The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: s01 e06 – The Green Opal Affair


Uncle

Ouch.

This was a perfect example of how to turn a basically decent thriller plot into a piece of utter nonsense, and the first real schtumer of the series. From the title on down, the story was plagued by things that turned the notion of story-logic into a colander.

The basic idea was sound: an U.N.C.L.E. Agent suddenly turns renegade inside New York headquarters, attacking Heather McNabb (May Heatherly getting an extended cameo for a pleasant change) before suffering a fit and forcing out the words ‘Green Opal Brach’ before going catatonic, and eventually dying offscreen.

Brach is millionaire eccentric Walter G. Brach (a pre-Archie Bunker Carroll O’Connor), who cruises down to Mexico every year on the 9th of September. Napoleon Solo substitutes for his temporarily-detained secretary, looking and dressing prissy (this is another Robert Vaughn solo, with Ilya confined to a minor role at start and finish and Mr Waverly absent).

However, Brach is an agent of THRUSH and the whole thing is a set-up to capture Solo. Brach is running a former Nazi doctor who has developed a sophisticated brain operation that inculcates absolute loyalty to Brach and THRUSH. This is being used on people with the potential to rise in their operations, to high level, people with skill, knowledge and verve who, in the future will act at THRUSH’s command. Brach anticipates Solo rising to be head of U.N.C.L.E.

Naturally, Solo wins the day and Brach is killed.

It’s nothing exceptional as a story but it has clear potential as 48 minutes of prime-time TV. But it’s loaded down with supposedly clever stuff that attempts to add a layer of the outre but which just sinks the story under the weight of its own pretention.

Firstly, just before Agent George Tenley (Scott Graham) cracks up, we find Ilya in the conference room with the baseball bat, which he’s using to bat around a squsare block, with a knife-blade at each end, hung by a rope from the ceiling. It’s supposed to be a training exercise, emphasising reflexes but it’s simply bullshit that has nothing to do with the story.

Next up is the words Green Opal, gritted out by Tenley and giving the episode its title. More nonsense. Nothing green, or opal-like, has anything to do with the story: they’re just words. He could have said Heliotrope Banjo instead for all the difference it would have made.

Then we’re in Mexico where it’s demonstrated that Brach – an eccentric in black sunglasses concealing his eyes, into numerology (already built-up as seemingly significant, point of this to the story: none) and health foods, mostly smoothies created in a blender out of ridiculous and off-putting ingredients, served up by his nutritionist Mrs Karda, played by Dovima, a tall, grave woman with an endless wardrobe of sleeveless tops and leg-hugging slacks. Again, it’s eccentricity for the sake of eccebtricity, which can be carried off in a solidly-based story, but this is anything but.

We also have it established that sharks are fed from this landing and now turn up at meal-times. This is to foreshadow the ending but the one thing ommitted is why? Why attract sharks in to feed? Oh, yes, I know, it’s eccentric.

Next, up pops our civilian-of-the-week. This is Maryland housewife Chris Brinel (Joan O’Brien), a buxom woman in a tight dress and blonde hair that miraculously turns back into its original style after a prolonged ducking in the creek. Chris has been kidnapped from the supermarket, is trying to get away and falls in with Napoleon in the first extended chase sequence which gives the overpowering impression of being extended so as to fill screen-minutes and save further plot development.

But why Chris? She loves her husband David, a potential engineering genius, but was going on a trial separation because of his lack of ambition. The logic of the set-up would have Brach kidnap David, have the Doctor adjust his brain and send him back but instead they’re going to adjust Chris’s brain (cut cruel and unfair comment here) so that she will drive him to be ambitious.

That is the nail in the coffin of any idea that the story makes sense but there’s an even more egregiously stupid pay-off to come. Brach makes much of how the Doctor has operated on everyone, except him, to ensure their absolute loyalty to anything he orders. The plan is for the converted Solo to take someone back as the ‘Mastermind’, who will confess than be shot dead, by Solo, whilst attempting to escape. At first, this is supposed to be Chuke, his burly Indian bodyguard who can barely speak a word of English, oh yes, so plausible but after Chuke is electrocuted, the role of victim switched to the statuesque Mrs Karda. Who promptly pushed Brach and his wheelchair into the bay just when the sharks have turned up from brunch.

And how is it that Mrs Karda has overcome her brain-alteration conditioning? Because she never underwent it. She persuaded the Doctor that it wasn’t necessary, and we are meant to infer that she convinced him of this fact by screwing him, especially as a scrawny, short-sighted fanatic is not going to get much in the way of tumbles from an ordinary, dumpy hausfrau let alone a hot-to-trot bird like Dovima.

I think by now you’ll get my point. Now that Mrs Karda has murdered their employer in cold blood before everybody’s eyes, they all stand back and let Napoleon and Chris leave, unhindered. And Chris decides to go back to her husband, just like any good 1964 housewife would, and let him be as unambitious and unfulfilled in potential as he wants to be, just as long as he is happy. I may barf.

No, this one did not work, and did it is a big way. The writing was atrocious and the plotting sloppy beyond belief. Next wek’s had better be better.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Scorpions’ ‘Wind of Change’


This is almost the perfect recording. A Hard Rock band, and a German one at that, singing in stilted English, a rock power ballad designed to have people in football stadiums holding cigarette lighters above their heads, a politely designed guitar solo modulated to demonstrate both your rock cred and your safety to sixty year old bosses, and awkwardly pitched lyrics intoning on a nebulous theme of change in the most obvious of fashions. No, seriously, it all adds up to something that might have been designed to my personal prejudices to be something I can loathe in my very guts.
So why does it give those guts a sucker-punch that sends my spirits soaring every time I hear it?
You could describe it as a bandwagon-hopper, or a soppy and sententious attempt to describe, in non-specific terms, the turning pages of history, and you’d be right. And you can claim that it caught the spirit of the times, the fragility of possibility in a time when no-one knew what the world would turn into, and were fearfully hopeful of a shift away from the decades of underlying fear.
You could charge that it chose to depict this moment by the reference to the biggest cliché of them all, and you could see and dream of the blowing away of clouds and darkness that had overhung our existence, by a hope-to-God irresistible wind, like smoke dispersed from factory chimneys.
And all these contradictions would be true descriptions of the very early 1990s, and somehow, for all its lowest common denominator crudity, ‘Wind of Change’ and The Scorpions summed up what so many of us tremulously hoped for and didn’t dare believe in in our hearts in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War.
It was thirty years ago, which means that at least two generations have grown up without the permanent shadow of the undeclared war between the World’s only two superpowers and the threat of Nuclear Destruction. Two generations who, for all the other fears and concerns of today, do not know and cannot know what it felt like late on a Sunday night to hear that Russia had invaded the Polish dockyards and to go to bed wondering if you would actually get to wake up or if a nuclear exchange would blow apart the world in your sleep.
And then there was 1989, from Tiananmen to Timisoara, as we said then, the year that went from Chinese Army destruction of student protesters seeking democracy to a dictator being destroyed in his place of power in an instant, by a crowd that booed him, and the focal point for that was the fall of the Berlin Wall, that fixture that, for men and women of my generation, was the physical symbol of the Iron Curtain across Europe.
And one day, just like that, it came down. The Immovable Object met the Irresistible Force and the Object moved. And with it went all the certainties of our times and we found ourselves in a world that we didn’t know how to understand but that, for a while, offered us something we had never quite been able to believe in: a future we didn’t expect.
The Scorpions wrote ‘Wind of Change’ off the back of a concert in Moscow the following year. That explains the Russian terms at the start of the song: I followed the Moskva down to Gorky Park. It was the time of Gorbachev, of glasnost and perestroika. Though part of me hates to concede it, because the band had nothing of the sensitivity of Sam Cooke, they too were sniffing the air, tuning in to the Change that was Gonna Come.
Which is why none of the cliches, the clunkiness, the childishly self-important lyrics matter worth a damn. Because for all of us who were there, who’d lived that life until that moment, who’d argued down the pub that nuclear war was inevitable because Man had never created a weapon he hadn’t used, this song sits truly in its time and rides the winds of hope, into a dawning sky that for the first time might be free of cloud. I listen and it is Tiananamen to Timisoara again, the man with the shopping bags stood in the path of tanks to the horror of Nicolae Ceaucescu’s face in that moment his subjects dared to boo, and I remember the disbelief that this was all happening.
And it fucking well does take me to the magic of the moment of that glory night, when it matters not a jot or tittle how you got here or who you came with. And with the knowledge and despair of what that future became, it becomes more important every year.

Sunday Watch: Open All Hours s01 e02-03 – A Mattress on Wheels/A Nice Cosy Little Disease


Open All Hours

And I used to love Open All Hours.

Of course tastes change. I used to love Last of the Summer Wine until, one day, it passed that invisible line between gentle exaggeration and surreality. Roy Clarke was a very skilful writer of half hour sitcoms, with a Northern sensibility to his sense of humour that fitted in perfectly with mine, but I suppose it’s yet one more example of the Law of Diminishing Returns: exaggeration must always outdo itself next time, until suddenly you realise you’ve travelled the equivalent of Land’s End to John O’Groats and you’ve nowhere left to go without walking on water.

And then there’s the Reginald Perrin effect. I wrote about this at some length here, but to summarise, watching the third series exposed the structure of the comedy, that it was a thing of catchphrases, and the moment I realised that, the insight travelled backwards to undermine my enjoyment of the good, and very good stuff before it. And since the last time I watched Open All Hours, we have had the miserable, witless, necrophiliac Still Open All Hours, my opinion of which I made plain here. Still Open soured me, by its blatant attempt to recreate the original, whilst ignoring the thirty year lapse in time and any changes between, and like Reggie Perrin, it exposed the bones of theworkings too clearly, and I think that’s gone backwards too.

I’ve only watched two episodes, instead of the traditional three, because that’s all I could stand in a single sitting. And what I’ve watched has been less a sitcom than a structure that repeats each week. Let me take you through that formula.

We open in daylight, outside the shop. Arkwright is stood outside in the sunshine, taking in the day and musing about selling things. Ronnie Barker’s name comes up. Then he calls for Granville. David Jason appears in the shop doorway, mugging and grinning, before going back inside. He’s only there to show his face, in isolation, and get his screen credit, and it’s the same sequence in both episodes.

Then we cut inside and it’s dark. Most of the episode is two-handed dialogue between Barker and Jason, mainly focussing on Arkwright’s money-grasping obsessions or Granville’s naive, romantic fascination with a life with women in it, or actually just a life at all. Granville wants a woman, even though she’d have to show him everything about what to do with her. Arkwright also wants a woman, in his case Nurse Gladys Emmanuel who lives opposite (Lynda Baron). Now, Arkwright knows what to do with a woman and he’s ready, willing and able to do all of it, except spend money on her. She treats him with amusement, as the picture postcard luster and buffoon he is, though she will give him some time, every now and then, which indicates two things to me. One is that she can’t be arsed about sex, kissing and cuddling, and the other is that if she’s prepared to allow Arkwright a little licence every now and then, the rest of the other unattached males in Doncaster must be pretty poor stuff.

That’s the basic, overall theme. An episode then consists of one basic idea , pursued at irregular intervals and interspersed with as many sketches involving different customers, walk-on-and-offs, as Clarke needs to spin out the episode to thirty minutes transmission. In ‘A Mattress on Wheels’, the central notion is that Granville, fed up of doing deliveries and trying to court passing ladies on an old-fashioned shop bicycle, tries to tempt Arkwright into buying a shop van, in which a mattress can be spread on the floor, and which will get Gladys Emmanuel to go out with him. The jokes then are all about Arkwright trying to do it on the extremely cheap. ‘A Nice Cosy Little Disease’ is essentially the same story, except that this time, seeing how solicitous the Nurse is of Granville falling and hurting his leg, he tries to come up with some plausible disease that will have her being equally solicitous of him, in his bedroom.

The only thing I can say about this latter episode is to complement Clarke on his professional skill at binding an episode together. Two minor running gags in the episode are about Granville’s frustration at his black, heavy, lace-up shop boots and what they do to his i,mage, leading him to decide to buy a pair of suede shoes, and how Arkwright can sell a box of biscuits he’s inadvertently crushed. And the finale is that, when leading Nurse Gladys upstairs to Arkwright’s bedroom, Granville slips and falls down them, leading her to run him to Outpatients. Granville’s fallen because he slipped in his new suede shoes, and Arkwright passes the crushed biscuits off to him to eat whilst waiting.

Episodes then end at night, with Arkwright, after dark, bringing the pavement display in and muses in a monologue about the events of the day.

Now there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a formula or a structure. If it’s strong enough, and interesting enough, it can serve as the basis for good, funny writings in between its fixed points. And British Seventies sitcoms were very often the home to very good writing which, in its time, I’d have classed Open All Hours. But the writing has to be very good when it comes to doing the same thing every week. There has to be enough flexibility to hang different things on the scaffolding. Last of the Summer Wine was essentislly the same episode every week: three middle-aged unemployed men representing different social classes have to find ways to occupy themselves, but that allowed for the possibility of tremendous variation. I’m now looking at Open All Hours and finding that that doesn’t.

It’s saddening.

The War in the Skies: Enemy Ace


EA Showcase

I never got into war comics. Obviously I read them: take war stories out of a British boys weekly comic and some of them would be limp rags with about ten pages left, and that’s before the advent of Battle in the Seventies. But I would never have even thought of buying one of the DC War Comics in the Sixties. The handful I did read were from friends’ collections, sitting in the lobby of our old house in Brigham Street, in that private space between the inner door to the parlour and the front door, open to the elements. It was a tiny play-place on wet days, where we could read each others’ comics or play card games, get some fresh air but not soaked.
I was aware of Enemy Ace back then, and intrigued to a minor degree by a series about a German, who I knew very well from Eagle and Lion and Victor and Hornet were the baddies. But as with any of the others, like Sgt. Rock, or Gunner, Sarge and Pooch, the thought of reading any of the stories just didn’t even exist.
But the stories do, and for all my adult life I’ve known that they are amongst the most highly rated stories DC have ever published. The only ones I have read before are those that appeared in Showcase. Now it’s time to find out for myself.
Rittmeister Hans von Hammer, the ‘Hammer of the Skies’, the Enemy Ace, was introduced in Our Army At War 151, cover-dated February 1965, which would have been about right for when copies arrived in Britain. He was created by Bob Kanigher, Our Army At War‘s editor and writer of its lead feature, the famous Sgt. Rock, and drawn by Rock’s artist-in-residence, Joe Kubert. Von Hammer was teased on the cover as the blazing star they didn’t dare show and the whole concept was a controversial one, less than twenty years since the War in Europe ended.
Von Hammer was a pilot. Cleverly, Kanigher and Kubert went further back than the recent War, to World War 1, to 1918, and the ‘string-and-baling-wire’ planes of before. Von Hammer piloted a blood-red Fokke-Wulf triplane, the same as one of the Airfix models I had assembled and which hung from my bedroom ceiling.
Kanigher and Kubert, teamed on their natural subject. How could ‘Enemy Ace’ be less than superb? The first story was plain, but commanding, introducing the aloof von Hammer, a master of the skies, almost effortlessly establishing his superiority over the French and British planes, yet taking little or no pleasure from his prowess. Von Hammer is a man apart, in every sense, moving through the world behind a three foot thick sheet of glass. He is a killer, a cold, professional killer, putting his unique talent to the service of his country, aware of, and sometimes almost fearful of his degree of separation from everyone else. His only ‘friend’ is his lupine shadow, a Wolf that goes hunting with him.
All of this in one back-up story. For depth in economy I can only think of the original Swamp Thing story as comparable. And through it all, the remarkable thing is that von Hammer is simply von Hammer. He is not an indictment of the Germans as enemies. His nature is himself, and not the function of his country. Extraordinary stuff for late 1964.

EA 138

The series was a gamble, with Rock soliciting comments from the readers. Von Hammer returned in issue 153, in a story about the superstition of not having one’s photograph taken before flying into combat, and again in 155. This last one was astonishingly good: von Hammer shoots down a British plane only to realise, too late, that its pilot had empty guns, was defenceless. Horrified by what he has done, von Hammer follows the doomed plane down, hoping the pilot can pull out of the dive and land, but to no avail. The next day, his airfield is attacked by the pilot’s Squadron Leader, challenging von Hammer contemptuously to a single combat. Von Hammer takes off with empty guns himself, deliberately, and fights unarmed until the British attacker runs out of ammunition. Then the later realises von Hammer was defenceless, understands the nature, the honour of the man, salutes him and breaks off. The enemy understands, but von Hammer’s own pilots see only the Killing Machine.
This was the context of von Hammer’s two Showcase appearances. The first was about the honour that existed between pilots in this new form of combat, in a sky where their presence could not be taken for granted, where enemies had more in common than with their ground troops, who had no conception of what it meant to be in the air.
There had now been five Enemy Ace stories, two of them book-length. They were each excellent, especially in Kubert’s depiction of aerial combat as it was being formed. However, I couldn’t help but recognise the ploys Kanigher used invariably. Von Hammer flies and kills. He lands, ‘hearing’ his plane repeat ‘Killer, killer’ and his men call him a Killing Machine. His babbling orderly praises his ever-accumulating Victory Cups. He meets the wolf in the Black Forest, talks to it as his only friend, the only ones who understand each other. Over and over.
Showcase didn’t win von Hammer a title of his own. Enemy Ace disappeared then, in 1965. But he was not forgotten. Two and a half years later, von Hammer was revived as the lead feature in Star-Spangled War Stories, his logo emblazoned on the cove. Enemy Ace returned in issue 138 and, with the exception of one issue, featured until no. 150 before once again returning to that undeserved limbo reserved for characters who are too bloody good for the audience.

EA 141

Nothing had changed, not least the intensity that surrounded the character, the expert at flying and killing who is feared by everyone and kept a distance that he himself knows no way of bridging, the man trapped in what he is, addicted to the sky, knowing that one day it will kill him as thoughtlessly as it does everyone else, determined to give it every chance at his destruction that he can.
I could never have read and appreciated anything like this in 1968, but I should have done a long time ago.
The new series introduced a recurring foe for von Hammer, a French pilot of equal skill who goes by the name of the Hangman. In issue 140, a collision between planes downs both pilots and makes von Hammer the prisoner of the Hangman, himself an aristocrat. The two treat each other with the utmost courtesy, puzzling the Hangman’s sister, Denise, but once von Hammer escapes and regains the skies, the only place he will allow himself to die, they return to being implacable enemies, bending their skill to each other’s destruction.
And I may say Kubert’s art leads one into the skies and draws us on wings of paper-mache and string.
The artist had now taken over as editor of the war books but the writer continued to expand the range of the stories. In issue 142, von Hammer succeeds in shooting down the Hangman, only to gain a new and more bitter enemy in his sister Denise, an implacable foe, an equal flier, and a Harpy of hate, determined to wreak revenge upon an enemy whose honour forbids him from firing back at her.
The Hangman was brought back in issue 145 to lock horns with von Hammer again, tearing at him by killing his three ablest pilots first. Once again he appeared to die, though I’m not taking bets on it, whilst von Hammer crashed and would have been a victim of the wolves were it not for his black wolf friend.
Next issue, von Hammer appeared only as narrator for two unremarkable and indeed pretty flat WW1 air-fighting stories, presumably as a result of deadline difficulties. His return was with the series’ first complete schtumer, a gimmick-story featuring an OTT opponent who dressed up as St George and flew in a suit of armour, taking the run outside the bounds of believability for the first time. This was followed by von Hammer adopting a wounded puppy as a good luck mascot, only for him to fall from the cockpit in battle, to his death. Again, the insertion of the fantastic detracted from not merely the believability but the intensity.

EA 142

Once again, something different was coming to an end, failing to match up to the sales of the superheroes. 1970 was looming. A story in issue 179 explained von Hammer’s duelling scars, but it was also cut to only two-thirds length to make room for Kanigher and Kubert on a revival of the Viking Prince, welcome in itself but in a war book?
But the writing was on the wall, or rather the cover. The Star-Spangled War Stories logo was spread across issue 150’s cover, and Enemy Ace reduced to a circle, and inside was the last story. Von Hammer is shot down over France but returns to his airfield thanks to the ironic aid of three people awaiting sons, brothers and fiances return from the skies, not knowing each are dead at von Hammer’s hands. But somehow the story failed to connect, largely because of a curious decision to switch from first person narration to second person, distancing von Hammer at the very moment we needed to be brought in close.
The lettercol spoke as if nothing would change but Enemy Ace was dropped, and the Unknown Soldier replaced him as the new lead feature.
That isn’t totally the end of the story. Rittmeister Hans von Hammer reappeared years later, in 1974’s issue 181-3, a three part back-up story by Kanigher, drawn by Frank Thorne in a close imitation of Kubert, sending him up against another of DC’s war characters, Steve Savage, the Balloon Buster. It wasn’t the same.
Von Hammer’s final appearance in Star-Spangled War Stories was a five pager, written and drawn by Kubert, this time going the full distance into the third person. It was dry and shallow and a poor end.
There have been other runs. Shortly after, von Hammer was restored to appear in eleven of twenty issues of Men at War between 1977 and 1979. Even though it was still being written by Kanigher, the art was that of lesser hands, lacking a fraction of Kubert’s expressiveness. I couldn’t bring myself to read it. I know disappointment when it’s spitting in my face. The same thing went for another series of back-ups between 1981 and 1982 in The Unknown Soldier (as Star-Spangled War Stories was re-named from issue 205), even with some John Severian art.
No, Enemy Ace was indeed as good as they said it was all those years, good enough for me to decide to ignore lesser versions. I don’t have to accept that they are canon in my head, just like so many contemporary series don’t exist for me. Seventeen issues represent the whole as far as I’m concerned, seventeen and no more. Seventeen was more than enough.

Preston Front: s03 e06 – Diesel’s Ostrich


Preston

Of course there was comedy. Throw a live and pretty aggressive ostrich into a country home full of antiques, stomping down pretty corridors and imprisoning two consenting pairs of adults – even if one of them is encumbered by an eight year old girl – and you’ve got comedy. Chuck in Lloydy at his most Lloydy-esque, alternating between pure Lloydy dumbness and an amazingly astute naive perception and all the ingredients were there, and I laughed as I always do.

But this week, with the end of the series peeking round the corner there was yet more of the pain of human existence, of things working themselves through for good or ill with the inevitability of, well, life, and its amazing ability to fuck with us.

Threre was no place this week for soon-to-be-ex-Sergeant Polson or the commission-resigned former-Lieutenant Rundle, but there was a space for the internally collapsed Mr Wang, who never wanted to run a restaurant and who is now wandering the Roman Holiday, almost permanently drunk and insulting his customers, leaving Eric as his pillar of stability. Until, that is, he overhears Ally mentioning to Spock that Dawn has gone off for the weekend with his ex-mate Hodge. It’s the old, old story and Eric explodes and races off in the Noodle Van.

And indeed it’s true. Except it’s not true that way. Jeanetta and Declan are married, and are moving to accomodate his new job. Firth hides where that’s to be until the back half of the episode, when Hodge is admitting to Mel his feelings about his ‘god-daughter’, who’s going to Manchester. Aw-hey, marra, it’s not like you’ll never see her again. No, this is the Manchester that’s ninety miles up the Pacific coast of America from San Francisco, and yes, he probably won’t see her again.

It’s a last weekend, Hodge and Kirsty, with Dawn to look after any ‘female’ issues. Two friends, both at odds with the same mate. Hodge can make it up with Eric but won’t, Dawn wants nothing more out of the whole of her life and can’t.

Where does the ostrich – whose name is Sandra, incidentally – come in? Well, as the tirtle suggests, she’s Diesy’s. An investment opportunity, the profit on the eggs. Except that Diesy’s been visiting Sandra, feeding her grain by hand, and when the company falls out with the farmer and proposes to move her to Belgium, Diesy steals her, with the aid and collusion of Lloydy (who else?) and that walking disaster, Mel. They stick her in the shed at Jeanetta’s place.

It gets complicated here, but Hodge has planned the perfect last weekend for himself and his daughter and instead of Dawn he ends up with Mel, iconoclastic, uncaring, unthinking Mel, fucking the whole thing up. Until it twigs in her head that she is messing things up by encouraging Kirsty to ignore Hodge and not do what he says.

Caroline Catz has already turned up to breakfast in a shortie dressing gown and now, just when Eric arrives, spoiling for a fight, she’s wandering around in one of Hodge’s t-shirts and nowt else (nice legs). It’s all to do with painting Lloydy’s van, you see. This is where Sandra breaks loose. Hodge, who is bare-chested because he hasn’t brought more than the one t-shirt scrambles intohis bedroom with Kirsty and Mel, whilst Dawn drags Eric into her bedroom. They’re all trapped until Lloydy saves the day with the most unlikely fake ostrich you could ever mention.

Hodge is hurting, badly. It’s all going wrong. But Mel, finally demonstrating an understanding of something more than booze and fags, sets out to smooth the turbulent waters she’s created, and begins an easing process that draws her and him together as two scruffy, damaged adults who are starting to see something more than bodies in each other.

Meanwhile, in bedroom number 2, Dawn is facing Eric’s jealousy with her own agonies. He thinks she’s there to shag Hodge. She’s demanding he show the evidence that Hodge’s things are in this room, pulling out empty drawers, throwing them on the floor, her voice cracking, preferring to face the ostrich than his suspicion. It ends where it has to end, in bed, slaking passion and relief, and with Dawn pointing out that Eric’s inability to wire plugs is no barrier to their marrying.

We’re nearly there. Things are binding up. Issues are resolving. Eric asks Hodge to be his best man. Lloydy philosophises that Sandra is Diesy’s substitute for his loopy little brother Lennie, who’s converted to Islam and is now working on a kibbutz (don’t think about that one too closely). Hodge’s trying to get Kirsty to keep the ostrich a secret from her mother. To do so, he has to swear something with her, as Kirsty has done with her best friend Rebecca. It involves a secret hand gesture and the words ‘You and me. Forever’. Hodge stumbles over these but braves up and says them. From outside, Jeanetta sees her daughter and the man who is the little girl’s unlikely but utterly devoted father together. She’s already having qualms about separating them. She turns to the Estate Agent and takes the house off the market. They’re not moving.

And that leaves one.

Grand Master Westlake – A Career in Crime: The Final Years


The consensus of opinion is that the writing of The Axe sparked Donald Westlake’s ability to write in Richard Stark’s voice, and he took full advantage of this by promptly producing two consecutive Parker books. To everyone’s surprise, 1999 was a fallow year, with no new Westlake under anybody’s name, only the second time that had happened in the past two decades, but when he returned in the new Millennium, it was with another straight crime story, fit to be paired with The Axe.

W - Hook

This was The Hook. It occupies the same dark, serious crime setting as its immediate predecessor, without repeating any of its ground, or coming from quite so incredulous a basis. There is only one murder in The Hook, quite early on, though Westlake leaves us in no doubt that another will take place almost immediately after the final page. The book is, instead, a study of the psychology of murder, divided between two quite opposite viewpoints.
The book offers two protagonists, both writers, whose interlocking story is told in strict alternate chapters. First up is Bryce Proctorr, a superstar novelist who commands $1M + advances, but who is currently a year behind on his latest novel and in fact is lying to his long-term editor about having done any work on it at all. Bryce is deeply affected by the protracted and nasty divorce suit by his second wife, Lucie, a beautiful but poisonous blonde, and simply cannot write.
In contrast, Wayne Prentice is, and for twenty years always has been a mid-list writer, solid, reliable but not spectacular. Wayne, who is very happily married, is being killed by computer, bookshop computers that determine his initially successful books sell less and less, causing bookshops to order fewer and fewer and publishers to offer smaller and smaller advances. Wayne’s bucked the trend for seven years by hiding behind the protected pen-name of Tim Fleete, but the same downward curve has hit ‘Tim’ now.
Bryce and Wayne used to know each other twenty years ago, though they’ve followed different paths since. They bump into each other in the Library, go for a drink, catch up and tell each other their plights. Wayne has a completed novel that ‘Tim’s publisher won’t even accept. Bryce has an idea to solve both their problems. Bryce offers to take Wayne’s novel, adapt it to his style and present it as his own, in return for Wayne getting 50% of the advance. That’s $550,000. But there is one condition.
If that’s all they do, Wayne will get half the advance and Lucie will get the other half. There will be nothing left for Bryce. So the deal is only a deal if, with a deliberate echo of Strangers on a Train, Wayne kills Lucie.
Ideally, I’d like to leave things there. It’s one hell of a set-up, not as outlandish as Burke Devore’s solution to his problems, but within the same county. Of course, Wayne’s not the kind of guy who would do that sort of thing, or even could. His devoted wife, Susan, is willing to talk the idea over with him but not know anything more.
Of course Wayne does it. There wouldn’t be a book if he didn’t. And even though the actual killing, which is brutal, Lucie being beaten to death, occurs by impulse, not planning, he and Bryce get away with it scot free, the Police having no leads whatsoever, no matter how diligently they enquire.
The meat of the story is the different responses to the murder, of Wayne, who did it, and Bryce who merely requested it. And how that works out and what it leads to, I am just not going to say. More than any other of Westlake’s works, or those under his own name (and Sam Holt’s) that I have read, The Hook needs to be read for itself and not explained. Though the Dortmunder books are and will always remain my favourites amongst Westlake’s oeuvre, this is the one that I think is his finest work in his speciality field of Crime Fiction. Buy it, read it. This is not a suggestion, it is a command.

W - Lid

Two more new Richard Starks and the tenth Dortmunder Gang book preceded the novel that got me in here. This is Put a Lid on It, which came up somewhere on Amazon, offering a set-up that seemed a natural for Westlake. Given the nature of that situation, I was sure this would prove to be something I’d missed out on in the Seventies, so I was dumbfounded to discover that it had only been published in 2002, meaning that the book’s central idea was exactly three decades out of date, but I still enjoyed it, enough to decide me, at last, to go for a collection of all the remaining Westlakes I had read or missed over those years.
We’re back, for sadly the last time, among the criminal fraternity. This is Francis Xavier Meehan, 42 years old, professional thief, Currently incarcerated in Manhattan Correctional Community on his first ever Federal charge, robbing the mail. It’s not really fair: Meehan didn’t set out to rob the mail, there was nothing to say the truck he robbed was carrying mail, he was after computer components. But here he is, and here he’s going to stay, because this is going to be for life.
Until the arrival of Patrick Jeffords. Jeffords is introduced as his new lawyer, but Meehan makes him for anything but a lawyer in the first five seconds. Meehan is experienced, smart and thoughtful. He has ten thousand rules for life, all in his head, nothing written down (never write anything down is one of the ten thousand rules.)
Jeffords has a proposition, for which he needs Meehan. In return for performing a task within his speciality, Meehan will be relieved of all his current charges and set free to go where he will. Meehan just has to break into somewhere and steal – or rather retrieve – a small item. Meehan will be working for the President.
Apparently, the other side had gotten hold of something compromising, what they call an October Surprise, a scandal to be released too close to Election Day to be successfully rebutted. Jeffords is with the re-election campaign and has been assigned to find a professional thief to get it back, unused.
The obvious riff is on Watergate, and Westlake isn’t afraid of making that explicit. The comedic riff is that Watergate was a disaster because it was organised by the CIA: in short, by amateurs. This time they’re bringing in a professional.
Sound too good to be true? Meehan thinks so (besides, that’s one of the ten thousand rules). He’s a professional and they’re not, he can identify half a dozen slips and stupidities already and he only cares to work with professionals. Anyway, Meehan is honest enough to point out that if he sees an open door, he’ll be through it, first opportunity. Take him back to the MCC.
On the other hand, if there’s something in it for him…
Westlake skilfully exploits all angles of this situation, including Meehan’s involving his Court appointed lawyer, Elaine Goldfarb, to negotiate terms on his behalf (leaving out the details of any – non-distinguishable – crimes he intends to commit along the way).
The story is told in the third person, but the omniscient narrator not only knows but is willing to expound in much greater detail than usual on Meehan’s thoughts, responses and philosophies, producing an odd, but very effective and funny hybrid with the first person.
Despite the general feeling that Westlake’s last few novels represented something of a running out of steam, I find Put a Lid on It to be one of the funniest non-Dortmunder books he wrote, providing a constant stream of dry and cynical lines that had me chortling, giggling and out and out laughing. And of course, there’s the sting in the tail, that Meehan, professional to the last, has foreseen all along, and taken precautions against. A very nice rounding-off.

W - Stiff

After another Richard Stark, The Scared Stiff was Westlake’s penultimate standalone book. In America, it was published under the name of Judson Jack Carmichael, though the reason for introducing another pseudonym this late in his career is a mystery to me, but in the UK the book came out under Westlake’s name from the outset.
It’s not prime Westlake by any means. It’s the last in his exotic caper stories, taking place entirely in the fictional South American country of Guerrera, as mentioned in a couple of the Dortmunder books, and involving an insurance scam that threatens to go wrong in an ironic way.
What disappoints me is that Westlake’s basic idea is full of potential to be comic and sinister, but as written the book is geared to the sinister alone. It’s still an ironic reversal, but irony is not always funny and where this could have been, it isn’t.
The story is narrated by Barry Lee, an American with a Guerreran wife, the lovely Lola: Barry and Lola are very much in love. They are also chancers and not-quite hustlers though the failure of various get-rich schemes have left them very much under a cloud and apt to be rained upon by the kind of people who don’t go to Court about welshers.
However, Barry and Lola have mutual double-indemnity insurance worth $600,000 if one of them dies and logically the best person is Barry. It’s a scam, and it’s planned to take place during their annual January holiday to visit Lola’s parents back home. Guerreran record-keeping and its officials’ susceptibility to inexpensive bribery make it the best place for Barry to suffer an unimpeachable fatal accident, taking over the identity of a suitable ‘brother’ who actually died as an infant, who moves to New York to look after his sorrowing sister.
It’s perfect. Only there are problems. Of course there are problems, there wouldn’t be a book if there weren’t.
These start with cousin Luz, the family babe and wild child, who is currently concealing ‘cousin Felicio’ from the Insurance Investigator. Whilst drunk – a non-occasional state – Luz reveals the scam to a bunch of up-country cousins or stupidos. But Luz gets two significant details wrong. Luz claims the scam is for millions, not $600,000. And she tells the stupidos that these millions are going to be split between the whole family (and quite rightly too: didn’t they come to Barry’s funeral? That makes them part of the scam.)
The third problem is, however, entirely of the stupidos’ making. If the money is going to be paid because Barry is dead, why is everyone taking a chance of it being found out? Why not kill him themselves, to be on the safe side?
The problem is that Judson Jack Carmichael is writing this story, not Donald Westlake, so the inherent comic factor in that notion is left to die, whimpering, on a floor somewhere. Barry spends the entire book on the run, travelling from hideout to hideout, unsuspecting or suspecting cousins, friends and would-be mistresses (not his: he truly loves Lola, and she him, we’re talking about his brother-in-law and fellow conspirator, Arturo) until the money comes through and ‘Felicio’ can fly off to America and his poor, mournful, soon to be pseudo-incestuous sister.
It’s frustrating how Westlake keeps introducing strong, interesting female characters, one after another, only to abandon them at the next move as Barry is propelled along by the stupidos’ relentless pursuit.
The book’s failing overall is exemplified by one scene. The insurance investigator has sniffed out the scam and proposes to prove it by finding a Birth Certificate for a family member of the right age, and a request for a copy of that Certificate. Once that is collected, he will ensure Lola goes to prison for fraud. Barry is determined to prevent that: if necessary, he will ‘return to life’, denounce himself as the sole plotter and take the punishment.
He and Arturo devise a complex plan to find out from a female journalist friend of Arturo’s where the records are, how to get themselves locked in at night, ensure provisions, and leave in the morning. That’s several pages of plotting, not to mention arguing over a particularly luscious home-made cake and who gets to eat it. At the end of which, the journalist comes back with not the plans but the Certificate itself, which she’s pinched for them. The whole thing falls flat.
At the end, there’s another twist but as Barry susses it out and, at long distance, applies a wholly successful counter-manoeuvre, it’s all just a bit of extra space-filler. The suggestion that a sequel might be written was not followed up upon, for which I am pretty glad.

W - Money

Donald E Westlake’s final standalone novel, Money for Nothing, appeared the following year, in 2003. It’s another straight novel, a thriller, with little by the way of comedy. It’s a good but not exceptional example of its kind whose main failing its that it’s, well, undistinguished. It’s something a lot of writers could have written, that is not especially Westlake.
What it’s about is this. Seven years ago, Josh Redmont, a student who could do with some money, started receiving cheques, $1,000 each month, from something called United States Agent. Though he made some fairly desultory efforts to find out where these were coming from, basically Josh has just taken the money, and not bothered himself too closely as to why he was getting them.
Seven years on, Josh is a successful Accounts Executive at an NY Advertising Agency. He’s married to Eve, and has a two year old son. He doesn’t need the money any more but he still keeps cashing the cheques. He’s never told Eve about them. Today, whilst he’s waiting for the ferry to Fire Island, to join Eve and Jeremy for the weekend, a man walks up to him and, in an East European accent, says, “You are now activated.”
Josh is in deep shit.
Because, for seven years, he has been a paid-up sleeper agent for Kamastan, one of the ‘stans’ that emerged from the wreck of the Soviet Union. He wasn’t supposed to be, he was supposed to be an unwitting front for his Recruiter, Ellois Nimrin, who was preparing a nest-egg for himself by syphoning off the cheques into a Bank account of his own hiding. Only Nimrin suffered a degree of public exposure and was removed from authority. His successor, Andrei Levrin, being unaware of the scam and being the kind who would terminate Nimrin if it ever came out, ‘continued’ directing the cheques to Josh’s bank account.
Now Josh has a mission to perform. Nothing very big. Just the execution, on American soil, of Kamastan’s hated Dictator which, you never know, might even be a good thing, not that Josh knows, or cares either way. What Josh cares about is not finding himself coerced into this plot in the first place, a response that’s more than doubled when he finally works out that he and his ‘fellow sleeper’, actor Mitchell Robbie, are not there to be the getaway drivers. They’re the patsies. And Eve and Jeremy are set up to die with Josh in a guilt-ridden murder/suicide.
This is not good.
It’s a format Westlake is used to. After all, isn’t it the set-up of earlier books like The Fugitive Pigeon, The Spy in the Ointment and Somebody Owes Me Money: the innocent individual suddenly flung into a world he doesn’t recognise, that he is instantly out of his depth in, yet he has to learn to function in bizarre circumstances. But where those books were comedies, Money for Nothing is wholly straight, and very dangerous indeed.
There is an element of comedy. Fellow sleeper Robbie turns out to be inventive and creative (and a bit superior about it), as well as being mocking of both the plotters and his fellow victim. But mainly it’s Josh who, in extremis, rapidly learns how to be a sub-James Bond, though he does still need Robbie and his fellow off-Broadway actors to be a wholly appropriate deus ex machina.
It’s a cliché ending, the expected outcome of the form of story, and its disappointing to see Westlake follow the line of least resistance with his finale and no subversion. Otherwise, it’s a decent thriller, neither better no worse than any other, with only Mitchell Robbie to mark it out as something only Donald Westlake could have written. No, not a grand finale, but how many writers get to go out on a high?

Donald Edwin Westlake died of a heart attack on New Year’s Eve 2008, preparing to go to dinner. The last five years of his life were taken up writing about Parker and John Dortmunder. One last book was published posthumously in 2009: it was the last, and in its way most outre Dortmunder Gang caper. But there is still one post to come in this series.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: s01 e05 – The Deadly Games Affair


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For about seventy-five percent of its running time, this episode was a low-key and somewhat shapeless affair, whose plot didn’t seem to hang together or have any real point. Of course, we had already been given a very big clue, in the opening scenes, that fell into place once the mad scientist behind everything gave us the full no-names exposition as the climax neared.

To take things in the order in which they were served up, we began with a bearded individual (who we knew from the credits was Professor Amadeus (Alexander Scourby)) driving a pick-up truck into the woods, to dump an oil barrel into the creek before being interrupted by three boys in a rowboat, driving off, the barrel falling off in the woods and a white-haired man emerging in jerky motion before dropping dead.

Cue Ilya Kuryakin explaining everything to Napoleon Solo (and the audience). The dead man in former Nazi, Major Ernst Neubel, believed dead this past twenty years. Neubel was assigned as security to Dr Volp, a scientist, also believed dead these past twenty years, along with his last, unknown experiment. However, Volp was also an avid stamp collector, and one of his rarest stamps is going under auction tonight. Our men attend to buy it, but so too does an Agent of THRUSH.

This is Angelique, no last name given, played with slinky and steely gusto by Janine Gray. She and Napoloeon are old ‘friends’ and whilst she’d kill him without a qualm, if instructed, the pair do tend to have the odd truce here and there, during which it’s quite obvious that they bonk each others’ brains out. Nevertheless, they are on different sides in this as both THRUSH and U.N.C.L.E. want Dr Wolp and whatever he’s been working on.

Enter college student Chuck Boskirk, played by the fresh-faced Burt Brinkerhoff, and his pretty blonde fiancee Terry Brent (Brooke Bundy). Chuck is the stamp seller. It’s not his stamp, of course, it arrived through the post, anonymously, with instructions, but he gets 10% of the price, amounting to $650, on which he hopes to be able to marry Terry in the summer instead of waiting – in all senses of the word – until Graduation, though with the fair Miss Bundy, who could blame him for impatience?

Everyone wants Volp, who, in case you hadn’t already guessed it, is Professor Amadeus, Science lecturer at Chuck and Terry’s college. Chuck gets kidnapped, twice, the second time by Volp, Angelique finds Volp but fails to convince him to join THRUSH and is tied up herself, Napoleon gets there following Chuck’s homing device but is overcome by fumes. And everything drops into place and the episode suddenly becomes extremely pointed.

It’s now a cliche that no-one of any creative intelligence would dare use but back then, less than twenty years from the end of WW2, it may well have been fresh enough to be startling. Certainly it’s startling enough here, in the fanaticism Volp displays. He doesn’t want THRUSH, he doesn’t need THRUSH, he is aiming higher. He has lost none of his Nazi beliefs. His last great experiment was in suspending animation: now he intends to use Solo’s blood to revive their leader to be a leader to new, disaffected, strong young men. The H-name is never mentioned but does it need to be?

Needless to say, Ilya’s intervention brings the whole thing down in flames, literally, including Volp and his leader, the latter of whom Solo dispatches into the fire. Which gives us time for a happy ending as U.N.C.L.E. treats Chuck and Terry to a world-spanning honeymoon, and Angelique offers our man Napoleon another ‘truce’. Until the next time, no doubt, though she never returned and indeed Miss Gray gave up her acting career only five years later, having also appeared in the first series of Danger Man, in Get Smart, Bewitched and as a presenter on Double Your Money (ask your grandparents).

Taken overall, the ending had a fair amount to make up for, which it did to a large extent, but the episode did itself no favours with its title, and its ongoing theme of Games in the Act titles when the actual story was completely unrelated to games. We’re still feeling our way into what U.N.C.L.E. will become and, after last week, this is a One Step Back. Tune in for more next Tuesday.

The Infinite Jukebox: Television Personalities’ ‘Smashing Time’


I’ve already forgotten what it was that triggered a very long forgotten memory, but the recollection burst into my head and sent me scurrying to Wikipedia and YouTube to hurtle back in time to the late Seventies, and the wonderful days of Punk and New Wave, and to a band who’d vanished out of my head that are now heralded as forerunners of the likes of Half Man, Half Biscuit, a comparison I’d never have thought of myself but which is clear once made. I speak of a guy called Dan Treacey who, with whatever mates he chose from time to time, formed the completely unsuccessful band, Television Personalities.
TV Personalities were oddities. They could only ever have existed because of Punk but they rejected all but one of its basic components. Not for them the aggression, the energy, the high speed, the snarl. The only thing Treacey and Co took into their music was the amateurish style, the anyone-can-do-it ethos, taken to a further degree than before, and they married it to a Jonathan Richman-like naivete of lyrics, but not quite so, because Treacey was always smarter, and more smartarse with his sometimes not very concealed cynicism.
This was seen immediately on their debut, self-produced release, the Where’s Bill Grundy Now? EP. It’s lead track was taken up by dear old John Peel and played to death, five nights a week, oh what days they were. I could just as easily be writing about that song, the icily spiky, stiletto-sharp ‘Part-time Punks’, with it’s near unmelodious guitar strum, busy and shuffling. Treacey’s lyrics stripped the meat from the bones of the wannabe punks who were too afraid, or maybe too middle-class to commit on more than a superficial level.
Television Personalities captured these people whole, and nowadays it’s also a history lesson about what was considered fundamental to 1977.
But what I struggled at first to recall was another song, another single a bit later, could have been 1978 or 1979 and I’m disinclined to check because I don’t want my hazy memories of it to be disrupted by too much reality. Only let the song anchor itself.
‘Smashing Time’ was another simple affair, lacking in detectable melody. It was a softer, gentler sound, still tinny and light, but the edge of ‘Part-time Punks’ was missing, there was a little guitar twiddling, and the song eased up a little on pace. There’s a warm atmosphere right from the start, and a certain bashfulness that links the song in my consciousness to the later Jonathan Richman in its childishness.
It’s the oddest, but in what the song doesn’t say, one of the most emotional of songs. Cousin Jill came down to London for a weekend break, Treacey sings, and I promised that I’d show her round the sights. That’s all, so unusual yet so natural. Cousin comes to town and the singer promises to show her round, and the song counts up the places they go, the Tower of London, Madame Tussauds, the West End at Night. Feeling silly at being scared in the London Dungeon, and slightly embarrassed in Soho. A Wimpey Bar that wasn’t nice. Walking in Hyde Park eating ice cream. Jill thought the King’s Road was terrific and Carnaby Street was Fab.
It’s all about her, and giving her a good time, the best weekend that she had ever had. There isn’t a romantic note in the song, at least none that are held up for you to see, but me, I wondered. The song catches something it won’t disclose, but I hear it all the same. I see these two, youngsters, fourteen year olds at best. He’s giving up whatever he might have planned for his weekend to give her a good time. He doesn’t regard it as an imposition. Why not?
Because he likes cousin Jill, and whilst he would be embarrassed London bus red to have anyone suspect it, he shows it by trying to give her the greatest time. And Jill? Jill may not understand what he really thinks but she likes him and she likes being around him and the best weekend she had ever had is not just his attempt to give her all of London in one big arms-full gift but that it is he who is giving this to her.
It reminds me very much of the Lone Pine Club books and the early relationship between David Morton and Petronella ‘Peter’ Sterling, where Malcolm Saville shows us the more than mere friendship that links them but which neither is in any way ready to acknowledge even to themselves.
Jill and our singer may grow up, like David and Peter, to have a future. Or they may not. Right now they’re content with a wavelength that they don’t realise no-one else shares. We both agreed we both had a smashing time. And she thought it was really good.
And so did I.

Sunday Watch: Victoria Wood – As Seen on TV – s02 e01-03


wood

The one drawback about this Sunday Watch business is the sheer number of television series I have to get around, in an utterly random manner. Sure, it’ll keep me in viewing for years to come, but I was shocked to realise that it’s six months since I last settled down to watch any Victoria Wood – As Seen on TV.

It doesn’t really matter, though. This morning’s viewing is the first half of the second – and final – series. You could say that it’s more of the same, without change, and be right at that: the monologue, the sketches, Susie Blake as the snobby Announcer, Acorn Antiques, the documentary, the song, but the beauty of it all is not just Wood’s seemingly limitless invention, nor the range of imagination she puts into investing things with such a thoroughly human banality/surreality, but also the fact that she’s canny enough not to overload us with the same thing in the dame placeb, week in, week out.

For instance, there’s Patricia Routledge as Kitty, who only appears in episode 2, never two weeks running. And Wood and Julie Walters, as Joan and Marjorie (actually, it’s the other way round), TV magazine show presenters of stunning indifference, who only appear in episode 3. That way, Wood manages instant recognition without repetition.

Of course, Acorn Antiques appears every week, but one such feature is fine, even if the whole thing is ultimately one note. But it’s such a relentless lampoon of the kind of cheap daily soap – cough, Crossroads, cough – that we are as hooked on it as fans of the deadly originals are on their choice.

And episode 1 featured the debut of what was probably Victoria Wood’s most famous and beloved song, the saga of Barry and Freda, ‘Let’s Do It’. The song itself is an orgy of glorious lines, bringing overwhelming passion and sexual experimentation into the living room with pleas to ‘bend me over backwards on me Hostess trolley’ and ‘beat me on the bottom with the Woman’s Weekly‘ and Wood hurls herself into it with abandon, as the suddenly libidinous housewife Freda, demanding some long overdue orgasms from her mousey and reluctant spouse and his tired and snivelling excuse for a passion that’s not so much gone cold as been locked in a glacier maintained for that purpose in his garden shed.

And that’s perhaps the epiphany of a strand of British humour that made play with the comic-reversal of reluctant men and gagging-for-it wives.

This series was made and broadcast first in 1986, making it thirty-five years old, but it hasn’t aged a minute. It’s gloriously and riotously funny, and every time you marvel at not just Victoria Wood’s ocean-wide comic sensibility but also her unbounded generosity to her gang of supporting players in giving them the great lines too: Julie Walters, Duncan Preston, Celia Imrie and Susie Blake are at the heart of things, but everyone around her in even the smallest roles is perfect, and in the Kelly-Marie Tunstall sketches, Mary Jo Randle is brilliant in the sheer range of ways she delivers her sole line: “You didn’t?!” (ok, sometimes it’s “You never?!” but she’s still 100%, every atom perfect).

So that leaves me another triplet of episodes, maybe in six months more time, plus a Xmas Special. But it’s a six DVD box set so, even if it doesn’t include Dinnerladies, it still gives me more to go on. Even if I can’t Watch without that little lump in the throat for the fact that Victoria is no longer with us, and all the things she could have been doing with that stolen time.

Down These Mean Streets: Gotham Central


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Many years ago, when Public Libraries still had Graphic Novel sections, I took the opportunity to read stories I would never otherwise have touched if it had involved a penny of my own, strictly limited, pocket. Sometimes that was all it was. And sometimes it was curiosity that didn’t kill the cat but instead fed it a large bowl of cream. The most extreme example of that was Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s 100 Bullets. But I tried a couple of volumes of Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka’s Gotham Central, which were enough to make me explore eBay prices for the books, only to discover they were never cheap enough for me to get involved, especially when factored against my limited storage space.
A DVD collection of the series, which ran for forty issues between 2003 and 2006, takes up no space, and even less when there are a half dozen different series on it. Given that it’s a Twenty-First Century series, I had no intention of writing about it, just of having some enjoyable reading, but when I turned to it, I found Gotham Central to be even better than I recalled, and to be too good not to want to praise it for the qualities that make it so memorable.
Plainly and simply, Gotham Central is a procedural. It’s a crime series, ordinary, mostly-human crime, featuring an ensemble cast of Police detectives, a Major Crimes Unit. The hook is that this MCU is operating in Gotham City, the famous and infamous Gotham, and they are Police trying to do a job, their job, in a City dominated by the Batman.
Just like Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, even in a more limited fashion, it’s about imagining into being a realistic, non-sensational, above all natural look at what it’s like to live in a superhero Universe. What does the constant, in-the-shadows presence of the Batman, and all the murderous, psychopathic freaks he attracts, do to the job of being a Murder Police?

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The series was the concept of two writers, Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka, both of whom were writers with an interest in crime fiction (Rucka is also a well-regarded crime novelist). The writers co-wrote the opening two-parter, which begins with the killing of a Detective by Mr Freeze and the subsequent efforts of his partner to have the case worked by the Department and not the Batman, and teamed up again for a five part story, but otherwise each wrote arcs separately. The original series artist was Michael Lark, whose work I knew from one of the later Sandman Mystery Theatre playlets, a calm, deliberately unsensational artist with a neo-photographic style that eschewed detail, creating a grounded atmosphere for the series.
And it’s clear that a lot of the stylistic approach to the series derived from Homicide: Life on the Street, down to the presence in the squadroom of the visual of that series’ (and the real-life Baltimore Homicide Department’s) Board, which is another reason why I liked the series so much.
Lark left after issue 25 but his successors followed his visual method, always ensuring that the series remained grounded in human authenticity, and an avoidance of the spectacular.
The series featured the whole MCU squadroom and showed it for what it was, a workplace composed of very different personalities, thrown together by a shared skill, but not by a shared temperament. Though they were all cops, and all on the same side, especially when one of their own were threatened or harmed, they were not on the same side as people, with their own twists and thoughts and dreams, and the series benefited immensely in the variety of characters.
Inevitably, just as Pembleton and Bayliss came to be stars in Homicide: Life on the Street, the ‘show without stars’, certain pairings began to dominate. Renee Montoya, Harvey Bullock’s former partner and Crispus Allen, both with unwanted, undeserved futures as superheroes, Marcus Driver and Josie MacDonald, Romy Chandler. Stories involving them began to proliferate: Montoya’s outing as gay, her estrangement from her family, her growing, unresolvable anger were all stories battling, this time in more Hill Street Blues style, with the crimes.

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As you might imagine, Gotham Central didn’t sell. It should have done. It should have been massive, but it wasn’t superheroes, was it, and the audience is long since conditioned to only accept or understand superheroes. DC kept it going because its Graphic Novel collections were selling well, because it was good work that they considered deserved to be seen, and could be carried.
But it’s noticeable that from about the halfway point first supervillains, then superheroes increasingly play a part. The Penguin and The Mad Hatter share a story. There’s a procedural crossover with The Flash, involving a trip to Keystone City to bring back Albert Desmond, the original Dr Alchemy, for questioning, involving Detectives Fred Chyre and Reuben Morillo. A CSI by the name of James Corrigan starts to feature, which would have got us oldsters excited, waiting for him to be killed and returned as The Spectre, but this Corrigan is a scumbag who will end up killing Crispus Allen, and then he comes back as The Spectre.
There’s even a story featuring fifteen year old boys dressed in highly professional Robin costumes showing up dead all over the city, throwing suspicion on The Batman, and causing The Teen Titans to drop in and attest that it’s not the real one.
It made no difference to the sales, which continued to be low, but what sealed the series’ fate was Brubaker’s decision to leave. Rucka always thought of the series as belonging to both of them and agreed to write a final story to close the major storylines. Brubaker’s last issue was no 37, the Infinite Crisis crossover, after which the entire DC Universe leaped One Year Later, not that the final three-parter would have you notice.

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It was a grim ending. Allen is going after Corrigan on his own but is made: a trap is set-up and Corrigan kills Allen. He’s a step ahead of the Department, and beats the investigation. Montoya, strung out as far as she can be, beats him and prepares to kill him but he pleads pathetically for his life over several pages. The issue left it open as to whether Montoya pulled the trigger or not, but alone and last, it having gone out of her (like Pembleton at the end of Homicide: Life on the Street season 6), she hands in her badge and gun and leaves. In 52 she becomes the new Question.
It was an ending that was strong in itself but weak in the distance its melodrama is from what made Gotham Central in the first place. Nevertheless, it was still a clear, distinct series, full of good writing and good thinking that should be running still. Just one more reason why I find nothing to attract me to comics’ future.

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