Re-seeing Red Shift – Still Brilliant After All These Years

Like many people of my generation, I first discovered Alan Garner through the medium of television, in this case the extraordinary eight part Granada adaptation of his fourth novel, The Owl Service, broadcast in the classic children’s Sunday tea-time slot in 1969.
From the series, I graduated to the book, and its three predecessors and, in due course, Garner’s next book, Red Shift, published in 1973 and aimed at a somewhat older audience.
Red Shift became, and remains, one of my favourite books. It’s a book in which place counts for more than time, in which three couples in three very different eras undergo a series of experiences that revolve around the village of Barthomley and the Stone Age fort/folly of Mow Cop, situated on one of Cheshire’s few elevated ridges.
The story follows Tom and Jan in the present day, Thomas and Madge in the English Civil War, and Macey and the Girl in Ancient Roman times. The stories interweave, show curious, but never exact parallels, and an ancient stone axe is present in each of the time periods.
Garner tells his stories in a stripped down manner, primarily in dialogue. He has worked so hard to remove anything unnecessary from the book, that it feels that to remove just one word from what remains would cause the entire book to collapse into incoherence. The effect is to demand so much more of the reader, who must work to supplement the sparse text, to fill in what is not written from within themselves.
It’s a superb book, and in 1977 Garner, working with Director John McKenzie, was asked to adapt Red Shift into a ninety minute film for the BBC’s prestigious Play for Today slot. Play for Today was an old, established tradition whose usual material was realistic, often socially aware: Garner’s time-crossing fantasy was something of a departure.
The play was scheduled for broadcast on Tuesday 17 January 1978, in the slot immediately after the Nine O’Clock News on BBC1. As soon as I heard about it, I was delighted – for all of a minute. Because less than twenty-four hours before learning of the broadcast, I had been on the phone with Cambridge Borough Council, organising an interview for Articles of Clerkship with them. My interview was on Tuesday 19 January 1978.
At this time, I had been in a professional limbo, having completed my Law Degree and passed all bar one of my Professional Exams, and needing only to secure two years Articles to qualify as a Solicitor. I had been waiting for Articles for almost a year. There was no decent way that I could request a change of date for the interview. But by train – three trains there, three trains back – it was impossible to come up with a permutation that got me back home any earlier than five minutes after Red Shift finished broadcasting.
On the day, I went to Cambridge: Manchester to Birmingham, Birmingham to Ely, Ely to Cambridge: Cambridge to Leicester, Leicester to Sheffield, Sheffield to Manchester. Never mind, I will catch it on the repeat, I consoled myself.
It was never repeated. I didn’t get the job either.
We flash forward thirty years or thereabouts. I am browsing eBay one day when it comes into my head to do a search against Red Shift. I occasionally do impulsive searches against rarities, having been surprised to discover that they are available too often, and once again I am not disappointed. Someone is offering a DVD of Red Shift. I immediately add it to my Watch List and, being absolutely determined not to let it slip away a second time, come up with the highest bid. At last, after all those years.
The DVD, when it arrives, is a modestly professional package that has clearly been based on a tape from the television, though it has come from a high quality original and has not suffered too badly in the copying process. It is of relatively low definition, but most of the flaws in the recording come from the tape quality of the original, a function of the recording processes of the time.
Having waited all that time to see the adaptation, an adaptation written by Garner himself, it’s strange that I never thereafter watched the DVD again. But I still took notice when, late last year, it was announced that Red Shift had been released officially by the British Film Institute, in a digitally remastered print that improved the quality beyond the original tape. It became a Xmas treat for myself, though it wasn’t until this week that I finally made time to watch it again.

Tom and Jan

Re-seeing Red Shift, I was struck by the actors I recognised. I had previously recognised one of the actors in the Civil War sequence as Michael Elphick, just a couple of years before his period of television ubiquity, but I can’t remember if I’d recognised that another of the cast from that part of the story was James Hazeldine, who would be a mainstay of London’s Burning in the latter half of the Eighties. But I had certainly not appreciated that the part of Jan was played by a very young Lesley Dunlop, who has constantly been on British television ever since.
Given how clipped and brief the book is, it seems odd that, even with ninety minutes available, Garner has to compress events for the film. He’s commented that readers of the book who take it to be about Tom and Jan, with the other eras as sub-stories are misreading the story, but the film very clearly treats the contemporary thread as its main element.
Tom and Jan are a young couple, late teens, who are in love, though only Jan is able to say so aloud. The story begins with their separation: Jan is moving to London to train in nursing whilst Tom remains in Cheshire, sharing a caravan with his parents, his father an Army Sergeant. Tom’s very intelligent and articulate, though his words fail him when his parents try to press the pair to admit that they are having sex, when this is not yet the case. The stress triggers a near epileptic fit that seems, in film and book, to act as a breakthrough into the other two centres of the story: both Macey in Roman times and Thomas in the Civil War speak of ‘seeing’ a mysterious figure that appears to be Tom (though this vision is only given to Macey in the book).
The contemporary pair conduct their relationship via a series of monthly meetings in Crewe, discovering the town (omitted from the film) and some of the surrounding countryside: Barthomley, scene of the Civil War massacre that involves Thomas and Madge, and Mow Cop, where Macey and his mates, deserting legionnaires from the missing Ninth, form a base against the tribes around them.
Both Macey and Thomas are epileptics, prone to fits that affect them in different ways. Though Macey’s story covers a minimum of six months – the unnamed girl captive is raped early on and is heavily pregnant but not ready to give birth at the end – Thomas’s tale takes place in the space of a single day. Both, on film, are treated as interleaves with Tom and Jan: several times, the film cuts to one of the other protagonists for a few, silent seconds, when they are doing nothing of significance.
So Tom and Jan become the heart of things. Tom is the hyperactive centre of their story, leading the way, creating the world around himself, in which Jan is a loyal, willing and content follower, excited by everything he offers. Even before his sobbing response to his parent’s pressure, there is a question mark as to his stability, and his unnaturally quick recovery seals our doubts into place, though it’s not until much later that we learn the source of his trauma, and his sexual hang-ups. Quite simply, Tom has spent a decade exposed to his parents’ sex-life (Saturday nights and Mess Nights), couched in his father’s pleadings and the caravan rocking. It’s distorted his view of the sexual aspect of relationships, making him more than an innocent. It’s notable that it is Jan who first raises the prospect of being ready for sex, and Tom who is quickly accepting of it still being a future, postponed, occurrence.
But as events progress, we learn that, behind his calm exterior, Jan has her own trauma. She’s the child of busy health care professionals (it’s implied that at least one is a psychiatrist), forever on the move from location to location. Jan’s peripatetic life has left her without stability, without friends, and with deeply lowered self-confidence. She’d known Tom for some time but nothing happened between them before she went away at Easter, staying with a German wine-grower. She admits to seducing/having been seduced by him, a middle-aged, married man, and sleeping with him, of taking nothing but warmth and a sense of inner identity from the encounters that changed her into the person Tom finally ‘saw’ and fell in love with.
Unfortunately, this revelation comes after Tom has hitch-hiked to London to meet Jan at Euston, only to see her escorted to the train by a smoothly dressed middle-aged man who buys her a First Class ticket.
It’s the moment that breaks everything. But Tom himself has failed in his imagination. He has been holding the stone axe, the stone axe found on Mow Cop, where it had been built into a chimney as a thunderstone by Thomas, who had found it where it had been buried by Macey. Though Jan had identified it as something previous and real, a ‘Bunty’, an object of permanence in a life of transience, Tom has sold it to a museum, where it’s forever beyond her reach.
From there, it’s a tale of deterioration. Tom and Jan have sex at last, but it’s always and only sex, nothing else, as Tom strives desperately to ‘catch-up’ on something impossible to pursue. The film leaves it plain that, where Thomas and Madge, Macey and the girl go on to lives together, Tom and Jan are broken beyond repair. Curiously, it does not sink to the utter bleakness of the book, its hollow final line (taken from a piece of graffiti seen by Garner that was one of the three spurs that led to the book) being ‘not really now not any more’.
It surprised me that this was omitted from the film, as was reference to the secret message, given on the endwrappers in a code that, when unravelled, appears to indicate that if Jan doesn’t turn up next time, Tom will return to Mow Cop alone, and there kill himself. This notion is supported by a short essay by Garner himself, written for the DVD, setting out the three disparate elements that combined to birth the story in his mind.
Nevertheless, the adaptation of Red Shift is superb, and I wish I had seen it many years ago, though it would probably have coloured my interpretation of the book. As it was, not long after missing the broadcast, I sat and read Red Shift, trying to visualise every scene as it might have been portrayed – and discovered for myself a whole, and crucial scene, hidden between two otherwise awkward lines of dialogue that I had never before suspected.
Having it finally available is a justified reward for the many talents who came together to produce the film. And I’m glad to have a near-pristine, beautifully composed and supported version of the film to go with my autographed copy of the original Armada paperback. In a way though, like the completion and release of Brian Wilson’s Smile, it’s beyond it’s time. It can’t influence now as it properly should have. Commercially, it was clearly a contemporary failure – I do not recall it even being reviewed – and the DVD release is a rescue from obscurity.
But for me, and others like me, it would have been an influence on our thoughts and emotions about the story. It comes nearly forty years too late to affect me now.

History from the other end

In this very net…

Something’s just jogged my memory about an odd little sporting incident for which I was present, in more senses than one.

In the summer of 1995, Manchester United knocked down the old North Stand at Old Trafford, in order to build the capacity extending triple-decker stand of today. This involved temporarily reducing capacity by 10,000, which was more or less equal to the total number of seats available by ballot to supporters without a Season Ticket or a League Match Ticket Book. Like me.

This was when I started following Droylsden again. I couldn’t conceive of following any other team for even a season, and besides, the contrast between where I was and where I wanted to be seemed perfect for a diary book.

If you want details of that season, which didn’t turn out in any way that could have been anticipated in advance, you can buy my Red Exile. For now, I’d like to take you to the early season, still only September 1995.

For reasons that seem inexplicable, given that the Bloods were playing at the then-level 6 of the Football Pyramid, Droylsden were in the draw for the Preliminary Round of the FA Cup, away to Nantwich Town, in mid-Cheshire. The Dabbers were playing in the North-West Counties League Division 1, a level below.

The idea that season was that I would go to as many Droylsden matches as I could, away as well as home. Nantwich was an easy drive, and I offered to give my on-off (currently off, but still friendly) girlfriend a run down to Nantwich for the afternoon, she to shop, me to go to the game.

I don’t remember much about the game, except that, as was my practice, I stood behind the opposition goal for both halves. I remember talking to a home fan who was talking about an ex-player, a fantastic young talent, who had been murdered the previous year, his body set alight. And there was one loudmouth supporter who kept bellowing out, “Unibond? More like Brooke Bond.” Yes, I know, a crap joke to begin with, but it was his own invention and he was determined to drive it into the ground.

For the second half, I wandered up the distant far end, acting on several occasions as an unpaid ball boy. There wasn’t a lot going on, and what was was one hundred yards away, around the Droylsden goal, but we’d got to the 84th minute without a goal, and i was glumly anticipating a midweek replay and the Spennymoor game having to be postponed, when Nantwich scored.

That was that: the start to the season that the Bloods had made was not conducive to coming from behind, even to get equalisers. But once the gate had been breached once, Nantwich went on to score two more goals quite quickly, running out 3-0 winners. I picked up my girlfriend and ran her home, being philosophical about it all.

It was not until Monday that I discovered I’d been a witness to history.

It appeared that, unbeknownst to me down the far end, all three Nantwich goals had been scored by the same man, Andy Locke. And that the three goals had been scored in the space of two minutes and twentyseconds (I knew they’d come quickly but I hadn’t realised it was that short a time). And that therefore Andy Locke had scored the fastest ever hat-trick in FA Cup history.

(This can be confirmed on-line where, for once, it’s Wikipedia that’s accurate whilst every other source has got it badly wrong.)

Funnily enough, the following Saturday, a mate of mine got me into Old Trafford on his Dad’s season ticket. He was full of this news item he’d seen on Grandstand before coming out, about this guy who’d scored a record FA Cup hat trick. Sadly, I confessed that whilst I hadn’t seen the feature, I had been there to see the goals…

That’s not the end of it, though. Droylsden’s FA Cup trail may have been cut ingloriously short, but Manchester United fared rather better. In May 1996, I was up first thing on Saturday morning, on the road south, the travelling Red Army descending upon Wembley for the FA Cup Final against Liverpool. Park round the back near Wealdstone Tube Station about 9.00am, a morning in Central London, hit the stadium for 1.00ish, Wembley Way and the Twin Towers and my unimpressive seat behind the goal in which Eric Cantona would score the glorious winning goal with only four minutes left.

But whilst I sat there, soaking up the atmosphere, there was a presentation on the pitch at 2.00pm, a presentation and a reminder. To Andy Locke, for scoring the fastest ever hat trick in FA Cup history.

I couldn’t help but smile, After all, with the exception of any of the guy’s family and friends who had accompanied him, I was probably the only person in the entire stadium who could stand up and shout, ‘I saw you score those goals, you bastard! I was there!’

The Beagle Has Landed

No, not you

One of the sweetest pieces of news in the last couple of days is the discovery that the UK Space Agency probe, Beagle 2, sent to Mars in 2002, did not crash as was long since assumed, but actually landed successfully on the Martian surface, but only partially deployed, thus failing to send any information back to Earth.

It’s a terrible shame that Beagle 2‘s designer, Professor Colin Pillinger, could not be here to be vindicated, but it’s nice to know that his memory is enhanced by the knowledge that he did not design a flop.

I remember that time well. My then wife was a dog lover, and her favourite breed was the beagle. It was a standing joke between us that if she ever saw one of the breed, roaming around, she would excitedly squeak ‘Beagle!’ in my ear at an eardrum-threatening pitch.

Naturally, she, and I, transferred that affection to the capsule, and shared in the disappointment of its presumed loss. My wife was full of theories as to what the capsule was doing instead of broadcasting back to Britain, based on the natural characteristics and preoccupations of the breed, and even switched her squeaked ‘Beagle!’ to a low, mournful ‘Poor Beagle’ for several weeks.

It would be even better if, somehow, Beagle 2‘s partial deployment could be completed and we could find out that it’s been gathering a lot more than Martian bones this past dozen years. I can hear, and envy, the delighted squeak even now.

Damn Fine News


It’s now 2015, so the forthcoming, nine-episode, miraculous third Twin Peaks series is only next year, instead of the year after next, and the best bit of news is that Kyle MacLachlan – who shied away from any expansion of the series via the film Fire Walk With Me, because of his urge not to get typecast as Special Agent Dale Cooper – has signed up to play Coop again!

Of course, there’s a certain discrepancy of appearance between the MacLachlan of now and the aged-up Dale of the ‘twenty-five years later’ sequence, but hey, his reappearance is crucial. Roll on 2016!

Damn fine news.


A Post about Thunderbirds

Still brilliant after all these years

I’ve been reading The Guardian for over thirty years, and The Observer for over a decade, and I continue to read a combination of the two papers on a seven days a week basis, though increasingly it’s on the basis that everything else out there is even worse, and I’m basically stuck in a cycle of inertia.

Besides, I’m dependant upon the Crossword.

But increasingly one or both newspaper has no-go areas, writers whose work I will simply bypass, knowing from long experience that they hold nothing that interests or entertains me. It all started with the Barbara Ellen Observer column, which long ago transmuted into the kind of Daily Mail hag-bitch, be-shitty-about-everything format that, if I want to read, I’d buy the Mail and read its endless array of poison-bitch commentators. But it’s expanded ever since.

At the Guardian, which can offer such delightful, inventive and entertaining commentators as Marina Hyde and Hadley Freeman, my bete noire is Stuart Heritage. Heritage writes light-weight articles and columns for the light-weight end of the Guardian‘s range, but basically he’s crap at it. His style is faux-chatty/bitchy, frothy put-downs and superficial cynicism based on a supposedly superior set of standards that are never articulated.

Again, nothing wrong with that, always room for amusement at such things, but Heritage is no good at it. Whimsy, by its very nature, must come over as effortless, light-hearted and instinctive, irrespective of how much hard work it takes to prepare one’s bon mots, and Heritage hasn’t got it. He’s just not naturally funny to begin with, and his copy suffers from the underlying sense of strain to find an apt line which, coupled with the inevitable falling-short of genuine humour, makes his work deathly dull and trying.

I’m posting this because today I’ve broken my self-imposed ban on reading anything under his by-line. He’s got up an article about the latest, CGI, plastic attempt to remake Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s finest creation, Thunderbirds, as Thunderbirds are Go. The theme of the article is that purists shouldn’t complain about any deficiency of quality in this atest version (of which I had not heard before today and which, on the single promo photo attached to the article, looks even worse than the dire 2004 live action film).

Mr Heritage advances three primary arguments against making a fuss about the new Thunderbirds, which roughly break down as follows; it’s been repeated and remade so often that Thunderbirds never actually went away (that is if, like Heritage, you gloss over the thirty year gap from the 1960s originals and the 1990s revival); it’s stupid for grown men and women to get stroppy over a fifty year old kids programme; and Thunderbirds was actually crap all along, from the start.

Heritage has this to say: “This is another reason why you have no right to whine about what they’ve done to your beloved Thunderbirds – because Thunderbirds was never that good in the first place. It was boring. It was cheap-looking. It was full of interminable pauses. There were too many Tracy brothers, and none of them had distinct personalities. It was, simply, not much cop.

“My theory is that Thunderbirds has endured for two reasons – first, because it’s easy to wobble your arms around and do an impression of Parker, and second, because people only watched it because their parents made them. Parents in the 60s made their children watch it because there was nothing else on, and every subsequent generation of parents have made their children watch it because they’ve found themselves trapped in a tragic cycle of behavioural abuse. I fear what will happen when the children who were made to watch the 2004 Thunderbirds film reach child-rearing age. I only pray that social services will be on standby.”

Those couple of paragraphs should be enough for the non-Guardian readers out there to realise why avoiding Heritage’s output is so conducive to a despair-free day. It’s also sufficient to demonstrate the main flaw in his argument: he’s utterly wrong. As a child of the 60s, I can bring actual, true knowledge to the subject, which is that everybody, as in everybody, watched it. Shot off home from playing games so as not to miss it. Drove their parents spare asking what time it started. Parents couldn’t have stood for a moment against the force of will with which every kid approached being in front of the telly at the right moment.

Now, in reality, I couldn’t give a fig for Stuart Heritage’s opinion on anything. Indeed, if he ever agreed with me about something, I would nervously examine my taste for its inevitable flaw. Nothing he has said or could say can ever impinge on my memories of Thunderbirds, and its continuing excellence. Fifty years later: still bloody brilliant. And I still reserve the right to join in the mass slaughter of any updated version that changes so much as a single rivet in Thunderbird 2’s wing.

Not that Heritage truly disapproves. After all, the article ends with a wink, just to let you know he’s so fey and mercurial, and amusing. There’s a last line: “That said, though, if anyone comes for Terrahawks, I’ll cut them.” Laugh? I nearly washed the pots. Apart from the cliche, I mean Terrahawks? Even Gerry Andreson knew that sucked.

So why make a fuss like this? I used to have a Guardian account but I had it deleted years ago. I can’t leave a comment telling Mr Heritage he’s full of shit, and it would only get deleted if I did. This is just to tell him he’s full of shit, and the comment will stay up.

Thank you for listening. Have a link to the awesome title music and credit sequence on me.

Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike

And what a mountain

BBC4’s Wednesday night documentary about Scafell Pike, Britain’s highest mountain, came with favourable previews, although I’d have raced home from work to catch it if it had been promised to be a load of old boots, because there just aren’t enough television programmes about the Lake District. The last documentary I recall seeing was about the late owner of the Honister Mine and his attempts to get Planning Permission to instal a zip-wire across the Pass, which was a much less comfortable experience on several levels.

But this hour long documentary, produced and directed by Terry Abraham (who if he isn’t related to the Abraham Brothers of Keswick, who were pioneers of rock-climbing, still had a perfectly apt surname), deserve all the credits it got.

It took a beautifully simple approach to its subject, which was a year in the life of the Pike. Delightfully, there was no voiceover narration or ubiquitous presenter forcing a fixed viewpoint on the film. Instead, Abraham simply created the space for people who live and work and walk and climb to talk about what the mountain and its solid presence meant to them. Some of these people were working professionals, shepherds and farmers. Others were men who were drawn to the Lakes as photographers, guides, artists and guidebook writers, professional hillfolk.

All of them were natural talkers, unfazed at being in front of a camera, ready to open up on what the mountain meant to them, each in their own way. The camera didn’t worry them, the director let them talk, and the genuine love they all, in their differing ways, felt for just being there did not need any smartarse to sum up for them.

Two people in particular caught my eye and ear. One was the legendary, and phenomenal Jos Naylor, Wasdale farmer, fell-runner and simply unbelievable performer of feats that you and I could not imagine achieving in a year, let alone a month of Sundays. The film didn’t wallow in what Naylor had done, it just allowed one casual fact to stand, as Naylor recalled the time he set off on an impromptu run from Wasdale Head to the top of Scafell Pike and back. He asked a friend to time him, almost as an afterthought: it took 47 minutes. 47 minutes from Wasdale Head, up and down Scafell Pike. It’s hard to think of Jos Naylor as being merely human after things like that.

The other was David Powell-Thompson, a cheerfully laconic northerner who has spent the last twenty five years as a researcher for walkers, walks and television programmes about the Lakes, doing what he loves every day and being paid for it (lucky dog!). Powell-Thompson’s finest moment came at the annual Wasdale Show, winning the Best Beard rosette. To be taken home and put with the one he won last year!

The film didn’t just content itself with the ‘professionals’, but made room for the visitors to talk, a dozen or so walkers climbing the Pike and being invited to chat on camera. The closest to a dissenting voice was a teenage girl, dragged up the Pike for the first time by her Dad, who confessed to not liking the wind, but voice of the night was the voluable Scot, filmed with the glorious northern vista behind him, who couldn’t get over being where he was and the brilliant views.

Along with the talk, the film produces an array of brilliant pictures showing Scafell Pike and the Wasdale scenery in different shades and colours. We began with stars and a sunrise over valleys streaming with thick, roiling clouds, like a massive white-topped sea, and towards the end, a backpacker camping out rapturised about the night sky, unaffected by light spillage whatsoever, whilst the sky above teemed with more stars (and meteorites) than I have ever seen in cities with the naked eye.

And if that wasn’t delicious in itself, there was the time-lapse shot of the Pike throughout a night, astonishingly lit by night-climbers with head-torches, scaling the summt and rushing down, their torches unbelievably bright, like distant cars on a night-time hill, only more so.

One climber, familiar with Everest and K2, confessed to preferring rock climbing on the Pike, though we watched him start to tackle Broad Stand – not a walker’s route – on Scafell, getting quite some way up before showing his command of extreme good sense by stopping because the rock and the handholds were just too wet and slippery, and heading back.

If I’ve any critcism of the film, it would be less about the near-ubiquitous background music (quiet, suitably pastoral, but still over-indulged) than the fact that it was so Wasdale-oriented. Scafell Pike is more than a Wasdale fell, which was acknowledged quite some ways into the film, but the Eskdale flank – which I find to be more spectacular in both appearance and approaches – got very much short shrift. Some superb vistas, some conversations with guide book writers and backpackers exploring this side, but the preponderence of talkers were part of the Wasale scene.

No, this was quite the nicest thing that’s been on television so far this year, and I suspect that distinction will last quie some time yet. I’d urge you to catch it on the iPlayer whilst it’s available, and an early repeat would be welcome, especially if the BBC decide to re-show the film at its original two-hour length. I could have stood a lot more of that.

Homicide: Season 3 on the Street

Season 3’s cast

Homicide had made an uncertain start, commercially, but the figures for the ‘second’ season had been positive enough for NBC to recommission it for thirteen episodes, with an option for a further nine that would go to make a full network season. However, they were insistent upon changes.
It was the same request: shorter stories, resolved in an episode, more conventional camerawork, younger and more telegenic actors, together with a plea for a lighter tone. Fontana resisted stubbornly, protective of the show’s integrity, but to secure the re-order, did agree to two points: that each episode would include a story that ended in that episode, and that there would be a cast change.
The unlucky actor was Jon Polito, who played Steve Crosetti. Short, bald, fat, wheezing, Crosetti was one of two veteran detectives, and as the other was Ned Beatty, Polito was the obvious target. I have also heard it rumoured that Polito had been a disruptive influence on set, and that this was also taken into consideration.
Polito’s replacement was Isabella Hofmann, who might have been designed for the show by NBC. She was cool, blonde, attractive, in her mid-thirties, everything they asked for, and as such a means of introducing sex into the series (the show acknowledged as much in its initial ‘open’ – the segment prior to the theme music and opening credits – with a barbed discussion arising out of Bolander’s disgust at gratuitous sex on the coffee room TV, allowing Munch to insist that it’s the networks who force TV shows to insert sex where it’s not needed).
There was, no-one in David Simon’s book that Hofmann remotely resembled, so her character, Megan Russert, became the first cast member to be wholly invented. Though Hofmann’s playing of the role was excellent, it was unfortunately misconceived from the start.
Russert – who has an almost too good background in Naval Intelligence and ten years as a Detective in Narcotics – is newly-promoted to Lieutenant and a belated replacement for Giardello’s old friend Sinta, as Commander of Homicide’s other shift. When the series started, with a three parter based on a Redball case, Russert has been in command for only a week.
Just to remind everyone that a Redball is a high-priority case, frequently because of its PR implications, at which all resources are thrown. These would be more frequent henceforth, new co-Executive Producer Henry Bromell having recognised their appeal as commercial TV.
Baltimore’s ‘Samaritan of the Year’ was found in a dumpster at the back of a church, stripped naked except for a pair of white cotton gloves, hit with a blunt instrument and strangled. The case came in on Russert’s shift, and Colonel Grainger and Captain Barnfather, wanted Giardello to oversee her: Russert herself was grateful for the assistance from Gee and his squad (saving only Crossetti, who had gone off on vacation to Atlantic City that morning, owing Bayliss $10.00).
It was only a start: two more bodies were found in identical circumstances, ratcheting up the pressure. The primary – Roger Gaffney – was incompetent: lazy, sloppy and overtly racist towards Pembleton, and when he was taken off the case by Russert in Pembleton’s favour, was offensive to her, leading to his being slung out of Homicide (he’d be back, though: there’s a future for Gaffney).
Pembleton himself had difficulty with the case, its religious elements deeply affecting his own, schooled by Jesuits, catholic sensibilities, leaving him questioning his religion. Not that it keeps him from resolving the case when a ‘witness’ came forward: an attractive young woman with Multiple Personality Disorder, who eventually ‘confessed’, throwing the blame to one of her ‘alternates’.
But it was a defining moment, as Pembleton pursued the woman in the Box in an extraordinary interrogation (Police would marvel at how true to life even such bizarre-seeming interrogations would be, from writers and actors with no actual experience of real-life Boxes). Frank was at his most mercurial, and came close to drawing out a real confession, despite Russert’s failure of instinct in backing him.
It was an instructive story in introducing Russert as a Lieutenant, with the character generally distinguishing herself in command, though her handling of Kay Howard, who was something of a hero-worshipper about Russert’s achievements demonstrated that there would be no sympathy along gender lines. But it rather skated around the basic problem of the role: Russert was Commander of the other shift, meaning that by definition she was on duty when the rest of the cast were not! From that point onwards, making her available was a job of shoe-horning awkwardly. I do rather wonder if, at least sub-consciously, the need to bring in a primarily photogenic role was resented to the point where the show was not prepared to make proper accommodation for the character?

Goiardello and Russert office-sharing

I don’t want to be seen as belabouring this season-opening three-parter, but in addition to the case, it also used its time carefully to set up underlying stories that would ruin through the entire season.
Lewis and Munch have gone in together to buy the Waterfront, a bar virtually opposite the Police HQ. Unfortunately, they’re short on the cash required and are trying to hit up their fellow detectives (and even Gee) as a third partner. They end up with Bayliss, who starts off wanting to be a silent partner only, but who quickly becomes just as involved in the long, stumbling process of bar purchase and ownership that runs throughout the series, but which provides a venue for the detectives to meet up, off-shift, for years to come.
A less palatable development was that Felton reveals to Howard that his wife, Beth, has thrown him out, but that he has another woman with whom he’s staying. His marital problems would escalate, and after his wife disappears with his children, Felton starts the long slide towards the skids.
It’s not, in itself, a bad story, nor is it played with heavy hands, but there is a serious problem when the first episode ends by revealing that Felton’s other woman is Russert. That touch is too much of the soap opera that NBC wanted, and though the relationship ends by the third episode, it’s already mired by the sheer implausibility of the rough and ready, hard-drinking Felton getting involved in the first place with the elegant, well-dressed, clearly more prosperous Russert: what the hell have they in common? It’s another black mark in the process of establishing the new girl.
And then there’s Crosetti.
It was meant as the fourth episode, but NBC intervened, postponing it into the New Year in favour of some more ‘life-affirming’ (and overtly sexy) episodes, despite the damage it did to the season’s continuity. But Crossetti’s overdue from his vacation, Lewis is covering for him, and Bolander and Munch pull a floater out of the harbour: the body’s unrecognisable after several days, but the wallet tells the unwanted story: it’s Crossetti.
It was a powerful episode. It was up to the investigating detectives to call the case murder or suicide. Bolander’s convinced, but Lewis is angry, frantic almost to have the case be treated as a murder, avoid his partner’s name being blackened. He interferes with the investigation, full of righteous fury, which lasts until the ME’s report makes it impossible to sustain the fiction. Lewis’s breakdown, and Bolander, the butt of his anger, is the first to hold him, to try to contain his grief.
There was no explanation, not then never. No honour guard from the bosses, as was Crosetti’s normal right, but as the funeral, following a lone jazz saxophonist, passes HQ, Pembleton – whose issues with religion have kept him from the church – is there on the steps, in dress blues, completing the salute.
The intensity of those opening episodes couldn’t be maintained, indeed shouldn’t be maintained for a whole season, and the show was canny enough to release the pressure in several ways. A string of ‘opens’ were used to depict the detectives conversing about things that had no relation to the meat of the episode. The classic example was the episode that started with Howard and Felton, Bolander and Munch discussing the cancellation, after 41 years, of the long-standing TV kids show, Romper Room, an exchange made all the funnier for it taking place at the morgue whilst each pair was waiting on the Medical Examiner’s report on a corpse.
The stories themselves were the typical Homicide mixture of cases, still being taken from Simon’s book, built around the frame of ongoing issues such as the hoops through which Lewis et al. were jumping to get the Waterfront off the ground, and Felton’s disintegration after his wife Beth takes off with his kids.
Bolander and Munch have to face a 10 year old kid on Christmas Eve whose father is thought dead, Pembleton gets burned by inter-departmental intrigue when he undertakes a virtually private case for Deputy Commissioner Harris, even going to far as to resign for an episode, and the show finally gives up on finding ways to insert Russert into the other shift’s territory and gives her her own story, dealing with domestic violence issues relating to her ex-partner in Narcotics, who is newly-transferred into her shift.
This last one came on the eve of the at last Grand opening of the Waterfront, which provided a very happy ending to episode twelve. Then all Hell broke loose.

Pembleton, Bayliss and the Board

In planning the season, Fontana and his team decided to throw down a gauntlet to NBC by scheduling episode thirteen – last of the guaranteed order – as the first of a three part story. Four detectives (the quartet of the Romper Room discussion) execute a routine arrest and search warrant on suspected paedophile Glenn Holten. From the landing above, shots are fired. Three detectives – Bolander, Felton and Howard – are hit. Cancel us if you dare.
The melodrama of the story was at odds with Homicide‘s principles, but it made for a very effective story, though not quite the challenge originally envisaged: long before episode thirteen was due to broadcast, NBC had taken up its option for additional episodes, although oddly for only seven of the possible nine.
Nevertheless, the drama went ahead, dominating the back half of the season. The first two episodes concentrated upon the shooting, and the angry, aggressive response of the Police, as they hunt for the suspect Holton. It was a mirror reflection of the season opener: a Redball case, this time with Russert pulling in her shift to back up the main cast. The safety of the detectives haunted the action: it was clear fairly early on that Felton (shot in neck and thigh) was in no danger, but Bolander (head) and Howard (heart) remained at risk until the end of the second episode.
By that point, Holten had been tracked, captured and has confessed to the shooting. Unfortunately, his confession was so inaccurate that it was evident he didn’t do it. Strictly, the case should have passed to Violent Crimes, nobody being dead, but Giardello got another 48 hours out of Barnfather for his men (but not Russert’s). Attention focussed on Gordon Pratt, tenant of the flat outside which the detectives were shot. Pratt (a brilliant guest performance by Steve Buscemi) is an overt racist with a superiority complex. It’s clear that he is the would-be killer, but his arrogance and racism winds Pembleton up into concentrating on puncturing his supposed superiority: as soon as he does, Pratt clams up, demands his lawyer and, to everyone’s chagrin, and a background of anger and dissension among the detectives, Pratt walks.
But not for long. Everybody’s gone but Bayliss, and he catches a call from the landlord, who can’t get the Police to come out otherwise. To the body in his hallway, shot dead through the head at close range, only two hours after being released. The body of Gordon Pratt.
The story moved into a fourth episode, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the Pratt case was just one of several strands, and not the most important. Pembleton and Lewis argued about where to start investigating a white woman killed by a random shot, Felton struggled on his return to work and Munch was embarrassed by an old picture from his hippie days. Meanwhile, the Police turned their backs, collectively and individually, on Gordon Pratt, except for the unlucky Bayliss, who had to work the murder, without back-up, evidence, leads or the least goodwill.
Pratt’s name is doomed to stay in red on the Board from the outset, but there were two moments in the weary, reluctant investigation that stood out. The first came when Bayliss, forced to consider his colleagues as suspects, queried Munch’s alibi: Munch reacted by handing over his gun, inviting Bayliss to test it for ballistics. A clear line is being drawn, and Tim balks at crossing it.
But for fans, who have followed the series to its end, who know what is to come, what was, in 1995, unimagined and unimaginable, the true frisson comes later, at Bayliss’s defeated face, when he tries to engage Pembleton in a philosophical debate about the danger of cops becoming executioners: Frank won’t give an atom of concern: Bayliss is completely alone.
The series wound down towards its end, with Bolander coming to the fore in a pair of fine episodes, and Tim’s cousin Jim Bayliss (guest star David Morse) appearing in a seemingly simple story – inspired, Law and Order style, by a true life, non-David Simon incident – that dealt with under-the-skin racial attitudes.
Russert’s situation was finally dealt with: she’d been dumped upon once more in the shooting three-parter, ordered by the brass to investigate how the matter had come about, with a view to scapegoating Giardello for signing off on a warrant with a mistyped address. Reluctant it might have been, and Russert did valiantly defend her co-worker, but not before she had been further painted as a bosses patsy.
The solution was promotion: Giardello exposed Colonel Grainger over having used his relatives to carry out sloppy repairs, Barnfather was promoted to Colonel and, instead of the obvious choice as the new Captain, with his thirty years of experience, Gee was passed over in favour of Russert and demographics. There would be no further strain about bringing her into the storylines.
Though the underlying lack of trust the show demonstrated towards Russert as a character was demonstrated by having virtually her first act as a Captain undermined by Giardello.
That left the question of renewal. Homicide had thrown down the gauntlet over the option for a back half season, but it was still not delivering the audience NBC wanted, nor even the audience earned by the ‘second’ season. Cancellation seemed imminent. So convinced were the team of this that Barry Levinson himself returned to direct the season finale, typical only in its atypicality, an oddball story, low key, distant, focussing not on the detectives but on guest star Bruno Kirby, playing a recently released landlord who’d been put away by Pembleton when his failure to repair gas systems killed tenants. Kirby’s character stalked Pembleton, intent on killing him, eventually trapping him, but finding himself incapable of killing.
It was quirky, but it was an unsatisfactory season finale and an even more unsatisfactory series closer, so it’s a very good thing that NBC showed faith in the series by finally commissioning a full twenty-two episode season for season 4.

Kay Howard

Overall, it was a good season. Though Homicide had had to compromise upon its basic principles, it had stood its ground in its central determination to reflect the reality of policing in modern America, and in its determination to see its subject from as many different directions as possible. The series developed a core of committed, talented writers, who kept characterisation consistent, and attracted a series of guest stars who would add to the show’s reputation for mixing frequently very dark comedy into its take on the grimness of the industrial city.
The show enjoyed its first, unofficial crossover with the much more procedural Law and Order when Chris Noth turned up in an ‘open’ as Detective Mike Logan, delivering a prisoner (himself played by cult Director John Waters) to Frank Pembleton whilst maintaining a studied New Yorker’s superiority over no-mark Baltimore.
My own favourite guest appearance came from Gary d’Addario as Lieutenant Chris Jaspers, head of the Quick Response Team, who clashed with Pembleton over police tactics during the pursuit of Glen Holten. Not a major scene of any kind, except that d’Addario wasn’t an actor, though he held his own flawlessly, amongst superb actors like Andre Braugher. Gary d’Addario was a serving Baltimore Police Officer: he is the original of Al Giardello in Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.
So the show had survived its first change of cast and, despite the uncertainty still underlying that change, was renewed and stronger than ever. But Homicide was never destined to be stable, and when it returned it would be without two members of its cast.