Oldham Colisseum – Cancelled?

It’s at least two decades and more since I last attended a play at Oldham’s Colisseum Theatre, but in the last century I went to half a dozen and more very different productions and always enjoyed myself immensely. They were a brilliant local theatre, a nice, compact, warm venue that neither atttracted, nor needed star talent.

Now it is to close in March, and has no idea if it will ever open again. The reason is here. Compared to all the rest of the shit that’s going on in this broken country, this is the least of our worries, a shame as opposed to a tragedy. But it’s yet one more blow.

Levelling up my arse.


The World At War: e21 – Nemesis (Germany February – May 1945)


After last week’s focus on the horrors of the Concentration Camps and the Final Solution, what was wanted was to immediately see the final defeat of Germany, the deserved end to the War, death, destruction and savagery initiated by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, to satisfy the primitive urge for justice and revenge. The makers of The World At War knew and understood that and duly delivered it, but like the events that were covered in this episode, the outcome was far more complex than the desire for retribution. Satisfaction there was in the end of the War in Europe, in the crushing defeat of Evil, but it was neither simple, primitive nor fully satisfying.

The construction of the episode made it so from the open: silence, Bomber Command instructions, silent bombing and strafing, black and white lit up with streamers and explosions. This was the bombing of Dresden, and whatever your subjective responses, rooted in the feeling that ‘they started this, now it’s their turn to suffer’, without some element of which we cannot release the hatred, it was nevertheless an atrocity. It was terror, pure and simple, and we did it. The military targets that justified the attack were, almost inevitably, the least affected.

From there, we shifted to the crossing of the Rhine, the British, under Montgomery, spectacularly, massing parachuting, the replaying of Arnhem this time as a visible win, the Americans under Eisenhower almost invisibly. The Allies were now on German soil, progressing swiftly, all but unhindered. Pockets of resistance were surrounded and by-passed, left to wither: almost universally they surrendered, like the 300,000 prisoners taken in the Ruhrland. People, especially Mayors and Councils who denied ever being Nazis, came out to welcome them.

But there was little of detail to this, nor was it necessary. The tide was rising, Berlin was the target, victory was now just a matter of time.

In the east, it was different. The Russians were further advanced. They were already in Germany, they would be first to Berlin. They were more motivated by brutish revenge: after all, their country had been invaded, attacked, stripped, beseiged, murdered. It was time to pay this back. And they it was who liberated the camps. In that part of Germany, the Mayors and Councils, who had known they existed but who had, at least publicly, turned their faces from knowing what they were, were stripped of pretences. One Mayor, and his wife, went home and hanged themselves.

From here though, despite the constant cutting to the Red Army, advancing street by street, house by house, through Berlin’s outer suburbs, bent on encirclement, the episode went inside. Hitler’s secretary, his valet, ordinary citizens. Their testimony, their story of what it was like. Hitler and Goebbels’ near hysterical delight at the news of President Roosevelt’s death, imagining that it was the key to their resurgence and victory. The equally mad thought that Germany could ally itself to the Allies in the West in order to defeat Russia.

One woman made me laugh out loud. As Germany collapsed in on itself, the War’s end both inevitable and imminent, her mother listened to a propaganda broadcast from Goebbels, believing implicitly in everything he said about strength and victory. Our witness contradicted her on every point with clear-eyed realism, to which the mother, in horrified conviction, challenged her by asking if Dr Goebbels would lie at a time like this?

Another witness to the Russian advance told a queer but oddly believable story. Russian shelling had killed two women in tjhe house next door. When the first soldiers arrived, demanding women, saying, ‘Frau! Frau! Frau!’, he tricked them by taking them to the bodies, pointing one out as his ‘wife’. And several of the soldiers knelt to the bodies, made the Sign of the Cross, gave him presents of cigarettes and food. Then they went elsewhere to find the flesh they were seeking and no doubt found (another witness spoke of being raped). But what they did was something outside the realms of belief, yet strangely human.

The testimonies of the secretary and the valet included the one taking down Hitler’s private will and, to her thrillingly, his political testimony, only for her to be horribly disappointed that it was stale, repetitious and contained nothing new, and the other discovering the dead bodies of Hitler and his ‘wife’ Eva Braun and arranging their informal cremation, was particularly fascinating. Some of it was my inability to listen without wondering at them, people who were so close to the Fuhrer but were here dictating unquestioned stories about what it was like inside the Bunker. Who had they been then? How could they have been only servants, and now be accorded this status as if being inferiors and employees made them entirely neutral, took them outside the massive circle of blame?

Eva Braun came into the story late. She was only presented from a distant exterior. We got to know nothing about her except a curiously impervious love/dependency on Hitler himself. There was nothing to say who she was and even less as to what and why. She came over, as she couldn’t help doing on this paucity of evidence, as a woman ignorant either naturally or wilfully of what was going on even ten feet from herself, and quite possibly attracted to Hitler as a power symbol.

But she died with him, poisoned with cyandide before he shot himself in the right temple. He was never going to end any other way, not for Hitler capture, trial, public and irrefutable defeat. Quite probably, he still thought of himself as a hero right to the end, a hero betrayed. Damn him. There was a lot still to do and his humiliation would not have served to repair the tinest fragment of what he did, except perhaps in the minds of people who had suffered loss and might have been eased in some respect by seeing his utter abnegation and execution. But at least it was over. Even though it never is.

The Infinite Jukebox: Sheila’s ‘Comme Les Rois Mages’

When ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’ shot straight into the British chart at no. 16, back in 1971, it took me completely by surprise. I had neither heard it nor heard of it, and this was when I was listening to Radio 1 every hour there was. When I saw the band on Top of the Pops, I appreciated singer Sally Carr, with her long blonde hair, her hot-pants, thighs and boots but I hated the song. I might have been musically naïve, but I wasn’t bloody moronic!
The excrescence was no. 1 for what seemed like all eternity. It meant Top of the Pops, over and over, further exacerbating both my hatred for the song and my enthusiasm for a pair of ladies’ legs in knee-length boots (that’s a fashion that can come back into fashion any time it wants as far as I’m concerned).
Thankfully for musical sanity, the group’s time in British music was limited. Each of their first five singles, released over a twelve month period, were hits, though the last two of these only reached the Top 30. Thereafter, though they were popular over most of the rest of Europe, they never reached the starting gate again in their native land.
That still left two more top 5 hits to navigate through, the first of which, the direct follow up that made the autumn of that year nearly as perilous a place audibly as the summer, actually got to no. 2. You may remember this as ‘Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum’, and if you remember it at all, firstly my apologies for having recalled it to your mind, and secondly you will recall that this second excuse for a song is all herky-jerky and stuttery, and plays upon the group’s Scottish heritage by wittering on about a clannish feud between the respective clans of MacDougal and McGregor.
To be honest, when I am not furiously repressing all recollection of the rotten thing, it strikes me that the words are a bit underdeveloped and that in fact they don’t actually make any kind of sense and are completely lacking in denouement, rendering the whole thing pretty pointless. I can’t even remember if Sally Carr wore hotpants and boots again for TOTP though she did on all the European Pop Shows for which there are videos on YouTube so I imagine she did.
Now this song, and the ‘orrible one before it were both written by Scottish songwriter Lally Stott with a couple of Italian brothers, though the group’s third and last top 5 hit, a ballad that I had to conceal liking at the time, came from a different, though once again Italian, writer.
All of which, you may be saying, adds up to a massive ‘So what?’, given that I am not writing about a Middle of the Road song in this post. Or am I?
Let us leap forward a massive all-but-half century. Much water has flowed under a multitude of bridges, though not in any direction that changes my opinions of any Middle of the Road songs, except for those last two top 30 singles, which I have mercifully forgotten completely. Amongst the many things that have impressed me in that period is the Franco/Belgian comic strip Boule et Bill, written and drawn by the late Jean Roba, to which I have been introduced by reprints in English in the Sixties boys comic Valiant, under the title ‘It’s a Dog Life’.
I love Boule et Bill. So much that when I discover it has been made into a French live action film, I buy the DVD and watch it. And I listen in amazement as the film includes not one but two scenes of Boule’s family happily singing along together, very enthusiastically to a song on their car radio that I both recognise and have never heard before in my life. This is ‘Comme Les Rois Mages’, sung by a French lady identified only as Sheila (who goes on to be the Sheila of Sheila B. Devotion for Prince).
‘Les Rois Mages’ I retain sufficient O-level French from, coincidentally enough, 1971, to translate as The Three Magi, although in this I am greatly assisted by the word Galilee coming up almost instantly afterwards. But it’s the tune I recognise instantly. Because it’s the tune to ‘Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum’. And I couldn’t believe my ears.
At first, I assumed this was the original song, of which Middle of the Road’s song was a rip-off with new, anglicised words (not an uncommon occurrence) though it is indeed the other way round, and not the only time Miss Sheila has recorded a well known pop song in her native language (hint: ‘Vous les copains’, or literally ‘You buddies’, is actually ‘Doo wah diddy’).
So why am I making such a big thing out of something whose thing appears to be merely a momentary shock of recognition? Because there’s something a bit deeper going on here, namely that why, when I hated ‘Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum’ back then and I hate it now and at all points in between, do I like, no, thoroughly enjoy ‘Les Rois Mages’?
Well, for one thing, it’s better sung. Sally Carr had the better legs but her singing voice was an unfortunate combination of shrillness and semi-strangulation. Add to that the fact that Middle of the Road’s production was thin and weak whereas the Sheila version is considerably more robust, and that whilst the melody isn’t changed in any way, the arrangement renders it more consistent, closer to syncopation than to herky-jerkiness. In terms of performance, Sheila’s version is better.
And whilst I don’t understand the French lyrics well enough to translate them, they are about the three Magi, and I do understand the Scottish lyrics enough to be contemptuous of them as a right load of tosh.
But I think that the biggest reason why I can like ‘Comme Les Rois Mages’ when it is the same thing as ‘Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum’ is that it is not only fresh, as far as I am personally concerned, and that it was introduced to me in a happy, delighted atmosphere, but that it carries no connotations with it. It isn’t invested with a summer and autumn of having to hear things I couldn’t stand, because I had no way of getting out of the way. It comes without baggage. And it’s plainly better.
What a difference half a century can make (I mean, well, duh, yeah?)

Tom Verlaine R.I.P.

I can’t find it on the Guardian‘s web-site, which is a horrifying omission, but I saw it in a forum and the American Press confirms that Tom Verlaine, lead guitarist, singer and songwriter of Television, has become the latest to leave us, aged 73.

It took me longer than it should to get into Television, but their debut album really is one of the great albums of all time (and the much less well-respected follow-up Adventure still isn’t half bad). I remember coming across at least a dozen copies of their early single, ‘Little Johnny Jewel (Parts 1 & 2)’ in a long-gone second hand record rack in Stephenson Square, leaving them behind and then later discovering it was so rare I could have made a 1000% profit or more selling them. Typical, really.

Both the title track, ‘Marquee Moon’, in severely edited form, and it’s follow up ‘Prove It’, which I understood better, crept into the top 40 but it was the song below, heard one Saturday afternoon on Radio 1, that set my ears alightm and which I offer in memory. How much longer can we go on losing people like this this?

Film 2023: Laputa Castle in the Sky


Once again I’m going to swim against the tide and say that I was not that much impressed by Laputa Castle in the Sky. For all its high reputation and its widespread influenxe, for all that it was the first Studio Ghimbli anime, and for all that it is the work of Hayao Miyazaki, I found it too limited as a story, somewhat archaic, frequently blurred in tone and ultimately lacking in conviction in what might have been a stunning and unexpected conclusion, that Miyazaki reneged on in order for a happy ending. This latter aspect emphasised to me what had been clear about the film for some time: it was a children’s adventure story, for children, without the adult/universal aspects of practically all his later work.

Miyazaki chose to begin in media res sand let his audience work out what was going on. An airship is attacked by air pirates. A little girl with a crystal pendant takes the opportunity to escape captivity, stealing back a crystal necklace, but falls from the ship from a great height. A light from the crysatal slows her flight, she floats down unconcious and lands, so to speak, in a grimy mining town where she’s aided by an active boy of her own age. She is Sheeta (voiced by Anna Paquin), he is Pazu (voiced by James van den Beek). Both are orphans.

So far, so good, yet whilst I usually appreciate this kind of approach, for once I felt oddly detached, wanting just a little bit more information about what was going on. This was possibly prescient: almost none of the information I wanted to establish a context for the opening – who, what, when, where, why – was actually given in the rest of the film.

That was part of the problem: it left the film ungrounded for me. Even the setting, in a fictional late Nineteenth century, fe lt unmoored. I had no real sense of why this wass happening, which added to the atmosphere of a children’s story. Pirates who wanted… well, was it something more than just treasure? A Government secret agent who wanted… what for his Government? All the explanations that would have established what the film was about were either ommitted or reduced to simplistic levels not more complex than a Malcolm Saville Lone Pine book.

The objective was a floating Castle in the Sky (the original Japanese title was simply that: English speaking territories added Laputa, from one of Swift’s lesser-known Gulliver’s Travels). At first it’s a legend, a myth that Puza wants to find: his late father saw it once but was accused of being a liar, but Puza will vindicate him. But to Colonel Muska (Mark Hamill) it’s a real thing he intends to find for his Government: Laputa’s power once ruled the Earth. To Sheeta… well, Sheeta’s an orphan with a crystal that’s significant but who only wants to be left alone.

Ultimately, it transpires that Sheeta is heir to the former Royal Family of Laputa (it’s always bloody kings and royals, I wish people would grow up) with power over the crystal thanks to spells taught her by her grandmother, including one of destruction that must never be used. Ultimately ultimately Muska also turns out to be a descendent of the Royal Family, whose true aim is to restore Laputa’s supreme power in his own hands, just like any cheap would-be dictator. The film was made in 1986, almost forty years ago, based on Miyazaki’s own manga serial, itself influenced by, of all improbable things, Welsh mining villages in the UK Miners’ strike of 1984. Perhaps this is why it felt so limited to me, that it did not extend beyond very basic fantasy power struggles?

What part do the pirates play in all this? Structurally, they’re integral. Puza is an orphan living in a poor working community. He seems to be aged 14 though in the original Japanese soundtrack he and Sheeta are voiced as pre-teens. Bright, passionate and mechanically agile as he is, he can’t go up against a massive Government operation involving intelligence agents and an Army detachment, not on his own, so the pirates are needed to provide a credible force to get him into the heart of things. But Miyazaki is wildly inconsistent in how he uses them. First, they’re sinister attackers, bent on violently assaulting the airship on which Sheeta is being transported. Then they’re implacable, destructive pursuers, wantonly destroying anything in their past. They’re evil and cruel on a par with the government men pursuing Sheeta, and come over as knowing exactly who and what she is and wanting her her the same reasons as Muska.

Then, as soon as Puza needs an ally, they become comical, lovable rogues. Grandmotherly Captain Dola (Cloris Leachman) switches from being an evil tyrant to a gruff but sentimental leader, her three sons are bumbling idiots and the pirates become comic figures for the rest of the film, much like Goscinny and Uderzo’s pirates in Asterix (they even get their ship ‘sunk’).

There’s another confusing element created by the decision to uplift Sheeta and Puza’s ages. Yes, they’re certainly no more than fourteen, but once their relationship is underway, it rings of being a love relationship, as purely as a silver coin thrown down on stone. There’s a chauvinistic element to it in that Sheeta is constantly being treated as the ‘girl’, no matter how much she acts competently and determinedly but despite that the whole feel is of a pair who’ve found each other. You find yourself expecting a kiss. No such thing is going to happen, but the lack of an outward expression of such feelings does undercut what little reality the film possesses.

A lot of this could be redeemed by the ending. Muska has taken over the deserted, idyllic but overgrown Laputa using the crystal and is going all megalomaniac about it. Sheeta gets the crystal away from him, instructs Puza to run and drop it in the ocean, put it beyond recovery, whilst she faces Muska and the certainty of her death, but death in a cause. Suddenly, the seriousness multiplies. Puza, however, has his own idea. He stands with Sheeta, the pair clasping the crystal. Together they will recite the spell of Destruction. It will save everything, at the cost of their sacrifice. It’s a truly dramatic moment. Together they speak. Muska is blinded and falls to his death. Laputa shatters. Only the pirates get away.

Oh, wait, no. Laputa may have shattered but not all of it. There’s this great central tree supporting the castle-like bit at the top and look, there, among the ruins, Puza and Sheeta are still arrive, for no better reason than that we want a happy ending, little kids that we are. All the good of that extraordinary ending undone.

So that’s Laputa Castle in the Sky for me. It has its good points, its well-made, it creates places as do later Ghibli films that look and feel real even as they are fantastic in themselves. But to me the story and its ending, not to mention its lack of an initial context, makes it juvenile in a way later films do not. It’s the difference between The Weirdstone of Bringamen and The Owl Service, except that, coming to Laputa as almost the last of the Ghibli films, I find it very much harder to adjust my expectations than when discovering Alan Garner in the late Sixties.


And with that, Film 23 enters another phase. This is the last of the collection of DVDs built up since last summer and added to along the way. From next week, the films I watch over the next several months are going to be films accessible on YouTube, films watchable for free and not even the minimal amounts some of these DVDs have cost me. Some of these are going to be films I’m not quite committed to so commenting on them will see me coming from a different direction. I’m looking forward to the change of atmosphere. Which one first?

Lucifer, the Morningstar: 12 – Nirvana

Though this final story was collected as part of Evensong, it is not a part of the story but an adjunct to it and so I will treat it separately, as an epilogue



This story was written by Mike Carey and painted by Jon Jay Muth. It appeared as a 48 page one-shot in August 2002, cover-dated October, contemporary to issue 29. It marks the first appearance of the Silk Man, but none of the other characters appear elsewhere in the series.
I intend to treat this short story differently. It’s not a part of the series, and has little to do with its themes and its daring. It’s a side-show, a diversion, of peripheral concern. What’s more, it cannot compare in terms of involvement.
Part of this is due to it being painted art, not based upon the traditional pen and ink approach. With exceedingly few exceptions, painted art just doesn’t work in comics, because it doesn’t move. Ironically, the closer it gets to the purest photorealism of all, the more static and unrealistic it becomes. It can be great to look at, panel by panel, but that’s the very antithesis of comics, which depend on successive images and movement or change between them.
As for the story, it is simultaneously simple and complex, but the two parts do not gel. Perdissa, a female angel who once dispelled chrisms of mercy but who now describes herself as ‘God’s Sword’, has contracted with the Silk Man, the artificial, non-living immortal leader of a long-vanished Chinese cult, for the death of Lucifer, his utter destruction, his reward a universe of his own and the pleasures of her body, all in God’s name. Lucifer must utterly cease to exist. The Silk Man promises her a pyre of a million bodies with Lucifer at its apex.
His first assault is a total failure, sending demons created out of the dreams of human dreamers to attack Lucifer and Mazikeen inside Lux. The demons are unkillable, except by killing the dreamers. Lucifer intends to find the person responsible. The method also draws the attention of the new Dream of the Endless. Lucifer warns him off interfering.
The Silk Man’s plot is difficult to understand. He intends to draw a soul towards Nirvana, negation and non-existence, to create a wave of death and destruction that will extinguish millions, including Lucifer, who will have been drawn to the apex. That soul is Cai Yue (which sounds altogether too close to the Bahdnesian words Johnny Thunder uses to summon his Thunderbolt!).
Cai is a young Buddhist woman in her late twenties, a technocrat and programmer in Beijing, widow of Lun, who she is desperately trying to resist accepting committed suicide, whose best friend is Shao, Lun’s younger sister. Shao is trying to draw Cai out, get her to relax and resume life, get laid, in short accept not merely that Lun is dead but that he was not tranquil but rather had always had a deadness inside.
But the Silk Man offers to bring Lun back to Cai, the two of them reuniting in Nirvana, and ceasing to exist individually. It is too easy to lead the relatives of a suicide. Cai’s removal of her self will trigger the wave of death. But the Silk Man has failed to account for three things: that Cai is still too much tied to all the things she has loved in life, that Lucifer is prepared to deal out death himself, in Tiananmen Square (not that incident), killing thousands as opposed to millions, as a fire-break, and that Perdissa is not acting in the name of God but her own. She is an angel who thought insufficient stricture was being used against ill, and besides it seems Lucifer refused her body.
Perdissa screams defiance. But Lucifer has dropped the equivalent of a note in Heaven’s letterbox, and Michael and two other angels attend to arrest Perdissa, who has quite overstepped her mark.
And Cai retreats to the mountains and solitude, missing neither Beijing nor Lun, but only Shao.

Lucifer 2

Not, I’m afraid, anywhere near up to the standard of the worst issue or arc of the series, Nirvana fails to express itself or offer a clear point to existing. In a way that’s a measure of the strength of the series, that it hangs together so completely that there is simply nowhere for this piece to attach itself. It is a left out part of a story that leaves nothing out and as such is meaningless.
And that, people, is what Lucifer the television series so signally failed to be when it aimed for the banal and jokey procedural. And crap.

Due South: s04 e04 – Odds

Due South

Episode 4 on the DVD, episode 6 in imdb. Shrug.

We’ve already had a nadir in Due South, and nadirs are absolutes, so we can’t have another one, but if we could have two or, god forbid, more, this would be a nadir. A poor plot, tricked out with innumerable complications to try to present a mystery, that amounted only to padding, based on a poor characterisation of RCMP Constable Benton Fraser.

Fraser is the stoic, the unfailingly innocent but wise figure, above all earthly things, including sex. So the series every now and then toys with that image by tossing someone into his path who might attract his attention, whilst being at least partly dodgy so that there’s no chance of any even semi-permanent liaison. We’ve had that before and here it is again, a repeat that adds nothing new to the mixture.

The episode started with a confusing open that required the equivalent of an ‘as you know’ once the credits passed to orient the viewer. Chicago PD are staking out an illegal gambling operation to catch professional poker player Denny Scarpa, aka ‘Lady Shoes’ (because she buys them), played by the beautiful, smooth Stephanie Romanov. Who’d previously appeared in Homicide: Life on the Street, not that I recognised her. The game is interrupted when a ski-masked man blows a hole in the wall and steals the pot, escaping from Fraser and Ray Vecchio. He’s actually working for Scarpa.

Straightway, story logic goes out the window. Given Scarpa was winning anyway, there was literally no point in she and Joey doing that, and it was stupid. It set the tone.

The Police have got Scarpa. Up pop two FBI Agents, played as twin idiots of very low intelligence. They want Scarpa to play an already planned poker game that has attracted underground figure Alex Farah back into the country, solely to play a grudge match against Scarpa. What we don’t know until the end, but which Fraser, of course, suspects, is that the game is a grudge match in another sense. The last time Farah played poker, before leaving the country, a man got killed: Scarpa’s younger brother who she looked out for. She’s drawing Farah here so that Joey can kill him for her, though Fraser prevents that from happening.

In between the episode just goes through a bunch of convolutions over Scarpa. Ray is naturally suspicious of her and is right to be so because she’s an odds-calculator, keeping her true motives to herself, playing straight with no-one. And Fraser is naturally trusting, amplified this time by the fact he is attracted to her (Camilla Scott is permitted a cameo this week, in evening dress, drunk from an evening out with the Spanish Consul and dropping into the Consulate, where Scarpa is dressed from head-to-toe in Fraser’s red longjohns because she’s going to sleep there: Thatcher drops in just to show off that she’s drunk and is probably going to fuck the brains out of her date but remains totally unaware of Scarpa’s existence, diminishing the point of this cameo beyond notice).

But it’s padding. It doesn’t hang together as a story with a coherent plot progressing in any kind of logical fashion. This is further exemplified by having Fraser jar his back in the open and struggle with it when the plot can think of nothing pertinent to do, or Francesca enlisting Lt. Walsh’s advice about applying to the Police Academy but for the fact her head is a strange shape and she can’t wear hats. The FBI pair are a joke but they’re meant to be: they’re just not funny enough to have bothered.

Needless to say, the episode climaxes with the great poker game, high-powered gamblers from all over the country plus Fraser, who’s learned the game overnight, can’t stop talking like Fraser whilst playing and of course wins all the money. Yes, this is a comedy, yes it’s basically slightly surreal, but no, that’s fucking stupid.

You can’t have two nadirs, but you can have a nadir with a cousin that looks like a twin brother, and this was a cousin of an episode. Bring back Due South!

The Infinite Jukebox: Madness’s ‘House of Fun’

Welcome to what is probably the only British No. 1 hit single to be openly and unashamedly (not to mention hilariously) about trying to buy condoms in a chemists on your sixteenth birthday only for well-meaning neighbours to pop in and screw it up for you. I say probably because, for all I know the past twenty years could have held dozens of no. 1 hits about buying condoms, though given the exact context in which ‘House of Fun’ presents itself, namely excruciating embarrassment, that ‘probably’ is pretty certainly spot on.
The thing about ‘House of Fun’ is that, more than merely being Madness’s only official British No. 1 (with their twelfth single), it is in both lyrics, music and accompanying video the perfect encapsulation of their career. You could watch this video and grasp the essence of the band without ever needing to listen to/watch a single other track, though frankly you’d be doing yourself an absolutely massive injustice if you did that.
It was three years since Madness had emerged in the wake of The Specials, the ska revival of 1979. Where The Specials were serious, Madness were goofy: either ramshackle or unpolished depending on your viewpoint, a good-time gang grinning and gurning and laughing it up, hitting the funny-bone as much as the dancehall. And they parlayed that goofiness into a solid run of hits that decoyed people away from taking them seriously, though if you listened that little bit closely so that you could hear what they were actually singing about, you might have started to cotton on a bit quicker.
What lay beneath Madness’s glossy surface didn’t start to become overt until the release of ‘Grey Day’, the first single from their third album, which was naturally titled 7. A lot of people didn’t like it, wanted Madness to stay in their one-dimensional place, but I was still reading the New Musical Express back then, and they were full of praise for the breadth the band were displaying, and how beautifully they balanced the bouncy music and the sober lyrics.
‘House of Fun’ is a perfect gem, from the moment of its first drumbeat, Woody Woodgate pounding on a couple of dustbins out of which pop Kix Thompson and Chas Smash playing sax and trumpet respectively. The video stages the lyrics, with Suggs hurrying into a chemists and up to the counter to start his trial. He’s both cocky and shy, a grown-up sixteen year old boy, going to a party that night and needing something absolutely essential. I mean, he’s official now, he can do it, so he needs some condoms. There’s nothing necessarily to say that he’s on a promise, as opposed to being stupidly over-confident, and Suggs keeps all that vague, sixteen, big boy, full pint in my manhood.
Yet he’s not confident enough to come out with the ‘c’ word openly, and the moment someone who knows him comes in, he’s skittering wildly towards more innocuous products, because god forbid it should get back to his mother what he’s buying!
Suggs, however, is the Neddy Seagoon, the simple and misguided figure trying to keep his balance whilst all around him is chaos. Suddenly, Msieur Barso, Chas Smash and Kix bound in to do a madcap dance at the back of the shop whilst the camera lingers on a little lad in the doorway, poking his head in to see what’s going on, a wonderful, magical accident adding the exact precise final degree of surreality to what’s going on.
The song is big and bursting with vim and vigour and the video plays up to it. Suggs tries again to make his purchase despite the complicating presence of his unfortunate neighbour, Miss Clay, who sees him only as a little lad, a role he’s trying to get out of, but it ain’t going to happen.
The chorus comes as a great irony, buoyant and brassy, Welcome to the house of fun, now I’ve come of age, welcome to the house of fun. Welcome to the lion’s den, Temptation’s on his way.
Welcome to the house of fun. But nobody’s worked it out. He doesn’t want Miss Clay to get it but you’d think the Chemist would, for all Suggsy is going round the houses. We don’t sell party gimmicks in this shop, he intones, this is a chemists! Yeah, that bit’s clearly deliberate.
Now he gets desperate, trying to find the right code word. Party hats, simple enough, clear? Comprehende, savvy, understand, do you hear? A pack of party hats with the coloured tips… but no, all he’s going to get is Many Happy Returns of the day. Sometimes, you wonder if it’s worth it, growing up?
‘House of Fun’ wasn’t just the consummate Madness song, nor yet just the best video but it was the perfect match between music, word and imagery. Even at the time, I had the sense of the band hitting a peak they would never quite match again, and indeed they didn’t. ‘House of Fun’ is not the only bloody great Madness moment, but it was the essence and, like the One Ring, once the band had poured their souls into it, it could never be quite the same again. But what a peak!

Not Just For Children – Alan Garner: 11 – Thursbitch


Time between novels escalates. I was married just short of nine years, starting four years after Strandloper appeared, and only one Alan Garner book came out during my marriage. I mention this because it was a Xmas present from my wife and I remember starting to read it, sat at the computer desk, whilst the kids carried on opening their presents. Selfish of me, yes, but this was the new Alan Garner.
Just as in Red Shift, physical place in this novel is of far more importance than physical time. Thursbitch, like Mow Cop, is a real place in Cheshire, a narrow, enclosed valley in the Pennines, above the village of Saltersford. It appears to have an evil reputation in real life that persists to this day.
Whilst I don’t normally rely on external material when writing about anything, Alan Garner has lectured upon the series of events and research, stretching back almost fifty years before publication, that began with his discovery, whilst out running, of a memorial stone to a John Turner, jagger, or packman, who supposedly died of hypothermia a half mile from home, which should never have happened. As if the memorial stone was not usual in itself, Garner accidentally discovered that it’s reverse, set into the hillside and invisible possibly since it was set, two hundred years before, was not left rough but was worked and lettered, to say, “The print of a woman’s shoe was found by his side in the snow where he lay dead.”
Now you don’t have to be a writer to recognise that a book is calling out to be written. The full lecture, which sets out what went into discovering what that book was going to be can be read at http://alangarner.atspace.org/votd.html. I suggest reading it, after you’ve read the novel.
Thursbitch exists in two eras. One is that of John Turner, or Jack as is the name Garner and everyone else in the period calls him. Given that this is a time where most folk never travelled more than a few miles from their home in all their lives, and that Jagger Turner is a peddler working between Chester in the west and Derby in the south-east, he can quickly be seen as a forerunner to William Buckley, a strandloper, a boundary-tester.
Garner begins with Turner’s death before rewinding to show us deeper and deeper aspects of his life, a life that, of all the Turner family in and around this area, his is the one with the least actual record. He lives with this father, Richard (Rutchert) and Mother Mary, though later we are told he is a foundling, an abandoned baby who receives greater favour than his ‘brother’ Edward, the Turner’s own.
He has a sweetheart, Nan Sarah, who lives with the family. The two are very much in love, and once Sarah confirms she is with child they marry according to the lights of a paganistic, non-Christian ritual that has more force for them, here in the North, now and for later, than anything the Church can offer. Like Tom and Janet their love is bound about a piece of bluejohn, a hollowed out cup, that is a real thing for them, though Jack, who is to some extent epileptic as Tom or William Buckley before him, is not crippled and does not betray the significance of the cup to them.
For Jack is the man chosen to interpret the mysteries of the natural religion, worshipping a mythical Bull that walks the high ridges, that governs the fates of the villagers.
Instead, though, whilst close to term, Nan Sarah is afflicted by the plague and is driven out by Rutchert. Jack takes her to Thursbitch, for shelter, brings her water from the valley. She dies, in a rush, giving birth to twins. Jack interprets this as the Bull forsaking him, turning the water into poison. He becomes a Christian, roaring God’s wrath down on the sinners, God’s eternal, unassuageable wrath, in rants that only reinforced my own opinions about religion, and especially the Catholic religion, with its emphasis on guilt.
But he comes to his senses, shortly before, at the end of the book, we repeat the night of his death.
Jack Turner is, however, only one part of this book, if the greater, enjoying two-thirds of the pages and more. There is a parallel strand taking place in the present. Garner doesn’t speak of this side of the story in his lecture, and his research does not appear to encompass any contemporary. As in Red Shift, this part of the novel is primarily in dialogue, with only occasional and very limited paragraphs delineating actions. The dialogue is between Ian and Sally, who accompany each other on walks in the Pennines, centring increasingly upon the valley of Thursbitch. It’s clear from their conversation that they have known each other a long time, and are very close to each other, and at a very early age we learn that Sally is a geologist, and holds a docorate: Doctor Massey.
We also learn that Sally is suffering from an incurable and debilitating disease, never specified, that is slowly but inexorably destroying her from the inside it, both her body and her mind.
There is much more to learn, though not enough that we don’t have to construct a large part of the story, and their relationship, and how it has changed, for ourselves, from what they say to one another. And, like real people, not people in novels whose authors are incapable of rising above some form of the words, “As you know,” they don’t go around telling each other what they already know. Inference and deduction is the rule.
But Sally’s last physical freedom, which is slowly being taken away from her, is to walk in the hills and valleys, and Ian, who is some kind of therapist as well as a Priest, is facilitating this for her for as long as possible. He takes her where she needs to go, and this becomes Saltersford and Thursbitch, because here for no explicable reason other than that in a way that depends on the valley being what it is, Sally’s short-term memory works. She remembers here. She is the valley and it is her, just as once it was for Jack Turner.
In a way, the ending is predictable: we can foresee it from Jack’s death and the discovery of the woman’s footprint by his body, and then from Sally’s first arrival. Garner lets us make that our own conclusion however and doesn’t create an impossible to believe meeting that would require logic to justify it. Instead, when the time finally comes when Sally can no longer be brought to the one place in which she is most really herself, she persuades Ian to leave her, to let her choose her own time and method of dying, instead of her body forcing it on her. There’s been enough, fleeting moments when it seems that Jack and Sally are aware of each other, across the centuries, but Garner allows us our own decisions as to the conclusion.
Both our central characters die of hypothermia. Whether they in truth meet, or whether time momentarily double-tracks itself, is for us to decide.
I remember at the time of publication some pathetic criticism about the use of Cheshire dialect, speech and phrasing, which was described as tiresome, OTT and as ‘Ooh-arhh!’ language. Which just goes to show how cloth-eared such reviewers were, that they not only rejected any thought of the variation of language but could not hear that this was authentic, real language, as vivid and alive as any foreign language: they thought it was fake stuff, written by know-nowts. It isn’t. I don’t need to be Cestrian to hear that for myself.
Read the book if you have not already done so, then follow the link to Alan Garner’s own explanation of how he came to write it, at last. Visit Thursbitch itself, if you will. I haven’t, and I have no means of getting to it to do so, without the intervention of an Ian of sorts. But based on the novel, and what Alan Garner learned to write it, I would suggest that you not go there after dark. This power does not seem to so easily deflect into flowers.