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.

 

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.

WINNERS
(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.