The Kirby That Could Have Been: 1 – In The Days Of The Mob


Jack Kirby Mob 1

Every now and then, it’s our turn to be one-up on Earth-2.
On Earth-2 they’re not carrying out redevelopment works in Mersey Square, including closing the cut-through that affords me the shortest route from the bus stop to the Post Office. Normally, that would be our imaginary parallel world’s superiority to this one. On Earth-2, I wouldn’t have had to go the long way round, that takes me past Stockport’s surprisingly central comics shop. Where, in the window…
But let me digress into history. Back in 1971, the legendary Jack Kirby, sick of various things at Marvel, from the lack of creative freedom with Stan Lee always having the last word, disgusted at the lack of proper credit for his contributions – Stan Lee having, like I said, the last word – left Marvel to work for DC Comics for the first time since the Fifties.
DC Director Carmine Infantino attracted Kirby with glowing promises. Full credit. Editorial freedom. A studio in which he could create characters and series that his proteges would work on, under his supervision. New formats. New genres. In short, a breath of fresh air. Kirby signed. And Infantino began the process of reneging upon everything that wasn’t Kirby writing and drawing superhero comics, under New York based editors and having Superman’s face redrawn over his pencils.
It wasn’t quite as blanket as that. Infantino paid lip service to Kirby’s desire to reintroduce Crime comics, which had been wiped out of existence when the Comics Code was drawn up in the Fifties. These would be in black and white, in magazine format, and they would be real, raw and direct. They would be red meat.
Oh yes, Infantino kept that promise. One issue of In the Days of the Mob, under the name of a minor sub-company with no connection to comics, without promotion, poor distribution, and cancelled with issue 2 complete and unseen. The same story applies to another Kirby creation, Spirit World, about which I have absolutely no knowledge. Did I say no promotion? Both magazines were plugged in DC’s comics, in holes in the corner, crappily designed commercial ads with the tiniest possible reproduction of the covers.
You knew the magazines existed, but you couldn’t get hold of them to read.
Which brings me back to the present day, in which I am walking past Stockport’s surprisingly central comics shop. Where, in the window… In the Days of the Mob. Jack Kirby.
I shot inside, enquired trepidatiously as to the cost. Which was expensive but not unaffordable. This was not the original magazine. It’s just as rare, mind you, but it was a hardback book, published by DC in 2013, reprinting from the original art not just issue 1, but the never published issue 2. Oh my.

Jack Kirby Mob

The same was done for Spirit World, which can be had through Amazon or eBay for only more than twice what I paid for In the Days of the Mob and which is, under current circumstances, expensive and not affordable. I can dream, however. And I have read In the Days of the Mob and it is superb. Prime Kirby, rejoicing in the breath of fresh air he finally had, drawing serious, violent, rock solid true crime stories from the Roaring Thirties, not a trace of superheroics, no fantastic poses, just real people. It feels weighty and important, because that’s what it is.
And it is tragic too, for the fact that this is all there is. Kirby was rolling, and what he could so very easily have done with this was to change the face of Comics. Why not? He’d only done that half a dozen times already. The possibilities were endless, and that for this title only. But imagine it as the flagship of a line of crime comics, energetic, raw, real, more adult than the comics of the ebbing Silver Age.
And imagine it as a beachhead, ushering forward a greater range of genres, to stand alongside the one genre we’ve been limited to for half a century since. Imagine choice, real choice, attracting a wider pool of readers. And imagine too that, with so much to choose from, there would have to be fewer superhero comics, but these would only be the best, written and drawn to a standard higher than we endured.
All of these possibilities are there in the pages of In the Days of the Mob, and no doubt in Spirit World too. Probably, on Earth-2, Kirby didn’t get shafted by Infantino, and they got all those titles. Lucky bastards.
Now I’m ranted out (don’t you believe it), what of the actual book?
The actual published issue was written and drawn by Kirby, with inks throughout by Vince Colletta, with Mike Royer taking over that role for the unpublished issue 2. The difference is immediately apparent with Royer, at that stage, adhering much more faithfully to Kirby’s pencils. Colletta was notorious for speeding up his ink jobs by erasing characters and simplifying backgrounds, but in comparing the art on the two issues, I can see no great difference between Kirby’s compositions on either.

Jack Kirby Mob 3

What is different is that issue 1 has a softer, less stark appearance that is not solely down to the different inking techniques. Yes, Colletta uses more feathering but that’s not the only factor in the overall softening of the look. Issue 1 has extensive use of grey shadings, on every page, mostly in the form of solid areas, whereas issue 2 is simple black and white, without any gradation. Funnily, enough, I prefer Colletta’s issue: it was more of a feel to it, a sense of time, and given that Kirby is working on a realistic subject, with actual historical figures, that is much more in keeping with the era in question.
Kirby’s approach is to tell true gangster tales, never shying away from the callousness and brutality of the figures involved. The format is of a series of four tales per issue, set in Hell, yes, Hell, in this section constructed as a Maximum Security Prison, run by Governor Fry. Fry, in the grand tradition of comics narrators, addresses the reader directly, telling them that this Hell is constructed by its inmates, who conceived it and thus it is what it turned out to be. A very interesting forerunner of Neil Gaiman’s conception of Hell in Sandman, though Kirby doesn’t openly state that Fry’s Hell is the consequence of its denizens’ expectation of punishment.
And each issue is a guided tour by Fry, showing the reader/visitor another aspect of the men and women in Hell, and what they did to come here.
And these stories are rock solid. They are true stories and what’s more they feel it. Kirby is working at the height of his skill. The lines and figures are massive and powerful, untainted by colour and, because Kirby is dealing with real people, with no superhuman element whatsoever, he avoids exaggeration. People stand or move like you are I, except that they are driven by forces we cannot comprehend, only see for ourselves. There is a bedrock truth to the stories in these two issues that, for all Kirby’s skill and ability to render vivid imagination believable, shines through every panel.
Two issues collected. Eight stories. Not much to show. If Infantino hadn’t been so limited in his vision, snapping up Kirby not for what he could do with a free hand but only to stick two fingers in Marvel’s eye, what the hell could the King have achieved? On form like this, what could he not have achieved? And who could he have mentored, taught, encouraged to look further and deeper than the guys in the funny costumes?
After reading this, I am determined some day to get my hands on the Spirit World companion book. There’s a copy available on Amazon at only about twice as much as I can afford to spend but who knows what might happen? I live in hope. Unlike the mobsters of the Roaring Twenties. They live in Hell. Deservedly.

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Due South: s04 e05 – The Ladies Man


Due South

Episode 5 on the DVD, episode 3 in imdb. Shrug squared.

You’ll have to be patient with me today as, more than usual, this post will be a working out of my response to this episode. On the one hand, ‘The Ladies Man’ was a strong, serious and in places very emotional story, in which certain beats were predictable, but played very clever with its climax, setting up a clear and obvious villain but springing the real culprit upon us with deftness and skill. On the other hand, I have all but lost faith in Due South as a series, now it’s in its final season, and there were elements to this episode that put me off it irreversibly before it got to the really good bits. Especially the incredibly powerful close. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.

For the most part, the episode avoided levity. Such as there was was confined mostly to the open. We began with a glimpse of a headline about someone named Beth Botrelle being executed in two days time, before Fraser and Ray have their walk interrupted by a street incident that is written to set-up the closng line in which Ray, having responded violently to a man who’s threatened his life, is told by Fraser that he’s no killer, drawing the reply: ‘Oh yeah, well in two days I will have.’

It’s a good line to take into the credits, though it exposed the structuring of the open a bit too blatantly, at least to my increasingly cynical eyes. But the story it led into was very serious and the episode was right to avoid eccentricity after that (it could have stood losing the season 4 meme of having Fraser describe why he’s in Chicago in the first place, which we get every week now and had twice here, as if the writer forgot they’d already done it early on).

The person Ray’s guilty about is the aforementioned Beth Botrelle (Dixie Seatle). Eight years ago, she was Ray’s first big case as a rookie, in effect the foundation of his career. Ray was first responder to a call that took him to the Botrelle household where he found the body of Detective Jake Botrelle, and Beth, his wife who had previously publicly threatened to kill him over his philandering, cowering in the shower. Beth was convicted. The station is rejoicing at her imminent execution by lethal injection, she being a cop-killer. Dewey is being rankly offensive about the whole thing because that’s his thing, the utter jerk.

But Ray is disturbed about the whole thing. We’re left to infer that this is his first collar that’s going to lead to the death penalty and that’s what’s preying on his mind. Did he get it right? Initially, it’s more of a general malaise than any conviction that something was wrong, until he visits Beth in prison and she tells him she did it. Ray realises that she’s lying to him, to make him feel better and, with only 48 hours in which to act, and with everyone but Fraser against him, re-opens the investigation.

Of course there’s more to it. The show set up two plausible suspects, Sam Franklin (Bill McDonald), the Detective on the case, and DA with ambitions to become Governor Robert Bedford (Art Hindle). It leaned heavily towards the DA, suggesting that Botrelle was killed because he had been sleeping with Bedford’s wife (no evidence offered, just a plausible possibility), putting up Franklin as an early lightning rod for the experienced audiences’ anticipations, and then pulled Franklin out as the real villain, suppressing the evidence that Botrelle had actually committed suicide on Bedford threatening to expose him for taking kickbacks. A neatly worked out plot.

But that is merely what happened. Where the episode went on to be important was in the stakes, and in particular the hell in which Beth Botrelle had been incarcerated for eight years. Convicted, wrongly, of murdering her husband. Sentenced to death. The object of hatred, loathing and the peculiar nastiness of people like Dewey. Four times taken to the death chamber, four times reprieved, cat and mouse like, temporarily. The episode didn’t have to do much more than show us this in order for us to feel the implacable horror. Seatle was brilliant in the role, conveying the drained-out emotion of the victim without the least histrionics, though the show dipped towards that, somewhat, in cross-cutting between the showdown with Bedford and Franklin and Botrelle being strapped to the gurney, the hypodermic ready and the clock ticking.

But it went above and beyond in the close. Beth Botrelle, freed, her life handed back to her, wants Ray to show her what he found that night eight years ago, Jake’s body, the piece of paper, where he found her. In a strange but human way it releases her, even as she absolves Ray of everything that happened. It’s a transfixing moment, and the episode ends with Ray returning silently to his car, where Fraser awaits, and starting to sob.

Reading what I’ve written thus far annoys me over my lack of receptiveness during the watching of this episode. I simply didn’t respond as I should have. It’s true that there were certain flaws which, given my growing cynicism about this final series, i should have been able to acknowledge as merely flaws, not totally distancing reactions, given that only one of them was substantial.

To put things very briefly, the plot was sloppy in never explaining what Beth Botrelle was doing in the house and why she was in the shower. For another, in turning Franklin into its rabbit out of the hat, it was never made clear whether this completely exonerated Bedford – which would have been the smart twist, to have had him innocent all along and merely genuinely zealous for justice – or whether he and Franklin were partners.

But the biggest flaw was Detective Ray Vecchio, or rather Detective Staley Raymond Kowalski. Let us not forget that, since the beginning of season 3, the preise is that actual Detective Vecchio is in deep undercover within the Mafia and that, in order to protect his identity, Detective Kowalski has stepped into his life, taking his name, playing his role, a fact acknowledged but never discussed by those directly aware of the substitution. That factor was strictly maintained throughout season 3, and has been adverted to this season, but it’s been allowed to drift very much into the background.

The moment this episode flashed back to eight years previously, I began to worry about it. Ray wasn’t Vecchio then, he was Kowalski. It was a matter of public record that’s who he was. Beth Botrelle knew his real name, and her lawyer had to. Both Franklin and Bedford addressed Ray as Kowalski. It trashed the idea of continuity, and there was no mention of the fictional situation. So is Ray now Kowalski again? What about Vecchio? In imdb capsule summaries of episodes later in this season I notice that the character is named as Stanley. The reality of the series is suddenly ripped up on a fundamental level, and there was no way around it. So many people outside the inner loyal circle know the truth. Logic demands that RealRay’s body appear very shortly because, FFS, the situation draws attention to itself and practical signals that something is being covered up. Even comic books operate on better logic than this.

So, very much a mixed response to this episode. Ultimately, it would have worked far better as a standalone, a ninety minute movie with space to deal with the shortcuts, beholden to no existing continuity. But that’s not what it was. I wish I was better disposed to this final season than I already am, and that’s before we get to the silly stuff.

The Infinite Jukebox: Tasmin Archer’s ‘Sleeping Satellite’


We all of us have our ‘sorts of things we usually like’, be it TV, film, book, music or even food. We don’t usually describe it that way, we tend to go for the simpler and more obvious word ‘favourite’. Or just the simple declaration that we like it. We use the phrase far more often in its reverse: it’s not the sort of thing I usually like.
It’s a weak phrase, like all such passive statements, but that’s because we want it to be weak. It’s cautious, and polite, and wants to be inoffensive, because it’s what we say when someone is enthusiastically pressing something on us that we would rather eat dirt than sample, and we want to let them down lightly, without bursting their bubble.
Tasmin Archer’s 1992 number 1 hit single, ‘Sleeping Satellite’, is not the sort of thing I usually like. Except that from the first time I heard it, I liked it, and over thirty years – thirty years? Thirty years?! – I have continued to thrill to it every time I have heard it. Archer isn’t strictly speaking a one-hit wonder, but ‘Sleeping Satellite’ is the only big score of her career and it’s the one they’ll recall after she passes, and it’s a bloody good legacy to have.
It’s an unconventional subject for a single too, especially a Number 1. Usually, this kind of song would be tucked in somewhere around track ten of twelve. Side 2, track 4. It would be the one that the album reviewers would pick out for its quirkiness. Because it’s about the Moon Landings, Neil Armstrong, a Small Step for Man, or rather it’s about the fact there haven’t been any Moon Landings since 1973.
We went all the way there, and then we came back and stopped going.
The song is both a lament and a cry of frustration. That we did that, we did that, and that in 1992 and even now in 2023o it looks like we will never ever do that again.
Three verses, in turn, cry in anguish for an explanation. Did we go to soon, did we squander the chance? Did the rush of the race outweigh the true romance, the true adventure of the greatest voyage of exploration there ever could be, up, and outwards, and away. Slipping the surly bonds of Earth… Could we do it again? Could we dare to be that great? Or did we blow it, once and for all?
It’s something that affects Archer deeply, that stirs her passions. It’s a great big planet-spanning ache and she yearns for more, for all the possibilities in not just her heart and head but in the hearts and heads of everybody on this desperate planet who ever, for a moment, looked up at that sleeping satellite that hangs above all of us.
That’s what speaks to me in this song. I am conditioned to respond to yearning, to the desperate need for something we lack, that lies out of reach and may never come near enough to us. It runs throughout my life like a seam of coal, leaving me burning under the skin. Granted, it’s usually less ethereal things I respond to, the yearning for love, companionship, that single person that thinks you matter but if on this occasion the moon is more material than metaphorical, that doesn’t change the note in Tasmin Archer’s voice that vibrates to the exact pitch of what you could almost call my soul.
That note overrides the confusion I experience over Archer’s chorus, which acts at cross-purposes. I blame you, Archer sings, at her most wide open, I blame you for the moonlit sky, and the dream that died with the Eagle’s flight (the capital letter is clearly required). I blame you, she repeats, for the moonlit nights, when she wonders why are the seas still dry? And then she reverses herself to sing Don’t blame this sleeping satellite, before going on into the first verse of questions.
How do we parse this? Can we divine who she is blaming? And these seas that are still dry, though presumably we are not talking of seas of water, but rather those distant deserts, like the Sea of Tranquillity. Is she standing up a case against God for making us beings who seek outwards only to come up against insuperable limitations, or against Man, the Mankind whose Giant Leap fizzled out on the surface of a dead body that did not prove to be the stepping stone we so many of us longed it to be? I honestly do not know. I just know that the sound of her voice, as she struggles to accept what seems to be the end, triggers the same urge and urgency in me.
One day, if this planet survives the horrendous shitshow that is the Twenty-First Century, after I am no longer here, and probably after Tasmin Archer has gone into the great greyness, maybe a time will come when we can do it again, and this time fulfil the dreams. On that day, it would be only right and proper for the human beings who follow those leaders of our past, the Armstrongs, Aldrins and their pitifully few successors, they will take this song with them. God knows what format the music may be by then.

Not Just For Children – Alan Garner: 12 – Boneland


Boneland

It was ten years ago that Boneland was published and I fell upon it with more anticipation and enthusiasm than I’ve probably ever shown towards any book. And I wrote about it then, though I didn’t term it a review but instead a response. I couldn’t get anywhere near the intellectual or analytical when first exposed to it.
A bit more than ten years later, re-reading it as part of this retrospective of Alan Garner’s work, I think that I now understand the novel less than I did on that first, rapt occasion. Though I still think it is a work of genius, a book that even only on the surface level redefines the two preceding books that it transforms into a very much belated Trilogy, I am further away from comprehending Boneland on any level.
For the benefit of those not familiar with Alan Garner’s work, I’m talking about his first two books, The Weirdstone of Brisinga-men and The Moon of Gomrath, the two most conventional books of his career, and the two most lightweight. Both books concern the adventures of two children, Colin and Susan, who discover the world of magic inside the Cheshire landscape.
Garner intended the books to comprise the first two parts of a trilogy but his discontent with the two children, and with his own writing, during the composition of The Moon of Gomrath, led him to abandon that notion. No doubt the idea of writing a third book was one of those floated by his then-Agent and Publisher during the eighteen year drought that preceded Strandloper, but Garner finally came to decide that a third book was both right and necessary, and produced it during the year of The Weirdstone‘s Fiftieth Anniversary.
Do not read this expecting a book on the same level as the first two. Boneland is the completely different kettle of fish that we used to talk about. It centres in one half of its story upon Colin, now an adult, a scientist working at Jodrell Bank, an eccentric, a shaman, a man with psychological issues including a complete loss of memory from prior to the age of thirteen yet an eidetic memory from that point onwards.
We learn that his surname is Whisterfield and that he and Susan were twins, which is brand new information to us but, as per Neil Philip’s superb work of analysis of Garner’s writings, A Fine Anger, details that come from the very first, very-rejected draft of The Weirdstone. We will also learn exactly why he and Colin were sent to live in Alderley, with the Mossocks, but as this does not appear in any of the rejected drafts Philip was permitted to reproduce, we can’t know if that too derives from the initial concept (given the nature of that reason, which is because Colin and Susan’s parents had been killed in a plane crash, I suspect not and that if a reason was given at that very early stage it would have been considerably closer to the Callums’ introduction in Arthur Ransome’s Winter Holiday).
But Colin, and the continuation at so late a stage of his story, is only one strand in this book. The other takes place in an ancient, almost mythic time, the Stone Age, yet one that is anchored to the Cheshire of now. A seer – literally a See-er – whose ‘home’ is in Lud-cruck, the nowadays chasm of Ludchurch, or Lud’s Church, in Staffordshire, in the Dark Peak. We’re meant to see the two stories, which are interwoven, as parallel, though there are no direct correspondences between the two save that they are both figures with an existence in myth-time as well as their native ages.
Colin is, effectively, a shaman. He lives on Alderley Edge. He can never be away from it, cannot leave it overnight, cannot go to any place from which he cannot see it, where it is not observed, for if it is not observed it may change, or even disappear. The older shaman is a more primitive version of Will Buckley or Jack Turner, in that he ‘sees’ the animalistic Gods in the stars and the stones, and his daily release of them keeps the world from ending.
This is a world away from Buckley or Turner who are virtual priests of folk religions: the shaman has no followers or worshippers, he simply is and does, without adherents or the need for them. He stands between Life and oblivion.
But he is only one man and he is not immortal. The story needs to encompass a woman and a child, the latter of whom can be taught to understand and maintain the rituals after the shaman dies. The only woman and child who come to Lud-cruck, at the beginning, are already dead, of snow and ice: nothing the shaman can do can avert that until, at the end, he is adopted as a true teller by a small tribe. Religion begins, or so is my interpretation of it. The dream passes from stone and bone to symbols.
But those of us who are here for the conclusion of The Weirdstone have a tendency to treat this part of the story as extraneous, even though we know Alan Garner has never written anything extraneous in his life. We want Colin, and Susan, and what came next. And we get that, though not necessarily in a manner that we easily comprehend.
Professor Whisterfield. A very clever man, with a list of degrees as long as your arm in subjects as broad as the heavens he studies at Jodrell Bank, specifically M45, the Pleiades. Who has suffered from extensive mental problems almost all his life. Who believes crazy things and does crazy things. Who once when he was young lost both his parents and his twin sister and had experiences with the world of magic, but who has lost all memory of that time and that bygone era. Who is unconsciously looking for his sister who vanished, into the stars. Who is sufficiently clever, until now, to avoid getting to the bottom of discoveries that frighten him by being impossible to fathom.
I’m not sure whether or not it is an advantage to know what happened to Colin and Susan before the former’s amnesia took hold, especially as the end of The Moon of Gomrath seems to indicate that Susan remains on Earth.
The book begins in ambiguous manner: Colin is going under the anaesthetic. Though he comes out of it and insists on discharging himself to go home to his Bergli Hut on the Edge that day, against his Doctor’s very strong advice, certain aspects of what follow raise the question of whether the entire book takes place under the anaesthetic and, if so, whether Colin ever surfaces from it.
But home he goes, driven by a very helpful taxi driver, Bert, who will become a recurring character throughout, turning up whenever needed – and not necessarily when he has been summoned – to take Colin to and from his home. In the end, neither Bert nor his taxi firm actually exists. Neither too does Colin’s psychoanalyst, Meg Massey, who knows Bert of old.
Much of the book is the gradual working through Colin’s issues by Meg, who does house calls. For this, Garner used his own experiences of psychotherapy, as described by him in the essay ‘Inner Time’, from which it can quickly be seen how much of the techniques he has put down in the novel, and which gives raise to the question of whether he’s drawn directly upon his own sessions: he’s certainly more than captured the authenticity of a process I’ve never experienced. Meg slowly draws out of Colin what actually happened, the truth of what lay behind, or possibly just after The Moon of Gomrath, and the truly shocking experience of his ultimate rejection from the world of Magic that as warned but not experienced in the two children’s books, was so very dangerous to both Whisterfield Twins.
The story’s resolution is recollection, but the events recalled occupy a different plane of reality to the children’s books. It’s near impossible to wholly reconcile Boneland to its two predecessors without having to compromise the world of one or the other. Once this is achieved, both Meg and Bert disappear, as much figments as Susan.
Although there’s no direct suggestion of it in the book, and indeed she is positioned as a helpful character, not the reverse, we are encouraged to infer that Meg Massey is the Morrigan, though who Bert would be if that scheme applied I can’t begin to guess. But there are little indications: the M of both her names, Colin’s association of her with crows, the rhododendrons of Errwood Hall transplanted to her ‘surgery’, that put the link up to be thought about.
And belatedly, I notice that Meg’s surname, Massey, duplicates that of Sally in Thursbitch, though there no parallels between either the subject of the former book or the two characters. It’s almost mandatory in comic book Universes for two characters of the same surname to ultimately be related, but even in the world of prose fiction, an author rarely uses the same name in two or more books without intending to imply some level of connection. Coincidence is very rarely coincidence.
Finally, on this re-reading I was very vividly struck by Mag Massey’s unconventional behaviour throughout. Garner’s own psychotherapist was an unconventional man and this might be just a borrowing, but I found a lot of Meg’s conversation to be gratingly sarcastic and even contemptuous of Colin, especially when he was going on about esoteric knowledge he possessed. In fact, given that I’m currently also re-watching The Big Bang Theory, it struck me as being very much like everyone responding to Sheldon.
But Boneland is still an exceptional book. I have not yet read it often enough to talk myself out of my regard for it, though my comprehension is getting more tenuous the more I read it. As this post no doubt reflects: my apologies.

Wednesday Morning Sitcom Time: dinnerladies – s02 e01-03: Cattering/Trouble/Holidays


dinnerladies

I’d watched the first series of dinnerladies because it was Victoria Wood, but on the first viewing I’d rated it enjoyable but not compelling, not in the way that As Seen on TV had been, not in the set-two-video-recorders-in-case-one-fails category. I enjoyed the first series far better watching it again in recent months. So I’d approached the second series with limited expectations. But just as I’d discovered a massive uplift between the first and second Discworld books, that I’d categorised as Terry Pratchett having taken a very close look at The Colour of Magic to understand why it hadn’t worked and put that right, the same applied to dinnerladies. From the first episode, even just the first five minutes of it, it was what it could have been and how. I laughed and laughed and laughed, then and again this morning.

Part of it was that the one-liners, the funny lines, were coming out in an endless stream, and every single one came from the heart of the personalities of whoever was speaking. They weren’t just funny lines, they were funny Bren-lines, funny Dolly-lines, funny Twink-lines. Victoria Wood was already gloriously famous for her generosity to her co-stars, refusing to hog the great lines to herself as ordinary geniuses might do, but here she was on another plane, giving Andrew Dunn, TThelma Barlow, Anne Reid, Maxine Peake, Shobna Ghupti, Duncan Preston and Celia Imrie the kind of lines actors dream of. And they, in turn, respond with perfect performances. I mean, I could deliver some of those lines and people would laugh, because the words do the job on their own, but in the hands of a cast that understand their characters, their individual approaches made the words sing.

And it was a pure ensemble effort. The opening episode, ‘Catering’, didn’t really have a story. The canteen’s got a dopey work experience girl in for the day (Joanne Froggatt, looking both lovely and gormless). It’s supposed to be repainted over the weekend but the decorators turn up today because Phillipa forgot to tell them the plans had changed, a ladder gets stuck… That’s your story and it’s thin to say the least, but it’s an excuse for the cast to talk to and across each other, indulging their fancies, irritations, concerns and attitudes. The effect is simultaneously grounded and surreal. Every group has one witty bugger who picks up on everyday comments and puts their own spin on them, but here everyone’s doing so, and the effect is like a symphony, every instrument in harmony and contrast with all the others.

It was also a mark of the increased confidence of Wood’s writing for this series – remember that series 1 had been intended as ten episodes but ran six because Wood rejected four of her own scripts as not good enough – that she can drop the comedy entirely as Brenda, conscious of the chaos engendered by Phillipa’s oversight, dresses her down in subdued anger, angry but still being the conciliatory and caring Brenda, in defence of her colleagues and the stress placed on them. It’s got no funny lines, it’s a monologue, it’s in total contrast to everything before it, but it is perfect. Because it’s real and it’s serious, and that’s what theis series will be: funny, silly, fantastic and elevated, but built upon the bedrock of people who are real, who have lives away from this canteen, problems that they bring with them.

The other reason for series 2 being better was that, despite each episode being discrete, the series beame a serial, with a running story, developing through each episode, giving us a thread to invest in. Wood was confident enough to transform Jean (Anne Reid, superb) by having her husband leave her for a dental hygenist in Cardiff (the precision of such things and the combination of such elements has been the bedrock of Wood’s sense of humour from the beginning, the inherent hilarity of the banal and mundane), transforming her into an angry, hurt aggressor yet preserving the real pain inside, and even moitting her from the third episode as she stays with her sister in Tunstall.

And Stan, the handyman. In the second episode we learn that his Dad has been admitted to hospital, and that Brenda has sat up half the night with him, a thing she naturally downplays (the truly kind so often get embarrassed at being kind). The bunch of flowers he gives her in gratitude is misinterpreted as coming from a boyfriend, typically referred to as the Calorgas man. But in the third episode, Stan’s Dad has died. Duncan Preston excels in his stilted grief, the ex Army man torn between his old-fashioned attitudes and his genuine grief at losing not just his father but a man he’s admired, aspired to be like yet feels he has failed. This was especially poignant to me.

But the main thread was Brenda and Tony. There’s Tony, superficially sex-mad, but in reality a lonely man, disguising his lack of self-confidence behind an exaggerated and supposedly enthusiastic faced, who desperately wants love in his life but understands/fears that it isn’t going to happen: hell’s bells, could I empathise! Tony who likes Brenda more than he can admit, and Brenda, equally lonely but concealing that with her own facade of independence and self-deprecation, both fearful of saying too much to the other and giving away their vulnerabilities, covering up with jokes in case the other isn’twhat they would want them to be.

There’s a holiday coming up, a bunch of work-mates going to Marbella (pronounced Mar-bell-a). Tony’s going, and a slot opens up to invite Brenda. She wants to go, but there are complications and hesitations. In the third episode, Brenda’s scapegrace mother Petula (Julie Walters in the most surreal part of all, the show’s one weakness as she’s too OTT, frankly), claiming to be pregnant as a surrogate womb for Leonardo di Caprio and Gwyneth Paltrow, tries to con Bren out of her holiday money. Bren resists, fighting her own instinct to be the kind one. Everyone, not just Tony, glares at her. But Stan, oblivious to the moment, asks her top hear the poem he’s written for his Dad’s funeral. It’s awkward, clunky, meant to be embarrassing but so much from the heart, another astonishing piece of writing, that long before he reaches the end we know Brenda is going to sacrifice her money…

The rules of this blogslot are that it will be four weeks before I watch the next three episodes. Frankly, I’d like to go straight to a Wednesday Afternoon Sitcom Time and watch them now…

Oldham Colisseum – Cancelled?


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

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

Levelling up my arse.

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


WAW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Tom Verlaine R.I.P.


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

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

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