Speaking a very small amount of ill of the Dead

They say you should never speak ill of the dead, unless there is something serious to be spoken of. Imagine staying quiet about Jimmy Savile. This is not a case remotely like that.

January’s toll of the famous and well-known has not been allowed to lapse, as the last day of the month sees the death of the broadcaster Terry Wogan, at the age of 77: another victim of cancer.

Being one of the apparent few immune to Wogan’s charms, I find myself similarly immune to any sense of loss. He was a presence on Radio 1 when I first began to listen to it regularly, until Radio 1 finally was given its own, separate frequency, allowing it to forego sharing with Radio 2 in the afternoon.

I watched his chat show on BBC1 regularly, because my mother liked it, and because from time to time he had on guests in whom I was interested, but when it came to chat shows, there were several others I would rather watch handling those on whom celebrity had devolved.

And when I began my fascination with the voting machinations of the Eurovision Song Contest, I rapidly began to loathe Wogan’s much-celebrated but increasingly phone-it-in commentary, with its barely disguised anti-Eastern European xenophobia and his refusal to allow the viewer to enjoy anything that smacked of the host country’s culture. Frankly, I was convinced he actually stopped commenting ten years before his retirement, and the BBC just played the same commentary over and again, in the security of knowing no-one would notice.

But these are trivial things, and all they mean is that Terry Wogan was not to my taste. His family and friends will mourn him, and so too will the listeners of all formats who thought of him as a friend, however removed they were from ever meeting him. January has been a cruel month, whether it personally affected me or not. Let us hope that February gives us more of a relief.


Up for t’Cup: 1891/2 – 1900/01

A Final at the Crystal Palace

The Cup’s third decade was a decade of consolidation. The Qualifying Rounds, three Rounds Proper, semi-finals and Final format was maintained throughout the next ten years with only minimal adjustment to reflect the ever-increasing number of entrants, which soon passed 200.
Curiously, the Cup Proper was unchanged throughout the decade, and the extra entrants were absorbed into an expanded Qualifying Round set-up. First, a Preliminary Round was added in 1892, and then, in 1896, a Fifth Qualifying Round. The refusal to increase the number of Proper Rounds hit its peak in the 1900/01 season, in the introduction of an Intermediate Round, with the ten survivors of the Qualifying Rounds drawn against ten clubs given byes to this level.
That it would have been simpler to increase the number of Proper Rounds, especially with regard to the expansion of the Football League, and the immediate impact of the Southern League, was apparently not in the FA’s mind.
The Football League, that had started with twelve clubs and quickly expanded to fourteen, had been almost doubled in size in 1892 when it absorbed the failing Football Alliance as a Second Division. But League status on its own did not automatically command a bye into the Cup Proper. For the sixteen First Division clubs, that was the case, and six Second Division clubs to make up numbers.
Though I don’t have access to any interim tables to prove it, based on final Second Division positions, I would strongly believe these half dozen clubs to be the top six in the Division at the relevant cut-off date.
The rest of the Second Division clubs would enter the Cup during the Qualifying rounds, as far back at the Third Qualifier, even when there were five such rounds!
I mentioned above the Southern League. As is well known, the Football League was launched in the North West, and the Alliance itself established a catchment area that went little further than the Midlands. The Southern League was established in 1894 for, as its name made obvious, football clubs in the south of England. As these were separated from the Football League mainly on the grounds of geography, it became the home of strong clubs such as Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur.
Both of these clubs would reach the Cup Final as ‘non-League’ teams, (though that term had yet to grow into its full meaning), with Southampton defeated finalists in 1900, beaten 4-0 by Bury, whilst Spurs ended the third decade by lifting the Cup after beating Sheffield United in a replay. In doing so, they became the only ‘non-League’ club to win the trophy after the Football League was formed.
And at this point a special mention should be made of Notts County, Cup-winners in 1894 as members of the Second Division, the first club to win the Cup from outside the top flight of English football. Notts County’s feat would be repeated half a dozen times down the decades, but none of their second tier successors, not even Spurs, would win the Cup from a position in the Qualifying Rounds.
The Cup’s first decade had belonged to the Southern amateurs, the old boys and gentlemen. Its second had belonged to the North, the North-West in particular. So it’s entirely appropriate that the Cup’s third decade should be dominated by the Midlands. Their clubs would appear in the first eight Finals of this era, and would come away as Cup Winners on six of those occasions.
Just as the second decade had begun with one final flourish from the past, so too the third: the 1891 Final was played at the familiar Kennington Oval, but that was to be the last Final to take place at the Cup’s original home. It had hosted twenty of the twenty-one Finals to date, two of which had gone to Replays elsewhere, but after West Bromwich Albion secured the Cup, at the third time of asking, the Cup went elsewhere.
Its first two venues were far removed from the Oval, indeed from London. Wolverhampton Wanderers would break their duck in Manchester, at the Fallowfield Stadium in 1893, and Notts County win their only Cup a year later, at Goodison Park, in Liverpool. The following season, the Cup would return to London, with the Crystal Palace taking over the duty of hosting the competition for the next twenty years.
Notts County’s win in 1894 provided the Cup with a second Final Hat Trick, three goals from Jimmy Logan to match William Townley’s feat for Blackburn Rovers. Only one other player in the 121 years that followed has achieved the same feat.
Back at Crystal Palace, Aston Villa won the first of their Cups. It was the last season in which the first trophy was presented. As related before, ‘the little tin pot’ was stolen, in September 1895, whilst on display in a Birmingham shop, fulfilling Albert Warburton’s prediction, in 1893. Villa were fined £25 towards the cost of making an exact replica.
Decades later, the self-professed thief revealed that it had been melted down to make forged half crowns, but his description of the theft did not align with the known facts, so the romantic possibility exists, however faintly, that one day the trophy may be re-discovered.
Aston Villa won the Cup that year by a single goal, scored after only thirty seconds (pity anyone not in their place at kick-off). This record for fastest goal stood for 114 years, until beaten by Louis Saha for Everton, in 2009.
The growing number of entrants to the Cup had seen the 1895 Final pushed back in April for the first time. The following year, the FA introduced the Fifth Qualifying Round to cope with the numbers. Ten Second Division teams entered the Cup at the First Qualifying Round, given no great advantage than clubs in the Southern League, The Combination, or any other of the growing number of regional Leagues that are the history of today’s English League System (still better known as the Pyramid).
But the gap between Division 2 and non-League was evidently not very great in that era. Only four Second Division teams survived to reach the First Round Proper, with no fewer than six non-League survivors.
As for the Cup, that went to Yorkshire for the first time, won by Sheffield’s The Wednesday.
Aston Villa regained the trophy the following season, emulating Preston in winning the Double, something that would not occur again for 66 years. Indeed, Villa were unique in being the only team to win both Cup and League the same day. Though the Cup was growing in popularity every year, it had yet to reach its traditional status as the last domestic match of the season, played in isolation. Whilst Villa were beating Everton 3-2 (all goals coming in the first half), their final League contenders, Derby County, lost to leave the Birmingham side uncatchable.
For the 1898/99 season, the last Nineteenth Century Cup, the Football League expanded its two Divisions to eighteen clubs each. With the First Division still favoured by a bye into the First Round Proper, this left four additional places. Three of these went to leasing Second Division clubs, but the FA chose to recognise the stature of the Southern League by giving a bye to one of its leading clubs, Southampton. This was a sign of things to come.
The Cup would make a return visit to Sheffield, with United beating Derby County in the Final. Derby would be the last Midlands team to reach Crystal Palace in this decade.
Though the Cup’s format of Preliminary Round, five Qualifying Rounds, three Rounds Proper seemed set in stone, the situation regarding byes into various stages of the competition began to become more complex each year. For the 1899/1900 competition, only seventeen of the eighteen Division 1 clubs received byes into the First Round Proper, with Glossop North End, two Second Division teams and three Southern League teams receiving byes into the Third Qualifying Round.
And the strength of the Southern League was demonstrated by Southampton becoming the first ‘non-League’ finalists, although they were roundly beaten, 4-0, by Bury.
Things grew even more complicated in the first FA Cup to take place wholly in the Twentieth Century. The ever-increasing number of entrants led the FA to create an Intermediate Round, between the Qualifying and Proper Round. Two First Division teams, six second Division teams and two Southern League teams entered the Cup at the Intermediate Round, to face the ten Qualifying Rounds survivors, and the remaining sixteen First Division teams, three further Second Division teams and one Southern League team entered at Round One Proper.
That highest ranked Southern League team were Tottenham Hotspur. They would go on to become the only ‘non-League’ club to win the Cup, and to start the great Spurs tradition (currently suspended) of winning in years ending with ‘1’.
It was the dawn of the Twentieth Century, and much that we now know of the Cup came to life in that season. The Final, at Crystal Palace against Sheffield United, was the first to be filmed, for Pathe Newsreel. It was the first Final to attract a crowd of over 100,000, although the irony was that a Replay would be required, at Bolton Wanderers’ ground, Burnden Park, before a crowd of just over 20,000.  And Spurs would be the first to tie ribbons in their club colours, to the handles of the Cup.
What’s more, Spurs striker Sandy Brown set a record by becoming the first player to score in every round of the Cup, including both Final and Replay, something only seven men after him have equaled, and none in the last 45 years. Technically, he wasn’t the first, Aston Villa’s Archie Hunter having scored in every game in 1886/87, but as Villa’s run included a bye through the Fourth Round, I feel justified in crediting Sandy Brown as the first.
And the Final was not without controversy, for Sheffield United’s equaliser at Crystal Palace, the goal that necessitated a Replay (extra time was not played) never crossed the line. The Pathe film later established that the ball had never gone closer than a foot from the line, making that the first ever example of goal-line technology. Over a century later, we have only just begun to make use of the technologies during games!

(all Finals played at Crystal Palace unless otherwise stated)

1891/92 West Bromwich Albion 3 Aston Villa 0 (Kennington Oval)
1892/93 Wolverhampton Wanderers 1 Everton 0 (Fallowfield Stadium, Manchester)
1893/94 Notts County 4 Bolton Wanderers 1 (Goodison Park, Liverpool)
1894/95 Aston Villa 1 West Bromwich Albion 0
1895/96 The Wednesday 2 Wolverhampton Wanderers 1
1896/97 Aston Villa 3  Everton 2
1897/98 Nottingham Forest 3 Derby County 1
1898/99 Sheffield United 4 Derby County 1
1899/1900 Bury 4 Southampton 0
1900/01 Tottenham Hotspur 2 Sheffield United 2 (no et)
R  Tottenham Hotspur 3 Sheffield United 1 (Burnden Park, Bolton)

The third decade saw a new record of thirteen different finalists, with Aston Villa the most prolific, appearing in three Finals. Everton and Derby County both appeared in two Finals and lost both. Aston Villa were also the only club to win more than a single Final in this decade. Bolton Wanderers and Southampton make up the list of losing Finalists in this decade, but all four cubs would go on to win the Cup in the future. Aston Villa and West Brom were the only previous winners this decade, with eight new names being added to the Roll of Honour.

The Archers: A Matter of Film and Glory – no. 5 – I Know Where I’m Going

This short series is a consideration of my personal Top 5 films by The Archers, being the film production company composed of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, active from 1939 to 1957. It has nothing to do with the BBC’s long-running radio serial about simple farming folk.

I Know Where I’m Going is by no means a major film. It’s a love story, charming, quirky, natural, filmed on location in Scotland, on the Isle of Mull, and in the studios at Pinetree before being released in 1944, the follow-up to the controversial Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and much better received.
The film stars a young Wendy Hillier as Joan Webster and Archers’ favourite, Roger Livesey as Torquil MacNeil, with the rest of the cast including the beautiful Pamela Brown, old curmudgeon Finlay Currie and a bespectacled and very serious seven-year-old Petula Clark. It’s title comes from a popular Scottish folk song and, given the limited availability of Technicolour film, was filmed in black and white, using natural light wherever popular. Whilst it’s a genuine shame the film can’t show its lovely and dramatic landscape in colour, the lighting effects are still lovely to watch.
The title song is a simple love story: the singer knows where she is going for her heart is set upon her true love, the boy she is going to marry. Powell took the theme of the song in a different direction. His heroine is very sure where she’s going but the love she has is not for her fiancé but rather the luxurious life he’s going to give her. This was the easiest film to write for him, the entire screenplay coming together in seven days.
Given the age of these films, and the infrequency of their television appearances nowadays, I’m going to be outlining the story at greater length than is my usual practice. The Archers introduce Joan, via the medium of a now clunky voiceover, as a strong-willed and determined young woman from, literally, her baby footsteps. It’s an introduction that, if it were not so homey, and this were not the Archers, could put her on the wrong foot, as a mere gold-digger, but when she is incarnated as the brisk, charming Hillier, her vitality takes over and sweeps us along for just so long as is necessary to keep the audience in her quarter.
There’s a lot to learn. Joan meets a plump, fussy man, old enough to be her father, in a busy war-time club/bar/restaurant in Manchester. He’s her Bank Manager, and he is her father, and this is the first he’s heard that Joan is engaged. Indeed, she’s leaving Town on the midnight train, for Scotland, bound for the Isle of Kiloran, off the West Coast, where she is to marry.
Who is her intended? Consolidated Industries, or at least its Chairman, Sir Robert Bellinger, a man her father’s age.
Joan’s too brisk and efficient, and determined, for her father even to raise objections, let alone her answer them, which the Archers use deftly to keep the audience’s mind clear of doubts about her. How she met him – her employer – how she wooed him, the absence of naivete, all these things could be imagined into something discreditable if the audience is allowed to speculate, and this is going to be a love story in which we must see Joan as worthy of love.
We are kept distracted by Joan’s itinerary. It’s a step-by-step detailed journey, put together by Bellinger or rather his men, covering every step of the journey, with guides at every leg. It’s a metaphor for Joan’s life, both leading up to, and following her marriage. Controlled, foreseen, everything done for her. And it lasts all the way to the harbour where she is to be collected by boat from Kiloran. But a thick sea-fog has descended. Completion of her journey to the island is impossible, not that Joan accepts obstacles. She is a future rich man’s wife: a way will open for her. Where the other stranded travellers understand there is no going forward, Joan waits confidently. She unfolds once more her itinerary – and the wind, rising, blows it into the sea.
The blowing away of Joan’s itinerary is obviously symbolic. She has lost her course, literally and figuratively, and from here on she is struggling to complete her journey and fulfil the purpose that has sustained her since birth. But the only weapon she has with which to fight is money – not even her own – and she is facing forces that do not care about money: nature and fate.
Without her itinerary, Joan is trapped in the everyday, collective, natural world of the Scots. She is easily identifiable as being an outsider, but cut off from the world she assumes to be hers by right of ambition, she is exposed to a very different way of life and of thinking. This is symbolised in the personal love that becomes the centre of the film. Her rich, older, fiancé, is never seen, only directly encountered over a radio line, impersonal, unconcerned, devoid of passion, removed physically from mainland life and determined to avoid the native population.
In contrast, Joan is thrust into the company of Torquil. At first, she is relatively comfortable with him, although he is a stranger. They are companions in distress, both frustrated in their journey to Kiloran, and she is happy to take advantage of Torquil’s evident local familiarity, securing beds and food for them with his childhood friend Catriona (Brown).
He’s a temporary knight, in Naval Lieutenant’s uniform, introducing her to the world of which he assumes she will become part, but that’s far from what Joan intends at this stage. As a result of his brief tutelage, Joan wishes for an overnight wind to blow away the fog, but what she gets is a gale: it is too dangerous to attempt to cross and local boatman Ruaridh Mhor (Currie) refuses to do so. The storm will blow itself out in three days: only then will it be safe.
To this point, Torquil is a slightly inconsequential adventure, a hiccup on Joan’s natural progression to her wedding and his luxurious future.
But come the morning, and the revelation of the greater obstacle in Joan’s way, as they bid a (tactful) retreat to the hotel in Tobermory (Torquil is quietly solicitous of his lifelong friend Catriona’s limited funds), it all goes wrong. They get as far as Moy Castle, which June wants to enter. She’s heard about the curse, and something about her feeling out of place makes her want to assert her status as the Laird’s wife, superior to the local world as impervious to the curse attached to the Castle.
Unfortunately, her pretensions are immediately exploded as Torquil, reluctantly, introduces himself as McNeill of Kiloran, landlord of her rich fiancé, and the true Laird. Not just a White Knight but a real Knight.
And Joan’s nose is pushed even further out of joint when the pair catch the bus. Torquil is recognised, and joins in conversation with the locals. They are respectful of him, but democratic in their interactions. Torquil is of the country, of the land, as are they, and the talk turns to the rich man on Kiloran, and the strange way in which he acts, taking his provisions from far afield when there is as good and better locally sourced. Torquil’s concern for her feelings is rebuffed, with a huffily proclaimed support for Bellinger’s choices.
The two book into the Tobermory hotel and have lunch before venturing to the Post Office for a radio link to Kiloran. On the excuse of propriety, but in reality due to her humiliation, Joan insists on separate tables.
The radio link to Kiloran further demonstrates the gulf between Bellinger and the locals. It’s our only chance to directly assess him: rich, fruity voice, unconcerned about Joan’s delay except as a nuisance, secure in the belief that nothing bad can happen to him because of his money and status and, in the hearing of the locals, who are clearly beneath his notice, he sends Joan off to the Robinsons, another English couple, living locally, who he describes as ‘the only people worth knowing around here’. Joan has the grace to appear a little embarrassed at his unheeding rudeness, but the greater contrast is to Torquil who, as soon as Joan and Sir Robert have concluded their business, is immediately on to his factor, getting a report about the island and its game, with the evident love and passion of a true Laird.
The two separate. Joan goes on to Bellinger’s friends, where initially she meets their extremely serious seven year old daughter (Petula Clark in only her third film role). When the Robinsons appear, they are every bit as we imagine them, charming, enthusiastic but shallow, as exemplified by Mrs Robinson’s passionate concern for Bridge: Joan must go with them on their afternoon visit to Mrs Crozier at Ard-na-Croich, where they will spend the afternoon with cards in their hands.
Unfortunately, Joan has not taken into account that Torquil is sunk deeply into all aspects of this landscape: he too is a guest for afternoon tea, at which he waits on table in his jovial, bluff, unaffected manner.
But the tiny wedge that Bellinger’s rudeness created to divide Joan’s loyalties is due to be widened very quickly. Mrs Crozier’s servants request permission to take the evening off to attend the ceilidh that has been organised to honour her gamekeeper’s golden Wedding Anniversary. That permission is freely given, but among those attending that evening are Joan, escorted by Torquil.
How this comes about is left to our imagination, and I think it’s a slip by the Archers not to depict the actual events. Certainly, it’s easy to construct a scenario whereby Joan, getting a little tired of the Robinsons’ artificiality, expresses interest in the ceilidh itself, and that Torquil is the only other person interested in seeing it, Mrs Crozier excluding herself due to age, and offering himself as escort. But I would like to have known what was said about her going out alone with him, because she’s on remarkably good and friendly terms with him when they get there.
I don’t mean by that to imply any funny business: this is 1944 or thereabouts, and Joan is engaged, and what’s more Torquil is a perfect gentleman, but they are easy-going with each other, and on friendly terms, and when Joan climbs a ladder to see better into the barn where the dancing is taking place, she makes no objection to Torquil’s protective arms encircling her.
The ceilidh is quite the best scene in the film, for its ease, its naturalness, and the unaffected enjoyment it gives everyone involved.
Joan sees these ordinary, friendly people, and sees the wholeness of the lives they live and the simplicity of their pleasure. Of course, there is a personal worm: the ceilidh has been enlivened by the presence of three Glasgow pipers, hired to perform at a wedding on Kiloran and who, prevented by the ongoing gales from crossing, have lent themselves willingly to this far more humbler event. But Joan puts this behind her and stays to enjoy the fun.
Though Torquil has not put himself forward in any way, he’s still recognised as Kiloran, and the couple’s son, who has organised all this is celebration of his parents, asks him to present himself, a job Torquil undertakes with wonderful ease and respect. The son, himself in uniform, is played by John Laurie: younger but still raw-boned and gaunt of face, and seen here in glorious good humour, happy and proud, no matter how strange that seems.
The ceilidh is the hinge-point of the film. After this, Joan knows she is in danger, that her purpose is under deadly threat, and that it is imperative that she get to Kiloran and complete her chosen course. But though the winds are easing blowing themselves out, the crossing to Kiloran is still not safe. Ruaridh reviews the skies expertly and declares it will be safe on the morrow, but not today. Not for any money: Ruaridh knows his seas and his weather, and he is for the bus to Tobermory to see his dentist.
Joan’s desperate. In Torquil’s eyes, she’s being deliberately stupid, being every bit the rich man’s wife she intends to be, setting herself up above the authorities he instinctively defers to, the people who know. Ruaridh’s assistant Kenny, a fresh-faced lad of maybe 20, is saving up to marry Ruaridh’s daughter, Bridie. He needs £20, more money than he’d ever hope to have seen in all his life to date, to buy a share in the boat and establish himself as a man who can keep a wife.
So Joan offers him £20 to take her to Kiloran. And Kenny cannot resist.
Torquil washes his hands of her: Joan is clearly mad, clearly some form of idiot life, and he wants no further part in this. Bridie comes to plead with Joan not to do this, not to kill her Kenny. Joan appeals to her, woman to woman, but Bridie’s fear leads her into an unforgivable insult, openly saying that Joan wishes to kill Kenny because she cannot wait one night to be bedded.
The only person who sees straight is Catriona. Torquil expostulates to her over Joan’s stubbornness, only for Catriona to call him a fool for not seeing. Joan is not running to Bellinger, she is running away from him. To Torquil it’s a thunderbolt: he genuinely has not imagined that she has feelings for him that she is fighting, but once he sees, between that realisation and his own feelings for the stupid, stubborn woman, he has to be there to prevent disaster. Torquil joins Kenny on the boat.
Joan’s desperation to escape puts all three into direct danger, exactly as forecast. The winds rip the awning from the boat. A wave swamps the engine, cutting it out, leaving Torquil and Kenny frantically working to clean and replace every part. Joan’s suitcases, including her wedding dress, are swept into the sea, beyond recovery. With the boat drifting slowly but inevitably towards the whirlpool of Corryvrecken, the three work desperately, the men on the engine, Joan on baling out. At last, the engine work is done and, on the very brink of Corryvrecken, power is restored, and the trio escape.
Ruaridh and Bridie are waiting at the harbour when the boat limps home. Ruaridh is ready to exact vengeance on the foolish Kenny, but the latter faints before Ruaridh can strike him, and in the end only his spittle displays his contempt.
Catriona takes in Joan, ensures she is bathed, fed and put to bed.
In the morning, exactly as predicted, the storm has blown itself out. It is sunny, the sea is like a mill-pond and the boat is on its way from Kiloran. Joan can complete her journey. Torquil, however, has reached the end of his leave and has to return south, to his naval duty, without ever reaching the island.
On the way to his bus he carries Joan’s bags, until their ways part. Joan is perfectly composed, the epitome of a future Lady Bellinger. But just before they finally part, she asks a favour of Torquil: would he kiss her? Immediately she’s in his arms and he is kissing her passionately (for 1944: no tongues). But when he releases her, Joan takes up her bags and says goodbye.
Alone and now bereft, Torquil heads along the road until he reaches Moy Castle, where he stops. leaving his bags, he ascends the crumbling steps and starts to explore the derelict castle. As he goes from room to room, climbing higher, a voiceover reads out the history of the Castle and the Curse.
Long ago, the lady of the Laird of Kiloran betrayed him and ran away with the master of Moy Castle. Kiloran’s men attacked and took the castle, and McNeill of Kiloran punished the unfaithful lovers by chaining them together, on a stone island in a flooded dungeon, without food or drink. Whoever weakens first will drag their lover to their death. And thus was Kiloran cursed, that if he ever enter Moy Castle, he shall be chained to a woman until the end of his days.
Lost in his thoughts, on the Castle tower, Torquil hears pipe music. The three wedding-bound pipers appear around a bend in the road. Marching ten yards in their wake is Joan, looking joyful. Torquil hurls himself down the stairs, meeting her at the Castle entrance. She throws herself into his arms, recanting her huffy claims to prefer imported fish and swimming pools, that local catch and the ocean are much better.
The voiceover repeats, “And he shall be chained to a woman until the end of his days.”
The beauty of this love story lies in it being far more than just the seemingly inconsequential affairs of two human beings. The Archers don’t go in for such one-dimensional stuff. Joan’s choice is hardly between lovers but between worlds, between naturalness and artificiality, and she chooses the best of these, learning to see that life is something to be part of, and to be experienced along with others, who care and share together, locked into a place wherein they have roots that they cannot even dream of breaking, instead of insulating herself from the world, from disturbance and consequence, protected by shields of gold and silver and paper, and never being of anywhere.
Given this elemental aspect of the story, I think on balance that the film is enhanced by the necessity of black and white: it is rendered every so slightly ethereal, archetypal by the lack of naturalistic colour.
It also stands up for its effects, even after so many years. The scenes during the storm at sea, and with Corryvrecken, are clearly studio shot, but come over very well in the technology of the time, but it would take a very close study of one of the stars, at the expense of the story, to determine without knowing aforehand that Roger Livesey never left the studio.
Livesey was committed to a West End play, which makes his performance all the more creditable given that every night, after filming at Pinetree, he was off to London to act in a completely different production. Every night. But the careful selection, and mixing of shots fools all but the most vigilant of watchers into taking Torquil as being in Scotland. Mixing long shots with doubles (who learned to mimic Livesey’s distinctive bluff gait), and close-ups, places him on the scene.
And Livesey is, as he is at any time in an Archer production, quite simply superb. Despite being too old to be a Naval Lieutenant, he looks the part, he brings to the part passion, solidity and strength. Though he never reaches Kiloran, he is nevertheless at once and always in his rightful place, a man who knows who and what he is, who is neither ashamed nor arrogant, and who sees everyone around him as his equal. Livesey even manages to project the sense that Torquil can only be this rooted because of the democracy of everyone around him: he accepts their respect because it is rooted in equality. If he were an English Lord, one senses, deference would be a horrible embarrassment.
And Hillier, aided by the protection of the script until she has had the chance to impress herself upon the audience as a woman of greater sensibilities than those few she’s yet displayed, embodies Joan’s growing realisation that her chosen course is maybe not the best thing in the world. She clings to it because it has borne her for so long, but inside is a human being, a woman with the capacity to love. Scared though she is of a life she hasn’t foreseen, she grows into accepting that it is the only possible thing.
A lovely film, a gentle film, a film buoyed by its own love of place, of country, of Scotland. A well-deserved favourite.

The Mid-Season Replacements: Lucifer

No, he doesn’t look like that all the time


Most of the disappointment is of my own making. Like the unsuccessful Constantine, what makes the character really work is pretty much impossible to put on television. It’s too dark for the audience, it’s too dangerous in its ideas, it’s too strong for the powers that be that run television who, ultimately, only want something pretty to go in between the commercials and sell those. On those terms, Lucifer was never going to work.

What, then, gets onto the screen? Perhaps, if I set up the character’s history on the screen, the story that attracted the attention of the Goggle-Box, you can then see by how much it’s had to be watered-down, diminished, to fit the plasma.

Lucifer Morningstar, Angel, Son of God, the first Rebel, Ruler of Hell, the Devil, was introduced in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, in issue 4. Dream, seeking to recover his lost accoutrements of office, had to retrieve one from a Demon of Hell. Having succeeded, he humiliated Lucifer by walking out, untouched, leaving the Ruler of Hell swearing to destroy him.

Subsequently, in the ‘Season of Mists’ storyline, Dream’s honour compelled him to go to Hell to free a prisoner he had unjustly condemned. Lucifer’s response was to close Hell, driving out the dead, the damned and the demons, closing all gates and handing the key to Dream, who would then have the responsibility of deciding Hell’s fate. That was one hell (excuse me) of an act of revenge.

But Lucifer had grown tired of his role, had for too long seen himself as no more than a puppet to the divine plan, his every independent move merely fulfilling God’s wishes. Demanding free will, he abdicated. He would go on to open a nightclub in LA, called Lux, where he would play cocktail piano when the mood took him.

Thereafter, Mike Carey took up Lucifer in his own series, a long, complex story about Lucifer’s compulsion to escape, utterly, the imprisonment of God’s designs for him. To finally free himself from the entanglement of his father. His travails involved primarily other supernatural beings, including the Host of Angels, and included the creation of a new Universe, and Lucifer’s own ultimate escape into a void that would finally see him achieve freedom on the only terms possible.

It was a complex interplay of moral and ethical questions as to predestination, free will and the burdens of divinity. You can see how that couldn’t possibly play on telly.

I started watching the pilot with lowered expectations, but hadn’t really lowered them enough. Lucifer’s internal struggle with his fate, and omnipotence, was reduced to his decision to take ‘a vacation’ to run the nightclub. The course of the episode sets up the terms of the series. A popular singer (named Delilah but clearly meant to be a relatively early career Madonna) is shot to death in Lucifer’s company. He helped start her on her musical career, so Lucifer decides to use his powers to find the killer and ensure their hellish punishment. To do so, he teams up, unwillingly on her part, with Detective Chloe Dancer, a pariah amongst her colleagues (which includes her ex-husband). He will go on to be her unofficial colleague.

It’s not much, really, is it?

To that extent, I was prepared for a massive dumbing down, but hoped that the writers might be able to capture Lucifer’s voice, especially from Carey’s series: bored, superior, supercilious, grave, detached, in complete command, and gloriously funny in its utter disdain for virtually everybody else he encounters. And no, they can’t.

They make a very half-hearted attempt to bring some of that in, but it’s lost amongst what they’ve chosen to emphasise instead. The TV Lucifer is basically a decadent seducer, hot on sex, a tease and a small-time tempter, even as he denies any responsibility for the sins you humans enjoy to commit. He giggles nervously when he talks, as if concerned about the response of the people he meets, he’s far too upfront about who and what he is, as opposed to Carey’s Lucifer, who made no secret of what he was but who sat at a distance from humans who, for the most part, were far below his attention and concern.

And the idea of Lucifer as an unofficial police adviser, a sort of supercharged Castle, not to mention all those other crime of the week where gifted amateur shows Police how to do it series, is just beneath the Prince of Hell.

What I want to see is, I know, beyond any possibility of occurring. What I’d live with instead is way beyond this sneery, cheap-sex-drenched, pathetic display.

So. Like I said, I gave Constantine three weeks, I’ll do the same for Lucifer. But I’m not confident. Not one bit.

Another Black Day

It’s been announced that Colin Vearncombe, who sang as Black and had two Top Ten hits under that name in 1988, has died aged 53. He’d been in critical condition for a fortnight, after a serious car accident, in an induced coma. And that’s another one gone.

You can’t say that he was a major figure, or a major influence, not like Bowie or Rickman, or even Lemmy, and Glen Frey, but he sang ‘Sweetest Smile’ and, more importantly, ‘Wonderful Life’, which meant a great deal to me and my-then girlfriend, and he had a smooth, delicious voice, and this is another blow to an already shitty year.

Can we at least get through the rest of January without any more, please?


Deep Space Nine: s01e16 – ‘If Wishes were Horses’

Oh very young…

I have some mixed feelings about the latest season 1 episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. ‘If Wishes were Horses’ was perfectly enjoyable for 95% of its length, and made a masterful transition from an essentially comic, light-hearted situation to a position of overwhelming tension, whose solution was obvious in retrospect. But I felt that it failed in its ending, and that the ultimate explanation was decidedly undercooked.

We started with an unusually long open that encompassed all the cast in a sequence of scenes. Odo suspicious of Quark’s plan to expand his holosuites to include family entertainment, like the baseball programme Sisko had installed for himself and Jake, Bashir still trying in vain to get off with Dax, who is amused at, but far from attracted to his extreme youth, an anomaly in space appearing on sensors which might be the cause of problems, and lastly Chief O’Brien reading ‘Rumplestiltskin’ to little Molly, leading to her imagining the dwarf is in he bedroom. Only she’s not imagining…

Yes, all over DS9, things are appearing that are coming out of people’s imaginations. Sisko’s favourite ballplayer, Buck Bakai, from the dying years of baseball follows Jake home from the holosuite, Quark imagines two scantily-clad, skinny human females (whose dialogue consisted of the occasional giggle) to finger his ear-lobes, his patrons imagine endless wins on the local roulette-equivalent… and Julian Bashir is woken from sleep by a suddenly-amorous Jardzia Dax, eager to get some of that ol’ kissing in.

I think everyone was ahead of the writers over the hasty summons of the senior officers to Controls, with a second, cooler and rather more real Dax following Julian and his hot tamale. By then, we’d had a great deal of fun seeing Bashir, all his dreams come true, far more literally than he was realising, virtually fighting Jardzia Sex off with a pitchfork.

The problem was that, whilst everyone is trying to get to grips with these figments (none more avidly than Quark, off-scene thankfully), the space anomaly is growing ever more dangerous. A precedent is found in a rupture in space, two centuries earlier, that sucked an entire galaxy into itself. Slowly, the mood turns away from the comedy, as DS9 prepares to try to seal the rupture.

The plan fails, the rift accelerates, disaster is nigh, and Rumplestiltskin jumps in with an offer to save the day and seal the rupture. For a price: Molly O’Brien, just like the Queen’s daughter in the fairy-tale.

The Chief is faced with the impossible choice. I thought the show dropped the ball by avoiding having him answer, by Sisko making the choice for him. Maybe thirty seconds less comedy and thirty seconds here for O’Brien to refuse, for everyone to despair, and then Sisko with, say, a slightly altered, “Nor should he.”

Because Sisko’s sussed it. The rupture danger began at the exact moment the figments began appearing, and it’s exactly the same as them. There is no rupture: it’s all Dax’s imagination, supplemented by the rest of them. Tell themselves it’s not real… and it isn’t.

It’s a variation on the old, and usually despised, ‘and he woke up’ ending, given a new and effective twist, but to complete the job, some kind of external stimulus to the ‘dream’ was required. We’d already seen the three primary hallucinations – Bakai, Rumplestiltskin and the fake Dax – meeting to discuss their rle in the situation, and it’s now explained that they are explorers from beyond the Wormhole, who have been studying the application of imagination. They refuse to disclose anything about themselves and disappear, hinting that they might return.

As an ending, it doesn’t work for me. It’s too perfunctory, and by making the aliens purely neutral, it avoids providing a logical justification for all that imagination sloshing around. Again, a little less light comedy, a little more time for the ending and this could have been a very strong episode. As it was, it was fun, it was very enjoyable, but it didn’t follow through, and it ended on a hollow note.

What’s it like to be a Red?: the view from 24 January 2016

Theatre of Misery, Humiliation, Depression and Louis van Bloody Gaal

I watched Manchester United’s latest game yesterday afternoon, the first time I’d seen the Reds play since the extremely fortunate FA Cup victory over Sheffield United a fortnight ago: both games since then fell foul of my shift-patterns. Despite the pleasant surprise of three shots from United in the first twenty minutes – one of them actually on target though not dangerous – it was more of the same. The late goal conceded came as a surprise only because Southampton had, up to that point, shown as little prospect of scoring as the home team.

That’s the biggest thing at present: there are absolutely no expectations of anything when United play, and there are especially no expectations of scoring. I’ve recently been watching a selection of YouTube videos of highlights of old United games, Eighties, Seventies even, and the difference is palpable. Even when at their worse, these old sides demonstrated a constant willingness to attack, and an ability to score goals. The current United line-up, no matter what permutation, is clueless. They are lacking in all confidence. Worse, they are lacking in idea. Even at their most forthright and pressing, they are distinctly a team who no longer now how to score goals.

I continue to blame Louis van Gaal, and even he’s blaming himself. The booing was pretty vociferous yesterday, and he’s said the fans were right to boo. The commentators yesterday condemned it back-handedly, saying the fans should get behind their team, but when that team offers what it has been offering all season, how can any thinking fan get behind them? What should they do? Lie blatantly?

Surprisingly, there are still people who – seriously, and not just because they are ABUs, wanting United’s dismay to continue forever – argue that United should retain van Gaal, that he is doing the right things, building a stable team, a disciplined team. United are still fifth even now.

I find this attitude unbelievable. van Gaal has brought this situation about, by the application of his philosophy, to which he clings. It is not working, self-evidently. And equally self-evidently, van Gaal does not know what to do to fix things. He does not know what to do to make his philosophy work on the field, he has neither the will nor the imagination to change things. He has made the team fragile beyond belief: does anyone really think, watching the players when they step out, that they have in them any shred of belief that they can win? Under van Gaal, I have seen too many games against clearly inferior opponents – forgive me Sheffield United, but it’s true – in which the team, individually and collectively, does not know what to do to even get into the Penalty Area.

But van Gaal will not stand down. Come what may, he will have to be sacked if he is to go. He even talks down the chances of improvement. Currently, he is making it plain that United are not seeking new players in the current transfer window, which has only a week left in it. Despite yet another full-back being injured yesterday, van Gaal will not contemplate at least buying a replacement for that position.

His pride, his stubbornness, might in other circumstances be admirable. Here, it only makes him look like a rabbit, frozen in headlights. He is a rabbit in headlights, unable to move, not even to run away to safety.

As for any possible replacement, I admit to only one idea, and that still firmly negative. In the past week, I’d started to relax over the idea of a Jose Mourinho succession. He’d been available for weeks, virtually hanging around outside Old Trafford pleading to be picked up, and United hadn’t made the slightest effort to explore that possibility: the event that could separate me from my club seemed to be receding.

Then the papers broke the story this morning that Mourinho had actually pleaded for the job: a six page letter, detailed breakdowns of how he’d overhaul the team, and a promise to change his managerial ways, at least as to how United would pay under him (the reports didn’t convey  whether or not he’d promised he wouldn’t be such a self-centred dickhead but I suppose that was the point on which credibility would have been lost forever).

Between going to and returning from Tesco, no quick thing on a Sunday, the ‘news’ had been furiously denied by Jorge Mendes, Mourinho’s agent, but van Gaal is once more neck deep in the brown and sticky stuff, and the fear lurks not deep below the surface.

There’s another week before the next trial of patience, and it is a trial. Watching United play live is a deadening, lifeless process. Without expectation, without hope, emotion is drained from the experience, to the extent that in the rare event of a goal, it has to be exceptional – as a goal, I mean – before any excitement is created. The reverse is equally true: goals conceded, games lost prompt only a shrug of resignation. This is what we are, on the 24th January 2016, and no route of escape is visible, except, we may hope, at an angle not amongst the standard three hundred and sixty.

Meanwhile, Leicester are back on top of the table. As I type, Arsenal, who have been reduced to ten men, are a goal down to Chelsea, with half an hour played, which will ensure the Foxes a three point lead if the score is perpetuated. Much as I loathe the idea of backing Chelsea, tactics once more come into play.

I’d love to see Leicester win it. If they do, at least I’ll get some overt emotion out of this season. I have no natural connection, no emotional conviction towards Leicester, just a wish to see the apple-cart well and truly upset. It’s more than I dare hope that Manchester United will provide me this season, even as I still watch their games out of commitment.



Pursuing Christopher Priest: Indoctrinaire

A couple of years ago, I did a series on Christopher Priest’s work. I confessed at the time to not being familiar with his earlier works nor, from what I’d read, being particularly attracted to them. I subsequently decided that was an unfair attitude and I’ve acquired the missing books and will be completing the series by looking at these.
Priest made his debut as a novelist in 1970 with Indoctrinaire, a cool, precise and oddly interesting book, ostensibly dealing with time travel. At this stage of his career, Priest, who had only been a full-time writer for two years, was defined strictly as an SF writer, without any literary pretensions, though the seeds of his future development are evidently in place.
I have mixed feelings about this book. I enjoyed it on first reading, intrigued about the several mysteries created, the seemingly purposeless behaviour of the central characters and the situation, amused by the fact that the book’ three parts are each given sub-titles beginning with a “The” (the final one, The Concentration, would even now make a superb Priest title).
Yet on a second reading, I found myself largely bored, seeing much of the book as an unnecessary diversion, included because the situation of the story was not, in itself, sufficient to create a story. It’s a typical SF novel of the late-Sixties/early-Seventies in that it eschews plot for detachment, and removes action almost entirely in playing out the story. There’s no real human emotion here: the book’s protagonist, Dr Elias Wentik (who is British, despite the awkward, implausible surname) does not display any emotions until far too far into the story for us to believe in them.
The operative word here is Kafka, or at least Kafka-esque. Now I’ve never actually read any Franz Kafka, an admission that should see me excluded from intellectual society, but I understand what is meant by the term and have read enough Kafka-esque fiction to have lost all desire to put right that omission. Let me set the scene.
Dr Wentik is the senior of two non-American scientists developing a project in a vast Underground laboratory called the Concentration. The massive complex, for no apparent reason, is underground in Antarctica. The cost, in monetary and human terms, in constructing such a site in the most inhospitable conditions on Earth, must have been incredibly prohibitive, yet this has been achieved by 1989, less than twenty years after the book’s appearance.
Wentik is developing a kind of drug to be used in social conditioning, which can achieve Pavlovian effects in three days, instead of months. It is effective on rats, apart from killing them in six days, but there are no other creatures on whom to experiment, except humans. Wentik’s Nigerian assistant, N’Doko wants to test the substance himself, but Wentik forbids it, despite the fact he has already been experimenting on himself, in minute doses, without apparent detrimental effect.
This set-up is abruptly dissolved by the arrival of two men, Astourde and Musgrove, with orders to remove Wentik from the Concentration and commandeer his services. Here is where the Kafka-esque majority of the story begins.
Wentik is taken to Brazil, and then into the interior of the country, to the Planalto region of the Mato Grosso. No-one explains, Astourde and Musgrove both talk in cryptic terms when they talk at all, and Wentik goes along with it, without demur, with curiosity deferred until later. The Planalto region turns out to be a vast, circular, flat region where the jungle has been eradicated completely. It’s also two hundred years into the future and impossible to return from.
There, Wentik finds himself both a virtual and an actual prisoner. Astourde and Musgrove continue to act irrationally and haphazardly, and Wentik continues to not be particularly bothered by it. He’s periodically interrogated, to no end: Priest keeps telling us that the questions are pointless and meaningless, but never shows us any of the questions except, “Give me your name,” and “Admit to your crime.”
There’s a square black jail consisting of multiple cells and torture by light and sound. There’s a dilapidated shack containing a labyrinth constructed as a mathematical puzzle. The soldiers who have escorted the party seem to be ineffectual, unmotivated and uncaring in their allegiance. A hand grows out of a table-top, a four foot long ear grows out of a wall. None of this makes sense, nor is it meant to.
Ultimately, after Astourde immolates himself during one of his periods of being even more irrational than usual, Wentik takes charge. Musgrove has vanished and the soldiers follow his orders. He takes the helicopter on an attempt to escape to the nearest Brazilian town, never having entirely believed that he’s in the future. Once out of the Planalto circle, the helicopter is intercepted by a futuristic aircraft that forces it to return all the way to the jail. Out steps Musgrove who promptly gasses Wentik. He wakes up, strait-jacketed, on the aircraft, flying out of the Planalto. Musgrove is similarly imprisoned.
They land in Sao Paolo, where the crew leave the craft, abandoning the strait-jacketed pair. An ambulance crew greets Wentik, treat him in a friendly manner, drive him through the city and deliver him to a hospital, where he’s promptly locked in, for rehabilitation, under Musgrove’s name. We may be out of the jungle but we’re not out of Kafka, not yet.
Rehabilitation involves decent meals, cheap fiction and orientation films that sound like silent travelogues of the kind you still got in the cinema, from time to time, in 1970. Rehabilitation also involves, whether as part of the service or as an unmotivated personal extra, shagging the young and pretty nurse, though this brings on an unforeshadowed Catholic guilt in Wentik, over betraying his wife, even though she has been dead for exactly two hundred years.
But Wentik now believes he has been displaced in time. An outline history is given by a pamphlet book, summarising Brazil’s history from its foundation. Where things finally start to get serious is in the section from 1989 onwards, which is an account of a nuclear war, arising from a Cuban invasion of Florida, and American H-bomb retaliation.
As a consequence, America, Western Europe and Russia have all been bombed into extinction, and the entire globe has been devastated, except – again for no argued reason – South America. But the reconstruction of the globe has been long-delayed, in two hundred years has pretty much only caught up to where Wentik was in 1989, with certain exceptions. Largely, this is something to do with the Disturbance Gas, a chemical weapon with unusual properties, that causes mental reconditioning, paranoia, irrationality, exaggeration of complexes etc. In short,what caused everybody to go through that long Kafka-esque performance up on the Planalto.
We are finally nearing an actual story now, even though Wentik continues to behave with a near total detachment from everything. Jexon, the man behind this, a scientist who is engaged in trying to shape a new social model, has had Wentik brought forward in time because the Disturbance Gas is based on Wentik’s work, and they want his help in destroying it. Wentik both recognises the undeniable connection and denies it, since he was taken from the past before completing his work. However, long after the reader has made the connection, Wentik remembers N’Doko, who must have carried on the work.
Wentik therefore has to be sent back into the past, to travel from Brazil to Antarctica, during a steadily-increasing, world-involving war, to retrieve N’Doko from the Concentration. Having got there, he finds the place abandoned, empty, and anyway he’s worked out that it could never have worked because time can’t be changed.
In a somewhat credibility-crunching twist, Jexon in 2189 has worked out the same thing, and has come back to 1989, carrying 2189 around himself in a way that makes a mockery of Wentik’s struggle to get to Antarctica, to rescue Wentik to live on in 2189. But Wentik insists on going back via England, intent on assuaging his overpowering guilt as fucking the nurse, by saving his wife and children too. But it’s too late: London’s been evacuated, his family is somewhere in Hertfordshire and he’s on Salisbury Plain, and besides, the first bomb to drop on Britain is due that very day.
In an ending that might have been poignant in another book, Wentik sits down half a mile away from the ship that can carry him to 2189 and safety, until Jexon, after taking one final look around, returns to the future without him.
As I said, I was caught up in and enjoyed Indoctrinaire when I first read it, and it’s extremely disappointing for it to fall apart, like wet tissue-paper, at only a second reading. The book is, as I said, very much of its time, in the immediate wake of the New Wave of SF. It is deliberately cool and detached, which is its first problem. Elias Wentik – and where does such a name as that come from? – displays far too little concern about what is being done to him, succumbs to movements that figuratively and literally remove him from the world without curiosity or resistance.
Although he is seemingly immune to what is later revealed to be the Disturbance Gas, Wentik’s behaviour at Planalto is no less eccentric than that of anybody else. Wentik never becomes real, never displays a personality. His displays of guilt over betraying his long-dead wife are based in a religious belief that comes out of the blue and which fails to convince for a moment. After all, before the story begins he has left her for six months to carry out his project, and even when racked with guilt for boffing the flesh equivalent of a blow-up doll (one of only two female characters in the entire book: the other at least has some elements of a personality), he can’t actually summon up any feelings of love – present or past – for the wife he’s betrayed.
Wentik is a plastic figure, able to be what the story needs him to be at any time. He is unaffected by his tortures, mentally distanced and superior. He effortlessly understands that his project is responsible for the Disturbance Gas, achieving in ten seconds a process it took the world decades to see (probably the single least credible piece of writing in the book). And he is able to detect fanaticism and no doubt fascistic intent in the creation of a plausibly de-centralised, liberal and fluid society: perhaps that’s the explanation for the otherwise inexplicable title, Indoctrinaire.
I’ve said Kafka-esque a number of times already, and I’ve admitted to having read neither The Trial nor The Castle, but my understanding of Kafka’s work is that it anatomises the experience of complete helplessness, of oppression at the hands of forces greater than oneself, acting from motives that remain concealed, that are carried out implacably without explanation or logic.
But Indoctrinaire has a story, has an explanation, and one that, within an SF novel, is both clear, practical and entirely logical, notwithstanding that Priest chooses to undermine it just before the end of the book. Unfortunately, this has the undesired work of rendering all the mystery, the oppression and irrationality of nearly three-quarters of the story, a mere prelude, and for that matter one that immediately becomes both overlong and, frankly, somewhat suspect in its purpose.
The weight given to it shows clearly where Priest’s interests lay in writing the book, yet it is ultimately pointless in terms of the story he brings in to provide the book with somewhere to end. Beyond the fact that the scenario has been created by the effects of the Disturbance Gas that Wentik is supposedly there to counter, the whole sequence ends up having curiously little effect on the ‘plot’, which is diminished by being little more than a stapled-on device to artificially produce an ending.
Then again, that was typical of the times for SF writing, a swinging of the pendulum against Space Opera,against plot and event for its own sake.
And this was the first novel by a young writer, who has since gotten immeasurably better. That the Christopher Priest I know, and whose next book I already await with eagerness, is also responsible for this stumbling story does Indoctrinaire no favours whatsoever. It’s the equivalent of Doctor Roger Bannister achieving a six minute plus time, with falls, in his first mile race. We know what’s to come and harshly apply retroactive standards.
There was a lot of development needed. Fugue for a Darkening Island in its original form would follow this, but we’ve already been there. Priest’s third novel would begin with one of the most famous opening lines in SF.

Alfred Bester – a driver of Tigers: Extro

I plead bias. This was my first exposure to Alfred Bester and I loved it immediately. And because it was my first, and it was stuffed full of more ideas per page than any book I had ever read before, and it moved with the speed of a Speedy Gonzalez cartoon, and it bounced up and down and blew my mind, I cannot see it as others do. I cannot hold it inferior, or charmless, or an empty echo of Bester’s greatness with his two classic novels. What follows is going to be pretty much against the flow, but I repent not.
Extro was only Alfred Bester’s third SF novel, and it was his first in almost twenty years, published in 1975. The usual multi-titled confusion applies, only more so than ever. This novel was originally The Indian-Giver and then it was published under the name America knows best as The Computer Connection (ugh! How dull for an Alfie Bester) but I have only known it as Extro.
It’s actually some years since I last read this book, but from it’s hell-for-leather opening, I settled back into it and was not disappointed. Naturally, when a critical eye is employed, there are moments that cause winces, but this is not a book to give you time to pause: stop to reflect and the story is already a hundred miles away.
It’s fast, it’s furious. Bester throws things at you relentlessly, never explaining. The world in which this takes place is presented as a kaleidoscope, a hurdy-gurdy extrapolation of life today, big, bold, bright, ferocious, crowded, obscene, hideous, a collision of elites and an id-driven massive overpopulation that sprawls across an America in which whites have almost died out and the language has mutated into Black Spanglish (the book is told in the Group’s private dialogue of XX English).
The Group? Ah yes, the Group. Extro is told in the first person, which is unusual for Bester, and the first person is Ned Curzon, aka Guig, which is short for Grand Guignol (which, for the uneducated amongst you, which included me before I read this novel, is the nineteenth century French theatre of horror). Why is Ned called Grand Guignol? Because Ned is immortal.
That’s what the Group is about. All of them are immortal. Ned calls them Molemen, short for Molecular Men. Each of them, at one time or another, faced death, a hideous, agonising, painful death, faced it so squarely and incontrovertibly that the realisation sent a charge through their bodies, destroying the lethal secretions that accumulate to eventually kill the body and kicking the cells up into a rapid growth phase that enables them to metabolise anything, no matter how lethal, into bodily sustenance.
The problem is that the kind of situations that prompt this uncontrolled surge usually kill the beneficiary on the spot, but every now and again, freak circumstances reprieve the Moleman, leaving them to carry on with their ultimately extended lives. Take Ned, for example: he was on Krakatoa when it blew, but his hut collapsed around him, creating a kind of sealed-in cradle that was flukishly blown out to sea ahead of the lava.
The Group leads incredibly long lives, during which they shift and change between identities. Within the group, they are given nicknames, appropriate to their personal fixations, which they now have ample time to indulge. Lucy Borgia is a doctor, Captain Nemo obsessed with the sea, the Greek Syndicate is a brilliant financier, Edison a scientist, you get the idea.
What gets Ned his unwanted name is his own obsession with expanding the Group, with spreading immortality, with bringing in geniuses. Ned’s great at constructing hideous and horrible death traps. It’s just that he hasn’t managed to keep one candidate alive. Extro is the story of his first success.
I’m torn about how much more to say about the actual story. It’s chockful of ideas on every page, a blur of notions and conceptions. At times it feels as if Bester had spent the two decades since The Stars My Destination accumulating ideas and has thrown in twenty years of ideas all at once, unable to bear the wait. In 1975, it came over as the kind of book that a would-be SF writer could mine for ideas enough to sustain an entire career, and it still comes over to me the same way, though my distance from contemporary SF in the last 20/30 years may be letting me down here.
Ned’s success is pureblood Cherokee scientist, Dr  Sequoya Guess. Ned’s so anxious not to blow this one that he calls in Group help to ensure success. Not all the Group: this is no Secret Society out for power or control, more like a loose affiliation, a non-sinister Freemasons that look out for one another but have no formal structure. Not everybody gets along, and everybody has their own coterie.
The matter is complicated in several different directions all at once. First, Ned unintentionally proposes to Guess’s 17 year old sister Natoma, who accepts. Ned goes for it, stricken in love, and gets a real catch, not just beautiful and highly-sexed, but a woman of great intelligence, understanding and wisdom, who needed only to be unleashed.
And there’s Fee-5, who is Ned’s adopted 13 year old daughter. Fee – which is short for Fee-mally 5 Grauman’s Chinese, signifying that her family lived and she was born in the fifth row of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Mexifornia – is a brilliant creation, proud, independent, quickly growing in experience. She becomes Guess’s assistant, falls madly in love with him and is killed through Ned’s negligence.
Because the third complication is Guess himself, or rather Extro. Extro is a computer, a ‘stretch’ computer that links all electronica over this world. As part of Guess’s death/birth, the Extro battens onto all his synapses, and from then on part controls him. And the Extro wants mankind eradicated (you should see what it, and Guess, have in mind as a substitute).
There’s another catch. A Moleman has gone renegade, and turned on the Group, for some insane reason. Add in that power, that intelligence, that experience and it’s a tough combo.
All of these things tie in to produce an extraordinary, high-speed story, with a superbly conceived thriller plot as its spine, improbable, astonishing characters and ideas flung off like a pinwheel. You won’t find anyone else saying this but me, and I stand behind what I say. I would rate this book above Alfred Bester’s other writings in toto.
I did mention some flaws. The most notable one is the now-dubious litany of names Ned Curzon has for his Cherokee brother-in-law. Geronimo, Sitting Bull, and others. It sounds disrespectful to the modern ear, an example of old attitudes towards Amerindians that are slowly being buried by history, and it jars, even as it can be justified by Ned’s eagerness to create Guess’s in-Group name for him. In every other respect, Guess and his tribe are treated with absolute respect.
And it’s a positive delight to go from a misogynist mess like Tender Loving Rage to a book where female characters are treated as equals and in which the likes of Natoma and Fee-5 flourish. Bester may have always been a man of the Fifties, but this side of him is least seen in Extro, or The Computer Connection (ugh, bland), and I have no hesitation in going against consensus and recommending this book all guns blazing.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Banana Splits’ ‘Wait till Tomorrow’

Plastic pop has been around almost as long as pop has. Manufactured music, by manufactured bands, with no other thought that to produce something that will sell, in as many numbers as possible. Written by professional songwriters, recorded and sung by session musicians: two minutes, two-and-a half tops, in and out. Keep it short so there’s plenty of time for the next one off the production line to hit the turntable.

And yet: not every piece of commercially created music is utterly hollow. Art may not always be for art’s sake, it can sometimes creep, unwanted but not unfelt, into music made for the basest of motives. The Monkees may have been a quartet of actors with varying-all-the-way-down-to-minimal musical ability, but they still produced some great pop.

And The Archies’ ‘Sugar Sugar’, eight weeks at number 1 in Britain, was a brilliantly infectious, dance-friendly piece of bubblegum pop that still lifts the spirits over forty years on.

In 1968, like most of my age (and I suspect an equal number of girls, though as I went to a single sex Grammar School, I have no means of knowing this), I was hooked on The Banana Spilts Show, a zany, indeed wacky kids show, hosted by the Banana Spilts, supposedly consisting of four people dressed up as anthropomorphic animals: a beagle (Fleagle), an orange gorilla (Bingo), a laconic lion (Drooper) and a hairy elephant who only spoke in honks (Snorky). There were sketches, running gags, cartoons and an adventure signal that had everyone in my year hollering ‘Uh-oh, Chongo!’ (you had to be there).

And there was music. Pop songs, just like those of the Archies’, commercial pop, written by professional songwriters, recorded and sung by session musicians: two minutes, two-and-a half tops, in and out. That those musicians included luminaries such as Gene Pitney, Al Kooper or Barry White I neither knew nor cared, being ignorant of all pop at this time. I doubt I even saw this music as pop.

Yet there was one song. One song in the midst of all the others, that caught my ear in 1968 when even the Beatles were an unheard mystery to me, thanks to parents who ensured that nothing resembling pop appeared on their TV, or radio.

One song, written and sung by professional musicians, no doubt working to a clock. But it went into me, and something about it stayed, where music otherwise was ephemeral, a passing, unremembered thing, an interruption to the silly, childish songs that were what Ed Stewart’s Junior Choice was really about, every Saturday and Sunday. It was called ‘Wait till Tomorrow’, and as one who would, in due course, become a lover of that peculiarly mid-Sixties kind of clean-cut, pure American pop, it was brilliant.

It took me nearly twenty years to get hold of the song, by means of a video-tape of a repeated Banana Splits Show, but it was exactly as I remembered it. And it took nearly twenty further years to get hold of a CD that included it, a moment’s Sunday night inspiration, on a regular, long drive back, that ended with an internet search of approximately two minutes, and an order from somewhere in California.

It’s a very simple song, in primitive stereo that removes most of the basic instrumentation to the right channel, and places the voice and some of the more ephemeral music to the left. But the voice, from the moment it enters the song, hits a deeper note than you might expect. Flying through the meadows, all through the night, deceptively in keeping with everything before it, but the next line introduces something much less joyous: searching for the star that once was so bright.

And then it’s made explicit: love gone sour, love gone wrong, love gone. We had it once but we let it go. It’s changed. All the sunshine, apple pie and ice cream is overshadowed, the warm affection that we needed so, and that final word soars into a chorus of hope, of conviction. Wait till Tomorrow, we’ll find each other then, wait till tomorrow, tomorrow we will learn to love again.

Love has gone and two people are lost. The singer is one of them but he hasn’t given up hope. He believes in love, he believes that it is stronger than what inexplicable thing that has driven them apart. He knows that they can’t make love come back today, but wait till tomorrow he sings again, in tones of optimistic yearning, belief in every note of him.

Around him, the melody sings and swoops, a perfect melange of piano, bass,  drums and some of the most affecting ‘la la las’ in pop history. He comes back to it again. It isn’t the end: there will be love again for them.

I look back at some of the songs that made an early impact on me, songs that spoke to my heart long before I was aware of my heart might one day contain, and with this cheap little bubblegum song, not even a proper record, just a soundtrack to a piece of comic television, I wonder if I was foreseeing things that would not come to pass until a time completely unimaginable from 1968. In this song, the singer hopes, is certain, yet his voice betrays him to the knowledge that it might not be that way after all. He can’t deny that there might not be a happy ending, not today, not tomorrow, not ever.

Which is why art can never be excluded totally from the most unartistic of endeavours.