Film 2019: The Hobbit – The Battle of the Five Armies

And so it goes.

There’s a greater sense of closure about the end of the third Hobbit film than there is about its equivalent in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, even though technically it’s only the halfway mark. There’s a much stronger feeling of we-shall-not-come-here-again that leaks in from outside where, save the unlikely event of Jackson and Co. signing on to do any kind of adaptation of ‘The Silmarrillion’, we will not be in Middle Earth after this.

Funnily enough, I have little to say about the third film. When I saw it in the cinema, I found it overwhelming, and that was just the theatrical release. I said at the time that whilst it wasn’t the best film I’d ever seen, it was the first one that I would have paid to see a second time on condition they started it immediately.

Though I’m not blind to the film’s major flaw, it is a stunningly visceral experience, throwing itself at you and refusing to let your attention slip for the least moment. It feels at least an hour shorter than it is in reality because, despite the breadth of its scenes, it’s a single-minded film. The sub-title says it all: build-up, battle, aftermath, that is the whole of the film and it benefits from an absence of diversion.

Well, not entirely. The film opens in media res, a direct continuation from the second part’s cliffhanger, and that’s the film’s single biggest awkwardness. In The Lord of the Rings, Jackson greatly offended Christopher Lee by cutting the scene of Saruman’s death from The Return of the King, yet when you see it restored in the Extended Edition, you see that it’s right: the scene belongs in The Two Towers and is an awkward, out-of-place tailpiece shoved in upfront.

The same goes for Smaug’s attack on Lake-town, and his death. The whole sequence takes twelve minutes of this film, and it’s spectacularly done in all respects, but it’s still a holdover. It’s part of The Desolation of Smaug and it should have played out in that film, not this. It’s significant that the title card The Battle of the Five Armies doesn’t come up until that part’s finished.

From then on though, I’m on the ride and there’s no getting off and I’m incapable of analysing things any further. Except to say that, even in comparison to Billy Connolly’s wonderful cameo as Dain Ironfoot, my favourite scene is still the battle of the White Council in Dol Guldur, saving Gandalf, confronting the Nazgul, and banishing Sauron to the East, and to Mordor. And the one reference in all the films to the renegade Valar, Morgoth.

Of course, the old argument still prevails, in respect of which I continue to disrespectfully disagree with those who sneer, and would pose them a question. Three of the Dwarves who set off on this foolish expedition die during the Battle, Fili and Kili, the two youngest Dwarves and Thorin Oakenshield’s nephews, and Thorin himself, King under the Mountain. His line is ended. In the book, all we are told is that Fili and Kili died: how, where, doing what, not a thing. Thorin’s death is given hardly more detail. Given the significance of those deaths, their importance to the story, how would you have wanted a single film faithful to the nature of the book  to have represented them? By thrusting them out of sight as Tolkien did for his audience of children?

To date, I have not seen one person who has slagged The Hobbit off for its ‘elephantiasis’ make any practical suggestion as to how the story might be adapted in the way they think appropriate. And this is without answering the question of how such an adaptation might be made to be consistent with its filmic ‘sequel’?

No, I’ll take my Hobbit the way Peter Jackson served it up and be content, though I remain intrigued by the thought of how Guillermo del Toro would have proceeded had he remained in charge of the film and its original two-part concept. Especially the second film, which would have occupied the sixty year gap between the two books. On day, if I ever get the chance to visit Earth-2, I shall report back to you.


We who would Valiant Read – Part 5

So far, we’ve travelled six and a half years and 350 issues from Valiant‘s debut in 1962. Issue 351 is cover-dated 21 June 1967. Only six months remain of the Sixties. There are still five series that appeared in issue 1. Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something in the Air’ was the UK no. 1 single. I was coming to the end of my third year in Grammar School.
Valiant had now dropped to 36 pages for 7d. The only colour is on the cover, continuing Is It True? The contents consist of Captain Hurricane (4½pp), The Nutts (1p), Kelly’s Eye (2pp), Sexton Blake (2pp), letters page It’s All Yours (1p), The Crows (½p), Raven on the Wing (3pp), Sporty (1p), The Steel Claw (2pp), The Secret Champion (1½pp), The House of Dolmann (3pp), ‘Gabby’ McGlew, His Yarns aren’t True (1p), Billy Bunter (2pp), Mytek the Mighty (2pp), The Wild Wonders (3pp), Sporting Roundabout (½p), The Shrinker’s Revenge (2pp) and Bluebottle and Basher (1p).
But by now Valiant was feeling very stale. Tim Kelly had been trailing around behind Dr Diamond in time, and The Steel Claw trying to clear his name for well over a year each, with no sign of either story coming to an end. Even The Wild Wonders had been facing the same menace for months on end, coming to cliffhanger after cliffhanger, though their story at least had only two more episodes left.
Of the newest features, nothing was of any great worth. The Secret Champion had the feel of one of those cheap, nasty series introduced into Eagle at the end so that none of the still-decent series could remain to transfer into Lion. Meanwhile, Sexton Blake and Tinker kept falling through holes wherever they went: I know the series is supposed to be set in the Thirties, but the shoddiness of Planning Control is still frightful.
A couple of issues expanded to forty pages again, but only to present four page plugs for Fleetway’s new weekly football paper, Shoot: that’s another fond memory. Such magazines as that and 1968’s Goal were displacing my old line-up of British boy’s comics, and my comics-oriented enthusiasms were concentrating on DC’s full-colour floppies, albeit not for much longer.
Tim Kelly finished his adventure in the future in issue 362 (6 September) and set off back to the Twentieth Century. You’d think he’d have learned by now that Dr Diamond was a thoroughgoing shitbag and would take them somewhere else in time, and guess what the little weasel did? This string of stories, its complete lack of variety, and Kelly’s ongoing failure to stomp the treacherous little rat into a greasespot had by now ruined Kelly’s Eye, and further demonstrated Valiant’s determination not to come up with any new ideas. No doubt Gogra would be back the next time Mytek started a ‘new’ adventure.

The same issue saw the start of a new one page comic strip, Hymer Loafer, the Tiredest Man in Tennessee. I need say no more about this than I have about any of the other disastrously unfunny ‘funny’ features, save that this was another reprint from Buster, where it had run as Lazy Sawbones, though the look suggests it’s European in origin. Meanwhile, the Shrinker went on to the fourth of his reprints from Buster: there had only been five so the pain could not go on forever. As for The Steel Claw, his interminable story was rendered even worse by a change of artist: gone were the delicate lines, the confident composition, the mastery of chiaroscuro: in short, the art had gone crap.
Valiant had turned into a near-total mess. Sexton Blake got shot in the chest at point-blank range in issue 364 (20 September) but was only scratched by the bullet the next week.
But credit where it’s due. The Secret Champion was still pathetic but looked to be the latest home for Tom Kerr’s art, whilst Reg Bunn turned up on House of Dolmann. All was not yet lost. The Wild Wonders were once again being manipulated into advertising sports gear for a dodgy shop-owner, but the story took a dip into blatant racism territory again, by introducing an Indian fast bowler full of superstitions about what was evidently caste breaking.
The Shrinker in Space began in issue 368 (18 October). This was the last of the Buster stories: an end was in sight. And Hymer went missing after a half dozen episodes, no doubt to join the great unwashed mass of one-page funny strips that might come and go whenever the editor felt like it.
Tim Kelly finally got Dr Diamond ready to go home and insisted on setting the controls himself so there was no chance the bag of bones would aim somewhere other than 1969. Except that he promptly set the controls for pirate times himself, for reasons that had better be very good ones and not just a demented writer trying to drag things out just one more time. And The Steel Claw’s quest to clear his name somehow warped into defending Earth against alien invasion: are we sure Jerry Siegel wasn’t writing it?
But at long last the tale was told, and in issue 374 (29 November), Louis Crandell was free to start a new adventure. Unfortunately, the villain of this was a rock-faced individual calling himself the Boulderman. (It had to be Jerry Siegel). At this point, I disappointedly declare the series dead and received no reason to change my mind when, in contrast to the previous marathon, it ended in seven weeks.
The Steel Champion came to an end in issue 377 (20 December) to make room for World in Peril, another ‘situation’ series with indistinct characters, some of them children. And Tim Kelly finally revealed that he’d dropped himself and Dr Diamond in it to meet his pirate ancestor, Forkbeard Kelly. So that was not two long-standing series, great in their time, but dead of stupidity.

With issue 399 (3 January 1970), Valiant left the Sixties behind. By issue 380 (10 January), The Shrinker reprints at last were all used up, and the first new series of the new decade was The Lurking Menace. This starred hero frogman Tod Titan against a mysterious metal deep sea pirate menace, The Blue Shark, under the command of Captain Y.
Reg Bunn seemed to be hanging around Valiant now, contributing a few Steel Claw episodes (without Blackie Morris or that stupid copper mesh suit).
I’ve avoided mentioning Billy Bunter throughout all these years of Valiant but the strip forced itself upon me in issue 383 (31 January) with an abrupt change of artist, the series suddenly becoming 1½ pages, and the style even more archaic. Had a source of reprints run out, or one had to be introduced? Either way, the change was a one-off and the old format and artist resuming the next issue.
There was an even bigger surprise the same week, as Mytek the Mighty came to an end, the giant robot ape being released into the wilds of Africa to put his feet up, and a new series, billed both as College Cowboy and ‘hilarious’ (your heart just sinks, doesn’t it?) to replace it. It was a familiar formula: misfit attends public school to get the education that will earn him his inheritance. Presumably, dirty tricks will start to happen, caused by the alternative heir. The humour may have been more detectable when I was still fourteen, but it’s evaporated by now.
An early change of artist on The Lurking Menace (issue 384, 7 February) immediately aroused suspicions that this was yet another reprinted series as the style and look immediately took on the faint blurriness of some definite reprints, as if the original art was no longer available, as well as the look of the characters. And within a few weeks there were a couple of episodes that looked to be drawn by a less-polished Reg Bunn, cementing my opinion.
World in Peril came to an abrupt end in issue 394 (18 April). It was not replaced at first, but there was a partial revamp planned for issue 399 (23 May), with four new series. And for all I’ve said about it, I was still sorry to see The Steel Claw come to an end, with a couple of Jesus Blasco art jobs, after such a long time. The House of Dolmann was also cancelled, together with Sexton Blake, and The Lurking Menace came to an end. With all the other ongoing series clearing the deck for new stories, it was a full-scale renewal.

And an uncannily timely one. It must be obvious that I have not been enjoying Valiant for a long time now. I have said so many times that the comic has gone stale, unable or unwilling to come up with any new ideas, and I had intended to stop at issue 400 to comprehensively review the title and the failings I saw in it. For a long time, the comic had had no better idea than to be a replica of itself every week, to present the same thing over and over again, reliant on the innate conservatism of its boy audience in wanting familiarity, but which has become deadly to the adult mind.
I’ve compared Valiant‘s progress in the Sixties as resembling Lion‘s timescale, and I am aware that it fared no better in the Seventies, and by many accounts worse. But for the moment, it’s reacted to the drabness of recent issues, and dropped one of the five series that have run since issue 1 so, for the moment, let’s give it another chance.
The other new element in issue 399 was the start of the countdown to the 1970 World Cup, the only one England ever entered as Holders, with the cover, free gift wallcharts and stickers and a picture feature on the Squad. Otherwise, we were off to a bad start as Tim Kelly’s adventures obstinately refused to change as he was once again stuck in time.
The new quarter started with The Trouble-Shooters, friendly rival construction gang bosses, cheerful cockney ‘Knocker’ White and gloomy Welshman ‘Jinx’ Jenkins sent to clear up trouble spots for Anglo-Gobal, which The Ghostly Guardian featured teenage runaway Jim Frobisher and his dog Trap, running away from Jim’s hateful and grasping Alf Hudson, five years after Jim’s Captain Dad had disappeared and turning up at the derelict Frobisher mansion in Cornwall to find it inhabited by a pirate ghost.

Neither looked promising on first acquaintance but they were prime standard compared to Slave of the Screamer, a steaming great pile of cliches, but drawn by Jesus Blasco, poor sod. The last strip, Humbert Higgs, The Gentle Giant, immediately sold itself as a reprint from the model of the car washed-up boxer ‘Rocky’ Salmon (groan) sent off the road.
Issue 400 (30 May) saw a new cover feature, with the long-running Is It True replaced by Who Is It? a guess-the-famous-person idea, starting with boxer Joe Louis and another of those archaic Billy Bunters. But this seemed to be the order of the day now for the Fat Owl of the Remove. Issue 404 (4 July) introduced a new one-page ‘funny’ strip, Banger and Masher, about two feuding teenage terrors which, apart from a metafictional appearance by Valiant’s editor, had the usual square root of nothing going for it. There was also a new one-page oddball stories feature, going by Well, Fancy That, which was a lot more interesting.
A dozen issues on, I was no longer convinced that Humbert Higgs was a reprint, but I was convinced it was a rip-off of Kid Gloves from the comic’s early years, only horribly condescending towards the supposedly backwards Humbert.
Speaking of disappointing attitudes, Raven on the Wing was being consistently portrayed as something of a misogynist. Apart from him being a teenager, there’s no indication of how old Raven is, nor of manager Baldy Hagen’s blonde-haired daughter Jo, who was increasingly getting drawn in micro-skirts and knee-length boots. Raven’s attitude towards Jo was contemptuous at best from the start, he only ever calls her ‘yacky-chops’ and despite her friendliness towards him, with a hint of genuine affection underneath her frequent exasperation at his behaviour, he can’t be anything but dismissive and even aggressive towards her. I’m not expecting Friday night at the pictures or anything, but after a while it gets very noticeable. It’s a long time since Jack O’Justice and Moll moonlight, or even Kid Gloves and Velvet Mittens.
The increasingly difficult to maintain Humbert Higgs was abandoned in issue 417 (3 October) to be replaced by The Star of Fortune, a former western Sheriff’s star, magicked by Indians into enabling its wearer to foresee the future, and winding up in the hands of Texas schoolboy Willie Wilson. Meanwhile, The Troubleshooters, having started off with realistic, if broadly drawn characters running into mysterious obstacles, had now ‘progressed’ to equipping Messrs Knocker and Jinx with an egghead scientist and a robot plane. Two more pages to skim past without reading (though they did discover a monster in Loch Craggan , but not the same one as in the Eagle story about the same place!)
In a foretaste of the future, the following issue saw a dual-price on the cover, the traditional 7d and the forthcoming 3 new pence.
The miner’s strikes and powercuts of the winter of 1970-71 meant an eleven week gap between issues 423 (14 November 1970) and 424 (6 February 1971), though none of the stories were interrupted. What the suspension meant to Valiant‘s sales figures is anybody’s guess, but I imagine the comic lost a lot of readers.
Issue 427 (27 February) re-demonstrated my point about Raven. Determined to enter a team of his tribe’s boys in a National Youth Cup, Raven’s plans were stymied by Baldy Hagen, but Jo found a way round her father’s refusal to aid Raven. Her thanks? To be called ‘yacky-chops’, and get no thanks.
There were more changes on the way. First, the unfunny College Cowboy bowed out in issue 431 (27 March), then, the following issue, after nine years of unyoked existence, Valiant announced its first merger, taking over the cancelled Smash. The merged paper stayed at 36 pages, with four of Smash‘s features crossing over, which meant curtains for The Star of Fortune, Slave of the Screamer and The Troubleseekers.
The new Valiant and Smash debuted on 10 April. All the retained Valiant features reset with new stories. Incoming was Janus Stark, Victorian escapologist, the long-running classroom rivalry of The Swots and The Blots by the legendary Leo Baxendale, Simon Test, adventurer and His Sporting Lordship, commoner Henry Nobbins who inherited the title Earl of Ranworth but had to become champion in multiple sports before he could touch his inheritance of £5,000,000.
With the exception of the eternal Nutts and Crows, and the execrable Basher and Masher, none of Valiant‘s other comic series crossed the divide but never say never, especially in the case of Sporty.
The new blood did indeed invigorate the comic, though Simon Test, whose adventure was bland and art on the rough side, only lasted until issue 440 (29 May) before being dropped for the Return of an old favourite. His Sporting Lordship was similarly dull, but I found Janus Stark, with its bold, dark lines and heavy blacks, surprisingly enjoyable. Like House of Dollman, it went in for only short stories, yet unlike Dollman it did not obey a formula.
Yes the Return was a Return, Return of the Claw, a new series featuring Louis Crandell and his amazing Steel Claw, and the even more amazing Jesus Blasco, and apparently having returned to villainy. Needless to say, it was only the public who thought that, leaving Crandell to come out of his much-deserved retirement to clear his name.
Yet another new ‘comedy’ page debuted in issue 442 (12 June) in the form of Wacker, a simple sailor. By the name alone, this had to be a reprint, because the overuse of the Scouse term of endearment had died a death outside Liverpool by 1966 at the latest. And yes, the terror that was Sporty was back in the next issue…
To my everlasting surprise, issue 445 (3 July) featured Raven calling Jo Hagen by the name Jo! Was the Lengro going soft, or was he finally being influenced by her extremely short shorts? Sadly, it was just a one-off: despite her attempts to help him overcome a curse, she was yacky-chops again (the shorts were still shoooort, mind you).
Speaking of how people address each other, for some considerable time, Tim Kelly had been calling Dr Diamond a ‘silly old faggot’, which was hardly respectful (though what had the silly old faggot done to deserve respect?) but also something I know my parents would not have been pleased to know I was learning.
The Return of the Claw had been progressing decently, with a half naturally developing storyline until issue 449 (31 July) when the mastermind(s) were revealed to be two genius eight year olds set on luring Crandell out of a retirement for their ‘project’: immediate nose-dive.
The Ghostly Guardian, which had always reminded me in town of Lion‘s Turville’s Touchstone, was perpetuating the format of heir meets spook, but growing more ridiculous by the week.
Issue 454 (4 September 1971) marks the end of DVD3, and this part of the series.

Lou Grant: s02 e07 – Schools

Lee Chamberlin

The problem with a polemic, issue-oriented show, and especially one with a liberal, left-oriented viewpoint, is balance. Not between political opinions, nor even between idealistic fantasy and common or garden realism, but between entertainment and issue. Lou Grant is about the things that shaped our world in 1978 and thereabouts, but it’s also about Lou Grant, and Joe Rossie, Billie Newman et al. This episode lost that balance almost before it started.

‘Schools’ was, obviously, about the School System, and about fear and tension in schools, about teacher’s compromised abilities to teach, about armed guards in the corridor, teachers carrying guns, kids on drugs, the whole nine yards. It was piled on, viewers oblivious to the problem would no longer have any excuse to be oblivious, but along the way there was too little for anyone but Lou, in full-blown helpless-in-the-face-of-inexorability mode, to do, and despite at least one excellent guest role, the characters were too much Representative than real.

The vehicle for the plot is the L.A. Trib’s annual College Scholarship, which takes Lou to Whitman High to meet the candidates. There’s an obvious paragon, a straight A superstar student, a debut role as a minor character for Dennis Haysbert, and an underdog, a less than perfect kid but one who’s turned his life around dramatically, and who could really benefit from the Scholarship.

This is Wesley (Kevin Hooks), a special project of  Guidance Counsellor Jenny Davis, a lovely, cool, in control performance by Lee Chamberlin, whose empathy and intelligence, and her authoritative balance of realism and optimism, attracts Lou’s attention. Jenny’s our centre, and Chamerlin is superb, but she’s neverallowed to be real or a person. She’s a function of the story and she’s why it all doesn’t work.

Both Wesley and Jenny fall foul of the ignorant dickhead Haskell, and it’s all because of a radio. Haskell is toxic black male culture at its worst, ain’t no-one gonna tell Haskell what to do. Jenny humours him into turning his radio off, only for his buddies to tell him he’s been disrespected. And Haskell reacts in defence of his precious manhood, by slashing Jenny’s tyres, by provoking Wesley into a fight defending Ms Davies that gets him arrested and kills his chance at the Scholarship, and then by trapping Jenny in her room, beating her, and raping her.

So Jenny, this paragon herself, decides to quit, and run back to Texas. Victor the student paragon wins the Scholarship. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, still young but already the showman, provides an inspirational speech-cum-sermon. Wesley regathers himself to start again. But Jenny, no, the damage has been done, the cut is too deep. It wouldstill have been schematic to end with this defeat, a touch-eyed appreciation of how hard it can be and how sometimes it can still be too much for even the best of us, but no, the show can’t leave well alone, and another inspirational plea from Lou overturns Jenny’s mind and she stays to fight the good fight still.

But too much of this episode was about the situation and far too little of it about making the people who were in the midst of the situation into people and not causes. My old adage applied here: the irreducible minimum rquirement of fiction is that it makes you care about something that never happened to someone who never existed, and it failed because the people who never existed were never allowed to exist.

Person of Interest: s02 e06 – The High Road

Suburban Wives.

There’s a kind of predictable unpredictability about Person of Interest in the first couple of seasons. It was sold to the network as a procedural, and it has to be faithful to that remit whilst expanding its internal mythos. That over-riding arc will take the show over, but a quarter of the way through season 2, we’re still at the point of individual episodes.

So a heavy-hitting, arc-establishing episode like last week’s ‘Bury the Lede’ is followed by a charming domestic tale whos impact is only felt within small confines, and which allows the team to relax as John Reese and fixer Zoe Morgan play a married couple in the suburbs whilst John watches over the new Number, Graham Wyler (David Denman), husband, father, hardware store owner, no clouds or shadows: ‘the most boring man in New York’, Reese summarises.

But we know there’s more to it than saving the life of a devoted family man. One reason is that there has to be a twist to Graham’s perfect small life: I suspected Witness Protection but it was slightly different. Graham’s real name was Lloyd Pruitt, he used to be an old-fashioned safecracker in Philadelphia, a guy who’d worked with a team. Except that on the one job he’d refused to do, the other two went ahead withouthim, got caught and did twelve years in prison. Now, thanks to a chance photo on Facebook, they’ve found good old Lloyd. Threats against his family, wife Connie, a gorgeous redhead (Alicia Witt, a gorgeous redhead) and teenage daughter Izzy force Lloyd into one last job, in which he’s going to be exposed and killed, until neighbour John Campbell, purveyor of security systems that enables Harold Finch to eavesdrop, intervenes.

There’s a happy ending. Graham, who’s already left a letter to Connie, revealing all, decides to turn himself in. Connie loves him still, he gets house arrest, his life in all its respects is saved. His neighbours, the Campbells, move on: the suburbs is not for them.

It’s a delicate, enjoyable story, one of those tales where a domestic idyll is changed but remains secure, the kind of story we hope to read and yet so often are denied in favour of the ‘realism’ of pain, destruction and death.

But we know it’s not going to be as simple as that for another reason. The episode opens with an extended flashback to 2004: Finch and Nathan Ingram in the park, by the river. It’s a test run for the nascent Machine, to identify the people it ‘sees’ and explain their stories. Ingram is sceptical, of the Machine’s attempts too understand humanity, and of his introverted friend’s ability to teach it. The Machine, off it’s own back, calls attention to the woman painting by the railings: she is Grace Hendricks.

Because the flashbacks come in threes, we return in mid-show to the park. It’s now 2005, and Finch is testing the Machine on discovering connections between disparate and random pairs of people. He sees the artist, and is intrigued that the Machine can discover no anomalies, no secrets, no shadows, no connections.

Then, at the end as it was the beginning, a final flashback, to 2006, January to be precise. Finch turns up at the park. He’s greeted by an ice cream truck seller, accepts his usual vanilla ice cone. The park is cold and empty, but for one person: the artist, painting by the railings as always. Finch walks up to her and, smiling, says Hello. A surprised Grace says Hello back. The screen goes black. Another jigsaw piece has been turned over.

Nothing is ever simple. Expect the unexpected. Nothing is unconnected.


An Old Trafford Expedition

It was in the middle of Friday afternoon that our Operations Manager called me across to her desk for a moment. My natural paranoia and insecurity made this a trepidatious walk, especially when she asked me if I was working Saturday. My shifts do not include Saturday working. Did I have any plans for Saturday. Nothing specific, I answered cautiously. Would I like to go see West Indies vs New Zealand, at Old Trafford, in the World Cup?

And so I went back to Old Trafford, for the first time in seventeen years (for a cricket match) in ample time for the 1.30pm start of only my second Day-Night match ever.

Just thinking of being there was wonderful, before a single ball was bowled, even if a single ball were not to be bowled because of rain all-day. I have always loved the atmosphere of being in a cricket ground, and Old Trafford in particular. I haven’t been here for cricket since the Saturday of the Sri Lanka Test in 2002, when I took my then elder-stepson for his first day of Test Cricket ever, and I haven’t been inside the gates since a late summer Sunday in 2008, when my then-wife and I won tickets via The Big Issue to see R.E.M. in concert (my seventh time, her first).

Old Trafford, long before my time

The nostalgia of the journey was enough to thrill me Friday night, thinking of the ever-unreliable 203 to Piccadilly Gardens, the Metrolink to the Warwick Road Station (I’m well aware that they pretend to call this stop Old Trafford now, but to me it’s Warwick Road and it always will be: I’ve passed through here far too many times, to see Lancashire, or England, or United for it to ever be anything else). It used to be possible to roll up at the station and, even as the train was slowing, see the Ladies Stand Scoreboard and get an instant update, but that was nearly forty years ago. Ah, but getting out here and walking down the length of the ground to the turnstiles…

On the other hand, when it came to working out practicalities, such as equipping myself with food and drink for the day, I ended up choosing a route I’d never taken before, which was the ever-unreliable 203 the other way, into Stockport, a bus to East Didsbury and the Metro from there to Trafford Bar (which used to be called Old Trafford and which confused me and left me with a long, hot walk the first time I went to the ground on the train) to change for Warwick Road.

The first thing I was looking forward to was seeing just how much the ground and the feel of the match has been changed by the re-orientation of the pitch. All my Old Trafford memories revolve around such things as the Warwick Road End, and the Stretford End, and sitting square-on in the Pavilion, which is how I saw Shane Warne bowl that ball, Graham Gooch handle the ball and Dominic Cork take that hat trick, the only professional hat trick I’ve seen live, in the flesh or on TV.

So this is a return to old glories with a vengeance, or old memories at any event. Oh, I have missed being there!

As for the teams, short of watching England, I couldn’t ask for better than the West Indies, even in their decades of decline. I am a veteran of the Blackwash season, of Viv Richards outscoring England by himself in 1984, and of the lump in the throat moment, a few years later, when I got into another International on the day, he scored 75, and when he was out I suddenly realised this was the last time I would ever see him walk off a cricket field. My favourite batsman ever.

And I’ve history with New Zealand as well, a One-Day International here where Richard Hadlee cut loose with the bat in the closing overs, culminating in 24 runs off the final over, and before that being at Headingly on the last day for their first ever Test win in England. This could be good, weather-permitting.

The usual travel paranoia set in, even though I went out early enough to get to the ground and back and set off again and still be on time. Not that that mattered, strictly: this was not catching a train at  fixed time, I could arrive late and still enjoy myself to the full.

There was an unscheduled stop en route, a stop off at the Collection Centre for an undelivered package. The queue was incredibly modest for a Saturday, especially in comparison to some I’ve endured. On the other hand, there must be something fated about buses with the numbers 2 and 3 in their route, because the 23 I was waiting for was incredibly late…

There was a tram waiting at East Disbury and a return ticket was only £3. The attendant recommended I get off at Firswood and walk from there, avoid those travelling from the City Centre. I debated the wisdom of this – it was a warm day for walking – but took his advice. Left out the station, turn right, and suddenly I was on the road Steve and I used to park, going to see United.

They’ve taken away the tunnel under the Warwick Road Station, the first of many unwelcome changes I experienced. There are new entrance gates, just outside the station, making entry easier. My seats, plural – I’d have sold the spare if anyone had been asking but there were plenty of spaces inside, including a dozen or more directly in front of me, so I hope the touts took a bath – turned out to be in Stand C Lower, four rows up from pitchside. My first ever visit to Old Trafford, for a John Player Sunday League match against Somerset (whose ranks included a young, misprinted, ‘J.T. Botham’) was to the old Wilson Stand, which this has replaced. In fact, I was sitting practically where the big screen was placed in 1993, the one that showed me (and Mike Gatting) just what Shane Warne did with that ball.

I couldn’t believe the ground. It wasn’t just the re-oriented pitch, nor the mega-high temporary stand on my immediate left, occupying the old Stretford End. But I barely recognised anything. The Pavillion was still the same, though its classic lines are now horribly overshadowed by two floors of overbuilding that make it look almost invisible. But the rest of it: practically everything I knew had been torn down, ripped out and changed out of all recognition.

You could have seen some shots of how it all looked from my perspective, but as I soon as I switched on my digital camera, the battery died on me. With the lens out. Bugger. Stock shots only.

Old Trafford Pavilion as I remember it

I don’t like it. I want them to put it back the way it was. But I’ll have to learn to live with it. It’s still Old Trafford, and I belong to Old Trafford, and I will have to learn to get comfortable with it. There are no Scoreboards! God almighty, what have they done?!

West Indies won the toss and elected to bowl. What a start! There was an LBW appeal off the first ball, turned down, reviewed and given! The second ball was puhed firmly into the gap between mid-off and extra cover, for a quick-run three that became an all-run four thanks to a misfield. The third was a dot ball, Williamson ran three off the fourth and Munro was bowled off the fifth! Add another three and New Zealand were 10 for 2 off one over.

I was already pissed off at the incessant urge to fill every non-playing moment with noise, masquerading as music, the inter-over urges to get the crowd involved (we’re not supposed to be involved, the players are the ones who are involved, we’re here to watch them play) and most of all the rock guitarist soloing on a bat-shaped electric guitar.

It wasn’t even the kind of World Cup fireworks we were getting in earlier games, just a steady, slow accumulation of runs, with no sixes and only occasional fours, thanks to some tight fast bowling, and skilful field placing. But Williamon and Taylor stuck together. It took them to the 24th over to bring up the hundred, with Williamson reaching his 50 a ball later, and Taylor doing the same one ball after that. There were overs and batsmen to spare but without some acceleration, they were going to struggle to get past 225 – 230 runs.

They were gradually doing that when Taylor’s attempted lofted drive off Gayle only went to Jason Holder, score 137, 35th over, 130 run partnership, cue more fucking guitar to spoilt it all. The crowd were getting stupid now: Williamson was three short of his hundred so, in order to help him concentrate, they started a bloody Mexican Wave: how 1986. He finally got there in the 38th over after being kept on 99 for several balls, with his first four since he’d reached his 50.

The serious low point was a burst of Robbie Williams between overs. Williamson immediately started forcing the pace, in the hope of getting away from that but the 250 still didn’t come up until the 41st over.

There had still been no sixes and the first attempt at one, by Latham, just went straight up for a mile or two and into Cottrell’s hands without him even having to complete his follow-through. Kill the guitarist! One finally arrives, the first of only four, in the 44th over. It was Williamson, and he added another but fell two short of his 150, skying one off Cottrell, who now had four wickets. It’s still among the top half dozen highest individual scores I’ve ever seen. Cottrell couldn’ quite pull off a Michelle (Pfieffer, five-for, get it?) but he did slip in a run out off his last over. 300 was just about possible but two catches in the deep by Cottrell, off the last two balls, left New Zealand short at 291 for 7.

Lunch was barms from the Sandwich Pound in Stockport plus a lengthier than usual swig from my litre and a half bottle of Diet Coke. I’d conserved it well, aided by the sun being mostly behind me, and the stand, until mid-innings, when it started to pour down a bit on the back of my neck. I was actually re-hydrating less than I do at work. Then again, I wasn’t spending all my time talking.

Old Trafford Pavilion as it is now

The West Indies inning started at 6.00pm, all the floodlights fully aglare, though they wouldn’t actually be needed for at least the next two hours, an ecological lesson we could all learn from. The West Indies started slow, so much so that they were one down for only 3 in the third over. Mind you, their first six came rather quicker, Gayle lifting the ball in the sixth over. It was the cue for him to start swinging at them, but when Pooran followed suit it was up and down and out: 20 for 2.

The arrival of Hetmyer saw their big partnership underway. Gayle smashed a four and two sixes in three balls but went quiet again, though he still reached his fifty in the 15th over, with the WIndies well ahead of the New Zealand rate and comparative score. I was hoping for a Caribbean victory, both for the memory of Richards, Lloyd, Greenidge, Walsh, Marshall, Holding, Lara et al., but also for the tactical purpose of easing England’s position.

Hetmyer was also out to score runs, two blows for four bring up the hundred in the 16th over. He went to his 50 with a six off Ferguson, whose silly moustache had the Seventies calling, asking for it back (on the other hand, Neesham had an even sillier one).

But Hetmyer’s dismissal by Ferguson not only broke the century partnership but exposed faultlines in the WIndies middle order. From 142 for 2, they went to 163 for 7, five wickets in 22 balls. Somewhere in that, Brathwaite took their score to exactly halfway, 14 balls short of halfway through the overs. The biggest blow was Gayle, hitting one with height but not length and caught by Boult on the boundary. Runs in the bag and overs in hand are all very well, but not without batsmen in hand.

With that clatter of wickets, it felt like the game had gone out of the game and I started to think about leaving. If all the overs were bowled, this would finish about 10.00pm, then everyone would be trying to go at once. Leaving Old Trafford at that hour is one thing if you’ve got a car, but a kettle of fish of a different colour if you’re on public transport, and three legs of it.

Though Brathwaite and Roach seemed to be more concerned about defending their wickets, the 200 still came up the the 35th over and the asking rate was still just under a run a ball. But my mind was made up when Roach fell, at 211, and 8.48pm. Convinced I already knew the winner of this game, and that it could only peter out, I left my seat at 9.00pm, a couple of loud roars ringing out behind me as I made for Warwick Road.

The journey wasn’t too difficult: Metro within minutes at Firswood, a 42 within minutes at East Didsbury, a 203 within minutes (blimey!) at Stockport Bus Station. But I was tired, and aching all over when I walked in, which is what seven and a half hours in a hard plastic cricket seat, your bum alternating at sore and numb, does to you.

I went on-line to check the result. New Zealand had won, but I’d almost missed a stunning ending, with Brathwaite going to a hundred and the WIndies to one six hit off victory, only for the ball to fall two feet short and be caught. I would have kicked myself over leaving that, if I hadn’t been so bloody achey…

So, what was it like? It was a game of two halves, though not in the football sense. Despite the lack of fireworks for the most part, the cricket was excellent. Not having a dog in this show, it was a bit less intense for me, but there was some great shots, some athletic fielding and very good bowling displays (hasn’t Mitchell Santner, the New Zealand spinner, got a bloody funny action?).

But if the cricket was well worth it, the commercial bullshit that surrounded it wasn’t. Yes, call me a fuddy-duddy or an elitist, but the frantic need to fill every down-second with noise, with Making in Large, with urges to get involved, was fucking infuriating, and I know I don’t have a smart phone but every attempt was being made to get the crowd to ignore the cricket and text and tweet and send selfies, and it was a nightmare! Send them all off to re-education classes, this is not cricket in any form that I recognise it, and I shall stick to the TV for the rest of the tournament, especially as they have the sound off where I work

Film 2019: The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug

Middle films are always a bugger. They start in the middle and finish in the middle: pitched directly into the action without any suitable scene-setter and lacking any wholly-satisfying conclusion. Not every extended trilogy has a Battle of Helm’s Deep to provide the perfect pseudo-climax. The Hobbit does its best in ‘The Desolation of Smaug’, with the terrifically constructed battle between the Dwarves an the Dragon inside Erebor, but it still has to depend upon a cliffhanger on which to halt. I found it a disappointment first time round and it’s still the same now, when the final film’s another Sunday away, not another December.

That said, Part 2 is a decided uplift on Part 1. It has an awkward double-start, first a very clever flashback, like the Smeagol-Deagol scene that opens ‘The Return of the King’, to Bree in the rain, Thorin Oakenshield in the Prancing Pony and a ‘chance’ meeting with Gandalf the Grey. This is taken from one of those scenes that Tolkien couldn’t fit into the book and which turns up in the Appendices, and at greater length in Unfinished Tales.

Straightway from that, we go to the Dwarf party on the run again from Azog and his pursuing Orcs and rapidly holing up with Beorn. It feels awkward because it has no independence and it’s dealt with too quickly and back-ended with a bit of comedy, reflecting the original children’s book that’s really out of place this far along.

Still, that’s the last of that. There are still comic scenes to come, mostly surrounding the Master of Lake-Town and his obnoxious, servile assistant Alfred (Alfred? Alfred? Beorn, Bard, Smaug, Bilbo, Alfred… Alfred? een if it is spelt Alfrid). This requires a double-act between Stephen Fry and Ryan Gage, one of whom I thoroughly do not like and the other who’s just too good in his role to be comfortable watching. Their humour is based on throwing in cheap rude words, like bollocks and cock, but it isa dimension away from the chilish slapstick Jackson has tried to take from the book.

After the scene at Beorn’s, Jackson stops trying to marry up any of ‘The Hobbit’s tone to the fillm and things are better for it. The Desolation of Smaug can then concentrate on its own tone, fast, dynamic and serious, letting the comedy arise from what’s on the screen, such as the brilliant barrel-escape down the elvish river, fighting off Orcs and Elves with unstinting glee and vigour.

Much of what Jackson et al. invents in this film is simply an expansion on what Tolkien has written that was treated perfunctorily. Bilbo frees the Dwarves, they escape in barrels, full stop. Another, incredibly effective scene is created out of even thinner justification: Cate Blanchett makes a tiny cameo as Galadriel to send Gandalf north as a revised justification for his leaving the Dwarves at Mirkwood, not for an off-screen White Counsel (unmentioned in advance) raid on Dol Guldur, but rather to urgently check the barely accessible and utterly creepy tombs of nine evil Kings. These are all empty: Nazgul…

And Gandalf’s investigation of Dol Guldur, his discovery of the half-mad Thrain, his encounter with the Necromancer and realisation it is Sauron, his capture, all these are drawn into this film where, in strict Tolkien mythology, they date from further back, but they are still all crucial elements of the overarching story that includes The Lord of the Rings, just placed onscreen rather than confined to deep background.

Where Jackson is on truly unjustified ground is in the creation of Tauriel, the elf-warrior-maiden and her ‘relationship’with the youngest and most normal-looking Dwarf, Kili (Aiden Turner). I’m dubious about the ‘love affair’ but as Tauriel is played by Evangeline Lilley, I can’t argue with the decision. Lilley is in her element, especially in the fighting scenes, where she’s as fluid and fearsome as Legolas (Orlando Bloom, another returnee). Jackson’s on firmer ground with having Legolas along: neither he nor Thranduil, his father, are named in ‘The Hobbit’ but it’s obvious in retrospect that they must have been there.

The middle film scores by speeding things up considerably, to remove the stodginess, kicking out the songs and (most of) the slapstick and showing a great deal more confidence in its decision to go for the tone of The Lord of the Rings overall. It’s still a middle film in Middle-Earth, with no real event to conclude it, but I still enjoy it thoroughly.

Lou Grant: s02 e06 – Dying

Geraldine Fitzgerald

I thought I had this episode sussed, thought I knew what it was about, and that it was a characteristic, issue-oriented episode of Lou Grant, but after some gently wool-pulling, it became just a story, one with an emotional undertone that caught me where some things are still raw.

The beginning set itself up very neatly. An elderly woman in a nursing argued furiously with the nurses over their refusal to give a painkilling shot to a man we never saw, a man in extreme pain whose shot wasn’t due for another two hours. Knowing the series as we do, this telegraphs an episode focussing on nursing homes and the way the elderly are treated. That the complaining woman was a Mrs Donovan, as in Peggy, mother of Art Donovan, was a clever hook to get the paper attracted.

That wasn’t the case at all. Geraldine Fitzgerald guested as Peggy Donovan, and hers was the performance that strung the story together and she was quite wonderful, but the story gave Jack Bannon, as Art, a rare opportunity to play a central role, insread of the usually wise-cracking supporting character he plays.

Because Peggy is ill, seriously ill, with leukaemia, but Art is blocking. He can’t see her sickness or her pain, only that, in his eyes only, that she is getting better every day: stronger, brighter, nearer going home. Art’s fighting off her death, in a way that at least one character in the story finds admirable and the only stance that can be taken. But he’s also fighting off reality, and refusing to talk or listen to anyone who in any way expresss doubts. He can’t handle the reality and is thrusting it from himself as far and as hard as he can, and he’s being a total shitbag to everyone around him whilst he’s doing it (there’s a wonderful scene where Art starts arguing with Rossi over a piece he’s filed, which rapidly escalates to a public shouting match: Lou, Billie and Charlie retreat to Lou’s office, shut the door behind them and discuss their concerns for Art, whilst the row goes on outside, Bannon and Robert Walden going hell-for-leather outside but still audible).

What made the episode was that the obvious concerns the likes of Billie and Lou have for her finally gives Peggy the strength to put her foot down, to say enough, and to allow her to go home to literally die in acceptance and peace. It gives Art the chance to adjust to what he so desperately wants not to happen, and it gives him and his mother the chance to talk over a final month. When he returns to work, it is to explain that his mother passed away on Tuesday, and he is calm and collected.

Though the story wasn’t entirely free pf polemic was only to be expected, but its essence was Peggy’s journey to a death that was on her terms and Art’s understanding of the importance of that, to himself as much as her. It was a story that struck me personally for almost thirty years ago I went through final months with my own mother, and there werethings that, because of the situation, did not get said nor could be said, and it has taken me almost all that night to accept the gap that left, that in a fiction designed to wrap up in 45 minutes can be closed without effort.

I didn’t remember a thing of this episode from before, nor would I have had reason to do so, having a living mother. Some fictions can only affect you deeply if you have the knowledge and understanding to stand inside them, and what I lacked then I have now, and it moved me deeply. I shall not forget this episode twice.

Person of Interest: s02 e05 – Bury the Lede

Victim, or Perpetrator?

And here is where things really start to get interesting.

After resolving the issue of Finch’s kidnapping by Root, and allowing a lull in the form of a procedural episode or two, Person of Interest began developing its first major theme for season 2 in this episode. First, there was a bit of minor misdirection in the form of this week’s number, Maxine Angelis (guest star Gloria Votsis), a determined investigative reporter pursuing financial improprieties in one man’s political campaign to be elected Mayor of New York (gosh, if we only had reporters like that in Britain).

We begin in media res with the lady: there is no longer any need to rehash how Numbers are received, nor to introduce them in the Library, we save time by introducing them on the fly. But Maxine immediately seems irrelevant as the FBI, under Special Agent Donnelly, swoop on the NYPD and arrest 75 dirty cops, all members of HR. This does not include Fusco, though he’s sweating a bit, and he has Symonds on his back demanding he destroy evidence that implicates the latter.

The raid is all based on Fusco’s undercover work in season 1. The scale of it might lead you to suppose HR is crippled, at best, but the Boss remains unidentified and out of reach.

Maxine’s interested in that story too, and also the one about the Man in a Suit, which means Reese can’t get close to her in the usual way without risking publicity that he and Finch neither want nor need. It makes his job impossible, so Finch solves it in an underhandedly direct manner: Maxine is using an online dating agency, so winds up agreeing a date with a ‘John Anderson’, an actuary.

And when Reese starts floundering very quickly, Finch gets Zoe Morgan to do a walk-by, to perk Maxine up about ‘Mr Anderson’s attractiveness to other women.

That’s by-the-by. Maxine has a meet with Mayoral Office high-ranking staffer Alonzo Quinn (Clarke Peters, in between The Wire and Treme: does his presence alert you to anything?). Quinn’s behind the Griffin campaign, the one with the sleazeball implication, but is getting creamed by the Mr Clean candidate, Landon Walker.

And there’s an anonymous tip to Maxine, naming Christopher Zambrano as the boss of HR.

Zambrano looks good for it. His Dad was one of the Mafia Dons taken out by Elias last season, he runs an Import-Export business that is the kind of cover Dons use, the FBI are interested in him. Maxine sprays him all over the cover, but there’s just one thing wrong: Zambrano’s clean. Clean in that he’s the witness, not the boss, possessor of a ledger of pay-offs belonging to his Dad, that he’ll surrender to the FBI, once he gets his immunity deal. Now Maxine’s painted a target on his forehead.

The news that she’s been played, and allowed her eagerness for a scoop to let her see the wrong story, breaks during her date with ‘John Anderson’. Christopher Zambrano is shot dead, Maxine’s career ruined, she’s genuinely repentant, and when she tries to track down who set her up, her life is in danger. From being the Perpetrator, albeit unknowingly, she has become the Victim that Reese has to protect at close range.

What’s important is to find the ledger, but when they do, two homicidal ex-FBI agents are prepared to take it from them and arrange their death as a lover’s spat that escalated. Reese’s hands are tied, both literally and figuratively. This time it’s Carter and Fusco who arrive to save the day.

The fall-out is that both the ex-FBI guys and the ledger drop Landon ‘Mr Clean’ Walker in it. He’s arrested by Donnelly, Ed Griffin wins the Mayoralty. Fusco, who’s dancing on a knife-edge here, removes two pages from it first, relating to payments made to P Symonds and L Fusco. It’s still not enough to get him out of HR.

There are two stings left in the tale. Maxine goes on a fourth, entirely normal date with Anderson, but it’s their last: she’s wedded to her job and he isn’t yet over Zoe Morgan. But she’s dropping the Man in a Suit investigation. He must be an Urban Legend – after the weekend she’s just had, if he did exist she’d have seen him…

But the other is the big reveal, and it’s one that we should all have seen coming from the mere fact that Clarke Peters was playing a guest role. It’s to be a recurring role. The boss of HR is Alonzo Quinn. And the shape of season 2 slowly crystallises.

Film 2019: The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey

Since the box-set of The Hobbit, like The Lord of the Rings, tells a single story over multiple films, there’ll be no jumping around with these films: today is the first of three successive Sundays devoted to this epic.

I’ll begin by disposng of the allegation that the adaptation of what was a short, and childish, children’s book into a three-film extravaganza was no more than elephantiasis, a cynical and commercial money-grubbing exercise in milking Middle-Earth for all it was worth. The argument is to be expected: the trilogy bears very little resemblance to the book, except that the latter’s spine provides the sequence of (greatly-expanded) events. Originally, when The Hobbit was supposed to be the work of Guillermo del Toro, it was to be a two-film project, one for The Hobbit tory, and one to bridge the sixty year gap between that and The Lord of the Rings. Short of the by now traditional trip into Earth-2, we’ll never know how that would have worked out.

But del Toro departed and Peter Jackson, who hadn’t previously intended to direct The Hobbit for precisely this reason, ended up taking over. The film grew in the telling, too much for some people. I like it as it is: I read The Lord of the Rings first and came eagerly to The Hobbit without seriously understanding the vast difference between the books, a gulf I’m still massively aware of whenever I return to them.

But the books were written in that order and the films weren’t. They exist in the same continuum, they are two parts of a single story separated by sixty years. By that token alone, The Hobbit had to be consistent with its ‘predecessor’. It would have been a colossal mistake to make a Hobbit film faithful to the tone of book, a silly, kid’s semi-comedy, told in archaically condescending tones that very few modern kids would stand for. It would have been ‘pure’, and almost certainly a pure disaster.

An Unexpected Journey was the first part of the story, and the most criticised, as slow and stodgy. I’d agree with that to a large extent, and of the six films I think this is substantially the worst, and a large part of that is down to Jackson compromising himself to be accomodating to the tone of the book. With one glorious exception, everything that tries to faithfully depict the more childish parts of the story drags the story down.

Jackson chooses to start An Unexpected Journey in the hinterland of his first trilogy, with the elderly Bilbo deciding to write the true account of his adventure sixty years before on the day of the Birthday Partythat will see him leave The Shire forever. Elijah Wood sticks his head in to establish the context for us, just before he runs off to meet Gandalf, and there’s one of those by-now standard time-shifts on the front porch, from pipe-smoking Bilbo to pipe-smoking Bilbo, from Ian Holm to Martin Freeman.

Now I like Martin Freeman, in The Office, in Sherlock, and the moment I heard he’d been cast as Bilbo, I said he would be perfect for the role, and I was right, so let’s just record that and save ourselves repeating it over and again. He holds the film together, even where it is dealing with scenes in which he is not represented: The Hobbit is about Bilbo in a way that The Lord of the Rings was not about Frodo but about a group of people with a shared goal.

Jackson begins with Bilbo’s uncomfortable encounter with Gandalf when the latter, unbeknownst to Bilbo, selects him as Burglar-by-Appointment to Thorin Oakenshield, and continues with the unexpected party that lends its concept to the film’s sub-title. This is the first of the points where Jaackson’s attempt to be faithful to Tolkien trips up over its stodginess. There’s a nod to the dwarves arriving two by two that rapidly gets tedious, so Jackson collapses (literally) the arrival of the last two-thirds of them into one go to spare patience.

This however has the effect of rendering the dwarves pretty indistinguishable. I mean, they are to a large extent in the book, but whilst the designers do a good job of making the dwarves visually distinct, and some of the actors – mainly Ken Stott as Balin and James Nesbitt as Bofur – get enough lines to establish their personalities, the majority struggle to be more than local colour, and it’s bloody difficult to remember which is which. I mean, James Nesbitt plays cheerfully Irish enough to stand out but the film’s half over before it registers that he’s Bofur and without the final credits I couldn’t tell you what the one with the ear-trumpet is called.

It’s deliberately silly, and the tonal shift to the serious elements is hard to pull off,, as is the awkward mixture of the songs. Jackson tries to incorporate some of the songs that interrupt The Hobbit book, an attempt thankfully abandoned by the second film, with the jokey blokey clearing-up scene as a jolly singalong then followed by the wholly different, completely serious and, in its way intensely moving incantatory song about Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, the haunt of Smaug, the home that draws each of these seemingly idiotic characters so powerfully onwards.

The party scene sets a scene, and Jackson stays faithful to the story: Bilbo’s mad dash, his discovery he’s forgotten to bring any handkerchiefs, the bit with the Trolls, the battle of the Mountain Giants, the Goblin King’s song in Goblin-Town (which works precisely to the extent that that is Barry Humphries under all that CGI, Humphriesing away with great glee, and no further), all of these come from the book, and all of them are awkward. The film’s heart is not really in them, because they don’t sit with the serious elements.

The one silly scene from The Hobbit that really works, and this is a combination of clever adaptation and fantastic acting, is the Riddle-Game, and that’s Martin Freeman alone and scared, standing up to Gollum, Andy Serkis reprising his role in glorious fashion. That this pair would fall into a contest of riddles is wholly believable, and almost inevitable.

But the film’s real heart lies in what it makes up out of whole cloth. This can be entirely serious, such as the meeting at Rivendell of the White Council, bringing together Gandalf, Elrond, Saruman and Galadriel, Iam McKellan, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett, or daftly comic, such as anything Sylveste McCoy does as Radaghast the Brown (I still love the Rabbits of Rhosgobel).

Of course, it’s not totally whole cloth, it is actually extracting things from the deep background that Toolkien passes over in the book, the boring stuff that constructs the story but which would bore his eager children stiff. Here, though, the writers and the director get the chance to shape these elements exactly to their purpose, without having to try to make something meant for little children nearly one hundred years ago work in their context.

The film goes furthest in building on gossamer material in its introduction of Azog (nicely played by Manu Bennett). The Defiler, the Pale Orc, has his proper place in Dwarvish history, but Jackson & Co build him out of almost nothing to become a personal rival to Thorin Oakenshield, a hated enemy, slayer of Thror, Thorin’s  grandfather. Azog’s place in the story does not become fixed until th final film, but of course The Hobbit was planned as a single story, necessitating Azog’s appearance long before he becomes crucial to the conclusion.

I’ve been critical of the film’s failings today, because they’ve seemed more obvious on a Sunday morning. In the cinema, in a crowd of excited, enthused people, the film was far more resistant to criticial response, and I do enjoy it. It has much that is great fun, much that is exciting, much that is extraordinarily beautiful: no time spent gazing at Rivendell, or at the New Zealand countryside at its most magnificent, could ever be regarded as wasted. But it is still the weakest film of both trilogies.

Which means that the next two Sundays will be even more fun.

We who would Valiant Read – Part 4

Valiant now has 250 issues under its belt and a stable line-up, which still includes five features from its first issue. Issue 251 is cover-dated 22 July 1967. The Summer of Love is in full swing, psychedelia and flower power are in the air, I am about to end my first year at Grammar School. All’s well in the world, for now.
Let’s remind ourselves of Valiant‘s line-up as we hit Part 4.
We continue to be 40 pages for 7d. The only colour is on the cover, offering the recent They All Laughed, But… Inside is Captain Hurricane (4½pp), The Crows (½p), The Nutts (1p) Kelly’s Eye (2pp), Operation ‘Rescue’ (1p), Legge’s Eleven (2½pp), letters page It’s All Yours (1p), The House of Dolmann (4pp), The Steel Claw (2pp), The Astounding Jason Hyde (3pp), Mytek the Mighty (2½pp), Billy Bunter (2pp), The Wild Wonders (3pp), Lords of Lilliput Island, the newest series (2pp), The Laird of Lazy Q, another new series (2pp), Tatty-Mane, King of the Jungle (1p), and Sam Sunn (1p). Sporting Roundabout (½p), which had been a feature of the comic almost since it began, was left out, but was back two weeks later. And ‘Gabby’ McGlew, His Yarns aren’t True (1½pp) was the bad penny. Even the atrocious Sporty kept coming back.

Valiant 1968

Two issues into the new instalment and The Steel Claw was struck another idiotic blow. Not content with equipping him with a superhero costume, the creators stuck him with, wait for it, a teenage sidekick, by the name of Blackie Morris, another of those handy orphans who swan around looking for father-figures to get them into extreme danger: where were Social Services, I ask you?
Looking at Lords of Lilliput Island after it had had a decent chance to impress, I’m going to repeat what I said in the last instalment: the series that are built around a situation instead of around recurring characters are vastly inferior. I can’t summon up any interest in goings on amongst the midgets and the good and bad boys on Mayo Island, none of whom have any afterlife. They aren’t conceived as characters and thus have very little of it.
Much the same could be said of The Laird of Lazy Q, which was also a one-off story, and done by issue 258 (9 September) but McGregor had got character, and he could easily be seen capable of returning in future stories, which makes this series considerably more involving. It was replaced by When Britain Froze, another situation story about… well, if you can’t guess… This was a mere 1½ pages but was unusual in its heroes being brother and sister: that’s right, a girl. The first one since Diana Dauntless.
I’ve already expressed disappointment in The House of Dolmann, which has good, strong art but little else but some of its stories veered into the horrible territory of Jerry Siegel on the later Spider, or, even worse, Gadgetman and Gimmick Kid. A villain named the Ghastly Gardener who dressed like a scarecrow and whose tools were oversized gardening equipment was so far beyond the Pale that the Pale couldn’t be seen from Jodrell Bank.
Sporting Roundabout in issue 261 (30 September) threw up another of those mini-features whose significance only arrives in retrospect, matching Bobby Charlton (41) and Jimmy Greaves (44) as the only two footballers to have scored over 30 goals for England, and wondered if one of them would be the first to score 50 goals. We know now that neither would, but who could have guessed it would take another fifty years before that landmark arrived?
Lords of Lilliput Island was progressing in the same repetitious manner that The Last Boys had, an endless series of potential advances constantly anticipated and shot down by Tug Wilson, sending everything back to zero again.
The Steel Claw’s battle against the crystalloid invaders of Earth was unworthy of the series in every respect except the continually excellent art. Blasco’s line-work was perfectly detailed and his mastery of shadow absolute, making this Valiant’s best strip by a mile.
The Xmas issue, no 273 (23 December) saw When Britain Froze expand by half a page to 2 pages, but not improve in dullness. Since it was back at its normal length for the last issue of 1967, that extra half page was clearly just a Xmas bonus…
And we moved on into 1968 with the end of Lords of Lilliput Island and the news that it was being replaced by a feature that stood a decent chance of being decent, a revival of the popular detective, Sexton Blake. When Britain Froze then put in another two page shift to spoil my little joke but its kid-heroes finally found their father who unwittingly had invented the antidote to the freezing frogs, which raised hope that that too would soon melt away. It only took two more instalments.
Sexton Blake’s debut, linked to the then-successful lTV version of his adventures that I used to watch so avidly, was promoted on the cover on issue 276 (13 January 1968). Once again, the comic’s term for it was ‘picture-story’ and once again I wonder. But this was a one-off, and They All Laughed was back a week later.
Unfortunately, Sporty was starting to appear more regularly again, and in full page stories. The strip’s biggest problem, apart of its completely predictable unfunniness, was that Reg Wootton’s art was not only ugly but looked completely out of place, a stranger from a distant decade with no correspondence to the year 1968, or indeed any year in which Valiant’s target audience had ever lived.
When Britain Froze was replaced by the first Western since The Laird of Lazy Q, in the shape of Red Kerrigan, Fighting Sheriff of Red Gulch. Unfortunately, all it took was a second’s look to spot that this was a reprint of some Fifties series, no doubt first run under a different name, and now filling space and looking wrong.
However, Kerrigan was only a short term stopgap, designed to fill a spot until issue 283 (2 February), when Valiant underwent its first ever full-scale revamp. Two long-standing stories, Legge’s Eleven and Mytek the Mighty finished, as did the unwanted Sam Sunn, and a horde of new series began. I know I’ve not said much about Mytek, but it was always a good, solid, entertaining series, with strong, if not exceptional art, and there’s just something so appealing about a 100 feet tall robot gorilla. I’d miss it.
They All Laughed ended in favour of a promo for the Red Arrow, the issue’s free gift of a plastic flyer, and would be replaced the following week by Is It True (no question mark), presenting odd incidents that the reader had to decide were true or false before page 12. Inside, it was all change. Tim Kelly and Dr Diamond’s increasingly dull time travel adventures took them to the Wild West and there were new adventures for Sexton Blake, the Wild Wonders, whose adventure looked like it was going to return to the original idea now that we were once again in an Olympic year, this time Mexico, and The Steel Claw,. Though still the art highlight of the comic, the series badly needed some better, i.e., less ridiculous storylines.

The new football series was Raven on the Wing, drawn by Tim Kelly’s creator, Francisco Solano Lopez, in which Baldy Hagan, the new manager of fading Highboro’ United, was trying to break through the Club’s high-minded chivalry by introducing a bare-footed gypsy boy with super senses into the team. Bluebottle and Basher was a new one-page cartoon about a small cop and a big crook. Little Orvy was a two-pager about a little boy’s imaginary adventures whilst learning at school. Credited to Rick Yager, it was an oddly drawn affair of highly-stylised cartoon realist art in tiny panels, and was a reprint of a short-lived American newspaper strip that had run from 1959 to 1963.
The Ironmaster seemed to be a Phantom Viking rip-off, with street kid Danny Ventor falling down a ventilation shaft, finding a load of strange gear and being transformed, in an electric shock, into an armoured gladiator, whilst The Shrinker was sinister little scientist Capek, who had invented a machine to, what else, shrink people, starting with RAF pair Squadron-Leader Flint and Sergeant Slake. This was a reprint of the series as it originally appeared in Buster, from 1962 onwards.
Finally, the new back page feature was Master Spy, the Schoolboy Secret Agent. I agree. Actually, this broke with back page tradition by being a serial, but that didn’t make it any better. At least I didn’t last more than a handful of weeks.
I began this read through with a two DVD set that only went up to 1968, but when the second disc proved to be faulty, I had to invest in a six DVD set that covers the complete run. With issue 288 (6 April), I’m moving into disc 3.
Issue 290 (20 April) seemed a good point to assess the state of Valiant and the new stories that had come in at the start of the year. Raven was the outstanding character, with a serious football story to tell, albeit through exaggerated positions and characters. Neither The Ironmaster nor The Shrinker had anything interesting abut them, whilst the new cartoons were as completely unfunny as those that had gone before them. Little Orvy had good art, and an educational aspect to it, but stood out more for how tedious everything else was than on its own slender merits.
It reminded me of reading Lion last year, and how the comic’s early, strong showing in the Sixties started to drain away in 1968, as the influence of superhero comics started to expand. The Steel Claw even offers a direct parallel to The Spider: great art, shame about the stories. There’s a sense that the comic may have peaked, and be entering into a decline. If so, I hope it will be at least gradual for some time yet.
The peripatetic Tom Kerr was now drawing Kelly’s Eye, though in a style that initially attempted to mimic Solano, but week in, week out moved closely to his own approach and linework. And time was up for Jason Hyde in issue 293 (18 May), closing his X-Ray Eyes for good.
There was good news in issue 296 (1 June) with the end of the unliked Ironmaster and the announcement of the return of Mytek the Mighty, though the fact that the enemy was the dwarfish Gogra yet again was boring: how come he kept surviving being stepped on by a gigantic robot gorilla? Meanwhile, the Sexton Blake series was getting a bit repetitious with Blake or Tinker or both of them falling through trapdoors at least every other week: did their villains not have the imagination, or perhaps not the money, to build anything else?

House of Dolmann

Dolmann continued on in the same way every week, but for at least one contemporary reader, Dolmann’s habit of throwing his voice into his puppets was growing somewhat irritating. Given that some of the little bleeders were quite openly nasty about each other, the practice grew increasingly schizophrenic, with the only interpretation that different sectors of Dolmann’s psyche were at war with each other. Or that the guy was plain nuts. Either way, it wasn’t the most mentally healthy set-up.
A new series, Voyage of No Return, arrived in issue 310 (7 September) as a replacement for Little Orvy: not so much like for like, though. Meanwhile, Raven on the Wing was going the way of all football strips: one story about football then straight into the same old nonsense about secrets and rich inheritances.
There was no need to wait nine weeks to assess Voyage of No Return: three were enough to mark it as crap. Indeed, but for the art, I’ve have assumed it to be a Fifties reprint. Perhaps it was a remake from the original scripts? The Shrinker returned to normal size in issue 312 (21 September) and made way for… Return of the Shrinker, tacking implausibility onto a weak idea with no room for development.

The new Sexton Blake adventure, starting the same week, suddenly dated Blake’s series to the 1930s, a more natural setting for him, but hardly one that had been noticeable thus far. And the villain in the new Mytek the Mighty story was… Gogra.
There was also a change of artist for the strip. The new man was another decent artist with a good and fairly detailed line but he assembled his pages in square and rectangular panels with clear gutters between them, in consequence to the other artists, the majority of whom blended their pages with overlapping dialogue bubbles, varied and angular layouts and partial or total ommission of panel borders. Mytek, in this style, felt hopelessly juvenile.
This was a period when the whole of Valiant was just jogging along, producing nothing demanding a comment positive or negative, so I find myself mentioning the issue 320 (16 November) Is It True? simply because it anticipates the plot for Jurassic Park… And despite my original assessment of its art, I’ve now come to the conclusion that Voyage of No Return, with its tiny panels and stilted dialogue, is an actual Fifties reprint, and further evidence that Eagle had the only good stuff of that decade. And a longer exposure to Sexton Blake half-convinced me that it too was reprint material, only for the length of Tinker’s sideburns.
Speaking of retreads, Sporty still kept cropping up irregularly, and even ‘Gabby’ McGlew was restored for issue 325 (21 December), just in time for Xmas (had it been in time for Easter, I’d have probably used ‘resurrected’).
Two issues later, Valiant entered 1969. Sexton Blake’s adventure with the Museum of Fear was going on longer than any of his previous stories, but only had three more instalments left. The Steel Claw’s attempts to clear his name of being a traitor were going on considerably longer, with no end in sight, especially when his quest to receive the Shadow Squad’s Code Bullets (what secret organisation worth bothering with conceals its list of agents in bullets?) were split up between three locations.
Still, the tedious Voyage of No Return reached a dull ending in issue 330 (25 January 1969), arousing hope for a better replacement. But the two-page River of Fire had the instant look of another Fifties wash-up.
And on the subject of art, there was a subtle change to that on Raven on the Wing in issue 334 (22 February) when, after one page of Solano Lopez, a new artist mimicking his style took over, and unless I’m very much mistaken, this was a return for our old friend Tom Kerr. And as a few weeks passed it became clearer and clearer that this was welcome back, Tom. As for Lopez, changing political conditions in his native Argentina had allowed him to return there from exile in 1968, though sadly not permanently, ending his association with Fleetway.
Return of the Shrinker, meanwhile, just dragged on and on through endless cliffhangers whose only point was to postpone the end of the series for another week, long past the point of any remaining interest. Even The Wild Wonders were starting to drag now, following the faceless criminal Number One around Australia without ever getting any nearer capturing him. Between this and Tim Kelly’s adventures in time, there was growing to be an air of staleness about Valiant, as though its writers had run out of new stories to devise.
At least River of Fire didn’t outstay its welcome, but its protagonist Chris Carron stuck around for a new story starting in issue 340 (5 April), Mission of Fear. This was no more enticing than Carron’s first, and underwent a radical change of art style as early as issue 342 (19 April). But Carron’s second outing only lasted until issue 346 (17 May), when it gave way to something that was at least different.
Return of the Shrinker saw Capek finally defeated in issue 343 (26 April), but, dismally, the editor saw no reason to end the series just because it was repetitious and the Shrinker re-returned for another adventure the following week, this time intent on shrinking people for The Shrinker’s Revenge. This was ridiculous. Valiant was providing far too many parallels to Lion‘s progression into doing the same thing over and over again.
The new story was a sports series, The Secret Champion, starring sports-mad, but sports-incompetent Mark Keen. Keen couldn’t play for toffee, so he became a sports reporter. He also became some ludicrous whiting out in captions since the series was blatantly a repeat whose original hero clearly had a longer name. But on assignment overseas Mark accidentally released a 2,000 year old Roman gladiator, Marcus Canus Brittanicus, a long dead ancestor, who swore to watch over him.
There’s not enough time to assess that one properly, though it looks initially like another deadbeat idea, for with 14 June 1969, Valiant hit its 350th issue, almost half its long run. This section has now run 100 issues, and it’s time for a breather.