Old Houses aren’t safe: House of Mystery – Part 3

When I last left off, Joe Orlando’s triumphal revival of House of Mystery into a full-blown, albeit still mainstream horror comic was now some four years old and the bloom appeared to be off the rose. The initial enthusiasm, and the art by luminaries such as Alex Toth, Neal Adams and Berni Wrightson were no longer so prevalent. Was this a temporary drop in standards or a permanent falling-off? After all, the Seventies was a time for some pretty crap comics, and the conditions in the industry seemed designed to make it impossible for the more individual artists to give of their best, not if they wanted to eat as well. And the series had been monthly since issue 194, doubling up the demand.
So let’s now take a look at what happened once HoM started its third century.
The first issue was not propitious: five stories, three of them reprints and one fairly recent as it was drawn by Jim Aparo and neither of the originals very interesting. That drawn by Sam Glanzman had the better art but a formulaic story that could have been done at any time in the past twenty years.
Indeed, between formula and two stories with appallingly paced endings, issue 202 fared no better. On the other hand, it did include the famous Steve Skeates/Sergio Aragones story, ‘The Poster Plague’, of rich reputation, an award-winning tale that also led directly to the creation of DC’s comedy title, Plop! I’d heard of it but never read it before. Fifty years after the fact, almost, it doesn’t hold up so good, but the humour is decidedly black, and Aragones is Aragones.
The 48 page, 25c experiment ended next issue, a long time after Martin Goodman had shafted DC by reverting to 20c after just one month. Now, issue 204 was to take the same route, back to all-original material, and superficially an upgrade, with Wrightson’s first story for several issues and another drawn by Alex Nino, the first of his I’ve ever seen that was legible and not over-decorated to death. But both suffered from the same fault, an abrupt final panel that in one case left the visual sting out completely and in the other confined it to a corner of a larger panel. Both were painfully amateur.
At least Wrightson’s story, plotted as well as drawn by him, was good practice for Swamp Thing 8.


You’ll forgive me if I sound tetchy at this development. Having suffered, literally the lack of imagination or verve of over 170 issues of this series to finally see it come alive – even ghoulish life – and then so swiftly slump into routine again is dispiriting to say the least.
It doesn’t help that so much of the art is so familiar, and so characteristic of the time. Alex Nino, Nestor Redondo, Ernie Chua, E.R. Cruz: I may be slightly ahead of my return to comics but these were the artists I saw so much of when I did pick things up in 1974: DC’s Filipino phase, art plundered from the islands because the artists were beautiful pencillers but mainly because, in comparison to the homegrown artists, they were dirt cheap, and cheapness counted in that era of inflationary price increases.
I remember it well: don’t do it better, do it as cheap as possible, do it worse and not to stave off the price increases but to keep them as far apart as you could. I might have not seen these specific pages but they look boringly familiar, and though the Filipinos drew superbly they were, to a man, utterly static. Not one could make their art move, and I’m seeing that here all over again.
An increasing number of stories were being written by Jack Oleck, and here and there the notorious name of Michael Fleisher was being seen, Fleisher of The Spectre infamy, with his black imagination and his relish for cruelty. It’s not there in full force yet, not in him, but an element of nastiness was developing in several stories, endings no longer about comeuppance for the evil but the torture of the innocent. I can’t say I enjoy that.
That couldn’t be said of the first story in issue 217, a ghost story whose twist should perhaps have been foreseeable, of a ghost of a lost man saving his own great grand-daughter, unknowing, but it was a sweet story and an admirable corrective, enough so that the comeuppance tale that followed gave me a belly laugh.
And the lead story in issue 222 ended with a twist I didn’t see coming and greatly appreciated. Unfortunately, it was paired with a Michael Fleisher story that was, as usual, filled with sadistic nastiness. And I thought The Spectre was bad.
Incidentally, though this has nothing to do with HoM itself, we’re now up to the time I unexpectedly got back into comics: the house ads are now featuring issues I bought at the time.


And this was the year DC tried to escape from the prison of the 32 page comic by jumping to squarebound 100 pagers, though with only the same 20 pages of original work. Several titles had already made the leap before House of Mystery joined then with issue 224, though it seemed to have a better balance of original to reprint, or was I merely looking at relatively recent stories that had appeared in any of the other horror books? There was a Phantom Stranger from the Fifties and a rather more recent Spectre drawn by Wrightson, from his late Sixties series. The leap in pages was accompanied by an abrupt reversion to bi-monthly.
The question of how much was new was comprehensively answered next issue with a superb Wrightson splash page checklisting eight stories, four of them billed as new. They added up to 32 pages: you didn’t get that in Detective Comics or Justice League of America. And it was 43 pages in issue 226, with Orlando open about his intention to get to all-new.
He never got there. Indeed, the reprints were the ones that kept accumulating, and in any event the Super-Spectacular era was only brief, a year at most, six issues for HoM and back to 32 pages with issue 230, but monthly once more.
But still the stories followed predictable paths, and no amount of tweaks could disguise the repetitive templates being used. Things from Michael Fleisher’s singularly unpleasant brain. Some of the editing was mystifying too, like the story in issue 234 about a girl escaped from an asylum, a girl with dark hair, a girl coloured blonde in every panel.
Steve Ditko turned up to draw the lead story in issue 236, which was saddled with a hack ending that I must have read three dozen times in this series already, the one where a hoax appears to have been played except that the hoaxer didn’t get into position in time… ooh, spooky. Not. And Orlando claiming HoM was better than for many years. When he could only get Berni Wrightson for occasional covers, not stories, or Neal Adams to do occasional inks, not pencils?
In fact, sales were quite clearly falling because the title was abruptly dropped to bi-monthly again with issue 238. And there was a serious downturn in the horror market generally, for Cain the Caretaker was soon boasting of being the only host left with a series to call his own. It was 1976, the year of the Bi-Centennial, and people had other things on their minds.
And then HoM was back at monthly status with issue 241, just as House of Secrets, as we’ll see, only missed six months in its ‘cancellation’.
The readers were happy. They always had been but here they were, cheering in the stories of this new phase, seeing them as absolute winners. Now I know I’m not a horror buff, but I couldn’t see any of the ‘spark’ they claimed to detect. Instead, what I saw was shoddily constructed stories, their pacing awry, their endings falling flat, amateurishly so. And with genuine respect to an artist who I enjoyed at that time, Ernie Chua covers do not hold a candle to Berni Wrightson or Neal Adams.
But the course of comics was never straight in the Seventies and once again DC were trying to beat the curve with bigger packages. Starting with issue 251, House of Mystery was just one of a number of titles jumping to an 80 page length, with all new material. I was very much in two minds about this.
More pages, more stories. There were changes in the background: Jeanette Kahn had arrived as DC’s new Publisher, the Dollar Comics were her idea, change was coming. Joe Orlando was suddenly Managing Editor and Paul Levitz Editorial Coordinator. So who was now in charge? Cain was host in the front half of the book and now Abel came on board, pending House of Secrets‘s next and final cancellation, to host the back half. But nothing new, nothing fresh, wormed its way into the stories, though one gently silly one was drawn by Wally Wood.
And, of course, it was back to bi-monthly.
On the other hand, there was a change in issue 252, which featured the supposed demolition of the House of Mystery. Cain related the House’s ‘Origin’, Abel cowered in the House (of Secrets) next door whilst Ms Kahn and Mr Orlando measured up for a post-demolition expansion, with Cain taking over, even Destiny dropped in to use up a tale I have no doubt had been created from his now-cancelled title, Weird Mystery Tales and in the end the House just shifts out of the way of the wrecking ball, causing everyone to run off.
There were near-nostalgic covers by Neal Adams on the next two issues, with a pleasant surprise in issue 254 in the form of a story drawn by Marshall Rogers, whose Batman series with Steve Engelhart was my favourite ever incarnation of the Caped Crusader before Tom King’s recent and controversial run.
By issue 255, Levitz had stepped up to the role of Editor, after an eighty issue run by Orlando. But the profusion of stories in so short a space, even if so many of them were simply unused inventory for the cancelled horror titles, was very wearying. The brief spell of enthusiasm when Orlando took over was long since dissipated and few stories rose above their various formulae to give me much entertainment.
All sorts of names, writers, artists, pass through the pages, so many of them new. Some were familiar, but some I never saw elsewhere. There was little from the old regulars. My guess is that HoM was being used as a try-out for new talent, no doubt at rock-bottom rates. The odd Michael Golden art was neat, but none of the others looked capable of ripping up trees.
But none of DC’s big comics ever last. After nine issues, eighteen months, House of Mystery was cut back and put on monthly status again. But issue 260, for all the good intentions, was 44 pages for 50c, for this was the month of the much-vaunted but doomed DC Explosion. A few titles managed two issues at this size: HoM was granted three. I’d never heard before of any series lasting that long at that size.


But the stories were getting worse. They were barely making sense, the twists were being pulled out of thin air, the endings abrupt. The new crop of writers had no idea of pacing, though in the thirst for twist endings since 1951, the series had always suffered from this.
And the return to the good old 32 page floppy format in issue 263 brought two seriously ripe examples of these wholly inadequate, and in one case just ugly, pieces of work, for I will not call them art.
Yet in issue 266, Steve Clement and Maurice Whitman produced a wholly unhorrific story that was wonderful in its sweetness and its determination not to dabble in anything but the mildest of evil that I personally found worth all the miserable and pathetic stuff I’ve been ploughing through for I don’t know how long.
Issue 271 dealt with two famous figures, one real – a Professor at Princeton, not named but drawn to be unmistakable – and the other a Sherlock Holmes analogue. The one story was scientific, the other involving a vampire and a cynical ending that the vast majority of Sherlockians would frankly spit on.
At least progress through the scans was swift. This was the depressing era of reduced story pages, only 17, the tiniest possible number to keep the content over 50%. Stories were shorter than ever: three stories in seventeen pages, all with their own fall-flat endings.
Marshall Rogers turned up on art again in issue 274. As I said already, I love his Batman run with Steve Engelhart, and turn fondly to anything else he did., but by now, and saving his presence, I have to admit that outside that brief but brilliant run, his work was terrible. His background lay in architecture, making him perfect for Gotham City, but without Terry Austin’s inks to solidify and lend body to his art, his facial and figure work simply was not adequate. I hate saying that.
Time for a change in issue 276 as Jack C Harris replaced Paul Levitz as editor, a fact he chose to play up on the contents page: very modest. As to whether Harris would change the course of the series, we’d have to see but nothing I read that Harris edited impressed me back then so I’m not holding up my hopes.
I know, I know, why am I continuing to read House of Mystery since I’m clearly not getting anything from it, but let’s get to the end of this run and I’ll explain then.
One thing Harris did do was drop the long-running Twilight Zone knock-off introduction that had run throughout Levitz’s reign and which had long outlasted its welcome.
Over the first five issues of Harris’s tenure, my fears were rapidly proven. In a way I found difficult to explain, the stories themselves became completely pointless. There was no justification for them, no perspective. They were less than cardboard cut-outs whose point was nothing more than set-up for a twist ending that, by having nothing of any substance to twist against, became pallid and ineffectual.
But Harris only lasted six months before being replaced by Len Wein in issue 282, another change in control celebrated on the splash page, although to be fair I ought to acknowledge that the entire comic since Orlando’s advent was built on the principle of Cain the Caretaker as the storyteller. Cain was the fixture, irrespective of the editor, a game played out more often in the Letters’ pages, hence the calling out as here.
Wein’s debut hosted a completely incongruous book-sized insert effectively plugging Radio Shack in the form of a history of computers coupled with an action adventure. It was dull and bland and the best thing in the issue. Well, certainly no worse.
Two issues later it was format-change time, again. The DC Implosion had not deterred Jeanette Kahn from looking at ways to improve the basic 32 page floppy, and the latest move was to increase the cover price from 40c to 50c, but compensate by adding another eight story pages, increasing content from the nadir of 17 to 25 pages. The move was sneered at by Jim Shooter at Marvel, who suggested it was probably due to DC not being able to attract advertising, and that he didn’t think the readers were bothered whether or not they got an almost 50% uplift in continuity or not. And I have a bridge in Brooklyn for Jim, if he’s got the money.
Though it wasn’t the increase in story pages that rescued DC from the disaster of the Implosion in 1980, but rather the debut of The New Teen Titans by Marv Wolfman and George Perez, something indirectly caused by Shooter, so the joke was on him ultimately.
The odd story is still nicely drawn, most often by Filipino artist E.R. Cruz, whose work I only otherwise knew was on the last three issues of The Shadow, though I’m bound to say that I love the odd little coincidences, like the villain of Cruz’s piece in issue 288 being one Liam Gallagher. Nobody of the name Noel appeared in this story.
There were a lot of Joe Kubert covers in this period, and not a few J.M. De Matteis scripts, increasingly marking his taste for the spiritual. Former editor George Kashdan was another regular scripter and even Sheldon Mayer contributed a story.


And then a change, a much-needed change in my eyes. House of Mystery gained a recurring character again, in the form of Andrew Bennett, ‘I, Vampire’. It was by Jerry De Matteis, with somewhat distorted art by Tom Sutton, and it did not impress at first sight.
Neither did Wein last long, being replaced in issue 292 by a joint editorship between the returning Paul Levitz and DC’s newest young editor, one who would go on to build an enviable reputation, Karen Berger (a very nice lady, I met her once).
The first thing to happen was that ‘I, Vampire’ was dropped, but that was only for an issue, with Berger taking over as sole editor next issue and running the series as the cover feature and back-up story. The only I, Vampire I’d read before was the Brian Azzarello version in his Dr Thirteen story, published as half of the latterday Countdown to Mystery. I can see now that the original was rotten stuff, horrendously over-written by de Matteis.
The series was certainly not going to run in every issue. For issue 294, Berger got the legendary Carmine Infantino to draw a story that had nothing else going for it, whilst Bruce Jones and Tom Yeates produced a touching and sweet tale of a ghost that proved the constant nastiness inherent in horror as practiced in HoM was not the only approach.
De Matteis left DC but Berger promised I, Vampire would continue, now written by Bruce Jones, whose first step was to write out Andrew Bennett’s two human helpers. Dmitri Mishkin and Deborah Dancer, the latter without ever having her back-story told. The same issue saw an early three pager from Steve Bissette.
And then House of Mystery became one of the rare comics to hit 300 issues. It got the kind of special-but-without-being-any-bigger treatment. There was a mix of stories, one of them a two-pager by Marv Wolfman and Joe Staton that toyed with the horror of the death of a young baby before veering off into an all together sweeter ending that touched the heart.
House of Mystery had now been going for 31 years. I’ve ended previous instalments at the 100 issue mark but to do that here would be to make a fourth part very short. So stay with me for what’s now left. This included an ever-increasing number of stories written by the team of Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn, who would create Blue Devil, and art by Dan Spiegle. I, Vampire became a monthly series from issue 302, but I can’t say that Karen Berger was producing the level or work she would soon be extracting.
For instance, in issue 302, Andrew Bennett got a wooden stake through the heart from his evil ex-mistress and target, Mary, except that the next issue, with art from Ernie Chua, stakes through the heart don’t kill vampires. And only one issue later, we had Bennett musing that it’s impossible to kill a vampire without driving a stake through its heart, an inconsistency that no editor should be permitting. Nor, in any day or age, should an editor allow Jack the Ripper to be used in a vampire series, as occurred in issue 306.
Even with Tom Sutton restored after two issues absence, the series continued to plumb new depths every month, especially when Bennett and Mary started bouncing around in time, all coherent narrative thread lost. Not even the Martian Manhunter’s run was as bad as this.
Would a comprehensive creative clear-out make any difference? Mishkin and Cohn as writers, Gonzalez and Sutton as artists? Not on first evidence. Dmitri Mishkin and Deborah Dancer were brought back, the latter with an ‘origin’ that started as a hippie chick at Woodstock. But no, I, Vampire continued to be just as empty, repetitive and dull as ever. But all things must pass, unless they’re Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman. Andrew Bennett’s stories followed on, one from another, but a ‘multi-part’ story was promised to begin in issue 316. And at that point, House of Mystery had only half a year left.
If you look at the Statement of Ownership published in issue 316, and squint up your eyes to decipher the sales figures, you can see that HoM was selling an average of below 75,000 copies a month, and just over 72,000 in the most recent month. In 2021, those would be killer figures. In 1983, they weren’t. They were killing figures.
Bennett’s aged sidekick, Dmitri Mishkin, was killed off in issue 317. Next issue, Bennett took a powder that reverted him to human, human with human needs, such as food and sex – why do you think Deborah Dancer has been dragged round all these months? – but a vampire’s powers. That is, until age started catching up on him.
And then the end of the series in issue 319. Yes, Mary Queen of Blood had won the day. Bennett’s body was crumbling and decaying and the final torment was Mary turning Deborah into a vampire – why do you think she’s been dragged round all these months? – and her personal slave. But, in another example of the Frodo-principle in operation, it turns out that dear Debbie may have been a vampire but, because she took the other dose of the Russian preparation, she was one of these living vampires, fully human, and with dawn rising, was well able to drag Mary out into the sunlight, with inevitable results. So Andrew, who she loved, could die knowing his mission had been fulfilled.
Needless to say, death didn’t take, though it really should have, but that’s a story for other comics, which I don’t intend to read.


There was no hint of it in issue 320, but House of Mystery was cancelled with issue 321, after thirty-two years. Though there were a couple of last fright stories, these were wrapped into a story about the House of Mystery being scheduled for demolition by order of Karen Berger, who then ushers Cain into a doorway he’s never found before, which leads into DC’s offices. Berger was being a good sport, allowing herself to firstly be portrayed as an airhead planning to replace the mag with ‘Condo of Fun’, or re-purpose Cain as a couple of demeaning storytellers, then allow Cain to get the better of her – or so he thinks – by getting to keep the House, which promptly collapses. It was at least decent fun.
So that was the end of it. Needless to say DC have tried a couple of times to revive HoM, once by yoking it to the temporary fad of Elvira, aka busty Cassandra Peterson, who made a schtick out of introducing horror movies on late-night TV. I have those issues too, on the DVD, but I doubt I’ll ever bother reading them. One 320 issue series is enough.
I promised to explain why I persisted to the end, when I manifestly wasn’t enjoying myself. That I wasn’t. The comic was tedious at its very best, and I couldn’t understand why most of its stories were regarded as even fit to print with their combination of frequently obvious twist endings thrown in so close to the end as to have no impact.
But the reason I persisted was a combination of completism, and a thirst to know. The completism is a key factor with me. I want to read it all. There are 321 issues, therefore I have to read all 321 issues. It frustrates me to miss even one out, the more so when I have that one issue and can so easily read it. Finish, always finish.
And there’s the urge to know, which is prevalent in any form of serial. I started reading American comics in the early Sixties, the early days of the Silver Age, roughly at the same time Julius Schwartz was starting to revive the Golden Age characters. They fascinated me, but I knew so little about them, and what was told about them in their revivals wasn’t always accurate to the degree I wanted to know.
There was near enough twenty-five years of these comics that I knew nothing about, and would never read. I couldn’t buy them because they weren’t there to be bought, and I couldn’t buy what I did see around me, because my parents disliked me buying American comics and they controlled my monetary supply. Not until the Seventies, when I was at University, was I free to buy what I wanted (and could afford).
So now I can read what I couldn’t, and my curiosity overwhelms me. I’ve found that a lot of it isn’t worth my time, but once I start reading something, even if it’s only out of curiosity, I have to finish. I have to know.
At the same time I bought the House of Mystery DVD, I bought one for its companion title, House of Secrets. That one’s only 160 issues long. I was going to go straight on to that but I need a breather from that sort of story. So next up will be something I’m looking forward to reading a lot more. Something about which I expect to be a lot more positive…


Good Omens: e02 – The Book

good omens

Good Omens is very much a discursive book. It builds slowly, it follows diverse paths, it has multiple criss-cross elements that havbe no seming relation to one another but which we know are tributaries that will eventually come together into one major river of story. You can do that in books. It’s a lot harder in television, especially when you’re dealing with an exaggerated reality that exceeds normal expectations. There’s a a lot of it about in episode 2.

Last week’s opening episode was mainly linear, keeping everything going in a straight line so that the audience knew what they were getting: Armageddon and an Antichrist who comes over as a less sullen Just William. With the train on the tracks, episode 2 decided to devote large parts of its running time to the branch lines, and a whole horde of new characters we didn’t get to in the opening episode.

First up was a plot reminder. The Angels Gabriel and Sandalphon visit Aziraphale’s Soho bookshop to check all is well, and make a holy show of themselves in ‘fooling’ the simple humans into accepting them as material beings, whilst Hastur and Ligur (I do so relish Ned Dennehy’s performance and look as Hastur!) replace a Breakfast Show hosting pair to demand the same of Crowley: neither angel nor demon admit they’ve absolutely no bloody idea where the Antichrist is.

So the narative drive this week is set upon finding him, except that it’s not being done with any urgency and without any great plan, and in the meantime, enter the following: Agnes Nutter, a Lancashire Witch (Josie Lawrence) to be burned by Witchfinder General Thou-Shalt-Not-Commit-Adultery Pulsifer (Jack Whitehall): the first of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, War, aka National Weekly News War Correspondent Carmine Zuigiber (Mireille Enos), and an outsourced summoner, a delivery driver (Simon Merrells): profesional descendent Anathema Device (Adria Arjona), carrying the only copy of the #nice and Accurate Propheies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, dressed from head to toe to wrist in heavy, faintly archaic, form-concealing clothes, the way Melanie Safka always did: professional failure Newton Pulsifer, who’s ‘not good with computers’ (Jack Whitehall again, of course): Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell (Michael McKean with a Scottish accent that keeps nipping back up to the Highlands, leaving him floundering) and his landlady, Madame Tracey (Miranda Richardson, still looking pretty good). That’s a lot of characters to take care of in one go, and they need time which detracts from Aziraphale and Crowley’s presence and kee[ps us from getting to the Them, the Antichrist’s little gang, until well down the running time.

And Gaiman does insist on keeping as much of his and Pratchett’s amusing little asides as he possibly can, like the wyt Crowley talks to his plants.

These are all well and good in the book: in the book they’re more than good, they’re hilarious. But this is the difference between books and television/film. In any kind of decent television series I’m eager for this kind of multiple strand approach, setting up theaudience to guess, and red herrings are fair game. But I didn’t think it worked here. That’s because, after setting things up, and that reminder of what this story is all about, the episode went all over the place, at some length, to avoid taking the next step. When are we going to get on with it was the prevailing response.

Which leads us to the matter of the writing. Thgis is very much Neil Gaiman’s project. It adapts a book of which he is the co-author and it is driven by the desire to do seriously right by his co-author and his very dear friend, the late Terry Pratchett – is it really six years? On the one hand, the teleplay writer knows and understands the material and can be alert to it and its nuances in a way no-one else can. On the other, how detached can he become? How distanced can he be to carry out the essential task of the adapter, which is to reconstruct the book in a medium alien to the original work?

Episode 2 shows Gaiman to be perhaps a bit too determined to get in as much of Good Omens as he can, which isn’t necessarily the best thing to do.

Mind you, I had fun with it. And we’ve four more episodes in which to draw things together even tighter.

A Marston Baines Thriller: Malcolm Saville’s ‘Three Towers in Tuscany’

Malcolm Saville’s Three Towers in Tuscany first appeared in October 1963. By this time, Saville had already published 56 books, including fourteen Lone Pine novels. Ian Fleming’s James Bond had first appeared on screen in the form of Sean Connery the previous year in Dr No and From Russia with Love would shortly appear.
Saville’s readers were growing older with him. They had already convinced him to allow David and Peter resolve the future of their relationship in Not Scarlet But Gold. He was in need of a change, something for those older readers, and for older readers who had not previously considered his work. An espionage series, adjusted to Saville’s personal sympathies and his moral code, was perhaps inevitable.
Three Towers in Tuscany was very rare when re-published by GirlsGoneBy in 2016, and that edition is already incredibly hard to find. After missing out on a copy on a German bookselling site, I ended up having to buy from a bookshop in New Zealand.
This quirk of availability meant that the first book of the series was one of the last I read, and I wasn’t impressed by it. I admit to being prejudiced by my political views, which are a good deal more left than Saville’s (but then again Tony Blair would have qualified as a good deal more left in Saville’s terms).
What unimpressed me most is that Saville does not make a good job at all of transitioning from even Not Scarlet But Gold era Lone Piners around sixteen to Oxford undergraduates whose age has to be around eighteen to twenty. Though to be fair, it’s less the core group of Simon Baines and his two friends, Charles Hand and Patrick Cartwright than it is the girl, Rosina Conway, who doesn’t even display the maturity of Peter but is more on Jenny Harman’s level.
I’ll come back to that. Saville concentrates very much on his younger characters for fully half the book. Simon is our viewpoint character, with Rosina as an alternate for scenes where he is not present, such as in her bedroom.
When the story starts, Simon is arriving in Florence. His father has died some two months ago and his uncle, Marston, has invited him to stay at his Villa in Fiesole, just outside Florence, for the summer. Marston is a successful writer of thriller stories who appears to have been living here for the past dozen years. Simon has never met Marston: his father disapproved of his brother. And indeed, though welcoming and easy-going, Marston doesn’t display much interest in Simon at first, and is dismissive of Rosina when she enters the picture that night.
Rosina is an English girl, daughter of a West Midlands industrialist, who has been invited to stay the summer in the Villa Venezia belonging to rich psychiatrist Dottore Salvatore. The idea is for Rosina to improve her Italian whilst assisting Signora Salvatore to improve her English, but the Signora is cold and indifferent to Rosina, and scares her by coming over as evil, a sensation she communicates to Simon.
Rosina runs away, refusing to return, and bumps, literally, into Simon. She tells her story, protesting that she’s not hysterical but all the time sounding as if she is. He’s all protective (as who wouldn’t be when they’ve already held a bird as fit as her in their arms) but Marston is dismissive and unhelpful, and doesn’t want them to get involved.
Things multiply. There’s something weird about Marston’s relationship with his Italian secretary, Mario (behave yourself, there is absolutely nothing like that in a Malcolm Saville book). Next day, he wants Simon to clear out as he’ll be writing all day, but he’s seen in a public park talking to a man who has already scared Rosina by his attempts to get her alone, and both men deny knowing each other.
By now, Simon’s two Oxford pals, Charles and Patrick, historian and scientist respectively, have turned up. Both flirt with Rosina, to Simon’s obvious distress (he owns her already, it seems). But it’s his insistence on blowing the cover of Marchant, Marston’s contact, that leads to the man’s murder, the dumping of his corpse in Marston’s garden, Marston’s arrest by crooked police and Mario’s gnomic refusal to worry or act as if anything is wrong.
Because it’s not. The scene shifts abruptly to London, a nondescript office at a garage that is the headquarters of someone high up in Britain’s Secret Service. ‘Peter’ has three visitors: John Conway, whose business makes vital parts for nuclear submarines and who is being plagued by targeted industrial action, an agent who’s infiltrated the ‘Commies’ behind this anti-Britain agenda… and Marston Baines.
So he’s a secret agent, eh? He’s also one who’s jumped to conclusions, blaming Marchant himself for his death without knowing that it’s his own nephew who dropped him right in it.
Indeed, Simon himself realises that his gaffe has had horrific consequences, but he’s a hero so Marston has to slander Marchant all over again and insist it was all his fault. Even in a book aimed at older readers there is to be no nuance, just Black and White and never the twain shall mix.
Politically, which is not a word you’d usually expect to be using about a Malcolm Saville novel, the book is based in fear of Trade Unions and industrial actions and the risk of a Government that is not the Conservative and Unionist Party. It’s not directly expressed as such, the underlying threat derives from a complex masterplan, directed at destroying the West and producing anarchy. But not once is the idea that owners and manufacturers might be treating their workers parsimoniously or unfairly, or that there may be genuine grievances, or that the working classes might perhaps deserve to be treated more generously or be allowed greater opportunities, permitted to penetrate. Society is as it is and the notion of a change to its structure produces an hysterical reaction for which the best that can be said is that it was typical of the times. I remember the BBC sitcom, Beggar My Neighbour where the point of the joke was that a bowler-hatted pin-striped manager lived penuriously next door to a plushly situated trade unionist worker, the underlying assumption being that this should be the other way round, and that that was RIGHT.
That’s going to be a common feature of most if not all of the Marston Baines books, a very black and white view of the world. The sound of axes being ground is never omitted from the background hum.
But that’s not why we are interested in the books, though Saville hoped we would take heed and come to think like him. It’s the people, and the young people, who matter.
Rosina is the big problem: on her very first appearance she says she is not being hysterical but she acts that way far too often. She also displays the Saville trope that, no matter how well she knows someone or trusts them, she accuses them of not believing her every time they don’t instantly back up everything she says.
The boys are primarily into bantering. There’s a curious ornateness to the quips and languidly expressed put-downs they indulge in. I’m the last to criticise a relish in words for their own sake, but it’s a bit too over-expressed. No matter what the circumstances, nobody can restrain themselves to speak in an ordinary, direct fashion. Usually there’s one, but only one, whose speech is florid and circumlocutory, which is fine, but everybody talking like that is a bit much.
I’m also inclined to criticise Saville’s decision to relegate Marston, the nominal star, to a background role where he’s offstage for the majority of the book. Marston only really gets two front-of-house scenes, when Saville reveals, two-thirds of the way through, that he’s a Secret Agent, and when he pulls a deus ex machina stunt to take down the anarchists and save the day.
(I must mention that I am mildly surprised that Saville allows Dottore Salvatore to escape by committing suicide, given the Christian anathema of that action).
The book ends on a quasi-cliffhanger note. This bold strike has foiled an international plot to bring down all Western Governments, just a few days hence, on behalf of anarchists, only some of whom are Commies. Salvatore is not the head of the operation, that turns out to be Signora Salvatore, the purely evil woman Rosina has warned against from her first appearance, and who has got away.
Three Towers in Tuscany suffers from a mixture of motives. It wants to be a spy thriller but it doesn’t want any of the trappings of a spy thriller. Thus Marston is middle-aged, sedentary, described as shambling and with thinning hair, a direct symbol of diminished potency. There will be no sexuality from him, nor will there be violence, let alone extremes of it.
The action, in both areas, is displaced down the generations to the amateurs. They’ll do the energetic stuff, but this won’t include violence and it had damned well better not include sex. Such things as desire that are an almost-constant presence in the mind and body of a healthy 19-20 year old, are to be sublimated into love and chaste romance. Rosina’s attractive, but Charles and Patrick only joke about her falling in love with them, in a manner characteristic of nervous virgins who are nowhere near ready to change that status yet but don’t want to be seen as schoolchildren. Simon’s not as bad as that, and at least he’s already contemplating a longer lasting relationship, but he still has no drive, beyond easy jealousy and basic distrust of a kind far too representative of that era. Rosina is seen as more of a desirable possession, by him and Malcolm Saville.
And Saville shows far too little sign of being prepared to let his young women be much more than pretty.
All told, for me Three Towers in Tuscany is a tangled book whose central quartet are wrongly pitched. They’re all, not just Rosina, behaving far too young for their ages and undergraduate statuses. Saville has failed to adjust his mindset for both the characters and the new audience he was looking to attract. He would make a far better fist of things in the second book.

Danger Man: s03 e01 – You’re not in any trouble, are you?


It’s still 1965, but now we’re into Danger Man‘s third and last series. As we might expect, nothing has really changed since the second series was completed: why change a winning formula, especially when you’ve got the highest paid male star in British television, and one of the most charismatic actors around in your leading role?

But there were a couple of things that caught my eye, that suggested that the spirit of the times, that Swinging London might just be catching up with the series, and I’ll be very interested to see how things develop over the next twenty-three episodes.

It’s the first of the series and it’s a strong start, reminding me very much of what the show can do when it’s firing on all cylinders. There’s a long and intriguing open, a man, Bill Ellis, in a hotel room in Rome, recording a report onto an electric razor that conceals a miniature tape recorder. He’s categoric that Robin Garwood’s death was not an accident. He starts to give instructions about contacting an organisation when he’s interrupted by a friend, Dave. When Ellis’s back is turned, Dave clubs him into unconsciousness with a double-fisted punch to the back of the neck. Then he drops him out of the window, from the sixth floor.

Enter John Drake, or writer Clive Harris. Drake’s dressed slightly differently in that opening scene. He wears a raincoat, a light, white raincoat. Not much of a thing to pick upon, except that Drake’s look will change in series 3. The raincoat will be paired with a white cap, a characteristic look. Remember ‘The Girl Who Was Death’, from The Prisoner? That deliberately echoed Drake’s ‘look’.

The contact details Ellis has left, albeit interrupted, reveal the existence of a murder-for-hire organisation, a European version of America’s infamous Murder Incorporated. But before Drake can retrieve the shaver from its place of concealment in Ellis’s room, he has to get access to it. Which means dealing with Lena.

Lena is supposed to be from South America, doing an extensive tour of European capitals, places of culture, hotspots. Lena is also the lovely Susan Hampshire belying her background with her cut glass English accent. Lena is flat out gorgeous – Susan Hampshire was probably the loveliest actress from Britain in the Sixties – and my second point of interest is that the episode introduces her with a slow pan from her feet and up her legs – and she’s wearing an above-the-knee skirt! Whee, this is the Sixties at last!

Lena is fascinating. She’s just coming down off a fourteen week affair with an Italian Prince and begs a sleeping pill off ‘Yorick’, as Drake teasingly calls himself. Lena is bright and bubbly, a Sixties Dolly Bird, but with a solid core of practical intelligence not that far below the surface, and a concern for ‘Clive Harris’ that quickly starts to worry him. She’s here, she’s there, she’s everywhere, an unwanted nuisance, but a very nice one. In real life, any man would be flattered and delighted to have the attention of a blonde who’s not only slim and beautiful but devoted and eager company.

This being Danger Man, we know that John Drake is going to remain consciously resistant to her charms whilst trying not to hurt her, which would be like destroying a butterfly. This being Danger Man, we are constantly swondering what deep and sinister role Lena will play in the story. Indeed, once Drake has engaged this organisation to dispose of Clive Harris, and has drawn Dave to him intent on the same method of disposal as with Bill Ellis, Lena turns up unexpectedly just as Drake’s anticipated the attack and, when he grapples with Dave, Lena intervenes, screaming ‘you’ll kill him!’, allowing Dave to run. And never be seen again.

I see, I see, I get the picture.

Resolution comes via a stroke of fortune, a little man, claimung to be knowledgeable about international crime because he was once involved, until a Lottery win that allowed him to remove himself. This is Ernesto (John Cazabon). We, and Drake, suspect him of being the assassin, but the gun he pulls in empty: it is merely a souvenir of killings past, in his old life. But Ernesto knows who is behind the murder-for-hire organisation, and for a price, albeit with much trepidation for his own safety, he tells Drake: Enso Bandone.

But Bandone (future Number Two Andre van Gyseghem) is utterly respectable. He’s 80 years old, a man who emigrated to America in 1912, made a success there in the American dream tradition, and who returned to Italy in 1959, to die in his own land. Drake goes to his villa, beards the lion in his den. With so much known or deducable, Bandone admits all. He is 80. He cannot sleep, he cannot digest his food, drink makes him ill. Only his hand-made cigars remain. And the vicarious thrill of being responsible for deaths, of course.

Drake coming here will give Bandone a singular pleasure. Drake will be killed, and Bandone summons a young man of cold eyes and chinese features, a master of swords, to cut up Drake, very slowly, in front of Bandone’s eyes. The young man, Masan, is played by the inevitable Burt Kwouk (could he have ever realised that he would grow up to be a star in Last of the Summer Wine?). Masan is the better swordsman, but Drake the more ruthless fighter. He dumps Masan on Bandone’s desk. Bandone retrieves a revolver from a drawer but, before he can bring it to aim at Drake, he has a seizure, fires all six shots through the drawer bottom, into the floor, and collapses. The excitement has been too much: Bandone has had a heart attack and died. The head is indeed cut-off.

So Lena had nothing to do with it at all, was nothing more than a giant, delightful distraction. But wait…

Drake has completed his assignment. It’s been suggested that it was actually a very big failure on his part. Dave, who killed Bill Ellis, got away, presumably scot-free, whilst Bandone died without revealing who hired him to kill Ellis, or Robin Garwood. But I am sanguine, I believe that once the Police got their hands on Bandone’s records, such things would be dealt with. Drake did his first and most important job, he brought the organisation down. He’s leaving to fly back to London. For a moment, he lifts his hand to knock on Lena’s door, to say goodbye, but he doesn’t. On the other hand, there she is in the lobby, all packed up and ready to go. She’s taken ‘Clive’s advice to resume her itenerary. In fact she’s going to London. On the same flight as ‘Clive’. ‘Hurry up, we’ll be late for the plane!’

This was just a gloriously fun episode. It would have been stroong and clever without Susan Hampshire, but the lady made it special. Suddenly, the Sixties are here. The last series was too redolent of the atmosphere of the Fifties, its greyness, its drabness. There’s an instant lift now. New times are coming, in fact they’re here. Let’s live it up, let’s swing1

The Infinite Jukebox: Al Martino’s ‘Spanish Eyes’

Al Martino holds the record for the first no. 1 in Britain.
Up to November 1952, such charts as there were focussed mainly on the sales of sheet music, until the New Musical Express decided to publish a chart of selling singles. The first chart was only a Top 12 and Martino topped it with his debut single, ‘Here is my Heart’. All told, the track was at no. 1 for nine weeks, the whole of the rest of the year.
Martino stayed popular in Britain until 1955, with five more top 10 hits and one top 20. That was it until 1973 when, right at the peak of glam-rock, his 1966 single, ‘Spanish Eyes’ was re-released for the second time and, for no reason that I can remember or discover, went big. Big as in a no. 5 highest position, 21 weeks on the chart but, if the site I discovered is reliable, only appeared once on Top of the Pops, when it was poised at no. 31, and it was danced to by Pan’s People (the site in question is devoted to Pan’s People’s dances).
It was a most unlikely hit, and very much one for my parent’s generation. The sound is dated beyond belief, but then that was the same when it was recorded in 1966. It’s a big, smooth, highly-orchestrated pop ballad, whose only concession to the contemporary day was a strong and regular beat.
Oh, and it also had a magnificent melody.
That’s the one thing I have to admit to. This was so not my kind of music, not on any level. It was what I ended up listening to more often than not throughout the Sixties, when other kids got to hear The Beatles and the Stones, The Who, Kinks and Small Faces and I got Frank Sinatra, Nat ‘King’ Cole and Sing Something Simple (and not the version they sang on the terraces either). By every measure, ‘Spanish Eyes’ was set up for me to hate it as much as (by then) I did T.Rex and Marc Bolan. But I liked it.
At least I didn’t have to admit to anything like that at school, where my musical reputation had never been bolstered by my love for, first, Lindisfarne, and then 10cc. Martino’s was a summer hit, and it felt appropriate to the time with its rich orchestration and his deep, expressive voice. It pole-vaulted into the Top 30 at 16 (on the back of that TOTP performance by Pan’s People?), which was the first I heard of it, and I’d completed my A-Levels by then and School was already a memory of ‘the happiest days of my life’.
Why I liked it is as inexplicable now as it was then. After near fifty years of music, an experience far broader than anything I’d had in 1973, such a thing is no longer unusual, and I have long since got over any sense of shame about what I like, however out of my personal mainstream it may be.
‘Spanish Eyes’ is another of those songs that doubles as a Time Machine, taking me back (in memory, sadly, rather than in body) to when it was ubiquitous and I was rather more innocent than I am now. Nothing like this will ever happen again. Someone, somewhere, will be the poorer for that.

Back to the Lakes


It’s been nearly two years since I last saw anything of the Lakes, the Patterdale Expedition, the round trip on the Ullswater steamer. Last year’s plans had to be set aside, hopefully to be revisited before very long, but at last it’s possible to travel there in approved safety. The simplest of all trips: to Windermere by train, to see mountains and fells and lakes long familiar, but not so recently. It’s going back home for me. And I’m doing it for less than £20 on the train.
I’m stocked up with the usual accoutrements for any successful day out: a fully-charged mp3 player with 1,150 songs on it, plus headphones, a book of substance, waiting to be read in circumstances of peace and quiet and neither distraction nor interruption – my selection on this occasion being Mark Helprin’s Refiner’s Fire, a Christmas self-treat in 2019.
What am I going to do when I get there for the first time in nearly two years? I have options. Options, options, options. The first, and most steady and reliable of these, is to buy a Grasmere Dayrider at the bus station and head off to there, to walk round the village, check the Heaton Cooper Studios, visit Sam Read’s Bookshop, lift mine eyes to the hills and generally revel in the air and ambience of things. Then back to Ambleside to do the same things there, and nurse a pint in the Ambleside Tavern. Safe, reliable, done before, more than once.
A bit more esoteric option is to make that a Keswick Dayrider. Head into the Northern Lakes, do the wandering around, see twice as any Lakes and mountains, maybe time for a stroll round Ambleside coming back, we’d have to see. Same thing though, done that.
But there’s a third option, though one only available if the weather is good, dry and clear, and the train is on time. I’m supposed to be at Windermere for 10.38. If I can walk from there to Bowness in half an hour, and it’s downhill all the way, I can catch the Windermere Steamer to Waterhead at 11.10. For once I can be very specific: I last travelled on the Windermere Steamer in August 1975, which is enough of a gap to call it ‘new’.
The drawback with this is, first of all, the walk to Bowness, under the self-set pressure of working to a deadline, and then the arrival at Waterhead with – unless I am incredibly lucky with a bus – a mile’s walk from there to Ambleside. And what do I do then?
Unfortunately, weather or not, option three looks like being a non-starter on medical grounds. Unexpectedly, I started a headache at work on Wednesday that is proving resistant to dispersal. To my great disgust, it incorporates an element of light-headedness when I’m upright, making me feel that my head is not quite in the same plane as the rest of me: Not strictly conducive to marches downhill against the clock.


I leave excessive time to get to the Station: psychologically I have to. The alarm is set for 6.30am, though I awake an hour before that. Shower and dress and walk to the bus stop (eight minutes) to catch a 7.15am bus to Piccadilly (thirty minutes) for a train that leaves at 8.48 am. I’m not crazy: the bus has form for interference. There’s a paucity of passengers on the Reddish leg and a plethora through Gorton. I arrive at Poiccadilly Station with seventy minutes to spare: W.H.Smith’s isn’t even open yet. Excess, excess, toujours l’excess! I het food and drink and sit down to read and wait.

I don’t really stop being twitchy until the train arrives. I’m fast enough to claim a table seat, facing forwards, in anticipation of the first views. Unlike the past few days of eaerly morning clear skies greying out to varying degrees of rain, this one’s started dull and is turning sunbright, with a touch of gold in the air more suggestive of the first hour after dawn. As Guy Garvey put it, it’s looking like a beautiful day.

It’s an oddly divided beautiful day, however. At Preston the sky westards, towards the coast, is an even, rich blue but on the other side it’s paler and patchier, knitted up with white clouds, drawing colour out of the sky. That way lies hill, of course.

There’s an irritating woman in the carriage, talking incessantly in an over-emphatic, self-satisfied voice. I’m not the only one who doesn’t like, and then I’m suddenly annoyed with myself for not remembering my mp3 player until we’re rolling into Lancaster. Music, vigorous, mostly obscure Sixties music envelops me happily.

To tell the truth, the book is not gripping me. I put it away and turn my attention to the window, getting an immediate reward because og yes indeed it is a beautiful day. A long skyline stretches across the drained sands of Morecambe Bay, an actual, genuine, gorgeous skyline of familiar ridges and shapes: the Old Man and dour Dow Crag, Red Screes above Kirkstone, the Fairfield Horseshoe, and even the tops of the Langdale Pikes. It doesn’t last long before local low rises intervene but it’s all still there, just as it was,and I’m thrilled. Crinkle Crags and Bowfell curve into view.

Clouds scud above them, white bumbles across a narrow band of the sky, decoration not threat. Against this vista, the line of the Howgill Fells, on the other side, doesn’t stand an earthly. Slowing into Oxenholme, there’s a beautiful angle into Kentmere, with Ill Bell prominent, framed by stolid Yoke before and almost imperceptible Froswick behind. All of which decides me: Keswick it is, I want to see all of this that I can.

For a moment, that seems to be in doubt. There’s neither bus stop nor timetable. The Grasmere driver reassures me, and then I see stop and timetable, sawn off at the base, on its back bu the wall of Booths. It’s half an hour and lots of milling around before we can get out of Windermere, by which time clouds are attracting one another and the blue bands are narrowing.

Just as the bus pulls out I get the most horrible shock: my former wedding ring is missing! I’ve worn it on my right hand since the Decree Absolute, though it’s slowly getting looser. Though it symbolises nothing but the past, it’s significance to me is immeasureable and I am in shock and almost tears at losing it. I’m desperately combing through both bags in the vain hope it’s dropped in there, and then something else drops, and I claw through my constricted jeans pocket and find it. The relief is incredible: to me it is literally priceless. It slides into my finger again. It will be a very long time before I take its presence for granted again.


Once the shock has subsided I can concentrate on Mountains, valleys and lakes: all familiar, no new sights or surprises, just recognition. Familiarity does not breed comtempt, not here, not ever. These skylines, these flanks, lovely little Rydal with its ever-widening outflow, are encoded in ,me like a string of DNA. Everywhere I look, no ,matter how near or far, I see fells that I have climbed, many more than once. Once climbed, they became part of me. I seized them as I conquered them. I own them, me and millions of others.

North of Dunmail Raise, the sun illuminates everything. Thirlmere gleams from end to end. I will never lose the awe of seeing it so clearly, remembering the Sixties and beyond when the only way you even knew that was a lakre there was because your parents had told you. Blencathra looks magnificent, even by Blencathra’s standards, the old cloud-magnet Skiddaw has his head in the free air, though dark-shadowed, and we drop into nthe Vale of Keswick with Bassenthwaite Lake a flat, silver-steel expanse straight ahead and Derwent Water sunny and lit.

Keswick is full of people. Well, it is a Saturday, the weather is good and we have been released on our own recognizance. Pasing the bookshop, I spot the long-awaited Terry Abrahams; Life of a Mountain: Helvellyn, not long since out. But plans to eat at the Oddfellows Arms were clearly delusional. Everywhere has long queues and nowhere free to sit. So I amble towards Hope Park, the miniature Golf, the Crazy Golf, not that I’m going to play, but I scoff that ice cream I promised a friend I was going to eat at Easter, to cheer me up, and if you ever read this, Liz, here’s to you.


But I’m restless, very restless. This isn’t to di with Keswick being ‘wick wi’ foak’ but rather a feeling of not wanting to confine myself to one place. So I ankle back to the Bus Station in time to catch my breath before I catch the 555 back to Grasmere. Climbing out of the town the roles are reversed: now it is Bass Lake that sits blue and Derwent Water that is grey.

Grasmere isn’t exactly empty but it’s a lot easier to cope with than Keswick. Then again I don’t wander far, barely off the Village Green: for the loo, for Sam Read’s Bookshop and the Heaton Cooper Studio, which still has too many lovely prints for the wallspace I have. The next bus is not supposed to be due until 3.30pm but I hop onto a Grasmere Sightseer and take myself upstairs to enjoy the open top section, and the 555 goes past whilst I’m on the bus anyway.

Year by year it’s getting harder to see the mouth of Ambleside Cave – called Rydal Cave on the announcement tape – as the fringe of trees below that section of Loughrigg Terrace reach for the heavens. Back in Ambleside, it’s sunny once more. In Fred’s Bookshop they’re playing Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues. They are just one more place to have copies of the first volume of Lakeland Views. If nothing else, you’ve got to admire the author for publishing a hand-written, hand-drawn book devoted to the Lakeland Gells, but judging by the cover that is really all you can admire.


I solve my hot food urges with a burger from the Old Smithy chippy that takes so long to cook that I can only assume that they’ve had to slaughter a new cow to get the meat. It arrives neither particularly hot nor with any particular taste. Eating it leaves me with the best part of three hours to kill before my train at Windermere, so I stroll down to Loughrigg Park. Much of it is now covered with playground contraptions, themselves covered in children, so I settle down, drop the headphones into place again and try to look as if I am not looking at the young children but rather at their mothers.

With an irony that I cannot help but appreciate, I return to Windermere Station with exactly the same excessive lead time I manufactured for myself at Piccadilly. Having so much time in hand, I wander down into Windermere Vilage, to see if there’s somewhere I can get something to eat without having to queue for a galactic eon, but of course this means I have gone mad. Normaly, I’d have dived into Booths for coffee and cake but their cafe is still closed. i only just make it back there to reach the loos before that too becomes out of bounds.

If you’ve followed this so far you will surely be asking yourself, what have I been doing? Well, nothing really. I’ve been being, not doing, and being in as many places as I could, touching bases, refreshing connections. Everything’s still here and still in it’s place and there’s still room in all that for me, and that is what I have been doing.

Precisely at 6.00pm it starts to rain and I bolt inside the Station. It’s still sunny, and it’s isolated drops but they’re big isolated drops.

Forty dull minutes later and fifteen minutes before it’s due to depart, the train arrives. I spring aboard the last carriage, the one that will be nearest to the exit at Piccadilly, and secure myself a table seat again. I’m ready for home, to switch on the laptop for the first time that day, check that the rest of the world is still there. Bring in a Chinese takeaway tea., yes, I’d be up for that. Chicken in lemon sauce, fried rice and prawn crackers.

For some fucking annoying reason we sit and wait and wait and wait at Preston, exactly as we did this morning. I rapidly get sick of the high-pitched beeping signalling that the train doors are closing preparatory to seting off and we just sit there. I’m getting tired by now, fifteen straight hours on the go, and my ears are getting sore too, so I take off the headphones and then discover it’s from wearing my facemask for thirteen and a half hours solid, and there goesthe beeping for about the dozenth time and CAN WE GO, PLEASE?

And eventually we do. Piccadilly Station. The 203 bus. Realising that the Takeaway’s out because by the time it’s cooked and I’ve got it home it’s too bloody late for me to eat something like that without the near certainty of acid reflux. Tired, achey, legs, hips, back, arms, shoulders sore.

Can I do it again on Sunday?

Sunday Watch: Life of a Mountain – Helvellyn

At the time, it seemed propitious. I was in the Lake District yesterday, for the first time in almost two years. I’ve been waiting for the third part of Terry Abrahams’ ‘Life of a Mountain’ series, this time on Lakeland’s third highest and most popular fell, Helvellyn for ages. I knew it was done, I knew it had been put off premiering due to the COVID situation. I didn’t know that BBC4 had broadcast its traditional precised to one hour version as far back as January. I just saw it in a shop window and the lady behind the heavily protected till said it had not long since come out. Perfect for a Sunday morning.

But it was so utterly disappointing.

The full version is a sprawling two hours twenty-nine minutes long, an open invitation to call it bloated and an unavoidable one. Helvellyn sprawls, and yet insofar as its portrait of a year in the life of the mountain is concerned, it’s paradoxically extrememely limited. This is an entirely Patterdale-Ullswater biased portrait, without even the shadow of a pretence that the mountain has a western flank, that it towers about Thirlmere and can be ascended from that side.

Instead, every facet of the film, every view of Helvellyn we see, whether this be from the constantly low-motion aerial shots to those from the lake steamer, are of the mountain between Striding Edge and Swirral Edge, or they’te of Red Tarn between these two arms. Over and over again.

But then again such a small part of the film is about Helvellyn itself. This is a primarily polemic film, proclaiming the importance of conservation at every turn. It’s about things like the hill-farmers, the men on the steamers, poets, singers, one self-consciously eccentric writer is ridiculous clothing over-developing his every sentence. With very few exceptions, everyone talks modern day jargon, or bullshit. Environmentalists aren’t improving the landscape in any of the myriad ways they do, they’re upgrading it, the way I upgrade my customer’s ‘experience’ by selling them another package. Conservation, preservation, adaptation in a way in keeping with the natural life of the Lake District fells is very important but linguistically the battle is over and we lost.

Everybody’s out to push a viewpoint, but nobody had anything interesting to say about it. Those that are interested in their own personal fascinations cannot describe it as anything but a personal challenge that has emhanced their lives, which I’m sure it is and has. My own life, my walks in the hills, could be expressed in exactly the same fashion, but I hope that I have never sounded so pretentious when talking about them.

And endlessly we get another shot of Helvellyn’s face, between Striding Edge and Swirral Edge. Or a rolling vista of ridges. The film plods on. It’s about living and working around a particular mountain but it spends most of its time in the valleys. It’s generically about life in the Lakes without any sense that any part of it is specific to Helvellyn, is especially shaped by it. People love Helvellyn, love Patterdale, but they say why. It’s ‘special’ or ‘pretty’ or ‘brilliant’. The crap they spout has robbed them of the ability to actually express themselves.

And whereas Abrahams’ first venture, Scafell Pike, was comprehensive, and briliant, and focussed and properly obsessive, Helvellyn is far m,ore professional and has lost all ability to focus or to engage itself realistically with what Helvellyn is as a mountain, as a destination. The nadir comes in a section on the Ski Club, and their base on Raise, when we get the utterly sterile cliche of the skier sliding to a halt in front of the camera and sending a spray of snow over it.

Which is not to say the film doesn’t have its merit. Some, but not enough, people talk with quiet authority and eloquent simplicity about their specialised subject, feeling no need to over sell it, and there was one poignant sequence with a woman who described her spine as having collapsed five years ago, an active fellwalker who thought all of that lost, for good but who, in a top of the range electric wheelchair, with her husband alongside her, with her walking boots on despite the fact they were never going to touch the ground, had gotten as high on Helvellyn as she physically could. Her eyes said it all, the wonderment, the recognition of things she thought gone for good, the wonderful acceptance of being still able to be who she had been.

And her husband, talking into the camera, explaining that this was five years to the day since the operation, that very serious operation that his wife might well never have survived. The little brush away of something near the corner of his eye, the laconic ‘the longest day of my life’ in the tones that only one who has been through such a day and seen it come out can speak. The camera dropping behind as the pair stood overlooking a view, their arms around each other, her shoulders shaking and him gripping her like he still can’t entirely believe that he still gets to.

Too little, not enough. In the end, the intrusive music, the high-speed photopgraphy of coils boiling across the sky or sweeping up and down valleys, the early hours of indistinguishability from tides rolling in and out, became tedious, were padding. There wasn’t even enough of the fells for me to simply gape at in silent admiration, nothing onto which I could project my own memories of climbing Helvellyn.

Terry Abrahams is a very talented man and I envy him his skills. He’s gone from a life in the throws of despair and destruction to intetnationl recognition doimg something I would love to have been capable of myself. But he’s over-reached himself here, tried to make a statement a big statement and he’s blown it, big-time.

Old Houses aren’t safe: House of Mystery – Part 2


Back to see if the middle hundred of DC’s long-running House of Mystery show any signs of improvement or if I’m just in for more hours of inveterately dull reading.
At first sight, no. It’s practically all aliens, aliens, aliens and aliens, intermingled with the occasional monsters who look like aliens but who aren’t aliens. Aliens. Have you got it yet? Not once in these issues was there anything to write home about. Not until issue 143 (June, 1964) would the formula change and not until then would there be anything to write about but, repeat after me, aliens, aliens, aliens and aliens.
Alien invaders. Alien monsters. Aliens from different planets, aliens from different dimensions. Alien criminals. Alien policemen chasing alien criminals. Issue after issue after issue.
Things in suspended animation in caves, preserved for centuries by mysterious gases that vanish the moment the cave is breached, without causing any ill-effects.
From issue 126, Messrs Schiff and Boltinoff dropped out of the picture and George Kashdan was promoted to Editor. Again there was no discernible difference, but then was it wanted on a monthly title enjoying an average circulation of 224,000? But if that circulation dropped to an average of 175,000, as it had according to issue 131, might that indicate a need for a shake-up?
Whilst we wait for it, I was afforded a moment of amusement by issue 134, when the name of the villain in the opening story turned out to be that of one of my oldest mates.
The first sign of a shake-up came very quickly, with effect from issue 136, with the series reduced to eight-times-a-year frequency, on a two months on, one month off basis.


Finally, and it only took until issue 143, House of Mystery achieved a serial character, in the form of J’Onn J’Onzz, the Martian Manhunter, arriving alongside new series editor Jack Schiff, taking a much more hands-on interest than before.
The story is complex, both on and off the page. The Manhunter had been the back-up feature in Detective since his debut in 1955 in issue 225. The series had changed in minor details down the years, the most significant being J’Onzz’s abandonment of his secret existence as a result of his involvement as the Superman-substitute in the early Justice League adventures.
Jack Schiff was the editor on Batman at this time. In the late Fifties and early Sixties, the Batman titles were encouraged to follow the example of the Superman stable, as managed by Mort Weisinger. The deeply unpleasant Weisinger was responsible for bringing Schiff to DC and had a hold over him. Weisinger was well in with Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, a power in the company. Schiff was a liberal, politically, which made him, in Weisinger-speak, a Pinko, the House Red. Weisinger liked having people under his thumb.
So we had the alien era of Batman, the silly, stupid, SF stories that were so unsuited to the characteristics of Batman. Schiff was doing as he was told, giving management what it wanted. Was he cynically showing them he could toe the line,or had he given up, blindly following orders? Either way, it might be what the management wanted, what the Superman fans wanted, but it wasn’t what the Batman fans wanted. Sales were falling away. Impossible as it is to imagine today, when every second comic DC publishes seems to be about him, in 1964, Batman was facing cancellation.
Julius Schwartz was good with superheroes, as his revivals had already demonstrated. Batman was given over into his care, with the results we are aware of today. Jack Schiff was given House of Mystery. Schwartz’s ideas for Batman did not include the Martian Manhunter so Schiff took the character with him.
There had very recently been a dramatic change in the series. Detective John Jones, the Manhunter’s assumed Earth-identity, had been ‘killed’ by the Idol-Head of Diabolu, a supernatural entity that generates monsters every full moon. Since tackling the Idol-Head is going to take up all of his time, J’Onzz decides not to establish a secret identity but set himself, and his alien pal Zook in a secret cave headquarters and try to locate the Idol-Head but in the meantime save everyone from the monthly monsters.
There are times when, just from the names alone, you can tell that something is a crappy idea. The best you can say for this set-up is that at least it’s thematically consistent with the rest of House of Mystery (the Martian Manhunter gets the cover and the prestigious back of the book story but the rest of the title is business-as-boringly-usual).
Apart from those early Justice League appearances, I am almost completely ignorant of J’Onn J’Onzz’s history or adventures. Zook was an unwelcome concept that I had known of but forgotten for a very long time. He’s that perennially bad idea, the cute-seeming alien sidekick and comic relief, unable to master anything but the most basic English. His cartoon face, for some reason, reminded me of nothing so much as Marlon, as drawn by Dennis Collins, in The Perishers. He’s small, orange furred, bare-bum naked, has powers that didn’t get used in this first story and I’m sure I’m going to be sick to the back teeth of him by the end of the next story.
As for the Idol-Head, it’s an obvious cheap idea – someone was following a subconscious prompting when they set it up in a junkyard – to start a procedural: when you create a Monster of the month you really don’t have to start thinking about your stories.
But look at that: I’ve written more about this one eight page story than the entire 42 preceding issues put together. At least I have something to write about now, even if I suspect it’s all going to be negative. Let’s move on.
Within two issues, the Manhunter’s role had doubled in length, a two-part story, upfront, with just one one-shot to back it up, or be ignored completely according to the reader’s preference. This, however, was an experiment Schiff was not immediately eager to repeat with the Manhunter back in the back, only to be found after digging through the two schtumers. The double-length story was repeated in issue 148. The Idol-Head was already boring me.
But the transplant was clearly in difficulties because the next issue chose to give its cover to one of the traditional stories, only flagging J’Onn above the title. He still stayed upfront, with the cover story going to the back – I can only conclude that this positioning was to et the kids to read all the way through to the end to find the story that has got them to buy the comic in the first place – and sandwiched between was a story with art by Alex Toth, a fine bonus.
On the other hand, the only thing significant about issue 150 was a story in which, for the first time in years, not just one but two women had speaking roles. Banal speaking roles, to be sure, but it was one hell of a shock nevertheless.
A two-parter in 151, a one-parter in 152: the latter didn’t feature Zook, which was some relief but also omitted the blasted Idol-Head, leaving it to be assumed to be the source of the monster that turned up. Add a new and slightly more simplistic artist and the only conclusion to be drawn is that this is one of the worst Silver Age superhero series ever.
Perhaps this was registering? Neither Zook nor Diabolu turned up next issue, just one of the Manhunter’s old enemies, evil scientist Professor Hugo. And in issue 154 Diabolu wasn’t even mentioned. Oh come now, they’re not just going to leave this one dangling, are they? Stop featuring Zook, let the Idol-Head just vanish, presumably spewing out its monster-of-the-month and nobody gives a toss?
Maybe so for Zook but not Diabolu, back next issue. It’s still the most tedious evil object in existence. It just drifts around, meaningless and motionless until, at full moon, the top of its head opens like a toilet seat and debouches a new evil monster, just as motiveless as all the others. Why? What does it get out of it? Is it just bored?


But the Martian Manhunter was once again due to become a back-up character, with Diabolu and the return of Zook. Issue 156 introduced a brand new idea, out of the blue, unforeshadowed, unwarned. In the final part of my series on Adventure Comics I dealt with the Marv Wolfman/Carmine Infantino revival of ‘Dial ‘H’ for Hero’, and now it was time for the original.
Robby Reed is an ordinary, brainy, All-American kid in one of those sleepy, out of the way, slowpoke Mid-Western communities, this one called Littleville (because Smallville was already taken, we presume) that nevertheless hosts scientific plants just ripe for raiding by a super-scientific independent spy group called the Thunderbolt Syndicate, led by the red-hooded Mr Thunder.
But Robby, who has a habit of saying or thinking ‘Sockamagee!’ every second or third panel, falls through a cave roof and discovers an alien artefact that just happens to be shaped like a telephone dial without a telephone around it. All Robby has to do is dial the alien equivalent letters to H-E-R-O (aww! You guessed) and he is transformed into a super-powered hero. The catch, or the hook, is that it’s a different one every time. How long will imagination last?
It’s another of those mid-Sixties series I never actually picked up when I had the chance in the Sixties, like The Doom Patrol and the Challengers of the Unknown, or The Sea Devils for that matter. They were about. I saw such things in the spinner rack at the newsagents at Fiveways, or the flat racks near school, but my chances for purchases were limited, and I was not supposed to buy them full price (so I found a sneaky way round that prohibition), but if choice were limited, choice went with more favoured series, or any Justice Society character I saw.
The DC ‘Go-Go’ checks era started with issue 157. Robby Reed transformed into another trio of heroes, making his strip seem full and busy with the Martian Manhunter demonstrated the limited nature of his series by going back to Professor Hugo when Diabolu wasn’t around.
It only took three issues to get to the obvious story of a crook dialling V for VILLAIN, with an added touch of a suggestion that Robby’s gramps knew very well why he was continually late for meals. And in the back up, J’Onn J’Onzz finally caught up with the Idol-Head and smashed it for good… unless the readers wanted it back. Yes, they openly said that they’d bring it back if enough readers wrote in asking for it. Yeesh!
A letter column appeared for the first time in issue 159, full of praise from Robby Reed as the most original character ever in comics, whilst the Manhunter had another nondescript adventure, with aliens, before embarking upon a new direction. This involved pursuing the mysterious criminal organisation, Vulture, headed by a faceless man who J’Onn immediately dubbed Faceless. To do so, the Manhunter adopted the identity of the recently deceased playboy Marco Xavier (so recently his body hadn’t stopped burning).
Meanwhile Robby Reed paved the way for the short-lived return of a comic book legend by turning into Plastic Man in his story. He also turned into King Kandy, a hero whose powers were based in candy and sweets. It’s 1966. If I wanted to be charitable, I would describe this as goofy. On the other hand, if I really wanted to be charitable, I would not even have mentioned King Kandy.
But this ridiculous excuse for a superhero is just the beginning, and I should have known. 1966, the go-go checks, the Batman TV era, Marvel’s increasing and misunderstood popularity. It’s the Camp era and ‘The most original character in comics history’ is another exponent. The heroes Robby Reed inexplicably turns into are silly, the inventions of a writer who has lost all confidence in what he is doing, encouraged by an editor who gave up caring years ago, and who can sanction villains like Baron Bug and weapons like extra-strength flypaper. Goofy is not in it. It’s silly at best.
With this is mind, the Martian Manhunter’s back-up series, being played a little more straight, should be much better than it it but somehow it’s dull and predictable, in the same way that the Idol-Head business was. Vulture and Faceless are just an excuse for thinking, producing the same story every issue. Though just as I said that, issue 165 varied the formula in the only way they seem to know how, by bringing back Professor Hugo.
And this issue’s heroes were Whoozis, Whatzis and Howzis, which is beyond comment, save that the kids like this stuff: the current Statement of Circulation read 325,000 average, and this for a title still only pushing eight issues a year.
A stupid letter in issue 166 praised Dial H before saying that what it needed to be more ‘realistic’ was for Robby to get a girlfriend and have secret identity problems. In short, the series would be more fresh and different if it was identical to every other one. Comics audiences are like that: I remember sighing disgustedly at similar letters in Blue Devil and Wonder Woman in the late Eighties. What is wrong with them? They even want Zook back in Martian Manhunter, and sure enough he appeared the same issue.
That Suzy was going to Dial H for H-E-R-O-I-N-E in issue 169, becoming another Gem Girl after one had turned up in the 1967 JLA/JSA team-up, should have placed me on dickishness alert, because we sure got it. First, our likeable young lady sees Robby use his dial to become the Hoopster then, when he demonstrates to her how to use it, she becomes a superheroine. But instead of just enjoying it for thirty seconds like Robby plans she gets involved in battling the Toymaster. He doesn’t want her doing that so what happens? Two blows to the head, amnesia for the last hour or so and swearing to make sure it damned well never happens again. What is it with these creeps? Can’t blame Schiff for this one as the editorial reins were returned to George Kashdan as of this issue.
All this complaining, however, belies a new reality coming to transform the series into the one we fans who remember the business in the Seventies will always think of as House of Mystery. It was 1968. Joe Orlando, one of EC’s excellent stable of horror artists was free. New DC Editorial Director Carmine Infantino was interested in promoting more artists into editorships. And both DC and Marvel, after over a decade of strict restrictions, were chafing at the Comics Code Authority, pushing for relaxations, relaxations that would allow the companies to be both more realistic and more fantastic than before.
There was no sign of the forthcoming changes in issue 171, though the Robby Reed story should have been seen as a siren cry for cancellation. Sure, Robby and the H-Dial are popular, so much so that he and his logo dominate the masthead, with House of Mystery decidedly diminished, but the story involved one serious superhero and two disasters who weren’t even given a name. And the first one was near enough a rip-off of The Phantom Viking (maybe Jerry Siegel, writing the Spider and Gadgetman for Lion wasn’t so cut off from his former colleagues as he seems to have been, and clued Dave Wood in about Valiant).
But when one of Robby’s identities turned out to have the superpowers of a Go Go dancer, it’s time for a change.
And the circumstances were ripe. With issue 173, the series dropped to bi-monthly publication and, despite Robby’s presence above the title, it was the Martian Manhunter who led up the issue, whilst in the back a ton of ugly, ill-proportioned art was wasted on a dull story that demonstrated that, once the idea of three new superheroes per issue started scraping the bottom of the barrel, there really weren’t any ideas behind Dial H for Hero. And Suzy had become a non-speaking cypher.
The train hit the buffers in issue 173, the only issue of Robby’s run to have a cover I remembered, Robby half-angel, half-devil as his characters are temporarily influenced towards their own robberies. That’s how it ended, in mid-air. At least the Martian Manhunter got an ending as Faceless was revealed to be the most obvious and least logical person, the not-dead-after-all real Marco Xavier, who promptly destroys himself with a not-fully-tested Ultimate weapon. At least it was a conclusion, of sorts.


The train hit the buffers in issue 173, the only issue of Robby’s run to have a cover I remembered, Robby half-angel, half-devil as his characters are temporarily influenced towards their own robberies. That’s how it ended, in mid-air. At least the Martian Manhunter got an ending as Faceless was revealed to be the most obvious and least logical person, the not-dead-after-all real Marco Xavier, who promptly destroys himself with a not-fully-tested Ultimate weapon. At least it was a conclusion, of sorts.
The change must have come as a shock, right from the cover and the new masthead: Do You Dare Enter The House of Mystery, with Mystery drawn in that jagged style reserved for horror. Inside were four short stories, all reprints though not from House of Mystery itself, and one was a Mark Merlin story, drawn in an Alex Toth style. Merlin was a regular in House of Secrets so I’ll be able to tell when I get to that title but this story may have been touched up because Merlin’s girl companion Elsa was wearing a skirt significantly shorter than any ever seen in this title to date: my god, the girl’s showing her knees!
Though the next issue started with a genuine HoM reprint, after a one page introduction to our new Host and story-teller, Cain, the Caretaker, it was dominated by a new story, drawn in a contemporary, quasi-comic style, about a little town, a little kid, two stone gargoyles and a sculptor under a curse. House of Mystery may well have reverted to its original format but with one crucial difference: this story was fresh. It was alive, it was undercut by a splendidly dark humour, in short it was fun. It didn’t slide out of the mind like water the moment you scrolled down to the next page. In short, this was something different.
And having Sergio Aragones draw Page 13 for you (it had been page 17 last issue) was a veritable giggle.
The comic looked better than it had ever done, with Neal Adams hauled in to do appropriately spooky covers. The formula of one reprint and one longer, new story was repeated in issue 176 and looked to be here to stay, though next issue’s was retouched to insert Cain at top and bottom. That also contained the first new letters page and judging by some of the comments, crayons all over America were being worn down.
Adams wasn’t just employed in drawing covers, he was drawing stories inside, at least one with Orlando inks. And whilst vampires, werewolves and ghouls were still not part of the fare, except on Aragones’ gag pages, the tales were now fully in the swing of ghost stories and curses, and even I, so not a horror fan, was being impressed by some of these.
Issue 180 was notorious for printing the infamous Mike Friedrich story, “His Name is Kane”, seven pages of nonstop mocking, sneering and ridicule of artist Gil Kane. The whole thing is vicious from start to finish, but it’s also pencilled by Kane himself. How much of a spoof it is has been debated down the years, but it is accurate to Kane’s known ambitions interests and opinions. Even if he was in on the gag, there’s something about the story that makes me look at it decidedly askance. Kane later confirmed that he was on the outs with Infantino at the time and realised, when he got the assignment, what it was intended to do. What can you say? Was the comic book industry ever free from pettiness, childishness and spite?
Even the first appearance in HoM of a story drawn by the great Berni Wrightson isn’t enough to dispel that.
On the other hand, a gorgeous piece of work from Wrightson illuminated issue 181, justifying all by itself the increase in cover price to 15c. I am not, and never have been, a horror buff, but Wrightson, even in this early phase, was an artist of genius and atmosphere and everything I’ve undergone getting to this point has ben worth it to feast my eyes on his work. It was Alex Toth’s turn next issue with a plug for House of Secrets being revived to set up opposite HoM, but without any Sergio Aragones, not even Page 13.
That was only one issue however. Wrightson again decorated issue 183 but the best story was a goofy little spook story with a twist I should have foreseen, which has been used since. This was drawn in splendidly OTT fashion by Jerry Grandenetti, whose work contains strong elements of cartoonish exaggeration. I thought it was great.
So why is House of Mystery so great now at the kind of story I was practically sleep-reading through in Part 1? The answer is obvious and simple, the difference between the staid and tied-down Fifties and the late Sixties. There’s no rigidity to HoM now. It’s not being held back by fear of fear. It’s being drawn by artists with differing styles, and written with imagination and flair, only lightly-inhibited (there’s still a CCA certificate on every cover, for a reason). But it’s being produced by people who like that they are doing, not merely doing a job.
There’s also the question of space. Two stories per issue allow room to breathe, do not rely on formulas. Toth and Gil Kane. Al Williamson. More Wrightson. A superb Neal Adams job to go with the covers he’s supplying every issue.
There was a mis-step, Orlando’s first, in issue 189, featuring a reprint I recognised immediately. Given the 48 page period is not too far ahead, I suspect I’m just going to have to live with these things.
There was only a fun-twist three pager from Wrightson in issue 191, but what was significant was the writer he was working with for the first time: Len Wein. Another name that would be associated with Wein made his HoM debut next issue, Jim Aparo, already drawing for Orlando on The Phantom Stranger.
The 25c 48 page era began with issue 194 and an elevation to monthly status for the first time. Two new stories, one drawn by Toth, the other a debut for Filipino artist Nestor Redondo, and two old, though I have my doubts about the provenance of one, which looked nothing like an Orlando-era art job but nevertheless featured an attractive black-haired woman in very abbreviated shorts.
More and more figures kept emerging. Mike Kaluta drew a two-page twist-ending tale for issue 195, which also featured Berni Wrightson drawing Moss Men: you know, sort of swamp things. Toth was one of the reprints next time out whilst Gerry Conway was the latest new contributor grossly overwriting and overwraughting a story to make Len Wein’s purplest vein look like a Janet and John Reader.
Suddenly though, the well seemed to run dry. Adams, Wrightson, Toth, this trio were replaced by blander artists, and the stories lost that manic sparkle. House of Mystery reached issue 200 cover-dated March 1972, with nothing special about its stories. Hopefully, this was just a phase. But it’s also the point where we end part 2. The answer will be available next time.


Good Omens: e01 – In the Beginning

Sometimes, a bit of fun is what you want, without necessarily the scope for too much serious thinking. You can have a bit too much serious thinking, and not always enough fun. Not that Good Omens is necessarily a case for leaving out serious thinking, nothing that comes from the word processor of Terry Pratchett can be entirely free from that, and this Neil Gaiman bloke isn’t exactly behind the door for that kind of business, what with his ‘There is room for things to mean more than they literally mean.’

I got ‘Good Omens’ the book as soon as it went into paperback. My battered old paperback, much read, in fact as recently as the week before last, is signed by both authors. I love it to bits. Well, not every bit of it. There’s this line, early on, where the demon Crowley, listing his demonic feats in causing horror and confusion on Earth, states that ‘he was particularly proud of Manchester’. I’m bound to resent that.

Adaptations of any of Terry Pratchett’s work, and I’m not slighting Gaiman here by putting Pratchett in the frame, are exceedingly difficult to make successfully. Partly that’s because the worlds he writes in are fantasies, impossible to reproduce as live action, or indeed visually at all, without an extremely expensive special effects budget, but primarily because the humour in the books is skewed to the narrative, not to mention the footnotes. The characters don’t say the funny lines, the author does. Getting those lines on screen, in any kind of convincing form, is the real difficulty, because putting them into someone’s mouth to say onscreen is next to impossible to do without it sounding like the character is reading the narrative.

Fortunately for all concerned, the adaptation, and the screenplay, is being done by Neil Gaiman himself, and more than authorial pride is involved here because Neil was doing this in tribute to Terry, his friend, his much-missed friend, with a ferocious determination to do right by him. Gaiman knows the book. What’s more, he knows what wasn’t in the book, and how much of that to fold in. And he is key to visualising what happens on the page and putting it on the screen, backed with a very expensive special effects budget where necessary, in a way that both dazles and satisfies every reader’s internal vision of what’s going on.

The mini-series is by far and away the most recent tv series I’ve blogged other than live. It appeared in 2019, when I watched it weekly, and I watched it again when I bought the DVD. I would expect most readers of this blog to be familiar with book or series or both but for those who are not aware of it, a short background is necessary. Good Omens is about Armageddon, the coming of the Antichrist and the final bettle betwen Heaven and Hell. It is also a comedy. This is brought about primarily by the principals, Aziraphale (Michael Sheen), an Angel, and Crowley (David Tennant), a Demon.

Aziraphale was originally the Angel with a Flaming Sword who guarded the gates to the Garden of Eden, who gave his flaming sword to Adam and Eve when they were expelled because, well, there are beasts out there, it’s going to rain and she’s already expecting. And Crowley was the Snake who tempted Eve because he was told to get up there and cause some trouble, but who’s a bit worried about why God made it so easy.

The point is that this pair of opposites have been on Earth ever since, some 6,000 years of tempting and thwarting. They’ve been the only consistent face either sees and they’ve become sort-of friends, each having been among humans for so long that they’ve more in common with each other than with either respective Head Office.

These are the pair who get involved when the Plan unfolds. Satan’s child, the Antichrist, is brought to Earth eleven years ago. Crowley delivers it to the Nuns’ Hospital where it will be switched for the American Ambassador’s new baby.  He would rather not get involved, and his wish to distance himself as fast as he can combines with the unfortunate coincidence of another, this time English and utterly ordinary couple turning up with her contractions every four minutes and a Chattering Satanic Nun who’s a bit of an airhead. The baby switch ends up being a threeway, and you can guess who gets the Adversary (hint: it’s not the Ambassador).

The big problem is that, in their entirely separate ways, Crowley and Aziraphale like the Earth. Neither wishes to see it end in eleven year’s time. So they work together to frustrate Armageddon…

As the title indicates, this episode is about setting all of this up, as well as our two principal characters. Gaiman makes a superb job of parcelling out information sensibly and intelligently, and he gets round the problem of animating narrative by limiting the use of dialogue, keeping these bits brief and as natural as they can be (not everywhere but at this sort of thing a 90% success rate is damned good) but mainly by hiving the job over to a voiceover narrative (by Frances McDormand) as the voice of God.

She’s good. The whole cast are good. Jon Hamm as the Angel Gabriel and Nick Offerman as the Ambassador, appearing by iPad, are perfect in cameo roles. And in his brief appearance at the end as Adam Young, the Antichrist, Sam Taylor Buck gives a brief but wonderfuly naturalistic show.

But the series stands and falls on Aziraphale and Crowley. David Tennant as Crowley is a given. I mean, David Tennant, demon, you’re wrapped up. It’s Michael Sheen who has the infinitely harder job, playing an Angel who’s basically, just, well, Good. How do you play that? Good and innocence – or as much as is left after 6,000 years of human beings – we’re just talking bland aren’t we? Nothing to work with. And he’s brilliant, bringing to the role a degree of effeteness that comes over as otherworldly as opposed to faintly gay, coupled to an underlying worry. Aziraphale is in earnest, but under everything he does he’s not entirely certain he’s doing the right thing. It’s a brilliant performance.

I look forward to more. Next wek, the story really starts. It’s Wednesday afternoon. The World Ends on Saturday.

A Marston Baines Thriller – Introduction

In 1963, after twenty years as a very popular writer of children’s fiction, Malcolm Saville started the eighth and last of the series that made up the overwhelming number of his books. The series’ main subject was the unlikely figure of Marston Baines, a middle-aged bachelor of somewhat nondescript appearance, who was nevertheless an experienced British Secret Service agent.
It appears that Saville hoped that the Marston Baines series, which was aimed at an older reader than he had up-to-now catered for, would be his legacy. If this is so, then he was sadly imperceptive as to where his true talents really lay.
The Baines series consisted of seven novels over a period of sixteen years, including his penultimate work of fiction. They were not a commercial success, none of the series being granted a paperback edition until the redoubtable GirlsGoneBy Press started reissuing them in 2016. The final two books only ever appeared in one edition each, making them incredibly rare and expensive to collect, until GGB caught up to them. At the time of printing, the penultimate book is due for publication within a matter of weeks.
What’s more, in contrast to his definitely English-set fictions, each of the Baines books were set in different European countries, the product of Saville’s growing taste for holidays abroad that could be set against tax as Author’s Research.
Though Baines was the series’ focal point, he was often only a background character, the bulk of the stories being carried by a rotating group of Oxford undergraduates who got involved in Baines’ cases, much like the contemporary TV group, the Freewheelers used to get involved with Colonel Buchan. The one constant was Baines’ nephew Simon, whose father dies in a car crash at the start of the series and who is taken under Uncle Marston’s wing, to the extent that he ends up training for the service himself.
Another feature distinguishing this series from his earlier books was that Saville used the Baines books for proselytising. Adult characters enabled adult themes and Saville, a committed Christian in his sixties, was out-of-step with, and both fearful and mistrustful of the changes taking place in society in the Sixties. The Baines books were his vehicle to issue trenchant condemnation of various evils, including trade unionism, the usage of drugs, Satanism and fomenting racial tension.
There is indeed the sound of axes being ground, but once again Saville’s inability to let go and, to misquote Anthony Trollope, get close enough to the pitch to be defiled, means he cannot do more than make a superficial presentation of naïve opposition. Such things are Wrong, and are the actions of people intent on committing Evil. There is no room for nuance.
Though the final book is near impossible to get hold of and unaffordable if it were, I have collected the first six books via the GGB editions (the last should be republished in a year’s time), and I’ll be looking at these individually next, before giving a broader impression at the end.