Infantino’s Follies 1: First Issue Special

1st collage

Back when I was writing about Showcase, I made the mistake of calling the mid-Seventies short series First Issue Special, which appeared round about the same time I was paying attention to comics again, a modern-day equivalent to DC’s longstanding try-out magazine.
I have now discovered that I was exactly wrong about that. First Issue Special was the brainchild of DC Editorial Director turned Publisher, former star artist Carmine Infantino, who conceived of it as exactly what it said in the title: an ongoing series of first issues, without the intent to run these as potential series.
At first sight, Infantino’s concept seems to have a spurious logic to it. This is the Age of the Collector, and there is nothing more Collectors like than a brand spanking no. 1 issue, to sell at a vastly inflated mark-up to readers excited by the series and eager to fill the most important gap in their longboxes.
But more than ten seconds thought is enough to identify the fatal flaws in the concept. Firstly, that a character created to appear only once and never again is highly unlikely – especially at the rates paid to writers and artists in the mid-Seventies – to have any of the depth or potential to attract readers with the required degree of passion. Secondly, that collectors only want to buy rare and precious no. 1s if there are actually nos. 2,3,4 etc. for them to get hooked upon. And thirdly, if a character proved to be improbably attractive to the readers, by the time you counted the returns and found you’d got an actual hit on your hands, six months or so had gone past, taking with it any momentum the character might possibly have carried with them.
Among the many bizarre and inexplicable decisions made by Infantino in that awful early to mid-Seventies period, First Issue Special must stand out as one of the most kack-handed of them all. The series consisted of thirteen issues, some of which being of quite high-quality, and one of which introducing a character who, a couple of decades later, came to play a substantial role in the DC Universe.
Now I, in my insatiable curiosity, have obtained a run of the series, and you are going to have to listen to what I’ve found out.
Almost inevitably, the first feature was Atlas, by Jack Kirby: who else but comics’ premier creation-machine? Atlas was set in the past, and based on the Atlas of myth, who would one day bear the weight of the world on his shoulders. Kirby’s version, very much in keeping with the supermythical, larger-than-larger-than-life approach he’d adopted for the New Gods and would follow with the Eternals, was a young man of prodigious strength, seeking, and in this incomplete story finding, the man who had killed his father and taken his mother into slavery.
Like others in the series, what we got was half a story and the pretence of a willingness to continue it if the readers desired. Atlas was revived as a foe for Superman by James Robinson in 2008.
It was five years since the great ballyhoo about Kirby leaving Marvel for DC, a contract negotiated by Infantino which, in the great old tradition of Siegel and Schuster, DC reneged upon in every possible aspect just as soon as they’d got him in the door. His five years were nearly up: despite his Fourth World titles, centring upon Darkseid, he’d never fitted into DC, primarily because DC had no intention of bending one iota to accommodate him and all the things he could have done. His contract would not be renewed, and he would return to Marvel in 1976 because he had nowhere to go. The Fourth World series had all been cancelled, The Demon hadn’t taken off, Kamandi, which he’d never intended to continue after two or three establishing issues, was cranking along. Things like Atlas helped fulfil his page quotas. There are times when you really, really wish people weren’t so fucking short-sighted.
Appropriately, the subjects of issue 2 were created by Kirby’s old partner, Joe Simon. This was The Green Team, sub-titled Boy Millionaires. It was a good thing it was only designed for one issue because it didn’t even merit that much exposure, though Simon clearly saw it as a viable series, God knows why. It was actually scheduled as a series and two issues prepared but the world was spared when it became one of the many unpublished comics sunk by the DC Implosion (which wasn’t all that bad after all, it seems).
The Green Team was yet another Simon/Kirby four piece kid gang, but one that showed that the well of inspiration was dry and stinking. The Green Team were four boy magnates whose membership qualification was having $1,000,000. They consisted of Commodore Murphy, shipping magnate, JP Huston, oil baron and Cecil Sunbeam, aka ‘Starmaker’, Hollywood film director. Oh, and Abdul Smith, black shoeshine boy, who got in when his bank made a computer error and added $5 of savings millions of times.
The boys were eager to fund exciting and innovative things. If this was such a good concept, why did Simon have to use up space by having five splash pages?
On the basis that no idea is so bad DC won’t try to revive it, especially during the New 52, the Green Team were retconned after Flashpoint. I doubt the effort was worth it.
Next up, for issue 3, was an idea that had nothing new about it at all, a one-off revival of Metamorpho: but it was a 1st Issue. It came about because Metamorpho’s creators, writer Bob Haney and artist Ramona Fradon, met for the first time at the 1974 San Diego Comics Convention. Reminiscing about the Element Man, both agreed they’d never had so much fun as when working on that title and wanted to repeat it: it filled an issue as far as Infantino was concerned.
I never read Metamorpho in the Sixties, and haven’t got round to catching up on it yet. So don’t ask me how it compares, but this one was a hoot. Haney and Fradon are having a whale of a time and if this was their general standard back then, I’m looking forward to reading that series. This was bouncy, fast, action-oriented but still with time for more characterisation than a year of Haney’s Brave and Bold’s.
Issue 4 was a Robert Kanigher creation, Lady Cop. Kanigher can be very professional or completely maniacal but as he wasn’t on a superhero, there was a reasonable chance of the former. Yes, and no. There was nothing egregiously stupid about the issue, and he was professional enough to set up an ongoing theme if the idea had ever been taken up.
Liza Warner is a blond secretary who cowers under her bed in fear whilst a serial killer, identifiable only by his cowboy boots, strangles her flatmates. After being praised for her precise recollection, Liza joins the Police force, though why she has to undergo training is the usual mystery because naturally she’s the perfect cop on her first day. Her boy friend doesn’t want her to be a working girl and will she ever forget the man who killed her flatmates, or find him and punish him? The art by John Rosenberger was unspeakably stiff and dull.
Liza was brought back post-Final Crisis to appear in two issues of the Ryan Choi run as The Atom, as the Ivy Town Chief of Police.

1st Dingbats

Jack Kirby supplied two more ideas, to wildly contrasting effect, for issues 5 and 6. The first of these was Manhunter. In the Forties, he and Joe Simon had created a character called Manhunter, big game hunter Paul Kirk, hunting the world’s most dangerous game, man, in a red costume with a blue full-face mask. This Paul Kirk had been transformed superbly only the previous year by Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson.
Now Kirby adapted the same Manhunter costume to his present day style to create a warrior for justice, a Lion of the Shan, an organisation that always got its man. But the last Manhunter is growing old and needs a replacement, who is found in Public Defender Mark Shaw, whose name ought to be familiar. Shaw went into training to be worthy of the Manhunter’s electro-baton, not just his costume.
Kirby’s effort was again only half a story, however, with Manhunter setting out to bring down the big boss, The Hog. It hung in the air, never to be completed, because by the time Mark Shaw and Manhunter returned, the Hog was forgotten and Shaw was Manhunter. He was revived by Steve Engelhart for his first, year-long run on Justice League of America, initially as Manhunter and then as The Privateer. And Engelhart tied the Manhunters to the Guardians of the Universe, as the first Police Force, android pursuers pre-dating the Green Lantern Corps, corrupted by their own self-righteous sense of mission.
Kirby’s incomplete Manhunter tale is perhaps one of the smallest acorns planted by him to give rise to an oak of a concept, which DC has exploited many times since, but in comparison to issue 6’s Dingbats of Danger Street, it’s the Fourth World.
Simon and Kirby used to own the boy’s gang comics. The Dingbats were evidence not so much that the well had run dry as that it had been filled-in and concreted over with something the height of the World Trade Towers. Just the names – Good Looks, Non-Fat, Krunch and Bananas – and the villain The Gasser. At least this was a complete story, for a given value of complete.
Another existing character was revived for a one-shot next, Steve Ditko’s classic, The Creeper, with pencils by Ditko again, although the story came from Michael Fleisher.
As Ditko no longer inked himself, he was paired with Mike Royer, Jack Kirby’s latter-day inker, though Royer’s slavish devotion to the pencils did Ditko no favours. Ditko’s story-telling was as concentrated as ever but Fleisher couldn’t come up with anything more inspiring than one of Batman’s old Fifties villains, The Firefly, who was surely poor for that era to begin with. A first solo appearance in six years did spark a few guest shots but The Creeper has never been able to rise above cult interest.
Issue 8 provided something different, a feature that actually became a series. This was Mike Grell’s Warlord, Travis Morgan, who had been intended for a series all along and whose debut in First Issue Special was just to save anyone from coming up with a character for another month. This was one of only two First Issue Specials I bought in that 1975-6 period, and a lot of it is vaguely familiar, though I still find Mike Grell’s art to be awfully plastic and his poses unnaturalistic.
Warlord was plugged to start its own series two months later and it and Travis Morgan would be longstanding successes, as well as the basis of a long career for Grell. It’s based on the Hollow Earth theory as utilised by Edgar Rice Burroughs for Pellucidar. Here, Air Force pilot Travis Morgan, fleeing from Russian pursuit, unknowingly flies through the hole at the North Pole into barbarian adventures in the land of Skartaris.
A lot of people liked it, tremendously. After about seven issues of the series, I decided it was not for me, due to a lack of direction and muddledness about the stories.

1st Dr Fate

Issue 9 was the only other comic of the series that I bought, and it is still one of my favourite issues of the Seventies. It featured Doctor Fate, long a favourite from the JSA, drawn in bravura fashion by Walt Simonson and featuring a reconceptualisation of the character that formed the basis of his portrayal for decades to come, by Martin Pasko. It was also the Doc’s first full-length adventure.
It’s still a real dynamite story, with fun-filled and fast-paced art from Simonson, but it’s significance is as the foundation of the modern-day Fate. Pasko entwined the Doctor’s abilities with the Egyptian gods and magic, fitting for Kent Nelson’s origins, and also introduced the notion that Kent Nelson and Doctor Fate were separate entities, with the later possessing the former’s body when he donned the helmet. Pasko also followed through on the logic of Inza Nelson, loving Kent, having difficulties with the unconnected Doc and what he did to her husband.
So much achieved in just one seventeen page story. A much treasured comic.
Next up, in issue 10, were the Outsiders. No, not Batman’s renegade team nor any forerunner of them, but an horrendous and inept bodge that purported to send a message of tolerance and respect for anyone who looked different, but which was buried under deliberately rancid and exaggerated art. This was another Joe Simon idea and it’s hard to know how to describe it without defamatory words. The Outsiders were a team of literal, and deliberate freaks, designed to be as repulsive as possible, and the story wasn’t a story but a circular confusion whose last page led you back to its first page so that it disappeared up its own… tail. Pass on, rapidly.
In contrast, Codename: the Assassin failed for a much more ordinary reason, terminal dullness. A Gerry Conway creation, with co-scripting by Steve Skeates, The Assassin was intended as an ongoing series, and had been billed as such in a house ad concerning titles coming from Conway’s little editorial stable. It’s a rip-off of Conway’s Punisher, with added telekinetic powers, and like Kirby’s Manhunter it’s half a story, ending on a cliffhanger with The Assassin about to fight two equally cliched supervillains.
Artwise, the style is horribly confused. Infantino designed the Assassin’s costume but it’s far from his better work. For economies’ sake, the art was given to Nestor Redondo in the Philippines, because he had never done superhero work before but, because he had never done superhero work before, it was handed to Al Milgrom to ink, and his heavy-handed style obliterates any trace of Redondo and makes the whole thing just look downright ugly.
In many ways, the penultimate issue, featuring a new Starman, again by Gerry Conway, sums up First Issue Special. Yet again it’s a cliffhanger, and yet again there was never any intention of resolving it. It’s Conway’s comments that I’ve relied upon in characterising this series as I did: he has been quoted as quoting Infantino soliciting ideas for next month’s First Issue Special, and complaining about how any even borderline-decent character could be created in such circumstances: barely any notice and as cannon-fodder.
Conway clearly didn’t put much effort into Starman. Allegedly, he was impressed by some mid-Sixties appearances of the Ted Knight version without, at the time, connecting him to the Golden Age version for which he had little but disdain. But then sloppiness and lazy plotting has been a hallmark of Conway’s superhero work since way back. This Starman is, naturally, the Mikaal Tomas version picked up and made into a much more viable character by James Robinson, to Conway’s latterday amusement, and general inability to understand why anyone should want to bother with a throwaway idea like that. That rather epitomises Conway for me.
And he was there again for the last of the series, Return of the New Gods. It was the first time anyone had tackled Jack Kirby’s Fourth World characters since their various series had been cancelled and neither Conway nor artists Mike Vosburg were up to it. Conway introduced a new, conventional superhero costume for Orion and converted the series into a standard slam-bang attack by Orion, out to kill Darkseid. He over-egged the pudding by chucking in practically everyone, whether they did anything or not, and ended it with a stalemate. At least the story was complete.
Conway hoped for a series, which he got a year later, once Jeanette Kahn had taken over as Publisher. Afterwards, he regretted that the finale he produced – killing off Darkseid – was inadequate (didn’t stop him doing it again and again) without recognising that his determination to press the New Gods into a superhero mould was inadequate to start with.
But there it was. Issue 14 was to have featured the first full-length Green Arrow/Black Canary story but that, and any others ready to appear – of which I doubt there were any – would be distributed around their own series and back-ups: I cannot recall seeing the GA/BC story then or after, so who knows?
So that was First Issue Special. It had some bright spots and, on the age old principle that there is no such thing as a bad character (except for the Outsiders. And the Dingbats), some of the characters created as Infantino’s folly went on to better things in other people’s hands. Me, I forgive it all for Marty Pasko and Walt Simonson’s Doctor Fate which, in my opinion, justified the whole blinking lot of it!

1st starman

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: e01 – The Friends of English Magic


Where do I begin?

That’s the first question anybody engaged in adapting a long and mysterious book into a visual form must ask themselves, and how they ask it and what is the selected answer goes a long way towards determining the success of the translation. The book of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, written by Susannah Clarke, is a lengthy volume, one that took me years to read, devoured in long chunks on train journeys where there was nothing easier to distract me.

The same thing goes for Peter Harness’s adaptation for the BBC, in seven hour-long episodes. Compression, visualisation and atmospherics. The first two of these belong to the tv series but the last is the key note of the novel, and it is the thing that musy be most carefully and accurately transferred, in order for things to work.

What we have here is a story about Magic, set during and influencing the Napoleonic Wars, most particularly that part of which was being conducted in Spain. The War is real, but this is not our England, as seen out of our (Nineteenth Century) windows, but another England, an England in which Magic exists, always has existed, was openly practiced and celebrated until about three hundred years ago, when it all seemed to vanish. Nevertheless, Magic remains a natural part of life, if not entirely Respectable. That is, Theoretical Magic, the study of the same, its History and its practitioners of old, is Respectable. A Practical Magician is beyond the pale, no better that a street conjurer, a charlatan and a vagabond.

Susannah Clarke can establish a world like this beautifully, by writing in an archaic, formal style that conjures up atmosphere by itself, but which is bonded to an absolute conviction about the fantastic world she is creating and makes it not just believable but completely natural. She’s got the infinite power of words and 800 plus pages of them. Unless he wants to regurgitate great chunks of the novel to spoonfeed the audience, Harness has to find a way to convey all that, literally in front of our very eyes.

So he sets about building this by some abslutely masterful set design, which flawlessly creates both look and feel of Georgian England, by intelligent use of the correct dialogue from the book, by a brilliant cast who are encouraged to centre their characters by means of their inherent energy of character and purpose, but most of all by trusting the audience to survive on Inference, not Implication, and working out what is going on for themselves without a Powerpoint presentation.

Like all first episodes, this is all about set-up. It has been long-prophecied, in one of the few Magic books not collected and hoarded by the reclusive Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan) at his home near York, where he is directed by his servant Childermass (Emzo Cilenti), that two Magicians will arise in England, that they will be enemies, but that they shall both fail. Mr Norrell is one such. He is a small, withdrawn man, with a strong streak of stubborn arrogance, who is determined to make Magic respectable in England, through the person of himself, rather than by its actual performance. Norrell can perform Magic. He induces the Society of Friends of Magic in York to cease to profess or name themselves as Magicians by causing half a hundred statues in York Minster to come to life, move and talk, all save Mr John Segundus, who believes in Norrell and will not commit himself.

Yet this feat is misrepresented in London, made a foolish lie by the leech-like Drawlight, who seeks reflected glory by introducing Norrell to Society and the performaance of tricks. Norrell has come to London for one purpose only, to assist his Government at War, but he is turned away, unkindly, by Minister of Defence Sir Walter Pole (Samuel West) and proposes to leave. He is accosted by the street-conjurer – and frequent drunk – Vinculus (Paul Kaye, splendidly OTT), who tells him there are two, not one Magicians.

And when Sir Walter’s fiancee, Charlotte (Alice Englert) dies of comsumption, Mr Morrell executes a dangerous bargain with The Gentleman with Thistledown Hair (Marc Warren) to restore her to life, although she loses a ginger in the process. It is a miracle, and we all know that miracles are not necessaril;y unalloyed blessings.

But this is only one of our two Magicians, even if he is the First, and has the lion’s share of screentime in this episode. Mr Norrell is an existing Magician, a man of middle years, a student of decades. Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) is a younger man, heir-in-waiting to a stern, bleak father, a man in love with Vicar’s sister Arabella (Charlotte Riley), who loves him back but won’t even listen to a marriage proposal because Jonathan is a man without occupation, veering dangerously close to being a wastrel, even after his father dies of an apoplexy.

But Jonathan, bright, cheerful, entertaining and almost silly, is the Second Magician, identified as such by Vinculus, sold penny spells that come from Norrell, and performing the one that sows him what his enemy is doing. That enemy is Norrell.

So certain building blocks are put in place, time is spent carefully and a structure of conviction and atmosphere is created before our very eyes. We know it’s all trickery but do we Know it? The next six weeks will tell us how long the spell can be maintained. And the damage it may do.

Of Once and Former Heroes: Dennis Wheatley, ‘Prince’ of Thriller Writers – Part 5 – Appraisal

Sometimes, things don’t go according to plan. This was supposed to be a short series of three posts: Introduction, Review, Appraisal, and this post would have been an excoriation of Dennis Wheatley, writer and Arch-Conservative, based on the consideration of a single book.
But a momentary impulse, answered by a synchronistic discovery, has led to a more substantial project. Instead of one, I have read four books, have been able to comment directly on more writings, and in doing so I’ve reduced the task for this final appraisal. Patterns of mind and habits of writing have been looked at in more depth: having jumped up and down on a few more books than I’d intended means I have less that needs to be said here.
It doesn’t make any difference that the four books I’ve reacquainted myself with are all from the same series, that of the Duc de Richleau, with and without his fellow ‘Modern Musketeers’. There were eleven de Richleau books in the series, three of which took Wheatley’s brand of Crowley-inspired Black Magic as their theme, so what I’ve read covers about a third of the series in more or less the correct proportion.
In addition to de Richleau. Wheatley also wrote two other lengthy series, featuring Roger Brook and Gregory Sallust respectively. Brook’s series, at twelve books marginally the longest, was straight historical fiction, covering the entire period of the French Revolution, from pre-Revolutionary France all the way to Waterloo. Brook is an unofficial British spy, under the direct orders of Prime Minister Pitt the Younger, who works his way up to become a close and trusted aide to Napoleon himself. Needless to say, Wheatley’s sympathies are firmly on the side of the aristos throughout.
The Sallust series, also of eleven books, is a bit harder to categorise. The heart of it is a seven book sequence covering the whole of the Second World War in which Sallust, a journalist, operates as an unofficial British spy against the Nazis. This run was preceded by a rather ridiculous book, extending the contemporary circumstances of the Great Depression into a future created out of all Wheatley’s prejudices, of a Communist-but-quasi-Fascist takeover, the rebellion of freedom fighters under Sallust and resolution occurring in the form of a restoration of the Monarchy. Post-War, so to speak, Sallust became just another globe-trotting Peter Pan hero, shagging strange woman and getting involved with Black Magic.
Sallust’s series, being set in contemporary times with modern weaponry to hand, was by some measure the most brutal of the three, with an underlying barbarity and sadistic grimness, which can be partially justified, I suppose, by being set in the Nazi period, and a response to their inhuman savagery, but it’s there in the first book, the embodiment of Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s claim that ‘Extremism in the defence of Liberty is no vice.’
But by now we’ve had fair exposure to Wheatley’s key characteristics, the most important of which is his Conservatism, served up with big and little ‘c’s. Wheatley, who had no upper class status or claims of his own, a Wine-seller whose business ineptitude brought the long-established family business to its knees, forcing him to turn to writing to keep a roof over his head, nevertheless believed in a stratified society, with a Monarch at the very pinnacle.
What followed was old-established aristocracy, who were the only and natural rulers, thanks to their centuries of experience of rule making them the only ones capable of the breadth of mind and knowledge to be wise, fair and just in leading their country. Then the rich, but not the crass, money-obsessed nouveau riche, who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.
To these were the privileges of rule reserved, with anyone else, meaning everybody lower in the social spectrum, being hopelessly inept through looking only to contemporary concerns instead of appreciating a true historical perspective formed over centuries.
And to these people, and these alone, were the privileges of life arrogated, for only they could appreciate them, not like the plebs, oiks and common scum beneath them (sorry, did I suddenly start getting too direct there?).
It covers the Modern Musketeers like a comfort blanket. The Duc, tenth of his line, connected to the monarchy of France, openly regretful that he cannot indulge his whims that display his wealth and status. Rex van Ryn, heir to a massive Banking fortune. Simon Aron (but dammit, the man’s a Jew!), financial genius. Richard Eaton, landed gentry. Neither privation nor Law apply to gentlemen of this caste, such things are for the lesser orders, who don’t matter, and who probably need such things to keep them in their place. Wheatley unashamedly boasted that, whilst engaged in Intelligence work in the Second World War, that he and his fellows wined and dined extravagantly as if Rationing didn’t apply to them, and it shouldn’t: after all, they were important.

Black August

As I said above, in the Sallust book, Black August, dear old Britain is truly up shit creek, its world as shattered and dangerous as any in a John Wyndham catastrophe novel, bt as soon as the Prince Regent tales over, all magically becomes well. A place for everybody and everybody in his place. And all the privileges belonging to the likes of the Duc and his acolytes, whose sophistication, intelligence, taste and their attachment to a stratified social system which cannot and must not be overthrown is self-evidently right.
Lacking any such qualifications himself, but clearly believing he was entitled to them, Wheatley was a classic case of a would-be hanger-on, elevating what he worshipped to not just an ideal but an inviolable state of nature.
The only time I saw actusally saw and heard him was a BBC TV interview late in his life. Here was an elderly buffer in a white smoking jacket with a self-important manner. All I can remember was his insistence that all rock’n’roll music was the work of the devil and that before they were released, Satanic priests were brought in to ‘bless’ the master tapes. Even now, and after being advised by someone in a position to know that there is far more of that in pop and rock than you’d ordinarily give credit for, and having had certain signs pointed out to me, I find it next to impossible to take his claims remotely seriously.
As I was still enjoying his writing, the interview was a bit of a balloon-pricker. Not too long after it began to dawn on me that Wheatley despised me: not personally, he despised all of us who were ordinary, or from working class backgrounds, and thought of us as ignorant and unwashed. Literally, in the case of his book, The Ka of Gifford Hillary.
Clever as it is on one, Magic oriented level, the book stinks for its attitudes. Hillary, a successful businessman, has re-married richer and younger and his snobbish second wife doesn’t like her stepdaughter, who lives a working class life. She doesn’t like the girl visiting at all, even before she and her friends have the temerity to try on some of wifey’s clothes. Then she goes incandescent. Daughter being working class and not bathing three or four times a day has sweated all over wifey’s clothes and they have to be thoroughly washed to remove the stink of working class bodies, and no doubt the lice as well.
And there’s a deeply unpleasant, voyeuristic scene where Hillary, who spends most of the book undergoing an out-of-body experience, watched his chauffeur in his bedroom and is condescendingly pitying towards the man over the fact that his working-class wife is flat-chested.
Which brings me to Wheatley’s attitude to women, which is simple: they are there to be screwed by the hero, sometimes in loving relationships, but always disposable. The hero ends the boom having got the girl but somehow or other she’s not there in the next book, so as to make room for him to set his cap for another conquest. Lady Felicity. Tanith. Angela Syveton, killed whilst pregnant by an anarchist’s bomb in the first chapter of the sequel to The Prisoner in the Mask. Ilona Theresa, marrying but soon to die of consumption.
Off the top of my head I can think of only three women who weren’t ditched or despatched in between books to give the hero someone new to defile, and these were Princess Marie Louise in the de Richleau’s, Lady Georgina in the Roger Brooks and Gregory Sallust’s fit blonde German shag-mate. Without looking this up, I can’t remember her name, but I vividly remember Wheatley repeatedly describing her as having breasts capable of fitting perfectly into vintage, balloon-like champagne glasses.
Which says it all, really.


Very late in his career, indeed in his penultimate novel, Wheatley’s produced The Strange Case of Linda Lee, tackling the unusual subject of a young woman’s experiences in the late Sixties (hint, she screws her way to the top). Ian Fleming was criticised, then and since, for The Spy Who Loved Me, an offbeat James Bond novel that is told first person by a young woman whose path he crosses, criticised for his appallingly ignorant approach to seemingly incarnating a young woman. Wheatley makes him look like Margaret Atwood.
If you must read a Dennis Wheatley book, make it an early one (but not Three Inquisitive People, and I’d advise you miss out Such Power Is Dangerous too). These books at least have the advantage of freshness, and whilst the odd post-WW2 book has its moments – To the Devil a Daughter is perhaps the best – Wheatley starts to drown in horrific notions.
The political aspect gets more strident. Curtain of Fear stars a left-oriented teacher originally from Czechoslovakia, whose brother was a prominent scientist. Our teacher has an English girlfriend. At the start of the book they differ over what is most important: he is for liberty, equality and truth whilst she believes in God, the Queen and Britain.
This difference in attitudes threatens to break them up but he gets kidnapped back to Communist Czechoslovakia over the weekend, trying to stop his brother – a double agent? – defecting back there, sees Communism at first hand, escapes back in time for Monday and when he next sees his girlfriend, equality and liberty can go take a flying fuck, he’s a fully paid-up God, Queen and country man and they can marry and produce patriotic babies.
All sorts of shitty attitudes crop up. One latish novel is about a young man – inevitably called Benny – who’s a bit mentally, well, slow, and who violently rapes this pretty woman whilst she’s changing into her bathing costume because he thinks that’s what you should do. You’ll no doubt be stunned to learn that she’s completely fine with it and agrees to marry him.
There’s a comment elsewhere by the mother of a marriageable daughter, in casual conversation giving her opinion that rape is probably not as bad an experience as it’s made out to be because, after all, it’s usually the woman’s first experience of sex anyway.
And from start to finish, the writing itself, the choice of words and their yoking together in sentences, is at best undistinguished, but primarily flat and banal. Sentences are churned out with no thought for elegance or style but merely the conveying of fact. Dialogue is largely pointed and awkward. Everybody has their preset character and Wheatley is only concerned with having them talk up to what they are supposed to be.
Even as early as The Devil Rides Out there were phrases and paragraphs that will go on to be repeated interminably, like Rex’s exhortations about cocktails or Simon’s inability to correctly pronounce the word ‘No’ of all things, it coming out as ‘Ner’ because of his full-lipped Jewish mouth that he can’t close fully. I’ve already commented, in the book, about Richard’s pig-headed obsession with his luxurious food and drink, or more aptly given where his pettishness points, drink and food.
And, tying back into the class stratification, all this food is fresh, of the highest unadulterated quality and, it is heavily intimated, far too good for the common folk who would never appreciate it in the the first place (yeah, the snobs would get so far up my nose, I couldn’t appreciate the bouquet).
Save that the writer of children’s fiction is much more of an ordinary man whose concern lies with ordinary people than an aristocracy suck-up, there is no more subtlety in Wheatley than in Malcolm Saville’s Marston Baines books.

Linda Lee

In making Dennis Wheatley my first favourite adult writer, I was following in my father’s footsteps, both consciously and unconsciously. Of all the things I wish that I had had the chance to ask him, about his life and feelings and opinions, the one I miss asking the least is almost certainly, “What the Hell did you see in him?!”

Danger Man: s03 e12 – The Man on the Beach


Much as I love Danger Man, both then and now, it’s becoming apparent that it’s third series – the second in the fifty minute format – has its fair share of episodes that fall short of the overall standards and I’m afraid that ‘The Man on the Beach’ is another one of those. It all goes to support Patrick McGoohan’s position when he left the show after two episodes of series four, claiming it had run out of good stories.

This latest episode, set in the West Indies, suffered from the lack of a cohesive story with a focussed sequence of events. Given how Danger Man used to provide tightly-organised plots, this is a serious let down. Drake, as John Drake, is introduced enjoying himself with sand, scenery, drinks and indolence, which is causing friction with his local superiors, Simon Howes, an irascible station head who is demanding he return to London, and his number two, Wykes (the very familiar Glyn Houston). Drake claims to be investigating CIT, whatever that is, whilst giving off the impression that he’s not putting in much effort, in order to extend hs holiday.

This very much gets up Wykes’ nose, but then Wykes is an officious little toerag to begin with. Drake’s real assignment, given him directly by Sir Alan Grose (David Hutcheson), to whom he reports on the beach, is to identify a double agent and it comes as no surprise that it should be Wykes.

But the story meanders. Drake has no discernible plan of investigation. He spends the first half of the story being stalked by the beautiful, slinky Cleo (the beautiful, slinky Barbara Steele), though her serious flirtatiousness runs up against McGoohan/Drake’s abrasion, although after a (studio) beach scene in which she’s wearing a backless swimsuit paired with thigh-revealing cycle shorts in which she reveals she’s married to one of the villains, she drops out of the story exactly as if she’s gone through a trapdoor.

But she’s set Drake up to appear, to Howes and Wykes, to be a double agent himself. Sir Alan has impressed upon him that the most important thing is that his presence in the Caribbean must be the deepest secret, but the momet he’s accused of treachery and threatened with arrest, Drake caves, gives up Sir Alan’s name and whereabouts and is left further up the creek when Grose’s hostess, the beautiful, cool blonde Lady Kilrush (the beautiful, cool blonde Juliet Harmer) denies even knowing him.

So, one slightly extended fight wrecking Howes’ secret office later, Drake flies to Grand Cayman but is refused entrance to the Kilrush hoiusehold. Wandering the beach, he gets involved with beach girl Mary Anne (Dolores Mantez), who is living with thug Lyle, who is working with Wykes.

Now, Mary Anne has a part to play, firstly confirming Sir Alan was staying with Lady Kilrush, after the Lady has denied even knowing him, then producing the abandoned belt from his beach robe, plus his mini-recorder later, as well as showing Drake where he can find the drowned body. But she’s just a plot convenience who doesn’t fit except as this tool. And she and the scripter beg the question of how Sir Alan, this senior andresourceful figure whose presence is known only to Drake, is identified, kidnapped and killed entirely offscreen, before Drake admits to his presence.

Once the robe belt is prduced, Lady Kilrush caves and admits everything. We can infer, from her reference to her husband – not here until next week – being a jealous man, that she’s been having fun to go with the sun, but she too is little more than a cypher. When Wykes turns up to arrest the clearly disturbed and dangerous Drake, who’s bleeding from a machete to the upper right arm that didn’t stop him defeating its weilder in a pond, she is ineffectual until Howes turns up in Wykes wake.

At which point, Drake stands up, silently plays a recording he’s made with the late Sir Alan’s marvellous mini-recoreder, of Wykes plotting to kill him, sadly incriminating or what, eh? At which point he keels over in a dead faint through loss of blood and we can go to Edwin Astley and the credits.

So, no. A badly constructed story whose plot elements were like the Curate’s egg of legend: good in parts but not enough to make up an actual egg. McGoohan must have had things like this in mind when he walked off to the Village of legend.

The Infinite Jukebox: Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World’

When I say I’m not into Jazz, I’m aware that that’s a hopeless over-simplification. Jazz is not merely Jazz, it is an ever-widening delta of different sounds, techniques and approaches, very few of which I have any aural experience, and subtleties beyond the ability of my ears to distinguish. Or comprehend, for that matter.
When I think of Jazz, as one must inevitably do from time to time, the Jazz that I instinctively associate with the term is traditional jazz, the kind that involves trumpets and trombones and the banjo chugging away in the background. That I do not like with a passion. Should I ever again be subjected to ‘When the Saints go Marching In’ in that style, I will not be responsible for my actions.
There are the usual odds’n’sods that I like: The Dave Brubeck Quartet, with particular reference to ‘Take Five’, ‘Stranger on the Shore’. And some exponents of Jazz-rock who don’t lean too heavily on the Jazz end of that combination, such as Steely Dan over the first three albums.
But sometimes, when all around you is cracking up and so are you, when you want a warm and reassuring sound, that is big and naive but amazingly comforting, you take it from anywhere you can find it, and if that means Jazz, you suck it up baby and you luxuriate in the sound.
And I can’t think of anything more all-embracing than Louis Armstrong and his 1968 British UK no. 1, the great and sentimental ‘What a Wonderful World’.
The song originally came out in America in 1967, and I remember being thrown by its anachronistic use on the soundtrack to Good Morning Vietnam, when my then girlfriend and I went to see that. It was a flop in the USA thanks to the adverse response of Satchmo’s manager but Britain took it, whole-heartedly, making Armstrong, aged 67, the oldest man then to top the British charts.
Armstrong was a true Jazz legend, a phenomenal trumpeter and a well-rounded man whose music was full of life. He also possessed a rich, growling singing voice that, whatever he did with it, was singing through the grin he always seemed to wear. And Armstrong’s grin was full of warmth, encompassing everybody within range.
And I wonder about that grin, that inhabited everything Armstrong did and was, how did he really feel? Armstrong’s public persona was not too far removed from the minstrel acts, the black performers turning themselves into clowns, loveable and harmless, subservient to the whites who, for the most part of Louis Armstrong’s life, were his masters who he’d better not get to uppitty with, no matter what the real truth of talent, wisdom, wit and humanity between them.
Armstrong played the black man of no threat, the clown America wanted to think of. He made brilliant music doing that because he was so good a musician, so inventive and active. He made Jazz that even I could like.
And four years from the end of his life, he made ‘What a Wonderful Life’. The song was made for him, there wasn’t another musician who could have been so simple and honest to sing lyrics that were naive and hopeful, lyrics that wore their rose-tinted glasses on the inside. Armstrong sung, with a deliberately naive awe, about trees of green, red roses, coming into bloom for me and an unnamed you, a you who is not an individual but all of us rolled into Armstrong’s gaze without discrimination or distinction, included in his almost-child-like acclaiming of what a What a Wonderful World.
Of course it wasn’t, not in 1968, nor since, no matter how much Armstrong reinforced it with that deep, reminiscing burr of a voice. Satchmo is looking through a very narrow eye, seeing only what he wants to see, that all is for the best in the best of all worlds, but his gift is not just to make you want to see it through his eyes, see only the good and the blessed, but to draw you into the curve of his vision so that for three minutes or so, you believe and you see, and you think to yourself, What a Wonderful World.
Oh yeah.

Film 2021: Jumanji – Welcome to the Jungle


This is something of a cheat, really, since I’ve already written about this film as part of Film 2019, but since then I’ve acquired a double-pack DVD comprising both this and the next film, making it a legitimate performance for easy Sundays, as well as being the perfect film for how I’ve been feeling the past few days.

I’ve still never seen the original Jumanji film, which a work colleague of mine fervently described as being the only Jumanji film, the other(s) didn’t exist as far as she was concerned. Maybe one day, but the wedge her words drove in suggests sufficient difference to make me have reservations. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is so not my kind of film, it’s a video game movie and I grew out of video games a long time ago. In fact, from what’s on the tin, the only things it’s got to appeal to me are superb, expansive mountain scenery and Karen Gillan in bare midriff, leather shorts and boots.

Yet it’s fun. It’s practically lightweight – ok, so self-centred pretty girl Bethany turns into Jack Black and learns a life-lesson about caring for others – and it’s got that slick, CGI-clever sheen of a Marvel superhero movie, and it couples its action sequences with the kind of bantering wit both by and between its quartet of high school kids in detention turned game show characters. And on that level it’s a clear case of highly professional audience manipulation: make ’em gasp, make ’em scream, make ’em laugh.

But what the film has going for it, and what does make it genuinely funny so many times over is the perfection in which it handles its play-against-type set-up, how it quickly and clearly establishes the essential characteristics of nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff), jock ‘Fridge’ (Ser’Darius Blaine), valley girl Bethany (Madison Iseman) and emo Martha (Morgan Turner) and then, when they are translated into adult avatars when they’re sucked into the game, how those personalities are mismatched to the players and maintained throughout the film.

You’ve got Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, wrestler turned actor, showing some nifty chops as a scared little nerd, and sending his outer self up pretty beautifully. You’ve got Kevin Hart, short and squeaky, the powerful guy reduced to being the sidekick and spear-carrier to the nerdy guy he’s been trying to drop since seventh grade. You’ve got Jack Black, bearded, be-spectacled, pot-bellied channeling the shallow, vain, unheeding valley girl for whom life is unbearable if she isn’t Instagramming it. And you’ve got Karen Gillan, a knockout dressed in stereotypical knock-out’s skimpy outfit as the enclosed, difficult, disregarding girl who pushes everybody away before they push her and who covers every inch of skin.

It’s their’s and the script’s attention to the clash between their outer and inner selves that makes Welcome to the Jungle such fun. It could so easily have been a mess, with less careful writing, with clumsier, more obvious performances, but everybody sends themselves up with a refreshing lack of ego and a perfect conviction. It’s the same old thing: you have to understand why people love the fantasy of video games in order to get inside them and spoof them to the best effect.

And the film throws in a massive dollop of sentimentality that it gets away with brilliantly, It sets things up early: Spencer and Co. select one each of four game characters but the fifth is already taken. Midway through the quartet meets that fifth character, Alex Vreeke (Nick Jonas), who was sucked into the game in 1996, who is down to one life and who has been in there for twenty years.

Suddenly, the game acquires a much greater purpose than restoring the Eye to the Jaguar, lifting the curse and getting everyone home. It becomes about getting Alex home, to a home that outside is badly dilapidated, occupied by a father whose life has been destroyed by his son’s disappearance. It becomes about something that even Bethany – especially Bethany – recognises as being more important.

The gang win. They get out of there. Four of them return to the school basement and their detention. But there’s no Alex. However, the film is ready to deliver its pay-off without further ado. Walking home, the quartet pass the ‘Freak’ (i.e., Vreeke) House, but it’s no longer grey and offputting. It’s white, it’s festooned with garlands and a car’s just pulling up to visit Grandad. An exciteable little girl, a baby in a carrycot and a son who never disappeared, who went back to when he came from and changed the last twenty years, for the better. Who recognised the four stranger teenagers he’d never seen before in his (real) life, and was stoked to meet them.

Ah yes, a lump rises to the throat. And it did. I can be as sentimental as the next guy, unless the next guy is Bozo Johnson that is, and when I am immersed in the unreal reality of a film, I don’t care if I’m being manipulated, I take the moment and run.

At the very end, the game itself was smashed, by the bowling ball in the First Act (one for you Chekhovians, there). But we knew that it could somehow be repaired, if the film was a big hit. Which it was. As we shall see over the summer.

Old Houses Aren’t Safe: House of Secrets – Part 2

It had been gone for almost exactly three years. But its sibling title, House of Mystery, was being transformed into a genuine horror title under the editorship of Joe Orlando, who was filling it with fresh, crazy, enthusiastic stories by young writers and artists with a gleam in their eye. Why not bring back House of Secrets and do the same there? With Orlando at the helm, of course.
And so it was, under a cover-date of September 1969, behind a creepy Neal Adams cover and under a logo that told you ‘There’s no escape from the House of Secrets’, accompanied by a satanic looking host named Abel – made complete sense when the other House was being looked after by Cain – it started again.
It started with a weird, almost metafictional story, introducing the House itself, a Kentucky-made and constructed building with a dark past, that refused to be transported out of the state and rolled itself into one end of a cemetery before summoning Abel – appearance based on the late Mark Hanerfield just as Cain had been based on Len Wein – to be its caretaker. Abel’s first visitor was his older brother Cain, to whom he told a slightly nasty little comeuppance story about a photographer hooked on exposing ‘dirt’ with his photos and who finds his own photo being taken inside the House of Secrets. The House of Mystery was at the other end of the cemetery.
Once we got down to some real story-telling, the difference in approach from House of Mystery was immediate. There was an over-emphasis on how the House of Secrets contained secrets, and the individual tales were directly narrated by the podgy, seemingly weak Abel to his imaginary friend, Goldie, and Goldie’s guest, the reader. Nastiness getting an appropriate end was the order of the day, as opposed to innocents getting screwed over.
And we already had a new editor, Orlando having only set things up before leaving the book in the competent hands of the artist who’d just come over from Charlton Comics, Dick Giordano.
But that was just issue 82. Things took a bit more of a turn towards the standard next time, with Abel spending the issue locked out by the house, that gets a prose page to explain its contempt for the bumbler, whilst our fearful fool compulsively tells stories, including one that I’ve only recently seen, reprinted in HoM. On the other hand, the lead story was brilliantly drawn by Alex Toth, the first time HoS had got one of the good artists.
There was a change in pace in issue 86 as Giordano experimented with a six page prose story from Gerard Conway – he was grand in those days – with symbolic illustrations by Gray Morrow, but it wasn’t interesting enough.
Issue 88 boasted a spooky, Wrightson-esque wash cover, and a visit from Cynthia, the youngest, hippest and sexiest of the Three Witches, heading up one of the other mags in the horror stable, The Witching Hour (the run of which I also have and may, one quiet day, read through). It lent the issue a cozy feel as she and Abel sat by the fire and threw stories at one another, though why anyone calls him ‘Chuckles’ I have no idea.
There was another superb cover next issue, but the interior art, though functional, doesn’t match up to it. That was getting to be the case. Anyway, Giordano, unable to work with Carmine Infantino, stepped down after issue 90, relinquishing the editorship back to Joe Orlando. Just in time. In time for what?
We aren’t forgetting our comics history, are we? Because issue 92 is upon us, with its hazy but superb cover based on a young and lovely Louise Jones. Yes, the issue of House of Secrets that justifies every single page the series ever published. A short story written by Len Wein, drawn by Berni Wrightson, co-plotted between the two and Orlando. It feels like that moment in To Kill a Mockingbird when Gregory Peck prepares to leave the courtroom, and the blacks have all stayed in their seats whilst he fiddles with his briefcase, and then they all rise, and the preacher tells Scout to “Stand up, Miss Jean-Louise. Your father’s passing.” The Swamp Thing was being created. You don’t need me to tell you how powerful, how stunning that story was, and in only eight pages. Even fifty years later, it bursts off the page at you.
There was nothing to compare to it. Not even the introduction of Jim Aparo next issue, when HoS entered its 25c phase and started clogging up with reprints. Superb covers, but bog-standard stories within. A couple of Toth reprints. Rather more that I’d seen before. And Abel’s role as storyteller seemed to have dried up and blown away. This was the same undistinguished stuff I’d been reading in HoM, sometimes literally the same stuff. What had I expected?
But of course, whilst I’m finding these stories unimpressive, the audience of 1972 held a different opinion, and HoS went back to monthly status with effect from its 99th issue. Next issue it reached 100. Apart from a Wrightson cover there was nothing special about it.
On the other hand, issue 101 surprised me by leading off with an art job by Alex Nino that was almost wholly comprehensible and a twist ending that was not only immediately foreseeable but doubled up on itself with neat exactness. A completely contrasting, but poignantly sad story started the following issue, drawn by ER Cruz. Indeed, that was an all-Filipino art issue. Issue 103 made it three in a row for strong openers, with a very effective story from Sheldon Mayer, yes, he of Scribbly and the All-Star Comics editorship thirty plus years before. Even if the back up stories were comparatively dull, there was no seeming explanation for this vein of form, but I was glad to see it.
And it kept going, with a blackly comic ghost story, but the streak stopped there, leaving us with just a couple of Wrightson covers and splash pages to luxuriate in. But the prevalence of the Filipino artists, ornate but static, and often too detailed for clarity, started to give House of Secrets a look that was less distinctive than samey.

Issue 111 – always an unlucky number to a cricketer – saw the first appearance of the notorious Michael Fleisher. I regarded his stories cautiously but at first there was nothing particularly significant either way about them. I was more offended by Gerry Conway’s contribution to the next issue, which was an atrocious Sherlock Holmes pastiche turning the Great Detective into a vampire: pathetic.
It didn’t take long, however, for the patented Fleisher obsession with twisted comeuppances to start, though at first they weren’t as gorily bizarre as the ones he was to mete out in Adventure Comics. Time would no doubt have told, but Fleisher went on to sell Joe Orlando on his bizarre version of The Spectre and would no longer have time for regular appearances in HoS.
We’re coming to the point now where I picked up that issue of Justice League of America that started this long fascination with comic books. House of Secrets is all-Filipino art, issue after issue. The cover designs are familiar, the art is familiar though I have never read any of it, and it’s a familiarity that breeds not contempt but rather dullness. It’s a vivid reminder of an era that I ought to respect, or at least feel nostalgia for, but I don’t. The truth was that, like so many other things, the Seventies was a time of second class entertainment. With few, honourable exceptions, like Swamp Thing, and the Goodwin/Simonson Manhunter, DC’s comics were poor and uninspired, and this run of House of Secrets exemplifies it. Of all the comics I’ve ever owned, there’s a reason why the Seventies is the least represented amongst those I’ve still got.
Ramona Fradon, she of Metamorpho fame, came on board to do a number of stories, her quasi-cartoonist style a refreshing change amongst the ornate but static standard. Sam Glanzman contributed a three-pager co-written with Martin Pasko (who I always have to check myself from writing as Marty Pasko) in issue 122.
Every now and then, HoS publishes a story out of the run of things, in which blood, death and horror aren’t the aims but a genuine sense of wonder, built around the fulfilment of fantasy. One such ended up issue 124, a tale about a crippled boy, who found centaurs and fauns on a Greek island, with whom he could run and play like any normal kid, and his practical, loving but mundane father, who didn’t believe, except for half a moment that, if he was not so immune to superstition, might have been comforted by the knowledge that his son was not dead, not in the way he, being rational, believed.
A similar but less satisfying story, with overtones of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, was featured in the very next issue, which also included a first HoS job from Frank Robbins, providing superb art to a five pager that was incomprehensible shit
I’ve not mentioned this before, but when I work through long series on DVD like this, I read in ten issue tranches. This allows me the opportunity for some more abstract thoughts at the end of each set. I’ve now read fifty issues of the post-1969 House of Secrets without being overly impressed, but by the same taken I haven’t found it as dull and formulaic as I did House of Mystery during the same period, and that for a title also edited by Joe Orlando.
Nor, except for the presence of Abel as opposed to Cain, and who is much less present than his ‘brother’, have I yet been able to decode the factors that make a story one for HoS rather than HoM. I think this inability to draw a distinction must be in large part down to me: I am not a horror buff of any kind, as I made plain some time ago, so to me the basic attraction to the material is missing, and thus the depth of understanding of what differentiates various approaches slips by me.
It’s rather like the comparison Charles Shaar Murray used in the New Musical Express many many years ago, in relation to Heavy Metal fans’ general disinclination to listen to any other kind of music whatsoever, when he compared it to a man who eats nothing but apples, and becomes an expert on the different brands and their individual nuances whereas, to the man who eats an all-round, dare I call it, balanced diet, an apple is, well, an apple. To me, a horror story is a horror story.
For no apparent reason, one of the characters in issue 131 was named Arthur Curry, despite looking nothing like Aquaman. And Wrightson contributed a typical cover to issue 135. But suddenly the series was utterly hollow, its stories neither good enough to enjoy nor bad enough to criticise. The tenor of the lettercol, which was supposedly being answered by the House itself, consistently contemptuous towards Abel, started taking on an ominous tone, with claims that Orlando would let both go, and that he was looking for a new direction. Sales figures must have been collapsing.
And then it was announced, in issue 138, that The Patchwork Man was coming, as of issue 140. This was Gregori Arcane, brother of Anton, Uncle of Abby, the Frankenstein-manque from Swamp Thing 3, becoming House of Secret‘s first series character since Eclipso and the mess that was Prince Rah-Man. Based on the stories that issue, no-one should have been surprised.
So, what of issue 140, by Gerry Conway and Nestor Redondo, a comic I bought back then because I liked Redondo’s art on Swamp Thing? It was a full-length story, large parts of which were devoted to recapping Gregori Arcane’s life and fate from Swamp Thing 2 and 3, whilst setting up a new reality for him: New York, not America, a Medical Institute devoted to studying the Patchwork Man, in ungentle fashion, two young and idealistic doctors, one of them pregnant by the other, not her husband and a helpful taxi-driver taking ol’ Patchy in. The story, a stirring, deep, human story, would proceed in ten page instalments, backed up by a tale from Abel.
And House of Secrets was cancelled with effect from issue 140. This far on, I can’t help but find that funny.

It was back, six months later. The series had been demoted to bi-monthly as at issue 140, and bi-monthly it stayed, but it was back as the House of Secrets again. No Patchwork Man, not ever again. Just one, final, short-lived additional life, with Filipino art, led by a story from none other than Batman’s unacknowledged co-creator, writer Bill Finger, but an inventory story from a man whose talent had never achieved fulfilment, who’d been denied credit for his biggest success that he would only receive forty years after this story, Bill Finger, who had died two and a half years before this story finally saw print.
But there was nothing to talk about. It was all the same. Sure, in issue 148 the pages of the back-up story were printed all out of order but I doubt that was deliberate and the story wasn’t worth re-shuffling.
An effort was made for the anniversary issue, no. 150, in the form of a book-length story by the two Gerrys, Conway and Taloac. It starred that old warring pair, The Phantom Stranger and Dr Thirteen but it was very noticeable that whilst the Ghost-Breaker was brought in because only he could save the world, he sat at Abel’s kitchen table whilst the Stranger did all the world-saving bit: just another sloppy job by a writer whose stories reek of laziness.
Not much more to go now. The stories stopped making any sense now, with mis-timed and precipitate endings, confusion and uncontrollable twists, sheer nonsense it was painful to see presented in a mainstream comic. But when it died, for good, with issue 154, it wasn’t the mess the title had become that did for it but rather the DC Implosion that chopped it off.
And, just as with House of Mystery, which survived into the Eighties, I’m far from sorry to see it go.

Preston Front: s02 e06 – Lloydy’s Ark


Without being a minute longer than the standard 48, the last episode of Preston Front‘s second series managed to fit in enough stories to suggest something three times as long whilst leaving most of them so far up in the air that for a third series to do with them as it chooses. And whilst the comedy kept coming, it was rising from a bedrock of near universal pain, commonplace, everyday, garden-level pain that is the condition of people’s lives and which the comedy serves to disguise, but not alleviate.

Wow, that was a heavy sentence, wasn’t it?

When I first started writing about All Quiet on the Preston Front, I mentioned that I had watched about twenty minutes of the first episode and then switched off, not finding it funny. For some reason, having come to that conclusion, I ended up watching the last episode of this series and became hooked without really understanding the people involved, but recognising the depth from which the comedy arose.

It’s not very promising as an introductory episode, but then that’s not the ideal role for a series finale, in which developing threads are tied together in a practical knot, which is an ironic note as the only involvement of the RA this week was a session learning how to tie knots. This gives us our chance to mention the only minor and disconnected strand of the episode, as Rundle is still struggling over his attraction to Ally, Ally is losing the battle to keep things on an it-was-nothing keel and Polson, in pursuit of his ambition to get that Sergeant’s stripe, let’s it be known that he is aware of a certain person of higher rank stroking the hair of another person of lower rank. The last person I saw who looked that stunned was Kim Hughes after Edgbaston 1981 so kudos to Kieran Flynn.

But everything else was wrapped up into the spinal story, which was about Lloydy, that great, hulking clown of a figure, the human funny bone. Adrian Hood is perfect in the role, but this episode, without disturbing the surface an inch, showed him as human underneath, and every bit as screwed up as the rest of us. Anthony Lloyd is the only son of two market traders, busy and popular in their own right, whose customers are less customers than friends who buy things off them, who still feel looked down upon and wanted more for their son, like all good parents.

But Anthony wasn’t made of that stuff to be more. He hasn’t got it up there (points to head), but his parents paid 10% of their income to send him to a private school where he stands out so far that a coat of orange fluorescent paint would only serve as camouflage. Lloydy is, in objective terms, a wash-out, a failure, a son with no aim in life. Not even his riches from ‘Ghurka Tank Battle’ (at which, in another strand not a million miles away, little Kirsty wipes the floor with Hodge and her Mum) impress them, because he’s used the money to buy cars instead of putting himself through business school, or buying somewhere nice to live.

Stung, through even that thick skin, the product of being a laughing-stock to everyone, Lloydy sells the cars and buys what will impress his Mum and Dad, who loved their long ago holiday so much, namely a canal boat. To live on. Everybody takes the usual piss out of him (even Eric and Dawn, who have ‘broken their duck’ and are all over each other to the near total exclusion of every other sensory input), everybody has something better to do than take a trip with him on Saturday morning, and everyone turns up, though Hodge is late through trying not to attend at all.

Yes, Hodge. Hodge has lost his girlfriend to Greg Scarry, but he’s content, because he can see Kirsty whenever he wants. Yes, only he and Jeanetta (and Eric. And Dawn) know he’s her father, and though it must forever remain a mystery to the whole world, and especially Kirsty, it’s enough for him to know. Which he says, and means, then. But there’s a brick wall looming in the very immediate future, once he’s promoted to Staying for Tea and Reading a Bedtime Story. Hodge is reading The Wind in the Willows but Kirsty breaks his heart. He can’t marry her Mum and become her Dad because she’s already got a Dad, he’s in Australia raising lots of sheep (last week he was a pilot, because she’d been on a school trip to Manchester Airport). Thsat’s bad enough for Hodge, whose face is getting slowly more frozen, but there’s worse. A hiding place in a closet. A box. An old magazine with a photo of a successful couple. ‘Dad’ has a face. He has a name. And they’re both Greg Scarry.

Who is entertaining Laue Delooze, poor dumb Laura, w ho still thinks these are business meetings, even if the latest one is a Friday night on a yacht. Not a big yacht, but bigger than any Hodge has got. Greg Scarry may be a millionaire with a yacht and choice of big cars but he’s still in a pissing contest with scruffy nobody Hodge, a fact Laura points out when all her dumb delusions about why Greg is interested in her are exploded by his kissing her. She’s the last to realise what’s going on, to hear the cynicism in his willingness to set her up in business, but for the first time since we saw her singing at Mr Wang’s Laura becomes a likeable person. Because whatever Hodge is, or rather isn’t in comparison, he doesn’t lead people on. He’s emotionally honest, and Laura wants to go back to him.

Typical of Laura, that last insight isn’t her own but Jeanetta’s, although she recognises, welcomes and finds comfort in the fact of it. By which we can foresee the absolute disaster is yet to come. Everyone’s on the canal boat, off for an idyllic tripo through fields of waving corn or, as is the case, Dawn and Ally being det\ailed to open the lockgates. And Ally’s foregone a trip to London with Frasier, and sitting in a hotel jacuzzi, to do something they used donkeys for.

And there’s Lloydy, only Lloydy’s depressed. That’s why he’s brought 48 cans of Guinness and a ridiciulous change of clothing (I refuse to repeat the slogan on the t-shirt), one to get drunk with and the other to change into when he falls in the canal being drunk. Even Laura’s there, waiting for Hodge: she’s his girlfriend.

As for Hodge, he’s being picked up by Eric in the Noodle Van, thirty miles away, heading for Rochdale. Hodge is depressed too, but Hodge’s depression takes the form of anger and the desire to run away. He’d gone straight downstairs, out of the door, not a word of goodbye, not to Jeanetta, which doesn’t matter so much but not to Kirsty, which does. Jeanetta’s in Roker Bridge, trying to find him. And Lloydy’s navigation has liked the canal boat into an abandoned mill-basin where everybody converges, like the library scene, except that more than just the identity of the murderer is going to be revealed.

Because Laura wants to find Hodge. Because he means more to her that pretentious liar Greg Scarry and she wants his honesty and is prepared to meet it with his own. And Jeanetta doesn’t want Hodge walking out, on her almost as much as Kirsty, despite that insuperable issue between them. But knowing it himself is no longer enough for Hodge. It’s bloody Greg Scarry. He’s the other Hodge, the one that became the success, he’s Hodge’s rival for both his girls and he’s taken both of them away. He’s heard all Jeanetta has to say, and his head might understand but his heart is screaming too loud for his thoughts to be heard, and it’s all or nothing, even as he knows that the ultimatum is impossible.

The scene is familiar. Laura accused Greg of being in a pissing match with Hodge, and Jeanetta identifies that Hodge is in a pissing match with Greg, except that it’s one he has no chance of winning because, sure, yeah, Hodge is the failed Greg, on whose alimony Jeanetta lives so that Kirsty can have a decent life, until Jeanetta cannot stand it any more and all but screams at him that if Greg was more like Hodge, she would never have divorced him in the first place.

It isn’t fair. But whoever said that life is supposed to be fair in the first place, or that it can’t knee you in the balls whilst you’re doubled up from it kicking you in the stomach, because despite Eric’s attempts to run interference, Laura finally finds Hodge. With his arms round Jeanetta, holding her very tight. She can see that, very clearly, though she can’t see that it’s because Jeanetta is crying her eyes out. The scales fall from Laura’s eyes, though they only reveal another set of scales beneath: if both the men fighting over her are liars she might as well be with the one who doesn’t pretend he’s not lying.

And Lloydy. His Mum and Dad have folowed them all the way. He might not be the son of their aspirations, but he’s the son they still love, and they’re ashamed and upset that they have railed at him, especially as they didn’t know Anthony had only bought the boat so that they could retire onto it and he’s take over their sweet stall and become a businessman after all: they are over the moon with him. Yes, Spock explained it so well to them, whilst Lloydy showed his intelligence by standing there and keeping his mouth shut about how he didn’t know a word of this…

This is the kind of thing you can do with a series when you know you’ve got anotrher series in the bag. Tim Firth had the luxury of breaking things into pieces and throwing them in the air so they can be put back together in different shapes next time. And the wit to end on the gang, sprawled on a hillside, with tons of sweets, having gentle friendly fun in the moment, Eric and Dawn chasing each other around like mad kids having fun.

No wonder I fell for this series, belatedly. We shall return to series 3 in the future but let’s leave them like that for now, they deserve it.

Of Once and Former Heroes: Dennis Wheatley, ‘Prince’ of Thriller Writers – Part 4 – Three Inquisitive People/The Second Seal

Three Inquisitive people

This was supposed to be a simple thing. One post to introduce, one book as an example and one post to summarise. Instead, a random impulse that stunned me by being fulfilled has led me to three more Wheatley novels, and fairness to myself demands that I have something to show for that unexpected turn by reviewing these as well. However, I shall combine them into a single post.
The first of these that I read was Three Inquisitive People, Dennis Wheatley’s actual first-written novel, detailing the coming together of le Duc de Richleau, Rex van Ryn and Simon Aron, with a bit part that’s more McGuffin than character for Richard Eaton. As I’ve mentioned before, Three Inquisitive People was put aside in favour of The Forbidden Territory and eventually only appeared in 1940, when it was Wheatley’s fifteenth publication, and the fourth in his de Richleau series. It’s still pretty obviously a first book, however.
Three Inquisitive People is not a thriller and there is no action whatsoever. It is a crime novel, and not a very good one at that. It begins with Rex van Ryn, who would rather be out partying with the young set of London in general and Lady Felicity Standish in particular, paying a duty call on his father’s friend, le Duc de Richleau, who has a plush mansion flat, full of rarities and treasures that only the discerning can appreciate, on the first floor. To his surprise, Mr van Ryn finds the Duc a fascinating host, offering superb wines and foods that, again, only the discerning can appreciate (this ‘only the discerning’ bit is not spelt out in the text but is implicit in every word: no plebs required, thank you).
The trouble starts as the two gentleman depart. On the landing they pass a narrow-shouldered man in evening dress. He is a Jew. We know this because Wheatley tells us. We also know it from that great big nose of his, his pendulous lower lip, his habit of saying ‘Ner’ for ‘No’, his bloody big conk (we are going to hear about that nose several times) and because Wheatley can’t stop telling us, not to mention throwing another racially caricatured Jew at us as the man’s wily and shrewd Solicitor.
And this is a hero, because this is Simon Aron, who is also rich – aren’t all Jews? Thank God he wasn’t a bad guy, who knows what description we’d have got.
Our mystery man hustles off downstairs with no more that a second glance, leading M. le Duc and Mr van Ryn to be accosted by a distraught ladysmaid, who has just discovered her mistress, Lady Elinor Shoesmith, to be dead in her bath. Naturally, the maid then faints.
So here we have the body, and here we have two inquisitive people, or one of them with his younger friend in curious tow, wanting to play amateur sleuth, like Lord Peter Wimsey. And of course, if it wasn’t for them…
There’s one bit that’s actually subtle. De Richleau observes how hot the bath is, unbearably so, which rather contradicts the assumption that Lady Shoesmith slipped and cracked her head and drowned whilst unconscious, so he saves the Police considerable misdirection by pointing out that there are actually multiple contusions at the base of the poor lady’s skull: it’s murder.
De Richleau tries to get in on the Police investigation, especially as Rex remembers where he’s seen the young Jew before (right, that’s it, last mention of that word), but is sent away with an appropriately polite-to-the-nobs flea in the ear, so he and Rex go find him at his regular Hotel restaurant, where he is finally named as Simon Aron, financier in a Je…no! Brokerage and very clever, though from this moment on he’s going to drive us all batty by constantly referring to the suggestion he’s the murderer and every other aspect of this situation as ‘a muddle’, or, for variation, ‘a nasty muddle’.
Aron refuses to talk until he can contact his Solicitor the next morning, but that’s a clever put on. In fact he suspects, and the evidence points very clearly to his friend Richard Eaton – private publisher going slowly bankrupt and son of the deceased by her first marriage – as the murderer, in the face of all Simon’s denials that he could even do anything like that. What he’s doing is buying time for his friend to flee the country, an approach the Duc – who holds life to be cheap, unless it’s his own – applauds. Incidentally, once Richard is told that his mother – that’s mother, just to make it clear – is not only dead but has been brutally murdered, he shows all the emotion of a frozen turnip about his loss (well, dammit, think of what he inherits, as he was in financial schtuck). These Englishmen.
Thus a three-way friendship forms, to prove Richard Eaton innocent, which of course he is, the real murderer being Sir Gideon Shoesmith, spouse. That’s about it, apart from an unpleasant scene with a male prostitute who’s caricatured in the nastiest way possible as a blackmailing, smirking queen, which adds homophobia to the list of nastinesses. Oh, but not quite.
You see, Rex and Lady Felicity are both members of the brittle set, bright young things, drinking cocktails and hopping in and out of bed. They’re fond of each other and, whilst it’s not made explicit, she quite obviously surrenders her modesty to him. In fact she’s quite fond of him, and wants him to marry her, at which point Rex’s ardour cools more than somewhat. It wouldn’t work, it would all go sour within a couple of years, they’d get divorced, let’s not spoil this happy time I’ve had removing your delicate knickers.
But Lady Felicity loves him, actually loves him, and will brave that narrow future just to have had it as a present. So Rexy baby, that upright pillar of society, tells the fair lady that he’s got a secret wife back in the States. The impact is devastating: he has made her feel unbearably cheap, that she has slept with a married man. Angry and distraught, she loses control, crashes the car she is driving and causes herself fatal wounds, though not so immediately fatal that Rex can’t whip up a wedding overnight, thanks to Simon racing up to London and organising a luxury but bed-ridden do for them.
It’s ghastly. It demonstrates a mean streak, a selfish callousness in one of our heroes, a cavalier attitude that leads directly to the death of a woman who loves him. Add to that Tanith in The Devil Rides Out, the girl with the life-line in her palm that you couldn’t wrap round a matchstick, and we are very much being exposed to Wheatley’s attitude to women, which is that they’re basically disposable. Gross.

The Second Seal

The other book in the bundle was The Second Seal, a much longer, more serious book. Though it’s chronologically the last of the three books Wheatley wrote delving into de Richleau’s past, it was the first to do so. It was published in 1950, Wheatley’s twenty-eighth novel and seventh in the de Richleau series.
This is probably the best by some margin of this brief re-read, being a historical novel whose appeal, even now, lies in how it is not so far in our past as to be abstruse or of purely historical interest. The title comes from the Book of Revelations, and the story covers a period of approximately six months in 1914, dealing with the events leading up to the precipitation of the Great War, the First World War, and the first phase of that conflict, when it might really have been over by Christmas instead of becoming the long, drawn-out, blood-draining stalemate that was the most destructive conflict of all time, because not only did it kill millions of combatants, it killed a world that had lasted centuries and even if Dennis Wheatley says so, would have been to the betterment of all of us had it continued to live.
The story starts with the arrival of the Duc de Richleau in London. He is in his mid-thirties, a professional soldier who has been employed by armies as widespread as South America and, more recently, the humbled Turkish Army of the First and Second Balkan Wars. He’s here because, having had private information from a Serbian enemy who is the chief of the secret society the Black Hand, he knows that Serbia are spoiling for a fight against the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary and that, due to the entangling commitments of the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente, if that happens, all of Europe is likely to be drawn in, as we know from our history was exactly what happened.
The Duc is here because he wants a commission in the British Army. After being exiled from France he became a British citizen and wishes to serve his adopted country with his military skills. Of course his first engagement in London is at a costumed ball where he has two significant encounters. The first is with a young, attractive woman in her mid-twenties to whom he plays court, teasing her almost to distraction. She seems to be simultaneously enjoying his attentions and seeking him to push him away. It all comes to a head when she unmasks, assuming that her face is so well known that the Duc will understand just how impossible things are, except that as he’s only just got to London and can’t tell her apart from any well-dressed Society beauty, he just snogs her. And she faints.
This is because, unbeknownst to the Duc, she is the Princess Ilona Theresa, grand-daughter to the Emperor Josef of Austria-Hungary and she’s never been kissed before!
De Richleau is deeply in the brown stuff here but is rescued by a British Minister going by the name of Mr Marlborough (any resemblance to Winston Churchill…) and the supposedly brainless figure of ex-Army man Sir Pellinore Gwaine-Cust, moonlighting from Wheatley’s Gregory Sallust series, who smooth things over, keep de Richleau from being barred from London for his lese-majestie, hear his Serbian information with great interest and press-gang him into the distasteful role that a true gentleman must despise, namely a spy in Serbia trying to find out just what they plan to do to start a war.
Since de Richleau is in a unique position to potentially avert the war from happening, he finds himself unable to refuse the task, and indeed will come to think it his unrefusable duty, even as he fails to prevent the assassination of Franz-Ferdinand in Sarajevo, but he does prove essential to weakening the German invasion of France under the infamous Schlieffen Plan (which I’d done at School, in History) and persuading the French to attack at the moment that prevents the invasion succeeding.
That sounds quite simple, though Wheatley takes up a good two-thirds of the book’s 512 pages in paperback to say much the same, but then he is going into detail. The detail is very interesting, pertaining as it does to how our world was directly shaped, though some of the military manoeuvres on the much-less well-known Eastern Front can be a bit much, but this contributes to the book’s solidarity. De Richleau goes through all this leaping from peril to peril like a latter-day Harry Flashman without anything like the fun, and quite a way before the end it starts to feel as if Wheatley is throwing his man up against obstacle after obstacle just to spin things out even further.
What’s less satisfying is that the other third of the book is taken up with that other encounter, namely the Princess Ilona. To keep things concise, basically, even though all hopes of marriage, or even putting paid to the chestnut-haired beauty’s virginity are so far out of the question they may as well be orbiting the as-yet undiscovered Pluto, the pair have only gone and fallen in love and take risk after risk after risk for stolen meetings and, as they get bolder, stolen kisses (Ilona has clearly decided that they’re too much fun to keep fainting every time de Richleau gets his mouth on hers).
This course of events gets tangled up with the war story so much that it probably adds up to a quarter of the book’s length. But this wouldn’t be Wheatley if there wasn’t a bit of cheap melodrama thrown in there, not to mention the traditional ensuring that the decks can be swept clean for the next one, for Ilona is revealed to be ill. And it’s consumption. And she’s going to die.
All of this is drawn together to provide an ending that’s on one level a decent stinger but on another a cop-out approximating to a deus ex machina. De Richleau has illegally entered Austria for one last declaration of love to his dying woman. He’s wanted as a spy and a murderer, not to mention a bicycle-thief and even though he gets to Ilona she can’t keep him out of the hands of the Intelligence Branch, nor from the attentions of the Firing Squad. But, altogether now, YES, SHE CAN! You need the Emperor’s written permission to arrest a member of the Royal Family (oh yes, absolute monarchies are so much better than democracies) and they’re not going to get that from Vienna before that afternoon when the Princess goes into self-exile in neutral Switzerland that afternoon, together with her husband…
I confess that, now as then, I was curious as to what happened to M. le Duc between his second (?) marriage in 1914 and his longstanding but idle residency in London, alone and without any mention of any wives, in 1933. That was twenty years Wheatley chose not to bother with, for good or bad reason.
These books may not have been intended to be re-read but I think I’m glad to have re-discovered The Second Seal. It’s full of the usual Wheatley-being-Wheatley, and the prose still leaves a lot to be desired, including brevity, lack of. And were it not for the fact others whose opinions I take more seriously have spoken in glowing terms of the graceful, artistic and aesthetic qualities of that world swept away by the War of 1914 to 1918, I might look askance as his regrets over its despatch, and wonder aloud if it really was all that bloody brilliant for the proletariat.
But it is a sop to my embarrassed recollections of having been so avid a fan fifty years back to see proof that, in some respects, Wheatley could deliver in a way that demanded some praise.
Next up, an appraisal.

Danger Man: s03 e11 – To Our Best Friend


I was all set to acclaim this as one of the very best Danger Man episodes ever but it blew it by not being able to follow up on its own logic. I suspect that was the difference between 1965 and 2021, but if the show had had the courage of it convictions, or been allowed to go for the most downbeat of endings, it could have been near perfect.

‘To Our Best Friend’ was written by series creator Ralph Smart himself, and directed by Patrick McGoohan. This version of Danger Man was revised to take advantage of the espionage boom generated by the James Bond films yet to be its opposite: realistic, grounded and gritty. So we could have a nicely played open in which an Englishman passing on secrets to a suposed Russian connection could reveal that the M9 agent in Baghdad is a double agent. Which in turn led to John Drake being assigned to go out there and deal with it, a mission he initially refused adamantly but, recognising that only he could complete it fairly. Because the agent in Baghdad is Bill Vincent (Donald Huston). And he is one of Drake’s best friends.

And once he arrives, out of the blue, it turns out that not only Bill is John’s friend but his wife Lesley (Ann Bell, who I’ve only otherwise seen as the wife in Baby Doll). Good friends, long-term friends, so pleased to see him that Drake gets a hug – really, body contact – from Lesley, as well as, later on, a kiss on the cheek. This is racy stuff for McGoohan.

But, less humourously, it’s very serious stuff. This is where Danger Man plies its trade, in that dark spectrum where no-one can be trusted, not even your best friend. Drake doesn’t want to brelieve Bill’s gone double but his trap works: a seeming mission involving raiding a leftist agitator’s home for incriminating documents, known only to Drake and Vincent, except that men with guns are waiting for Drake (who, having been prepared for this, has his gadgets set up). It’s worked: Bill Vincent has to be dirty. Though he seems more angry that his friend doesn’t trust him.

Bill throws Drake out but Lesley, distraught, persuades him to stay. She admits to knowing his and Bill’s real job: Bill had had to tell her, to save their marriage. This opens up another avenue of enquiry for Drake, except that he’s officially been taken off the case, ordered home and replaced by the Colonel (Jack Allen) from another section, the General’s section. They clear up matters quietly, inconspicuously. People suffer accidents. Drake continues his investigation but now there are aditional layers to it. If it’s not Bill, who could it be? Unfortunately there’s only one answer to that.

Even before Drake started noting some unusual behaviour I’d begun to suspect Lesley. And the net closed on her and the story that came out was dirty, very dirty, with unwanted levels of betrayal and manipulation. Drake laid it out for us and Lesley: a young girl, born ‘north’ of here, exceptionally talented at languages, taken from her parents, trained intensively. Taken to a remote place, to what appears to be an English town in the middle of nowhere (a wonderful piece of continuity, referring to Colony 3) where she spends five years learning to talk, think and dream like an Englishwoman. Taken to London, pointed at a man named Bill Vincent, ordered to marry him.

Then the trapdoor that drops us even further into the darkness beneath the surface of the world we know: she fell in love with him for real. Two loyalties, and the balancing of them when they cannot, not ever, be balanced to suit everybody.

Enter Ivan, her contact. He has a gun, checks Drake for one. The famous line: ‘I don’t carry one. They’re noisy and they hurt people. Besides, I do very well without.’ The latest gadget, the – seriously – exploding cigar. Lesley will clear out. She asks Drake to say her goodbyes for her to Bill.

It’s done. Drake clears Bill. B|ill can’t lkeave it at that and goes after Lesley. The Colonel’s dogs report he’s running: they’re to follow orders. Only after that does Drake tell the Colonel that Bill Vincent has been cleared, 100%. But it’s too late.

You see where this is going. You know what’s going to happen. You don’t want it to, but alea jacta est. Drake drags the Colonel off in hot pursuit. Bill catches up with Lesley, they hug, they cry, he takes her on towards the border, but in gis car, wedhed under a seat, is now a canister releasing an undetectable gas. It’s not poison. It’s rather somnolent. It makes you laugh, you lose concentration, lose control. Drake’s car comes up behind but it’s too late , the Vincent’s car is weaving all over the road, any moment now it’ll crash, bringing this cruel, nasty, sordid matter, this fruit of espionage to a bitter but inevitable conclusion.

Or so you think. This is the moment the episode blows it, and blows it good. The Colonel takes the wheel, draws level, Drake leaps onto the other car, wrestles it to a stop, chucks the cannister far away. It is a blunder of extraordinary magnitude. It leaves us with a silent ending at the border as Lesley returns home and Drake drives Bill away, and can you say that that is in any way comparable to what it could have been because I’m damned sure I can’t. What a disappointment, what a letdown.