Lest a Black Cat cross your path: Part 2 – Speed Comics

The Black Cat in the beginning

It doesn’t really make sense to cover the first five years of Black Cat’s career after the second half, but in this feature the DVD-Rom’s line-up as they come and I go through them in order of purchase.
After making her debut in Pocket Comics, the experimental digest title produced by Harvey Comics, Black Cat was added to Speed Comics as a regular throughout the title’s run, between 1941 and 1947, when it was cancelled from much-delayed issue 44. By then, Linda Turner, Hollywood’s glamorous detective, had been granted her own title, and not merely that of ‘Darling of Comics’.
Speed Comics first appeared in 1939 when it was an anthology of various adventuresome characters in various genres, behind a twenty page plus lead story featuring Shock Gibson, The Human Dynamo. Shock, or to give him the name his mother used, Charles, was a scientist who gained super-strength from a lightning bolt smashing into his laboratory and splashing his undefined experiment over him. Shock became a superhero in red longjohns, with a gold helmet.
The story was crude and simple, with art to match, and was the best thing about the issue, which wasn’t difficult because the one common factor about all the other strips was that they were uniformly abysmal. It was two years before Black Cat would join the line-up: they couldn’t pass soon enough on the evidence of that one issue.

Shock Gibson

Nevertheless, as a believer in Fairness in Blogging, I did read through the first five issues to grant the title chance to improve. It didn’t. It would have needed to improve by leaps and bounds to reach mediocre. Shock Gibson, Crash, Cork and the Baron, The Man with 1,000 Faces, Smoke Carter, Spike Marlin, Texas Tyler, Biff Bannion, Landor, Maker of Monsters. Grisly, every one of them. On a totally different level of Fairness, I shall refrain from printing any of the ‘creators names.
From there I jumped to issue 13, which showed no overall improvement despite a near wholesale cast change. By issue 16, it was running as a 100 page size title, including an ad for the Black Cat series in Pocket Comics indicating that that title had lasted at least four issues. But by the next issue The Black Cat, using the definitive article at this point, was signed up for Speed Comics and reprinting her previous appearances for her new audience.
So what, if anything, was different about Black Cat when she started? For one thing, the first story was awful, easily on a par with the rest of the title. Red-headed Linda Turner suspects her Director Garboil of being a Nazi propagandist, using special scenes in her latest film to pass messages to Fifth Columnists all over America.
Meanwhile, newspaper columnist Rick Horne is sent out for the same story. Linda creates a secret identity to enable her to investigate and bumps into Rick early on. They save the day and she gets away without revealing her identity. Which is practically all she doesn’t reveal in a costume that exposes a damned sight more flesh than the classic costume of the title. Instead of a bathing suit, the Black Cat wears a backless blouse that’s really only two trips of cloth covering her modesty, which hangs out either side, plus red shorts and red boots.

A Black Cat centrespread

And frankly it, and the whole feature, are drawn in a messy, murky style that carries none of the charm or elegance of Lee Elias. The opera mask covers the whole of the top half of Linda’s head, looking not merely clumsy but ill-fitting, whilst the stag film top is not only cheap and titillating but looks incredibly impractical. Unless she’s using a lot of tape, Linda is going to be popping out all over the moment she tries a single one of her stunt-girl tricks.
This is not a propitious beginning.
Nor do the immediately succeeding strips show an immediate improvement. At this stage, the Black Cat’s dealing solely with the Nazi threat as represented by Garboil, who has to escape every issue. The art is rough and the artist’s limitations don’t help portray the heroine as either an action figure or a lively woman. We’re still at the stage where Rick Horne is an ordinary reporter who keeps bumping into the Cat everywhere he goes, with no concern about Linda Turner. And she moons a lot about him and what a man he is. She’s being portrayed as a competent, independent woman, but it isn’t making much of an impact.

Captain Freedom

At least Speed Comics was an equal opportunity disappointment. Black Cat wasn’t just one of three stars, with the colourless Captain Freedom and the tedious Shock Gibson (now going by the name of Robert Gibson when out of costume), but the fourth costumed character was Pat Parker, War Nurse: no superpowers as such but forever switching to as nearly a skimpy costume as Linda. But what self-respecting hero goes by the name War Nurse?
The Black Cat got an upgrade in issue 21 when art duties were taken over by Arturo (Arthur) Casaneuve, who offered a clearer line and a greater facility with movement, although there were a few too many contrived cheesecake poses, with the Black Cat depicting from angles and in positions that thrust out her bosom to the adolescent reader. Casaneuve also tightened up her top, making it a bit more substantial in front and tucking some fabric in at the back. But our heroine and Rick Horne still ended up arms round each other’s shoulders at the end.
Whilst I’m reading the Black Cat stories, I am sparing a cursory glance at the other features in case of a surprising increase in quality, but cursory is all they qualify for. I do pay more attention to Pat Parker War Nurse than the rest, possibly because it’s astonishing that so poor a series was ever drawn (it’s not the usual shallow motive, in case you were wondering). It is still a solo series for a heroine who’s strong and effective and self-respecting, even if everyone who thinks War Nurse shouldn’t be doing men’s business calls her a chorus girl.
For issue 23, War Nurse started leading the Girl Commandos, not just in her own strip but in Black Cat’s, a one-off tale in which the Japanese invade Hollywood and instead of calling in the Army, the Cat calls in Captain Freedom, Shock Gibson, Tim Parrish and the Girl Commandos. This wasn’t up to the standard of an average Justice Society of America story, so it was no surprise that despite signalled intentions, it was never repeated.
At least it got us away from Ghastly Garboil for an issue.

Girl Commandos

Though the team-up would never be repeated as such, it became a common sight to see the Captain, the Shock and the Black Cat together on the cover, throwing everything at some Axis plot or other, which would then be explained in a two-page prose feature, The Story Behind the Cover.
With effect from the following issue, Cazeneuve took over Captain Freedom as well producing the feature’s clearest art to date, if not improving the story. Pat Parker’s feature was formally renamed the Girl Commandos, though I found it irritating that the two male supporting characters, one British, one American pilot, were still using the chorus girl line after so many demonstrations of the War Nurse abilities, and the fact she was so much more effective than them.
The Black Cat’s adventures continued to improve and the latest episode placed itself squarely in the aftermath of the Japanese Invasion of Hollywood story. The art continued to improve, starting to flow in a much more attractive fashion, though I’m still not satisfied with the romantic aspect of it. Linda does too much mooning over Rick Horne in both her aspects, though as Linda she’s cold-shouldered as a snob, and as Black Cat she still can’t leave him without an increasingly more passionate snog (this one definitely had tongues…).
Change, however small, was in the air. Pat Parker went through an entire Girl Commandos episode without changing into her War Nurse costume, college hero Speed Taylor joined the Marines and, with issue 27, The Black Cat finally made the cover in a significant role instead of just a headshot. And inside, there were changes galore. These consisted of a new artist with a much more cartoony style but one that lent itself to crisp, clean, fast-moving panels and some all-action but natural shots of our heroine.

Speed Comics 17

What’s more, Garboil – who had become very boring, always being allowed to go free on the grounds that, one-day, he’d lead the forces of good to his Gestapo high-ups – was out. And Rick Horne was after a lunch-date with Linda Turner, even if her new artist had visited on her an ugly but contemporary, hair-up hairstyle. Then again, Black Cat’s red shorts, which had only ever made her costume look amateur, were replaced by black ones that worked far better, and her opera mask was reduced in size, introducing the two peaks of the most famous version..
We do have to set against that the introduction of a new, un-named white cat pet of Linda’s, who went into action with her in costume, zipped into the fur of a black cat. As Dave Barry always says, I am not making this up.
The Girl Commandos continued to develop into a fully-fledged team, with Pat Parker submerged in the quintet, and the team kitting itself out in a common light blue uniform of military caps, wraparound jackets of an agreeably short length, paired with knee-length boots. What’s more, by issue 29, Pat had transformed from dark-haired to full-on blonde! Their strip had progressed to the delightfully goofy level.
The same issue saw The Black Cat’s costume transformed into the one-piece bathing suit edition in all dark-blue with which I was already familiar, though the buccaneer boots remained defiantly red. Though the addition of a cape in issue 30 was not a good idea.
Another new artist in issue 31 added some elegant angles to the series, albeit for a dumb story where Linda Turner is first exposed as the Black Cat by an American Intelligence Officer, then framed for his murder, convicted at a Court Martial to which she, as a civilian, was not subject and sentenced to execution by firing squad, all in about five hours. Given the high points on her mask, we were now at the classic Black Cat costume, save for the red boots.
The Black Cat’s adventures all involved either war enemies or ordinary crooks, until issue 34, that is, when a costumed villain going by the name of Him, appeared in a three-parter. I had an inkling from the first story of just who Him would turn out to be, and how inappropriate that cognomen would turn out to be and, do you know what? I was right, even if ‘Him’s real name changed from Hedy to Dolores to Hedy.
By this point, despite the ongoing war-oriented stories, the Black Cat’s series had more or less settled into the version I’d enjoyed so much in her own title. The look, the costume, the buoyancy, the pace, even the Linda Turner – Rick Horne – Black Cat triangle was in position and only waiting for Tim Turner to be added the following year, in Black Cat.

Speed Comics 35

As for the rest, Captain Freedom and the Young Defenders and Shock Gibson were still crude and stupid, the Girl Commandos slimmed down to a quartet but strangely effective (maybe it’s the knee-length boots…) and I’m still not mentioning the ‘comic’ features which should be left in peace.
By now, though, the end was definitely in sight for Speed Comics. It was abruptly cut back in size from issue 38, leaving room for only three features. Captain Freedom was secure as the lead but each of the other three took turns to drop out, with the Black Cat missing issue 40.
Indeed, she had appeared for the last time already. Only the Captain and the Commandos appeared next issue, and whilst Shock Gibson returned for issue 42, the same included the announcement of Black Cat’s first solo title – and the definitive article disappeared, definitively. The Girl Commandos series came to an end with the rescue of Mei-Ling’s elder brother. Indeed, the War was over.
The penultimate issue, no 43, was dated May-June 1946 and introduced a new feature, Blonde Bomber, about two American newsreel photographers, one a dope, the other a doll, who went travelling in time, but it was six months before the next and final issue appeared, January-February 1947. Everyone turned out, Captain Freedom twice. Shock Gibson took his girlfriend Beautee to the Moon, Honey, the Blonde Bomber, and Slapso, made their second and final appearance and even Black Cat dusted off the old red boots for one last nostalgic story. There were references to the next issue, but there was no next issue, then or ever.
Which brings me back to where I began so far as Black Cat is concerned. Her feature in Speed wasn’t brilliant, though it was Dickens compared to Captain Freedom and Shock Gibson, but the longer it went on, the better it got. The real highlights were, of course, Lee Elias’ stories in her own title.
Overall, even if this wasn’t the purpose of this post, Speed Comics just wasn’t a particularly good title. Apart from Black Cat, the only feature I found enjoyable was the Girl Commandos, and that only after it had served its long apprenticeship as Pat Parker, War Nurse. Two features with independent, strong women characters: you don’t think there could be a connection, do you?
Next time round, we’re back to more of DC’s Golden Age titles, but there’s now a shelf-life for this feature and not too many more of these fascinating forays left for me. And no more Lady Lucks and Black Cats, I’m saddened to say.


Lou Grant: s04 e16 – Campesinos

One of many sides

Once again I’m in the position of being an unintentional contrarian in my opinions about a television episode. According to imdb‘s ratings, this episode is the lowest rated in season 4, one of only two to be given a rating under 7. Yet whilst the story was often confused, and was predictable in one major aspect, I thought it better than that, especially as, for once, the series’ reluctance to provide distinct outcomes was fitting: this was a story that would never end.

The story was about labour relations, in a time when, even in America, workers had a lot more going for them than they do now. Immigrant workers, Mexican, are employed in picking celery in California’s Central Valley. It’s wht it always is: back-breaking work, ten hours in the field under a blazing sun, or in pouring rain, for minimum wage, and that’s just for the ones who get to work: the rest starve.

There’s been a strike for six months, and the growers are getting illegals in to do the job for even less. The owners don’t care about the workers, they see them as free of responsibility. The owners hold the land, they work it and manage it, they are invested in it. They don’t have the freedom to move on and do something else whenever they feel like it. Besides, the owners don’t want to be told how to run their business, forced to hire workers they don’t consider sufficiently skilled or fast enough.

It’s an arguable case, but it contains a wilful blindness as to the real lives of the workers, their need for a living wage, their need for security. Oddly enough, the show allows the owners to make their viewpoint explicit but doesn’t give the same to the Union. I suppose it’s because their case is bindingly obvious: you take one look at the conditions under which they work and immediately support their need to be treated decently and fairly.

But what’s this all got to do with the Trib? It starts with Union organiser Tommy Hernandez (James Victor), former football star and school contemporary with Joe Rossi, roping him in to the story with the hook of former worker’s activist, the Reverend Hugh Holstrom (Jeff Corey) coming out of retirement after 18 years to rejoin the fight.

Though Lou is more interested in the Tommy Hernandez story than the strike, Hernandez uses Rossi’s presence (and that of a dozen other reporters also on the same ‘exclusive’), to advance his cause. The Reverend breaks the picket to try to address the illegals, bring them round to the cause (they cannot: without work they will starve) and is arrested. A rumour he’s had a heart attack in the Sheriff’s station causes a mini-riot in which Rossi is caught up and gets him jailed.

This forces Lou to take the overall story more seriously, sending a team to Ortega: Animal, Billie, Spanish-speaking Rubin Castillo (Emilio Delgado) and Donovan, whose beat this was fifteen years earlier. We’ve not seen much of Billie recently because Linda Kelsey had broken her left wrist, arm in slings and slimline plaster cast and she’s officially acknowledged to be on the Reserved Injured List herein. Continuity-wise, it’s a throwback to Billie’s injury during episode 13, ‘Strike’.

As the show develops, the strike is given a more personal edge by an unconvincing detail. One of the owners, Paul Geyer (William Lucking, Gandy Dancer in Tales of the Gold Monkey), is a former friend of Tommy and a team-mate who worked well with them. Geyer tries to negotiate separately with Tommy, but Tommy won’t budge, leading Geyer to conclude there’s a personal element to this, that Tommy is focussed on beating Geyer, not on his members interests. They’d be better off without you, he tells Tommy.

Straightway, you knew what was to follow. The frustrated pickets, whipped up by Tommy, break their lines and enter the fields. Tommy racesafter them, as much as you can in a celery field, urging them to go back. The guard with a rifle fires three shots, everybody turns round and retreats but one man has been hit: it’s Tommy and he’s dead. The show makes a hash of this scene, with the violence off camera, but it was all so predictable.

As was the outcome. without Tommy, the strike was settled, the Union compromised, the purveyor of Unintended Manslaughter got the traditional slap on the wrist and everything went back to normal, until the next time. The illegals were collected in a truck and went somewhere else.

It was a deliberately downbeat ending, recognising that here was a scenario that would repeat and repeat uintil the heat-death of the Universe. It was an episode ito which you could read any political position your own prejudices endorsed and in which, if your mind was open enough, see the opposite side and the practical reality of the world in that it was those of us who buy celery (I don’t) and want it cheap force conditions, compromises and even deaths on those at the other end of the production chain. And it did all these not to be wishy-washy neutral but to show us that this question is not as black and white as we would like it to be.

Could it have done it better? Oh, certainly. Two seasons ago this topic would have produced a tighter, sharper, more concentrated episode to say and show all these things, but it still got its intentions straight, and it deserved a bit more respect from its audiene. There are higher rated episodes this season that aren’t half as good as this, albeit flawed story.

Some Books: Kenneth Grahame’s ‘The Wind in the Willows’

The copy I have owned for near sixty years

It is a very old book, and mine is a very old copy, the oldest book I own that was a gift to me by my parents, a very long time ago. And it is a very long time since I last read it, but I have never allowed it out of my possession, and never will.
I’ve told myself at various times that I would look it out and re-read it and then never done so. A couple of weeks ago, I determinedly went through every bookcase bag and storage crates looking for it, growing increasingly desperate as it refused to appear, knowing I would be heartbroken if, for any reason, I no longer possessed it. The relief when I found it, in the last and most-buried box to be investigated.
The Wind in the Willows is a classic. It’s a children’s book and it has been so for almost 120 years but I bet the number of adults who have read it, with the same degree of pleasure and satisfaction as it’s supposed audience exceeds the children. Nowadays, and for decades, I suspect that the young audience it is meant for know it more from the adaptations and animations and the flammery grown up around it. Not that it matters: even those who have never read the book know its contents, absorbed by osmosis out of Jung’s collective unconsciousness.
But even with this status, there is nothing to compare with reading the book, with sinking in to its lost, Edwardian world. We know everyone without introduction, the fretful, sturdy, lower middle-class Mole, developing his place in a new world he never suspected existed, the bright young thing, the Water Rat, spirit of the Riverbank, messing about in boats, the flower that will never be cut down by a War coming towards the horizon, the eccentric old Colonel and recluse, the Badger, abstaining from Society but ever ready to preserve the stratified world these creatures inhabit.
And the Toad; rich, boastful, irrepressible, irresponsible, foolishness and vanity and self-indulgence rolled up into one nevertheless endearing little bundle. You’d run a mile rather than get involved with a real-life Toad, but in the book the loyalty shown him by his friends, their willingness to go one more time to the well with him, convinces you more than any of Toad’s own actions that he has qualities that make him worth sticking with.
What I most noticed about the book, this long after, is its rich and powerful love for the countryside. Grahame fills long paragraph after long paragraph with detailed descriptions of sights and sounds and scents, picturing these things so intensely that we are drawn into the world he depicts, understanding its meaning to these little animals for whom it is their natural, unconsidered but deeply loved world.
Then, of course, there is ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’. I’ve written before about this part of the book, chapter 7, and a sneaky, underhanded attempt to get young readers to avoid it. This time on, I’d also make the point that when I was a young reader, I read avidly. Every book I read, I wanted to read all of it, absorb it all. I simply could not have left out an entire chapter, I would have been eaten up with curiosity as to what I was missing. I don’t think that makes me unique. That’s another condemnation of that stupid attitude.
I said then, and I have little need to reword it, that:

“I would hope that for most of you who read this there would be no need to explain ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ but for those of you who have never read a book that is now over a century old and may be regarded as too old-fashioned, there may be a need. The chapter does not form part of the main narrative strand concerning Toad, and indeed he doesn’t appear in these pages. Simply told, Otter is concerned about his young pup, Portly, who has gone missing. The Water Rat and the Mole set off in Ratty’s boat to hunt for the missing child: they fall into a mystical experience in which they find Portly safe and secure, sleeping at the feet of the God Pan, whom they regard with awe, love and fear. Lest their minds be troubled afterwards, Pan removes their memories of this encounter.
Everything about this chapter is on a level higher than elsewhere in the book. Though this is Pan’s only incursion into The Wind in the Willows, he was a common figure in other of Grahame’s work, and there is learned discussion as to whether the author worshipped Pan.
If he did not, he was able to understand those who did, and place that worship into the heads and hearts of two small, and in truth vulnerable creatures, and through them communicate that experience to readers, even those under the age of ten. I always found “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” a strange experience, something where the book went into waters deeper than elsewhere, waters where it was impossible to tread for any length of time. The chapter is essential to the book, but in a way that I recognised even at so young an age, it is not of it.”

The arc of the story is the familiar one we have known for so long, the one that even people who have never read the book recognise. The spine of the story is the Toad, and his obsession with the new-fangled motor cars that were only beginning to infiltrate the countryside.From tits first appearance, disturbing the horse and destroying Toad’s once-prized caravan, it dominates his thoughts and actions in a way nothing else does. The smashes! The intervention. The escape. The theft. The trial. The Prison. The great escape. The impersonation of the washerwoman, the encounter with the bargee woman. All follow on one another with both the inevitability of consequence and the indifference of a dream.
Toad’s actions are an affront to the natural order of the countryside and of the Edwardian Society of its era, that last golden era that has never been recovered.
And the episodes Grahame chooses to insert between instalments: Mole’s defiant and fearful trip into the Wild Wood to find the Badger. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The Water Rat’s dream of the Sea. Each in its place and a place for everything. Of course, the entire book refutes a social conscience but even a social conscience can relax, and draw itself a glass of beer, or a plate of cucumber sandwiches and replay a world like this and in that corner that attaches to Jung’s Collective Unconsciousness, live in this dream for the time it takes to read this book.
Toad’s return signals the endgame. The Weasels, the Stoats and the Ferrets have seized Toad Hall. The proletariat has risen against the established order. Of course, being the proletariat, they cannot stand up in the face of their rightful masters, even when there are only four of them, because this is the true Order. It wasn’t like that in Russia, but when did the English proletariat ever forget the chains in their heads?
But begone with Social Realism! We have all the Realism we want here on the Riverbank, in this dream and fantasy of long ago. We do not have to take it into ourselves because we are only ever visitors to a lost land. Anarchy is overthrown. Toad promises to reform (but he won’t, we all know that).
And in a strangely perfunctory passage, the story ends, the Riverbank frozen in time, preserved in aspic.
This is a beautiful book, and a precious one. For all that Dixon Scott produced a pleasant pastiche, neither he, nor especially William Harwood nor any of those who seek to let themselves in to Kenneth Grahame’s world will ever succeed in doing so, because we cannot be of that time and that understanding. In a way, The Wind in the Willows is no longer a book but a piece of tangible magic, a piece of a star fallen to Earth. Reading it, I am both myself and that little boy of so long ago, receiving a gift from loving Mother and Father and sinking into it the way the best of books absorb you. It is a very small world depicted in here, but it has room for every one of us.

Person of Interest: s04 e18 – Skip

Frankie and Johnny

So much contained in one episode, yet again, so impressive overall that it couldn’t be spoiled, well, not that much, by the early reappearance of Harper Rose (Annie Illonzeh) in one half of the story.

We’ve been getting a few of these separated stories in recent weeks, and I can’t decide whether it’s because the show has so many plots it wants to squeeze in at a point when the question of renewal for a fifth season was up in the air, or that the stories lacked the internal complexity to sustain a standalone episode without other entertainment.

On the one hand, we have ‘Detective Riley’ gambling with the Team’s remaining cash resources at a semi-illegal club, his eye (and who wouldn’t?) on new hostess Francesca ‘Frankie’ Wells (Katheryn Winnick). But Frankie is not victim but perpetrator, a bounty hunter tasked with retrieving the club’s manager, Ray Pratt (Ato Essandoh) to answer to his bail in Florida by Wednesday: not many tall, blonde hostesses have martial arts skills like that. Unfortunately, John’s at the wrong end of the stick and his intervention allows Ray to escape. John and Frankie make an uneasy team for the rest of the episode.

Quick interlude: Dr Campbell drops in to tell ‘Riley’ she’s handing him off to another psychologist for future sessions. Is it because of his recent unbending and the violence in his past? Her refusal to say why tells us instantly it’s not that, and what it actually is.

Over to Harold, who has a morning coffee date with an old friends, another returnee, this time Beth Bridges (Jessice Hecht, from episode 6 of this season). This is payback for Finch’s plan in Hong Kong to get certain software installed in her laptop. Now Beth’s algorithm has progressed to the stage where it’s going to be used. In a very few days it will be installed in Samaritan. It will function, once, as a very narrow back door, a trojan horse that will transmit a few megs of data before it is discovered and obliterated, but that data will include Samaritan’s ‘DNA’. It will give Finch a chance in an impossible to win war.

And the moment he sits down with Beth, she becomes a Number.

So ‘Professor Whistler’s association with Beth is to cause her death? Yes,but not for the reasons you might expect.

But back to John. Ray Pratt is going to need a fake ID to get out to Brazil, which takes him to the best in the business, a lady named Athena but who we better know as Harper Rose. Here I have to apologise: I remember three guest shots for our Lady of the Perpetual Scam but actually there are five, so this is not the ‘second appearance’ that prejudices me so irreversibly against her, though it does foreshadow her final appearance when it’s revealed, in passing, that Harper was led to Ray by contact from the Machine itself.

We’re winding deeply into this story, going through several action scenes in the show’s signature mode. Ray’s former boss, Carlton Worthy (Jeff Lamare), from whom he stole both money and a thumb drive with two years of crooked evidence, arrives to complicate matters. Frankie mentions a brother, Deke, now dead. Fusco, investigating Ray, uncovers a Florida killing, ascribed to a mugging, an accountant who got his throat cut, that he connects to Ray. The accountant’s name was Deacon…

And Root has reappeared to shadow Harold, and offer her assistance about Beth. She admires his plan… but we have another reversal. The threat to Beth is not Harold but Root. Harold’s plan to invade Samaritan is ingenious, worthy of his genius. She won’t let it happen, she will kill Beth before Harold can activate his Trojan Horse. Because if it goes through, Samaritan will kill Professor Whistler within minutes. And Root cannot allow that. She’s already lost Shaw, but Harry is the one person she cannot lose. She is not even acting on behalf of the Machine (which gives Harold no little relief): it has told her not to.

Harold is distraught. Some of it is his affection for Beth, who does resemble Grace Hendricks a little, but more than that he will not be responsible for the death of another friend. Root assumes he means Shaw, tries to deflect blame onto herself, it was her who recruited Shaw to get involved, but Ms Groves doesn’t know as much about Harold as we do, and we know to whom he refers.

And he heads her off by swallowing the chmical that will give Beth a heart attack. Only when Root promises not to kill Beth will he allow himself to be treated.

John’s story nose-dives into a three-conered shoot-out with Harper in the middle: John and Frankie, Ray, Worthy and his men. Typically, Harper negotiates a deal. Worthy gets the thumb drive and Riley lets him leave. Ray gets to choose between death or prison and Worthy lets him live. John and Frankie get Ray to imprison and don’t kill him. Naturally, there are multiple double-crosses; Harper hands over the wrong thumb drive, Riley has Worthy arrested before he leaves the city and Ray tries to shoot his way out only to be kneecapped by John. Right beats Might.

A coda and another quick interval. We’ll take the latter first: Frankie’s interested in John but tells him to call her when he’s free. John looks puzzled but here’s Doctor Iris to ‘fess up the real reason she has dropped John: she has developed feelings for him and that’s the complete no-no. John, on the other hand, knows how to keep a secret. Cue snog.

And Harold calls on Beth only to be thrown out. She’s been on the end of a reputation-destroying internet attack, claiming she’d falsified data five years before, an attack that came from ‘Professor Whistler’s office. Root only promised not to kill Beth but she has neverheless destroyed her. And she’s destroyed Finch’s activator, and thus destroyed months of planning and the only chance Team Machine had.

She’s done it even at the cost of the friendship that means so much to her. Professor Whistler is still alive. And whilst he doesn’t want to see Root at the moment, they are still friends.

Leaving me only to wonder. Finch’s scheme was set up twelve episodes ago, a great mystery. At this stage it was all in vain. By now I know enough to understand that it wasn’t just implanted then with the hope/intention of deciding what it was later on. But was it always intended to be a false trail, to set up the changed relationship between Finch and Root, or was it a casualty of lost opportunities, when the projected Fifth and Sixth seasons became improbable? We have seen other possible strands implanted by the series that were never followed up upon, for whatever reason that may be. I’d love to know if this episode was the regretful snuffing out of something that might have been prominent in another world’s version of Person of Interest.

The Infinite Jukebox: David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’

Though in 1969 I was beginning to hear some pop music, here and there, I doubt I heard David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, a number 5 hit in October, Bowie’s first hit, and his last until 1972. Of course I heard it as a Golden Oldie in the Seventies, and as a number 1 on reissue in 1975. A brilliant song, an absorbing, strange, affecting song, and a classic.
But it was more than thirty years later, in the 2000s and on Sounds of the Sixties, that I found out that the record I’d heard so many times was NOT the hit single of 1969.
Brian Matthew was running a weekly feature on One Hit Wonders of the Sixties (later changed to a much more unwieldy title to take account of some of these Wonders having had additional hits in the Fifties or the Seventies, to whit, David Bowie). When he got to ‘Space Oddity’, he played the original.
I had never heard it before in my life and I could not believe what I was hearing.
The difference between the two is extraordinary. It’s the same song, with the same structure and virtually all the same words, although the familiar version is nearly ninety seconds longer. But the original is crude and rough and weak: play the two together to someone unfamiliar with the song’s history and they would immediately identify the original as a bad cover version. In every respect, and not merely the familiarity of nearly fifty years, the re-recorded version is a massive improvement.
Bowie’s singing in 1969 is subdued and undistinguished. He’s mostly singing in a monotone, still transitioning from his Anthony Newley-influenced early style (think ‘Laughing Gnome’ if you can bear it), and making no attempt to dramatise the song in any way.
And what a song! It was a total departure from Bowie’s career to date, a space fantasy inspired by a combination of the Moon Landings and Kubrick’s 2001 – a Space Odyssey. The original version starts with bongos, the familiar fades in on a lightly strummed acoustic guitar offering no particular rhythm.
The song is a story, a story in multiple parts, told in isolated lines. The build-up to lift-off, introduced by the iconic line, ‘Ground Control to Major Tom’, the deep bass organ note as the Bird lifts off, the sudden euphoria of the world’s absorption of the man in space, far above the world.
And Major Tom responds to Ground Control, stepping through the door into an experience no-one else has ever had. he’s floating in a most peculiar way, and the stars look very different to him from here, free of the atmosphere of Earth.
Different, and helpless. Major Tom is more than one hundred thousand miles, the furthest man from his kind, in an atmosphere in which he could survive for only seconds. The experience is more mystic than frightening, he’s feeling very still, he has put his full trust in his spaceship, which knows where to go, but his voice drops to a calm and level tone as he almost pleads for someone to tell his wife he loves her very much. And responds to himself resoundingly, ‘She knows!’
There’s a sudden urgency from Ground Control, signalling Major Tom, his circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong. Can you hear me Major Tom, they plead desperately, over and again, their anxious words seguing into Major Tom’s placid tones. He’s extra-vehicular, floating round his tin can, far above the moon.
The first man in space is in nothing but space. Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing he can do… He will become his own satellite, he will never return to Earth.
The original version has virtually none of this emotionalism attaching to any of the song’s phases, and it blurs off at this point into a rapid fade over the acoustic guitar and some bongos. The familiar version bleeds off over vigorously strummed guitar, and organ and studio effects miming radio signals, the incomprehensible audible debris of empty space, as Major Tom drifts further and further away from everything we and he recognise of Earth…
An extraordinary record. I don’t know when Bowie produced the version we all know now, just that this was the only version I knew from long before its 1975 reissue. It took almost three years from ‘Space Oddity’ to ‘Starman’ to the true beginning of Bowie’s career as a master of music and an explorer of where we were going to be. I sometimes think that if he’d been capable of producing the familiar recording in 1969, that gap would have been greatly diminished.

Film 2020: The Pinchcliffe Grand Prix

For all its resolutely English title and the presence of the legendary Murray Walker providing spirited commentary on the titular Grand Prix, The Pinchcliffe Grand Prix is a foreign film and a Norwegian one to boot. There it is known as Flaklypa Grand Prix and is a classic that is broadcast every Xmas. I saw it on British TV an uncountable number of years ago and loved it instantly.

The film is based on a series of books created by cartoonist and author Kjell Aukrust and, according to Wikipedia, is the most widely seen film in Norwegian history, with 5,500,000 seats sold to a population of 5,000,000. It’s made in stop-go animation, was originally intended to be a 25 minutes Xmas TV special which basically featured sketches based on Aukrust’s works, with no connecting thread, which was eventually scrapped before being revived as a full-length idea by director Ivo Caprino.

And four more films have been made based on Aukrust’s cartoons, none of which have been translated into English which, based on the evidence of this one, is a damned shame.

But if you’re talking damned shame, the real one is that the DVD of this film seems to have suffered damage since last I watched it, which has made the final eight minutes – including the race conclusion – impossible to watch. So this post is of necessity incomplete. Sure, another version of the film is currently being downloaded as I write, but it’s being suggested it will take most of the day before I can catch up.

Mind you, as we all know that the hero will win and the villain be disgraced, hving the ending on a plate is not necessarily essential. The film has had long enough to impress itself with its warmth, eccentricity and depiction of a strange and impossible place that would be similarly fascinating and frustrating to live.

The place is Pinchcliffe, described as a hill village, ‘100 miles north, a bit east and up’, in short a nowhere discoverable in space, a brigadoon where things aren’t as they are in our world. Pinchcliffe is a small village of plain wooden houses, at the base of a twin-mountain outline consisting of two uneven rocky peaks separated from foot to height but linked by a stone bridge. The silhouette of these peaks identifies Pinchcliffe over and again, and they’re apparently based on a rock outcrop where Aukrust was born.

Anyway, at the top of the higher peak lives Theodore Rimspoke, noted bicycle repairer and inventor, with his two assistants and virtual family, Sunny Duckworth and Lambert. Sunny is a cheerful go-getting optimist, Lambert a fearful pessimist. Also, Sunny is some form of blackbird and Lambert a big-nosed hedgehog. Who wears a rucksack on his back.

Now if that last detail doesn’t capture you, I should give some careful thought about whether to watch this film. We are in the land of the wilfully eccentric, powered by a hefty dose of whimsey, all wrapped up in a delightfully Heath-Robinson-esque attention to overtly complex gadgets, such as the local cameraman perched on a bicycle-driven mobile camera-post that Sjy ought to be taking a look at for covering football.

This is a world of its own with its local paper an equal to all the major newspapers of the world and its own, wonderfully archaic television station. That’s the start of the ‘story’ as Theodore and co watch the Sports news one night, featuring the new motor-racing sensation Rudolph Gore-Slimey (he’s the villain,how can you tell?) and his Boomerang Special. Gore-Slimey was a former assistant to Rimspoke who disappeared one day, evidently with Rimspoe’s plans to build a powerful motor engine…

Rimspoke is philosophical but Sonny is outraged. There is the framework of a super car, Il Tempo Gigante, in the coach house, but not the money to even buy nuts and bolts. Fortunately, the gold Rolls-Royce belonging to Sheikh Abdul ben Bonanza of Aladdin Oil has broken down in Pinchcliffe and his chauffeur Manuel Desperados, a gorilla-chimpanzee cross, is struggling to fix it. Once the Sheikh sees the plans for Il Tempo Gigante, he finances Rimspoke for the forthcoming Grand Prix to be held in Pinchcliffe.

But the night before, Gore-Slimey and his assistant sneak in to sabotage the car by sawing part way through Rimspoke’s power contraption: one key characteristic of the dialogue is the highly-technical pseudo-scientific devices discussed in profound but utterly confusing language so don’t expect a more detailed description.

The race attracts an international cast of drivers, as well as Murray Walker, all with wonderfully speed related names – the German, Herman von Schnell, the Irishman, Jimmy McQuick, the Swede, Ronnie Turnip-Anderson – and a crowd of literally dozens, stood all round the course waving Rimspoke on.

The race itself is a thing of mixed fortunes. The film’s one failure is that for distance shots, conveying the speed of the race, it resorts to Matchbox-style models of the cars that are too obviously a solid toy car as opposed to the things of improbable design that they are in close-up.

Naturally, Rimspoke has to start thirty seconds behind the field, to make up that gap in unbelievable time, and just as naturally he hits the front before the half-sawn through thingie breaks down and he loses all power and has to coast into the Pits from the back. Everybody fusses futilely but Lambert spots the sabotage and holds the thingie up, restoring power. By default, he becomes the new second driver as Rimspoke cuts through the field again, leading to one final duel with Gore-Slimey, who resorts to open trickery to try to preserve his advantage…

But I haven’t got that bit thanks to the damaged DVD. On the other hand, the download has progressed far better than it intially led me to think, so if you’d like to get yourselves tea and/or coffee whist we wait…

The film’s final few minutes bring the race to an end but the sense that all this is taking place within a bubble is re-emphasised when we cut to Rimspoke’s worksop that night. They’ve got the Cup, they’ve had the fun, but tomorrow is about returning to repairing bicycles, and the usual in-passing quarrels. Lambert gets the inside berth in the bed he shared with Sonny tonight, because of his efforts: out of the draft for once. But it’s all over and real life, or rather their ‘real life’ reasserts itself. It’s a clam and gentle moment on which to end.

Which is as it should be. The Pinchcliffe Grand Prix is a slow film, in our terms, but a better word would be unhurried. It takes its time, because there is no need for rush. Things will get done, and the diversions along that way, such as the band concert with Manuel Desperados as guest drummer, are just as much a part of living as the Grand Prix of the Century’. It’s a part o things, along with the gentle but wide-ranging colours. The film is mellow but distinctie, the screen a riot of colours, but all of them natural. It’s picture is complete and perfect. Abandon being miserable all those who enter here.

I’m disappointed that there are no credits for the English voices. Walker is unmistakable, and I applaud him for his willingness to lend his voice to this, and I’m eighty percent certain that the narrator is Derrick Guyler, an opinion shared by many on-line, where it appears there are no records of the English voices.

So, not the usual Sunday morning excursion into Filmland, but we got there in the end. If you’ve never watched The Pinchcliffe Grand Prix before, make the effort, take time off, sink in, and then start a petition for English-dubbed versions of the other four…

Man of the World

One by one they wink out, those fabulous monuments to the  beauty and wonder we’ve had in our lives, lives that grow thinner and drier and darker each time.

If there is a Heaven then the perfect blues band’s line-up has gained a new lead guitarist and singer. Peter Green, co-founder and central light of the only Fleetwood Mac I’m prepared to acknowledge, has passed away aged 73, peacefully in his sleep, and the world is full of tears again.

What to play to remember him? I would choose not a Fleetwood’s track, not even any of the big hits of 1969-70, but a solo song from the other end of that decade. Spare seven and three quarter minutes to say goodbye to a genius. He deserves no less.


Look at the UK Singles Charts…

I still check the Top 100 singles every Friday night, out of habit rather than interest. The vinyl singles chart is much more interesting and there’s been some astonishing number 1’s on that down the years.

Today, to my astonishment, there’s a good record n the Top 100, a re-entry at no. 73 for my favourite song of all time, Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. It’s charted in the top 20 three times before, reaching its highest ever position of no. 13 the first time, and no. 19 twice afterwards.

And on the Vinyl Top 40 it’s number 1, leaping from last week’s no. 36.

And blimey but it’s a Joy Division top 3, with ‘Atmosphere’ as a New Entry at no. 2 and ‘Transmission’ a New Entry at no. 3. The only three singles Joy Division ever-released, a Top Three. Who on even the strongest drugs would ever have imagined that in 1979?

I haven’t had so much glee with the Charts since ‘Atmosphere’ went to no 1. in New Zealand.

A fact about the Duckbill Platypus

According to our computer system at work, the duckbill platypus can store as many as six hundred worms in the pouches of its cheeks. Immediately, I envisaged the experiment to determine this taking place in an expensive restaurant with the platypus sat up at the table, a napkin around its neck, whilst being fed worms one by one whilst an assistant stands by with a clipboard, anxiously counting, until, in a Mr Creosote monent, he’s offered a wafer thin mint…

Lou Grant: s04 e15 – Venice

One of these people will provide the clue

It’s reached the point where I no longer expect to see intelligent, well-written and acted and moving epoisodes of Lou Grant anymore, which is precisely why I found this episode to be such a surprise.

There were two strands to it, one of them negligible and uninteresting. this was the one about someone having obtained possession of a list of salaries at the Trib and threatening to publish it unless he got paid $1,000. An uproar is expected but fails to materialise, the culprit is uninteresting and so is the story.

Of far more moment was the larger story that for once centred upon the Trib’s comic relief photographer, Dennis ‘Animal’ Price. It began on a Sunday afternoon at Venice, California, a beach resort full of sand, sea, shoreline and plenty of relaxed, feelgood, let-yourself-go. Animal is wandering around, taking photos for a Sunday feature. It all looked good, a not-quite hedonistic energy, the feel of people free to just enjoy themselves.

The scene is interrupted by the arrival of an ambulance. An attractive young woman has drowned, an apparent suicide, the overkill of pills and drowning. Animal takes photos, but also has his curiosity lit up. Who was this woman? What did she do? Why did someone so pretty, so good a worker, so friendly a person that everyone praised and mourned kill herself? Did she kill herself?

Animal wants to know, to understand. From the moment he discovers Lesley Ellison was a keen photograher and, despite her reservations about herself, a talented one, his eagerness becomes not just obsession but more. Animal has fallen in love with a dead girl, wishing he had met her in life and might have averted this.

The episode was a sympathetic, gentle exploration of loss, as everyone missed Lesley like crazy. The baglady to whom he always spoke, asking after her welfare, the grieving but possessive father who blamed her death on her being here among these ‘freaks’ instead of being home in Chicago where she ‘belonged’, the gang leader who respected her and was ready to deal with someone who may have killed her (Trinidad Silva in a performance that could have been a rehearsal for Jesus Martinez in Hill Street Blues) and the sister who opened the door to an answer as to why Lesley’s suicide was not such a surprise, revealing a psychological history of loss and fear of rejection that I could empathise with.

Throughout, and especially when Animal had developed the last reel of film from Lesley’s camera, I feared the episode would blow it by coming up with a killer after all, but it held straight and true. These last photos, from the afternoon she killed herself, led to the revelation that Lesley, after a lifetime of failures with men, had believed herself in love with her childhood best friend, Carol. Carol’s response had been the final rejection, the one that left only one door out.

So it was all explained, no mystery, just a portrait of an unhappy woman who had lost her mother far too young and left with a father incapable of dealing with her loss, who grew up twisted into a pattern that led directly to her death. It explained but didn’t satisfy. And the show’s most poignant feature was the skillfully underplayed sense it left you that if Animal had met her a month before, it might all have been different, withut that suggestion seeming like sentimental slop.

Sometimes it really is about the right person.