Dunblane: 22 Years

Some things never go away.

It took a mention on a Social forum to clue me in that today is the 22nd Anniversary of the school massacre at Dunblane, and it took less than an instant to take me back.

I was working in North Manchester then, Sedgley Park, near Prestwich, and going to Manchester United games. It was possible, without straining the speed limit, to drive from Sedgley Park to Old Trafford, visit the Ticket Office and be back within my lunch hour. We were on the run-in to overhauling Newcastle United, on the road to the Double Double. I was going to Old Trafford.

It was a bright, sunny day. I hadn’t popped in a cassette player, instead I was listening to the radio. I’ve no idea what channel it might be: certainly not Radio 1, probably Five Live. I was about ten minutes out and driving alongside a park-like area when they announced shootings at a Scottish school.

There were further bulletins, there, and back. Flat updates, delivered from a studio nowhere near Dunblane. It maintained a distance in those early minutes, for which I’m grateful. I switched on a car radio midway through Hillsborough: no-one was speaking but the background sound was enough to tell me that something horrible was taking/had taken place. I don’t think I could have coped with an update directly from Dunblane, not with the atmosphere that would have penetrated.

I got back to the office, in a dilemma as to what to say. This was an age before the Internet, and social media. We don’t realise now how slow news could spread, when there weren’t a million sources diseminating information from the middle of things. I could easily have been the only person in that office who knew what was going on.

It was strange to be like that. It could have been something I’d imagined, misunderstood, got wrong. No such luck. The television that night confirmed everything, made it all horribly real.

But mention Dunblane, and I can see what I saw out of the car, sun in the sky, empty parkland, all things of peace and quiet and this news coming over the radio that no-one wanted to believe.

And I have another indelible memory. A group of local musicians recorded a charity single, a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’, with which I was familiar from its 19070’s chart run. I no longer listened to Radio 1, I hadn’t heard it. I no longer watched Top of the Pops but I watched it the night they were to appear.

It wasn’t the song itself but the occasion. The sincerity in the faces and the voices. I began to cry. I wasn’t so sentimental, and prone to emotion then, when I’m having to repress tears just at the memory.

The song was received in silence, and at its end, the camera panned across the studio, to a young man beginning a song with an acoustic guitar intro. Was this part of it? Was it a segue? The song, pure and sweet, with a refrain of ‘Child, beautiful child’ couldn’t have been more faultlessly chosen. My heart split even further apart.

Later, I found that this was Mark Owen, ex of Take That, a long time before I found myself finding out more about Take That than I dreamed I’d ever need to. It was his first solo single. It was a fortuitous release, for although the juxtaposition sounds cheap, mechanical and manipulative, in that moment it was perfect for squeezing out even more sobbing.

And now it’s 22 years. It was many of those years before I learned that Jamie Murray was one of the children, cowering under the Headmaster’s desk, trying to shelter his little brother Andy in case that murderous bastard should come in. I cannot begin to conceive what it would be like to go through that experience, at that age, and if Andy Murray is ever something of a grump, he has a free pass on that from me.

But 22 years is as nothing to those memories. The sinking feeling, rendering everything else, including the ticket I was going to buy, utterly meaningless in the face of what had happened. The impact of those two songs, presented in silence (I didn’t watch the rest of the show: how could you have a Top of the Pops after that opening?). Some things never go away, no matter how much you might wish to find them sinking into the back of your memory. Say Dunblane, and I am there again. I always will be. And I wasn’t even involved.


Deep Space Nine: s06 e12 – Who Mourns For Morn?

What did I like about this episode? Hmm…

Oh God, it’s Quark again.

Not just that but the idea is that Morn, you know, the silent, big-mouthed background character, the one who’s always in the bar drinking, who’s supposed to be a non-stop talker when he’s not on camera, that Morn has been killed and made Quark his heir. And he owns 1,000 bricks of gold-pressed latinum, which brings four people out of thin air, all telling wild stories about Morn’s unrevealed past, all after the latinum for themselves. Whilst Quark schemes to keep it for himself.

What we have here is the elevation of an in-joke into the basis for an episode and even if it weren’t hung on Quark, it would have to be a lot more substantial – and not feature Morn walking in at the end, still alive – to be worth doing, and this isn’t.

It’s archaic, it’s out of place in the midst of the Dominion Wars, it’s silly and it reveals its awkwardness at the end where there’s a dialogue between Quark and Morn explaining the plot in which Quark has to supply both halves of the dialogue because Morn never speaks on camera.

And it’s bloody Quark for the second time in three weeks.

Guest stars include the slimy Gregory Itzin who I will forever associate with the slimy President Charles Logan in 24 and Bridget Ann White, a former gymnast who I will forever associate with the bare midriff, long legs and long red hair of her character Larell. I will try to disassociate that memory from the memory of this episode so I can enjoy it.

This is a fan-favourite episode. Ultimately, I suppose you will have to accept I am not a fan.

Saturday SkandiDrama: Below the Surface episodes 1 & 2

Okay, you got me for the next month.

Below the Surface is a 2017 eight-part Danish thriller series, which came to BBC4 on Saturday evening in the usual two-episode format. It’s a simple, straightforward series, or so it presents itself in the opening salvo. Three seemingly Muslim terrorists stop a Danish Metro train underground, lead 15 passengers at gunpoint through the system into an area being constructed, near Copenhagen’s picturesque Marble Church, where a well-prepared site is waiting. They demand a ransom of 4M euros (30M kroner) for their release.

The Government calls in its newly created TTF (Terror Task Force), under the command of ex-Army Philip Norgaard (Johannes Lassen), to contain and resolve the situation. However, the Terrorists refuse to communicate with TTF’s negotiators, who include the lovely Louise Falck (Sara Hjort Divletson), Philip’s very very recently (as in, this morning) ex-lover, choosing TV presenter journalist Naja Toft (Paprika Steen).

Naja is offered a live interview with one of the hostages, Marie Bendix (Alba August), a student nurse, which she puts on air without authority, and which gets her fired. But the terrorists, under their leader Alpha (Jakob Oftebro), maintain the relationship: Naja, who has now started a fundraiser to raise the ransom, is offered a second hostage interview, this time with karate teacher Adel (Dar Salim).

But Adel refuses to play ball, tells his audience he’d rather die, not to pay anything. He continues in the face of a threat to shoot fellow-hostage Denise (Sus Wilkins), an attractive young woman. At episode 2’s end, the terrorists release a hostage: it is Adel, and he is dead.

So far, so slick, professional and absorbing. It may not seem like more than an action story on a sadly-contemporary theme, but there are a couple of aspects that look like taking it into a higher plane.

These centre mainly on Philio. The series opened with a lengthy underground scene of Philip, a hostage himself, being brutalised by Ahmad, a burly figure in camouflage gear, with a big, black beard. Ahmad plays with Philip, teasing him almost, in between savage blows. It is an impossible situation. Yet Philip escapes, returns home, goes back to work as the operational commander of the new TTF.

How did he get away? That’s being kept in the dark so far. Philip won’t talk about it, either with his Dad, the former Defence Chief, nor the lovely Louise, who’s splitting up with him because he’s lying to her about the ‘bad dreams’ that wake him up whenever she stays over. Philip’s been fully debriefed, seen all the shrinks, got a clean bill of health, but obviously whatever he told them is not going to be the truth, and he is still having flashbacks.

Is it going to be that he’s another Manchurian Candidate? Or, to be more up-to-date, first season Nicholas Brody? I dunno. It’s got Louise concerned about his fitness to do the job.

And there’s one major question mark over Philip from another source already, and as this is the current Defence Chief, I’m already betting Philip gets relieved of his command no later than episode 5. Because Philip is convinced he has recognised the heavily balaclava-masked Alpha as Ahmad, because Alpha ends episode 1 by quoting Peter Sellars’ catch-phrase from that old, old film, The Party. Ahmad uses it during Philip’s captivity, Alpha uses it now: “Howdy, partner.”

But Ahmad is dead, three months after Philip escaped, killed in an American drone attack. Or is he? Is Alpha Ahmad, or is Philip cracking up? I’ve already laid my bet. Ahmad doesn’t appear in the credits in imdb for Gidseltagningen (the Danish title) after all.

Even if Below the Surface turns out to be no more than a thriller, it’s at least a well-made one in which no-one’s done anything stupid so far. Which, given things like Modus, Follow the Money, and that legend of legends, Salamander, is all manner of plus points already.

Film 2018: The Princess Bride

Originally, this was going to be another sub-titled film session. Possibly, I was going to choose Delicatessen, or maybe Swimming Pool. But it’s been a stressful week, and I was seeking out simple things to read, books I didn’t have to think about whilst reading, books I had no intention of writing about. I turned to my dog-eared, second hand copy of William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, and from that naturally to its twenty-years later sequel, Which Lie Did I Tell?, in which Goldman details experiences with a new set of films, made and unmade. One such is The Princess Bride, adapted from his own novel. The moment I turned to that page, I realised that it had been ages since I’d watched it, and that I needed to watch it again as soon as possible.

Good morning.

Back in 1987, I was a regular, Tuesdays and Thursdays, at the Crown & Anchor, on Port Street, just back of Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester, meeting a group of friends who had originally got together as comics and SF fans. This had been going on for several years. By this time, I usually gave John and Brian lifts home, even though this was miles out of my way, and John would often invite us in for a cup of tea with his elderly Mam and Dad (his Mam would cut the Calvin & Hobbes cartoons out of the Daily Express for me: lovely lady) and a chat. One Tuesday night, Film 87 was showing and Barry Norman showed a clip from a forthcoming film, The Princess Bride.

It was the clifftop scene. Two men – Inigo Montoya, a Spaniard seeking revenge for his father, slaughtered by a six-fingered man, played by Mandy Patinkin, and the Man in Black, a mysterious pursuing figure, played by Cary Elwes – are about to fight a duel withe swords.

And, oh my word, but this is brilliant! It’s an honest-to-goodness, stunningly athletic, Errol Flynn/Tyrone Powers swordfight, all flashing blades, athletic charges up and down rocks, superb poise, and running through it is this wonderfully ironic but completely deadpan commentary from the characters. In short, it’s a spoof, but it’s the only kind of spoof that really is funny, because it’s being made by people who know, and love, and understand, and respect the source, and it’s brilliantly balanced. No winks to the audience. No knowing looks that say, ‘hey, we all know this is crap, and only suckers watch stuff like this’. No mockery. It was stunning.

We all decided that we had to see this film. Blimey, if all of it was as good as this? And it is.

We didn’t go as mates, no. Instead, I took my girlfriend/love and her ten year old son, because we both knew it was the kind of film he’d love. What we didn’t reckon on was the manner of the opening, although his reactions which almost a perfect reflection of the way the film started.

William Goldman had written the novel of The Princess Bride in 1973. Like so many great stories, it started from stories made up for his children, two young daughters, one of whom wanted a story about princesses, the other a story about brides. Then he started writing it down, but soon found himself starting to struggle, until he hit on the idea of the book being the really fun bits of a longer story. The fiction is that Goldman’s book is an abridgement of the original story by S. Morgenstern, that Goldman’s dad used to read to him whn he was a kid only now Goldman realises his dad was leaving out the boring bits, which in the Goldman version are replaced by a running commentary from Bill himself, explaining what and why he’s cut out.

To produce that effect on film, Goldman introduced the brilliant device of a young, nameless boy (Fred Savage) ill at home in bed, whose grandfather (Peter Falk) is reading him the story when the Grandson would rather be playing video game Baseball. These two are a great double act, with the Grandson interrupting the film at various times, at first to complain about a dull story, and increasingly to comment when things are going the way he expects.

This enables Goldman to set things up, all the boring but essential exposition, by having the unimpressed Grandson chipping in. All about Buttercup (Robin Wright on her debut), the most beautiful woman in the world, not just in Florin, and patient, put-upon farmboy Westley (Elwes), whose only response to her demands is “As you wish”, and how they fall in love, and kiss (“you didn’t tell me there was going to be kissing!”). And Westley goes away to seek his fortune but his ship is captured by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who leaves no survivors, and Buttercup’s heart was frozen, and then five years later, she’s selected to be the bride of Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon, wonderfully straight-faced in the role of a cowardly, plotting, villain) except that she doesn’t love him at all.

The Grandson’s not liking this and neither is David, squirming in his seat, getting ever more furious at us for tricking him into watching such a rotten film as this…

And then Buttercup gets kidnapped by an gloriously implausible trio, consisting of a puffed-up, short, bald Sicilian plotter, Vizzini (Wallace Shawn, constantly decrying every upset to his plan as “Inconceivable!”), the drunken Spaniard master swordsman, Inigo Montoya, and the slow-moving, rhyming Giant, Fezzick (wrestler and actual giant, Andre the Giant, real name A. R. Roussimoff).

This is where the film takes off. Just the look of the three, their extreme contrasts in size, their accents, Shawn’s near-shriek, was enough to take the film onto the elevated plane it would occupy from there on in. Vizzini’s trio are there to kidnap and kill Buttercup, to provoke a war between Florin and its ancient enemy, Gilder. Vizzini has planned everything to perfection. Exccept (“Inconceivable!”)…

Except the Man in Black is following them. Up the Cliffs of Insanity. Defeating Inigo in that magnificent fight. Defeating Fezzick’s strength (he’s out of practice with tackling one man, he usually fights groups, the moves are completely different). Outwitting Vizzini (“Inconceivable!!”) And confronting Princess Buttercup, with scorn for a woman who betrayed True Love, which raises Buttercup to a fury: losing Westley killed her, she will not have that mocked. She’s already realised that the Man in Black is the Dread Pirate Roberts, but only when she pushes him down a ravine and he calls “As… you… wish…” does she realise what the audience has already known for a long time, that he’s also Westley.

Oh, I forget to mention, there’s another complication. Prince Humperdinck is the greatest hunter in the world. There’s nothing he loves more than hunting. Except possibly hiring Vizzini to  kidnap and kill Buttercup and frame Gilder as an excuse to conquer Gilder in war and rule the world. And he’s on the trail.

By the way, just as an aside, remember how Inigo’s father was slaughtered by a six-fingered man? Humperdinck’s confidant, right hand man, and curious investigator into pain and torture is Count Rugen (lovely underplaying by Christopher Guest, dry, quiet, almost monotonous). Who has six-fingers on his right hand.

Reunited, Westley and Buttercup try to make their escape through the Fire Swamp. This is a studio set-up, with random gouts of fire, Lightning Sands (think quicksand, only instant) and R.O.U.S (Rodents Of Unusual Size), though much of what has gone so far has been filmed in gorgeous English countryside, mostly Derbyshire/Sheffield. I’ll come back to this scene later, but for now our True Love pair get all the way through, only to find Humperdinck and Rugan and their men waiting for them.

Westley’s prepared to die with defiance, but Buttercup can’t take his dying again. She surrenders to Humperdinck on condition he spares Westley’s life. And she’s sweet and naive and innocent enough to believe him when he says he will. Westley’s well aware that he’s going to be killed, but first Rugen intends to torture him in the Pit of Despair.

Change of plan. Whilst pretending to send messages to the Dread Pirate Roberts (it’s a title, practically a franchise: Westley inherited from Ryan when he retired, who inherited it from Cummerbund, etc.,) that he can collect Buttercup if he wishes, Humperdinck moves ahead with a complex plan to set-up the murder of Queen Buttercup, on her wedding night, by Gilder agents: actually, he’s going to strangle her himself, so much more satisfying.

Except that Buttercup may be naive but she’s not stupid. She sees through his plan on the Wedding Day, and bitterly and passionately accuses Humperdinck of being a coward, a rotten, lying, despicable coward. They say the truth hurts, and in this case, Humperdinck gets so mad, he storms down to the Pit of Despair, where Westley is connected to some sort of pre-industrial electrocution machine made of wood and water, slams it up to 50, and kills Westley.

Yes, that’s right. Kills. As in Dead. Dead dead. “You’re not reading it right,” complains the Grandson.

The hero is dead. But we still have Inigo and Fezzick, skill and strength. But without Vizzini, they need a brain: who better than the Man in Black? Even if he is dead: all they need is a Miracle.

Enter a great cameo from Billy Crystal, all made-up to be oooooold and Carol Kane as Miracle Max and his wife Valerie, allowed to improvise and doing so so well that Bill Goldman confessed that he wishes he had written one of their lines. This brings Westley back to life, if not actually motion, which leads to a storming of the Castle by two-and-a-bit men.

From hereon in to the end, this just gets too good to spoil, though there’s this confrontation scene between Inigo and Rugan, in which all of Mandy Potinkin’s dialogue is repetitions of “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” For months, I could reduce David to shrieks of laughter just by putting on the accent and saying “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya…”

And it all ends happily ever after.

The film was praised everywhere but didn’t become a commercial smash until the era of Home video.With one caveat I’m about to come to, I think it’s brilliant, and what makes it so is that it is played completely seriously throughout. The casting is perfect throughout, and everyone is not only completely comfortable in their roles, they are plainly loving every minute of it. Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin both learned to fence to play the Clifftop scene, and that’s all them (except for the somersaults).

What makes the spoof side work so well is that they play the story entirely seriously at every moment. That’s how it works: the film respects its audience, it condescends neither to its material nor to them. It’s the perfect example of why the 1979 big budget Flash Gordon was such a piece of shite.

You can only get under the skin of something and make it so funny if you love it. You can’t do it with something you hate, that you only want to tear down.

My one caveat, and it’s something that has only struck me today, on this watching, is that the film is very male-oriented. Apart from supporting cast, there are only two female roles of any substance, and one of those is Carol Kane. There’s basically just Robin Wright, and that’s it. She’s perfect for the role and even at twenty she shoulders such an important part without any missteps. But it took the Fire Swamp sequence for me to suddenly see that hers is an almost purely passive role.

Buttercup is the incarnation of the old-fashioned Princess. She’s there to be rescued, as Westley does, time and again, in the Fire Swamp. She doesn’t have anything to do herself. There are two confrontations with Humperdinck where, once out of desperation, once out of contempt, her words change the movement of the story. And there are two points where Buttercup takes actual, physical action in her own behalf, instead of waiting for Westley to save her. The first is where she dives out of Vizzini’s boat in an attempt to escape, only to land in water infested with deadly Screaming Eels, forcing her to retreat. And the other is when she shoves the Dread Pirate Roberts in the back, down into the ravine, discovers it’s Westley back from the dead, and hurls herself after.

It’s not much. It’s certainly not any kind of subversion of the cliches. I didn’t think that way back in 1988, when we took David to the cinema, but I think that now, and it’s a blot, a tiny blot on a film that would definitely be one of the ten I’d take to a desert island with a functioning DVD player and a reliable source of electricity. The Princess Bride is out-and-out fun!

Eagle Volume 10 (1959)

The year of the Fall. The lucky amateurs who had created Eagle and made it a stunning success for almost a full decade were replaced by the professionals, who knew what they were doing. Eagle would never be that good again. The control of the comic was handed over from people who respected and trusted their audience to people who thought their audience was basically stupid, and would respond only to simplification and sensation. Fifty years later, maybe forty or thirty, they would have been on the nail. In 1959, they were hideously wrong.
It’s tempting, but not wholly accurate, to think of Volume 10 as two different stories. This was the other ‘short’ Volume, reduced to 45 issues via a seven week long printers’ strike, from June to August, and it would be easy to call what came before it ‘Old’ Eagle and afterwards as ‘New’ Eagle. But real-life doesn’t offer such clear distinctions as that.
The three significant factors were, in order, Hultons selling out to Odhams Press, Frank Hampson’s resignation from ‘Dan Dare’ and Marcus Morris stepping down as editor: the second and third of these events were a consequence of the first because Odhams made it clear from the start that in their eyes, Eagle was dull, stodgy, long-winded and stale. They were the ones who had produced comics all along, not these luck amateurs. Changes would be made.
For one thing, Hampson’s Studio, with its assistants and profusion of reference material, its expensiveness – Hampson’s expensiveness, being paid more than the Executives – was an instant target. It had to change, and Hampson, frustrated at the lack of backing he’d had from Hultons already, and realising that the protection Morris had afforded him would no longer shield him from attack, decided to leave his premier creation.
And Morris, with his unlimited expense account suddenly choked off, reconsidering his position, fell upwards onto his feet, leaving Eagle to progress in publishing at the National Magazine Company, writing his farewell Letter from the Editor in issue 37. For three weeks, this direct address to the readers was signed merely by ‘The Editor’, before Morris’s successor, Clifford Makins, allowed his name to go forward.
There was no indication at the start of the year of what was to follow. ‘Dan Dare’ started the new year with a new story, ‘Safari in Space’, opening up with Frank Hampson’s personal favourite piece of art, a near full-cover of Dan, Digby and Flamer starting a spell of leave under the sun in the Venusian jungle. It’s bright, intense, detailed, a sign that Hampson’s heart was very much in things again.
And the story bounded forward eagerly. From Venus, and several panels of Professor Peabody in a swimsuit, enjoying her leave with Sir Hubert and Lex O’Malley (hmmmm), to the Asteroid belt, and from there across trans-stellar space to Terra Nova, a near-Earth-like planet. But this was not a story of exploration: for Dan it was the chance to follow in the footsteps of his father, long believed dead but not revealed to have gone on a long trip, and perhaps still alive.
There’s a panel that illustrates just how bloody brilliant an artist Frank Hampson was. It doesn’t look like much, it’s not spectacular, it’s on a page 2 so maybe the credit belongs to Don Harley, let’s be fair. Dan and Co have been kidnapped to go on this madcap, private mission to Terra Nova, and Dan’s ahead of the McHoo. He’s leaning back against a desk or something, apart from his friends, at the back, because he sees where this is going, and his hands are by his side, holding on to the desk and he’s tightly contained and by how he half-stands, half-leans, in that single drawing we see how much emotion he is feeling.
Hampson planned a cycle of stories, set in and across the Terra Nova system, as Dan followed his father’s trail from planet to planet, culminating in… what? I have always believed that it would have ended with Dan finding Captain William ‘Mad Billy’ Dare alive. A man who had incarnated his own father so indelibly within his creation could not, I believe, have planned to frustrate that reunion.
But that wasn’t what happened. As well as the growing pressure from Odhams, there was a devastating loss. On June 18, whilst on holiday in Barcelona, Alan Stranks, the writer Hampson had come to trust best to write Dan Dare, died of a cerebral haemorrhage.
I don’t know how the timings worked out, behind the scenes. The last pre-strike issue of Eagle was no 25, dated 20 June. Two complete issues of Eagle were ready, and appeared without dates as soon as the strike ended. Both featured the work of Frank Hampson on ‘Dan Dare’, his last piece of art a uniquely silent first page, with Dan or any of his companions.

Frank Bellamy style

By the time this appeared, Hampson had left Dan Dare. In later life, he claimed he was only taking a year off, to refresh, renew, rethink, and his successor, who was not Don Harley (yet) was hired for a year, but Odhams certainly weren’t interested in having him back, his Studio was broken up, his reference materials destroyed, save for what could be carried by Harley and the only other assistant retained, Keith Watson, and I have never heard of any attempt by Hampson to take up Dan Dare’s reins again.
His replacement was Frank Bellamy, and he had been given a brief. More action, more dynamism, more excitement. Though Bellamy, naturally, drew superbly, there were many problems with the new ‘Dan Dare’. In no particular order, it’s principal artist had no real liking or feel for SF; he was working with Harley and Watson, two artists trained in Hampson’s style, who produced one page between them, resulting in months of unevenness as clashing styles; they had lost the series’ regular writer, who was replaced by Eric Eden, who at best could only produce a decent pastiche but who had no facility for satisfying endings; and with Bellamy dividing the script pages up each week, the series was hampered yet further by a flip-flopping of styles as Bellamy would assign page 1 or 2 to himself alternately.
The seven week absence during the paper strike had damaged Eagle‘s circulation. That its front page not only looked radically different, but was never in the same style two weeks in a row, could not repair the problem.
‘Terra Nova’ rapidly degenerated into a fight with giant ants, whilst its successor, ‘Trip to Trouble’ took only five weeks to undermine the whole point of Hampson’s vision. In Xmas week, the new Eagle revealed that Dan’s father had been killed, offscreen and ten years earlier. Heartless, and pointless.
Page 3 continued to go downhill. The personality-absence that was ‘Cavendish Brown, M.S.’ lasted only three more issues before vanishing, unregretted, after less than a year. He was replaced by ‘They Showed The Way’, for which Pat Williams was retained on art for a series of true-life stories of adventure and achievement: the Suez Canal, Charles Lindbergh, the discovery of anaesthetic, the conquest of Everest, submarines under the North Pole. Educational in their way, with rough-hewn art, this series might have been designed for the new masters, with none of the stories staying long enough to bore, or to interest for that matter.
MacDonald Hastings, ESI, remained confined to quarters throughout this Volume, continuing his ‘Men of Glory’ series, tales of heroism in War, for about three-quarters of the year, with sporadic interruptions.
With issue 16, Eagle expanded, ‘permanently’, to twenty pages, introducing two new series, and yet more advertising space.’Hobbies Corner’ got half a page, sometimes paired with George Cansdale’s excellent ongoing series about household pets, now drawn in black and white by George Bowe, but the other new feature was given two full pages almost ever week. This was ‘As the Scientist Sees It’, by Professor Steele, an educational series well in keeping with Eagle’s traditions. The Professor would take a different subject each week, breaking in down into half a dozen related points, which would be introduced with an enviably simple clarity. For those who regard Eagle as imperialistic and colonialist (which is not untrue), please note that one such entry poured scorn on racism as being completely unscientific and utter nonsense.
‘Riders of the Range’ continued to be steady. The Mexico adventure wended on for the first half of the year, though it suffered from a lack of cohesion as Chilton set up multiple opposing forces – bandits and Indians trying to take over an ill-manned cave-pueblo occupied by women and children, and a Mexican army patrol of limited strength, plus several kidnappings and releases associated with the appearance of a comet in the Sky.
From there, Chilton resumed historical stories with ‘Jeff Arnold and Sam Bass’, the latter being a notorious outlaw and train-robber. Sam’s inserted into the story by his ambition to learn gunfighting from Jeff, but circumstances contrive to put him on the wrong side of the Law, and Jeff has to try to bring him in. It turns out that Sam is an even faster gun than Jeff and, by the volume’s end, the latter is nursing a wound in his shoulder that prevents him using his gun in his right hand…
‘Luck of the Legion’ also maintained its course, without any stories standing out in particular: Bond and Aitchison simply provided good, quick action, and quirky humour from the Fat Man, Legionnaire Bimberg, in the desert and on a return trip to Indo-China, the serial ‘Dragon Patrol’ continuing on into Volume 11.
But Dan Dare was not the only series to lose its long-standing artist. Robert Ayton had drawn ‘Jack O’Lantern’ from its inception, and would continue to do so for the short stories in the Eagle Annuals, In Volume 10, he stayed to complete ‘The Brotherhood of the Key’, Jack’s longest ever adventure at 37 weeks, and to start its successor, ‘Your Money or Your Life’, but after a mere eleven weeks, he left the strip, to be replaced by C. L. Doughty.
The new story was a bit problematic to begin with: in ‘Brotherhood’, Jack had run away from home to sell his beloved horse, Black Dragon, for 80 guineas to assist his father to repay wicked Uncle Humphrey’s debts without selling their ancestral home. Instead, he returned for £1,000 in reward money, but by the next week, Jack and Captain Yorke were out of Brackens, and off to their new home in London anyway.
Unfortunately, they’re immediately attacked by a highwayman, Captain Yorke seriously wounded, their fortune stolen and Jack back in an orphanage, exactly like week 1. He would escape, discover the highwaymen and find himself pressed into becoming a junior tobyman himself.
Doughty’s style was very similar to Ayton, and the change in artist was not immediately apparent on a cursory glance. I did subconsciously recognise a slightly richer, more florid approach in drawing faces, and the contrast between styles was very much less pronounced than that between Hampson and Bellamy.
At this remove, I cannot find any information about why the change of artists came about, and as I said, Ayton was still drawing annual stories into 1961 (when he returned to Eagle for one last series). Perhaps stories for annuals were compiled well in advance, and kept in inventory. Certainly, Jack’s short adventures were still appearing two years after his series ended, which we shall see in the next volume.

Super Sleuth

For the ‘Three J’s’, this was to be the end of the line. The current, Christmas holiday story, which involved them breaking the ankle of Sixth Former and Prefect Noel Hardy, introduced the notion of forged fivers circulating in Northbrook. This segued into one final term-time story, which dealt with the forgeries at greater length, but once the villain was captured by the Police, and the good guys – including Hardy’s girlfriend, Linda, even though she was never acknowledged as more than a childhood friend – exonerated, the series ended.
Peter Ling would henceforth concentrate on writing for TV, including a Doctor Who serial and its novel. In 1964, he would reach a nadir, by co-creating Crossroads
The ‘Three J’s’ were immediately followed by ‘Jim Starling and the Colonel’, a ten part adaptation of E. W. Hildick’s third novel, in his Last Apple Gang series, but once this had run its course, the prose serial disappeared, and Odhams sold more advertising space in its place.
That was two of the classic line-up gone, a third near its end and the leading serial having undergone a seismic shock. In contrast, ‘Harris Tweed’ started the new volume in colour, for most of the first six months. Even then, his adventures would switch backwards and forwards between colour and the traditional black-and-white and this continued throughout the entire volume, with no apparent pattern, but a crude balance between the two kinds of episodes. The contents were never affected, of course. It was interesting to note that John Ryan’s artistic approach did not vary. In American comics, there is usually a perceptible difference between art drawn for colour and for black-and-white reproduction, but Ryan’s flat, cartoon style, using clearly defined figures with no sense of shading or greying, was ideal for a strip that now flipped back and forth. Whether Ryan himself was responsible for the colour, or whether this was the work of an occasional artist, I have no idea.
Like ‘Luck of the Legion’, ‘Storm Nelson’ survived the volume unaffected by the winds of change (apart from a brief promotion from page 14 to page 13 in issue 1, and very strange it looked to meet the Silver Fleet even a page before they were usually expected.
With the exception of a single, remaining ‘He wants to be…’ Dennis Mallet’s ‘Magic in Meter’ had the inside back page to itself all through the volume, and it still continued to be the most baffling thing Eagle had featured to date. Unless there was evidence of a rising tide of youngsters badgering their parents to install Gas central heating I can only think that it was aimed deliberately at Eagle’s adult readership (figures undefined), though if that were the case, surely Mallet’s twee cartoon figures were not the best promotion. How bizarre.
Eagle‘s back page continued to be the province of the ‘Great Adventurers’ series. We began still in the midst of the story of ‘David, The Shepherd King’, drawn stunningly by Frank Bellamy, and told in a determinedly secular manner, with God’s influence never rising beyond David acting upon Christian principles.
Bellamy was retained for the next subject, ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’, but his transfer to Dan Dare necessitated his giving this up to the reliable Peter Jackson. Here the timeline again becomes confused: Bellamy’s last instalment of ‘Marco Polo’ is in issue 23, two issues before the printer’s strike struck, and four before Hampson’s resignation from ‘Dan Dare’. Clearly, Bellamy’s take-over could not have been a precipitate affair, especially as a total of eleven weeks elapsed between the two assignments.
How it went, exactly, is something I don’t expect ever to learn, though these are the details I find so fascinating.

American Gothic e19: Triangle

Imagine this in your womb…

There’s not much time left and with so few steps remaining, American Gothic comes up with the closest to a dud episode yet, primarily composed to two opposing but related strands, one of which not even having any kind of recognisable conclusion, even temporarily.

The episode title applies to both halves of the story, but in different ways, and both halves involve a triangle of two men and a woman, the shared point and fulcrum being Sheriff Lucas Buck.

On one side, the woman is Gail Emory. Gail’s quitting, puling out, leaving Trinity and taking Caleb with her. It’s been too much for her, she’s in over her head, she’s spitting defiance but she’s definitely surrendering and running away. Until the stomach cramps hit her, because she’s pregnant. With Lucas Buck’s child, another son.

Lucas is laying up insurance. Caleb’s his, but could go either way, but Luke Jr is his entirely, a little monster, pre-formed and grimacing and pointing to Gail on the ultrasound. She’s freaking out, she’s trying to abort via an overdose of vodka, she’s going to throw herself off the roof of a building, except that Caleb’s desperate pleas hold her back. She goes to church, and Merlyn appears to her, sympathising, but in the end offering no practical solution except hope and faith: look at Caleb.

And that’s all we get, a status quo of stored-up trouble, weighted in Sheriff Buck’s favour, a theme to be explored in, yes, you guessed it, season 2.

The other woman is Selena Combs, making Billy Peale the third apex. This is the more conventional triangle. Selena is slipping more and more out of Lucas’s grasp, and that’s not something he’s prepared to allow. Billy won’t play ball, under no circumstances. But his job in Trinity is done, there’s an epidemic in Uganda, and he wants Selena to come with him: Paris, Rome, Africa, where they need good teachers. But she stands him up at the airport.

Billy gets good and drunk but he comes back to her. She’s sliding towards him, they make love, but out of the blue, or rather the black, Selena’s hit with a raging fever that’s going to burn her out, kill her. Billy recognises magic, tries to beat Lucas into relinquishing his hold, but the Sheriff will only do it if Billy recognises his authority. Kiss my ring, says Buck, proffering a signet ring, though we all know that it’s asking for the good old osculam infamous, which Billy promptly and defiantly concretises with a retorted “Kiss my ass!”

The spell is lifted. Selena recovers. Billy thinks it’s love. Selena knows it is. And she knows who she really has to thank.

Neither half of the story is really satisfactory. A rare miss. And I have no great recollections of the following episode either, the last ‘lost’ episode. A week.

No more N.M.E.

I bought it this week

Another response to a passing, but this time not of a person but a magazine, or maybe even an institution. This week, the N.M.E, the New Musical Express has printed its last print copy and will henceforth only be out there on-line. It’s the end of an era.

Or rather, it’s the end of a great many eras, hundreds of them, thousands even, one for each of us who, at any time were hooked on listening with intent. It’s a bit like dear old Peely,in that there’d be a time when they were essential to your life, but then you’d change and he’d change, and you’d find yourself breaking up that old weekly or nightly date and it was over.

My era was 1972 to 1986: I doubt I’ve bought as many as five issues since, and none in over fifteen years now. That takes me back to the days when there were still five music weeklies: Melody Maker, N.M.E., Record Mirror, Disc (and Music Echo) and Sounds. I’d drifted through 1971, sampling each of these, before deciding the N.M.E. was closest to my tastes, only to find, when it started dropping through our door every week, that it had just a couple of weeks before, undergone a radical repositioning, and gone Underground, and Prog.

And that suited me. and I got to go all through the raw passion, anger, excitement and energy of Punk, then New Wave, and post-Punk.

And then we got to the point where they started tagging Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’ as the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ of the Eighties, and I knew that it was all over. Other people had their eras to enjoy: my time had been served. But it had all been so good whilst it lasted.

But I have to salute the N.M.E. for changing my life. That was what it was setting out to do, all the time, but in my case it succeeded in a completely unexpected way.

You all know I’ve been a lifelong comics fan, and that enthusiasm has meant many things. Comics have taken my imagination to places it could never have guessed without them, they underpinned the first period when my inchoate urge to write spilled over on an audience that applauded my efforts and built my self-confidence, I made friends and met and talked with people I’d never otherwise have known. And it is at least plausible to say that without comics coming back into my life after I grew out of them in a tried and trusted manner, I may probably never have met the woman who became my wife.

I’ve told the story before: January 1974, queuing in a newsagent, chancing to see a rack of American comics, being moved by idle curiosity to riffle through them and finding the only possible comic I would have bought, reopening the floodgate and determining my fate.

But without the N.M.E., without three articles by Charles Shaar Murray, in the back of the paper, in the back end of 1973, the one fancifully but articulately comparing the development stages of rock’n’roll with that of comics, and two follow-ups about how Batman and Captain America had changed to meet the modern world, my memory would not have been reset. Without that, if I even see it at all that January after, there is not the merest of idle curiosity that draws me to that rack. I don’t see, let alone buy, that pivotal comic, and everything afterwards turns into a maybe.

So that’s why I remember N.M.E. with fondness. And for the writing, guys, especially CSM, and Nick Kent, and Mick Farren, and Tony Tyler, and Max Bell, and Paul Morley, and I can forgive you for discovering Danny Baker but not Tony Parsons, and we’ll gloss over Julie Burchill, ok. Plus the guy who did the Crossword.

All gone, my era gone, but never to be forgotten, those of us who were there, and all those multiple whens that we were there for, ligging as hard as we could.

And The Lone Groover too.