Saturday SkandiThriller: Below the Surface episodes 3 & 4

Louise Falck, negotiator

We have now advanced rapidly to the halfway point of this extremely well-made series, and what has continued to be a taut, and highly engrossing thriller is starting to develop elements branching out from a mere plot. In a way, this is something of a limited series in comparison to the best of Denmark’s previous TV efforts, but I’m enjoying it far more than anything else from that part of the world since at least 1864.

Two more days have passed in the hostage crisis, and TTF (or maybe that should be CTF as I seem to be working off a different set of sub-titles this week) are inching nearer to the hostage-takers, Alpha, Bravo and Charlie, after a false move in episode 3.

That saw the elderly, unshaven Leon (played by the only actor I’ve seen before, Tommy Kenter, who was in Follow the Money 2) collapse into a diabetic coma. Alpha agreed to allow a medic down to treat him, but TTF used this as an opportunity to get one of their own into the underground lair, to be eyes and ears for a raid. This back-fired badly: a trip-wire set off explosions, which set off shooting. TTF had to back out with four men shot, not fatally at any rate, but Silas of the hostages copped a bullet in the side.

This became a proving moment for Marie, the nurse. We found out from her flashback that she’d be blown out for indecision (peculiarly apt in Denmark…) and she was out of her depth and failing in trying to save Silas, until she finally pulled herself together and set-up a makeshift blood transfusion which kept him alive long enough to be got out.

Leon got his insulin shots and was restored, and he flashbacked in episode 4, to life in Thailand with a not-so-young Thai prostitute who he planned to bring back to Denmark, but who wouldn’t go with him, destroying his dreams. That spurred him to break out the cage when flirty Denise pushed her luck too far with the psycho hostage-taker and was in the process of being raped. Leon averted the rape at the cost of a rifle-butt to the ribs and consequences to be seen. I anticipate a Denise flashback in episode 5: let’s see how right I am.

The story-line twisted at the end of episode 3. After last week’s shooting of Adel, Naja Toft had lost her nerve. She couldn’t believe they wanted another interview, which would have been with Leon, but at the last moment, she bottled it, switched off her phone.

This carried over into episode 4, with Naja withdrawing entirely, apologising to the families, leaving. But in a move I thought suspicious, one guy – rugged, self-sufficient, reasonably hamdsome or at least personable, followed her out. He said he was Leon’s son, he said he wanted to take over the fundraiser, he quite clearly fancied her. They spent the day together, talking, exchanging stories, meal, wine, and as could be seen coming, they spent the night together. Naja got an evidently enjoyable shag out of it, and her confidence back. And he walked away, pausing only for a quick mobile phone call to reassure Alpha that she’ll take his next call…

See, I was right.

It’s about the only cliched thing so far, and it does serve to deepen the waters as to just what Alpha wants, where this is heading and a large dose of What Is This All About?

I’ve avoided mention thus far of the traumatised Philip and the lovely Louise. After the error in authorising Cramer’s ill-fated raid in episode 3, Philip has kept a little in the background in episode 4, leaving S.P. and Claasen to trace back weapons equipping and get closer to the background, though he plays a brief blinder, empathising with a PTSD veteran in such a way as to have the lovely Louise fearing it wasn’t an act. He insists it was. Mind you, he’s using a back channel to check up on whether his torturer Ahmad really is dead, and when the word comes back that he really is, Philip is forced to open up the way she’s been wanting him too, confessing as to his experiences with Ahmad, and his fears that in believing Ahmad is Alpha, he is cracking up.

It adds a depth to what is going on that has previously to this been more hinted than actual, but which tees things up very nicely for the second half of the series.

I’m torn between wanting Alpha to be Ahmad, because so much is being built into this that I’m worried about how they’ll pull this off if it is someone unrelated, and being intrigued at the prospect of being blindsided and the ingenuity of how they’ll pull it off. With only four episodes left, some very clever plotting is going to be needed to draw everything into a satisfactory conclusion, but you know when you’re in good hands as readily as you know when you’re in bad ones, and I’m expecting to be kept in edge to the final edge.

Two more weeks. It’s hardly fair.

Film 2018: Arsenic and Old Lace

I have a bit if a thing for 1940s black-and-white films. Not all of them, and it’s a mixed bag of drama and comedy, but I think what I like them for are qualities that itr’s impossible to bring to filming nowadays, and indeed for decades since. For want of a better word, I call that ‘innocence’.

These are films being made at a time when films were the biggest form of mass entertainment. They were being made on Hollywood sound-stages and sets with a degree of artificiality that the technology of the time couldn’t render natural, in an era when censorship and the twin forces of public taste and morals heavily restricted what could and couldn’t be said and done. As a direct consequence, the writers, directors and performers had to use a higher degree of wit, intelligence and skill to convey things that couldn’t openly be said or shown.

It was a time when films set out to invoke the imagination of an audience that was in on the act and was open, indeed wanted, their imaginations stirred, instead of today when colour, screen-trickery, CGI and changed mores see the audience’s imagination satiated whilst being ever more blatant about how they are being tricked by unreality.

We can’t make films like Arsenic and Old Lace any more because nobody in the film business believes the audience will take them seriously, even as comedies. But this film is a classic and it will go on being one for a generation or two yet. What will happen to it when people lose the ability to see in black and white, I shudder to think.

Arsenic and Old Lace was first released in 1944, though it had been shot a couple of years earlier, over the winter of 1941-2. It was based on the very successful Broadway play of the same name, and included several of the actors from the long-running hit, but was not allowed to be shown until the play ended its run. Cary Grant stars, after Bob Hope and a couple of others were unavailable, and Priscilla Lane is co-billed with him, though her role is considerable smaller. Raymond Massey and Peter Lorre are the villains, Massey playing the role Boris Karloff played on stage, which explains the in-joke of several references to his character looking like Karloff.

In modern parlance, the film/play is about a pair of serial killers, and a most unlikely pair at that. It’s based on a real-life incident that dramatist George Kesselring was originally planning to treat seriously, before he was persuaded to turn it into a black comedy, at which point it becomes a brilliantly pitched farce that enables Cary Grant to show off an incredible range of double-takes, delayed reactions, slow burns and plain hamming it up that sails the story onwards without stress through a near two hours.

Basically: Grant is Mortimer Brewster, dramatic critic and anti-marriage disparager, and he’s just getting married to the lovely blonde girl-next-door, Elaine Harper (Lane, looking wonderfully, innocently lovely). Elaine’s a minister’s daughter, who lives just the opposite side of a small graveyard from the Brewster house, where Mortimer was brought up.

The Brewster’s are a long-established Brooklyn family, who came over on the Mayflower. The house is owned by spinster sisters Abby and Martha (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair from the stage version) who look after Mortimer’s brother Teddy (John Alexander, ditto). Teddy believes himself to be President Theodore Roosevelt, but the Misses Brewster are sweet, helpful and utterly sane.

Or so you think.

Mortimer’s had the taxi stop off so Elaine can pack her bags, he can tell his aunts (who’ve seen it coming) and then it’s off to Niagara Falls, the great big soppy cliched romantic husband. There’s a lot of kissing already going on and from the look in Mortimer’s eyes there’s going to be a lot of other stuff rapidly following on (from the mock-suspicious way Elaine’s treating that look, she can’t wait). Patrolman Brophy’s handing his beat over to rookie Patrolman O’Hara, and it’s the nicest beat in Brooklyn, and introducing him to the Brewster sisters. O’Hara’s a would-be playwright who’s going to be so delighted to meet Mortimer, he’ll be oblivious to everything else. Oh, everything’s entirely rosy.

Until Mortimer discovers the dead body in the window seat.

That’s Mr Hoskins. Aunt Abby did that one herself. Teddy’s informed that there’s been another death from yellow fever so he goes off to ‘Panama’ (the cellar) to dig another ‘lock’. Later, they’ll hold a service. It all started with a worn-out, lonely old man who had a heart attack whilst eating a meal with the Misses Brewster. Ever since, they’ve regarded it as their mission of mercy to give that kind of restful happiness to all other old friendless, family-less men. They drink elderberry wine. One gallon of elderberry wine, with one measure of arsenic, half a measure of strychnine and just a pinch of cyanide.

Mortimer can’t believe it, even through the entirely matter-of-fact manner, and slightly self-congratulatory air, his aunts adopt. At first he thinks it’s Teddy, in fact he’s convinced of it, but he has to believe them and that makes it worse.

Mortimer’s got to control this situation, which means pushing Elaine out of his mind (and the house and, possibly, his life: after all, he’s a Brewster too, and madness runs in the family). Got to get Teddy committed and off to Happydale Sanatorium!

Unfortunately there’s a fly in the ointment, if you didn’t already guess at the number of flies already buzzing. Mortimer has another brother, Jonathan, who takes it into his mind to turn up now, dragging in tow his partner, Dr Einstein, a small, cowering, permanently drunken plastic surgeon. Jonathan’s an evil, sadistic killer, by the way, also an escapee from an asylum for the Criminally Insane, and Einstein periodically alters his features. Just before the last operation, he’d seen this film with Boris Karloff in it…

Oh, and they’ve got a dead body with them that requires burial, a Mr Spinalzo.

Put everything together and watch it fizz. And boy, does it fizz.

Grant is simply brilliant, overplaying everything gleefully (I really cannot imagine Bob Hope is the part: well, actually I can, and he’d have made a god job of it in his own manner. But not like Grant). Raymond Massey is equally brilliant as Jonathan, underplaying in contrast and using his face and his sense of sinister presence to underlay things with a genuine frisson of unpredictabilty. Lorre plays a looser role, perpetually snatching snifters till his schnapps runs out, and cowering helplessly, to the point where you can’t begrudge him his miraculous escape at the end. And Hull, Adair and Alexander bring an inner and natural conviction to their daffy parts that keep you from ever doubting the story’s black premise.

At no point does the film ever treat the Brewster sister’s murders as anything other than a joke. Jonathan’s equally long history of murder (Dr Einstein has a good giggle over how the old ladies, without ever leaving Brooklyn, have exactly matched his globe-trotting score) is treated in exactly the opposite manner. We even see this onscreen: a Mr Gough responds to the ladies’ ‘Room for Rent’ notice before being chased off by an appalled Mortimer, much to their petulant dismay, but when Jonathan binds and gags Mortimer and plans to spend a little creative time with him, before the oblivious O’Hara interrupts, it’s creepy as hell: Massey makes it plain that Jonathan is going to enjoy this…

In the end, in a frantic ending, everything is resolved in true farce fashion: no, it isn’t: there are still thirteen bodies in that body, but nobody resents the flim-flam. Mortimer discovers he’s not a Brewster after all, by blood that is (he’s the son of a sea-cook, a joke that will shortly be impenetrable). Of course, the concerned Elaine nearly blows it all by discovering the bodies for herself, and as she’s the only witness to the graves who might be believed, Mortimer has to shut her up by kissing her, to which, after things have gone on for a sufficiently long time, she surrenders most willingly.

Arsenic and Old Lace was apparently taken pretty directly from the play, and it’s pretty much stage-bound in its set, with the one big room accounting for most of the action, and a few, short excursions to other settings, most of them scenes external to the house. It makes a virtue of this artificiality, further delinking its morbid subject from any strict response. I must have watched it a dozen times, especially on Sunday afternoons and now it’s taken its place in a Sunday morning Film 2018, and I’ve still laughed my head off.

We will have lost something indeed if we ever forget what makes this funny.


The Infinite Jukebox: The Tams’ ‘Hey Girl, Don’t Bother Me’

A discussion at work, behind my back, mentioned TAMS, which means certain equipment in a Telephone Exchange. It also meant an old memory for me of when The Tams got to no. 1 in the UK in 1971.
Almost fifty years later, I still can’t understand it. ‘Hey Girl, Don’t Bother Me’ was a Sixties obscurity, and if The Tams were known for anything, they were known for the song ‘Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy’. That had a bit of swing to it, you could imagine people dancing to it, and if that had charted, I’d have put it down to Wigan Casino, Northern Soul and all that stuff I didn’t understand until many years later.
But not ‘Hey Girl, Don’t Bother Me’. It’s a slow, repetitive, song, to a shuffling beat, about not wanting to get involved with a girl notorious for taking up and dumping young men, who’s now looking at the singer. It’s style lay somewhere between doo-wop and non-Motown soul, without leaning far enough in either direction.
What drove it’s sales, I have no idea, then or now. It slowly climbed the top 30, eventually reaching number 1, for three weeks, after which The Tams themselves arrived in Britain to promote their unexpected success, and were given the unique accolade of a Top of the Pops performance, after the record had slipped down from no. 1.
That’s what’s showing below. You may wish to take note that the group was a five-piece, lead singer and four backing singers, one of whom looks not quite all with it, and who disappears from the stage halfway through the song, to everybody’s puzzlement.
I hated it at the time, and I don’t say I like it now, outside the purely nostalgic aspect. For some reason, there is an incredible range of mostly unsuccessful 1971 music that appeals to me, as anyone following my Lost 70s posts will already know.
But what qualifies this strange song for a slot on The Infinite Jukebox is a history that only I may remember.
In those far-off days, the Manchester Evening News used to publish a Top 10 singles every week. Though I read it each week, I thought little or nothing of it because it was usually nothing more than a mirror of the BBC Top 10, the chart everyone used to rely on. But it must have been based on local sales because, one week in the summer of 1971, I was shocked to see two new entries that were not only not even in the BBC Top 30, but of which I’d never even heard.
The first of these, in at no. 3, was Curtis Mayfield, with ‘Move on Up’, which would chart several weeks later, and eventually peak at no. 12. The other was The Tams, and this shot in at no. 1!
I don’t think they stayed more than another week each and then normal service was resumed but I was intrigued by the presence of these two songs, so against the run of the mill. But you couldn’t just whistle up songs when you wanted them in 1971, you had to wait for Radio 1 to play them (in the evenings, I would try to get Radio Luxembourg, after Radio 1 shut down at 6.00pm, whilst my mate Steve C swore by Radio North Sea International, which I could never raise a signal from).
And these two songs started to get airplay, they hit the National Chart, and the Tams laboured but got to no. 1, displacing Diana Ross, and then being overtaken by Rod Stewart.
Some years later, I was told a story that I have no means of checking, but with the evidence of that MEN Top 10 I have no reason to doubt. Each year, a travelling fair came to Cringle Fields in Levenshulme. These were parkland and playing fields adjoining Errwood Road, diagonally opposite Levenshulme Girl’s School, the opposite number to Burnage High School for Boys, where I attended. We’d drive past the Fair, in Mam’s car, or on the bus, though I never went to it, and if I wanted to travel there, it was about five minutes on the bus. I met my old friend Linda for the first time in five years opposite Cringle Fields, in August 1971,to which I owe a couple of lifelong friendships.
But the 1971 Fair had been and gone by then. The guy who chose the records to blare out had picked an obscure Sixties track to play, over and over again. People started to ask what it was and where they could get it. It shot to the top of the Manchester charts. The action persuaded the record company to re-issue it. Sales picked up nationally. The result we know.
That’s the story as I know it, and I have the memories of the facts that underline it. Not a million miles from where I lived, on a road I travelled incessantly. I suppose it could only have happened in 1971.

American Gothic e20: Strangler

This episode is the last of the lost, the four episodes unaired in America on American Gothic‘s original run, though shown on Channel 4. It’s almost the last of the few memories of that initial viewing in the mid-Nineties, and it is, for the most part, what I remembered it to be, something awkward and contrived. Given that it features the infamous Boston Strangler, the real Boston Strangler, raised from the dead, I can understand why it would have been kept from the airwaves, though the episode also contained a major development that would have governed everything else to follow.

Basically: Merly is trying to get Caleb to forgive his father, but he can only say the words, not mean them. Their little meeting in the graveyard is interrupted by Lucas Buck, who wants rid of Merly once and for all. When he tries to seize her, she uses her powers to blast him back a dozen feet. So, after she and Caleb have gone, Lucas summons up a figure from the dead to do the job for him: Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler.

Gareth Williams, playing DeSalvo, does a massive job, aided by the fact that Gary Cole is absent for over half the episode, leaving the show to concentrate on the Strangler. He plays DeSalvo as a quiet, content man, secure in himself, self-aware, popular and empathetic, but nevertheless struck with an insane compulsion, of which he is, if anything, proud. Never at any time does he try to justify or explain himself.

Now Lucas is off to a Convention, leaving Ben Healy in charge. DeSalvo is only supposed to murder Merly – and when the dead kill the dead, they go into oblivion – but his obsession is too powerful. He attacks and kills the pretty, short-skirted nurse Sara (Amy Parrish), he attacks Gail Emory after seeing her briefly in a short skirt but is prevented by her resistance and Ben’s arrival, and he kills another nurse in the hospital itself.

In the meantime, posing as a refrigerator repairman, he befriends Caleb, nudging him towards calling on his sister.

With Lucas out of town, and Deputy Floyd imploring him to just wrap it all up until Buck gets back, Ben starts hesitant, but gradually grows in authority and intelligence, to the point that, by episode’s end, he has a hard-working, thrumming Sheriff’s office, operating thoroughly. The man has authority and respect. Naturally, Lucas shuts it all down: back to normal.

But that’s merely a stinger. The climax comes at the boarding house. DeSalvo has dropped all pretences: unless Caleb calls Merly, DeSalvo will use his knife. Merly comes, ready to defend her brother and, when her powers prove ineffectual against the Strangler, ready to forfeit her soul for him. DeSalvo has his hands round her throat, Caleb is trying to drag him off, she’s fading out, and then comes the moment that changes everything.Caleb screams ‘Noooo!!!!’, and his powers hurl DeSalvo across the room, against the wall, and burn him up from the inside, leaving only smoke-shadows against the wallpaper.

Merly has only sadness. Caleb has saved her soul, but at the cost of using powers that will destroy his soul. She touches Caleb’s face. They can now touch one another. She says “Goodbye.”

Effective as it is in that game-changing ending, and in showing Ben as both competent and a viable point of opposition to Lucas Buck, twenty years later ‘Strangler’ still feels like an awkward contrivance. The Boston Strangler is the Boston Strangler: Boston, Massachusetts, up North, Yankee country. He has nothing to do with Trinity, South Carolina. By dragging in a real-life, and extremely notorious figure, reality in Trinity is warped out of shape. It feels more like an episode done because someone wanted an episode starring Albert DeSalvo than anything organically part of American Gothic‘s true arc. For all that he’s actually a ghost here, the Boston Strangler is too real for everybody else beside him, and it ultimately damages the episode.

But it sets up the final two episodes, as we shall see.

Michael Fleisher R.I.P.: A Study in Notoriety

Sometimes, when someone famous dies, it overshadows the passing of someone else who deserves attention. The day Sir Laurence Olivier died was also the day Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny and many more, died, which was a much more personal loss for me, and one that, understandably, went virtually unnoticed.

Stephen Hawking’s death today has coincided with that of a figure who is much less deserving of attention than Mel Blanc, a former comic book writer who has not been involved with the field for decades, but who once achieved an unwelcome form of notoriety that played out when I was fully involved with comics.

This was Michael Fleisher. He left behind him a reputation that, for a time, he seemed to revel in, but which ultimately did him no good. Fleisher got his start in writing comics in the mid-Seventies. He had been installed at DC’s offices to research a proposed six volume history of comics, and from there started to get story assignments.

His first regular series became one of the most notorious of all time in mainstream comics, the revival of DC’s Forties character, The Spectre, in Adventure Comics.

Adventure was being edited by Joe Orlando, who had recently undergone a street mugging at gunpoint that left him furious and frustrated. The Spectre was the spirit of murdered Police Detective, Jim Corrigan, sent back by (impliedly) God, to fight evils with vast supernatural power.

The Spectre had been revived in the Sixties, as part of the Golden Age revival spearheaded by editor Julius Schwartz, where he had been treated as an almost God-like being. Fleisher proposed to go back to the root of the character, as a ruthless dispatcher of criminals. Orlando was just in the mood for that.

Fleisher played around a bit with The Spectre, taking him back to the original state, where Corrigan and The Spectre were the same being and both a ghost, ignoring the development that had seen Corrigan’s body restored to life and become a host for The Spectre. He introduced a new girlfriend in heiress Gwen Sterling (replacing original girlfriend Clarice Winston) and allowed her, unlike Clarice, to know that Jim was a ghost. And he thoroughly confused which Earth this was all taking place on by having a rookie cop respond to a sarcastic reference to ‘Clark Kent’ with a ‘Gee! Are you really Superman?’

But these were peripherals. Fleisher’s series was about one thing, and one thing only: how the Spectre slaughtered the villains. There was a formula to the series: sadistic and brutal crooks would prey on ordinary people without conscience: the Spectre would come along and kill them. The game was in what twisted manner, wonderfully illustrated by the great Jim Aparo, the Spectre would act. These included expanding a hairdresser’s scissors to massive size and cutting him in half, turning a fake crystal ball merchant into crystal an knocking him over to shatter and, most sickening of all, turning a man into wood and feeding him through a woodcutter.

The series was selling, but it was also arousing a lot of fan opposition. Apparently, Publisher Carmine Infantino, after taking a lot of heat for the series, looked for an excuse to end it and the moment the sales dipped, it was gone.

The series ran 10 issues. Twelve scripts had been purchased and two were left undrawn, which was exceptional behaviour for DC Comics in that era. They wanted The Spectre dead, which he had been all along, to be fair. Actually, the series ended appropriately with a two-parter in which Corrigan pleaded with God to restore his humanity, God did so without telling him, Corrigan promptly got shot, believing he was still a ghost (in this series, even God was a sadistic bastard), and then he got killed and went back to being The Spectre.

Fleisher was upset about the criticism of his work on this series, protesting that he had done nothing that The Spectre hadn’t done in the Golden Age. That may be so, but there is a world of difference between that being done in primitive, stiff art by Bernard Bailey and high-detail, polished slick art from Aparo.

And I am moderately confident that Bailey and co-creator Jerry Seigel never wrote a scene in which the Spectre chops a woman into seven separate parts in a single panel.

I’d bought and enjoyed the series, which appeared in the first year I came back to reading comics. I didn’t make a point of following Fleisher’s later career, though I was aware that he had acquired a high reputation after taking over DC’s scar-faced western bounty-hunter, Jonah Hex. I never read any of this series, but Fleisher was again noted for the twisted aspects of a Special he wrote, featuring Hex in his sixties, being killed by being shot in the back, like Wild Bill Hickock at the poker table, and his body being stuffed for an exhibition at a Wild West Fair. Not exactly John Wayne, nor even Clint Eastwood.

Then there was the matter of Fleisher’s (only?) novel, Chasing Hairy. Yes, from the dubious title onwards, this appears to have been a pretty repellent thing. I have never seen the book, let alone read it, but I have read a summary of its plot, and seen many quotes, and there seems to be general consensus that this is a pretty repulsive piece of misogyny, including sexual violence towards women.

What I do know is that Fleisher bought advertising space to promote his book, in which he received permission to feature several of the comics characters he had written at that point. These included Jonah Hex, acting scared by its contents, and Spider-Woman, relishing how super-sexy it made her feel, and that Fleisher certainly knew how to turn a woman on. By forcing her to perform a blow job and them setting her alight? Kinky.

And like Charles Moulton Marston, creator of Wonder Woman, Fleisher seemed to have something of a bondage fetish, allegedly constantly trying to introduce bound women into his stories, and having been complained about by more than one Editor, technically responsible for the content of the comic, for this tendency.

This was Michael Fleisher’s career, up to that point in 1983 when Gary Goth interviewed Harlan Ellison for The Comics Journal 53. This was a free-ranging talk, with Ellison offering unbridled opinion about multiple subjects. When it came to Fleisher, Ellison was enthusiastic about his work, saying that “there’s a genuinely twisted imagination at work” and describing it as “Bugfuck”. You might not agree with the actual wording, but it’s clear from context that Ellison is praising Fleisher, even to the extent to comparing him with H P Lovecraft.

Unfortunately, Fleisher did not see it that way. His immediate response was to demand an apology and retraction from TCJ. This would have been considered, but Fleisher went so far as to writ his own multi-page apology and retraction, including demands for banner front page headlines, in terms deliberately intended to be as humiliating as possible to the Journal. No magazine would have conceded that, and the editors determined to investigate the aggrandising claims Fleisher was making, but were halted when he issued proceedings against TCJ and Ellison.

The Journal based their defence on their First Amendment rights.

The case ran for years, and polarised much of the comics industry, based mostly on individuals’ reactions to the abrasive Journal and its provocative stance. Journal publishers, Fantagraphics, published several fundraiser comics, featuring material donated by writers and artists, to pay legal bills, and at one time were accused by one of their enemies of taking everyone for a ride and that they were spending the money on cars etc.

Some less publicised efforts were made to raise money for Fleisher, but his main supporter in the action appeared to be Marvel Editor-in-Chief, Jim Shooter, who gave up prodigious amounts of time to give evidence in Court about the damage the interview had done to Fleisher’s reputation in the market, and thus his income (which increased during the time it took to get the case to Court and was accordingly argued to have risen less than it would have without the defamation).

Eventually, the case went to Court with hearings lasting for weeks, after which the jury took ninety minutes to find for the Journal and Ellison. The word went around at the time that a juror had been overheard saying that they none of them believed a word of Shooter’s testimony.

The verdict came in just in time for a very short note to appear in TCJ issue 114. Gary Groth’s victory speech to the fan press was a reading of the First Amendment. But TCJ 115 went to town, with a cover dominated by Jim Shooter giving testimony and practically the whole issue given over to the course of the case and Trial transcripts. Fleisher’s ‘demanded’ apology was printed, as was the aborted refutation of his claims therein. Fleisher’s testimony didn’t arrive but Shooter’s was there in full, and it was not pretty reading, especially for those writers and artists at Marvel who suddenly found themselves officially reduced to puppets of the editor…

Shooter was growing increasingly unpopular for his dictatorial ways around Marvel, and the hostility around what was seen by many as an attempt to crush a magazine that constantly railed against him and Marvel was at one time cited as contributing to Shooter’s sacking as Editor-in-Chief not so many moons later.

It did for Fleisher’s career as a comic book writer. After this debacle, he disappeared from the industry, cut all ties with his former colleagues, and was believed to have been living in Ontario when word was passed that he’d died.

I doubt it would have made much of a splash anyway, but today it’s not even ephemera.

And there doesn’t seem to be much reaction in comics circles Stateside either. Fleisher actually died as far back as February 2, aged 75. He was a good writer, technically, but from all I read of his work, his imagination took him into dark and dubious areas that I personally would not want to navigate. His biggest, and self-induced problem was that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t see that Harlan Ellison was praising him for that, and he started a lawsuit that blew up spectacularly in his face. Conspiracy theorists even contended that Fleisher was under the influence of Jim Shooter, who saw him as a means to crush The Comics Journal: certainly, that self-composed apology is more of an attempt at humiliation than apology and reparation.

Whether there’s any truth in that, I have no idea. Jim Shooter’s attempt to use Fleisher’s lawsuit for exactly that purpose sure blew up in his face.

Whatever the truths, Fleisher has gone into the dark. The legacy he leaves is minimal and corrupted. Even if the news had not coincided with Stephen Hawking, his passing would probably only been of interest to a few of us, who remember the saga. Not a legacy worth leaving.

If you can’t go wildly OTT at a time like this, when can you?


Stephen Hawking: R.I.P.

A massive loss.

I once bought, read and finished A Brief History of Time. I followed it reasonably well, but don’t pretend to have understood it.

And I’ve seen him on The Big Bang Theory, ably sending himself up: “Another fainter.”

The jokes are already proliferating, and they celebrate him and his genius. I wish I could come up with one to respect him, but all I can do is honour his passing.

Dunblane: 22 Years

Some things never go away.

It took a mention on a Social forum to clue me in that today is the 22nd Anniversary of the school massacre at Dunblane, and it took less than an instant to take me back.

I was working in North Manchester then, Sedgley Park, near Prestwich, and going to Manchester United games. It was possible, without straining the speed limit, to drive from Sedgley Park to Old Trafford, visit the Ticket Office and be back within my lunch hour. We were on the run-in to overhauling Newcastle United, on the road to the Double Double. I was going to Old Trafford.

It was a bright, sunny day. I hadn’t popped in a cassette player, instead I was listening to the radio. I’ve no idea what channel it might be: certainly not Radio 1, probably Five Live. I was about ten minutes out and driving alongside a park-like area when they announced shootings at a Scottish school.

There were further bulletins, there, and back. Flat updates, delivered from a studio nowhere near Dunblane. It maintained a distance in those early minutes, for which I’m grateful. I switched on a car radio midway through Hillsborough: no-one was speaking but the background sound was enough to tell me that something horrible was taking/had taken place. I don’t think I could have coped with an update directly from Dunblane, not with the atmosphere that would have penetrated.

I got back to the office, in a dilemma as to what to say. This was an age before the Internet, and social media. We don’t realise now how slow news could spread, when there weren’t a million sources diseminating information from the middle of things. I could easily have been the only person in that office who knew what was going on.

It was strange to be like that. It could have been something I’d imagined, misunderstood, got wrong. No such luck. The television that night confirmed everything, made it all horribly real.

But mention Dunblane, and I can see what I saw out of the car, sun in the sky, empty parkland, all things of peace and quiet and this news coming over the radio that no-one wanted to believe.

And I have another indelible memory. A group of local musicians recorded a charity single, a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’, with which I was familiar from its 19070’s chart run. I no longer listened to Radio 1, I hadn’t heard it. I no longer watched Top of the Pops but I watched it the night they were to appear.

It wasn’t the song itself but the occasion. The sincerity in the faces and the voices. I began to cry. I wasn’t so sentimental, and prone to emotion then, when I’m having to repress tears just at the memory.

The song was received in silence, and at its end, the camera panned across the studio, to a young man beginning a song with an acoustic guitar intro. Was this part of it? Was it a segue? The song, pure and sweet, with a refrain of ‘Child, beautiful child’ couldn’t have been more faultlessly chosen. My heart split even further apart.

Later, I found that this was Mark Owen, ex of Take That, a long time before I found myself finding out more about Take That than I dreamed I’d ever need to. It was his first solo single. It was a fortuitous release, for although the juxtaposition sounds cheap, mechanical and manipulative, in that moment it was perfect for squeezing out even more sobbing.

And now it’s 22 years. It was many of those years before I learned that Jamie Murray was one of the children, cowering under the Headmaster’s desk, trying to shelter his little brother Andy in case that murderous bastard should come in. I cannot begin to conceive what it would be like to go through that experience, at that age, and if Andy Murray is ever something of a grump, he has a free pass on that from me.

But 22 years is as nothing to those memories. The sinking feeling, rendering everything else, including the ticket I was going to buy, utterly meaningless in the face of what had happened. The impact of those two songs, presented in silence (I didn’t watch the rest of the show: how could you have a Top of the Pops after that opening?). Some things never go away, no matter how much you might wish to find them sinking into the back of your memory. Say Dunblane, and I am there again. I always will be. And I wasn’t even involved.

Deep Space Nine: s06 e12 – Who Mourns For Morn?

What did I like about this episode? Hmm…

Oh God, it’s Quark again.

Not just that but the idea is that Morn, you know, the silent, big-mouthed background character, the one who’s always in the bar drinking, who’s supposed to be a non-stop talker when he’s not on camera, that Morn has been killed and made Quark his heir. And he owns 1,000 bricks of gold-pressed latinum, which brings four people out of thin air, all telling wild stories about Morn’s unrevealed past, all after the latinum for themselves. Whilst Quark schemes to keep it for himself.

What we have here is the elevation of an in-joke into the basis for an episode and even if it weren’t hung on Quark, it would have to be a lot more substantial – and not feature Morn walking in at the end, still alive – to be worth doing, and this isn’t.

It’s archaic, it’s out of place in the midst of the Dominion Wars, it’s silly and it reveals its awkwardness at the end where there’s a dialogue between Quark and Morn explaining the plot in which Quark has to supply both halves of the dialogue because Morn never speaks on camera.

And it’s bloody Quark for the second time in three weeks.

Guest stars include the slimy Gregory Itzin who I will forever associate with the slimy President Charles Logan in 24 and Bridget Ann White, a former gymnast who I will forever associate with the bare midriff, long legs and long red hair of her character Larell. I will try to disassociate that memory from the memory of this episode so I can enjoy it.

This is a fan-favourite episode. Ultimately, I suppose you will have to accept I am not a fan.

Saturday SkandiDrama: Below the Surface episodes 1 & 2

Okay, you got me for the next month.

Below the Surface is a 2017 eight-part Danish thriller series, which came to BBC4 on Saturday evening in the usual two-episode format. It’s a simple, straightforward series, or so it presents itself in the opening salvo. Three seemingly Muslim terrorists stop a Danish Metro train underground, lead 15 passengers at gunpoint through the system into an area being constructed, near Copenhagen’s picturesque Marble Church, where a well-prepared site is waiting. They demand a ransom of 4M euros (30M kroner) for their release.

The Government calls in its newly created TTF (Terror Task Force), under the command of ex-Army Philip Norgaard (Johannes Lassen), to contain and resolve the situation. However, the Terrorists refuse to communicate with TTF’s negotiators, who include the lovely Louise Falck (Sara Hjort Divletson), Philip’s very very recently (as in, this morning) ex-lover, choosing TV presenter journalist Naja Toft (Paprika Steen).

Naja is offered a live interview with one of the hostages, Marie Bendix (Alba August), a student nurse, which she puts on air without authority, and which gets her fired. But the terrorists, under their leader Alpha (Jakob Oftebro), maintain the relationship: Naja, who has now started a fundraiser to raise the ransom, is offered a second hostage interview, this time with karate teacher Adel (Dar Salim).

But Adel refuses to play ball, tells his audience he’d rather die, not to pay anything. He continues in the face of a threat to shoot fellow-hostage Denise (Sus Wilkins), an attractive young woman. At episode 2’s end, the terrorists release a hostage: it is Adel, and he is dead.

So far, so slick, professional and absorbing. It may not seem like more than an action story on a sadly-contemporary theme, but there are a couple of aspects that look like taking it into a higher plane.

These centre mainly on Philio. The series opened with a lengthy underground scene of Philip, a hostage himself, being brutalised by Ahmad, a burly figure in camouflage gear, with a big, black beard. Ahmad plays with Philip, teasing him almost, in between savage blows. It is an impossible situation. Yet Philip escapes, returns home, goes back to work as the operational commander of the new TTF.

How did he get away? That’s being kept in the dark so far. Philip won’t talk about it, either with his Dad, the former Defence Chief, nor the lovely Louise, who’s splitting up with him because he’s lying to her about the ‘bad dreams’ that wake him up whenever she stays over. Philip’s been fully debriefed, seen all the shrinks, got a clean bill of health, but obviously whatever he told them is not going to be the truth, and he is still having flashbacks.

Is it going to be that he’s another Manchurian Candidate? Or, to be more up-to-date, first season Nicholas Brody? I dunno. It’s got Louise concerned about his fitness to do the job.

And there’s one major question mark over Philip from another source already, and as this is the current Defence Chief, I’m already betting Philip gets relieved of his command no later than episode 5. Because Philip is convinced he has recognised the heavily balaclava-masked Alpha as Ahmad, because Alpha ends episode 1 by quoting Peter Sellars’ catch-phrase from that old, old film, The Party. Ahmad uses it during Philip’s captivity, Alpha uses it now: “Howdy, partner.”

But Ahmad is dead, three months after Philip escaped, killed in an American drone attack. Or is he? Is Alpha Ahmad, or is Philip cracking up? I’ve already laid my bet. Ahmad doesn’t appear in the credits in imdb for Gidseltagningen (the Danish title) after all.

Even if Below the Surface turns out to be no more than a thriller, it’s at least a well-made one in which no-one’s done anything stupid so far. Which, given things like Modus, Follow the Money, and that legend of legends, Salamander, is all manner of plus points already.

Film 2018: The Princess Bride

Originally, this was going to be another sub-titled film session. Possibly, I was going to choose Delicatessen, or maybe Swimming Pool. But it’s been a stressful week, and I was seeking out simple things to read, books I didn’t have to think about whilst reading, books I had no intention of writing about. I turned to my dog-eared, second hand copy of William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, and from that naturally to its twenty-years later sequel, Which Lie Did I Tell?, in which Goldman details experiences with a new set of films, made and unmade. One such is The Princess Bride, adapted from his own novel. The moment I turned to that page, I realised that it had been ages since I’d watched it, and that I needed to watch it again as soon as possible.

Good morning.

Back in 1987, I was a regular, Tuesdays and Thursdays, at the Crown & Anchor, on Port Street, just back of Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester, meeting a group of friends who had originally got together as comics and SF fans. This had been going on for several years. By this time, I usually gave John and Brian lifts home, even though this was miles out of my way, and John would often invite us in for a cup of tea with his elderly Mam and Dad (his Mam would cut the Calvin & Hobbes cartoons out of the Daily Express for me: lovely lady) and a chat. One Tuesday night, Film 87 was showing and Barry Norman showed a clip from a forthcoming film, The Princess Bride.

It was the clifftop scene. Two men – Inigo Montoya, a Spaniard seeking revenge for his father, slaughtered by a six-fingered man, played by Mandy Patinkin, and the Man in Black, a mysterious pursuing figure, played by Cary Elwes – are about to fight a duel withe swords.

And, oh my word, but this is brilliant! It’s an honest-to-goodness, stunningly athletic, Errol Flynn/Tyrone Powers swordfight, all flashing blades, athletic charges up and down rocks, superb poise, and running through it is this wonderfully ironic but completely deadpan commentary from the characters. In short, it’s a spoof, but it’s the only kind of spoof that really is funny, because it’s being made by people who know, and love, and understand, and respect the source, and it’s brilliantly balanced. No winks to the audience. No knowing looks that say, ‘hey, we all know this is crap, and only suckers watch stuff like this’. No mockery. It was stunning.

We all decided that we had to see this film. Blimey, if all of it was as good as this? And it is.

We didn’t go as mates, no. Instead, I took my girlfriend/love and her ten year old son, because we both knew it was the kind of film he’d love. What we didn’t reckon on was the manner of the opening, although his reactions which almost a perfect reflection of the way the film started.

William Goldman had written the novel of The Princess Bride in 1973. Like so many great stories, it started from stories made up for his children, two young daughters, one of whom wanted a story about princesses, the other a story about brides. Then he started writing it down, but soon found himself starting to struggle, until he hit on the idea of the book being the really fun bits of a longer story. The fiction is that Goldman’s book is an abridgement of the original story by S. Morgenstern, that Goldman’s dad used to read to him whn he was a kid only now Goldman realises his dad was leaving out the boring bits, which in the Goldman version are replaced by a running commentary from Bill himself, explaining what and why he’s cut out.

To produce that effect on film, Goldman introduced the brilliant device of a young, nameless boy (Fred Savage) ill at home in bed, whose grandfather (Peter Falk) is reading him the story when the Grandson would rather be playing video game Baseball. These two are a great double act, with the Grandson interrupting the film at various times, at first to complain about a dull story, and increasingly to comment when things are going the way he expects.

This enables Goldman to set things up, all the boring but essential exposition, by having the unimpressed Grandson chipping in. All about Buttercup (Robin Wright on her debut), the most beautiful woman in the world, not just in Florin, and patient, put-upon farmboy Westley (Elwes), whose only response to her demands is “As you wish”, and how they fall in love, and kiss (“you didn’t tell me there was going to be kissing!”). And Westley goes away to seek his fortune but his ship is captured by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who leaves no survivors, and Buttercup’s heart was frozen, and then five years later, she’s selected to be the bride of Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon, wonderfully straight-faced in the role of a cowardly, plotting, villain) except that she doesn’t love him at all.

The Grandson’s not liking this and neither is David, squirming in his seat, getting ever more furious at us for tricking him into watching such a rotten film as this…

And then Buttercup gets kidnapped by an gloriously implausible trio, consisting of a puffed-up, short, bald Sicilian plotter, Vizzini (Wallace Shawn, constantly decrying every upset to his plan as “Inconceivable!”), the drunken Spaniard master swordsman, Inigo Montoya, and the slow-moving, rhyming Giant, Fezzick (wrestler and actual giant, Andre the Giant, real name A. R. Roussimoff).

This is where the film takes off. Just the look of the three, their extreme contrasts in size, their accents, Shawn’s near-shriek, was enough to take the film onto the elevated plane it would occupy from there on in. Vizzini’s trio are there to kidnap and kill Buttercup, to provoke a war between Florin and its ancient enemy, Gilder. Vizzini has planned everything to perfection. Exccept (“Inconceivable!”)…

Except the Man in Black is following them. Up the Cliffs of Insanity. Defeating Inigo in that magnificent fight. Defeating Fezzick’s strength (he’s out of practice with tackling one man, he usually fights groups, the moves are completely different). Outwitting Vizzini (“Inconceivable!!”) And confronting Princess Buttercup, with scorn for a woman who betrayed True Love, which raises Buttercup to a fury: losing Westley killed her, she will not have that mocked. She’s already realised that the Man in Black is the Dread Pirate Roberts, but only when she pushes him down a ravine and he calls “As… you… wish…” does she realise what the audience has already known for a long time, that he’s also Westley.

Oh, I forget to mention, there’s another complication. Prince Humperdinck is the greatest hunter in the world. There’s nothing he loves more than hunting. Except possibly hiring Vizzini to  kidnap and kill Buttercup and frame Gilder as an excuse to conquer Gilder in war and rule the world. And he’s on the trail.

By the way, just as an aside, remember how Inigo’s father was slaughtered by a six-fingered man? Humperdinck’s confidant, right hand man, and curious investigator into pain and torture is Count Rugen (lovely underplaying by Christopher Guest, dry, quiet, almost monotonous). Who has six-fingers on his right hand.

Reunited, Westley and Buttercup try to make their escape through the Fire Swamp. This is a studio set-up, with random gouts of fire, Lightning Sands (think quicksand, only instant) and R.O.U.S (Rodents Of Unusual Size), though much of what has gone so far has been filmed in gorgeous English countryside, mostly Derbyshire/Sheffield. I’ll come back to this scene later, but for now our True Love pair get all the way through, only to find Humperdinck and Rugan and their men waiting for them.

Westley’s prepared to die with defiance, but Buttercup can’t take his dying again. She surrenders to Humperdinck on condition he spares Westley’s life. And she’s sweet and naive and innocent enough to believe him when he says he will. Westley’s well aware that he’s going to be killed, but first Rugen intends to torture him in the Pit of Despair.

Change of plan. Whilst pretending to send messages to the Dread Pirate Roberts (it’s a title, practically a franchise: Westley inherited from Ryan when he retired, who inherited it from Cummerbund, etc.,) that he can collect Buttercup if he wishes, Humperdinck moves ahead with a complex plan to set-up the murder of Queen Buttercup, on her wedding night, by Gilder agents: actually, he’s going to strangle her himself, so much more satisfying.

Except that Buttercup may be naive but she’s not stupid. She sees through his plan on the Wedding Day, and bitterly and passionately accuses Humperdinck of being a coward, a rotten, lying, despicable coward. They say the truth hurts, and in this case, Humperdinck gets so mad, he storms down to the Pit of Despair, where Westley is connected to some sort of pre-industrial electrocution machine made of wood and water, slams it up to 50, and kills Westley.

Yes, that’s right. Kills. As in Dead. Dead dead. “You’re not reading it right,” complains the Grandson.

The hero is dead. But we still have Inigo and Fezzick, skill and strength. But without Vizzini, they need a brain: who better than the Man in Black? Even if he is dead: all they need is a Miracle.

Enter a great cameo from Billy Crystal, all made-up to be oooooold and Carol Kane as Miracle Max and his wife Valerie, allowed to improvise and doing so so well that Bill Goldman confessed that he wishes he had written one of their lines. This brings Westley back to life, if not actually motion, which leads to a storming of the Castle by two-and-a-bit men.

From hereon in to the end, this just gets too good to spoil, though there’s this confrontation scene between Inigo and Rugan, in which all of Mandy Potinkin’s dialogue is repetitions of “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” For months, I could reduce David to shrieks of laughter just by putting on the accent and saying “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya…”

And it all ends happily ever after.

The film was praised everywhere but didn’t become a commercial smash until the era of Home video.With one caveat I’m about to come to, I think it’s brilliant, and what makes it so is that it is played completely seriously throughout. The casting is perfect throughout, and everyone is not only completely comfortable in their roles, they are plainly loving every minute of it. Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin both learned to fence to play the Clifftop scene, and that’s all them (except for the somersaults).

What makes the spoof side work so well is that they play the story entirely seriously at every moment. That’s how it works: the film respects its audience, it condescends neither to its material nor to them. It’s the perfect example of why the 1979 big budget Flash Gordon was such a piece of shite.

You can only get under the skin of something and make it so funny if you love it. You can’t do it with something you hate, that you only want to tear down.

My one caveat, and it’s something that has only struck me today, on this watching, is that the film is very male-oriented. Apart from supporting cast, there are only two female roles of any substance, and one of those is Carol Kane. There’s basically just Robin Wright, and that’s it. She’s perfect for the role and even at twenty she shoulders such an important part without any missteps. But it took the Fire Swamp sequence for me to suddenly see that hers is an almost purely passive role.

Buttercup is the incarnation of the old-fashioned Princess. She’s there to be rescued, as Westley does, time and again, in the Fire Swamp. She doesn’t have anything to do herself. There are two confrontations with Humperdinck where, once out of desperation, once out of contempt, her words change the movement of the story. And there are two points where Buttercup takes actual, physical action in her own behalf, instead of waiting for Westley to save her. The first is where she dives out of Vizzini’s boat in an attempt to escape, only to land in water infested with deadly Screaming Eels, forcing her to retreat. And the other is when she shoves the Dread Pirate Roberts in the back, down into the ravine, discovers it’s Westley back from the dead, and hurls herself after.

It’s not much. It’s certainly not any kind of subversion of the cliches. I didn’t think that way back in 1988, when we took David to the cinema, but I think that now, and it’s a blot, a tiny blot on a film that would definitely be one of the ten I’d take to a desert island with a functioning DVD player and a reliable source of electricity. The Princess Bride is out-and-out fun!