On Writing – NaNoWriMo 2013


A few months back, I mentioned a new novel I was starting to work. I’m still struggling with it, so I’ve registered myself for this year’s NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), in a bid to force myself into completing it.
I first discovered (and entered) NaNoWriMo two years ago, when I successfully completed the first draft of The Return of the Purple Puffin (which has since been completely re-written, expanded, re-named and awaits only a cover to enable it to be published via Lulu.com). For those unfamiliar with  NaNoWriMo, the idea is that you set yourself to complete a novel of a minimum 50,000 word length between 1 and 30 November.
Back in 2011, I was working regular hours and stable shifts that gave me enough time each day to complete the required average of 1,667 words, even if I had to often split it into before and after work stints. Last year, having moved onto far less convenient shifts, I decided not to repeat the experience, thinking that I simply would not have enough time available to me.
I was also much more active on this blog, this time last year, than I had been in 2011.
I’ve still got the same shifts and the same disadvantages as last year, but I need something to kickstart myself into breaking through what’s preventing me from dealing with this idea. It’s very important that I do complete it, even if it turns out to be crap.
I do have an advantage: some people plan their novels meticulously, and have that story plan ready in advance. I fly by the seat of my pants, so to speak, but I’ve already got a few thousand words written, to give myself a head start.
Serious writing starts on Friday.
What it means for this blog, however, is that it’s going to be on the back burner for the next month. I’m not going to disappear completely: I have a number of posts written up in advance, including the remaining Prisoner pieces, and I have a whole week off work in mid-month, where I hope to have time to vary my workload.
Nor do I intend to post each day’s work as I finish it, which I did through Puffin.
The novel comes first for the next thirty days, so see you all back here in December, and I hope you don’t forget me whilst I’m off the radar.

Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: 1965


Justice League of America 37, “Earth – Without a Justice League!”/Justice League of America 38, “Crisis on Earth-A!” Written by Gardner Fox, art by Mike Sekowsky (pencils) and Bernard Sachs (inks), edited by Julius Schwarz.

At last Johnny Thunder has received an invite to a Justice Society meeting. It’s been very frustrating, them having adventures without him. He calls on his Thunderbolt, only to find that, after having had nothing to do for so long (17 years), the Bahdnesian Hex-Bolt was about to try Earth-1, in the hope that its Johnny Thunder had something for it to do. The easily-distracted Johnny muses about wanting to meet his Earth-1 equivalent, and the Bolt immediately zaps them there.
The Earth-1 Thunder, who lives in a small, ill-kept apartment room, looks identical to Johnny, except for his frown and his preference for purple jackets, not green. He has the same history as Johnny but, being a crook, was never given a Thunderbolt. Johnny sympathises: Thunder knocks him out and, after a few tries at getting the right words, eventually hits on “Cei-u” (i.e., Say you), and orders the Bolt to hop down to the local factory and rob it of its payroll.
Hopping down literally (he is a literal being), the Thunderbolt, being rusty, misjudges and bangs his head against the safe. This attracts the attention of Barry Allen, who changes to the Flash and intervenes. Surprisingly, as someone whose favourite comic book was Flash Comics, Barry-Flash does not recognise the Thunderbolt of another Flash alumni. The Bolt escapes when a suspicious and impatient Thunder orders his return.
When he hears about the Flash, Thunder comes up with a grandiose plan to prevent the Justice League from interfering: he sends the Bolt back into time to prevent all of them ever coming to be.
Thus the Thunderbolt intercepts the lightning bolt bound for Barry Allen’s lab: no chemical bath, no Flash. He converts Krypton’s fissionable uranium core to lead: no explosion, no rocket containing baby Kal-El. He prevents the blast of yellow radiation from crashing Abin Sur’s spaceship: he remains Green Lantern elsewhere in this sector. He smashes the fragment of white dwarf star matter that Ray Palmer would have used to create the Atom’s size and weight changing controls. He shorts out Dr Erdel’s electronic brain before it teleports the Martian Manhunter to Earth. And he drops into Detective Comics 27, into the first panel of Batman’s career, and helps the crooks he faced whale the shit out of Bruce Wayne, who concludes that being a crimefighter was a silly idea and he’s going back to being a playboy!
In similar, but unspecified fashion, the Thunderbolt also disrupts the origins of Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow and Hawkman. When he returns to Thunder, utterly exhausted, he advises him that the Earth has now been changed into an alternate: Thunder promptly christens it Earth-A.
Meanwhile, on Earth-2, the other Justice Society members – The Flash, Green Lantern, The Atom, Hawkman, Doctor Fate and Mr. Terrific – are wondering where Johnny has got to. There’s no trace of him on Earth-2 in Fate’s crystal ball, but they pick up the trace of his Thunderbolt disappearing into Earth-1. Looking for the Bolt there, the JSA eavesdrop on a scene of Thunder assembling his gang to go out and rob now the Justice League are no longer there to stop them. Horrified and mystified at their counterparts’ disappearance, the Justice Society head for Earth-1.
Once there, they interrupt Thunder’s gang’s robbery. The gang are easily captured and Thunder sets the Bolt against them, with orders that the Bolt interprets very literally: slap ’em down, kick them off the Earth. The Bolt refuses to kill: that is Tabu. As the JSA are too much for the Bolt, Thunder orders him to get them out of there.
After visiting various of the putative Justice Leaguers and discovering they know nothing of their heroic lives, the JSA regroup. They decide to disguise themselves as various JLA members, in the hope that their appearance will cause Thunder to blurt out what he’s done to them. Flash, Green Lantern and the Atom become their Earth-1 equivalents, Doctor Fate and Mr. Terrific impersonate Superman and Batman which Hawkman opts to cover the Martian Manhunter.
Once the Bolt tells Thunder that the JSA have ‘vanished’, he goes out to rob a cruise liner, using only the Bolt. The disguised JSA catch up with them and Thunder does indeed blurt out what he’s done, but despite instructing the Bolt to split himself into six, one for each ‘Justice Leaguer’, each Bolt is only one-sixth and strong. The ‘League’ prevail and Thunder and the Bolt flee again.
Having discovered just who the ‘JLA’ were, Thunder adopts the same plan. The Bolt breaks six of his gang members out of jail and substitutes each of them in the various Leaguers origins. Thus, when the JSA find Thunder’s lair, they are confronted by a six-man Lawless League. In preparation for the fight, the Bolt removes the JSA’s disguises, leaving the two sides ready to face-off
End of part 1.

In anticipation of the fight, Thunder has the Bolt set him up with wide-screen TV. Black & white is not acceptable, even though Batman is beating Mr Terrific: by the time the screen changes to colour, the roles have been reversed. Each JSA member takes on the Lawless League equivalent of the one they impersonated. In each case, the Lawless League seem strong at first, but are easily taken out by the JSA: the Bolt explains that it is a matter of experience with powers.
Infuriated, Thunder has the Bolt whip up an earthquake, a hurricane and a typhoon to assault the JSA, knocking three members out immediately. Hawkman grabs the capes of Doctor Fate and Green Lantern, struggling to hold them aloft, whilst the other three fall into a crevasse. Once out of the wind, Terrific grabs a spur of rock, The Flash supports himself by drumming his heels to create wind pressure that stops him falling, and once the Atom wakes up, the three are propelled upwards, like a circus act. They help Hawkman as his wings are torn off, and once recovered Doctor Fate and Green Lantern anchor themselves in a magical gondola.
Frustrated, Thunder decides to escape by having the Bolt take him to the Moon. Once there, he demands air be added.
Whilst his team-mates search for Thunder, Doctor Fate attempts to undo the Bolt’s interference with history, but it is accomplished magic and he can do nothing. However, the Flash has discovered the column of air leading towards the Moon, and the JSA set off in pursuit.
On the Moon, Thunder has had the Bolt create three monsters to destroy the JSA. When the heroes arrive, The Atom and Mr. Terrific charge into the attack against Medusa-Man, but his face changes them both into solid wood: Fate stops him by covering his face with a blank gold mask. Hawkman and the Flash attack Repello-Man, who repels their assaults back at them, knocking them out of the fight. And Green Lantern pours it on against Absorbo-Man, who then sends all the power back at him, wiping him out.
This leaves Doctor Fate alone against the remaining two monsters. He takes out Repello-Man by flinging bolts of reverse magic at him: when Repello-Man tries to repel them, they are reversed and attracted to him, shattering him. As for Absorbo-Man, Fate banks on his having absorbed the weakness of Green Lantern’s power ring as well as its power: hurling Atom and Terrific’s wooden bodies against him, he causes Absorbo-Man to crumble.
By now at screaming pitch, Thunder turns the Bolt against Fate, in an all-out magic war, but as they fling all manner of bolts at each other, thunder is caught in the middle, battered from all sides until he finally screams that he has had enough, that he wants none of this to ever have happened and to see none of them ever again.
The Justice League of America gather for a routine meeting at which the only crime news is about a small-time crook named Johnny Thunder. The Flash, smiling, suggests that he’s heard of that name before. The Thunderbolt winks at the reader: he knows what happened, but he isn’t sharing it.
* * * * *
Ok, it’s the ending, isn’t it?
It’s an unashamed “And then they woke up, and it was all a dream”, even though it’s not even that, because it all never happened, not even in a dream, and no-one remembers it. Except the Thunderbolt. Oh, yes, and the readers.
I’ve no idea how far you have to go to find a time when it was possible to get away with that kind of ending, but I suspect it was way before 1965. On the other hand, when I read this adventure, in two widely separated parts, in 1966, I was ten years old and I was a sucker for it, and despite an adult appreciation of the flaws in this story, it was my introduction to the Justice Society, and it is still one of my favourite comics stories ever.
Because, for all the ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ nature of the ending, an obvious device to bring to an end a story that had spiralled out of any rational means of closure, it could not possibly mar a tale that had opened my eyes to the vastness of the Universe and of all possibility. Those two pages when the Thunderbolt goes up and down the timestream to invade and destroy the origins of the Justice League opened my mind far wider and further than any comparable incident in literature of any kind.
Once is a great success, two a commercialised sequel but three is a tradition. With this team-up, the annual meeting of the super-teams became a fixture of the summer issues of Justice League of America that the two teams would continue to meet every year.
Might there have been a moment when the tradition could safely have been broken, without too much complaint from readers? Not in 1965, nor the year after. DC’s Golden Age revival was reaching the heights. Schwarz had announced that there would be no more new versions after the success of the Atom, but instead he was experimenting with full-scale revivals. Green Lantern teamed up with his Golden Age counterpart for a couple of adventures, as did the Atom. In Showcase, Doctor Fate and Hourman had a couple of outings in tandem, as did Starman and Black Canary in Brave and Bold, and Schwarz even planned for a Dr Mid-Nite/Sandman team-up, before deciding to go for a solo revival of the Spectre.
But even though the Spectre’s re-emergence, intended as the springboard of an actual series, to be set on Earth-2, failed to make the intended impact, the annual team-up would last long enough that, like the continuing performances of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, it would continue because it had already played for so long, and no-one could work out how to take it off, whilst the Multiverse persisted.
There’s a substantial difference between this team-up and those preceding it, and I like to think that criticism of how the Justice Society were demeaned in 1964 influenced this year’s story, because it’s not a team-up at all. Forget what it says on the cover of issue 37: the Justice League don’t so much not appear on their own cover, as not (the penultimate panel of issue 38 excepted) appear at all in the entire two issues! This is a solo Justice Society story in everything but name.
Of course, the image of the Justice League is preserved for their fans, with the Justice Society in issue 37 and Thunder’s gang in 38 masquerading as the stars of the series. And the appearance of the latter isn’t an exact match as they’re all drawn as different, criminal body-types and faces.
As for the JSA line-up, Doctor Fate and Hawkman retain their 100% record and the other three of Schwarz’s revivals return. The two new revenants this year are Johnny Thunder and Mr. Terrific.
We don’t see much of Johnny at all, and certainly not in conjunction with anyone except his Thunderbolt and his Earth-1 counterpart. And after three pages of that, bop, Johnny’s knocked cold and we are left with his evil equivalent, who’s a completely different kettle of fish. You have to say this for Thunder, he may have a permanent frown and prefer purple jackets to green, and like any member of the criminal classes, he can only pronounce the letters ‘th’ as ‘d’, but when it comes to schemes and plots, he’s wildly inventive: Johnny would never have thought of a fraction of what he comes up with.
So we are exposed to only a small dose of Johnny Thunder, Comic Relief, which suggests to me that Fox and Schwarz were uncertain about how to play Johnny T, and settled for a brief taste, to invite audience reaction.
Terrific, on the other hand, slots in without the slightest sign that this is Terry Sloane’s first mission as a Justice Society member. On his one previous appearance in All-Star, Mr Terrific was only a guest, a fact that was heavily emphasised at the time, but here he is, one of the boys, and sufficiently well-regarded (by Fox and Schwarz, let alone his team-mates) as to be a suitable double for Batman.
There never was any story about how and when Terrific was invited into membership. He’s generally been reassigned a role as a JSA reservist in later years, but if anyone at National had bothered with the issue in 1965, I’d expect the answer to have been that, under the JSA’s revised by-laws, he was upgraded.
One thing about this story puzzled me for years. Flash, Green Lantern and Atom naturally impersonate their namesakes, but Hawkman, rather implausibly, opts to imitate the Martian Manhunter, even though his Earth-1 counterpart is a member of the League. Then it struck me that this could be explained as a particularly subtle piece of continuity from Fox and Schwarz: the Katar Hol Kawkman was now a Leaguer, but he’d only been inducted in Justice League of America 31, the following issue from the previous year’s team-up, and the teams never had any contact between annual meetings, so the Prince Khufu Hawkman simply did not know he too had a JLA equivalent.
On the other hand, even four years into the Marvel Age, a concern for blatant continuity never bothered Fox and Schwarz, so something as low-key as this seems implausible, but it still wouldn’t surprise me if, during those legendary morning/afternoon plotting sessions, one of editor and writer made that very objection.
Of course, the story is not without its flaws. I’ve already pointed out in the story summary that, despite being an avid reader of Flash Comics, Barry-Flash apparently doesn’t recognise Johnny Thunder’s Thunderbolt when Johnny T appeared in all but the last dozen or so issues of the whole series, but more serious is the introduction of “Accomplished Magic”, which, having been accomplished, cannot be undone.
It’s a necessary device to stop Doctor Fate simply undoing everything halfway through issue 37, but its glaring inconsistency is that Fate’s own “Accomplished Magic” doesn’t stop the Thunderbolt stripping away the Society’s disguise as the League.
And even at the age of ten, when I first read this story, I couldn’t help but think that Fox and Schwarz missed a trick in the first scene where the Society first tackle the Thunderbolt. Thunder orders the Bolt to ‘slap ’em down!’: he turns himself into a giant hand and slaps them down onto the ground. He orders the Bolt to ‘kick ’em off the Earth!’: the Bolt turns himself into a giant boot and kicks them ten feet into the air, ‘off the Earth’.
Finally, Thunder orders the Bolt to kill them. This is the Bolt’s sticking point: not killing, that’s Tabu.
Almost fifty years later, I still expect a raging Thunder to shout back, “Ok, then, Tabu! Now kill them!”
As far as post-Crisis canonicity is concerned, you might think that this one’s impossible as well, but it’s surprisingly adaptable. Make Thunder into a grandson, or grandnephew of Johnny who gets control of the Bolt and decides to eliminate the Justice League and the story would still play out. And if young Thunder is appropriately contemptuous of the older generation, that might explain why he only has the Justice League eliminated from history, and not the ‘beneath contempt’ Society.
But you’d have had to lose that ending…

The Prisoner: episode 15 – The Girl Who Was Death – discursion


The Girl Who Was Death was the fifteenth episode of The Prisoner to be broadcast and the sixteenth to go into production. It was written by Terence Feely, based on a story by David Tomblin and was directed by Tomblin himself.
I’ve probably seen The Girl Who Was Death more often than any other episode of The Prisoner, not out of any intrinsic fascination with the episode, but because it’s been on television the most over the years. And that’s not a reflection of any massive popularity on this episode’s part, either.
No, it’s the same reason that, down the decades, the Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?  episode No Hiding Place (the one where Bob and Terry try to avoid learning the result of an England game) has always been the random episode selected to exemplify the show: because it has the absolute least to do with the series.
The Girl Who Was Death can be shown at any time, to any audience, because they can watch it without thinking, without wondering what’s going on, and having to understand anything. It can be pulled out of the series in a way that no other episode can because it exists free of context, free of overtones and undertones, free of any of the deeper themes of The Prisoner.
No, let’s be frank: not even the very short coda in which Kenneth Griffiths and Justine Lord stand revealed as the most hapless and pathetic Number Two and Assistant of them all has anything to do with ANY of the show’s themes.
If there are those who are offended at me describing Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling or Living in Harmony as a ‘filler’, they can’t possibly argue about this one.
I’ve heard different stories about The Girl Who Was Death‘s provenance: that it was an unused, or rejected Avengers script, that it was a leftover Danger Man script that was adapted to fit the rush to get four more episodes into production. The overall tone of the story, which is a spy spoof from start to finish, and arch as all get out, supports the former, but lacks anything that might be intuited as an Emma Peel role, whilst the structure reflects something of the old Danger Man style – McGoohan’s light cap and raincoat is the most obvious nod to John Drake, whilst Potter was Drake’s contact in the two colour series 4 episodes, and played by Christopher Benjamin again: Ralph Smart must have really been tempted to call for his copyright lawyer here – but has had to have been gone over with a bludgeon to produce this eccentric affort.
It’s not that I don’t like The Girl Who Was Death, don’t get me wrong. It’s great fun: McGoohan’s deadpan approach fits the level of the parody perfectly, the ideas are well-judged and the show doesn’t sag until Kenneth Griffith appears, though his OTT performance takes a lot of the wind out of its sails thereafter.
But whilst the individual bits are very good, the overall effect is too one-note. It’s a send-up, we get it, but is that ALL you’ve got? And, sadly, that is indeed all it’s got, and it barely gets to the end with us still on its side: another five minutes and it would have tripped over its own silliness and gone totally flat.
It’s an episode chocked with in-jokes, which always raises the risk of the show becoming too clever and looking to raise the bar for those in on it instead of those watching from without, And it doesn’t have an ending either: the explosion that blows up the lighthouse/rocket – which is taken from a Gerry Anderson Thunderbirds shot – works well to end the spoof, but leaves a very awkward segue into the real ending, the link that brings The Girl Who Was Death back to the ‘reality’ of the Village and the hopelessly perfunctory explanation of just why this is an episode of The Prisoner.
I’ll say this much for Number Two’s ‘cunning plan’: it doesn’t half serve to justify the radical upturn in tension and threat in the long-filmed Once Upon A Time.
But this simply isn’t an episode of The Prisoner. It’s a joke, a time-filler, a giggle with a stapled on half-hearted link to the overall story that can’t possibly have been meant to have been taken seriously. It lacks even the claims of formal experimentation that can, legitimately, be attached to Living in Harmony.
It’s a filler. Full stop.
Praise should, of course, be given to the guests, or at least two of them. Griffith, a highly-regarded actor/writer/director who would go on to specialise in documentaries in the Seventies (much satirised by Clive James) overdoes his role as the mad scientist with a decidedly Napoleonic complex, upsetting the balance that has been maintained to that point, but Justine Lord, a veteran at working with McGoohan having guested in more episodes of Danger Man than any other, pitches her performance, seductive, exotic, physically and, later, mentally dangerous, to perfection.
She also gets to wear the shortest skirts of anyone in the entire series, which is another aspect that links these three ‘filler’ episodes, in that they introduce feminine glamour in a manner that is rigidly excluded from the Village, and the ‘purer’ episodes made for ‘series 1’.
And mention must be made of the uncredited Alexis Kanner, who makes a splendid cameo as the verbally aggressive, hip, fashion photographer in the fairground, though he’s only onscreen for a matter of seconds throughout.
Otherwise, it’s nice to report that the sloppiness of the past few episodes filming is not present here, apart from some very bad back-projection shots in the funfair sequence. In part that’s just the limitations of the technology, combined with McGoohan’s recall to location filming on Ice Station Zebra, which severely limited his participation in location filming: Frank Maher went to the fair and did the actual running around and McGoohan, dressed in his spoof Sherlock Holmes outfit, and heavily bewhiskered, has to do a series of absurd reaction shots, and darting off in all directions against stock footage of the fair.
Comparing the televised story to the original script, courtesy yet again of Robert Fairclough’s splendid and invaluable books, points up no significant changes during the filming process, save for one immeasurably important one: Schnipps’ fixation was not originally Napoleon, but Hitler.
The change saves the episode. Napoleon fixations are funny, not merely because they’re a cliché, but because Napoleon is 200+ years old. Hitler and Nazi Germany isn’t funny. It’s not funny now and it was even less so in 1967, when the end of the War was only twenty-two years earlier, and people remembered going through it. My Dad was only 38 when The Prisoner was first broadcast: too young to have done more than peace-time conscription in the Navy, but his elder brother had seen service, and battle, in the Far East. For them, and millions like them, a comic-Hitler would have been something like blasphemy.
But this is the low point of the series. There are only two episodes left, two episodes that, in their starkly contrasting manners, will take The Prisoner into television history. The transition from nonsense like The Girl Who Was Death to Once Upon a Time, is from the ridiculous to the sublime. As simple as that.

Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: 1964


Justice League of America 29, “Crisis on Earth-Three!”/Justice League of America 30, “The Most Dangerous Earth of All!” Written by Gardner Fox, art by Mike Sekowsky (pencils) and Bernard Sachs (inks), edited by Julius Schwarz.

We are introduced to three sets of five costumed characters on the splash page: The Flash Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman, and Green Lantern of Earth-1, Hawkman, Black Canary, Doctor Fate, Dr Mid-Nite and Starman of Earth-2 and, making their first appearance, Superwoman, Owlman, Ultraman, Johnny Quick and Power Ring of Earth-3.
On the next page, the concept of parallel Earths is re-explained, as Barry-Flash prevents a rookie cop being gunned down, and Jay-Flash a Bank Messenger from being robbed, but the third red-clad speedster, Johnny Quick is actually stealing a priceless sculpture. He’s quickly caught in a net-trap prepared by the Police, from which he escapes, but not without a fright. Johnny Quick has been short of decent opposition for a while and is getting rusty.
His two fellow-members of the Crime Syndicate, Superwoman and Power Ring, are similarly facing unexpected opposition from the Police and making heavy weather of getting away.
These super-equivalents of the JLA are actually villains, not heroes for, though Earths-1 & 2 are similar-but-different, Earth-3’s history has been oddly reversed. Columbus was an American who discovered Europe, which won its independence in the Revolutionary War (this is definitely a different Earth if America has lost a war), whilst President John Wilkes Booth was assassinated by the crazed actor, Abraham Lincoln.
Which is why all Earth-3’s heroes are villains, and losing their edge for lack of super-powered opposition.
This can be remedied for Ultraman, who gains extra powers from exposure to Kryptonite, has discovered Earth-1 and the bemusing example of super characters who don’t use their powers to rob. This thrills the whole Syndicate, who plan to travel to Earth-1 to sharpen themselves up. But Owlman, whose power lies in his brain and his meticulously planed heists, who proposes a precaution against the possibility that they might lose.
Thus, a five-strong JLA meeting (again chaired by Batman) is interrupted by pleas for help against these new supervillains robbing across America. The League splits up to face their equivalents but arrive on the various scenes to find that everyone except Superwoman has swapped round to go on robbing. So Wonder Woman defeats Superman, Flash takes down Ultraman, Batman outsmarts Johnny Quick, Superman overcomes Power Ring and Green Lantern captures Owlman.
But as each villain is grabbed, they whisper the word ‘Volthoom’, triggering a trap that draws each of them, and their JLA assailant back to Earth-3. There, either by some mysterious ‘home advantage’ or simply the JLA being dazed, the Crime Syndicate reverse the results of their individual battles.
Having lost ‘away’ and won at ‘home’, the Syndicate believe they have proved nothing until they can take on the League on neutral territory, i.e., Earth-2. The Leaguers are imprisoned in their cave Sanctuary again whilst the Syndicate prepare the invade Earth-2.
However, the Justice Society have observed strange eyes peering at their world. Wondering if the eyes come from Earth-1, Doctor Fate uses his crystal ball to connect to the cave Sanctuary. He’s unable to free the League but can release them long enough for them to explain to the JSA what the Syndicate are doing, and warn them not to let the Syndicate make physical contact and say ‘Volthoom’…
End of Part One.


The Justice Society are on the alert for the Syndicate’s attack. Suddenly, the five villains enter from five directions. The battle swiftly splits up into five duels.
Hawkman defeats Johnny Quick, Doctor Fate takes down Power Ring, Dr Mid-Nite outsmarts Owlman, Black Canary overcomes Superwoman and Starman captures Ultraman. No contact is made, no Volthooms are spoken but Owlman has foreseen this and this time the trap is triggered by the Justice Society heroes proclaiming themselves as having won.
On Earth-3 they are placed in a carefully prepared prison.
The Syndicate then release the Justice League and start a deciding battle on Earth-2. After an overture in which each Leaguer ignores their own safety to save a team-mate, the fight breaks up into battles between the Leaguers and their opposite number.
Each Leaguer wins by overloading their opponent’s powers to the point where they cannot control them. However, a problem arises when it comes to imprisoning the Syndicate, who show extreme fear at being held captive on either Earth-1 or 2, though they grin all over their faces at the thought of going back to Earth-3. Green Lantern extracts from Power Ring’s ring the information that the JSA’s prison is constructed so that, if they are released, both Earths-1 and 2 will blow-up.
So the League imprison the Syndicate in a power ring bubble in between dimensions, surrounded by multi-space-lingual signs warning everyone off letting them out. Then they release the JSA on Earth-3 whilst GL siphons the destructive force into deep space where it blows up two uninhabited planets instead.
The teams then return to their own Earths.
* * * * *
Just as Barry-Flash’s discovery of Jay-Flash’s Earth in The Flash 123 was so big a success, it spawned a sequel in The Flash 129 (given the lead-time before publication, the sequel must have been decided on within minutes of the first response to The Flash 123), the delighted response to issues 21 and 22 (and their sales figures) guaranteed a sequel, the same time next year.
The 1964 team-up once again played things conventionally, with superhero vs supervillain as its theme. Fox structured the story differently, by giving the League and the Society a common enemy, who they each fought separately, and by having the heroes fight individual battles through (except for one token page in issue 30).
But the real twist is in introducing a set of evil duplicates for the Justice League’s (then) big five characters.
It’s interesting that DC took the step of expanding their parallel worlds set-up to include a third Earth so very quickly, though future Earths would be introduced to the continuum must more circumspectly for the next decade. And it’s almost impossible not to see a link to that throwaway introduction of the very idea of an Earth-3 at the end of last year’s team-up.
At the time I first read this story, several years after its publication, I was aware of enough American history to understand the reversals, even that of Lincoln’s assassination, though it took until the Eighties, when my interest in American history really kicked in, for me to start envisaging the colossal distortion required to produce the Lincoln/Booth switcharound.
Not that Fox or Schwarz would have given it a moment’s consideration. It was, after all, a Reverse-MacGuffin, a totally unimportant, completely inconsequential, wholly irrelevant detail that only exists to lend verisimilitude to your central conceit. Which is, naturally, creating evil doppelgangers of half the Justice League.
Once again, the Justice Society play second fiddle in this team-up. Despite dominating the cover of issue 29, they don’t appear in the story until the penultimate page, and though they get first crack of the whip at the action in issue 30, their victory over the Crime Syndicate is merely pyrrhic: despite being warned about the very technique, they fall into the Syndicate’s plot and have to be freed from prison by the victorious League at the end.
Even a contemporary letter-writer complained about the demeaning approach to the JSA, which may have had an effect on what would come next.
Whilst the JLA line-up is chosen specifically to parallel the Crime Syndicate, there is no apparent logic to the JSA line-up. Doctor Fate, Hawkman and Black Canary survive the cut, and, in a nice touch, paralleling their joint début in All-Star 8, Dr Mid-Nite and Starman are reintroduced in the Silver Age.
Interestingly, though Mid-Nite is apparently unchanged from his last run-out in 1950, Starman (who  disappeared in 1945) refers to his scientific weapon as his Cosmic Rod, and it seems to have a wider range of abilities than his old Gravity Rod.
And it’s immediately noticeable that that seven-active-member, see-our-by-laws nonsense has already been abandoned. Each team has five members in action, giving Sekowsky a relatively easy fifteen costumes to cope with (that is, if you don’t count cameos by five more heroes – three League, two Society – in the build-up).
It’s fresh and enjoyable, especially in the chance to welcome another two Golden Age gladiators back into the action, but as a whole the story doesn’t match the standards of the first team-up, in 1963.
A large part of this is attributable to the way the Justice Society are depicted as losers, but the largely downbeat ending to the story kills its momentum. The Crime Syndicate are defeated, for good, at the top of page 21. What follows is a silly pantomime show as the Syndicate members send out facial signals over what they want to see happen to themselves, which leads to this simultaneously overblown and pathetic threat to the existence of Earths 1 and 2, that Green Lantern disposes of in the corner of a panel.
It kills the story in its traces, and the naïve idea of imprisoning the Syndicate for all eternity, in a globe lacking food, water and air supplies, surrounded by warning signs, just emphasises how perfunctory the conclusion is.
I’ve also one complaint about this story that has nothing to do with the team-ups, and that’s the first round of battles in issue 29. Let’s get this straight: the Syndicate split up to rob in five specific places and the JLA split up to tackle their exact counterpart. Leave aside the sexist implications of allowing only Superwoman and Wonder Woman meet, since you can’t (in 1964) have either of them fight men, because no man would be so unchivalrous as to strike a poor, weak, defenceless woman.
No, what actually happens is that all four male JLAers arrive to find a different male villain. That’s four villains who, having finished looting a location, all go to a location where one of their colleagues has also been looting, meaning that all four are actually expecting to find that their team-mates have not looted everything but will have left stuff – rich, valuable stuff – behind for somebody else to come loot. And not only is that the stupidest idea any supervillain could ever have had, but it actually turns out to be the case in every case.
Famously, at the end of Fantastic Voyage, the grandson of screenplay writer Isaac Asimov asked, if the suddenly growing scientists (and Raquel Welsh) had to get out of the patient’s head before they killed him, why did the suddenly growing submarine they left behind not kill him. Asimov explained that it was because his infant grandson was smarter than a Hollywood Producer.
That makes my eight year old self smarter than Gardner Fox and Julius Schwarz. If only I’d lived in New York, and not East Manchester.
Post-Crisis canon or not? As the story’s sole raison d’être is parallel worlds and the Crime Syndicate coming from an Earth where evil predominates, it’s impossible for this story to have occurred. Or is it? As early as Justice League International in 1987, DC had reintroduced Bluejay, Wandjina and the Silver Sorceress (affectionate parodies of Marvel’s Avengers) as survivors of an alternate Earth destroyed by nuclear disaster, so why couldn’t the Crime Syndicate have come from that kind of alternate Earth themselves?
However, the kind of rewriting required to accommodate the shift from three Earths to two would probably have forced changes out of all recognition: in the DC Universe, it makes no sense to even involve the Justice Society at all. So, again, no.

The Prisoner: episode 15 – The Girl Who Was Death – synopsis


Thunder crashes. The normal credits sequence runs.
We open upon a painted scene of an Edwardian cricket match, spread across two pages of a book held open by a pair of hands.
A succession of scenes establish a contemporary village cricket match. Colonel Hawke-Englishe, an old-fashioned man in multi-coloured cap, with well-brushed grey moustache, is batting. He bats left-handed, and swipes the bowler for a boundary.
By the scoreboard, his assistant Potter changes the Colonel’s score to 93. He takes a pair of binoculars from a cricket bad, covering up a high-powered rifle with telescopic sights with a pair of pads. Potter scans the crowd, lingering on the legs of an attractive woman with short blonde hair, who is wearing a white mini-dress. Reprimanding himself, he turns the binoculars to the Colonel, who acknowledges his scrutiny with a wink. Potter misses the girl getting elegantly out of her deck-chair and walking away.
The Colonel smashes the next ball into the undergrowth for six, advancing his score to 99. As a fielder runs from the field to retrieve it, a feminine hand, extending from a white sleeve, replaces it with a seemingly identical ball.
The fielder throws the new ball in from the boundary. The bowler catches it, and marches back almost to the sightscreen, intent on delivering his fastest ball. He races in and delivers, grinning maniacally. The Colonel plays a defensive block: the ball explodes on contact with his bat. His death, one short of his century, is announced on a newspaper board.
Enter a fellow Agent, played by McGoohan, wearing the white cap and coat favoured by John Drake in later series of Danger Man. He walks down the High Street and pauses outside a ladies clothes shop whose windows are filled with mannequins wearing the latest fashions. A scruffy, unshaven, unhappy Potter is working as a shoe-shiner outside.
Whilst the Agent pretends to have his Hush Puppies (suede shoes) cleaned, Potter explains that the Colonel was pursuing the mad scientist, Dr Schnipps (a slip: he is Professor Schnipps throughout the rest of the episode) who has been building a rocket with which to destroy London. Unfortunately, the Colonel had not found out where the rocket is: the Agent is to go collect a message from the Chief at a nearby record shop. As he leaves, we see the girl has replaced one of the shop mannequins and has been listening in.
In the record shop, the Agent signals with his tie and is given a disc to take into a listening booth. The Chief’s message is for him to take over from the Colonel.
Back to the cricket match. The Agent, wearing the same cap plus Edwardian mutton chop whiskers and moustache, is batting (right handed) against the same bowler, and scoring freely. The white dressed blonde (who is actually Sonia Schnipps, daughter of the Professor, though her first name is never mentioned in the episode) is again watching.
As before, the Agent hits a four and a six to take his score to 99. The same feminine hand replaces the ball in the undergrowth. It is thrown in from the boundary, caught by the bowler, who marches a long way back before running in and delivering it with a maniacal grin. This time, the Agent catches the ball and hurls it back into the undergrowth, where it explodes harmlessly. Following it, he finds a lace hankie on which a lipsticked message says Sonia will meet him at his local.
Restored to cap and coat, the Agent attends his local and orders the usual. As he drains his drink, the word ‘You’ (in Village font) appears on the base of the glass. Only after he has drained his drink can he read the full message: ‘You have just been poisoned’.
Turning back to the bar, the Agent quickly orders, and downs, a succession of shorts, spirits and liqueurs, until the barmaid protests that he’ll make himself sick. As he heads for the Gents, Sonja emerges from it. Inside, a message on the roller towel sends him to a nearby Steam bath.
Next, we see the Agent in a steam cupboard, enjoying the treatment. He has re-donned his moustache and whiskers. Another steam cupboard opens, revealing a girl’s legs. She slides a broomstick through the handles of the Agent’s cupboard and places a large goldfish bowl over his head. As the trapped steam threatens to overcome him, the Agent struggles, finally breaking the broom and striding free. He is fully dressed, in Edwardian Sherlockian clothing. A message on the inside of Sonia’s steam cupboard directs him to a boxing booth at the nearby funfair.
In the booth, the Agent sits alone in the front row. Sonia is present, disguised as an elderly woman in a black shawl. The MC announces a three round fight between the ugly and vicious Killer Kominsky and the challenger – Mr X! He points at the agent and the crowd force him into the ring.
We cut to the picture book, still held open, but now showing a painting of an Edwardian boxing match. This appears before and after the commercials.
He spars with Kominsky, each showing their abilities. Kominsky tells him to go to the Tunnel of Love, and when the Agent presses him on who has given his that message, he angrily says he doesn’t know, and knocks the Agent out.
The Tunnel of Love is quiet and deserted. Unseen by the Agent. Sonia is there, among the scary exhibits. After he passes her, she begins to talk to him, caressingly, telling him that she is beginning to fall in love with him. She warns him not to turn round: when he does he finds a small radio broadcasting her words. When he throws it into the water, it explodes.
A hunt follows all across the funfair grounds. The Agent keeps seeing Sonia in her white dress, but losing her on various rides. He pursues a woman dressed in white to the top of the Big Dipper, only to discover that she is a different woman, model for a photographer (an uncredited Alexis Kanner) who berates him violently.
The chase continues. The Agent sees a white dressed woman posing before a roundabout, but as he approaches, the photographer gets off the roundabout and looks at him. The Agent tips his deerstalker and retreats, but this time the woman is Sonia, who kisses the photographer, then runs to her white E-type Jag and drives away. The Agent strips off his whiskers and follows in his Lotus.
The pair carry out a high speed chase, down dual-carriageways and country lanes. Sonia continues to talk to the Agent, via a mike in her car, to his car radio. She continues to discuss love with him: he is perfect for her, a born survivor where she is a born killer. She points behind her, at him, and then waves her finger from side to side, causing the road to appear to sway with her movements, even to loop the loop. A sudden turn down a side road, signposted Wychwood 1 mile, gains her a lead. The camera cuts to the book, this time showing an idyllic English Village scene, before and after the adverts
The Agent finds himself in an abandoned Village. Sonia’s e-type is parked but there is no sign of the woman. Suddenly, her voice addresses him out of the ether. She is going to give him a glorious death, but before that it is only fair that she gives him her name: her name is Death.
The Agent traces her voice to a loudspeaker whose wires lead inside the boarded up shop of the Butcher. Bursting in, he comes under fire from a Bren gun, set up on a tripod, whilst Sonia continues to address him lovingly. Wriggling under the line of fire, the Agent disarms the electric eye and takes the gun for his own use.
He follows the voice into the next abandoned shop, the Baker. Suddenly, a trapdoor opens under his feet and he falls into a pit filled with needle sharp electrified points. By swinging the gun across the opening, he is able to save himself, but the spikes start to rise. Desperately, he manages to drag a baker’s tray to the opening, and pull this down so he can stand on this as the spikes arise.
However, the floor is filled with small but powerful anti-personnel mines, which will go off in 90 seconds only. His only escape is to grasp the heating pipe running along the roof, and swing along this, despite the burning heat, to get into the third shop, the Candlestick Maker.
This shop is filled with candles of all sizes, in all manner of arrays. The Agent begins to cough. Sonia explains that the candles are wax mixed with a cyanide derivative, which is pouring poison into the air. Before the Agent can escape, she triggers steel shutters everywhere. Nor can he blow the candles out: if he does, they will explode, which he quickly demonstrates with a long-handled candle-snuffer.
Suddenly, the Agents begins gathering candles, piling them in front of the door. Sonia tells him that they used to toll the death knell in this Village when a great man was dying: when she starts up the bell, the Agent realises where she is. She thinks his antics are irrational, but when he has enough candles, he shelters behind a sturdy table and uses a bellows to blow them out all at once, blowing the shutters open.
Outside, in the street, Sonia starts firing at him from the Bell Tower. He takes refuge in the Blacksmiths, where he finds an abandoned but still working bulldozer. Using its scoop as a shield, he goes out into the street. Sonia, enjoying herself enormously, switches from machine guns to German stick grenades, hurling these with a ‘wheee!’. The third of these immobilises the bulldozer, giving her the chance to load and take up a bazooka, which destroys the bulldozer.
Descending to the street, she surveys the blazing wreckage with satisfaction, before turning away down a side street. The Agent climbs out of a manhole and follows her into the fields, where she makes for a helicopter. As it takes off, he jumps aboard, clinging to its skies.
The scene changes to the picture book, now showing an old-fashioned Wright Brothers era plane flying over the ocean, which is repeated after the adverts.
The helicopter flies on, eventually landing in a similar field. The Agent jumps off and conceals himself as the unheeding Sonia walks away. He follows her towards some rocks, where she disappears. A few steps further on is a cliff edge, overlooking a lighthouse. Returning to the rocks, the Agent finds a secret entrance.
A passage leads down into an armoury complex, underneath the lighthouse. A man wearing a Napoleonic era French uniform arrives, quietly singing ‘A Londonderry Air’: the Agent knocks him out, takes his top coat and, continuing the song, starts to work on the rifles and grenades.
Meanwhile, above, in the control room, Sonia, changing into a ball-gown from the period, has rejoined her father, Professor Schnipps. The Professor is dressed as Napoleon, complete with hand inside waistcoat. His henchmen, all dressed as French Marshals, also have their hands in their waistcoats: angrily, he drags them out.
Schnipps’ plan is nearing fruition: the rocket is about to be launched to destroy London. He renames several landmarks – Napoleon Square, Napoleon’s Column – after himself, whilst his ‘little girl’ can have Bond Street and his ‘merry lads’ Chelsea Barracks. This does not go down well.
The Irish Marshall, O’Rourke is missing (he too has gone downstairs and been knocked out by the Agent) so Schnipps sends the Marshals downstairs. They get into a fight with the Agent, during which he downs several of them, before escaping outside to the base of the lighthouse. The Marshals grab rifles and line up to shoot him, but the Agent has gimmicked these to fire backwards, killing all the Marshals. He starts up the stairs only to be halted by Sonia, carrying a gun that will not backfire.
The Agent is tied to a chair whilst Schnipps taunts him with the knowledge that the lighthouse IS the rocket, something the Agent has already worked out for himself, to Schnipps’s consternation. But he will be left in the control room when Schnipps and Sonia evacuate.
The countdown started, they rush down one level and start frantically packing files into various cases. The Agent struggles against his bonds before freeing himself by the simple expedient of lifting the chair-back off its support. He then wrecks the rocket by fiddling with all its controls, until it starts to overheat. Using the rope, he abseils down the side of the lighthouse and takes the Schnipps’s boat.
Aghast, the Schnipps’s grab stick grenades and hurl these at the Agent. But these too have been gimmicked: the explosive attaches to the stick: they and the lighthouse are blown to smithereens!
The pair of hands closes the book. It has the Penny Farthing on its cover and a title: The Village Storybook.
Three children in pyjamas, two boys and a girl, eagerly clamour for another story from Number Six, but he puts them to bed, promising to come back the next night.
In his office, Number two and his girl assistant watch the scene onscreen: they are Schnipps and his daughter. Number Two seethes: the idea of putting Number Six with the Village children in the hope he will let something slip has failed: he has told them a fairy story. His assistant sympathises.
On the screen, Number Six says ‘Goodnight Children’, before pausing, turning to the surveillance camera and concluding ‘Everywhere.”
The Prisoner’s face races towards the screen. A pair of iron-barred doors slide across in front of it, slamming shut.

Asterix and the Picts – To Read or Not to Read


People, I have a quandary.

Today sees the publication of Asterix and the Picts, the first new Asterix book in eight years. Rather more importantly, it is the first Asterix story not to be created by either Rene Goscinny or Albert Uderzo. Uderzo, the artist, continued producing stories after the tragically premature death of his partner Goscinny in 1977, but has announced his retirement (why not? he is, after all, 86). Controversially, however, unlike Georges ‘Herge’ Remi, who insisted that The Adventures of TinTin should not continue in others’ hands after his death, Uderzo sold his rights to Asterix to the publishers Hachette, and announced that the series would be continued by illustrators of his choice, who had been his assistants for many years.

Uderzo’s daughter publicly criticised him for doing this, but Goscinny’s daughter gave her blessing, selling her own rights to Hachette, who now control Asterix.

The new book is written by Jean-Yves Ferri and was originally to be drawn by Frederic Mebarki, although the latter withdrew, citing the pressure of following Uderzo, and the book has been drawn instead by Didier Conrad. I know nothing of any pre-existing work by these gentlemen and have no idea as to their capability at doing such a thing as Asterix.

By now, you should be aware that I have a very purist attitude towards the continuation of characters by other hands after the death or incapacity of their original creators. It’s a fact of life in the American comic book industry which, now again, more than ever, believes that the creative hand and mine that creates the work is interchangeable and unimportant compared to the characters themselves, which is an unutterably depressing situation to be back in. It’s been less prevalent in European comics, though I confess to being no expert. TinTin ended with Herge and there has been no sugestion in the nearly thirty years since that he will ever return. On the other hand, Edgar Jacobs’ Blake and Mortimer has been continued by several different teams since his death.

All my instincts yell at me to do as I always planned and ignore Asterix and the Picts. It’s not just a matter of principle, but of preference. I have loved Asterix for forty-odd years, since it was serialised in Ranger as In the days of Good Queen Cleo, and the characters were ancient Brits, re-named Beric, Doric and Son of Boadicea, but it’s the creative minds that have made me laugh. I’m not interested in anybody else’s Asterix: they’re not Goscinny, they’re not Uderzo, they don’t have that innate, instinctive understanding that belongs to the creator.

But the last remaining creator has chosen or, I would assume, at least approved of them. He wants to see Asterix live on. Should I at least attempt to read the new book? Let it fail me in its actuality as opposed to my anticipation? Surely that’s only fair?

On the other hand, I tried that many years ago, when William Horwood was chosen to write the official continuation of The Wind in the Willows. He was a good writer, I liked his books, he could make it work. And I threw The Willows in Winter across the room in anger before I got partway through the second chapter, because he’d got it so completely wrong.

Either Ferri and Conrad will produce a successful pastiche, because they’ve properly channelled Goscinny and Uderzo, or they’ll bring their own sensibilities to it, and it’ll cease to be Asterix. I imagine Hachette will have been very careful not to allow the latter, not until they’ve got two or three successes under their belts. But why read pastiche when the real thing is abundantly available?

I realise I’m talking myself into my original conviction here, but I’d be interested in hearing others’ opinions on this. What are you going to do?

Obscure Corners: The Calder Valley Circuit


The Calder Valley, seen from Whoap Beck in descent

There is more to the Lake District than the Great Walks and the Little Gems that attract walkers and visitors by the bushelful.
Though solitude and privacy gets harder to find by the year, especially in high summer, there are still walks that can offer, for the most part, loneliness and silence.
They may not rival the highest ground for excitement, or the vigour required to conquer the tops, but they offer a change of scene, and they offer visions of Lakeland that cannot be had from the more conventional days. Very few fells in the Lake District, in the Wainwrights are not worth walking. Even those that are not among the higher echelon offer the opportunity for a pleasant day.
Beyond the heads of Wasdale and Ennerdale, and the lesser valleys between them, long ridges reach seawards, grassy summits declining and, eventually, merging into, the West Cumberland Plain. I’ve taken to referring to these lonely, lowly fells – some of them Wainwrights, other relegated to the Outlying Fells, as the Western Margins.
If you’re looking for a pleasant and easy ramble in unvisited country, there is a circuit of the River Calder that takes in the fells on the southern shore of Ennerdale Water, together with Lank Rigg, the fell that Wainwright himself regarded as the loneliest in Lakeland. In sunny conditions, this is a refreshingly peaceful alternative to Great Gable, Pillar and their ever-busy ilk.
The major drawback of the walk is that it avoids sight of the rocky face of Crag Fell, overlooking Ennerdale Water. A start can be contrived from the Ennerdale Bridge area which would compensate to some extent for this, but which would leave to an excessively long road walk back, and can’t be recommended.
Instead, approach Ennerdale along the Cold Fell road, leaving Egremont on the coast road and rising to cross the foothills of the Western Margins. The road has widespread coastal views, although the inland vista is primarily of featureless green slopes.
A hundred or so yards short of the Kinniside Stone Circle – a modern day circle created by a geology teacher in 1925 as an example – the old, rutted mine road descends from a nearby fringe of trees. This is the key to the ascent and there is ample verge parking in the vicinity.
The approach to Grike has changed substantially from Wainwright’s day, with the establishment of another Ennerdale sub-forest on the southern flanks of the fell, reaching up within sight of the summit. The mine road is an easy, gently angled ascent, though much of it is confined within the forest which, being of Forestry Commission design, is glum and dark. In some places, I found the ruts almost impassable due to deep slutch.
Where the road emerges from the fringes of the forest, use a stile to escape onto the open fell to the left and bear uphill towards Grike’s penny plain top, an easy conquest. The views are not spectacular: the bulk of Crag Fell lying immediately eastwards restricts the view into Ennerdale, the lower end of the Lake being the most prominent sight from here. Nevertheless, the first summit of the day is always a welcome point: there’s a sense of achievement to being on any summit, and on a ridge walk there is always the feeling (and often the fact) that the hardest work has been done and the rest of the day can be spent in the metaphorically rarefied air of the tops.
Wainwright used to recommend descending to the continuation of the mine road at this point, to avoid the worst of the damp depression before Crag Fell, but the forest fence precludes this now. And on a sunny day, keeping to the ridge looks the more attractive prospect anyway. I don’t recall much in the way of soft ground to hinder me, but Chris Jesty is adamant that it still exists. Perhaps a sunny summer is the best time to test this?
Crag Fell is the highest point of the walk, and its highlight. Though the crags that award the fell its name are not viewable from this approach, the summit’s closer proximity to Ennerdale itself offers superb, if slightly lop-sided views down into the valley: of the head of the Lake, the deep forests and the relatively staid northern wall of the valley. Bear in mind, though, that Crag Fell’s top is at exactly that wonderful mid-height to emphasise the height and majesty of the surrounding fells.
Lunch is recommended here, to take advantage of the views. When ready to leave, take the path dropping away on the right, heading for the least appealing sector of the skyline, the rounded, unphotogenic Caw Fell.
From here, this lonely and distant fell can be reached in another three and a half miles, though it lacks in appeal except for long distance walkers who like to test themselves. From the Cold Fell Road it’s six miles there, and six miles back, without excitement or intrinsic interest: a long walk with little reward, either en route or on arrival, and lonely country if you sustain an injury.
This walk does not require you to make more than a token gesture in that direction, descending surprisingly steeply through the burgeoning forest before escaping over a stile into the open air, onto the end of the old mine road. At this point, we’re near the bottom of a dip, and the path now turns to the right and climbs, unusually steeply for the day, alongside a wall. Follow this to the  wall corner, where wall and path turn away left towards Caw Fell, and instead bear right, across grassy grounds, in the direction of the rounded hump of Whoap.
Whoap’s a bit of an oddity, apart from its unusual name. In The Western Fells, it looks substantial, with an isolated top and falls of 200 feet on either side, enough to suggest it qualifies as a separate fell. On the ground, it’s easy to see that it is nothing but a sea of grass, thick grass, so that the approach and descent are more like wading than walking, and Whoap lacks any kind of individuality. One gets the impression that Wainwright opted not to treat this as a separate fell because he didn’t want to bore himself tramping all over it, and most honest visitors will probably agree.
There are no paths on Whoap because it is carpeted in thick grass, and it will never ever have remotely enough visitors to blaze any kind of track along its placid ridges. But it does offer solitude, and the sounds of the wind and the birds, and  these are often precious things in the Lake District.
Descend from Whoap and climb the opposing slope to reach the littered top of the day’s last fell, the lonely Lank Rigg, scene of Wainwright’s amazing largesse by leaving a two bob bit near to its cairn in 1966 as a reward to one of The Western Fells‘ readers (it had been claimed by 6.00pm on the day of publication). There is little here to excite except solitude and privacy, although some searching under flat rocks may be worthwhile: it has become something of a tradition for walkers to leave coins for other searchers, and if you don’t find anything yourself, you can always play the game by sticking 50p under some likely stone, though it won’t get you the fish’n’chips Wainwright planned to spend his rash bounty upon. The views inwards to the fells are not impressive, but Lank Rigg enjoys a wide sea-vista that creates an amazing sense of space, which is worth the visit alone.
To return, retrace your steps in the direction of Whoap but, once in the saddle, bear left down easy slopes into the valley of the Calder, here in infant form. The valley is shallow and the walking easy, with a path forming on the right hand (northern) side of the river. Follow this until a track appears on the right, rising towards the low horizon. The Cold Fell Road comes as a complete surprise, being about ten feet away and in the process of bending around a corner. There is about a half mile to walk back to the Kinniside Stone Circle and the car.

The Prisoner: Angelo Muscat


After Patrick McGoohan, the actor with the best track record in The Prisoner is Angelo Muscat, who played Number Two’s butler in fourteen of the seventeen episodes, and, despite never saying a single word, is as big an icon of the series as Portmeirion itself.
Muscat, who was born in Malta in 1930, was a short man in a family of tall people: both his parents and all three brothers were six foot or more, but Angelo only grew to the height of four feet three inches: stocky, rotund and balding. And sadly, very lonely.
His size restricted his employment opportunities on Malta, though he developed a love of the theatre there. He moved to England after the death of his parents, in quick succession, and worked in a zipper factory until, in 1961, he responded to an ad for casting of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
This began an acting career which included appearances in a lost William Hartnell Doctor Who adventure and in the twice weekly medical soap opera, Emergency Ward 10, but his career highlight was being selected for The Prisoner.
The early scripts make it plain that McGoohan and co envisaged a completely different figure for the Butler: a conventional, six foot strong-arm man, who would have (albeit banal) dialogue. According to ITC publicity, Muscat was personally selected for the part by McGoohan, after reviewing hundreds of photos.
The casting gave Muscat particular pride, both in the responsibility it gave him as virtually the only other series regular, and because he was a great Danger Man fan, and would be working with Patrick McGoohan.
Like so many aspects of the series, his casting was an act of genius.
I’ve already mentioned his immediate impact in our household on first viewing in 1967: I may have been somewhat idiosyncratic in my anticipation of a quasi-Lurch, but Muscat’s appearance – short, round, immaculately clad, deeply serious, silent, unfailingly grave – was 180% away from anything that might have been expected.
His performances throughout the series maintained that initial impression. In the episodes we have reviewed so far, he has opened doors, brought and removed breakfast trolleys, carried and held the prototypical Village umbrella. To the extent of his participation in the story is concerned, he has been a cypher, as much as the Village symbol of the Penny Farthing.
Only in A Change of Mind does the Butler engage in a minor interaction with Number Six, when the latter makes his second and condemnatory appearance before the Social Affairs Committee: Number Six finds that the Committee members have vanished and he is alone, at the centre of a ring of tables, with the Butler solemnly contemplating him. Without a muscle moving, facially, Muscat contributes a suggestion of amusement as he waits Number Six out. And when the latter leaps to his feet, intent on challenging the encircling, Muscat is equally fast, if not faster, to pull the requisite table aside and create egress.
In Hammer into Anvil, when the paranoid Number Two dismisses him and threatens to strike him, Muscat is still silent and immobile, yet in his stance and the slightest of expressions around his eyes, creates the powerful expression that he is deeply hurt at having his loyalty questioned, though equally he shows no sign of fear at the physical threat of a much taller man.
And as I’ve already mentioned, when discussing that episode, Muscat is used to conclude A Change of Mind in vivid fashion, unfurling the Village umbrella and briskly walking up the rosepath in the wake of his latest broken master. Similarly, an earlier episode, lacking an adequate closing moment, finishes with a shot of the butler, dressed in his coat and bowler, holding the umbrella and looking down on the Village.
Naturally enough, with Muscat seemingly ever-present, unspeaking but observant, and with the series still emphasising its espionage roots, many were led to speculate that the butler was, in fact, Number One. That is a popular trope by now, the mastermind whose disguise is ordinariness and lowliness, but in 1967 in would have been fresh for television. If the series had been more concerned with concrete drama, it might even have been a possibility for the ending, though we know that George Markstein’s thoughts led in a different direction.
The Butler would play a larger, more direct role in the final two episodes of the series: indeed, he would feature in The Prisoner‘s penultimate shot. But his significance in the majority of the show was symbolic, from his very first, reality-breaking appearance. The Village was elsewhere, beyond and outside Number Six’s old (= real) life. Its combination of scientific advance and surface whimsy rendered it a fantasy in which the former Agent was suspended, a dream from which he was not allowed to wake. Angelo Muscat’s unusual appearance was another, vital component of the suspension/perversion of reality that enabled the programme to work to the degree it did.
Sadly, The Prisoner was the highlight of Angelo Muscat’s life and career. Markstein recalled him being a pleasure to work with, always with a smile on set, no matter the hour, forever cheerful. In some ways he was the programme’s mascot, a role of which he was proud.
He would go on to more film and TV offers, including the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, but would quickly be forgotten. He died of natural causes in 1977, having spent the last few years of his life living alone, almost penniless, in a basement flat in London, supplementing his income by making ornate bird cages.
Angelo Muscat deserved better

The Distractions: Nobody’s Perfect


Once upon a time there was a Manchester band. There have, of course, been many Manchester bands. Many of them got the success that they deserved. Many of them got the obscurity that, despite being Manchester bands, they deserved. And not a few got the obscurity that they definitely did not deserve.
One such was The Distractions.
The Distractions were, at the outset, a five piece band, consisting of Mike Finney (vocals), Steve Perrin and Adrian Wright (guitars), pipnicholls (bass) and Alec Sidebottom (drums). They got together in 1977, during the punk era, though as punks they were something of an unlikely lot. Finney, the singer, had a more soulful voice than most, and looked a bit like a schoolteacher, nicholls was a tiny blonde with a pudding bowl haircut in the mould of Tina Weymouth and Sidebottom was in his late thirties, a veteran skin-pounder with dozens of Manchester outfits. And Perrin and Wright, both of whom wrote songs for the band, were much more tuneful in their efforts than most of their contemporaries, even if such contemporaries, such as Slaughter and the Dogs, Ed Banger and the Nosebleeds, and the wonderful Buzzccks were much better known than these five.
They made their vinyl début with a 12″ EP, released through the tiny TJM Records label (I know of no other releases by TJM). Under the gloriously Mancunian title of “You’re Not Going Out Dressed Like That”, the band presented four of their early songs, including two superbly fresh, poppy efforts with compulsive choruses, “Doesn’t Bother Me” and “Maybe It’s Love”.
This got them a deal with the nascent Factory to release a one-off single, which turned out to be the band’s most perfect song, the wonderful, catchy, impossible-to-resist “Time Goes By So Slow”. Peel loved it, I loved it, the radio criminally ignored it, and “Time Goes By So Slow”, with its lyrics about sitting in Albert Square, its mixture of sadness and joie de vivre, and its beautifully balanced energy placed it very high in the list of records that should have been, but never were absolutely mega.
Nevertheless, the single’s reputation, and the band’s continuing live popularity in Manchester prompted a deal for an album from Island Records, resulting in the Distractions’ one and only contemporary LP, “Nobody’s Perfect”. It would be a disastrous experience for the band, with fissures arising as to the direction of their music. Finney, nicholls and Sidebottom seem to have been behind a general move to soften the band’s overall sound, to emphasise keyboards and acoustic sounds, instead of the Distractions’ original, guitar-based, abrasive approach. Their notions were more commercial in aspect, if not, ultimately, in outcome, but Perrin was left dispirited and upset by the move, and shortly after the album was released, in 1981, he left the group.
As the band’s leading songwriter, either alone or in tandem with Finney on lyrics, this was as much a disaster as John O’Neill leaving the Undertones in 1979 would have been, especially when Adrian Wright followed, shortly after. And whilst the band’s reputation is built around the partnership of Finney and Perrin, it should be noted, as few seldom do, that it was Wright who had written “Time Goes By So Slow”.
The Distractions recruited Arthur Kadnam on guitar and continued as a four-piece into 1982, when I saw them live for the only time, doing a pub gig in Romiley, Stockport. The new line-up released a three track 7″ EP, of which the lead track was “Twenty Four Hours” but this was the band’s last release, and they split up later in the year.
I’ve never heard anything as to the futures of Wright, nicholls, Kadnam or Sidebottom, but Finney went on to form the Secret Seven, a pop/soul oriented band, with twin singers (Finney and a young lady with a fresh voice). They released the superb single “Hold on to love”, a sweet concoction ideally suited to Finney’s voice, with a b-side of equal quality, but then disappeared without making any other records.
This was the story of the Distractions as I’d always known it, but a few years ago, I learned that Finney and Perrin (the latter of whom was now living and working as a teacher in New Zealand) had reconciled, and had met up in 1995 to record three tracks which were released as an EP under the leading track “Lost”. These included a remake of the Distractions’ original track, “Still it doesn’t ring”. That was all until 2010, when the due again teamed up, with outside assistance, to record another three track EP, featuring the title track “Black Velvet”.
And just last year, the Distractions recorded their long-awaited follow up, thirty-two years on, “At the end of the pier”. Sadly, though the sound is familiar, it lacks the sonic texture of their early days and the songs are old men’s songs, looking backwards into an infinity of regret for what didn’t happen.
But it’s “Nobody’s Perfect” that I’m concerned with now, the only album recorded by the original line-up. It’s very hard to get hold of, having never been released on CD (nor are there any plans that it should ever be), and copies of the LP being rare, and consequently expensive.
Nor is it a major album, a lost cultural (or even cult) masterpiece, though I’ve always contended that its sound, marrying the energy and melody of the Buzzcocks to a softer, more keyboard oriented sound, makes “Nobody’s Perfect” the missing link between the Buzzcocks and the Human League of “Dare”. But it’s still an album worth listening to, and there are at least three solid masterpieces, all from the Finney/Perrin team, that deserve to be known widely.
The album begins with jittery guitar, skittering into your hearing, before a solid riff, having its roots in the band’s punk origins, leads the band on a busy hustle. “Waiting for Lorraine” is a love song, but it’s a peculiarly Mancunian love song, with its feet set firmly upon the ground. Finney’s waiting for Lorraine: she’s his girlfriend, he’s sat by the phone because she’s supposed to be calling him back, but he’s not hearing from her. The longer he doesn’t hear from her, the more he starts to doubt her. He doesn’t want her to love him forever, just to stop her telling lies. Perrin rips in with a fast guitar sole and Finney shoots back, washing his hands of untrustworthy, heartbreaker Lorraine, until he’s now waiting for her to go drop dead.
It’s a love song of disillusion, set to a fast, melodic sound,guitar based, with little snippets of voices behind Finney’s upfront tones, yet it’s only his side of things. The twist is that we have absolutely no idea whether Lorraine is a cheater or if it’s Finney’s anger at being stood up (even if it’s only a non-returned call after a phone argument) that’s creating this image.
As I said, Mancunian.
It’s followed by “Something for the Weekend”, an equally up-tempo, energetic song, driven by sharp organ riffs and an underlying pounded piano. Musically, it wears it’s rock’n’roll roots pretty close to the surface, especially in Perrin’s trebly solo, but the busyness doesn’t disguise a certain thinness in the song. The chorus repeats insistently, as Finney pleads for something to stop the pain, ease the strain, numb his brain, make it real again (so, nothing to do with drugs then). It’s all to do with his mysteriously unexpressed behaviour, that makes him an outcast.
The song also features a technique that the Distractions increasingly used over what little was left of their career, that is that guitars and keyboards would drop out, leaving only drum and bass to support Finney’s voice. It works here, because the percussion keeps the rhythm of the song, but elsewhere it tends to render the song choppy, disrupting its integrity.
Track three is the album’s biggest mistake. It’s a full-sounding, swirl of guitar and organ cover of Eden Kane’s 1964 hit, “Boyscry” (though Kane sold it as two words). This was the only single to be pulled off the album (“Something for the Weekend” was re-recorded as a single) and though the sound was representative of the band in this album, the archaic nature of the song and the lack of confidence shown in the Distractions’ own music was a colossal own goal.
It slides into “Sick and Tired”, an uninspired retread of “Waiting for Lorraine”, heavily featuring synthesizers over a niggling rhythm that breaks out into a brief but vicious chorused title line. Once again, Finney’s waiting for someone who’s not showed, though this time he’s out in the rain, smoking a cigarette and trying to look cool. A vicious solo from Perrin overtakes the end of the song, but there’s a lack of conviction to the song, or perhaps the production doesn’t entirely believe  in the rawer sound of the band’s origins.
It doesn’t matter because we now approach the first of the album’s three undoubtedly classic moments. “Leave you to Dream” is an airy confection, a pure pop moment, its lightness promised in its exuberant intro an confirmed in its first line, as Finney cut in, effortlessly, his voice floating over a beautifully smooth keyboard riff that frolics and gambols.
It’s again a love song, a hopeless and unrequited love. Finney’s found his girl, and she’s truly lovely. She’s asleep and dreaming: he holds back from waking her because he fears (knows?) that she’s too good for him, yet he dreams that in her dreams she dreams of him.
And yet… Though he’s stoical about it at first, accepting of his non-place in her affections, aware that his only recourse is to get pissed, but whilst he watches her and longs for her regard, he wishes for her the things she dreams of, and the hope remains in there that, in that unknown land behind her closed eyes, that maybe there is a place fr him, by her side.
It’s a stunningly lovely, oddly hopeful song that should have been far better known.
It’s followed by “Louise”, a sharp-edged little song with another Mancunian take on the problems of love. Finney’s singing to his mate, who’s pissed off at the Louise of the title, who used to be his girlfriend, but they’ve broken up now. She’s with Finney now, and if this guy should blame anyone, it should be Finney, not the girl he never properly made his feelings known to, and whose name he’s been trying to blacken (you can just hear the sound of the unspoken words ‘slag’, ‘bitch’ and ‘whore’).
Finney’s stepped out of his own head now. Where, in “Waiting for Lorraine”, he could only see and blame the girl, now he’s looking at just such a guy, and telling him off.
“Paracetamol Paralysis”, which closes side one, is very much The Distractions in full-out punk mode, riffing ferociously, with hard-edged guitars and pumping drums, in the middle of a night out. Finney’s been down the disco since quarter to nine, getting into the groove, and he’s taken this handful of pills someone’s slipped him. Heaven knows what he thought they were but they were actually paracetamol, and everything’s bloody strange.
It’s an intense, nervy, but almost comical track – I mean, bloody paracetamol! – that is a draining experience. The brief pause whilst we turn over the record is quite welcome.
Because we’re into a totally different sound as “(Stuckina) Fantasy” flies out as us on sheets of organ, underlaid by a pulsing rhythm, on which Perrin builds little guitar figures until the chorus hits like a dream. The story on this side of the album is different: where Finney sought love from girls who stood him up or were too good for him, now he’s found love, and lost it. They lived together and she left him: the fantasy he can’t leave is that she hasn’t.
Funnily, I didn’t think that much of this track in 1981 but, fifteen or so years later, I dug out this album and out it on a tape to play in the car whilst away on holiday in the Lakes and it hit me right between the ears. Its pace, the compelling chorus, the sheer drive of the song: just as the Bluebells’ “Young at Heart” had reappeared out of nowhere to hit Number 1, I could suddenly see the band performing this in Top of the Pops after a top Five entry.
It’s something in the balance between light and shade: that compelling intro followed by a starkness of sound, of mostly rhythm before re-engaging the full sound for the chorus. And such a painful lyric, as Finney recounts his crippling obsession with almost price: his sprinkling of her perfume on her pillow at night so he can dream of her is a painfully observant detail but it is the final lines, when he reveals that after he switches the TV off at night, her ghostly face appears to him, laughing like a clown, that push in the knife.
Stunningly brilliant, and so bloody commercial too. This, not “Boyscry”, should have been the single.
Next up is a re-recording of “Nothing” from the “You’re not going out dressed like that” EP, which polishes up the song without adding anything to its original version. Like “Fantasy”, it’s about lost love. Finney’s got it wrong and would like it to go back to the beginning, so he can try again, but it won’t happen
He’s back in the hopeful mode of “Leave it to Dream” in “Wonder Girl”, worshipping from (not very) afar, in his corner at the dance, looking at his Wonder Girl, who’s got something she doesn’t seem to want to let go. How she’s come to have his heart when neither of them has let it show is an impenetrable mystery.
But the song offers an unseen moment of joy: Finney wakes alone, wondering if something was a dream, apologising for apologising. But the door lies ajar, and maybe even the lost and lonely who are too prone to fear can have satisfaction.
Love preys on his mind, and he’s once again waiting for her to call him, but “Still it doesn’t ring”. Finney’s in suspension, not knowing if he still has a girl or not. The music swirls around him, not going anywhere as much as we is: he can’t do anything until that phone rings, his life can’t resume and it’s not going to ring whilst the band weave smooth patterns around him
There’s a sharp cut again to the punk edge that Perrin needed to espouse in “(Untitled)”, which might as well be called Don’t trust nobody but yourself. This has nothing to do with love, but life: Finney the awkward object that fits nowhere. In a side whose sound is directed to the mellow that would drive Perrin away, the song sticks out like a sore thumb.
And then there’s “Looking for a Ghost”.
And this album reaches out and strokes its hand against the flank of greatness, because this ethereal, 10cc I’m not in love-esque masterpiece, all easy, gentle, drifting guitars, and its soaring, swooping and diving voices filling the air with a sussuration of sound is gorgeous beyond belief. So much so that my sister, then aged 18 and with tastes diametrically opposed to mine, taped this for herself to listen to.
It’s “(Stuckina) Fantasy” moved forward. Finney sings without emotion, quietly, not flatly, but with utter calm, allowing the multi-tracked voices to cocoon, whilst he explains, with infinite care, by just how much he has accepted madness. All he wants to explain is why he smiles the way he does, though she’s left him and she isn’t coming back.
And it’s because he has her in his head. The girl never understood him, he only ever made her feel bad, so he’s replaced her with a fiction that floats by his side, ‘unable to feel good or bad’. The voices swell and rise around him as he gently sings that plain but powerful chorus,  then they drop away, leaving Finney alone as he makes the final confession, without regret, in pride at how he’s conquered the universe of being alone.
My only lover lives encased inside my head/No-one can ever take her away/The Ghost now belongs to me and, if she ever knew/I wonder what the real thing would say?
And one last time the chorus swells again, the soaring voices louder and wider. And if you see me hanging around in places/where we always used to go/maybe its just because I’m looking/for a ghost I used to know. And the voices soar even higher then you could imagine as Perrin begins a liquid, reaching, despairing guitar solo that rips apart whatever tiny pieces of your heart that are still left intact.
Most bands would have left it at that, would have closed this album with that soulcrushing song, but not the Distractions. Not for them ethereal perfection, but with joyous energy they finish off with a minute and a half of raucous guitar and drums on their stage favourite, “Valerie”, which distils everything they’ve had to say in this album into ‘I love Valerie but now I think it’s true/I love Valerie but Valerie loves you’.
It shouldn’t work after “Looking for a Ghost” but it does, beautifully, because never has heartbreak sounded so much bloody fun! And it’s so short, you want more of it…
So: a mixed bag, in sound, with its switching between the past and the not-future of a band that deserved so much more, with its sad, grounded love songs and its exuberant melodies: the epitome of bittersweet. There are three stone-gone classics on this album, in “Leave you to Dream”’s melancholy melody, “(Stuckina) Fantasy”’s energy and drive, and “Looking for a Ghost”’s  soundscape of beauty and horrific pain.
As I said, musically it’s the missing link between the razor-edge melody of the Buzzcocks and the electronic aura of “Dare”-era Human League. If only more people had seen it as such.

The Prisoner: episode 14 – Living in Harmony – discursion


The Kid

Living in Harmony was the fourteenth episode of The Prisoner to be broadcast and the fifteenth to go into production. It was written and directed by McGoohan’s Everyman Films partner, David Tomblin, and was based on a story by Tomblin and Ian L Rakoff, assistant film editor on the series.
With the exception of Fall Out, this is probably the most controversial episode of the series, in many respects.
First amongst these must be the subject of the episode itself. As we’ve seen from the synopsis, it’s essentially a re-interpretation of the Prisoner set-up in a Western, but instead of framing the idea within the format of the series, for fully three-quarters of the length of the episode, the programme is rejected in every aspect: no theme music, no opening credits, a completely inexplicable alternate scenario and not even the name of the programme on screen! (On first broadcast, a number of the ITV companies superimposed the words The Prisoner over the intro, to McGoohan’s fury).
Whilst the idea of taking a series outside its normal parameters is now accepted, if not common, it was completely unheard of in the Sixties, and completely against the accepted, and comfortable ethos of television and television viewing. And even a near half-century later, I cannot recall another series which took the idea to the extent in Living in Harmony.
The episode is also the most overtly violent of the series, between the lynching (seen from the victim’s viewpoint up to the moment of the noose being slipped over his head), McGoohan being beaten viciously twice and guest star Valerie French getting strangled twice, once in each of her two characters! The level of violence was unusual for British television as a whole, and whilst three ITV companies moved the episode to 10.00pm, after the ‘watershed’, several others reacted by editing down, and in once case out, the violence to make it acceptable to them (the second strangulation was cut out, making Number Six appear to race into the saloon and punch Number Eight for no apparent reason).
On the other hand, the violence is an integral part of the story, as the explanation behind the experiment explicitly makes clear.
There is also a dispute over the credit for the idea of a Western, and the writing credits officially registered. In the blog on Unused Outlines, I mentioned Ian Rakoff responding to the request for ideas with the notion of a Western (initially under the title Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling). Rakoff, a western comics enthusiast, claimed to have worked on the story for a long time, and to have written the full episode, except for the lynching (which he found distasteful) which was added by Tomblin. Instead, his role was reduced to the second of two collaborators on a plot, and he was cut out of all residual payments. Rakoff stated that he tried to complain to McGoohan, but the star refused to meet him, and he never saw him again thereafter.
But the biggest controversy that surrounded the episode was its treatment in America, where it was dropped for the first two broadcast runs.
Many theories about this have been advanced. One suggests the episode was dropped because of its depiction of hallucinogenic drugs, and is usually accompanied by a sneer at the inconsistency of American television, given that several previous episodes featured Number Six being drugged. It has been pointed out that there is a substantial qualitative difference: in previous episodes, the viewer is forewarned that the Prisoner is or is going to be drugged, and the scenes play out in that knowledge: there is no such warning in Living in Harmony, and the viewer doesn’t learn that they’ve been watching a drug-induced hallucination until very close to the end. It’s a fair distinction.
It’s also been claimed that the episode was too uncomfortable for American television in 1968: with the Vietnam war in full spate, with American facing the first inklings that they might not automatically win it, with protest about the War rising daily and young men refusing to be drafted into the Army. Into this political melee comes a foreign television programme using a classic American form to deliver an anti-violence, anti-War, anti-authority message: the case is obvious, surely.
Whilst I’m certain that there were more than a few figures who thought exactly that, the reason for the episode’s exclusion was apparently rather more prosaic, although still tied in with the political issues of the day.
In the early summer of 1968, Robert Kennedy was assassinated whilst running for President. The reaction including a rash of claims that television was inciting violence, and led to hasty regulations in relation to the depiction of violence. Shootings were still permitted, but the shooter and the victim had to be shot separately. In Living in Harmony, McGoohan and Alexis Kanner appear in the same shot for their shoot-out: the episode could not be broadcast until that regulation had been rescinded.
As usual, there’s a difference between the original script and the broadcast episode, though on this occasion the story is barely affected. To reflect the Western setting, the script was pared down, and in the case of the Kid, his dialogue was completely removed, making the character mute. A read of the Original Scripts shows that the Kid’s dialogue was nothing more than stereotypical tough guy talk, and the decision is brilliant: Kanner plays the part entirely in gesture and expression, conveying an frightening psychopathy from his introduction. It’s a superb, beautifully stylised performance that outshines everyone in the episode.
Kanner, a French-Canadian actor, was making his first of three appearances (one uncredited), in the last four episodes of the series, each time playing different characters. At the time of his appearance, he was probably best known in British television for his short-lived portrayal of DI Matt Stone in nine episodes of the first series of BBC’s Softly, Softly. This was a Police drama, a spin-off from Z-Cars featuring the latter’s Barlow and Watt. Kanner claimed to have left the series early because he did not want to become typecast, and that his performances (recorded live) were controversial to the point of questions being asked in Parliament. Others on the series claim that his antics during performance were unwelcome and he was sacked. The BBC wiped most of the series, and only one episode with Kanner remains, and that is non-committal either way.
For some, never explained reason, on each of his credited appearances, Kanner’s names is surrounded on screen by a white box, a distinction granted to no-one else in the series. It’s been speculated that McGoohan saw in Kanner a reflection of himself – the actor’s level of intensity here demonstrates the force he could bring to a part, and he is the only actor to challenge McGoohan in that respect – and wished to indicate a kind of mentorship.
The two remained firm friends and later co-starred in Kanner’s film Kings and Desperate Men, which he co-wrote and directed in Toronto.
Kanner’s fellow guest, Valerie French, a Fifties starlet here making her best known television appearance, is equally interesting in a different way. From the moment of her first appearance as Cathy, French is the most overtly sexy character in the whole series. She is wearing a shoulderless Western saloon girl’s costume, tightly fitted, pushing upwards and outwards and instantly displaying far more female flesh than every other woman in the series collectively.
And though this particular version soon disappears, her main costume demonstrates a considerable amount of cleavage. And, in keeping with her Fifties starlet origins, Ms French was a buxom lass. At the time of shooting, she was 39, and in her outfit would have been uncharitably called “mutton dressed up as lamb” (just as Ena Sharples stigmatised Elsie Tanner in Coronation Street).
But she’s still very good-looking and the suggestion of beginning lines in her face fit her to the part she’s (doubly) playing like a second skin: it’s interesting that she actually looks older as Number Twenty Two.
It’s interesting to see the change of direction that comes with these hasty, potentially second series episodes. In Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling, Number Six suddenly is possessed of a fiancée:  the next episode, he has won and lost love. Is this really the self-contained, anti-romantic Number Six and his possible earlier incarnation as John Drake?
Well, no, not really. Though the Village wants to involve him with a sexy woman, and Number Twenty Two really does fall for the notion (poor, weak-willed woman that she is), there’s no evidence in the episode of Number Six acting towards Cathy with anything other than his ordinarily chivalrous instincts. Still, it surprises to see the rigidly moralistic McGoohan allowing so (comparatively) risqué a show of flesh.
But the sexy lady theme is (over)played again in the next episode, as we shall see.
But in amongst all these disparate concerns, what about Living in Harmony in itself? Is it actually any good?
Several have lauded it as a brilliant subversion, both of the series and of television itself, by translating its central theme into a completely different genre, and it is. The justification for this radical departure is ingenious, and that’s without any overt reference to another brilliant conception: Number Six is aware of his importance to the Village from the outset, which provides him with a subconscious reassurance that he can take any risk, go to any length in defending himself, without ultimate consequence, because he’s too important to be harmed. Transferring him into a primitive re-enactment of his struggle, is a less-sophisticated, more violent setting removes that surety, and demonstrates Number Six’s ferocity even more when we see that, rather than succumb, he is willing to provoke his own death.
And, taken together with the third ‘filler’ episode, the farfetchedness of this notion is a demonstration of just how desperate the Village is getting, and in the context of the series as a whole, it supports the necessity for a once and for all, extremely dangerous plan in the forthcoming Once Upon a Time.
Living in Harmony can be, and is praised for many aspects, bit each time I look at it, no matter how much I enjoy it, I cannot help but think one thought. It’s a Western. The Prisoner is a contemporary espionage drama, concerned with deep philosophical and sociological issues affecting life, authority and identity in the 20th Century, and it’s a bloody Western. It’s a story composed out of Western clichés, neither subverted nor illuminated, from first to last, that was made because they couldn’t think of any better ideas and besides, they wanted to play a kids game of Westerns (McGoohan and Kanner practised incessantly to try to beat each other in the shoot-out).
I don’t remember what my Dad said about this when it was first broadcast, but I have inherited enough of his thinking to be incapable of watching this episode without thinking of it as a cheap gimmick by people indulging themselves in an extended game. I mean, it’s a fucking Western!
So I stick by what I said and, just as much as the succeeding The Girl Who Was Death, which was even more an eking out of the series by any means possible, and weaker yet that this, Living in Harmony is a Filler episode.