The Infinite Jukebox: Robert Palmer’s ‘Johnny and Mary’

If you were around in 1972, and you heard the Vinegar Joe single, ‘Never Met a dog (that took to me)’, which was entirely likely as it got a lot of airplay from Radio 1 without attracting sales to match, you would have not have expected the solo careers of either of the band’s two lead singers, Elkie Brooks and Robert Palmer.
Vinegar Joe were a blues rock band. I know nothing of them except the celebrated single, but it was a full on stormer and Brooks and Palmer’s voices were a perfect mix for the blazing guitar lines.
Neither singer followed any kind of expected course, with Brooks’ solo career taking her very much in the direction of cabaret, whilst Palmer’s subsequent work being more in the blue-eyed soul area. But Palmer was more diverse than that, marrying up several genres, including reggae in a collaboration with UB40.
‘Johnny and Mary’ was a relatively early single, released in 1980 and reaching no 44 almost invisibly, or should I say inaudibly? I was still listening to some Radio at this time, and still industriously writing down the Top 40 chart every week, but ‘Johnny and Mary’s chart run was long over before I happened to hear it.
Musically, it’s not what you’d expect, being more electronic than soulful. An unvarying beat, digitally constructed, a synth rhythm considerably less full than anything New Order produced, this is the basis of the song, and rhythm not melody is key to it. Palmer sings within a restricted range, again using a minimal melodic line that’s similarly decorated by little runs of guitar that are actually more forceful than the beat. It’s a slider of a song, infinitely protractable: a 12” version would have been absolutely immense in the clubs.
And this music is the soundtrack to a fascinating word picture of a duo, a pair, Johnny and Mary, and the near-complete mismatch of their contrasting but inseparable personalities.
Palmer introduces us first to Johnny, the protagonist, the active pole, kinetic and hyperactive without once being effectual, a bundle of nervous energy full of dreams and awkwardnesses, permanently in motion but fundamentally hollow. Johnny’s always running around, trying to find certainty, he needs all the world to confirm that he ain’t lonely.
Then he turns to Mary, the reactive partner, the passive pole, the sceptic, the immobile, undercutting him with analysis of his failings/flailings yet protective of him, trying to be a ballast to his impracticality. Mary counts the walls, knows he tires easily.
Back and forth Palmer’s lines bounce, now Johnny, now Mary, and as the song spools out your sympathies shift and change. At first, you feel for her, having to handle such a neurotic, impossible, unsettling boyfriend, but then you see that for him she is not necessary a balance, but ballast, not anchoring him but dragging him down.
Which one do you think deserves the other least? Why are they bound as they are, when there’s seemingly no point of contact between them? Is it more than the propulsive effect of the beat, creating a dance that both move to? Never forget that love can be just as much destructive as fulfilling, and that baby ducks imprint on the first thing they see once they emerge from the egg and that that is their mother, whatever species it is. Johnny and Mary are bound, and like the man and the woman in the weather-house they rock to each other’s rhythm and never find that happy place where both can stand.
But nevertheless, ‘Johnny and Mary’, obscure as it may be, fascinates by allying a rock-solid beat to this picture of two disparate people bonded irretrievably. You’d run a mile from meeting them, but you’ll listen to their strange talk for hours.

Quick note for followers of this feature: as I currently have enough written posts stacked up to fill the next sixteen months at the current rate, The Infinite Jukebox will now appear twice-weekly for the foreseeable future. Check for the next one on Rhursday.


Film 2022: North by Northwest


Yes, once again I’ve amassed enough new DVDs for a Sunday morning Film Season that can last three months. And yes, my selection of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic North by Northwest is directly influenced by my friend Garth Groombridge’s recent study of the film. What can I say about this film that Garth has not already said?

To begin with, I can add a personal note. Back in 1966, I started in the First Year at Burnage Grammar School, directing my parents’ efforts at moving upmarket to Burnage itself. We had barely moved in, with Xmas just a fortnight away, and one Monday morning, lessons were suspended, the whole school gathered and marched, in form order, out of the back gate and down to the Burnage Odeon, one of the once panoply of suburban cinemas that took the latest movies once the big City Centre cinemas had done with them. I didn’t know that the School did this and it was an exciting thing, though the moment Burnage reverted to being a High School under the Comprehensive System, the following Academic Year, the tradition (if tradition it had been and not just some one-off I was lucky to catch) was abolished.

It was my first ever visit to the local Odeon, of many (it’s now a supermarket) and the film they had lined up for me and all the rest of us was North by Northwest. I was completely ignorant, being just a month past my eleventh birthday at that time, having only seen adult films on TV, on Sunday afternoons. I didn’t even know that Cary Grant was the male lead: I mean, with a name like Cary, that had to be a girl, right?

In the more than half a century that’s followed, I grew familiar with a couple of scenes: the crop-duster attack, and the final moments on Mount Rushmore. But I suspected, and rewatching the film today has confirmed that suspicion, that that morning in December 1966 was until now the only time I had seen North by Northwest. I have come to it almost as completely fresh as I will do to most of the other films for this season, which I have never seen.

So how do I react to this film made when I was only two or three? Of course I enjoyed it. It’s a fun thriller, a virtual template for the James Bond series, or at any rate the earlier, mostly-sane ones. I enjoyed the speed with which the plot set itself up: we are introduced to Roger O. Thornhill, advertising executive, busily dictating notes to his secretary on a walk-and-talk that sums him up completely. Yes, he’s Cary Grant, and we know Cary Grant, with his fast-talking ways, which is a very handy shorthand, but Thornhill’s manners and quick talk, pre-dating Mad Men and surely an influence on it, tells us all we need to know about him, and the film has barely got going when he makes the fatal, unlucky accident that draws unwabnted attention to him.

It’s simple and neat, a perfectly plausible coincidence. A Page pages George Kaplan. Thornhill needs a page at that moment and summons the same young man. It looks for all the world as if he’s replying to the Page’s call. He is taken to be George Kaplan, whoever and whatever he is. Roger’s misfortune is to be picked up by men who are not constituionally believing, and who are looking for a man who they expect to lie to them.

All of this passed me by back then: I spent much of the movie in a state of confusion, no doubt enjoying the individual scenes but having failed to grasp the underlying point to Thornhill’s adventures, I had no idea why this wss all happening.

The set-up is quite simple, beautifully so when you piece it all together from the various staged revelations that Hitchcock sets up. Philip Vandamme (James Mason at his urbane, self-satisfied and slimy best) is an enemy of the United States, passing secrets to the Other Side – never named but this is clearly the Cold War – and George Kaplan is a US Government Agent, out to interfere with his plans. Which is why Vandamme wants to get his hands on Kaplan and then kill him.

But, as we are alerted about a third of the way in, by the medium of Leo G. Carroll, pre-figuring Mr Waverley as ‘The Professor’, head of an Intelligence Unit, George Kaplan doesn’t exist. He’s a variation on The Man Who Never Was, the genuine War-time distraction, a dead man carrying fictional plans that deflected the Germans from the real plans. Kaplan moves around, from Hotel to Hotel, in some kind of crazy pattern, leaving a trail Vandamme is trying to monitor, all the time keeping him from suspecting the real agent, hidden in his bosom. With Cold War logic, the Professor dictates that they will do nothing to relieve Mr Thornhill of his inadvertent complications, lest it compromise their plot.

Because Roger is in trouble. He’s had a bottle of bourbon poured into him and he’s been set behind the wheel of a Mercedes sports car, on a coastal road with no crash barriers on the sea side (very poor road safety conditions, seriously). But here Vandamme has made his first mistake, by not believing Roger is Roger, and a Madison Avenue advertising executive: it takes more than a bottle of bourbon to make someone like that completely incapable behind the wheel.

So Roger escapes death, only to be arrested and charged with drunk-driving and a few other associated matters, and nobody except his own Lawyer believes his story about people being out to kill him, especially not his mother, one of those who has typecast her son as irretrievably irresponsible and juvenile: well, he is an advertising executive, isn’t he? Incidentally, she’s played by Jesse Royce Landis, who was only was only eight years older than Cary Grant and, quite frankly, he doesn’t look at all believable ss her son.

From there, it escalates. Thornhill wants to prove his innocence, which means finding Kaplan. This leads him to the United Nations (where filming had to be carried out illicitly and secretly as the UN had refused permission to use their land) and to a Lester Townsend who is definitely not James Mason and who is promptly killed. It’s a big and unworthy cliche. I have never had the experience of having a man collapse into my arms only to discover that the cause of his sudden manoeuvre was a dagger buried between his shoulderblades, but I am pretty confident that the very first thing I would not do is grab the dagger and pull it out, with my fingerprints all over it, even if that’s only because I’ve seen that happen far too often on film and TV. But Roger Thornhill, does, and must do so, for how else is he to be framed for murder and set on the run?

So there Thornhill is, heading for Chicago, where Kaplan is next to be found. He gets onto the train easily enough but is at risk of being found when he is helped unexpectedly by a beautiful, cool, Hitchcock blonde, who sends the Police the wrong way, twice and in between bribes the dining car attendant to seat Thornhill at her table where she, explaining herself to be 26 and unmarried, actually invites him to spend the night in her sleeping car, with not so much undertones of sexual congress as a graven invitation. This from a 1958 film, made under the provisions of the still extant Hays Code. I was shocked.

And as this was the film’s co-star and female lead, Eva Marie Saint, as Eve Kendall, only appearing for the first time 45 minutes into the picture, I wouldn’t have waited to eat my Brooks Trout, it’d have been down that train corridor right now and spot weld that Do Not Disturb sign to the outside doorknob.

To be serious though, it’s this part of the film that I have my greatest concerns about. Here is Thornhill, on the run, a supposed murderer, everyone about him a threat. And this woman starts helping him, in full knowledge of who he is and what he’s ‘done’, with no discernible reason for doing so, yet he doesn’t display a scintilla of caution or, more probasblre, paranoia. When they are all out to get you, why do you trust a perfect stranger, even if she looks like an ice cool blonde waiting to be melted to passion? Only if Thornhill genuinely believes that he is so much a magnet for women that a complete stranger, and yes, a bit of a self-professed non-virgin, would help him escape justice as a murderer because she simply wants to thrw herself at him for the night? If Thornhill really was that kind of smug, empty-headed, God’s Gift To Women that he’d have to be, we would have had to see signs of that before now to accept it.

Nor does he suspect anything when, several semi-dark, short, closed-mouth smooches later, she tells him he’s sleeping on the floor.

So the audience isn’t one bit surprised when Miss Kendall turns out to be working for Mr Vandamme (actually, she’s his mistress), but Roger is. Not that he finds out until much later, long after she’s lured him into the famous crop-duster plane attack sequence, which is every bit as good as everyone says it is. I’m sure my younger self thoroughly enjoyed it, even with having lost the plot completely: why is all this happening? I dunno, but this bit’s exciting.

As it happened, long before we even got to the relevation that Eve was playing a dirty game, I’d worked out the real situation. Partly because it was the obvious twist at that point, but also because I remembered the ending from 1966, but I sussed out that not only was Eve setting up Roger for Vandamme, but that she was the Professor’s inside agent. It all fit too neatly for any other explanation to be plausible.

Let’s move forward. Roger has started to have suspicions and ends up confronting Vandamme, and Eve in particular, at a swanky auction. It’s obvious by now that the two have fallen in love with each other, and Roger is hurt at being betrayed, as much as Eve is by his not-unjustified but nevertheless hateful reaction that she can’t counter with the truth. Typically, it’s immediately followed by a wonderfully funny escape as Thornhill decides that the only way he’ll get past Vandamme’s thugs is to make a complete nuisance of himself until he’s arrested.

That’s the t urning point. He’s raised doubts in Vandamme’s mindabout lovely Eve and The Professor has to step into the open, explain about Kaplan, and persudae Roger to maintain the deception for a couple of days yet. This he does by pointing out that if ‘Kaplan’ can’t create a dissociation, Eve will be killed.

By now we’re at Mount Rushmore, one of the three American sights I would most want to visit. A plot is hatched offscreen to set up a conflict with Eve in which she shoots ‘Kaplan’ at close range, herself becoming a murderess, who needs to get out of the country with Vandamme, who is holding a statuette bought at the auction, containing microfilm (our much-belatedly presented McGuffin). The gun, fortuinately, only shhots blanks. Fortunately, that is, for now.

What the Professor has not told Thornhill, indeed had egregiously concealed, is that they want Vsandamme to be able to leave the country, and Miss Kendall with him, to continue her intelligence activities. Thornhill is determined to rescue her, and his wild solo approach to Vsndamme’s home puts him in a position to discover that she is going to be killed by being thrown out of the plane, over the ocean.

The background to this is the one that could not be made explicit, in no way. I’ve not until now mentioned Vandamme’s secretary and right arm, Lennard, played by Martin Landau. Lennard is quite clearly – to the adult eye – homosexual. Eve is Vandamme’s mistress, and indeed he’s besotted with her, like Roger. But, though Mason was wholly uncomfortable with the idea his character was himself homosexual, his smoothness, his oiliness, is a pretty clear signal that Vandamme is bisexual. But, in a typical for the era slice of ‘faggot bitchiness’, Lennard has always suspected Eve – jealousy gets you everywhere – and he has purloined her gun and demonstrates that it shoots blanks.

So Thornhill, still on his own, has to get her out of there. At first it seems that Eve is going to put her role first, go with Vandamme on the plane, but it’s a ruse to enable her to snatch the McGuffin and run with Roger, scrambling down over the President’s faces (isn’t that some sort of republican lese-majestie? Well, Hitchcock was English). This leads to the classic, climactic fight, and that beautifully taught, high speed ending, analysed so brilliantly by William Goldman in Which Lie Did I Tell? in which the whole story, down to and including Roger and Eve’s wedding and about to be legally consummated in a train sleeping car, in a matter of not much more than thirty seconds.

No, I didn’t remember a single thing from the film that I hadn’t seen, more than once, as a clip in some kind of film review programme, which says more about me at age 11 than it does the film. It’s good fun, a classic entertainment. It’s somewhat loose, being structured as a chase-thriller in episodic form, none of the episodes having any real connection other than our Roger, and there’s one or two places where Ernest Lehman’s script brushes things under the carpet, hoping we won’t notice that exactly how something has been set up hasn’t been explained, but I’m more than happy to make the acquaintance of a film that’s at least only the second I remember going to see in a cinema, and understanding it properly this time.

The Not-So-Great Escape: post-Kirby Mr Miracle

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Jack Kirby’s Fourth World titles were an ambitious attempt to create a new form of comics, by presenting a combination of titles, united by a central concept and a central villain, challenged from different directions and in different aspects over four different series, including the entirely improbable Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen.
It didn’t work. That is to say, it didn’t work commercially. New Gods and Forever People were both cancelled after eleven bi-monthly issues, on the usual grounds that they weren’t selling. I’ve heard otherwise, especially from Kirby’s then-assistant, writer and historian Mark Evanier. He’s not the only one to suggest that Kirby was presented with less-than-accurate figures by DC Editorial Director/Publisher, Carmine Infantino. Evanier has stated that whilst the books were not high-sellers, they were bringing in better-than-cancellation figures.
Given that it was Infantino who worked so hard to detach Kirby from Marvel, his treatment of him once signed up to DC – which was to basically deny him everything he’d been promised and to hinder him from being Kirby in favour of promoting the DC style – was bizarre and perverse, but not necessarily so mysterious.
As well as the Fourth World, Kirby was still the creation machine he’d always been. The idea was always that he would create and start off titles before handing them off to assistants, like Evanier and his colleague Steve Sherman to write, and other artists to draw, under his supervision. But Kirby came up with Kamandi, the Last Boy, Infantino liked it, insisted Kirby continue it himself and, in order to give him time to do so, cancelled New Gods and Forever People. Given Infantino’s track record in the Seventies, it’s horribly believable.

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Mr Miracle lived on. It was almost the most easily detachable from the overall mythos, the super-Escape Artist quickly convertible into a lone wolf. It ran for another seven issues, getting increasingly simplistic, until it too hit the Cancellation Wall, this time probably for sales, culminating in a final issue that brought back practically all the New Genesis and Apokalips characters (save for The Forever People, who’d been stranded in a far distant limbo) to act as witnesses to the marriage of Scott Free and Big Barda. This was, incidentally, the only one of the Fourth World issues I bought when it was published.
Just over three years later, DC revived the series for a further seven issues. I might almost have characterised it as another Infantino’s Follies save for two things. Firstly, that Mr Miracle was revived under Jenette Kahn as Publisher, and secondly that it was actually quite good. Nevertheless, the same thing that dogged Infantino’s mid-Seventies series, was still present, namely multiple creators. In seven issues, we covered two writers, two pencillers, two editors and multiple inkers, not to mention two complete changes of direction, one at the start, the other at the swap of writers. I call this quite good? Oh, but I do.
The New Gods had already been revived, under the title Return of…, as a one-off in First Issue Special under Infantino, and then as a series under Kahn, but as this was being written by Gerry Conway, all right-minded Fourth World fans regard it as never having happened. The Mister Miracle revival followed, under a writer with a better pedigree, Steve Engelhart, working with hotshot new penciller Marshall Rogers.
Engelhart had made his name at Marvel but had walked out on them in a fit of pique at what he saw, rightly or wrongly, as interference with his work, by Conway, ironically. Actually, Engelhart intended walking out on comics, period, but before doing so, in a wonderfully small-minded act of petty revenge, for which I applaud him, whole-heartedly, he decide to go to DC for a year and knock their socks off with his writing in a two-finger gesture to Marvel.
Engelhart wrote a superb year of Justice League of America. He wrote an eight-issue run on Batman, the first two issues a kind of try-out with an unrecognisable Walt Simonson inked by Al Milgrom, and the rest stunning from Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin, done DC style, from full script and unseen by Engelhart until the finished series was sent to him in Europe.

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And Rogers was wonderfully paired with Engelhart for Mr Miracle, albeit without Austin. Instead there was one issue credited to Ilya Hinch, a name representing nine different inkers working on different characters, one of them Rogers himself, and three by the notorious Vince Colletta, who couldn’t quite obliterate Rogers’ art but who made his usual uninterested in wasting time effort to do so.
Engelhart picked things up where Kirby had left off, with Scott and Barda on New Genesis, on honeymoon, effectively in retirement. Scott’s starting to feel a bit out of it, especially as everyone else is in action, and the point becomes extremely pointed when he is attacked via Boom Tube by Darkseid’s hierarchy, namely the same four that tried to kill the pair before their wedding: Granny Goodness, Virmin Vunderbar, Kanto and Dr Bedlam. Scott fights back, but Barda is kidnapped, for reindoctrination as a good little Darkseid trooper, with Scott following her to Apokalyps to get her back. He’s allowed to get to where they are keeping her, but only by separating himself from Mother Box.
That meant Scott having to rely on his human skills. And next issue, having spirited Barda away, despite her having been brainwashed to attack him, he got her away to New Genesis and their version of a hospital there. Unfortunately, when he tried to repair and re-bond with Mother Box, she pushed him off: up till now, he has relied on her, seeming to have no god-like powers of his own, but now he has to draw upon his own strengths.
And Scott decided to fight back against Darkseid by becoming a messiah: on Apokalyps certainly, and maybe on Earth too. Scott started his campaign whilst Barda was recovering.
At which point, after three issues, Engelhart was gone, without warning or explanation. Rogers stayed on for issue 22, which was written by an unknown, John Harkness, and which featured Scott Free, out of the blue and with no foreshadowing, deciding that the only thing to do was to kill Darkseid, Messiah-dom obviously not being cut out for the impatient.
At the time, it caught me by surprise. What I didn’t know, and didn’t learn for several years, was that John Harkness was Steve Engelhart, taking his name off the script because he was essentially doing what was required of him by incoming editor Larry Hama, who had replaced Denny O’Neill: not his idea, not his name.
The fill-in issue isn’t that bad. The first two-thirds is divided more or less equally between Mr Miracle fighting his way across Apokalyps to Darkseid’s personal bunker of darkness, and his friend Oberon desperately trying and succeeding in making contact with New Genesis, Highfather and Himon to tell them what Scott is doing and seek aid for him. Oberon does not have high hopes of Scott succeeding, and the New Genesis high command has even less, since all they do is burst out laughing, treat it about as seriously as you’d treat a ram trying to headbutt a hole in a dam, and suggest he stops broadcasting before someone local homes in on his radio position.
And then Mr Miracle gets there, into Darkseid’s bunker, and suddenly it’s scary shit with full page art, all dark and craggy, and the lack of balance of powers between him and the Master of Apokalyps becomes vividly, visually apparent, and Darkseid just disappears him with a wave of his hand…

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Enter a new creative team. This consists of writer Steve Gerber and penciller Michael Golden, paired on inks first time with Joe Giella, and then Russ Heath for the last two issues, by which we can actually see that it’s Golden doing the art, and not just his name being taken in vain.
The first of Gerber’s issues takes up Mr Miracle’s dismissal. He winds up in some sort of limbo land, confronted by an either female or at least androgynous figure calling herself Ethos, and who may or may not be a manifestation of Mother Box. We are drifting even further from Kirby’s conceptions here, especially as Ethos’s teachings are bent to re-orienting Scott’s perceptions, divorcing him from both his godly heritages, Apokaplyps and New Genesis.
Thankfully, it doesn’t start intimating that he is actually human instead, but it does send Scott back to New Genesis, to a) collect Barda and b) blow off Highfather with unfilial rudeness, before heading back to Earth with Barda.
Scott plans to start up a new Escape artist tour as a preliminary to building himself up as messianic figure, helping people escape from their perceptions (a rather trite ambition). He sells up Oberon’s home, moves everyone to California (I know exactly how Oberon feels), re-hires his old publicist Ted Brown and sets about building himself up in the public eye.
Gerber also introduced an interesting young character, by name Aleetha. Aleetha is fifteen years old. Ten years ago, she suffered injuries, impliedly due to a mistake by her weakling father, that leave her in constant pain. Despite this, and under tutelage by her domineering, not to mention sneering mother, she has trained herself to perfect control of her body, fuelled by her pain, and is now to be used as a weapon against Mr Miracle by Granny Goodness.
Aleetha strikes in issue 25. She’s more than a match for Scott Free. Unfortunately, for her parents at least, she is not interested in inflicting pain, in combat of any kind, except against the limitations of her body. This makes her useless to Granny and ensures her parents’ deaths: no loss, as far as I can tell.
Mr Miracle saves her from Granny and was clearly going to take her on as part of his team, but at this point the infamous Implosion occurred. This iteration of Mr Miracle was cancelled, and Aleetha and any plans Gerber had for her went with him. Pity: she was a genuinely intriguing character.
Not, of course, that this was the end of Mr Miracle: far from it. In it’s way, it was a transition series, setting Scott Free both in the context of, and divorcing himself from what Kirby had established for him. He’s still around, forty plus years later – Kirby characters tend to do that – even though, the last time I noticed, Shilo Norman, not Scott, was the one getting out of impossible traps.
But even though this brief run ought properly to be regarded as a travesty, it was a travesty by two superior writers and two great (when not pissed all over by crap inkers) artists. I bought it all then and I’m glad to have it back now. So two cheers from me.

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Due South: s01 e03 – Manhunt

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It appears that the contents menu on my Due South box-set is less than well organised, as a result of which I have watched the third episode today, ahead of the second. not to worry: it was excellent once more, on the same twin-level of serious and naturalistic drama on which the comedy lies like that cream you’re supposed to carefully layer on Irish Coffee before drinking the coffee through it.

Leslie Neilson makes his first guest appearance here as RCMP Sergeant Buck Frobisher, a contemporary and friend of Fraser’s late father and, like him, a legendary mountie of the woods, the snows and the wilderness. In the open, we see a rough looking guy escaping from prison, phoning Frobisher and threatening him, which causes Frobisher to run and hide, ending up in Chicago.

The guy is Harold Geiger (William Smith), a grim, determined, hoarse-voiced, brutal cop-murderer, brought in originally by Frobisher in heroic circumstances and now swearing vengeance. The news comes to Fraser via Frobisher’s daughter, Julie (Cali Timmins, a genuinely beautiful woman), who’s worried about her Dad. Fraser promises to do everything he can to find, and protect Frobisher, which of course brings in Ray Vecchio to assist.

Up to this point, and beyond, the episode wants Neilsen to play things straight, and play it straight he does, as an old guy who was once a top man, an invincible. In bringing Geiger in, Frobisher saved his life, even as Geiger stuck a hunting knife in Frobisher’s leg, leaving him working a desk for the last seventeen years. Neilsen portrays a man who, for the first time in his life, has run, afraid of no longer being good enough to beat his man, ashamed of being afraid. He rejects Fraser’s help: who is he that, with his career, his record, he should need help from a pissant like Fraser. He will run again.

Only he doesn’t. And this is where the episode changes. We get a recitation from Fraser to Ray about Geiger’s history, about who and how many law enforcement officers the man has killed. And this guy is comking to my city? Ray asks. Fraser confirms. I hate tourists, says Ray.

And that’s our touchstone. Next thing, Frobisher turns up in his dress uniform (actually not his, it’s rented from a costumier, if he doesn’t catch his arch-enemy by Tuesday he has to pay extras). And he’s not only the real Buck Frobisher, who’s going to get his man, but he’s the Leslie Neilson we love, of Airplane! and The Naked Gun, and the comedy intertwines with the threat. Geiger obsessively tries to get nearer. Fraser gets a knife wound in the leg as well, but insists on joining the hunt whilst limoing and gasping heavily. We end up with a climactic fight scene where Geiger is beating the hell out of Frobisher, because let’s face it, Buck’s sixty, and he’s been behind a desk for seventeen years, but hell, it’s the same thing: Buck saves Geiger from falling to his death, Geiger produces the knife, willing to die in order to kill, but Buck’s been here before and this time he takes him, alive and unwounded, and with his self-respect taken back.

Of course, it wouldn’t be funny withut a good exit line. Geiger’s been arrested, he tells Buck it isn’t over and Buck cherfully says, I’ll be waiting. Then, to the cop putting Geiger in the car, out of the corner of his mouth, If you get ther chance, shoot him.

So what if I’ve watched this out of order? At this early stage, Due South hasn’t got any serialised aspects worth mentioning. I’ll catch up on the missing episode 2 next wek, and then I’ll pay closer attention to running orders via imdb. And I suspect I’m going to keep having fun for a long time yet. A pity Cali Timmins never returned though, as it was strongly hinted that she was in love with someone not a million miles away…

Goodbye Cheeky: Barry Cryer R.I.P.

A moment or two ago, I caught up with the news that comedy legend Barry Cryer, one of the world’s most naturally funny men, had died peacefully at the age of 86. As a writer and as a performer, he could make me laugh with everything he said. His record, and the number of people he worked with, is beyond impressive.

But in an instant, I was taken back to 1973, to BBC Radio 2 at 2.00pm on Saturday afternoons, and to a little-regarded, barely remembered half hour radio comedy unfder the name of Hello Cheeky. It was wsritten and performed by Cryer along with John Junkin and Tim Brooke-Taylor. We would be at my Gran’s for Saturday dinner, and the meal would finish in time for me to sneak off into the armchair at the back of the room, in the corner, affix the little earphone into the transistor radio and curl up, invisible but not inaudible, because for the next thirty minutes, week in, week out, I would laugh myself sick.

It wasn’t a sophisticated joke. Most of it was one liners, with puns and twists and jokes hurtling at you relentlessly, to such an extent that by the time you’d finished laughing at one joke, another three would have flashed by you. I loved it. It was the first time I was exposed to Barry Cryer.

Later, Yorkshire TV put them on the air to do the same thing but it didn’t come over as well, for this was radio comedy at its purest, where the pictures are all in your mind and all the better for it.

One episode featured a sketch about, I think, Jack the Ripper. I had taped that episode and replayed it a dozen times. I can still recall the opening, word for word.

My name is Scarf, Inspector Scarf. I thought I’d get a gag in early. This case began one day when I was sat at my desk in the Yard – next year they’ve promised me an office. There was a knock on the barbed wire and my Sergeant entered with bleeding knuckles…

Maybe that doesn’t leave you howling like it did me and maybe it’s not only because you don’t hear the voices like I do, but Barry Cryer and his two team-mates made me laugh every week, for thirty exhausting minutes that I remember still so vividly, and I loved him for it. He was a comedy God and now he’s gone. One by one the stars are going out…

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge – My 40 Favourite Movies: 18 – North by Northwest


18: NORTH BY NORTHWEST: 1959. Director: Alfred Hitchcock. US. Espionage thriller. Cary Grant. James Mason. Eva Marie Saint. Leo G. Carroll. Martin Landau. Jessie Royce Landis.
This is the third of my favourite Hitchcock movies, billed as “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures”, the screenplay written by Ernest Lehman, developing a long-standing, if rather vague, idea of Hitchcock’s to feature a climax fight on Mount Rushmore, in South Dakota. Initially Lehman and Hitchcock were trying to adapt the 1956 Hammond Innes novel The Wreck of the Mary Deare, but gave up it on, and decided to write their own original screenplay instead. The Innes novel was eventually scripted by Eric Ambler, and starred Gary Cooper, also released in 1959. While many critics now tout Vertigo as Hitchcock’s greatest, others challenge this, and certainly North by Northwest has the most memorable and iconic images of any Hitchcock film other than the Bates Motel and the shower scene in Psycho – that of the crop-duster plane and the fight on the sculptured Presidents’ heads on Mount Rushmore, although both are not what they seem. The Indiana farmland was really near Wasco, California, in the Joaquin Valley, north of Bakersfield (Hitchcock even had the square panel Indiana-style road signs erected to perfect the image); while the Rushmore heads were authentic mock-ups created in the MGM studio at Culver City, CA. Hitchcock later claimed his original working title was The Man On (or In) Lincoln’s Nose. The final title was often assumed to be from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “I am but mad north-north-west, when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw,” but actually in Lehman’s script, his hapless hero travelled from New York to Chicago, to the South Dakota Black Hills, and (never realised in the final draft) on to Alaska, so a north-westerly direction. Hitchcock himself pointed out there was no such compass point, it actually should be ‘north-west by north’.
This was Hitchcock’s first venture with MGM, and, as a one-off, the studio replaced CinemaScope with Paramount’s big-screen Vista-Vision. The budget eventually came in at $4.3million. A large chunk of this was on Cary Grant’s salary, which was initially at $450,000, but there was a clause stipulating $5,000 a day if filming ran over a set schedule – which it did, big-time, as actual filming had not even started when the schedule time-limit expired. The bonus therefore kicked in and Grant had 78 days more days, earning him an extra $390,000! In addition to this he also got a share of any profits, as he had with his previous Hitchcock film. Box office takings were $9.8million. Hitchcock’s other male star regular, Jimmy Stewart, had initially wanted the part, but Hitchcock felt Cary Grant’s persona more suited. Not wanting to hurt Stewart’s feelings, he wanted until Jimmy was already committed to making another movie before offering it to Grant. One source says the movie was Bell, Book and Candle, but this was released in 1958. Stewart was making Anatomy of a Murder in 1959. For much of the shooting, Grant couldn’t make head nor tail of the plot, but to Hitchcock this was good. Roger Thornhill, the character he was playing, had no idea what was going on either! Right up until it was released, Grant was convinced the movie would be a flop. Running time was 136 minutes – quite long for a Hitchcock movie – and MGM wanted to cut 15 minutes. However, Hitchcock checked his contract, which gave him absolute control, and simply refused. Likewise, MGM had wanted Gregory Peck for the Roger Thornhill role, and the actress/dancer Cyd Charisse in the Eve Kendall part. Hitchcock, however, always wanted Grant – he argued to MGM Peck was too “stony-faced”. He would have liked Grace Kelly back as Eve, but, as Princess Grace of Monaco, that was always a non-starter. Even Hitchcock had met his match there! In fact, the stuffy Monaco authorities banned the showing of any of Kelly’s movies within the principality. Instead Hitchcock decided on Eva Marie Saint, and again he stood firm and got his way. He had Eva cut her hair short, modulate her voice to be lower and more husky, and – disliking MGM’s wardrobe choice for her – insisted on taking her to Bergdort Goodman, the luxury department store on Fifth Avenue, New York, for his own selection of her clothes. Many of his feminist detractors crit this almost Svengali-like control over his blonde leading-ladies, yet Hitchcock the director was able to bring untapped depths out of his actors and actresses that, often, they themselves never knew they possessed. In movies like Rope, Rear Window and Vertigo he showed us a new, darker James Stewart. Likewise, he stretched the emotional repertoire of Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much, perhaps one of her best movies. We have already remarked on Grace Kelly’s potential, apparent even from her first movie with Hitchcock, the darker, more obsessive Dial M for Murder. Hitchcock obviously saw Eva Marie Saint’s talents wasted on what we would call ‘kitchen sink dramas’, like On The Waterfront, and changed her screen persona to a seductive woman of mystery. Critics took note, A.H. Weller in The New York Times remarking, “In casting Eva Marie Saint…Mr Hitchcock has plumbed some talents not shown by the actress heretofore.” Another critic remarked she had hitherto been “drab and convincingly sweet”, but now showed that “she can be unexpectedly and thoroughly glamorous”. Eva was born 1924, and enjoyed a 75 year career: high-profile, off-beat movies in the 1960s, more second-rate roles in the 1970s, returning to stage and television in the 1980s. Married in 1951 to Jeffrey Hayden, she often balanced her acting career with that of wife and mother.
Hitchcock’s own admission to French director Truffaut was he deliberately wanted a change of pace after Vertigo, “Something fun, light-hearted and generally free of symbolism permeating his other movies.” And again he is in a playful mood, with Cary Grant the perfect foil as the middle-aged debonair bachelor, destined to be ensnared by the beautiful blonde in the final reel. Again New York Times critic A.H. Weller, remarked that Grant, “a veteran member of the Hitchcock acting varsity, was never more at home than in the role of the advertising-man-on-the-lam. He handles the grimaces, the surprised look, the quick smile, and all the derring-do with professional aplomb and grace.” The New Yorker review in August 1959 said, “Cary Grant delivers his Hitchcock Grant – tight-lipped, tight-eyed, flippant, amorous…” while “endless chase sequences seem to chase each other…Hitchcock’s love of planting the grotesque in a commonplace setting.” A summary of the movie by Adrian Turner (Movies of the Fifties, 1982) starts by saying how the movie “was greeted with sighs of pleasure and relief by those numerous admirers of Hitchcock who were perplexed by the romantic obsession of Vertigo…” but that Hitchcock was next to make Psycho (in 1960) which again many viewers did not know quite how to take – ”Gothic extravagance, black comedy or an appalling lack of taste.” – How opinions change! Turner continues: “North by Northwest is a divertissement between two emotionally disturbing films, a colourful spy frolic starring the amicable Cary Grant, a chase movie told with a gleeful disregard for plot but with immense professional skill and good humour.” Even so, there are darker elements. We are still in Cold War America, not everyone – or even everything – is what it might seem, and there are background hints of global tensions (within three years the Cold War nearly went ‘hot’), to say nothing of the moral ambiguity even of the American spymasters – the supposed ‘good guys’ – in putting the Cary Grant character’s life at risk. Adrian Turner’s conclusion is not without its own dark humour perhaps: “Grant’s Roger Thornhill is the classic adman: smart and shallow, a believer only in himself, unshakeably complacent, unattached and on the make. His personalized book-matches, inscribed with the initials R.O.T., emphasize the zero of his life. The film charts a moral and spiritual growth by stripping away what identity he has and by forcing him to adopt the identity of someone who does not exist. Thornhill’s commitment at the end is not to the ideal of America, as embodied by the paternalistic head of the CIA (Thornhill already has a dominant mother who keeps a check on his drinking), but to Eve Kendall, another in his long line of women. The survival of this species of American male is a disputing prospect just off the edges of the frame.”
With Hitchcock it is easy just to sit back and enjoy the entertainment of his movie, but what always makes him that little bit more special as a director is his subliminal messages, his fearsome attention to detail in almost every frame, and his mischievous sense of humour. For instance, when asked what the ‘O’ stands for in Roger O. Thornhill, Grant’s reply is nothing, which some suggested was a sly Hitchcockian dig at his former producer, David O. Selznick. And, indeed, throughout it is a movie of such clever little details and risqué dialogue, although Eva Marie Saint’s line during the railway dining-car seduction scene was changed from “I never make love on an empty stomach” to “I never discuss love on an empty stomach.” “Beats flying,” is Grant’s droll comment after a kiss on the train. The clever, double-take ending of Thornhill reaching out his hand to pull Eve to safety from the Mount Rushmore cliff-edge, fading into him helping Mrs Eve Thornhill into the upper bunk of the overnight railroad train, was then trumped by another example of Hitchcock’s mischievous sense of humour (and Freudian symbolism) as we see the train speeding into the tunnel. That was Hitchcock’s idea, scriptwriter Lehman confessed, apparently adding in envy “Dammit!” The MacGuffin – almost incidental to the story – was a sculpture containing a microfilm.
Once again we have the perfect ensemble of actors – English actor James Mason (1909-1984) as the suave, sophisticated enemy spymaster, Phillip Vandamm, a “stock role” for him, “properly forbidding”. Mason suffered a heart-attack not long after. Again sources say both Yul Brynner and Curt Jürgens were being considered for the role. In retrospect, Mason was the ideal choice. Martin Landau (1928-2007) played the suitably sinister Leonard, in what was one of his first major film roles. It was at his suggestion he play the character as gay, implying a homosexual relationship with his boss, Vandamm. Mason wasn’t very happy about it, apparently, but Hitchcock and Lehman loved the idea, and even allowed Landau to insert an extra line into the dialogue to subtly reenforce Leonard’s sexual orientation. Afterwards some people believed Landau really was gay, and he had to point out, no, he was an actor. It just added a hidden dimension to the character. Later Landau was also an acting coach, producer and editorial cartoonist, with a filmography from 1955 until 2007, as well as being a one-time good friend of James Dean. He was later better known for playing master of disguise Rollin Hand in the television series Mission Impossible (1966-1969), a really good, clever series before Tom Cruise hijacked it. He followed that by another television series, Space 1999 (1975-1977). Leo G[ratten] Carrol (1886-1972), another English actor with a 58 year acting career starting in 1912, played ‘The Professor’, the devious American spymaster out to trap Vandamm by creating an entirely fictitious CIA agent, George Kaplan, to divert attention away from his real agent Eve, who had been installed as Vandamm’s mistress. Leo Carroll was another of Hitchcock’s ‘regulars’, who had appeared in Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), Spellbound (1945), The Paradine Case (1947), and Strangers on a Train (1951) This, then, was his sixth movie from the Hitchcock stable. He, too, later became better known, almost reappraising his North by Northwest role, as Alexander Waverly, the spy chief in the 1964-1968 television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Jessie Royce Landis, who played the mother of Grace Kelly’s character in To Catch a Thief (so Cary Grant’s character’s future mother-in-law), here plays Roger Thornhill’s mother. In fact she was only 7 years older than Cary Grant, at that time he was age 55.
Hitchcock’s cameo role was as a would-be bus passenger getting the door slammed in his face. Uncredited, but apparently equally famous, was Cary Grant/Roger Thornhill’s suit, voted by GQ magazine in 2006 as “the best in film history.” Again one source says it was from “Grant’s own tailor, Kilgour French & Stabury of Saville Row, London”. But Vanity Fair magazine says Norton & Son, London, while The Independent says Quintino of Beverley Hills. Whoever it was, in the film, Landau was reputed to be dressed by the same tailor.
After the more claustrophobic settings of his earlier movies like Rope, Dial M for Murder or Rear Window, Hitchcock was again out, filming on location – New York, Chicago, Mount Rushmore. The story starts in New York. Roger Thornhill’s office is in the Commercial Investment Trust Building, 650 Madison Avenue, which dated to only a few years previous, built in 1957. Next we see him at the Plaza Hotel 768 Fifth Avenue. The Oak Room was meticulously copied and recreated in the MGM Culver City studio. Hitchcock had been unimpressed with the NYPD for police protection, criticising them both for cost and their efficiency. Apparently, as a consequence of his remarks, when the film crew turned up at the Plaza Hotel, they found police protection had been withdrawn. Next was the United Nations headquarters, located between 42nd and 48th Streets. Having reviewed the script, the U.N. authorities refused him permission to film, so Hitchcock was again forced to film Cary Grant outside and seeming to enter the building by more illicit means, from a hidden camera in a discreet non-descript vehicle. The story then moves to Grand Central Station (89 East 42nd Street) and the 20th Century Limited overnight passenger train en route to LaSalle Street Station, Chicago. This service was operated from 1902 to 1967 by the New York Central Railroad (NYC), who advertised it (perhaps rather optimistically) as “the most famous train in the world”. It would leave New York at 18.00 hours Eastern Standard Time, and arrive at Chicago at 9.00 Central Standard Time, a journey of 958 miles, average speed 60 mph. Return journeys were 15.00 CST from Chicago, arrival 8.00 EST. The Amtrak Lake Shore Limited from Penn Street, New York to Chicago Union Station now follows more or less the same route.
From La Salle Station we find Roger Thornhill in the flat rural Indiana farmland and the famous crop-duster plane sequence, actually filmed at Wasco, CA. The aircraft used was a Second World War Naval trainer bi-plane, a N3N-3 Canary. Again Hitchcock used clever editing of the farmland and aircraft, cut to Cary Grant hiding in the roadside ditch and crops, which were filmed in mock-ups at the Culver City studio. In the scene where the plane crushes into the gasoline truck on the highway, large-scale models were used. The company name on the truck, Magnum Oil, was another little secret joke – Hitchcock’s son-in-law worked for the company. The aircraft pilot was Bob Coe, a crop-duster from Wasco.
From the Ambassador East Hotel in Chicago, Thornhill next finds himself at Chicago Midway Airport, flying to Rapid City, South Dakota.
Again the aeroplane is a Douglas DC-7C Seven Seas, used by North West Airlines. The Rapid City Airport building seen here was apparently demolished in 2002. Likewise the Memorial View Building at Mount Rushmore was also demolished in 1994. In 1927 sculptor Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941) set out to carve Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt into the mountainside at Rushmore. His son Lincoln (1912-1986) completed the work in 1941, which eventually only comprised the heads, money having run out. The Department of the Interior, who were responsible for the Mount Rushmore sculptures, refused to allow any shooting on the faces, and invalided their filming permit. Hitchcock yet again had mocks-ups of the heads made at the LA studios, which were so good many people were convinced it was the real thing. In a huff, the Department demanded their name be removed from the credits. Likewise Vandamm’s house, supposedly on the mountain, was also a mock-up, in the style of the then famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, interiors filmed at Culver City, exteriors being matte paintings.
This was the fourth, and last, of Cary Grant’s movies with Hitchcock (in total Grant featured in 76 movies, co-starring with some of the greatest names in the business) – the other Hitchcock movies being Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946), and To Catch a Thief. Cary Grant was his stage name, which he only legally changed in 1942. He was born Archibald Leach, in 1904, in Horfield, a suburb of Bristol, England. He had an unhappy childhood. His father was an alcoholic, his mother suffered from clinical depression. His father had her locked up in a mental institute and young Archibald (then aged 9) was told she had ran away, and later that she was dead. His father subsequently remarried not long after. Grant only discovering his mother was still alive when he was 31, when his father told him the truth shortly before he died. Grant arranged for her release, and financially supported her, but their relationship was never really restored – one reason he gave for his repeated failure in his love affairs and relationships with women. At 16 he had joined a theatrical vaudeville troupe, and soon after was in America, which thereafter became his adopted homeland. His filmography was from 1932 until his early retirement in 1966, together with radio work from 1935 to 1955. From the lowly working-class boy who had been expelled from school, he reinvented himself into one of the most successful of the great Hollywood Golden Age actors – indeed, the American Film Institute voted him as the second greatest male actor after Humphrey Bogart – and well as being a shrewd businessman. He was married five times, and had a daughter, Jennifer Grant, born 1966 (herself later an actress), quite late in life. When he died in 1986 his estate was valued at between $60-80million, divided between Jennifer (who he obviously adored) and his last wife, Barbara Harris, who he had married in 1981. Despite such fame and fortune, he never really took himself too seriously – unlike so many actors, before or since, whose fame went to their heads and inflated their egos.
In retrospect some critics have seen North by Northwest as the template for the later James Bond/spy movie franchise. While the early – Sean Connery – Bond movies kept pretty much to the basic plot of the original novels (as did also the much-maligned George Lazenby On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), this is probably partially true of the Roger Moore Bond period – “suave and flippant”, and leaving a trail of dead bodies and disruption across some world heritage site. In that much, perhaps Hitchcock was again something of a pioneer. He was to make another seven movies after, two of which were still ground-breaking and innovative in their different ways. Psycho, which we will look at below, was his most successful financially, and probably in its impact on movie trends and directors for decades to come. Then there followed The Birds, released in 1963, from the Daphne du Mourier short story, edging towards a mixture of horror and science fiction. If Psycho inspired its inferior attempts at imitation of slasher/serial killer/misogynist murder movies – most notably in America and Italy – then The Birds ushered in a wave of ecological doom and gloom disaster movies, humankind being punished for their ‘sins’ against nature. But, after that, came the decline. Both the cinematic technique and audiences were changing; new, younger directors were emerging; Hitchcock was no longer leading from the front. North by Northwest was the last of those beloved and memorable post-war Hitchcock movies, which also saw the end of the stable of top-notch actors and actresses, and the talented team of contributors. The last five Hitchcock movies – Marnie (1964), Torn Curtain (1966), Topaz (1969), Frenzy (1972) and Family Plot (1975) – are very much a disappointment.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: s01 e14 – The Terbuf Affair


Inconsistency, thy name is U.N.C.L.E. season 1! Aside from the ridiculous title (Terbuf is supposed to be a small Balkan nation, on the Adriatic Coast), this was a perfect example of the kind of episode I’ve been expecting all along, and precisely because David McCallum was allowed to play a full role this week, both in tandem with Robert Vaughn and in his own right. It made a taut, well-written story even more fun by bringing in the kind of light-hearted approach to deadly danger that I associate with my mental impression of the show.

What we have is a Police State (much of the Balkans in that era was subsumed in the now-dissolved Yugoslavia, a Communist state independent of the USSR) whose Head of Secret Police, Colonel Morisco (played by Alan Caillou with a wonderful RAF-style fluffed out moustache) is diverting very large portions of the country’s foreign aid into his own pocket. A gypsy named Emil (Jacques Aubuchon) has obtained letters proving this and is trying to get out of the country with them. An attractive Amarican woman, Clara Valder (Madlyn Rhue, later to make a memorable guest appearance in Star Trek wearing skirts a damned sight shorter than she does here) is trying unsuccessfully to get Emil out of the country. Little does she know that her tall, upstanding sheep-farmer husband, Stefan (Kurt Kreuger) is not only passing every detail to Colonel Morisco, he’s in on the appropriating. But when he tries to bargain with the Colonel to hand over Emil in exchange for Clara being untouched, the Colonel gets a bit shirty – he does not like people who try to bargain with him – and sends Stefan off to torture, just like any other political prisoner, and introduces Major Vicek (Albert Paulsen) to the scheme.

We now cut to Rome, and Agents Solo and Kuryakin on leave, looking for the place that cooks the perfect veal parigan, when they find themselves being herded by gypsies, to meet with Clara Valder. Who, seven years ago, as Clara Richards, had a thing with Napoleon, in whose heart the flame is still alight. Clara wants Napoleon’s help with Emil. Ilya, with his Russian sense of pessimism, as well as his innately cynical turn of mind, adds himself to this voluntary mission, figuring that Napoleon is going to need someone who can keep his mind on the job.

It’s a wonderfully poised set-up. Napoleon arrives openly by train, met by Clara at the main railroad station, two-horse affair that it is, and introducing him to her ‘husband Stefan’ or, as she dare not give away, Major Vicek. Ilya turns up on a fishing boat, in the harbour, which will take Emil out unobtrusively with the fishing fleet, an hour after dawn tomorrow. Not much time then.

What follows is a wonderfully rambunctious affair of gaining the gypsies’ trust, uncovering the false Stefan, rescuing Clara, going before the firing squad and bashing their way out of the country against overwhelming odds. In short, a top-notch U.N.C.L.E. affair full of fun and frolics. The balance between the seriousness of the situation and the carelessness of attitude with which our Men approach it is beautifully maintained, and Madlyn Rhue spends the last third of the episode in her nightie, though with her dressing gown on over it, boo, hiss (she really was an attractive woman, who I’d never heard of before).

The episode ended on a bittersweet note that was, in itself, a moment of poignant genius. Everyone’s getting away on the fishing boat. Napoleon and Clara are handcuffed together but she is fawning over the wounded Stefan, eyes and thoughts only for him. She doesn’t know he’s a rat, nobody does, only the audience. He’s just her husband and she loves him. Ilya, spotting the sadness in Napoleon and sympathising in his reserved and unemotional manner, says they’ll get the handcuffs freed once they’re in Italy. And Robert Vaughn delivers the last line with perfect grace: “There’s no hurry,” he says, “they’re not holding anything together.”

This episode is more or less the middle of season 1. To be honest, I’ve been disappointed so far and thinking of putting the boxset on eBay once I get to the end of it. I’m not saying I won’t, but if they can manage to keep this up for the back half of the season, I’ll definitely be hanging on to it. Keep your fingers crossed for me!

The Infinite Jukebox: Kenny Rogers and The First Edition’s ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town’

Irrespective of their merits, the songs that were being played on Radio 1 in those first days when I started listening to it daily, all day, hold a distinct place in my memory.
Certainly, ‘merits’ isn’t a word I would apply to Kenny Rogers’ first British hit, ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town’, recorded with his band, The First Edition. It had reached no 2. in December 1969, unable to break through the immovable object that was Rolf Harris’s ‘Two Little Boys’, but was still in the Top Ten, though falling, and still getting plenty of airplay.
The song and the performance are a far cry from Rogers’ glutinous and saccharine run of British hits in the late Seventies through to the Eighties, a period where the Great British Record Buying Public once again demonstrated their total lack of taste. Rogers doesn’t so much sing as murmur in a monotone, over a slow, shuffling rhythm, the band making minimal efforts to accompany him. The whole thing is so laid back as to be horizontal, a phrase we used to use a lot back in the Seventies.
Inevitably, the lack of anything conveying even a vestigial tune throws the single’s emphasis onto the words. Back in 1969/70, a newly-turned 14 year old, and a less than worldly-wise one for my age, I had very little idea what Rogers was singing about. Later, when I’d got a bit more of an idea, I understood it all too well.
Rogers starts things off with one of the longest opening lines to a song in pop history. You’ve painted up your lips and rolled and curled your tinted hair, he murmurs, Ruby are you contemplating going out somewhere?
Well, yes she is. The sun’s going down and she’s off to town to have a good time, she’s a young, fit, attractive woman, and what he says next is not nice: Ruby, don’t take your love to town. What he’s basically doing is accusing her of going into town to shag about, to break her wedding vows to him, commit adultery, in short, act like a whore.
Why does he think she’s going to step out on him like that? Kenny’s a bit defensive about that. It wasn’t me that started that old crazy Asian war, he protests, but of course he was all in favour of it, he was proud to do his patriotic chore. But it’s cost him, he has to admit that he’s not the man he used to be, but Ruby, he still needs some company.
Crazy Asian war? It’s 1969, everyone’s thoughts immediately leapt to Vietnam, though songwriter Mel Tillis, who first recorded it in 1966, insisted it was about a WW2 veteran, so he was thinking about Japan. But just as M.A.S.H.’s Korean War antics were a surrogate for Vietnam, at the height of a war that so affected, and warped, the country, no-one’s going to look further than the end of their noses.
There’s another nod to the reality of the situation from Kenny, agreeing that it’s hard to love a man whose legs are bent and paralysed, and, with the band dropping out to leave only the skipping drumbeat, a nod to the wants and the needs of a woman your age… But then the truly maudlin bit, about how it won’t be long he’s heard them say until he’s not around…
This really is starting to get a bit gooey, but Rogers and the song haven’t finished. There’s one last obscene sting in the tail. She’s leaving now cos he’s just heard the slamming of the door, the way he knows he’s heard it slam one hundred times before (geez, exaggerate much?) And then it goes very dark indeed, because Kenny threatens that if he could move he’d get his gun and put her in the ground… Jealous husband, all set to murder his wife, domestic violence, what else can you ask for? And we were buying this, presumably approvingly?
I don’t feel like wasting any more time on this repellent little piece. It’s a relic of an age when it was sooo much more acceptable to call your wife a slut, and kill her because your feelings were hurt by her not hanging around having no fun with you. Of course I’m aware that Ruby is acting in a potentially hurtful and selfish manner, that she’s putting her own need to have a good time (nudge, nudge, wink, wink, but is she actually shagging about or is it all in Kenny’s imagination?) and it’s all about her need to have a cock between her thighs. What? That’s what Kenny thinks, isn’t it?
And a man’s got a right to kill a cheating whore bitch, hasn’t he, especially when he’s only been doing a good thing, fighting for his country overseas, sacrificing his mobility and his welfare.
Mel Tillis might have meant Japan, but no-one hearing the song in 1969, unless they were a naive teenager, thought of anything but Vietnam. It’s a conservative song, that assumes Vietnam was right, was good in exactly the same way it assumes spousal murder is good and justifiable.
But what really gets my goat about it, what causes me to want to rant, no matter how long after the fact this is, as I did with Jack Jones’ rendition of ‘Everything is Beautiful’ in that same era, is the way that people have held this song up to be significant, as emblematic of the pain of a nation torn by the effects of the Vietnam War, the gulf between Hawks and Doves. No, I want to scream at those who tried to elevate this into something it so manifestly is not, it’s a scuzzy, self-entitled, male violence encouraging little shitefest and you have no business erecting this into something of philosophical proportions. There is nothing noble about this, quite the contrary.
Apparently, though I’ve never heard either, there were two answer songs to this piece of slime, though the only answer I’d have given it is very loud and rough. There was an answer song from a female country singer, earnestly assuring ‘Billy’, as she named the singer, that whilst she had to go to Town (did she need to pick up extra balls of wool for her knitting?) he should trust her to honour her vows/not to fuck around on him, and a much later one purporting to be the son that he’d clearly managed to father despite his bent and paralysed legs (artificial insemination?) insisting that his parents had had a long and happy life together, which just goes to show the extremes some people are willing to go to to lie to each other.
Ok, you’re good to go now, the rant is over.

Death of an Imagination: Jean-Claude Meziere R.I.P.

It is a bitter thing on a Monday morning to wake up and the first thing you discover is that another creator has gone out into the infinite unknown. Jean-Claude Meziere was the artist and co-creator of the tremendously popular and highly influential French SF series, Valerian and Laureline, that started in 1967 and only ended in 2010. It was bold, it was bright, it was a tour de force of visual imagination, from the multiple alien races to the cities and lands and environments Meziere conceived. Highly influential: you cannot imagine what Star Wars would look like if Meziere and his writing partner Pierre Christin had taken up carpentry instead.

And there were Val and Laureline themselves, and especially little Laureline, the almost perfect feisty heroine, no respecter of authority, no sufferer of fools, which very often included her good-hearted but conventional fellow Spatiotemporal Agent.

How did The Who put it? The Good’s Gone. Once again the horizons narrow and another tone of light is removed. How bitter for this to be the first news on a Monday morning.


Sunday Watch: Country Matters – The Little Farm


Tragedy is clasically defined as the fall of a person from a high position. When such things happen to ordinary folks, it’s usually defined as a domestic tragedy. In the utterly excellent Country Matters I would go so far as to further define it as a tiny tragedy. It affects the lowest among us, and its effects only take place within a very narrow compass, but they are no less devastating, no less destructive for all that. And the emotions they can rouse are every bit as violent.

‘The Little Farm’, based on an H. E. Bates short story, comes from the second series of Country Matters, in 1973. It’s a three-hander, between Tom Richard (Bryan Marshall), a hard-working farmer living alone in the middle of nowhere, Jack Emmett (Michael Elphick), his part-time hand who takes and sells his milk for him, and who is taking advantage of Tom’s slow honesty and his inability to read or understand figures, and Edna Johnson (Barbara Ewing), Tom’s new housekeeper/companion and eventually lover.

It’s a very slow story whose path takes time to develop. The very fact that Jack is played by Michael Elphick clues us in to his being a rogue before we hear him talking about betting, and twitting the near silent Tom in a very familiar all-men-of-the-world-here-well-I-am-but you-ain’t manner. Tom’s been lonely since his mother died, and the house is a pigsty. He advertises for a housekeeper/companion and, based on her photo, chooses Edna, a tall, slim, attractive woman, who is handsome rather than beautiful.

Edna, an honest, astute and forthright hard worker, transforms the farm. Tom’s innate decency and his slow, almost fearful love for her attracts her. She’s equally astute as to how Jack is ripping him off and sets to rectifying the situation.

Jack is unhappy about losing his easy mark. He tries to pin it on her, a stranger, interfering with his friendship with Jack, we wuz alright till you came here, poking your nose in. He’s a schemer, a conman, and beneath the outwardly cheery manner, he’s a nasty piece of work, a piece of vicious slime. He hates Edna, but at the same time he wants to screw her, is continually flirtatious with her. In the end, he threatens that he will find out what she really is.

And he does. Edna has fallen in love with Tom and shares his bed – in a touch of unexpressed genius it is her bed he shares: Tom still sleeps in the bedroom he occupied as a son and when she came installed Edna in his mother’s room, the one with the double bed – and is in all respects his wife, save in one. Her secret, which undermines her resistance to the despicable Jack, who is out to destroy Tom’s relationship for his own ends, once he finds out she is already married, and has run away from an unhappy marriage far away.

Of course, he can be persuaded to keep his mouth shut if she’ll…

So the inevitable climax comes. Edna sneaks away in the very early hours, leaves forever, leaves a letter explaining why. But Tom is illiterate, it’s been clearly established without being spelled out for us. In a flash, the final dimensions of this tiny tragedy are understood and the story plays in the shape we have already understood: the only person available to read the fateful letter to him is Jack. So we hear Edna’s voiceover, as her bus slowly meanders down country roads, explaining about her marriage, about not being free to give him what she has given, but that for all her life remaining she will love him. And then Jack reads out that she has run away because she has been taking and keeping the money Jack has been giving her for Tom’s milk and eggs.

Oh, you bastard, we want to cry, and to have a means of crushing the words in his lying throat, especially as he then rips the letter to pieces, in case someone else might one day read it to Tom. Poor Tom, whose life has fallen in on him so unexpectedly, who cannot comprehend that the woman he loved, so good and true, could betray him.

The adaptation is, I am led to believe, extremely faithful, and the performances are both natural and powerful. I must praise Bryan Marshall as Tom, for extracting the most from the least material, and having the least to work with. Michael Elphick is the same Michael Elphick we know from his later career and Barbara Ewing rises to the intelligence of Edna, but it is Tom, who is and remains a very limited human being that Marshall raises from being an inert lump to the figure who can be the centre of the tragedy, and for whom our heart breaks. Without a word we know he will never be the same again.

I keep saying it and I will again for the three remaining episodes but it is an artistic crime that this series should not be fully available, and that there should be five episodes not available at all, except by travelling back in time to watch them on ITV, on Sunday nights.