Of Once and Former Heroes: Dennis Wheatley, ‘Prince’ of Thriller Writers – (Part 2 – ‘The Devil Rides Out’)


Devil

Dennis Wheatley’s series of books featuring the Duc de Richleau and his young friends, Rex van Ryn, Simon Aron and Richard Eaton, started with Three Inquisitive People, a murder mystery being investigated by the first three of these disparate figures. It was Wheatley’s first completed novel, but it would end up being held up in favour of the thriller, The Forbidden Territory, featuring the same trio of the Duc, Rex and Simon, and adding Richard, who would end up marrying Marie-Louise, a Russian Princess rescued by these ‘Modern Musketeers’, as Wheatley was wont to term them.
The de Richleau books were far from the only series, and indeed long-running series Wheatley would write. Three Inquisitive People would not be published until 1940, a fourth book in this series if chronologically first (until Wheatley, in later years, split the series by adding stories of de Richleau’s younger life). The Devil Rides Out was Wheatley’s fifth to see print, in December 1934, initiating another of his long-running series.
The novel was the first of Wheatley’s Black Magic books. It was researched thoroughly before it was written, Wheatley learning a great deal from the infamous Aleister Crowley (who gets credited in his works, more than once, as the most evil man in the world: free publicity). Whether you regard that as a good or a bad thing depends very much on your reaction to Crowley, though I have to say that I did always find The Devil Rides Out to feel authentic, rightly or wrongly, and a lot more so than many of Wheatley’s later novels in this stream.
Not only did it seem appropriate to pick this novel out for analysis, given that it set this whole thing off, if I was going to put myself through this I wanted to be reading one of Wheatley’s better works. This rather backfired on me, at first, because The Devil Rides Out is actually quite decent in terms of a gripping, and fast-moving thriller in its opening chapters, perhaps as much as a third of the book. Then it descends into slow-moving stodge which had me glumly wondering just when it would get a move on, an undigestable lump in the middle of the book from which it never really recovers.
A bit of background: M. le Duc, who is in his late fifties, is an aristocrat from a long-lived and very powerful French family who have exiled themselves from France since the Revolution. The Duc, whose given name is Armand, not that that is mentioned in this book (the closest we come to a first name is Marie-Lou’s insistence on calling him Greyeyes, but as a Princess she’s the only one who outranks him), was born and raised in Russia. He is banned from entering France after his involvement in a plot to restore the Monarchy in the 1890s (detailed in the later book The Prisoner in the Mask, the one I recall my Dad reading). He now lives in London with a full staff or servants, not to mention a second set that maintain his place on the river (i.e., the Thames) and regrets not being able to sweep through London in a magnificent carriage pulled by eight horses with as many footmen on the box to attend upon him. He deeply, but not openly regrets that in this decadent age, he is unable to flaunt his superiority in the manner to which he should be entitled. Your heart bleeds for him, really.
His ‘Musketeers’, if you accept the parallel, are all some thirty years younger than him, making de Richleau something of a reverse D’Artagnan, though in Wheatley’s eyes his equivalent was Athos. Rex van Ryn, the obvious Porthos of the group, is a young American, big, broad-shouldered, bouncy and brash, heir to an industrial fortune but without any apparent responsibility to start learning how to take it over when his Dad dies, because of course he’ll be naturally brilliant at it.
The parallels to the other actual Musketeers are far from being so obvious in the case of the other two. Simon Aron is a slim, narrowed shouldered, big-nosed, full-lipped, subtle-minded financier (very rich, of course), who is supposedly Aramis. In case you hadn’t worked it out from the description, Aron is also Jewish. Naturally, being a hero, he’s not subjected to the prejudices of the era, the stereotypical slanders, the general low-grade but universal anti-Semitism. I’ll give Wheatley that but only in this specific instance. Elsewhere in his works he’s every bit as nasty as anyone else. It was a fact of the times, that attitude, there in even the best works of John Buchan, who was as good as they came in the pre-WW2 years.
How these unlikely friends met was not to be explained until Three Inquisitive People was published, but basically it happened because the Duc, Rex and Simon individually started to investigate the murder of Richard Eaton’s mother, of which he had been accused, from their own different motives: I no longer remember why they turned out to be such inseparable friends, or if it was at all plausible.
Richard Eaton, Wheatley’s own candidate for D’Artagnan, was an equally unlikely friend, being completely different from the rest again. Richard’s the Englishman, you see, the true-blue – in all senses – heart of England stock, the landed gentry, easy-going because he has nothing to worry about except maintaining his laurel paths and oaks. Mind you, Richard is the only one who’s married and he’s married exotic blood in the lovely curly-haired petite Russian Princess, Marie-Louise, who in this book is Russian because we’re told she is, but she acts like a born and bred upper class English Lady.
It’s time now to look at the story, If Wheatley has any saving grace it lies in his plots. The Devil Rides Out is constructed on the classic Three Act model, although the stodgy middle Act bogs it down and blurs the transitions to some degree.
Rex van Ryn is in London for the first time in some time. It’s a tradition that the three should dine at the Duc’s home but Simon Aron is missing. de Richleau is concerned as Simon has been unusually distant of late and Rex is happy to join him in calling on their friend even at this late hour, to find out what is going on. The Duc is horrified to find Simon on the cusp of getting involved with Satanists of the worst and ugliest kind. The first Act becomes a tense and fast-moving story of their determination to prevent Simon damning his soul by undergoing Satanic baptism on Walpurgistnacht and, in passing, Rex’s determination to stop the beautiful, enigmatic and exotic Tanith – who believes she will die within the next twelve months and wishes to accumulate power over others whilst she has the time left – from doing the same and getting herself fucked for the first time by the evil Master, Damien Mocata, a defrocked priest.
Naturally, they succeed in both aims, though in Tanith’s case it comes about by her sudden, unmotivated and wholly unconvincing realisation that what she’s doing is Wrong. Alright, the girl’s already fallen in love with Rex – who wouldn’t? What girl doesn’t secretly relish the idea of being kidnapped, browbeaten and ordered about by a big American he-man who she secretly wants to have rape her? – but this abrupt turn to the good, prompted if at all by seeing the Sabbat at close range even though she’s been in the Satanic fold for ages yet, is far from an organic development.
Unfortunately, that’s not all. Tanith is the perfect medium for Mocata, who uses her to focus his spells, whilst Simon is astrologically vital to Mocata’s attempt to locate and possess the Talisman of Set, a potent and evil object whose discovery always causes widespread death and horror: what else did you think caused the Great War? The Talisman of Set is actually the shrivelled, blackened and semi-mummified cock of the Egyptian God Set and will turn out, at the end, to be so potent that you can burn it to ashes in an ordinary coal-fired boiler.
So Simon needs to be kept out of Mocata’s reach for a few days, until the stars pass over. The obvious solution is to take him to Priors Eaton, the not-quite stately home of Richard and Marie Lou, not to mention their golden-haired little girl, Fleur, for refuge. This is where things slow down to a crawl. Richard is the perfect English gentleman, not to mention a close, if slightly lower-stage friend to the worried trio, but he’s going to be a pain in the arse.
Yes, the obligations of English hospitality, not to mention close companionship, demand he take in his friends, but as far as their story goes… We’ve already gone through the whole gamut of scepticism about Black Magic through the medium of the hard-headed Rex, allowing Wheatley to pull out all his research… I’m sorry, de Richleau to draw on all his experience to refute him.
Now we have to go through the whole kit’n’kaboodle all over again, this time with the added dimension of personal pettiness and, dare we say it, incipient alcoholism. Kindly, tolerant Richard is willing to accept the obsessions of his normally sensible friends without entirely concealing his unshakeable opinion that they’ve all gone crackers, but when the Duc insists that, for maximum protection against a master of the Left Hand Path, they need to purify their bodies and sleep within the confines of a precisely drawn pentacle drawn on the library floor, that’s when he really starts to kick back. No alcohol? Seriously, no alcohol? No scotches or brandies? No fine wines from his cellar at an sumptuous evening meal? No roast hams, or roast beef, no venison? No meats of any kind? For one whole day???
You can literally feel the sympathy draining away through your no doubt working class brown boots.
This, and Wheatley’s determination to display every bit of knowledge Aleister Crowley has passed on to him, makes the middle act drag wearily. It’s not helped by a sub plot featuring the lovely Tanith, still determined she’s going to die with twelve months, can’t be avoided, just look where the Life-line on her delicate pink palm stops. Tanith’s down the pub in the village, seeking Rex’s protection, but is it a trap? He’s shot off down there, weakening the Priors Eaton defences, because he’s crazy about her, thinks he’s big enough and ugly enough to protect her against Mocata, and all he accomplishes is to fall asleep and let her be taken anyway.
Thus, having been dulled into submission, we go into the Third Act, which might well be subtitled ‘Midnight in the Pentacle’. First we have to go through another tedious outburst from Richard, treating the whole thing as a rather unsavoury and unfunny practical joke that he’s not going to put up with any more, he’s going to go and have a stonking great glass of wine and hop into a nice, soft, warm bed. Of course he’s being got at by the forces of Evil, and since he’s a reasonable man he’s easily talked out of it by an appeal to the trust he has in de Richleau, but it slows things down at a time when the book really needs to be speeding up.
Now we get to the action. It’s a bit unfair to describe these as the creepies and crawlies, ghoulies and ghosties, but these are definitely the nasties. But there are more subtle attempts as well, Rex’s voice outside the French windows, demanding to be let in, an apparition of little golden-haired Fleur.
And then it gets very serious indeed as Mocata loses patience and sends the Angel of Death to sort them all out, including Simon, despite needing him so much for this bloody ritual. And the Angel, a pale horseman, gallops around the library but the pentacle holds until Richard, rearing back from hooves flashing near his head as any sane person would, knocks a candle over. Instantly, the Angel is inside the pentacle. Which forces the Duc to pull out his ace in the hole, the last two lines of the dreaded Sussama Ritual which cannot and must not be spoken unless the soul itself is in peril of destruction (which may be spoken but which may not be written down).
This is one of those instances where your opinions of Crowley and how accurate, or rather truthful he’s been to Wheatley in the latter’s research, are crucial to the scene, but even though it all felt authentic to me back then, today it comes over as a convenient deus ex machina.
But the story is not yet over. Firstly, Rex – the real Rex – comes knocking on the French windows, carrying the limp body of Tanith in his arms. She is, as you might expect, dead. It’s all about the Three-Fold Law of Return: a curse turned aside by its intended victim rebounds with three times the force against the one sending it, or if he’s using a medium as a vessel…
Then there’s the discovery that whilst everybody’s been holed up in the Library all night, someone has sneaked in and taken little golden-headed Fleur and left a ransom note, demanding Simon in exchange. Simon, naturally, thinks of nothing but surrendering himself to save his friends’ daughter, but the others won’t let him. It’s not about her life, or even foiling discovery of the Talisman, but the fact that nobody trusts Mocata to keep his word and return Fleur anyway, not when there are so many, you should excuse the expression, good things for which the sacrifice of an innocent virgin can be employed. Nevertheless, Simon will sneak out and hand himself over anyway.
But de Richleau and Co. do have a lead and that comes from Tanith herself, or at any rate her spirit, raised from the dead, not unwillingly, by seance and spilling as many beans as she’s got about trailing after Mocata. This takes the gang, including Marie Lou, who will not be left behind, initially to Paris, using Richard’s private plane. By the way, there’s this strange low level mist surrounding Priors Eaton, and the airfield, and indeed the entire flight, which seems to slip out of everybody’s head. If you’re getting the impression that there’s something not entirely kosher about all this, you’re on the right track.
There’s a potential hold-up in Paris as the gang discover Simon, post-ritual. Mocata tips off the Police about the appearance of that hated Royalist de Richleau, but the Musketeers fight their way out of there, with Simon directing them way out to the Balkans, in the same plane under the same imprecise flight experiences, to where Mocata has only just arrived, though as he promptly paralyses all of them, they cannot prevent him finding this super-powerful dick.
So Mocata wins, and unleashes the Angel of Death again and, guess what, de Richleau repeats his unrepeatable deus ex machina. Frustrated, the Angel wheels round, the Three-Fold Law comes into force, his horse kicks Mocata in the head and he falls down, head first on the altar steps. The good guys win, the superpowerful penis goes into the furnace (so what caused the Second World War, then?), Fleur’s rescued and, to no particular surprise to the perceptive reader, suddenly they’re all back in the Library, waking up with none of this bloody dust anywhere, Fleur’s upstairs in bed, Rex is at the French windows carrying in a Tanith who may be limp (possibly because he’s now been shagging her all night) but who’s still alive, and Mocata’s dead body, head down, is found on the steps outside. Wonder how they explained that to the Police? It was all a dream.
And Tanith agrees to marry Rex, which is truly sweet, unless you’ve read the next de Richleau book and know that she’s going to die on him anyway so that he can find a new bird to… romantically pursue.
So it goes, people, so it goes.
In part 3 we’ll take a broader look at Wheatley, his attitudes and approaches.

Danger Man: s03 e09 – Loyalty Always Pays


danger

Out to Africa. That’s where we and our old friend John Drake are this week. The setting is an unnamed African country, a former British colony not so long since given its Independence, but where Britain still has substantial interests, in terms of the level of Foreign Aid it is supplying. But if said country has concluded a secret treaty with the Chinese, to purchase arms, there will no longer be such support (or influence, he read between the lines, cynically). An Agent of United African Insurance, M9’s representartives out here, insists there is such a treaty, before he’s killed. The Prime Minister, good old Earl Cameron, whose innate dignity makes him perfect for such roles, insists there is not, but is allowing a British representative a free hand to investigate. Enter John Drake, aka John Hamilton, supposedly of Consolidated Minerals incorporated, seeking to negotiate mineral rights from the Minister of Defence, Mr Enugu (Errol John). If there is a treaty it’s in his very-securely protected safe. Your mission, should you choose to accept it…

This is the setting for a very fine episode of intrigue. The treaty’s in the safe. Yes, the keys can be got at and duplicated. Yes, the alarm system can be disconnected, perhaps a little bit too easily. These things can be and are done. But in order to get to the Minister’s suite in the Ministry of Defence in the first place, Drake and his allies Sam Beyla (Johnny Sekka) and Miss Sefada (Dolores Mantez) must corupt someone in the Army. The last person who can be corrupted in white English Major Bert Barrington (Nigel Stock), who is a bear for extreme and unrelenting attention to duty and detail. Major Barrington is incorruptible.

Major Barrington is also something of a racist, though this is nowhere made explicit and is not represented by his actionsat any point. But it’s inherent in his ‘type’: the Englkish Army Officer who was a big man in the Colonial Army, but who has lost prestige and standing now that the country is no longer what it used to be in “the good old days”. Yet he’s loyal to those he works for, not out of respect and/or attachment to the ‘new lot’ who are in charge, but because of his own personal integrity. Barrington is loyal because it matters to him to be loyal, an admirabvle thing.

So Drake, Sam and Miss Sefada set a trap for him, a complex web of deceit and seduction, built up cleverly and at length. Barrington dreams of returning to England, a little house in the country. Drake sets up a deal to defraud his own company: rights can be purchased for £110,000., the company are happy to pay £150,000., ‘Hamilton’ can’t be seen interfering in the deal and hiswould-be partner in crime has gone down with ticker-trouble. Where can he find a willing partner to buy at the lower price, sell to Consolidated at the higher price and split the difference?

Barrington is exploited into the scheme and hustled into providing his cheque for 10% deposit, £11,000. He hasn’t got £11,000. He’s got ‘Hamilton’s cheque for £11,000., but what is that worth? When ‘Consolidated’ drop the deal he’s so far up excrement creek that they haven’t invented paddles. But he can be rescued if he will take Hamilton into the Ministry of Defence and stand by.

Let me pause for a moment and backtrack slightly to an earlier incident when Drake is attacked and captured by men working for the Chinese representative, Chin Lee, who addresses him as Drake. At the time I put that down to excellent intelligence work on their part, but… well, let’s leave it there for now.

Barrington takes Hamilton into the Ministry. The scheme works. The treaty is found and photographed. But surveillance has reported their presence to Enugu, who orders security to find them and expel them. Then orders change: arrest them. The safe is closed but the interlopers can’t get out of the suite in time. They are captured and imprisoned. For the Major it’s utter disaster, absolute ruin. But Drake is confident: after all, the Prime Minister is, he believes, an honest man and, having used one of his elaborate gadgets to fire the photos out of the windiw to Sam…

And so it plays out. Enugu goes into one cell, Drake and Barrington are released from the other. The Prime Minister tears up the treaty and is grateful to Drake. He will expel Chin Lee and sends Colonol M’bota to deliver this message. Drake halts him. Chin Lee called him Drake. Only two people in the country knew his real name. One was the Prime Minister. The other was…

Between them, Drake and Barrington stop M’Bota shooting his way out. We end with the Prime Minister congratulating Barrington on his part of this, assuring him that his service will not be forgotten. Drake’s final words are even more ironic, revealing the title to be two-edged. Drake tells the Major that loyalty always pays…

This episode was made in 1965, when Britain was in the process of divesting itself of its African colonies. This was not an uncontroversial thing, and feelings ran high amongst those who believed in the Empire, who were often vocal in their rage at independence being given to jumped-up tribesmen who did not know how to run a country. It was colonialism and paternalism writ large: they still needed the British to tell them what to do. What impressed me abut this episode was that, outside of the Major’s veiled reference to the ‘good old days’, there was not the slightest sniff of this attitude. This unnamed country was presented as a grown up nation, serious, thoughtful, obviously proud and in no way needing paternalist approaches. The episode featured an overwhelmingly black cast, although its guest star, Nigel Stock, was also white (yet he was the weak link) and there were only two other roles, both small, one nothing but a cameo, for white actors.

What was also typical of the times, and I confess that I am too young to know hether this is a criticism or not, was how Westernised everybody was, in clothing, in activities, in decor. There was an air of familiarity to this, as if I had seen that approach much more often than just in this episode, as if that was astandardised approach on British TV: if you want to make the African nation look noble, respectable and sincere, dress it in our clothes, make it look as much as possible like our country. Or were such emerging nations at first looking to ape the West in order to be taken seriously? Was this a trope, or did it have real elements to it? I have no idea, just suspicions, but if this really was a fantasy, then despite the inherent cultural insensitivity of it, then I take the episode to be with genuine good intent, so that an audience that would lmost certainly be ignorant might treat this country with respect, however paternalistic the attitude.

The Infinite Jukebox: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’


Has there ever been such a compulsive, self-mythologising rush as this? Has there ever been another song that tries to cram a world both real and exaggerated into 4 minutes and 31 seconds of the most massive sound Phil Spector never recorded? Has there ever been a more astonishing piece of rock music as ‘Born to Run’?
I was there in 1974 when this happened, when critic Jon Landau proclaimed that he had seen the future of rock’n’roll and it was called Bruce Springsteen. I was there but, as I don’t think I’d heard a single note from Springsteen’s first two albums before then, nor knew his supposed reputation as the new Bob Dylan, I had no preconceptions to be busted.
And this sound appeared, everything and everybody scrambling over themselves to be out there, out front, hammering into your ears, battering you into submission before even a word is sung.
The opening couplet lays out for us where we are and what worlds this is to take place in. In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream, at night we ride through mansions of glory in a suicide machine. Night and day. Reality and fantasy. The one is the world of the working stiffs in their checked shirts, jeans and working boots, working dead end jobs as modern slaves, the other is the night when they have the freedom to not take orders, the Jersey boys and girls, cruising endlessly, dressed up as who they want themselves to be.
Only a year later, George Lucas was to dress up those dreams for teenagers in American Grafitti, but these are the boys and girls a generation later, a lifetime older and there is still no greater outlet.
Springsteen has a girl. It’s what these songs are always about, the only real escape is into the private world formed by two as one. Her name is Wendy, he wants her love, he wants her to let him in. He isn’t an invader, a threat. He wants to be to her what she wants and he will guard her dreams and visions and we hear the pre-echo of Shane McGowan telling Kirsty MacColl that he kept her dreams with him, along with his own.
Together they can break this trap, he proclaims, they’ll run till they drop and never look back. She’s just got to have the courage to go into the wild, to cross the circus wire with its gulfs all below, relieve him of the fear of being a scared and lonely rider. Nobody does this alone. All the power to hide the weakness and the need. Springsteen has never been in love before, not even to the point of knowing if love is real?
To answer that, Clarence Clemons blows one of rocks most fundamental saxophone solos, from which we emerge into the song’s only moment of respite. It’s a moment of contemplation, marked by the music’s slight slowing tempo, its smooth transition into a lowering intensity. Springsteen sees the fantasy of the night around him, elevates the moments and the movements into the mythology he’s creating to deal with emotions.
Cars and bikes scream down the boulevard, the Jersey people preen. Girls comb their hair in rear-view mirrors and the boys try to look so hard, everything around him is fruit to his vision and he spills out the heart of his desire, to die tonight on the streets, with his Wendy, in an ever-lasting kiss.
Again the vision is interrupted by a solo, this time a guitar, hard, powerful, rapid, thundering out notes as Springsteen tries to master himself. There’s a still point, a moment in the middle of things, the E-Street Band, the gang, drawing back, a final chance to gather our breath, as Springsteen hollers ‘1-2-3-4!’ at the top of his lungs and we’re suddenly in the endgame, and if you thought Bruce was intense before now, you haven’t heard anything baby because this is where it gets serious, where reality demands its pay-cheque and not anything that can be imagined can stand against that.
This is the zenith, baby. Or the nadir, depending on where you stand.
The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power-drive. Everybody’s out on the run tonight but there’s no place left to hide. There’s nothing left but that most dangerous thing of all, hope. The whole point of the song is that no matter how fast they move or how hard they dream, the Jersey boys and girls have no way of moving up to even the next rung of the ladder. The only thing Bruce can offer Wendy is ‘Someday’, the never-day when they get to go to that place where they really wanna go, that place they have not yet and maybe never will define even to themselves, except that once there they will walk in the sun.
But until then, as they always were and ever will be, they are tramps and they were born to run just to stay alive.
And the repetitions do nothing but reinforce it.
The song doesn’t fade out, it runs to a frantic stop on the back of Springsteen’s whooping and hollering ‘Oh-woah-woah-woah’, articulacy died, emotions too much for words, roared back at him in concerts by 50,000 throats en masse, the collective heart breaking through that separation to run with the man who put all this into word and sound, brilliantly.
If there is a criticism to be made it’s that this song has a degree of artificiality to it. Degree? Bruce is going all out for the big one here, mythologising like mad, but it’s a calculated attempt to create something massive, something mind-blowing, to blow off not just our socks but, Charlie Brown on the mound-like, everything down to our underwear. And the criticism is unimportant because the song succeeds wildly, because we go along with it because we want something like that in our lives, we want things to be like this, mysterious and strange, an encoded version of a life we never quite get to live. We want the strangeness and the exaggeration, we want the girl with whom we’d die on the streets in an ever-lasting kiss. We are not so much seduced by Springsteen’s vision as throwing ourselves into its arms, naked and wanting. Could life really be this excessive? And above all else the song triumphs over any reservations about its artificial aspect because the band believe, by god they believe, and they throw themselves into playing the damn heart out of this, until at the end there is no resistance, and we are Bruce, looking into the heart of the sun, those glorious yet resigned whoa-oa-oas leading us to the song’s only point of stillness, it’s end, are beyond irresistible.
This isn’t a song, it’s a lifetime, and we wanna live there.

Sunday Watch: Open All Hours – 7 of 1 e01/s01 e01 – Full of Mysterious Promise


Open

I don’t know if you’re aware of it but in recent years there’s been this prostitution of a TV sitcom called Still Open All Hours or, as it’s better known around here, ‘David-Jason-is-so-bloody-desperate-to-be-a-srar-again-he’s-robbing-Ronnie-Barker’s-grave’. Yesterday, I paid an impromptu visit to Machester City Centre to look for something that wasn’t there, but, looking round the big Oxfam shop on Oldham Street, I saw and opted to buy the first two series of the real thing, at 99p each. And here we are.

To explain the slightly confusing header of this piece, Open All Hours debuted as the opening episode of a series called 7 of 1. This, in its turn, was a variation on the regular BBC series, Comedy Playhouse, which put out six or seven potential sitcoms, different writers and cast every week: in short, a series of pilots, though back then we hadn’t yet heard, let alone absorbed that term from American TV. What qualified 7 of 1 for an individual title was that all seven episodes starred Ronnie Barker.

Of course, this was the series that spawned the magnificent Porridge (which pilot, ‘Prisoner and Escort’, was the second episode), written by Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais, and that was the one that got the nod straightaway, for which we are all thankful. The third episode, ‘My Old Man’, was also turned into a series, albeit short-lived, on ITV, with Clive Dunn playing the lead: if it had had Ronnie Barker in the part it could have worked, by making its lead character real instead of just another Clive Dunn old bloke, but…

‘Open All Hours’ was overlooked, probably because Ronnie Barker could only do so much, but three and a half years later it was resurrected for a series of six episodes, leading to four series over the following decade, albeit with only the final series attracting massive audiences. By then, writer Roy Clarke was big at the Beeb, thanks to the ever-growing success of what would go on to be the world’s longest lasting sitcom, Last of the Summer Wine.

Changes were made. Though set in Yorkshire, the pilot episode was filmed in London, with London-based actors like Yootha Joyce putting on northern accents. The episode starred Ronnie Barker as Arkwright, the stuttering, mean, grasping owner of a small back-street general store, money-grubbing, peny-pinching and consumed with lust for buxom District Midwife Nurse Gladys Emmanuel, who lives opposite, and a still-not fully-established David Jason (a stalwart of Barker for the past three years) as his nephew Granville, product of an alleged fling between Arkwright’s late unwed sister and a Hungarian seaman, aged 25, wistful, desperate and tied to his shop pinny and shop bike, not the greatest weapons in his desire to meet and attract any girls.

Nurse Gladys Emmanuel, whose clearly amused and sceptical view of her would-be husband was an essentisal component of the show’s humour, was played in the pilot by Sheila Brennan, with a distinct throaty Weksh accent – well, what would you expect with a name like that? – but the part for the series was taken by Lynda Baron, who played a natural northern accent with Yorkshire down-to-earthedness that allowed for a plausible degree of underlying sympathy for her suitor beneath the perpetual embarrassment at his unsuble importuning.

When I first put the DVD in, I misunderstood its contents and ended up watching the first 1976 episode before going back to the pilot. This was salutory for analytical reasons – as a general rule I can recommend occasionally reading series back to front as a means of identifying more cleaely the introduction of ideas – in two respects, in terms of immediately recognising by just how much the series toned down and smoothed out some of the elements of the pilot, and by identifying some aspects of the comedy that the series substituted and which Ireally rather wish they hadn’t.

Looking at them in the right order, the pilot’s underlying theme was much harsher. The comedic ingredients are there immediately, but there’s a more realistic and indeed aggressive tone to them. Clarke’s writing hasn’t yet adopted the shape that Last of the Summer Wine had taken and which would formalise his approach to writing ever after. Arkwright has a slightly meaner edge, whilst Granville’s plight as a young(ish) man (Jason was nearly a decade older than the character and it showed) was more serious, a supposedly mid-twenties man who was trapped by poverty and a job that had him working from 6.00am to 9.00pm six days a week, effectively only for his keep.

It was also noticeable that the pilot featured a smoking scene of a kind wholly eliminated by 1976. A works bus stops outside, half a dozen labourers come in simultaneously, but cigarettes, light up, the air fills with smoke, a hideous fug that I grew up amongst and have thankfully not experienced in nearly fifty years, and everyone starts up with smokers’ cough, hacking and grinding, Granville’s put the covers over the fresh produce in readiness, and it’s all a joke along the lines that this is supposed to be a pleasurable activity. Urghh.

On the other hand, the pilot did feature a cameo by a fresh-faced young lad who I instantly recognised as a then unknown (and wish he’d stayed that way) Keith Chegwin.

When the series was commissioned, production moved to Doncaster, and the exteriors, of which there were plenty, were filmed there. Lynda Baron showed greater comedic potential as the Nurse but the greatest difference between pilot and series was in Clarke’s writing. He was now well-established, thanks to Last of the Summer Wine, and that programme’s deployment of gentle surreality to a natural and downhome Yorkshire working class reality was now his default option.

Arkwright’s still crass, but he’s tuned down to where he can be seen in sitcom terms as loveable. Granville’s wistfulness at the enforced absence of opportunities in his life is somehow pain-free: we are encouraged to only laugh at him, and ignore the underlying black reality. The underlying ‘plot’ of Arkwright’s efforts to sell tinned food without labels, biught dirt cheap at a fire sale, is purely comedic without any element of the riskiness of such a thing: the sole nod to this comes where Arkwright’s belief he can tell what’s inside just by shaking the contents is exploded when the tin of beefy cunks in gravy he’s having for his tea turns out to be pineapple chunks in juice, to which his response is that it’s a good job he opened a tin of sliced carrots before, upending custard all over them.

What shook me, and frankly is why I’ve only watched two instead of the usual three episodes, was the introduction of racist humour on the series. It’s not vicious, just the common or garden low-level stuff that was a feature of the mid-Seventies, but it shook me to hear shite like that again. Gossiping about a lady who appears to not be keeping herself to herself, which has caught Granville’s ear, Arkwright warns him that he’s seen Negroes going in there and coming out looking quite pale, whilst shortly after he reminisces about hard times in the district causing men from Bradford to go off to open a corner shop in Pakistan.

Not good. Not good at all. So the funny lines, the comic juxtapositions, rang just a bit hollow for me., and it didn’t help that, after defending the series’ decision to position Arkwright as a stutterer way back then, I’m now finding that aspect rather more offensive.

Nothing, however, can take away from the fact that this was an original creation, led by a masterful comedy actor who brought his character to fully-composed life, and any subsequent revival as a vampire sucking in the blood of the original and aping it in the most cowardly, disgusting and mishandled fashion. That it is apparently popular is one more sad indication of how decadent our entertainment has become.

Apologies for that bit of late pompousness, though I don’t withdraw it. This last bit is to let those of you who check for my thoughts and opinions every Sunday know that ‘Sunday Watch’ is going on a summer break. A few more DVD films have been spirited in to my pokey little homestead so there will be a summer season of ‘Film 2021’ of at least two months duration, before I go back to the boxsets in the autumn. A change is as good as a change, eh?

The Legacy of Julius Schwartz: Silver Age Stars


Julius-Schwartz

Childhood impressions often leave the deepest marks. I have always been a DC Comics fan because these were the only comics available to me to see in East Manchester, and the impressions these made have coloured my subconscious response to the DC Universe ever since.
For instance: Superman and Batman were clearly the Big Two at DC but, aside from the adventures with the Justice League of America, I paid them very little mind (except after Batgirl was introduced). Instead, I was drawn to a quartet of heroes who individually and collectively I felt were front-runners. These were The Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman and The Atom.
It was surely not a coincidence that these four, together with the JLA, were all being edited by Julius Schwartz, or that they were being written by one or other of John Broome and Gardner Fox. Another thing that linked them, and I was aware of this from 1966 onwards, when I learned of the Justice Society of America, was that they were all legacy heroes, re-imaginings of heroes from the Golden Age and, as such, pillars of the Silver Age.
Years have passed, comics have changed, each of this quartet have had their own legacies, and yet DC keeps coming back to Barry Allen, Hal Jordan, Carter Hall and Ray Palmer, no matter what.
In the 2000s, DC sought to cash in on their past by producing a line of DC Showcase Presents, big, bright, cheap black and white reprints of these and other heroes, stuffing twenty issues at a time into 500 page plus volumes. It was a cheap exercise in nostalgia, and I bought several of these.
But 500 page books take up space, and I have very limited space. Not all that long ago, it struck me that the availability of long series on DVD, in full colour, would not only be superior to the Showcase Presents books, but would be far far less hard on space. Two DVDs to cover all the volumes I had of these four, including what was on the ones I hadn’t yet bought, covered the entire contents and more of ten such books (allof which I have subsequently sold on eBay).
I hadn’t intended to treat any of the four series to the kind of in-depth review I’ve been carrying out here. Indeed, it was refreshing to simply read for no other purpose than the joy of reading. But I couldn’t help but think about what I was reading as I went along, about the joint sensibilities of the four series, and the contrasting characters and relationships each portrays. Particularly the very different relationships between the four heroes and their respective girlfriends/wives.

The Flash

The Flash

Barry Allen was the first Silver Age hero, making a very slow start with four appearances in Showcase itself spread out over three years, and finally being granted his own title in 1959, despite being the third most successful character Showcase had thus far produced. But he was the most original.
Robert Kanigher had set the new Flash up, with four lead stories matched by four back-up stories by John Broome, who became the full-time writer once the new series began. Kanigher wrote Allen’s spectacular and convincing origin, so much more plausible than Jay Garrick’s, and set up his relationship with his girlfriend Iris West.
And Carmine Infantino drew everything with a sleek, futuristic look that brought believability to The Flash’s superspeed stunts, though it’s amazing at this distance how often that takes the form of a static single image, frozen in a running posture.
It’s Broome who builds up The Flash’s world, introducing over and again the Rogue’s gallery of career criminals, each with a single scientific gimmick that they use to plague the hero. Captain Cold, The Trickster, Gorilla Grodd, Mirror Master, Captain Boomerang, Abra Kadabra. Heatwave and The Top were later additions, who also felt a little bit like add-ons, whilst the Pied Piper had the advantage of seniority but was never used all that much.
Barry Allen’s – and The Flash’s – relationship with Iris West, intrigues me. Iris was a career woman, a ‘newshen’ as the demeaning term insisted. She was dedicated to her role as a reporter, which was a frequent godsend to Barry when he needed to shoot off and fight crime, disappearing in the opposite direction to Iris and her ever-ready reporter’s notebook.
The personal level however is something different. I don’t mean Broome’s notoriously dubious memory which had Barry and Iris go from ‘engaged to be married’ to ‘in love’ to, finally ‘just good friends’ I mean that although the pair see each other in practically every story, and Barry frequently tells us that he loves Iris, his affections are practically never reciprocated. There’s very little kissing, there are virtually no expressions of love of anything similar from Iris, indeed her dominant response to him is frustration at his being perpetually late. Sometimes, it boils over into anger, though that’s usually swept aside quickly with a hesitant excuse about his duties to the Police lab.
Iris’s frustrations are entirely understandable: Barry is a rotten boyfriend and we very rarely, and then only in glimpses, see the good dates. She must see something in him that makes the constant let-downs bearable but we’re never given a hint as to what.
There is one clue: in a team-up with Green Lantern in his series, in which Iris knows and gets on well with Carol Ferris, Iris contrasts her own attitude to her home-town hero with that of Carol’s to GL: The Flash is fine, and she likes him, but it’s Barry she loves and, in the end, The Flash only impresses her as a hero.
Nevertheless, Barry and Iris became the first DC hero and girlfriend to marry, in 1966. Naturally, it’s a superhero wedding: Professor Zoom, the Reverse-Flash, impersonates Barry at the altar, trying to get Iris into bed for himself. What’s so disappointing is that not only has Barry married Iris without telling her of his other life, he breaks his promise to her: in an earlier adventure involving alien invasion, Barry had had to reveal his secret identity to Iris, who allows him to wipe the knowledge from her mind on his promise to tell her for real after they marry. He doesn’t.
In fact he goes a year of dithering before telling her, having been urged on by Jay and Joan Garrick. It’s hardly conducive to a good marriage to keep such a thing secret for so long and the poor impression isn’t dispelled by Iris admitting she’s known since their honeymoon night, because Barry talks in his sleep (it’s 1967 and the Comics Code is still in unrefined force: of course Iris hasn’t gone to bed with Barry before their wedding night: another world).
Rogues and relationships were not the only components of John Broome’s world. As early as The new Flash’s sixth issue he introduced a teenage sidekick, Wally West, Kid Flash, who would team-up with his mentor, every now and then, and star in his own series of irregular back-ups stories, set in and around his hometown of Blue Valley. There was the friendship with Green Lantern, and the team-ups that took place in both magazines, which brought Barry and Hal together as friends, and Iris and Carol in a frequent beach sextet with Thomas and Nerga Kalmaku.
In a major mistake, never repeated, Broome used one back-up story to re-introduced Winky, Blinky and Noddy.
But the biggest moment was issue 123, the great and fundamental story that still affects every single superhero comic published by DC from then until now and beyond. There’d been a clamour from old and young fans to see something of Jay Garrick, so Julius Schwartz brought in Jay Garrick’s creator, Gardner Fox, to write a team-up story that defined the two Flashes as heroes of different parallel worlds, separated by differing vibrational rates (A Flash pseudo-scientific notion that had me thinking for decades that this was real science).
DC’s Multiverse and everything that has ever happened in it or about it, all comes back to this one issue.

The Flash 2

As the Sixties started to extend, things started to change, for the worse. John Broome left America, travelling in Europe. He settled in Paris at one point, on an Israeli kibbutz at another. He continued to write for The Flash, but not every issue. Fox started contributing more scripts. He was responsible for issue 167, in which a silly, goofy quasi-angel named Mopee claimed to be responsible for the accident that transformed Barry Allen into The Flash. Astonishingly, some people hailed the story, and these were not self-defensive made-up letters, some came from regular fans who haunted the letter-column. Everybody else just shut their eyes and pretended it had never happened.
Infantino, however, was growing restless. He was interested in the company structure, attended Editorial meetings and, the moment the chance came up to become Editorial Director, dropped The Flash and all his other assignments immediately.
Art duties on The Flash went to veteran Ross Andru, who followed Infantino’s lead faithfully but lacked the latter’s grace and imagination. Fox’s plots got sillier and Schwartz had to spend more time working them into something intelligible.
Eventually, Kanigher returned, taking over as a regular gig, and Irv Novick started a long career as Flash penciller. Kanigher was still the freewheeler, unable to take superheroes as seriously as the audience increasingly wanted. For issue 200, he loaded the number 200 into the story 200 times. Two issues later, he transformed Iris from an ordinary American woman into a refugee from a thousand years in the future, send back as a baby to avoid a nuclear war. Unlike Mopee, this one stuck but the worst aspect of this development was the story title – ‘The Flash’s Wife is a Two-Timer’, ‘two-timer’ being slang for someone cheating on their spouse or girl/boyfriend, but more importantly at least a dozen years out of date.
Barry Allen’s series ran 350 issues, until 1985, but I called it quits for the DVD at issue 204, a nice, round, one hundred issues. Enough for me.

Green Lantern

Green L

In contrast, Green Lantern was all John Broome’s own work. Management were happy with the new Flash and wanted to see what Schwartz could make of a Green Lantern revival. Magic was exchanged for science, invisible Tibetan monks were replaced by a race of little blue men all drawn to resemble then Israel Premier, David Ben Gurion, and Gil Kane was selected to draw the new series, inked, like Infantino on The Flash by Joe Giella. Kane liked to base faces on people he knew so Hal Jordan, test pilot, bore a strong resemblance to his old neighbour, struggling actor Paul Newman.
Broome set up two contrasting and complementary backgrounds for Hal Jordan and Green Lantern. We, the readers, knew before GL that he was powered by the Guardians of the Universe, immortal, blue-skinned beings from the planet Oa, who had set-up a Corps of 3600 agents, space policemen, each with a sector of space to protect. Hal’s slow discovery of the reality of his role was spread out over the first year of his series.
Meanwhile, there was a supporting cast to establish. Hal worked for Ferris Aircraft, based at Coast City in California, a great contrast to the midwestern Flash and Central City. His boss was the woman he was in love with, Carol Ferris, placed in charge of the company by her father, who was taking two years off to cruise the world. Carol had had to swear off dates and romance, though she was to get a specific exemption from her absent father before too long, but not for Hal.
You see, Hal loved Carol, but Carol loved Green Lantern. Hal knew he could easily win the woman he loved by admitting his secret identity but, with an understandable pride, not to mention a greater need, he wanted to win Carol as himself. In the meantime, he had to fend off all Miss Ferris’s sneaky attempts to get his mask off.
The only friend to know his secret identity, until Barry Allen, was Thomas Kalmaku. Tom was a Ferris Aircraft Engineer or, as the series had it all the way until the early Seventies, he was an Eskimo grease-monkey known to all, including Hal, as Pieface. I don’t suppose the series sold all that well in the Eskimo community.
Tom was a faithful friend who was keeping a secret casebook of GL’s adventures which was a frequently-used device to get a story told in the first person. The general run of Green Lantern’s stories featured fluid art from Kane, bodies contorted elegantly, albeit stripped of power by Giella’s inking. When the latter was replaced by Sid Greene, the art improved immediately. Greene’s inks were lusher and more decorative, lending the art an extra sense of power.
Green Lantern’s stories had the advantage of breadth, with the Guardians and alien planets available, but the fans were unusually ambivalent about such things, with some wanting nothing but and others none at all. The balance was tilted to ordinary crooks and some super-villains, but not as many or as frequent as The Flash. Dr Polaris, master of magnetism, Sonar, master of sound, Black Hand, the cliche criminal…
Like The Flash, Green Lantern teamed up with his Earth-2 counterpart, Alan Scott, four or five times. The first of these was a massively important event, ‘The Secret Origin of the Guardians’, introducing the renegade Guardian Krona, threatening the whole Universe, and showing the cosmic hand releasing stars into the void that many interpreted as being that of God. Later team-ups were not so much fun, giving prominent roles to Doiby Dickles, but they were yet another angle for GL’s stories.
And there were the Jordan Brothers’ back-ups, with Hal heading home to visit his two brothers, Jack the DA and Jim the funloving youngster. Attractive journalist Sue Williams is convinced that Jim is Green Lantern and persists in this delusion despite the number of adventures GL has in Coast City whilst Jim is here at home. Even after she marries him, she doesn’t lose her belief and is constantly frustrated that he won’t even admit his secret to his own wife…
Most intriguing was Star Sapphire. She was the putative Queen of an alien matriarchal race, the Glamorans, who thought men completely unfamiliar. When one Star Sapphire died, they would search the Universe for her replacement, who had to be identical, that’s how they were known. Their recently deceased Queen was the dead spit of… Carol Ferris.
So Hal and GL’s beloved became his enemy Star Sapphire, but with the same consistent urge to marry Green Lantern. To become the Glamoran Queen, Star Sapphire had to defeat Green Lantern, but Carol Ferris wanted to be defeated by him (and melt into his arms and have the winner takes the spoils due to him, no doubt). It set up a perverse psychological situation that added a new dimension to an already twisted triangle.

Green L 2

Hal Jordan kept pursuing Carol Ferris for dates. Carol kept telling him she didn’t love him, she loved Green Lantern. But she kept going out on dates with him, willingly, so presumably she was having a good time. Not that we saw any but kissing, even if it was only goodnight kisses, must have been involved. Inevitably, we have to ask if Carol was using Hal to get some kicks? It’s not like she was going on any private dates with Green Lantern, so was he effectively some himbo substitute?
Whatever the real situation, it was overturned spectacularly in quite unexpected manner in issue 49. Out of the blue, Carol tells Hal that she has gotten engaged to some guy called Jason Belmont of whom we’ve heard nothing. Jason is the one. She writes her infatuation with Green Lantern off as exactly that: nothing but an infatuation. This is a slap in the face for Hal who, having missed Barry and Iris’s wedding, decides he’s going to ask Carol to marry him…
Green Lantern struggles through the action story, distracted by this bombshell, then drops one of his own. He can’t bear living in Coast City any more. He’s quit Ferris Aircraft, he’s leaving Tom and Nerga behind, he’s hitting the road.
It was a shock and no matter. DC heroes didn’t do things like that. At one stroke, all the background to the series was rejected. And, his confidence so thoroughly shattered, Hal made a conscious decision not to rely on his ring so much, to settle more things with his fists.
This suited Gil Kane, who was moving towards inking his own pencils, adding dynamism but sacrificing detail and elegance. What value it was was dubious, however. Hal started off as a drifter, falling in love with the first girl he meets, until she confesses to worshipping Green Lantern, at which he abruptly leaves. He settles into being an Insurance Assessor in Evergreen City and takes up with an attractive but personality-free redhead called Eve Doremus who has no interest in GL, until he finds it entirely too safe a life and leaves without even saying goodbye to her. Then he becomes a Toy Salesman with an arch-rival, Olivia Reynolds, who uses sex to sell toys to middle-aged overweight buyers.
Without a solid base, the series flags and drifts. Broome’s scripts were diminishing. As well as Fox, Schwartz started using fan-turning-pro Mike Friedrich on a couple of stories. But Green Lantern needed a shake-up, and with issue 76, Schwartz decided to shake it until the maracas cracked.
The new team, Denny O’Neill as writer and Neal Adams as penciller, arrived like a thunderclap. They took away practically everything about the series before, and they airlifted in Green Arrow as a co-star, for no apparent reason other than the shared colour, though the duo had already thoroughly revised Oliver Queen, and made him interesting for the first time in nearly thirty years.
The O’Neill Adams run is regarded as a landmark. It came when DC was trying to catch up to Marvel by filling their comics with ‘Relevance’. Adams’ hyper-realistic approach was visually influential, a vital component of comic art to this day. O’Neill turned the series into a philosophical debate, the conservative, order-oriented Green Lantern versus the excitable, anarchic, ultra-liberal Green Arrow. In that sense it was a complete flop. This was not a time for conservative arguments, no matter how small the ‘c’, and besides, O’Neill admitted that he just couldn’t get into GL’s head, seeing him as a cop and nothing else. The arguments were one-sided and the decision to take things down to a ground level suited GA, but made a mockery of GL’s powers, even with a deliberately de-powered ring.
The run was hailed, then and still, though it’s decades since I looked at it and decided that it is actually an incoherent piece of shit that could never have been produced at any other time. Modern slavery, racial prejudice, pollution, over-population, these were among the subjects O’Neill dealt with, without a trace of subtlety or any natural integration of the story to the heroes or vice versa.
Fans raved. O’Neill Adams took the series from eight times a year to bi-monthly and then, after only fourteen issues (one a reprint) to cancellation. Everybody loved it, but nobody bought it.

The Atom

The Atom

Hawkman was the third Golden Age hero to be picked up and refurbished under Julius Schwartz but his was not the success of The Flash and Green Lantern. It was along and slow journey to a series of his own, during which time The Atom leap-frogged him into both a series of his own and Justice League membership. So he comes next.
The Atom was the work of Gardner Fox and Gil Kane, the latter paired again with Joe Giella on inks, a consistent partnership until issue 37, when abruptly Mike Sekowsky took over as artist, one issue before The Atom merged with the failed Hawkman series to present both heroes in a mixture of team-ups and solos.
Save for the name, there was no connection between this new Atom, Ray Palmer, and the original Atom, the creation of Ben Flinton and Bill O’Conner. The original notion came from Gil Kane, suggesting reviving The Atom but giving him the powers of Doll Man, a Quality Comics character who could shrink to six inches in height whilst retaining his full-size strength. The name of Ray Palmer came from Schwartz’s SF magazine editor friend, himself a dwarf.
Al Atom was nothing but a pint-sized bruiser, 5’1″ in height, with no superpowers until late in his career. Palmer was a research scientist investigating compression of matter, who solved his problem by finding a fragment of white dwarf star mater from which he ground a reducing lens that shrunk things, only for them to explode through decompression when they returned to full size.
Palmer had to use the lens on himself when he and his girlfriend, Jean Loring, were trapped by a rockfall when leading a nature troop exploring caverns. Ray expected to be sacrificing himself but ‘some mysterious, mutant force’ in his body kept him, and only him, intact.
Palmer’s decision to become a superhero was intrinsically tied up in his personal life. Ray loved Jean and proposed to her every week. But Jean, a ‘lady-lawyer’, wasn’t prepared to marry him and retire to being a mere housewife until she had established herself in her legal career.
Given, as we saw with Iris West, that under the Comics Code not even bad girls did until they had a ring on their finger, Ray decided to use The Atom’s abilities to help Jean solved all her cases, no matter how fantastic, in double-quick time, so that she would marry him and, well, catch up on lost time.
It’s an unusual motivation for a superhero, and it was never expressed as such in even the most oblique of fashions, but it’s as plain as the nose on your face.

The Atom 2

Jean and Ray were happy with each other in every respect except their differing attitudes to wedding proposals. There was none of Iris West’s continued exasperation, nor of Carol Ferris’s preference for a glamour figure. Jean and Ray had something both wanted. Marriage was only a matter of time. In the end, it took to issue 26 before the momentous moment came. The couple meet counsellors who talk of relationships changing. It’s Ray’s proposal day, but his latest case has him distracted and he drops Jean off without a word, sending the poor girl into a panic. Because she does love him, and if he’s starting to cool off, because of her constant rejection of him, she’s thrown into a sudden panic at the thought that she might lose him.
In the end, when she catches up to him, she tearfully apologises for all her refusals and suggests that if he were to ask her again… Ray goes for it immediately. Jean says yes, and the two kiss enthusiastically. In fact, they go on kissing at every possible opportunity, and on a couple of occasions, when Jean fears Ray to be dead, or seriously injured, her anxious panic and the sheer relief of him being ok make this by far the most immediate and sweet of loves.
Though Kane and Giella were common to both series, the art on The Atom was very different. The Atom’s small stature, his ability to shift it at an instant’s notice, his judo-throws and punches on crooks twelve times his height shared the same balletic nature at times, but avoided the force and violence Kane tried to impart to his other series.
Nor did The Atom develop even as much of a rogue’s gallery as Green Lantern, his principal recurring foe being Chronos, the Time-Thief, who brought a scientific ingenuity to their battles. On the other hand, where Hal Jordan had his Jordan Brothers back-ups, The Atom had Ray Palmer’s former mentor, Professor Alpheus Hyatt and the Time Pool, enabling The Atom to drop into the past and meet with all manner of historical figures that you just wouldn’t expect a superhero to have anything to do with.
There were even a couple of entertaining if not spectacular team-ups with Al Pratt, one involving Jay Garrick’s old foe, The Thinker, looking completely different, and the other some bizarre ageing and juvenating scrapes back and forth across Earths 1 and 2.
The abrupt switch to Sekowsky, who was used to The Atom from Justice League of America but not one-tenth as suitable for him in his solo book, came as a considerable and unpleasant shock. But as this was the last solo solo issue of the series, let’s divert from here to Hawkman’s series.

Hawkman

Hawkman

The Winged Warrior may have only been a tad less popular in the Forties than his stable-mate The Flash, and indeed may have only been denied a series of his own by the Second World war and paper-restrictions forbidding launching any new series, but when Julius Schwartz chose him to revive, Hawkman ended up with the longest, slowest and meandering path to his own series of them all, and the shortest run, only 27 issues.
Unlike the other three Silver Age legacies, Hawkman was started in The Brave and the Bold instead of Showcase, and he was handed to his original creator, Gardner Fox, to write, instead of John Broome. For art, Schwartz chose Joe Kubert, the artist who finished off the original Hawkman’s run in the Forties, and a superstar. This was a mistake.
Kubert’s art was magnificent. It was beautiful. But it was wholly different from the light and clean DC house-style, and it was no longer suited to superheroes. Two three-issue try-outs failed to break Hawkman, though the issues were gorgeous. So Schwartz slotted Hawkman into the back of Mystery in Space, alongside Adam Strange, and turned the pencils over to Murphy Anderson, who was far more often used on inks. The outcome? A massive upsurge in response and, only four issues later, that solo series, Fox and Anderson. Made it ma, top of the world.
The Golden Age Hawkman was a human archaeologist and socialite who discovered himself to be the reincarnation of the sacrificed Egyptian Prince, Khufu, and rediscovering Khufu’s Ninth Metal (later Nth Metal) with its anti-gravity properties. With his bare chest, his striking Hawk helm, his wide spreading wings, Hawkman’s look was perfect and, with minor design changes, to the helm, Schwartz kept it all, down to the name Carter Hall, an anglicisation of Katar Hol, the girlfriend and partner as Hawkgirl, Shayera (or Sheira) and the propensity for using ancient weapons.
Everything else was different, though. This Hawkman was an SF figure, a human-appearing alien from the planet Thanagar, a Police Officer in uniform, chasing a Thanagarian criminal to Earth and staying to study our Police methods, taking up a post as a Museum Director. But the biggest shock was his Hawkgirl, a gorgeous redhead, a fellow Policewoman… and Katar’s wife! A Mr. and Mrs. Superhero, living, loving and fighting side by side.
As a contemporary superhero figure in the Sixties, Hawkman’s greatest weakness was his power. He could fly. So you can fly? What can you do that’s impressive? He didn’t even make use of his wings for anything but, well, flapping them to stay aloft. Ok, it was his Thanagarian Anti-Gravity controls that got him off the ground, the wings just guided him about. But Superman, Green Lantern and the Martian Manhunter could all fly, and they could do other things as well. Even Wonder Woman and The Atom could take to the air and get about, just by gliding on air-currents. Not impressive.
Schwartz and Fox tried to build in supervillains, such as the IQ Gang or the Matter Master. They went all James Bondish with CAW, the Criminal Alliance of the World, but mostly Hawkman and Hawkgirl spent their days fighting monstrous races and weird civilisations, other planets, other dimensions, sub-atomic worlds, you name it, with a large dollop of set-ups paralleling Earth history, especially the religious kind.
At first, Carter had to try to avoid the attentions of Mavis Trent, girl naturalist, pretty and prone to flinging herself all over the tall, lean Museum Director at a moment’s provocation. Now Carter was married, though you got the feeling it wouldn’t bother Mavis all thaaaat much, but like Carol Ferris, she divided her enthusiasm between him and Hawkman, and Hawkman couldn’t go around saying, oh, by the way, have you met my wife? This didn’t last that long as Earth supporting characters got forgotten.

Hawkman

But I still love the series. A large part of that is Murphy Anderson’s art, even now. Sure, it’s smooth and you could call it bland without fearing a call from the libel lawyers but then aged 10 and now aged 65, I love its easiness, its gracefulness, its wholeness. But what made Hawkman for me was the relationship. Katar and Shayera Hol loved each other. They were each the most important thing in the world to each other. There were none of the issues, the side-steps, the complications or frustrations that Barry Allen, Hal Jordan or Ray Palmer faced. It made you wonder exactly why Schwartz was so reluctant to have his bachelor boys settled.
Best of all, the Hawks were a team, and they were equals. True, Hawkman still got the primary role, and it was he who came up with all the ideas, but he never once considered Hawkgirl to be a weak link. He trusted her to fight as hard and as effectively as he did. That sort of thing was rare, and effective.
Hawkman struggled along, never getting out of the bi-monthly groove any more than The Atom did. Membership of the JLA brought no boost, except to Hall’s career with the team: Hawkman immediately became part of a ‘Big Five’, with Superman, Batman, The Flash and Green Lantern, dominating line-ups.
Just as Superman and Batman were friends who knew each other’s identities, and the same went for Flash and Green Lantern, Fox set up a similar arrangement for Atom and Hawkman. First, the pair teamed up in The Atom, and at the end the Halls met this Ivy Town couple, Ray Palmer and Jean Loring. Then this was repeated in miniature in Hawkman 9, as the Hawks have to go to The Atom to help unshrink them, and he does so in Ray Palmer’s laboratory before an entirely sensible and genuinely nice revealing of identities.
Schwartz, Fox and Anderson produced twenty-one issues. Some I hold in higher regard than others, but these do tend to be the ones I bought at the time, my favourite being issue 13, despite its somewhat didactic and quasi-scientific approach to the legends of the Valkyries. And then there was a sudden change in issue 22: all three out, replaced by George Kashdan, editor, Bob Haney, writer and Dick Dillin penciller, in a story that has Hawkman confirm his alien origins.
It was stupid, destructive and crude, and almost immediately forgotten. That goes for all six issues of Kashdan’s term, accompanied by the side-lining of Hawkgirl into a very much background role, even after Haney was replaced by Raymond Marais from issue 24 until the end, in issue 27. Hawkman, it was announced, was merging with The Atom, adopting the latter’s numbering and reverting to Julius Schwartz. So…

The Atom and Hawkman

In a different post I could have a lot to say about this seven-issue run that didn’t save either series. There were several aspects and differences to both characters and details to discuss. But ultimately the run was crap and this post has gone on long enough already.
Julius Schwartz may been the editor again but you would hardly have known it against his titles of the decade. Writers and artists bounced around: Fox, Kanigher, O’Neill: Dillin, Anderson, Kubert (even Kubert Anderson twice). Nothing the same issue to issue. A mixture of team-ups and solos, one team-up to two solos. Practically no Jean Loring, except for a final issue descent into madness that foreshadows all the rest of her career. Hawkman and Hawkgirl squabbling – squabbling!
No, this isn’t fit to sit alongside the other series herein, and it makes for a bitter ending. But I have the Silver Age Giants in my collection now, in full colour, and taking up not that much space than a dime.

Preston Front: s02 e03 – Spock’s Leg


Preston

Preston Front is a howling delight to watch, but it can be a bugger to blog, I can tell you, especially with an episode like this, based around a clearly-defined, one-off story yet full of little threads and tangles that have nothing to do with the plot but which just happen to be taking place at the same time, three of them involving relationships headng in disparate directions.

But first, the story. It’s all about the week of Spock’s Leg. Nothing to do with one of those long, hairy things and proceed in a downwards direction from the, ahem, waist, but rather a leg of a journey. Or in this case a Foreign Exchange Student trip. You see, in that first series, the one with the longer title, when the TA were in Germany, Spock – an intellectual, placid, artistically-minded history teacher who is so far out of place in Roker Bridge as would be a twenty-foot tall orange fluorescent statue of Mao Zedong – made the acquaintance of Dieter, of the German TA. Actually, he stuck his rifle in Dieter’s ear when the latter was flat on his face in the mud, wearing camo, but it’s the thought that counts. Spock being Spock, learning that Dieter was also a history teacher, assumed he was identical of character and set up this Exchange thing for their respective schools, full of local history, art, culture.

Unfortunately, when Dieter (Kim Romer) turns up at the airport, where Spock’s gang is waiting with all manner of transport, up to and and including Lloydy’s latest Waste-of-moneymobile, he turns out to have turned into an arsehole. Dieter wears his peroxided hair in a flashy gelled-back style and goes for short-sleeves and very-cut-off shorts. Dieter is a Warrior, a hard body (with its usual concomitant, a soft mind), out for fun, i.e., pubs and rock gigs. He also has the habit of descriving things of which he approves as ‘Opposite the Hotel!’ This is a meaningless phrase that his fellow teacher has conned him into thinking is cool slang for cool. His fellow teacher is Ingrid (Angela Pearson). Ingrid is tall, with long blonde hair and considerably beautiful. He is a chain smoker, though the cigarettes she smokes turn out to be cannabis, not tobacco, a personal recreation choice that becomes much more understandable when you see how much of an arsehole Dieter is, with his insistence on going for six mile runs, to Deisel’s garage and back, wearing a bin-liner.

It also appears that Ingrid is attracted to, of all people, Spock. His intelligence, his artistic appreciation – they both love Klimt – and his ability to lay food out in an interesting fashion. Typically, Spock is slow to realise this, though thid is based not in obtuseness but the basic inability to believe that a woman as flat out gorgeous as Ingrid could want to get anywhere near him (I know, Spock, mate, I know).

Sadly, it takrs Hodge and Spock to learn from the increasingly morose Ingrid that it is not Spock himself that she is attracted to, but the person he so much reminds her of, namely the pre-German TA Dieter, who was indeed a total and utter Spock. Spock doesn’t realise this, Dieter doesn’t realise this, and ultimately it’s the poor bugger who has to brwak it to his German colleague. So Dieter gets the happy ending and Spock the familiar one. Of course it wasn’t real. It never is. That’s the other side of Tim Firth’s writing, the ability to naturally bring unforced humour out of a situation that’s tragic on a personal level without letting you escape from the real emotions.

So that was the story of Spock’s Leg but of course there’s much more to the episode than that. For all of series 1. Lieutenant Rundle found himself working under Corporal Polson in the Leisure Centre at the Hotel, and Polson exploited that with all the poisonous malice squatting in his short-arsed form. But the great day has arrived. Rundle has completed his training. Not only is he escaping from the Leisure Centre but he’s being invested as Manager of the entire Hotel. Now he’s Pete Polson’s boss in both areas of their acquaintance. Rundle’s so relieved at it that he’s being incautiously open abut the little ‘doom-goblin’ to tha Area Manager, the bright, blonde and beautiful Sarah (Beth Goddard). She loves the phrase, thinks it so perfect, but she does know Pete: after all, she got him his job after he got out of the Regulars. And he’s her husband.

Which leads to an incredibly funny sequence. Ally’s feeling bored. She’s told Dawn that she’s going to apply for a Commission. But at the local Law Society Dinner Dance, held at guess-which-Hotel, Ally’s youth makes her as much out of place as her younger brother is anywhere. She’s bored out of her skull and, spotting a familiar face behind the Reception desk, commandeers Rundle to ostensibly show her a change of rooms for her and husband Frasier, but really to get ten minutes of intelligent, interesting not-small-talk. Which leads to R|undle telling her about Sarah Polson and hysteria about why in God’s name she ever married him? Rundle speculates that it must be that Polson is a sex machine, a splutteringly funny but also mind-curdling thought that leads to Ally’s own speculations about the attraction of a diferent kind of life and their joint wondering about what happens when the spell wears off, which is followed by a long and passionate kiss, which is rather more rapidly followed by the hasty coming-to-their-senses, disengagement and separation. Ally’s left worrying about the implications of what she’s done, whilst Rundle is smiling over all parts that can smile. Hmm.

The best bit though is that this scene is intercut with Polson driving home, to this great, plush, stately Hotel where he lives with Sarah, arriving to find her curled up on the couch watching TV, silently, especially towards him. When he tries to start a conversation about the TA, she chops him off with a question about something he was supposed to bring back, which he hasn’t. Polson sits there, humbled and wanting, the sex machine theory having hopefully been exploded for once and for all.

Better things are happening between Dawn and Eric. She’s still not pressuring him to move out of home, where he’s waited on hand and foot and all is rosy except for his seriously depressed father, who’s as much a dead weight on the easy-to-anchor Eric as Old Man Steptoe. But she wants the flat, and she wants Eric to move in with her, and she needs Eric to afford the rent. And there he is, bumbling to her about all the problems at home, and how it’s not the right time, and the light is running out of Dawn’s eyes at Eric being as Eric as he posibly can, until he tells her it’s never going to be the right time and produces an envelope with his part of the deposit… Good lad.

One up, one down. We need a tie-breaker and we have it in Hodge and Laura. Both have had invitations next week. Laura’s is the infamous ‘business lunch’ with Greg Scarry, and she can’t talk about anything else. That and her professional catering business. Every time Hodge tries to speak, no matter what it’s about, Laura is cutting through the sentence like the classic knife through hot butter (I have been there too, oh have I been there too). It’s running downhill like the Rivers Esk, Irt and Mite at Ravenglass. So Hodge can’t get to tell anyone but Eric about the invitation he’s received, to Kirsty’s birthday party, complete with smiling giraffe. Eric refuses to believe it, insists Hodge must have forged it. But the envelope has been addressed by Jeanetta.

Next week is going to be fun.

Of Once and Former Heroes: Dennis Wheatley, ‘Prince’ of Thriller Writers (Part 1)


When I was a boy I read boy’s things, books and comics, English and American. When I entered my teens, I still enjoyed reading some of the books I had accumulated but, in the natural run of things, I started to grow out of them. I was reading adult books at school, in English classes, Charles Dickens and Emily Bronte. Not my first choice of reading matter, though I’d already been introduced to the former at home, when my parents bought me a copy of A Christmas Carol (actually, I preferred the Mr. Magoo cartoon version). But Enid Blyton’s Famous Five weren’t really cutting it, and nor were The Lone Pine Club, despite the enthusiasm I have lavished upon them in the last few years.

There was a problem. My Dad was ill, and would eventually die when I was still only fourteen. My mother, who was one of only two people to know that his cancer was irreversible, had much on her mind: her husband and the limited time they had left, two children, work. Frustrating as it was to experience, and destructive as it was in several aspects of its application, I can understand her wanting to simplify the pressures on her, one of them being my entering adolescence.

Some of it was being over-protective, but a lot more of it was being repressive. She didn’t want to have to deal with me growing up at the same time as everything else, so she consciously or unconsciously stood in the way of me growing and developing, both during Dad’s illness and after, when we were a diminished family and she solely responsible for maintaining my sister and I.

One of the ways in which this showed was in my reading. I was not encouraged, I was not allowed, to expand the range of my reading. Dad had been an avid book reader and we had a couple of hundred books stacked in the two-shelf bookcase he’d constructed to go all along one wall of the front room, but woe betide me if I wanted to pick up anything that had entertained and interested him: I was a boy, and I was going to stay that way.

So, frustrated at being unable to expand, I would choose occasions when Mam and my sister were out of the house to sneak into the front room, my head below the window sill in case a neighbour saw me, and look at these books. Especially anything that might have anything relating to sex in them, because that was very definitely an area into which my consciousness was not going to be allowed to extend!

Though I read some other books – How to Win Friends and Influence People, something or other by Alastair MacLean, one book by Frank Yerby which didn’t tempt me to read any others – I gravitated towards Dennis Wheatley, the so-called ‘Prince of Thriller Writers’. The only book I actually remember seeing Dad read was Wheatley’s The Prisoner in the Mask, because of the vivid cover to the paperback. He favoured thrillers, and had a dozen or more Wheatley books. That may well be what drew me to try the man. If it wasn’t the first of his books that I actually read, it was certainly a very early choice.

And Wheatley became, for a time, my favourite author. Of course, this was still a secret for some time. But then the problem went away in an easy instant: we were at Burnage Library after school one day, my sister burrowing away industriously and me wandering around looking glum. My mother asked what was up with me. I complained that there was nothing interesting here. Well, why don’t you look in the adult section, she said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do. I looked at her in shock then zoomed over there as if cadging a lift off Dan Dare in Anastasia.

Naturally, the first thing I looked for was any Wheatleys Dad didn’t have. Thus began a spell of five, maybe six years, in which I set out to read every novel he’d ever written. Some we had at home, some I got through the library, the rest were available in paperback in bookshops and newsagents, and I accumulated them. According to Wikipedia, there were 54 in total, and I read them all.

Then I got rid of them all.

Why? A large part of it was that my discovery and reading of The Lord of the Rings between October 1973 to January 1974 transformed my reading interests, turning me towards SF and Fantasy on a near-exclusive basis for the next twenty years. An equally large part of it was that, slowly but inevitably, I started to understand Wheatley’s character, his opinions and belief. It wasn’t as if he made any attempt to conceal his thinking, his books embodied it, he was true blue patriotic, aristocratic (with no real grounds to be) and Conservative with the biggest of Big Cs. I knew all this, yet somehow the real message that lay behind all that only seeped into me very slowly, which was that Wheatley looked down on me. Not merely looked down upon but despised me. It’s the kind of thing that can undermine your relationship with an author.

And the last part of it was that, as I was exposed to stylish, thoughtful, elegant and beautiful writing from a host of sources – not merely SF/Fantasy but such things as Damon Runyan’s short stories about his invented Broadway, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe books and Peter Tinniswood’s Brandon Family books and more, to choose three disparate examples – I couldn’t avoid the realisation that Dennis Wheatley’s writing was shit. And by that I mean not its content but the actual words. His dialogue. His descriptions. The actual sentences. He was a completely awful writer.

What brought all this about was a chance comment from my friend and guest poster, Garth Groombridge, who is writing a series on his favourite films and mentioned he was working on the Christopher Lee-starring Hammer adaptation of Wheatley’s most famous novel, The Devil Rides Out, made in 1967 and seen by me in a late night horror showing at my local cinema a decade later.

It was the first time I’d seen a film adaptation of a book I knew well, and it was a telling experience. I knew, intellectually, that film adaptations involved changes to the original, but I was unprepared for the impact of this in practice, particularly changes that seemed to have no logic behind them. The book was part of a series of books featuring the Duc de Richleau and his three young friends, Rex van Ryn, Simon Aron and Richard Eaton, all of whom were much the same age. But the film made Rex into a much older man, a contemporary of the Duc instead of the other two friends, for reasons I couldn’t comprehend. It also radically de-emphasised Simon Aron’s Jewishness, though that might be a bit more understandable thirty years and a World War on.

Garth’s mention of the film triggered my recollection of my days as a Wheatley fan, and that usually ends in the urge to write something about it for this blog, which is why we are here. Usually, when I fixate upon an author, I like to go through all their books, in chronological order, tracing their development. There’s no way I’d doing that with Wheatley! I’d choke on the crap prose if I tried.

But I can’t go ripping into the guy without some kind of contemporary familiarity with his actual writing. So I hunted out a cheap copy of The Devil Rides Out, to hold up as an example for the rest. And that will be the basis of Part 2.

Danger Man: s03 e07 – English Lady Takes Lodgers


danger

I’ve been intrigued about this episode for quite some time now, it’s title having stood out, and been eager to find just what might lurk behind that bland reminder of days long gone. Sadly, now I’ve seen it, I am much less impressed by the outcome.

It didn’t help to find that this is one of those thankfully few episodes mastered from a less than perfect print, making the images blurred and dark. The murkiness of the visuals did, however, reflect the murkiness of the plot, which had Our Man Drake called to Portugal to break-up a spy ring selling secrets to the highest bidder, under the cover of an ordinary smuggling operation.

Who the ‘villains’ were was betrayed in the open, set on a patio outside a rather decent-looking villa. Four people sit around, silently. Three of them, who we will learn are the smuggler, George Stanway, whose villa this is, and his partners Commander Collinson (Howard Marion Crawford) and Phillippe Granville (Frederick Bartman), are morose and thoughtful, for reasons that we will, at the end, fully understand. The fourth is Emma Stanway (Gabriella Licudi), the rather younger and decidedly sleek and attractive wife of George, who is sarcastic about the lack of entertainment, or indeed conversation, that the three men have provided for her that night. Everyone departs. Emma goes upstairs. Within moments she becomes the widow of George, who is shot. Cue Edwin Astley.

Enter Drake. His contact in Portugal is the somewhat foolish and oblivious Mr Pilkington (Robert Urquhart), who plays the comic relief. He’s Head of Security at the British Embassy, flustered at not being allowed to investigate this matter himself instead of having a London Agent forced on him, though as he assures Drake there is no such agency in Portugal since if there was he would know about it, this would ensure a very short investigation indeed. He also regards George as one of his very best pals, and Emma as ‘that dreadful woman’ who came to Portugal in the first place to dance professionally (ahh! a nostalgic hint at a P.G. Wodehouse chorus girl).

But Emma, who has a soft heart, takes in lodgers, especially waifs and strays. So struggling (and drinking) impecunious writer John Drake worms his way into the villa, where George has been reported missing and Emma is bravely bearing up under the stress, even though she knows he’s dead. Collinson is all bluff, hearty, ex-Naval officer, Granville is vaguely foreign and sinister, but they draw Drake into the gang, where he both does as he’s told in relation to a bag swap involving American actress Rosalind Fielding (a bit part for the lovely Judy Huxtable, we are being treated) and acts of his own initiative.

So far, Drake’s been playing along, slightly nervous but willing to be talked into smuggling if it makes him money. His one (overt) reservation is that they’re not smuggling drugs. But when he retrieves, and recognises, a smuggled fuse, he rounds on Emma over her lies, threatens to clear off because espionage is too rich for him – and she reassures him: they are working for British Intelligence! Yes, George was a British Agent. She knows this because the Commander and Phillippe told her.

Well, from there it’s all a bit straightforward. The suspicious Phillippe follows Drake, discovers him reporting to Pilkington. He and the Commander intend shooting Drake and burying him in the woods, just as they did with George when he discovered his partners were smuggling information and threatened to go to the authorities – that morose open now explained – but Drake uses a variation on one of his gadgets, dives in the river and swims away underwater (clearly filmed in a swimming pool). At his instruction, Pilkington informs on the gang to Colonel Torres, Emma finds out that Phillippe murdered her husband, he and the Commander are arrested, but Drake runs off with Emma, who’s going to London to be asked a lot of questions, and they escape by diving into the river and swimming underwater (that swimming pool again!)

So. A slow and somewhat confused episode, very talky, with some low comedy in the form of the hapless Pilkington shoe-horned in to discomfort, rather like the red herring of the airport porter who, on Drake’s arrival in Lisbon, makes a beeline for him and insists on carrying his bag, causing us to go A-ha! a contact, but who then has nothing to do with anything. Still, average Danger Man does have its appeal, and I don’t just mean Gabriella Licudi, of whom I don’t recall hearing before. I’d like a better episode next week anyway.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Cowsill’s ‘The Rain, The Park and Other Things’


In the early Seventies, I watched a lot of TV programmes that I now can’t understand the reason why. Perhaps it was just down to being a family reduced by one, a feeling of solidarity with each other, or perhaps that it was just that I didn’t want to spend so much time on my own in my bedroom, cut off, just yet.
So I watched The Partridge Family week-in, week-out (maybe I just fancied the 15 year old Susan Dey, which is ok to admit since I was 15-16 at the time). It wasn’t the worst thing I sat in on. But it must have been close.
What very few of us in Britain knew at that time, and among the girls who flocked to the mere sight of David Cassidy, even fewer would have cared was that The Partridge Family were a complete rip-off, a rip-off of a real band, consisting of a real family, a mother and six of her children. These were the Cowsills, she was Barbara and the kids ranged from 19 down to eight-year old Susan (who happened to have a hell of a good voice). What’s more, unlike the actors who were gathered together as the Partridge Family, The Cowsills could all sing, and they played their own instruments.
Thus far, the response might be, so what? The fact that the family all had musical ability didn’t alter the most salient point, which was that the Cowsills were a commercial pop group, constructed to sell records and make money, and in that sense The Partridges were an exact copy.
The younger members of the family had always been into music and harmony singing, starting as a quartet and then adding siblings as they got old enough, but it was not until mother Barbara joined the group in 1967, just in time for their signing with MGM Records, that the band as it was to be successful was formed.
And they came out of the traps at a rush, with a number 2 single, the oddly titled ‘The Rain, the Park and Other Things’. The song, and it’s recording, and the times in which it was released, make it one of the most perfect pop harmony songs ever to be recorded: pure pop, clean-cut as a family band, and yet with the atmosphere of psychedelia, and an underlying hint towards the enhanced reality of LSD, supported by some wonderfully chosen special effects.
I saw her sitting in the rain, it began, raindrops falling on her. She didn’t seem to care, she sat there and smiled at me. Right from the start it has the aura of a vision.
And I knew, Bob Cowsill sings, with the naive confidence of someone not altogether of this reality, that she could make me happy (happy, happy, happy, his siblings echo). Flowers in her hair, 1967, flower power, Flowers everywhere.
I wanted to hear the song as soon as I heard of it: what could a song with a title like that be about? How could it sound? But these were days long before YouTube, when whistling up a long-gone single, that for all I knew maybe hadn’t even been released in Britain, just to see what it was like, wasn’t easy. In the end, an import copy turned up at Shudehill Record Stalls where, for 10p, you could chance your arm.
And I loved it immediately. It was that brilliant kind of clean-cut, clear American pop that I already loved so much, as weightless as a loaf of Nimble bread. It was a stop-start song, each section dissolving into a mist of rain and rippling harp, a call-and-response song throughout its verses, as Bob sang of this vision, this flower girl, appearing out of nowhere in the rain in the park, smiling up at him, taking his hand, going for a walk that may not take place on Earth.
And his siblings and his mother are the Greek Chorus who reflect his emotions back to him, in rounded harmonies mixed at a lower level, to mark them as being his imagination on Earth.
I love the Flower Girl, he sings, his voice soaring towards the falsetto, his girl out of nowhere, his girl with no name, his girl who represents the flowers that were power in 1967 of the hopes and dreams and blown minds. Oh I don’t know just why, she simply caught my eye, she seemed so sweet and kind, she crept into my mind.
Was she reality, or just a dream to me? Ah, there’s the rub, there’s the question, the answer to which no-one, least of all elevated Bob, knows, and which doesn’t matter. But things cannot last. The rain ends, the sun breaks through, he turns around and she’s gone, like the chimera she always was. Everyone should encounter a flower girl, so sweet and kind, once in their lives. And all I had left was one little flower in my hair, the token, the thing carried back to forever cast doubt on the unreality of the experience.
Look at them, so clean-cut and harmless, the matching faces, the perfect teeth, the ideal manners, the all-American kids. And listen to the song which has the melody of commercialism and the hippy blur of the words. This is yet more proof that Commerce and Art are not always opposite poles and that in the urge to create money, it is possible to create beauty. This record is timeless, Time has not touched it. It is as it always was, a moment between, facing in two directions and presenting the same face to both. We hear the rain, we see the park and we think of other things, forever.

Sunday Watch: My World – And Welcome To It: e07-09 – Nobody Ever Kills Dragons Anymore/Seal in the Bedroom/The Saga of Dimity Ann


My World

Another triple shot of Thurberesque humour on a grey Sunday morning when it’s actually been raining for the first time in ages.

I could certainly wish to have a more professional DVD boxset of this charming series, instread of one transferred from videotape of varying length and quality, but if the professionals won’t out one out, then this is the next best thing. Interestingly, there was an ironic reflection over the three episodes, which grew funnier in inverse proportion to print quality.

‘Nobody Ever Kills Dragons Anymore’ was short of its regular introduction, and short of some of the surreality the series so lovingly presents. This was ironic in itself as it involved our regular hero and James Thurber substitute, John Monroe (William Windom) fantasising himself into a Walter Mitty-style adventure of beautiful Russian spies (Svetlana Mischoff) and melodramatic espionage involving an anemy known only as the Dragon. This comes from John’s feelings of his life, their life, being in a rut, of lacking creative control at work, of just midlife crisis in general. They’ve had a bottle of champagne in the fridge for three years, saving it for a specisal occasion: three years!

What was so nice about the episode was its simplicity, both in the down-to-earth presentation of the situation and in its working-out. Ellen, the sensible wife (Joan Hotchkis), accepts their situation as normal, but a chance remark by John over the phone that he hasn’t thought of her all morning has her reflecting on how she’s still in dressing gown and hairnet and concerned only with the laundry. But Ellen, for all her exasperations at his cartoonist mind, still loves her husband very much, and wants both of them to still have moments of magic in their lives. So John comes home to a very seductive Ellen, hair-styled, new, long, sweeping dress and Lydia (their daughter) at a friend’s house for the night. And the champagne open…

It’s the kind of scene that, in an unsympathetic light, could look awfuly chauvinist (we are, remember, looking at a show from 1969/70), but for the fact that there’s an underlying sweetnes to it. Ellen isn’t just doing this for John, she’s doing it for herself. This is a couple that are still in love, and not merely in the parents-been-together-for-years fashion. Not too many laughs but still touching.

‘Seal in the Bedroom’ based itself around one of Thurber’s most famous cartoons, using that first as a template for the phiulodsophical heart of cartooning, namely what makes something funny. A husband and wife are in bed together, the caption is “All right, have it your way! You heard a seal bark.” There is, of course, a seal on the headboard behind them.

Now I was with John, I found it instantly hilarious. His editor, Hamilton Grealey (Harold J Stone) doesn’t, focussing entirely too much on the concrete idea of what the seal is doing in the bedroom in the first place. Ellen thinks it’s funny but she sees it as the wife humouring the husband. Lydia (Lisa Gerritsen) thinks it’s a dog, not a seal. John’s friend, humour writer Philip Jensen (Henry Morgan) sees it in psychological terms: the seal is John’s mother, coming between him and Ellen, gearing the episode up for a second half in whoich John’s mother is invited to visit, turning up as a monster disdaining her daughter-in-law and acting with a seal’s mannerisms, before the joke was completely concretised by Grealey turning up with an actual seal.

Funniest of the lot, but transferred from a wobbly tape that made your eyes feel sea-sick, compounded by off-register and unnatural colour, was ‘The Saga of Dimity Ann’, a wonderfully funny farce about Lydia’s cat, Dimity Ann, being hostile to John until he decides that one of them has got to go. There’s a brilliant mid-episode sequence with William Windom acting against the cat as he lays a complex and silent trap to capture it and release it miles away, followed by another lovely little performance from Gerritsen as a little girl concluding that the pet she lives has run away because it hates her. A true gem, with of course a ‘happy’ ending. For Lisa, if not John.

I really should watch this more frequently. I forget how appealing it is until I see it again.