An Element of Fun: Metamorpho


Metamorpho 1

I’m back in the Silver Age again, with another of those mid-Sixties comics series that I would see in those newsagents I would frequent, on Ashton Old Road, or at Fiveways, one of those I would look at but never buy, because it didn’t conform to my already well-established personal definition of what constituted an American comic: good, plain, serious superheroics. That’s exactly what you did not get in Metamorpho.
Even on the strength of the first few issues I found myself bracketing the Element Man’s series with things like Challengers of the Unknown and The Doom Patrol. It’s the same sense of irreverence, the underlying sense that these series are being written by people who, underneath it all, can’t bring themselves to take superheroes seriously. These are not comics being edited by Julius Schwartz. Not that I ever took notice of the editor’s name nor, then or ever, allowed that to influence my choice of series, but it’s significant that the overwhelming majority of the series I did collect back then came from Schwartz’s stable.
Not so Metamorpho.The Challs were edited by Jack Schiff, the Doom Patrol by Murray Boltinoff and the Element Man was George Kashdan’s pigeon. It was written by Bob Haney and drawn by Ramona Fradon, the character’s co-creators, picking up from Metamorpho’s two issue debut in Showcase.
Basically: adventurer Rex Mason, in love with the beautiful Sapphire Stagg (the feeling’s mutual), much to the displeasure of her billionaire father Simon Stagg, a genius of incalculable self-interest, not to mention the despair of Sapphire’s absolutely love-sick would-be suitor, Java, an apeman ‘thawed out’ from a fossil, who is Stagg’s devoted servant. See, already you’re getting an inkling of what makes Metamorpho, alongside the DP and the Challs, so very different from the rest of DC in those more innocent days. Even though the fact that Rex has been converted into a human-shaped freaks who can turn his body or any part of it into any element or combination of elements at will requires Haney to be as scientifically inventive as any Gardner Fox or John Broome, these people have personalities. They have a mix of relationships. They aren’t all working together in harmony, like The Flash and Green Lantern, or Hawkman and The Atom. To paraphrase one memorable line about the company’s characteristics, these are DC characters that you would stop and talk to at a cocktail party.

Metamorpho 3

Let us not ignore Ramona Fradon. One of the few lady artists in the business, she brought the perfect style to the early Metamorpho’s, marrying up a fast-paced, kinetic style with just the right degree of cartoonish plasticity, bouncing around the page in a manner that showed just how much fun the artist was having drawing this stuff.
There was even an early borrowing from Marvel, as each issue began with a vertical list of headshots down the left hand side of the splash page, featuring our four stars and the villain(s) each accompanied by stylish and witty captions that aped Stan Lee without being as frantic. Add to that Metamorpho’s flip, snappy dialogue that sounded hip in exactly the opposite way to Haney’s Teen Titans and Java’s constant, overwrought, lovesick mooning over Sapphire and whilst my pre-teen self would probably have rejected the comic as much out of bafflement as distaste, I love it now.
Issue 4 was a perfect example. It began with an argument: Sapphire wants to get married as soon as possible but Rex doesn’t want her to be married to a freak. Stagg is supposed to be working on a cure, to restore Rex’s humanity, except that he finds having Metamorpho’s elemental powers to hand is too useful. So Sapphire breaks things off, only to put into Operation Jealous Lover, i.e., dating handsome, successful, rich playboys in order to make Rex jealous (that it makes Java jealous too is an irrelevancy, though it’s always fun to see these two enemies sympathising with each other about ‘our girl’).
Sapphire’s big choice is South American playboy and Matador, Cha-Cha Chavez, who’s almost sad rich as Stagg (the main reason he sanctions the engagement) and is seriously OTT in demonstrating his feelings, adding Sapphire’s head to Mount Rushmore, until Metamorpho chisels it off with his element transformation.
But Cha-Cha’s a baddy, a supporter of dictator El Lupo, and smuggler in of arms to suppress the revolution that everyone gets dragged into… You can see where this is going, can’t you? And half the fun is that Haney and Fradon cover so much ground in 23 pages that would need a three-parter with ultra-serious cliffhangers to manage nowadays. It was ever thus.
One of the best things, for me, is that Haney has understood the secret off maintaining such a goofball series as this, the secret that eluded Andy Helfer and his writers during the Justice League International days. It’s very simple: Haney doesn’t try to top himself. That is, having started out as way-out, he doesn’t try to get more way-out with every passing issue. That won’t necessarily completely avoid the operation of the almighty Law of Diminishing Returns, but by setting himself to maintain, not exceed the humour, Haney was plotting a longer life for the Element Man.
What he was doing was to furnish each issue with a relatively straight comic book plot, burnished with exaggeration ad implausibility. Within the story, Metamorpho and Co. acted with perfect logic and a bewildering number of chemical changes, to restore the status quo ante, whilst bringing in their personal characteristics. It had the potential to quickly become repetitive, but Haney maintained an air of freshness to each story.

Metamorpho 4

Having said all that, the first flaw appeared in issue 8, when Rex finds himself up against, of all things, a costumed supervillain. And to trap this new and rather trite menace, who had none of the gloriously OTT style of previous foes, the Element Man has to disguise himself as another costumed supervillain.
Knowing that the series ran for only 17 issues, it doesn’t take much experience at reading the comic books of the Sixties to work out that this is that first moment of desperation. The comic that’s so wonderfully different from the DC mainstream is facing circulation problems, so the first move to try and boost sales figures towards increased profitability, or at least survival, is protective colouring. Make it look more like the bog standard stuff the kids love. Be a bit more serious. It’s like watching gangrene spread.
Issue 9 went back to Metamorpho doing what he does best, battling alien invaders converted into machines, under the thumb of a deposed South American dictator, but the next issue saw the introduction of Urania Blackwell, aka Element Girl, interrupting Rex and Sapphire’s wedding to attack the criminal organisation known as Cyclops, and headed by another costumed super-bandido, Stingaree, also known as Rainie’s ex-boyfriend.
The only story featuring Element Girl that I had read prior to this was her meeting with Death in Sandman, at the hands of Neil Gaiman, so this was an eye-opener. I only hope her melodramatic and hammy way of speaking doesn’t hold over. Anyway, in somewhat conventional form for the time, Element Girl ‘died’ at the end so that she could a) remain inert until reader response determined if she would be brought back and b) bugger up Rex’s relationship with Sapphire, who was, also in conventional form inordinately jealous of Urainia, who had only come here to get her claws into Rexie, the scheming hussy.
And that was exactly what she came out as being as soon as she was revived (the readers liked her) in issue 13, the back half of a two-parter that featured a team of Metal Men knock-offs based on obscure elements from the lower corners of the Periodic Table. This really was throwing a cobalt spanner into the works of Rex and Sapphy, with the former, despite his enthusiastic love for the blonde rich girl, was now torn between who fascinated him the most, a la Lois Lane/Lana Lang.
Did I mention the idea of conventionalising a series to prop up its sales?

Metamorpho 13

This was also the issue in which credits first appeared, revealing that it was now Sal Trapani pencilling the series, and having done so for some time, doing his manful best to ape Ramona Fradon’s lines but without her knack for stylistic exaggeration.
Another two-parter, featuring protracted battles against a midget alien would-be world tyrant, ended with a twist straight out of a million House of Mystery short stories when other aliens from his home planet land and cart off the criminal: sigh. The fun’s rapidly draining away here.
The next and final step is the belated total change of direction. Throw out Sapphire, suddenly marrying a previously unmentioned playboy called Wally (much beloved cry at rock gigs throughout the Seventies, oh yes, I have ‘Wallied’ in my time), leave out Stagg, Java and Urainia because Metamorpho no longer has to hope for resurrection as Rex, introduce a mysterious stranger with another Orb of Ra who wants our Element Man as Rex Mason but is conning him…
But the end was abrupt. There was another change of artist for issue 17, a more serious, albeit scratchy style. Metamorpho is accused, tried and convicted of killing Wally the Wally and sentenced to death by freezing at absolute zero. Element Girl rescues him. They fight Algon the original Element Man, a Rex-equivalent from 2,000 years previously, Wally’s real killer, but he boils away in a lava pit. Metamorpho’s still wanted but he has Urania by his side, the pair dedicated to crime-fighting. Meanwhile we learn that a client contracted to have Metamorpho put out of the way, only not who…
Never the End said the last caption, but it was, a swift and sudden killing. The threads being established here were left dangling and, like the execrable last two issues of the original Swamp Thing series, when Rex was brought back in The Brave and the Bold, these events were forgotten utterly, and rightly so.
So farewell Metamorpho first time. The series began as goofy and buoyant fun, but it wasn’t serious enough for DC’s audience and it met the fate of all such attempts to provide something new and different; creping but insufficient homogenisation and cancellation. Worse things lasted longer. They always do.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: e02 – How is Lady Pole?


JonathanStrangeMrNorrell_Large

After an opening episode establishing the principal characters, their alternate Napoleonic Wars period and a massive dollop of atmosphere derived from Susannah Clarke’s book, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell came back for a second episode still working towards the main body of the story, by bringing together – and separating – the two title characters, and expanding upon the implications of last week’s miraculous conclusion in the restoration of Lady Pole from death to life.

The two primary strands in this episode are the taking of Jonathan Strange as an apprentice by Mr Norrell, and the unfortunate side-effects upon Lady Pole of her resurrection, or rather the Gentleman’s manipulation of Mr Norrell’s need of his aid, to ends unforeseen by the Magician and not necessarily of advantage to him or, sadly, Lady Pole herself.
Before this, we start with Mr Norrell’s triumphant entry to the War Office, acclaimed for his feat of true magic and now welcomed as a saviour in Britain’s war against the French. His hangers-on, D|rawlight and Lascelles, are still preceding him, and Norrell has his own agenda which is pretty much a condition of his aid being granted. This is quite the selfish thing: Norrell considers himself to be the only Magician in England, bent on restoring Magic to respectability, but only upon the terms he permits. As an adjunct to this, he wants anyone who even thinks of themselves as a magician of any kind shut down and run off, whilst every Magic book that exists should be gathered together under his personal control, only he to consult them.
Messrs Secundus and Honeyfoot, formerly of the (now-dissolved) Friends of Magic of York, are still pursuing their own ends, Secundus being the only Magician of York who did not promise to shut himself down in promise to Norrell. They find Jonathan Strange, and his wife, Arabella. They learn him to be a naturally gifted Magician, without books or training. They suggest he apprentice himself to Mr Norrell. Of whom Mr Strange has never heard.
Things are already afoot. To his chagrin, Norrell finds he has been outfoxed by the Gentleman. It is his own fault: in agreeing that the Gentleman should have half Lady Pole’s life he failed to define such a term. He assumed she would live until 40 then die. Instead, the half of her life that the Gentleman has is the night.
At night, Lady Pole dances, endlessly, in a ball in faerie. She dances with the Gentleman, who has also taken an interest in Sir Walter’s butler, Stephen Black, who he promises to raise to Royalty. Lady Pole is exhausted and spiritless by day. She fights against sleep. She cannot explain what is happening to her, for her mouth can only speak ancient riddles. To the world of her day, Lady Pole is losing – has lost – her reason, and is being kept in increasing seclusion. She so rarely sees anyone new, though she does meet Arabella Strange.
Meanwhile, Strange has secured an interview with the dismissive Norrell, Drawlight and Lascelles. It doesn’t go well until Strange, an odd combination of diffidence and brashness, performs a piece of simple Magic. Norrell is transformed. It is not in the books. It is original Magic. Indeed, Strange cannot explain how he does it. But it is enough to have him taken on as apprentice.
Though Norrell’s ideas as to apprenticeship vary from anything Strange had imagined. It involves ten years of reading, without performance, a strict plan restricting many books until later, and in any event a reluctance to let Strange handle even the least book, even to read it!
And Strange is still in the position of the naïf, unable to understand why Norrell dismisses the Raven King, and refutes the value of Faerie Magic. Interestingly, whilst he cannot see the Gentleman when he is observing whilst invisible, Strange can sense a presence, can hear some of his words (the unflattering ones) as if echoing from next door.
But Norrell’s reclusive nature proves fateful when he is not available to handle an urgent tracking of a French ship. Strange succeeds admirably, to Norrell’s annoyance. Which is compounded when Strange is dragged down to Portsmouth Beach a second time, to rescue a ship run aground, Mr Norrell having a headache.
This time the magic is spectacular and visible, stallions created out of the sands who gallop out to sea and right the ship, much to the chagrin of the late-arriving Norrell. Suddenly, it is Jonathan Strange who is being lionised, and Strange who must be sent out to the Peninsula to direct Magical operations on the spot.
And Strange who must take no less than forty books of magic with him, much against the will of Mr Norrell. Leaving behind Arabella, who has attracted the attention of the Gentleman.
The plot thickens.

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge: My 40 Favourite Movies – 1: Introduction & ‘Metropolis’


This then are my forty favourite movies. They are in chronological sequence, oldest to the most recent. While I might concede my top favourites to be The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, thereafter how could I choose one film to be ‘more favourite’ than another? I dislike those lists of ‘Greatest This or That’ – movies, songs, books, etc. – because they are so arbitrary, and especially when the general public are making the selection, all too often they choose the latest fad-of-the-moment, which in retrospect, within a year or two, no one remembers anymore. By what criteria could I grade my forty movies? It is impossible. They are all different, even quite different genres. There is one musical. There are eight science fiction movies, seventeen crime stories, of which three might be designated as noir – The Maltese Falcon, The Third Man, and Kiss Me Deadly. Eight might be classified as drama – but sub-divided as romantic drama and/or psychological drama. One is a spy thriller (Dr No); two might be regarded as erotic dramas – Belle de Jour and Emmanuelle. Nine might be also be regarded as comedy, including three that fall under the crime category – The Ladykillers, Gambit, The Italian Job. One is a occult horror – The Devil Rides Out. Only one is pre-talkie – Metropolis – while four are from the 1930s; four are from the 1940s; nine from the 1950s; thirteen from the 1960s; three from the 1970s; four from the 1980s; one from the 1990s, and one from the 2000s. This probably reflects my own tastes and times, and how few contemporary movies I’ve watched – or want to watch.
So, what is my criteria for a favourite movie? Not genre or period, obviously. Directors or actors? Two star Cary Grant; two star Humphrey Bogart; four are Alfred Hitchcock movies; two are Jean-Luc Godard movies; one is German (Fritz Lang’s Metropolis); four are French (two being the Godard movies); one is Spanish; one is Russian; two are by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, although in English. Three star Michael Caine, two feature Grace Kelly, one stars Kathleen Turner. Nine are British (if sometimes financed with American money, like Gambit); seven are in black and white. Twenty are American, with – in the majority – action actually taking place in the USA. Of the total, one was itself a remake (the 1941 The Maltese Falcon), ten others have been subsequently remade – all quite inferior to the original – or as a stage musical (Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s version of Sunset Boulevard), or had sequels made – Psycho, Emmanuelle, Romancing the Stone. There are no Westerns or war movies. This reflects watching a glut of both genre throughout my childhood and teens, on television or movies. Of war films, I personally enjoyed the authenticity of The Battle of the River Plate (1956, US title Pursuit of the Graf Spee); and I was impressed by Sean Connery in The Hill (1965), a tight little drama set in a British Army detention camp for British soldiers in North Africa. The gung-ho war movies never did anything for me. The anti-war movies, like Oh, What a Lovely War! (1969), or historical war movies, like The Charge of the Light Brigade, were either preaching pacifism to the converted, or simply enjoyable costume romps, little else. Likewise, there are no slapstick comedies – not even Laurie and Hardy or the Marx Brothers, certainly not Charlie Chaplin, who I rate below that of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. But I’ve seen their movies so long ago, I have no vivid memories of them now, while, as much as I enjoyed those old Hammer Film movies with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, there are no horror movies other than The Devil Rides Out, unless, again, you count Hitchcock’s Psycho. Again, I’ve never really liked the gory horror genre. I’m not fond of ‘preachy’ movies, trying to indoctrinate my thought, and while there can often be a good incentive to movies that bring us face to face with social criticism or protest – anti-war, environmental, corruption, greed, human cruelty, violence against women or minorities, miscarriages of justice, etc., all worthy subjects to be sure – they are not something I want to dwell on continually. I can get reality by turning on the television news each day, or reading the newspapers or news websites. I have plenty of books on politics, history, predicting the future, warning of the damage we are doing to the planet and ourselves, but I need escapism from that also.
While a number of my favourite movies have been adapted from novels or short stories, I have not read the originals to judge, other than Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out. Things to Come bore almost no resemblance to the H.G. Wells’ book The Shape of Things to Come, which was a rather boring, rambling tome of no great merit. On the whole, the more you love the book, the less you probably like the movie version. Of the three early Len Deighton spy thrillers, for instance – The Ipcress File (1965), Funeral in Berlin (1966), and Billion Dollar Brain (1967, this by Ken Russell) – they worked reasonably well as movies, but left so much out, and simplified virtually everything else, that it might have been better to have simply written completely new stories. Again, of the two movie versions of George Orwell’s masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1956 and 1984), the first was ghastly, totally and utterly wrong in both its fake science fiction-like setting, and beefy, too-well-fed Edmond O’Brian as Winston Smith. The later movie did a better job of depicting Orwell’s dystopia within period and place, as a logical extension from the 1940s immediate post-Second World War/early Cold War time-line in which Orwell wrote the novel, and John Hurt as Winston Smith was suitable gaunt and traumatised, while Richard Burton (in one of his last roles) was creepily persuasive as O’Brian (fellow Welshman Anthony Hopkins would have been equally perfect), but it was then messed up with inappropriate pop music, and strange, rather illogical minor changes, such as replacing the non-gender ‘comrade’ with ‘brother/sister’ – totally wrong! So the first, I hated. The second, I found myself disappointed.
While there are plenty of good movies, of all genres, I have watched and enjoyed – inevitably some more so than others – this is all something of a detour, as to what exactly is the criteria of my favourite movies. Exceptional stories or well-written scripts come high on the list, together with good actors, and good directors. But I guess the ultimate criteria is – do I still enjoy this movie, and would I want to see it again, even again and again. All forty of my favourites fall, in varying degrees, into that category. Some, alas, I have only gotten to see once – Stalker, for example, or (as far as I can recollect) Emmanuelle. Others more than once. But all I would happily watch and enjoy again. That to me is the essence of the films I really like, rather than the films one ought to watch, like Catch-22, or Alien, or Apocalypse Now, or The Terminator. These are my choices because they are good stories, well scripted, well-acted, memorable imaginary, or just plain fun.

01 - Metropolis

1: METROPOLIS : 1927. Director: Fritz Lang. Germany. Science fiction. Pre-Talkie. Gustav Fröhlich. Alfred Abel. Rudolf Klein-Rogge. Brigitte Helm.
From a screenplay by Fritz Lang and his then wife Thea von Harbou, who subsequently published the story in novel form, this starred Abel (a stage actor who had worked with Lang on the Dr Mabuse movies) as Jon Frederson, ‘Master of Metropolis’; Fröhlich (whose background was vaudeville) as his son Freder; Klein-Rogge (Thea von Harbou’s ex-husband) as mad scientist Rotwang; and a young, 18-year-old Brigitte Helm in her first film dual role as the saintly Maria/evil Maschinenmensch or robot ‘false’ Maria. The art directors were Otto Hunte and Erich Kettelhut, and special effects by Eugen Schüfftan. It cost 5.3million Reichmarks (about 38million euros in today’s money), three times the original budget, but was a financial flop, grossing only 75,000 Reichmarks at the box office, and nearly bankrupting the studio, Univerum Film AG. The original was 153 minutes, but the released 1927 version was 116 minutes. Subsequently there have been numerous versions over the years, including the 1984 version by Italian Giorgio Moroder; another version in 1987; the ‘authorised’ ‘reconstruction’ in 2001, but the final – some say, definitive – ‘complete’ version was in 2010, restored to 148 minutes. Both at the time of its release, and since, opinions and reviews have been mixed. H.G. Wells called it “silly” and the story “naïve” – however, his own venture in science fiction movie-making, with Things to Come, in 1936, was equally silly and simplistic. Others criticized it as “trite”, “ludicrously simplistic”, and “unconvincing and overlong”. Apparently there were “many rewrites”, and Lang later claimed he “detested it” when it was finished, and subsequently disassociated himself from the script, especially after divorcing Thea von Harbou in 1933, before he emigrated to the USA. This was perhaps rather unfair. The two had worked together on a number of outstanding, memorable movie projects, although Thea von Harbou’s outstanding contributions were often uncredited. They were both perhaps larger than life characters – worthy of a biopic – and very much products of their time and place. Friedrich Christian Anton ‘Fritz’ Lang (1890-1976) was born in Vienna, of a Catholic father and Jewish mother who converted to Catholicism. His upbringing was Catholic, although he later became an atheist. As a German-speaking Austrian he fought on the Russian and Romanian front during the First World War, were he was wounded four times, as well as losing the sight of one eye. Later dabbed the “Master of Darkness”, he was originally of the Expressionist School of arts and movie-making. He met the novelist, director and actress Thea Gabriele von Harbou (1888-1954) in 1920. At that time she was still married to Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who she had meet in 1906 and married in 1914. They divorced in 1920 and she married Lang in 1922, after the death of Lang’s first (Jewish) wife, in rather mysterious circumstances, apparently suicide, in 1921. Together they co-wrote the Dr Mabuse trilogy, Dr Mabuse, der Speler (1922), and the other great movie classic Lang alone gets credited for, M (1931), starring Peter Lorre, about a child murderer, based on the real-live case of Peter Kürten, the so-called ‘Monster of Düsseldorf’. Thea, at this time, was said to be well-liked, and a highly motivated “creative force”. However, despite their successful working partnership, and the outward appearance of a happy marriage, almost straightway Lang had numerous affairs with younger women, but things finally came to head between them when he found Thea in bed with a much younger Indian journalist and student, Ayi Tendulkov (1904-1975), who she later married. Both Goebbels and Hitler liked Metropolis, and, in 1933, Goebbels attempted to persuade Lang to continue to make films in Germany – this despite Lang’s Jewish background, and his growing dislike of the new Nazi regime. Thea, however – always fascinated by epic myths and nationalist legends – embraced the National Socialist ideology and became a card-carrying Nazi Party member – this, too, despite being then married to Indian-born Tendulkov. Lang continued his movie career in Hollywood, initially working for MGM, and perhaps his most famous American film was the rather brutal police drama Big Heat (1953), starring Lee Marvin.
As a director, he was something of a harsh taskmaster, hard to work with, with a reputation as a “tyrannical German”, a stereotype he apparently was happy with – he even, at one time, wore a monocle to fit the image!
Lang confessed one of his inspirations for Metropolis was when he visited New York in 1924, but there are also Biblical influences, references to the Tower of Babel, Helm’s evil, ‘false’ Maria as the Whore of Babylon, and the flood scenes. The movie was shot in 17 months throughout 1925/26, over 310 days and 60 nights, and – with Lang’s harsh work ethic and perfection for endless retakes – was a daunting experience for the actors and supporting cast member alike, especially so for Brigitte Helm, who spent many uncomfortable hours trapped in the ‘false Maria’ suit. Although in appearance metallic, it was constructed from plastic wood, which allowed movement, but was still rather rigid. It was designed by sculptor Walter Schulze-Mittendorff.
Apparently the message of the movie was “The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart.” A noble intention, perhaps, but in reality the movie is memorable not for the plot, or the characters (except perhaps the false Maria), but for its stunning imagery, visual effects, and huge set-pieces of the city itself. It is a milestone in both the history of dystopian science fiction and robotics, before even the expressions had been coined or taken root. The transformation of real Maria’s physical likeness to the robot Maria is still a spectacular cinematic tour de force, again ahead of its time in special effects. Likewise, there had been visual or descriptive images of futuristic cities before this time – from Frenchman Albert Robida’s playful drawings of 20th century Paris; to the gigantic, roofed-over London megacity of H.G. Wells’ novel The Sleeper Awakes; to the illustrations of the pre-First World War Italian Futurists, but Lang’s vision of the future would eventually take on a life of its own – greater than that of its creator or original intentions, and continue to influence movies, stories, comics, and music for countless decades to come.
For me, the greatest criticism of the movie is not the rather weak story of the central characters of Fredersen, Freder, Maria or Rotwang, but the absence of any real attempt to explain and rationalise the social structure, economics, or overall politics of Metropolis – the complete mismatch between the rather pointless, downtrodden, toiling masses in the city depths, and automobiles, aeroplanes and airships of the city above. Making Jon Fredersen the ‘master’ of Metropolis, elevated him to a status beyond his station. How was he the ‘master’? How did he exercise his rule? Even a dictator needs a council of governance, of public servants, a police chief, a civil service or police force to keep control. Perhaps it would have been better to have merely had Fredersen as just one of the many powerful magnates or oligarchs, and his story, therefore, just that of one individual family within the cogs of the Metropolis hierarchy – if with consequences that prove to be potentially disruptive to the overall civic order. I remember, many years ago, I read an English translation of the novel, but found it wanting, even in literary merit.
Finally there is the wonderful Brigitte Helm (1908-1996), born Brigitte Eva Gisela Schittenhelm, in her first movie role, undergoing torture to fulfil Lang’s vision, but delightfully sensual and expressive, able to vividly evoke, with poise and face, the contrast between the angelic Maria at one moment, with her wicked counterpart the next. In her subsequent brief movie career, she made another thirty films, before retiring in 1935, when she moved to Switzerland with her second husband, Dr Hugo Kunhelm (died 1986), who was of Jewish background. They had four children. Apparently she was considered for the title role of The Bride of Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff, but the part eventually went to Elsa Lanchester.
I had obviously seen one of the earlier versions at some time in the past, hence to have read the novel version. My 1988 notes, however, are about the semi-colourised Giorgio Moroder version with the contemporary musical soundtrack. Let’s not be too purist about this. While I would certainly cringe at an all-singing, all-dancing revamp of, say, Casablanca or The Italian Job, there already existed several versions of Lang’s Metropolis, none really as either he or Thea had originally envisaged. It was conceived as something of a myth, a parable or fairy story set in the distant future. How distant? Again, no one really knows for certain, possible dates vary from 2000 to the year 3000. Given that neither Lang or Thea are any longer with us to say otherwise, and the loose – even rather transcendental – nature of the plot narrative, the Moroder version is as good as any, and did at least make a then-60-year-old black and white silent movie relevant again for the modern audience.

My own commentary dated: 27/12/1988.
A remix of Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent classic Metropolis with a modern soundtrack, and as much of the original restored as could then be found. The American version was drastically cut (seven reels only out of seventeen) making nonsense of the continuity of the story. It is of course a parable about the conflict between capital and labour. The acting (as was normal for that period, and which seems so comic to us now) was stylised and over-dramatic, totally unrealistic, while the story itself is simplistic and naïve, and the ending unbelievable. Such an oppressed workforce would be inefficient (as the film demonstrates), and would need a police force and overseers to control it – which is absent. Personally I think Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes is a story influence here – had Lang [or Thea von Harbou] read that book, I wonder – the great city with its bridges and roadways and towering skyscrapers, and the hidden toiling downtrodden workers down in its depths, owes more to that book than to 1920s New York alone, while Rotwang’s house (“legend has it was built by a master wizard”) is straight out of Zamyatin’s We. And indeed the film lives because of the marvellous visual images of Metropolis; Rotwang’s laboratory; and the robot Maria; and the contrast with the hissing machines and the magnificent elegance and luxury of Frederson’s office and apartments. Brigitte Helm is outstanding as Maria – human and robot – her facial expressions capturing gentle saintliness, lust and pure evil brilliantly, all without words or sound. A lot of modern actors and actresses could learn a lot from her. The modern soundtrack, using pop musicians and synthesizers, is extremely successful, very cleverly and subtly evoking the mood and sounds of the screen images – Bonnie Tyler singing as the false Maria’s rhetoric stirs the workers to blind violence (a horrific prophecy of Hitler 20 years later) is brilliant and memorable. Even if the plot is feeble (Lang later blamed von Harbou, his wife at the time); or the acting (with the exception of Miss Helm) is wooden and overdramatic, even grotesque, still the huge sets and design work of the city takes the breath away – only Things to Come equals it in imagination, certainly until the Star Wars imaginary, and Blade Runner.
“Whenever things get humdrum, something comes along to stun: the huge furnace which turns into Moloch; the electronic transformation of the robot; the building of the Tower of Babel; the flood; and the city of the future.” – David Shipman, Story of the Cinema, Vol. 1.

Danger Man: s03 e13 – The Man Who Wouldn’t Talk


danger

I think it’s pretty clear by now that the third series of Danger Man doesn’t stand up to the second. There are far too many episodes that are poor or, in the case of ‘The Man Who Wouldn’t Talk’, just ordinary. Or, to be a little more specific, like the curate’s egg, in that there are some excellent moments in service of a standard Cold War plot, but in isolation, not strung together, as well as elements that are not properly integrated into the story.

This starts with the superficially clever open. A man sits in a passenger lounge at Istanbul Airport, fiddling with a transister radio. Drake arrives and sits down with a similar radio. These are walkie-talkies enabling the two to converse and brief the audience. Station Chief Meredith (Norman Rodway) has gone into Bulgaria to try to shore up his network there but has been captured and is enduring intense interrogation, of the flashing lights and sleep deprivation kind. Drake’s mission is to get him out of there. The other agent is confident Meredith won’t talk. Cynically, or rather realistically, Drake observes that he will. Sooner or later they all do.

So far, so good. A neat way of informing everyone what the episode’s to be. The touch that the agent can’t speak freely because he’s being shadowed is also clever, but the whole thing is over-egged when, after leaving Drake’s passport and papers as James Garnett, reporter, in a rubbish bin to be collected, the agent is followed outside, unto dark night streets, all shadow and treachery, the perfect spot for a blown agent to be killed – only he hides, surprises and knocks out his nemesis and disappears and that’s it, he’s gone from the story, without follow-up. The escape dangles.

The rest of the episode is set in Sofia, Communist Bulgaria, replete with all the mid-Sixties cliches that, from everything I understand about the period, were firmly based in reality. The waiter, Peter (Simon Brent), is part of Meredith’s network. He’s in it for the money, he’s an information peddler not an action man and he’s pretty bloody nervous, a weak reed that Drake scarcely trusts – he’s very much in grim cynic mode this week – but who is bullied into helping by being ready with a getaway car.

All this time we’re cutting to Meredith, in a turtleneck pullover, sweaty, unshaven, rocky, kept on his feet under flashing lights whilst an interrogator drones on repetitively. Rodway doesn’t have much to work with, no dialogue and a static role, but he does a good job of convincing us of the determination by which he’s resisting being broken.

And we have that staple of the era, the over-helpful local guide. This is the only way we’re going to get a female presence into this overtly masculine episode, and it’s the delightful Jane Merrow, always a pleasure to see even when she’s being hampered by Communist country unflattering dresses with low hemlines – decidedly not Swinging – as Lydia Greshnova, guide, interpreter and all-round functionary who fills the foreign visitor’s every waking second with virtuous visits to practical developments demonstrating that the Communist system is vastly superior to the Capitalist one, and that the people are very happy.

Drake has no intention of spending even one minute on such activities and makes it plain in a manner that is less being unsubtle than waving a red flag (personally, if I had Jane Merrow haranguing me to spend the day following her around, I’d be there ten minutes before we were due to start but then I’m not an Agent of M9 operating in Opposition territory). It comes over as unwise: yes, Drake cannot spare any of the time but his mixture of directness and evasion might be calculated to arouse the semi-lovely Lydia’s suspicions, and it’s pound to a penny she’s damned smart because otherwise she wouldn’t be in this role.

Anyway, ingeniously, Drake invades Military Headquarters and escapes with the pretty much done-in Meredith, but the escape route, by garage owner Demeter (Mike Pratt in another supporting role) is initially closed off, forcing Drake to take Meredith back to his hotel and, with Peter’s still reluctant assistance, keeping him comfortable and concealed there whilst Drake unblocks the blockage (basically, Demeter, who’s in it for the cause not the money, has gotten scared of exposure, just like Peter, and is talked/threatened back into line).

So much of what follows, until Drake and Meredith get away, is almost bog-standard cat and mouse stuff that, whilst tense enough, is uninspired. Where the episode tries to rise above this is in showing the effects interrogation have had on Meredith. Having been tormented by flashing lights, the episode makes a point of surrounding Meredith with flashing lights, signs going on and off. You’re waiting for Meredith to kick off big time, but that’s mostly a tease. When it’s not, the programme allows the point to be blurred.

Meredith wakes up whilst Drake is gone. The hotel name is flashing on and off. He sees Peter watching him. The episode implies he kills the luckless Peter, and indeed his crumpled body is in the bottom of the wardrobe, to be seen impassively by Drake and later, her angry suspicions rising like Mont Blanc, by Lydia, just before Meredith grabs and gags her (notice it’s Rodway who gets to handle Merrow, not McGoohan). We’re meant to read this as Meredith being unreliable, suffering from paranoid fugues arising from his treatment, and indeed that’s consistent with the rest of his behaviour.

But the episode undermines itself by having Meredith state, with absolute conviction and confidence, that Peter was not one of his network but a plant, forced on Drake to monitor him. On any second watching I’d go with the intended realisation that Meredith is off his head but on first watching, eyes open and looking for twists, the manner of Meredith’s self-justification threw me into taking his claim as a potential reality.

So. Good bits and bad bits, and overall one of those episodes which crammed a long story into a short space, tricking you into thinking the conclusion must be close at hand when there’s fifteen minutes yet to go, which is never bad, but more and more as the series moves into its back half it’s getting easier to see what McGoohan was getting at when he walked off only two episodes into series 4. And I mean no disrespect to Danger Man if I say, thank Yog-Sotthoth that he did.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Knickerbockers’ ‘Lies’


Synchronicity is not just the title of an old Police album. Synchronicity is coincidence wearing its Sunday best clothes. This is a tale of synchronicity.
Back in the mid-Seventies, in those mid-decade dog days when music was still dominated by prog rock titans who thought nothing of taking four years off and expecting the fans just to hang about patiently for them, when acts like Rod Stewart, The Electric Light Orchestra and Leo Sayer set out to vacuum pack their recordings with an over-production that squeezed out all the air, not to mention the energy, when punk was only just beginning to take things that little bit further than pub-rock, it got pretty damned boring.
So much so that the New Musical Express, my rock-weekly of choice, started inventing albums to review.
What they would do would be to construct imaginary compilations, taking the tracks from the back catalogue of specific Record Labels (so that the actual record could, if any bright A&M man cottoned on, be summoned into real-life existence.)
Inevitably, the focus was on bands and songs who hadn’t had a famous career, or unsuccessful but more interesting follow-ups to one hit wonders. In short, something with a bit of liveliness, and energy to it, much more so than the wilted efforts of mid-Seventies commercial pop.
One of those uncompiled compilations introduced me, in writing at least, to ‘Lies’ by The Knickerbockers, an American band, a garage band, with a single from 1966.
‘Garage-bands’ were bands more often marked by enthusiasm than talent. They were basic line-ups, guitar, bass, drums, who got their name because one guy’s dad let them practice in his garage, in the hope of getting some local gigs and building from there. And the name of the game was sounding like the British. Short, sharp songs, played with vigour, trying to emulate the British invasion led by The Beatles. And if you could sound like John Lennon, that was a real coup.
What made whichever NME writer putting this collection together select ‘Lies’ was the fact that here was a band who succeeded beyond everybody’s wildest dreams. The singer of this band sounded as if he was John Lennon, right down to the exact degree of nasality. Apparently, the writer suggested you could slip this track into Beatles for Sale without anyone noticing.
That was high praise and it caused me great intrigue. But this was 1976. Short of amazing luck on Shudehill Record Stalls, getting to hear obscure singles by unknown American bands that may never have even been released in Britain was as close to impossible as made no difference.
When it came to my daily music, I had, since 2 April 1974, devoted my time to Manchester’s commercial station, Piccadilly Radio, 261m on the Medium Wave Band. Amazingly, that far back Commercial radio, or Piccadilly 261 at any rate, was far hipper, cooler and musically forward-looking than Radio 1. I particularly loved the evening show, hosted by the abrasive but intelligent James Stannage, Monday to Friday, 11.00pm to 2.00am. First my University course committed me to no lectures earlier than 10.00am, and none at all on Wednesdays. Then I moved on to a six month professional exam course that meant I had to be ready to be collected for the lectures at 12.45pm. Ideal conditions for sitting up to 2.00am, every night.
Thanks to, primarily, Stannage’s show, I heard a lot of mid-Seventies bands with singles that attracted me: Sugarloaf, Starbuck, Orleans, Firefall. I also heard an eclectic mix of oldies. One night, not much more than a fortnight after reading about The Knickerbockers, Stannage announced that he would be playing ‘Martian Hop’ by The Randells, a real little weirdie. I pressed the record button on my reel-to-reel tape recorder and sat back to enjoy it.
As it reached the end, and before I could jump in to stop the recording, Stannage segued ‘Martian Hop’ into another song. It shot out in a burst of guitar/bass/drum energy with the word ‘Lies’ in a great John Lennon-esque nasal scouse voice. I couldn’t believe it: it was The Knickerbockers. And so soon after I’d only just heard of it.
Synchronicity.
I listened to the song with amazement and glee, and very rapidly concluded that the NME had been absolutely spot on. I wouldn’t go so far as to say you could slip the whole thing into a Beatles album just like that: there was a rawness and raucousness to the sound that didn’t sit well alongside The Beatles’ polished and jangly guitar sounds.
But that was as Lennon as Lennon can be, and the song had a great simplicity to it, and a propulsive energy to it that gripped your ears. And I now had it on tape to replay and re-relish as often as I wanted.
Now, I can look such things up on YouTube just as soon as I hear of then, with a 98% certainty of being able to find the record. And I can find out now that The Beatles liked ‘Lies’ and claimed The Knickerbockers sounded more like them than they did.
Naturally, the band couldn’t do it twice, but sometimes once is all you need. They caught lightning in a bottle: no shame in not being able to repeat that.

Film 2021: Silent Running


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Douglas Trumbull was the Special Effects Director on Stanley Kubrik’s legendary 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1979. Kubrik’s original vision for the film involved a setting against the backdrop of Saturn, not Jupiter, and a journey through its rings, but the sequence could not be completed within the time available to make the film, so the Stargate sequence was substituted for it. In 1971, Trumbull made his directorial debut with Silent Running, an SF film with a strong ecological bent and a rather more limited, all of which was seen on the screen, which starred Bruce Dern in what was almost a singlre-hander, which finally employed his Saturn Rings sequence.

I can’t remember when I first saw this film. I have a vague memory of seeing in a cinema once but i was most likely to have first been exposed to it on television, sometime in the Seventies. The cinema seeing may have been because of the successful 1979 re-issue of 2001 (which was definitely the first time I saw that, on the kind of giant screen that no longer exists, which was spectacularly the best way to see it). I’m semi-comvinced that Silent Running was re-issued to cash in on the new wave of interest in SF films.

However it came about, for a long time I preferred Silent Running to 2001, an opinion that is self-evidently as nutso as Bruce Dern, as Freeman Lovell. Watching it this morning, for the first time in a couple of decades, I’m struck more by the film’s inadequacies than any of the elements that enthralled me in my early twenties. The underlying set-up will be immediately familiar to anyone who knows WALL-E: in a future of undefined centuries ahead, yet feeling ineradicably early Seventies, Earth has become a processed and regularised planet. Everything natural has been stripped clean from the planet, as unnecessary. But plants, forests, animals, these have been rescued by being transferred into geodesic domes, maintained by a flet of American spaceships, out by the orbit of Saturn. There, a dedicated team maintain the forests against the day when they can be brought to Earth and the planet re-seeded.

It’s a noble theme, indeed something of an advanced one for 1971, though immediately I’m asking questions about the technicalities of the process, the economic investment and the need to have taken all this stuff another 1.3 billion miles away from the Sun to park it. But it’s undermined instantly by the choice of Dern, an actor capable of great intensity in everything he does (and father of Laura), to play Lowell. Dern was cast against type, in that his usual metier was playing villains, and though he does a good job of being the good guy here, his role as an instantly identifiable fanatic instantly casts ecology as an extremist position. It interjects a note of crudity that a film, with so much of its restricted budget earmarked for Special Effects, can’t really afford.

Lowell believes utterly in what they are doing, in nature, beauty and authenticity. His three crewmates are all good ol’ American boys who couldn’t give a shit. When the order comes up from Earth to shut the Project down and bombblast the domes (why? are they afraid that the Godless commies in this devotedly equalised planet will sneak out behind their backs and steal them?) they’re only too glad to do so. However, Lowell can only take so much of it, kills all three and, pretending to a premature explosion wrecking the ship, steers it through Satuern’s rings and out into the darkness beyond, the forest preseved to be maintained by him and three cute maintenance driods (rapidly reduced to two when the third is blown off the ship during the Ring transit).

These drones become Lowell’s only companions throughout the film’s middle section and beyond. I’m no longer quite so amused by his decision to re-name them Huey and Dewey (with the lost one being posthumously entitled Louie – anyone who dorsn’t get why is summarily banned from the trest of this post), or his decision to teach them card games so he can beat the at Poker. In fact, this is the film drifting rather alarmingly, because the situation is built for drifting. It’s the same as Hull & Whitlock’s Escape to Persia: running away is all very well but after you’re got to Away, you need to have something to do.

That doesn’t come until the needle is located in the haystack. Improbably by an enormous magnitude, the command ship has found Valley Forge and is coming to rescue Lowell, leading inevitably to discoveries he doesn’t want them to discover. But we need a climax. The forest is failing. Lowell’s desperate actions have led only to failure. He doesn’t know how to save it. Until a chance word from his rescuers about the darkness behind the planet… Yes, our ecological expert and fanatic has rather conveniently forgotten that plants need sunlight. You see, I didn’t ask that question about why Saturn just at random, now.

By now we’re down to one fully-functioning droid, so the ending is the forest dome being jettisoned to sail through space unhindered, attended by Dewey, whilst Lowell calmly collects all the remaining bombs to blow up the ship, Huey and himself before anyone finds out, and leaves us with a cutesie image of the droid watering the plants out of a child’s decorated watering can (what, they’ve forgotten hoses and sprinklers in the Twenty-what-h Century?)

What we have here is a serious film on an important and then-underappreciated theme, an SF story that tries to substantially subordinate itself to human concerns and an individual’s needs, a downbeat experience predicated on loss on more than just an individual level, in short, an intelligent and worthy film that is fatally flawed by sloppy and ill-practiced writing. In the end, like many a CGI-constructed movie of the Twenty-first story, it is the effects that end up being the most consistently impressive, even if they do borrow heavily from the iconography of the eaerlier, and better film.

It might be worth looking at a remalke of Silent Running, one with modern effects and with the lighting turned up a notch of few more – the film is not helped by being so dark 70% of the time that you have to squint to make out what you’re seeing – but the plot would need such a radical re-working to make it begin to work that whoever might consider this would be better off writing their own film from scratch.

Infantino’s Follies 1: First Issue Special


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Back when I was writing about Showcase, I made the mistake of calling the mid-Seventies short series First Issue Special, which appeared round about the same time I was paying attention to comics again, a modern-day equivalent to DC’s longstanding try-out magazine.
I have now discovered that I was exactly wrong about that. First Issue Special was the brainchild of DC Editorial Director turned Publisher, former star artist Carmine Infantino, who conceived of it as exactly what it said in the title: an ongoing series of first issues, without the intent to run these as potential series.
At first sight, Infantino’s concept seems to have a spurious logic to it. This is the Age of the Collector, and there is nothing more Collectors like than a brand spanking no. 1 issue, to sell at a vastly inflated mark-up to readers excited by the series and eager to fill the most important gap in their longboxes.
But more than ten seconds thought is enough to identify the fatal flaws in the concept. Firstly, that a character created to appear only once and never again is highly unlikely – especially at the rates paid to writers and artists in the mid-Seventies – to have any of the depth or potential to attract readers with the required degree of passion. Secondly, that collectors only want to buy rare and precious no. 1s if there are actually nos. 2,3,4 etc. for them to get hooked upon. And thirdly, if a character proved to be improbably attractive to the readers, by the time you counted the returns and found you’d got an actual hit on your hands, six months or so had gone past, taking with it any momentum the character might possibly have carried with them.
Among the many bizarre and inexplicable decisions made by Infantino in that awful early to mid-Seventies period, First Issue Special must stand out as one of the most kack-handed of them all. The series consisted of thirteen issues, some of which being of quite high-quality, and one of which introducing a character who, a couple of decades later, came to play a substantial role in the DC Universe.
Now I, in my insatiable curiosity, have obtained a run of the series, and you are going to have to listen to what I’ve found out.
Almost inevitably, the first feature was Atlas, by Jack Kirby: who else but comics’ premier creation-machine? Atlas was set in the past, and based on the Atlas of myth, who would one day bear the weight of the world on his shoulders. Kirby’s version, very much in keeping with the supermythical, larger-than-larger-than-life approach he’d adopted for the New Gods and would follow with the Eternals, was a young man of prodigious strength, seeking, and in this incomplete story finding, the man who had killed his father and taken his mother into slavery.
Like others in the series, what we got was half a story and the pretence of a willingness to continue it if the readers desired. Atlas was revived as a foe for Superman by James Robinson in 2008.
It was five years since the great ballyhoo about Kirby leaving Marvel for DC, a contract negotiated by Infantino which, in the great old tradition of Siegel and Schuster, DC reneged upon in every possible aspect just as soon as they’d got him in the door. His five years were nearly up: despite his Fourth World titles, centring upon Darkseid, he’d never fitted into DC, primarily because DC had no intention of bending one iota to accommodate him and all the things he could have done. His contract would not be renewed, and he would return to Marvel in 1976 because he had nowhere to go. The Fourth World series had all been cancelled, The Demon hadn’t taken off, Kamandi, which he’d never intended to continue after two or three establishing issues, was cranking along. Things like Atlas helped fulfil his page quotas. There are times when you really, really wish people weren’t so fucking short-sighted.
Appropriately, the subjects of issue 2 were created by Kirby’s old partner, Joe Simon. This was The Green Team, sub-titled Boy Millionaires. It was a good thing it was only designed for one issue because it didn’t even merit that much exposure, though Simon clearly saw it as a viable series, God knows why. It was actually scheduled as a series and two issues prepared but the world was spared when it became one of the many unpublished comics sunk by the DC Implosion (which wasn’t all that bad after all, it seems).
The Green Team was yet another Simon/Kirby four piece kid gang, but one that showed that the well of inspiration was dry and stinking. The Green Team were four boy magnates whose membership qualification was having $1,000,000. They consisted of Commodore Murphy, shipping magnate, JP Huston, oil baron and Cecil Sunbeam, aka ‘Starmaker’, Hollywood film director. Oh, and Abdul Smith, black shoeshine boy, who got in when his bank made a computer error and added $5 of savings millions of times.
The boys were eager to fund exciting and innovative things. If this was such a good concept, why did Simon have to use up space by having five splash pages?
On the basis that no idea is so bad DC won’t try to revive it, especially during the New 52, the Green Team were retconned after Flashpoint. I doubt the effort was worth it.
Next up, for issue 3, was an idea that had nothing new about it at all, a one-off revival of Metamorpho: but it was a 1st Issue. It came about because Metamorpho’s creators, writer Bob Haney and artist Ramona Fradon, met for the first time at the 1974 San Diego Comics Convention. Reminiscing about the Element Man, both agreed they’d never had so much fun as when working on that title and wanted to repeat it: it filled an issue as far as Infantino was concerned.
I never read Metamorpho in the Sixties, and haven’t got round to catching up on it yet. So don’t ask me how it compares, but this one was a hoot. Haney and Fradon are having a whale of a time and if this was their general standard back then, I’m looking forward to reading that series. This was bouncy, fast, action-oriented but still with time for more characterisation than a year of Haney’s Brave and Bold’s.
Issue 4 was a Robert Kanigher creation, Lady Cop. Kanigher can be very professional or completely maniacal but as he wasn’t on a superhero, there was a reasonable chance of the former. Yes, and no. There was nothing egregiously stupid about the issue, and he was professional enough to set up an ongoing theme if the idea had ever been taken up.
Liza Warner is a blond secretary who cowers under her bed in fear whilst a serial killer, identifiable only by his cowboy boots, strangles her flatmates. After being praised for her precise recollection, Liza joins the Police force, though why she has to undergo training is the usual mystery because naturally she’s the perfect cop on her first day. Her boy friend doesn’t want her to be a working girl and will she ever forget the man who killed her flatmates, or find him and punish him? The art by John Rosenberger was unspeakably stiff and dull.
Liza was brought back post-Final Crisis to appear in two issues of the Ryan Choi run as The Atom, as the Ivy Town Chief of Police.

1st Dingbats

Jack Kirby supplied two more ideas, to wildly contrasting effect, for issues 5 and 6. The first of these was Manhunter. In the Forties, he and Joe Simon had created a character called Manhunter, big game hunter Paul Kirk, hunting the world’s most dangerous game, man, in a red costume with a blue full-face mask. This Paul Kirk had been transformed superbly only the previous year by Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson.
Now Kirby adapted the same Manhunter costume to his present day style to create a warrior for justice, a Lion of the Shan, an organisation that always got its man. But the last Manhunter is growing old and needs a replacement, who is found in Public Defender Mark Shaw, whose name ought to be familiar. Shaw went into training to be worthy of the Manhunter’s electro-baton, not just his costume.
Kirby’s effort was again only half a story, however, with Manhunter setting out to bring down the big boss, The Hog. It hung in the air, never to be completed, because by the time Mark Shaw and Manhunter returned, the Hog was forgotten and Shaw was Manhunter. He was revived by Steve Engelhart for his first, year-long run on Justice League of America, initially as Manhunter and then as The Privateer. And Engelhart tied the Manhunters to the Guardians of the Universe, as the first Police Force, android pursuers pre-dating the Green Lantern Corps, corrupted by their own self-righteous sense of mission.
Kirby’s incomplete Manhunter tale is perhaps one of the smallest acorns planted by him to give rise to an oak of a concept, which DC has exploited many times since, but in comparison to issue 6’s Dingbats of Danger Street, it’s the Fourth World.
Simon and Kirby used to own the boy’s gang comics. The Dingbats were evidence not so much that the well had run dry as that it had been filled-in and concreted over with something the height of the World Trade Towers. Just the names – Good Looks, Non-Fat, Krunch and Bananas – and the villain The Gasser. At least this was a complete story, for a given value of complete.
Another existing character was revived for a one-shot next, Steve Ditko’s classic, The Creeper, with pencils by Ditko again, although the story came from Michael Fleisher.
As Ditko no longer inked himself, he was paired with Mike Royer, Jack Kirby’s latter-day inker, though Royer’s slavish devotion to the pencils did Ditko no favours. Ditko’s story-telling was as concentrated as ever but Fleisher couldn’t come up with anything more inspiring than one of Batman’s old Fifties villains, The Firefly, who was surely poor for that era to begin with. A first solo appearance in six years did spark a few guest shots but The Creeper has never been able to rise above cult interest.
Issue 8 provided something different, a feature that actually became a series. This was Mike Grell’s Warlord, Travis Morgan, who had been intended for a series all along and whose debut in First Issue Special was just to save anyone from coming up with a character for another month. This was one of only two First Issue Specials I bought in that 1975-6 period, and a lot of it is vaguely familiar, though I still find Mike Grell’s art to be awfully plastic and his poses unnaturalistic.
Warlord was plugged to start its own series two months later and it and Travis Morgan would be longstanding successes, as well as the basis of a long career for Grell. It’s based on the Hollow Earth theory as utilised by Edgar Rice Burroughs for Pellucidar. Here, Air Force pilot Travis Morgan, fleeing from Russian pursuit, unknowingly flies through the hole at the North Pole into barbarian adventures in the land of Skartaris.
A lot of people liked it, tremendously. After about seven issues of the series, I decided it was not for me, due to a lack of direction and muddledness about the stories.

1st Dr Fate

Issue 9 was the only other comic of the series that I bought, and it is still one of my favourite issues of the Seventies. It featured Doctor Fate, long a favourite from the JSA, drawn in bravura fashion by Walt Simonson and featuring a reconceptualisation of the character that formed the basis of his portrayal for decades to come, by Martin Pasko. It was also the Doc’s first full-length adventure.
It’s still a real dynamite story, with fun-filled and fast-paced art from Simonson, but it’s significance is as the foundation of the modern-day Fate. Pasko entwined the Doctor’s abilities with the Egyptian gods and magic, fitting for Kent Nelson’s origins, and also introduced the notion that Kent Nelson and Doctor Fate were separate entities, with the later possessing the former’s body when he donned the helmet. Pasko also followed through on the logic of Inza Nelson, loving Kent, having difficulties with the unconnected Doc and what he did to her husband.
So much achieved in just one seventeen page story. A much treasured comic.
Next up, in issue 10, were the Outsiders. No, not Batman’s renegade team nor any forerunner of them, but an horrendous and inept bodge that purported to send a message of tolerance and respect for anyone who looked different, but which was buried under deliberately rancid and exaggerated art. This was another Joe Simon idea and it’s hard to know how to describe it without defamatory words. The Outsiders were a team of literal, and deliberate freaks, designed to be as repulsive as possible, and the story wasn’t a story but a circular confusion whose last page led you back to its first page so that it disappeared up its own… tail. Pass on, rapidly.
In contrast, Codename: the Assassin failed for a much more ordinary reason, terminal dullness. A Gerry Conway creation, with co-scripting by Steve Skeates, The Assassin was intended as an ongoing series, and had been billed as such in a house ad concerning titles coming from Conway’s little editorial stable. It’s a rip-off of Conway’s Punisher, with added telekinetic powers, and like Kirby’s Manhunter it’s half a story, ending on a cliffhanger with The Assassin about to fight two equally cliched supervillains.
Artwise, the style is horribly confused. Infantino designed the Assassin’s costume but it’s far from his better work. For economies’ sake, the art was given to Nestor Redondo in the Philippines, because he had never done superhero work before but, because he had never done superhero work before, it was handed to Al Milgrom to ink, and his heavy-handed style obliterates any trace of Redondo and makes the whole thing just look downright ugly.
In many ways, the penultimate issue, featuring a new Starman, again by Gerry Conway, sums up First Issue Special. Yet again it’s a cliffhanger, and yet again there was never any intention of resolving it. It’s Conway’s comments that I’ve relied upon in characterising this series as I did: he has been quoted as quoting Infantino soliciting ideas for next month’s First Issue Special, and complaining about how any even borderline-decent character could be created in such circumstances: barely any notice and as cannon-fodder.
Conway clearly didn’t put much effort into Starman. Allegedly, he was impressed by some mid-Sixties appearances of the Ted Knight version without, at the time, connecting him to the Golden Age version for which he had little but disdain. But then sloppiness and lazy plotting has been a hallmark of Conway’s superhero work since way back. This Starman is, naturally, the Mikaal Tomas version picked up and made into a much more viable character by James Robinson, to Conway’s latterday amusement, and general inability to understand why anyone should want to bother with a throwaway idea like that. That rather epitomises Conway for me.
And he was there again for the last of the series, Return of the New Gods. It was the first time anyone had tackled Jack Kirby’s Fourth World characters since their various series had been cancelled and neither Conway nor artists Mike Vosburg were up to it. Conway introduced a new, conventional superhero costume for Orion and converted the series into a standard slam-bang attack by Orion, out to kill Darkseid. He over-egged the pudding by chucking in practically everyone, whether they did anything or not, and ended it with a stalemate. At least the story was complete.
Conway hoped for a series, which he got a year later, once Jeanette Kahn had taken over as Publisher. Afterwards, he regretted that the finale he produced – killing off Darkseid – was inadequate (didn’t stop him doing it again and again) without recognising that his determination to press the New Gods into a superhero mould was inadequate to start with.
But there it was. Issue 14 was to have featured the first full-length Green Arrow/Black Canary story but that, and any others ready to appear – of which I doubt there were any – would be distributed around their own series and back-ups: I cannot recall seeing the GA/BC story then or after, so who knows?
So that was First Issue Special. It had some bright spots and, on the age old principle that there is no such thing as a bad character (except for the Outsiders. And the Dingbats), some of the characters created as Infantino’s folly went on to better things in other people’s hands. Me, I forgive it all for Marty Pasko and Walt Simonson’s Doctor Fate which, in my opinion, justified the whole blinking lot of it!

1st starman

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: e01 – The Friends of English Magic


JonathanStrangeMrNorrell_Large

Where do I begin?

That’s the first question anybody engaged in adapting a long and mysterious book into a visual form must ask themselves, and how they ask it and what is the selected answer goes a long way towards determining the success of the translation. The book of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, written by Susannah Clarke, is a lengthy volume, one that took me years to read, devoured in long chunks on train journeys where there was nothing easier to distract me.

The same thing goes for Peter Harness’s adaptation for the BBC, in seven hour-long episodes. Compression, visualisation and atmospherics. The first two of these belong to the tv series but the last is the key note of the novel, and it is the thing that musy be most carefully and accurately transferred, in order for things to work.

What we have here is a story about Magic, set during and influencing the Napoleonic Wars, most particularly that part of which was being conducted in Spain. The War is real, but this is not our England, as seen out of our (Nineteenth Century) windows, but another England, an England in which Magic exists, always has existed, was openly practiced and celebrated until about three hundred years ago, when it all seemed to vanish. Nevertheless, Magic remains a natural part of life, if not entirely Respectable. That is, Theoretical Magic, the study of the same, its History and its practitioners of old, is Respectable. A Practical Magician is beyond the pale, no better that a street conjurer, a charlatan and a vagabond.

Susannah Clarke can establish a world like this beautifully, by writing in an archaic, formal style that conjures up atmosphere by itself, but which is bonded to an absolute conviction about the fantastic world she is creating and makes it not just believable but completely natural. She’s got the infinite power of words and 800 plus pages of them. Unless he wants to regurgitate great chunks of the novel to spoonfeed the audience, Harness has to find a way to convey all that, literally in front of our very eyes.

So he sets about building this by some abslutely masterful set design, which flawlessly creates both look and feel of Georgian England, by intelligent use of the correct dialogue from the book, by a brilliant cast who are encouraged to centre their characters by means of their inherent energy of character and purpose, but most of all by trusting the audience to survive on Inference, not Implication, and working out what is going on for themselves without a Powerpoint presentation.

Like all first episodes, this is all about set-up. It has been long-prophecied, in one of the few Magic books not collected and hoarded by the reclusive Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan) at his home near York, where he is directed by his servant Childermass (Emzo Cilenti), that two Magicians will arise in England, that they will be enemies, but that they shall both fail. Mr Norrell is one such. He is a small, withdrawn man, with a strong streak of stubborn arrogance, who is determined to make Magic respectable in England, through the person of himself, rather than by its actual performance. Norrell can perform Magic. He induces the Society of Friends of Magic in York to cease to profess or name themselves as Magicians by causing half a hundred statues in York Minster to come to life, move and talk, all save Mr John Segundus, who believes in Norrell and will not commit himself.

Yet this feat is misrepresented in London, made a foolish lie by the leech-like Drawlight, who seeks reflected glory by introducing Norrell to Society and the performaance of tricks. Norrell has come to London for one purpose only, to assist his Government at War, but he is turned away, unkindly, by Minister of Defence Sir Walter Pole (Samuel West) and proposes to leave. He is accosted by the street-conjurer – and frequent drunk – Vinculus (Paul Kaye, splendidly OTT), who tells him there are two, not one Magicians.

And when Sir Walter’s fiancee, Charlotte (Alice Englert) dies of comsumption, Mr Morrell executes a dangerous bargain with The Gentleman with Thistledown Hair (Marc Warren) to restore her to life, although she loses a ginger in the process. It is a miracle, and we all know that miracles are not necessaril;y unalloyed blessings.

But this is only one of our two Magicians, even if he is the First, and has the lion’s share of screentime in this episode. Mr Norrell is an existing Magician, a man of middle years, a student of decades. Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) is a younger man, heir-in-waiting to a stern, bleak father, a man in love with Vicar’s sister Arabella (Charlotte Riley), who loves him back but won’t even listen to a marriage proposal because Jonathan is a man without occupation, veering dangerously close to being a wastrel, even after his father dies of an apoplexy.

But Jonathan, bright, cheerful, entertaining and almost silly, is the Second Magician, identified as such by Vinculus, sold penny spells that come from Norrell, and performing the one that sows him what his enemy is doing. That enemy is Norrell.

So certain building blocks are put in place, time is spent carefully and a structure of conviction and atmosphere is created before our very eyes. We know it’s all trickery but do we Know it? The next six weeks will tell us how long the spell can be maintained. And the damage it may do.

Of Once and Former Heroes: Dennis Wheatley, ‘Prince’ of Thriller Writers – Part 5 – Appraisal


Sometimes, things don’t go according to plan. This was supposed to be a short series of three posts: Introduction, Review, Appraisal, and this post would have been an excoriation of Dennis Wheatley, writer and Arch-Conservative, based on the consideration of a single book.
But a momentary impulse, answered by a synchronistic discovery, has led to a more substantial project. Instead of one, I have read four books, have been able to comment directly on more writings, and in doing so I’ve reduced the task for this final appraisal. Patterns of mind and habits of writing have been looked at in more depth: having jumped up and down on a few more books than I’d intended means I have less that needs to be said here.
It doesn’t make any difference that the four books I’ve reacquainted myself with are all from the same series, that of the Duc de Richleau, with and without his fellow ‘Modern Musketeers’. There were eleven de Richleau books in the series, three of which took Wheatley’s brand of Crowley-inspired Black Magic as their theme, so what I’ve read covers about a third of the series in more or less the correct proportion.
In addition to de Richleau. Wheatley also wrote two other lengthy series, featuring Roger Brook and Gregory Sallust respectively. Brook’s series, at twelve books marginally the longest, was straight historical fiction, covering the entire period of the French Revolution, from pre-Revolutionary France all the way to Waterloo. Brook is an unofficial British spy, under the direct orders of Prime Minister Pitt the Younger, who works his way up to become a close and trusted aide to Napoleon himself. Needless to say, Wheatley’s sympathies are firmly on the side of the aristos throughout.
The Sallust series, also of eleven books, is a bit harder to categorise. The heart of it is a seven book sequence covering the whole of the Second World War in which Sallust, a journalist, operates as an unofficial British spy against the Nazis. This run was preceded by a rather ridiculous book, extending the contemporary circumstances of the Great Depression into a future created out of all Wheatley’s prejudices, of a Communist-but-quasi-Fascist takeover, the rebellion of freedom fighters under Sallust and resolution occurring in the form of a restoration of the Monarchy. Post-War, so to speak, Sallust became just another globe-trotting Peter Pan hero, shagging strange woman and getting involved with Black Magic.
Sallust’s series, being set in contemporary times with modern weaponry to hand, was by some measure the most brutal of the three, with an underlying barbarity and sadistic grimness, which can be partially justified, I suppose, by being set in the Nazi period, and a response to their inhuman savagery, but it’s there in the first book, the embodiment of Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s claim that ‘Extremism in the defence of Liberty is no vice.’
But by now we’ve had fair exposure to Wheatley’s key characteristics, the most important of which is his Conservatism, served up with big and little ‘c’s. Wheatley, who had no upper class status or claims of his own, a Wine-seller whose business ineptitude brought the long-established family business to its knees, forcing him to turn to writing to keep a roof over his head, nevertheless believed in a stratified society, with a Monarch at the very pinnacle.
What followed was old-established aristocracy, who were the only and natural rulers, thanks to their centuries of experience of rule making them the only ones capable of the breadth of mind and knowledge to be wise, fair and just in leading their country. Then the rich, but not the crass, money-obsessed nouveau riche, who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.
To these were the privileges of rule reserved, with anyone else, meaning everybody lower in the social spectrum, being hopelessly inept through looking only to contemporary concerns instead of appreciating a true historical perspective formed over centuries.
And to these people, and these alone, were the privileges of life arrogated, for only they could appreciate them, not like the plebs, oiks and common scum beneath them (sorry, did I suddenly start getting too direct there?).
It covers the Modern Musketeers like a comfort blanket. The Duc, tenth of his line, connected to the monarchy of France, openly regretful that he cannot indulge his whims that display his wealth and status. Rex van Ryn, heir to a massive Banking fortune. Simon Aron (but dammit, the man’s a Jew!), financial genius. Richard Eaton, landed gentry. Neither privation nor Law apply to gentlemen of this caste, such things are for the lesser orders, who don’t matter, and who probably need such things to keep them in their place. Wheatley unashamedly boasted that, whilst engaged in Intelligence work in the Second World War, that he and his fellows wined and dined extravagantly as if Rationing didn’t apply to them, and it shouldn’t: after all, they were important.

Black August

As I said above, in the Sallust book, Black August, dear old Britain is truly up shit creek, its world as shattered and dangerous as any in a John Wyndham catastrophe novel, bt as soon as the Prince Regent tales over, all magically becomes well. A place for everybody and everybody in his place. And all the privileges belonging to the likes of the Duc and his acolytes, whose sophistication, intelligence, taste and their attachment to a stratified social system which cannot and must not be overthrown is self-evidently right.
Lacking any such qualifications himself, but clearly believing he was entitled to them, Wheatley was a classic case of a would-be hanger-on, elevating what he worshipped to not just an ideal but an inviolable state of nature.
The only time I saw actusally saw and heard him was a BBC TV interview late in his life. Here was an elderly buffer in a white smoking jacket with a self-important manner. All I can remember was his insistence that all rock’n’roll music was the work of the devil and that before they were released, Satanic priests were brought in to ‘bless’ the master tapes. Even now, and after being advised by someone in a position to know that there is far more of that in pop and rock than you’d ordinarily give credit for, and having had certain signs pointed out to me, I find it next to impossible to take his claims remotely seriously.
As I was still enjoying his writing, the interview was a bit of a balloon-pricker. Not too long after it began to dawn on me that Wheatley despised me: not personally, he despised all of us who were ordinary, or from working class backgrounds, and thought of us as ignorant and unwashed. Literally, in the case of his book, The Ka of Gifford Hillary.
Clever as it is on one, Magic oriented level, the book stinks for its attitudes. Hillary, a successful businessman, has re-married richer and younger and his snobbish second wife doesn’t like her stepdaughter, who lives a working class life. She doesn’t like the girl visiting at all, even before she and her friends have the temerity to try on some of wifey’s clothes. Then she goes incandescent. Daughter being working class and not bathing three or four times a day has sweated all over wifey’s clothes and they have to be thoroughly washed to remove the stink of working class bodies, and no doubt the lice as well.
And there’s a deeply unpleasant, voyeuristic scene where Hillary, who spends most of the book undergoing an out-of-body experience, watched his chauffeur in his bedroom and is condescendingly pitying towards the man over the fact that his working-class wife is flat-chested.
Which brings me to Wheatley’s attitude to women, which is simple: they are there to be screwed by the hero, sometimes in loving relationships, but always disposable. The hero ends the boom having got the girl but somehow or other she’s not there in the next book, so as to make room for him to set his cap for another conquest. Lady Felicity. Tanith. Angela Syveton, killed whilst pregnant by an anarchist’s bomb in the first chapter of the sequel to The Prisoner in the Mask. Ilona Theresa, marrying but soon to die of consumption.
Off the top of my head I can think of only three women who weren’t ditched or despatched in between books to give the hero someone new to defile, and these were Princess Marie Louise in the de Richleau’s, Lady Georgina in the Roger Brooks and Gregory Sallust’s fit blonde German shag-mate. Without looking this up, I can’t remember her name, but I vividly remember Wheatley repeatedly describing her as having breasts capable of fitting perfectly into vintage, balloon-like champagne glasses.
Which says it all, really.

Gifford

Very late in his career, indeed in his penultimate novel, Wheatley’s produced The Strange Case of Linda Lee, tackling the unusual subject of a young woman’s experiences in the late Sixties (hint, she screws her way to the top). Ian Fleming was criticised, then and since, for The Spy Who Loved Me, an offbeat James Bond novel that is told first person by a young woman whose path he crosses, criticised for his appallingly ignorant approach to seemingly incarnating a young woman. Wheatley makes him look like Margaret Atwood.
If you must read a Dennis Wheatley book, make it an early one (but not Three Inquisitive People, and I’d advise you miss out Such Power Is Dangerous too). These books at least have the advantage of freshness, and whilst the odd post-WW2 book has its moments – To the Devil a Daughter is perhaps the best – Wheatley starts to drown in horrific notions.
The political aspect gets more strident. Curtain of Fear stars a left-oriented teacher originally from Czechoslovakia, whose brother was a prominent scientist. Our teacher has an English girlfriend. At the start of the book they differ over what is most important: he is for liberty, equality and truth whilst she believes in God, the Queen and Britain.
This difference in attitudes threatens to break them up but he gets kidnapped back to Communist Czechoslovakia over the weekend, trying to stop his brother – a double agent? – defecting back there, sees Communism at first hand, escapes back in time for Monday and when he next sees his girlfriend, equality and liberty can go take a flying fuck, he’s a fully paid-up God, Queen and country man and they can marry and produce patriotic babies.
All sorts of shitty attitudes crop up. One latish novel is about a young man – inevitably called Benny – who’s a bit mentally, well, slow, and who violently rapes this pretty woman whilst she’s changing into her bathing costume because he thinks that’s what you should do. You’ll no doubt be stunned to learn that she’s completely fine with it and agrees to marry him.
There’s a comment elsewhere by the mother of a marriageable daughter, in casual conversation giving her opinion that rape is probably not as bad an experience as it’s made out to be because, after all, it’s usually the woman’s first experience of sex anyway.
And from start to finish, the writing itself, the choice of words and their yoking together in sentences, is at best undistinguished, but primarily flat and banal. Sentences are churned out with no thought for elegance or style but merely the conveying of fact. Dialogue is largely pointed and awkward. Everybody has their preset character and Wheatley is only concerned with having them talk up to what they are supposed to be.
Even as early as The Devil Rides Out there were phrases and paragraphs that will go on to be repeated interminably, like Rex’s exhortations about cocktails or Simon’s inability to correctly pronounce the word ‘No’ of all things, it coming out as ‘Ner’ because of his full-lipped Jewish mouth that he can’t close fully. I’ve already commented, in the book, about Richard’s pig-headed obsession with his luxurious food and drink, or more aptly given where his pettishness points, drink and food.
And, tying back into the class stratification, all this food is fresh, of the highest unadulterated quality and, it is heavily intimated, far too good for the common folk who would never appreciate it in the the first place (yeah, the snobs would get so far up my nose, I couldn’t appreciate the bouquet).
Save that the writer of children’s fiction is much more of an ordinary man whose concern lies with ordinary people than an aristocracy suck-up, there is no more subtlety in Wheatley than in Malcolm Saville’s Marston Baines books.

Linda Lee

In making Dennis Wheatley my first favourite adult writer, I was following in my father’s footsteps, both consciously and unconsciously. Of all the things I wish that I had had the chance to ask him, about his life and feelings and opinions, the one I miss asking the least is almost certainly, “What the Hell did you see in him?!”

Danger Man: s03 e12 – The Man on the Beach


danger

Much as I love Danger Man, both then and now, it’s becoming apparent that it’s third series – the second in the fifty minute format – has its fair share of episodes that fall short of the overall standards and I’m afraid that ‘The Man on the Beach’ is another one of those. It all goes to support Patrick McGoohan’s position when he left the show after two episodes of series four, claiming it had run out of good stories.

This latest episode, set in the West Indies, suffered from the lack of a cohesive story with a focussed sequence of events. Given how Danger Man used to provide tightly-organised plots, this is a serious let down. Drake, as John Drake, is introduced enjoying himself with sand, scenery, drinks and indolence, which is causing friction with his local superiors, Simon Howes, an irascible station head who is demanding he return to London, and his number two, Wykes (the very familiar Glyn Houston). Drake claims to be investigating CIT, whatever that is, whilst giving off the impression that he’s not putting in much effort, in order to extend hs holiday.

This very much gets up Wykes’ nose, but then Wykes is an officious little toerag to begin with. Drake’s real assignment, given him directly by Sir Alan Grose (David Hutcheson), to whom he reports on the beach, is to identify a double agent and it comes as no surprise that it should be Wykes.

But the story meanders. Drake has no discernible plan of investigation. He spends the first half of the story being stalked by the beautiful, slinky Cleo (the beautiful, slinky Barbara Steele), though her serious flirtatiousness runs up against McGoohan/Drake’s abrasion, although after a (studio) beach scene in which she’s wearing a backless swimsuit paired with thigh-revealing cycle shorts in which she reveals she’s married to one of the villains, she drops out of the story exactly as if she’s gone through a trapdoor.

But she’s set Drake up to appear, to Howes and Wykes, to be a double agent himself. Sir Alan has impressed upon him that the most important thing is that his presence in the Caribbean must be the deepest secret, but the momet he’s accused of treachery and threatened with arrest, Drake caves, gives up Sir Alan’s name and whereabouts and is left further up the creek when Grose’s hostess, the beautiful, cool blonde Lady Kilrush (the beautiful, cool blonde Juliet Harmer) denies even knowing him.

So, one slightly extended fight wrecking Howes’ secret office later, Drake flies to Grand Cayman but is refused entrance to the Kilrush hoiusehold. Wandering the beach, he gets involved with beach girl Mary Anne (Dolores Mantez), who is living with thug Lyle, who is working with Wykes.

Now, Mary Anne has a part to play, firstly confirming Sir Alan was staying with Lady Kilrush, after the Lady has denied even knowing him, then producing the abandoned belt from his beach robe, plus his mini-recorder later, as well as showing Drake where he can find the drowned body. But she’s just a plot convenience who doesn’t fit except as this tool. And she and the scripter beg the question of how Sir Alan, this senior andresourceful figure whose presence is known only to Drake, is identified, kidnapped and killed entirely offscreen, before Drake admits to his presence.

Once the robe belt is prduced, Lady Kilrush caves and admits everything. We can infer, from her reference to her husband – not here until next week – being a jealous man, that she’s been having fun to go with the sun, but she too is little more than a cypher. When Wykes turns up to arrest the clearly disturbed and dangerous Drake, who’s bleeding from a machete to the upper right arm that didn’t stop him defeating its weilder in a pond, she is ineffectual until Howes turns up in Wykes wake.

At which point, Drake stands up, silently plays a recording he’s made with the late Sir Alan’s marvellous mini-recoreder, of Wykes plotting to kill him, sadly incriminating or what, eh? At which point he keels over in a dead faint through loss of blood and we can go to Edwin Astley and the credits.

So, no. A badly constructed story whose plot elements were like the Curate’s egg of legend: good in parts but not enough to make up an actual egg. McGoohan must have had things like this in mind when he walked off to the Village of legend.