Due South: s02 e14 – All The Queen’s Horses


Due South

I’ve been critical about a couple of recent Due South episodes but I have nothing to criticise about this one. It’s one of the few, perhaps only, episodes that I remember watching when it was first shown, and although I have slightly less than half the entire run to watch, I’m going to say right now that this one is the best Due South episode of them all: both best and favourite. It had everything. And it had everything in perfect balance, with the serious story tremendous in its deadliness, and the absurdity turned up to eleven but never overwhelming or undermining the story. It even came up with an ending that was both stirring and wonderfully silly, in line with Chekhovian stricture. In short, it was good. Damned good.
There was no sign of this in the open. We were in snowy Manitoba, all white and red, the latter being the uniforms of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, specifically their Musical Ride. This was a thirty-six strong detachment of riders and mounts whose command of their beasts and whose precision was a ground-based equivalent of the Red Arrows’ synchronised flying. We saw not much more than a few seconds of the actual Musical Ride in operation, enough to show us the high quality, indeed awe-inspiring display of which they were capable.
And it appeared that the Musical Ride, under the command of Inspector Meg Thatcher, assisted by Constable Benton Fraser, was being transported south to Chicago to impress the Americans, a journey that was being filmed. In amongst the somewhat identikit Mountie crowd there was also veteran Sergeant Buck Frobisher, better known to you and I as Leslie Nielsen, former best friend of Bob Fraser, Bennie’s late father. Whose ghost was, naturally, also on the scene, as who wouldn’t be.
It was light stuff but you couldn’t see how this was to be parlayed into a story, until the last shot before the credits, of a man in the station office bound and gagged.
The plot soon emerged. The ‘film crew’, headed by White Supremicist demolitions expert Randall K Bolt (Kenneth Welsh on fine form, though not up to his performance as Windom Earle in Twin Peaks), were a terrorist group who intended to attack the ‘unlawful’ American Government by taking the train, filling it with explosives and setting up a headlong collision with a train carrying spent fuel roads, causing a massive nuclear disaster. The mounties and the Musical Ride were a nice visual for them providing that vivid personal touch, the death of innocents (and the mounties) that the audience so often focus upon.
But the episode’s first touch of genius, instantly pitching the level of elevated surreality it was to effortlessly maintain came when Inspector Thatcher, rightly concerned at the regimented way the mounties in the carriage sat to attention, silently – she described them as ‘a bunch of stiffs’ – ordered Fraser to get them doing something for the camera. She ordered him to get them to sing. And Fraser, turning into Paul Gross briefly, borrowed a guitar and started singing, in a more than decent voice, a Canadian country song that sounded traditional but which in fact was co-composed by him, with a rousing chorus that had the mounties bursting into full-throated song. Until Bolt had them gassed into unconsciousness in mid-chorus, all except Buck Frobisher.
So there we had it. A trainload of mounties and horses, crammed with explosives, bound for one unbelievable smash, and to try to prevent all this, one altogether too-perfect Constable, one female and strict inspector, aware of both her responsibility as officer in command, and of her growing attraction to said Constable, and one half-decrepit daft old bugger, who picked this moment to start seeing and having conversations with the ghost of his late partner that were even funnier than the ones between Bennie and his Dad.
What of Ray Vecchio in all of this? What of Diefenbaker? They play a minor role. Ray’s not left out. He’s chosen by Bolt to be the conduit that carries the ransom money that’s actually a smokescreen ($10,000,000 buys a hell of a lot of smoke and I’m sure Bolt would find some use for it afterwards). This is used to get him and the wolf onto the train – by jumping onto it off a bridge – to play a small part in saving the day. But really very small.
Because in the midst of all this deadly serious danger, things start to go very weird indeed between the Inspector – who has changed into her formal uniform and looks absolutely bloody phwoarrr! – and the Constable. Thatcher takes her responsibility very seriously, and commendably too. She refuses to hide behind her femininity, and she is indeed good at her job, courageous, athletic, committed, phwoarrr (sorry). When Bennie chases one of the terrorists onto the roof of the train for the classic movie fight, she follows, intervening to knock the terrorist off. Unfortunately, he’s holding on to Bennie at the same time…
This produces a flush of repressed emotion that Thatcher deflects as being her responsibility for the death of one of her immediate staff but don’t worry, Fraser’s not dead, he’s following the train on one of those crank carts, catching up on it even though there’s only one of him, in another of those lovingly presented, gloriously knowing cliches, complete with lassoing the caboose, to get back on board.
We’ve already had a wonderful sequence where Bolt has had Bennie and Meg (let’s not be formal here in view of the circumstances) handcuffed uniform to uniform, their arms wrapped around each other, all cosy-like, handcuffed behind each others’ backs. There are people who would pay for that kind of intimacy and, despite the embarrassment on both of their faces, you don’t get the sense that either are that desperate to get out. Anyway, playing on her femininity for once, Meg lures their guard near enough to disable him with a knee to the bollocks, after which there’s this brilliant sequence of nuzzling and pressing and intertwining to enable Fraser to extract a hairpin from her hair, drop it down her cleavage and have to retrieve it, use both their mouths to straighten it out and finally use it to pick the lock on his handcuffs. It’s hilarious and Gross and Scott’s facial expressions through all this are wonderfully subtle.
Now though they’re trying to stop the train. Fraser has just introduced the pragmatic step the authorities are bound to take, namely bombing the train to avert the larger disaster, and sacrificing the hostages. Meg recoils in horror at the mere thought. Intending to praise her as a superior officer, Bennie almost casually says she would do the same in their shoes. This horrifies Meg as a woman, that he could think her capable of such a heartless step. They’re running along the roof of the train, in full uniform which makes it even funnier, and she stops to confront him over whether or not she has a heart. One assurance leads to another until it leads to what we’ve been expecting, which is a kiss. A long kiss. A passionate kiss. A don’t-notice-when-a-low-bridge-shears-off-the-top-of-your-hat kiss. Until Buck Frobisher appears, disturbing the pair, and sparing their blushes by ‘reading’ the clinch as a ‘strategy session’. The writing in this is exceptional, and it’s by Paul Gross himself as well.
On we go with the plot. Unfortunately, Meg gets captured and the other two stymied. Bolt cuts the connection to the caboose leaving it, him, her and his two colleagues – whom he promptly shoots – to slow down as the train races on. Enter Ray and Diefenbaker. The collision is imminent until Buck shoots the points lever that runs the train off into a safety stretch. The bomb’s gimmicked to go off if the train slows below 50mph so Fraser uses an electric fan to con it into thinking it’s not slowed down (don’t ask me how, the episode didn’t explain how, would you bog things down at a moment like this with an implausible explanation?)
And then comes the glorious ending. At his Dad’s suggestion, Fraser is about to go rescue his superior officer and serious recent liplocker on horseback. As he’s saddling up, Buck gently chides him that he didn’t think he was going alone? And here they come, the Musical Ride, strutting their stuff in the best fashion, to surround the villain and rescue the fair damsel (though not before she clouts the villain one and knocks him off his ‘steed’).
Meg rides back on Bennie’s horse, her arms clasped round his waist. Referring back to that moment that dare not speak its name, she instructs him that that can never happen again. Except in the exact same circumstances. Bennie, precise as always, checks that this means on the roof of a moving train whilst in deadly danger. Inspector Thatcher agrees. Except in those circumstances.
I know I’ve said this many times before but it bears saying again. This was a wonderful spoof episode and it was so precisely because it was played straight. There was no condescending to the audience, no winking to them about this being all a bit silly, we’re in on the gag. Play it for real, at every minute. The contrast will do it for you every time. This was handled perfectly in this episode, the very best of the lot, whose every little piece was judged to perfection. Even that song. Is it on YouTube?

Sunday Watch: dinnerladies s01 e01/03 – Monday/Royals/Scandal


dinner

The comprehensive Victoria Wood at the BBC DVD boxset I got a few years back isn’t as comprehensive as I would like it to be, so I went out and bought the most serious omission, namely the two season sitcom Wood wrote and starred in betwen 1998 and 2000, dinnerladies.

Originally, this was to be performed as two ten-episode series, but series 1 only consisted of six episodes because Wood decided four of her scripts weren’t good enough and rejected these: you have to admire the integrity of a successful performer, a star, who can do that. Funnily enough, I remember the second series as being far superior to the first, sharper in its comedy because it took place across the background of a serious and emotionally involving on going story. The first series, for me, hadn’t quite caught.

Well, what a load of gubbins I was thinking back then, because re-watching the first half of the series today, I was struck by just how good, and how funny it was from the first moment. Why didn’t I respond to it then as I do now?

The automatic answer has to be something along the lines of ‘that was then, this is now’. Or probably more accurately, ‘I was then, now I’m now’. Where comedy has been since the end of the Twentieth Century, the fact that we no longer have Victoria Wood to make us laugh in the way she did, changes dinnerladies, and for the better. It’s old-fashioned style, it’s marrying of the mundane to the surreal whilst grounding it in characters and attitudes to which I instantly respond with recognition as a child of the North-West, born in the Fifties, seems to have gone out of the world nowadays. Ninety minutes this morning demonstrates just how much of a loss that is.

For those who don’t remember this series, the set-up is simple. It’s an ensemble sitcom set in the canteen of a northern factory, whose cast were a bunch of recognisable types, their individual eccentricities turned up just that little bit. It’s about obsessions, about cross-talk conversations where no-one’s listening. It’s about people and what’s on their mind. And what struck me as being significant is that it was about working class people, and tell me if I’m wrong, because I only have a very limited impression of modern day TV, but I don’t think we have that sort of thing on the telly any more, not in Britain. Working class people aren’t edgy enough, aren’t dark enough when it comes to comedy.

Victoria Wood plays Brenda, or ‘Bren’. She’s the still, central point, the normal one around which everyone else revolves. She’s the second-in-command in the canteen, under manager Tony Martin (Andrew Dunn), who comes over as an overaged sex-mad lad, but which is cover for his concerns for his health, not to mention his liking for Bren that manifests itself as being too shy to ask her out. Bren’s the sane one, but not without a well-balanced sense of humour, an everyday humour that’s so familiar, the humour that deflects seriousness because however confident you seem to be on the outside, because of this reflexive humour, is still a shield against the awkwardness real fears and feelings.

Then there’s Dolly (Thelma Barlow) and Jean (Anne Reid), both Coronation Street veterans (I remember Anne Reid as Val Barlow in the Sixties, when she was blondely gorgeous), playing the older ladies as best friends who are constantly bickering at each other, and Anita (Shobna Gulati), who is hapless, dim-witted and sweet, a stranger from an alternate Earth out of phase from where she understands everything and accidentally tuned into this one, and lastly Twinkle, or ‘Twink’ (a young Maxine Peake in her first serious role) who’s the youngster, out of place, disinterested, disengaged, disrespectful.

These are the ‘dinnerladies’, but the cast also extends to two more of Wood’s regular cast, Duncan Prston as Stan, ex-Army, maintenance and repairs, and Celia Imrie as Phillipa Moorcroft, the new woman in HR (and the factory owner’s mistress), endlessly and nervously enthusiastic, a misplaced Southerner, flapping about and conscious of not being on the same wavelength as everybody else.

It’s an ensemble cast of the best kind, that you feel can just be wound up and set in motion and they will deliver thirty minutes of slightly surreal banter without anyone needing to shape it, but that is to pay tribute to the quality of Wood’s writing. It takes hard bloody work making it look so effortless as this. Everyone inhabits their parts like worn soft leather gloves fitting fingers snugly. Thelma Barlow’s role is a world away from her shy, nervous, Mavis Riley of Coronation Street, but she’s brilliant. They’re all brilliant. This is so funny because you instantly accept it as real (Wood worked for several weeks in a northern factory canteen to get the feel of what was right.

Of course it wouldn’t be a Victoria Wood comedy without Julie Walters. Despite being only three years older than Wood, she plays her mother, Petula Guardino, an old, dirty, shambling, caravan-dwelling, flatulent fantasist, dropping in and out without a thought, let alone a care, for the disruption and chaos she brings in her wake. Walters is the series’ only departure into real old-fashioned sitcom, the exaggerated character impossible to imagine in real life. She, of course, portrays Petula perfectly.

The episodes basically rely on a situation which is then run through the ringer of the characters. ‘Monday’ was a set-up, introducing the cast on a busy Monday morning, ‘Royals’ about a Royal Visit and how it affects the canteen and ‘Scandal’ about the possibility of a docusoap about the canteen and the chaos caused when Petula sticks her caravan round the back with the bins, installing her sixteen year old lover, whose overweight and tablet-dependent mother wants him back.

There’s only one specific thing I want to mention, because I think it goes to the heart of what Victoria Wood wanted with the series, demonstrating yet again that a comedy that is only funny is only half real. The Royal Visit is by Prince James, the Duke of Danbeigh, supperbly overplayed by Simon Williams. Stan met him thirty years before on a Royal Visit to Catterick and, with his elevated view of the trained Royal’s memory for faces, expects to be recognised thirty years later. Prince James passes him by, twice, completely oblivious, leaving Stan hurt and angry. He tears off his hairpiece and leaves (it’s a mark of Wood’s gift as a writer that she has no-one so much as refer to the super-obvious hairpeace, nudging it to be the joke on its own without cheap and cliched drawing attention to it).

Prince James turns out to be disgruntled with Royal life, and more interested in sex than formal dinners. The one thing he loves that he can’t get in the Caribbean, or Bierritz, is a bacon sandwich so, after Bren gently turns down his suggestion of a bunk-up in a storage cupboard, she offers to do something for him if he’ll do something for her. And, in return for a package of cling-filmed bacon butties, Prince James suddenly ‘recognises’ Stan and the exact time and circumstances of their previous meeting. The thrill it gives Stan is immense, but it’s the sweetness of Bren doing something good to make one of her workmates happy, without out ever dipping over into sentimentality that sticks. This is an ordinary, everyday, down-to-earth, good woman.

And we bloody well miss people like that, on television and in real life.

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In the background, the Film DVDs have been building up again. There’s a couple of classics, another Almodovar, more anime, some dubious British stuff from the Sixties, a Jimmy Stewart boxset and one seriously despised film that only cost me £1. So for the rest of the year, Film 2022 will be back to Sunday mornings. So much to watch, so little time…

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge – My 40 Favourite Movies: 29 – Point Blank


Point Blank

29: POINT BLANK: 1967. Director: John Boorman. US. Crime drama. Lee Marvin. Angie Dickinson. Keenan Wynn. Carroll O’Connor. John Vernon.
Producer: Judd Bernard and Robert Chartoff. Scriptwriter: Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse and Rafe Newhouse, loosely based on the 1963 crime noir pulp novel The Hunter, by Donald E. Westlake (writing as Richard Stark). Editor: Henry Berman. Screen-time: 92 minutes. Original MGM budget: $2million. Actual budget: $2.5Million. Box office takings US and Canada only: $9million. Despite this, it was not regarded as a success at the time, but is now a cult classic.
This was British-born director John Boorman’s first Hollywood movie. He was born in 1933 at Shepperton, then Middlesex. He and Lee Marvin met in the UK while Marvin was filming war movie The Dirty Dozen (1967, with Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland, at MGM’s British studio). Marvin invited Boorman to Hollywood, and the two subsequently became life-long friends. Marvin was even godfather to Boorman’s son, Charley Boorman (born 1966), the actor, television presenter, travel writer and motorbike enthusiastic. After Point Blank, John Boorman directed Marvin’s next war movie, Hell in the Pacific (1968, with Japanese actor Tohir? Mifune). Boorman’s later films include Deliverance (1972, starring John Voight and Burt Reynolds); the rather wacky sci-fi fantasy Zardoz, with Sean Connery and Charlotte Rampling (1974); Exorcist II: The Heretic, with Linda Blair and Richard Burton (1977); and the comedy war drama Hope and Glory (1987). Currently his filmography is 1965 to 2019.
Again we have Chris Petit writing a review in the Time Out Film Guide: “One of the definitive films to emerge from Hollywood in the late ’60s, this hard-nosed adaption of Ricard Stark’s The Hunter owes much to the European influences that Boorman bought with him from England. People have noted the influence of Resnais behind the film’s time lapses and possible dream setting, but Godard’s Alphaville offers a more rewarding comparison. Both films use the gangster/thriller framework to explore the increasing depersonalisation of living in a mechanical urban world. Just as Constantine’s Lemmy Caution was a figure from the past stranded in a futuristic setting, so Marvin’s bullet-headed gangster is an anachronism from the ’50s transported to San Francisco and LA of the ’60s, a world of concrete slabs and menacing vertical lines. Double-crossed and left to die, Marvin comes back from the dead to claim his share of the money from the Organization, only to become increasingly puzzled and frustrated when he finds there is no money, because the Organization is the world of big business run by respectable men with wallets full of credit cards.” The, rather obscure, throwaway mention of ‘Resnais’, refers to the French film director/screenwriter, Alain Resnais (1922-2014), contemporary to, but not part of, the 1960s la nouvelle vague ‘New wave’, whose films were said to “explore the relationship between consciousness, memory and the imagination, and…was noted for deriving innovative formal structures for his narratives.”
Point Blank is sunlit film noir with a touch of Godard New Wave surrealism. I’ve not been a Lee Marvin fan – neither for nor against, and I’ve watched only a few of his films. Here he is Lee Marvin playing Lee Marvin the hard-nosed gangster and professional killer. What sets this apart from any other gangster/crime/revenge movie is its air of underlying mystery and ambiguity. Walker himself is an enigma. He seems to have no other name – not even to his sexy sister-in-law Chris (Angie Dickinson). The film starts and ends at Alcatraz Island. Walker is shot following a stitch-up over heist loot by his friend Reese, who also then sleeps with Walker’s wife, Lynn. Everything that follows could be Walker extracting revenge on the ‘Organization’, while seeking to claim his share of the money due him, or it could all be Walker’s dream of revenge, the dream either of a dying man, or – like washed-up scriptwriter Joe in Sunset Boulevard – a man already dead. Is it real? If real, how did Walker survive, or swim from Alcatraz? We next see him on a San Francisco ferry or tourist boat as it passes the island. Thereafter, systematically, one by one, he eliminates members of the Organization who try to obstruct him, buy him off with packets of fake money, or attempt to assassinate him, although he seems strangely invincible now. He moves in and out of the shadows, and even perhaps through time – we see his wife Lynn’s apartment several times over, furnished, then unfurnished. He is not just the out-of-time, left-over 1940s/early 50s anachronism of Petit’s review above, but like a automaton, a pre-programmed robot, emotionless and single-minded. Only the bare outline of plot links it to the ‘Robert Stark’ (Donald E. Westlake) novel, The Hunter, which featured an unlikeable gangster/killer named Parker. The outcome is different, the ending less ambiguous. Originally written as a one-off, Westlake’s editor persuaded him to change the ending, and the character lived on, for another 23 novels over 46 years. The setting, too, has been moved from New York to LA, and again one thinks of the similar relocation of Spillane’s Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly. The Marvin/Boorman movie is a visual film of memorable set-pieces – of Marvin taking the crooked car salesman for a ‘test drive’, pre-seat-belts, and smashing up the vehicle under the flyover; Marvin and Angie Dickinson looking at Reese’s rooftop penthouse suite through the tourist telescope; Marvin at the LA River concrete drainage channel, made famous by the 1954 science fiction movie Them! Then there is Dickinson in seductive mode, having sex with Reese as a distraction for Walker to sneak up on him in the bedroom. In the cinema version I recollect seeing she wore red panties. In the television broadcast version that was edited out, but at least one other version has her scurrying naked out of the bed as Walker threatens Reese with a gun. Walker doesn’t actually intentionally kill anyone, as I recollect – unlike Westlake’s murderous thug. Instead, Walker set up the bad guys to kill each other, in the mistaken guise of trying to kill him. As for Reese – one time friend, who took both his money and his wife (she took an overdose soon after Walker reappears) – he goes tumbling over the parapet of his penthouse terrace, landing on the roof of a passing car.
With Carter eliminated by a sniper at the LA river, the next in the chain of command, Brewster, arranges with his superior, Fairfax, for a money drop at Alcatraz. It is another set-up, and the sniper shoots Brewster instead of Walker, who remains out of sight, in the shadows. As he dies Brewster reveals Fairfax’s true identity of Yost, who then steps forward, claiming he has used Walker to eliminate troublesome underlings, and offers a partnership. The movie ends with Yost leaving, the packet unopened, Brewster dead, Walker just a face in the darkness, before the camera pulls up and away, a night-time view of Alcatraz, back where we started. Even Boorman refused to explain or unravel the ambiguity. But this was very much Marvin’s movie also. At a pre-production meeting with studio executives, Marvin demanded complete control of the script and cost, then handing his authority over to Boorman, as director. But Marvin remained hands-on in shaping the picture and its central character. This was his creation, as much as Boorman’s. He was to appear in another 18 movies, but in the 1970s moved away from the tough bad-guy roles, his last role being in 1986.
Lee Marvin (1924-1987), after service in the Marines, 1942-45, in Asiatic-Pacific front, got his first acting break on stage in 1949, appeared on television in 1950, and his first film role in 1951. Thereafter, he moved, seemingly effortlessly, back and forth from film to television, appearing in numerous long-running series such as The Virginian, Dr Kildare, Wagon Train, Route 66, Dragnet, Bonanza, even in The Twilight Zone. From 1957-60 he played Detective Lieutenant Frank Ballinger in the NBC TV series M Squad, set in Chicago. Over the three seasons it featured Charles Bronson, James Coburn (who I always think is of the same ilk), Burt Reynolds, Leonard Nimoy (before he found fame in Star Trek), and Angie Dickinson – who would herself eventually star in a police TV series, as Sgt Suzanne ‘Pepper’ Anderson in Police Woman, 1974-78. In film, Marvin had a small part in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, with Spencer Tracey); Not as a Stranger (with Robert Mitchum, also 1955); I Died a Thousand Times (Jack Palance, 1956); Seven Men From Now (with Randolph Scott, again 1956); The Rock (Paul Newman, 1956); The Comancheros (1961, with John Wayne); The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, with Wayne and James Stewart); Donovan’s Reef (1963); top billing in The Killers (1964, with Ronald Reagan and Angie Dickinson); then comedy, Cat Ballou (1965, with Jane Fonda); Ship of Fools (1965, with Vivien Leigh); The Professionals (1966, with Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan). His 1970s period films were less successful, and he declined a role in Jaws (1975), apparently on the basis of upsetting his fishing friends. In 1983 he was in Gorky Park, with William Hurt, and his last movie was Delta Force, 1986, with Chuck Norris. He was married twice, to Betty Ebeling (1951-67), and Pamela Feeley (1970-87), while lived with Michelle Triola (1965-70).
Angie Dickinson (born Angeline Brown, 1931), continued to use her first married name, to Gene Dickinson, from 1952 to 1960. She later married musical composer/arranger Burt Bacharach (1965 to 1981). Her filmography was from 1954 to 2004. Her television appearances are from 1954 to 2009. As we can see from above, she and Lee Marvin had a history of performances together, perhaps the reason she got the part. The story goes that, whilst filming at Alcatraz, Angie and Sharon Acker (who played Lynne Walker) modelled fashion shoots for Life magazine.
I loved the movie even back when I first saw it, on original cinema release. Many critics at the time were less enthralled, or were simply baffled. Others were suitably impressed – “A brutal melodrama…intermittently dazzling.” – “Film noir to stylistic taste of European nouvelle vague.” – “Ignored in the 1960s, now regarded as the top film of the decade.” Another story is the studio executives wanted to do reshoots, but supervising editor Margaret Booth told John Boorman, “You touch one frame of this film over my dead body.” It is said many of the visual metaphors and colour tones were directly suggested by Lee Marvin himself. It is another time capsule of LA, but now in the 1960s.
Here are my comments as written 06/03/1988:
Point Blank (1967) with Lee Marvin (as ‘Walker’) and Angie Dickinson – I remember seeing this years ago at the time it first came out, but two of the most vivid memories of the film were either false or (more likely) for whatever reason edited out – in the penthouse scene Angie D. strips to her red panties as Walker’s latest victim Reeves prepared to seduce her, and when Reeves goes over the roof terrace we actually saw him hit the roof of a passing car in the street, and I recollect someone screaming…Even at the time I suspected that a body going it from however many floors up the penthouse was, would not be very solid on impact. In retrospect the film is rather ghastly and surrealistic. Is the whole thing a dream fantasy evoked in the last minutes of Walker’s life when shot down by Reese at the film’s beginning? Is he a ghost bent on vengeance, or did he really survive and swim back from Alcatraz? The film uses flashbacks, flashbacks on flashbacks, Walker moves in the shadows, a pro killer, but sometimes lost, directionless, really a puppet being manipulated by the mob to eliminate each other. This, we are told, is the time in American films when the so-called heroes got lost, killed or seem confused. It reflected the feeling of a nuclear age USA. Walker is a Mike Hammer type, but (despite the body count) the film lacks the mean nastiness of Kiss Me Deadly. The setting is L.A. again, but in colour and sunshine. We see downtown, high-rise hotels, the Hollywood hills and the famous storm-drains of the L.A. River – setting for Them! and several other movies, it seems. But overall a rather strange sense of nothing. Boorman, the producer, was British and another contemporary film very similar in mood (though not in content!) is Blow Up – in the same surrealistic mood, the same drifting anti-hero, the same casual sex.

All the Fells: Esk Pike


Esk Pike – The Southern Fells 2,903′ (210)

Date: 16 September 1994

From: Bowfell

Esk Pike was the last part of a long and glorious day, a sunny day set aside for the Big Walk at the end of a week’s holiday. Crinkle Crags, Bowfell and Esk Pike, starting from Oxendale and finishing by Esk Hause, Rossett Gill and Mickleden. And without a watch, which I’d left behind in Manchester, two nights before, breaking my holiday to head home to watch United playing in the Champions League, monitoring the time via Radio 4 on my Test Match Special cap radio. It had already been a long day by the time I descended to Ore Gap, and I was aware that I was getting tired and that every step from hereon would take me further away from my car and make the return journey all the longer, but I was damned if I was giving up here and going to drop down to the Angle Tarn path. The way forward was an uphill climb, following a path in a groove between higher bluffs on each side. It didn’t go to the summit, for that I had to make a 50′ diversion to the right, and by then I was glad I’d done for the day. But my refusal to retreat over trodden ground meant a descent onwards, towards Esk Hause, the path twice following remarkably flat rock ledges, until I was back at the Head of Upper Eskdale, where I’d stood about two months previously, coming down off Scafell Pike on an even better day from Seathwaite. I completed my walk by going to the cairn, by walking down to the wallshelter and, after a look westward towards the splendid skyline of the two Gables, turning down to the right and beginning the long walk to Angle Tarn. Three downhill stints and two flat sections between and I was crossing the outflow of the Tarn. This left the cruellest part of the day, three hundred feet of late, leg- and thigh-weary ascending to reach the top of the Pass. It was all downhill from here, thankfully. That day, the uppermost fifty feet or more of Rossett Gill was still steep, straight and torn to pieces, but I kept my eyes peeled and spotted the junction with the top of the re-made zig-zags and turned aside thankfully. Then I had a choice. I could follow the remade path down to the head of Mickleden, the easy, untroubled way, or I could finish in style by tracing the old pony route. They tell me that all traces of this have now disappeared and there weren’t that many left back then. There were none at the head of the route: I had to maintain the same angle of descent as the uppermost zigzag but over trackless fellside. I feel justified in boasting that I did it perfectly, arriving spot on for the miniature natural weir, then downhill using Wainwright’s page as a completely accurate guide, until everything petered out among the damp moraines. I made the driest beeline possible for the Mickleden path, then a nasty brown strip, landrover wheelbase wide, and even then I ended up with one boot plunged to the ankle and a rhythmic step-squelch all the way back to my car.

Sunday Watch: The Singing Detective: episode 02 – Heat


Episode 2 begins to place a structure upon this story, letting us see it as something composed of two levels and three corners. The levels are, of course, the past and the present, and the corners are two pasts and the present, two pasts, one fictional and one that, in the absence of any indications to the contrary, but without any actual confirmation, we assume to be real.

We also see a massive influx of new and major players: Bill Patterson as the psychiatrist Dr Gibbon, Jim Carter as young Philip’s Dad, Alison Steadman as his Mum and Janet Suzman as Marlow’s estranged wife, Nicola.

We’ve seen two corners already, in the first episode, Marlow’s present as a hospital patient with a severe and incapacitating skin condition, and the unreal past of a detective story he once wrote, now replaying in his head in a fantastic manner that we intuitively understand is not how it came out on the previously printed page. This progresses through Mark Binney’s unpleasant and sick encounter with the Russian ‘hostess’ Sonia, with whom he has sex: Binney’s contempt for Sonia is less for her selling sex than for having sex in the first place. His entire manner, even before we see that he has sex with his shirt and vest on and his shorts only pulled down as fas as his knees, so he can quickly cover himself up afterwards, whilst she is naked but for stockings and her black bra pulled down to her waist, is nothing but disgust.

The two trench-coated men are watching his house. Sonia panics and flees, only to disappear. The police suspect Binney, who protests his innocence to Philip Marlow, The Singing Detective. Gambon plays the fictional Marlow, all cleaned up and sharp-talking, a fond play on Chandleresque quips and stylistically constructed sentences. Detective Marlow must find Sonia but, just as we realised in the first episode, she is the naked body fished out of the Thames. And the trench-coated men effectively force their way into Binney’s house at the end, pausing only to comment upon a painting of Sonia, bare-breasted, showin that they, too, have a twisted attitude to sex.

Make no mistake, no part of this series is ultimately free from a problematic attitude, no, a loathing and disgust for sex as sticky, unpleasant, lubricious, farcical, life creation in a messy squirt. It’s there in too much of Dennis Potter’s writing, it comes from his own responses, but The Singing Detective is where he treats it to the most rigourous examination.

We see that start with Marlow being wheeled – the wheelchair squeaks, naturally – to his first meeting with Dr Gibbon, whose first step is to leave Marlow alone, able to see a copy, bent and twisted, of The Singing Detective, Marlow’s original paperback. Marlow is rude, dismissive, sarcastic and offensive, we already know that. It’s never been more obvious a defence mechanism, deflection, roadblack, the lot. Gibbon can easily see it as such, but he easily gets under Marlow’s skin, despite the patient’s urgent desire to avoid being exposed in any way, by reading to him a passage from the book, a passage about sex.

It’s a bullseye. Without having the book to check, I’m convinced Potter stole the passage off himself, his first novel, Hide and Seek, but it’s the same passage of disgust, even hatred. And fear.

It opens up the third corner, the real(?) past. The young boy at the top of the tree in the Forest of Dean (where Potter was born and raised) is Philip aged 10, and we open up to see his childhood. The cramped little miner’s cottage that Mr  Marlow and his wife share with his parents, with no room and no comfort. Marlow is, and his Dad was until coal dust in the lungs crippled him, a miner, but his beautiful wife is a cut above him, not of the Forest with its accent and sometimes impenetrable dialect. She’s highly-strung for one thing, though then again in those conditions who wouldn’t be?

But Marlow’s a beautiful singer (mimed of course) to his wife’s piano accompaniment, singing at the pub to wild applause, whilst she plays a complex piano piece to respectful silence. The compere, Raymond, is Patrick Mallahide again, a second mixing of the separated elements.

All of this is released in the skin-diseased Marlow’s head, his defences punctured, the flood of memory overwhelming as he develops a high fever. Coming late to the dining room argument and taking the blame onto his own head because it was he who was late. Showing off in class, supplying all the answers, teacher’s admiration and his classmate’s revenge on him (flaming hell, that went close to home, because I did that once: once only), delusions about the future at the top of the tree. And discovering his Mum lying in the gass of the forest, her dress up to her waist as a man lies on top of her, his bare bum bouncing. We don’t see who he is this time, but we don’t need to. We know who it’s going to be.

Marlow’s in a fever. The new patient, replacing Ali, is an obstreperous old bugger. But then he has a visitor, Nicola. We don’t exactly know her status but again we know who she must be. Marlow’s asleep, for which she is grateful. She’s horrified by his appearance, horrified but not disgusted, a point that’s not belaboured. She won’t stay, doesn’t want him woken, he’d only abuse her, and yes he does when he wakes, as she’s leaving the ward. Bitch. Whore. Slag. Who’s she spreading her legs for now?

Yes, you take the point. It will be developed further in succeeding episodes.

Not just a ‘Prisoner’ Prequel


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Batman: Three Jokers 2


Well, if Geoff Johns really knows what he’s doing with this story, he’s only got one more issue in which to prove it.There is a story in issue 2 that can be summarised by an account of what happens but which so far fails absolutely on the question of why? Or, rather, what’s the point of this story.

The point is that there are, and for a very long time has been, three separate people composing the entity known by the Joker. This time round, Johns does a clearer job of defining them as the Criminal, the Clown and the Comedian. The Criminal is the original: it hurts, literally, when he laughs, through permanent nerve damage, inferred to be from his chemical bath. The Clown fantasises he has a family in suburbia, wife and son, terrified of him: he’s the one who beat Jason Todd to death when the latter was Robin. The Comedian is the one Jason has shot through the head at point-blank range, cold-bloodedly, in front of Batgirl.

Ok, that’s the what. The Jokers are trying to create more of them. They want Jason as the new Number 3: after all, he’s already calling himself the Red Hood, he suffered brain damage, has permanent nerve pain, emotional and physical trauma only relieved by inflicting pain himself. This is a hero? But Jason, for all that he hates Batman for not coming after him, for just replacing him, is not Joker material.

But this story is a story of two threes. The Three Jokers are set up against Batman, Red Hood and Batgirl. She’s the other major Joker victim, shot and paraplegic for several decades in The Killing Joke (Johns really does like to rag on anything Alan Moore wrote). But she’s just watched Jason Todd murder someone in cold blood before her eyes. He’s not just crossed the line, he’s obliterated it, he’s become the very antithesis of what the Batman Family represents. He has to be stopped, he has to be stopped just as much as the Joker or any of their other more conventional enemies.

But Batman won’t do it. That’s a mystery in itself: why does Batman basically not give a shit? Can’t arrest and charge Jason for murder, he’d have to unmask. Batgirl can’t be a witness: have to unmask. He’ll talk to Jason. Well, why the hell didn’t he talk to him a long time ago, when it might have done some bloody good, because make no mistake, this is way past the point from which Jason might have been diverted.

And when the two of them rescue him, further beaten and bloodied, it’s Batgirl not Batman who stays behind to tend to Jason, whilst Batman pisses off back to the Batcave to start re-reading files about Missing Criminls and Missing Clowns. Yes, Batman has files by those name all ready and waiting to be combed for identities he’s never been arsed enough to consider before. Is Johns aware of the image he’s creating for Batman here and that this is a tactic worthy of being used on the old TV Show, yes, that one? Holy Pathetic.

I’ve tried to steer clear of spoilers for things like this but couldn’t avoid being alterted to a leaked panel of Barbara (in costume but for her cowl) and Jason (in nothing but a towel and some elastoplasts) having a kiss. The context makes the whole thing less sensational: Jason is being more reasonable and self-aware than ever before, she’s being empathetic, it was a moment, nothing more, though it may prove to be the opening and closing of a door through which Jason Todd will not now pass, leaving his trajectory undisturbed.

Anyway, Johns hasn’t forgotten to administer a deep-seated pain to the main man. Joe Chill, yes, remember him, has cancer and weeks to live. His fingerprints are on a blunt instrument used to kill a man. Now The Joker – Joker One – has kidnapped him to Alaska to film him explaining why he really killed Thomas and Martha Wayne. Continued Next Month.

I cannot help but think that this is an inordinate amount of fuss over something of no interest or point. Another wrinkle to Bruce Wayne’s origin. Three Jokers: Why? What does any of it do to enhance the mythos? What part of it is a story with depth, intelligence and flair? What part of it connects with our emotions? Is this anything but a prime, twenty-one carat example of why comics are now in their decadent era, their dying flow? Concerned only with minutiae, drenched in death, pain, poision and torture. Completely unmoored from any sense of enjoyment, any idea that there was once a sense of fun, of awe and wonder about the possibility of these extraordinary, astounding and sometimes goofy powers. There is no fun.

Of course I’m dissing Geoff Johns in the main, but good, indeed excellent as Jason Fabok’s art may be, it’s taken so long to draw this, building everything about the Watchmen grid again, that all flavour has gone out of his work. It’s been over-processed until it’s sterile, until anything born of simple inspiration has been ground into the earth.

And once again, what is the point of Three Jokers? What does it gain us? How does it enrich the character? Is it even interesting? It smacks of Johns throwing in an offhand reference that sounded enigmatic and intriguing, but failing to actually come up with a reason that worked.

Come back in a month when I’ll report if Johns has anything up his sleeve to refute my opinion, or get me to applaud him. I’m not holding out any anticipation.

A fact about the Duckbill Platypus


According to our computer system at work, the duckbill platypus can store as many as six hundred worms in the pouches of its cheeks. Immediately, I envisaged the experiment to determine this taking place in an expensive restaurant with the platypus sat up at the table, a napkin around its neck, whilst being fed worms one by one whilst an assistant stands by with a clipboard, anxiously counting, until, in a Mr Creosote monent, he’s offered a wafer thin mint…