A Glimpse into Girl Comic – Part 1

Girl 1

Given that I am not going to start hunting through Robin comics, not even for the sake of nostalgia for the likes of Toby Jugg, Gulliver Guinea-Pig or Christopher Cricket, who were my avid delight sixty years ago, it’s almost mandatory to complete my understanding of Marcus Morris’ little editorial stable by looking at Eagle‘s literal sister-paper, Girl.
Girl was started just over eighteen months after Eagle and with the same intentions in mind: to produce a fine, upstanding, morally clear and at least semi-educational comic that would be exciting and entertaining in setting a clear direction for its readership, but this time to do it for girls.
The comic would last just short of thirteen years, ending in October 1964 by merger into Princess, just as Eagle, half a decade later, would be absorbed into Lion. This is not going to be a comprehensive review of the title, not even as comprehensive as that relating to Swift: the DVD I am operating from has a generous and consistent selection of Annuals, the first eight complete, but when it comes to the actual comic, I only have fifty five issues to look at. And after two issues from the first year, the run leaps to volume 5, offering a smattering of issues for each volume up to and including volume 9, and then a single issue each from volumes 10 and 11: nothing later.
Still, better than nothing, eh? It seems that girls in the Fifties may have been far less concerned with preserving their comics than boys.
At least I have the third issue with which to get a feel for the comic at its beginning. Apart from the title box, red lettering on yellow, being stripped across the top of the page instead of white on a red corner box, Girl was clearly modelled on Eagle: 16 pages, the outermost and innermost sheets in colour on both sides, the rest in black and white. There’s a prose series and a prose serial, the editorial page where expected and the rest is adventure strips and the odd little comic feature.
The cover went to Kitty Hawke and her All-Girl Aircrew, charter pilots. It’s not Dan Dare but it’s the nearest equivalent to that kind of adventure, everything else being much more low-key and ‘feminine’, a classification that would soon be brought inside in black and white: Girl is not going to be quite that much of an equivalent to the established boy’s paper.
Inside, on page 3 there’s Julie & Pat, a school story in which the title characters, with the aid of a boy, are trying to clear the sports mistress who’s been framed for theft, followed by the series over two pages, The Exploits of Candy Maitland, a girl with a flair for solving mysteries. Sticking with the theme, page 6 has The Adventures of Penny Wise, Girl Detective, who looks like the assistant to a trenchcoated, big tough Private Eye, who actually does the solving for him, whilst page 7 sees the colour serial Anne Mullion and the Silver Sabot, set in Cornwall and pitted against a female smuggler, the Vixen.
The centrespread was another mixture. An adaptation of Black Beauty got a vertical quarter-sheet with the remaining space divided horizontally between Jacky – Centre Page Girl – taking you somewhere exciting every week, like the zoo, and John Ryan’s Lettice Leefe, the greenest girl in school, greenest as in newest. In contrast to his other series for Marcus Morris, this time the focus was on the child character up front, instead of the silly and pompous adults: Captain Pugwash, Harris Tweed, Sir Boldasbrass.
Completing the central colour series was Captain Starling, a young girl sailing in search of her missing father, lost in South America, with a crew consisting of a same age boy cousin and her much younger and naughty sister Cherub: one of these things was a serious mistake. Starling faced the editor’s page and was followed by the serial, The Caravan Secret, again spread over two pages, starring Betty, travelling by caravan to Devonshire with her cousin Bill and his Dad Tom, with someone trying to sabotage them.
Page 14, the last in black and white, was split by the real-life Heroes and Heroines, short autobiographies and a hobbies corner feature. Girls Around The World, in this instance Eskimos, was another educational feature, coupled with World of Wonders, whilst the back page also modelled on Eagle, telling the life story of Miriam from the Bible, under the title Daughter of the Nile.

Girl 2

There’s only one other issue so early and that’s no. 25, 16 April 1952, As advertised, Kitty Hawke is off the cover and out of the comic completely, replaced by the much longer running Wendy and Jinx, another schoolgirl pair, who, like Julie and Pat, are trying to saving a popular mistress from leaving. Page 3 has been inherited by Robbie of Red Hall, an untamed orphan girl from Scotland who’s inherited a mansion that unscrupulous adults are trying to trick her into selling, whilst this issue sees a new prose series start. The Lesters Move In is going to be a slice of life series about a family adjusting to a new home in a new town.
Penny Wise is still going on but page 7 is now another Charles Chilton western, about young Indian maid Flying Cloud and her white trader’s son friend, Kit Bell. I’ve caught it at a moment when the white folk, from the Cavalry captain to Kit’s Dad are behaving with racist suspicions to Indians in general and Flying Cloud in particular. Bad white men!
In the centre, Black Beauty’s done, replaced by a Picture Gallery showing fine art, but Jacky and Lettice are still going strong. Captain Starling’s found her father but they’re all captives of the Incas, but the serial is now Curtain Up!, a theatre drama, in its second week. It also seemed to be its last part…
There was another prose story on page 14, a one-off about a skilled girl skiier saving the neck of a headstrong boy who thinks he’s better than he is. World on Wonder was still on page 15 but in the top half now, sitting on Candy & Mr Cube, another cartoon advertisement, plugging sugar cubes, and Marco Polo, whilst Miriam still had the back page, her artist now credited as John Worsley, of PC49 fame.
These two are just fascinating snippets, on which I can’t really comment, not on single week’s continuity. I’d love to know more, especially Wendy and Jinx and Flying Cloud, which seem to have the most potential. As for the stories and serials, these are well written, straightforward but given some thought, and without condescension to the audience. But that’s it for almost four years, the next available issue being volume 5 no. 5, 1 February 1956. It’s like a second beginning.
The first thing to notice is that the title box is now red-backed, top left corner (though not as deep), and the paper is described as Companion to Eagle, Swift and Robin. What’s more, Wendy and Jinx are still up front, the story The Million Pound Mystery featuring a shy new girl the pair have befriended who’s been accused of thieving: the girls don’t believe it and are out to find the true culprit (one obvious candidate presents herself immediately). To my delight, the comic now displays full credits, written by Stephen James, drawn by Roy Bailey and Philip Townsend.
George Beardmore and Roy Newby take credit for the ongoing Robbie of Red Hall, currently hunting sunken silver in the Caribbean. The Admiral’s Locket, a serial in its fifth part, set in the ever-attractive Napoleonic Era, stars Fiona Gray, getting involved in a tangled situation whilst visiting her Uncle Joseph in Naples (story by Frank Styles, illustrations by Eric Winter). Well-written and authentic, it was definitely up to the standard of the Hulton prose stories.
A more recent feature on page 5 was Susan of St Brides, a girl who wanted to become a nurse, written by Ruth Adam, the first female creator acknowledged in this girl’s comic, and drawn by Peter Kay, but not that one. Colour resumes on page 7 with Vicky, in Vengeance of the Incas. Vicky, a redhead, is in Peru with her father, Professor Carter, searching for a friend gone missing seeking an Inca city. This is written by Betty Dowling and drawn by Dudley Pout: it looked good.
Lettice Leefe retained her slot in the centrespread, shared with Real Life Stories, this one Queen Anne, and the Picture Gallery, showing a Winter Olympics figure skater, whilst on page 10 George Beardmore’s second series, this drawn by Chris Garvey, was Belle of the Ballet, subject not requiring description.
There’s a second serial on page 12, The Circus Quest, in it’s sixth part. Written by Ida Melbourne with illustrations by T S La Fontaine, it stars Circus owner’s daughter Gloria Sandford Gloria has persuaded her father to take on French boy trapeze artist Pierre, whose searching for his lost parents, also trapeze artists. But there’s something sinister in the background… Again, it’s written well enough, apart from a multiplicity of ‘Ze’s and ‘Zere’s from the French characters. Nothing immediately exceptional, but again it’s confident, clear, uncondescending writing of the kind in which the two older Hulton titles specialised.
Adventurers Corner, a photographic half-page, separated this from the third prose item (demonstrating the belief that I mentioned in respect of Swift, that girls grew out of pictures faster than boys). It’s a one-off short story, Adventure at Little Moose Lake, about a Canadian girl and her friend getting snowbound whilst rescuing a half-tame bear, who rescues them.
The final two colour pages offered a competition to win a year’s supply of Cadbury chocolate (oh yes, ten lucky girls were in for a lifetime of fatness and spots…) and the back page true life story of Adelaide, widow of the poisoned King of Lombardy, trying to escape imprisonment by his usurper. At first sight it was immediately questionable about why her: who was she, what had she done? Wikipedia established that she was a Saint, who had gone on to become Holy Roman Empress, so there.

Girl 3

I have the advantage of the following issue, though it doesn’t add much except detail to the ongoing stories, of which only Robbie’s appears to be close to the end, though Fiona Gray’s cliffhanger was finding her father again, suggesting her story might not have long to go either. The next available issue is no. 12. Wendy and Jinx’s story is still ongoing, but Robbie had disappeared, the new story starting this issue being The Pilgrim Sisters. Nothing to do with Puritans and America, the three mistresses Pilgrim live in London 1665, the year of the Great Plague, though at the moment they’re going to be sheltering a runaway 13 year old Apprentice with the name of Tom Lonely. This is another Beardmore series, drawn by Jack Hardee.
Fiona Gray’s serial is done with and we’re now on part 4 of The Wraith of the Moors (James Stagg/Eric Winter), set in 1815 and starring Helen Wyndyatt, living with her grandfather on Dartmoor, facing up to evil doings aimed at her grandfather, and aided by a mysterious black-masked rider calling himself The Wraith of Wistman’s Wood. It really is irritating to be only seeing snatches of these stories. Circus Quest was also over, to be replaced by Joy’s Ski School (Don James/Charles Payne).
Otherwise, every series is still telling the stories present in no. 5, and once again that’s all there is of this phase, as the DVD leaps to no. 42 and 17 October, but at least there’s a decent run, with nine of the next twelve issues.
It’s like having a third beginning, but here we go again. Wendy and Jinx are only a couple of episodes into a new story, having had an adventure in France in between, facing the disaster of the pretty blonde Jinx having to leave the school at the end of the term because her father’s lost all his money and can no longer afford the fees. The Pilgrim Sisters have fled London because of the Plague, Susan of St Brides has been renamed Susan Marsh but is otherwise unchanged, Vicky is now on an adventure in Africa, and Lettice Leefe is now Lettice Tells You How, with the customary disastrous results. But she’s now paired with Your Pets, gorgeously drawn by George Bowe, as in all his features in Eagle. Amusingly, the writer on this is none other than Barbara Woodhouse, of television fame twenty five years later.
Belle, now drawn by Stanley Houghton, is onto the sequel to her earlier story but has just gone down with tonsillitis, four days before a vital dancing competition. Page 15 is no longer credited to advertisers but now features two domestic halfpagers, readying the readers for their futures as housewives, Mother tells You How (to make…) and Cookery Corner and the back page is now Persia’s Lady Mary, about 19th century missionary Mary Bird (Chad Varah and Gerald Haylock).

Girl 4

I’ve left out the prose stories so far. Whether serials or series, these are completed on a much faster timetable than the strips, but then they involve much more story in each episode. Currently, and in order of appearance, these are Leave it to Linda (Bob King), about a girl working at a pet hospital, complete in every week, the full serial The Secret of Ravenscoft Hall (J.A. Storrie/Eric Winter) in part 3, set in 1852 and starring Wilma Raymond as a girl hired to be a governess but who is facing disturbing scenes, and the all-female one-off Mystery at Four Corners, by Frances Cowan and Eve Grandfield. It’s nice to think that I can kick back and enjoy the continuity for a bit.
That said, I do have to raise a point of criticism about Wendy and Jinks and that relates to another girl at the Manor School, an Indian girl named Nasrullah. She seems to be intelligent, well-liked, on the end of no prejudice but, and this is once again the Fifties for you, she is known by her nickname, which is ‘Dusky’.
And the next Leave it to Linda story was about an incident that looked to get Linda into trouble but which was the responsibility of a more senior staff member, but it left out her motive for doing something strange, which left the episode feeling incomplete. Perhaps I need to read more of the series to get a clearer picture?
No. 44 was officially Girl‘s fifth birthday and a proudly confident comic it was by then. Very different from the flagship title, produced with different aims and attitudes and very much of its era, but I have no difficulty even on such limited exposure in seeing it as superior to all its rivals.
After a jump of two missing issues, The Pilgrim Sisters return to London where the Plague has faded, only to be in time for the Great Fire… Sadly, I missed the end of the Ravenscroft Hall serial, coming back to part two of Two pairs of Skates, about two champion ice skating sisters, this co-written by Peter Ling of The Three J’s fame, with Sheilah Ward.
Belle of the Ballet, whose art seems to be alternating week by week between Dudley Pout and Gerald Haylock, with no apparent change in style, moved on to a new story. There’s something very familiar about the character, as if I’d seen her before, a skinny, flat girl with blonde hair pulled severely back into a pony-tail. How I could have seen the series I don’t know: I suspect one or other of the artists must have drawn something, illustrations possibly, for an Eagle annual I’ve had for many years.
The back page story, about Mary Bird, was giving me concern. The lady is both Christian missionary and doctor in Muslim Persia, and is running up against hostile attitudes. There’s a definite air of what we’d now call muslimophobia, yet at the same time, though I’m no expert, the clash of religions does not feel exaggerated. It’s disturbing reading and would do nothing to encourage tolerance of a non-Christian religion, yet it chimes with aspects of Muslim belief, especially in their own holy superiority, of which I am aware. Difficult stuff.
Sadly, this concentrated bunch of issues ends with Volume 6 no. 1, after which we jump rapidly through the rest of the Volume: an ideal if unwelcome point at which to end part 1. It’s frustrating to have to leave so many serials unfinished just as I’m getting a flavour of Girl as a weekly comic. Particularly Susan Marsh’s, with a very important cliffhanger…

Due South: s04 e12/13 – Call of the Wild (Parts 1 & 2)

Due South

Due South lasted four seasons thanks to the support of a loyal but small audience that sustained it long past the point when the mass-audience-addicted American networks were prepared to continue it: a familiar attitude but not a familar outcome and especially not in the 1990s. But that audience could only take it so far and, given some of the episodes in the fourth season, maybe it took it too far. Either way, there was no fifth season so the series had a finale on its hands.

‘Call of the Wild’ was originally broadcast on Canadian TV as a two hour episode. For the boxset, and I imagine the BBC over here, it was divided into two parts. In the process, two short scenes were edited out, one of which I disagree with omitting. It was a story of many short scenes, built around a spinal story that was serious enough in its conception but which was never compelling enough to take over the episode. The name of the game was send-off: not so much the wrapping up of loose ends but the satisfactory disposal of all the ongoing elements, ambitions, hopes, wishes and relationships. In short, leave nothing untouched, leave nothing to wonder about afterwards.

Did it work? I wanted it to work. I wanted to enjoy this, I wanted to be happy watching it, I wanted an ending that suited what I’ve been watching every Thursday this past fourteen months or so. I didn’t want to be disappointed. And, mostly, I wasn’t. A lot of things were sewn up in different fashions: the final episode finished by stealing the American Graffitti ending of showing you each character’s future but let’s not go into that in any detail because the futures chosen were almost universally silly. Everything got covered in one way or another. Some of it was good, some of it was very good and in one instance I’d go so far as to say tears-to-the-eyes incredibly good, and that’s why I’ve chosen the picture above. Others were, well, let’s be honest, not good. Indifferent, rather than bad, so the show gets a pass on that score.

I don’t intend to go into any great detail about the finale. There were lots of details, enough that any kind of representative summary would take nearly as long to read as to watch and watching would be better. But things started in symbolic and elegiac fashion with Fraser homesick, and led to a case involving a weapons dealer, out to sell munitions – nerve gas and a Russian submarine – to the Militia group run by Cyrus Bolt, cousin to Randall Bolt of ‘All The Queen’s Horses’ and ‘Red, White or Blue’ in season 2, played once again by Kenneth Welsh.

The dealer was Holloway Muldoon, a ruthless and highly-competent bastard, who was supposedly dead this thirty years, having fallen into a crevasse whilst being pursued by Fraser’s Dad, Bob. There was a secret about Muldoon, one that Bob Fraser had withheld from his son all his life, one that was not hard to predict but which nevertheless was central to everything: Muldoon was the killer of Caroline Fraser, Bob’s wife, Bennie’s mother.

So whilst the chase was serious, it was more importantly personal. Muldoon was one of those people, not as slimey as the mob bosses we had this season, not arrogant in their way, not so much an offence against life, but who nevertheless you could easily conclude did not deserve to live. Not that there was ever any real doubt that Bennie would do what his father had intended, tried but failed to do. Instead, he brought Muldoon in. In the process, he kept his father’s ghost, who has been lingering for four seasons because of this one case in which he had failed to get his man, from killing Muldoon. And so Bob Fraser passed into grace, holding the hand of the ghost of Caroline Fraser (a brief return visit by Martha Burns, wife of Paul Gross).

That was so much of the story that needed to be related. Along the way, Fraser made his biggest mistake, taken off guard, by recognising ‘The Bookman’, Armando Langoustini or, as you and I know him, Ray Vecchio, the real Ray, David Marciano, a year in deep cover and luxury lown in an instant. Ray’s back, the old partnership is back on track, but the new partnership, OtherRay reverting to being Stanley Kowalski, was the one that stayed the course.

The action in the second part took us to Canada, to complete the circle, out in the deep wild, the snow, the winds, the mountains, the considerable emptiness. Here was where the episode came closest to blowing it, like the second half of the two-parter that concluded season 3. The writers couldn’t quite handle two hours, there was a lot of filler, a lot of silliness. This belonged to the Canadians; Bennie, Meg Thatcher, Buck Frobisher, Constable Turnbull, Bob Fraser. This time it was the Yank who was the fish out of water. The American half of the cast were accommodated by awkward cuts to them waiting nervously in Chicago whilst RealRay, who’s been shot in the line of duty and can retire on full pension, gets it on with ADA Stella Kowalski, aka the ex-OtherRay’s wife.

Like I said, there were things that were good, things that were indifferent, but all of it was consciously not heavy-handedly making the point that it was all over, that everything was changing, that just like the end of Deep Space Nine or the breaking of the Fellowship, these people would not ever all be in the same place again.

So let’s leave it at that, parting is such sweet sorrow, eh? The final disposition of Bennie and Stanley was not the most convincing aspect of it, and I thought that back in 1999 when I first watched it, but it was sweetened and semi-mythologised by the use, foreshadowed earlier in the episode, of the song ‘North West Passage’, about Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition to find the North West Passage. I know of one song about that loss, ‘Lord Franklin’, most notably in a version recorded by the Bothy Band for a John Peel Session but I am unfamiliar with this song, written and sung by Stan Rogers and continued through the credits and fittingly. I don’t propose to stay unfamiliar with it.

And there it is. As endings go, it was good enough. I don’t give ratings but this deserved 8 out of 10, though it wouldn’t have been that high if not for Bob Fraser’s parting. Time to look at something else, something not quite as long, indeed very short in comparison and actuality. Join me for the next four weeks somewhere beginning with a G…

The Infinite Jukebox: Lindisfarne’s ‘Lady Eleanor’

Some things are completely improbable. It was the combination of Miners’ Strikes, power cuts and terribly fuzzy Radio Luxembourg reception on my first transistor radio that introduced me to Lindisfarne, in the form of their first single, ‘Clear White Light (Part 2)’. And thus attracted, I was eager to hear more. My enthusiasm was confirmed by their second single, ‘Lady Eleanor’, taken from their debut album Nicely Out Of Tune in the summer of 1971, though I didn’t buy the album (my first) until the beginning of summer the following year.
By then, the band had scored its first Top Ten single with ‘Meet Me on the Corner’, reaching no. 5, and, another personal first, the first act I saw on Top of the Pops on a colour TV. And a drugs song, no less, not that I was aware for quite some time that the person to be met on that corner was not some paramour, nor some mate with whom you were going to watch the ‘Toon’, but rather your pusher.
‘Meet Me on the Corner’ came from the 1971 album Fog on the Tyne, whose title track became a Geordie anthem, and helped push the album to a belated number 1 spot on the Album Charts, for three weeks the following year. And the album returned to no. 1 again, in the summer, prompted by the band’s second and most successful single, a re-release, in a slightly different mix, of ‘Lady Eleanor’, which was to climb the chart steadily and slowly until it reached the heights on no. 3.
(And I am not forgetting that Lindisfarne did have a much later no. 2 hit in tandem with Gazza, crucifying ‘Fog on the Tyne’ in the process for a novelty hit, but one day I hope to obliterate it completely).
Lindisfarne at no. 3 in the Singles chart. Lindisfarne on Top of the Pops. Truly the past is a foreign country where they do things differently. I’ve often pondered on the sheer diversity of music in 1971, to which I properly date the song, the unbelievable range of songs that existed and got nowhere but which makes that year so brilliant. Maybe it was because I was just starting to get an idea of what I might like, shaping myself through endless days of endless listening to the radio, that the sounds of that time seem so full of promise and potential, musical directions that the world rejected in almost their entirety but that if followed up as, in my mind, they deserved to be, would have led to a Seventies and later very different – and very much better – world than we ended up getting.
Whenever I hear ‘Lady Eleanor’ again, as I’m doing whilst typing this, I find it impossible to reconcile it with the notion of a top three hit single. It doesn’t fit. I loved its success, I thrilled every time I heard it on the radio, it was the first time I experienced public justification of my already divergent, increasingly eccentric tastes. See? I was right and you were wrong. But every time I hear it, I find it so far out of the mainstream that it seems far more in tune with the failures of 1971 than the big hit it scored.
A slow, almost funereally-paced folk song with minimal melody, Gothic lyrics derived from an Edgar Allan Poe short story, admittedly a rousing chorus, and a dying fall of a coda, usually cut off by Radio 1’s DJs, probably resentful at having to play this long, slow, boring song at all: since when have these been the ingredients of big hit singles? And in high summer to boot (and the summer of 1971, between O-Level and A-Level, was a good hot summer): this is a song for late autumn and early winter, if that: darkness in the air, a dimming cool, things that go bump in the night.
Lindisfarne’s acknowledged leader despite the presence of two other writers and three other singers in the band, Alan Hull wrote ‘Lady Eleanor’, as he had ‘Clear White Light’ (‘Meet Me on the Corner’ was written by Rod Clements (bass) and sung by Ray Jackson (mandolin and harmonica)). At the time, he was acclaimed in some quarters as the best songwriter since Bob Dylan, a view I can’t subscribe to for insufficient familiarity with Dylan, whilst Elvis Costello has described his ‘Winter Song’, a solo acoustic track on Fog on the Tyne as one of the greatest songs ever. One of the greatest practically unknown songs ever, certainly.
Yet I still come back to the implausibility of ever telling those younger than me that, listen to this, this, yes this, was a massive hit single once upon a time. How would they ever believe me? And if I were to accompany that statement with a selection of the other hits of that summer, they couldn’t help but believe me even less. Long ago, fantastic things happened, and I was there to see them. If they still do, they happen to others now.

Some Books: Guy Gavriel Kay’s ‘The Last Light of the Sun’


This irregular series began as a conscious decision to re-read certain books I had enjoyed many years ago when borrowed from Didsbury Library in South Manchester, and to consider how well, or otherwise, they stood up to my recollection of them. Since then, it’s expanded beyond the confines of what I read in the Library.
It always irked me that, once Guy Gavriel Kay finally got into North Europe as a basis for his long fantasy novels, that once he got to England, I failed to get more than two chapters into the book. The effect was to get me to re-assess his writings. Up to that point I had a complete set of his books in paperback, but not too long after I disposed of everything except The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, and thereafter have only read the out-of-character Ysabel.
But it still irked me. So finally I bought a cheap paperback of The Last Light of the Sun, determined to read it all the way through. And I discovered two things. One was that I was wrong to think the book set in a Kay-fantasy version of England (Anglycyn) because it also encompasses Wales (Cyngael) and the Norsemen (Erlings). The other was that I was right: this is a tremendously stodgy book, lacking in anything like a binding story and so full of Kay’s stylistic mannerisms that you start wincing at their repetitive trotting out barely two chapters in before concluding that the story was probably not written by Kay himself but rather by some computer programmed to sound like him.
The book is shot through with familiar characters. Wise, well-organised, supremely skilful warriors who lead tribes and nations, highly intelligent, intuitive and stunningly gorgeous wives and daughters, young men with glorious futures ahead of them in which they too will become wise, well-organised, supremely skilful warriors who lead tribes and nations, plus another version of the faerie. Read it all before, usually in warmer climates, and ever so slightly bored with more of it.
The style becomes such a noticeable issue because of the lack of an over-arching story to focus upon. Kay always starts slowly, building up a number of situations and involving multiple viewpoints and intentions before he tips his hand as to what the endpoint will involve, but when you are over 200 pages into the story, with new characters being either introduced from scratch or filled out from initial encounters seen through another character’s eyes, with no understanding of what these characters, and the peoples they stand for have to do with the story, except that they usually fight each other, details like the profusion of sentences that leave off the initial pronoun become a matter of closer concern.
I would hazard a guess that Kay, who is Canadian, who comes from the majority English-descended population, who studied at Oxford and aided Christopher Tolkien in compiling the published Silmarrillion, feels far less empathetic with northern European cultures than he does with southern ones. He makes a point of the extent of his researches into understanding the people he is channelling, their thoughts and expectations, but there is a literal world of difference between these deliberately dark lands and the sunshine of his more natural field.
The basic problem with The Last Light of the Sun is that it has no great conclusion. Kay’s epics traditionally turn upon some great victory that marks a great change in the world, or at least the pseudo-country he’s taken as his inspiration. No such thing happens here. Out on the edge of the world, in the darkness of barbarian tribes, the ultimate climax is an intended raid on a more or less isolated farm, not even a kingdom, resolved by a single combat in which the defeated participant deliberately sacrifices his life to avert slaughter.
And then the retreating Norsemen/Erlings react to their being spared by reverting to the cliché of their type, except in a different country. No change.
Or, to be fair, no overt change. The book ends with a slew of marriages that cement better future relations between the English and the Welsh, an incremental step, but after 500 pages of fantasy you want something a little more conclusive than an increment.
Kay’s books always (with the exception of Ysabel) involve multiple viewpoints and this is no different. Again, I think it’s the lack of any central purpose that eventually weaves the disparate interests of a wide cast into a common goal that makes the book feel crowded and unfocussed. Everybody has different aims in mind, different preoccupations. The three races are all enemies and whilst the marriages at the end suggest a drawing together of Anglcyn and Cyngael in future, it doesn’t change either’s relation to the Erlings.
That’s another point of contention. Kay is usually good on the feminist side. His women are intelligent, strong, leaders in their own way and in their own right, having their own spheres of dominance. Not so here. The Erlings are overtly masculine, obsessed with being hard, not soft, in order to survive their harsh world, harsh raiders, unrepentant, indeed eager killers, despising anyone who isn’t like them. Women in their world are nothing. Relationships don’t go beyond sex, which is a practical task for the proper running of the body, much like unclogging the drains.
It’s crude, it’s archaic, it isn’t interesting except to those of that mindset, of which we’ve got too many in the world to begin with. But the Erlings are merely an extreme version of this. With one exception, the strong women of this saga may be wise, perceptive, thoughtful, fit to command respect, but they’re still women and that makes them second class. They are there to be married off for political gain, run households, produce babies on an industrial basis.
It makes for a very flat, indeed dull world.
At least I can now say I’ve read the book, which had bugged me in a mild way for many years. It was a struggle: even at only two chapters a day I had to force myself to the task, and task it was which no book should be which isn’t being read for some examination. It’s the book in which Guy Kay went to the well once too often. Ysabel, the atypical urban fantasy, would follow, but that aside the pattern has been adhered to faithfully ever since, without me, now and hereafter. But that’s what so often happens with authors whose range is pre-determined, however good they may be inside an individual book, they always find themselves out, sooner or later.

Wednesday Morning Sitcom Time: The Office US s02 e07-09 – The Client/Performance Review/Email Surveillance


It’s slow going and I’m still not close enough to viewing the American The Office as an entity in its own right rather than a reflection of the original, and I don’t know when or even if I’ll achieve that. Certainly, this latest tryptich went quite a way into establishing new ground for the show, as well as providing its fair share of individual moments that combined skillful writing with superb facial acting, whilst increasing the sense of difference between the two entities.

Plainly put, and inevitable by the vast increase in number of episodes, The Office US takes on a massive element of soap opera. It can’t do anything else, not with that amount of airtime to fill: season 2 alone is over half as long again as the entire British series. The show therefore focusses more closely upon personalities and relationships and, given how long we’re going to be spending time with the employees of Dunder Miflin, it can’t view them as harshly as the original. Edges have to be filed or sanded down. Yes, in my terms, that softening represents a diminution or dilution of the subject. But it doesn’t preclude it from being funny, and very funny in places.

The first two of these episodes were almost a two-parter, with Melora Hardin as Jan Levinson-Gould the link. ‘The Client’ is about she and Michael meeting a potential new and lucrative client to try to agree business: Jan makes it plain that this is her meeting, that she will be doing all the talking, that Michael is there mainly as a prop. Even before we learn that Michael has unilaterally moved the meeting from an upmarket Hotel Restaurant to a fast food joint, we know it’s not going to work like that. We are already prepared for it to be an absolute disaster.

And all the factors are there: I mean, Michael Scott is an overwhelming factor in his own right, what else do you need? He interrupts, he’s inappropriate, he impedes, tells awful jokes, recommends horrible food and drink, he deflects. For instance, Jan Levinson-Gould is Levinson-Gould no longer, just Levinson, she has gotten divorced. It’s a private thing, private from Michael but very much private from the client but Michael insists on dragging it out, to toe-curling effect.

Meanwhile, thanks to our Mr Scott phoning Pam to look up his joke books for a joke to tell the client – who loves it – Pam discovers a screenplay hidden in his desk, which everybody else gathers together in the meeting room to read out, until Dwight realises that the stupid assistant in supposed to be him whereupon he puts on a (pathetic) fireworks display outside at which Jim and Pam sit and talk with that curious and carefully maintained air of intimacy and distance that John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer have immediately established (god, they’re good!).

And back at the fast food joint, or rather the bar to which the trio have moved on, mirabile dictu, it’s not a disaster after all. The client has gotten on so well with Michael, and even Jan who’s given up standing in the way of the Irresistible Force and the deal is done, exactly the way it couldn’t have been done with David Brent. But it’s not a softening, rather an unexpected twist that then set’s up the next element: Michael and Jan hug in delight. Then they kiss. And go off in Michael’s car. leaving hers in the Dunder Miflin parking lot to be collected in the morning under the eyes of the early arriivers…

Did they or didn’t they? What (if anything) did they do? And will they be doing it again or a regular, semi-regular or even occasional basis? Well, the only answer we get in ‘The Client’ is to the last question, which can be summarised as over Jan’s dead body.

This carries over into ‘Performance Review’ which, at first glance, looks as if it’s going to be a take-off of the equivalent UK episode but only uses the set-up as a springboard. Michael gets various people – basically Pam and Stanley – to listen to Jan’s purely professional voicemail about their later meeting for his Performance Review to interpret it in favour of his need to believe that a relationship has started and will continue.

This is perhaps the biggest point of divergence so far: David Brent could only ever talk of sex, in a vile, chuvinist and pig ignorant man-of-the-world manner that simultaneously repelled and spelled out the paucity of his actual experience, but Michae cannot be so monstrous as his avatar. His is a more subtle form of masculinist idiocy, a total blindness to the fact that Jan wants nothing to do with him outside their enforced prfessional relationship, an insistence upon acting as if there is something going on between them, on treating her as a woman he’s desperately trying to get off with instead of as a boss, refusing to acknowledge boundaries: again, superb;y judged because whilst at the time I would have had him sacked before the episode ended, looking at it more coolly there was nothing specifically young could hang a firing on.

Meanwhile, everyone else is speculating on what happened etween the pair (Dwight’s speculation being expressed as ‘Did you bone Jan?’) and it all ends when she snaps, gives him a snap character-assassination that’s on the mark on every point whilst not being even remotely comprehensive, but then admits she’s grateful to him for sitting up all night listening to her cry about her divorce: you see, nothing happened, bar the drunken kiss in the parking lot. Phew!

Which left ‘Email Surveillance’. Again, the set-up didn’t follow through to fill out the episode. Yes, new IT was installed allowing the company, i.e., Michael, to read everyone’s emails. Thus it was discovered that Jim was having a barbecue party that night to which all were invited, except Michael. Who now knew about this. And, but you knew this was going to happen, came along anyway.Casting an instant damper on what was not, it must be admitted, the most swinging of parties anyway, but a damper it certainly was. It was an even bigger damper than Michael’s performane at his Improv Class, where his go-to improv was his FBI character from his screenplay, pulling a gun and blowing everyone away.

Despite the laughs, it was very much a downer episode, demonstrating just how isolated Michael Scott is through his own dislocation from normal everyday human behaviour. And this wasemphasised as much asredeemed y the truly glorios moment when, Michael having commandeered the karaoke machine and attempting to sing ‘Islands in the Stream’ solo, we saw Jim mentally sigh, accept the inevitable and, in a gesture of extraordinarygentleness, stand up to sing the Dolly Parton part. it was a moment of sweetness that stood out memorably.

But the last episode, as much as the two that preceded it, was used to further sharpen and deine the relationship between Jim and Pam. They are so obviously a couple on all the right levels. their relationship is going to be spread out over 188 episodes, not 14, which is so soap opera, and it’s going to be a lot more involved. The Michael/Jan thing served to cast a light upon the comfortable Jim/Pam thing and its imbalances: he loves her but she doesn’t see that at all. Pam’s not resistant to Jim, they’re constantly on the edge of flirting, but it’s a delicate balance. His description of their hanging out at the fireworks as a ‘date’ has her storming off, but there’s an ever bigger shock moment in the last episode whem Pam, seeking gossip about office romances from Phyllis, is truly shocked when the latter refers to her and Jim as if it’s a known thing.

I’m going to enjoy watching this develop, even though I know the ending. And I believe that the Michael/Jan thing will have onoing repercussions that I look forward to seeing grow. And someone on imdb suggested Angela and Dwight?!?! If there’s the remotest it of truth to that, please no-one tell me, I have enough trouble sleeping as it is.

Still adjusting. Not there yet, but getting there.

Country Matters: s01 e06 – Breeze Anstey


‘Breeze Anstey’, based on an H E Bates short story written and set in the 1930s, was originally the final episode of the first series of Country Matters and was broadcast in late September 1972, when I was 16, rising 17. I mention this because I vividly remembered one scene from the episode when I watched it again today, for reasons that will be obvious when I describe it, and because I wonder just how much of the subtext I perceived back then, subtext that is so much less sub- than it might have been meant to be when first broadcast. Not that I was familiar with such things then, but I strongly suspect that this episode stood out in the autumn of 1972 as a near-unique story of lesbian attraction.

Nowadays, when a story presents itself as being about two young women setting up home together, to set up and run a herb farm in a remote cottage deep in the country, we automatically expect some lesbian element. That wouldn’t have been so expected half a century ago, but I did suspect it from the offset, merely from the contrast between the two personalities involved. Meg Wynn Owen, then familiar from her leading role in Upstairs, Downstairs, plays Lorn Harvey, being collected from her family home, much against the wishes of her clinging mother, whilst Morag Hood plays the younger and much lighter Breeze. You can instantly tell the difference in their personalities by how they dress: Lorn is taller, red-haired, dressed in long-sleeved blouses and below-calf skirts in heavy materials whilst the shorter, slighter Breeze wears flimsy, above-the-knee dresses.

No matter. Both ladies are committed to their venture, hard work though it is and dull, isolated and damp as their cottage turns out to be. We’re further shown the difference in their characters when they arrive: Breeze is straightways indoors, looking around, exploring, eager, whilst Lorn equally immediately starts to take all their furniture off the van, stacking it up ready to be taken indoors.

The herb farm demands hard work and we see both women putting their backs into it. They have their failings and ill-fortunes, things do not go all that well, but they are committed and, despite the monies, it’s clear this is something they both want to do and are enjoying: the satisfaction of independence.

That Breeze is the more committed of the two to the idea of the two of them as a partnership is obvious without being paid on with a trowel. Hood sparkles. Both women are unfussily at ease around each other, prone to wearing shorts, and in Breeze’s case sometimes a bra-like swimming top but almost always sleeveless blouses. The first overt sign of a physical attraction comes when Breeze discovers a secluded pond in which they can swim and bathe during a time of drought. Breeze goes in naked, relishing the feel of the water sensuously. Lorn follows her, a little more reluctant to go nude, never quite relaxing to the same extent.

This scene, I instantly realised, had lurked in the recesses of my memory for fifty years: it wasn’t often you saw bare breasts on TV, and even rarer in something I was being permitted to watch: 17 was nowhere remotely near adult as far as my mother was concerned, and it was also extremely surprising that a known actress, appearing in Upstairs, Downstairs of all things, sgould go topless. Nor was that the only time during the episode that Ms Wynn Owen went more or less bare, albeit never so flagrantly.

The scene was very interesting on number of levels that, concerned as I was by the experience of watching a topless woman in the same room as my puritannical mother, went over my head. One of these is the contemporary one of having stolen a read of the original story since watching the episode, I’m very much aware of how much Wynn Owen was cast against the physical description of Lorn in Bates’ work: it’s puzzling in the programme when Breeze almost worshipfully exclaims ‘oh, you’re so big!’ when Wynn Owen certainly isn’t. She’s brilliant in the role but the clash between line and physicality jars.

The other is that, in both episode and, to a larger extent in the original story, Lorn is the heavy, practical, inhibited, conventional character who baulks at swimming naked but it is she who is shown openly, whilst Breeze takes care to either alow only her shoulders to appear above the water-line, or else display her back.

Of course, this may have been solely due to the actresses respective attitudes to their modesty, I don’t know, but the sharp contrast it offered seemed a deliberate directorial choice, and a very effective one at that.

So far as the subtext is concerned, it remains subtext. There’s so physicality. Breeze invites Lorn to share her double bed when the latter develops a bad cough from the damp in her bedroom but she shows no signs of translating her love for her friend into contact, and Lorn is completely oblivious to the very idea of anything sexual between women. Aptly enough, it is Lord who has had a previous lover, an older army Doctor who has gone back out to India, and Breeze who is still the virgin.

The inevitable end comes when Vernon Bradley (Bernard Archard) returns from India. As soon as she receives his letter, Lorn is thrilled into feminising herself, inexpertly caking on lipstick that doesn’t suit her colouring, that she doesn’t like but Vernon does. When he arrives, well-dressed for town, two-tone shoes squelcing into the mud, not only is he older than the two ladies put together but he’s a supercilious bastard, sneering down his nose at their whole operation, diminishing and dismissing the whole thing because it’s being run by foolish, petty, silly women without his immense experience of the world. None of this is said, except in the barest of polite words, but it doesn’t need to be: Archard does it all with his non-expression, his sober Doctor’s mmanner and the smile that Breezeslaps but can’t shift from his face.

Of course, Vernon knows what this is all about. He’s a doctor. He knows even better than Breeze what lies behind this foolish, unnecessary affair. And even though she accuses him of having come to smash it up, that’s what he’s there to do and does. Breeze knows its all over. In the dark, she packs and leaves. Lorn is still oblivious.Whether she gets it later, we’ll never know.

I’ve only read the story once, and that hurriedly. It’s rated amongst Bates enthusiasts as being about Breeze growing up, out of her romantic notions, but that’s not the impression the episode left with me. Everything was left ambiguous. These two women, in the Depression-era, formed a friendship and partnership to do something that made them independent, a little us-against-the-world, the element of ‘we two’ that has to underlie every solid relationship. A man broke it up for his own purpose, and because he thoughtlessly took it that any such thing between two women, indeed involving women at all, was by its nature trivial, foolish, of no consequence.

But the two women had different perceptions of what their relationship entailed. For one it was the centre of gravity, for the other a separate thing from a romantic and sexual attachment, capable of co-existing alongside it but, by the very absence of any sexual aspect, inherently secondary. Both women were, in differing ways, obtuse as to the other. Ironically, it was the naive romantic who saw things more clearly and the practical one who failed to understand a thing. You were left asking yourself, if the male interloper hadn’t come along, what might have happened. How long could this difficult, constrained, unfulfilling relationship have gone on? Was it inevitable that it would smash anyway?

We each have our own responses to that. What we got was a portrait, to make us think, to supply our own answers. That an episode as good as this has been withheld from view for fifty years is a crime.

The Infinite Jukebox: New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’

My first job after qualifying as a Solicitor was not a success. There were two major reasons for this: myself and my boss.
My part in this was twofold: I had made the wrong decision and was neither good enough nor self-confident enough to cope with it. I had reached the end of my Articles more or less convinced that my future lay in Conveyancing, but under the waffling belief that your first few years of qualification were an extension of your training and would be best served in taking a position involving a general practice, before specialising. That was stupid. Worse, it was dumb. I was dealing with things I was not competent enough to handle. From my next job onwards, I stuck to what I was good at.
All of this was exacerbated by my boss. He was the firm’s junior partner, he ran a branch office he’d built up from scratch on his own, I was his first full-time assistance and he couldn’t let go. Everything I did or proposed to do had to be reviewed and directed by him. And he had completely the wrong approach with me. Some people respond to criticism. They thrive on being tested to destruction. I did not. I respond to encouragement, to respect for what I’m doing right, overlaid with pointers for what I’m not. Given my issues with self-confidence, his approach was disastrous.
In the end, he wanted me to go. I went job-hunting. It took me ages but I got a job eventually that was ideal for me in every respect. Because of the pressure my new firm were under to complete a massive mortgage project by the financial year’s end, they wanted me in as soon as possible, and not later than Easter. However, what with my notice period and the time it took to arrange for a replacement, soon was not soon at all. By the time I was free, there were only two weeks left.
I’d been under stress from the failure of my first job for most of a year by then, not just failure but career-threatening failure. I had just turned 27 but I had the first strands of gray hair around the back. I felt – was – frazzled. Selfishly, I decided that there was little practical benefit from plunging into the job the following Monday. I needed a holiday. I hadn’t been away on holiday the previous year, save for days at the cricket, Lancashire and the Old Trafford Test. I told my new firm I could start on the Monday as it was Good Friday on the Friday.
In between, I slipped off to the Lake District for a few days. I had been up on my own once, nearly eighteen months previously, an October break, my first experience of driving myself up there. This was to be a longer visit, by two days, and not only was I taking my walking boots with me but this time I would get into them, twice, climb my first two solo fells. Even interrupted by a bout of food-poisoning, it was a significant break for me.
I didn’t set off until Monday morning, and I took the old route we’d always driven up to the Lakes as a family since the mid-Sixties, the AA Route From Manchester To The Lake District Avoiding The A6. It was a winding route, swerving into West Yorkshire, passing through places like Rawtenstall, Burnley, Gisburn, Settle, Kirby Lonsdale and Milnthorpe. Once you got out of industrial Central Lancashire, the roads were mainly country and moorland, the fringe of the Three Peaks country, beautiful views. The drive was not just a herald to the holiday but part of it, as familiar as my bedroom walls. Since we’d first followed that route in something like 1965, the only change had been cutting out the centre of Burnley by making use of a short section of motorway, introduced in the early Seventies.
And it’s on that small section of motorway, nearing its end and soon to transfer back to the traditional route, that my memory focuses.
From seeing them, live, supporting John Cooper Clarke in Nottingham in 1979, I had become a massive Joy Division fan. Perforce, I had had to become a massive New Order fan, after Ian Curtis’ suicide (for which one of the partners in my old firm had been the Coroner: strange, such connections). I’d already seen New Order live once, not a good gig frankly, my first visit to the Hacienda. They’d been quiet in 1982, their only release the single, ‘Temptation’, which had given them their only Top Thirty hit thus far, reaching no. 29.
They had a new single out. I’d heard John Peel play it, though not anybody else at Radio 1. I would have already been out and bought it. And here I was, on my way to the Lakes, on that short but still faintly alien stretch of the route, under mid-March sunshine, listening to Radio 1 because I hadn’t got round to having a cassette player installed in my car yet, and it came on the radio. The following day, it would debut at no 37 in the chart. ‘Blue Monday’ would go on to be an absolute landmark piece of music, the song most instantly identifiable with New Order forever after. Though my interest in the band would, in due course, fade, it’s jolted back in full force every time I hear that opening drumbeat with its characteristic electronically-programmed stutter.
And though I’ve heard it a thousand times in a thousand settings, I am every time jumped back to that stretch of road, the gold sunlight, the curve of the exit road, the green slopes around and above and the music coming out of the dashboard of my old silver-grey Datsun Cherry, the optimism of the days ahead, revived instantly.
All this happened in this week of the year, forty years ago, 1983. Forty years ago is just not possible. Yet that’s what it was.

Film 2023: Modesty Blaise


Despite the fact that no-one associated with the infamous Batman tv series had anything to do with the making of this film, it can hardly be a coincidence that they both came out in 1966: clearly there was something in the air, or possibly in the water.

Unlikely as it may seem, Joseph Losey’s film of Peter O’Donnell’s then-new and groundbreaking newspaper strip, Modesty Blaise, has its supporters who acclaim it as a spoof of the Bond-inspired spy genre prevalent in the mid-Sixties. I suppose you could argue that, but the idea falls down over the notion that a spoof is supposed to be, in some measure, funny, or at least satirical. This is just a mess, and a lousy one as messes go.

It’s not that the story is bad. O’Donnell proved that by converting his original screenplay into the eponymous first and very successful Modesty novel. But the film makes a nonsense of anything remotely serious, or indeed halfway intelligent, to the plot. This is because, like Batman, it is being made by people who hold not only the idea of taking something like this seriously but, to an even greater degree the audience who do take something like this seriously, in contempt, as unworthy of their time and talent.

It shows at every level, from scripting to direction to casting, through all the little Swinging Sixties touches that decorate the beast. A true takedown of the film would involve a scene-by-scene demolition, which is why I’m only going to touch on certain aspects, because a real review would take twice as long to read, let alone write, as the film itself, and that’s two full hours.

Let’s take the casting to begin with, which is Italian actress Monica Vitti in her first English-speaking role as Modesty, Terence Stamp as Willie Garvin and Dirk Bogarde as the villain, Gabriel. Now Stamp could have made a decent Garvin, if the part had been written as Willie Garvin, which it wasn’t, but Vitti was not and could never have been Modesty Blaise, not in a million parallel universes. As for Bogarde, who spends most of the film in a ridiculous silver wig that he rips off dramatically for some reason for the film’s climax (climax is here being used to mean something that the word climax doesn’t ordinarily cover), he plays his part with a kind of inverse energy that sucks all the life out of every scene in which he appears, reducing the already-slow film to a state of utter inertia. Nobody, least of all Bogarde, has any idea who Gabriel is supposed to be.

Vitti is another thing entirely. Everyone in the film speaks in atrociously put on accents except her, who’s merely asked to speak English without any attempt to cover her natural accent, which makes her sound the hammiest ham of the lot. Poor dear: not only is she badly cast, being spectacularly unconvincing at any of the frankly minimal action she’s called upon to take, but the script and the direction shafts her at every turn. Losey and Co. cannot take the genre at all seriously, but even more than that they cannot cope with the idea of a woman being an at all credible action hero. Vitti is asked to run away down cobbled streets in high heels and, for the climactic battle, she is given a flimsy, floaty white bell-tent as her clothing: if it weren’t for the hemline you wouldn’t know there was a woman in there at all, proper combat gear, right?

And there must be some intent behind casting a blonde actress to play a black-haired heroine and a dark-haired actor to play a blonde cockney: both Vitti and Stamp wear wigs of the correct colour but, unlike Bogarde, they only do so once in the film, which makes it even more bloody ridiculous.

But then what do you expect from a film that introduces an RAF plane on the ground then shows it taking off as a more obvious model than anything in Thunderbirds?

The nadir comes after 70 minutes when, out of nowhere, Stamp and Vitti break into song (and it is them singing, they haven’t been overdubbed by anyone who actually can, you know, sing) about how Modesty and Willie have never been to bed tgether and whether they should. It’s a special moment, in its own way. In a film this bad, a nadir really has to work hard to stand out against the background radiation.

Or so I thought. This was before the climax, which I refuse to describe on the grounds of minimal taste, but which displays an utter, naked contempt for not just everyone involved in the making and watching of this film, but in the entire film industry, and in fact the whole world. It turns the first song into Grand Opera, the moment into Tolstoy and the very idea of ideas into a bowl of soggy Corn Flakes, only without the nutrition, and the solidity.

This is, without doubt, a piece of shit. O’Donnell was, understandably, furious. He’s credited onscreen with co-writing the story and, several times, pointed out that only one line of his survived into the screenplay. There have only been two subsequent attempts to put Modesty Blaise on film, only one of which I’ve seen (directed by Quentin Tarantino, it’s a prequel omitting Willie Garvin that, whilst modest in scope and intention, nevertheless felt authentic), which I think is as much due to the stink associated with this effort, that hasn’t dispelled in nearly sixty years, as to any understandable reluctance on O’Donnell’s part to re-licence the film rights, even though you’d have to pile up an awesome amount of feathers to produce a turkey equal to this gobbler.

I really must watch something serious next Sunday.

A Flight with the Swift: Part 4

Swift 1

This will be the final part of my review of Swift, the Reverend Marcus Morris’s fourth title in his little group of redtop comics published by Hulton Press, appearing between 1954 and 1963. Swift was aimed at boys and girls aged somewhere from seven to ten years old. It was intended as a stepping-stone from the little kids paper, Robin, to where its audience would divide on gender lines between the stable’s star paper, Eagle and its female equivalent, Girl. I’m working from a two DVD compilation that features some 174 issues in total, plus five random Annuals.
This final part begins with volume 5 no 32, cover-dated 9 August 1958. Swift consists of sixteen pages weekly, appearing on Tuesdays, in full colour on the front and back covers and the centrespread, the rest in black and white. As we rejoin the comic, it has just changed its front cover feature for the first time since it started, introducing Smiley, a young Australian kid who had starred in two popular kids comedy films.
Smiley got the Tarna format: a full colour cover page, a half page black and white, the rest of page 2 given over to adverts, every other week Dennis Mallet’s ‘Then and Now’, advertising gas in an amusing and entertaining manner. I’ll reserve comment on Smiley until I’ve seen more than one episode but as it started with a kangaroo getting shot for eating grass in a drought, it’s got an uphill climb.
Page 3 features television’s Dixon of Dock Green, using Jack Warner’s likeness: it was a sort of serious version of PC 49 in which Dixon’s cases would always have young kids getting involved. Meanwhile, page 4 continues the adventures of Our Gang, a veteran of issue 1, also the work of Dennis Mallet, an ever fresh comic strip featuring Tubby, Teena and Tich, which is outstanding in actually still being funny after all these years. Wyatt Earp occupies page 5 whilst the next page is a prose serial, featuring Babs, Mark and Debbie, plus their friends the twins – Peter and Paul (absent in this occasion to permit a competition to be run).
Jassy of Juniper Farm still runs on page 7, featuring Jassy and her brother Jack. It’s still undemanding and unexciting, offering very little story: it’s the last series to feature a female lead and I’m assuming it’s directed at girls who are believed to favour domestic, everyday farm-life stories.
The centrespread carries the life story of Tammy, a sheepdog (drawn by George Backhouse), which has long since lost all interest, the nature feature British Birds and their Nests and, across the bottom half the cleanly-drawn The Rolling Stones, Johnny, Pam and Midge Stone, who are part of a circus acrobat family.
Tarna Jungle Boy, a junior Tarzan, plus his pals Toto the chimpanzee, Zoro the black panther, and Peggy, another ten year old, who lives with him has been displaced onto pages 10 and 11 but still only gets a page and a half, now all black and white.
Sammy, a strip that’s modulated from earthbound adventures with his Speedsub to a full-blown junior Dan Dare space story with his cousin Jill lies opposite the editorial page. Page 14 is split between brief Great Lives and the half-page strip Roddy the Road Agent, which is rarely remotely funny but manages to remain palatable in its unfunniness.
The last two series are, like Tarna and Roddy, veterans from issue 1. Nicky Nobody and his dog Chum is an orphan living with Private investigator Sir Giles Horton, who assists him in solving crimes whilst the back page is a full page comic strip advertisement for Ladybird clothes that makes Tommy Walls of Eagle memory look like War and Peace.
This is Swift in the high summer of 1958. There are only three months of continuous issues left on the DVD, plus a handful of Annuals and a smattering of information about the remainder of the comic’s history.

Our Gang strip from Swift

The new prose serial was The Secret of The Indian Queen. The was the fourth ‘Secret of…’ serial, but up until now Mark, the oldest boy, had been referred to as if he was the leader. Now, suddenly, his older sister Babs was given pride of place. That ties in with the comment I referred to last time, about how though Swift was meant for boys and girls, it started to sideline its female characters into prose as it was believed girls grew out of pictures sooner than boys (the readers of Girl, not to mention Bunty, Mandy, Tina, Jinty and countless others may wish to be heard upon this theory).
To my horror, just when I thought it had been killed off long ago, the horrendously unfunny Artie & Crafty, an appallingly bad cartoon about two sailors, reappeared after several months to share Tarna’s second page. Let this be a one-off, please! But it wasn’t.
The Nicky Nobody story took an unexpected turn in no. 35. It was ingenious to use marbles as a smuggling device but when they contained a bitter white powder suggested to be a drug, that was just as much a strange step as Peggie getting all possessive and huggy over Tarna had been. Who’s the audience again?
Changes, once begun, have a habit of accumulating. Both the ‘Secret of…’ serial and Jassy came to an end in no 37, and, less prominently, so too did Tammy the Sheepdog, whilst a Smiley free gift was promised for the following issue. It appears to have made that particular Swift very popular and as a result rare for it is the last gap in the DVD (PS, it was a boomerang. What else could it have been?). The new serial, The Call of the Drum, was set in Napoleonic times about Tom Sharp, who ran away from home to become a drummer boy in the Army, searching for his father, missing in Portugal and the school story that replaced Jassy was Castle & Co, three boys at what looked like boarding school. So the last female lead lost her series, and the gang with two girls disappeared as well. Interesting.
As for Tammy, his corner spot went to Wizard, the Wolf Dog. Oh dear. Another surprise was to find that The Rolling Stones had their space cut by a quarter to make room for a four panel, colour revival of… Captain Pugwash! Yes, John Ryan’s classic creation, by now a BBC animated short, was back.
So, what about Smiley? All I can say is, I hope the film (and the original novel) was better. The comics series is dull and lifeless. All Smiley’s got going for it is that it’s Australian, so we get kangaroos, aborigines, stockmen and the odd use of cobber and bonzer, but nothing happens to get interested in. The guy who shot the ‘roo in the first episode has a grudge against Smiley but is bloody useless at doing anything about it.
The only problem with Stanley Pettigrew is that he’s too clever. He outsmarts everyone and, thinks at least three episodes ahead, which means that he takes over the story and makes Nicky redundant. If I didn’t know better I’d be expecting him to take the strip over himself. Castle & Co was lively, drawn in an unfussy sketchy style and dull as ditchwater.
With no. 46, The Call of the Drum went into its ninth instalment, with no sign yet of an ending. That made it Swift’s longest running prose serial so far. But so far, for my purpose, comes to an end a week later, volume 5 no. 47, cover date 22 November 1958. Smiley’s pet kangaroo is shot by his enemy, the incredibly boorish and boring Kafkey. Dixon of Dock Green starts a new story. Tom Sharp drums on. Castle & Co and Tarna progress. Sammy ends his adventure on Ceres. Nicky Nobody’s story ended ludicrously, with an appalling racial stereotype Chinaman and the ‘drugs’ turning out to be castor sugar, smuggled to avoid wartime rationing which had ended years before: apparently the crooks hadn’t noticed that the War had ended a mere thirteen years earlier. Oi vey.

Swift 3

But this is the last of the all-but continuous run of issues on the DVD. Swift has been around for just over four and a half years. It will run for just under another four and a half years before its death by merger into Eagle. Information about the second half of its run is scanty to say the least.
What I do know, from Wikipedia primarily, is that in 1959 the comic transferred from Hulton Press to Odhams, along with Eagle and its other stablemates, and that shortly after Marcus Morris departed, leaving Clifford Makins to take over as editor. Sometime about August, Swift absorbed Odhams’ comic Zip and inherited some of its features. These would have included the Don Lawrence drawn ‘Wells Fargo’ and ‘Pony Express’, both westerns, and ‘Strongbow the Mighty’, itself a reprint from Comet, which would go on to have quite a different history.
The partial list of Swift features in Wikipedia makes reference to ‘Ginger & Co’, drawn by future Modesty Blaise artist Neville Colvin, appearing 1960 – 62, an adaptation of The Prisoner of Zenda in 1961, and the undated strips ‘Lochinvar’s Ride’ and Gerry Embleton’s ‘The Phantom Patrol’, both presumably from that era.
Further, in 1961 the comic was re-sized to match Eagle’s tabloid layout and shifted further upmarket to appeal to the same audience age range. Probably around the same point, the last vestiges of any female interest were eliminated: Peggy in Tarna would be ousted in favour of a male friend to wing through the jungle with. Perhaps one day I will get my hands on a DVD of this period of the comic’s history.
For now, all that is left are four random issues and five (out of nine) Annuals to glean any evidence from.
The first two issues are consecutive ones from eleven months later, 10 and 17 October 1959. Oddly enough, the cover still has it published by Hulton Press (and it’s still 4½d). The line-up is still very familiar at the start, though new arrivals Wells Fargo and Nigel Tawney, Explorer, another Zip alumnus, occupy pages 5 and 6 and the school story on page 7 is now Merrick of Merryhill. The Rolling Stones still occupy the centrespread but yet another dog has the top left corner: there is no Pugwash. Peggy’s still hanging around Tarna but there’s a new full page cartoon serial on page 12, The Bouncers. They really didn’t think much of their audience with this one.
Morrison’s editorial confirms what I’d already suspected, that this was indeed the merger with Zip issue. Skippy, also from the latter, it’s former cover story, got half a black and white page on page 14, coupled with Showbiz Notes from the then famous Jimmy Hanley (whose hotshot blonde daughter Jenny would grow up to co-present Magpie in 1971 in hotpants and boots: irrelevant but memorable.) Nicky Nobody was immovable but now the back page was given to Captain Grant’s Children, a well-drawn full-colour serial set in South America, some time in the past, it seemed.

Swift 4

There was nothing more to add from the following issue, after which there was a jump of more than two years, to volume 8 no 46, 18 November 1961. Swift is now 5d and it’s logo has been re-designed to the horizontal with, for some reason, an arrow through its letters. The cover is a full-colour though badly-painted plug for a feature inside.First up inside is the very familiar figure of Blackbow the Cheyenne, about which we know a tremendous amount. The final third of his last page explains the cover. Next up, Famous Flyers featured Alcock and Brown whilst pages 6 and 7 featured the final part of an adaptation of Rafael Sabatini’s classic pirate novel, Captain Blood (to be followed the next week by Rob Roy).The centrespread was completely remade, featuring the Prisoner of Zenda adaptation I mentioned above in full colour over one and a half pages, the rest being an advert. Nicky Nobody and Chum were still going, now separated from Sir Giles Horton, an orphan boy all alone in the world, making me suspect this to be a reprint from that first year of the comic that I don’t have. Tarna gets a single page, still with Peggy. No editorial but instead a full page ad, followed by real-life adventure Incredible But True.There was a new cartoon half-page on page 14, the slapstick silly Guy D Guide (Reg Parlett I presume), the aforementioned Ginger & Co, more school stuff and, on the back, it’s still the bloody Ladybird Secret Club! No Our Gang, no Rolling Stones: I was genuinely sorry to see these go.The final available issue was just over two months later, volume 9 no. 4, 27 January 1962, a little bit more than thirteen months from the end. Ironically, it featured the last episode of Rob Roy, which was appallingly badly drawn, whilst the centrespread was another last episode, of Robin Hood and Kazar the Turk: yeah, me neither. This was clearly the cusp of change because Nicky Nobody found a home (and not with Sir Giles – this one really puzzles me), to make space for, you guessed it, The Phantom Patrol. There’s a nostalgic full-pager for Our Gang, but that’s being replaced next week by an adaptation of Lochinvar’s Ride, a nostalgic half-page Roddy the Roadscout, whilst Tarna finishes his story, Peggy having been replaced by the larger boy, Tim Bourne.A full page plug promotes five new series the next week, the ones so far unmentioned being an adaptation of Max Bravo and yet one more new school story, New Boy. Plus four weeks of free gifts. This latter is to replace Ginger & Co. Lastly, the Ladybird adventurers are finally gone from the back cover, which features navy crests and flags of the United Nations. And that’s done.

Swift 5

Apart from a handful of Annuals, numbers 1, 4, 5, 7 and 9. Nor is there much to say about them. They follow the format of the Eagle Annuals in offering a roughly equal split between comic strips, prose stories and features, including games, and the strips roughly match up to what is appearing in the comic that year. Oddly enough, Annual 1 (1955) has a blue, not a red cover. It also contains a Tubby solo strip (with Tich as a silent character) as well as Our Gang. And in later years, just as Eagle had characters like Waldorf & Cecil, and Professors Meek & Mild, who only appeared in Annuals, Swift offered clumsy pirates Swash & Buckle, far funnier and far better drawn that Artie and Crafty ever were.
Still, one thing that surprised me was that the contents pages for each Annual included separate lists of all the contributors, writers and artists, in alphabetical order. There was nothing but any perception the reader might have to attach creator to creation but this was astonishing, given that no such facility was ever given to an Eagle Annual. I wonder why.
For me, though, the very last item on the DVD, Annual 9, for 1963, proved to be the treasure trove. I would swear blind to never having seen the cover in my life but once I opened it up, it was clear that I had once owned this. Practically every comic page, every panel, jumped out and bashed me in the eyeballs with recognition. I must have read it to pieces once. It was pure uncut crystal meth nostalgia.
A summary, then. Though I’m having to base this on what is not much more than a third of the comic’s run, I have to describe Swift as what I’ve said all along: a kid’s comic, exactly as intended. It was meant to be a bridge between First Readers and the pre- to early teenage audience who could be offered more complex stories that not only satisfied them but challenged them to think and dream further. Swift was limited, intentionally, and as such it’s insufficiently appealing to the older reader, being aimed too far beneath them.
And by older reader I don’t just mean adults like myself. It’s one thing to call Swift a kid’s comic, but then they all are. The better ones display an intelligence and a level of art to go with the craft, and can give enjoyment and pleasure to the adults in addition to the natural audience. Very few of Swift‘s features could have been transferred over to Eagle without looking out of place, perhaps only The Red Rider when Jim Holdaway was drawing it. And even so it would still have needed better, more character-oriented dialogue.
But it’s always good to know. And if anyone ever does make available a more comprehensive run, especially for 1959-1963, I’ll be back. At present, the only place I know that offers a complete set is the British Library, which is just not feasible on so many grounds, many of them being the number of pounds required to buy a train ticket…

Due South: s04 e11 – Hunting Season

Due South

And this close to the end, after all the things I’ve justifiably said in the past few weeks, they can pull off an episode like this.

‘Hunting Season’ guest-starred Jessica Steen as RCMP Constable Maggie McKenzie. I don’t know what else Ms Steen has done but she was perfect in the role of a female Benton Fraser, not stepping out of line once, not striking a false emotional note in all the range she was called upon to deliver. In view of the revelation the episode delivered, she had to be top notch, and she was.

Maggie and Bennie are cut from the same cloth as Mounties and Canadians. At first it’s a modestly comic riff, Ray having to deal with two of them whilst seriously fancying Maggie (as would anyone) and appearing to have to contend with Fraser, who feels an immediate kinship with her. Why shouldn’t he? She’s only come to Chicago on the trail of the killers of her… husband. Not father but husband.

Actually, they know each other already, a little. Maggie’s mother, a resourceful woman in the mould of Bob Fraser, brought her up on her own in the Territories. Maggie’s mother and Fraser’s father were good friends. All these things and his natural instinct to take people on trust lead Fraser to assist Maggie’s hunt, even though she’s on an unofficial mission to chase the two Torelli brothers, who are bank robbers. It takes Inspector Thatcher’s jealousy of the attractive newcomer – who she first meets hiding in the closet of Fraser’s office in the Consulate, with him – to have her background checked out and determine that Constable McKenzie is actually suspended, because of her erratic behaviour and unjustifiable suspicion of the Torellis, who have ironclad alibis, a fact she’s concealed from Benton and Ray, and which makes her prime suspect when the Torellis’ only known associate is found shot dead after she visited him. Alone. And when Fraser refuses a direct order from Thatcher to pursue Maggie, after she sneaks back into the Consulate to retrieve her things, he too is suspended.

Wait. Maggie was in the closet with Fraser? Yes, because this is where it all goes wierd. Remember that Fraser’s dead Dad, Bob, has set up his ‘office’ in a cabin in the Territories, accessed only through Fraser’s closet? Well, firstly, when he’s talking to Bennie, pushing Maggie as the ideal woman for him, she can actually hear him, as a background voice. And then we discover that she can see him too, and they can all swap stories in the cabin.

Why the hell Maggie can see Fraser Sr when only Bennie (and Buck Frobisher) can is left unexplained to begin with. Things become more complicated. Maggie’s husband wasn’t killed for some caprice but because he was the Torellis accomplice. Their drver. Maggie refuses to listen to this but has eventually to acknowledge it. A cop married to a bank robber. And to understand, whether this makes things easier or not, that they killed her man because he had decided to shop them to her, because he had been influenced by her. A bank robber married to a cop.

But the revelation, which Fraser worked out from the fact of the dates of Maggie’s mother’ husband’s death and her birth being too far apart, was who was the real father of Maggie. It could only be one person, who never knew he was a father twice over and who deeply regretted that he had failed as an absent father twice instead of just once. It was Bob Fraser. Bennie has a sister. Maggie has a brother. And that made all the difference to both of them.

I had some mixed opinions about the episode. Not about the story, or any of the performances, which were faultless. But I wavered from seeing this as better served by having been made much earlier, perhaps in the first part of the third season, when the surrounding quality was so much higher. And I regretted that it came so very late, leaving no prospect of a return visit by Maggie. But at this same time, if you can understand this, it was also better for coming so late. It felt like the sort of thing that could only be properly done so late, and not merely because there was then no fear of it being devalued by an inferior follow-up, lacking in an idea as well-concieved and well-handled as this.

Nobody could bugger this up.

Other than that, my only complaints were that the show had to throw in some of its comic turns, though these were strictly limited. This was an episode that didn’t need comic deflation or exaggeration (so the omission of Detectives Huey and Dewey was the best choice). I was so glad to see that the show could still do it, in the eleventh hour and fortieth minute, because I remember some bits of the two-part series finale, and I am already preparing my bunker. Hopefully, I will be wrong. Very wrong.