The Flashman Papers 1854/55: Flashman at the Charge


Flashman at the Charge was my first Flashman book, borrowed on one of my first visits to Manchester Central Reference Library General Readers section. It was published in 1974, and I probably read it the same year, or at worst the next.
I was still fairly new to the world of Adult Fiction, thanks to my rather restrictive parenting, and one of my key factors in exploring fiction I might like was people having sex. Very shallow, but then I had had very little opportunity to develop depth. I was vaguely aware that the Flashman books were on the sexy side, but I was unclear as to the level of explicitness George MacDonald Fraser offered.
This proved to be not as explicit as my teenage self would have chosen. On the other hand, I recognised a writer I was going to follow for the rest of his life.
The title of this fourth volume of the Flashman Papers should make its setting clear to anyone with any half-knowledge of British Nineteenth Century history, or poetry, come to that. The Charge can only be the famous/infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, which means the Crimean War, which means a bit of a leap in time for Flashy, last seen bartering a lift back to London from the New Orleans docks, from Captain John Charity Spring in 1849: the Crimean War didn’t start until 1854.
But despite the title, only a small part of this book is concerned with the Crimea, and whilst Fraser is generous in his attention to detail as to the background to the War, the societal pressures that drove the British Government to hostilities and the machinations that get our pal Flashy put there, once in the Crimea, Flashman attends only one military engagement before Balaclave itself, where he is captured and the book immediately heads off in a completely different, and unexpected direction.
Once again this makes for a book with an inelegant, yet very entertaining and informative structure, as Flashman plays an unexpected part in a forgotten, indeed almost unknown war, in a corner of the world he might never have visited, if it weren’t for a crateload of stale Russian champagne.
Oh yes, Flashy is on form again!
It’s the second time-jump we’ve experienced in the Papers, and once again Fraser is characteristically vague as to what Flashman has been doing since we saw him last. Some of the gap will be filled in in the seventh Packet, though that by no means covers all of the intervening period. He’s now a father, though obviously not having been present at the birth (and still having his doubts as to whether he was present at the conception). Still, his old Rugby crony Speedicut assures him that from the way the baby was grabbing at the midwife’s tits, he’s clearly a Flashman, and Elspeth has named him Harry Albert Victor, after his heroic father, and the Royal Couple.
Flashman is now in his mid-thirties and has had enough experience to be able to tell when war is coming. To avoid being caught up in active service, he’s used the good offices of his Uncle Bindley (who is here credited as being from the Flashman side of the family whereas in later books Fraser will transfer him to the more upper class Paget side) to get himself installed at the Ordnance, a sinecure of a post a long way away from any fighting. To those who wonder why an old warhorse such as Flashy isn’t hellbent on thrashing the Russkies, our hero talks portentously about the need for men of experience to ensure the troops are properly supported.
However, all this good work goes to waste in a single evening of vicious living. Flashman and Speedicut happen upon a naive young shaver with something of a German accent being fleeced by a pool sharp. Seeing in him a source of amusement, they adopt him, run him around and abandon him in an alley, having painted his arse with bootblack, and the Police approaching.
All good fun until someone loses an eye. The lad turns out to be William of Celle, a young cousin of Prince Albert, in England to make his way in the British army. After this escapade, Albert decides his cousin needs a mentor, an experienced and popular soldier in the public eye, rapidly promoted from Captain to Colonel. Colonel Harry Flashman.
And William is going to war. In the Crimea.
Even so, the newly-promoted Colonel takes his time about getting himself and his new ward to the war. Flashman has already met his new Commander, the one-armed Lord Raglan, in whom he has no more faith than Elphinstone, in Afghanistan, and he’s most reluctantly renewed his acquaintance with Lord Cardigan, still as imperious and offensive as ever, but now in hot pursuit of Elspeth, who isn’t being as discouraging as she might be. By the time orders are received to travel to the Crimea, Flashy is ready to do a lot of things to put Milord Cardigan in the way of Russian fire.
As for young Willie, he is still naïve and adolescent about war, honour and glory, but he has grown up in one sense: he has a great liking for a blonde St John’s Wood whore with black boots ties up to her thighs with satin laces (I say, what, corks!).
Unfortunately, this is William of Celle’s only area of mutiny. Once in the Crimea, at Alma, Willie is too enthusiastic to be restrained and, despite being a ‘galloper’ (deliverer of messages), yanks out his sabre, chases the infantry and promptly gets half his head blown off.
This leaves Flashy in seriously bad odour, for his lack of diligence in not getting his head blown off at the same time, and his disgrace is compounded when he loots a crateload of stale Russian champagne, which gives him a massive case of dysentery, confining him to the sickbay for months. Of course, this hiatus is extended as far as Flashy can possibly can manage it, but even he has to go back on duty at some point. It’s merely the traditional Flashman luck that the day he resumes his duty is the day of the Battle of Balaclava.
Thanks to Tennyson’s famous poem, the only thing associated with Balaclava is the Charge of the Light Brigade (and those horrible knitted helmets kids in the late Fifties were forced to wear). But Fraser didn’t need his customary extensive research to identify two other famous moments from the battle that have been overwhelmed in the public gaze by Cardigan’s infamous Charge.
So Flashy arrives at Raglan’s commanding position along with the other gallopers, including the infamous Lew Nolan, whose communication of Raglan’s orders have been debated for a century and a half. It’s not a good day for Flashman: apart from being near a battlefield again, he is suffering from broiling guts, the after-effects of his champagne-induced dysentery. And he’s constantly being sent where the action is thickest.
Thus he is with Sir Colin Campbell’s Highlanders when they are attacked by Cavalry, and is forced to take his place in the double-line of rifles that, with the cavalry less than fifty yards away and galloping at full speed, fire two volleys that cut the Russians down and send them flying. Flashy is part of the famous Thin Red Line.
From there, carrying Campbell’s report back to Raglan, Flashy is ordered to swing by General James Scarlett’s Heavy Brigade of Cavalry, to update him. Flashman arrives just as a brigade of Russian cavalry appear on the brow of the hill and, against all military logic, history and common sense, the excitable Scarlett orders a charge – uphill! It routs the Russians, and Flashy adds the Charge of the Heavy Brigade to his list of reluctant honours.
Two such dangerous actions leave Flashy longing for the peace and quiet of Raglan’s redout, but just as his vicious nature has wound up sending him to the Crimea in the first place, his hatred of Cardigan, and his eagerness to send the objectionable Lord into the way of danger, is his more proximate undoing.
I’m not going to layout the Balaclava battlefield, which is the source of the entire controversy. But the sight of British guns being hauled off by the Russians enables Flashy to put in a spiteful stage-whisper that prompts Raglan into sending out Nolan with that ambiguous message.
Unfortunately, no sooner has Nolan set off than his habitual caution has him send the next galloper with a message to act defensively. And that rider is Flashman.
Which is why he winds up heading into the Valley of Death, half a league, half a league, half a league onwards, and by now farting explosively to boot. In amongst the cannon and shot, Flashy makes it to the Russian battery, but is unhorsed: Lord George Paget helps him to a riderless mount and by now Flashy has had enough. Damn his reputation, he is hightailing it, hell for leather, despite Lord George’s screams for him to come back.
Unfortunately, which we might all have guessed by now, Flashy has gotten completely disoriented, and is re-charging the Russian battery. Where he is captured as fast as he can surrender.


What follows is a lengthy and mainly peaceful middle section. being an officer and a gentleman, to outward appearances, Flashman looks forward to decent, if short-lived treatment, until he is exchanged for an equivalent Russian prisoner. However, it appears that the English hold no-one of Flashy’s status, so until a suitable captive is taken, Flashman will be taken a good distance into mainland Russia, to be held as a gentleman prisoner at Starotorsk, on the Estate of the former Cossack General, Count Pencherjevsky (think Brian Blessed, but without the delicacy and self-restraint).
The Count lives with his unmarried sister, Sara, and his married daughter, Valla, whose non-Cossack husband has failed to beget a son on her to date, or any child, come to that. But Pencherjevsky is also billeting another English officer, of much less fame but far greater patriotism, Christianity and intelligence than our hero. To their mutual shock, Flashman finds himself confronting Harry ‘Scud’ East, formerly of Rugby School and Tom Brown’s Schooldays.
It’s not the easiest of relationships, a factor not assisted by East having generally avoided the family as much as possible (he has a raging crush on golden-haired Valla), whereas Flashman is happy to accept hospitality, especially so far away from the War. He and Pencherjevsky, being simple souls, get on extremely well.
So much so that, after a trial run with Aunt Sara in the sauna with the birch twigs, Pencherjevsky takes Flashy aside to put a proposition to him. Since his wimp of a son-in-law is highly unlikely to father an heir to Starotorsk on Valla, would Flashy consider rogering her every night until she gets one up the spout?
With the innocent east completely unaware of this nocturnal arrangement, to which both parties give full measure, the winter months pass in 1855. There is only one fly in the ointment.
This comes one late night when Flashy, wending his way back from Valla’s bedroom, stumbles (literally) over East, out on the landing, eavesdropping on a secret meeting in the hall. It is a portentous meeting, discussig a Russian plan (based on a series of military plans from the period) to take advantage of Britain’s distraction in the Crimea to send a Russian Army overland through Central Asia, to invade India from the North West, through Afghanistan.
An unseen, unnamed person is receiving this report. Fraser does not state that it is Tsar Nicholas, merely observes, editorially, that if it is, it is only days before his death. There is no evidence to suggest the Tsar went anywhere near Staratorsk in his final days, but then again, there is no evidence at all of his whereabouts in the final days of his life. Fraser is a master at discovering and utilising such lacunae.
This discovery leads to friction between Flashman and East, with the latter insisting on their duty requiring them to escape towards the Crimea and bring this news back, and Flashman, under cover of not throwing away their lives wastefully, emphasising the impossibility of escape and trying to ensure his cushy little billet is preserved.
And then the chance comes up. An external, pre-Communist agitator (whom Flashman hints was an ancestor of Lenin) provokes a rising of the peasants, who attack the house with fire. Pencherjevsky entrusts Flashman and East with getting Valla to safety, and East realises that they’ve been given their chance on a plate. The trio make for the Crimea.
It’s a fraught journey, with their sled being chased by, first wolves and then cossacks on horseback. After Flashy speeds things up by heaving the naked Valla out into the snow, it looks like he and East will make it, but the sled crashes with only a couple of miles to go. Flashman is trapped under it and East chooses to pursue his duty and abandons him to recapture.
Thus begins the third and final phase of the story, and in its way one of the most interesting and fascinating parts of the entire Flashman series.
Fraser has already introduced the historical figure of Captain Count Nicholas Pavlovitch Ignatieff, one of Russia’s best agents in the Far East. From the moment of his first, cruel and callous intervention, latterly seen as being solely for the purpose of seeing Flashman, he’s an obvious villain, capable, dangerous, controlling, utterly without human feeling. Ignatieff is in a way the anti-Rudi von Sterberg, for he is ice and contempt.
He also takes charge of Flashman, who has forfeited all honour, and right to be treated as a gentleman by his attempt to flee. Nor will it do any good if East does get the news through: the Russian Army will set off now, and be at the North West Frontier long before British Army can reinforce. And Flashman will travel every step of that way, in filth and degradation, and stand as an emblem of the Empire’s decay and fall.


Thus begins the most fascinating and strange section of the Flashman Papers. I have obviously done considerably less research into this sequence than did George MacDonald Fraser, but unlike any other ‘public’ adventure in the series, it is impossible to easily verify any of the factors in the remainder of the book. Nothing to verify Ignatieff’s presence in the Crimea or Central Asia, nothing to verify that a Russian Army set off towards India.
More than anything else in this series, I suspect the final third of this book has been made up out of whole cloth. The adventure bears that sensation. It is in the form of a journey that probably no European had ever undertaken, into and across an obscure and unknown part of the world that feels like a departure into a land not of Earth. Flashy crosses the Caspian Sea and the Aral Sea, visits strange cities, strange countries, all the time approaching Afghanistan from the back. Nothing is real, nothing certain.
Ultimately, it brings him to Fort Raim, on the eastern shore of the Aral Sea. This is the land of Sohrab and Rustum, the far-distant Oxus, a piece of the world utterly strange to us. But, on a prosaic level, it is also the land of Yakub Beg and Izzat Kutebar, brigands, rebels, pirates, guerillas, fighting the long and ultimately fruitless resistance to Russian Imperialism.
Flashy is thrown into a dungeon with this newly-captured pair and, against his natural inclinations, takes turns supporting Yakub Beg on his back, as he swings in chains. He’s rewarded with rescue, with being released when the Fort is stormed by Beg’s men, led by his woman, The Silk One, Ko Dali’s daughter.
Between the formal, florid, bantering language used between Beg and Khan, and The Silk One’s allusive, teasing manner, an overwhelming sense of near fantasy, related to the atmosphere of the Arabian Nights, steals over the story, not least so when Flashman suddenly becomes fierce and brave. For whilst messages of the threat will be sent to India, the chance arises to stop the Russian Army’s advance here, in the valley of the Syr Daria. Because the Russians have British Congreve rockets amongst their assets, and Yakub Beg has an experienced British officer, trained in the Ordnance to set them off.
What matter it that he is a lily-livered coward? Only Ko Dali’s daughter sees this but she has her ways. She teases Flashman into having sex with her, feeds him sherbet, and he’s set to go, and in a raging battle, Flashy does eventually succeed in blowing up the fleet. That it took a generous dose of hashish, the Old Man of the Mountain, to stir his bravery is nothing among friends, heh?
The invasion collapses. Yakub Beg’s fight continues a decade until the inevitable, the long defeat that invokes the spirit into wishing it could end otherwise, that this world Fraser has introduced us to should not slip into oblivion. As I said, unlike the rest of the series, I suspect that none of this happened, that it is as wholly fictional as the Duchy of Strakenz in Royal Flash, but I still love it.
George MacDonald Fraser never admitted if he had a favourite amongst the Flashman books, though he did confirm that his agent thought this to be the best. I have only one other novel in the series that I prefer to this, and it is that final, fantastic section that sweeps me away every time.

History and Memories
This little section will follow each blog. It will focus on those moments in each book where Flashman’s reminiscences touch upon periods of his career not directly related in The Flashman Papers, and those moments when Flashman’s memory lets him down and contradicts his ‘official’ record.
P12. Flashman records that his public profile is still high despite not having taken the field for his country for about eight years. This last military endeavour will be recorded in the Ninth Packet. He also credits himself as being ‘about the only man to charge in the right direction at Chillianwallah (a mistake, mind you)’. This is a rare slip on Fraser’s part: this battle formed part of the Second Sikh war and took place in January 1849, when Flashman was acting as overseer on the Mandeville Plantation, in America. One ingenious explanation was that Flashman pretended to have been on active service in India to conceal his disgraceful retreat from England and had gotten so used to his cover story that, when writing his memoirs, decades later, forgot he’d ever been there, but accepting this is to undermine the principle of the series, that Flashman is telling the unvarnished truth. This is the most egregious slip in the entire series.
P32. Flashman’s most recent military action is confirmed by Lord Raglan as ‘against the Sikhs’.
P38. Flashman mentions various of his brushes with royalty, including the as-yet unrecorded appointment as chief-of-staff to ‘that black she-devil Ranavalona’, which will be recorded in the Sixth Packet.
P124. Flashman compares the arrival of the Light Brigade at the Russian battery with other horrific battles he has experienced, such as the Little Big Horn and Chillianwallah. The former will be related in the second part of the Seventh Packet: Chillianwallah has been referenced above.
P135. Flashman visits the captured from the Light Brigade and references their regimental song, ‘Garryowen’ for the first time. This will become a running theme in his memoirs and he mentions hearing it sung and whistled from ‘Afghanistan to Whitehall, from the African veldt to drunken hunting parties in Rutland’, and also hearing it roared out on chorus by Custer’s 7th at the Little Big Horn. We will have to guess when Flashman was on the African veldt, but when it comes to the Seventh Packet, there is no direct reference to the song after the Battle commences.
P197. The besiegement of Starotorsk has Flashman recalling similar affairs at Cawnpore, Lucknow and Pekin. The first two will be addressed during the Fifth Packet, but the Pekin Embassy Siege, Flashman’s last known historical adventure, will never be recorded in detail.
P204. Flashman recalls an incident with Kit Carson, who he will meet, albeit relatively fleetingly, in the first half of the Seventh Packet. This incident is not expanded upon and seems out of both character and context for Carson’s role in that book.
P262. A first mention for Flashman’s official memoirs, Dawn’s and Departure’s of a Soldier’s Life, here referred to as a single volume though it will grown to a three volume work, the last of which being difficult to find for reasons we’ll learn in due course. I’ve always wondered what it might have read like, by way of comparison, you know.
P318. Flashman converts a old song, recited by Yakub Beg, into rhyming English, ending with the poignant line ‘They find the Golden Road to Samarkand’. Though not identified as such by Fraser, this is clearly a precursor to James Elroy Flecker’s verse drama Hassan… The Golden Journey to Samarkand. It is not suggested that Flashman ever knew, let alone influenced, Flecker.

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Deep Space Nine: s03 e04 – Equilibrium


In a pool…

I’ve not really that much to say about this episode. It was well-made, and thought-provoking but, at the same time curiously static and uninvolving. Some of this has to be attributed to it centring upon Jardzia Dax and thus requiring Terry Farrell to hold it together.

I don’t want to be unfair on the lady, especially given that the episode called upon her to show aggression, which is outside the usual emotional range, and Farrell wasn’t too bad at that. But none of it ever felt completely convincing: unlike the rest of the cast, Ms Farrell doesn’t have the range to command an entire episode, and it was no surprise to find that the crucial scenes took place around her unconscious body.

To  summarise: at a party in Sisko’s quarters, Dax picks up a Twenty-Fifth century electric piano and finds herself doodling out a nice melody that she can’t properly remember. It starts to obsess her. She starts flying into uncharacteristic rages, accuses Sisko of cheating at chess, then has hallucinations of dark corridors and a dark-robed figure with a blank face-mask.

Bashir checks her out and discovers that Dax’s isoboramene levels are low, isoboramene being crucial to the communication between host and symbiont. He and Sisko accompany her to the Trill homeworld and the Symbiosis Commission where these levels are successfully treated, that is, until Dax has another hallucination, this time of witnessing a murder and being attacked by Commission staff.

The music is key to this. It’s tracked down as being by a Trill composer called Joran Belar, at which name Jardzia collapses in neuroshock. Her isoboramene levels have dipped sharply, to the point where, if they continue to fall, the symbiont  will have to be removed and Jardzia will die.

Sisko and Bashir try to find out more about Joran, but his records have been completely wiped. He has a surviving brother, who confirms that Joran was aggressive, even paranoid and violent – and also a Trill Initiate. What’s more, he was supposedly rejected, which led him to kill the doctor and be killed trying to escape, but his brother is convinced that Joran had been Joined, at least six months prior to his death.

Adding this to the information that Joran supposedly died the same day as Dax’s fifth host, the one immediately prior to Curzon, and Sisko susses it out. The Commission exists to govern the joining of Trill and symbionts. It tests extensively to ensure there are suitable hosts – approximately one in one thousand – so that the symbionts are preserved: an unsuitable host would kill itself and its symbiont within three to four days.

But Joran was an unsuitable host, yet he was joined to Dax and stabilised for six months. The omission has suppressed all records of this, proof that at least fifty percent of Trills can host, far far more than there are symbionts. The Doctor has to admit Sisko’s theory as correct, but pleads the greater good. Sisko will keep the secret, provided that Jardzia is cured. Which is resolved simply by her entering one of the symbionts’ birthing pools (in a long, flowing white robe that gets wet through, that Farrell does not provide us with any wet t-shirt moments). Joran Dax surfaces, symbolically, Jardzia embraces him and there it is: equilibrium is restored by the return of blocked memories.

It’s an interesting rather than an absorbing episode, with its revelations about Trills and symbionts (which, in their unjoined state, live mainly under ‘water’ and look a little like otters when they semi-surface), but as I said, a stronger actress than Farrell could have made this a lot more personal.

Gene Wilder


I’ll do it!

I first saw him in Blazing Saddles, playing the drunken sheriff and gunslinger, playing a gentle, humble, laid-back second banana role to Cleavon Little despite being the more established star.

Then he was Victor von Fronkensteen in Young Frankenstein, which I had the luck to see in the same week as Granada’s season of Frankenstein films had featured The Bride of Frankenstein, which meant I was fully au fait with all the gags and parodies.

And some time after that, I caught up with 1968’s The Producers, in which he played the nervous and law-abiding accountant enveigled by Zero Mostel into the most-sure fire fraud of all time, a film that provided me with one of my all time film moments, when he finally succumbs to Mostel’s blandishments, screaming “I’ll do it!” at the top of his voice as the lights and the fountains come on, in a moment as kitsch as all get out and bloody wonderful to watch.

These weren’t his only films, but they are the ones I went to in my imagination when I learned this evening that Gene Wilder was dead at the age of 83, of complications to do with Alzheimer’s Disease.

Another victim to this most greedy of years, another light gone out of the life of the world. Rest in Peace, Gene Wilder. There wasn’t a moment you rested in any of your great films, and they were always the better for it. Go do it.

Porridge Regurgitated


As it ought to be

On a scale of Still Open All Hours to 10, the one-off Porridge revival rated about a 3. That was based on one point for making me laugh, softly, half way through the episode, and two for not being anything like as dire as Still Open All Hours. That still doesn’t mean it was in any way a good idea, nor that the show worked, and it certainly doesn’t mean that time or energy should be expended on making any more.

I picked out Porridge as being the only one of this mercifully short season of sitcom revivals with the potential to work because it was the only one to acknowledge the passage of time since its primary’s heyday. Also, it had Dick Clement and Ian la Fresnais going for it. This showed in the scripting, which was easily recognisable as the duo’s work.

It just wasn’t funny enough, though.

Some of it has to be put down to the actors. Kevin Bishop inherits the Fletch role as grandson of the original (sad to say, his grandad has also passed away, even in fiction, five years before, but he never went back inside, and Uncle Lennie was inspired by him and eventually set Fletch up with a North London pub, a real pub). I’ve not watched Bishop before. He’s not Ronnie Barker, which is nothing to be ashamed of, but on this showing he’s no more than a stereotypical, cheeky chappie Cockney, and he’s considerably younger than the old Fletch.

Clement and la Fresnais are to be applauded for not slavishly following their original, especially when the cell-mates set-up is reversed by having Fletch squared away with an old lag (Joe Lotterby, 77 years old, knew Fletch Senior in Slade, inspired the only real laugh I had when he related the true circumstances of his conviction for murder).

But that exposes a serious weakness in the revival. The point of Porridge was that Fletch was an old lag, a wily old lag, experienced in doing his bird, fly and far ahead of the screws. Nigel Fletch is a smartarse cyber-criminal, doing his first sentence. He’s too young and inexperienced to be a convincing wily old lag, yet that’s what he’s got to be.

As for the rest of the show, Clement and la Fresnais have been wise enough to go for recreating the atmosphere rather than slavishly duplicating the cast. There are recognisable figures: Mancunian gang boss Richie Weeks (Ralph Ineson) is the Harry Grout du nos jours, whilst Dominic Coleman as Senior Warder Braithwaite and Mark Bonnar as Chief Warder Meekie, are obvious replacements for Barrowclough and Mackay.

As for the rest of the lags, we do not have direct substitutes for Warren, McLaren, Godber, Lukewarm, etc., which is good in one way, but none of the new characters are as neatly drawn, nor so deftly played, as a result of which they make little impression.  The only one who succeeds is Bonnar, as Warder Meekie, and he is the one who most shamelessly channels his original, Fulton Mackay.

So there you have it. The show fails to be as distinctive and promising as its original because, in a clearly applaudable decision not to duplicate the original, it fails to set a clear enough tone of its own. Nobody is really sure how to play their characters without coming over as plagiarising the first cast, and the only one who says, soddit, I’m going for it, is the most convincing character of all, mainly be reminding us how much better the Seventies Porridge was. And still is.

Let common sense and ordinary decency prevail. Do not order a series. Please.

Homicide: Life in Season Six


This year’s Crew

After the melodramatic announcement at the end of Season 5, Homicide: Life on the Street chose to start Season 6 in a similar manner to the previous year. Instead of Pembleton returning from surgery after his stroke, the episode begins with Bayliss and Pembleton returning to Homicide after their temporary re-assignment to the Robbery Squad: three months of routine, nine-to-five shifts, regulation cases, undemanding work: they can’t wait to get back!
Both detectives are imagining a welcome party, and indeed they walk into the middle of one, but it’s Barnfather holding a press conference to celebrate the cracking of a major case by Detectives Ballard and Gharty.
Yes, as we surmised, Peter Gerety has joined the cast as Stu Gharty, transferring from Internal Affairs, as has Jon Seda, as Paul Falsone, from Auto. Ballard is the third new cast member for the season: Callie Thorne playing Laura Ballard, who has transferred over from the Pacific North West, the Seattle Police, and making a name for herself as a fine detective: you can just feel the sparks between her and Pembleton before they are even introduced.
The new trio comes at the expense of two departing cast members, both of whom were written out as a response to outside scandals. Max Perlich’s departure was long-known: the young actor had gone on a cocaine-fuelled binge, barricaded himself in his Baltimore rooms with a gun and faced down the Police: Pembleton called for Brodie only to discover he’d gone west, to Hollywood, after winning an award for his Documentary in season 5 (cue sarky in-joke referencing Homicide‘s record of multiple nominations and no awards.
And Kay Howard has chosen to stay with the Fugitive Squad. Melissa Leo’s departure was unfortunate, for she had been swept into a national scandal involving her partner and a custody battle with his ex-wife. And Tom Fontana commented that they had gone as far as they could with the character, which was, to an extent, true. Howard’s promotion to Sergeant had isolated her from her former fellow-detectives, and the genuine role a Baltimore PD Sergeant played had had to be twisted to keep her in the cast.
So, sweeping changes.
But season 6 was to prove both rewarding and difficult for the show, even as it was still running on the back half of its confidence-boosting two season order.
In Britain, Homicide had been running on Channel 4 since the early Nineties. It was, in many ways, an ideal Channel 4 programme, in the way that Hill Street Blues, with its greater elements of conventional Police melodrama, and strong soap opera content, was archetypal ITV.
But Homicide had never been a strong ratings item for C4, and by Season 6 it was obvious that they wanted as little to do with it as they could. Almost from the beginning it was dumped into a midweek 12.30am slot, and in its back half, C4 began to speed it along with double bills. For someone working a 9 to 5 job it was out of the question to sit up until 1.30am for single episodes, let alone compound that demand, and I ended up videotaping most of the series to watch the following evening after work: all except the two parter centring upon Ballard and Gharty that had actually been broadcast in America as a double-length episode, for which something went wrong on the timer.
It was a horribly disrespectful way to treat a series that had been a strong part of C4’s image for so many years, but it was worse to hear that it would not be renewed. There was going to be a Season 7, and it was going to be the last season, without fail. I felt betrayed that I was going to miss this further series: even 12.30am double bills would have been acceptable if I could only see the thing. In the end, though, the Channel outdid itself, billing the final episode of Season 6 as the last ever episode of Homicide, a blatant lie designed to shield them from any complaints.
The opening episode, kicking off a three-parter, saw not just Pembleton and Bayliss returning from Rotation. Lewis and Kellerman were also due back at later stages in the day, Lewis first, and immediately asking Giardello for a re-partnering: he would fetch up with the new boy, Falsone. Kellerman, last in, was partnered with Munch, who was once again solo, Russert having tendered her formal resignation after realising how out of place she was amongst her ex-colleagues when dealing with Felton’s death.
Infodumps having been handled with Homicide’s customary naturalness, we are soon into action. The body of a woman is found in the toilets of a swanky hotel where the great and good of Baltimore have gathered to honour Felix Wilson (James Earl Jones), a prominent black businessman and philanthropist, not to mention friend of Giardello, who is sitting with the family. Unfortunately, the victim is their maid.
Equally unfortunately, Pembleton pulls the case. I say unfortunately because Pembleton, in awe of Wilson and what he has done for the black community, starts with the presumption that neither he nor his family, by virtue of who they are, can be involved, and any attempt to investigate him is a racist slur. Gee concurs in this, initially at first, and only Ballard, who Pembleton contemptuously refers to a ‘Seattle’ wants to see proper procedures applied.
As may have been expected, the case eventually does find its way back to the Wilsons. The case is solved but not cleared when Pembleton meets Felix and his son for an interrogation in which their rights are not read, thus invalidating anything they say as evidence. The son is the killer: he was in love with Malala but killed her in a jealous rage when he discovered she was also sleeping with his father. The Wilsons are going to protect their son: what’s more, they are leaving Baltimore, and pulling out their holdings. Pembleton, in the end, is forced to make an apology, of sorts, to Ballard.
It was an intriguing story. What I took from it was the customary message that the rich – even such ‘good’ rich as a black couple who have not forgotten their roots – are ultimately intent on being above the Law. Their son is a murderer: he has killed someone known to and liked by them, someone under their protection. But he is to be protected from what he has done, justice is to be denied, because they have the money to confront it. And in what I can only interpret as a fit of pique that they should even be questioned about this crime, they will take their toys and go away.
Amongst all this, the new season made it plain that it had not forgotten Luther Mahoney: his sister, Georgia Rae, is making waves, refusing to believe the official account, and there is a motorcycle gunman taking pot-shots at cops: specifically Kellerman, the car containing Lewis and Falsone, and a woman shot through the head as she talked with a Drugs Squad detective, Terri Stivers.
The aftermath of Mahoney’s killing, and the knowledge that affects the three detectives involved is a canker that underlines the whole season. Georgia Rae Mahoney maintains the pressure on the Department throughout. It is her hapless son, Junior Bunk, Luther’s nephew, who is the motorcycle shooter, and despite his protestations of being hard, he cracks like an eggshell. But Georgia Rae not only keeps up the legal pressure, suing the City, the Department, the detectives, but she tricks Kellerman into more or less admitting that the shoot was bad. She also provokes Lewis into an assault that sees him suspended for most of the series and off the official scene.
For Kellerman, things go only downhill. The pressure is on him from the beginning, when he is rejected by his partner Lewis, and things worsen when it appears that the new boy, Falsone, is investigating the Mahoney killing. The new boy gets himself shot at on his first day partnering with Lewis: he is naturally concerned about what he’s gotten into.
And Jon Seda got all kinds of promotion during this season, his brash, aggressive personality brushing up against everything, his custody battles with his ex-wife running on. It was known by now that Andre Braugher was in his last season, seeking fresh challenges: in a ‘show without stars’ he was the clear star, and there was some resentment at the relentless way Falsone was being groomed as the new ‘star’.
As for Reed Diamond, he would also end up leaving the show at the end of the season, because the screws that tighten upon Kellerman end up leaving his story with no future. His killing of Luther Mahoney creates an inexorable trail. Kellerman’s attitude, his sense of responsibility, his concern for the dead, even his appearance suffer the longer things go on, as he tries at one and the same time to take sole responsibility for his actions, reassuring Lewis and Stivers that he will sort out everything, whilst blaming everybody else under the sun for what has happened.
The storyline is beautifully paced, simmering in the background, developing towards a fiery conclusion.

Talking to a living dead man

But at the same time, Homicide showed itself capable of strong stories that had nothing to do with the Mahoney case. Having established the ongoing effects of the Mahoney shooting, the show had the chutzpah to switch direction completely, centring upon Bayliss and Pembleton, with a minimal role for Lewis and Falsone. ‘The Subway’ was an incredible one-off: Vincent d’Onofrio, in his first TV role, guested as a murder victim, a man who, one morning in the subway station, is jostled on the platform and falls in front of the train. He isn’t killed outright, but his body is caught between the train and the platform. He is conscious, lucid, talking. But beneath platform level, the lower half of his body has been twisted round by 180 degrees. He is being kept alive because the pressure of the train is holding his guts in, but once the train has been moved to enable the emergency services to extract him, he will die literally within seconds. That is a cast iron certainty.
Did he fall or was he pushed? Bayliss works the crowd, eventually tracking down the madman who pushed him, an innocent, random victim. Pembleton interviews the dead man. It’s so far out of his experience, that the articulate Pembleton is all but speechless, completely bereft of ideas of what to say: he’s not used to the dead being able to talk back.
Lewis and Falsone are pulled into the case on a mercy mission: the guy’s girlfriend is jogging in the park and they are asked to find her and get her to the station so that they can say their farewells. It’s not an easy task, given the size of the park, and the pair don’t exactly go at it whole-heartedly.
In the end, the subway is moved, the victim dies, his assailant is arrested and, the final irony, as everyone starts to wind down and remove the gear from outside the station, a lone female jogger, with headphones, jogs out of the park and gives the action a wide berth as she heads home.
Coincidentally, d’Onofrio’s future co-star in Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Kathryn Erbe, was principal guest star later in the season, as a full-blown, dying AIDS victim who has murdered the HIV-positive lover who, impliedly deliberately, passed on the disease to her and several other woman through unprotected sex.
Whilst ‘The Subway’ was the highlight of the series, there were two other one-off episodes that had no relation to anything else in the season, these being the mid-season ‘Abduction’, guest-starring Elizabeth Marvel as a mother whose four year old boy is kidnapped in the park, and ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, airing immediately before the final two-parter, in which Falsone, assisted by a retired detective who is a monster of old-fashioned attitudes, solves the oldest open crime on the Baltimore P.D.’s books.

Ballard and Gharty

I’ve already referred to Falsone’s prominence as the next Homicide ‘star’, but whilst he’s up front throughout the series, the other two newbies, Ballard and Gharty, do not fare half so well. Despite Ballard’s direct and challenging role in the Felix Wilson case, she and Gharty are very much side-lined until mid-season. The partnership doesn’t cross over much into other cases, and apart from introducing Callie Thorne’s real-life allergy to fish dishes, she and Gharty only start to come to the fore in the two-part ‘Something Sacred’, investigating the murders of Catholic Priests, a case that causes the former altar boy and practicing Catholic Gharty several issues.
In America, this was broadcast as a double-length episode, which was the latest example of NBC disrupting the show’s longer term plans. Lewis had been put on suspension the previous episode and throughout this two-parter, he is missing, uncontactable. The viewer is meant to fear he’s been killed by the Mahoney gang but the tension is not given room to develop when he turns up at the end of the two-parter.
For several weeks, whilst Clark Johnson was directing episodes, Lewis was making only fleeting appearances, dressed casually, slouching in his car, occasional meets with Falsone, who is feeding him information on the Mahoney gang. Slowly the screw begins to turn on Georgia Rae Mahoney as well.
Elsewhere, Bayliss and Dr Julianna Cox have a brief affair over Xmas and New Year, that Cox ends abruptly. Hurt and a little bitter, Bayliss becomes intrigued with his next case, the hate-murder of a gay man, and starts to explore other sides to his character, starting with a dinner date with the handsome, relaxed club owner who is so helpful to him and Pembleton.
Though the two are not connected, this is actually a prelude to the departure of Michelle Forbes. Tired of the awkwardness of shoehorning her into episodes, the show had Cox coming under pressure to falsify an Intoxication report on the victim of a fatal road rage incident by a City employee that looks to cost the city millions. Cox, after a long debate with herself, attempts to alleviate the pressure by leaking it to the press: she is summarily fired.
Just as she arrived during Season 5, Dr Cox departs Baltimore in her fast car, during Season 6. The producers have openly regretted the waste of Michelle Forbes by not introducing her as another detective.
As in Season 4, Homicide organised another crossover with Law & Order, with Munch and Falsone going to New York, and Lennie Briscoe, Rey Curtis and Jack McCoy coming to Baltimore in the second half. The case was a typical Law & Order ‘ripped from the headlines’ affair, riffing on the JonBenet Ramsay murder, a teenage model dying in New York following an attack made in Baltimore. Munch and Briscoe again hit it off perfectly, and Homicide played off that by introducing, a few weeks later, Munch’s ex-wife (and Briscoe’s ex-lover) Gwen , played superbly by Carol Kane.
Kellerman is also campaigning against Georgia Rae Mahoney, reporting a Judge in her pay to the FBI only to find that he’s already under investigation. Unfortunately, Kellerman makes a too obvious threat in a too obvious place and the Judge is taken out abruptly.
This is the unexpected signal for the endgame, in two of the most intense episodes of the series ever, though amazingly the finale starts with an in-joke. Bayliss and Pembleton, en route to the murder that will prove to be that of the Judge, precede the credits by discussing a new book by a couple of writers who spent a whole year on a Baltimore drug corner before writing it all up, and using everybody’s real names! Pembleton wonders if, one day, someone will write a book about him.
The joke is that the co-writer of ‘The Corner’ is David Simon, writer of ‘Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets’ and now an Executive Producer and scripter on our favourite programme.
The Judge’s killer is Junior Bunk, only he’s not the soft pushover he was at the beginning of Season 6. Bunk’s been inside and has toughened up, emotionally and physically. Handcuffed in the squadroom, he sees a chance to seize a weapon. An uncharacteristically bloody shoot out ensues: three uniforms are killed, Ballard and Gharty are seriously wounded and Bunk himself is shot down by a four pronged assault by Pembleton, Bayliss, Giardello and Kellerman.

Junior Bunk is no longer a sad-ass punk

It’s more than enough for Gee, who declares war on the Mahoney gang. In their decimated state, the gang cannot stand up to the cops. Georgia is found shot dead by her guards, one of whom in escaping confronts Pembleton, one-to-one. Pembleton freezes, unable to pull the trigger, and his life is saved by Bayliss, pushing him aside, but taking the bullet in his back. He is rushed to hospital.
The pressure of everything is too much for Stivers, who goes to Giardello and confesses that the Mahoney shoot wasn’t clean. Gee has to deal with this once and for all: though Pembleton wants to be at the hospital for news of Bayliss, Gee orders him back to the squadroom where, with Falsone, he takes first Lewis, then Kellerman into the box. Lewis initially lawyers up, but under Pembleton’s urging that they need to get the truth between them, dismisses his lawyer and silently points the finger at Kellerman.
The interrogation is intense, but despite Kellerman’s denials, the truth comes out, his body unconsciously betraying him by forming a gun hand pointing to the floor, giving Pembleton the vital clue. Kellerman’s astonishment at how he has given himself away is palpable.
Pembleton asks Kellerman for his badge and gun, but cannot bring himself to look at him. Lewis refuses Kellerman the loan of his gun and a moment alone in the Box. Pembleton writes it up straight and goes back to the hospital.
Giardello talks to Kellerman, advising him that he could fight it with lawyers, and maybe even win, but if he does he takes down Lewis and Stivers, who signed false reports to cover him. Trapped in an inescapable hole, Kellerman resigns so that the whole thing can be buried. When the news reaches the hospital, Pembleton does the same. The truth of the job has been lost to him: he can never go back in the Box. Bayliss is taken into surgery, and the season ends.
When C4 broadcast the final episode, they announced it as the last ever episode, in full knowledge that there was another season to follow, a season that I eventually got to see on DVD, several years later, slowly building up a library of the whole series.

The Infinite Jukebox: Shawn Colvin’s ‘Set the Prairie on Fire’


Sometimes, late at night, when the world has gone empty but I’m not yet in sight of sleep, I find myself turning to this song, and playing and replaying it over and over on YouTube. It’s almost seven minutes long and it can repeat for an hour or sometimes more, soothing me, easing tensions I can’t name. Sometimes, I need that desperately.

‘Set the Prairie on Fire’ comes from Shawn Colvin’s second album, Fat City, released in 1991, and it’s the least typical song she’s ever performed. That’s down entirely to its guest artist, the legendary Booker T Jones, on electric organ. and I do not believe that there’s another organ-player in the whole world who could have laid down this slow, smouldering, smooth and absorbing track.

The song is simple. It’s about sex, and when I say sex I mean looking forward with intense anticipation to getting it on with the loved one, or at least the one most seriously being lusted over. Colvin makes no bones about it from the the opening line: it’s night, the moon is full, and she’s gonna cover every inch of him like ink on a paper.

No holding back. The woman knows what she wants and there are no hints and half-statements. I can’t wait till I can get you in that defenceless position, she croons, bending phrases through a passion that’s overwhelming. We’ll set the prairie on fire, she promises, go down to the water, naked and slow. How hard will the wind blow? How far will it go?

Colvin’s guitar strums, Jones’s organ ripples. Colvin is being open, wide open, singing of her lust and what it does to her in terms that at least one former girlfriend would have insisted should not be revealed to men. There is an extraordinary verse: When this feeling burns down to one solitary colour (a synaesthesic moment, her orgasm has overwhelmed her), the velocity of lonely melts us into each other (the sex so intense that the boundaries between bodies blur), it’s a song our fingers play, all at once and together (the boundaries between minds blur), you can bet we’ve never learned this but we’ve known it forever (which is a reminder that sometimes I need, and sometimes I would rather not think of).

And we set the prairie on fire, she repeats, and though you wouldn’t believe the song could go deeper into that moment when man and woman achieve a closeness on every single level that obliterates the idea of being different people, Colvin tops it again, singing directly into the heart of that velvet explosion.

In the cool dusk of horses, through the rusted wires of sleep, with our arms around midnight, we’re heading for release, we go riding in the wind, we go riding in the dark, riding, riding, riding, until it all bursts and her voice soars.

Then there’s nothing left but that guitar strumming, a peaceful, even rhythm, whilst Jones, released in his own manner, noodles on the organ and the sound fades, slowly, very slowly, as the lovers lie there and try to remember which one they are.

It’s pure sex, of that most intense and brilliant kind, that takes you into a place where you can never go, save with that one person, where you can never go without them, nor with anyone else. Couples make these places together: they don’t actually exist on Earth.

At times, as night, when I’m feeling lost and lonely, I play this song over and over, until I am safe to go to sleep. Shawn Colvin didn’t mean for this song to be therapy for me, but it has become so. The times I need it gradually grow fewer, but the Infinite Jukebox houses my need, forever at hand.

Crap Journalism – Would you pay for it? (nudge, wink)


When I started this intended-to-be-a-running-feature, I was envisaging exploding at least once a week and more often at the crap that populates the Guardian these days. But perhaps I’ve become much mellower, or maybe it’s because I nowadays really don’t have any interest in most of what they pass off as journalism.

To take a current example, there’s a piece on the website today about ‘Critic-proof TV’, listing various shows that are slaughtered by the critics but which people not only watch and enjoy but, in the case of Mrs Brown’s Boys, have actually voted Best Sitcom.

That’s the peg for the article, but among these critic-proof shows is my own favourite, The Big Bang Theory. And I simply don’t give a toss that the critics don’t like it. I have made up my own mind about this, and that is good enough for me. I do not need or find validation in people agreeing with me, nor feel any threat from those who disagree.

And it’s like that about so many things. So many features and articles that are completely unnecessary, or which are nothing more than fluff that pretends to an authority that would be spurious if it were at all relevant. Think that way if you want (or if you really do and aren’t merely maintaining an attitude in order to generate clickbait for the advertisers).

But today I’ve become conscious of a seemingly new feature. At the bottom of many articles on the website there is a new exhortation. If you’ve used this, it suggests, why not support it? And there are a list of links ranging from £25 to £250.

Yes, the Guardian is now so desperate for money that it’s resorted to asking its web-page audience to pay for what it reads.

Maybe that’s understandable, but what is unbelievable is that all manner of useless, badly-written, off-key, skewed and inconsequential pieces are being rated as worth £25 – at least – to be read. And the notion that this ludicrous piece of celebrity-lite smoke-blowing is worth £250 – yes, just consider that for a second, £250 – is the very definition of crap journalism.

The Guardian was once a worth-while and valid paper. It has turned into a pandering, increasingly right-wing piece of birdcage lining, where only the sports section, and the crossword are worth perusing. I resent the payment I make for having a crossword to plug away at at lunch, and I certainly wouldn’t pay £25 for anything the Guardian has published since Hugo Young passed on.

If I’m being asked to read Crap Journalism, then it’s they who should be paying me.