It’s my working Sunday again, which influenced my choice this week to a film I’ve already written about, here.
This is the third time I’ve seen this film, the second time on DVD, and to be frank I’ve no new thoughts to add to those I recorded in 2016, home from a visit to the now-closed Showcase Cinema.
With more time to consider the film and the degree to which it succeeds in animating a book both classic and archaic, it becomes even more a film of two halves, two stories rather, joined at the hip in a manner that is well done enough without ever convincing anyone here for Arthur Ransome that it was worth doing.
On the one hand, we have a decent representation of the bones of Ransome’s original story, the children’s holiday adventure, the first of its kind: camping and boating and rivalry and making up your own world that is perfectly real behind the adults’ backs. I’m still no more convinced of Seren Hawkes as Nancy Blackett, but one understrength child actor is bearable, and any defects in the young lady’s wooden performance are more than made up for by those of the Swallows, and especially the two genuinely child actors, Teddie-Rose Mallesen-Allen as ‘Tatty’, and Bobby McCullough as Roger.
And I simply cannot watch young Bobby onscreen without a sense of awe that fortunately does not interfere with the flow of the film: he isn’t acting, he’s a seven year old boy from 1929 (sod the film’s updating to 1935) brought into the Twenty-First Century. They’re all good, but he just is Roger Walker, untouched by nearly ninety years since the Altounyans spent that summer on Coniston Water.
Whilst it would have been nice to have had more of the film take place on Windermere and Coniston Water, the modern world has impinged too much on the former, always the most accessible Lake from the south-east and thus the most commercial. Derwent Water may be wrong for ever so many reasons, none of which will affect anyone not a purist, but it has the advantage of consistency: unlike the 1974 film, the constant distraction of watching the little boats glide from lake to lake to lake indiscriminately is not present. And it is, of course, beautiful from every angle.
It’s still noticeable that, even though the film explicitly acknowledges it’s taking place in the Lake District, there isn’t the faintest effort to provide a Cumbrian or Westmoreland accent. If anything, particularly in the Blackett family, the accent drifts vaguely in the direction of Yorkshire, which is heresy so far as I am concerned.
That aside, there’s a comfortable familiarity to language in use by those Northerners. In the book, Ransome makes no play with accents or dialect. Beyond individual characteristics, the Amazons speak with the same middle-class voice as the Swallows. Like his prose generally, Ransome goes for a clear, limpid, smooth speech that assumes intelligence on his listeners’ parts but which never offers them any difficulties.
The film, however, unashamedly goes for northern epithets. Peggy Blackett calls her elder sister ‘cleverclogs’, and the General Store lady, upset at her corned beef display being knocked down, sends Tatty out of the shop with the words ‘you cheeky monkey’. Not having been brought up in Cumbria in the Twenties/Thirties, I can’t speak to local authenticity, but this is the language of my East Manchester boyhood all right.
Of course, the film still has its other half to negotiate, the spy plot that’s half John Buchan and half Arthur Ransome’s background. The book’s Jim Turner/Captain Flint has always been Ransome himself, spiritually as well as physically, and so the idea of turning him into the secret agent Ransome appears to have been in Russia during the Revolution at least has the merit of authenticity, though turning him into Rafe Spall doesn’t.
Spall underplays his part with a genuine sense of period overlaid by a low-key Buchan heartiness, which provides a useful contrast with the spicier Andrew Scott as Laslow, supercilious and cold, adapting his manic Moriarty to a role demanding naturalness. For what it’s worth, with the exception of the attempt by the two little boats to halt the seaplane from taking off – which in isolation is exactly the kind of thing children of their age and resourcefulness would think of trying – the spy plot works and works effectively. The jury is still out as to whether trying it in the same film should have been done at all.
As a Ransome fan possessed of all twelve books in those classic greenbound Jonathan Cape hardbacks, naturally I find against the film. But I enjoy it too much, and respond too much to those parts that represent the book at its most honest to hold it too badly against the film.
It’s getting on for three years since Swallows and Amazons was filmed and there are no proposals of which I am aware to adapt other books in the series. And Bobby McCullough is now ten, or thereabouts, so unless you’re going to clone him and grow the clone to age seven (or at worst eight), more fundamental damage would need to be done to Swallowdale to have him repeat his role. More’s the pity. I’d love to see a decent stab taken at that, at least once, especially if they genuinely climb Coniston Old Man as part of it.
But this film enables me to go back there whenever I want, not just to the Lake of 1929, but the sitting room at Brigham Street where I received my first Swallows and Amazons book from my Dad: he’d have found Rafe Spall and Andrew Scott stupid, but he’d have drunk in every other bit of it, the way I do.
The final two parts of the superb Below the Surface come late but even more welcome: it is not always easy to access what you want to see. But I am so glad to have completed this series, because this was the part where this taut and crisp thriller moved out of being merely a thriller and into the deeper realms that it had slowly begun to suggest in the last couple of episodes. In doing so, it cemented itself as an awesome piece of serial writing, an object lesson in creating a piece of gripping and genuinely unpredictable fiction, whilst simultaneously more or less sealing itself off from any realistic possibility of a second series. Though I’d watch one in a Copenhagen heartbeat.
Where we left off, Alpha kidnapper Alpha had just been revealed as reported dead Danish soldier Mark Hald. Jakob Oftebro has played this role behind a ski-mask for six episodes, using a fake Muslim accent, and was amply rewarded for his patience by writing that turned the grim hostage-taker inside out, turning him into a tragic victim.
How did Philip know Mark? Under orders from the Chief of Defence, he was commanded not to say, even to his immediate superior, Hans, who temporarily suspended him, pending possible criminal charges. But the truth was horrifically simple, and the revelations horribly complex.
You’ll remember that, in episode 1, Philip was presented as a genuine hero, a hostage who’d endured solitary confinement and torture, but who’d escaped. I noted then that we weren’t being told how he escaped. Because he didn’t. He was one of three Danish soldiers taken hostage. The other two were Mark Hald and Jim Hansen, the two soldiers that we were told, by their Platoon commander, Sammy, were dead. Blown in two by a hand grenade. Not dead. Hostages. Unaware until Philip joined them, that no-one was negotiating for them because everyone believed they were dead.
The deadliness of that situation, a simple twist that opened up measureless canyons beneath the characters’ feet, fed through episode 7. Philip, who had genuinely believed his two fellow captives, who he’d sworn to get out, were dead, vents his rage at both current Chief of Defence Palle, and the former Chief, his Dad, seemingly breaking with the latter permanently, because they’d lied to him about Mark and Jim – whose foot was badly broken – still being alive.
Under Hans, a plan was devised to attack, a tendentious plan, extremely risky, but the only marginal bet. Philip returned, reinstated, in time to turn one of the other plans into something safer, with the aid of Naja, who volunteered to go in to conduct a live interview underground, to help the fundraiser over its last few million kroner.
This became the trojan horse that enabled the action team to neutralise the explosives in the tunnel, kill Beta and Charlie (who’d been getting bolshie about Mark since he’d removed his ski-mask) and get most of the hostages out. But Mark secured three, and insisted on a fourth going down there: Philip. Who goes below the surface.
And thus we reached an extraordinary final episode. When Philip arrived, Mark had secured the last three hostages, and furthermore taped something to Joachin. We found out what it was when he very professionally neutralised Philip, zip-tied his hands behind his back, and taped something similar to him: a semtex charge.
Then he contacted Naja to offer her a last interview. Hans immediately refused it so Naja, who was not under arrest, slipped off, found a quiet corner with wi-fi, and broadcast it anyway. So Mark interviewed Philip, and Philip told everything.
Philip didn’t escape at all, he was ransomed, personally by his father who used his entire life savings. He promised Jim and Mark he would get them out, he would not just start but force negotiations. But in Denmark, he was told to keep his mouth shut. Officially, he was not ransomed, he was a lone prisoner, who escaped. A bona fide hero. Because to admit that the Danish Government ransomed its soldiers was to put a price on the head of every single one of them.
And because the negotiations didn’t work, Philip was headed off by being told the compound had been hit by a drone strike, and everyone was dead. Which means, incidentally, that Philip’s torturer Ahmad wasn’t dead after all, which could be a lead for a second series yet.
The whole thing was an example of Henry Kissinger’s oft-touted Realpolitik.You took the Danish Government’s point whilst hating the abandonment of men who were acting in the service of their country. And there was another toughening twist immediately: Mark had indeed escaped, just as Philip was supposed to have done (making him the better soldier, maybe even the better man, or at least the more honest). But the crippled Jim was still back there.
And the ransom from the Copenhagen hostages was to pay the ransom for Jim.
There were still two more things that made this outcome even more hellish than it would have been in the hands of someone more prepared to play to television’s cliches. The first was that Mark forgave Philip. He understood what had happened. He did not have any rage against Philip, indeed at the end of things rage had not been a factor at all, just the determination to rescue his friend, his comrade, his fellow captive.
Because, once the money was very skillfully, professionally and irrecoverably delivered – by Platoon Commander Sammy, repaying his own unpayable debt and receiving forgiveness if not an absolution his eyes said he would never allow himself – Mark released and sent back the last three hostages, alive, before surrendering himself to a released Philip, asking to be taken out, via the tunnel, in uniform, by a fellow soldier.
But just before that was complete, Mark got a photo on his phone. The ransom paid, the money flown out of the country, and Jim had finally broken. And hung himself.
Mark said nothing, continued his plans, even got Philip to promise to look after Jim when he returned. But above the surface, Joachin told Louise about the phone message. I’ve not mentioned her so far, but she was on an upward trajectory throughout this pair of episodes, throughout the whole series, a character whose strengths led to de facto leadership, recognised by all unconsciously. She tracked the photo, and sent in a team to rescue Philip.
It all looked as if it was going to go horribly wrong at the last moment, but Philip asserted his authority, stood his men down, sent them back. By then it was too late: Louise had communicated about Jim. That left Mark with no ground upon which to stand, and he used the gun he’d trained on Philip to blow his brains out.
The sound of the shot crumpled Louise, calling Philip’s name, bringing her to instantly panicked tears. The series began with her breaking off their quasi-casual affair, but this instant took us deeper inside her, without the need for words. Yet, in a quiet but wonderfully buoyant coda, of the hostages being reunited first with each other and then their families, the Chief of Defence being sacked, Naja regaining her job at the tv station but returning to reporting not presenting, the last loose thread was left unpicked up. Philip left, presumably going to lose his job as Head of TTF, but there was no easy reconciliation with the extraordinary woman: she may have understood why he didn’t trust her with his secrets, when he didn’t trust himself, but he didn’t trust her: at least for now that was still a barrier, and a seemingly insoluable one.
Instead, Philip’s reconciliation was with his father, and a readiness to begin again.
It’s impossible to see how he could continue as Head of TFF, or even return to it, especially as he has spilled national secrets, hence my saying the ending has pretty near sealed off a series 2. But thinking about it further, there is an obvious link for a second series featuring many of the same characters, or at least Philip and Louise, based on the still alive Ahmad. I’m hoping.
What made Below the Surface so good, even on the purely thriller level, was its rigorous approach to its situation, and its refusal to make it easy for itself by any cheap tricks, shortcuts or cliches. One glaring point is that there were no Mavericks. It was all done by the book, by the rules, completely realistically.
Because do you know what Mavericks are at their heart? They’re cheap. They’re nasty. They’re a soft underbelly, a laziness to the writing, a way of getting round the obstacles that really exist by pretending that the obstacles aren’t there, that we can just do whatever the hell we like and solutions will magically appear because we break the rules. Same as Louise and Philip getting back together at the end. It’s cheap, it’s a cliche, it’s pretending. It’s a lie to the audience.
And Below the Surface showed that you can do this, you can draw your audience in, keep them there, even given them a basically happy ending without once lying to them. I wish a lot more TV series could make enough effort to do that, especially UK series. It can be done. It should be done. It makes it so much better.
I really don’t get the BBC. The Bridge 4 has aired in Denmark/Sweden but our next trip into Saturday Eurocrime is the return of the utterly risible Salamander. In the hope of good snarking, I intend to at least start watching this, in the hope that the most fuckwitted series of modern times has learned nothing (given the ego of its writer, the chances of this are pretty damned high).
But when another series of The Bridge actually exists, to not be showing it instantly…
I remember an interview with David Simon earlier this decade, probably about Treme, in which he articulated a principle that underlies every piece of television work he has been involved with: “Fuck the ordinary viewer.”
Now you may think that a mean-spirited and unsympathetic attitude to take, and if you were the head of a major television network, an intolerable one, because network television is all about the ordinary viewer and attracting him/her in mammoth numbers.
But what Simon is about is the other kind of television, the one that doesn’t impose classic dramatic structures upon its stories but instead presents them as a rolling tide of event, reaction and result, that, in short, presents the world we inhabit, with all its messy, arguable, inconclusive naturalism, without wrap-ups, neat introductions and its never-ending lack of conclusions. We have to work the world out for ourselves, and we have to work David Simon shows out for ourselves.
Treme episode 2 demonstrated that. If you wanted a formal ‘plot’ breakdown, I would have to tell you that little happened. LaDonna went home to her family in Baton Rouge for a couple of days but when she returned, the contractor who’d bummed more money off her for shingles still hadn’t repaired the bar’s use. But Toni was there with news that they’d found her missing brother, except that when they took her mother to the jail he was in, it turned out to be Dave Brooks, but not their Dave Brooks.
Antoine drifted around, being Antoine. LaDonna brought a papier-mache elephant made by their younger son to his door,discovered he has a baby girl with his new wife, muttered something about ‘another one’ and buggered off.
David lost his gig at the Radio Station and, in order to get a loan from his wealthy parents, took a job as a Check-in Clerk at a hotel. He didn’t even last twenty-four hours, directing three young Christians (one boy, two girls) to an unrecommended night spot, from which they didn’t return all night. Cue panic, police manhunts, Church franticness, parents flying in from Wisconsin, and Davis being, shall we say, released? That they were safe, having had the time of their lives and effervescently cheerful was irrelevant.
We meet street musicians Sonnyand Annie, played by Michiel Heusman and Lucia Micarelli respectively, credited as cast last week, but only now being introduced, and he looks set to be a junior league asshole like Davis.
Delmond Lambreaux did a recording session with Allen Toussaint, Elvis Costello sitting in, and got busted for smoking a ‘roach. Creighton’s got his novel out again: they’re cutting back at the University. Practically the only thing pertaining to an orthodox plot is Chief Albert Lambreaux. Whilst still trying to get the tribe back, Albert’s tools are stolen. Because he’s who he is, they are returned, but Albert’s set on finding the thief. He comes across him at night, stripping out new house fittings. Albert tries to reason with him, make him see the error of his ways, but the kid’s having none of it. Abruptly, it turns into a fight, or rather a beatdown. The kid ends up flat on his back. Albert has blood on his shirt, and is hands, which he washes off. Is that kid still breathing? That’s going to be important to know.
Incidentally, speaking of blood, do you want to know why Davis got fired from the Radio Station? He’s got in a local musician, Coco Robicheaux, doing a set in the studio. They spitball about the station’s new home, how it’s soulless and plastic. Coco’s setting up a voodoo ritual as they speak, get some soul, some ancestors in here. Davis is into it, but you can see his enthusiasm for the authentic start to take a turn for the worse as Coco produces first a live chicken, than a very large and sharp-looking knife…
Cue credits, but as Davis leaves with his things in a box, we see this big red stain on the wall. That’s what he couldn’t scrub off…
No, it’s a great wave of people’s lives,what we ;earned last week advancing like tide along the beach, some pushing forward, some dragged back, with no particular plot. It has the thickness and solidity of good gumbo from the pot, and those moments of out and out hilarity that people produce, with a cynical comment, or even an exchange of looks, and I haven’t got a lock on these people yet but the more time I spend with them, the more I’ll know.
As for the ordinary viewer, who resents being fucked, well, maybe this type of television programme just isn’t for you. Don’t be greedy, practically everything else is, and there’s already more of it that you can watch anyway. Diversification is paramount, there must be different things, and that includes the series where you actually do have to watch.
They’ve renewed all the DC ‘Arrowverse’ shows on the CW Network, which is fine by me so far as Legends of Tomorrow is concerned but, barring a complete reversal of form in the last six episodes of the fourth season, I’ll be bailing out on The Flash before it returns later in the year.
When it started, The Flash was a perfect contrast to Arrow, showing much more of the fun side of superpowers, and the sheer joy of superspeed. Gradually, as the show’s worn on, it’s taken on more and more of Arrow‘s pervading air of seriousness, and its general woe-is-me, all-my-fault grimness. Barry Allen has turned into a junior league, not justice league, version of Oliver Queen, and it’s a pain in the neck.
The show’s been off air for four weeks, during which I haven’t missed it and despite a couple of intriguing twists along the way, there was one central point that left me despairing.
This season, the show has introduced a version of Ralph Dibny as The Elongated Man. It’s not particularly faithful to the original, but it does maintain the tradition of treating a man who can stretch his entire body in unpredictable ways as a light and humourous character.
This week, that proved to be a problem for Barry ‘The Flash’ Allen. Team Flash is up against The Thinker, a meticulous and superhuman planner. But Ralph keeps straying off the plan, trying to improvise, joking his way through, and it leads to Barry benching him, refusing to let him join the battles.
Of course, it’s Ralph’s unpredictability that’s needed to win the day, but before that, Barry has to go through the everything-on-me phase, grimly determined that Ralph should be just as miserable, sober, stone-faced and in lockstep with everything Barry says and does. And when he accepts that Ralph has his own way of doing things and always will have, we get this awful, cheap, cliche of a speech from Ralph about how the misery of his younger years turned him into a compulsive joker to conceal his fears. It really is the most awful piece of writing I’ve ever heard on The Flash.
So, I’ll stick around to see how the season wraps up, then, unless there’s some seriously refreshing twist, or season five offers up at least four Justice Society members as regulars, I’m out the door. Please, Legends of Tomorrow, stay as gloriously clunky, goofy and awkward as you are: I need you. (And more of Caity Lotz and Tala Ashe in bikinis won’t go amiss either).
This was an oddly simple and plain story, and yet it was still a satisfying episode.
After speculating the other week about a reversion to the old A-B story formula, that was exactly what we got, even down to the B story being comic and inadequate. It looked to have been inserted because the A story couldn’t be stretched out that long without being paper-thin, and its to the writer’s credit that he managed to work in enough reference to the A story to reinforce the overall event.
The A story is a Worf/Jardzia two-hander. Two months into their marriage, Worf’s being accommodating of Jardzia’s foibles in a most unKlingon fashion, even when the two are sent on a secret mission to pick up an urgent message from a Cardassian spy supplying Spacefleet Intelligence. Lassara is close too being exposed and wants out, so Worf and Jardzia have to go get him from a jungle rendezvous involving 20km of jungle-trekking.
They’re working together well, efficient and professional, but also light-hearted and jokey, until they’re surprised by three Jem’Hadar. They kill the Jem’Hadar but Jardzia is seriously wounded by a disruptor blast and grows steadily weaker, the further they penetrate, until she can go no further, and indeed desperately needs surgery.
Worf goes on alone, aware of his duty, his career. Until he has a change of heart, turns back, puts rescuing Jardzia above his mission. Lassara is killed, and the tons of vital information he carried dies with him. Worf explains that he could not leave his wife. Sisko condemns his as a captain: the two will never be paired on mission again, and Worf will never be offered command. But as a man, he confirms he would not have left Jennifer either.
The B story started with Jardzia sitting in with the Ferengi playing tonga. Quark’s on a 206 winning game streak. Worf is confident Jardzia will end this, enough to bet bloodwine against whiskey with O’Brien on it. When Quark makes it 207, the Chief develops an obsession with ending Quark’s streak, but he’s rubbish at tonga. So he gets Dr Bashir to play the game for him,and the genetically enhanced Bashir’s doing well, until Quark distracts him by talking about Jardzia’s marriage to Worf, and how nobody expects it to last, and both he and Bashir let her slip through their hands, she being so special…
Whether he means it or it’s flim-flam doesn’t matter: that’s 208.
What else is there to say? The episode was plotted very plainly, and the message, about the power of love, was so simple and unnuanced as to be all but banal. Yet I enjoyed it, without ever feeling particularly moved. A most odd episode.
Thanks to the circumstances of my teenage years, I had a delayed introduction to anything approaching maturity, a condition that many people of my acquaintance would swear I’ve yet to attain. Through having an over-authoritative mother, I didn’t get to go to see an adult movie until I was nearly eighteen, adult here meaning ‘grown-up’ as opposed to the meaning you immediately assumed (that’s another, and a we-won’t-go-there, story).
That film was the then-popular but now virtually forgotten A Touch of Class, starring Glenda Jackson and George Segal. It was a sophisticated romantic/sex comedy that my mate Alan and I both found hilarious. I can’t now remember if I ever watched it again, in the days when films like that used to appear on TV, and if I did whether I felt the film wore well.
The next grown-up film I saw in the cinema was Don’t Look Now. The contrast couldn’t be greater, from a sunlit, lightweight comedy to a dark, disturbing horror film (and one that was top of a double bill with none other than The Wicker Man). Why I should have been going to a film like that, I don’t know. I wasn’t into horror, and I’m still not that enamoured of it now. Vampire films especially used to get under my nerves, and I’d lie in bed with the sheets pulled firmly over my neck so that it was covered and invulnerable.
Don’t Look Now is not a vampire film. I mention these only because, when I got home from the Burnage Odeon, I was so wound up, I watched a vampire film to calm down!
Forty-five years later, it’s reputation has only grown, and it was well-regarded then. The film was directed by Nic Roeg, who only had two other films under his belt at that point (one of which is also in this series). Watching it again this morning was the same tense experience, to which time has added the horror of inevitability, particularly in the climactic sequence, but despite the Venice setting, and the Gothic trappings that automatically loads, it’s never looked less like a horror film to me.
Even at the time, the film was heralded for focusing up the underlying grief being experienced by the couple at the centre of it, husband and wife John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie). It’s that which is the heart of the film, and its events, no matter how striking, are ultimately peripheral to them. Indeed, this time the film left me with the sense that it is taking place in the middle of a whole tapestry of stories, all of which are only present in the film to the extent that this one human strand intersects, crosses over or even peripherally touches.
The Baxters are a successful couple, with a large house in its own, widespread grounds. The film starts with a prologue at home in England, with the couple’s two children playing separately where they wish. John’s been commissioned to restore a Church in Venice, where the bulk of the film will take place, and is looking at slides whilst Laura is reading to find the answer to a question their younger child, Christine, has asked.
Christine’s playing with an Action Man and a ball by the pond. John accidentally knocks a glass of water onto a slide taken inside a church, that appears to have a red-hooded figure on its fringe. Christine is wearing a shiny red mackintosh. The water causes the red colour to spread across the slide, like a gout of blood. John rushes outside, jumps in the pond, but it’s too late: Christine has already fallen in and drowned.
In Venice, several months later, John is hard at work. Laura is accompanying him, though she has nothing to do but watch him work. They eat out in different restaurants each night. Though they’re still a couple who want to be with each other, the death has put a tremendous strain on them. Sutherland and Christie are absolutely brilliant in putting this into every expression, every motion. They seem alright, they look alright, they are bound up in each other, but they are eaten up. John’s coping by flat objectivism: Christine is dead, nothing can change that, take it in, move forward. Laura is still stuck there, unable to let go despite her superficial brightness, on medication. Empty.
The catalyst is in a restaurant at lunch. Two elderly women, sisters, one blind, are talking at a nearby table. John catches them staring at him and Laura, but she’s oblivious. But when Wendy (Hilary Mason) gets something in her eye, Laura helps her and Heather (Clelia Matania) to get to the Ladies and get it out. Heather, who is, seemingly, psychic, tells Laura she mustn’t be said, that she can ‘see’ Christine sat between her and John, in her red mac, and she’s laughing.
Laura returns to the table and faints.
But what she has been told has changed her. It’s healed her, closed up the hollow inside, relieved her of the need for her pills. She tries to communicate this to John, but he rejects the idea completely. Some of it comes from scepticism, from an inability/refusal to believe in clairvoyancy, but a lot of it comes from his own, rigid method of coping, by insisting that dead is dead and there’s nothing more to it.
Despite this obvious difference between them, whilst relaxing after a bath, and before going out to eat, the couple gently fall into passionate sex. It’s still one of the most explicit scenes to appear in mainstream cinema, and it opened my eyes a bit at the time, but Roeg intercuts the sex with John and Laura getting dressed afterwards, showing each individually and how the feeling has effected them. Without saying it, this is clearly the first time the pair have had sex since Christine’s death (that’s made explicit in the original story), and the scene’s greatest quality, removing it far above porn coupling, is that the sex is not about having sex, about the physical sensations and the release, but about having sex with this one person, her/him only, who is at the heart of your life.
The following day, Laura meets the sisters again, and they agree to conduct a seance, at which Laura may be able to speak to Christine. The idea infuriates John, who utterly refuses to go along with it. As they return to their hotel by boat, they are diverted by the Police: there has been another homicide.
Laura returns from the seance with the message (received offscreen) that John’s life is in danger in Venice. She tries to get him to agree to leave, and he does agree to seek a break from his commission. But his genuine anger as Laura’s susceptibility to what he sees as a scam frightens her back towards nervousness, brittleness. She agrees to resume taking her pills, though she only pretends to swallow, hiding the pill itself in her sleeve.
In the middle of the night, the Baxters are awakened by a call from Johnny’s school in England. He has had a minor accident, a fall, nothing to worry about. Laura insists on flying back: John sees her off to the earliest flight. He returns to the restoration, but is almost killed in a fall, when the cradle he is in is shattered by a falling plank.
On his way to the Bishop’s Palace, where he and Laura are to stay for the rest of their time in Venice, John is shocked to see Laura, with the two sisters, on a boat passing in the other direction. He doesn’t seem to take in that all three women are dressed in black, in mourning.
Between the multiple homicides – John has witnessed a fully-clothed female body being hoisted from the canal – and his suspicion of the sisters, John reports his fears to the Police. Inadvertently, he makes himself a suspect in the killings and is followed as he searches for the sisters, only to find that when he traces their boarding house, they have left.
Everything is overturned when John phones the school. Johnny is ok, and Laura is there, and will return by 11.00 that night. She’s once more bright and bubbly, and doesn’t seem at all interested in his trying to tell her he has seen her in Venice. Mortified, he returns to the Police, where Heather has been arrested: Wendy has gone to the British Consulate. He escorts Heather back to her hotel, accepts a polite drink, but leaves when she goes into a trance.
When Heather emerges from it, she hysterically demands John be fetched back. Wendy searches, but he’s disappeared into the maze of Venetian streets, squares, alleys, bridges, canals. Laura arrives at that moment, and is sent in panic to find John. She follows his exact path, without any clues.
But John is chasing someone. A short person, female, in a red hooded coat. He’s caught glimpses of her before, in passing. She runs, he chases, through a deserted quarter, into a building whose gates he locks behind him. Clearly he believes it s Christine. But when he corners the figure, it’s not. It’s a hideous, wizened, aged dwarf. And before he can react, she strikes him in the neck with a meat cleaver, severing his carotid artery. John bleeds to death rapidly.
The film concludes with the funeral cortege, travelling by water. The three women, all dressed in black.
The dwarf, who we would now call a serial killer. The English sisters. Bishop Barbarrigo (Massimo Serato). The near empty world of autumnal Venice, where we rarely see other people, even native Venitians. All of these are things that exist outside the film’s story, just as John and Laura’s life does. We are not given any explanations. We are given nothing to trust. I used ‘seemingly’ above to describe Heather’s psychic powers, and the film’s events would seem to bear this out, but at an early stage after their introduction, Roeg intercuts a fragment of the two back at their hotel, laughing raucously. What are they laughing at? They don’t laugh at any other moment. It creates the dirty great suspicion that these are con-artists gleeful at snaring another mark.
But the film avoids going near anything that would be an explanation. Heather claims John has second sight, to Laura, though she doesn’t bring the matter up to him during their extensive walk and talk together. His sighting of Laura on the canal, in a funeral boat, is certainly a premonition, as is his sensing that Christine is in desperate danger at the start of the film. Is the whole film merely a relaying of John Baxter foreseeing his own death and his refusal to understand it?
Though John’s death, and the highly melodramatic circumstances attending it, are the film’s only overt nod to horror, it remains a horror film of great depth precisely because it avoids fright. It’s about loss, it’s about what it does to you, about how even the greatest of loves between two people doesn’t entirely mask how they are different, and that futures can be decided on the least little things. Rather like life.
There are hundreds of subleties in Don’t Look Now that I haven’t even tried to touch upon, such as the fact that the film is set in Venice, with a largely Italian cast, speaking in their native language, without subtitles, so if you don’t speak fluent Italian, as I don’t, you are perpetually guessing at what is being said. The story is not linear: things must be understood as having happened.
And there are visual and narrational motifs which others have described, but one I noticed for myself is the frequency with which Roeg will allow characters to walk out of the frame at the end of a scene, leaving the camera to focus on what remains behind.
And why is the film’s title in inverted commas?
Overall, this is a magnificent film. I may have started going to grown up films a bit on the late side (we didn’t have teen movies in the Seventies, so there wasn’t a middle ground), but I sure started with a bang: this and The Wicker Man in the same bill? They don’t make them like that any more.
There’s a lot of this city that I just don’t see any more, because I don’t have private transport any more. Buses are inconvenient, unreliable, inflexible. It takes too long, I can’t necessarily get to where I want to go, I can’t stop off on the way if an interesting looking new second hand bookshop catches my eye. Buses are only useful for destinations. Today, mine was Trafford Park.
Someone from whom I’ve bought an item off eBay chose yo send it by UK Mail. They tried to deliver it Thursday afternoon when I was at work, it was too big for the letterbox. The card led me to an online facility to rearrange.
But a date for re-delivery was just for weekdays, with no means to specify even morning or afternoon, so that meant collection from the depot on Saturday, before 12.00. It was in Trafford Park.
This is mainly an Industrial Estate, or rather a whole bunch of them crammed together, all long straight roads, not hot on bus routes or stops. This required planning. Now Transport for Greater Manchester‘s Journey Planner, which replaced a perfectly good, user-friendly, accurate system, is worse than fucking useless. It surveyed the entire panoply of public transport, buses, metro and trains and offered me one option: walk it in three and three quarter hours.
A Google search offered me the more helpful route of the 203 into Piccadilly, a 33 towards Worsley as far as Humphrey Park Metrolink station and a walk of 1.1 miles. But Paula at work rubbished that: get an X5 from Stockport Bus Station, straight to the Trafford Centre. The walk from there was 1.3 miles, but I’d be there far quicker.
Which much was true. The X5 takes 49 minutes from Stockport Bus Station. Unfortunately, it only runs once an hour, on the hour, which was twenty minutes away. A 23A would take twelve minutes longer but leave eleven minutes sooner.
It was a long route, through several of those places I no longer go to, and rather a lot of memories.
First there was Didsbury, and its Village. It’s changed out of all recognition, and I spent years watching most of that change, living on the fringe of it, then working on a different fringe of it. I haven’t been here since that last impromptu long-way-round bus back from Manchester City Centre when I discovered that their Pizza Hut, the one I’d taken John M to for dinner the day he helped me move into my first house, had been closed.
Then Barlow Moor Road: long, straight, unending. That’s where I saw that intriguing bookshop. Part of my learning to drive was in the side-streets and awkward corners round the back of here. I’ve walked down it, driven down it, backwards and forwards, hundreds of times. Alan and I would walk out here on Saturday evenings, sometimes, turn up Burton Road to the Canadian Charcoal Pit where I had my first burgers.
Where’s the Shady Oak gone? It was a big pub, set back in its own grounds, just across the Parkway. We’d come here for the Saturday night discos in the big room at the back, when I was still drinking cider. Here was the first (and only) time I asked a girl I didn’t know if she fancied a dance, though the ‘relationship’ didn’t last longer than the length of the song (which was ‘Ms Grace’ by the Tymes). When did they knock that down?
Next up is Chorlton. The novel I entered for NaNoWriMo 2013 had as its central character a lady living off this section of Barlow Moor Road. I got a bit too clever going into the final third of the story, broke the narrative, needed to rethink and rewrite. It’s still there, and I still intend to finish it. That and at least three others, if I last that long.
Chorlton Village. Back in the Seventies, when I was still determinedly clinging on to my reel-to-reel tape recorder, the number of places you could buy new tapes was rapidly diminishing, but there was one here, on the east side of the Village. I would walk it, an hour each way, summer mornings, from the south side of Burnage, almost a dead straight line throughout.
On the west side of the Village, when I was in practice in Altrincham, I had a good client who owned a Family Butchers here. We got on all right, and I got on well with his son, Pete, who was younger than me and who was going to take over the business when Jim retired. The year United rebuilt the North Stand, dramatically cutting capacity, and I was scrabbling for tickets all season, Pete sorted me out for one early season game on his Dad’s season ticket, whilst Jim was fishing in Ireland. He was full of this story from Football Focus, or whatever it was called that year, just before he came out, about the non-League guy who’d set an FA Cup record for the fastest ever hat-trick, three goals in two minutes and twenty seconds. Had I seen that? No, but I’d seen the bloody goals, because they’d been scored against Droylsden!
Pete was tickled by that. A few years later, our wonder season, he came to the penultimate match, bringing his Natalie Imbruglia-like girlfriend. He had a great time, told me he’d been talking with his Dad about getting involved here, like we had. he’d have fitted in well with the Pace Stand Mob, and the rest of the Mob wouldn’t have objected to his bringing his girlfriend along each time. But he never appeared again.
The last time I was in the shop was to collect a big book I’d won off eBay from someone who worked there, of all places. That’s disappeared too. I wonder what happened.
Stretford brought back a sobering memory. I know it well from all those visits to Old Trafford, up the road, but the route took us past Stretford Cemetery, and that brought back Debbie Noone.
We had a string of office juniors at our office in the City, all of them genuine ‘finds’ who went on to better things with us. When a slot became free, they’d come up with recommendations among their friends, equally as good. Debbie was part of that string, dark-haired, bright, lively. She loved UB40, especially their recent hit, ‘Don’t Break My Heart’.
Then, in the middle of the morning, the senior Partner came walking down the corridor, calling us all into Reception where, his voice shaking, he told us that Debbie had collapsed at the bus stop, coming into work that morning, and had died of a brain haemhorrage. She was 18.
The office closed for her Funeral. We all went. She’d been Roman Catholic. She’d been saving up for a holiday abroad with her boyfriend, that summer. We walked round the corner to the Cemetery. The other girls had clubbed together to buy a small commemorative stone for her grave: “Nooney Our Friend Forever”.
And I haven’t thought about her in forever now, but it came back, the way some memories do, unblurred. Whitey’s voice, struggling against breaking down. The girls, some crying, others just sat there uncomprehending. Going back to my office, shutting the door, sitting at my desk, unable to think or feel. She’d have been 50 last year.
Beyond Chester Road, I was in foreign territory. I started tracing the route in an A-Z so old it still shows the Trafford Centre as ‘Under Construction’. Depending on which roads the 23A takes, I shouldn’t need to go as far as the Centre itself. It was impossible to tell from the A-Z where bus stops were, or whether these big straight dual carriageways have anything so mundane as pavements, or if I’d have to make some wide and time-consuming diversions.
Making a calculated guess, I dropped off in Lostock, but at least one, if not two stops short of where I could have gone. The big roads turned out to have pedestrian ways, but it was nothing but a trudge, with nothing to stimulate the eye or mind: just cars and lorries belting past, the backs of manufacturing and storage units, and one dull canal.
The last roundabout was being buggered about for the construction of a forthcoming Metrolink extension to the Trafford Centre but an elaborate pedestrian way linking the various exits was cordoned out by metal barriers. I nearly made the mistake of trusting to my visualisation of the A-Z to decide which exit I needed but, at the last minute, decided not to be a pillock and check, thus saving myself a long and useless diversion.
The first thing I saw on Ashburton Road West was a bus stop, but it had no Services on Saturday, no Services on Sunday, and no Services on Monday to Friday for that matter. No alternative to trudging on. This was already my longest sustained walk since the last time I wandered back from Central London to Euston Station, and my knee was already making pointed comments about it.
When I finally turned into Richmond Road, the first thing I was assailed with was seagulls, wheeling and crying above the unit roofs. No, I hadn’t suddenly become deranged, this part of Trafford Park is close to the Ship Canal, as the seagull flies, that is. Though if this lot have followed the trawler because they expect that sardines will be thrown into the sea, they’re widely off beam.
My arrival at UK Mail coincided with that of a young couple who arrived by car. They asked me if I’d been here before, if I knew where the door was. Well, it only had four walls and the door had got to be in one of them. It was, naturally, on the opposite sides of the building.
My parcel was big, thick, flat and rectangular. It contained a single issue of the Eagle, which struck me as overkill. It was far too large for any bag, so I tucked it under my arm. Cheekily, I asked the couple if they were going anywhere near Lostock on their way back: the guy had never even heard of it. Was it in the vicinity of Manchester Airport?
So I set off back. The first thing I noticed was that all vestiges of spring had gone from my step. Now I’d met my deadline, my insecure subconscious was no longer driving things. It didn’t matter how long it took me to get back. At least I knew the way, and could mentally split it up into sections, the completion of which made me feel I was progressing. Actually, it went by quickly, because I was mentally compiling most of this post up to this point.
Once I was off the final roundabout and onto ‘real’ roads again, it was time for my subconscious to reassert its anxieties, which a picture of the bus rushing past me on the way to the stop, but this time it was thwarted. There was actually one almost due, and I didn’t even get to sit down for more than 120 seconds before it arrived.
In the quiet bits of the journey back, when the bus was at rest or at least not racketing about too badly, I managed to scribble out most of the First Draft of this, until it was time for my other stop. I’d come home Friday to find another card through the door, another parcel too big for my letterbox, but at least this one was Royal Mail and the 23A obligingly passes by the Sorting Office at Green Lane. As usual, the queue was outside the door, but for the first time in all my visits there, they had three on the counter and I was rushed through in near-record time. This parcel was a white cardboard envelope a bit thinner than the first one, but otherwise of the same dimensions. I tucked both under one arm and set off back to the bus stop. This time, my panicky subconscious was reinforced by a bus ruushing by, but the next one was only about two minutes after.
By now, I was knackered and my knee sore. I wanted just to go home, but I also had a pressing need and nowhere at hand to satisfy it. So I caught the free bus over to Tescos (another wait of less than two minutes). On my way in, I passed my former team-mate Brian coming out. He looked shocked, asked if I was coming from work (I don’t do Saturdays). I explained my movements and told him, “My knee is killing me, I desperately need a piss and I’m going to get some food.” He laughed, loudly.
Though the Tesco’s Cafe does have healthy options, I just plumped for the all-day breakfast: double egg, double bacon, double sausage, chips and beans, for a fiver. This rapidly went where all good cheap food goes, making me feel much better. Unfortunately, by this time my knee was seriously sore, but there was room on the bench at the stop, and I had another ten minutes drafting time, taking me up to Green Lane, before the bus came.
First thing on getting in was the next painkiller. The last hour has been spent in typing this up, whilst cross-checking the football scores in passing.
This has been my latest ‘day out’. Please, any of you out there who may be on the point of selling me anything on eBay, please do not send the package by bloody UK Mail! That place is a human wasteland…
In a lifetime of loving music that has stretched to nearly fifty years now, my pleasures and tastes have changed quite frequently, as music has changed, as I’ve changed, as the world has changed. Some things remain the same: I will never fall out of love with an uptempo song, laden with jangly guitar and a kicking three-part harmony chorus. But at the same time, within that field whose primary point is ‘pop’ of some kind, my tastes are pretty eclectic. Not all the time, and sometimes within pretty circumscribed limits. But it is difficult to name a form or genre of music in which I can find nothing to perk up my ears.
And like everyone I have and had have favourites at different times. I remember them well.
1970: Jimmy Ruffin
1971 – early 1974: Lindisfarne
early 1974 – 1976: 10cc
1977: Fleetwood Mac
1978: The Buzzcocks
1979 – 1983: The Undertones
1984 – 2011: R.E.M.
2011 to date: Shawn Colvin
Looking at that list, what strikes me first is that the R.E.M. era alone is still longer than all the others put together, that The Undertones’ ascendency is still the only case where I still loved my previous favourites to bits but the ‘Tones were even better, and that whatever the reason for moving on from old favourites, I still retain an affection for the music of those times even if, in the case of Fleetwood Mac, it’s only for the limited period of their dominance (I vastly prefer the Peter Green version of the band to the Lyndsey Buckingham era, nowadays and for a couple of decades since).
Yet, looking at that list, there’s a glaring absence. There’s a band missing, dates 1973 to 1975, that I distinctly remember being my favourites for a time. Absolute favourites. First band I ever saw live, coincidentally in their last English gig with their classic line-up.
But I fell for Lindisfarne on listening to a very hazy Radio Luxembourg broadcast of ‘Clear White Light’ in a December 1970 power-cut and, despite the drabness of the ‘Dingley Dell’ album in 1973, hewed faithfully to them until the original line-up split in two in early 1974, which was when 10cc were waiting to ensnare me with ‘The Wall Street Shuffle’ as a precursor to their best album, Sheet Music.
So where the hell do I place The Moody Blues?
It was all down to the reissue of ‘Nights in White Satin’ at the back-end of 1972. I’d heard the song often enough as a Radio 1 Golden Oldie, though I didn’t discover it had only reached no. 19 until I got the first of Simon Frith’s Rock Files books the following year. I’d heard ‘Go Now’ often enough, and ‘Question’ had become their second biggest hit single just at the point when I was starting to seriously follow the top 30 every week.
But hearing ‘Nights in White Satin’ in regular rotation caused me to fall in love with it and want to hear more. Over the next eighteen months, I avidly collected the band’s seven albums (their debut album, The Magnificent Moodies, was by the old Denny Laine-led band and didn’t interest me, besides which it was not then commercially available), starting with the most recent, 1971’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and then going back to the beginning with Days of Future Passed and working my way forward conscientiously until I finally collected 1973’s Seventh Sojourn, which had been released after I’d started my personal odyssey.
Boy, did I love that music! There were plenty of times when, on a quiet afternoon in my teenage bedroom, I would cue up an album and lie myself down on my bed, on my back, arms by my side, willing my body into total inertia so that the only stimulus I was receiving was the music, and I would really listen. And often, when it rained, long and hard (this in Manchester so it wasn’t a rare occurrence), I would sit at my bedroom window and stare out into the back garden, watching the hedges, the grass the trees soak it up in various shades of green, watching pools form and grow, and whether this is a real memory, or merely one that I am retro-fitting, it was usually to a soundtrack of the Moodies: how appropriate.
But that September 1973 gig at the Free Trade Hall, which I loved at the time but it didn’t take that many more concerts to realise that the band didn’t have much live presence going for them, was followed by a long hiatus. The Moodies didn’t break up, not really, but for five years they did nothing and when they did return in 1978, it was without Mike Pinder and without me because what music meant to me had drastically changed.
Even before punk first reared its ugly, explosive and overwhelming head, I’d gone off the Moodies and, indeed, I’d sold all the albums. The rot started with the Blue Jays in 1975, Justin Hayward and John Lodge, the first ‘solo’ album by the Moodies (each of whom would go on to produce one). I went into Manchester one sunny Summer Vacation day, bought it at the original Virgin Records shop, walked across the road to the 95/96 bus stop, climbed to the top deck and lovingly unfolded the ornate gatefold sleeve to read the lyrics.
As I read each verse, I could hear the sound each song would have when I got home thirty minutes later and played it. Worryingly, I was exactly right on all counts. Much as I loved the Moody Blues, if I was able to predict the melody of ten brand new songs just from reading the sleeve, that couldn’t possibly be good. It meant that they were… predictable. That’s not what music’s about. It’s about creativity, freshness, the ability to make those eight or twelve notes and the instruments on which you play them into something you’ve never heard before, not that way. Predictability belongs to what you know and have heard and love: there are magical moments in songs I have listened to for nearly fifty years that never fail to thrill me: I offer you ‘Clear White Light’ in evidence.
I was and, to a lesser extent still am, stubborn and resistant to change. The Blue Jays album was the canker that ate away at me slowly. I loved the ‘Blue Guitar’ single, credited to Hayward and Lodge even though it was actually Hayward and 10cc (a-ha!) but I never bought any of the other solo albums. And a year later, I sold the albums at Law College.
Before doing so, I sifted the tracks, recorded onto tape a handful of songs, one at least each from every album. Things like ‘Nights in White Satin’ and ‘Tuesday Afternoon’, ‘The Actor’, ‘Gypsy’, ‘The Story in your Eyes’: pretty much all Justin Hayward songs.
I’m still puzzling how to fit the years of fanaticism into the years of Lindisfarne and 10cc.
What’s set all of this off is YouTube, and Arthur Lee’s Love.
I’ll be writing about Love, and Forever Changes before long. For now, suffice to say I’ve been indulging myself with the album as a YouTube track. The sidebar throws up ‘similar’ examples. Among these have been complete Moody Blues albums.
On a whim, I clicked on Days of Future Passed. That was the first of the ‘classic’ albums, the seminal seven, the Hayward, Lodge, Thomas, Pinder, Edge period. It was originally commissioned as a ‘rock’ version of Dvorak’s ‘New World’ Symphony, but the Moodies managed to persuade the producers to let them record a suite of songs, basically covering a day in someone’s very ordinary life.
Alright, already the concept is coming over as a bit patronising. Practically every effort at concept albums on this theme are patronising because musicians just don’t have any bloody idea. This one’s a bit woolly, so it’s less offensive, and the band are not yet as sophisticated musically as they were going to become. Still, this is the one with ‘Tuesday Afternoon’ (technically ‘Forever Afternoon (Tuesday?)’: it was the Sixties, man, you had to be there), and ‘Nights in White Satin’
It was a bemusing experience, mainly along the lines of ‘what did I ever hear in this?’, which prompted me to listen to each of the others.
Against my usual practice, I next selected 1971’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. That was an experience: it was awful, absolutely awful, with the exception of the one, short, Justin Hayward track, ‘The Story in your Eyes’. 1969’s To Our Children’s Children’s Children was better, mainly for having a greater musical texture and dominated by Hayward’s distinctive fuzz/melodic guitar tone. After that, I reverted to type and filled in the other four albums in chronological order.
I’m not going to comment on each album individually: that would require me to listen to them again, and you can sod that for a game of soldiers. The familiar songs, the one’s I saved, still had their own distinctiveness, and these I could enjoy. As for the rest, what struck me most was just how unfamiliar they are. Old bands, old favourites that, for whatever reason, I discarded as my tastes changed, still retain a familiarity, spur a certain degree of affection, if only for the memories they evoke of the times they were the soundtrack to my life.
But those Moody Blues albums, that I had played over and over again in those early to mid Seventies years, were completely unfamiliar. And mostly unlistenable, but let’s park that thought for now. You may remember me posting about an interesting sounding track in a season 4 episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that I had never heard before and which turned out to be a Moodies song from On the Threshold of a Dream.
With the exception of a couple of lines from the more orthodox and commercial tracks, it was like that writ large. I have no memory of the vast majority of these songs, and I don’t understand why. You could take, say, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, or the ‘White Album’, which are barely newer and which I haven’t listened to except in a couple of favoured songs in decades, and I will remember most if not all of the tracks. Old Lindisfarne songs, even from Dingley Dell, are instantly familiar, even the ones I don’t like.
But the mass of the Moody Blues repertoire that I’ve listened to over the last week to ten days I might never have heard before, let alone constantly played, for all the recollection they rouse in me.
What’s worse, they are also awful. Back then, I passionately defended the Moodies from their critics, of which there were many in the Rock Press. I remember one particularly extended takedown from, I think, Melody Maker, excoriating the band for being middle class and thus incapable of any deep investment in their supposedly progressive musical agenda. I resented and denied every word, but now I can’t think of any better description. The band’s investment in the lyrics that they produce is skin deep to my ears now.
All five members contributed songs, usually but not exclusively written alone. Drummer Graeme Edge produced poems, usually intoned by Mike Pender, keyboardist and mellotron specialist. Frankly, most sixth forms could produce better and more thoughtful lines: they are embarrassing. The power of 10 billion butterfly sneezes, anyone? You had to be there and I’m glad I’m not.
The best songs tend to come from Hayward, who has an ear for a good melody and, mostly, the sense not to drape too much production over it. He also tends to have the best, or rather least Sixth Form Profound lyrics, especially in his love songs. In contrast, flautist Ray Thomas’s songs are mostly musically banal and cartoonish whilst his song-song lyrics are monotonous and silly.
Pinder’s portentous, Lodge specialises in the harder edged rock (this is a description comparative to the rest of the band’s output) and overall everybody is pretentious and pompous to one degree or another.
It’s ironic that I can occasionally use YouTube to test out Seventies Prog/Underground albums and find them sometimes not as bad as memory and prejudice makes them, but the only music of that ilk which I worshipped at the time is now profoundly dull at its very best.
The Moody Blues used to arouse passionate enthusiasm in me. Not only has every vestige of that gone, so too has the very memory of the music. That’s what’s truly significant.
The boy who read issue 1 of Volume 12 of Eagle, and who was then marooned on a desert island and only rescued in time for issue 52 would have reacted to the difference by asking aloud the 1961 equivalent of ‘WTF just happened?’ But for the continued presence of ‘Dan Dare’, ‘Riders of the Range’ and ‘Storm Nelson’, the only thing to link first and last issues this year was the name at the top of the cover.
This was the year when Odhams began seriously messing with Eagle, and not a single thing about the comic was better for it.
‘Dan Dare’ began the year in the hands of three ex-Hampson Studio alumni, Eric Eden on scripts, Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell on art. A new story, ‘The Solid-space Mystery’ was in only its second week. Given the strictures already being placed on the series, it was surprising to find the story not only resurrecting the Mekon for his first appearance in three years, but also bringing back Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette for one final adventure.
But whilst this was a middling but reasonable effort, week by week Harley’s art was growing blander, his attempts to use Frank Bellamy’s designs and uniforms less detailed all the time. And with the following two stories, seguing into one another in the old manner, the bottom began to drain out of the writing. First, in ‘The Platinum Planet’, Dan and Digby are overcome by the Zylbat’s suspa-gas and fly off uncontrolled into Deep Space for years, only to find an appallingly trite overthrow-a-dictator story awaiting them, then they return after unimaginable years for ‘The Earth-Stealers’, to find Earth a ruined planet, evacuated after horrendous ecological disasters and under the control of a mercenary organisation trying to take it over.
As an idea, it’s ruinous to any notion of coherence, but worst yet, the artwork has been crippled by the decision taken as from issue 42 to have the front page shared with ‘Men of Action’, a column-wide strip about sportsmen, mountain-climbers etc. ‘Dan Dare’s art is compressed to two, at most three panels, divided horizontally into two blocks by the strip and story title, in the middle of the page, automatically killing any sense of dynamism on the cover.
And inside, to make up the episode length, Harley and Cornwell have to work in five tiers, cramping every single panel, and flattening everything of any impact, not that Eden gives either of them anything to work with. What were Odhams trying to do? Kill off Eagle‘s flagship character? Well, funny you should say that…
‘Storm Nelson’ fared better, though the series was not unaffected by the passage of time. When Guy ‘Edward Trice’ Morgan fell ill, Richard Jennings took over writing the series for its last two serials. Whilst Jennings proved himself equal to the task of writing the crew of the Silver Fleet, his plotting, especially on his first effort, ‘Mystery of Oaha Island’ was noticeably looser, especially in the story’s long set-up.
‘Riders of the Range’ was also approaching its end. After ‘The Scourge of the Pecos’ was completed in time for the usual Eagle birthday reset that had as many features as possible start new stories, Charles Chilton launched into another factually based tale, ‘Last of the Fighting Cheyenne’. This was a sequel, of sorts, to ‘The War with the Sioux’, concentrating on the long struggle of Cheyenne Indians, displaced to a dustbowl of a Reservation after the Little Bighorn, and seeking to return to their old grounds.
It’s a tragedy of a story, filled with Army and Government severity, hostility, ignorance and arrogance, but it’s main flaw is that there isn’t really anything for Jeff Arnold and Luke to do. They have no part to play except that of unwanted consciences. And the real story lasts so long, and needs so much summarising, that Chilton is having to insert massive amounts of commentary and Frank Humphris is given no decent narrative to illustrate. Ultimately, it’s a dull, heavy, depressing story, as time and again common sense is refuted and stupidity embraced.
The final story, begun and with only a short overlap into Volume 13, like ‘Storm Nelson’ to come, is better and Humphris is more like himself, but the Cheyenne story dominates the year, and it even has the indignity of losing its title, or changing it, whichever is obscure, for the last six episodes.
But at least these old stalwarts were still there at the end of the year. ‘Fraser of Africa’ was run down abruptly and disappeared after a total of 54 weeks all told. There would be more to come in Eagle from Frank Bellamy, and all of it brilliant, but once ‘The Road of Courage’ ended, secular to the last, Frank Hampson would vanish from Eagle for good, with only a black-and-white Bovril advert to represent him until, years from now, his work would be re-exploited in reprints of ‘Dan Dare’. By that time, Eagle would have ruined him.
There was one more ‘Great Adventurer’ story, that of Sir Walter Raleigh, under the title of ‘The Golden Man’, with former ‘Jack O’Lantern’ artist Robert Ayton returning for one final outing on Eagle’s back page.
And ‘Luck of the Legion’, the series that was once second in popularity only to the Pilot of the Future himself, that too bowed out, reducing yet further that classic line-up. ‘The Mark of the Monster’ took place in West Africa, and in its penultimate instalment, the monster itself, a gigantic gorilla, dealt a massive blow to Sergeant Luck. Was Luck dead? Nearly: enough to be a passenger, in need of hospitalisation, in the last strip, but returning, on the mend, to supervise drill for Trenet and Bimberg.
But by then, we knew, if we were wise, that another change was being made. Five weeks before the end, Luck’s artist, Martin Aitchison, turned up on a second series. ‘Danger Unlimited’, written by Steve Alen, about two ex-Marines becoming Queen’s Messengers to avenge a friend and uncover a plot to steal secrets, took the place of ‘Fraser of Africa’. Frank Hampson’s dictum about single artists not being required to draw more than one page of colour art per week had never been officially rescinded, and Aitchison couldn’t have drawn two series simultaneously with that kind of detail for very long, so it was obvious in retrospect that ‘Luck of the Legion’ was not long for this world.
So that meant another, partial redesign. After eleven and a half years and more, Eagle‘s famous cut-outs were moved from the centrespread to the back page. In their place came ‘The Last of the Saxon Kings’, a full centrespread strip about the Godwin family, King Harold and the Norman Invasion. It was blandly drawn with two many small panels every week but what was worst was that it was a reprint, from Comet where it had run under the title ‘Under the Golden Dragon’.
Eagle hadn’t run a reprint since it first exposed Tintin to British readers, and then it was running two, as a black and white and rather hagiographical strip about the life of Stonewall Jackson appeared out of the blue, another reprint from Comet.
George Cansdale and Backmore produced another, mostly B&W half-page series in ‘All About Nature’, and Harris Tweed ploughed on manfully, but as the year ground out, he was now given the undignified sub-title of ‘Super-Chump’. Close to the end was the first appearance of ‘Fidosaurus – The Prehistoric Pooch’, that I found so funny as a boy, but which I find worthless now.
The prose series had disappeared at the beginning of the volume, but Lee Mayne popped up again with two final four-part stories of ‘The Hawk; before launching into ‘Leopards of England’, starring Edward, the Black Prince of England as Constable of England’s holdings in Fourtenth Century France. Three four-part serials and one six-part to round off, then another E W Hilditch serial, ‘Jim Starling and the Spotted Dog’, far less interesting by far, before the volume was seen out with a new serial, ‘The Gay Corinthian’, not a fortunate title nowadays: Squire Jack Hardcastle, a Corinthian in Regency England, undertakes to win a series of wagers, one of which commits him to marry a woman he has never met. In the opening episode, he assists a pretty young woman in danger of being thrown from her horse, who seems to react when she hears of that element of his wager: you can see the ending from here, can’t you? Still, in its well-depicted atmospherics, it was probably the best story in this section all volume.
Stories were back again, suddenly. The cover re-design of issue 42 was also accompanied by a sudden run of classic short stories, from writers such as O. Henry, Charles Dickens and even Doris Lessing.
By this point, Eagle had started to become confused, features appearing and disappearing with no rhyme or reason. Three times, one-off black and white one page comics stories appeared. ‘Knights of the Road’ dribbled out week-by-week, introducing a new supporting character in the investigator, ‘Gagdets’ Gryll – is he a goodie or a crook? – further demonstrating that somebody hadn’t got a clue what they were doing, and a new comics series arrived in issue 42, ‘Home of the Wanderers’.
At long last, Eagle had got what no-one had ever realised it had been missing, a sports strip. The Wanderers were Wellport Wanderers, a football club from, well, Wellport, and this dull series was going to shock a lot of people next volume, for no virtue of its own. For now, its opening story, about a winger under consideration for England Under-23 honours being blackmailed over his non-existent tearaway past, and its stiff, cold art, whose pitch scenes held the flavour of tracings from football photos, demonstrated that Eagle had seriously lost its way.
Of course there was a reason, and it was Leonard Matthews.
Odhams had bought out Hultons but the pressure was still on in Fleet Street and now they surrendered the unequal fight and sold out to the Mirror Group. Who sent in Matthews to make changes to Eagle, mostly, or rather solely, of the cost-cutting kind. One Art Director was sacked on the spot for protesting. Several other senior editorial staff quit in sympathy. Editor Clifford Makins quietly left the premises. Others followed. New staff were drafted in from Longacre, where Mirror Group (and Matthews) were based. Replacements? Or Dead weights, driven out from where they had ceased to be useful?
The effect on the readers was almost immediate. The printers strike of two years previously had driven many magazines to the wall, and it had knocked Eagle‘s seemingly invincible 800,000 weekly circulation down to a half million. Now, the sudden changes cut that figure by another 150,000. The long decline had begun in earnest.
But there were still several years of decline, and some heartening returns to form, ahead. The old bird might be sick, but it wasn’t dead yet.