The Archers: A Matter of Film and Glory – no. 3: A Canterbury Tale


Three Pilgrims in the usual light of night

A Canterbury Tale has all the makings of a minor film: shot in black and white, during the Second World War, in essence a love story about Kent. It would be easy to assume that its major interests lie in the historical shots of bomb-ravaged Canterbury, which come at the end of a two hour stretch of film that, until its last quarter hour, has confined itself to the (fictional) village of Chillingbourne, ten minutes journey from Canterbury by train, over a sun-drenched summer weekend.
But do not underestimate The Archers. A Canterbury Tale may have been a commercial failure, and may have been available for years only in a crudely edited version that cut out many evocative scenes that were inessential to the film’s vestigial plot, but it has been restored and is recognised as another subtle and beautiful production by Powell and Pressburger.
The film stars Dennis Price, Sylvia Sims and US Army Sergeant John Sweet, with Eric Portman in a major supporting role, though the posters reverse things and make Portman the star and the other three his support. Price and Sweet play Army Sergeants, British and American respectively, Sims a shopgirl turned Land Girl and Portman the local magistrate and gentleman. Burgess Meredith was originally considered for Sweet’s role but the latter, an amateur, was preferred, and is superb, a brilliant choice by that very amateurism.
The trio are pilgrims on a modern day pilgrimage, not that they are aware of this, and in only one case consciously, until the film’s conclusion. That the film involves pilgrimages is made explicit by its introduction, referencing and set in the time of the Canterbury Tales.
There is a bravura leap into the Twentieth Century, executing a cinematic trip that no doubt inspired Stanley Kubrick in 2001 – A Space Odyssey. A gaily adorned courtier releases a hawk from his wrist, which flies away across a shallow valley until, at peak distance from the camera, it cuts into a Spitfire, diving back across the valley and passing over the head of the same man: on guard duty in battledress.
So our pilgrims meet, all three getting off the train in the blackout of Friday evening at Chillingbourne Station. Price is Peter Dawson, returning to camp outside the Village. Sims is Alison Smith, arriving to take up duties as a Land Girl working for the principal landowner, Mr Colpeper, and Sweet is Sgt. Bob Johnson, bound for Canterbury on a 48-hour pass, who mishears the Conductor’s call of “Canterbury next station” and decants himself from the train, only to find he is stranded for the night.
As the trio walk towards the village in the dark, a shadowy figure accosts Alison, pouring glue into her hair. He escapes, seeming to enter the Village Hall under pursuit from Peter and Bob, though the local police, despite being in the Town Hall itself, are far from quick at taking this assault up.
It’s not the first: Alison is the eleventh local girl attacked in this manner by an assailant they have taken to calling the Glueman. The following morning, still enraged by what has happened, she commandeers Bob, and later Peter, persuading the former to remain in Chillingbourne to help her solve the case.
So the film is to be a Detective Story, although it’s not really a detective story at all: the Archers make very little effort to conceal that Colpeper, who has no time for women, is the Glueman, though over the weekend that ensues, the unexpected trio gather enough conventional evidence to prove the case to sufficient a level to take to the Police.
Though Colpeper is of that breed, more recognisable in olden times, of women-haters, without necessarily any sexual/homosexual component, and refuses to accept Alison as a Land Girl (she moves elsewhere to a farm worked by a female owner who is only interested in competence), his motivation for his glue-pourings is by no means simple nor, necessarily, dishonourable.
In his own way, he is targeting girls who he sees as betraying their beaus who are in active service overseas, effectively warning them to stay true. On another, metaphysical level, he is a lover of his county, eager to impress its history, its beauty and its values into any minds he can meet: metaphorically, he is seeking to pour knowledge into their heads, deflecting the women from impure thoughts.
Though the gradual detection of Colpeper’s activities forms a narrative spine for the central section of A Canterbury Tale, it is the least important and, ultimately, interesting element of the film.
As they progress through this idyllic English summer weekend, we learn about the pilgrims. Peter is a classically trained organist, but he is wasting his talent, playing for easy money in night clubs, jobs that demand only a fraction of his ability. Though it is Alison who instigates the investigation, in the end it will be Peter who is hottest in his pursuit of Colpeper, and most determined to involve the Police to bring the Magistrate to Justice.
Indeed, it is Peter who, as the pilgrims approach Canterbury sharing a railway carriage with Colpeper, who becomes overtly self-righteous, as if he, not Alison, is the victim of the Glueman’s depredations His is the deepest emptiness of our pilgrims, the one that will require the greatest blessing to fill.
Of the pilgrims, only Alison knows Chillingbourne from before the War: She and her architect boyfriend spent a fortnight in a caravan on the Pilgrim’s Way, above the village. Though very much in love, they were unable to marry, facing determined disapproval from Geoffrey’s father over her lowly status as a shop assistant. Now all Alison has is the caravan: Geoffrey was shot down over the Mediterranean.
And Bob, the wondering eye who is our eye into this corner of England, he is of a woodworking family. Though a stranger to England, he and the local wood-dealer speak the same language, understand the same things: he is invited to dinner. But he too has a sorrow: his girlfriend back home has not replied to his letters for six months, and he sees a future of emptiness.
Through all their eyes, and especially Bob’s, we see life in wartime in this corner of England. Midway through the film, there is a splendid boy’s game, a river attack in glorious Swallows and Amazons style (one of the sections deleted for many years).
Interestingly, though he is aware that Alison suspects him, Colpeper softens towards her over the weekend, coming close to an admission and an explanation of his motives, though the moment is spoiled by the appearance of Peter and Bob, the former of whom is now personally, indeed aggressively committed to exposing Colpeper.
In contemporary terms the last twenty minutes of the film would probably be regarded as out-and-out sentimentality. Both film-makers and audience have together grown too cynical in the intervening years to be comfortable with the idea of happy endings, even if the film is, underneath all, a tale of Pilgrimage. And Pilgrims who travel to Canterbury must hope for blessings.
They gather on Monday morning, under the sun, to catch the train into Canterbury. Bob’s leave is almost over: he will meet Micky Rozinski at the Cathedral, which he has promised his mother he will visit. Alison is going to the Agricultural Commission, but plans a side-trip to the yard where Geoffrey’s caravan in in store. And Peter is bound for the Police Station, for an interview with Superintendent Hall, where he will present their evidence against Colpeper.
But their companion on the ten minute train journey is Colpeper himself, making his Monday morning trip to sit on the Magistrate’s Bench. Their confined carriage is like a court in itself, with Colpeper on one side and his accusers in a row facing him.
Colpeper doesn’t seek to defend himself. Alison and Bob are hesitant, but Peter is accusatory, determined to see the Glueman brought to justice. Colpeper explains himself by reference to his lectures: once the British Army Camp was established outside Chillingbourne, he had sought to educate, to open the eyes of the soldiers, but his lectures went unattended because off-duty the soldiers preferred to spend time with the village girls.
So Colpeper attacked the girls, to frighten them away, pouring glue into their hair just as he sought to pour knowledge into the men’s heads. Alison cannot resist suggesting that he should have included the ladies from the outset.
On arrival at Canterbury, our pilgrims separate. Before they leave each other, Peter intimates that this is a special day: it is the eve of D-Day, and the Army is going to cross the Channel. There is to be a special service at the Cathedral.
Peter goes to the Police Station, but the Superintendent is not present. As well as the service, there is to be a parade through the Town and this is occupying his thoughts. Peter is still hot for justice, and heads for the cathedral, where the Superintendent may be found. Once inside, looking for someone who can direct him, he approaches an elderly, acerbic man who is the Cathedral organist, and who pays him scant notice. Drawn to the organ, Peter follows the organist, returning to him a page of music that he had dropped.
In the organ loft, his evident admiration of the Church Organ, and his admission of his own training and current status softens the old man’s attitude to him. After all, the elder once played organ in a circus, for 22 shillings a week. He invites Peter to play: Bach’s Toccata and Fugue rolls out through the cathedral.
Alison has, with difficulty, found her way to the yard where the caravan is stored. It is in an area of town that has been badly damaged by bombs, but the yard still stands and the caravan is still laid up. But its tyres are missing, commandeered for the war effort. It is dank and dark, full of moths, deteriorating horribly.
Colpeper has followed Alison here. Awkwardly and ineffectually, he tries to console her, by running down the caravan as an impermanent thing, but his clumsy attempt at wooing her ends abruptly when the yard owner bustles up, berating Miss Alison for failing to leave an address. Mr Geoffrey’s father was there a fortnight earlier, is still in Canterbury. Alison panics, fearing that he is trying to claim the caravan, which is hers, is all she has left of Geoffrey. But this is not the case. Mr Geoffrey’s father has been looking for Alison, has stayed to find her. He has news: Mr Geoffrey is in Gibraltar.
For a moment, Alison’s vision (and that of the camera) blurs and sways, but as the implication sinks in, she rushes to the caravan, throws open its windows, begins to air it. Her future has been given back to her. She turns to Colpeper in excitement, but he has left without a word.
As for Bob, he is impressed by the size and splendour of the Cathedral, and whilst there is no comparison, he is also filled with pride that it was his grandfather who built the first Baptist Chapel in Three Sisters Falls, with good wood. He locates Micky Rozinski, using a cine camera outside, and gets dragged off into a local cafe to drink tea. Whilst Micky boasts of his time in London, Bob brings up the Pilgrim’s Way and his weekend in Chillingbourne, but expresses regret that Pilgrims to Canterbury no longer receive blessings.
Gleefully, Micky corrects him, producing from his pocket a bundle of letters, seven weeks worth. Their stamps are unfamiliar: they are from Australia: Bob’s girl has joined the WAACS.
Two of our Pilgrims have now received blessings, blessings that restore to them futures that they had thought lost. The military parade and its band have reached the Cathedral, and everyone files inside. Alison, with Geoffrey’s father, passes Colpeper in the doorway: the Glueman lowers his eyes and will not look up until they have passed. In the organ loft, the organist points out Superintendent Hall to Peter, who has no use for him now. At a signal, he launches into the opening hymn, ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’.
The churchgoers sing lustily, until the Cathedral bells drown them out. For a moment, we look from the bell-tower to the spires of the Cathedral, the shot seen in the film’s opening moments. The credits begin to run. The final background shot shifts back to Chillingbourne, as the gangs play a kick and rush game of football with the ball bought with Bob’s money.
The more I watch A Canterbury Tale, the more I think upon the future of our Pilgrims. After all, the film ends on the eve of D-Day, the invasion of Europe, an invasion on a scale greater than any in any War in history. Two of our Pilgrims are servicemen, the third the fiancée of another serviceman. What lay ahead for them?
For Alison, I see the future she hoped for: marriage, children, a long life with the young man who she has loved for so long and who she thought was dead. The blessing she receives is, in its way, the reversal of death, and within the logic of a universe in which blessings occur, that cannot be given with one hand and snatched away with the other.
Bob, our Holy Innocent, is to me equally destined to live. He has feared and doubted, and his doubts have been refuted. The unnamed blonde is the right girl for him – the reference to walking in silence in the woods for ours and then both saying the same thing is of great personal significance to me – and the path ahead for this couple is equally clear. Bob will live, will return to Three Sisters Falls, will marry, will build the lumber business carefully and solidly. In thirty years time, he and his wife will tour England, and he will take her to Chillingbourne, tracing that strange weekend he spent there, during the War.
But Peter. I cannot foresee such things for the British Army Sergeant. Peter’s absence hasn’t been in love, in a caring, sharing partner. He’s been the outsider among our Pilgrims, dragged away by his duty at first, only joining the detectives long after they had begun their enquiries, and yet the most vigorous, most determined of the pursuers. Peter’s been full of an aggression, an anger that hasn’t affected either of the others, as if he personally has been the victim, and of something more serious.
What Peter has lost, and which has been restored to him in the Cathedral, is his soul. Instead of the music he loved from childhood, Peter has diverted himself into comfort, indulgence, sterility and it has reflected back on his personality. The Cathedral organ allows him to recapture that part of his soul, but inside, my intuition tells me that it is only a temporary reprieve. I have the strongest feeling that Peter Gibbs does not return from Western Europe.
Only Colpeper is left unfulfilled. The pilgrims have come to Canterbury and received their blessings. Ahead lies the invasion of Europe that will succeed in winning the war. For the moment, a service, and the Canterbury Bells, give thanks to God. Even for an atheist like myself, it’s an extraordinary outpouring of joy, an extremely moving finale. No, this film is not minor, not minor at all.

Deep Space Nine: s02e05 – ‘Cardassians’


I was intrigued by the title of this episode, and found myself reflecting that in the first season, we didn’t really get to know much about the Cardassians, other than their role as all-purpose baddies, pop-up villains. That they had their subtleties was obvious from Gul Dukat and, to a lesser extent, the mysterious Garak (an ongoingly excellent portrayal by Andrew Robinson, all avuncular twinkles and self-depracation unless pursuing his indecipherable aims), was clear. But as a people, they were opaque, beyond their military reputation.

I was hoping for something that gave a greater insight into the Cardassians as a race, and I suppose that I got it, though it was almost incidental to a story that started out thought-provoking, but which didn’t have a real answer to its own dilemma and ended up fudging its ending by making an almost arbitrary decision.

The episode centred on Rugal, a twelve-year old Cardassian war orphan adopted by a Bajoran couple, who claimed to love him dearly, as mush as if he were their own flesh and blood, but who had raised him to hate, fear and despise his own race (and by extension himself).

There was a clear race symbol there: it was altogether too easy to see Rugel as a black child brought up by white Ku Klux Klan members, or a Jew raised by Nazis. And though Rugal seemed to love his ‘father’ as much as the man claimed to love him, there were accusations from a businessman who had seen the family together on Bajor of brutal brainwashing.

No sooner had Rugal announced himself as a problem by biting Garak’s hand in the open than Gul Dukat himself was on the sub-space blower to Sisko, dripping with insincerity about those poor war orphans and how they had to be brought home, especially Rugal. Of course there was an ulterior motive, simply from the fact of it being Gul Dukat, and that meant kindly old uncle Garak leading the suspicious but outmatched Doctor Bashir by the nose to uncover, and foil that plan.

It turned out that Rugal – the son of a prominent Cardassian civil leader and political opponent of Dukat – was not an orphan at all. His father, Kotan Pad’har, thought him dead, killed in a Bajoran resistance raid that had killed the boys mother. Kotan was overjoyed to find his son alive, though it would finish him as a politician once it got out: the strength and value Cardassians put on the family and all its generations meant that his failure to find his son then, his effective abandonment of him, would ruin him.

Bashir and Garak’s investigations uncovered the fact that Rugal had been deliberately left by a Cardassian officer under Dukat’s command, to be used if just such an eventuality pertained. Sisko, who had been asked to arbitrate, Solomon-like, on Rugal’s fate, opted to restore the lad to his natural father, and his race, despite the overwhelming loathing Rugal felt for them.

It was never going to be an easy answer, and the episode did very little to argue the central, moral point of what was best for Rugal: Sisko signed off with the hope that his ‘healing’ could begin. It was obvious that he had been brainwashed, that his Bajoran ‘parents’ had poured all their hatred and loathing into Rugal, though there was never any follow up on whether or not it had been done brutally or lovingly. Either way, it was a wrong that deserved to be rectified, but it paid little heed to Rugal himself: a lifetime of trauma looked to be ahead.

Besides, Kotan was at least as happy about saving his career and couldn’t really give a damn about the other, genuine Cardassian orphans still in misery on Bajor.

By refusing to tackle the subject on any level other than an acute hook for a dramatic episode, DS9 fudged the issue and I was quite disappointed. Nevertheless, the episode did function on the same higher level season 2 had established, which points to better things ahead.

Quiz Night Blues


Still looks the same from the outside

Visiting the Otherworlds exhibition over the weekend has joggled loose an old memory of the Crown & Anchor Quiz Team, back in the mid-Eighties, the night we won the Quiz league in our debut season.

The Crown‘s still there on Port Street, in the centre of Manchester, five minutes walk from Piccadilly Gardens, but its plastic and chrome make it a far cry from the pub I used to know and love. In it’s heyday, the Crown was a real, old-fashioned, spit-and-sawdust, wooden-floor-with-gaps-in-the-planking Real Ale pub, and you would always find me there on Tuesday and Thursday nights.

I was already familiar with it from a couple of the Bi-Annual Booze-ups that finished there, handy for buses home. There was the time Steve, Ken and I got there mid-Friday night and decided not to bother strolling on, and Steve was drinking double whiskeys and I was putting ‘Love will tear us apart’ on on the jukebox, every time I went to the loo. Then there was another night, when John was with us, and despite being pissed to the max, I took him on on the pool table and was on the point of seven-balling him (and I’d never seven-balled anyone before). Only the shot on the black wasn’t easy, and I had an attack of the sensibles and played for safety, and he ended up snookering me out of it and winning.

I started going down there on Thursday nights by invitation. John Mottershead, who worked at Manchester’s Comics Shop, Compendium Books, on John Dalton Street, just down from the Free Trade Hall. Thursdays was the regular night for MAD, Manchester and District SF Fans, so I started going down to that, then added Tuesdays and it became a regular thing for several years.

The Crown had a pool team, made up of workers from the nearby Postal Sorting Office, until the then-Landlord, Dave Glass, offended them and they went somewhere else. John Mott and I were among those swept up into the new pool team – well, they needed someone with a car for away matches – and whilst my win-loss ratio never got more than a fraction above 50/50, I did pull off the odd sterling victory.

I don’t know who first heard about the Pub Quiz Team League, but they were on the lookout for new pubs, and we decided to give it a go. There was me and John Mott, John Manning who was a peripheral part of our group, and Barry, something of a loner, who became our captain (which meant that when two of us were arguing over the right answer, he decided what to go with).

With our entry, there were eight teams, mostly scattered around central Manchester, but including the Bleeding Wolf in Hale, who were not just geographically removed from the rest of the teams, but were ‘a cut above’ the rest of us, and well aware of it. Apparently, they were the ‘cock team’, who usually won the League every season.

We were a competitive bunch of bastards and we set out to cut them down to size. We lost at their place, our only defeat of the season, but gained the advantage in a week where they were surprisingly beaten but we pulled a point out of a tie, mainly thanks to John Mott. Everyone was stumped on the next line to ‘Though I’ve beaten you and flayed you, through the gold you are that made you…’ and we were on the point of being counted out when John just shrugged his shoulders, ofered up the semi-random line, ‘You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din’, and nicked the precious point.

Last match of the season was at home to the Bleeding Wolf in a winner-takes-all tie.

The Quiz format involved eight rounds, each of four paired questions. Round 1, 2 and 4 were team rounds, round 3 an individual round, each team offering their players as 1, 2, 3 and 4. I was the anchorman, at 4. Before the Quiz, the captains tossed a coin for A or B questions, the winning team answering the A set.

After four rounds, there was a drinks break, after which the format was repeated, but this time with the sets of questions reversed, so that after we’d answered the A questions in the first half, we would have the B questions after the break.

The flashpoint came before the break. Question three in whichever round this was came to us: What is the third planet from the sun? We hardly needed to huddle, it was so obvious: the Earth. Wrong, said the question-master, it’s Mars.

We exploded in fury and bemusement. Our answer was right: Earth was, is, always had been, always would be barring some colossal SF disaster, the third planet from the Sun. Even Jimi Hendrix had said so. But the answer, no matter how incorrectly, was Mars, and despite the blatant error, we had to go with that. The Bleeding Wolf team did not cover them in glory: had the roles been reversed, we all agreed that we would have said let them have the point, they were right, but they – already behind – were staying out of it: rules are rules, the answer is the answer.

But it was so wrong, and we continued to protest, to the point that the questionmaster, with the Wolf‘s clearly reluctant consent, agreed to give us one of the questions off the tie-breaker list. We accepted the solution, but when the question was read out, I was so furious that it was of an incredibly specialised nature and far far harder than our original question had been: ‘What standards are the Innes Institute responsible for maintaining?’

I swiveled in my seat and hurled my official Quiz Team pencil into the corner of the room in disgust. Only to hear Barry say, ‘Hang on a minute’ and, after a few pregnant seconds of thought, answer ‘fertilizer’. And he was only bloody well right!

That was probably the moment we won it, because win it we did, taking a lead into the final round that secured us the title with four questions left to be answered, which we celebrated with great enthusiasm.

But that’s not the punchline to the story. Remember that our questions were paired so, after the debacle around our third planet from the Sun, the Wolf‘s return question was, what is the ninth planet from the Sun? Their answer was, of course, Pluto (its demotion to a dwarf planet was some twenty years away at that time).

That was what we’d have said, and it was what the answer said, so it was a regulation point for them. The irony is that, unbeknownst to all of us at the time, that answer was also wrong! After the Quiz, explaining the debacle to Dave Copley-Mackie, a very erudite man who ended up going to live in Japan, doing TEFL, he pointed out that Pluto actually has an eccentric orbit that, at certain times, takes it within the orbit of Neptune, as indeed was the case at the time. That meant that it was currently the eighth planet from the Sun, and the correct answer was actually Neptune!

Saturday SkandiCrime: Follow the Money parts 1 & 2


Coming to you incredibly late for me, what with yesterday’s day out and the Manchester Derby this afternoon. And perhaps it’s because I’ve watched it mid-Sunday evening and not late Saturday night, but so far I’ve found little to impress or enthuse me about Denmark’s latest offering.

And there is a seriously dubious title sequence showing the four main characters going about their business with water welling up from everything until they’re trying to function normally in rooms full to the ceiling with water. It’s clearly symbolic but at this point there isn’t a clue what it’s symboliic of.

Follow the Money is a very dull title (the Danish title, Bedrag, sounds far better, and it literally means ‘Deception’), and the fact that the central mystery appears to revolve around some as-yet-undisclosed dodgy financial dealings involving one of Denmark’s most successful companies, Energreen, seemed to confirm a certain lack of imagination in the first instance. There was, however, a glimmer of interest by the end of episode 2 when this over-literal title took on an even more literal meaning, as a well-contrived blunder put two seemingly minor characters – one of them the biggest numbskull in the show – in possession of 2,000,000 Euros in brick-thick bundles. Someone, and probably more than one party, is going to be following that money around.

The opening opted for the piecemeal approach, giving us three disparate strands, each with its own central character, before wrapping them into one interwoven package with a briskness unusual for Scandinavian Crime.

Firstly, we have Mads, our forty-something maverick detective. Mads is called out to a dead body, recovered from the water, which turns out to be a Ukrainian worker from the nearby offshore wind farm owned by Energreen. Lacking any immediate means to getting over to us that the quiet, ordinary-looking Mads is a maverick, the writer opted for the unusual and somewhat risible method of having him strip off and dive into the undoubtedly freezing water to retrieve a safety jacket, rather than wait five minutes for a boat.

This had the story value of establishing for us that Mads doesn’t do patience very well, which would become a salient feature of part 2.

Mikhayil’s death turned out to be an accident caused by deliberate breach of Health and Safety regulations by Energreen, not for the first time. Mads tries to exhort the Ukrainians to file a complaint but all that achieves is to get the lot of them fired, and Mikhayil’s distraught father, Alexander, to hang himself in his storage container hut bedroom. That made it personal for Mads, at which point I got a chilling echo of the utterly inept Salamander, glimmers of which kept reflecting off him for the rest of both episode.

I’m sorry to harp on about Mads, but he is our star but we also have to reflect upon his home life, which is two children – one boy, young, one girl, youngish, shades of Borgen – and a wife suffering from sclerosis attacks. Mads is doing everything he can, and the tears he cries when she unexpectedly recovers from her current, bad attack, are a touching testament to his love for her, though I can’t help but wonder that, her first words when introduced in bad shape being that she dreamed of having sex, once she recovered – and she really is an attractive woman – there wasn’t the slightest hint of him even thinking of sex: this might be implanting something extremely subtle to be realised later, and I have some insight into situations like this, but that would be to give the series credit it’s far from earning yet.

Let’s leave him for a while and transfer our attention to lead 2, one Claudio Moreno, of Energreen’s legal department: thirtyish, divorced, young son who lives with his father Steen (also a lawyer). Claudia’s just uncovered a contract clause that will save Energreen 20,000,000 euros a year, but it’s head lawyer Mogens who’s going to take the credit for this.

But Mogens enlists Claudia to hunt out an insider who’s insider trading, and he hints that the corruption goes as high as CEO, founder and all-round hotshot Sander Sodergren, so she’s got to keep it extremely quiet, from everyone. It all involves some company called East Manchester Invest  (which, sadly, proves to be registered in Copenhagen rather than Openshaw) but Claudia, who is ambitious, decides Mogens is trying to frame Sander and takes it all to the big Boss. Who promptly, a), fires Mogens, b), appoints Claudia as his new Head Lawyer and, c), admits to her that he did, in fact, after all, as it happens, authorise his best trader, Peter Sondergaard to go off insider trading, providing the then financially-strapped Energreen got its share of the profits. Oi!

And then there’s Nicky, a car mechanic and ex-car thief, married with a small, one year old baby, and living in a high-rise flat. From which he and his wife want to escape but they haven’t got the money for it. So, despite his initial, and eminently sensible refusal to join blatant moron Bimse in car-thieving for quick profit, Nicky decides to supplement his income the old-fashioned way. After all, there’s this rude, arrogant jerk called Peter Sondergaard who’s running a BMW that the Serbs can sell on…

So now let’s stir the mix. Maverick Mads can’t get anywhere with trying to bring Energreen down over these deaths (remember, it’s personal). His by-the-book boss Preben shuts the case, like all the others. Fortunately, Detective Alf (yes, Alf, a Danish cop, of Chinese extraction, called Alf, do you want to make something of that? There is also an Albert in this series, move along) offers him a chance to tag along with the Fraud Squad to get some satisfaction.

Of course, Fraud Squad cases last sometimes for years, and Mads, as we already know, doesn’t do patience, so when they can’t get a wiretap of East Manchester Invest due to minor details like having no evidence whatsoever, Mads cons a fellow cop into adding it to the warrant for a completely different case (it is, it’s bloody Philip Gerrardi all over again).

Claudia meanwhile recommends Peter Sondergaard and his colleague are separated from Energreen tooty-de-sweet, before the Police investigation finds them. It seems a simple job, a silent severance, that sort of thing, no publicity, and even a fun one when Peter starts treating Claudia as the secretary, but it transpires that Peter has something on Sander, not financial, but personal, and something that has him immediately willing to hand over 4,000,000 euros, cash, to buy them off.

(He has an associate, named only P, who handles the transactions, and who appears to have hidden, shall we call them, talents? I mention him because this time, unlike Captain Carlssen in Trapped, I recognised him immediately: Claus Ljungmark, aka Norlander in the first five Arne Dahl movies).

Which brings us back to Nicky and the idiot Bimse, who’s going to get someone killed, preferably himself. P hands over two hold-alls, each containing 2,000,000 Euros to Peter and the other one (Mark?). Peter drives home, does the Patrick McGoohan in the opening credits of The Prisoner bit and re-emerges to find his Beamer gone. With the cash, and the iPad containing the incriminating evidence against Sander. Which are in the hands of Nicky and the Bozo.

I shall, of course, continue to watch and blog the whole series, but after two episodes it has not filled me with confidence. The strength of the various Scandinavian crime series, apart from the fascination of seeing a familiar subject through the eyes of a different culture, has been in how it has immersed itself in the impact that murder has, on victims, families, the Police themselves. It has relied heavily upon the characters of the Police involved, from the eccentric yet fascinating Saga Noren of The Bridge to the utterly down-to-earth Hinrika in Trapped.

But we have none of that here. The deaths we have had to date are of importance only to the detective, who is not, as yet, distinguishable in any way from a generic ‘maverick cop’. Nicky loses points for being involved with Bimse the Bozo, someone that a three-month old baby would avoid for utter unreliability, whilst Claudia, who already only sees her little boy four days a fortnight, puts up the feeblest of resistances to her ex-husband Steen taking him to live in Paris for two years.

The only character who genuinely interests me so far is Mads’ wife, Kristina, and that may be due to personal things on my part.

Follow the Money has four more weeks in which to prove me wrong, but on the evidence of two episodes, it’s biggest problem is that it’s just so damned ordinary. And we don’t go in for ordinary in the Saturday SkandiCrime slot.

A Day Out – Otherworlds


Ever since I’ve become dependent upon public transport, I’ve become increasingly paranoid about bus and train times, and with good reason. It’s exacerbated in those cases where the cheapest advance tickets are two singles, tying me to specific trains there and back.

For my day in London, I needed to be at Stockport station for 8.43 am so, by my standards, it was cutting it exceedingly fine to arrive with only fifteen minutes to spare.

This trip has been planned for over a month, but a new, unforeseen dimension was added yesterday. I’m off to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington for the Otherworlds Exhibition, a collection of space photography from the last fifty years, prepared by Michael Benson. In keeping with my paranoia, I’d allowed very wide margins. My train was due at Euston at 10.43 am and my booking was for 12.30pm.

This was based in part on my assumption that South Kensington was South of the River, and therefore a lot of traveling would be involved. Of course it’s not (I have not been in that part of London previously) and the travel planners I consulted assured me the journey from Euston would take only 27 minutes, walking included, though their estimate of walking speed may be fractionally faster than my reality, making my arrival considerably premature.

But on Friday, I learned of a new exhibition, opening on March 19th, featuring the wonders of Smallfilms Ltd, the production company of those great geniuses, Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, the creators of The Clangers and Bagpuss. At the Victoria and Albert Museum, next door to the Natural History Museum.

If only I’d booked an earlier slot at the Natural History Museum. The hour or so’s grace would hardly be enough for Postgate et al so I’d just go over after finishing with Otherworlds. There would be ample time, my return train not being until 6.00pm.

The journey was a breeze. After Stockport, there were only two stops before London, at Macclesfield and Stoke. I had a window seat reserved, with the aisle seat reserved from Stoke, so I dumped my bag on the spare seat for now, rather than have to dig into it between my feet. But Stoke came and went without anyone taking up the the seat, so I luxuriated in the space all the way.

I was on the right side of the carriage so, as we sped through North London, I craned my eyes left for the traditional sight of Wembley. I have never been to the New Wembley nor, frankly, can I foresee any chance of doing so, and like most older football fans I will always miss the Twin Towers. When it flashes by, it’s a shock to see it loom so close to the track. I don’t remember the Empire Stadium being that close.

I haven’t used the Tube since Mark Rustigini and I came down for the 1999 Cup Final. I’ve always loved it, since I first visited London in 1977, though it does have the effect of reducing the city to a series of disconnected circles, centring upon various stations. I want the Victoria Line to Green Park, changing to the Piccadilly Line for South Ken.

The queue for tickets is massive – the last time I used the Tube, they still had people behind grilles – and an all-day return is nearly a tenner, but when I get down to the platform, it’s like the late Seventies/early Eighties are back. At both stations, the train arrives within a minute of my hitting the platform, and the old lucky judgement is back as the doors open where I’m standing.

The only bugger is the walk from one line to another at Green Park, which takes miles of corridors.

There’s even a subway at South Kensington, so the first I see of London above ground is the Museum itself, a proud, noble and impressive building, opposite the French Consulate. This is where things get stupid.

There’s a queue towards the Museum gates, and an even longer one inside. As we approach the gates, we realise that there is a similar queue from the opposite direction. Thus far, the security guards have been alternating streams, but as I reach the gate they decide that it’s going to be one queue only, and it’s going to be the other one. We have to stride out to join the other end of it.

Once inside the gate, we snake in moebius-lines towards the bottom of the ramp curling up to the entrance. Only as I reach this, do I realise that there’s a whole other garden area beyond, round which we queue even further, just to get bac to here.

Being British, I queue placidly. It’s one of our great contributions to humanity, the orderly queue, everyone in their turn. That doesn’t mean that I don’t hate the vast majority of those in front of me, who are forever slow abut catching up gaps that appear before them, especially the young foreign couple, directly ahead, who are too busy talking selfies to notice that ten yards have opened up before them.

Smartphones have a lot to answer for.

It seems like my wasted period of grace before my booking has been very important after all. All told, it takes over fifty minutes to get from gate to entrance, a distance coverable in under two, even by me. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to find queues to get in, but it wouldn’t have happened like this in Manchester.

The lady on the ticket desk takes it on trust that I am sixty and eligible for the concessionary rate (my first!). I ought to be offended: this is not meant to be a boast but most people tend to underestimate my age by up to a decade which, when I look at myself in a mirror, leaves me very worried about their judgement – or their eyesight!

I supposea large part of why I am here is down to Dan Dare, and his adventures across the other planets in our Solar System. That opened the door for me, the door to space, to strangeness, otherness, the unimaginable. This is the natural culmination, the actuality of what our planetary neighbours are, without the art and the imagination of Frank Hampson, Keith Watson and all the others.

Michael Benson has pieced these photographs together from hundreds of tiny pictures beamed across millions upon millions of miles, from rockets that have traversed our Solar System in a way that we yet are unable to do ourselves. They are photographs of things we haven’t seem, may never see ourselves in the flesh, but which the things we have built can reach and can send back.

I’m hit first by an incredible statistic: that the Sun alone comprises 99.86% of the mass of the Solar System. Earth, it’s fellow planets, dwarfs, moons, asteroids, comets, add up to the thinnest of statistical margins of error. Does that humble you? It humbles me.

We begin with the Earth and the Moon, but in the context of what the exhibition goes onto, these are oddly conventional. I can almost be blase about these sights, they are so close, so familiar, but for the rest of the exhibition, from picture to picture, all that goes through my head, endlessly, is, “Oh, wow! Oh, wow! Oh, wow!” and my mouth is almost permanently open in awe at what I’m seeing. These are the faces of the bodies that share our system, objects of our imagination, photographed from distances that are unimaginable in themselves but which, in context, are the equivalent of over-the-fence snaps of your neighbour’s back garden.

Curiously, it is not the beauty of Saturn, the Ringed Planet, our System’s jewel, nor even the remoteness of Pluto that nevertheless offers a blue sky, that affects me most, but rather Mars, the Red Planet, almost a cliche. This is because the photographs in this section are not just from space, but also come from the surface of the planet.

I remember a Saturday morning, in the late Nineties, sitting in front of the television in my lounge, watching the live broadcast of a camera on the planet Mars, looking at a landscape that, for all its dryness, its desert waste, looked achingly familiar. There was a blue sky, a daylight sky, an astonishment to someone who had grown up expecting planetary skies to show the night and the stars, and there were mountains, buttes and ridges that could be climbed, to look upon views beyond imagination.

I have the same feeling looking at these Martian landscapes, none more so than the one that shows the broad tracks of a Mars Rover. We have not been there, and maybe we won’t get there, who knows, we haven’t even been back to our own Moon in forty-four years, but we have set some kind of feet on the surface of another planet, and we have moved beyond imagination into reality.

That I, an eight year old boy at play in Dan Dare’s Universe, should have lived to see this! That it’s been done and in my lifetime. My heart is in my mouth and tears threaten. I want to take that eight year old boy by the hand and tell him that it will come true after all, it is all real, and he will see for himself, in a London Museum one day.

I try to explain something of that to the young woman in the shop. I’m buying the book of the Exhibition – how could I not buy the book? – and I’m talking of the sheer wonder of it. At this moment, I can’t think, and neither can she, of what humanity might do, or where it might go that seems impossible now but which will come about within her days, but I hope for her sake and her generation’s sake that there will be something to give her that same frisson one day, because everybody deserves to feel this. That I have lived to see…

From there, I cross over to the V&A Museum, fully prepared to move from the Sublime to the Gloriously Ridiculous, but that’s when I run into the second and bigger hitch of the day. I have not read the web-page well for the Bagpuss Exhibition is actually on at the V&A Museum of Childhood, and that is not in South Kensington, but rather in Bethnall Green. Even my fragmentary knowledge of London geography tells me that it’s a long way from where I am (indeed it is, we’re talking east London here, my son). Another expedition will be required, once I have saved up for the train tickets again.

So, with the unexpected bonus unexpectedly busted, I revert to plan A and head back to Oxford Circus. My luck with Tube trains still holds, in fact it improves. I barely have to wait fifteen seconds at both South Ken and Green Park for trains that open their doors before my nose, but once I ascend to ground level at Oxford Circus, the ticket-barrier retains my return ticket, even though I’m not at Euston.

I stroll east down Oxford Street, noting with mild regret the disappearance of landmarks like the old Virgin Megastore and the big, big HMV Shop, but what I notice most is that that near hour of queuing has done for my feet. My progress is increasingly slow and painful, turning into Charing Cross Road, so I take the load off them, all too temporarily, in the Montague Pike, where I down a pint and a beefburger, desultorily watching Wales extend a 7-0 lead over Italy to 27-0 at half-time, when I move on.

Having visited once within the last twelve months, I soon find Forbidden Planet, which is a little unjust considering how long I wandered around last year, after checking maps, but once again it’s noisy, cramped, crowded and holds nothing out of the ordinary that I can’t just as easily put my hands on back home.

So, with my feet having made their position non-negotiable, I slowly trudge back to Tottenham Court Road, where a single to Euston is even more bloody expensive. The escalator is steep and long, and I suffer from a brief but unwelcome bout of vertigo that I have to fight throughout the descent. My train luck runs out: I have to wait nearly ninety seconds for a train and I have to search for a door.

By the time I’m back at Euston, there is an hour and forty-five minutes before my train is due, which is ridiculous even by my standards. Last time I was here and waiting was after my last United Kingdom Comics Art Convention (1988? 1989?) when John Mottershead and I decided to blow off early on Sunday afternoon, and we bumped into Alan Moore on the concourse and went into some cheap, not-busy cafe and talked for over an hour until his train for Northampton was due to leave, but there don’t seem to be such places in 2016.

I ended up sitting on one of those metal benches for over an hour or so, way past when my bum started getting numb, and making a break for the train as soon as boarding was announced. I’m in coach C, which is about half way to Watford Junction, and I settle down with great delight. It’s another window seat, on the non-Wembley side of the carriage, and to my delight, no-one claims the supposedly-reserved aisle seat, so it’s a double space all the way back to Stockport, reading R A Lafferty’s magnificent Fourth Mansions (bought in a no-longer-existent back street Stockport bookshop over forty years ago) and listening to my mp3 player all the way.

If I were getting off at Manchester, I’d have had to wait half an hour for a 203. Getting off here, I only have to wait five minutes to catch the service from the other end. My feet feel better for the rest, but I get a bad bout of cramp in my left shin later on, and I know my calves will be killing me in the morning.

But it’s been a great day out and for all the expense, and the time of another journey to London, I’m not sorry to have to go back for Bagpuss. I could do with getting out more often. Maybe often enough to justify an Old Person’s Railcard? Gotta start taking advantage of my advanced years, haven’t I?

Up for t’Cup – 1942 – 51


Almost half the decade was lost to the Second World War, but on two great days, 8 May and 14 August, the end of hostilities in Europe and the Pacific were achieved and celebrated. It was far too late in the year to organise the return of the Football League, but the FA Cup could return, gloriously, joyously, excitingly. It could be one of the earliest ways by which the wounds of destruction could begin to be healed.
Because of the paucity of professional football to enjoy, for the first season back only, the Cup was played out over two legs from the First Round Proper to the Sixth Round, leaving only  the semi-finals and Final to be decided on the traditional one-off basis. Home advantage went to the first drawn team in the first leg, which suited the Manchester clubs, both winning ties against lower league opposition by big margins in second legs at home after merely drawing away.
After six years absence, the Cup was back with a very full season, making the most of its isolation as the only first rank competition around. As early as the Qualifying Rounds, there were anomalies, especially in the profusion of astonishingly one-sided scores, several of which were in double figures. Works teams appeared in profusion (this might not have been unusual, but at the moment I don’t have access to pre-War Qualifying Rounds). And the Victorian era was recalled by the granting of no less than nine byes through the Second Qualifying Round.
There was no issue about imbalanced byes, though only forty-three of the forty-four Division Three teams entered the First Round, with the forty-four First and Second Division teams, and no others, entering at Round Three.
Cup-Holders Portsmouth, after holding the Cup for seven years, promptly surrendered the trophy, losing to Birmingham City by a solitary goal scored over two legs.
But the Cup’s return saw one of the thankfully few great Football Stadium disasters, in the Sixth Round Second Leg at Burnden Park, where Bolton hosted Stoke. As with Wembley in 1923, tickets were on sale on the day, but when attempts were made to shut the gates, the crowd just forced its way past them. An estimated 83,000 entered the ground and tragedy struck just before kick-off when ramshackle crush barriers collapsed. Thirty-three spectators were crushed to death.
Unbelievably, unlike the tragedy at Hillsborough, forty-one years later, the game was only suspended, not abandoned. Kick-off was delayed thirty minutes whilst the dead bodies were laid out along the touchlines, and the game started with one touchline newly-laid with sawdust. At half-time, the teams changed straight round, without an interval. Stoke winger, the legendary Stanley Matthews, later said that he was sickened by the decision to let the game continue, and few would disagree with him. Knowing what had happened, which of the twenty-two players could have given their best?
Eventual winners Derby County, succeeding at last in their fourth Final, took the two-leg principle too far by needing two games to overcome Birmingham City in the semi-final, and went even further by needing extra-time to overcome first-time Finalists, Charlton Athletic.
The Final was distinguished by many incidents. The game went goalless until the 85th minute, when Charlton’s Bert Turner became first the oldest man to score in a Cup Final, and secondly the first of only three players to score for both teams in the Final. Turner put through his own net to give Derby the lead, but equalised a minute later from a free-kick (which, ironically, took so big a deflection that it sounds as if it should have been given as an own goal itself).
Weirdly, in the minutes remaining, the ball burst during a shot at the Charlton goal. Uncannily, the same thing had happened during a wartime League game between the two clubs, seven days earlier.
It did not spare Charlton much, as they were overwhelmed in extra-time, Derby eventually winning 4-1.
In keeping with the two-leg tournament, the players got two medals, being presented with a bronze medal on day and the traditional gold metal, later in the year, when gold supplies had returned to normal.
Football was back in full for the 1946/47 season. There was a full League programme, and a reversion to the Cup’s traditional one-leg format. Unfortunately, there was also a reversion to the same system of lop-sided byes. The three strongest Third Division sides, based on the 1938/39 League programmes, went into Round Three, and the consequent gap in Round One was filled by the two FA Amateur Cup Finalists. Charlton, having reached their first ever Final the year before, reached their last ever (to date) twelve months later, this time winning the Cup against Burnley. Again, the ball burst in normal-time, again extra-time was required. This mini-spate of bursting balls was later blamed on the poor quality of leather available immediately after the war. That would not be repeated, nor would extra-time be needed again in the Final for another eighteen years.
As far as format was concerned, the Amateur Cup finalists entering  at Round One and three Third Division teams at Round Three continued until the 1950/51 season. In 1947/48, Manchester United reached their second Final, playing against the Tangerines of Blackpool, whose line-up included the legendary Stanley Matthews, reaching his first Cup Final. United got to Wembley as the only Finalist in the Cup’s history to play top-flight opposition (i.e., First Division) in every round. Both teams played in change-strips, United in blue and white.
The 1948 Final has gone down in history as one of the greatest Finals of all time, indeed contemporaneously, it was regarded as the best footballing Final ever. United’s performance, under Matt Busby, was described in the press as near-perfect, with Blackpool not far behind. The Seasiders led twice, with goals from Stanley Mortenson – who scored in every Round – and Eddie Shimwell, from the penalty spot, making him the first full-back to score in a Cup Final. Blackpool led twice, but three goals in twelve minutes from United saw them take the Cup 4-2.
And, as so frequently happened in an era where weather-postponements left outstanding games that had to be played after the Cup Final, the two clubs met in a rearranged fixture on the Monday after the Final: Blackpool won 1-0.
Having taken thirty-nine years to reach their second Final, United made a valiant effort to make it two in a row, losing in the semi-final to the eventual winners, Wolverhampton Wanderers. The Final was an all-Midlands affair, with Leicester City reaching their first Final. The Cup was won on form: Leicester were a Second Division club, struggling against relegation, which they would eventually avoid by a single point.
For Leicester, it was the unexpected beginning of an unwanted record, the Cup Final’s least successful team, the only club to appear in four Finals without ever winning the trophy, thanks to three losing appearances in the Sixties. Ironically, having reached their first Final as a Second Division team, Leicester fourth appearance was coupled with relegation back to Division Two.
The first Final of the Fifties was distinguished by a pair of derby semi-finals, Merseyside and London. Liverpool beat Everton in the semi-final, but not Arsenal in the Final, which was the first Final since1923 to be given the official attendance of 100,000, Wembley’s capacity. Excluding replays, this would be the neat, well-rounded attendance figure for all Finals until 1986. As in 1948, both clubs wore change strips, Arsenal winning the Cup in the unlikely colours of yellow and white. Their team included, on the left wing, the famous England cricketer, Denis Compton, whilst Liverpool chose to drop future managerial legend Bob Paisley, despite his having scored the winner against Everton.
In the summer of 1950, the Football League decided to expand its numbers to the 92 clubs that most of us have known all our lives. Two teams were voted into each of Third Division North and South, bringing the two regional divisions to twenty-four each. The Cup responded, as it always did, albeit with the by-now expected awkwardness. Just as twenty years earlier, only the First and Second Division teams were entered at Round Three, and the forty-four existing Division Three teams at Round One. As for the four new League Clubs, they received no favours, being condemned to the Qualifying Rounds, at least three of them: Shrewsbury Town withdrew from the Cup in disgust at this treatment.
The winners were Newcastle United, entering upon a half-decade of Wembley dominance. They beat Blackpool 2-0 in a clash of legends, with Wor Jackie Milburn scoring both goals, and Stan Matthews (and Mortenson) denied again. There was a sign of the future, with the Newcastle line-up including the Chilean player, George Robledo. Many decades were yet to pass before the appearance of players from outside the British Isles in the Cup Final became a regular sight.
The FA Cup had now been in existence for eighty years, and seventy Finals had been played. Over half its history, to 2016, now lay behind it. The Final was the biggest game in English Football, every year. This would inevitably decline, but those years were still a long way ahead, and there was much glory still to be enjoyed.

WINNERS
(all Finals played at the Empire Stadium, Wembley)

1945/46  Derby County 4 Charlton Athletic 1 (aet)
1946/47  Charlton Athletic 1 Burnley 0 (aet)
1947/48 Manchester United 4 Blackpool 2
1948/49  Wolverhampton Wanderers 3 Leicester City 1
1949/50 Arsenal 2 Liverpool 0
1950/51 Newcastle United 2  Blackpool 0

The eighth decade, beginning late because of the ongoing War, featured only six Finals, emulating the fourth decade. There were ten Finalists in this first post-war decade, with Charlton Athletic appearing twice – and never again – and Blackpool also reaching two Finals, only to lose both. They would return to claim the Cup in the next decade, in one of the most famous Finals of all time. No club won the Cup twice in this decade and two of the six winners were first and only time victors. Both Burnley and Leicester City reached the Final as Second Division clubs, and for the latter it was the beginning of a most unwanted record: Leicester have appeared in more Cup Finals than any other club who has never won the Cup.

Kill Two Birds


I’m off to That London tomorrow for the day, on a cultural visit, to the Otherworlds exhibition at the natural History Museum in South Kensington. I first read about Otherworlds in the Guardian about six weeks ago, and have had everything planned out for ages: ticket booked, train tickets booked, details of how to get most easily from Euston Station to a part of London I’ve never visited before. It’s sorted, and I’m really looking forward to it.

Then I was glancing at the Guardian website again today, in a quiet moment at work, and discovered this. An exhibition of original puppets and materials from Smallfilms, the work of those geniuses Olive Postgate and Peter Firmin: The Clangers, Bagpuss, Pogles, a dream of an exhibition.

And it starts tomorrow.

At the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Which is next door to the Natural History Museum!

On a plate, or what? My cup runneth over, and trust me, you’ll hear about both of these when I get back.