Film 2019: The Battle of the River Plate


It’s back to the Powell/Pressburger box-set for this and the next Sunday, with the 1956 film The Battle of the River Plate. The film is about a notable naval engagement in the early months of World War 2. It is unusual in the Archers’ collection in being an entirely straight film, lacking any of the flair or fantasy that the pair usually brought to their roles, and it is also the earliest of their films that I saw, less than ten years after its making, in our first house at Brigham Street, in black and white on our old 405-line telly, on what must have been a Sunday afternoon.

The film breaks down into three phases. A voiceover explains the set-up: that in order to disrupt the British War Effort, the German Navy targeted merchant ships to deprive Britain of supplies and starve it out. The film begins with the sinking of the MS Africa Shell by the fast-moving, heavily armoured Admiral Graf Spee, underhe command of Captain Hans Langsdorf (Peter Finch). Africa Shell‘s Captain, Dove (Bernard Lee) is taken aboard the Graf Spee and treated decently and honorably by Langsdorf.

During the War, the Archers faced a lot of difficulty over their depiction of sympathetic Germans, and with Langsdorf we’re here again. But this is apparently an honest depiction: indeed, the film sets out to be as truthful to the actual facts as it can, basing itself on the book written by the real Captain Dove (who was a technial advisor and also played a minor role as a fellow prisoner of Captain Dove!)

The first part of the film takes place on the Graf Spee. Langsdorf gives Dove (and the audience) an exposition of their tactics and actual superiority, Dove is allowed to see a lot of the ship, before the rest of the prisoners are transferred abroad, after which we only see them in their cramped quarters, and hear the sinking of the MS Doric Star.

The scene switches to the South Alantic, off the coast of South Africa. A British hunting pack, consisting of Ajax (the flagship), Achilles and Exeter is under tthe command of Commodore Harwood (Anthony Quayle). Harwood has been studying the Graf Spee‘s movements and is convinced it will be heading for their waters. He draws up plans to attack, to split theGerman fire by having Ajax and Achilles attack one flank and Exeter the other.

There is a long, tense sequence as everyone stands ready and lookouts are constantly searching the horizon, until at last one sees smoke. This leads into the battle sequence, which takes up twenty minutes of the film, and is a pretty comprehensive depiction of every stage of the action, even though it’s telescoped from the hour the battle took in real life, with the first six minutes in real time.

The authenticity of the battle, and indeed of all the scenes at sea, in enhanced by the generous co-operation of the Royal Navy in lending actual ships, and even more so that Achilles was ‘played’ by the original ship, still functioning over fifteen years later (the same thing went for the Cumberland, which arrives late in the film).

Though Exeter is so badly damaged it has to withdraw, the attack forces the Graf Spee to flee, ending up in Montevideo, Uruguay, a neutral country. This signals the film’s third and most impressive phase, as the tension slowy rises over the outcome. The original audience, only a decade after the War’s end, would have knwn what was coming, but not perhaps the step by step details.

Because Uruguay is a neutral country, the International Conventions require that the Graf Spee is entitled to remain for such time as is needed to restore it to seaworthiness, but it may not receive any assistance towards making it fit for battle. The Germans want two to three weeks, the British and the French 24 hours. The Uruguayans, a small nation but a proud one, determinedly reject German protest and the implicit threat of international blackmail and the consequences of  German victory in the War.

What might happen is the subject of much debate and preparation. Harwood, newly promoted to Rear Admiral and knighted, analyses Langsdorf’s options and determines he will attempt to break out, under cover of night, and try to lose the British. Harwood’s squadron is enhanced by the arrival of Cumberland, but the clever spread of misinformation gives everyone in Montevideo the impression of a large British fleet lying in wait.

The climax comes on a bright Montevideo evening (the scenes of Montevideo harbour are filmed on location with thousands of local extras). American reporter Mike Fowler (Lionel Murton) provides a live commentary that is radioed to Ajax. Harwood decides to move in, despite the risk of infringing neutrality. Interned or sunk, either would be a massive blow to German propaganda.

Graf Spee sets out with a skeleton crew, followed by a German merchant vessel. It travells three miles, at sunset, and stops. A party of men are taken off. At 8.00pm exactly, the end of the Uruguayan ultimatum to depart, the ship is wracked with explosions from stem to stern. It has been scuttled. The Battle is over.

One historical fact is omitted from the film, though a final scene in which Dove, a fellow Captain, commiserates with the shaken and morose Langsdorf hints at it. In true Captain’s tradition, Langsdorf wanted to go down with his ship but was persuaded to return to shore to ensure his crew receied the amnesty due to them, and which is promised unasked in the film. Having secured this, Langsdorf committed suicide.

Though it lacks the characteristics we expect from a Powell/Pressburger film, and whilst it is a low-key film emotionally, led by the stiff upper lip, and an almost entirely masculine one, The Battle of the River Plate was all the better for being treated in this semi-documentary fashion. You can’t imagine any War film being made like this film now, for there are no personal stories, no heroic actions nor tragic deaths, the story is not milked for screen drama, and because it is true to what happened. This approach was needed, in respect for the men who fought the battle, and in respect for the audience of men who had lived what happened, if not in Ajax, Achilles or Exeter, then in other heavy and light cruisers, in battleships and destroyers, and merchant ships, only a little more than a decade, and knew the score. My Uncle was one.

In a way, it would have been better to have bypassed this film today, saved it for a month, for the Sunday of the week I am going to Portsmouth, to the Naval Dockyard, to see what I can of my father’s National Service in the Royal Navy. It would have set the scene remarkably well.

As for my memory of this being the first Archers film I saw, let me return at the last to Lionel Murton, as the American reporter, Mike Fowler, who gets the film’s last line. Murton was English/Canadian but, because of his accent, generally played Americans. This war film didn’t attract me much, but I recognised Murton with whom I was familiar for his role as sidekick to Dickie Henderson, a popular English comedian (popular with my parents, certainly, not least because he was clean), whose successful sitcom was one of those converted to comic strip form in, I think, TV Comic, which I read avidly back then.

Murton stayed in my mind because I knew him, and he iss an integral part of that final phase of the film, where one does not have to know how things end in order to feel the rising tension, as the diplomats plot and deflect, and the crowds wait to see what will happen.

The Battle of theRiver Plate was made because Powell and Pressburger couldn’t justify a trip to a South American film festival without it being a working holiday. Their partnership was coming towards an amicable end. They had suffered four successive commercial flops, but this would be a final success. The film was ready for release in 1955 but Rank held it back a year to have it selected as the Royal Film Command Performance. It was Britain’s fourth most popular film of the year.

And in its strange, deliberately stilted fashion, it is a minor masterpiece. There are better films (and worse) in this eleven-disc boxset, but I wouldn’t swap this for any of the omissions.

 

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Life… don’t talk to me about life


I saw the title in the Radio 4 schedules back in 1979 and was curious. But I didn’t get round to listening to it until I received a prompt on my last day of the LawTutors course in Solicitors’ Accounts. One of our two lecturors, knowing that they would have no further chance to influence us, told the class of this book that featured in this radio series. He wanted us to take to heart the words printed on the front of the book, in large, friendly letters: Don’t Panic.

I missed my chance on Sunday, because I forgot. A week of revision followed, and on the Sunday I caught the coach from Nottingham, where I was living, to Mancchester, where I was doing the exam on Monday. Coach to Stockport, bus to home, for my mother and sister were away, the exam coinciding with their August holiday in the Lakes.

I got in, and I put on the radiogram to listen to Fit the Fifth, the fifth episode of The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy. And I laughed like a drain.

That was forty years ago. I’ve long since ceased to find THHGTG anything like as funny as I did than and for a decade or so later, though Douglas Adams’ humour is by far the most obvious influence on mine. And I have quoted more lines from Hitch-Hiker, and more often, than anything other thing I have heard, seen or read.

Last week, Friday 4 October, Stephen Moore died, though I have only learned that this evening. He would have been 82 in December. He played one of the funniest roles ever on British radio, that of Marvin the Paranoid Android. Just say that name and listen to it. The very idea is funny. Adams’ creation of Marvin, the words he wrote for Marvin to say, or rather to grumble, to moan, to emit wearily, are funny. But in Stephen Moore, they found the perfect, lugubrious voice to make you collapse in uncontrollable laughter.

Marvin and Stephen Moore were one of the things the Twentieth Century will be known by. It hurts that he has been one a week and this is the first I’ve known of it. Such losses cannot be borne in silence.

Thank you Stephen Moore. And now, at long last, I trust you are finally free of that terrible pain in all the diodes down your left side…

Lost 70s: Volume 19


I know I promised Volume 19 would follow shortly on Volume 18, which was because the two compilations were recorded practically back to back. It’s just that I forgot. Sorry. But better late than not at all. This collection offers 23 tracks, with a fair bit of leaping around in time, a handful of chart hits but mostly low-lyers. I hope there’s a few memories to be evoked here.

Cracking Up            Nick Lowe

Because the New Musical Express espoused punk enthusiastically, at a time when the rest of the country’s press, music or otherwise, was hounding it in the same way they do Jeremy Corbyn these days, there were a lot of people I heard a lot about without hearing anything by. Brinsley Schwarz had never crossed my musical path in the Seventies, though I’d heard of the great 1970 PR Disaster without having a single idea what had happened. But Lowe, or ‘Basher’ as he was nick-named from his Production habits, was taken up by the NME with great gusto, especially for ‘Heart of the City’ (a truly great song and only a b-side). The paper created its own nick-name for Lowe, which he took for the title of his first solo album, Jesus of Cool. It’s sub-title also came from the NME, if my memory is working properly: ‘Pure Pop for Now People’. And Lowe was on a hot streak in those years, turning out pop songs with strength and steel in them, as well as compelling melodies. By the time ‘Cracking Up’ came out as a single, in 1979, Lowe was working as one-fourth (bass) of Rockpile, in partnership with Dave Edmunds. Since the two were tied to contracts with different labels, most of Rockpile’s stuff was released as solo records by Lowe or Edmunds, according to who wrote and sung songs. ‘Cracking Up’ plays with a deliberate flat melody, Lowe half-talking the words, and that’s Edmunds you hear on the chorus. It’s downbeat, smooth on the surface but jagged in more than the lyrics, and Lowe hits the right note of disturbance. Unfortunately, differences between Lowe and Edmunds broke up the Rockpile experiment prematurely, but before they left, they recorded this minor classic that spelled out the seeds of its own demise within. I don’t think it’s funny no more. And when it stops being funny…

Baby Blue              Badfinger

Another cameo for my original naivete. Sometime in late 1969/early 1970, I first read about Badfinger. They were being billed as the ‘new’ or ‘next’ Beatles, from their place on the roster at Apple, and I took it seriously. Nobody else seemed to. The band weren’t all that prolific: ‘Come and Get It’ in 1970, ‘No Matter What’ in 1971, ‘Day After Day’ in 1972. I liked the first two and seriously loved the third. And I waited for 1973 to come round and Badfinger’s annual single. This was it. I didn’t hear it until this year, on YouTube, which makes it one of the Lost Lost 70s. Radio 1 didn’t play it, probably for no better reason than that the band had gone out of fashion. Nothing worse than last year’s model. But it’s brilliant. Archetypal Badfinger, strong song, fluent and melodic playing, a rock underpinning balancing out the pop tune and the harmonies. Archetypal Todd Rundgren production. It reached no 14 in America. Then Apple collapsed and destroyed the band through legal snarls. Pete Ham, who wrote and sang this, committed suicide in 1975. Not hearing ‘Baby Blue’ when I should have done was a waste and a loss, but it pales beside what was done to the band members. That special love I have for you. The horror.

Lido Shuffle           Boz Scaggs

In contrast, we shuffle into 1976, and the end of that very brief period when Boz Scaggs was hitting the commercial heights in the UK. ‘Lido Shuffle’ reached no 13 in early 1977, but it’s still a 1976 song, coming from Scaggs’ most successful album, Silk Degrees. It couldn’t have come from anything but that anteroom of a year, American and polished, rhythmic but not quite disco, but blessed with an uptempo verve and just enough touch of rawness to that chorus to make it worth remembering. This is fun! Woah-oah-aoh-oh-oh-oh.

Groupie Girl                  Tony Joe White

Back to the beginnings, back to basics: and they used to call Creedence Clearwater Revival ‘swamp music’. Tony Joe White crept into the British Charts only once, and this was it, a no. 22 hit of sorts that was sung and played in a low rumble over a minimal tune, about a phenomenon that I didn’t understand and that people who did understand what Tony Joe was singing about didn’t like him singing about it, even when he wasn’t actually endorsing sweet young girls collecting long-haired rockers’ dicks. And they really didn’t like that line about passing her around like a joint. Must we fling this filth at our pop kids? Well, at least one of them didn’t know what you meant and it’s take him nearly fifty years to learn to understand the music, but I got there.

Elizabethan Reggae         Boris Gardiner

I’m a little bit surprised it took me as long as it did, but I didn’t start writing down the Top Thirty every week until the end of May 1970. Once I did, I start to understand and remember things, but that left those first five months as a bit of an anomalous zone, without my ever getting a handle on what was around when, and for how long, and in relation to what. ‘Young, Gifted and Black’ was big, my first real exposure to reggae, but there was also this little oddball, a tune I was familiar with – it’s Ronald Binge’s ‘Elizabethan Serenade’, which only dates from 1951. I’m trumpeting my ignorance yet again, because I knew the melody and thought it was classical music, and I liked this version, even though I was barely able to tell this was different, and couldn’t understand why it wasn’t being played as often as I liked on Radio 1. Of course, it had originally been released as being by Byron Lee and The Dragonaires and I even got a cheap Shudehill Record Stalls copy with them on the label. Now I understand why, but I still like the melody.

The Man Who Sold The World                  Lulu

In 1974, five years after her last hit single, that atrocious piece of Sixties Eurovision, you’d have struggled to find a Bookie who would give you any odds whatsoever on Lulu turning into David Bowie. Hey, the next year, she tried to be George McCrae: can’t fault the wee Scots lassie from trying. Bowie obviously didn’t mind, he produced the Lulu version, arranging the song for a less dark and swirling guitar, decorating the melody with saxaphones and even adding very distinct backing vocals on the chorus. Needless to say, the very idea was considered blasphemy, but if it didn’t bother Mr Jones, who were we to object? Of course, it lacks a tenth of the dimension of the original, but I wasn’t familiar with the original back in 1974 and I was happy with this then. The CD’s only bona fide big hit, but if only she hadn’t covered up that lovely red hair with that panama hat…

Spinnin’ and Spinnin’            Syreeta

Soul just wasn’t my thing in the Seventies, but this beautiful rush of sweetness, written and performed by Stevie Wonder’s ex-wife Syreeta Wright and issued under just her first name was a glorious exception. It’s a heartfelt paean to love and being swept off your feet, matched a musical confection masterminded by Stevie at his most generous and rich. Ain’t never come down yet.

Don’t Touch Me There           The Tubes

For once, I’m including a B-side here, or to use early Seventies parlance that was out of date long before 1977, when The Tubes made their only brief excursion into the British singles chart, a maxi-single. Maxi-singles were hybrid 7”ers. EPs, or Extended Plays for the under twenty-fives here, were 7” vynil with four tracks, two on each side. They had their own, irrelevant charts but some sold well enough to have taken Top Ten places in the singles chart if they’d been included, as indeed they were in the New Musical Express Top Thirty. Maxi-singles came along in 1970, the biggest of them being Mungo Jerry’s ‘In the Summertime’. The difference was that whilst you got an A-side, you got two, count them, two tracks on the B-side, and a hike in price. ‘Don’t Touch Me There’, a massively over-produced, gigantically melodramatic rock’n’roll spoof about masturbating your lady-friend, was one of two tracks backing up the equally spoof-titious ‘White Punks on Dope’, and was to my ears an extravanganza a million times as much fun. The Tubes were a satire on music, a great good, and this is a blast of disdainful energy wrapped in a disdainful wink. And there’s precedent for me elevating this track above it’s A-side, for Family’s classic ‘The Weaver’s Answer’ was just one of the three tracks on their ‘Strange Band’ maxi-single: ‘Strange Band’ was the A-side, but for once Radio 1 played the best track. Pity they didn’t do that for ‘Don’t Touch Me There’ but if you listen to what they’re singing…

Motor-Bikin’          Chris Spedding

Chris Spedding was a musician of high repute in the Seventies, a session guitarist in constant demand. In 1975, he decided to briefly front up with this modest Top Twenty single, a slightly out-dated rocker about exactly what the title says, motor-biking. The lyrics are a bit naff, and Spedding’s voice isn’t much better than average, but it’s a bit of fun, an injection of energy when energy was badly-needed, and a necessary reminder that there were some moments when a signpost to the future placed itself before you.

I Knew The Bride (When She Used to Rock’n’Roll)          Dave Edmunds

Then again, this is the real deal. It might be every bit as backwards-looking, to the days of rock’n’roll, as the Chris Spedding track is, but this Dave Edmunds single, the fourth to be released from his 1977 Get It album, came out in the summer of 1978, when Punk was being heard a lot more openly, instead of being only known through its vicious opposition. But ‘I Knew the Bride’, telling a regretful tale of a once-rebel-rousing young woman marrying a pillar of the community, looked both ways, being a bridge between the simplicity and power of what had once been and the rising tide that took that simplicity as its goal. It’s Rockpile again, just like the Nick Lowe song that heads this compilation. There wasn’t a punk band that could have recorded this song but there wasn’t a punk band that couldn’t take it as their own.

Kinnell Tommy             Ed Banger

You have to allow me my quirks sometimes. Ed Banger and The Nosebleeds sounds like a cheap Benny Hill parody but they were one of the earliest and crudest Manchester punk bands, producing the single ‘Ain’t Been to no Music School’ (by all accounts, no-one needed to be told that). Ed (Ed Garrity) then left the band and resurfaced in 1978 with this single, on Rabid Records, who had first hosted Jilted John. It’s a mainly piano and drums song, (if you stretch the word far enough) with some roughish guitar sweeps and an odd burst of synthesized sound over the extended coda. In front of this performance Ed shouts like an excitable football fan at a Sunday morning pub team game, which is what the silly but weirdly endearing thing is: Tommy is a useless centre forward who’s being encouraged along by the eternally optimistic Ed (we all know what he means by Kinnell) until the useless Tommy leathers a penalty over the bar at which point Ed turns on him with a torrent of inventive and clean abuse into the fade-out. It has to be heard to be believed, and you will most likely not want to ever listen to it again, but until you do, your imagination can’t ever say it’s been stretched! Incidentally, EMI picked this up just as they did ‘Jilted John’ but this one didn’t happen. Pity, I would have given a great deal for a clip of Ed doing this on Top of the Pops

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do             Neil Sedaka

For a while there, Neil Sedaka was back in the Seventies, in Britain at least. Aided and abetted by members of 10cc, producing at Strawberry Studios, he recorded a short string of Top Twenty singles, sophisticated, grown-up MOR Pop. This didn’t chart: despite the false start using the intro to the original, this is a complete deconstruction of the song and its reinvention as a slow, gentle, nightclub smoother. Lots of people hated it, clinging to the original. I had no such attachments, and liked it as it had become, though what it had become was outside the normal parameters of what I liked. On re-discovery, it’s no longer so appealing, but it stands as a marker in time of where I stood as I was coming out of my teens.

Shoes                 Reparata

A story of how sometimes obvious, massive hits-to-be become flops. Britain and I knew Reparata and The Delrons, a three-girl singing group, from their somewhat goofy 1968 hit ‘Captain of your Ship’ and nothing else, though Wikipedia confirms them as providing backing vocals on ‘Honky Tonk Women’. Actually, Reparata, lead singer Mary Aiese, left the group in 1970, when she married and became Mary O’Leary. She encouraged the two Delrons, the stone-cold gorgeous Nanette Licari and Lorraine Mazzola too carry on, with Mazzola becoming ‘Reparata’. Then, in late 1974, Reparata surfaced with this song. It lacks any conventional song structure, there are no choruses, and there’s a strong Greco-Italian-Turkish blend to it, especially in its fade, with balalaikas and handclaps and fades. The lyrics are about a big family wedding and the whole thing is a joyous romp. You imagine yourself doing one of those big step dances that precede line dances, as everyone gets happily drunk and the couple are in the middle. The radio loved it, everybody loved it, it was a sure-fire hit. And it peaked at no 43 and vanished. Long years later, I learned that it didn’t sell in the colossal numbers it deserved, not because I was once again out of step with the Great British Record-Buying Public but because there were no bloody copies to buy. Reparata was Mary O’Leary, but so too now was Lorraine Mazzola, whilst Reparata-Mary had recorded this whilst signed to one record company but released it under her new contract with another company. The twin legal actions forced a halt to pressings: by the time you could go out and buy it, time and the audience had moved on. A bloody shame. It still sounds perky, and more mature, a very long time after.

Quit this Town            Eddie and The Hot Rods

When I added ‘Do Anything You Wanna Do’ to the last compilation, I pointed out that people credit it to Eddie and The Hot Rods, which was the band’s permanent name, instead of The Rods, the name they took for that single only. For its follow-up, they reverted to their full name, and commercial obscurity. Which is a shame, because ‘Quit this Town’ was a cracking little bit of powerpop itself. Not quite as purely commercial a melody, the guitars not quite so ringing, and a crappily rough Top of the Pops live performance did the band no favours. The song peaked at no 36 in the Top Thirty era. It would have been more fun on the radio with this in heavy rotation.

Yes I Understand           The Flying Machine

The Flying Machine are a more than usual example of the Lost. The band formed in 1969 out of the ashes of Pinkerton’s, formerly Pinkerton’s Magic Colours, of ‘Mirror, Mirror’ fame, and had an American top 5 hit single, ‘Smile a Little Smile For Me’, that I don’t even remember hearing on the radio over here. Indeed, it’s only within the last decade I have heard of the band at all. ‘Yes I Understand’ was the last of their six singles. But I know the song very well indeed, and loved it tremendously in the only form I ever met it, adapted for a well-played TV commercial in 1971 as ‘Esso Understands’. It used to amaze me that a song like that wasn’t properly recorded as a single. Well, now I know.

Magic Man             Heart

This was the first single from the Wilson sister’s band’s debut album, Dreamboat Annie. I didn’t hear it until the follow up, ‘Crazy on You’ came out and I fell for its crazy rush of acoustic and electrics, it’s pace and power. I heard about ‘Magic Man but didn’t hear it until I bought the album, and I cursed not having known about it before, with its near-funk wriggle, its sinuous melody and its lyrics that, for me at that still-immature age, weren’t quite open enough for me to recognise that Ann Wilson was explaining to her critical mother why she’d had to hop into bed with this Magic Man. The chicks looked hot, even through the layers of midi-length dresses and knee-length boots that were the prevailing fashions in 1977, but though the cover of the second album was gorgeous, the music had lost any spark that Dreamboat Annie possessed. Ten years later, when ‘Alone’ was big, I read a profile that gave Nancy Wilson’s age as 23. I then came across a copy of that first album, and couldn’t help but think how well-developed Nancy was… as a guitarist, I mean… for a supposed 13 year old.

White Lies, Blue Eyes         Silver Bullit

There wasn’t really a band called Silver Bullit. In America they were Bullitt, but in England there was Bullet so for this slice of strident blue-eyed soul-pop, the band needed a new name. The song leads with its chorus, no intro, which made it hard to tape off the radio and necessitated me buying the single, on special order from the local shop. Springy bass, a raucous lead, brass and a slicing guitar solo, it hit me where it hit, but there was a narrowness to the production that I think worked against the strong. Nevertheless, on minimal airplay it got to no 41 over here. An inferior follow up called ‘Willpower Weak, Temptation Strong’ suggested a penchant for four word, commaed titles, but I heard nothing more of the band. This is still a decent legacy for a one-off, though.

If you can’t give me love            Suzi Quatro

Truthfully, I never liked Suzi Quatro, except for one unexpected bikini photo in the Sun. She and her band were the arse-end of the Chinnichap era (if you ask your grandparents, they’ll most likely box your ears) and dire stuff it was by then, but this laconic, semi-acoustic 1978 flop caught some of us off-guard by featuring a melody and some husky-voiced singing as opposed to shrieking. Admittedly, it sounds like a foretaste of Smokie at this remove, which piles up even more minus points, but I liked it then and that buys it a place here.

The Six Teens         The Sweet

Speaking of Chinnichap…
Nowadays, we cower at the words Stock, Aitkin and especially Pete Waterman, most often when they, or rather he, compare themselves to Motown. The more accurate comparison was to the early-Seventies team of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, writers and producers of the likes of Mud, Suzi Quatro, Smokie and New World (you don’t remember New World? Stay that way). But their first and biggest success was with The Sweet, starting with ultra lightweight stuff like ‘Funny Funny’ and ‘Co-Co’. But, and it’s funny to think of this, The Sweet had their own mind, even if it was only one between them. They wanted to be taken seriously, play heavier music. Chinnichap let them start to orient their sound more towards fuzzbox guitars, then gave their head – within limits – with a genuinely raucous sound on massive hits like ‘Blackbuster’, ‘Ballroom Blitz’ and ‘Teenage Rampage’. I hated them all, of course, though I’ve softened a great deal towards ‘Ballroom Blitz’. That wasn’t enough for the boys and there came a parting of the ways, allowing the band to write their own material. ‘The Six Teens’ was the first demonstration of that. In sound, it’s no different, and it’s typical of the mid-Seventies in that any notion of a simple, straightforward melody is abandoned consciously. It’s herky jerky and awkward and comes complete with an egregious change of speed for the last verse chorus, throws in some quasi-operatic stuff from bassist Steve Priest and teenage angst lyrics of stunning obscurity.
In all, it’s an object lesson in how not to establish yourself, but back then I liked it for its conspicuous effort, and when Chinnichap ruled the world, or the British bit of it anyway, you learned to enjoy anything that consciously rejected it.

I don’t need to tell her               The Lurkers

…or, Dumb Punk with a decent melody. Plonking good stuff.

Language School               The Tours

In that long ago conversation down the pub that I referenced in relation to ‘Get Over You‘, this was the record I was thinking of when I said that some bands have only got three minutes of genius in them. ‘Language School’ was the title track on an EP by The Tours, but if Peely played any of the other tracks, I don’t remember them. Hell, I bought the record, and if I played any of the other tracks, I still don’t remember them. But this track is good enough for me, a straightforward, punchy song, delivered over a booming bassline and no complexity whatsoever. You could ask for more, but in the summer of 1978 I wanted no more than this.

Map Reference 41°N 93°W            Wire

Wire were, and still are, Wire, a law unto themselves, the deliberately strange, too weird to be called offbeat, though in another generation that would have been the first thought in anyone’s head. But though they deliberately ignored the conventions of song-structure most of the time, when they chose to work within them, they could come up with something seriously brilliant, like this. I’ve no more idea what this song is about, and you can be sure that it’s title appears nowhere within the lyrics, but there’s a rhythm pulsing at the right rate and the chorus insinuates itself into your ears with gorgeous harmonies until you can’t help yourself joining in. And even when you read the lyrics you’re no wiser, but that chorus pins you to the map once again.

The Day The World Turned Day-Glo                   X-Ray Spex

Lastly, we have X-Ray Spex again. The same words apply, this time to a fantastic vision of plastic colours and products. The degree of restraint, or rather the channelling of fantasies into a less lubricious direction permitted Radio 1 to play this enough for the band to get into the Top Thirty and onto Top of the Pops. Such days, now gone, but forever missed.

Lou Grant: s02 e22 – Bomb


Joannie…
…meet Joannie

This was an interesting if somewhat standard episode, wandering between the polemic and the personal, but integrating the two elements of the story comfortably enough not to make either seem out of place.

The key to both parts of the episode was Joe Rossi. In one half, Joe’s starting to date an attractive, intelligent journalism student who seems to be in line with his thinking. There’s just one problem: her name is Joanie Hume and her Dad is the Managing Editor of the Trib, who does not like the idea of his adult daughter dating a) a reporter and b) this reporter.

This is like a running gag. Joe’s nervous and forever on the point of breaking up with Joanie out of fear of what Charlie will do, though ultimately Joanie, who can tell something’s up, talks him into taking things as they come and getting round problems when they arise.

There’s something different about Joanie since her last appearance. Oh, wait, I got it, she’s bbeing played by Dinah Manoff instead of Laurette Sprang (who was by now appearing in the original Battlestar Galactica). It’s difficult to tell the difference, what with Sprang having long, curly, very blonde hair and Manoff having shoulder-length, straight dark brunette hair, not to menion the completely different facial shapes, but apart from that it’s really hard to tell.

This is but the counterpoint to the real story. Rossi gets a letter from a mysterious young man (who even looks like your typical period white-guy turned terrorist fanatic) threatening to detonate an A-Bomb somewhere in LA if their demands are not a) published and b) met. This lot are for an independent Croatia (Jeez, that’s going back), not to mention the release of two Croatian prisoners and $10,000,000.00.

That lets us in for some fairly dry information alerting us the the public’s general ignorance about A-Bomb technology, i.e., that you can’t build one without a Manhattan Project behind you. The message is, you can so too, much of which is delivered by Bilie’s old college buddy, physicist Jack Ridgeway, played by Joe Spano (a second consecutive guest star role for a future Hill Street Blues star).

It’s delivered fairly painlessly, humanised by the increasing nervousness of Rossi, Lou et al over the realistic prospect of being blown up at any moment, an approach that’s no longer viable forty years on, when we’ve had too much of the reality rather than the theory of unexpected terrorist bombing for our own innocence to remain.

In the end, Rossi gets a secret message that leads him to the group’s headquarters, where they have a van. The FBI burst in and arrest everyone, Rossi included. The bomb’s real, they just don’t have any fissionable uranium as yet, so all’s well that ends with a couple of mild black humour jokes.

There are two episodes left in season 2 and I’m still decided on whether to plunge straight into season 3 or to refresh my palette with something different. Be here in three weeks to find out.

The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Arrive at Easterwine


Arrive at Easterwine was another 1971 publication, and another of those invaluable Dobson Books editions, without which I would have found it harder to get into Lafferty’s works. It would have saved me a considerable amount of money, yes, but just think what I would have missed out upon.
The book’s cover and title page are out of the ordinary, and are explained by an ‘exchange of letters’ between the author and a representative of his Literary Agency, over the credit for the book. The novel’s full title, which is key to the understanding of the book, is actually Arrive at Easterwine the Autobiography of a Ktistec Machine as Conveyed to R A Lafferty. You see, the book is written by a machine, Epiktistes, the aforementioned Ktistec Machine.
Fortunately, by the time I bought this book, I already knew what a Ktistec Machine was, or at least I knew about Epiktistes. I was looking forward to reading at full length about the several members of the Institute of Impure Science, with whom I had become acquainted via a number of stories in Laffferty’s first collection, Nine Hundred Grandmothers. Oh yes, the shambling giant, Gregory Smirnov, the anima’s rock-throwing little sister, Valery Mok, her unoutstanding and overshadowed husband, Charles Cogworth, the stiff-necked Glasser and Aloysius Shiplap. Are these not wonderful names? How can you not have fun with scientists of those kinds of names, and an Institute that dedicates itself to Impure Science?
The book is Epikt’s account of himself and the Institute’s first three Great Failures, over the first months of his existence, from the moment he’s acquired enough sentience to start re-directing it. As such, it pre-dates every short story about the Institute, though it’s fair to say that though it has its moments of interest, and the space to go into who and what the members are as people, it never approaches the heights of the short stories, whose brevity focuses upon the idea Lafferty is exploring.
Indeed, much of the novel is, as is very often the case, based in Lafferty’s philosophical interests. Epikt, for all his intelligence, is starting from point zero, collecting information in great gobbets but always watching from a different angle than that of the humans. He’s an amalgam of naivete and boastful knowingness, which makes him the ideal observer, searching for enlightenment and requiring answers, whilst placing himself above humans in knowing, but not necessarily understanding those answers.
The cast is expanded a little, to include Gaetan Balbo, Director of that earlier and eradicated Institute that didn’t include Gregory Smirnov, and also two others among Lafferty’s vivid and highly intelligent short story regulars, Audifax O’Hanlon and Diogenes Pontifex, two of the elegants, like Aloysius, as opposed to the fellahin, like Cogworth and Glasser, but who are excluded from membership on account of failing the minimum decency rule.
To provide the book with what narrative structure it has, Lafferty and Epikt relate the Institute’s first three Tasks, tasks we’re told in advance will fail. Gregory’s intent on outlining these in turn, which, stripped to the barest possible explanation, will take an hour or so each, that is until his colleagues reduce them to three words: they (and Epiktistes) are to find a Leader, a Love and a Liaison. And Epikt has his own vision (he intuits visions) integral to his cause. This is of Gaetan Balbo’s family crest, its familiar but symbolic quarters, it’s curious writhing scroll and changing motto and, at its centre, its overwritten area, where various levels exist, obscured by the others. The contents of this flow through different but closely related names: El Brusco, the brusque one, La Brusca, the Burning Bush and Labrusca, the wild-wine.
Each name, in turn, relates to the three investigations, or searchings or uncoverings or failures Epikt and how each is illuminated by the synbols Lafferty produces.
Ultimately, though the characters are as vivid and enjoyable, the fact that the book is about three Great Failures robs it, for me, of any successful ending, not even in the sense of that of Fourth Mansions, where the ultimate effect is withheld for us to determine from our individual readings. And, like all Lafferty books, it has its fans and its detractors, whose opinions seem to derive from how flexible the mind can be about a book written with no thought of convention in mind.
It is immaculately Laffertyesque, with lines and thoughts of brilliance and high humour, and it throws out a hundred thousand ideas that no-one else could have had and which leave the receptive reader speculating wildly which one of them or the writer is on powerful hallucinogens (hint, it wasn’t Lafferty), and more than half convinced that Laff is on to something that none of us have noticed. And it’s incredibly funny, to those of us tuned to Lafferty’s absurdity.
So, Arrive at Easterwine. I have known it too long to be anything other than affectionate towards it, and incredibly defensive on its behalf to those who plainly do not understand (this means most of you, right? Don’t worry I don’t mean that insultingly) but I will not pretend it is the book you should want to read to decide if you like the Cranky Old Man from Tulsa. But if you do, and once you are sure, don’t leave it long, people.
As Epikt says, it really is the best thing ever done by a machine.

Smarter than *which* average bear?


Being stuck at home with a sore throat that makes talking painful, I’m having to fill my time in unexpected ways, currently by browsing the Guardian Crossword Blog.

Go down to the section where reader’s clues for the word Posh are features, and focus upon that of TonyCollman: “Smarter-than-the-average bear gets a little bit of something for nothing”.

Now I’m not knocking Mr Collman, who may be too young to recognise the mistake he’s made but it’s a disappointing flub in a section of the paper devoted to words and wordplay that the Guardian haven’t spotted it. Winnie the Pooh was ‘a bear of very little brain’ as anyone who knows A.A. Milne will tell you.

The bear who was ‘Smarter than the average bear (BooBoo)’ was Hannah Barbera’s Yogi Bear.

And they ask us to pay money for this.

Person of Interest: s02 e21 – Zero Day


“Allies”

So, this is where we come to the end of the beginning, the first of a two-parter to end season 2 and change things for ever. The guest list runs on forever with names we know, the action is low-key but non-stop, the accent is on apprehension, the Machine is on the fritz, cracking in Finch’s opening monologue, breaking it down, breaking down. It’s Zero Day, the day Decima’s virus goes active at midnight and all the rules come up for re-writing.

There’s a nervy edge throughout as the Machine’s constant insertions flash, split into code, blur the sound, racket crazily about until you’re twitching just from watching it. Reese  is twitching: there have been no Numbers for ten days (nor any Relevant ones wither as ‘Miss May’ – our dear pal Root – deploys an unusual method of handing in her notice to Special Counsel). Reese is reduced to ‘ambulance chasing’, following the Police bands. He’s too late for this one, two Elias men, one innocent, but gets to speak to Carter, who’s determined to bring down HR, a decision that will have consequences for her.

But the game’s on, a Number forced out, Ernest Thornhill, millionaire owner of payphone companies, who seems to operate wholly on-line, whose company employs people to spend all day copying code out of one computer and typing it into another. Thornhill (are we remembering North by North-West yet?) even hires a car to drive nobody back from the airport, a car bombed by a drone, a drone set up by Decima Technologies.

The Machine, reeling it seems, goes into flashback mode. A whole Finch tells Nathan ingram that he plans to ask Grace to marry him on her birthday. Nathan’s engaged in rebuilding the company after seven years non-profit work developing their ‘project’. Nathan’s also engaged in drinking a lot. It’s day 1 of a new life for Finch: no, the engineer in Finch corrects, Grace’s birthday is tomorrow. That makes today Day 0.

There’s a complication, brought up jocularly by Nathan, but there’s something else under his voice. Under what pseudonym will Harold marry? Will Grace become Mrs Ostrich? But Harold is intending to become his real self again, for the first time in a long time. That will cause certain legal problems. It appears Harold’s real self is still wanted for youthful transgressions: sedition, mayhem. Still, the company can afford good lawyers…

And Harold proposes to Grace, as far away from surveillance cameras as he can, and out of earshot, the whole bended knee. And she accepts.

Everything is turning, falling in upon itself. Root callsFinch on his mobile phone. Time is running out. Whatever’s going to happen will happen at midnight. Everyone except Harold seems to be in urgent mode. Only he knows better.  But despite John’s insistence on protecting him from the ingenious hacker, Harold goes to a meeting with Root without telling. He has to: it’s outsideGrace’s home. Root has made friends with Grace.

So Harold Finch unwillingly starts working with Samantha ‘Root’ Groves. And, following the trail of Ernest Thornhill, a ‘ghost’, a non-existent person crated as a front, John Reese starts working, a little less unwillingly, with Sameen Shaw, who’s still following Root’s trail.

Things start to converge. Finch spots Nathan Ingram acting suspiciously, follows him to his ‘lair’, a disused Library, discovers Nathan and his back door into the Machine, his non-Relevant numbers, his less than fifty percent success rate (hence the drinking). Finch is stern in his opposition to this use of the Machine, obdurate in the face of faces who will die without intervention, callous in his assessment of Nathan’s remaining skills, and permanently shutting down the access. Out he storms. The last Number the Machine issues before it shuts down in Nathan Ingram.

Root knows far more than she should about the Machine. Decima knows a hell of a lot of it too. At midnight, the Machine will shut down. It will undergo a hard reset and call a payphone. Whoever answers will be given total access and control over the Machine. Decima know this. Decima wants the Machine. They’re guarding all the payphones, they want ‘Thornhill’ dead because ‘he’ owns them. Reese and Shaw, tailing Finch and Root, meet Greer, a confident, dry, wholly composed Greer, who drops a bombshell: their virus was built from code in a briefcase, the briefcase, the Ordos briefcase Reese and Kara Stanton were supposed to retrieve/destroy. The creator of that code was a man called Harold Finch.

Meanwhile, Carter’s being taken out of the game by HR. Terney has a lead on Beecher’s shooter, but it’s a set-up, a raid in which he’s meant to kill her. But a shooter appears before them. Carter draws and kills him, a good shoot. But not when IAB arrive, and both the gun andTerney’s rcolection of seeing it disappear like the morning mist…

And Root and Finch, ten minutes ahead. Finch is confident. Yes, the Machine will call a payphone at midnight. But only he knows which one. Except that Decima know it too. And there’s more. Root realises that the print-outs, the endless code recycling, ae the Machine’s memories. To limit the Machine, Finch programmed it to dump all its memories at midnight. Every day it is reborn. Root’s horror infects us. Every night, Finch kills the Machine. We anthropomorhise as much as she does, see the Machine as a person, not a thing.

It’s almost midnight. Appropriately, the payphone is in a Library. Everybody’s headed there. Root is determined to take the call, to enter God Mode, to free the Machine. Reese and Shaw are shooting Decima bad guys. Harold diverts the call to the payphone heand Root are at, by rewiring the junction box. At midnight the Machine shuts down. Two payphones ring. Root answers one, seems pleased with what she hears, drags Finch off saying that the fun starts now.

The other is answered by Reese. The voice of the Machine asks, “Can you hear me?”

On original broadcast, the audience had to wait seven days for the second part. Now, so do I.