The Mid-Season Replacements: DC’s Legends of Tomorrow

Very impressive – except for Caity Lotz’s hairstyle

The first thing to say is that, as a reader of DC Comics for the last fifty years, a show would have to tank pretty badly before I would not want to watch it (so, basically, we’re looking at Constantine here). Legends of Tomorrow, shared child of Arrow and The Flash, had its clunky bits, mostly to do with this being half a pilot in which we have to get to know ten different characters, plus the set-up, but it did enough for me to be both fun and adequately fulfill the expectation of seeing so many superheroes hanging out together.

The premise is this: in 2166, one hundred and fifty years from now, Vandal Savage, the Immortal Villain, conquers the world, destroying London as his last step and, being a cold-hearted psychopath, kills a mother and her young boy, Jonas. Incidentally, I had no problems with this incident: the man is 4,000 years old and has seen literally millions of people die, so in what way does the lives of two people have any meaning for him.

At the Council of Time Masters, Captain Hunter (Rip, to you and I, and Arthur Darvill to his friends) urges intervention to prevent Savage’s takeover from having happened, despite the Council’s express aim of preserving the Timeline from interference. When Rip returned to his base, collecting his AI, Gideon along the way (is this the same Gideon that works for the Reverse-Flash in The Flash or are Gideon’s as ubiquitous as iPhones in the future?), saying he’d had the expected answer, was I alone in immediately guessing our man had gone rogue? Nah, no way I could have been.

Rip returns to 2016 to collect a team he intends to mould to stop Savage completely, by pursuing him through time. As we all know, this meant the Atom, Sara soon-to-be White Canary Lance, the two halves of Firestorm, Hawkman and Hawkgirl and, just for fun, those unrepentant Flash-villains, Captain Cold and Heat Wave.

Our gang agreed to help Captain Hunter, in his long, swirly, leather coat for a variety of reasons, some noble, some redemptive, some inquisitive, some base on the notion of robbing the timeline blind (guess who?) and, in the case of the Jefferson Jackson half of Firestorm, because his elder, wiser half, Professor Martin Stein drugged and kidnapped him.

First stop, St. Roch, 1975 (lovingly re-created) and an expert in Vandal Savage, who only happens to be the aged son of Hawkman and Hawkgirl from the last-but-one incarnation (as Joe and Edith Boardman). We get a pointer as to the nature of time here: Hunter has chosen this day to approach Andrew Boardman as he is going to die within 24 hours, Hawkgirl insists on taking her ‘son’ with them to protect him from harm, but that is what leads to his death, and the hands of the chronal bounty-hunter, Chronos (a wildly re-written DC villain of fifty years standing).

Which is the cue for Rip to reveal that he is not, after all, acting on behalf of the Time Masters, but in his own behalf, and that his chosen band were selected, not because they were destined to be Legends of Tomorrow, but because they are completely insignificant to the timeline. Rip’s motive is personal: his wife and young boy were killed by Savage. In London. In 2166. Rip’s out for revennge.

And the gang stick with him, for varying reasons, but primarily because, as Ray (Atom) Palmer puts it best, they intended to kick the future’s butt, none of this insignificance bit, you hear me?

Meanwhile, over in Norway, Vandal Savage is lovingly cradling a nuclear warhead and waxing philosophically about how Man progresses only in times of war… But we have to wait until next week for Pilot part 2.

My overall first impression is that this was good enough to come back next week. I like the premise, I look forward to seeing what they do with it, and I’m sure it will improve once it settles down. At the moment, Legends‘s biggest problem is the size of its cast, and the need to have everybody doing something up front. So far, interaction is limited, with the team falling instantly into little cliques, pre-determined by their various histories, with little scope yet for overlap.

Surprisingly, it’s Arthur Darvill as Rip Hunter who convinces me the least, but then I was in the decided minority who thought Fulk Hentschel got it dead on as Carter (Hawkman) Hall. Best scene however was White Canary and the two villains, benched for the visit to Professor Boardman and pissed off at it, sneaking off the time-ship to go for a drink, which, once White Canary decided to dance, showing off Caity Lotz’s body,provoked a bar brawl faster than you could say, ‘Yee-haw!”. This three are going to be fun.

I look forward to the rest of the gang catching them up.


The Mid-Season Replacements: Marvel’s Agent Carter

Unlike a lot of people, who found it boring, I liked the first season of Marvel’s Agent Carter, starring Hayley Attwell as Captain America”s girlfriend, Peggy Carter, trying to get the post-war SSR to take her seriously as a field Agent, instead of someone to do the typing.

It was a bright and breezy, eight-part series, demonstrating Peggy’s superiority to everyone around her at the SSR (with the possible exception of fellow Agent, Daniel Sousa: Enver Gjokaj, with a serious limp) and enlivened by the very British, very absurd conversations between Peggy and her confidant, Howard Stark’s butler, Edwin Jarvis (a great comic/serious turn by James D’Arcy).

Despite the viewing figures dropping throughout Agent Carter‘s run as a mid-season replacement for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., it’s been renewed for a second season, this time extended to ten episodes, and again keeping a place for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which we won’t see again until March.

I’m basing this review on episode 1 only, though the series premiered with a double-episode. And a fine mix of action, wit and interesting plot strands it turned out to be.

The action this time is set in Los  Angeles, though there’s evidently going to be a large strand to do with New York. To start with, Sousa is out west, Chief of the SSR’s West Coast Bureau, but still technically subordinate to Chief Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray). Sousa pulls a case of a woman’s body, found frozen to death in a lake – in the middle of an LA heatwave. Local Police Detective Henry reckons it’s the uncaught Lady in the Lake Killer – but it turns out that Detective Henry is covering up a death of a scientist by other, outre and potentially contagious means.

Meanwhile, in New York, Peggy Carter has led a team in the successful capture of Dottie Underwood, and is about to interrogate her when Sousa calls Thompson to ask for the loan of a senior Agent. And Thompson, still as chauvinist and insecure as ever, sends Peggy.

Since Howard Stark is in California, getting into the Movie business, Jarvis is on the spot to help – along with Mrs Jarvis, who makes an onscreen debut. A link is traced to Isodyne Energies, a company owned by powerful businessman, and Senatorial-candidate Clifford Chadwick, who is quite clearly tied up in all this as we can see by the end of episode 1, having swept out all tracks, for the moment, that is.

And in New York, Jack Thompson is making an arse of himself trying to strong-arm Dotty in the Interrogation Room, that is, until  the FBI swoops and takes both the case and the prisoner over. Thompson gets a friendly word of advice: the SSR was a war-time agency, but this is 1947 and the war’s over. Before long, so will be the SSR. By co-operating, Thompson will be putting himself in place to get in on its successor at a high level.

So, treachery, corruption and why did Dotty break into a Bank to steal somebody’s lapel pin in New York, and a mysterious murder in which people get frozen to death and explode into little carbon chunks.

And in the final scene, inside Isodyne, the friendly scientist who wants to wine, dine, dance and probably shag Peggy proudly contemplates some kind of caged black fluid shape-changer tat looks exactly like the monolith in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

It looks like a fine start to me.

Up for t’Cup: 1881/82 to 1890/91

Preston North End – ‘The Invincibles’

And suddenly it was so different.
The first decade of the FA Cup was the era of the southern amateurs, the Home Counties public schoolboys. And indeed, they maintained their record in 1881/2, with Old Etonians becoming only the second team to win the Cup twice. Unseen, Wanderers, to whom the first decade belonged, entered the Cup for the final time, scratching without playing (as did Queen’s Park, of course).
But it was the identity of the losers that provided the key to the decade ahead. These were Blackburn Rovers, and the second decade would be the Blackburn years.
But Rovers were not the first northern team to win the Cup. There were about twenty teams in Blackburn at that time, and it was rivals Blackburn Olympic who would take the Cup into Lancashire in 1883, after defeating Old Etonians (in their sixth Final, beating Wanderers’ record of five: of course, Wanderers won all of theirs). The Final required extra-time to resolve it. At this period, extra-time was not mandatory and depended on both team captains agreeing to play it. West Bromwich Albion’s refusal of extra-time would send the 1885/86 Final into the only replay of the decade.
Olympic’s victory gave rise to a prophetic story: at the celebration dinner, someone called out that the Cup had come to Lancashire at last, to which Olympic’s captain, Albert Warburton famously replied, “Aye, and it’ll never go back to London again.” This prediction came true in 1895 when Aston Villa, as holders, allowed the Cup to go on display in a local shop. The shop was burgled and the Cup stolen, never to be seen again.
Blackburn Olympic were a short-term phenomenon. Their win came in only their third Cup campaign, having been knocked out in the First Round in each of their first two attempts. They would reach the semi-finals the following year but never again achieve such heights: indeed, they would disband in 1889.
Perhaps more important was the effect of Olympic’s win on the Cup and football in general. Not only were they a northern club, but they were a working class team, and one that, outrageously, had taken a week off before the Final, training in Blackpool. The team was almost professional, and this was anathema to the FA. Over the decade, there would be instances throughout the Cup of clubs being disqualified – sometimes both teams in a tie – for professionalism (though this would hardly account for the disqualifications of Old Wykhamists and Old Harrovians from the Third Round in 1885/86).
This treatment fuelled resentment among the northern clubs and was a factor in the growing desire to set up an alternate competition free from FA interference that soon led to twelve north-western clubs agreeing to set up a League.
Blackburn Olympic never graced the Final again, but the rest of the decade belonged to Rovers. They would appear in five of the remaining eight finals of the decade, winning the Cup on every occasion, equalling Wanderers’ record of five Cups, and equalling Wanderers’ record of three successive trophies between 1884-86, plus a two in a row in 1890 and 1891.
The first two of their victories came against, of all clubs, Queens Park. The great amateurs had continued to enter the Cup and withdraw from it as soon as they were asked to actually play a tie, but all this changed in 1883/84, when the Scots suddenly decided to fulfil a tie, away to Crewe Alexandra, their first game since the goalless semi-final in the Cup’s inaugural season. They won 10-0.
Queens Park went on to beat Manchester FC (no relation to either Ardwick or Newton Heath LYR) 15-0 in the first cup tie played in Scotland, Oswestry Town 7-1, Aston Villa 6-1, Old Westminsters 1-0  and holders Blackburn Olympic 4-0 in the semi-finals. Having scored 43 goals en route to the Final, Queens Park looked to be favourites, but this was Blackburn’s decade, and Rovers beat them 2-1 at Kennington Oval.
Though there was considerable controversy over the result. It was suggested that the referee, Major Francis Marindan (the FA President who took charge of most of the Finals in this decade) had favoured the English side over a valid equaliser being disallowed. Marindan himself admitted the goal’s validity: the ball had been cleared from a goalline scrimmage after crossing the line but as no player had appealed for the goal – as in cricket, the referee could only intervene if an appeal was made – he had let play carry on!
That season had been the first in which 100 teams had applied to enter the competition, although the still-usual withdrawals meant only 97 actually played but the following year, the entrants and players topped 100 for the first time. Though there were still years to come where the numbers of entrants would dip, the line would never drop below three figures again.
The increased figures meant that a Sixth Round was required from the first time, though this was achieved by the farcical situation of having only one actual Fifth Round tie with the seven other participants getting byes. The era of semi-final byes was determinedly behind, and more care was being taken now over juggling numbers to produce orthodox rounds, but this ridiculous one-tie round was to be repeated over the next three seasons, although in future it would be transferred to the Fourth Round, where ties and byes would be unmercifully split to produce sixteen Fifth Round teams.
Each season, the number of actual ties would increase, but in 1887/88, there were still more byes (9) than ties (7).
The 1884/85 Final was a repeat of the previous year, save only for the score, Blackburn Rovers beating Queens Park 2-0. The Scots were not the first team to reach two Finals and lose, but as history would have it, this result made them the first of only three clubs to have reached more than a single Final without ever winning the trophy.
By now, disqualifications were on the increase, but there were also a slow but steady increase of void games. I don’t know what lay behind these decisions, or whether there was a common factor, but void games were replayed as if they had been draws, with the venue switching to that of the away team.
If you’ll forgive a personal note, virtually every home tie played by Hurst FC (forerunners of the present-day Ashton United, local rivals of Droylsden) was voided. This became farcical in 1885/86 when both their First Round and First Round Replays were declared void. Hirst won the Second Replay, only for their (home) Second Round tie to be declared void again. Perhaps understandably, they scratched from the replay.
Blackburn Rovers reached their third consecutive Final that season, meeting West Bromwich Albion in a goalless game. The West Brom captain’s refusal to agree extra-time meant a replay was required, for which the venue was the Racecourse Ground in Derby, home of Derbyshire County Cricket Club. It was the first Final to be held outside London, and Blackburn completed their hat trick, emulating Wanderers only eight years after their amazing achievement.
There was, under the terms of Wanderers’ stipulation on returning the Cup to the FA, no prospect of Blackburn being allowed to keep the trophy. The feat has never been achieved since. Indeed, the Cup is notoriously difficult to retain even once, so there have only been six instances (including the current Cup) since the Second World War where three-in-a-row has even been possible.
Queens Park’s success in England had been noted above the Border, and a couple of other successful Scottish teams had also applied to play in England. This reached a head in 1886/87, with no less than seven Scottish clubs, together with Ireland’s Cliftonville, applying for admission. Rangers – who progressed to the semi-final before losing to ultimate winners Aston Villa – Hearts and Partick Thistle were amongst the entrants, whilst Renton put out the three-time holders Blackburn Rovers in the Second Round on their own ground.. Ironically, Queens Park, the pioneers, were beaten in the First Round.
It was their last Cup tie. Perhaps alarmed at the precedent, the Scottish FA promptly banned its clubs from playing in English competitions. Though one Scottish team, the 93rd Highland Regiment, did appear in the 1890/91 First Round. Presumably, as a military side, they weren’t affiliated.
In 1887/88 Preston North End were the red hot favourites. So confident were they of victory – and quite reasonably so, given their path to the Final – the team asked to be photographed with the Cup before the Final. Major Francis Marindan refused, suggesting that they ought to win it first, which they failed to do. Even the West Brom team, appearing in their third consecutive Final, were stunned, having declined opportunities to bet on themselves. The Preston team explained it as being due to their having gone to watch the Boat Race – still by far the bigger event – before the game, and weakening themselves through cold and hunger.
The Cup changed irrevocably in 1888, with the foundation of the Football League. And not just the League: it’s less well known that the same season saw the founding of the rival Football Alliance, comprised of teams more oriented towards the northern Midlands, and of a lesser standard than the dozen who had banded together as the League. And it’s all but forgotten that a third league sprang into being at the same time, the Combination, comprised of smaller and weaker clubs still, although given that the Combination had no actual league structure nor any actual fixture lists enabling clubs to play each other home and away, and collapsed less than two-thirds of the way through the season, their absence in football’s memory is entirely understandable.
The Alliance would last four years and merged with the League as their Second Division: the Combination would reform in a better structured format but disappear completely after a twenty year run, leaving the League as the sole bastion of nationally operative football for a century.
But in recognition of the respective statuses of these sudden, multiple Leagues, the FA Cup restructured itself dramatically, creating Qualifying Rounds for those clubs of Alliance and Combination level, and those outside any League structure, with the League teams entering the Competition at the First Round proper: and with the Proper Rounds reduced to only three at this stage.
The Cup-Winners were Preston, who also won the inaugural Football League Championship, doing the first Double. They were undefeated in the League, and won the Cup without conceding a goal, which won them the nickname of ‘The Invincibles’. They had already contributed the Cup’s biggest victory, defeating Hyde 26-0 in the 1887/88 First Round. Since that season, only one team outside the Football League has ever won the Cup.
A total of 114 teams entered the Cup that year, a substantial drop for the second successive season. Professionalism had been legalised in 1895, though official amateurism would remain until 1970, and many of the public school teams and amateur clubs were ending their relationship with the competition. 92 teams entering the Qualifying Rounds were whittled down to 10 winners after four rounds, who then entered the Cup Proper with the 22 exempt teams. Byes still had their place, but they would never affect any of the Rounds Proper again. Just as professionalism had entered the playing of the game, a professional attitude was now changing the Cup into the shape with which we are familiar.
Among the qualifiers were the Irish side, Linfield Athetic, who reached the First Round Proper by beating their countrymen Cliftonville in a replay, the only FA Cup tie ever to take place on Christmas Day. Blackburn Rovers were back, beating The Wednesday by a record 6-1 margin in the Final (with William Townley becoming the first scorer of a Cup Final hat-trick), and going on to retain the Cup in the last competition of this second decade, beating Notts County 3-1, to equal Wanderers’ record of five wins.
That record would stand for a very long time, not being beaten until the first season of football after the First World War.
It had been Blackburn’s decade, with the town represented in seven of the decade’s Finals. But, just as Wanderers’ years of success had been fitted within a single decade, Blackburn’s glory would not extend beyond this ten year spell. But whilst their decade of success had swept away the golden years of the Victorian amateurs, the gentlemen players, the new era of the working class game was here to stay, and it would be over a century before that era would start to be dislodged. Professionalism was here, a League was here, and the ‘combination’ play of the working men (i.e., teamwork and passing) was pushing out the individual dribbling and scrimmage approach of the amateurs.
The FA Cup was now twenty years of age. It had become an established part of the game. It was on the road to becoming the most important sporting trophy in the country.

(all Finals played at Kennington Oval unless otherwise stated)

1881/82 Old Etonians 1 Blackburn Rovers 0
1882/83 Blackburn Olympic 2 Old Etonians 1 (aet)
1883/84 Blackburn Rovers 2 Queen’s Park 1
1884/85 Blackburn Rovers 2 Queen’s Park 0
1885/86 Blackburn Rovers 0 West Bromwich Albion 0 (WBA decline extra time)
R Blackburn Rovers 2 West Bromwich Albion 0 (Racecourse Ground, Derby)
1886/87 Aston Villa 2  West Bromwich Albion 0
1887/88 West Bromwich Albion 2 Preston North End 1
1888/89 Preston North End 3 Wolverhampton Wanderers 0
1889/90 Blackburn Rovers 6 The Wednesday 1
1890/91 Blackburn Rovers 3 Notts County 1

Unlike the first decade, there were ten teams contesting the Final in this era, but once again there were only six different winners, with one team winning five Cups and the other five one apiece. Blackburn Rovers, the Cup’s seventh winners, are the oldest winners still existence. Indeed, of the thirty-seven succeeding winners, only one other team has gone out of business. Of the losing sides, Wolves, Wednesday and Notts County would all come back to win the Cup, but for Queens Park the chance of escaping from their unfortunate position as two-time losers is forever denied to them: by the Scottish FA’s dictum, and by their ongoing status, 125 years later, as amateurs.

Bingeathon: The Barchester Chronicles -in memoriam Alan Rickman

Back in 1995, playwright, novelist and television dramatist Alan Plater gave a big interview to the Guardian on the Saturday that his new series, Oliver’s Travels, based on his fifth and final novel, began a five-part adaptation on BBC. He slated the production, detailing the many ways in which the producers and director had undermined, ignored or just mistreated the story. He made particular reference to the casting. The title part had been written for Tom Courtney but he hadn’t even been approached, the role instead being played by Alan Bate. The female lead was played by Sinead Cusack in her native Irish accent, although the point of the character was that she came from Northumberland, and her similarly Northumbrian son’s role was given to an actor with a pronounced Cockney accent.

Despite all that, I still watched the series, because it was Plater, because I enjoyed the novel. He was right, though. The series simply did nt work because – and I watched this pile up with fascinated horror as the weeks accumulated – not just the principal actors, but everybody, down to the shortest walk-on, line-saying role, was wrong.

It was stunning in its own way. How can you cast a prestigious Saturday night series and miscast absolutely everyone? Not a single actor fit their role.

And whilst I watched Oliver’s Travels drown in this fashion, I thought back to Plater’s own Beiderbecke Trilogy, and I realised for the first time that part of its beauty and charm was that it was one of the most perfectly cast series I’d ever seen. And it still is: there’s not a role on the series, down to the smallest, that isn’t played by someone who is the slightest bit out of step.

Which is by way of a lengthy prelude to today’s bingeathon, which I promised to myself last week, when the dreadful news of Alan Rickman’s death broke on us. Rickman’s first major role on screen was as the Reverend Obadiah Slope, in the BBC’s seven-part adaptation of the first two of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels, under the title, The Barchester Chronicles. Fittingly, the dramatisation was by Alan Plater, and it is the equal of The Beiderbecke Trilogy in being the most perfectly cast series I have ever seen.

The Barchester Chronicles was first broadcast in 1982. I remember hearing it being described as a story set amongst a feuding religious community, and deciding that was not for me. In 1989 or 1990, I can’t remember which, it was repeated on BBC2 on Tuesday nights at 9.00pm. I was newly in my first house and had taken a week off to decorate my lounge, starting with the back wall, which was the simplest – no wondows, doors or chimney breasts – but longest. After a day of videotapes, I had gotten surfeited with Last of the Summer Wine and was grimly pasting up the last sheet to something on BBC2. I was in mid-sheet when that finished and I overran into the next programme.

When I got to the screen, I immediately recognised the lovely Barbara Flynn and stopped to watch. Fifty minutes later I was hooked, and looking for the paper to check just what it was I’d been watching.

Plater’s dramatisation adapts The Warden and Barchester Towers. The first is a short novel, a ‘one-decker’ as it would have been termed on publication, taking as its theme a series of Church scandals exposed in the Press, of clergymen being paid excessive income for minimal duties administering charities, whilst the poor beneficiaries get almost nothing.

The Reverend Septimus Harding is the Warden of a Hospital caring for twelve old men. He has a lovely home for himself and his daughter Eleanor and a more than ample income. He was appointed by his lifelong friend, Bishop Grantley, whose son Theophilus, is both Archdeacon, and Harding’s son-in-law. Local Doctor John Bold, a reformist campaigner (and aspirant to Eleanor’s hand) uses the Law and the Press, in the shape of the Jupiter (i.e., the Times) to challenge the situation. Ultimately, by legal technicality, the Esatablished Church prevails, but Mr Harding, a simple and good man, resigns his Wardenship, having come to the moral belief that he is not entitled to riches from the Charity when the stipend for his old charges and friends has remained unchanged for 400 years.

The Warden takes up the first two episodes. The series stars Donald Pleasance as Mr Harding – playing against type as a gentle, somewhat unworldly, round-faced, cherubic old man, Pleasance being mainly known for playing villains – and Nigel Hawthorne as The Archdeacon. Pleasance is delightful throughout, the only true clergyman in the whole series, retreating, accepting, but still having enough of a will of his own to do what he sees as the right thing in the face of everybody else’s opinions, but Hawthorne (then still staring in Yes Minister) steals the shows, with his overdramatic gestures, his rages and furies, exasperations and desperations, and his oily, briliantly comic smoothness.

Hawthorne is in his element, overplaying his part to the finest degree. I find myself snorting with glee at nearly his every line and movement. It’s a theatrical performance – indeed, the whole series eschews naturalism – but it’s judged to be heightened theatricality, without ever once toppling over into self-parody, ridicule or camp.

There’s a fine array of second-line characters to support this pair over these first two episodes: David Gwillim as John Bold, realising the personal consequences of his principals, the lovely Janet Maw as Eleanor, overwrought at the attack on her beloved father from the man she loves, the aforementioned Barbara Flynn as John’s sister Mary, George Costigan as the Jupiter journalist, Tom Towers, and the blithely lisping Angela Pleasance (Donald’s daughter) as his other daughter Susan, Mrs Grantley.

Still and all, it’s when the adaptation moves on to Barchester Towers that the fun starts to soar. John Sutherland has argued that there is textual evidence that the book was originally planned as a direct sequel, of similar brevity, again focusing on Mr Hardin’s Wardenship, but instead the book expanded in length and cast, to great delight.

Bishop Grantley is dying, but unfortunately for his conflicted son, he outlasts the current Government, ending the Archdeacon’s chances of being appointed his successor. Instead, the new Prime Minister instals Bishop Proudie (Clive Swift). The Bishop is a weak-willed, temporising man, under the thumb of his very determined wife, Mrs Proudie (Geraldine McEwan) and preferring to delegate as much as he can to his private Chaplain, the Reverend Obadiah Slope (originally Slop), an ambitious young man under the patronage of Mrs Proudie. This is, of course, Alan Rickman.

Though this is not emphasised in book or series, the Proudies are Low Church, seeking to establish themselves and their doctrines in a City and Diocese that has thus far been very High Church. Indeed, Mrs Proudie and Mr Slope are very quickly seen as enemies, and it is the interweaving schemes, oppositions and manoeuvres of the opposing factions, and their sheer energy for each other’s destruction that plays out for the rest of the story.

And that’s not all. At his wife’s insistence, Bishop Proudie summons the Canon-in-Residence, Doctor Vesey Stanhope, and family, back from Lake Como, Italy, which has been his actual residence for the last twelve tears (he originally left for his health: a persistent sore throat). This brings back the Stanhope children: the forever laughing, amoral Charlotte, the irresponsible, impecunious, hopeless Bertie (played with great gusto by Peter Blythe, otherwise best known for his ‘Soapy’ Sam Ballard, the new – and preaching – Head of Chambers in Rumpole) and the beautiful but crippled Signora Madeleine Vesey Neroni (played as a manipulative schemer by the still decidedly beautiful Susan Hampshire).

At a stroke, the cast trebles, and the number of heavyweights doubles, or at least so you’d think. McEwan and Hampshire, added to Pleasance and Hawthorne? But that is to fail to reckon with Rickman, a young actor in comparison, an unknown to the television public, but he effortlessly holds his own, and frequently does so much more that his seniors, stealing scenes with no effort, even scenes when he has three or four other actors, playing to the hilt around him.

McEwan is monstrously good. She, like Hawthorne, adopts an entirely theatrical approach, but instead of his extravagant gestures and expostulations, McEwan adopts a gravelly monotone, rising in intensity but not pitch. She’s a monster, and it’s her own husband who is her victim, but she is at all times convinced in the absolute rectitude of her every thought, word and deed. Her scenes opposite Hawthorne are awesome.

As Mcewan’s foil, Clive Swift puts in a masterclass of subjugation. Compared with McEwan or Rickman, he gets the worst of it for lines, especially in scenes featuring these three alone, but he is epic in his expressions as the camera passes him, or catches him in the background. He may be the stooge, but you feel every moment of his despair at never getting any peace.

The plot is incredibly complex, and incorporates separate but simultaneous attempts to get the widowed and wealthy Mrs Bold (Eleanor is deprived of her husband in between episodes, and gets a bouncing big baby as an exchange, plus a heavy dose of unflattering widow’s weeds, which also do their best to make Barbara Flynn look unattractive). The dissolute Bertie cannot do anything to pretend that his intentions are other than purely mercenary, but it is the importunate Mr Slope who presses his suit so far as to prompt Eleanor to slap him round the ear.

Rickman is just so good at Slope that whenever he is onscreen, you expect to find pools of slime leaking out of the DVD Player. His casting was certainly against the character’s appearance in the novel, where he is red-headed and physically unprepossessing: Rickman is allowed to be his real self, tall, dark-haired, handsome, a very clever decision that justifies his being able to persuade the ladies he pursues – the Signora after he sees her, Mrs Bold after he learns she is wealthy – to tolerate him long enough for him to worm his way into their lives.

Rickman, like McEwan, restricts his range. He is slow and deliberate, with little bursts of urgent progress, a strutting walk. He reacts carefully to things, often moving only his eyes until he has absorbed the new information. He is an out-and-out slimeball, but Rickman makes him both obvious and plausible in this trait. He can’t take the audience in, and he isn’t trying to, but you can see him, in the more stratified and socially hidebound society of the mid-Nineteenth Century, taking other people in.

There’s just so much to enjoy throughout this series. We see another side of the Archdeacon once he becomes an ally of Mr Harding, as opposed to an adversary, and Pleasance is kept busy with responsive lines to Hawthorne’s outbursts which are sitcom funny but which he delivers without a trace of laughter (I am still unable to decide if he is making pointed jokes or innocent replies, which is another facet to Pleasance’s performance that  delights).

To someone attuned to the wit of this adaptation, without it ever once trying to be funny, The Barchester Chronicles is incredibly funny, and the performances throughout are magnificent. The casting is perfect, but it is Alan Rickman who steals the show, every bit as good and better than star actors, theatrical legends, who ought to blow him out of the water, but instead accept him as an equal. He already was their equal. And he became himself a legend.

And I’ve loved every minute of the seven hours today I’ve spent remembering and mourning Alan Rickman.

Deep Space Nine: s01e15 – ‘Progress’

Ahh, those shoulders

After last week’s rather excellent episode, this one crashed and burned for me almost from the outset. With the exception of one single moment, I found ‘Progress’ to be the worst episode of the season.

As with the previous episode, the script again goes for two unrelated stories, both set up by the open. In the first, Nog has accidentally allowed through a shipment of Yammock sauce, a Cardassian delicacy that no-one else eats. Quark berates his brother, threatening to dock half his salary for six years to pay it off. Nog, overhearing with Jake, sees a business opportunity. My heart sank into my boots.

In the other half of the open, we learn that Bajor is to tap the molten core of one of its moons to heat hundreds of thousands of people on the planet. Major Kira, supervising the process, goes out with Dax on a routine inspection but finds overlooked lifeforms on the moon. Beaming down, she arrives in an idyllic mini-farm, and is welcomed with home-made pitchforks. My heart, already suspicious, stayed at boot level.

Let’s get Nog  and Jake over with quickly. It’s going to be a comedy story, that’s obvious, and it was a painfully unfunny one with an obvious ending that I could have written down without watching any of the rest of the episode. The boys can’t sell the sauce for gold-pressed latinum, but they can trade it for something else. Their hapless naivete ought to lead to their being ripped off right royally – blimey, they’re so bloody awful at this, it would be a positive duty to cheat them, let alone a blatant flying in the face of human nature.

In the end, of course, they wind up with some unspecified land that only happens to be incredibly valuable to the Bajoran government, so they sell it to Quark for their latinum. Predictable as hell, with not a single original idea to it.

Major Kira’s part of the story should have been much better, being the serious bit, but that too suffered from having nothing new to it. It also suffered from Brian Keith, the veteran actor, as Mulibok, the farmer who’d fled here forty years ago, made a home against the odds and wasn’t going to move, even though staying was suicide.

I say suffered because Keith tried to play the role as a combination of crankiness and twinklingness and both sides were cliched. Frankly, its a stale idea to beegin with, even when its infused with portentous (and carefully unanswered) questions about the price of Progress. But the title was misleading in  that sense, since that aspect (the good natural life versus the technological future) was ignored and the writers settled for making Mulibok into a self-deluding, garrulous bore who was determined to pretend reality wasn’t happening.

This approach made it all too implausible that the Major should start to care for him, and stay on the moon to look after him, in defiance of her orders. Supposedly, she recognised herself in his ‘splendid’ defiance of impossible odds, just as the Bajoran rebels had ultimately prevailed against the Cardassians. The problem was that this time the odds were impossible, but nobody ever had the decency to admit that.

Ultimately, it took Sisko beaming down to get the Major to see that (after some patronising sneeriness from Mulibok, demonstrating again that you can’t really make yourself into Mr Grandfatherly Nice when you’re being shittily patronising about and to the young woman on your side.

Sisko made one of the very few good points in the entire episode, in a continuation of the process started much more successfully in ‘Battle Lines’, two episodes back. Kira has spent her life as a rebel. She identifies with the underdog because until now she has always been the underdog herself. It gave her a certain freedom to act in defiance of rules, of structure. But she doesn’t have that freedom any more. She’s crossed the line, she is the overdog now, and for the sake of her career, she has to learn how to be that.

Sisko’s pep talk, and his faith in her working things out for herself, led to the endgame. For most of this sequence, Kira – who has allowed Mulibok to call her by her given name, Nerys – has symbolised her rebellion by stripping off her uniform tunic. She is still, regrettably, fully-clad, but her undertop is sleeveless and what she’s wearing is pretty form-fitting from top to bottom, and I at least was admiring the view.

Now she puts her uniform back on and packs Mulibok’s bags for him. Stubbornly, he still refuses: whilst his cottage stands, it is his home. So, surprisingly, Kira uses her phaser to blast apart the kiln, from which she lights a brand that, coolly, unhurriedly, she uses to burn the cottage down. Mulibok tries one last stall, asking her to use the phaser to kill him, but she refuses, insisting he will live, and beams them away.

But those two intriguing moments were way too little to rescue a cheap and hollow episode. Let’s hope that worst so far turns out to be worst of the season.

Sentenced to Life

There’s already been too much death this year, both public and private. On Thursday, I will be attending the funeral of the mother of one of my closest friends. He came to my mother’s funeral, twenty-four years ago, at this same time of year, and I will be the only one of this little circle of friends who can stand with him.

Unless there’s going to be more luck in this year than I dream possible, there’s going to be more deaths, more mournings. Not among the people I know, nor their loved ones, that much may be hoped for, but there will be people out there, in the wider world who, like Bowie and Rickman, aye and Lemmy, though I was never into his music, will leave the world less palatable than it’s sometimes been.

One of those names I expect will be Clive James. I remember him from as far back as Granada’s Cinema, back in 1973. I remember him from the lyrics to Pete Atkin’s songs, from the collections of television criticism, from the novels, the essays, the memoirs, the wit, the wisdom, the overt cleverness and the sentence that glitters and dances, over and over again.

Today, courtesy of e-Bay, a copy of his most recent poetry collection, Sentenced to Life, has arrived through my door, and I’ve wrestled the package open and I’ve begun to read, and I’ve stopped reading after only a handful of pages, because these poems have the same thing at the heart of them, because James is looking back and into himself with every line. Loss and regret and yet the determination still to say things, say things in a way no-one else has or ever could. How the memory of the Sydney sun on the bay still burns in his mind, rendering it unnecessary to rue that he will never see it again with his eyes.

I’ve had to stop because I don’t dare hope that Clive James may yet prove to be quasi-immortal, and that there might still be more, that the loneliness of losing the people you respect, you admire, that you take knowledge from might still be postponed throughout the entirety of 2016. It’s already got too many good ones, is there any chance it will hold back and we’ll get to hang on to this one a time longer.

It’s going to take me all week to read a slim book, because I can’t read it all at once, or more than just short fragments that lead me into too much empathy, too quickly. I have a real funeral, for someone I know, to attend. I donn’t think I can afford to be too prepared.


It’s not a Nelson, but…

Until I reached 1,000 posts on this blog, I had a private ritual of counting in Nelsons, i.e., the cricket measure of multiples of 111. That’s no longer possible, but I can’t forbear mentioning that the previous post is the next best equivalent: that was post no. 1,111.

Assuming I ever get there, I might bring this up again around post no. 2,222…

A Matter of Film and Glory: The Archers – Honourable Mention – The Red Shoes

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.

But for one thing, The Red Shoes would definitely be in my top 5 of Powell and Pressburger films, and that single factor is ignorance: my ignorance of the central subject of this superb film: ballet.
The Red Shoes appeared in 1948, although it was a re-write of a script Pressburger had produced several years earlier, for film Director Alexander Korda, as a vehicle for his wife, Merle Oberon. When the Archers decided to produce the film themselves, it was re-worked and re-oriented more strongly as a ballet film, and in order to fulfil the purpose of the story, Powell and Pressburger cast their production using dancers who could act but who, more importantly, could dance the many scenes of performance, and  especially the ‘Red Shoes Ballet’ that is at the heart of the film.
The film itself stars Archers’ regular Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring and, taking a leading role in her first film, ballerina Moira Shearer.
As most of the Archers’ films will be unfamiliar to a modern audience, I will be including more extensive synopses than usual.
The film opens at Covent Garden on the opening night of a new ballet produced by the Ballet Lermontov, ‘Heart of Fire’, music written by Professor Palmer. Among the crowd of students eager to get good seats is Palmer’s student, Julian Craster (Goring), but he is rapidly disappointed, and infuriated, to realise that much of the music has been stolen from his own compositions. He writes an angry letter to the Director, Boris Lermontov, complaining.
Lermontov (Walbrook) has already been importuned to attend a party by the influential arts patron Lady Neston. He is offended to learn that it is intended as a secret audition for his hostess’s niece, Victoria ‘Vicky’ Page. The dance is cancelled, but Lermontov accidentally encounters Vicky (Shearer) and is sufficiently impressed by her determined attitude to dance, striking a chord with his own, that he offers her a place in his company.
The following morning, he is approached at breakfast by Julian, embarrassedly trying to retrieve his letter. Lermontov returns it for burning, but has already read it. He offers Julian a post as orchestral coach.
The first part of the film is about the work of the ballet company, about the fabulous Lermontov (said to be based on Diaghilev, with aspects of J. Arthur Rank and of Michael Powell too). Vicky and Julian are clearly talented, but they are well down the pecking order, despite their ambitions, and both have to be stepped on at first.
Nevertheless, hard work, dedication and ability sees them gain respect. Julian’s chance comes first, when he is asked to write a score for the Red Shoes Ballet, based on Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy-tale. When Lermontov’s prima ballerina, Irina, announces she is to marry, Lermontov scorns her for preferring human emotion to the purity of her art, and sacrificing her future. Vicky is chosen as the lead for the Red Shoes Ballet.
She and Julian clash several times over the music, but the Ballet is a massive success and, almost inevitably the pair end up falling in love.
This disturbs Lermontov. Several interpretations of the film suggest that he has begun to fall in love with Vicky himself, but I don’t see that in the performance. To me, he is angered by what he sees as the inevitable loss of Vicky’s future as a Great ballerina, being thrown away on an emotion he despises.
Either way, Lermontov suddenly criticises Julian’s latest work, in clearly untrue terms. Julian leaves and, after an unsuccessful ultimatum over his reinstatement, Vicky follows him. The pair marry in London. At first, Lermontov seeks to callously crush her career, but cannot bring himself to harm a dancer of such promise.
However, he looks for the chance to win her back for the company and, when Vicky comes to the South of France on holiday with her aunt, allowing Julian to complete his first Opera, Lermontov tempts her back to dance in a revival of The Red Shoes Ballet.
On opening night, Julian deserts the opening night of his Opera, which he was due to conduct, to come to France to ask Vicky to return with him. Lermontov openly wars with him over Vicky’s future whilst she, torn both ways, cannot decide. Julian takes her inability to choose him as defeat and leaves. Lermontov openly crows. It’s time for Vicky to start her performance but, almost beyond her will, the red ballet shoes draw her back.
She runs out of the Theatre, across the road, and throws herself from a balcony, just as a train pulls into the station. Julian, racing hopelessly to save her, cradles her battered and bloody body and, at her final request, unlaces and removes the Red Shoes.
On the stage, a broken Lermontov announces that Vicky cannot dance tonight, or any other night. In tribute, the ballet goes ahead without her, the rest of the cast dancing around a spotlight, signifying her absence.

Moira Shearer and Anton Walbrook

As I said, it’s purely my ignorance of – and for the most part, lack of appreciation for – ballet that leads me to make this only an Honourable Mention. I find the prolonged baller sequence in the centre of the film to be fascinating, but I have nothing on which to judge it, and whilst it retains my interest throughout each time, it would not need to be very much longer before it would start to be too long for me.
Equally, I find the behind the scenes sequences engaging: Lermontov and his team of experts – his principal male dancer, his choreographer/director, his orchestra leader, his costume/set-designer – are all flamboyant, artistic types, but I have nothing against which to judge the theatricality with which they conduct themselves. Ballet, and its world, is presented as larger than life, even in its most hard-working details.
One thing of which I am certain is that such a film could not be made today. There would be too much ballet, too much High Art for any contemporary audience. And the film would be filled with actors who could be trained to demonstrate certain skills in short sequences, that is, if CGI were not employed. The Archers had the courage to go to experts and let them act, and it was a very effective idea.
Of the three principals, Anton Walbrook was already an established star, a wonderfully smooth, authoritative actor with a tremendous range, and he is brilliant. Marius Goring was also an established actor, with nearly a decade of films behind him – including two Archers’ productions – and he is equally excellent. Moira Shearer was, in comparison, a novice, and its to her credit that she puts in as good a performance as she does.
It has to be accepted that her range is relatively limited, and sensibly the film doesn’t ask her to play outside that range. She’s mostly cool, calm, collected, appropriately so for someone with an aristocratic background. Shearer is an oasis compared to her co-stars, and it’s significant that the only time she has to move beyond her quietness is in the concluding scene, when Lermontov and Julian war over her. Shearer is reduced to tears, unable to speak, and instead of her voice, Shearer acts the role bodily, her crumpled face, her helpless, inelegant, indeed cramped pose a complete contrast to her appearance in every other scene.
Elsewhere in the film, what Shearer can’t do with her personality and range, she achieves bodily. She was an extraordinarily beautiful woman, with long, flaming red hair that attracts the eye in every scene. She’s tall, with a slim body and gorgeous legs, and of course she’s trained in the use of her body, as a dancer, and she brings that physical presence into her character.
It also helps that the film is shot in the highest quality of Technicolour, with brilliant, glowing colours, none more so than Vicky’s hair. Martin Scorsese, a lifelong fan of the Archers, has nominated The Red Shoes as one of the two most superbly coloured films ever made.
There should be mentioned that there is a conscious plot discrepancy in the film’s ending. The climactic scene between Vicky, Julian and Lermontov takes place in Vicky’s dressing room, before she is due on stage. She wears white ballet shoes: not until the Ballet is is progress does she don the Red Shoes, on stage. But as her dresser helps her towards the stage, Vicky now has on the Red Shoes, and it is they who, seemingly, dance her away to her death.
Powell and Pressburger knew of the error and retained it. It has artistic continuity, and it lends an element of mystery to the ending, with the audience unsure as to whether Vicky’s dying fall is of her own, tortured making, or if at the last the Red Shoes have taken control in life, as well as Art.
However you read this ending, The Red Shoes is not a film to miss, even if you have no time for ballet. It is rightly regarded as a classic. And if this only gets an Honourable Mention, just imagine what the other films are likely to be.

Alfred Bester – a Driver of Tigers: The Short Fiction

Though I’m primarily surveying Alfred Bester’s career through his novels, it’s impossible to divorce him from the short stories, the novelettes and novellas by which he became famous, and which still provide some of the highlights of his career, especially in the Fifties.
There’s no one collection of short fiction that I can point to as a recommendation: my own collection involves four books, with a degree of overlap between them.
Bester started out in the Forties and left one still-vivid, still-memorable story from that period before being swept, by former SF agents Mort Weisinger and Julius Schwartz, into writing comics. This was ‘Adam and No Eve’, an early example of Bester’s urge to bust the many cliches of SF. Bester’s tale takes on the Adam and Eve cliché, which even then was played out, and explodes it scientifically by demonstrating that the utter destruction of the planet Earth, leaving only one, pretty badly-damaged human being, is nevertheless enough to ensure the survival of life (if you’re prepared to wait long enough). You only have to return to the sea.
From comics, Bester was drawn into radio, and later TV scripting by his actress wife, but his frustration at the restrictions placed on certain types of stories led him back to the freedom of SF in the early Fifties. This would prove to be his golden age.
Of particular note are the stories ‘Time is the Traitor’, ‘Oddy and Id’, ‘Fondly Fahrenheit’ and ‘The Men who murdered Mohammed’.
All of these, in their differing ways, reflect Bester’s obsession with compulsives, as we’ve already seen in The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination. It’s there, to one degree or another, in all his fiction, together with the urge to undermine tropes and cliches.
The theme is at its most open in ‘Oddy and Id’, where it’s the key to the denouement. The story is about a monster, named Odysseus Gaul. He’s described from the outset as a monster, but what he looks like is  a handsome, All-American college boy of no great talents. Not openly. But things work out for him. Everything he tries, succeeds. Everything he wants comes off for him. Everybody likes him. A trio of College Professors discern that Oddy has a bizarre ability: on a subconscious level, his wishes alter the world to give him everything he wants, no matter how improbable the chain of events necessary to bring this about. They see him as the answer to the world, the benefits he can produce if properly directed. But they don’t take into account Oddy’s Id…
Compulsion is also the word for John Strapp in ‘Time is the Traitor’, and the same goes for his friend, Frankie Alceste. Strapp makes Decisions, great big, rich, infallible Decisions, and Frankie makes friends. Both are driven, in their separate ways, both love the same girl. But Strapp can’t penetrate the cloak of his own hysteria because he is driven by the past, not the present.
On the other hand, ‘Fondly Fahrenheit’ is a chilling take of a boy and his android, a master and his slave. It’s a chilling, horrific story, at the centre of which is a dancing robot, outlined by furnace heat. It’s about murder, and compulsion, and the transference of them between beings. All reet, all reet, be fleet and jeet. But who is the slave of whom?
Last of this quartet, ‘The Men who Murdered Mohammed’ might be also said to be a tale of compulsion, but here that’s merely a function supporting the comic development of Bester’s principal theme. This is another of Bester’s stories that has fun with tropes, in this instance Time Travel. It’s about a mad scientist, and revenge, and the cliché of going back in time to kill your grandfather, and why it’s never going to work. It runs like an electric train and, beneath the inherent absurdity, it has a serious point to be made.
These stories are all short stories as would be defined by the Hugo or Nebula Awards. Bester did, however, write at greater length, and I’d like to take three examples of this and look at them in a little more detail.
‘They don’t make life like they used to’ actually dates from 1963 and is the latest of all the stories I’m referring to. By this time, Bester had severed his links with the SF field, making sure of this by a number of caustic to the point of being offensive reviews and columns, but there is no mistaking the quality of this late contribution.
It’s an Adam and Eve story, of a sort, set in a crumbling, deserted, post-Apocalyptic New York. Two unlikely, unworldly, unthinking characters, one female, one male, have survived a nuclear war that from the beginning we understand has destroyed the whole human race. Except for this implausible pair.
Because though Linda Neilson and Jim Mayo may well be the last humans alive, the duo are completely oblivious to the reality of their situation. Linda’s living the life of her dreams, taking over luxurious living accommodation, filling her home with objets d’art, fine furnishings, fine food and drink, and an ever-expanding wardrobe. But she’s an honest girl: whatever she takes, no matter how expensive, she leaves an IOU.
Things start when she meets Jim by almost knocking him down on Fifth Avenue. The two don’t recognise the fortuitous nature of the last two humans bumping into each other. Jim’s on his way south and isn’t interested in stopping, even though Linda, a buxom, Scandinavian-type blonde, is currently naked and completely unselfconscious about it.
Because Jim’s a man’s man, with no time for girly-girls who get sozzled and run up tabs they can’t hope to pay off. He’s been living in a bar with a fellow male survivor who’s been running a private TV station for him. Of course, any time Jim sees a show he doesn’t like, he blasts the TV with his shotgun. His friend insists he has to put on these other programmes, to balance out the demographic, even though Jim’s the only one watching.
When he runs out of TV sets to blast, Jim blasts his friend instead. Now the shows don’t come on at all, and Jim is looking for someone to fix his TV again.
You get the picture. Call them a pair of kooks, but they’re the sole hope for reconstructing the human race and not only do they have not a thing in common but they can walk around naked in front of each other without provoking a response or even understanding that there is a response to be provoked.
Only when a serious danger asserts itself, when the new masters of Earth close in, do this unlikely pair begin to apprehend they are man and woman, and need to resolve to fight together for their survival. But it is in that moment that maturity strikes, and when it strikes it is sobering and frightful and final.
Perhaps my favourite of Bester’s short fiction in ‘The Pi Man’. I have two versions of this, virtually identical: Bester re-wrote the story after publication, changing the name of the protagonist, changing the setting from London to New York and removing a couple of what he saw as crudities. I prefer the original version, precisely for its rawer edge.
It’s another story about compulsion, only this is a strange, bizarre and, once we begin to get a grasp on what it means to be driven by this compulsion, a horrifying story.
Whether as Abraham Storm or Peter Marko, the Pi Man is driven by patterns. Life is composed of patterns, some of them simple and self-evident – day/night, four seasons – but underneath these patterns there are others, strange patterns, inconceivable ones, patterns that operate in complex rhythms. The Pi Man senses these and is forced to act to balance out such patterns, no matter the cost to himself. Or to others about him.
He can have neither friendship nor love, because of the fear of what may be demanded to balance out those patterns.
Inevitably, the story is a pursuit, two pursuits. One is by Law Enforcement, suspecting a spy, a double agent, needing to know why Storm/Marko acts as he does, the meaning of the broadcasts that give him momentary relief by scrambling patterns. The other is a woman who, despite everything he does to force her away, insists upon being part of his life.
Her will is even greater than his in this instance. She knows who he is, she knows what love has made him do, she knows what might be her fate, yet she places her trust in love. Both The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination end in profound statements of faith in love, in human beings, in what lies inside them. No such ending is given in this story, no such faith can be professed. The girl knows what that means, and her acceptance is both touching and chilling.
This is one story where I am under no urge to find out what happened after.
I’ve left till last that miniature novel of the twin names: ‘5,721,009’ or ‘The Star-Comber’. Bester explained that it was written on request, a plea to write a story around a magazine cover (a popular tactic in the Fifties and, in comics, on into the Sixties). The cover Bester was sent showed a space-helmeted convict, prison no. 5721009, chained to the wall of a cell blown into space. Bester found it impossible to take seriously, an horrendously putrid, stale cliché that no serious story could be made of, but that was the key to his inspiration.
Bester produced a crackling, fast-paced, ingenious story that immersed itself in cliches, that dug and dug to find them, to rip apart the adolescent nature, the self-aggrandising form of these wishes and aspirations. He put them in the mind of an artist, confined to an asylum, he torched them through the means of the tall, gaunt, sprightly in manner, bitter in expression Mr Solon Aquila, with his multi-tongue expostulations and his unexpected background. Bester takes the piss out of, and a gigantic piss over SF’s childish soul and how anything got written again is a marvel to behold.
To be honest, it’s hard to see by how much this story could have been expanded. It’s virtue is it’s brevity, and the ideas raked to hell are so flimsy as to have been unbearable at greater length. Nor could the fire burn so hotly over a greater distance. But ‘The Star-Comber’, which was Bester’s preference, covers a lot of territory and bridges tremendous depths.
By the way, if your copy of it ends on a line incorporating the number 5,721,010, have respect for the long-gone author, and erase it, mentally if not physically. Bester never liked to explain too much.
This doesn’t represent all of Bester’s short fiction, but this for me is the cream. A prolonged look is however recommended.

Imaginary Albums: Lost 70s Volume 4

Lost 70s Volume 4 consists of 19 tracks, making it the second shortest of the series. I dropped all idea of chronological progression after volume 3, going for a mixture of time and sound and feel that incorporated a number of long tracks and a profusion of instrumentals in the first half of the set. There are two Top 10 and two Top 20 hits in this compilation, and whilst it stretches, like its immediate predecessor, all the way to the end of the decade, the choices from that end of the Seventies aren’t necessarily what you would expect from me.

This is not the original version of the compilation. After getting very sloppy in curation and including a number of tracks several times on different volumes, not to mention including too many tracks by the same artist that would be better grouped, I re-burnt the entire series, filling in spaces with tracks that had not been available when the original compilation was created.

Hearts in her Eyes: The Searchers

If there’s one record in this whole series that I would put forward as having absolutely everything going right with it, it would be this Searchers song from 1979. It should have been absolutely massive, it should have been on the radio every single day, it should have led to a major new lease of life for the band. It’s a belting tune, performed in the traditional Searchers style, only bigger, brighter, stronger, deeper, richer in every respect, a classic modern pop song with a compelling melody, by a working back of twenty years standing with consummate professionalism. And I have never ever heard this track on the radio, to this day: it came and went in 1979 without me knowing it existed, and I only heard it when I bought it second hand, for a few pence, on a friend’s recommendation. Typical Radio 1: the Shadows reform, prostituting their sound with weak, tinny, feeble productions of inadequate material and get played to death, the Searchers build on their traditional sound with contemporary high grade songs, and even someone like me doesn’t know they exist. If you like this, there’s two whole albums worth of the Searchers in this vein. If you don’t like this, what am I doing talking to you in the first place?

Starry Eyes: The Records

‘Hearts in her Eyes’ was written by Will Birch and John Wicks of the Kursall Flyers, who went on to form The Records, the definitive power pop band. This is the real thing. ‘Starry Eyes’, which I heard before the Searchers, came out at the end of 1979: clear-eyed jangling pop, a stream-lined, fluid sound, superb harmonies and a wonderful story-line about a guy being pursued by a celeb who won’t let him say no. A re-recorded version of this track was the lead track on the band’s second album, full of great songs that had the guts ripped out of them by thin, weak, feeble production that has you longing for the Searchers to re-record the whole album. At least the single version plays to the Records’ strengths.

Jerusalem: Springwater

Phil Cordell’s long-overdue follow-up to ‘I Will Return’ didn’t appear until mid-1972. The ‘Jerusalem’ of the title is William’s Blake’s classic working-class poem turned anthem and the mixture of instrumentation is the same, except that instead of the guitar being sweet and yearning, here it’s rough and rumbling, a tauter, more attacking style that attracted no-one but people like me. I don’t know if there was a connection, but at the end of the year, Emerson, Lake and Palmer were issuing a vocal version of this track as a single. Yes, that’s right, a single. Compared to Springwater’s gloriously simple version, it was rubbish.

This track is not available on YouTube

Maid in Heaven: Bebop de Luxe

I never knew what to make of this bunch. I have a mate who’s a long-term fan of Bill Nelson, but this and the ‘hit’ single ‘Ships in the Night’, also from 1976, were the only tracks I liked. ‘Maid in Heaven’ is, for me, the better track, full of slashing guitar and a sense of attack that propels the song along. It’s a bit of a stop-start effort, with Nelson never liking to settle into a groove for any length of time. That’s a common characteristic among bands that liked to think of themselves as being a bit above pure commerciality. This is a good song, but there’s an even better one inside it, being held back.

Lady Samantha: Elton John

Another of those songs from the very early Seventies that I heard a few times, enough to recall some of the tune, but not the singer. It turned out to be Elton John, trying to break through. That would come in January 1971, with ‘Your Song’, which is a whole different order of things. This is a whiplash of a song, with a vicious edge and a scream in Reg’s voice. Lady Samantha prowls alone, no-one comes near her, they live in fear of her. The song never quite makes out why, though the way the good lady is described, you’d be checking her teeth for pointy bits. There’s a drive to this and an individuality that makes me wonder, if Elton had broken through with this, where would it have taken him that his ultra sensitive ballad led him away from? Something’s wrong with the timeline as the single was actually released in January 1969, but I wasn’t listening to pop that far back…–r59o

He’s gonna step on you again: John Kongos

It’s maybe pushing it to call this top 4 smash from 1971 a ‘Lost’ track, but ever since Happy Monday ripped the song to pieces and put it back together in an entirely different shape, the John Kongos original has drifted completely out of consciousness. The original is more of a driving sound, percussion heavy, built on a thunderous beat that betrays Kongos’s African origins (it amused me at the time to discover that it was exactly the same beat as my mother’s old-fashioned, churning washing machine). Rhythm and slashing guitars, vocals mixed low, fade in and fade out that suggests a continuum in which the music plays on and in which we’ve just joined in for a few minutes.

Pilgrim’s Progress: Greenslade

I rarely watched ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ (which, despite its derivation, is still one of the worst names for any programme ever, not just a music show). Mostly, this was down to my mother monopolising her television set, but equal time should be given to my general lack of interest in the bands and artists they featured. So why I was watching the night Greenslade did a couple of numbers from their new album, ‘Bedside Manners were Extra’, I’ve no idea. Greenslade were a four piece progressive outfit, a kind of junior league ELP: two banks of keyboards, bass and drums. They played the title track, preceded by this smooth, swooping, seven minute instrumental, which caught my fancy on the spot. Not long after, I was lucky to tape a ‘Sounds of the Seventies’ session of these two tracks and the other song off side one. I loved it so much, I bought the album – only to discover that the production was awful, the songs sounded screechy and thin and even the melody of this track sounded wrong. Side two was even worse. Thankfully I got the record shop to take it back and allow me to swap it for something better. Sometime during the intervening years, they obviously recorded a better version…

Amazing Grace: Springwater

‘Amazing Grace’ was the b-side of ‘Jerusalem’ and it’s the same formula as the a-side, only with extra drive from the drums. There had already been two very big hit versions of this hymn, one a cappella by Judy Collins, one instrumental (and an unlikely and unwanted five week number 1) from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, but this was better than both of them and made me like the song again.

Burundi Black (Part 2): Tambours Ingoma Tribe of Burundi

You won’t be expecting this. The A-side is the side everybody knows, the single that’s been issued and re-issued half a dozen times (once with additional drums from Rusty Egan, as if it needed that). It’s the sound that Adam and the Ants ripped off so thoroughly and successfully. Its first time round, in late 1970/early 1971, gave the song its biggest chance, a 13 week chart run that spent all its time between 50 and 31. Radio 1’s Chart Show, on Sundays from 5.00 – 7.00, was Alan Freeman’s ‘Pick of the Pops’, in which he’d play the Top Twenty in full from about 5.45 onwards, and before that new entries and songs bubbling under. I used to listen religiously. Over that three months in the charts, he played ‘Burundi Black’ only once: and then he played this side, as if he was trying to torpedo the single’s chances of that final breakthrough. This is the original Burundi drummers, without any of Mike Steiphenson’s array of keyboards on top. It’s incredibly different.

Mr Soft: Cockney Rebel

The band’s third single and second hit. It’s a surprisingly simple song, with some plonky plonky piano and wobbly guitar backing Harley’s affected vocals. It was a great favourite of mine at the time, and it’s my pick of all the Cockney Rebel singles. Apart from that, I haven’t really got much to say about it, sorry. Even I slipped up sometimes and liked things that were popular with others.

Can we still be friends?: Todd Rundgren

‘Can we still be friends?’ received nothing like the attention that ‘I saw the Light’ got. It’s a slower, more gentle song, wistful and delicate, about a man who sees his relationship with his girl breaking down but wants to preserve something of that, as friends. It’s a game of logic versus emotion, and you know which is going to win, and so does Rundgren in his heart and his voice, but he’s holding on in the prayer that the Universe can be overturned and they can survive, and hope will for once win out over experience.

Is that the way?: Tin Tin

A belated follow up to ‘Toast and Marmalade for Tea’, aping the previous record’s sound successfully enough to get a similar amount of airplay, and a ‘Top of the Pops’ appearance that was a bust because the distorted piano effect couldn’t be duplicated in studio time. It got the same indifference from the public too. After that, the band drifted back into obscurity.

Anthem (One Day in every Week): The New Seekers

I have always striven to keep an open mind. No matter how bad a band may be, the possibility remains that they might make a good record, or at least one that appeals to me, and I have risked my musical credibility on a number of occasions by admitting to liking such things. But you’ve got to admit that appreciating a New Seekers song is going out on a serious limb! This isn’t the New Seekers that were such a horror in the early Seventies, neither in personnel or sound. ‘Anthem’ was the last time they troubled chart statisticians, a primarily a capella number, built on a ‘bom-bom’ rhythm. The song is very conservative in topic: a girl from what I always imagine as being a good county family works all week in London, independent and modern, but always returns to Mummy and Daddy, and the rest of the family, on Sundays, to refresh herself. It’s still very good vocals, no matter who it’s by.

Also Sprach Zarathustra: The Portsmouth Sinfonia

As I understood it, the Portsmouth Sinfonia was a project that put musical instruments into the hands of ordinary, untrained people, and invited them to make classical music. In later years, I have seen them explained as actual classically trained orchestra members playing each other’s instruments without training. Listening to this mercifully short piece of music, the only thing by the Sinfonia I have ever (thankfully) heard, I favour the first explanation. This is recognisable for what it is, that much you can say for it, but it is a discordant row that is physically painful to the ears. Why have I preserved it? Why do I play it? Fucked if I know, but if you gave me a go at this, I surely could not sound worse.

Sheep: Pink Floyd

To me, there are two Pink Floyds. There’s the Syd Barrett one, ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’, associated singles, brightness, life, colour and brilliance, and the other one which, despite having three musicians in common, is dull, boring, pompous and pretentious at its best. Courtesy of my former mate Alan, I heard more of the latter than I would have ever subjected myself to had I had a free choice at the time. And yet. ‘Sheep’ was one of the tracks on the 1977 ‘Animals’ album that, wittily and with intellectual rigour, divided us common or garden plebs into Dogs, Pigs and Sheep. The ‘Sheep’ track starts out with very Floydian noodling, but it picks up a modicum of pace as the vocals cut in. Then there’s this extended slow section in the middle, where extensive electronic masking thankfully keeps you from being able to make out the words of a re-written Lord’s Prayer, adapted for sheep in abattoirs and liking it. Then it’s back to a somewhat more up-tempo rerun of the main melodic line, until the band launches into a long, frankly raunchy outro, over this compelling, joyous, energetic guitar riff with a cyclic melody that makes the whole thing worthwhile. Which is why it’s taken this pride-of-out-of-place on this CD.

The Poacher: Ronnie Lane and Slim Chance

‘Plonk’ was the original bassist in the Small Faces and then the Faces, until he split to go solo, playing a fresh, folk-oriented kind of rural-pop, too English to be called country, too robust to be folk. He’s remembered mostly for the sprightly ‘How Come?’, but ‘The Poacher’ was his second, and more successful single before he completely disappeared, laid low by MS. This song is less memorable for its relative lack of a strong, pop-oriented melody, but the mix of clarinet and fiddle lends the track a beautifully English air in keeping with the lyrics about an old poacher. It’s four-square in an English tradition that rarely sees expression in American-rooted pop/rock and it’s a breath of fresh air.

Another Girl, Another Planet: The Only Ones

A token venture into the fringes of punk for this compilation. This is one of those hybrid songs, that didn’t sit comfortably as either punk or new wave. It was played regularly on Peely’s nightly shows, which I was by this time devouring avidly, and it was commercial enough to get played on daytime radio. The Only Ones had the feel of a band that would make it, and there were some very interesting tracks on their Peel session that sounded like they could match the quality of this series, but somehow the recorded versions never matched up to the sinuous strength of the tracks laid down at the Maida Vale studios, and the Only Ones faded away, with ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’ as the main legacy of their time among us. There are worse ways to be remembered.

Celebration: Premiata, Forneria, Marconi

PFM sound like the Italian version of ELP, and that’s exactly how they were billed when this came out. Many years and much listening later, I can now tell an equal, and more pertinent Focus influence, but the song is still dominated by an Emersonian synthesizer sound. I say song: this is 90% instrumental with a single, slow verse and multiple chants of the title, but a lot more playing than singing going on. I never heard another thing by the band, but on the strength of this number, I’d have been inclined to listen.

What the world needs now/Abraham Martin and John: Tom Clay

This was never released in the UK. In fact, I doubt if it was played as many as half a dozen times here in 1971, when it chased rapidly up and down the American Hot 100. Clay was a DJ, not a singer or arranger, but what he did was to organise a very slushy, MOR/cabaret style medley of the Dion song ‘Abraham Martin and John’ (a lament for the deaths of Lincoln, King and Kennedy, written in response to Bobby Kennedy’s shooting, and a UK hit for Marvin Gaye the previous year) and the classic oldie ‘What the world needs now is love’. Against this, mostly subdued, background, Clay placed found footage, genuine radio broadcasts. From Dallas in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Of King, broadcasting, saying that like everyone he wants to live, of Bobby Kennedy’s actual shooting and Teddy Kennedy’s funeral oration. It’s very manipulative, but it goes through the heart every time. The single was topped and tailed by Clay’s only direct contribution, asking very young children to explain the meaning of certain loaded words, words the kids can’t even pronounce back. The last line is the obvious, but still true: ‘What is prejudice?’ ‘I think it’s when somebody’s sick.’