Film 2023: I Married A Witch


I wondered if I’d ever seen this film before, on a Sunday afternoon, but from the unreasonably silly music over the opening credits, it was obvious that I’d not. I was interested in the film because I Married a Witch is one of the acknowledged inspirations for Elizabeth Montgomery’s wonderful Bewitched, though eerything that the two have in common can be summed up in just four words: I married a Witch.

The film was made in 1942. It’s a black and white romantic fantasy, based on an unfinished novel by Thorne Smith, creator of the once-popular Topper, and completed and published after his death by his friend Norman H. Matson. The film was pitched as a vehicle for the beautiful Veronica Lake, nick-named the ‘Peek-a-boo Girl’ for her hair-style that had her long blonde tresses constantly falling over her right eye (and who was in that respect the inspiration for DC comics’ wartime superheroine, Liberty Belle). Surprisingly, Lake takes second billing, to Frederic March, even though it’s obvious to see that he’s nothing but her stooge, and a pretty colourless one at that.

The film begins in the 17th century, as a Puritan community led by Jonathan Wooley prepares to burn two wiitches, a father and daughter, Daniel and Jennifer. An oak tree is planted above their ashes, to imprison their spirits forever, but at the last moment Jennifer places a curse upon the Wooley family, that they shall always marry unsuitable wives that will nag them and make them miserable.

It doesn’t sound like that much of a curse, though in an era when divorce was rare and horribly difficult, it may well have seemed more painful to the audience. To be honest, I didn’t think much of the film’s beginning with reference to the witches, who were being presented as mean and evil and nasty because they were mean and evil and nasty. I know this wasn’t a serious examination of witches, but they were presented so simplistically, and so children’s story book that it undermined the story. I’m always happier when a film takes its inner reality seriously enough to justify its characters’ actions within the plot.

Anyway, with a couple of stop-offs to show the curse working, we jumped to 1942. The current Wooley is Wallace (March), who’s attending a party to celebrate and promote two events happening in the next two days. Tomorrow, he is to wed Estelle Masterson and the day after is Election Day in his campaign to become State Governor. His biggest campaign backer is Estelle’s father, which explains a lot about why he’s going to be marrying her because, in modern parlance, she’s a bossy bitch who’s going to put her foot down and not let him push her around (alternatively, he could also be eager to get into her panties which, with her being Susan Hayward, is more than plausible).

This is when the oak tree is struck by lightning, releasing Daniel and Jennifer, initially as mobile plumes of smoke. They, and especially he, intend to celebrate their release by being mean and evil and nasty, especially with reference to the last of the Wooleys, Wallace. Intent on tormenting Wallace, who’s a stuffed shirt even when he’s being referred to as Wally, Jennifer gets her Dad to create for her a body, which he does by burning down the Pilgrim Hotel, just as Wallace is passing. He being the only one who can hear a female voice from inside, dashes in to rescue her and discovers that the body Daniel has created is Veronica Lake, naked. The rescue results in wonderful, election-guaranteeing popularity, but it also results in a beautiful, slender, naked blonde attaching herself to the would-be governor on the eve of his wedding.

This leads into the Second Act, which can be easily characterised as a low-key low-energy screwball comedy. Jennifer intends to get Wally to fall in love with her, so as to make his life a misery when he can’t have her but when her natural charms fail to work (told you he was a stuffed shirt) she resorts to a love philtre. But Jennifer overplays her hand and ends up being the one who drinks it, and she falls in love with him.

This brings Daniel into play, corporeally. He’s played by Cecil Kellaway. I know nothing about his career but I do know that he is superb here. He starts off comic, a drunkard, with a touch of the irish to him, but as the film progresses he grows in stature, and in genuine evil, malice and deviltry, until he becomes truly scary. Instead of helping the love-struck Jennifer to put paid to Wally’s wedding, and very successfully he does too, he turns it to his own ends, setting Wally up for his own murder, meant to lead to the electric chair, and electoral disaster. Kellaway sells his hatred brilliantly for what is, superficially, such a silly character.

But Jennifer breaks with her father. She and Wally get married hurriedly. She tries to tell him she’s a witch but he’s too busy with thoughts of her long blonde tresses and her lilywhite body to listen and, two or three long kisses later, she gives up trying to tell him. Until next morning when everything has been thoroughly and, we assume, repeatedly consummated. Even then,Wally oscillates between disbelief and fear of the scandal if it gets out. He doesn’t even really believe her, that is until she magics him 100% of the State’s votes, including that of his opponent.

But Daniel is having none of this. he will not allow Wally his happiness, nor yet his dauughter who has so far departed from her heritage as to not only marry a mortal but also reveal her witchery to him. At midnight they will return to the tree, and remain there until all trace of mortals is gone. Jennifer tries to escape but her father removes her powers and forces them to the tree where, at midnight, Jennifer dies in Wally’s arms.

But only for a short time. Love is stronger than witchcraft. she escapes her father’s reach, re-enters Lake’s body and pins her father in his smoke-form in a botttle of spirits, firmly stoppered and placed under lock and key whilst she and Wallace live happily ever after, subject to the usual terms and conditions of such films…

Though I enjoyed the film, there were certain aspects of it that could have been much improved upon. It’s old-fashioned in some ways, beyond it being made eighty years ago, and too keen to build itself upon unconsidered stereotyping. Frederic March was a dull lead in contrast to Lake, who was a breath of fresh air throughout and should have had top billing. And Hayward, in a supporting role, plus Robert Benchley as Wally’s best friend both did more than pull their weight.

I know little of Veronica Lake, other than her good looks, but the history of the film suggests she was difficult to work with. Joel McCrae turned the Wallace role down because he didn’t want to work with her again, March called her ‘a brainless little blonde sexpot, void of any acting ability’, to which she retaliated by calling him ‘a pompous poseur’ (of the two, the film supports Lake more than it does March) and playing practical jokes on him on set. She clearly wasn’t a great actress, and was reliant upon her looks, but she seemed to be ideal for light comedy roles like this, and she was at home with the romantic aspects of her character.

So, an interesting experience. Bewitched‘s other filmic inspiration was the much later Bell, Book and Candle, which I’m half certain I have seen. If that’s available on YouTube, I shall reserve it for next Sunday.


A Great Glow

There’s a certain piece has appeared on the Guardian‘s website this evening, no doubt to appear in print in the Observer tomorrow.

I’m not going to identify it, nor its subject, because the whole thing is involved in much deeper waters than you’d imagine from the piece, and to be frank than you would believe. But it has given me a great glow of satisfaction to read this, and to read through it to the stuff that will never come out. Not for myself: it is nothing that ever touched me directly, but I am satisfied and I am cheered by this glow on behalf of somebody else.

This person does not read this blog, nor do I believe that anyone who knows them reads it, that is if they understood for one second what I am referring to. But for tonight, they are in my thoughts, and maybe by some kind of sympathetic magic, they will know that I am happy for them. Rest easy, old friend.

Vampirella, the Vamping Vampire: Part 3

Vampirella 1

This is Part 3, the last part. I’ve taken time off to read and write other things before tackling the home straight. This has been the least interesting series I’ve covered, mainly because, on top of my lack of empathy for the subject, it’s presentation is very limited in its range. That makes comment very difficult because I find very little to praise and not much more to condemn: a genuinely bad series is easy to write about.
We pick things up with issue 75, whose above-the-logo blurb, Attack of the Alien Blob, is hardly conducive to anticipation. Vampirella herself is still in Hollywood, with Pendragon and her friend and Agent Pantha, making Horror films that don’t even pretend to be anything other than cheap, and still totally oblivious to the obvious. Nearly seventy adventures and the girl’s learned nothing except for how to push her chest out.
Joe Brancatelli’s column did continue though, in this instance, as a sarcastic news round-up of recent events, which was the last of the regular features. The rest were the standard horror stories with their ‘shocking’, and in one case pretty sick endings. What was noticeable suddenly was that, instead of the light, delicate, intricate art that had dominated for several years, the new artists were all working in harder, less-detailed lines that had no superficial attractiveness.
The movie business gives Bill DuBay an easy way to set up any kind of scene he wants and have it just be Vampi’s latest flick but I can’t help think that it’s a bit too convenient as a setting for stories, cutting down on the need for imagination. It’s also noticeable that Pantha is forever flashing her tits and Vampirella never does: even when possessed by a much more exhibitionist entity, and the Drakulonian is no slouch in those stakes, she still retained nipple tassles.
The level of the other stories was amply demonstrated by one in issue 76, set in the deep, high snows, starring a barbarian woman wearing slightly less that Red Sonja: her nipples must have been rock hard.
Nevertheless, the fans didn’t like the Hollywood settings and demanded an end to that phase and a return to the ‘great’ stories where ugly monsters sneak up on unsuspecting, luscious, firm-fleshed, well-rounded girls. I think I need say no more. Too soon to tell if this was a reaction rather than a coincidence, the story brought back Conrad and Adam van Helsing and was continued. Meanwhile, Michael Fleisher turned up again with a first page racist term. Despite that, and an attempted rape and a woman wandering around in the high Himalayas bare-breasted, Fleisher provided a poignant ending, with echoes of some of Len Wein’s Swamp Thing stories, showing that this could have been a very decent story if not for his more disgusting streak.
One of no. 78’s stories, set in a future where men have been eliminated and women use sex robots was basically crass but offered an amusing twist at the end that, for once I didn’t foresee: kudos Bruce Jones. Another offered an equally unforeseen fate for a complete shit of a character. Two in one issue.

Vampirella 2

The Vampi serial rolled on, eventually intended to conclude in issue 80. Before that issue 79 went into an experiment in photo-comics, staging rather than drawing an Archie Goodwin script and proving yet again that photo-comics, being a hundred times less flexible and convincing than pen and ink, just don’t work, as proved by the too-fantastic things that couldn’t be photoed and had to be drawn in.
But the final part didn’t arrive in time to beat the printer’s deadline so in its place we got the first half of a different two-parter, both stories to conclude in issue 81: seriously unimpressive, despite the Pablo Marcos art and the suggestion that the Hollywood actress bit wasn’t played out after all.
Cary Bates was now writing regular stories for Warren alongside his regular gig on The Flash. I presume he was working out some inner repressions and tensions but what he was mostly doing was proving how much he needed Julie Schwartz’s editing. And he really was indulging some sick and nasty instincts, to the point of threatening Mike Fleisher’s reputation.
That issue 81 was an all-Vampirella special, with two conclusions and two repeats, one featuring Dracula. The alien Amazon story plain stunk, garbage of the worst kind whilst the Dragon Queen serial failed on coherence and was best forgotten. The reprints were safely passed over.
With the exception of a formulaic but still touching Archie Goodwin short, the next issue was wretched, confused or boring stories making little or no sense and another Cary Bates twist that, whilst not sick, was nevertheless nasty. Both it and 83 had offbeat covers that looked as if the magazine was trying for a psychedelic effect a dozen years too late. The reappearance of Flaxman Loew as writer and the absence of current continuity indicated the lead two-parter was another reprint (I’m reading these stories, don’t expect me to remember them too). At least one other story was a reprint (this one I recognised) and the presence of Jeff Jones art suggested even more.
An unusual art job from Jim Janes, looking in part as if reproduced from pencils, decorated the next issue, applying lipstick to a pig’s turd story about horror and evil at a discotheque. To be frank, I cannot tell whether the already low standards for nasty, vicious stories that exploit base instincts have completely collapsed, or whether I have passed the point of last tolerance towards such things, but I will continue at least a little longer to try to determine which is which.
I have to comment on the unusual art job in issue 85 by Lakey and Lakey which consisted of static groups with no movement, as if the artists had photographed each panel and then traced them hazily but I couldn’t summon anything about the rest of the issue.
We were treated to another issue length story in no. 87, taking Vampi back to Drakulon yet again. But what it was was a reprint of the series of stories running through four past issues in which Starpatch and Co. took Vampirella back to her native planet, albeit with some updating that was invisible to me. It’s interesting to see reprints creeping in. Brancatelli’s column was missing, not to be seen again, which was a shame as it was the only decent thing about the magazine.
I’ll admit there was some great Rudy Nebres art on Vampirella next issue but the story felt so familiar (and sophomoric) that I was at least half-convinced it was another reprint. I also noticed that Louise Jones was no longer editing the title, and that the number of stories per issue were growing fewer but longer, though not much better. Nebres continued next issue which wrote Adam van Helsing and Pantha out of the series, at least temporarily.
Issue 91 was billed as a Collectors’ Classic or, less floridly, a reprint issue. I was interested to note British comics writer Mike Butterworth credited in Vampirella’s lead story, not that that rendered it anything but standard. All five stories were drawn by Jose Gonzalez, who was revealed in the letters page to have quit drawing comics for fine art. I make no comment.
Vampirella had already acquired a new flatmate in Cryssie Collins, a rescue victim from the oft-referenced issue 73 who immediately became possessed by demons, as well as being referred to as Crys just as Pantha was Panth: is that extra syllable so time consuming? Now, a new regular character, psychic Cassandra St Knight, was added in no. 93, as a serial. This enabled the magazine to bill itself as featuring ‘The World’s Greatest Adventure Heroines’. Big deal. The big question was, would Ms St. Knight – mundanely shortened to Sandra – show her tits the way Pantha did and Vampi didn’t? The answer was no – at least for now.

Vampirella 3

On the other hand, with Gonzalo Mayo returned to art chores, and Adam van Helsing and Pantha reappearing in Vampirella’s series, we were treated to some very distinct camel-toe in issue 97 in the case of the latter. Three serials, two with cliffhangers, and two one-offs whose point was at best nebulous: I couldn’t see what either had been written for.
With the landmark issue 100 closing in, Cassandra St Knight forsook her series in issue 99 to cameo in Vampirella’s (who didn’t even appear on the cover!) She was the deus ex machina that enabled scripter Rich Margopoulos to mop up the arc without undue hard thinking, whilst the tedious psychic moonlighted in Eerie. Pantha’s serial meandered on and the issue was completed by an Estaban Maroto reprint.
So Vampirella reached its 100th issue, cover-dated October 1981. Despite my antipathy to it and its contents that’s always to be celebrated: longevity is now exceedingly rare in the comics business, where the only series that last are ones that have been around since well before the readers’ parents were born. Unfortunately, in practice, this ‘Gala’ issue was not just all-Vampirella but also all-reprint. Cynical me notes that the lead reprint was not just an Archie Goodwin story but one of the very few, if possibly the only one, in which Vampi didn’t just tease everyone with the prospect of her big tits bursting out of her unfeasible costume but actually flashed them, fully naked. No doubt it had been ‘updated’ for the occasion.
Crass comment? Sexist? Demeaning? What do you think this magazine has been since its inception?
To re-iterate that point, the next new Vampi story featured an attractive blonde socialite victim who wore skin-tight ‘clothing’, which meant that she was drawn effectively completely nude, for no other reason than cheap titillation. A second voluptuous victim of the alien monster villain was actually naked, for a handily nearby Satanic ritual. The next bunch of victims were all big-titted college girls, either half- or fully naked. Are you still disputing what this story is about? That lot were rescued so that they could stand around showing off their tits for several more pages yet. Silently, of course. Only Vampirella kept her top on, though it can only have been with superglue.
I’ve got into that one story with so much detail simply because it is witless and blatant in its ‘appeal’. It’s for teenage boys too young to sneak a copy of Playboy out of the drugstore, to get their inexperienced rocks off in their bedrooms fantasising over all those titties. You call me cynical?
Another example: in issue 102 a short story gave a condensed version of the myth of Perseus and Medusa, well-written and atmospheric, a potentially excellent piece deserving of more space, but ‘decorated’ with pornographic writhings of the naked Medusa, naked winged hags and naked voluptuous Andromeda, chained to her rock. Are you sensing a theme?
There was nothing so crass in issue 103 but again nothing of any wit or originality. St Knight was dropped from the next issue. Vampi’s now non-serialised feature was inane, Pantha’s a cheap story-long, badly-drawn fight between two scantily-clad women, the mildly interesting series set in 1910’s China, ‘The Fox’, suddenly turned on itself, forgot its continuity and went silly, a new serial started and a long one-off story might well have been half-decent in intention but missed its mark.
The whole of the next issue was given over to Vampirella reprints, strung out as a multi-part story, after which the reappearance of her Drakulon husband, Tristan, or rather a clone of him, was the excuse for more bare breasts, and sexual activity with them as well. There were new serials everywhere you turned.

Vampirella 4

That the series would be not much longer for this world was demonstrated when issue 107 was also a reprint issue, this time of all Estaban Maroto-drawn stories. Next issue was full of boasts as to across-the-line increased-size issues, giant-sized specials and a new Alex Toth series debuting in that issue of Vampirella: a last burst of feverish activity as Warren’s publishing empire was starting to totter…
Naked Vampi kicked things off for a virtual repeat of the plot from seven issues back. Like almost everything else, it was next to unreadable, the exception being the Toth series. This was the infamous ‘Torpedo 1936’, created by Sanchez Ebuli. Toth was superb on it, but he didn’t last long, quitting over a difference of opinion as to direction and being replaced by the artist most associated with the series, Jordi Bernet. If nothing else justifies these final, terrible issues of Vampirella, Toth’s work does.
Abruptly, in the same issue, the letters page was cut in favour of a puff-page on Warren’s output, presumably to conceal the number of letters complaining about the increasing number of reprints, like the whole of issue 109. After that, the next issue featured the second Toth ‘Torpedo 1936’ and an excellent and atmospheric adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’, using Poe’s own writing. It also repeated the previous instalment of a tedious and manic adventure serial, only worth mentioning for this anomaly, whilst dropping the better established Pantha and The Fox serials, and introducing a Tales of Drakulon back-up featuring a young Vampi. Not a sign of desperation, oh no. But they brought the letters page back.
Much was promised of the next issue but when it appeared, no 111 was another reprint job, going back as far as Flaxman Loew and Cary Bates. I skipped it, which left only two more issues.
The penultimate issue showed no indication of the upcoming termination. It expanded Vampi’s own coverage with two stories, brought back The Fox but dropped the pointless Jeremy. Alex Toth’s run on ‘Torpedo 1936’ was already over, with Ebuli himself drawing the next instalment but most telling were promises of new series coming up in the magazine, and a book-long story being drawn.
‘Torpedo’ without Toth was still excellent, the art not quite as good but more detailed and, frankly, more suited to the grimy milieu. It got me thinking about if I could get my hands on more of it.
And suddenly that was it, the magazine cancelled with stunning abruptness. When issue 113 finally appeared it was five years later, it was published by Harris Publications and, appropriately given the final run at Warren, it was all reprints. There was no issue 114.
Of course, old comics characters never really die, especially not if they’re a voluptuous black-haired vampire drawn wearing less clothing that constitutes the average ladies’ handkerchief. Vampi kept coming back over and again in the near forty years since Warren’s abrupt bankruptcy, from Harris, from Dynamite and now from Mike the Pike Publications. Famous writers have worked on it from time to time, but I doubt that any of them have solved the problem of coming up with a decent story for such a nonsensical character as that. I shalln’t be checking to see.
I was not the audience for this series, as the last three weeks have amply shown. I’m glad I’ve read it, so now I know, but it wasn’t fun and I stick by my overall sense that the series’ overwhelming failure was due to pandering to its subject, even after the shift away from the sheer nastiness underlying horror: as long as certain conventions were observed, the one thing most important to a story could be and was abandoned: a point. Not everything was crap, but about 98% of it still was and these are proportions that are not workable.

Going Back to Bury


If you want a reason to do something, you can always come up with one, no matter how specious it is. Last year’s trundle around the Manchester Metrolink might have struck you as pretty pointless, given that the purpose of doing it was to do it, but I found it fun, and whilst I don’t think I’m obsessive enough to want to do the whole thing again (we’ll see though), it’s been nice and sunny all week so far, and the expedition to Bury did get rather buggered about for the return leg, what with the heat and terminating at Whitefield and that bloody awful bus ride so if that isn’t a specious enough reason to get up and go somewhere and maybe even do something, I haven’t got anything better up my sleeve.

It wasn’t all that good a day, actually, but I still decided to go, just missing a 203 as I usually do with statistically improbable frequency. I don’t go into Manchester much nowadays, largely because I no longer visit Forbidden Planet every month, nor indeed at all. Apart from a quick sidestep to a Cashpoint, it was the same ritual as before: Touch In, sit on Platform, wait for Tram (first Bury, 7 minutes).

I shalln’t describe the journey: been there, done that, and it isn’t startlingly different if I sit on the other side of the carriage and look eastwards, not westwards.

Once I cleared the terminus at Bury – including going back because I forgot to Touch Out – I needed food, drink and somewhere to pee, if not necessarily in that order. The latter two functions were resolved in a pleasantly quiet nearby pub, where I enjoyed my half of lager and lime so much, I decided that the loo was the excuse for the drink rather than the other way round. The food aspect was resolved about three doors away in an eat-in takeaway: two pieces of southern fried chicken plus fries: a rare treat.

Last time I’d been here, I’d mused about the branch office of my old firm, the one I hated intensely. Finding the street where they’d been based was absurdly easy now, though the office had disappeared and I couldn’t work out exactly where it had been. Instead, and obcurely connected, I was reminded of one of the secretaries at the main office, with whom I’d gotten on really well, and who I’d thought was absolutely lovely (you’re going to be really surprised when I tell you she was a redhead). Only the fact that she was married with three children spared her from being asked out by me. I am by no means confident as to my appeal to the ladies but if she hadn’t been married, this once only I’m pretty sure…

It would have been nice, to say the least, if she’d have crossed my path on my ramblings, but the sympathetic magic account was plainly in the red today.

I sought out the Millgate Shopping Centre again, this time approaching it from the other end so I came to CEX almost immediately. I got nothing out of there except yet another reminder that the patience of my teens and twenties, when I could spend hours turning over every singles rack at Shudehill Record Stalls, is long evaporated. Singles, CDs, books, DVDs, no matter what: where once I would flick away mechanically for hours, ad infinitum, in perpetual search of that unexpected gem, not even necessarily a rarety, to be snapped up, I have lost the stamina. Part of that is that I’ve lost the belief in there being anything left to find. I can’t spend all my time thumbing through the dross when I no longer believe in the possibility of diamonds among the pigshit.

I loitered in Waterstones for a while, trying not to stare too much at the back of a short woman with long straight dark hair, torn between the eternal urge to buy a book and the indifference just mentioned. Then I decided I was still peckish and what was an outing like this without a Tuna crunch baeutte from Gregg’s? I’d passed one, I couldn’t remember where, so I went in search and found it almost disappointingly quickly. I also bought a can of Diet Coke, which the assistant offered to upgrade to a bottle, free. I turned her down: there is a subtle difference in taste between coke from a can and coke from a bottle, and when I’m out I prefer the former. So do many others apparently, at least in Bury.

But the delights of Bury once again proved to be exhaustible, and outside the Millgate it was trying to lightly rain, so I started the journey back. Having a 20p on me, I used the Station toilets this time, before descending to the Metrolink and walking straight onto a waiting Tram.

There was a noisy platform squabble going on that sounded like either fighting cats or pre-teen girls. It, or something very like it, entered my carriage. This was definitely not cats, they don’t swear that much. I could see this turning into a long journey but they got out at Whitefield. This time, my luck held out. We stayed only long enough for the normal exchange of passengers then slipped away, down the line to Manchester, easy as peasy.

Actually, I was back early enough to get out at Market Street and pay a visit to Primark. They’ve reduced their menswear drastically but I picked up a cheap pair of casual slip-on shoes, for which I had to queue a quarter hour. I spent all that time behind three early-teenagers mucking about, giggling like they’d been at the laughing gas. The male one couldn’t stand still until he stood on my foot. Give him his due, he apologised immediately (‘So you should,’ said I) and kept clear of me after that. Didn’t stop the giggling, mind you.

I should have known better than to go in in the first place. Initially, I thought I’d dropped myself in it by precipitating myself into the dreaded Hyde Road crawl, exacerbated by roadworks near Devonshire Street Bus Station but it was so much worse. The bus was stopped because someone upstairs was ‘smoking’ and a complaint had been made. This meant the bus had to be impounded or withdrawn, due to ‘regulations’ and we all had to get off. A replacement bus would soon be provided. Guess what? They let the culprit back on, he immediately lit up again (I assume it wasn’t tobacco as I can smell that but I don’t have a particularly sensitive nose and I couldn’t even detect the smell of a spliff, let along distinguish it from a pine air-freshener.) That was it, 999 call, not going anywhere. Still, what’s half an hour on Hyde Road in the rush hour between friends?

Within a couple of minutes, the following 203 turned up behind us and about 90% of the passengers decamped to squeeze themselves into that. I stayed put: I did not fancy standing and squashing all the way home, not with my hip.

No sooner did the Police siren sound that the culprit was thundering down the stairs and making off, not without leaving one final, pithy epithet for the driver. Then we were ordered off this bus to get on a replacement one, only for the replacement one to be the bus we’d just got off. I’m not saying it was a complete farce, but if Brian Rix was still alive he’d have had it signed up and into production in the West End within minutes.

As if in compensation, we then had a miraculously clear run all the way to Reddish Bridge, and most of the way down Reddish Lane and Gorton Road, thugh by then we had become a convoy of three, 609 in total. I was glad I wasn’t waiting for a bus into Stockport. But at last I got off, and got home, and got round a cup of coffee. Bury is clearly jinxed: not for anything will I go there in future. Well, except for a coffee date with the lovely Lesley A of course.

Rumpole of the Bailey: s01 e01 – Rumpole and the Younger Generation


Over the course of seven series, John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey fell to pieces in stark fashion, as I’ll be documenting over the weeks ahead. Perhaps the real tragedy of that, apart from the illogical, badly-plotted and just plain stupid stories that we’ll eventually get to, is that the kind of impression that leaves is of a decay that could have been averted by ending the series long before it did, becomes the overall impression, shunting aside the recollection of the series when it was good. Because, based on just the first episode alone, Rumpole wasn’t just good, it was very very good.

The episode has to stand as a scene-setter – I can’t have been alone in April 1978 in not having experienced the original BBC play – but it chose, quite rightly, to concentrate on Horace Rumpole, and leave his surrounding cast of fellow Barristers in their Chambers as an impression, and not a particularly impressive one at that.

Horace Rumpole (Leo McKern, seizing with both hands the part of a lifetime): portly, orotund, smoker of cheap cheroots, quoter of Wordsworth, rich and fruity of speech, living in a flat in Froxbury Mansions with his wife Hilda (Peggy Thorpe-Bates), aka ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’. Father of Nick (David Yelland), away at Public School. Son-in-Law of the elderly C H Wystan (John Welsh), Head of Chambers, ageing, ailing. The role of Head of Chambers will soon be vacant and Rumpole is senior man, expected to inherit, keep it in the family, popular choice. Rumpole, who isn’t interested – ever – in ‘taking Silk’, i.e., becoming a Q.C., Queens Counsel, queet customer, a senior Barrister. Rumpole the old Bailey Hack, whose practice lies in crime, whose talent is in cross-examination, who is vast and irreverent, self-confident and a shade defensive, aware that he is looked down upon, yet taking very seriously his role as a defender of those who have been charged with crimes tha will change their lives forever, and determined to see that they are given the strongest representation in a system that conspires against them to assume that just because they are charged they are, a priori, guilty.

In short, Rumpole is an idealist. An angel with a grubby wig and an ash-stained waistcoat, a taste for cheap red wine at Pomeroys, not to mention a chop. But an angel nevertheless, a realistic, cyncical angel who relishes a fight.

One of the things I’d forgotten about Rumpole’s debut is that the stories were retrospective. The first episode was set in 1967, and the series moves, slowly, over the ensuing decade, only reaching the present day on the final episode. ‘Rumpole and the Younger Generation’ concentrated upon a criminal trial, that of Jim Timson, a teenager chared with robbery with violence. Jim is a member of the Timson clan, a family of South London professional criminals. It’s his first trial, a rite of passage. The family looks up to Rumpole, who has represented every one of them on various charges: they always get the best defence from Mr Rumpole. stand up straight, address the Judge as My Lord and do what Mr Rumpole tells you.

Mortimer has fun with the case. The Prosecution is led by the suave, smarmy Guthrie Featherstone, M.P., also of Rumpole’s Chambers. Featherstone is slick, charming, sucks up to the Judge, who is the first of Mortimer’s ludicrous Judges: out of touch, quivering with distaste at having to deal with criminals, completely unaware of ordinary life and greatly preferring Featherstone’s reasing to Rumpole’s abrasive teasing. It’s beautifully comic, and exagerated just enough to be funny and pointed but evidently quite real. It probably doesn’t happen like that, but it feels as if it’s very likely that it’s nearly that.

The point of the case is that the only ‘evidence’ against young Jim is a supposed confession made in the remand centre to his contemporary ‘Peanuts’ Molloy. The family, who’ve provided Jim with an alibi that could actually be true but which nobody in Court would believe, say it’s a fit-up, and of course it is, but the salient point is that there is a feud between the Timsons and the Molloys, of Montague and Capulet proportions, and no-one even so much as speaks to anyone from the other family. Family honour.

And of course Jim has a perfect genuine alibi, one that he hadn’t offered but which is spotted courtesy of the Prosecution, which is that he and Peanuts, who actually get along together and are good friends, went to a Rolling Stones (‘Jazz musicians, My Lord’) concert at Hammersnith Odeon. On the evening of the robbery.

It’s a win. But it’s not a win in Rumpole’s eyes, it was sheer luck, prompted by son Nick, who had gotten away from school to go to the same gig. But worse was the fact that Jim Timson would have rather gone to prison than admit to having spoken to a Molloy. That in Jim’s eyes, the rite of passage was not just first trial but also first sentence. Not that he’s ungrateful. He’s a Timson, it’s what they do. Rupole sees only too well the future that lies ahead of Jim, the stretches inside, the blind devotion to Rumpole as the family angel who will save them time and again. Sickened by that prospect, he tries in vain to deflect Jim from that course, but he’s a Timson. Like father, like son, ad infinitum.

The case plays into the other aspects of the episode. Nick, an intelligent boy, the apple of his father’s eye, a lover of Sherlock Holmes stories, has always been assumed to be going to read Law at University, follow his father into his profession, enter Chambers, third generation of the family. But Nick’s interests are changing. His mind is turning towars Sociology. As for the position of Head of Chambers, well, Featherstone has taken silk, becme the first Q.C. in Chambers in living memory. And Wystan makes a special trip to the celebration party to stick in his oar: a Q.C., progenitor of bigger, better and less disreputable cases and clients. Not a criminal Chambers. Featherstone is voted in as Head.

Rumpole acts as if it doesn’t matter, no headaches for him, let Hilda be and show her disappointment. He’s been shafted but on the surface… Aye, the surface is where Rumpole lives, or so it appears, impervious, indestructable. nd he will encourae his son to take his own course, not keep it in the family. There’s too much keeping things in the family.

Yes, I’d forgotten just how bloody good this was. No wonder it took the country by storm. There’s disappointment to come, but at least at first I’m going to remind myself of just how brillient Rumpole of the Bailey was, and try to ensure that in future, that is uppermost in my impressions of the show.

The Infinite Jukebox: Andy Williams’ ‘Music to Watch Girls By’

Remember that brief spell of intense heat we had last July? And my visit to Bury on the Manchester Metrolink that I wrote about at the time? What do you think inspired me to remember this song?
‘Music to Watch Girls By’ has something of an odd history. It was originally created, in short form, as the theme to a 1966 Pepsi ad on American TV, when it was heard by producer and arranger Bob Crewe, one half of the team, with Bob Guadio, that wrote and produced so many songs for The Four Seasons. Impressed by the tune, Crewe expanded upon it, building it up to single length with a variety of arrangements and releasing it on his own label in 1967, under the name The Bob Crewe Generation. The record reached no. 15 in America.
Later the same year, with lyrics added by veteran writer Tony Velona, the song was recorded by Andy Williams. It failed to match Bob Crewe’s success, stalling at no. 34, whilst in Britain it went one place better.
Williams’ career in Britain was pretty patchy through the Sixties, but if he had a hit it tended to be a big one, including two no. 2s and two more top four hits. Unfortunately for me, just when I started listening attentively to Radio 1, he struck his most consistent patch of form over here and never seemed to be off the radio. For a pop station, he sure seemed to be a favourite artist, and I still remember that, the week James Taylor crashed the chart at 14 with ‘You’ve Got a Friend’, Top of the Pops played the Andy Williams version instead!
That spell thankfully didn’t last much more than a year, though Radio 1 still playlisted his ‘Love Theme from ‘The Godfather” even though it completely flopped. And the Sixties ballads were recycled frequently as Golden Oldies. I’m assuming I must have heard ‘Music to Watch Girls By’ at some point during this time, but not often. After all, despite its use of horns and its Latin tinges, it was fast tempo, used fuzz guitars and was of all improbable things, a pop song.
There the story goes into abeyance for about three decades. I don’t know if they still do it now, because I don’t have a TV and the only adverts I have to suffer are on YouTube, but in the Nineties the fashion was to resurrect old songs, some of them absolute classics, like Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’, as soundtracks to commercials for all sorts of stuff that had no connection to the record. Surprisingly, the Great British Record Buying Public responded by buying these tracks, re-issued hastily, and sending a lot of them into the Top 10. Sometimes, this was wonderful.
Record companies started touting old records for commercials with the belief of scoring a hit again. It didn’t always work, not least when Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something in the Air’ was added to an ad for something I have no intention of remembering. Glorious as it was to hear the snippet, it did not result in the record returning to even the Top 50, boo, hiss. I’d have glued myself to Top of the Pops to see that. Speedy Keen was still alive then: just maybe it might have boosted him into recording again.
Then, in 1999, Fiat went for ‘Music to Watch Girls By’. It was a perfect fit for a commercial that showed slick guys driving around in Fiats, eyeing up the girls in their summer undress and picking them up. And the record hit. It entered the chart at no. 29. I remember that vividly because next week it leapt to no. 9.
That was as far as it went, but I loved the sound of it, the energy, the vibrancy, and despite the fact that the song was all about ogling girls wearing short and skimpy clothing, you’d have to say the innocence as well. Beneath those basically chauvinistic lyrics – though they did allude to the girls watching back, making it clear that the whole thing was part of the eternal boy-girl game and riding roughshod over the creepiness factor that’s the first thing we’d notice nowadays – the song was basically about fun and lack of commitment, at a time of year when all that matters was enjoying yourself, briefly, happily. Innocently.
The song was a hit again whilst I was still going to see United, though not for much longer. My seat was in the Second Tier of the triple-decker South Stand, practically on the halfway line: it could hardly have been better. On my right was a family of three, parents and twentyish daughter, and we’d chat before and during games. At one point the talk turned to music and I confessed there was only one song in the Top 40 that I liked: Miss Brown instantly identified it as ‘Music to Watch Girls By’.
It’s a very Sixties sound, upbeat, brash, fast, with lyrics using a modified call-and-response technique that suited a single voice. Away from his usual ballad style, Williams adapted well to a fresh and breezy sound, eschewing any of his usual vocal techniques and letting the music dictate a very straight, unadorned performance.
Of course, even then, or perhaps especially then, as psychedelia and flower power were starting to gain momentum, it was as shallow as a raindrop on a hot pavement, but that was part of its charm, to a male ear. The female form is a delight to us and whilst I don’t necessarily go around advertising it, I do take a pleasure – at my age a purely aesthetic one – in seeing a gorgeous woman, or girl, passing by, strong and confident and independent. Not that any of them are watching back, not at me.
But the female opinion may well be vastly different. What is the song about if not objectifying women? Reducing them to merely their bodies – and their faces and hair, don’t forget their faces and hair. It was always thus, and no matter how wiser we get, making this world a happier, safer, freer place for women, there’ll always be a part of us happy to watch girls go by, and thank our luck that their beauty makes the world a place to enjoy being in.
And, as I still recall, on that day of heat and extreme shortness of skirts and shorts, the most gorgeous looking woman I saw was dressed in a flowing, floaty, calf-length black dress. It was definitely a good day to watch her go by.

Crap Journalism

Haven’t done one of these in a long time, mostly out of indifference, and it isn’t even the egregious Stuart Heritage. Though perhaps I ought to be renaming this one ‘Clickbait Journalism’.

Each week, the Guardian has a feature called ‘Ranked’, in which they take a subject, perhaps an actor’s filmography, or a band’s albums, anything where they can produce a list and then put it in ascending order of whatever importance or quality they assign to it. If it’s someone or something I have at least a passing interest in, I’ll scan it and have a further look at the comments. Usually these are fifty percent accusations that the list is Clickbait, that the true order has been deliberately distorted, something popular downgraded, something obscure elevated, in order to create controversy, show that the compilar is hip or edgy, in short creating a phoney list to provoke responses.

Sometimes, when its a subject I have some knowledge of, I disagree with some of the placings. Not being a full-time conspiracy theorists, I usually allow for the more outre choices by giving credence to people simply having different taste for me.

Today’s features the fashions of Dr Who. Have a look at the order they put the costume choices in. This one’s definitely a piss-take. If you can’t summon up the stomach to look for yourself, if I were to tell you that the No. 1 best costume is awarded to… Sylvester McCoy, I think you’ll get it.

Crap Journalism.

P.S. The new Doctor’s costume is an eyesore!

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge’s Fictional British Spacemen of the 1950s and 1960s: Captain Condor of The Space Patrol

Captain Condor (we never seem to discover his first name) was originally created for the boy’s comic Lion, as a science fiction rival to Eagle’s Dan Dare. He featured from 23 February 1952 to 4 April 1964, illustrated by a number of artists, the most competent being Geoff Campion, Keith Watson, and Brian Lewis. The identity of the early artists are rather vague, but the website says the first stories were illustrated by Ronald (Ron) Forbes, and the later stories (examples being “The Day the Sun Went Out” and “The Outlawed Planet”) by Leslie Waller. However, neither artist are listed on the very extensive comics artist register by website. The stories were almost all scripted by Frank S. Pepper. Apparently, although I have read only a few of them, there were text stories in 1965-66 and 1968-69. At least some Condor stories (“Planet of Destruction” was one) were later reprinted with his name changed to ‘Rip Solar’ – oh, dear, how awful.
I have only a passing acquaintance of the earlier stories, but what little I have seen would seem to indicate a complete failure to comprehend the reasons for the enduring success of Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare character, world, or vision. Even at best, Condor – for the most part – comes a poor second. Firstly the stories are set too far into the future, over a thousand years’ time, at the beginning of the thirty-first century. While this allowed Condor’s adventures to often operate out in the more distant depths of galaxy, instead of confined (for the most part) to within the Solar System, even a few centuries ahead would have been sufficient, and – given the world depicted by Pepper – more credible. One might example the later American television series Star Trek, originally set in the 23rd century. Moreover, there is little continuity or consistency within the stories, while there are only the two characters throughout – Condor himself, and his ‘assistant’ (the actual meaning is never explained), Quartermaster Burke, with short-cropped blonde or fair hair and a boxer’s face, broken nose. But the question has to be asked, would Space Patrol in the 31st century have need of a ‘quartermaster’? The job function seems almost as obscure and perhaps anachronistic as Spaceman Digby’s role of Colonel Dare’s ‘batman’.
That said, Condor as depicted by Campion and Watson does have a certain facial similarity to Dan Dare, with dark hair, a lean long face, strong features, but – dare I say it? – perhaps more realistic and better drawn than Hampson’s sometimes rather cartoonish Dare with his peculiar eyebrows. One criticism, comparing the two, is that Condor is rather shallow, with no character or even a hint of a backstory, other than Pepper’s early stories, which, to those of us first reading Condor’s adventures in the period 1959 to 1961, we are completely unaware of. In fairness, this criticism might be directed at most of the boys’ comic characters. Digby, we are told, has a wife and kids, but we never see them, nor do they feature in any way in the stories. He doesn’t seem to have any life or friends outside being Dan Dare’s shadow. Hampson’s attempts to flesh out his characters – the saga of Dan Dare’s father, space pioneer Captain William Dare, for instance – came to little, perhaps because the editorial politics intervened. In fact, none of our British space heroes come across with any great depth, unlike even the Daily Mirror’s “Garth”, who does have a backstory of sorts, no matter how incredible; or – perhaps the most detailed and believable of any fictional comic strip character – Peter O’Donnell’s “Modesty Blaise”. So the criticism – while valid – cannot be levelled only at Condor.
Mike Conroy’s 500 Great Comic Book Action Heroes has this to say on the (1952) origins of Captain Condor: “Created by Frank S. Pepper and drawn initially by Ronald Forbes, Condor operated in the 31st century when the planets are ruled by a ruthless dictator. After escaping from Titan’s uranium mines where he had been sent for refusing to ship slaves to Venus, he helped overthrow the evil despot. Rewarded by being made the commander of the freshly established New Special Space Patrol, he turned to ridding the solar system of space pirates, criminals, and other scum.”
The much later period when I was reading Captain Condor’s adventures (indeed, my main reason for a regular subscription to the Lion comic) was 1959 to 1962, and the stories were actually quite good, Condor’s Space Patrol now seemingly in the duel role of policing and exploring Earth’s immediate environs of interstellar space. Indeed, in the Watson-illustrated stories the Space Patrol was renamed as the ‘Interstellar Space Patrol’. So, the stories I recollect were: “The Hole in Space” (1959-60, Geoff Campion); “The Forbidden Planet” (1960, Campion); “The Planet of Destruction” (1960, Campion/George Heath); “Operation Catastrophe” (1960, Keith Watson); “The Indestructible Men” (1960-61, Watson); “The War in Space” (1961, Watson); and “The Push-Button Planet” (Brian Lewis, 1961); with vague memories of the beginning of “The Slave Hunters from Outer Space” (Lewis, 1962).
Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare does at least make a token nod to the world beyond Britain. Neither the Captain Condor world, nor that of our next-to-come British spaceman, Jet-Ace Logan, in the Tiger comic, manage to show anyone other than white Europeans, except the early episodes of “Operation Catastrophe”, which was briefly located in South America. There are no Africans or Afro-Caribbeans (other than two faces amongst the World Cabinet delegates in the Campion-illustrated “Hole in Space”), no Arabs or Asians, Indians or Chinese. The first two of the Keith Watson illustrated stories feature London, establishing that Condor is British, but perhaps by the beginning of the thirty-first century we are far enough into the future that there are no nationalities now – everyone is a citizen of Earth. At least once, towards the end of “The War in Space”, we briefly glimpse a few non-human extraterrestrials within the I.S.P. officer ranks, but Earth humans are still predominate at both command and other ranks. Again, there is that interesting similarity predating the American Star Trek series.
Back on Earth, the World President is the usual stereotype – neat bearded, mature, distinguished-looking, white, and male, of course. There are absolutely no females in the Captain Condor world except as fleeing civilians. Again – and, this time, despite over a thousand years in the future – gender equality never happened, but then perhaps what one would expect for a boy’s comic of the pre-school-leaving age range.
Urban transport are the ubiquitous flying machines and jetcopters, hover-cars (with British right-hand drive), and Keith Watson introduced ‘London Transport’ monorail buses, that had once frequently featured under the penmanship of Frank Hampson. City airports have seemingly became space-ports with vertical take-off spaceships coming and going. Despite their now antiquity, Pepper and Keith Watson (in “Operation Catastrophe”) would have us believe that already quite ancient buildings and monuments from our own time are still standing over a millennium in the future, for instance: Tower Bridge; Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament; Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square; St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields Church (although a high-level road now runs across the Square itself, and other towering buildings fringe its parameter. In “The Indestructible Men” Condor and Burke take shelter in an abandoned Downing Street in a ravaged, burnt-out London, although at least that is a later, post-Modern building, complete with high-speed lift (elevator) to the top floor.
In the Campion-illustrated “Hole in Space” story, there is still an Astronomer Royal (does that imply there is still a monarchy?), at an unspecified “New Greenwich Observatory”. Unlike Watson’s later, rather quaint and recognisable London, Pepper and Campion give us a towering, seemingly indestructible, World Government building, within which is a really impressive anti-gravity lift – a neat transparent sphere that rises up from a base through a circular opening in the ceiling. The World Cabinet itself sit in stepped rows, facing a podium with just three seats – one for the President, the other two occupied by the (foresaid) Astronomer Royal, and Condor.

While Campion never had the meticulous detail of Frank Hampson, or the clarity of John Gillatt’s Jet-Ace Logan illustrations, nevertheless he did manage to depict interesting glimpses of a future world, if not perhaps what we might really expect by the year 3000 AD. Flying machines in the urban skies, and wheelless, floating ground-vehicles were the norm, but it is amusing now that in the Captain Condor world there are still bulky TV cameras, tape-spool recorders (in “The War in Space”), Red Cross ambulances (“The Indestructible Men”), small domestic television screens, and public telephone booths, even if they are of the open-fronted type that later predominated our late-20th century world. Video screen phones were standard in the comic strip worlds of Dare, Condor and Logan, but no one thought to depict a 1950s/60s version of the personalised mobile phone, despite that American writer Ray Bradbury had predicted them as early as 1952. Computers, too, were huge beasts, even in the far future Condor world, where the ultimate ‘villain’ of “Operation Catastrophe” is a giant ‘electronic brain’ built on its own satellite in space, circling the Earth. Two more, similar ‘electronic brains’ feature in the Brian Lewis-illustrated Condor story “The Push-Button Planet”, each overseeing a centuries-old war fought by robot machines between a alien planet’s two major continents, separated by an equatorial ocean. But then this idea of giant electronic brains eventually replacing us, predates World War Two or the Isaac Asimov stories, and can be found in the flawed, if still magnificent, futuristic classic Last and First Men, by Olaf Stapledon, published in 1930.
Looked at now, in retrospect, the Condor stories I remember fell into two basic categories – disaster prevention and space exploration. “The Hole in Space” has a malevolent insect-like race, Pepper and Campion’s chlorine-breathing Skarabs, forced to flee their own war-ravaged home planet; instead plotting to destroy all life on Earth, so they might – to use our later terminology – planetary re-engineer it to be habitable for themselves. Again, Stapledon pre-imagined this idea 30 years before, except the intrusive species was humanity, fleeing a doomed Earth, and remodelling Venus to the requirements of our survival, despite the destruction and extinction of the pre-existing native population. As depicted by Campion, the hideous Skarabs, their spaceship (which had similarities to Hampson’s “The Phantom Fleet” spaceships), and the brief glimpse of their own world, were all suitably alien, malevolent, and hive-like. Of the Condor stories, this might have made a marvellous television drama.
By contrast, “The Forbidden Planet”, with its casual nod to the 1956 movie of that name, was about the latest expedition to a planet in the Rigel star system (which is actually 870 light-years from Earth), of sinister reputation, three previous expeditions there having vanished, their fate unknown. Almost from the first panel of episode one, Campion’s artwork on this story is superb – the spaceship interiors, the spacesuits (which design Watson subsequently faithfully continued), the space monsters (which were really mental projections – Sydney Jordan and Harry Harrison used the same idea in the 1957/58 Jeff Hawke story “Out of Touch”), and the exotic city under its protective dome, last refuge of the humanoid native inhabitants against the apparent shape-shifting ‘Dommes’, malevolent and evil creatures who had somehow infested the planet many centuries before.
Another good story plot, if with a few, minor ‘holes’ – how had the Dommes first invaded Rigel III? Why did they not still attempt to hijack Condor’s space-boat after being scared away by the intervention of the young, native Prince Kalif? Condor’s expedition was only the fourth in hundreds of years, the first falling victim to the Dommes’ disguises, the other two somehow rescued and apparently spending the rest of their lives living with the local natives in the domed city. Initially, Condor and Burke land alone, and Condor has a bulky ‘Polaroid’-like camera which takes and develops instant pictures – a complete one-off, never repeated, but which eventually is the means to detect, defeat and destroy, the Dommes, who don’t actually shape-shift, but use telepathic mental power to project an image to the unsuspecting victim. The camera, certainly in this case, never lies. It photographs the Dommes as they really are, human-size, but like shaggy hairy rugs, with slit-eyes and thin, spider-like limbs.
“The Planet of Destruction” returns Condor to disaster prevention, the Earth being threatened in a way not too dissimilar to that of “The Hole in Space”, but this time apparently unintentionally by a super race a million years ahead of us, roaming the galaxy in their own artificial planet. The more glaring flaw in the plot is, if they were so super-duper intelligent, would they not have realised the consequences their planet-cum-giant-spaceship was having on other planets within its path? And the end, where they pool their collective super-minds to turn back time, therefore undoing the damage done, is a total cop-out. Sadly, this story was not helped in that, for reasons unknown, Geoff Campion bowed out within the first couple of episodes and another artist, George Heath, took over – competent, but without Campion’s skill at depicting alien worlds or civilisations.
The story (as still drawn by Campion) opens with that old science fiction idea of London being roofed over by a massive series of hexagonal transparent panels. Numerous American sci-fi magazine covers have shown similar images, although mostly over New York. And, indeed, in 1962, the American architect, futurist and philosopher, Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), actually proposed the construction of just such a transparent geodesic dome over Manhattan – an idea in theory, that is still impossible in practise, even today, 60 years later. Even at the time there were unanswered questions as to construction, structural tension, or controlling conditions within the dome, like haze, condensation, rising and descending air currents, maintaining a static temperature, etc. Nor is it explained, either in the Condor story or others, just how you would construct a dome over a huge, sprawling megacity of, say, ten, twenty, or thirty miles across – perhaps (though never depicted as such) a series of interconnected domes, otherwise the physical mechanics make it impossible. Naturally, as is always the order of things, the final panel of the dome is just being air-lifted into place, when the weather goes crazy, and a major blizzard ensues. Even the boys (again, never girls) up in the World Weather Control Satellite are helpless, as the snow builds up, eventually collapsing sections of the dome – so much for the engineering! By the time Condor gets back, recalled to see the ‘Prime Minister’ (not President) in that towering World Government tower last seen in “The Hole in Space”, the temperature is going up, and the world is in danger of global warming instead!

While Earth bakes – draught and forest fires echoing that of the 1961 movie The Day the Earth Caught Fire – hurricanes swept Mars and the surface of distant Pluto is turned into a whirlpool of melting ammonia. Then comes the distant, cut-off, radio message from the planet Procynon IV, warning of a “shining planet”. There is a star named Procyon (without that middle ‘n’), approximately 12 light-years away. By the time Condor arrives, the Earth colonist cities have been burnt to the ground, the humanoid native population sent near-crazy (they seem to resemble Australian Aborigines, still living in a Stone Age culture), while only an isolated penal prison mining colony, has survived, due to the deep shafts and underground accommodation. The prisoners, incidentally, wear striped uniforms of the style favoured in 1920s/30s American prison dramas. Violent, anti-social convicts rising up to seize control in times of upheaval featured again, in “The Indestructible Men”. Apparently, even by the 31st century, no one had resolved the issue of violent crime or anti-social behaviour! Finally Condor and Burke, in a two-man space-boat, reach the shining planet, to confront the super big-brained inhabitants from an advanced civilisation “a million years ahead of our time”.
There next followed “Operation Catastrophe”, another disaster story, and the first of the Keith Watson illustrated stories. Keith Watson (1935-1994) was another talented comic strip artist who tragically died too soon, aged only 58. He learnt his craft in Frank Hampson’s ‘Dan Dare’ studio, but it was with the three ‘Captain Condor’ stories for the Lion (1960-61) that he first really showed his skills and individual style. The stories might still have been written by Frank S. Pepper, but one can’t help but think Watson brought something of his own ideas to the Condor world that wasn’t there before – not least some of Hampson’s visual imagination and vision. Later, this, in turn, Watson was to recreate when he took over illustrating ‘Dan Dare’ for the post-Don Harley Eagle – somehow he combined resurrected aspects of the original Hampson Dare world (uniforms, Spacefleet headquarters), together with ideas and aspects from his ‘Condor’ period, the architecture, vehicles, recycling Hampson’s monorail buses, even the giant insects from “Operation Catastrophe”.
It is interesting, and under-remarked perhaps, the distinction between monochrome and colour in the comic world – as deep and significant as in photography or the movies. Frank Hampson and Don Harley worked in colour, as did Frank Bellamy for the most part. The Captain Condor, Jet-Ace Logan and Jeff Hawke stories were all in black and white. One might argue this was dictated by cost and printing facilities. I read that to achieve the vivid colour pages of the 1950s Eagle, it was necessary to obtain printing equipment from Germany. Colour in its stories – like Dan Dare, Luck of the Legion, Riders of the Range, Jack O’ Lantern, and the Great Lives – were what made the Eagle such a pioneer, and so outstanding for its time (some might say, even since). It also, especially with Dan Dare, added a greater sense of realism. Dan Dare was about the future – in many cases a very fantastic future – but colour helped make the images on the page more believable and ‘real’.
Other artists worked almost entirely in monochrome. Jim Holdaway was one example, with ‘Romeo Brown’ and ‘Modesty Blaise’. Sydney Jordan (who we will discuss later) was another with ‘Jeff Hawke’. And so, I would argue, was Keith Watson. His style – evolved with ‘Captain Condor’ – was very distinctive, sharp detail, block-like contrasts of black and white, completely different from the lightness and shading of Geoff Campion, and a total contrast to Brian Lewis, the ‘Condor’ artist who would follow him in 1961-62. (*Interestingly, Watson was colourblind, and was to hire fellow Hampson alumnus Eric Eden to assist him when Dan Dare reverted to colour, which may explain this – MBC*)
That said, Watson had a much greater sense of continuity than Lewis, in that he took recognisable aspects of Campion’s Captain Condor – for instance, Condor’s physical features, and that of his ‘assistant’ Burke, Campion’s quite distinctive spacesuit and the Space Patrol uniform – just as he later did with his resurrected version of Hampson’s Dan Dare, which the Eagle comic new owners had so determined to eradicate. His Condor, at times, had similarities to Dare, minus the silly eyebrows, of course!
“Operation Catastrophe” has Earth threatened by the rapid spread of a hitherto obscure, fast-growing, malevolent, seemingly intelligent, South American plant, whose seeds are transported to London by fleeing refugees. Within days, first London, then much of England, succumbs to the plants, and – very soon – a bigger, more deadly, menace, giant (again, seemingly intelligent) insects, ants in particular. Was Pepper thinking of the American sci-fi movie Them!? Most probably. As Condor battled with this intractable foe, another plot element was introduced – a giant electronic ‘brain’ or super-computer, designed by a Professor Masterman, and in Earth-orbit in its own satellite. Attempts to get access to the orbiting satellite result in brain-dead zombie engineers. Of course, the disasters threatening Earth are sourced to the brain, which has gone rogue, although its methods for subduing humankind seem a trifle obscure. Every attempt to destroy the brain – missiles, battlefleets, Condor going solo to crash his space-battleship into it – all are thwarted. The brain out-thinks them. Only eventually – having retreated to the Space Patrol base on Triton, one of the moons of Neptune – does Condor discover research work not yet downloaded to the brain – described as a “magnetic hyper-force induced by bringing two warp fields into resonance” (whatever that means!) Within half a page Condor promptly blows the brain satellite up!

The next story, “The Indestructible Men”, combined both exploration and menace, with a party of six of Condor’s men, under Lieutenant Bale, taken over by a strange, spiral-like life-force, that rendered them impervious to any known weapons. Despite witnesses, Condor is accused of abandoning Bale and his companion on the planet, and is dismissed from the Interstellar Space Patrol by courts martial. So, the fact he had saved Earth numerous times didn’t count in his favour! The word of one of his junior officers against his, counted for more than facts. Needless to say, Condor’s Cassandra-like warnings are ignored. A spaceship is sent to ‘rescue’ Bale and his men, who promptly slaughter the rescue ship crew, down to the last man, and, upon returning to Earth, crash the spaceship into the space-port, wiping it out. From there they rampage London, using the electricity grid to create widespread fires, freeing (and recruiting) convicts (who are instantly bent on revenge against society), sinking a cruise-ship in mid-ocean, taking over an orbiting space-station and firing missiles at New York and the North American space-port where Condor (now restored to service) is attempting to escape Earth. Bale – even his teeth become fang-like – is the over-the-top, megalomaniac nasty, blowing up the Statue of Liberty to replace it with his own gigantic statue! Ha, ha – silly! Only by returning to the original source planet (about the giant star Betelgeuse; actually between 500 and 600 light years from Earth), does Condor find another – this time flame-like – life-force capable of destroying the baddies. Against even the advice of his own fellow indestructible men, Bale insists on following Condor, and hence the flame creature good guys get him!
The final Watson-illustrated story, “The War in Space”, perhaps the best, is again about menace, but not directly threatening Earth, only the long-term peace of the galaxy. The bird-like warrior-race known as the Orcs (interesting name) seize control of the wealthy, but peace-loving, planet Halcia, following a murderous surprise attack on the Space Patrol base there. What follows is Condor leading a resistance movement against Orc rule on Halcia, and then space battles between the opposing Orc and the Interstellar Space Patrol fleets. It is a clever story of twists and turns, its theme quite adult and sophisticated at times. This had all the qualities of a Star Trek movie. Trickery, espionage, an alien planet, land and space battles, Nazi-like bad guys carrying human and non-human settlers off into cruel captivity and concentration camps (still no women, of course, only men), partisan-style resistance fighting against the occupiers, more battles in space, the Orcs planning to use the captive 1,000-year-old Emperor of Halcia as their bargaining chip.
Watson was in his element – creating believable architecture (even if his house interiors owe more to the old High Street ‘Habitat’ store designs), battle-tanks, and his spaceships – which we have already seen in the previous two stories – now come into their own – a spaceship version of an aircraft carrier; battle cruisers bristling with gun-turrets, but strangely vulnerable, one would have thought, in that the control bridge is located in the transparent nose-cone. But what spaceships! What space battles! A combination of C.S. Forester’s Captain Hornblower and the movie Sink the Bismarck! This was Keith Watson going out on a high. We even get a clever bit on the aspects of faster-than-light travel in ‘hyperspace’, that wonderfully convenient piece of science fiction that apparently some scientists do actually subscribe to! At least the Condor stories eventually recognised some form of explanation of how to reconcile interstellar travel with Einstein. Dan Dare, in its hey-day, never did that. Indeed, few sci-fi comics did, before or since.
The last two Condor stories of my acquaintance were illustrated by Brian Lewis (1929-1978), and both are on the ‘expedition to new planets’ theme again. Brian Lewis illustrated three Condor stories in the Lion, before moving to illustrated Jet-Ace Logan in the Tiger. He is yet another comic strip artist who died young, being only 49. However, while seemingly a versatile and competent artist, I would argue he was best depicting robots, machines, and fantastic (if rather impractical to live in) cities. His figures have a certain rigidity to them, and faces especially are often rather bland, and samey. Moreover, with both Captain Condor and Jet-Ace Logan, he made little-to-no attempt at continuity, in style, overall cultural design, or character appearance. Campion and Watson (and John Gillatt in a Condor Lion annual story, “Piracy on Satellite Seven”) had all depicted Condor with dark hair, and strong facial features, Burke as blonde, short-cropped hair, and with a boxer’s face, the broken nose. Lewis makes Condor blonde and rather non-descript, Burke with dark hair. Why? The sudden change of appearance is jarring, even to a 13-year-old schoolboy. It made no sense, and especially after such a strong story as “The War in Space.”

Likewise, while Condor’s spaceship in “Push-Button Planet” did at least echo something of the spaceships depicted by Keith Watson, the interior was different, and the characteristic spacesuits originally depicted by Campion had been abandoned for something resembling the on-the-cheap costume of a 1960s science fiction television play. Again, bland, uninspired, even Bellamy was better when he was drawing Dan Dare. And, indeed, at least one website has remarked that Lewis apparently often ‘lifted’ panels, faces, or design ideas from Bellamy’s Dare period, the final half of the ‘Terra Nova’ trilogy, and “Project Nimbus”, which followed. The alien creatures in the second Condor story “The Slave-Hunters from Outer Space” (which title alone, sounds like a bad 1950s American ‘B’ Movie) are definitely a straight ‘lift’ of Frank Bellamy’s white, blobby, marshmallow-like aliens in “Project Nimbus”, so much so that, looked at in retrospect, they might even be from the same planet!
“The Push-Button Planet” has Condor and sidekick Burke descending solo from the orbiting expedition ship, to investigate possible intelligent life on the planet Algol IV. Once again, please note, this star is actually only about 92 light years from Earth. The planet has two continents, at the north and south poles, with an equatorial ocean in between. There is no response to “mathematical recognition” radio signals, but background “artificial radiation” indicates civilisation. This much is established on page one, episode one. After that, however, the story logic falls apart. Condor descends in a space-boat (remarking there are no lights on the night side of the planet), only to be shot down by a missile from a surfacing submarine ship. They escape their doomed craft by convenient helicopter back-packs and land on the sub, again conveniently gaining entry to the interior before it submerges, to find it is crewed only by robots. The sub is then attacked by “metal fish-like” robots – who, again, look remarkably like the McHoo-designed electro-valets as depicted by Frank Hampson in the Dan Dare story “Safari in Space”!
Condor and Burke are in the middle of an centuries-old, on-going robot war between the two continents. Arriving at the nearest city, they witness the endless cycle of destruction, followed by re-construction. The city itself comprises high-level roadways, few windows, and weird pinnacle towers that, even in peace-time, one would have thought impossible to actually live in. But then the story veers off into the totally incredulous. Suddenly, emerging from a manhole cover behind our two intrepid explorers, is a humanoid-like ‘Algolian’ – but a prince, no less, son to the King, whose kingdom is underground, long-since fallen into primitive ignorance, fear, and disrepair. We are expected to believe he emerged to the surface at just the right moment in place and time to meet the Earthmen. Come on! The chances of that happening are simply astronomical! Despite that later in the story the robots ignore non-robots if not threatened by them, our princely Algolian has to be rescued from death by Condor. There follows a sci-fi slight of hand, when Condor uses a “direct thought transmitter” (“standard Interstellar Space Patrol equipment to overcome language difficulties”), so that, from then on, everyone linguistically understands each other. This is akin (but a bit more cumbersome) to the Star Trek ‘universal translator’, but does at least acknowledge that extra-terrestrials on distant planets won’t speak English.
There follows Algolian politics, treason and plot, before Condor is able to access ancient books – books? – revealing the robot armies are each controlled by electronic brains. Shut down the brains and the war will be over. Condor, together with the young prince, will lead an expedition to the nearest brain. Now things go from the silly to ridiculous. They emerge quite easily from the underground – why did our princeling use a manhole cover, one asks? – and then travel “for many days” to find and disable the master electronic brain. Point one: how do they know where it is? Point two (and on-going, it gets more crazy as the story progresses): what are Condor’s colleagues on the orbiting spaceship doing all this time, having lost all communication with him?) Big, big plot holes! Having gained access to the brain’s headquarters, Condor then attempts to communicate with it by keyboard and screen – in English! Again, come on! But, by what might be regarded as a bit of a design oversight, the brain is conveniently next to the aging pipes conveying molten metal from the nearby blast furnace needed for robot construction. Condor successfully ray-gun blasts the pipes, blowing the brain up by overwhelming it in red-hot liquid metal.
Cue return in triumph to the king (more days travel), and Condor’s decision to next put the other brain out of action – please note, on the other continent, across an ocean on an Earth-sized planet. And to that end, without any shipbuilding knowledge, they somehow construct a huge wooden sailing and oar-powered ocean-going ship – how long does that take? At the same time, the Algolian bad guy, with his own dream of controlling the brain, and his small army of followers, are able to sneak abroad the ship before it sails. Right. More days – weeks? – as they sail the ocean, at one time becalmed in the tropics, then storms and fog, and then, having landed on the other continent, again they somehow are able to locate the rival brain, which Condor finally puts out of action by switching off the “thermal sun-motor” – solar panels to us – just in time to prevent space-scouts from his patrol ship getting annihilated, Condor’s officers finally having decided to come looking for him? Not only looking, after weeks, if not longer, but still actually knowing just where to land! The rival population having long since died – phew, let’s not over-complicate the plot! – the King and his merry men (there are, of course, no sign of any women) can now live in peace, back on the planet’s surface, no doubt in those silly, impractical cities. Call the Space Patrol, if and when you need us, says Condor.
The next story (of much vaguer memory) was “The Slave Hunters from Outer Space”, set on a planet, previously surveyed by Condor, circling about the star Vega (but again, this is quite close, only 25 light-years away), now being colonised by pioneers from Earth. Lewis’s spaceships are now cone-like, but at least the city architecture is rather more practical in design and appearance. Condor stops over to view the construction of the city, although the wisdom of having a very 20th century-looking nuclear reactor right in the middle of your urban zone is perhaps questionable. That said, by then even this 14-year-old schoolboy sci-fi fan was fast losing interest, and the rest of the story, and Lewis’s third effort, the dire “The Unseen Invaders”, are perhaps best forgotten. Let us, therefore, leave Captain Condor there. His best stories, and the most interesting aspects of his world, were as depicted by Geoff Campion and Keith Watson. Campion apparently also illustrated our next British spaceman, Jet-Ace Logan, as featured first in “The Comet” (1956-59), before moving to Tiger (1959-68), when the artist John Gillatt (1929-2016) took over.

Wednesday Morning Sitcom Time: Extras – s01 e04-06: Les Dennis/Samuel L Jackson/Patrick Stewart


Extras was, in its way, more of a make-or-break moment for Ricky Gervais than The Office. He’d had one incredible success with a series that, at the time, I nominated as the Fawlty Towers of its generation: could he do it again? Could he even come close to doing it again? Well, this series isn’t as good as The Office, because one-offs are what it says on the tin, but it was a good and creditable and worthwhile follow-up. It was also the last time Gervais’ acting and writing did it for me, the last time his tendency towards meanness and spite and nihilism was genuinely funny and not a vehicle for misanthropy.

I’ve already watched the first three episodes of series 1 when I was doing this sort of thing on Sunday mornins, between film seasons, so we’re coming in here at the midway point. A quick precis for those unfamiliar: Gervais is Andy Millman, a dumpy, unimpressive guy with ambitions to become an actor, but who has yet to rise above the level of an extra. His best friend is Maggie Jacobs, a breakthrough role for Ashley Jensen, a fellow extra, and a flightly, well-intentioned but feather-brained woman about a decade younger than him.

The gimmick for the series is that in each episode Andy and Maggie are working on something that a star actor is doing. Previously, we’ve had Ben Stiller, Ross Kemp and Kate Winslet, each of whom play a version of themselves that cuts across their screen persona in various manners. The same thing goes in two of the three episodes in the second half of the series.

Obviously, the comedy is still about embarrassment. Maggie’s dumb as a mud-fence, and completely lacking in that filter that most of us have that intercepts what comes out of the brain before it can reach the mouth. Maggie hasn’t got it. It comes to the fore in the Samuel L Jackson episode (in which the guest filmed his limited role in a single day, a month before the rest of the episode was filmed, to fit his schedule: he’s treated with utmost seriousness and respect – well, would you try to take the piss out of him?) Maggie’s got the hots for one of the supporting actors, Danny (Michael Wildman). It doesn’t matter that he’s black but, in a horribly extended sequence of scenes that are excruciating in their way but manage to hover just inside the line, everything that Maggie tries to say or do to demonstrate that she’s not racist ends up coming out as racist, which it is but in an inverted manner, because despite her innate decency and genuine ack of prejudice, Maggie is overly conscious of the black thing.

The ‘line’, incidentally, is my aphorism that Comedy of Embarrassment works until you cross over from embarrassing the character to embarrassing the audience.

This aspect comes very much to the fore in the Les Dennis episode. At the time, I found it too painful to be properly funny, not that I didn’t laugh. The set-up is that Andy has had to accept a role in panto as the Genie in Aladdin (and a right offensively cheap queer genie it is: overt campiness and tatty homophobia is a regettable element of Gervais’ comedy). Dennis plays himself, or at least I hope he plays an untrue version of himself. at the time he was a former very popular light entertainer, an impressionist and game-show host whose career was in decline. He had appeared in Celebrity Big Brother at a time when his marriage was breaking down, which was widely regarded as a disastrous decision.

Extras played upon this. Dennis played himself as obsessed with regaining his former fame and depressed by the futility of his efforts. it’s an astounding performance, and Dennis was incredibly brave to do it. His appearance did indeed revive things or him, though not by recapitulating his previous career. It seemed so utterly real, so true, that I could not see it as fiction. On every level it was unbelieable, and there were moments when you caught yourself in shock at what he’d allowed, and how deep it went. Obscurely, I felt as if it shouldn’t have been done, as if Dennis for his own mental health should not have been allowed to strip himself so bare literally, in fact, in one dressing room scene.

And that wasn’t all. Maggie’s half of the episode took a different route over the same ground. Gerard Kelly guest-starred as the panto’s choreographer, Ian Bunton, obviously gay though married, and Rebecca Gethings as his 29 year old daughter Lizzie, whom Maggie had once worked with. Lizzie’s all over-enthusiasm and eagerness, an overgrown child whose life has been directed and dominated by her father, and who has never yet begun to grow. She’s a human equivalent of a bonsai tree that only Maggie sees something horrible and sickening about. Gethings, who we’ve recently seen in The Thick of It, was quite brilliant. This was by a clear margin the best episode of the first series, but bloody hard going to watch.

Looking at these two episodes, I came to the conclusion that what Extras lacked in comparison to The Office was twofold. Firstly, as Andy Millman, Gervais is too nice. He’s a more ordinary, more average character than David Brent. His friendship with Maggie is genuine. He’s aware that he’s not top of the pile, that he has to try to climb. In short, he’s no monster. We’d go for a pint with him.

The other is that there’s no thread, no continuity. Andy is a sideline character most of the time, in the orbit of the more famous guests but clearly distinguished from them as inferior. Each episode is discrete. Until the final episode, when Gervais is clearly setting up something with a distinct ongoing story for series 2.

Guest on this last episode is Patrick Stewart and he’s a brilliant selection, especially considering he was third choice for the role. originally, it was going to be Jude Law, until he pulled out, then Gervais tried to get Leonardo DiCaprio. Stewart does three scenes, first the serious one, his acting role in Shakespeare, then an hilarious one in his trailer when Andy tries to get him to read a script he’s written: Stewart counters by talking about a script he’s writing for himself, a riff on his Professor X in the X-Men movies, about a man with mental powers that he uses to make women’s clothes fall off. I mean, can you see that being remotely as hilarious in the mouth of Law or DiCaprio, who could probably get women’s clothes to fall off anyway? Incongruity is one of the basic roots of comedy, and who could imagine Patrick Stewart wanting to appear in a film in which women’s clothes fall off and they’re struggling to get back into them ut by then he’s ‘seen everything’.?

But that’s just a purely comedic set-up. What matters is that Stewart gets the script to the BBC, who love it and set out to develop it. It’s Andy’s big chance, a sitcom series, himself to write and star. It doesn’t take long to see this as a parable about The Office especially as the sitcom is to be set in a workplace. But development is fraught. Head of New Comedy Iain Morris (Guy Henry) is already trying to shape the sitcom towards the BBC’s ends, not Andy’s, and overtly camp script editor Damon Beesly (Martin Savage, in a role that co-opts the surname of one of the main characters in the us ersion of The Office: interesting) is dragging it een more in the direction of cliche.

There’s that touch of homophobia again. Andy complains to the visiting Maggie, who is anxious for her mate to make it and purely unselfish in that) about Damo being ‘too gay’. She, trying to ameliorate things, repeats that to Damo, which nearly leads to the project being abandoned. andy takes it out on maggie, slating her, her frivolousness, the mess she lies in, telling her to grow up. It’s a bad, if completely understandable moment, but for Maggie it comes at a lousy time. Things aren’t going well. Her parents have been naggoing her about frittering away her life, ending up a spinster, inviting her to come and live at home again. Andy’s words shock her into changing herself, tidying up the mess, cleaning her grotty little apartment, straightening her hair, wearing ordinary clothing, in short removing anything girlish and, well, individual about herself.

But there’s a happy ending. The sitcom gets the greenlight for a pilot. Andy intercepts Maggie as she leaves her latest job. He wants to apologise, to withdraw everything he said about her, too late though it is in one respect. In an oddly touching gesture, he gets Patrick Stewart on the mobile phone to do his apology for him, even down to saying that Andy’s not man enough to do it himself. It’s touching and, though it shouldn’t work like that, it comes over as more genuine than Andy’s own words would have done. Of course, it’s quickly undercut by Stewart offering Maggie a part in this film he’s writing and Andy cutting the call off…

So there series 1 was. I realise that I’ve referred throughout this post to Gervais as if this was his sole creation, which is completely wrong because the series was completely written and directed with Stephen Merchant, who plays Andy’s inept Agent. It was just a shorthand, that’s all. We shall return in four weeks time.

Country Matters: s02 e07 – The Four Beauties


When I first remembered Country Matters, it was this episode I recalled. And when the only DVD available was the Canadian eight-episode set, I was tremendously disappointed to find it was not included. Watching it again, for only the second time, it struck me just how much of it I recalled, vividly, from that long lost Sunday evening, the three of us watching in a togetherness that didn’t last: myself, my mother, my sister.

I remember that evening almost as clearly as the episode, seeing it as if from outside, though nostalgia infuses the scene with a glow of almost somnolent summer peacefulness, given that the episode was broadcast in mid-March 1973. What made the episode fuse itself into my memories so indelibly? The answer is obvious. It was a marvellous piece of compact, complete story-telling, making the most of a flimsy, light and inconsequential story, and acted quite brilliantly by a cast of five, among whom Michael Kitchen, as Henry, and Zena Ealker, as Mrs Davenport, were picked out as stars. And it was about sex. Not just sex, but flirtation, obsession and a kind of tragedy, but there was sex in it, not explicit, not on Granada TV before the watershed on a Sunday night in 1973, nor even after it, but enough sex to be obvious even to a naive and inexperienced seventeen year old boy, watching with his puritanical mother and ten year old sister and trying not to give any sign of how much he was enjoying this.

And with supporting actresses such as Kate Nelligan as Christabel, a young Veronica Quilligan as Tina and especially Jan Francis as Sophie, there was a good deal to enjoy.

The story was slight, and most of it told in flashback, in the memories of Henry, a junior and not very good reporter, and one who hates what he’s doing. Henry’s only relief from his toilsome eistence is Davenport’s Cafe, run by the slightly harrassed nd worn Mrs Davenport with the assistance of her three daughters, these being Christabel (19?), Sophie (17) and Tina (14). Henry, in his initial voiceover, refers to them as his three beauties.

And beauties they are. Christabel is lively, flirtatious and blonde. She teases Henry into taking her to the cinema, though both her sisters come with them. They go to a dance, over Tina’s attempts to persuade henry he should have asked her instead. And on the way home, she leads him into making love before blithely telling him she’s off to Brighton for three weeks, for a free holiday staying with an aunt.

In her absence, which he feels keenly for all of an hour or so, leading from embarrassment at Sophie – cool, sophisticated, red-heaired, manipulative – revealing that the sisters tell each other everything – everything – to kissin her by the churchgate. Sophie’s far too clever for Henry, teasing him and playing with him, leading him all over the place. A clean weekend in Brighton turns out to be a visit to a closed swimming baths where Henry takes his first and only initiative, surprising her in her cublicle where she’s about to get dressed…

But by then, Sophie, not to mention her younger sister’s petulant and stroppy behaviour, has told Henry that Tina, despite being only just fourteen, has a massive crush on him. Despite her youth, it is sexual aswell, though Henry is too embarrassed to take advantage of it. But it’s clear that of the three, Tina is the one who is serious about him, to whom he really matters. When he and sophie return home, there’s a panic on, Tina has run away. Henry finds her, remembering that the sisters tell each other everything.

Bringing her back is the catalyst for the end. Mrs Davenport, a motherly soul, makes a mean saffron cake. An entrepreneur has offered to set her up to manufacture these. Content and nervous, she has dithered. now, she decides to go for it. A week later, the Cafe is shut, the Davenports gone, for good.

That is, until a coda, five or six years later, sees a much more mature Henry in a different county, on assignment, stopping abruptly when passing a house. In the front garden, trumming trees, is a woman he thinks is Sophie, the same red hair, the same pre-Princess Leia curls over the ears. But it’s not Sophie, it’s her mother, looking much younger than she ever did, happier and successful. Henry asks after the girls: it’s an odd, wistful moment, made more so by their fates, and by the sistership having been roken. Christabel, married a rising young Doctor, emigrated to New Zealand, Tina, unmarried, independent, a secretary travelling all over the world. And Sophie… drowned a year ago. Echoes of the middle act of Priestley’s Time and the Conways.

But the story is the Four beauties. Mrs Davenport invites Henry in. It wasn’t only her daughters who liked him. at the door of her house, about to follow her, Henry looks back across the road, to the stone wall they’d just been lening again. For a brief flash the three daughters stand there, approving. There’s an odd echo of ZZ Topp in those three videos from the Eliminator period, which is mildly distracting but not enough to spoil the mood. Henry goes in, to get warm.

To my surprise, the original H.E. Bates story was only published seven years before it was adapted, though the setting is between the Wars. It was an inspired choice, and a brilliant finale to a superior series, the likes of which has never been attempted since, and never will be again. But I am so glad it was done then, and that I have had the chance to see it once more.