All the Fells: Great Carrs


Great Carrs – The Southern Fells 2,575′ (16)

Date: 15 May 1984/ 13 September 1996

From: Swirl How/Swirl How

I have climbed Great Carrs twice at widely removed intervals but it’s more accurate to say that I have visited its summit, both times by the short walk round the head of Greendale from Swirl How. I have not done any actual walking that could seriously be said to be on Great Carrs itself, which is a bit of a shame, as if I were taking advantage of the fell: almost cheating. My first visit was one of my earliest walks: it was, in fact, the first walk in which I used any of Wainwright’s Ridge Routes to reach more than a single summit on a single day, which would mean that this was the culmination of only my third ever walk solo. I’d set off to climb Wetherlam from Tilberthwaite, found myself on the summit sufficiently early to allow me to go further, to Swirl How. And from there, even without Wainwright’s encouragement that it was just ‘a seven minute stroll’, Great Carr’s abrupt, angled top was so obviously close and easy to reach that ignoring it would have been the most absurd thing ever. And it did indeed take me exactly seven minutes, being downhill practically all the way. But here was where I had to make a decision. It was still early in the afternoon, not much later than about 2.30pm. Ample time to go on to Grey Friar. But this was an early walk: what’s more it was an extended walk of a kind I’d rarely done before, with Helvellyn, almost a decade earlier, as the closest comparison. I had no knowledge of my stamina. And every step towards Grey Friar was a step that had to be taken back. So I played it safe, correctly, returned to Swirl How – it definitely took longer the other way – and headed back towards Wetherlam, though I cut out the summit second time round, contoured round to the Lad Hows ridge and descended pathlessly until I could see the Coniston – Tilberthwaite path below and made a beeline for that. There I was offered a welcome cup of tea by a couple of middle-aged women walkers, though there was bits in the milk, and I was fortified for the return to Tilberthwaite, reaching the car on the opposite side from which I’d left it. Over a decade later, free to indulge myself on expansive walks now I had collected all 214 summits, I planned and executed a brilliant day walking the entire Coniston Range. Once more I traversed from Wetherlam to Swirl How, and made that brief circuit of Greendale, congratulating myself over the pleasant discovery that, despite now being in my forties as opposed to my twenties, it still took me only seven minutes. This time I walked on, intent on Grey Friar next.

The Ultimate Artist: Neal Adams R.I.P.


Very little comes as a shock any more. I woke up late, checked my e-mails and found an alert from downthe tubes: In Memorium, Neal Adams. Another of the ‘gods’ of my youth goes from us. It’s only to be expected: I am now 66, and the men and women whose worl stirred me were all older. They will go before.

I asume I don’t need to explain Neal Adams for you. He was comics’ premier artist, drawing the most real and dynamic of scenes, in demand from the fans. He took Batman back to the night. He redesigned Green Arrow. Dealers in back issues would flag comics he’d drawn and these would be more expensive, often twice as much as the issues either side of a guest pencilling. I remember finding two Adams’ Batman or Detective in Dave Britton’s comics shop on Peter Street whose name I’ve forgotten, at 45p each, buying them, and walking down Deansgate almost trebling at my audacity in buying two comics that were 45p. Each.

Adams was a fan favourite alright but only to the fans. The general audience comics then had were less enthused. Adams only drew a dozen issues of Green Lantern/Green Arrow and it was cancelled for low sales (admittedly, the comic was in trouble before he and Denny O’Neill took it over).

The run is probably the most famous run of Adams’ career. The art’s superb but the comics haven’t weathered well, their earnestness too blatant. Now we have neither of the creators, nor its editor, Julius Schwartz.

I’m not the person to speak of Adams’ career. After those days at DC in the Seventies, and some memorable work at Marvel on The Avengers and X-Men he took advantage of the independent boom of the Eighties to take control of his work, most of which he also wrote. He wasn’t half the writer as he was the artist.

But he was yet one more who was there when I needed stimulation, and my head expanding, and my eagerness satisfying. He is, once again, another good one gone.

P.S. Reading other’s tributes has reminded me of one thing on Neal Adams’ list of credits that I should not have forgotten. In 1978, he went in to bat for Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, the creators of Superman but then two old men, living in impoverishment and virtually forgot. Thanks to Adams’ energy, determination and advocacy, there is now and for over forty years never has been an interation of Superman that does not have his creator’s names indelibly applied, and whilst they were still not party to the uncountable billions their character has earned, Adams’ efforts secured for them an easeful and comfortable old age. Without him… it doesn’t bear thinking about, and I should have said that without needing to be prodded.

All the Fells: Great Calva


Great Calva – The Northern Fells 2,265′ (160)

Date: 9 September 1992

From: Knott

Great Calva has a unique position, situated exactly on the great central rift that runs all the way through the Lake District from the Glenderaterra valley in the north, separating the Skiddaw and Blencathra massifs, to the foot of Windermere in the far south, beyond all but the foothills. Nowhere along that rift does the land rise above the summit of Dunmail Raise. I don’t remember much of an extensive view that day: indeed, on the rambling ridge route from Knott, which seemed to have very little directness to it. I arrived at the northern and lower end of the summit ridge in some short-term cloud that left me a bit concerned for its effects on progress. But the top was clear and I could record another success in the ever-diminishing number of fells I had left. What remains more clearly in the mind was the descent to the Skiddaw Forest road, making a careful, curving way down intense purple-clad heathery slopes whose tough stalks made for slow, catching progress. Eventually I reached the ‘road’, tractor broad but unmetalled, in sight of Skiddaw House, which was in the wrong direction for visiting. This left me a long, slow retreat to the car, taking me down the steep zigzags bordering on Whitewater Dash – a much more exciting name than the simplistic Dash Falls, though the constant white spatter is equally attractive under either name – and down into the Dash Valley. I crossed to the far side to complete my long stroll back, a bit foot-sore from all the concrete by the time I got there but nevertheless content with my achievements.

Scooby Doo, What Are You?: Scooby Apocalypse


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There had been Scooby-Doo comics before but none like this.
A few years ago, DC Comics entered into partnership with Warner Brothers to create a line based on classic cartoon characters owned by the latter, to be done in a modern and up-to-date style by the former. In short, no matter how child-oriented and funny-absurd the characters were, they were going to be given a dose of the patented DC dark-as-hell approach. The results were mixed.
On the one hand, Space Ghost teamed up with Green Lantern in a serious fight-first-then-join-forces story befitting both heroes’ status as guardian forces. On the other, the Banana Splits re-invented themselves as hip-hop.
Snagglepuss became a gay Southern playwright in the McCarthyite Fifties, with Ruff’n’Reddy (who were just that bit before my time) as a washed-up nightclub duo who hated each other, but The Flintstones because a wonderfully naturalistic socio-political satire that deserved three times the twelve issues it got, at least.
Until now, all I know of Scooby-Doo is the full-page adverts in other DC Comics. They did not fill me with confidence. Now I’m going to see for myself whether there was any merit to this adaptation, or if it was the wholescale abortion I feared it was.
Before we drop into the story, let’s look at the five characters as they appeared on the cover of Scooby Apocalypse 1, the full page advert that repelled me so. Apart from their carrying bizarre SF guns and wearing short-sleeved as opposed to long-sleeved tops, Fred and Daphne looked more or less normal, though if you looked harder you could see that the latter had jettisoned her famous lavender tights for combat trousers (boo! hiss!).
Velma was drawn as virtually a midget, with much modernised and blank-lensed glasses and looked nowhere chunky, whilst Scooby-Doo himself was kitted out with some form of harness that fitted a metal circle in front of his right eye. But it was Shaggy whose look made you want to run screaming away from the title: ears visible, pierced, goatee extended in length and shape to full beard and a moustache added, a curled, immaculately trimmed moustache that spelt complete lack of understanding of character.
There were six alternate covers, including one for each star. Shaggy’s looked even worse.
This was going to be grim.
The creative team was the combination of Keith Giffen and J. M. de Matteis, the old Justice League International pairing on plot and script, with Howard Porter on pencils. The reset involved changing everyone’s characters. Daphne was now a pushy, egocentric TV reporter out to resurrect her career, with Freddie, or Fred, as her devoted but put upon cameraman, an out-and-out cynic who’s invisibly in love with her. Velma is a brainy scientist with contempt for lesser mortals (i.e., everyone else) working on a secret project to Save the Earth that she’s discovered has ulterior and sinister motives and repercussions (what secret Project worth it’s salt doesn’t?), and has solicited Daphne’s aid to expose it. Scooby Doo is the failed prototype Military smart dog, capable of rudimentary talk but totally lacking in viciousness and killer instinct, who gets involved trying to protect Doctor Dinkley, whilst Shaggy is a dog-trainer with a special protectiveness towards Scoob.
As you always knew was going to happen, they, not the four private ‘backers’ ended up in the Project’s Safe Space whilst the Apocalypse was triggered. And that was just issue 1.

Scooby vol 2

Of course, this now being serious comics, nobody likes each other, nobody trusts each other, everybody argues, even when monsters are trying to kill them. There are smart remarks on top of all this but they don’t really carry much weight.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to go off on one about darkness. Not just yet, anyhow.
Six issues in, out of an eventual thirty-six, I came to a conclusion about what I was reading. Scooby Apocalypse is nothing but an adventure series obsessed with brutality, monsters and blood. Though I’ve neither read the comic nor watched the television series, it gives off the flavour of being a pretty direct rip-off of The Walking Dead. The story lacks anything genuinely original save the fact that it has been imposed onto the Scooby Doo gang, but their part in this bears no recognisable resemblance to the original cartoons. Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and Scooby are no different from football fans wearing flat facemasks of Eric Cantona, or whichever star floats their boat (I should know this as I have just such a Cantona mask myself: fun to wear but it doesn’t make me any more able to kick a ball where I want it to go than I ever could).
In addition, in the world’s least-unexpected twist, issue 6 was a solo delving into Velma’s history and revealing that the Four who were supposed to be behind the Project were actually the Five: her four brothers and her.
Every few issues there’s a back-up story featuring this world’s version of Scrappy Doo. Given that the original version belongs in a gallery of History’s Ten Worst ‘Creative’ Ideas, the transformation of the concept into a vicious, bloodthirsty monster intent on killing Scooby in as disgusting a manner as possible actually represents an amelioration, but like everything else in this series, it hasn’t got an ounce of originality to it.
So far as the ongoing story was concerned, Velma discovered something about the Nanite plague that had her throwing up and running away, in that order, definitely in that order, leaving a note of apology. The next issue was either an extravagant jump into a future where she’d become Queen of the Monsters and was dedicated to wiping humanity out, or else some kind of dream. The fact she was costumed in thigh high boots and a slightly more long-line Red Sonja bikini but otherwise drawn no differently kinda tipped the hand on that (flu: fever dream) whilst delaying the revelation by a cliche-filled month. The wait wasn’t worth it.
What it was was that whilst she had dreamed of elevating humanity, of squeezing out hate and selfishness and all the other ills, her brothers wanted a population of docile sheep, only they fucked it up because she was the genius and they weren’t. At least one is dead, a suicide but the fattest and most self-obsessed one, Rufus, a figure who makes Donald Trump look like a selfless philanthropist, is alive and not in the mood for a visit from the sister he despises and her friends.
Not that brother Rufus lasted long. His perspective on the mutates being a little like 179 degrees out, he ended up doing an Edward Woodward in The Wicker Man. With Brother Hugo already dead, that left at most two more Dinkleys. Not counting Rufus’s put upon but beautiful wife Daisy, who chose to throw in her lot with the Scooby gang, and start flirting immediately with, of all people, Shaggy.
Issue 14, behind a completely misleading cover, was where the Scrappy Doo subplot caught up with the main action. I have to admit that, having got this far, I’m at least curious as to where this thing will go. As for the pestilent pup, his ending in issue 16 was half a surprise and half a cliché, foregoing his own selfish interests to kill the mutated big brain that was organising all the mutates into a single monstrous organism, at the cost of his own life.
The same issue introduced a new back-up strip in a similarly updated, i.e, darkened unmercifully Secret Squirrel, which was one that came along too late for my years of watching Hanna Barbera cartoons in the run-up to The Magic Roundabout and the news.

Scooby vol

Except that Scrappy wasn’t dead: I should have known. Which meant that when he was killed off again, I didn’t believe it.
Meanwhile, Daisy Dinkley had been around long enough to become a permanent member of the team, not that that got her onto any covers. The flirtation died in its own length as Daisy stayed practical, serious and cardboard, the voice of reason and simply cold.
The storyline took a turn for the worse in issue 20 when Velma pronounced the Nanite Plague irreversible. The new direction involved a two month timejump and a coast to coast transition, not to mention Shaggy shaving his beard off without explanation. Now the gang was going to set up a colony in Albany for the human survivors, building up to retake the planet. That originality issue wasn’t getting any better.
In fact, Giffen and de Matteis started slowing their story down, flooding it with undercurrents about personal relationships. With the Scooby element reduced to 17 pages to accommodate the back-up, it was also as if their pacing had gone, with the end of each episode coming over as perfunctory and ineffectual.
And then they dropped the big one. No sooner had Daphne finally accepted one of Fred’s interminable proposals of marriage than they killed him off. Yes, that’s right, killed off one of the Scooby Gang. Now there are some things you do and some things you don’t do, and killing off one of the Scooby Gang is something you don’t do, but Giffen and de Matteis did it. Scooby Apocalypse was one of only four regular HB series produced by DC, and it was already by far and away the longest running, but quite apart from the creative violence already done to so many of its characters, you can see why HB’s thinking on the project might be apt to change.
In fact, what I’m seeing, without benefit of sales figures, is the same old, increasingly familiar series going into the tank. Right after Fred’s death, we jump six months. Daphne’s locked up with grief and rage, Shaggy and Velma have becomes lovers, something I do not want to see in my mind’s eye unless it’s the Linda Cardellini Velma-is-a-babe version from the film, and Scrappy Doo is back. Deep joy.
Incidentally, do you want to know the reason I’ve not been mentioning the Secret Squirrel back-ups since they started? They’re incoherent crap, that’s why.
Issue 28 exemplified both the rut the comic had gotten itself into and the failed level it operated upon, as the first six pages consisted of nothing more than Daphne brutally slaughtering monsters: that was the story, if story you call it. Basically, it was about being a psychotic killer, and ended with the reappearance of a blank-eyed Fred, presumably zombified.
Zombie it was, as things just got more sickening, with glowing-red-eyed Fred chowing down on monsters’ internal organs, Daphne totally gone round the bend etc. It all has the feel of a upcoming Blake’s 7 ending, with everyone having to be killed off because there’s no remotely viable way back from here.

Scooby vol 4

By the way, Secret Squirrel ended in issue 29. No, this was not back to full-length stories, as the back-up slot went to Atom Ant. Then Daphne suddenly fell out of her psychotic break and decided to commit suicide, and a new figure, who’d supposedly been giving instructions to Scrappy Doo, turned up. Yes, it’s the smell of death on a series, all over again.
So what else gets piled in? Daphne gets horribly scarred all down one side of her face. Scooby starts talking intelligently. Velma’s pregnant by Shaggy. Scrappy’s new boss turns out to be Quentin Dinkley, with Rufus still alive though mutated. It’s like a determined effort is being made to pervert everybody to the limit. As for Atom Ant, it wasn’t as all-out offensive as Secret Squirrel, until they brought back G’Nort.
Quentin Dinkley threw in the possibility of a cure. Nanite Fred was out to save everyone by collaboration between human and Nanite. The Nanite King was out to destroy, starting with the fixed base the gang had had since issue 25.
The series came to an end in issue 36, after exactly three years, with a happy ending. Velma found a cure and the Apocalypse was reversed. So much for the Blake’s 7 ending, which would at least have been quasi-realistic, not to mention satisfying in seeing all these perverted monstrosities gunned down. Throw in lots of sappy elements totally inimical to the tenor of the series and that was that, done, gone and never return. Because Hanna-Barbera will never let anything like that be done to their creations again.
There are two ways in which to look at this series which, at 36 issues, was actually longer than the other three series in total (Wacky Raceland 6 issues, Future Quest and The Flintstones 12 each). Looked at as a Scooby Doo story it was the pits. There are ways to do a more serious and more adult version of the Mystery Incorporated Gang, but they involve some form of hewing to the original characters and not the deliberate perversion of the characters in a twisted fashion that reads like nothing more than the ‘clever’ creators showing off how much smarter they are by shattering anything remotely creditable about originals they could never have conceived in a million years.
Looked as as a post-Apocalypse story featuring five brand new characters with a coincidence of names, it was better but not by so much that it deserved any great respect. The middle of the run did hold the interest on a purely what-happens-next basis but even that is overlaid by indescribably awful and self-indulgent violence that forces any more serious ideas out through simple lack of space.
On either level, it just wasn’t good enough. So now I know. I’d rather I didn’t.

A Mates Expedition


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This time last Thursday, I was considering an afternoon out to Hebden Bridge, which I could do on the train for less than £12 Day Return. In the longer term, I’d worked out that a visit to York was perfectly affordable, for not much more than £25, return. It now being firmly spring and the weather improving, such things were appealing.

And instead I’m off to the Lake District.

Blame it, if blame is required, and it’s not, on my old mate John. The gang got together for the first time in over two years last Thursday, for lunch and some solid drinking. John’s wife was going off for a few dates with her girlfriends on Tuesday, and John, who like me is retired, fancied doing a couple of things his wife doesn’t fancy, like visiting the Imperial War Museum North. He also mentioned having a day out in the Lakes.

Naturally, I begged myself in on this and, being the registered expert, was given the task of devising an expedition. As the last thing he wants to do is spend all that time behind the wheel of a car, even though that would open much myriad more options, a brisk half hour with UK Train Journey Planner and the bus timetables to and from Windermere Railway Station has come up with a plan. All we now need is the weather.

Now this is not the normal expedition. I do not have my head in a book. I do not have my ears in my mp3 headphones. I am not on a bus to Piccadilly Station first. Instead, John is picking me up from home and we’re going from Stockport Station. This does not in any way lessen my timetable paranoia though in retrospect I’m inclined to think that setting my alarm for 6.00am when he’s picking me up at 8.00am was excessive. The acid reflux that jerked me awake at 3.26am was, in the circumstances, unhelpful.

What’s more, instead of standing on the platform in the nippy atmosphere, straining my eyes for a train that’s not due for half an hour, John suggests sitting in the passenger lounge, where it’s warm. This is a radical innovation that I may consider experimentimng with in future, even if a lounge doesn’t include a dark-haired woman sitting opposite who looks like Bridget Christie. She gets on our train too, though not into our carriage.

This leg of the journey goes smoothly. We’re on a Blackpool North train, changing at Preston, and the worst you can say of it is that it stops practically everywhere. The screens inside, with journey details, including connections from connecting stations, would be impressive on any service, least of all Northern Rail.

We have twenty minutes leeway at Preston. Immediately I start to worry. We’re transferring to the Glasgow Central train and it’s running late. Not so late as to threaten our connection at Oxenholme, where we have a dozen minutes. Not yet. But I have had experience with Glasgow trains and buggered up connections…

Sure enough, I twitch practically the whole way. Last time I was in this situation, as I tell John, plus a couple of other passengers equally concerned, they didn’t hold the connection to Windermere and the station porter told me that the bus from Kendal would actually get in after the the next train! The young lady says that they did hold a connection on her last occasion and, as we pull in, Katie the train announcer tells us that they have done so but would we kindly sprint across the platform for them. I can’t sprint. The best I can manage is a fast limp but we’re still on time.

It’s been cloudy all day but well above the fells – even Skiddaw is cloud-free – and the light’s not great but now I can see the fells I’m starting to buzz like I always do. There’s time for coffee and cake – victoria sponge for me, custard cake for him – in Booths before the 555 for Keswick arrives, ample time as it’s a good ten minutes late, we discover because of a three-way stop-go lights at the foot of one of the fell roads into the Troutbeck valley, whilst Openreach are working on the telephone cabinets. Bloody Openreach! Bane of my life for ten years plus. I’ve retired now and they’re still out to get me!

John’s using his smartphone to take photos of everything he fancies, despite having to do so through bus windows that appear not to have been washed since the Flood (not the Biblical one, the one that washed away the roads a few Decembers back).

Amazingly, no-one wants to get on or off at Ambleside so we scoot through. I’m acting as not just guide but travelogue, pointing out fells, talking about experiences. The view westward from the edge of Fairfield’s plateau. Loughrigg Cave. The Lion and the Lamb. I worry about talking too much, and boring him, but he’s finding it all interesting. We pass Rydal Water and Grasmere, and I tell him about how Grasmere got a Memorial bus stop one way for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and a Memorial bus stop the other way for the Golden Jubilee, so what’s left for the forthcoming Platinum Jubilee?

We cross Dunmail Raise to Thirlmere, which I point out is his tap water, and I indicate Bassenthwaite Lake where it’s briefly visible, and then it’s down into Keswick and time for lunch and a pint. It’s Market Day so the Square is chocker but to my dismay, the Oddfellow’s Arms has a sign up saying no food. And though the door is open, when I look through the window there’s no-one inside, either side of the bar.

Still, it’s but a short stroll to the Lake Road Inn, where we sit in the slowly-emerging sun in the courtyard garden and I have burger and chips and he steak and ale pie with veg.

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That’s me on the left and him on the right. This photo not only gets put up on Facebook but is sent to Denise, in Amsterdam with her sister, who’s been sending John photos of tulips in multiple colours: he expects an order for bulbs…

There’s a noisy, aggressive barking dog at a table behind us. Needless to say, it’s one of those little hairy ones. The big buggers don’t need to sound off.

Back to our peregrinations. I lead us down to Derwentwater, to the boat landings, diverting into Hope Park to enable John to see the full-length view down the lake, and then on to Friar’s Crag. It’s not as busy as I expected, but the view is better than the only other time I’ve been here, one November Thursday. I even get to see the wide sweep of the adjoining Strandshag Bay, which has its own footpath sign and which I’ve never heard of before (you’d remember a name like that, wouldn’t you?)

We stroll back, diverting off the road onto a little side-track, running parallel for maybe two hundred yards, just for the sake of earth beneath my feet and then wander back up to the bus station when the 555 is standing but the driver is sitting and is determined to wring every second of doing nothing out before she opens the door. It’s earlier than we need but that’s because we’re going to stop off in Grasmere. I’m staring at the fells alongside, hungrily, though they’re not the most exciting , but because they are my Lakes, and this is the part of the day I always like the least, the going away, and I’m morbid enough to think but not say that every time I go away it might be for the last time, I don’t know. We never know.

It’s been a long day and I’m starting to feel it. My tongue is loose and I’m freewheeling through deadpan one liners, creasing John up, and finding memories everywhere, and we’re both reminiscing about times and places past, as befits two old sods of pensionable age. In Grasmere, I stop off in the Heaton Cooper studio, but not for long, just time enough to see that Julian’s out again.

On the way up I’d noticed that the Grasmere Tea Gardens, heirs to that cafe we used to visit long ago, now had the little terrace above the beck open, where my sister and I would peer through the railing, watching the many minnows wriggle in the clear water, but by the time we get down there it’s shut, and this is barely 4.30pm.

Back at the green, there’s a 599 to Windermere waiting, the open top bus, so we get on that, and sit in the open for the return to Windermere. Booth’s cafe is now shut so we sit in the warm in the station, still reminiscing like mad.

There are two changes going home on the 6.05pm, the first at Oxenholme. I was careless when checking Journey Planner, noting the places but not the times of the changes. Two successive London trains go through, neither of them going through Manchester and all in all we are stuck for fifty minutes at Oxenholme in the early evening, with no entertainment but ourselves and the trainscreen in the Passenger lounge, which is hypnotically repetitive, and resists all attempts to see what’s available on Sky 1.

I don’t know about John, but I’ve spent so much time on trains, buses and passenger lounge seats that I am achey all over. Still, there’s only a handful of stops between here and Piccadilly, where the train goes off to Manchester Airport, and we hop on the Cardiff Cemtral train for the last leg back to Stockport. Then it’s driving past my old office at the moment when, on my old shift, I would have been staring fixedly at the terminal mentally trying to drive away anyone about to call me.

And that was the Mates’ Expedition, a long day that could have had better weather for taking photos which is why there’s only two of mine and one of his, but it was a bloody good one for all that, and my back’s stopped killing me by now.

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All the Fells: Great Borne


Great Borne – The Western Fells 2,019′ (202)

Date: 30 July 1994

From: Ennerdale

There was a magical period once, in the summer of 1994. I was running down the list of outstanding Wainwrights, ambitious of completing the lot that year. For weeks on end, the sun shone, the skies were high and clear. It was the summer, I didn’t have United to distract me, and for six glorious consecutive weekends I got away for brilliant Lake District Saturdays, including some of my favourite days ever. Great Borne wasn’t going to be one of those. It wasn’t high enough, it didn’t lend itself to any extended ridges and Ennerdale was about as far from Manchester as I could get driving there and back without having to spend more time behind the wheel than in my boots. I’d always been attracted to it: for all its relatively low stature, it presented an aggressive and steep face to the valley in the form of the ridge alongside Herdus Scaw. Ennerdale was hot and dusty. This was going to be a unique day in being the only walk taking in any of the fells ringing the valley that started from the valley itself. I found a good parking spot near one of the twin starts to the route, which is actually Floutern Pass further up. I was a bit confused over which to take, and had to force myself through a bit of undergrowth to get going properly, but my first shock was a series of signs, overladen with exclamation marks, proclaiming ‘NO Wainwright Walks off this Path!!!!’ Coming back, I got talking to a local guy who confirmed this was a farmer who claimed there was no right of way across his land to the fell. Whether or not he had any right to proclaim was not established, but it gave me a shock, and left me a bit nervous about how far up this guy claimed to be able to block me and everyone. I didn’t fancy Gamling End, not in close-up of its bare slopes, nor in this heat. I was content to follow the path up to the Pass, one of a very few I’d not previously ascended. I hopped up onto the crest of Floutern Cop, caught a glimpse of the Tarn and, looking around in case irate farmers with shotguns were waiting to spring out of hiding and order me off their land, tentatively crossed some very wet and soft green stuff to the foot of Steel End and started a surprisingly stiff, but by that token thoroughly enjoyable scramble up alongside the fence. A better view of Floutern Tarn, occupying a narrow shelf, became clear below, which was enough to make me glad I wasn’t planning to return this way. Once the ground levelled out, the path faded out, I found myself in a shallow summit valley with the highest point on my right, on the lakeward side. There were excellent views across and along Ennerdale making the day very worth while, even if the ridge onwards was disappointingly smooth and simple. Still, in that heat, with not too much breeze…

Due South: s01 e16 – The Blue Line


Due South

This was pretty much the perfect Due South open. It began with Bennie and Ray in Ray’s new identical-to-the-other-one 1971 Buick, and Ray having great fun winding Bennie up by making turns without indicating. Then Bennie stops Ray, urgently, because he’s seen a guy going into a liquor store. No, he doesn’t suspect a robbery, instead it’s Mark Smithbauer (Rick Rossovich), a fellow Canadian, star Ice Hockey player for Chicago’s team (Ray is so not into hockey). Bennie follows him into the store to get his autograph, for Diefenbaker, he’s such a fan. He’s quickly followed into the store by a guy in a motor-cyclist’s helmet: he is attempting a robbery. Bennie talks him down and he runs out. Bennie turns to assure the store there’s nothing to worry about, just before Ray tackles him to the ground, because every customer in the store has drawn their own gun and is pouring a hail of bullets after the rapidly-vanishing robber, blasting the storefront and windows to bits. Gun control? Pah! Bennie gets up, approaches Mark to reassure him and gets belted round the head by a champagne bottle, that does not crack open the way it would if similarly welted at a newly-launched ship. Mark skedaddles out the back door. As Ray helps the not-even-concussed Bennie back to his feet, our favourite Mountie lets slip that Mark Smithbauer is his best friend. Go, theme music.

After the credits, we start to learn more about the adult superstar Mark Smithbauer. Such as, he’s loud, arrogant, snotty, self-centred, sneery and an all-round arsehole. Seriously, you want to imagine a sportstar behaving badly, you could paste ol’ Mark into your scrapbook. He has even forgotten Bennie completely, though the show doesn’t need to develop much further before providing a counterblast to such unCanadian behaviour, pointing out through Mark himself that he is surrounded by ‘friends’, people who shook his hand once and now claim to be his best buddy, who seem to think that Mark’s success, despite being all his own work, somehow entitles them to a piece of it.

The truth is that Mark has recognised Bennie, and does remember their past as boys, playing ice hockey every night outside Mark’s Dad’s barn for as long as they could. He’s just basically been conditioned to spell ‘friend’ l-e-e-c-h.

Besides, he’s demanding protection. The guy wasn’t out to rob the store, he was out to kill Mark. Why? Because Mark’s a hero, a National Treasure, because he’s worth it. At first we take this as superstar paranoia, especially after he tries to hire Bennie as the bodyguard the Police won’t provide. But there is someone sending threatening letters…

Bennie’s unique form of detection, using neighbours and friends, is both brilliantly effective and totally hilarious in the way it conflicts with Ray’s reliance upon Police forensics. A hockey fanatic neighbour with hours of games on VHS enabling Bennie to pinpoint a moment when a stick breaks and the angry Mark hurls it into the crowd. A profoundly deaf opera loving neighbour who cam lip-read expertly to identify a shout of ‘You hurt my kid!’. A video store clerk who’s both a massive film enthusiast and can blow up a scene (cue reference to the David Hemmings-starring film of the same name, also to The Yardbirds appearing in it) enables him to identify the man’s seat and, as a season ticket holder, his name and address. Since the guy intends to return the broken stick to Mark, presumably in a manner that will cause pain and hurt, Bennie and Ray have to intervene and catch him. Threat over, in only 21 minutes.

That’s a lot of episode left because this guy is the red, or rather pink herring. His little kid did get hurt, his beef is genuine, but he’s the wool being pulled over our eyes. And he points out, not that anyone except the audience are listening, that the stick didn’t simply break. The break was too straight. It had been tampered with to make sure it broke.

Right about now, Mark starts acting with a bit of contrition towards Bennie, reminiscing with him about the days when they were kids. They last saw each other when they were both 13 and now Mark’s 33 (which means Bennie is also 33). Mark’s changed. People do, especially ones who go through the kind of hothouse atmosphere Mark has. It’s not special pleading, seeking to justify his behaving like an asshole, just a reminder of what that kind of world does. Especially when, like Mark, it can all be taken away from you very swiftly. Mark’s slowing up. He’s blown his knee out more times than he can count, and the next time will probably be the last time. Ice hockey has been his life: he hasn’t got anything else.

The episode does well by simply brushing across the surface of all this, by showing Mark as still having the decent guy inside him, saying a couple of things, allowing the deeper implications to sink in on their own, under the cover of the re-bonding. But Mark is still being pursued by those who wat to do him harm, and this time things are considerably more serious. Not just in terms of the threat but in what has set it off.

Bennie knows Mark is still lying, by omission if nothing else. His refusal to engage until Mark tells him the truth forces the latter, who really needs his old buddy now, to come clean. About being approached by a betting syndicate boss, Turk Broda, to throw a game, and about refusing: hell, he scored the winning goal in the last seconds!

Bennie believes him. Ray is more sceptical, or shall we say cynical. He warns Turk off, and in turn gets a pretty strong hint as to the real, bedrock truth. Which Mark finally admits to Bennie as they’re trying to escape on ice skates from a car of gun-blasting hoods that ain’t doing that well on ice themselves. The truth is, and Mark doesn’t say why but he’s already said enough about the imminent end of his career for us to know why, he took the money. Played his part for 59 minutes. And then, as the crowd started chanting the seconds down, the game took him back. What had bound him to the sport for more than twenty years couldn’t be abandoned. He won the game. Turk was unhappy. Giving the money back didn’t make a difference.

Anyway, it turned out that a Mountie on ice-skates was more than a match for three gun-toting goons (you’d have thought they would have known that now), and there was a lovely bit of slow-motion ice-ballet-and-slapstick with police cars crashing into each other but there was still a serious point left. Bennie knew. Would he tell? The show left it in the air after a pregnant talk between Bennie and Mark, but cut to the next scene, reporters discussing Mark’s punishment: a lifetime suspension.

The implication was that he’d turned himself in, in fact the show all but said it. What Mark would do next was the question, and the answer was that he had no idea. At least he would go into that future with clean hands and composure, to adapt one of Harlan Ellison’s favourite sayings. On a deeper level, you might say that he faced that future with his soul cleansed. In the short term, Mark reminded himself of his teenage days alongside Bennie, slamming pucks into a snowbank, before playing a two-v-two game, under the lights of Ray’s Buick, Canadians versus Americans. And that was good enough for fadeout.

I liked the episode, but that must be obvious. It balanced out comedy and deeper issues, mostly relating to friendship vs celebrity by implanting ideas ito the audience’s mind and letting them think things through rather than beating them over the head with a hockey stick. It stuck two fingers up to those who loathe sentimentality, but held that sentimentality in check. It even featured Gordon Pinsent in voice, as Bennie read his father’s notebook, as a counterpoint to Mark’s decision, about how every man has a line inside that they will never allow themselves to cross, but that that man may not know where he has drawn his own line until he has crossed it… Mark told on himself. Fraser Sr. as good as said it.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Grimethorpe Colliery Band’s ‘Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto d’Aranjuez’


You literally had to be there to know it.
In 1973, the new Top Thirty was first announced on Johnnie Walker’s lunchtime radio show. Walker would start the programme at 12.00, playing new entries and climbers until 12.30, when he was interrupted by Newsbeat, and would resume at 12.45, playing the Top Five in ascending order, culminating in a full read-through just before the Number 1, at One. I listened eagerly, resenting those occasions when I had to wait for the re-read, at 5.30pm, on Dave Lee Travis’s late afternoon show.
One week, Walker started his programme by explaining that something had gone wrong at the BMRB or who it was that then compiled the chart from the returns from Chart shops. The count had not been completed. It was in its final throes and would be available for 5.30pm. But in order not to upset Walker’s Show and his audience’s expectations, a provisional chart had been prepared, based on returns up to an unknown point, to give Walker something to do between 12.00 and 1.00pm.
My habit then was to write down the Chart and keep a complete record of these, week by week, which underlies my frequently all too precise recollections of a song’s fate. I wrote down the interim chart, as I automatically would.
At that particular time there was an unusual single in the Top Ten. This was Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto d’Aranjuez and it was credited to Manuel and His Music of the Mountains, a cover name for a Yorkshire conductor and arranger named Geoff Love, specialising in Latin American sounds.
I knew Manuel and His Music of the Mountains: my mother had one of ‘their’ albums though I don’t ever remember her playing it. It was probably bought by or for my Dad. Seeing them in the Top Thirty was weird. They didn’t belong there. It was completely wrong. Didn’t like the record either, it was thin and weak.
Manuel was at no. 4 the previous week. In the interim chart, ‘he’ was Number 1.
Later in the day, on DLT’s show, I listened again as the Official Chart was announced. There weren’t too many changes. About half the chart had the records in the same place and those that shifted didn’t do so by more than two or three places. The two most significant changes were that Roxy Music’s ‘Pajamarama’ was no longer a new entry at no 28 and had to wait an extra week to make its Top Thirty debut. And there was a new No.1. Manuel was back at no. 4, which remained the song’s official highest placing.
But Geoff Love had established a unique and unbeatable record. He had had the shortest ever Number 1 hit in history, four and a half hours.
Years later, in the days of the Internet, I discovered a site devoted to UK Chart records (no longer maintained if it still exists). I emailed them about Manuel and His Music of the Mountains and had the pleasure of seeing that record added to the site. I’d been there at the right time, that was all.
What, you may ask, has this story got to do with the film Brassed Off, and the Grimethorpe Colliery Brass Band who provided the music for it? Brassed Off was a very good film and a monument to its times, which are not yet over. I am not and never have been a Brass Band fan, but that has been on exposure to mostly oom-pah-pah tunes, brassy and forthright.
When the band, giving Tara Fitzgerald her first chance, played Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto ‘de Orange Juice’, it was a revelation. I had spent decades only knowing the music in Geoff Love’s hands, which I had hated. Now, I heard it played with beauty, with subtlety, with a sweet regard for its melody, by the last group of musicians I would ever have thought could produce a listenable version of a Guitar Concerto.
It’s not made me a fan of Brass Bands but it’s reconciled me to Rodrigo and his Guitar Concerto as mutilated so long ago, by the only Number 1 single not to even stay top of the charts for five hours. Like I said, you had to be there. I was.

All the Fells: Graystones


Graystones – The North Western Fells 1,476′ (40)

Date: 14 April 1986/ 31 March 1997/

From: Broom Fell/Broom Fell/High Arnaside

It may seem odd that I should have climbed so out-of-the-way and undistinguished a fell as Graystones as many as three times when there are much worthier mountains that I only ascended once, but that’s how it sometimes goes. My first two visits were both as the tail-end of a larger, though still modest expedition and the third, aimed at climbing this fell and this fell alone, had more to do with literary exploration than with the promise of a great day’s fell-walking. Those first two visits were the culmination of a walk from the narrow, afforested side-valley of Aiken Beck. The first was as part of a return along the northern ridge, descending from Broom Fell to cross Widow Hause on the fringe of the forests, and then the direct, knee-cracking straight drop alongside the broken wall and fence enclosing Darling How Plantation, requiring a bit of care in several places and producing the heartfelt determination never to do that route uphill. Having safely reached Scawgill Bridge, I diverted along the track towards Spout Force, despite Wainwright’s warnings. Eleven years later, in the end-of-March sunshine of a Bank Holiday Monday, free at last from a job I hated but was tied to, my head full of words I wanted to remember, I extended the route into a circuit of Aiken Back, incorporating Whinlatter at the start of the day. This time it was sunny and optimistic, but as I’d parked at the mouth of the road into Aiken Beck and had to start walking uphill again to get to the car, I forwent a return to Spout Force. My third visit was deliberately to climb Graystones from outside: the book I’d unintentionally started on my last visit to Aiken Beck had spawned a sequel and I was now writing a third in which my character was climbing Graystones from High Arnaside, following in the footsteps of someone from the first book. To write that I had to walk it. A sunny Saturday, hazy, easy grassy slopes. It was a bit overcast, the limited views not seen at their best. Sometimes, trying to get air into my lungs was like trying to breathe through an old, wet sock. I visited Harrot on the way, reached the top by way of Kirk Fell and having absorbed all the research I needed, returned by the same route, there being no other option. If I’d known how few walks were going to be left, I’d have made many more trips like this.

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge -My 40 Favourite Movies: 21 – The Day The Earth Caught Fire


Day-The-Earth-Caught-Fire-poster-1

21: THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE: 1961. Director: Val Guest. UK. Science fiction. Edward Judd. Janet Munro. Leo McKern. Arthur Christiansen.
The INCREDIBLE becomes Real! The IMPOSSIBLE becomes Fact! The UNBELIEVABLE becomes True! So said at least one poster.
Screenplay by Val Guest (Valmond Maurice Grossman, 1911-2006, director, screenwriter) and Wolf Mankowitz (1924-1996, writer, playwright and screenwriter), for which they received the 1962 BAFTA award for Best Film Screenplay. The editor was Will Lenny. It was made in black and white, with certain scenes tinted orange-yellow. Cinematography was by Harry Waxman. Running time was 98 minutes. The budget was £190,000. It made a profit of £22,500. It was originally released as ‘X’-rated, only over-16s allowed. In the UK the distributor was British Lion Films Ltd., and in the USA by Universal Pictures. Typically, the US version had church bells dubbed at the end, implying the world was saved. The original Guest/Mankowitz ending was deliberately open-ended and ambiguous. Val Guest had difficulties trying to persuade British Lion to finance the project, eventually offering to put his profits from his 1959 movie Expresso Bongo as collateral.
At the end of the 1950s, beginning of the 1960s, UK film and television saw another upsurge in science fiction. The BBC ran Fred Hoyle and John Elliott’s A For Andromeda and its sequel The Andromeda Breakthrough in 1961-62, the former still believable in its subtle remix of a potential alien takeover from within, exploiting our petty thirst for power, prestige and knowledge. Several other serials followed (all, of course, still in black and white), almost all the examples being earthbound and UK-centric, with intelligent, character-driven scripts. I would argue this was a difference between much of the UK and US science fiction films from the 1950s onward. The British stories put the emphasis on the depth of characters. The Day the Earth Caught Fire might be the usual hyped title, but, not only is the newspaper office setting interesting and rather unusual (if not unique) for this genre, but the three main characters are believable, especially Edward Judd’s character, Express journalist Peter Stenning, made bitter and rather cynical by his divorce and separation from his son, teetering on becoming an alcoholic. He has a past, he has emotional baggage, whereas in so many American movies (not just in the sci-fi genre, notably in crime dramas also) the characters appear to be without any back-history or past – they just seem to exist in limbo for the duration of the movie. For me, a classic example of this is the murder mystery Laura (1944), where the 35-year-old New York detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), apparently just falls in love with the Gene Tierney title character – totally unbelievable! More modern movies have what, again for me, is another flaw – often the so-called ‘hero’ characters are simply unlikeable. British science fiction writer and sci-fi ‘New Wave’ advocate Brian Aldiss preferred the apocalyptic novels of J.G. Ballard and Sam Youd (pen name: John Christopher, not to be confused with the movie director), to that of John Wyndham, but I found the Christopher and Ballard characters utterly unlikeable. I found myself having no interest in them, whether they lived or died. Again, the three central characters of The Day the Earth Caught Fire are such that we can relate to them; we, the audience, can care about them, wish them to survive – even Stenning, who starts to discover new hope, a new purpose to his life. Edward (‘Eddie’) Judd (1932-2009) was born of an English father and Russian mother in Shanghai, China (so just two years younger than Ballard, whose childhood was also associated with that city), and his filmography was from 1948 to 1988. In 1964 he played the character Bedford in the UK adaption of H.G. Wells’ novel The First Men in the Moon. He also featured in the oddball UK sci-fi movie Invasion (1966), as Dr Mike Vernon, where the ‘invading aliens’ were apparently two, rather attractive, Japanese females in tight rubber body-suits. He also appeared in the 1973 Lyndsay Anderson movie O Lucky Man! However, it would seem that off-screen he had certain elements of the Stenning character, as he was described by others as “a pain the ass”, “self-opinionated” and “his own worst enemy”.
Australian-born actor Reginald ‘Leo’ McKern (1920-2002), played the equally cynical Express science editor Bill Maguire, perfect casting, and who has the immoral line about politicians – “The stupid, crazy, irresponsible bastards!” Born in Sydney, NSW, he lost his left eye at age 15 whilst training to be an engineering apprentice. He moved to the UK in 1946 when he married fellow Australian actress Jane Holland. One of their daughters, Abigail, later played ‘Liz Probert’ in the Rumpole stories. His acting career was from 1944 to 1999, moving from Shakespeare to movies and television. He appeared in the British television series The Adventures of Robin Hood in the 1950s, and The Prisoner in 1967, but his most famous, best-loved role was that of Old Bailey barrister and QC Horace Rumpole, in John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey – originally a BBC Play For Today in 1975, then over another 44 episodes for Thames Television: season 1 (1978), season 2 (1979), season 3 (1985), season 4 (1987), season 5 (1988), season 6 (1991), and season 7 (1992). John Mortimer (1923-2009), was himself a barrister, as well as playwright, dramatists and author. He had originally wanted Alistair Sim for the part, but unfortunately “he was already dead”, and afterwards he admitted eventually McKern made the part his own. Apparently, McKern was frightened of flying, so travelled to and from the UK to Australia by cargo-ships, giving him time and peace to read scripts!
Janet Munro (1934-1972), was born Janet Neilson Horsburgh, but took her acting surname from her Scottish comedian father’s stage-name of Alex Munro. Her acting career was from 1957 until 1972. Her early filmography was with Disney in 1958, and she played opposite Tommy Steele in 1959. Her first marriage was to actor Paul Anthony (‘Tony’) Wright, from 1956 to 1959. In 1963 she married actor Ian Hendry (1931-1984), who played Dr David Keel in the original, first season television series The Avengers – his part, playing opposite Patrick Macnee, was later taken by Honor Blackman. Janet and Ian had two daughters, Sally and Corrie, and Janet took a break from acting 1964-68 to be with her family. She and Hendry divorced in 1971. She died a year later of a heart attack. Val Guest remarked “Janet’s life was a disaster. She didn’t became an alcoholic until she met Ian. She tried too hard to keep up with him.” The Day the Earth Caught Fire is perhaps her best remembered film, playing Jeanne Craig, typist/temporary telephonist at the British Met Office, who Stenning meets there whilst trying to obtain temperature data, and who eventually helps him reveal the real cause for the freak climate conditions. Their relationship begins rather brittle, eventually developing into affection and love. Out of several memorable episodes together (for instance, having a picnic in Battersea Park just as the fog rolls in over London), probably the best is her in the bath, rescued by Stenning from the apartment invasion by crazed pre-hippie beatnik types. Janet is big-eyed and sexy, seen alternatively in striped two-piece top and shorts; in a towel only; in a clinging sweat-soaked dress; and several internet film stills (claiming to be deleted footage) showing her naked breasts (in shadow).
Playing the Express editor – named as ‘Jeff’ Jefferson in the movie (was that a nod to Hitchcock’s photographer hero in Rear Window, or just coincidence?) – was Arthur Christiansen (1904-1963), who was the real-life Express editor from 1933 to 1957. He also starred in another Val Guest movie 80,000 Suspects, in 1963. Also featured was a young Michael Caine – all 30-odd seconds of him – playing a London policeman trying to direct traffic away from rioters – but uncredited. As I remarked when I watched it again in the 1980s, I wonder how much he got paid for that?
I personally think it is one of the two best UK early 1960s sci-fi movies – the other being The Village of the Damned (1960), directed by Anglo-German Wolf Rilla, from the 1957 John Wyndham novel The Midwich Cuckoos. However, there is still a critic’s snobbery towards such movies. Steven Jay Schneider’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die doesn’t include either, but does include such mind-numbing ‘gems’ as The Nutty Professor (1963), A Hard Day’s Night (1964), and the Muppet Movie (1979). Val Guest wanted the movie to be as “documentary[-like] as possible. I wanted it to be authentic.” To that end he apparently recreated the Express office interiors in precise detail at Shepperton Studios (Christiansen was adviser on authenticity), while the scenes actually filmed outside the Express Building in Fleet Street (depicting a semi-derelict London teetering on breakdown), necessitated the police closing the street for periods of two to three minutes at a time, meaning “scenes had to be rehearsed and shot with military precision”.
One website remarks it is the “most accomplished of all British science fiction films [and] one of the great London films.” And, indeed, both on location, and hinted at in studio mock-ups, we get delightful, tantalising glimpses of 1961 London. The Express Building, at 120-129 Fleet Street, between Shoe Lane and Poppin’s Court, was – and still is – one of the most distinctive in the locality. It was built in 1932, by Herbert O. Ellis and W.L. Clarke, in the Art Deco/Streamline Moderne style, comprising a black vitrolite and clear glass street exterior. The Express eventually left in 1989, and later Goldman Sachs were there until 2019. It contrasts in style and mood with its near-neighbour the Telegraph Building (formerly known as Peterborough Court), at 135-141 Fleet Street, which dates from 1927-28, but built in a heavier, monumental Art Deco/Classical style, looking much more old fashioned. While some of the matte images might seem rather fake and unsatisfactory to today’s audience, used as they are to computer graphic imagery, some of the location sequences are still masterful – the wrecked cars, broken or boarded-up windows, DANGER signs on the pavement, barriers blocking the side-street outside the Express office, are still impressive achievements. The film footage of Battersea Park funfair (opened in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain, but closed in 1974), are now a wonderful visual record of what was once a major London attraction. Filmed between May and July 1961, ironically – given that in the story by then (with the earth tilted 11º off its axis by the two simultaneous American and Soviet H-bombs at the two poles) the thermometer already supposed to be up in the 90s Fahrenheit, on the day of filming temperatures suddenly became unseasonably colder, so cast and crew were freezing, not sweltering! There followed the fog scene, with batteries of fog-machines around the park – then cut to views of the Thames, Battersea Power Station, and an ariel shot of the Houses of Parliament, shrouded in thick ground mist. Another scene is Trafalgar Square during a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) rally. Guest combined then-recent news reels with a staged demo featuring Judd present. The then Broad of Trade building in Horse Guards Avenue stood in for the Metrological Office, but other views included the BBC Broadcasting House; people praying in the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral; Chelsea Bridge; the Cenotaph in Whitehall; Piccadilly Circus; Hampstead Heath Underground station; Richmond Park and Epping Forest (with clever genuine black and white footage of forest fires and fire-engines). The water queues, supposedly at a parched Hyde Park, was filmed in the studio. Some of the matte backgrounds worked better than others – the view along Fleet Street towards Ludgate at the beginning works quite well. The view of the River Thames reduced to a trickle was perhaps less successful. But, given the limitations of special effects at the time and – more important – the budget (this wasn’t Hollywood), the movie still delivers its punch. One interesting location sequence features Stenning and Bill Maguire walking along an alleyway which leads out into Fleet Street, immediately opposite Shoe Lane and the Express Building. In the film this is the location of ‘Harry’s Bar’, the journalists’ favourite ‘watering hole’. This was in the rather grandly named St. Bride’s Avenue, actually a short pedestrian-only thoroughfare leading to St. Bride’s Church. On some maps this second alleyway, running eastward, but parallel to Fleet Street, is known as St. Bride’s Passage, a much more logical name, given its narrowness. Guest said that they did interior shots actually in Harry’s Bar, which seems to imply it really existed. The more famous El Vino, another Fleet Street watering hole, is further west, opposite Fetter Lane. It would be interesting to try and access a street directory for the 1960s. If Harry’s did exist, it’s long since gone.
60 years on, it’s not just the “cracking dialogue and believable characters” that makes this film still so watchable, but just how topical it still is. In the Guest/Mankowitz story it is the foolish consequences of Cold War nuclear rivalry that causes the earth to tilt on its axis, and generate a world-wide climate catastrophe. With our own man-made climate change, we may yet see London sweltering in endless Sahara-like temperatures and Royal Parks going the way of Australian and Californian forest fires, but one thing the movie seemingly got wrong was the increased temperature would have melted the ice at the North and South Poles and Greenland (even if the H-Bombs hadn’t already done so), so Fleet Street would actually be vanishing under a fast-rising sea level – the Thames, far from drying out, would be swallowing up the low ground from Essex to Heathrow. The science, then, was a bit iffy, but the idea was good. The orange-yellow tint to the views of desolate London at the beginning and end serve to remind what the title said – we were doomed to die in fire.
One excellent assessment is from Joel Blackledge, on the website Little White Lies, date August 2016. He remarks how, over half a century later, the film still stuns today. “Once deemed too strong for general consumption, this apocalyptic sci-fi is as relevant and powerful as ever.”
He continues: “Though 21st century science fiction cinema has shown us many imaginative and terrifying possibilities for how the world will end, one of the most compelling apocalyptic visions ever arrived in British cinemas 55 years ago. At first, the premise of The Day the Earth Caught Fire sounds as schlocky as its title: simultaneous nuclear weapons tests have sent the Earth spinning towards the sun. However, veteran genre director Val Guest tells the story with authenticity that is striking even today. The film explores Atomic Age cynicism about the consequences of the Cold War, which was typical of disaster movies of the time. But instead of worried scientists or noble fire fighters, we see things from the perspective of Peter Stenning…a jaded journalist stumbling between a failed marriage, an alcoholic addiction and his exasperated bosses at the Daily Express. This choice of protagonist speaks to the films cynical sideways glance at the end of the world.
“When Stenning starts investigating strange meteorological events he uncovers the scoop of the year, along with a renewed sense of purpose – just as London starts getting very hot very quickly. At first the capital’s response is the same as it is any summer: slap on sun cream and fill every last patch of green space with boozy picnics. But when the water starts to run out and mist covers the city, panic sets in. Anyone who has experienced a British heat wave will recognise the trajectory: celebration turns to exhaustion and we are reminded that there is only so much hot weather than this island can tolerate. The [film] remains a fascinating and frighteningly believable depiction of London caught in a climatic and bureaucratic nightmare. Miserable queues for water rations line a dried-up Thames, while impassioned CND protests descend into violence. A mixed use of real locations and matte painting track a swift and slippery descent from bustling metropolis to hopeless wasteland.
“The business of journalism is told with authentic verve, from the perfectly recreated Daily Express offices to the smoky Fleet Street bar where the hacks spend most of their time. Real-life Express editor Arthur Christiansen even plays a version of himself, and while his acting ability brings to mind David Lerner more than anyone else, he certainly lends an urgent credibility to the newsroom briefings. In 1961 London had not quite settled into its ‘swinging’ identity, and the film evidences anxiety about the decade ahead. The city’s hip youth are dangerously unpredictable; their reckless abandon is so fierce that they have water fights in the middle of a draught. Yet there is a similar scepticism towards politicians, denounced by one character as ‘stupid, crazy, irresponsible bastards’. Pig-headed in their militarism and reductive in the euphemistic platitudes they use to calm the populace, the off-screen establishment are disdained in a manner that undoes the patriotic trajectory of British cinema of the 1950s. In general, Britain is depicted as a fragmented place where threads of togetherness are fragile, and the lie of nationhood can come apart in the face of disaster. Heroism is in small supply, but it does quietly persist in some cultural traditions: keep your cool, maintain perspective, and hold your drink despite insurmountable forces of catastrophe. It is a smaller, snarkier, and more British take on disaster than film audiences have become accustomed to.
“Perhaps understandably given its age, certain aspects of the film have not dated well – namely the gender politics – but a warming world still has much to learn from it. It is grimly appropriate that the film’s 55th anniversary should fall in 2016, a year when madness, crisis and intolerable heat have returned to Britain with aplomb. It’s also the year that the British parliament decided to renew the controversial nuclear programme, Trident, and though their decision may not throw us spinning towards the sun, the consequences of nuclear war are no less terrifying than they were half a century ago. In its final scenes, The Day the Earth Caught Fire turns from monochrome to a scorched yellow tint, as if the sun is burning up the film itself. A chilling ambiguous climax ends unusually without a single credit or title card. Instead there is just a fade to black, ushering in a future that could spell deliverance or destruction for the entire planet.”
Another six years on, in 2022, and the chaotic political madness is even greater, the pompous nationalistic flag-waving more prevalent, the effects of climate change more obvious (yet still being denied or ignored by so many of our so-called decision-makers), and even the nuclear issue is back – the British government – despite facing an economic crisis – wants to double our nuclear weapon capacity. Blackledge is right: this was a film ahead of its time, intelligent and grown-up, a complete contrast, not just to its contemporaries, but actually to so many, much-praised movies before and since.
Time Out magazine, by contrast – perhaps because of their aversion to the more right-wing Daily Express connection – were rather sniffy in their review: “Thoroughly old-fashioned disaster film about a Daily Express reporter who learns that the earth has been tilted off its axis by the impact of two simultaneous H-bomb tests. Its ‘authentic’ newspaper setting looks quaint now, but there’s some effective atmospheric build-up to the big one as London swelters in fog and heat. Perhaps inevitably, given the period and the film’s medium budget, the ending is a cop-out.”
One would hardly expect a 1960s newsroom to look anything other than old-fashioned now – even pre-electric manual typewriters were still in regular use ten or fifteen years later in many offices – so the “quaint” comment is rather silly – one could make the same remark about any period drama – Jane Austen or Dickens – but I would question the ending being a ‘cop-out’. The Americans always liked a ‘happy’ ending – even in the 1950s movie adaption of George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four, and tacked on the ringing church bells – which George Pal had used in his awful adaption of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1953) – was probably par for the course, another example of that American fantasy that the USA will always triumph – send Bruce Willis up with a few H-bombs to drop on the sun! Better the ambiguous ending.
Given a great piece of marketing potential, I do vaguely remember the Express actually serialised a novelised version at the time. Even with the British movie version “World Saved/World Doomed” ambiguous ending, it must have a sold a few extra copies!
My comments dated 15/11/1987.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) was actually one of the better science fiction films, British made, of course, and I wonder how much they paid The Daily Express to use their name and even their [former] editor! That was in the days when The Express was still a half-good newspaper with readership! In fact I can remember when this first came out, the serialisation in the Express with illustrations by their resident artist, whose name I forget. A younger, pre-Rumpole Leo McKern (with his Aussie accent more pronounced) plays the science editor and Janet Munro doing her 1961 near-nudity bit. Impressive special effects for the time, even if in the final shots of London the wreckage was confined only to the streets it seemed – and a true cliff-hanger of an ending – world saved or world doomed? Rather like The Italian Job, we have to guess what happens next. Of course you can shoot holes in it – the earth is crashing towards the sun, but what happened to all the ice at the Poles? Wouldn’t London have been flooded rather the Thames bone dry? If it had all vaporised into cloud, that in itself would have speeded up the ‘greenhouse effect’. Also when water is rationed, can people still have a tub full in their bath? Well, Janet Munro does. In Tudor times a bath once a month was sufficient. It must have been a Tory government. One final goodie – young Michael Caine in a pre-Zulu/Alfie bit-part as a London policeman gets about 30 seconds and two lines. I wonder how much they paid him?