Danger Man: s03 e18 – The Hunting Party


Between last week and this, I’m starting to think there’s a correlation between the title of a Danger Man episode and its quality. ‘The Hunting Party’ promised a good, rock-solid story, and the episode delivered.

Unusually, the open focused upon Drake himself, in London traffic, attending the House of Lords, summoning a Lord to re-interview him on his contacts during a period when secrets were leaked. A similar tape, invcolving another suspect of previously irreproachable reputation provides the link. Both men deny discussing the subject under question at all, but both men have enjoyed the hospitality of Basil and Claudia johnson at their estate on the Loire, in France. Bing bing, bing bing, bing bing.

So, over the opening credits, Drake files to France, via the Lake District (don’t try to kid me that the skyline of the Langdale Pikes lies anywhere on a flight path from London to le continent) where we get our first glimpse of the Jordans: Claudia, the richest woman in the world, attractive but beginning to fade despite clothing by Christian Dior – seriously – waspish and emasculating, played by Moira Lister, and Basil, aging, a little slimy, a hanger-on kicking against the traces ineffectually, played by Denholm Elliot: we have top quality guest stars today.

The immediate question is how on Earth this pair ever married in the first place, but it’s not important: Lister and Elliot do enough with the script to convince us that here is a couple in whom love has long since died, leaving a bonding of spite on both sides, she for his living off her ample means, he for her directness in manipulating his strings.

Witness to this is their imperturbable butler, Ross (a cameo but an excellently grounded performance by John Welsh), Drake, using his own name, promptly hires him away, on generous terms, to become his manservant back in London, and offers himself as the new butler, a role for which he has expertise and experience: remember ‘No Marks for Servility’ in series 2?

Much of the episode is well-made but oplain. Drake oils around the chateau, paying close attention to Basil’s locked den (which contains his extensive Scalextrix racing track as well as some dubious looking phials of strange liquids) and plants bugs almost everywhere he goes. Mrs Jordan presides and don’t you know it, and its fun waiting for the moiment where she basically summons the handsome, athletic butler to satisfy needs that aren’t getting attended to by her lawfully wedded husband, mainly because she has too much contempt for him to ever let him see even her naked calf. Sadly, the episode ends without our seeing how Drake would have got himself out of that without being sacked on the spot.

Despite Claudia holding the purse-srtrings and being determined to ensure Drake is valid and not just another gold-digger, it is Basil who is the most discontented with Drake, as well he might be, for it is he who has secrets to hide. There’s an up-front tip in mid-episode, in a nasty exchange around the dinner-table, when a furious Basil shouts, “You know, I don’t know why you ever married me,” to which Claudia, with a voice dripping with icicles and boredom, replies, “You hypnotised me, darling.”

And there it is. Basil, out to build up a fortune of his own against the day when Claudia kicks him out, is using a combination of drugs and his own hypnotic abilities to put honoured guests under, draw their secrets out of them and sell them via a foreign agent, Zepos, of whom Drake knows already.

We’ve already established that Drake is a crack-shot at clay pigeons, as well as an expert Scalextrix racer (I had Airfix: it was so much better) so it’s inevitable that gets gets roped into the titular Hunting Party where, between Basil and Zepos, a tragic accident will occur. However, series stars are always on the alert for tragic accidents and chance favours the preferred mind, so Drake not only avoids the fatal shot but beats both men to a semi-pulp, breaking up one more leak.

We’re very close to the end now, just five more episodes and then the extremely truncated series 4. Despite how patchy series 3 has been, I really do wish there was more to come.


The Infinite Jukebox: Buffalo Tom’s ‘Tangerine’

This is another story of those crazy, random ways that I had to rely upon to find things out about music between my ceasing to listen to John Peel or read the NME, and the advent of YouTube.
Between 1984 and their dissolution in 2010, my favourite band was R.E.M. I saw them live within about seven months of first hearing them and instantly loving their music, and I went on to see them live seven times in total, more often than any other band or singer I’ve followed.
So when, sometime around 1992, I heard that Michael Stipe’s favourite album of the moment was by some previously-unknown band called Grant Lee Buffalo, I was automatically interested.
Not enough to buy the CD on spec, not at full price that was. A second hand copy, reduced to a more reasonable price for something I would encounter sound unheard, that would be something different. Also something apparently unachievable, it seemed.
My most reliable source for second-hand music was the legendary Sifters on Fog Lane in Burnage, the shop that was frequented by Messrs Noel and Liam Gallagher. Though I hadn’t lived in Burnage for several years by then, I would rock up there at least once a month, in perpetual search of something I’d never heard before at a painless cost: after all, if I didn’t like what I bought there was a ninety-plus percent probability that I could sell it back there. I started keeping an eye open for the name Grant Lee Buffalo.
One Saturday morning, not all that long after I’d started this particular odyssey, I flicked through the CDs and paused at a very distinctive, uncredited cover. I turned it over to see who it was by. The CD was called Let Me Come Over, presumably because you instinctively wouldn’t invite the guy on the cover into your home, and I was struck by the band’s name, which was Buffalo Tom.
No, it wasn’t Grant Lee Buffalo, but the word Buffalo was there, and that created a link between my interest in the one band and a curiosity about the other.
Eventually, at a time and in circumstances that I can no longer recall, I got the Grant Lee Buffalo album. It was alright, but I wasn’t impressed and I didn’t keep it long. That Buffalo Tom CD was there in the rack every time I visited Sifters.
Jump with me now to summer 1995, a very hot Saturday afternoon. I visited Stockport Central Library, picking up yet more books to read. And I browsed through the CDs that were available on loan for £1 for a week. I didn’t do that all that often. There was, and I borrowed, Cast’s eponymous debut album. And there was an album with a distinctive cover.
No, it was not Let Me Come Over but it was by Buffalo Tom and it was titled Sleepy-Eyed and this was an ideal opportunity to find out what they sounded like and if I’d enjoy them. So I paid my £2, drove home and, leaving Cast aside as the known quantity, popped the CD into the player and pressed go.
The opening track belted out. I listened to it unmoving for about thirty seconds then pressed stop on the player. Not because I didn’t like it. Far from it. I crossed to the music unit, stripped the wrapper off a fresh C90 cassette, popped that in the tape deck and pressed play again. Thirty seconds of that opening track, ‘Tangerine’, was enough to tell me I was going to LIKE this album.
Listen to it below at this point and come back. The energy is incredible, the attack instant and demanding. You don’t need to hear more than thirty seconds of this to be dragged into its wake at a hundred miles an hour. Breathless from the coffee, Bill Janowitz shouts out, and the whole song is away and running full-tilt already.
The song is an explosion in the ears, a hell-for-leather charge for death or glory. Drummer Tom McGinnis – the Tom of the band’s name – contents himself with a strong, forceful, unvarying beat, kickstarted every few seconds by a little fill beaten out at top pace.
And that chorus arrives to pull you together. She’s a Tangerine, made in California, she’s a soul filet, putting the woman he’s singing for before your eyes with the briefest of word pictures, and then the incredible line and he modestly claims it’s just a little haiku to say how much I like you. That couplet is brilliant and all the more so for being delivered with such rawness and frantic energy instead of emerging from a modest and contemplative acoustic ballad.
And I was right about the others on the album. Although nothing matched the sheer attack of ‘Tangerine’, the energy flowed, and even the ballads played from a sense of strength unused. Best of all, Buffalo Tom felt like a band with raw edges who had learned a certain musical sophistication without compromising their instinct not to compromise with mere melodies. They would always stand off at some angle of their own.
Thirty seconds to convince me that here was a band – not just a track – who were going to fill up my ears for a long time to come. Which they have. One day, I still hope to see them live and hear ‘Tangerine’ pounded through my ears like a railroad spike.
After that, Cast didn’t stand a chance. As for Let Me Come Over, which I was going to buy next time I popped into Sifters, it had gone by then after years of hanging around.

Film 2021 – The Hours

The Hours

I dunno.

When you buy a film starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman, you create a certain expectation of what you are about to watch. I deliberately did not read much about the film before watching it: I have a passion for coming to things with the least amount of foreknowledge possible, so that I can experience all of it without preconceptions, just like film and television used to be: a completely fresh experience.

So I knew only vaguely what The Hours was about, that the three stars played women in different time periods, and that Nicole Kidman played the novellist Virgina Woolf but that Streep and Moore played fictional characters. There’s a conventional approach to such a film that the subject matter dictates. The screenplay will flit, sometimes seemingly capriciously, between the three characters, that the events that affect them will each be individual but that there will be parallels and reflections throughout, experiences shared in differing forms. And that was what The Hours delivered.

The acting was of the highest quality, as you might expect. I am constitutionally incapable of mentioning Nicole Kidman without a comment as to her prettiness, but there was none of that in this film, and all the better for it: indeed, there were times, and many of them, that I stopped noticing that Mrs Woolf was being portrayed by her and was watching Virginia Woolf, the novellist, the disturbed woman who, after previous attempts, killed herself by weighing down the pockets of her long, straight, flat dress with bricks and walking into the middle of a river.

That’s where the film begins and ends, in 1941. In a way, it creates a false expectation that the rest of the story refutes. In between, the film is firmly anchored to its respective time periods – 1925 for Kidman, 1951 for Moore as Californian housewife Laura Brown, and 2001 for Streep as editor Clarissa Vaughan in New York – and confines each to the events of a single day.

The key to the film is Woolf’s novel, Mrs Dalloway, which I have not read, nor any of her work. Perhaps I would have enjoyed the film more if I knew the book, because it is the theme to each story and the template for the film’s structure in staying within single days. Woolf begins to write it, the unhappy Laura, five months pregnant with her second child, is reading it, Clarissa is a modern-day Mrs Dalloway, and is addressed as such several timews by her friend and former lover, poet Richard Brown, dying of AIDS and about to be honoured by a celebrated Award: Clarissa is organising a party.

(A brief sidestep to the Wikipedia entry on the novel indicates just how much the film has taken from it, and how it is spread around among the three characters).

The problem with the film is pace. A film like this is never going to be fast-moving, full of action and contain melodramatic elements: these would be contradictory to its nature. But at the same time, for most of its first hour, and again in its later stages, The Hours is conspicuously slow, self-consciously slow, and the soundtrack, composed by Philip Glass, is obtrusive and too loud. The acting is excellent, but there are many scenes where it is too noticeable: the camera will sit on characters’ faces whilst emotions wrestle with each other to decide which will speak the delayed dialogue. This is particularly so for Streep and Moore, and especially in the one scene they share. They are both brilliant but their acting calls attention to itself and breaks the hold the film has on you, if it has one at all.

Kidman, playing an Englishwoman in the Twenties, and a lady accustomed to good society, is much less conspicuous. Her role calls for her to be withdrawn, almost passive, her difficulties subsumed to a large extent into her ‘confinement’ in Richmond, a quiet town, thought to be ideal for giving her time, space and silence, avoid disturbance. But when she does erupt, on the railway station, in an argument with her devoted husband, Leonard, the scene is the highlight of the film. The stilted, literary dialogue feels altogether real and natural, the intensity, and the simple depth of Leonard’s love and fear for his wife is awesome.

Only one other scene matches the power of this. I’ll come to that momentarily, but let me speak for a moment of Laura, the housewife seemingly living the dream of 1951, a loving husband who’s devoted and a good provider, an All-American kid son (what an unbelievable performance by Jack Rovello, aged about 4), another on the way. But Laura is deeply unhappy, so much so that, after baking a beautiful cake for her oblivious husband’s birthday, she leaves her son – who gets called all sorts of names, from Bug through to little Richie, but who only once is addressed as Richard – with a childminder whilst she rents a hotel room with the intent of overdosing, but cannot do it. Little Richie is deeply affected by his fear that his mother will not return, even after she does.

You may remember that I mentioned Clarissa’s friend and ex-lover, Richard Brown, poet, with whom she is still in love? The film keeps the connection under its hat for a very long time but I twigged it the moment Riuchie was named Richard, about twenty-five minutes before the film tips its hand. It’s Richard who gets the film’s suicide, throwing himself from a window, which is the catalyst for Clarissa’s meeting with Laura, in heavy old-age make-up, revealing that after her daughter was born, she left her family, abandoning.

It’s this scene, where Richard’s intentions are plain from the outset, that is the only other dominant scene in the film.

There are other parallels between the characters’ lives, such as a hint of bi-sexuality, and other allusions, and there is a phenomenally strong supporting cast which includes Toni Collette, Miranda Richardson, Alison Janney, Claire Danes, Stephen Dillane and Ed Harris, but whilst the film is full of complexities, it is nevertheless very slow, determinedly slow, and it sets out to deter your investment in it over the first hour. It’s title is the last two words of the screenplay and is, of course, the working title for Mrs Dalloway.

Crap Journalism


It’s not yet 24 hours since the unexpected news broke that Manchester United had re-signed Cristiano Ronaldo after twelve years away, and this is already the Guardian‘s third article decrying the move, declaring it a disaster and depicting it as a shattering mistake that will further destroy United’s prospects of returning to glory. But this is the newspaper that pens a couple of articles every week, slagging off Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, and trying to get him sacked in the grounds that he isn’t good enough. And this is the paper that essentially first demanded United hire Jose Mourinho as Manager and then spent all its time trying to get him sacked.

So what am I surprised about? No, I’m not. Go fuck yourselves, all of you. At least under Ollie, we look like Manchester United again when we play, and that, after Moyes, van Gaal and Mourinho, is good enough for me.

*Shameless Plug* Malcolm Saville’s ‘Seven White Gates’

02 - Seven White Gates

Those of you who combine reading this blog with an interest in Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club book series may be interested to know that, by popular demand, the inestimable GirlsGoneBy publishers are re-printing Seven White Gates, the second book of the series. All the superb GirlsGoneBy editions are long out of print now, and not all of them can be found on eBay. Even though I’ve got the set, I’m delighted to see at least one more coming back into print.

Those who are interested can order the book via this link. The book is currently at the printers and is anticipated to be delivered for distribution of orders on or about September 7. And the reason this is a Shameless Plug will be apparent to anyone who clicks on the link, as the book contains a New Introduction, written specially for this re-publication, by your humble blogger himself .

You can buy the book with a clear conscience, I don’t get a penny for it, and for reasons that I set out in my Introduction, this is a very strong book with an important theme for its original audience. The selfish element is that I have my eye on the posibility of writing New Introductions for other books in the series, but that depends on demand for more reprints, so naturally a swell of orders for Seven White Gates would be encouraging (mention that you want to see Not Scarlet But Gold re-appear, you’ll be doing me a favour).

But most of all, enjoy the book.

The Overlong Goodbye: Tom King and Comics in 2021

I despair at times. This begins with my ordering issue 6 of the Batman/Catwoman limited series written by Tom King, which replaces the additional twenty issues King was originally going to write for the ongoing Batman title, as issues 86-105. I was a big fan of King’s Batman, the only run since the classic (but much shorter) Steve Engelhart/Marshall Rogers/Terry Austin run in Detective Comics as long ago as 1977/8 that had truly captured the Dark Knight for me.
When it comes to Batman, I have read more of his comics than I could ever count, going all the way back to repeats of the nonsensical SF stuff of the late fifties, under a dispirited Jack Schiff. But over the last twenty years at least the character has been over-exposed in the manner Jack Leibowitz used to fear in the early days. Sometimes it feels like two out of every three comics DC publish are Batman stories, and the number of mini-series about him is truly exhausting. That, and the over-emphasis on the Dark Knight aspect, the aftermath of Frank Miller, has more or less destroyed any interest I have in the character.
But a few years ago, a review of Batman Annual 2 attracted my attention. I bought that, and the associated issue of the title. It was my first exposure to Tom King’s writing, and I loved it. I filled in the back issues with the Deluxe editions and bought the series, twice a month, until it was abruptly halted with issue 85. I have not read any Batman since. I have finally been overwhelmed to the point of boredom with him.
Obviously I want to complete that disrupted story by getting the limited series. But this is where it starts to get complicated.
Batman/Catwoman was originally supposed to start in January 2020. It was already delayed when the effects of COVID forced the comics business into suspension. It was rescheduled for December 2020, to run for two six monthly runs each by artist Clay Mann, with a skip month in the middle to be filled by a Special drawn by another artist. Enough issues were intended to be in house before being scheduled to enable Mann to draw all the issues.
It’s now August 2021 and we’re only just getting issue 6, three months after issue 5. The Special has been rescheduled to December. It has been announced that issues 7-9 will be drawn by a different artist.
At the same time as this, King is also writing Strange Adventures, another twelve issue series starring Adam Strange. Eleven issues of this have limped out. I have, for a long time, found the whole thing to be abominable and have only continued buying it because nothing short of a full set of twelve will resell on eBay. It is four weeks since issue 11 was published. Issue 12 is not due for another five weeks from now.
Given the intense scheduling problems that caused Doomsday Clock, another twelve issue series, to take two years to come out, these latest developments have me wondering, aloud and loudly, just what the FUCK is going on!
Let’s step back from this a second or two.


Excepting a three-and-a-half-year period in the back half of my teens, I’ve been a comics fan all my life. Those years have seen innumerable changes, many of them good, and many of them bad. During the first year of the pandemic, when Forbidden Planet in Manchester was inaccessible, I took stock of my ongoing interest in the field. Ultimately, I decided, as I’d joked many times down the years, that at the age of 65 I had finally grown out of them.
I was down to only three series at that point, the two by King and Moonshine by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso, that comes out in short ‘seasons’. I decided to wait for the collections of that in future, rather than buy it twice, only to find that, disappointingly, the next one will be the last.
My frustration at all this faffing around is the greater because King’s two series are keeping me from leaving comics behind. I can’t even quit comics with any sense of a clean break. Is it just no longer possible to get a comic book – especially a prestige, high-publicity series – out on time?
The only explanation that seems plausible is yet another reminder of the difference between then and now. In the Eighties, DC under Jeanette Khan and Paul Levitz accepted that they were the Number Two company, with no real prospects of overtaking Marvel on any long-term basis. Instead, they opted to emphasise quality: individuality and creative freedom. Editors became more like traffic managers than directors of commerciality.
By the Nineties, and the era of Superman titles as a fifty-two week of the year serial, individual creators were once again being de-emphasised, with a dominant Editor in Mike Carlin basically controlling storylines and ensured a multiplicity of writers stayed in line.
That kind of editorially directed title has only grown ever more dominant, and we’ve read endless tales of writers and artists being second guessed, forced to make changes, answer demands from above, often with little or no notice. I can only assume that this is what has fucked these two series about so right royally.
You may remember me carping loudly about the treatment of Wally West in King’s Heroes in Crisis, a ruination of the character that DC has tried manfully to overturn since, without the least scrap of success in this reader’s eye. But what seriously condemned the series for me was when King admitted that he had submitted the story, had it approved, and then and only then was told which characters to use for what.
I cannot think of a clearer abdication of a writer’s responsibilities.

Strange Adventure

In it’s way, Strange Adventures has been the worse experience of the two, the real bring down. As a plotline it’s over-extended and would have been more comfortable in only six issues, but it’s the nature of the story that has been the real turn-off for me.
A major element in my resignation from comics is that I have grown increasingly weary of the one-note darkness, death and degradation approach to comics that has been near-universal for far too long. Dark is at its best when it’s balanced against light, and there is no balance because light has been eliminated. Pain is all there is. My reaction to this has been compounded by my extensive access, in recent years, to old series on DVD, where even as I’m critical of some of them I find them generally more enjoyable because they employ intelligence in a different manner to nowadays.
One of those series was Mystery in Space, which of course featured Adam Strange, Strange the hero, the good guy, the planetary saviour due to ingenuity and scientific knowledge. King’s Adam Strange series is a process of destruction that, even more than Wally West, renders the character toxic. Even worse than Wally West, King’s story doesn’t undermine him in the present and for the future but violates the entirety of the character’s existence back to his first appearances in the original Showcase. It’s vile.
The story starts with Adam and Alanna on Earth, promoting his autobiography as a War Hero who has saved Rann from the previously irresistible force of the Pykkts. When Adam is denounced for War Atrocities by a man who shortly after is killed by a laser blaster, the JLA appoints Mr Terrific to investigate. He uncovers evidence that Adam and Alanna’s daughter, who he has told his wife was killed by the Pykkts, is alive and has been given up to them as a hostage whilst he buys the safety of Rann by giving them Earth. I can’t imagine a more thoroughgoing betrayal of everything Adam Strange was created to be, and I can’t resent it more as utterly despicable.
There’s an issue to go to wrap this up more or less intelligibly. I hold out very few hopes. This is me: the general reception of Strange Adventures is completely the opposite, which is one more reason why I want out, but I can’t until these last two DC series are done.
Which, at the current rate of progress, I’ll be lucky to do by the end of 2022, if then.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: e06 – The Black Tower


In which things begin to draw together towards a conclusion or else fly ever further apart until you don’t know where anything is going: after the last hour I don’t know which is the more accurate description of thie penultimate episode. Let’s see if a summary can clear up the confusion.

We start with the delivery of Strange’s book of Magic to Mr Norrell, who reads (some of) it silently. A tear rolls down his face. He then proceeds to magic the book out of existence, causing every copy to vanish with a bang, for which he is castigated as a thief. Norrell cares not: Jonathan Strange is his enemy, ergo he is plotting to retaliate against Norrell, who has to know where he is, who he is seeing, what he is doing and how he plans to to victimise dear sweet innocent, never did anything that wasn’t for the public good providing you align the public good exactly with what suits the dictator in him, Mr Norrell. Unable to find Strange magically, Norrell has the whimpering Drawlight released from Debtor’s Prison a nd threatens him into finding Strange and sticking to him like molasses.

Where Strange is is Venice, a place his lost Arabella dearly wished to see. He is not, however, sightseeing, nor is he plotting dark revenge against his former tutor. He isn’t even out for power of money, as is assumed by the egregious Gentleman who he is trying to summon. Instead, he’s trying to drive himself mad in order to raise his beloved Arabella from the dead. And he poses a dishevelled, dirty but romantic figure (if you’re on the rebound from pursuing Lord Byron) for a new player in the drama, Miss Fiona Greysteel (Lucinda Dryzek), who’s posing a bit of a handful for her somewhat stiff-necked father, who’s trying to get her safely back to England.

And the Greysteels inadvertently give Strange a lead to an elderly and undoubtedly mad lady, surrounded entirely by cats (what’s wrong with cats? I think they’re great) and eating the birds and rats they bring her. He turns her into a cat, and in turn extracts and makes a potion of her madness, enabling him to finally, and successfully, summon the Gentleman, who takes not all that kindly to this outrage.

Meanwhile, Drawlight’s exaggerated reports worry the ever-more hostile Norrell, who decides to move back to Yorkshire, where he’s got most of his books. And at the Yorkshire madhouse, Vinculus gets into the head of Stephen Black, by promising to free him of the Gentlreman if Stephen in turn frees him. This will lead to a scene in that very nice little corner of Limestone Country that we saw in an earlier episode, with Childermass, where the Gentleman hangs the difficult-to-kill mendicant, leaving Stephen feeling ever more trapped. Ariyon Bakare has already delivered a massively impressive short speech about how he is marked by his skin, with a pithy and deadly accurate concluding line: “My skin means that any man may strike me in a public place and never fear the consequence.”

But to Strange. He takes the outwardly imperturbable Gentleman aback by wanting only one thing, the return to life of his beloved Arabella. The Gentleman demurs and deflects: it cannot be done, if only for the fact that she is not dead but enchanted, not that it can be disclosed to Strange. The Magician will find this out anyway: having realised that the Gentleman was the one who raised Lady Pole, Strange demands the magical token taken then, which is the missing part of Lady Pole’s little finger.

This draws him onto the King’s Roads, beyond a mirror, and to Lost Hope, where he discovers the dancers, and that Arabella is alive, though she knows him not. For his effrontery, he is cursed by the Gentleman, to live in a black tower of night, that surrounds him wherever he goes, that stretches up to and twists the sky like a malevolent whirlwind, and which frightens the living shit out of Venice, except for Flora Greysteel, who offers help that Srrange agrees she can give, at a later stage.

He also draws in Drawlight and threatens him into delivering three messages. One, a letter to Lady Pole, to her hand personally. A second, the token, to John Childermass, to his hand personally. The third, verbally, to Mr Norrell, to tell him Strange is coming. And he’s opening all the doors of Magic back into England.

Put like that, it does make the episode seem composed, and progressive towards an end. It just didn’t feel like it whilst watching it, though I do have to praise Bertie Carval’s performance as Strange this week, which was excellent. Everybody is playing well, and it’s something that a new character like Miss Greysteel can come into the story so late yet fit in so instantly.

I’ll just have to hope that the final episode can bring everything together in a satisfactory manner that I won’t have to write up to understand.

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge: My 40 Favourite Films – 5: Things to Come

1937-Things to Come

5: THINGS TO COME: 1936. Director: William Cameron Menzies. UK. Science fiction. Raymond Massy. Margaretta Scott. Ralph Richardson. Ann Todd.
Produced by Alexander Korda; scripted by H.G. Wells, supposedly adapted from his 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come.
Like Metropolis this is best remembered for its city of the future, as portrayed in the second half, rather than the weak plot or rather two-dimensional characters. In fact, the movie bore little connection to the novel, which was overlong, sprawling, pretentious and rather boring. I bought, read, and discarded it as virtually unmemorable, except – as I vaguely recollect – for Wells’ unfulfilled prophecy that ever-taller tower-block buildings in London would eventually result in the clay subsoil collapsing – as if architectural engineers were a bunch of schoolboys! Nothing Wells wrote after 1910 was worth reading except for curiosity value. Everything became mere propaganda for his beloved semi-socialist, but ultimately boring and authoritarian, World State. In the years immediately leading up to the First World War, Wells had prophesied exactly the same global war social collapse as he did here again, this time his next World War starting at Christmas, 1940. Straightway the problem with the movie is inherent in Wells’ script, it’s naïve simplicity and lack of credibility. The ridiculous ‘Everytown’ is London – sort of – with the dome of St. Paul’s visible in the background. The idea of anti-aircraft ack-ack guns in the middle of the main shopping street is rather ludicrous. The fleets of bombers certainly reflected, and probably helped to exasperate, the fear at that time of mass destruction, complete cities laid waste, and the widespread use of poison gas or biological weapons on civilian populations. However, Olaf Stapledon had already written such a scenario in his 1930 book First and Last Men, going further in chronicling the total annihilation of the populations of Britain and Europe.
The middle sequence, in the ruins of ‘Everytown’, are brutal, but again rather simplistic, even in places not making a lot of sense. ‘Everytown’, we are told, was located in southern England – Wells never really reflected Britain also comprised Scotland, Wales, England north of the Watford Gap, or Ireland. Yet in 1970 – thirty years after the conflict began – Ralph Richardson’s local dictator, ‘The Boss’, is waging a war against the people of the ‘Floss Valley’ for coal and shale resources, and captures a colliery, supposedly to resurrect his ragtag fleet of pre-war biplanes – one, we know to be a 1930s Avro 504K. The nearest coalfield to the south of England is in Wales or the Midlands. Another blank spot in Wells’ world-view – strange for the man who wrote a two volume history of the world – was the Anglocentric nature of his ‘World Communications/Wings Over the World’ new civilisation, centred – rather bizarrely, given more recent real-life history – on Basra, in Iraq. There are no Africans or Arabs depicted, no Chinese or Americans, Indians, Australians or Russians. In retrospect, this is a rather Victorian resurrection of the ‘noble white man’. No women, of course – pacifying the hostile natives and bringing civilisation and remoulding the world, is a man’s job; women aren’t invited. With the easy-peasy defeat of The Boss (already abandoned by his moll, played by Margarette Scott), by the highly effective, but apparently non-lethal, sleeping-gas bombs – only the Boss dies, for reasons unexplained – why is he the only one allergic to gas? – the way is open for the new World State, and we fast-forward to 2036, and the glimmering, all-white, antiseptic, towering mega-city of the future, with its monorails and glass tubes, and just the occasional token tree. This is neither a futuristic New York nor Le Corbusier (who perhaps Wells had never heard of, him being Swiss-French), but maybe more like 21st century, stinking rich Dubai or Shanghai.
The film script naturally passes quickly over the undercurrent of opposition or discontent within this apparently wonderful utopia, stirred up (with comparative ease) by a latter-day ‘Luddite’ – a ‘sculptor’, of all people – who demands a ‘rest from progress’ – here symbolised by the launching of the first space-shot around the Moon – echoes of Jules Verne, or Wells’ own The First Men in the Moon. Given Verne wrote his From the Earth to the Moon in 1865, it is rather odd that Wells still proposed launching his manned spaceship from an enormous cannon, already something of questionable science. At about the same time a young Arthur C. Clarke and fellow members of the British Interplanetary Society were in the process of planning an near-Apollo-like moon mission, while the Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) and the American Robert Goddard (1882-1945) were already the early pioneers of rocketry. Once again, Wells, one-time prophet of the 20th century, had seemingly retreated to a Victorian vision of the 21st century.
At the end, the older Cabal figure (Raymond Massey) gives a speech envisaging mankind’s conquest of space – a concept still so beloved by would-be galactic colonists from J.B.S. Haldane to Stephen Hawking to Elon Musk. Wells’ influence over the production of the movie is exaggerated, although there are photographs of him on set, leering at Ann Todd in her 21st century ‘mini-skirt’. In fact many scenes in the original script were cut, or never filmed, and it was reduced from 130 minutes to 117 minutes, then 108 minutes, and later 98 minutes, resulting in a number of versions in existence – the UK version is 92 minutes 44 seconds, while the USA version is 96 minutes 31 seconds. The art design was by Vincent Korda, Alexander’s brother. I vaguely recollect a 1960s science book published by the Daily Express, which used stills from the movie to depict the future of one hundred years hence. The rather sterile, uncluttered interior sets – transparent tables and rigid, uncomfortable seating or reclining chairs, with exotic but strangely lifeless plants in pots – were still being touted as the ‘desirable’ future house interior into the 1960s and 70s, notably by the likes of husband and wife British architects Peter and Alison Smithson.

Death of a Titan

Charlie Watts, drummer with the Rolling Stones, has passed away at the age of 80. The man was a rock solid drummer, a calm and still presence, the heartbeat of the Stones who, alongside the Beatles, will go down in history as the two musical pillars of the Sixties, the ones everyone looked up to and sought to outdo but couldn’t. And in the long hinterland of the decades after their peak, Charlie was the one with the credibility. What Jagger and Richards do after this, I honestly don’t know, but Charlie’s ending is perhaps the signal for the band’s ending too. Be all our memories now: there is no shame in that, and they can be proud forever.