Back in 1990, ITV broadcast a documentary about Frank Hampson, creator of Dan Dare, co-creator of the Eagle, a figure then even more forgotten than he is today. The programme, running 45 minutes without adverts, was titled Future Perfect, and I knew nothing of it until it was repeated, late one night, in the middle of the decade.
Properly alerted to some of its contents, I videoed it at the start of a new tape, and kept it, though for many years I was unable to watch it due to the absence of a videoplayer on which to play it (the absence on a television set to watch it upon was also a stumbling block).
But, just as I did with that lovely play, The Cricket Match, adapted from A E Housman’s brilliant England, Their England, last year I had it transferred to DVD, and after many other commitments and issues, this evening I have finally won the time to rewatch it.
The documentary is far from perfect. It represents Frank Hampson’s life and career on Dan Dare fairly accurately, but in far more simplistic terms than any of the books about him have done, and it leans heavily towards crediting Marcus Morris as Eagle‘s creator, to the extent of implying that Morris had Hampson create his most famous character to order (though that may be my distinct Hampson prejudice making me over-sensitive).
It also suffers from the flaws of the time in not being sufficiently serious, a relic of the standard it’s-only-a-comic attitude that can’t somehow pretend to fully respect its material. There’s suitably ‘spacy’ music, and the talking heads that provide a lot of the air-time (meticulously identified every time they speak, as if the viewers are continually joining the episode late) may well be enthusiasts, and intelligent with it, but are still somewhat dismissable as serious opinion-makers: ex-Python Terry Jones, Queen guitarist Brian May, ex-Coronation Street actor Geoffrey Hughes. Phil Redmond, creator of Grange Hill and Brookside is the exception.
Even the choice of Tom Baker as narrator was a slight nod to the eccentricity of a comic being worth talking about.
More important are those closest to the actuality of the strip: Hampson’s son Peter, the (facial) model for ‘Flamer’ Spry, Marcus Morris’s three daughters, a copy of their biography about their father prominently displayed. But best of all, extensive participation by Greta Tomlinson, one of Frank Hampson’s original assistants.
There were even footage from Arthur C Clarke, the short-lived scientific consultant for the series, laying claim to inventing the name Treen, and a filmed interview with Frank Hampson himself, talking clearly and intelligently long after, though not comfortably, if his body-language – arms wrapped tightly around himself, legs crossed to the point of being entwined – is anything to go by.
And we kept cutting to pages and pages of Dan Dare art, Eagle covers and picked-out panels, though the same images kept returning, suggesting that there was not much variety available to the makers.
One part that clearly felt flat was the use of Chris Donald, founder of the then incredibly popular Viz comic, to provide a contradictory opinion. Eagle was an intrinsic part of everything Viz rebelled against, and Donald could have made some useful points (even if he was wrong-headed on some aspects of what ‘Dan Dare’ was) but he was clearly not allowed to speak his mind, so his contributions were incredibly diffused, to the point where they became pointless: the programme may as well have gone for all-out hagiography if it couldn’t stomach a true counter-opinion.
But there were three moments in the programme that I recalled, and for which this documentary is worth the retaining. Geoffrey Hughes’ presence was predicated on his recent casting as Digby in a proposed live-action TV series, from which some precious pilot footage, with and without blue-screen projections, was excerpted. It probably wouldn’t have worked, and the money wasn’t there to make it anyway, but Hughes’ eyes sparkled at having had even that amount of chance, and everybody involved were red-hot Dan Dare fans, so it’s a real shame because it really wasn’t updated.
And there was footage from an old Pathe newsreel feature, both colour and sepia black and white, about Frank Hampson at work, with eight year old Peter, and Max Dunlop in Dan’s spacesuit and, most uncanny of all, Robert Hampson in his Sir Hubert Guest uniform. We know Sir Hubert was based on ‘Pop’ Hampson, we’ve seen pictures of him posing that show us just how closely, and accurately, Hampson based the Controller on his Dad. But to see Sir Hubert walking around, in the flesh, was still not entirely canny, even this far on.
But the moment that moved me, and which perhaps spoke most eloquently, and silently, of those days, of what was being created and what it meant to those involved, came in the documentary’s third part. We were taken to the Bakehouse, in Southport, the first Frank Hampson studio, which still exists. Greta Tomlinson was taken too, went inside, looked around it in its much-changed state, identifying things we could not see, but she only too clearly could, her Home Counties, very matronly voice string and firm,until she started talking of the days in there, the sharing, the laughter, and her voice sped up to say it all, and she abruptly asked them to cut it there.
I’m glad to have the film available again, though perhaps having watched it now, I might never need to see it again. There is another VHS tape, somewhere in this flat, that I must find and have transferred, the watching of which is long overdue.
But the title of this DVD is nothing but ironic, given what we know of Frank Hampson’s life as a consequence of his genius. Dan’s future was, in comparison to our present, perfect, but neither we nor Frank Hampson lived in Dan Dare’s universe. If only we had.