The Infinite Jukebox: Curved Air’s ‘Back Street Luv’

If I were to sit down with a pencil and paper, and a copy of the Guinness Book of Top 40 Charts, bookmarked open to the pages that cover 1971, and the task of providing a rational analysis of the singles that were hits during that twelve months that would explain things incontrovertibly to the music enthusiasts of the present day, I would throw up my hands in utter despair. I mean, Hell’s bells, I lived through that year and I can’t even describe it in a way that makes sense to me!
One of the biggest surprises that year was Curved Air. Curved Air were a progressive band who’d appeared on the scene the year before, combining a number of elements musically, not least the interests of violinist Darryl Way, who drove the band in the direction of complex, stretched tracks that eschewed standard song lengths and melodies.
On the other hand, lead singer Sonja Kristina came from a folk-oriented background, but had a powerful, seductive voice that could drill home an aggressive song.
It wasn’t that the band couldn’t play what I, in 1971, would have recognised as pop-influenced songs. They had already recorded a stormer of a song called ‘It Happened Today’ that, despite the fluttering and skittering violin line contributed by Way, was a solid stormer of a rock song.
Listening to it alongside ‘Back Street Luv’, it’s obvious which is the more commercial song, but it placed no higher than no 52 earlier that year. Though I was listening to Radio 1 practically all day throughout the week, I don’t remember hearing ‘Back Street Luv’ until it entered the Top 30, and even then I couldn’t understand or appreciate it.
The slow started with the growl of a synthesizer that resembled no music notes I had yet heard, growing into a slow, chugging sound, still using those low notes. It’s a long time since I’ve been used to the sound of synthesizers, which became more or less obsolete as soon as they invented the emulator, enabling any keyboard sound to be produced on a keyboard, but from my memory of the sounds, I’d be confident about this being a Moog synthesizer as opposed to an ARP. Moogs used to produced electronic sounds that conventional music instruments couldn’t and that’s what ‘Back Street Luv’ was about.
There’s neither conventional rhythm nor conventional melody here. The song is a rumble, a slow-moving object filling the highway, alternating between the combination of synthesizer and guitar, and a subdued, near-minimalistic melody played out on electric piano.
In complete contrast, Sonja Kristina’s clear, sometimes throaty vocals, seem to exist in another dimension to the rest of the band. Kristina came from a folk background, and adding an acoustic element to the music, overlaying the tension between the rock pressure and Darryl Way’s classical leanings as expressed through his violin.
Kristina didn’t dress up glamorously, nor expose much flesh beyond face and hands (sometimes, a strip of belly might show, as she moved). Like any self-respecting woman in the Underground, she eschewed the sexy image, dressing in long sleeved tops and bell-bottomed trousers, and in 1971 there was still an element of puppy-fat to her face, even if she was 22, but even to my delayed adolescent 15-year-old self she was sex on legs.
Which was fitting in a way because, as the perceptive among you might already have surmised from the title, ‘Back Street Luv’ was about a street prostitute. There was nothing blatant about the words, with the chorus of ‘when she gives love, she tries to find love, when she finds love was it real love?’ more or less as explicit as it got.
But this was a song whose underlying sympathy was with the back street girl whose life this formed, and the fact that a song about a prostitute got to no. 4, was on the Radio 1 playlist and was featured on Top of the Pops at least twice if not three times probably suggests that the BBC’s management hadn’t the least clue as to what it was about.
Like I said, 1971, the inexplicable year.
A follow-up single, that I didn’t hear until the YouTube era, flopped completely. In fact, it was so badly represented that unless you asked for it in the shops it wasn’t possible to determine if it was ‘Farah’s Concern’ or ‘Sarah’s Concern’ (it was the latter). The lyrics to that are harder to determine but it seemed to be on the same subject so maybe the Controllers wised up a little belatedly.
Curved Air never got anywhere near another Top 30 hit, or even being played on daytime Radio 1. Any year but that year, they’d never have stood a chance. But in 1971, anything could happen. Fifty years later, I still don’t understand it, but I’m glad I lived through it, and this is just one of many reasons why.

All the Fells: Harrison Stickle

Harrison Stickle – The Central Fells 2,403′ (44)

Date: 8 September 1986/10 September 1996

From: Thunacar Knott/Pike O’Stickle

A long time ago, on a day that I remember as being both scorching hot and very cloudy, the family set out to climb the Langdale Pikes. Or rather, as we did only one fell at a time in those early days, the highest pike, Harrison Stickle. Dad and his brother had had a long discussion about the best of the four routes from the New Hotel, and despite their attraction to the ‘pure’ route, via Pike How, decided to ascend via Mill Gill (the now re-named Stickle Ghyll) to Stickle Tarn, and cross over to the more direct route. This was so long ago that our approach was by the west side of the Gill and its extremely narrow path that, the next time we came here, had been fenced off due to erosion, and has never been re-opened. The sun, I remember, was scorching, and the ascent steep and draining, and we soon abandoned that to cross over to the Pike How route because it wasn’t as bad. I hated it, every step, the steepness, the heat. At Pike How, we paused. My mother and sister sat it out, my Dad and Uncle went to investigate the latter’s tiny top. I went along with them, but refused their invite to go to the cairn, which my memory insists on recalling as out on some kind of narrow overhang that scared the living daylights out of me. But despite my memory of the sun and the heat, by the time we reached the base of the summit, the cloud was down to that level. My sister was scared, and we huddled there for half an hour, watching waves of cloud sweep towards us from Windermere, one after another, with no prospect of their lifting, despite our patience, until we gave up and went down. We never returned as a family, or at least with me. Two ascents of Mill Gill foundered on my developing massive headaches and nausea, the one on the day my O-level results were out back in Manchester and the other, two years later, the week after my A-level results, on the day of the O-level results. They did reach Harrison Stickle after I’d declared myself out, but I wasn’t to get there until a decade later, a long day’s sweeping walk collecting all the Langdale Pikes in one walk. I started with Mill Gill and Pavey Ark, walked dully northwards to Thunacar Knott and back to Harrison, approaching it from its low back, under another hot sun, but one that was dusty and heavy rather than scorching. In the post-Wainwright years, on another of those expeditions that took place almost a decade to the day after, I set myself a reverse repeat, starting from Mickleden and Stake Pass, to Pike O’Stickle, Loft Crag, Thorn Crag and back to Harrison from a more interesting direction. I did not bother with the long diversion to Thunacar Knott this time, just crossing to Pavey Ark then returning to take the easy descent to Stickle Tarn and the Gill back to the car park.


*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge – My 40 Favourite Movies: 24 – Alfie


24: ALFIE: 1966. Director: Lewis Gilbert. UK. Romantic comedy drama. Michael Caine. Millicent Martin. Julie Foster. Jane Asher. Shirley-Anne Field. Vivien Merchant. Eleanor Bron. Shelley Winters. Alfie Bass.
Adapted by Irish-born Bill Naughton (1910-1992) from his 1963 play (itself originally a BBC Third Programme radio play). There was also a 1966 novel, which was slightly different from the movie – the character Frank, for instance. Budget was $800,000. Box office was $18.87million. Made at Twickenham Studios, St. Margarets, West London. Music by Sonny Rollins (jazz saxophonist); title song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David – sung by Millicent Martin (UK distribution), and Cher (US). It was a major UK pop song hit for Cilla Black. Initially a number of actors were considered for the role of Alfie – Richard Harris (1930-2002); Laurence Harvey (1928-1973); James Booth (1927-2005), and Anthony Newley (1931-1999). Eventually Terence Stamp (born 1938), who was playing the role on Broadway, recommended his friend Michael Caine. As well as both being fellow Cockneys, the two had acted together and became good friends in Willis Hall’s play The Long and the Short and the Tall. Although I always first associated Caine with Alfie, he had, by then, already appeared in Zulu (1964) and The Ipcress File (1965) – in fact Alfie was his sixth film. Michael Caine was born Maurice Joseph Micklewhite in 1933, at Rotherhithe, so technically not an East End Cockney, as this is South-East London, across the Thames, in the Borough of Southwark. His father was Anglo-Irish, by profession a fish porter (I’m assuming at Billingsgate Market), his mother a cook and charwoman. Young Maurice served in the army (National Service, 1952-54) and saw action in Korea – an experience which coloured his subsequent politics, British nationalism against communism, mostly Tory supporter. He initially took on the stage name of, first Michael White, then Michael Scott, in about 1953, but changed it to Michael Caine in 1954, apparently taking the surname from the Humphrey Bogart movie The Caine Mutiny. However, bizarrely, he didn’t officially change his name – on his passport, for instance – until 2016, over 60 years later, then because of getting stopped at airport security with his ‘Micklewhite’ name. Although married only twice – to actress Patricia Haines (1932-1977) from 1955 to 1962, and Skakira Baksh from 1973 – in between he had a number of high-profile girlfriends, from Edino Rong (1961-64), Natalie Wood (1965-66). Bianca Jagger (1968-70), and Jill St John (1971). As an actor, I’ve enjoyed quite a few of his films over the years, and several, as well as Alfie, number amongst my favourite. He was knighted in 2000, at a time when knighthoods were being given out like confetti. I disagree with them on principle. Actors get other rewards.
The cast were: Michael Caine as Alfie Elkins; Shelley Winters (American actress, 1920-2006) as Ruby; Millicent Martin (actress/singer born 1934) as Siddie; Vivian Merchant (1929-1982, married to Harold Pinter from 1956 to 1980) as Lily Clamacroft; Alfie Bass (1916-1987) as Lily’s husband Harry; Jane Asher (born 1946, girlfriend to Paul McCartney 1963-71, later married cartoonist Gerald Scarfe) as Annie; Julia Foster (born 1943) as Gilda; Shirley Anne Field (born 1936) as Carla; Eleanor Bron (actress and author, born 1938) as the Doctor; Graham Stark (1922-2013) as Humphrey; Murrey Melvin (born 1932) as Nat; and Sydney Tafler (1916-1979) as Frank. Shirley Bassey was uncredited as a bodybuilder’s student girlfriend.
The film follows the adventures of the title character, a young, womanising, Cockney Casanova, working in London as a chauffeur; totally self-centred, enjoying sexual favours with married and single women, young or old, but often treating them with disrespect, referring to them as ‘it’. He is a anti-hero, everyman, immoral, roguish, a working-class jack-the-lad-type, pilfering petrol and money from his employer, encouraging his girlfriends to do the same. He is not always intentionally malicious or cruel, just lacking in any empathy, but at the same time Naughton the writer, and Caine the actor, manage to make the character sympathetic, showing his inner vulnerability, denied being able to see his son, using sex as a substitute for meaning or purpose to life, eventually finding pain and loneliness, especially after the abortion sequence with married Lily, when he comes face to face with the consequences of his casual carnal actions. So, this is no fun and frolics sex romp, or juvenile fantasy, but an emotional rollercoaster, made more personal in that Alfie breaks the fourth wall, talking to us, the audience, attempting to justify his actions. In the end, with himself being dumped by the girlfriends he had grown fond off, he can only turn to us, and ask “What’s it all about?”
The idea of breaking the fourth wall would later be used by another likeable rogue, antique dealer Lovejoy (the wonderful Ian McShane) in the 1986-94 UK television series of the same name.
Geoff Andrew, writing a later critique for the Time Out Film Guide, is a little sniffy: “Given the full swinging London mod movie treatment of the day, Bill Naughton’s funny and rather moving play emerges as a terribly dated (and one might add terribly misogynistic) account of a Cockney lecher’s selfish seduction and abuse of a series of compliant females. Of course he gets his comeuppance, in the ending that has all the moral weight and sincerity of a DeMille sex ’n’ sawdust spectacular.”
To say the movie is “terribly dated” seemed rather a silly criticism – it was made in 1966. Of course it is dated. Michael Keaton’s version of Batman would be ‘dated’ compared to the mindless, CGI adaptions since, but does that make them better? I think not. All movies are ‘dated’ eventually, in that they reflect the time and place of their making. While ‘lecher’ is a bit strong – it rather implies some old pervert chasing schoolgirls, not an oversexed young man working his way through his address-book of ladies – so I would equally question ‘misogynistic’. The dictionary definition is the hatred of women. Alfie is egocentric and rather selfish, and he might lack respect or much feeling, but he doesn’t actually hate women – quite the opposite, he wants to sleep with them, and he just can’t stay faithful to anyone for long. In that he reflects the typical alpha-male of that time – or since!
There was a UK-made sequel, in 1975, entitled Alfie Darling, with singer/musician Alan Price (he of O Lucky Man!) in the Alfie role. It did at least make a profit – budget at £500,000, box office receipts coming it at £2.5million. On the other hand, who remembers it today? Time Out Film Review concluded “the film look[ed] increasingly like a advert with no product to sell.” Not seen it – don’t want to see it!
Yet again – as with Psycho or Breathless – the original Alfie suffered the indignity of a totally needless remake in 2004, with Jude Law, who was seemingly going through a phase of Michael Caine worship – a few years later, in 2007, he starred in a remake of Sleuth, him playing Michael Caine’s original 1972 role, and Caine playing the Lawrence Olivier role. Alfie was now in Manhattan – ugh! – although some filming was also done in Liverpool, Manchester and Tilbury standing in for New York. It bombed, and perhaps deservedly so – costing $60million, with a box office return of just $36.2million. Lesson learned? Apparently not. Hollywood remain obsessed by sequels and remakes.

All the Fells: Hard Knott

Hard Knott – The Southern Fells 1,803′ (4)

Date: 31 May 1973/6 May 1995

From: Hard Knott Pass/ Harter Fell

I’ve climbed Hard Knott the fell twice but I have very few memories of it from either occasion. It’s a low and not very shapely wedge of land whose top is a wilderland of low upthrusts with no pattern to them. The date of my first ascent will clue you in to this being another of the very few visited with my family: indeed, Hard Knott was the first summit we climbed as a foursome, after Dad’s death. For that, we parked at the head of the Duddon Valley and walked up the Pass, though unlike our first ever walk, from Eskdale, there was no means of making an overland ascent and we followed the road all the way. Once at the summit, we turned off onto the fell. What I most remember is suddenly being infused with an explorer’s zeal. I lead the way, I wanted to wander round and check out as much of this confusing area as I could and, when the other three decided not to budge from the summit, I requested and was granted permission, hedged around with the usual qualifications, to not merely wander north, towards the Scafells but, after that, to head out towards Eskdale and visit the Border End peak, overlooking the valley. It was my first real taste of solo walking, and I loved it. My return was twenty years in the making, post-Wainwrights, on a Saturday out from Manchester. I was out to revisit Harter Fell, and this time to follow its long and unvalued ridge down to the Pass. On the spur of the moment, since I had a lot of the afternoon left, I followed my own footsteps across the path and across the untidy top to Hard Knott’s summit, although I restricted my other exploring to a visit to the Fort on the way back down the road.

The Office: s02 e01/02 – Merger/Appraisals


Here we are again: I couldn’t wait any longer.

When writing about The Office‘s first series, I commented that I could not watch more than two episodes at a time because the series was too intense in its portrayal of David Brent, manager and monster. This time round, I nearly had to stop after just one episode. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant have taken their writing to another level, or perhaps the more appropriate word is depth, both in terms of excrutiatingly accurate detail and the moral level of the series, and Gervais’ performance as Brent, supported briliantly by the rest of the cast, down to those who are only there to try to keep from looking aghast at what they’re seeing, makes lasers look blunt.

Of the two episodes here, the underlying ‘story’ is of the integration of the ‘Swindon lot’ into Slough branch and Brent’s attempts to impress on them how wonderful he is, leading to extended scenes of toe-curling horror, not to mention introducing from the start the main point of the series as will be seen by the final episode.

It starts in a moment of surreal genius that is not simply funny for funny’s sake but underlines another character development. At the end of series 1, Tim Canterbury (the glorious Martin Freeman) was promoted to Senior Sales Rep, deflecting him from his intention to quit and go to university to study Psychology (a deflection we quite quickly see was what he was hoping for). Tim’s at his desk, working. Gareth Keenan (McKenzie Crook) arrives and, for no apparent reason, starts singing ‘Mahna Mahna’. He’s quickly joined by Ben and, seeing something going on where he’s not the centre of attention, Brent. Throughout, Tim looks bemused. He’s trying to act more grown-up, be responsible and serious, and this is going on around him, in an office, a workplace. He’s the (in his own mind) adult, wondering what the hell he’s doing surrounded by children.

I’ve started with Tim so let me continue (both episodes are beautifully constructed and detail-dense that you could spend three times the length of the programme on the subtlety of practically every line). Tim makes sure he’s ok with receptionist Dawn Tinsley (Lucy Davis, who does more with background glances and expressions than most actresses do with a mountain of dialogue), after the embarrassment of asking her out and being turned down, but then, in his superior role, starts actually like a bit of a twat to her, reminding her of her duties. When she says she’s bored, nothing to do, and suggests winding up Gareth, he reprimands her.

But Tim is Tim. I’ve read several condemnations of him calling him the worst character in the series, for his evident assumption of superiority to everybody and his sarcastic put-downs and whilst you can see him that way, remember that he’s working for David Brent, and alongside Gareth. There are strains of pond-life that would be entitled to think themselves superior to that pair. In comparison, Tim, though in many ways he hasn’t grown up either, is the adult in the room. But he can’t keep it up. After putting down Dawn in that disappointing manner, he picks up his diary, crosses back to her and, still in his serious mode, tells her that he and she have overlooked a scheduled work item. He has twenty minutes set aside for winding up Gareth with Dawn. Her grin says it all.

I could go on for hours yet about what this episode, and the next, say about their relationship but I need to give time to Brent. It’s two weeks since the end of series 1. Swindon office has been closed down and six former members there have been transferred to Slough, starting more or less today. Enter Patrick Baladi as Neil Godwin, formerly manager at Swindon, Brent’s equivalent, now Regional Manager and Brent’s superiorl, a factual distinction that Brent tries to wave away by dissimulation that now reminds me of Boris Johnson (oh God).

Neil’s suave, intelligent, composed, popular and above all competent. He is the Anti-Brent. He is the adult in the room. He is going to be the series’ villain, by virtue of being, like Jennifer Taylor-Clark, the serious character. Baladi has the difficult job of being a normal, sensible, popular but business-minded manager, and David Brent’s nemesis. He spends much of episode 1 in slow, but carefully-concealed realisation of just what Brent is. A lot of that is disbelief that someone so lacking in any of the essential requirements of his job could ever have reached that level.

Which brings up a point that the audience needs to consider. The Office is styled as a mockumentary, a fly-on-the-wall depiction of a paper business, showing the gloom and generally depressing and soporific effects of working in an office on a job that is in no way fulfilling save for its pay. How does someone like Brent get that far to begin with? No doubt it’s san example of The Peter Principle, that every man is promoted to the level of his own incompetence, but in this series, Brent is so extreme…

I’m avoiding writing about his performance, aren’t I? Circling it, like Indians around a wagon train. It’s horrific to the nth degree, and none of the so-called Swindon lot can believe what they’re seeing and hearing. And Brent, with his unique combination of thick and thin skin, redoubles his efforts to convince them that he is a great boss, a chilled-out entertainer, an inspiration to them all, the longer they sit in shocked silence. They laugh at Neil’s jokes, not just out of familiarity with him but because he’s relaxed, genuinely amusing and commands respect. Brent’s feeble and clixhed material falls flat, and the longeer it does, the more he blames his audienc e. it’s not a good start.

And it gets worse when he tells a horribly racist joke. This gets him carpeted by Jennifer and Neil, which he attempts to shrug off as her having no sense of humour. The Swindon lot include one black guy and one woman confined to a wheelchair. Brent hasn’t the faintest idea how to talk to either. His assumption that Oliver (Howard Saddler) is part Jamaican leads not another hideous embarrasment when he starts advocating Jennifer smoke ganja, and of course another carpeting.

This leads to a prolonged period of Brent in the background, sitting in his office, seething, that little half-bared expression on his face. A chance for contemplation, for self-assessment? No way. Just a prelude to a demand to know who complained about him that reveals it was two women, not Oliver, and exposes him to challenge when he tries to pretend that because the ‘black guy’ wasn’t offended by a racist joke, it was ok. Do you wonder that this is a difficult episode to try to get through? Yet, in amongst the cries of horror and despair at what you’re watching, the whole thing feels real instead of being an exaggeration, the writing is pointed, spare and accurate, the performances rock-solid and the damned thing is still funny.

But, as if all of this has not been enough, there’s an ending striking like a cobra from a different angle. Tim’s buzzing. He’s been complimented by Jennifer. He’s back on level tracking with his friend Dawn. One of the Swindon lot, Rachel (Stacey Roca) is a bit of a cracker, and she’s showing signs of being interested in him, even though Gareth has ‘claimed’ her. He starts dancing with Dawn, a mock waltz, nothing meant by it, just as her fiance Lee comes up from the warehouse to take her home. And Lee slams Tim up against the wall.

A moment of crunch. Tim tries to be cool and collected about it but Dawn has shot off after Lee, and Gareth is still there, not to mention everybody else and the floor resolutely refusing to open up and swallow him… Yes, series 2 has started, and it’s not going to get any lighter.

The second episode continues the underlying themes. It starts with Dawn leading Lee to apologise to Tim, with a bottle of no doubt cheap wine, for his behaviour. Tim tries to brush it off, unable to handle confrontation even when the other guy is backing down. Or is it Lee’s evident, and bone-headed assumption that Tim is no threat?

It’s staff appraisal time and some of the interviews are horribly funny. Brent is his usual, supposedly wise philosophical self with Tim, who, irritated by the banality of the process and refusing to let Brent bracket them as guys in their thirties, exposes that he’s reading these wise sayings off a crib sheet, Confucius via Brent. Keith (Ewen Macintosh) comes into his comic own, a mountain of a bloke, round of face, big round glasses, moustache and goatee, jaws in perpetual motion, working on chewing gum that must have lost its flavour sometime around the foundation of the Protestant Church, with no interest in anything. His totally uninterested exchanges with Brent on the Q&A are hysterical, all the more so for Keith being the exact antonym of hysterical: even Brent has to concede defeat. And Dawn reveals that her true interest in life is in art, her ambition to have become a children’s illustrator having slowly retreated until instead of being an illustrator who did reception work she now tells people she’s a receptionist. Typically, Brent is more concerned with badgering her to make him her Role Model, and pays only lip service to her ambition, whilst calling them ‘doodles’ and effectively saying she’d never succeed.

But it’s with the ‘Swindon lot’ that the episode once again enters the bathysphere and heads unerringly for the Tuscarora Deeps. They’ve only been there a week so he can’t appraise them but he gets them together to chat over how they’re adjusting. no-ne wants to come out and say to his face that they despise him,, but they don’t respond to his self-portrayal as the entertainer, nor ro the ‘chill’, ‘laid-back’, ‘have a laugh’ atmosphere. They’re used to working hard. Here in Slough, they’re bored.

The response is, in hindsight, inevitable. Thus challenged, Brent invites them all down the pub to get to know him as he really is, not that they haven’t already got his number. It’s a disaster, which Brent blames on them not making the effort, and storms back to the office. He interrupts a game in reception of French Cricket, Neil having the bat. Everyone, including Gareth, is clearly having exactly the kind of fun he’s failed to create. Petulantly, he orders everyone back to work, sneering, calling it ‘pathetic’. Which very speedily leads to a confrontation with Neil in his office, trying to discover what problem Brent has with him, being calm, professional as non-confrontational as he can be, but at the same time making it plain that he will not put up with Grent – or anyone – speaking like that to him in front of his staff. Trapped out on a limb of his own building, already half-sawn through, Brent is reduced to silence. Gervais’s expression is tight and resetful.

And as soon as Neil has left he’s out there, lying like a Prime Minister, spreading poison, claiming he was the victor in that confrontation (after carefully checking no-one’s heard what was really said), and that Neil was slagging off Gareth and Tim, calling them rubbish, when it’s the ‘Swindon lot’ who are shit. Two episodes, only.

There’s still more to this episode. The new girl, Rachel, quite clearly is interested in Tim, checking with Dawn, of all people, if he’s available. Lucy Davis once again says more with her silenvce than with words, though it’s the audience who read it, not Rachel, who later invites |Tim to join her and a couple of mates afterr work, to which he responds enthusiastically.

I let Gareth off very lightly in relation to episode 1 because, by that time, I couldn’t go on but here he gets a scene that will live forever in infamy when it comes to discussing the relationships between men and women. It starts in the kitchen, where Rachel has just made herself a cuppa. Gareth approaches and asks her out after work, an invitation she politely declines, saying she can’t, she’s going out with Tim. That’s the last point at which the horror is kept at bay. Because Gareth asks if he can come too and, when refused, goes on to explain that if she doesn’t have it off it Tim, he’d still be interested. Rachel, unable to believe her ears, resoponds as if she’s taking Gareth’s ignorance seriously and, no, I can’t go on any further. It’s a miracle of male attitudes that, thanks to Crook’s splendidly unaware portrayal, becomes excrutiatingly funny instead of excrutiatingly offensive. That bit above when I talked about the floor not opening up and swallowing Tim? It’s just the same here, though this time it’s the audience wanting several floors, one below another, to open up and swallow Gareth. Who even comes back for one final egregious comment in front of someone else who’s checking if there’s still any milk left…

You may be thinking, how on earth an episode 2 top that, or rather bottom that. Oh, ye of little imagination. Remember me mentioning the woman in the wheelchair, Brenda, played by Julie Fernandez? We get Brent at the pub moving her chair backwards and forwards and sideay so he can pass, without aword, acting as if he sees the chair only. That’s nothing. Earlier on, there’s a fire drill, everyone out, don’t use the lifts. Oliver’s assisting Brenda but is overruled by Brent and Gareth. Together they lift her wheelchair down a couple of flights of stairs. It’s hard workl, sweaty and achey. So, what the hell, it’s only a drill, there’s no fire. So they leave her, on a quarter landing, between flights. On her own. In her wheelchair. It isn’t funny. But then it wasn’t meant to be.

The Office, series 2. When things start to get darker.

All the Fells: Hallin Fell

Hallin Fell

Hallin Fell – The Far Eastern Fells 1,271′ (9)

Date: 17 August 1975/8 April 1995/29 April 2005

From: The Hause/The Hause/The Hause

I didn’t usually climb lower fells repeatedly and without going into the deeper recesses of memory, I think Hallin Fell, overlooking the angle of the two lower reaches of Ullswater is almost unique in seeing me at its summit as many as three times. That notorious holiday at Ullswater in 1975 saw us drive down to the lakeshore on the Saturday night, to look down the lake. Hallin Fell was clearly visible in the dogleg and so it became our first target, on Sunday. Down the quiet road on the east of the lake, up the expected zigzags to the Hause and then, once into our boots, up the straight wide, steep grass track to the summit without formality or deviation. We hung around for a while. Someone noticed a helicopter hovering over the lake, less than a hundred feet above the water. Suddenly, it started ascending towards us. I dragged out my camera and managed to get in position to snap the helicopter as it passed above us at no more than fifty feet clearance. The picture was blurred but as good as could be expected. We then went down again and returned to Pooley Bridge where occurred the notorious blow-up by my mother then had me swear off family holidays ever after. There was no reason to return in the next couple of decades, whilst I was collecting Wainwrights but once I had the set, I selected Hallin Fell for an afternoon leg-stretcher. At the last moment, I noticed a path bearing away to my left, heading for a gate, and decided to follow that. I had no idea where it went but surely I couldn’t get anywhere from which I couldn’t scramble up to the top without more than minimal difficulty. It was a lucky break, because the path wound round the side of the fell, keeping to a general level that made walking easy, and far less of a strain than the direct route. I was way round and above Ullswater before deciding to break off and work up to the top. I arrived over the brink just in time to see a great crowd of people disappearing back towards the Hause, some of them carrying television lighting and filming equipment. When the BBC series, The Lakes, came out a year or so later, I figured I’d just missed a filming scene. I was in no hurry to be anywhere so, rather than follow them down, I explored a path heading due east from the summit. It was a fascinating, mostly dead straight route that soon developed lovely views over the Lake, and I followed it in curiosity and enjoyment until, much lower down, and heading for the lakeside path, it just grew too steep for safe vertical passage. I contoured right to work round and back, finding The Rake, a good level path leading me back to the Hause with minimal ascending. After I married, my wife and I ended up doing far less walking in the Lakes than we anticipated, but this was one of the places I took her back to, a gentle, lovely afternoon, strolling round the side and spending a quarter hour or more just sitting on a bluff overlooking Ullswater, without any hurry – on her part – to get up to the summit.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Small Faces’ ‘Afterglow (of your Love)’

All or Nothing: a Number 1. Lazy Sunday: a Number 2. Afterglow (of your love): a Number 36. Wait a minute, what went wrong there?
If we were going simply by strength of song and performance, ‘Afterglow’ would have been as high in everybody’s memories of The Small Faces as anything that went before it. But it was a flop, only the second official single by the band to miss out on the Top Twenty.
What turned ‘Afterglow’ into a miss? Did Radio 1 simply not play it? Or is there a lesson to be learned from the comparative failure of the band’s previous single, the uncharacteristic ‘The Universal’, which used a mainly acoustic, shambling, indeed rustic/bucolic sound on a song whose melody was noticeably disjointed?
‘The Universal’ peaked at no 16. Only one of the band’s four previous singles had failed to reach the top 10, and two of those had risen to no. 2. ‘The Universal’ was a most unusual follow-up to the music hall melody of ‘Lazy Sunday’, and that contrast may well have contributed to the song’s failure.
But an immediate return to (musical) form in the shape of ‘Afterglow’ ought to have been the perfect response. It rocked. Steve Marriott was in full-throated voice. Ian McLagan’s organ was every bit as powerful as the guitar, and the songs chorus was a pledge of love, of devotion like few before it. I’m happy just to be with you, Marriott proclaims, and stretches himself yet further to add and loving you the way I do. There’s everything I need to know, just resting in the afterglow of your love.
Maybe it didn’t get that much airplay. I mean, there’s not much pretending going on, Marriott pretty obviously singing from that moment of post-orgasmic bliss with the sweat drying on your shaking body and although this was, by now, 1969, and Radio 1’s controllers would go on being ignorant of certain sexual matters at least until 1973 (Lou Reed, anyone?), it could have been one of those records kept off the air by the wish not to fling this filth at our pop kids.
I don’t know, I wasn’t listening to the radio that year, though I’ve always wished I had, given how much brilliant pop came out in 1969.
But sometimes you can see it, feel it, hear it. Bands, even the most popular, have a shelf-life. No-one knows how long it is, no-one can predict when it might happen, but suddenly the hits start to tail off, the highest position starts to diminish. A Number 2 gets followed by a Number 16. And that gets followed by a Number 36. How good the record might be has nothing to do with it.
‘Afterglow (of your Love)’ was the last single by The Small Faces until their unhappy reunion in the late Seventies. I don’t think it was lack of commercial success that played a part, though Marriott was apparently unsure about the song, but the times. Pop bands were on the verge of turning heavy. Steve Marriott left The Small Faces to start Humble Pie, along with Peter Frampton, pretty boy singer with The Herd. The rest of the band added Ronnie Wood on guitar and some no-hoper singer called Rod Stewart and dropped the Small.
They really should have gone out on a high. The band deserved it – I am not the only person to assert that The Small Faces are the most underrated big hit band of the Sixties – but more importantly the song deserved it as well. But it never really works it the way it should, not with the Great British Record Buying Public.

All the Fells: Grisedale Pike

Grisedale Pike – The North Western Fells 2,593′ (31)

Date: 10 September 1985/25 June 1994/9 July 1994

From: Braithwaite/ Braithwaite/ Braithwaite

When I climb a fell multiple times, it’s usually by different routes – Skiddaw four times by two different routes, Helvellyn four times by three different routes, Scafell Pike four times by four different routes – but it’s rare indeed for me to have climbed a fell more than twice and by the same route every time. But not every fell has such a perfect, gorgeous, enthralling route of ascent as Grisedale Pike from Braithwaite, via the west ridge. Twice I’ve made this climb as the opening movement to a brilliant day following the Coledale Horseshoe, and in between I ascended it intending to follow the Horseshoe but forced down to the ground by clouds on the tops requiring me to abandon ambition at Coledale Pass. The road to Whinlatter Pass leaves the back of Braithwaite Village straight uphill, then bears right on a steady gradient across the base of the fell. About a hundred yards up, on the left, a small roadside quarry has been turned into a miniature car park, with places for about a half dozen cars. If this is full, as it was once, the next nearest parking is the other side of Braithwaite. But from the quarry, a path built on wooden steps leaves to the right of the entrance. Once into the woods, it sweeps forward and back across the slope, on two long wings, before emerging on a low grassy lawn above the Vale of Keswick. From here, the rest of the route is out in the open and anyone in and around Keswick can see your every step. Above this is the only tedious part of the walk, a broad grass path through bracken going straight uphill. Above this, everything is delightful. The path levels out onto an airy, narrow grass crest offering splendid views ahead into Coledale, backed by Eel Crag’s cliffs. It’s made for striding out enthusiastically, making fast progress into the heart of the fells with minimal cost in energy. The path comes out of this and starts up the adjacent fellside before striking an easy angle to gain a second ridge. This leads to another, but much shorter level section, beyond which the path heads uphill on the final stretch, up the corner of Grisedale Pike’s pyramidal form. When I was last here, the path was heavily eroded, but it must have been relaid by now. The final bit of the ascent involves a scrabble over rocks, with the alternative for the fearful of contouring right below the rocks to merge with the closing in north-west ridge. I did this first time but on both remaining visits I took it straight and scrambled enthusiastically. From the top of the path to the highest point is less than one hundred grassy yards, to be walked calmly with wide-ranging views in every direction. It’s a superb, classic mountain ascent, and if I were spirited back in time and stamina and offered the opportunity to make it four times Grisedale Pike, I would still be heading for Braithwaite and that little roadside quarry, from where I would tell any walker to take the stepped path on the right just inside, and follow it to the summit: further instructions are unnecessary. That second trip was meant to be another Horseshoe round but was frustrated by low cloud, hence my determination to return literally only two weeks later when the sun shone all day.

Film 2022: Excalibur


I dunno. I enjoyed this film so much when I saw it in the cinema forty years ago, and again in later years when seen on television at least once, but this morning’s viewing was very different. Excalibur, an adaptation of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur directed by John Boorman, came over as a terrible mess, ill-lit, with implausible dialogue, at least one case of a WTF accent, and definitely overlong. Which latter was an irony in that my DVD was of an edited version, a thing of 134 minutes duration, as opposed to the film’s original 160 minute length.

Which was in itself somewhat confusing, as the edit, to get a PG rated Certificate, is supposed to be 119 minutes long, according to Wikipedia. Either way, the film struggled to hold my attention and I must have paused it nearly half a dozen times, not all of them to deal with a bit of a tummy bug.

The film’s inherent problem, which the script, by Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg, never even came close to surmounting, was that thestory of King Arthur and the legendary sword, Excalibur, is not a story, but a cycle. It’s a myth-cycle, the only serious British one around and, like similarly mythic cycles, such as the Norse myths, it is actually a series of stories, strung together like beads on a wire, with an ultimate progression but without the direct connective tissue between episodes that informs a story. As such, it bumbles along from tale to tale: Uther Pendragon rapes Igrayne under the disguise of her hudband, the Duke of Cornwall. Merlin takes away the baby, Arthur. Arthur is fostered by Sir Ector until he pulls the Sword from the Stone. Guinevere. Lancelot. Morgan le Fay, here called Morgana. Mordred. Throwing the sword back to the Lady of the Lake.

If you’re British and were fed these myths as an elevated form of fairy story, you know all these touchpoints, even if only from Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, thugh for this version of the legendarium you can substitute the Carmina Burana for Bibbity Bobbity Boo. And Boorman ticks these off in more or less the order they crop up. This does to some extent dminish the dramatic tension one expects from a film, since the audience knows what they’re getting in advance. That was exactly the same for The Lord of the Rings, the difference being that Peter Jackson brought that to life and John Boorman, who ironically developed the look of the film out of an aborted wish to film Tolkien’s big book, doesn’t begin to do so.

Part of this is the uncertainty of tone throughout the film. It begins with a deeply unwise dimly lit introduction to Uther Pendragon, which is so dark that it’s very difficult, if not impossible at times, to work out what is actually happening. In fact, one of the few things that can be made out with any real clarity are the breasts of Katrine Boorman, playing Igrayne as she’s being shagged enthusiastically by Gabriel Byrne as Uther, in full armour. Even in 1981, and substantially more shallow then than now, this was so improbable – I mean, the discomfort, for him as well as her, as well as the lack of facility for fucking of doing it in body armour – that the reality of the film slipped sideways quite a bit. It must also be said that whilst these were breasts that were pleasant to view, they were the breasts of the Director and Co-scripter’s own daughter, which does cast something of a disturbing pall over the scene.

The armour is also a fundamental part of the film’s inability to decide on a consistent approach. Boorman is depicting a High Romance look, literally Knights in shining armour, full body, bright, bulky and a bit clunky, but instead of the elegance, fantasy and unhindred grace of the look, he layers this with mud and grime and blood, not to mention clumsy, staggering, visibly exhausting fights. Monty Python did this in their Holy Grail, but they were aiming at a deflating comic opposition, whereas Boorman isn’t directing a comedy.

Though you’d be forgiven for wondering as soon as Nicol Williamson turns up as Merlin. Dressed in blacked, with a close fitting silver skullcap he never takes off, stomping around on a staff topped by two stylised snakes, not to mention what looks like an oxy-acetylene torch in one night scene, Williamson is a joke from the moment he opens his mouth and starts talking in an accent that is by itself a tour of the regions, not to mention a collection of inflections, speeds and oral mannerisns that would have made him a shoo-in for a guest spot in The Goon Show, if that had still been going. Williamson sounds like someone who is making it all up as he goes along, whilst simultaneously being unable to believe what he’s being asked to say.

But that could be said for the whole film. There isn’t a line of dialogue that sounds as if it could be spoken by a normal human being, yet it also fails to convince as high fantasy by failing to make itself into a convincing alternative. And it should also be remarked that Nigel Terry, who plays Arthur from his teens to what should be his late fifties whilst being 35 himself, starts off with a comic West Country yokel accent that gradually flattens itself out the longer, and more ragged, the film becomes.

Given that this DVD is approximately 25 minutes shorter than the theatrical version I originally saw, there didn’t seem to be any holes in the ‘story’. The only thing I actually noriced that had been cut out was a brief shot of Helem Mirren’s breasts through a very translucent lace top in the scenewhere she, as Morgana, seduces her half-brother Arthur to conceive their incestuous son, Mordred (played as a young boy by another Boorman offspring, Charley).

I have to admit that the casting was good, full of young actors and actresses whose careers were just beginning. Not just Byrne and Mirren, but Liam Neeson, Ciaran Hinds and Patrick Stewart had roles to play, whilst Guenevere was played by the lovely Cherie Lunghi, who did her best with a role that was weak and wet, with the substance of tissue paper. And, when you could see it, the landscapes – in #ireland – were enjoyable, though the age of the print did suggest that if it was worth someone’s economic while to do so, which I doubt, it would greatly benefit from a digital remsastering.

No, what once attracted me to this film, has, with the exception of Mesdames Boorman, Lunghi and Mirren, wholly evaporated. The silliness of Williamson’s accent, his complete detachment from anything to do with the rest of the film, was criticised at the time, and now I can see how destructive it is to the appeal of what, it the right hands, could still make a bloody good epic film. Mr Jackson?

All the Fells: Grike

Grike – The Western Fells 1,596′ (136)

Date: 19 September 1991

From: The Cold Fell Road

Before Wainwright completed The Western Fells, I doubt many people outside the immediate environs of Ennerdale knew of the existence of Grike and fewer even of them would have known its name. Grike is a ridge-shaped fell on the south side of Ennerdale Water, but it’s really nothing more than a bridge between the West Cumberland foothills and Crag Fell, the first real fell on the ridge that leads ultimately to Pillar. Though there are walks to it from the valley, the fell lacks in any intrinsic qualities that might make you want to climb it individually, except perhaps to expend energy. I parked the car on the Cold Fell road before the drop towards Ennerdale Bridge, took the road into and through the forest and, once I was in the clear, angled up onto the ridge to the summit. By doing so, I saw nothing of the fell itself, but I ticked it off a list and, without wishing to sound disrespectful, that’s pretty much all it is.