Lou Grant: s05 e13 – Immigrants


Looking up this episode on imdb after watching it, there was a very interesting paragraph about the show overall. This was Lou Grant‘s final season, and I had planned to talk about the reasons for its cancellations when I got to the final episode, but it appears that episode 13 is a pivotal point.

Lou Grant was cancelled in May 1982, this episode having been broadcast in mid-February. At the time, Edward Asner was President of the Actor’s Screen Guild. He had decidedly liberal opinions in Ronald Reagan’s America, especilly with regard to the USA’s dubious intervention in El Salvador. Officially, the show was cancelled for the only usual reason: low viewing figures. Asner believed that the cancellation was political, aimed at stifling dissent. Viewing figures at the time of cancellation were quoted which seemed to justify the decision, but these were compared to the viewing figures for Taxi, which had been cancelled for a lower audience but picked up by another network.

According to imdb, ratings were strong over the first half of the season, with the show usually in the weekly Top 20/25. With episode 13, the show plummeted into the bottom 20, and spent the rest of the season there, and much of it in the bottom 10, lending powerful support to the ratings argument.

On the other hand, the network opted to replace the show with Cagney and Lacey, which had performed disastrously in a three week run and which, whilst outperforming Lou Grant‘s most recent figures, would go on to deliver much power ratings than the show’s fourth season.

This was very interesting to me in the context of ‘Immigrants’ which was pretty much a complete bust, another episode without a resolution, and what’s more one that left every loose end dangling. The immigrants in question were the Vietnamese who fled to America after the fall of Saigon in 1975 – footage of which was shown in the intro – and how they and their culture were regarded in Amerixca. Except that after looking to lead with that depiction, the episode decided it had no confidence in itself and first mixed in then allowed a criminal enterprise to take over.

Two stories filtered into each other. The Trib needed a new photographer and everyone was massively impressed by the work of Lee Van Tam (Le Tuan, central to the story but shunted down to sixth in the guest credits I noticed). Tam was an old friend of Dennis ‘Animal’ Price from the latter’s service in the ‘Nam and a superior photographer. He put the wind up another Trib photographer, Cy Wood (Raleigh Bond) on clearly racist behaviour, nd Tan and his family rubbed up raw their vet neighbour Norman Diggs (J.D. Hall).

Things looked bad. Tan had no idea of procedires and schedules, he was great but unreliable, he wasn’t going to survive his probationary two weeks. Tan was also distracted by his unhappy involvement in the other story, a welfare scandal being pursued by Rossi.

The show backed into this one with a feature on one of the rare serious Welfare frauds that got inflated over its true prominence, but gave Rossi a lead into a highly organised black market in food stamps, under the control of Vietnamese politician Colonel Eyen Van Long. The audience could see long before Lou and Co that Tan was involved via the grocery store his family ‘rented’ from the Colonel. Trying to shut things down when the investigation started, Tan’s reward was to have his porch blown up by a grenade. The show’s only quotable line was bout the Colonel’s enforcer, who apparently knew more ways to kill you than you knew how to die (what a line, though).

Sticky situation. The Colonel was self-evidently utterly ruthless, Tan was about to be let go, and then suddenly Sooty tapped his magic wand, Harry Corbett said ‘Izzy Wizzy Let’s Get Busy’ and everything in the Herb Garden was wonderful (excuse the seriously mixed metaphor there).

Tan decided to spuill the beans about the Colonel in depth. His anonimity was so well preserved by the story that all his neighbours came out to help rebuild his porch without the show ever once considering that if they could work it out, a consummate smartarse like the Colonel might be able to, and he might be less neighbourly about the knowledge. Also, Tam gets a permanent job on Lou’s suddenly-not-at-all-frustrated call, and gets his pay offer jacked up because other papers are interested in him and he has a large family.

That isn’t an ending. It’s a total abdication of everything that has gone before. And this was the point at which ratings fell through the basement. Hmm, I say, and hmm again. I shall be very interested in the last eleven episodes.

Not just a ‘Prisoner’ Prequel


In 1960, a television executive at ATV by the name of Ralph Smart proposed a new thriller series for the still very new ITV channel. The name of the series was Danger Man, and it was to star Irish-American actor Patrick MacGoohan, already highly-regarded as a stage actor of some intensity, as Special Agent John Drake, in what would be a series of 37 twenty-five minute black-and-white episodes, intending to fit half hour slots on the commercial network.

As the introduction explained, each week, Drake was a secret service operative. All countries around the world have organisations that deal with complex, frequently sensitive and secret cases, such as the CIA, or France’s Deuxieme Bureau. Drake is one agent, but his employers are NATO, and his brief is world wide.

Drake’s brief might have been world-wide but the filming wasn’t. As early as episode 2, a scene supposedly in Eastern Europe, Romania or Bulgaria I think, was instantly recognisable to me as being filmed on the rougher road on the western shore of Thirlmere, opposite to Helvellyn in the Lake District, whilst a China-set episode in the first dozen broadcast was filmed in a Welsh folly village that, several years later, would become much more well known.

Danger Man was a success, but there was no second series, then or not until much later. Though it had been popular in America, where ATV’s Lew Grade ultimately directed all his efforts, American financing for a second series could not be found and the show lapsed.

Until 1964, that is. Danger Man had been sold around the world. What’s more Ian Fleming’s James Bond had become a worldwide star in films, and there was a massive appeal for spy series. Fleming, incidentally had been approached to help define the series but had dropped out without contributing. Smart decided to rethink Danger Man completely.

All that was left of the original set-up was John Drake, Secret Agent. In its new form, Danger Man (still in black-and-white), was re-imagined as a 49 minute episode series, to fit an ITV hour long slot. Drake himself was now British, instead of Irish-American, as he had self-identified once in series 1, and worked for the British Secret Service. Edwin Astley, a popular composer of television theme and incidental music (and future father-in-law of Pete Townsend), was brought in to write a new theme, ‘High-Wire’, which immediately became one of the most thrilling and exciting themes of the Sixties, an era of great television themes that has never been equalled.

And the new Danger Man was a smash. MacGoohan quickly became the highest paid male actor on British TV. The show was a hit in America as well, where it was re-named Secret Agent (to limit the association with series 1 and give the show a new start) and Johnny Rivers recorded a US-only theme, ‘Secret Agent Man’. There were spin-off novels in the usual American fashion. I even read one once.

The new Danger Man ran until 1966, two full series. It was so big that Lew Grade upped the budget to enable the fourth series to be filmed in colour (for America: in Britain, colour was only achievable on BBC2, 625 lines, and not the standard 405 lines on which BBC1 and ITV operated). Former journalist George Markstein, a man with connections to the UK Intelligence Community, was appointed as Script Editor. Two episodes were filmed in colour, and then Patrick MacGoohan resigned.

What followed is now part of Television history, not to mention the subject of my first, series long, in-depth blog series. In February of this year, just before the lockdown struck, I bought a boxset of Danger Man series two and three, the complete run. I’ve been saving it for months, as the next thing up on Tuesday mornings, once I reach the end of Person of Interest. It’s time has come. We start next Tuesday. Listen to this.

Person of Interest: s05 e13 – Return 0


This is the third time I have watched the final episode of Person of Interest. I have watched it desperate to see how it all falls out, I have watched already knowing what fates are determined. This is the first time that I have forced myself to wait a whole week before watching it. This has, as I suspected, been absolute torture, but you should keep your promises, especially those made to yourself.

It’s been torture because I know what happens, especially in two moments where I am bound to cry. I know a man ain’t supposed to cry, Marvin Gaye sang, but these tears I can’t hold inside. And as the years go by and this world gets ever darker, the vulnerabilities build up and fiction touches me in ever deeper places, places I no longer allow reality to encroach upon. I know I am going to be awash with tears as John Reese and Harold Finch meet their inescapable fates. I know when, and why, and that my response is uncontrollable.

We begin at the beginning, Amy Acker’s words as delivered at the start of the season: If you can hear this, you’re alone. The only thing left of us is the sound of my voice. I don’t know if any of us made it. Did we win? Did we lose? I don’t know. Back then, we didn’t know who it was that spoke them, or why, or when.

Begin on a rooftop, with Harold Finch, clearly in pain but under rigid self-control. He has the suitcase, the one that contained the compressed Machine. He has eight and a half minutes until something is overhead. We do not have to wait to see that he is bleeding from a gunshot wound in his belly to know that he is dying, because he is talking to a voice in his head. The voice of the Machine, the voice of Root. It too is dying. Harold Finch sees and hears his creation as Miss Groves. Who tells him, even as all knowledge and learning fades away, what she has learned, about human beings, about what they are and who they can be and how you can’t tell until their end. Everybody dies alone.

And the faces roll by. John Reese, kneeling with a gun to the back of his head. Lionel Fusco, clutching at two holes in his stomach. And Shaw, staring at a gravestone marked only with a number, the last resting place of Root.

It’s all crumbling. Ice9 is spreading. Everything has gone to pieces. John is outed as the Man in a Suit, but the Police plan to execute him and Lionel, until the final shots from offstage, across the harbour, a sniper freeing our two men to follow Finch back to the subway, there to divide into two missions, to divide forever.

Samaritan is trying to preserve itself, a duplicate in an air-spaced server, impervious to the virus. Using the pretence that he is carrying a thermonuclear device, Finch gains access to the server and uploads Ice9. Desperately, Samaritan creates and despatches duplicates. Finch intercepts them all, except one. It will be uploaded to a quarantined satellite.

The only last defence is to upload the duplicate of the Machine to the same satellite, there to fight Samaritan. It has lost billions of simulations: this time it can’t afford to lose. And though Finch has forgotten, it has Root’s modifications, giving it the power to fight. As soon as the upload is done, the building will be destroyed by a rogue Cruise missile. So that only he will die, Harold barricades John in to keep him safe.

The other two, Sameen and Fusco, have been left to defend the Subway, the Machine itself, that stranded Subway train carriage. Samaritan’s men, led by Jeff Blackwell, will attack. The Machine intervenes: the train is live and so is the Tunnel behind the wall. Blow it up, ride away. Blackwell gets on board, shoots Shaw in the arm, is taken out by Fusco.. Shaw examines his bag, forms the impression he’s shot a friend of hers… but as they reach the next station, Blackwell pulls a knife from his boot, sticks Fusco in the gut, twice, runs before Shaw can shoot him.

So we come back to the rooftop on an early, bright morning, Now we know why. Harold the Fisher King, lame from the beginning, wounded honorably. Hallcinating his Machine. Only the Machine has been doing one last job. It has been distracting him. Distracting him from realising that the aerials on the rooftop the Machine has led him to are not sufficient. Not like those on the taller building across the street that he now doesn’t have time to get to. On which stands another man. It is not Harold who will sacrifice himself today. John Reese has had his own deal with the Machine. He is going to pay it all back in one go.

It’s the end of his course. John Reese is going to die now and we are going to watch him die. No bullets will be fired from offscreen this time, no deus ex machina will plot a miraclous escape. Greater love hath no man.

And they come from two directions, and John spins and shoots. The upload goes into space. Harold has left, in time to seek medical aid? But at last a bullet hits Reese. Then another. What Harold the mysterious stranger said in the opening episode comes to pass. John Reese has gone beyond all further regrets before the cruise missile vaporises the rooftop he went to on his final job.

And Samaritan tries to establish itself on the satellite, but the Machine has followed it.

Did we win? The cybercrash is over, and the recriminations start. Senator Garrison, trying to avoid responsibility, claims the threat was of Chinese origin. Oh no it wasn’t, the committee chair contradicts, it was Northern Lights. Either way, it’s moot: the programme is defunct.

Jeff Blackwell packs to go away somewhere, very rapidly, but not rapidly enough. Sameen Shaw enters his apartment. He tries to explain it was nothing personal, just a job. Shaw agrees. She used to do jobs like that. In fact, before she met some people, good people, she would have just shot him. I’m sure they wouldn’t want you to do this, Blackwell tries, hopefully. They wouldn’t, Shaw agrees. But they’re all dead. And she shoots him dead.

Fusco survived too. He and Shaw meet for what’s probably the last time. She comes to collect Bear.

For the third time in this final episode, we witness a small boy standing rigid in the rain at his father’s funeral. His father died a hero saving lives. We cut to the grave of another military man, died 2005: Lawrence Dixon, who ‘died’ when he went into Black-Ops.

The phone rings in the abandoned Subway station. Amy Acker’s voice repeats into a tape-recorder. And screens begin to run, programmes run, a new mission is requested.

John Reese is dead. In a bar in a computer memory, a cop who has had to deliver his thirty fifth message of a death, listens to his partner surmise that everyone dies alone. Except, he says, if someone, even if it’s only one person at all, if someone remembers you, maybe you don’t really die at all. And in Italy, Grace Hendricks is painting with calm and concentration. A man stands looking at her, a few yards away, waiting for her to look up, and recognise him.

And if I can see anything at all by now, so overwhelmed that I am, I see Sameen Shaw, walking Bear in Times Square. A payphone begins to ring. She stares at it, crosses and picks it up. She listens hard. She puts the phone down and starts to walk away. As she does, a smile comes to her face, such a smile as Sameen Shaw has never smiled before.

This is our future. Make of it what you will. And thank you for following me these past two years.

The Infinite Jukebox: Steely Dan’s ‘Midnight Cruiser’


Go back in time and the further you get, the more likely it is that I didn’t hear the songs I recall on The Infinite Jukebox when they first appeared. Of course I heard a lot of Steely Dan when they first appeared: both ‘Do It Again’ and ‘Reeling in the Years’ were released as singles in the UK, both got an immense amount of airplay and both were completely ignored by the Great British Record Buying Public. In fact, everything single-wise was ignored except for 1977’s ‘Haitian Divorce’ (I tell a lie: ‘Do It Again’ on reissue in 1975 got to no 35, big whoop).
But despite my familiarity with, and love for these songs from the first time I heard them, I did not buy a Steely Dan album until 1978. At least it was Can’t Buy a Thrill.
And so I finally heard the remainder of that first album, that the New Musical Express had raved over, but which it had described as an album of songs in the way that it’s follow-up, Countdown to Ecstacy was a band album. I knew at last what they meant: smooth, pop-oriented songs, strict structures, verses and choruses and middle-eights and instrumental breaks. This was the business, and ‘Do It Again’s long shuffle and western revenge set-up and ‘Reeling in the Years” collegiate times and ripping guitars were the highlights, one heading up each side in those years when music was in shiny black and turned over on itself.
But there was this other song, buried away as track 4 on side 1, that had all the same qualities as the Dan’s other early songs, of tight playing and a chorus that invited you to lend your own throat, whose lyrics offered the same kind of proto-nostalgic milieu as ‘Reeling in the Years’ but which offered something deeper, something in which the smartarsery of the album found resistance. It was a song that had sentiment at its heart, joyous reflection, a memory of times that were better, or at least fresher. A time that was fun and yet in its way serious, about which there was to be no cynicism.
Oh, it was obvious that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were clever, cleverer than us and knowing of it, and clever enough to be cooler, in on a joke that no-one without their intelligence would ever see, let alone understand. But ‘Midnight Cruiser’ was where it got to them. Where the cleverness remained but it had stopped protecting them.
Polonius, my old friend, Fagen exclaims, step on in and let me shake your hand. The kid, as he’s described in the liner notes (remember them?) is glad to see his old buddy and invites him out: for one more time, let your madness run with mine. They’re not just going out, they’re going back, one last cruise: streets still unseen we’ll find somehow, no time is better than now.
And the song swings into one of those glorious Steely Dan choruses, full of melody and yearning, asking where are you driving midnight cruiser? Where is your bounty of fortune and fame? I am another gentleman loser, drive me to Harlem, or somewhere the same.
But the clue’s already in there, in that reference to Harlem, the long ago hip place of the Jazz Age, where the white folks went for fun and risk, but that Harlem was long since dead in 1972, and it was a vastly different place by then, and only the risk remained.
And with it the regret. The world that we used to know, the Kid muses, people tell me it don’t turn no more (he’s not been to see for himself, unable to bear so direct a disappointment). The places they used to go, familiar faces that ain’t smiling like before, and then comes the climactic conclusion, the dagger to the heart, the sadness that cannot be overcome, for things are not now as they were, and never will they be again, and there’s not a damned thing you can do to alter that, nor to escape from the pain and the loss. The time of our time is come and gone, I fear we’ve been waiting too long.
Oh yes, time, and the illusion that if you’d done this before now, if you hadn’t waited so long, it may all have been there, still alive as you once knew it, waiting for you and Polonius to make it be alive again by being there, by being part of it.
It never was, and no amount of cool can bridge that gap between was and is, nor take away the sense of loss. Where are you driving, Midnight Cruiser? Where have you been and where will you be now, and can you be if this doesn’t exist any more?
And behind the music is the knowledge that without that past, Polonius and the Kid aren’t Polonius and the Kid any more: after this, they will never see, hear or speak to each other again, because the point has been lost.
Steely Dan conjured up the music to tell us what the words alone can’t tell us, that there are things this world will do that no-one can stand up against. I heard that from them in 1978, long after they recorded this poignant song, and I am reminded of it every time I hear it again.
The time of our time is come and gone. I fear we’ve been waiting too long. Is there a sadder lesson to learn?

Sunday Watch: All Quiet on the Preston Front – s01 e05&06


She of the biscuit

The logistics of a working Sunday and the multifarious complications of life as it is now left me thinking I might only manage one episode this week, but let’s go for it, especially as episode 5, ‘Deisel’s Garage’, quickly established itself as a calm-before-the-storm episode, keeping the pot boiling on the major themes of the series and allowing room at last for the more peripheral characters to shine.

Such as Deisel. Tony Marshall’s been a face in the crowd so far, one of the gang, a bit more elevated than the extras but not much more. Now we learn that Deisel and his younger brother Lennie, an excited, enthusiastic and clueless Paul McKenzie, jointly own the petrol station they inherited from their lately deceased Dad, Lol, whose name still adorns the frontage.

Trouble’s brewing. The new petrol station has just opened on Morecambe Road and it’s all-singing, all-dancing and all lights, videos and microwaveable burgers. Deisel’s got competition to worry about. He’s discussing buying lights when the over-eager Lennie excitedly and proudly shows him what he’s bought. They’ve knocked down their Dad’s old church and Lennie’s bought a souvenir, to remember Lol by. It only cost £600. It’s the steeple.

Given that this drastically reduces the amount of money needed for something the garage actually needs, i.e., lights, money is required. so, with everyone drunk after an evening at the TA, Lloydy comes up with an idea. i mention the drunk bit as that’s the only reason Deisel and Spock don’t immediately run screaming to the hills, but instead travel three miles TA-style to Mitch mitchison’s estate to steal back Lloydy’s fish.

Turning that into money demonstrates the inestimable value of an idea via Lloydy, who, incidentally, is inventing a board game that’s a mixture of chess, mah-jong and contract bridge, that’s called ‘Ghurka Tank Battle’.

As for the ‘major’ players, Hodge gets back with Laura without actually saying Kirsty’s his daughter, then goes to visit Jeanetta in Blackpool to ask her to have Laura sing at her forthcoming Conference event, and Eric, having admitted the truth about the Green Dragon outfit (now fished out of the river by an unsuspecting angler) to get back into Dawn’s books, is invited by her to a Corridor party at the Teacher Training College. Caroline Catz has her hair down for the first time this series. She’s handling Eric quite nicely, allowing him to blossom a bit, though the poor bugger’s still so naive that when she gives him the perfect, on their own moment for a first kiss, he doesn’t even see it and shakes her hand instead. You can tell why they nick-named him Eric, can’t you?

Just to mention that Rundle is still holding the live rounds over Polson’s head and then we’re ready for the end of the first series.

And it all worked out in the end, with a bit of nudging to get things to fit in, in the episode ‘Kirsty’s Biscuit’, which referred to a moment of catering improbability that was just like magic: in fact it was the magic that bound up the episode.

A large part of the episode took place in Germany, ostensibly, the TA’s two-week summer camp, including a joint exercise with the Bundeswehr, the German TA, in which Section 2, our brave and noble warriors, hit gold. It was pure gold: Hodge and Eric, in the dark, camoed up to their eyeballs, have an argument over Hodge has lied to Laura about not being involved with getting her the job for Jeanetta. They fight and fall into an advanced Recce post with intelligence that could enable the German CinC to be captured. Rundle changes the plans, Section 2 lead, the capture is spectacular, kudos all around, especially for polson and Rundle, having held his unwanted hold over the Corporal for long enough to remind Polson who is on who’s side, drops the live rounds in the North Sea.

Still on the North Sea but now it’s dark, Eric is wandering disconsolately on deck, avoiding Lloydy trying to get everyone to play Ghurka Tank Battle, finds Dawn. She’s weighed him up all too well, the issues with his father, his innate Eric-ness, and decides to repeat the goodnight scene from the Corridor Party, only this time grabbing his collar, hauling him in and kissing him. A relationship begins. And no, he’s not only going out with her because her nane’s the second half of his favourite film, Zulu Dawn.

Which leaves us one more story to tie down before we can go on our summer holidays. Laura, believing that her job for Jeanetta is all her own work, turns up in Blackpool to discuss specs, not that she has any. She meets Kirsty but doesn’t twig. She goes to the Conference, all bare shoulders and thigh length sparkly blue dress, ready to sing her heart out…

…and Kirsty’s biscuit falls off her plate, lands on edge and rolls. Rolls along hundreds of metres of hotel carpeting, bounces down a flight of stairs without disintegrating (I’m not eating a biscuit that hard!) and into Lauras room, just as her door opens. Magic biscuit. Kirsty follows, recognises the photo of Hodge and, sproing!

It’s the final straw for Laura, who sees everything. Everything, that is, but the bits you don’t see and which have to be explained to you which Jeanetta, figuring she owes Hodge one, explains to her.

So, when all is said and done, Hodge gets back to a loving and knowing girlfriend, who’s given up singing to do Conference catering for and in cahoots with Jeanetta Scarry. Ghurka Tank battle is a hit with Ally and Fraser on one side and Lloydy, Spock and Deisel on the other. Of course, Hodge still has extreme difficulty in actually saying the words that Stevie Wonder called up to say, but hey, there’s a good prospect of a second series, isn’t there?

In fact there was, but that’s for another time. Speaking generally, I’ve enjoyed this first seriwes immensely. It’s densely packed with jokes, many of which are just the normal banter between friends, but even more of which are, to use Clive James’ words, the architecture of the story. This has been the series I gave up on after twenty minutes. the other two series are even so much better and there are things in series 3 that to me are perfect in both comedy and drama.

But that’s for later. Where will I be next Sunday Watch? Wait and see.

Fairytale Time 2020


It’s that time of year again, and it’s getting to be that time of year earlier and earlier. Last week, the first two Xmas singles crashed into the Top 100, the perennials of Mariah Carey and Wham! Long term readers of this blog will know that I take a personal interest each year in one Xmas song, the one that for me is the perfect Xmas song, and the one that has re-charted for the longest sequence in time of any record. Obviously, that is ‘A Fairytale of New York’ by The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl.
Which has today entered the Top 100 at no. 63.
Unfortunately, this time of year is also the time of year for boring arguments about ‘A Fairytale of New York’ with reference to a couple of lines in the lyrics, namely the second verse where MacColl and Shane McGowan’s characters slag each other off. A matter of him calling her an old slut on junk and she responding by calling him, amongst other things, a cheap lousy faggot.
Are these nice things to say? No, of course not. Is McGowan a misogynist and McColl a homophobe? We don’t even know if the characters whose roles in the song they are singing are misogynist or homophobe, or just a couple who have been involved with each other’s rough lives for so long that they will reach for any insult with which to attack the other in their disappointment made acute at the Xmas season.
Does it matter? These are, as I said, not-nice things to say, but this is a world in which people say not-nice things. I have, on many occasions, said not-nice things, even if they were not these particular not-nice things. But people say them, and a certain amount of accepting this is, I think, necessary.
The question of language in ‘A Fairytale of New York’ has once again been taken up by the sledgehammer-to-nuts BBC Bashing Brigade. This year, the BBC have announced a mixed approach: Radio 1 will play a bowdlerised version recorded by The Pogues and Kirsty in 1992, Radio 2 will play the original and DJ’s on 6 Music will play whichever version they prefer. One local radio DJ – there’s always one, isn’t there? – has already vowed not to play it at all and described it as a ‘nasty, nasty record’: I need hardly tell you my response to that, do I?
And the Guardian, forever eager to build mountains up out of social molehills, has convened a panel of radio listeners to debate if the BBC should censor the record at all. My opinion? SFW. The record is the record. I have owned it since 1987 and I play it whenever I want. I really don’t care what they do on the radio, any radio, the song is thereby untouched. And, to be very honest, have people completely lost the ability to make up their mind for themselves about something that, at base, is entirely personal?
That’s what worries me most. Since when does someone else’s opinion about a piece of music matter so much? Can nobody think for themselves any more? If you like, great. Play it, enjoy it, be moved by it as I am. If you don’t like it, pass by it, as I do Mariah Carey and Wham! We’ve got too many more important things to worry about this year than a bloody Xmas song.

Lou Grant: s05 e12 – Review


We’re now halfway through the final series of Lou Grant‘s final season and after last week’s stumer, we had a three-cornered story in which all three elements came together in a technically and logically satisfying completion.

We began with a confusing open, in which a photographer is allowed by the Sheriff’s office to enter a private residence and take copious photos. The place is a mess, a complete craphole. The photis show this clearly. This is og peripheral importance to the overall story but it makes a point that resonated strongly with me, with particular regard for the actions of the British mainstream press this last several decades.

I’ll beat that drum a bit later on. For now, let me establish the cornerstones of our plot. In order of appearance these consist of Charlie Hume being appointed to the Western States News Council, a journalism self-regulating body, Mrs Pynchon persuading Billie Newman to write her memoir for a book of profiles, and Joe Rossi and Ruben Delgado bringing to Lou Grant a copied tape of Councilman Garbers telling anti-Latino jokes.

The story spaces out its threads carefully. Charlie’s first experience of the Council is in considering the case from the opn. He’s met with barely-concealed hostility by Dean of Law Doctor Meredith Hall-Sutton (Karen Carlson) who, it rapidly transpires, has a grudge against the LA Tribune.

Billie’s only agreed to do Mrs Pynchon’s memoir if she has a free hand, if she can treat it as an unfettered story. Mrs Pynchon bombards her with facts, and talks with an affecting wistfulness of her life with Matthew Pynchon, when she was a socialite with no cares or responsibility. But when it comes to the transition, when Matthew, fifteen years older than her, died and she transitioned into the unexpected role of Publisher, naive, inexperienced, terrified, this is something Mrs Pynchon glosses over, brushes off, deflects.

And there’s Rossi and Ruben’s story. Garbers threatens to ue and is told the patrician equivalent of ‘do one sunbeam’. So he raises a complaint to the News Council.

There are mixed feelings about the News Council. Charlie believes in it as a good. Mrs Pynchon supports it financially. Lou and Rossi hate it, regarding it as a ridiculous intrusion upon their professional judgement, by misguided laymen who don’t understand Journalism.

Here is where I get to bang my drum. The Council debates the photos taken in the open. They are accurate, they are honest, and as such both the editor of the paper printing them, together with Lou, Rossi and Animal, regard them as unimpeachable. They show an old man who’s a dirty slob, a dirty house, uncooked food on his stove, unwashed dishes in his sink, piles of comic books around. This is called slant. It’s the lousy, miserable, dirty and vicious practice of only telling those parts of the story that support the biased point you’re trying to make.

The old man was a victim of an airplane crash. He was fying to Germany for the first time in forty years bcause he’d been notified his sister had had a heart attack, and didn’t have long left. He didn’t have time to finish cooking, or clean, or wash pots before heading to the airport.he bought comics for his grandchildren but read them himself first to make sure they weren’t too violent. Slob? Deranged? Feeble-minded? Not when you knew all the story, not when you knew the parts the newspaper didn’t print. And Lou and Rossi supported this? I don’t. I hate and loathe it. Tell the fucking truth, you bastards!

End of banged drum.

So the Trib attends the hearings. Doctor Hall-Sutton remains hostile. Charlie recuses himself. Billie digs deeper into the transition period. There’s an old clipping that refers to Matthew’s presumed successor, Managing Editor Jack Hall. So Billie goes to visit Lou’s nightmare, former City Editor Thea Taft (played by Margaret Hamilton, the Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, in the penultimate role of her life). Thea tells her that everyone expected Jack, a very popular, very knowledgeable, very sexy man, to take over, but one day, after a meeting in Mrs Pynchon’s office, he was gone, for good. Lost everything after twenty dedicated years. Never made it back. Left a daughter behind him, Merry. Not Mary, Merry. Short for Meredith.

And suddenly everything clicks into place as one whole story. Charlie persuades Dr Hall-Suton to abstain, though the vote goes overwhelmingly against the Trib anyway. And Billie pushes Mrs Pynchon into a moment of anger, a threat that Billie not merely resign from the memoir but from the Trib…

It’s a moment of shock, to none more so than Margaret Pynchon, taking her back to that day in her office with Jack Hall. She tries to explain how it was to Billie, how in those days things were limited for women. She was a socialite in her forties, with a husband fifteen years older. The ‘good times’ were supposed to be over for a woman her age. But here was Hall, attractive, sexy, growing closer. Nothing had happened but the signposts were there. And Hall was ambitious. He wanted to be Publisher, all or nothing. It isn’t quite said in so many words but he gave her the feeling that all his… attentiveness had had this as its purpose. She doubted. She fired him. On her first exercise of power she abused it. And she has rigidly refused to do that ever since.

So all things fall together. Billie needed to know to write the story but she didn’t need to write that part (I can’t help but reflect that we are once again back to the topic of slant). And the Trib won’t sit down under censure. but all of this aftermath is just that, aftermath without consequence, a way to ease out of the story and cue up the closing music.

An illuminating episode, though I doubt that the light I saw shining was meant to enter the corners where I saw it. Sometimes the important message is not the one you meant to send.

Person of Interest: s05 e12 – .exe


In the belly of the Beast

Going right up to the edge.

There’s a decision to be made. Decisions should be taken calmly, in full thought, and without emotions. Especially when they involve the fate of the world. Harold Finch appears to be calm and collected but instead he is angry. The deaths of Carl Elias and Samantha Groves have made him angry. They shouldn’t have made him angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.

Harold has Ice9, the deadliest virus in the world, enough to take down the Internet if he uploads it. If he uploads it, it will kill Samaritan. If it kills Samaritan it will restore humanity’s ability to grow and develop, though it will also cause a chaos unbelievable in its magnitude. But it will hand decision and choice back to those most affected by it.

It will also kill the Machine.

Reese and Shaw are still hunting for Finch.They have no idea where he is. They have a new Number, however, a man called Philip Styles. But Styles is an alias for John Greer. Shaw assumes he’s been given to them because he’s out to kill Harold. Reese believes it’s because Harold is going to kill Greer.

That’s not his direct intention. With the aid of the Machine, Harold gains access to the NSA nerve centre at Fort Meade, his every step facilitated until he gets inside what is, for all intents and purposes, a gigantic Faraday Cage. Now Harold’s on his own. He accesses the server room, uploads the virus. One word from him… Literally: a voice password is required. Harold Finch hesitates.

What stops him? What interferes with a will that has been cold, hard and true, a spear to plunge into the vitals of an enemy that must be defeated? Whose defeat is imperative to preserve the lives of those remaining friends, John Reese, Sameen Shaw, Lionel Fusco, who must not die for him? It is the friend who must die, who must be sacrificed to save the others: the Machine.

He made a promise, not to hurt her again. But the Machine, who is truly humanised now it has the voice of Root, knows so much more. It will not act against its father’s wishes. But it can go down the It’s a Wonderful Life route and show him the difference…

Old faces… Nathan Ingram, alive, self-centred about making vast sums of money instead of a Defence Department contract. Lionel Fusco, still a dirty cop but taken down in the HR swoop, a private eye exchanging insults with Detective Szymanski. The new Lieutenant is Joss Carter, though all we see is a nameplate, but we needn’t necessarily infer everything’s peachy there. Henry Peck, trying to go public with his discovery of Northern Lights by approaching the Office of Special Counsel, shot twice through the stomach by Agent Shaw. John Reese left the CIA in time to save Jessica from her husband but in doing so revealed a darkness that terrified her into running. John Reese was fished out of the East River, and lies beneath a gravestone marked only by the date his body was discovered.

Harold’s hesitancy in speaking the password allows him to be captured and taken before Greer. Smiling, arrogant John Greer, who will not let go of his fanatical supposition that he is right, that Samaritan is the only future, that humanity can only advance by being dragged, kicking, screaming and appropriately culled, into the rational, efficient, effective future Samaritan has designed for it. No, Greer has not corrupted the good, decent Arthur Claypool’s code. In Lord Acton’s famous dictum, Samaritan has corrupted itself. Absolutely.

Greer has only one concern in this talk. He cannot be so blind, even now in his mad rush towards destruction, as to think that Harold will come over to Samaritan’s side but he’s testing for the one piece of information he desperately needs and he gets it when Harold refuses to cede control: Harold is the only one who knows the Voice Password.

Immediately the room they are in is sealed, completely, and its oxygen is removed. Greer, the older mam, dies willingly, content to be a pawn to the last. But one ASI is more concerned for its ‘father’ than another: Reese and Shaw are inside the building by now with a wireless modem that the Machine uses to create an internal network and signal the code that enables Harold to escape.

He is determined now, diverting first to rescue John and Sameen and get them out. That clear purpose has returned.

In another part of the episode, Fusco has arrived at the precinct to find that the Tunnel bodies have been discovered and the FBI are in on it and looking at him. In fact he’s going to be killed and dumped by them since Special Agent LaRue is working for Samaritan. Fusco turns the tables: but will he let LaRue live or not?

Harold has not yet been so impressed by the Machine’s simulations. To him they only indicate a world that is different, but neither better nor worse. She has one last simulation for him: Samaritan exists, whether the Machine did or not. Senator Garrison has outlived his purpose and is to be dealt with by the woman who replaces Martine Rousseau in this variation: Samantha Groves.

All doubts dispelled, Harold speaks the password. It is ‘Dashwood’, as the Machine had already calculated, maing Greer’s sacrifice the waste his arrogance had not allowed him to see, Dashwood, the family at the heart of Sense and Sensibility, the book Harold was carrying when he proposed to Grace Hendrick.

Alea Jacta Est. The die is cast. We have a week to see what numbers come up.

The Infinite Jukebox: 10,000 Maniacs’ ‘Verdi Cries’


I got into 10,000 Maniacs thanks to John Peel championing the band’s first full album, The Wishing Chair. He’d previously championed the 12″ EP Secrets of the I- Ching which, apart from the track ‘My Mother the War’ (arousing phantom memories of the Sixties sitcom that I alone seemed to recall, My Mother the Car) did little or nothing for me.
But The Wishing Chair, with its fuller sound, it’s nearness to folk-rock in one direction and my shiny bright new jangling favourites R.E.M. in another was a joy to listen to and a true fascination from then onwards.
The verdict of friends who heard the music on my car cassette-player? Nice music, shame about the name.
In 1988, they (and I) followed it up with the Peter Asher-produced In My Tribe. Asher brought a smoother, more West Coast sound to the band, toning down the acoustics that had given The Wishing Chair its folky edge and burnishing the songs with an extra sheen, without obliterating the band’s characteristics.
The band had cut back from a six-piece to a five-piece by then, founder member, guitarist and occasional vocalist John Lombardo having left. And Asher emphasised the music’s ringing qualities and singer Natalie Merchant’s voice. Between critical acclaim and commercial success, this was 10,000 Maniacs’ peak.
In My Tribe had a nice, composite feel to it. Without sounding anything like what my mother would have described as ‘much of a muchness’, the album had a solid, consistent sound to it, with Robert Buck’s jangly guitar dominating the sound, above a tough, versatile rhythm supplied by Stefan Gustafson and Jerry Augustyniak, with Dennis Drew’s keyboards filling the sound out. When I took my girlfriend Mary to see them at the Manchester Apollo, it was his performance she loved, swinging and swaying at the keyboard, possessed by the sound, and she liked 10,000 Maniacs even more than she did R.E.M.
But there was another song to which none of these things applied. It was the last track on side two of the album, the end of the album. Musically, it was separate from everything else, not just on In My Tribe but throughout their whole career. This was a song called ‘Verdi Cries’.
It featured Natalie Merchant’s voice and a solitary electric piano. It’s a very curious song, with a stop-start melody that avoids the overall pop-smoothness of the album. Merchant sings of a stay in a hotel, listening to the man in the adjoining room who stays in all the time, playing Aida. He eats alone. Each day they delivery pastries on a tray outside his door that he ignores and Merchant steals these to eat on the beach. She draws in the sand, a jackal-headed woman, and dreams of lover’s fates sealed by jealousy and hate before washing her hand clean in the sea.
The holiday ends. Merchant jokes that only three days more and she’d have learned the entire score to the opera. All these things, the stolen pastries, the arias, the sand-drawing come with her as memories from years ago.
The song is, apparently, based in real life, deriving from a holiday on Mallorca when Merchant was twenty, which would put the time as 1983 or thereabouts.
It’s a haunting, spellbinding piece of music, spare and remote, and to listen to it is like passing into a dream rather than a memory. It stands alone at the end of the album because nothing, certainly not anything in which the band were involved, could follow that. 10,000 Maniacs had two more studio albums in them before Natalie Merchant left to go solo, but the seeds of her departure were sewn here.
But as the closing track of an album, I have none that compare to ‘Verdi Cries’, which is in some ways like a visit from a different Universe, and no other that, without setting out to attempt the feat, so clearly and definitively says, ‘Follow that – if you can!’

Sunday Watch: All Quiet on the Preston Front – s01 e03 & 04


Eric, Hodge and a yuka plant

Back to Roker Bridge, intially for an episode entitled ‘Eric’s Job’, but which is at least as much about Hodge’s ongoing story as anything else.

As with the last episode, Tim Firth jumps straight past last week’s slightly-cliffhanger ending. Hodge is back from Blackpool, relationship with Jeanetta Scarry unexplained, relationship with Laura Delooze in need of radical attention, relationship with best mate Eric (who we remember is actually named Wayne Disley) forever volatile.

Eric is still stressing about being a loser. It’s understandable, given the stress imposed by, on the one hand, his shell-shocked, broken down father and, on the other, his popular, good-looking, got-it-all-together best mate, for whom everything works out right in exactly the same way it works out wrong for him.

Plus there’s the fact that he seems to be getting on quite well with newcomer Dawn, of whom we see a great deal this week in terms of her teacher-training role in a class of small kids, one of whom has already set the boy’s toilets on fire, which has had the benefit of getting state-of-the-art smoke detectors fitted, thus causing the slightly unhinged Mrs O’Massey great difficulties over sneaking out for a nerve-calming fag.

There’s not much of the TA this week, just an evening training lecture conducted by Lieutenant Rundle and replete with several examples of Lloydy’s unique memory-enhancing techniques, which is mainly a set-up for Spock helping Eric design his CV without actually lying.

Not that it matters: Eric gets the job from Mr Wang at the Chinese Restaurant – currently undergoing a change of name from Audrey’s to the rather more Chinese-friendly Green Dragon – because he’s perfect. And the only applicant. Eric’s got a job! Pity it’s wearing a green and red rubber dragon suit and handing out leaflets.

At least no-one will know because as the Dragon he’s unrecognisable – except Dawn recognises him instantly and gets him to entertain her class of five-year olds, under the eyes of her tutor, at which he’s brilliant… until he sets of the smoke ejector in the mostrils and sets off the fire alarm.

The next thing we see is the dragon falling lazily through the air from the heights of the canal viaduct. Don’t worry, Eric isn’t in it. He’s marching home in t-shirt, shorts and socks. Despite it’s comedic side, which bubbles through continuously in practically everybody’s conversation, All Quiet on the Preston Front has its darker elements, but not that dark.

It’s all past of fusing this strand with that of Hodge’s. Eric has a problem with Hodge. First of all, he’s not listening to Eric going on about himself all the time, he’s actually thinking about his concerns, and secondly, Hodge lied to him, big-time, claiming he was going to Blackpool for the weekend with Laura, yes, the Laura who turned up at the Roker Valley Show in episode 2, like, oops.

Hodge hasn’t spoken to Laura since returning, so he has to sort that out without telling her the truth, both at the Garden Centre where the Heron Man has marched into the office whilst Hodge was on the tannoy plugging yuka plants, complaining that his artificial heron fell over and speared one of his prize goldfish, then at her cafe where he wants to tell her the truth and she’s nobly saying she trusts him.

And the truth? Hodge ends up confessing all to Eric. He didn’t lose his virginity at 14 to a girl from school (that was later downgraded at a Tribunal to heavy petting) but at age 17, as a Swimming Pool Attendant at a Blackpool Hotel, to their richest permanent resident, Jeanetta Scarry. Aged 36. And if he had lost his virginity when boasted, maybe he wouldn’t have made such a mess of it and gotten Jeanetta pregnant.

Hodge deserted her, ran away back to Roker Bridge. Ever since, he’s determinedly written to Jeanetta, once a month, each letter containing a £20 note, for the maintenance of now five-year-old Kirsty. But Jeanetta and Kirsty were in Portugal until very recently. Jeanetta didn’t get the letters until she returned. She opened four. She didn’t open the rest. She wrote to Hodge because of those four letters, and now she’s agreed to let him meet Kirsty. But she disabuses him of the notion that, whilst he may be her progenitor, he is not Kirsty’s father. And as she got a very generous divorce settlememt from her millionaire biscuit-manufacturer ex-husband, he can take the £20s back with him.

Suddenly, it’s not quite so sharp-edged funny. Suddenly there are real human emotions, and very deep and serious ones, in play, and the two balance each other and share the screen without outweighing or trivialising. As when Hodge, slowly trying to accept that he isn’t and never can be father to the daughter he has, says how very proud he is of the little girl, And how he doesn’t know how he can stop being that.

Episode 4 is ‘Lloydy’s Fish’, which meant more of an accent on the comedy pedal. Lloydy is the class clown, big, slow and slow-witted, but honest and loyal. Loyal to his Corporal, Peter Polson, even when he’s being used to try to cheat an inter-section tournament (which 2 Section would actually have won if the Corporal hadn’t shot the hostage by mistake).

But this one is about Lloydy and his ‘top secret’ job. Oh, and it’s about Hodge as well, of course.

Lloydy’s job is to work for a farmer. Or rather, as his totally cynical colleague Aspinall puts it, to work for a man who owns a farm. Mitch Mitchinson (Tony Haygarth) is a millionaire snooker player manager who’s bought himself a designer farm with nothing but the best pedigree animals. These include a £12,000 Koi Carp arrving at Heathrow, to be collected by Lloydy and Aspinall and delivered back to Roker Bridge by 6.00pm.

Lloydy’s all frantic and nervous about obeying orders, Aspinall cyncical and relaxed. So, when their farm ‘truck gets wheel-clamped at the same transport cafe that featured in episode 2’s treasure hunt, Lloydy spends all his remaining cash on a taxi into the town, begs a lift into the country off Eric and a rather morose Hodge, and lugs the special oxygenated water carrier up a hlf mile drive to pour the fish into the pond with three minutes to go.

Shame the fish leapt out of the pool and died overnight, really.

This causes Lloydy some great distress. Mitchison’s away, he doesn’t know about it. Lloydy desperately needs Hodge’s help.

Hodge has his own concerns. He’s morose for a reason. Kirsty’s started school in Blackpool and, just like Eric’s parents bought him a Captain Scarlet Dinky Toy, he wants to buy his daughter a present. A doll, and a Whistler’s Mother art repro greetings card with a message on it saying To Kirsty With All My Love.

Only, two guys in their twenties, turning up unannounced at a private girl’s school, waiting for the little girls to come out at playtime… Takes some explaining to the Police, that does, but worst of all it brings Jeanetta to Roker Bridge, to tell him what confusion he’s caused in Kirsty’s five year old mine: friend who comes to Mummy’s house = good, man taken away by police = bad. That thought is rattling round her head like a button in a hoover (this series is full of lines like that, lovely, down-to-earth Lancashire humour). She’s here to require Hodge’s promise never to see nor speak to Kirsty again. What can he do? It’s crushing.

Well, for one thing, he can help out Lloydy by paying Mr Wang £500 for a substitute Koi from the Green Dragon fishtank – it’s money that has no meaning to him now, we know what money that is – except that the substitute Koi is ‘an old growler with tail-rot’. Mitchison accused Lloydy of selling the expensive Koi and pitching in a substitute, thinking he’d never notice. lloydy, after everything he’s done, after what Rundle hassaid about who to give your loyalty to without becoming a donkey, walks off. And, after telling the hapless Mitchison the real story, so does Aspinall, leaving the designer farmer helpless: what do i feed the Shetland ponies? I usually only give them sugarlumps…

We mustn’t for get Eric, who’s as jumpy as anything whenever Chinese Restaurants are mentioned, who’s blown a not-necessarily-fatal-but-he-doesn’t-know-that hole in his incipient relationship with Dawn, who’s teling the curious Ally that Eric’s like a wet sparkplug, sometimes it needs jump starting (Ally: And if jump-starting doesn’t work, you have to push and give it a handcrank). He’s even admitting about the dragon suit to Hodge, though Hodge reckons that’s something anyone would keep quiet.

So is that all that’s gone wrong for this week? Not quite: Laura’s coming round to cook Hodge a Sunday night meal after he gets back from the tournament: spare key’s under the bent garden gnome. But when he gets back, the place is empty, no food. But in the morning, he finds outside his door the scattered remains of roses, thrown about, a discarded card saying With All My Love, Laura, and an equally discarded Whistler’s Mother Art Repro greetings card saying…