recollection of her before re-reading the series, which is a shame, because she is an absolute delight and deserved better treatment from Saville. She only appears in four books, but despite being just twelve years old, far closer to the Twins than any of the rest of the Club, she is self-reliant, and competent. Harriet accepts her place as the new girl, but stands up for herself. Her high point is Not Scarlet But Gold, where she is the moral centre of the story taking place around David and Peter, and she is the dominant figure in Strangers at Witchend and it does her a disservice to have her so taken up with the hapless Kevin Smith, to the point where her last scene is her bursting into tears at him going away.
She is even more badly served by Home at Witchend, where she doesn’t appear until almost the very end, and then as an adjunct to Kevin, who gets dialogue where she doesn’t. A really good character, mostly wasted.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that these are adventure stories. I’ve had enough things to say about this side of it over the series. This aspect has not worn well. Saville’s villains are not really impressive, and they are full of what we would now call tropes: petty bullying, stupid in origin, taking prisoners without the slightest thought because people ‘know too much’, and they far too often flip from supercilious dismissal of the Lone Piners to oleaginous fawning on them that doesn’t have even the slightest shred of subtlety or conviction.
From an adult perspective, very few of them are worth bothering with. The most impressive are the distantly professional ones, the boss of the tree-rustling gang in Wings over Witchend or, to a slightly lesser extent, the boss of the sheep-rustlers in The Secret of Grey Walls. They don’t fanny about, they don’t talk too much, they just get on with their business.
The Ballinger and her gang are the closest the Lone Piners come to arch enemies, appearing in five stories, to varying, mostly decreasing effect. By the time of Treasure at Amorys, the Ballinger herself is almost wholly eclipsed by the idiotic and unstable Les Dale, who is a prime example of late series Saville villain who cannot be taken at all seriously. By the time of her last appearance, in the wrap-up Home to Witchend, Miss Ballinger is a busted flush, old, near-blind (though still somehow active as an artist), and an underling to someone who we have to pretend is Slinky Grandon, even though he bears no more relationship to Grandon in word or action than Jeremy Corbyn does to Theresa May.
But whilst this side of Saville’s writing is, frankly, poor, I do have to comment on his handling of Ballinger’s final scene. Alone, abandoned, her glasses stolen, she is so helpless she doesn’t even know she is speaking to David Morton, but at the last she achieves a curious kind of dignity, that hints at what else she might have been, but for her greed and callousness.
Overall, the Lone Pine series stands up decently well. The books are flawed, especially later books, written when Saville was being accused of being out of touch, and too middle class, accusations that, to be fair, are largely true. Yet the series started with the right impulses behind it, and never lost sight of these, and they were ideals worth adhering to, and I am in something of a minority in my response to the Twins.
What Saville did do, which neither Blyton nor Ransome even thought of incorporating, was introduce his readers to romance, in the form of the connections the elder Lone Piners made between themselves. Bonds were formed from an early stage, that were maintained and which grew, ripened, deepened, until in two cases they ended with engagements, and the confidence of lives ahead. Speaking as a pre-teen boy, in the Sixties and early Seventies, I can testify that this was no mean feat, and not merely because I would have wanted to find a Petronella Sterling in real life.
The books are flawed and limited by their audience, but within these preconditions, they still hold up, and I will be keeping the set for a while yet, with a view to re-reading them again some day. And if I decide at some point to put the books back on eBay, I will retain Not Scarlet But Gold, in which Saville wrote to a level surpassing his other work and that is a book that I will be retaining whatever else happens.
It’s been a pleasure reacquainting myself with these books.