This year, it’s going to be an odd Autumn. Or I should call it Fall, since that’s the American word for it. Usually I’m gearing up for the new series but not now. The Big Bang Theory has ended and the DC ‘Arrowverse’ shows have finally bored me out of watching them. The Flash‘s sententiousness, Legends of Tomorrow‘s sink into farce, I really can’t be arsed any more.
But there’s a new show in town and that’s Batwoman, starring Ruby Rose as Kate Kane, cousin to Bruce Wayne, spinning out of her appearance in last year’s Crisis on Earth-X crossover.
It’s taken a while to get here and I’m intrigued enough to give it the Four Episode Test, and this is the first.
The set-up is that three years ago, Batman disappeared. So too did BruceWayne but nobody connected the two. Gotham is now defended by Crowe Security, a private firm created by Jacob Kane (Dougray Scott): very professional, very Hi-Tech. But into Gotham erupts the mad girl, Alice (Rachel Skarsen, once of the short-lived Birds of Prey series) with her Wonderland Gang, kidnapping Crowe operative, Sophie Moore (Meagan Tandy).
This draws back Kane’s daughter Kate, who’s been honing her combat/survival skills in order to join the operation. Kate, the only living relative of Bruce Wayne, is an intense, independent woman and openly lesbian. In military training, she and Sophie were in love, against the rules (Kate doesn’t like rules…), only Sophie signed the form when they were busted and stayed on whilst Kate was expelled.
Kate’s back to track down Sophie. She’s haunted by her own family tragedy: a murderous attack on the family car, Kate escaped, Batman abandoned them, her mother and her sister Beth left to drown. But that’s not the truth: something went wrong, the tragedy haunted Batman/Bruce.
All this is discovered when Kate breaks into the now shut-down Wayne Enterprises building, all this still functioning Hi-Tech guarded by one ineffectual security guard, Luke Fox (Camrus Johnson, doing a modified version of Echo Kellum’s Curtis Holt on Arrow). Kate discovers cousin Bruce’s secret and has his suit adapted to fit her much smaller, lithe frame, to save Sophie from Alice.
So that sets up Batwoman in her quest to track down and neutralise Alice, who she suddenly realises, in one of those flash-of-inspiration moments, is her long-thought dead sister Beth.
I’m going to mark that last bit down as too-cliched-for-words. I’m also reserving judgement on Kate’s ‘don’t like rules’ schtick, because the maverick who does things their own way borders too closely onto the asshole who wants their own way all the time, no matter what damage they cause. Otherwise, the set-up is cool, slick and, insofar as anything like this can be, realistic. Let’s see where it goes.
Though I’ll always have a love for Casablanca, I think on balance my favourite Humphrey Bogart film is Key Largo, the 1948 film directed by John Huston, in which he co-stars with Lauren Bacall and Edward G. Robinson.
The film is set in the Florida Keys, the chain of low-lying coral islands dependent upon Florida’s southernmost tip. It’s based on a Broadway play by Maxwell Anderson, and the film is mostly stage-bound, claustrophobic and all the more effective for it. Screenplay writers Huston and Richard Brooks took the central situation of the play, updated it by a decade, re-sited it in the Keys and provided the film with a happy ending. And in doing so created a classic.
Bogart plays Frank McCloud, a man who, since serving in theWar, has become a drifter, fending for himself, tending only to himself. Frank was a war hero, the type who did and never boasted, and a man who has turned cynical at what the world has failed to become after such deaths. He’s passing through Key Largo to visit the father and widow of one of his men, George Temple, to give them details of George’s service, and his death, the kind of things that official letters don’t tell. This was an aspect of War that has never been sufficiently emphasised, the way that returning soldiers brought news to families who suffered losses.
George’s father, James (Lionel Barrymore), owns the Largo Hotel. A cripple who cannot walk unaided, he runs the Hotel with the assistance of his daughter-in-law, Nora (Lauren Bacall), a beautiful, calm woman whose own life has gone into a deep freeze since George’s death, and who, we later learn, knows more about Frank (and already is intrigued by him) because George had written of him, his Major: enough so to know that the story in which Frank depicts George as a hero is an untruth told to make Mr Temple feel proud, because George had already told it to her, with Frank as the real hero.
It’s a sentimental but touching scene, underplayed by all three, filled with the resonance of how many real scenes like this it’s audiences had played themselves. But this is a framework for the actual story, for Frank has walked into a situation whose tension is established instantly: people hanging round the Hotel, doing nothing, insisting the Hotel is closed and there’s nothing here for him. Five of them, including an aging glamour girl who’s now a lush, Gaye Dawn, real name Maggie Mooney, played by Oscar-winning Claire Trevor.
Everybody’s hanging around for the mysterious Mr Brown, who keeps to his room. Nobody’s quite square: the dapper Toots (Harry Lewis) is a tough guy and a giggler, Curly comes over all friendly, Gaye’s on edge. Worse still, there’s a Hurricane warning. The Seminoles are heading for Key Largo, where Mr Temple usually takes them in to shelter. So too are the Osceola brothers (one of whom is played by Jay Siilverheels, the future Tono in The Lone Ranger TV series), who look up to Mr Temple: they got busted for fighting, broke out of jail, but are here to give themselves up.
But there is a cancer in the midst of this set-up and it is Brown, whos real name is Johnny Rocco, an ex-Mob boss deported to Cuba, who’s on his way back, confident of regaining his former King-like position. Edward G. Robinson made a career out of playing villians and he is in his element here, slicked-back hair, a fat jaw with voluptuous lips, chewing on a cigar, oh yes, it’s a cliched appearance but it’s also an elemental one. Every atom of Robinson rates power, anger, arrogance and basic cruelty. Johnny Rocco can do what he wants, and he does it because he can and because he wants to. There are no restraints upon Johnny Rocco, though he doesn’t step outside what was acceptable to an audience in 1948, but he is nevertheless a monster, and a more effective one for only allowing the surface to play.
At one point, Johnny propositions Nora, whispering in her ear, softly enough that we cannot hear what he says, but Bacall conveys what we need to know by her reactions, her initial stone-facedness finally breaking into an attempt to scratch Johnny’s eyes out.
In fact, Bacall doesn’t have a grat deal of dialogue in this film, relying on her expressions and body-language to tell her story.
The story involves a double-imprisonment: Frank and the Temples are held by Johnny and his men’s guns, but everyone is held by the Hurricane, battering the Hotel. Johnny’s opposite number, Ziggy, is supposed to be meeting him here to collect the consignment (high-quality forged notes) but the Hurricane suspends time, leaving Johnny to fill it with needless cruelty, not the least of which is forcing Gaye to sing her theme song unaccompanied: Trevor, who had assumed she would lip-sync, was required to sing herself, without rehearsal, unexpectedly, exactly mirroring the story and her performance is astounding, as she realises the words she is singing relate directly to her and her voice goes off-key, falters and breaks.
But this scene is more than another illustration of the monstrosity of Johhny Rocco, it is fundamental to the story, which is the story of Frank McCloud. Frank’s come out of the War disillusioned. His old job, circulation manager of a newspaper, no longer fits. He deludes himself that he’s happy-go-lucky, looking for a job that involves boats, but what he’s really looking for is a future that holds meaning. The only thing about Johnny Rocco that matters to Frank is getting out alive and moving on. Johnny means nothing to him, it’s not up to him to fight Rocco. What’s one Rocco, more or less, in a world made for gangsters?
But Gaye is the moment Frank crosses over, or rather yet he crosses back. Like Rick in Casablanca, remembering who he really is, Frank finds that all his cynicism, all his intellectual urge to preserve himself, to not take risks for anyone but himself amounts to nothing, not even a hill of beans, against what he is inside, what he has always been. Frank will pilot the boat that will take Johnny and Co. back to Cuba. He will go with a gun, Johnny’s gun, snatched by Gaye in revenge when Johnny abandons her.
At the end, the film abandons its claustrophobic interiors, and sadly it loses focus, heading into an ending taking place on a small motor-cruiser, in a sea-mist whose light fails to match the noir tightness. Frank kills three of Rocco’s men and Rocco the fourth for refusing to get himself killed. He schemes and bargains and plans to cheat, all to get the ‘Soldier’ to let him go, and in the end he rages that Frank isn’t big enough to do this to him, not to Johnny Rocco, and that hubris gets him killed by a silent Frank, who has waited patiently to do what has to be done, and who executes Rocco. All that is left is the inevitability of the call to the Largo Hotel, where the fatal debris is being cleared up, the brushwood of disaster and evil that follows a Johnny Rocco, heedful only of himself, and that is to say, offstage, that Frank is coming back.
Nora takes the call, and once more Bacall puts it into the stillness of her face but the light in her eyes, and then she throws light into the story, opening the shutters to the sun that promises a future that Rocco cannot mar.
That’s the happy ending Huston and Brooks brought to the film. In the play, the villains are Mexican bandidos, Frank a Spanish Civil War veteran, and he is killed at the end. The film opts for optimism: the future Frank re-discovers is allowed to go ahead instead of coming tragically too late, and I like the film for that. Overall, the staging, the lighting, the direction, the script, and above all that the acting are good enough for that age-old but still enthralling story of a man being led back to do right, for the sole reason that it is right. Key Largo is right, and is a mesmeric experience.
It’s not all that long ago that I did a necessarily partial review of the mid-Sixties Lady Penelope comic, a spin-off from TV21 and the whole wonderful world of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. I don’t need to explain to anyone where Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward fits in, but the source material I was working from was a bonus on the TV21 DVD, consisting of issues 1-20 and a smattering of later issues.
But now I have a Lady Penelope DVD, featuring issues 1-125, and a smaller smattering of those beyond. A chance for a much more detailed and, I hope, considered overview of this particular ground in the strange territory of Girl’s Comics.
If you think you’ve read some of this before, you have. What I said about issues 1-20 still pertains, and I have only made amendments where necessary. To begin…
The first Lady Penelope (22 January) offered us, or rather our sisters, a free fabulous signet ring and the following features: a letters page with details of next week’s free hairband and secret x-ray device: a one page b&w Perils of Parker comic strip: The Man from UNCLE, two pages in colour, both richly drawn and coloured, a two page prose serial, Flinch from Every Shadow with a girl leading character, Sandy Barton, whose life is yanked out of its comfortable routine when she is snatched by jewel robbers: a one page feature on Schooldays – Italian Style: a Beverley Hillbillies one-page cartoon with a familiar artistic style, that turned out to be Paul Trevillion: Lady P herself in full colour across the centrespread – Eric Eden didn’t survive the transition to Penny’s title, with art duties going to Frank Langford: the equally transplanted Lady Penelope Investigates feature, given a full page (but did it have to be not-funny-even-then Liverpool comedian Jimmy Tarbuck?): a one page b&w strip featuring a family of Robinsons that evoked the imported American SF show Lost in Space, but going by Space Family Robinson (I don’t know about the rest of the country but Granada gave Lost in Space about eight weeks before dropping it mid-cliffhanger): a FAB Club page equivalent to TV21‘s Contact 21 page, with a hair care piece, a full-colour fashion page and a competition to design drawing room curtains for Creighton-Ward Manor (this really is NOT a boy’s comic, is it?): a two page Bewitched strip, drawn by the same artist who drew My Favourite Martian: and on the back cover, in colour, Marina, Girl of the Sea, the story of the silent girl from Stingray, and how she lost her voice.
An interesting mix, to say the least.
The Schooldays featured turned out, as I’d already guessed, to feature a different country and culture every week, which made for entertaining and informative reading. And the Bewitched/Favourite Martian artist stood revealed as Bill Tilcombe in issue 2, when he was allowed to sign his art.
Space Family Robinson had some splendidly angular b&w art, ‘signed’ with the initials JB, from which I deduce the presence of John Burns. The series had nothing directly to do with the TV series: it was in fact a British version of an American Gold Key Comic of the same name that inspired (i.e., was ripped off by) Lost in Space.
Sandy Barton’s story concluded after seven brief but decent weeks with a deus ex machina rescue by a big-nosed chauffeur and a beautiful blonde aristocrat, making way for a new story from the Creighton-Ward secret files. Penny’s own adventure lasted exactly as long, and whilst she escaped under her own admirable devices, she still needed to call in Jeff Tracy to intercept the baddies.
The new serial starred Cathy Beswick and went by the name of What Did That Dog Say? which was a fair and accurate reflection of the contents of the story. And the first UNCLE adventure ended after eight weeks, with Illya getting the (highly efficient Agent) girl instead of Napoleon. I used to love The Man From UNCLE, both in the Sixties and when repeated in the late Eighties, and apart from the excellent art, the story caught the feel of the show very well.
Issue 8 (12 March)’s Lady Penelope Investigates interviewed the not-quite fifteen year old daughter of Viscount Bangor, who’d found some repute as an artist and a poet. She came over as a self-confident young lady, though the aristocratic background and her manner were a bit prejudicial. But this was another of those amazing little coincidences, for the teenager was someone whose name we recognise from something quite different and many years later, she being future actress and Time Lord Romana, Lalla Ward, the former wife of Richard Dawkins. Funny old world.
A dozen issues in and the comic had established its shape admirably. Perils of Parker, whilst not actually funny, had a gentle, domestic aspect to it, dealing with life below stairs. Parker seems to have a good relationship with Lil, the cook and housekeeper, which had me wondering about what went on between episodes, and a good friendship with Perce, the gardener. The art on the UNCLE strip grew more and more impressive every week, with a fine colour scheme and its artist growing in confidence and skill at depicting faces in wonderful detail and not just those of Solo and Kuryakin: even the new creations looked like real people.
Space Family Robinson was beautifully drawn, although Burns’ propensity for greywashed tones makes the pages look dark, but its stories were dull and dragging. Penny’s own strip was well-drawn and made good use of colour, though it suffered in comparison with UNCLE by being inevitably cartoonish in comparison. Marina’s strip was also beautifully produced but felt very slow because it only had one page per week.
The two TV comedies were, in their way, neither better nor worse than any of those that appeared in TV21. The Beverly Hillbillies, which ran as a serial for the first five issues, enjoyed the better art, being by Paul Trevillion, but the stories in Bewitched were better realised, or am I just more sympathetic to a series that starred the lovely Elizabeth Montgomery, and which I have rewatched since the Sixties, unlike the Clampett family?
And the Lady Penelope Investigates feature I found fascinating, week in, week out, in its choice of people, the things that make them famous, and the contemporary attitude to them, however shallow. Things like Morecambe and Wise, Patrick McGoohan as Danger Man, Gerry Marsden on Five O’Clock Club, and even Ollie Beak and Fred Barker, this is my childhood we’re replicating here.
Though the one about Jimmy Saville in issue 15 (30 April), whilst completely innocent, turns the stomach…
Lady Penelope’s second adventure ended in issue 16 (7 May). It had involved an organisation ostensibly set up to promote equal rights and opportunities for women (how depressing that, a hundred years in the future, this was apparently still going to be necessary, what a message to serve to your audience of young girls). This was seemingly to be achieved by training women as super-efficient secretaries, who then stole all manner of industrial secrets with a refreshing lack of morality or honesty, to then manufacture and exploit as from a woman’s industry (no, still insulting to suggest women have to steal men’s ideas instead of coming up with their own). And when Penny completes the rescue of Susan Cliveden and returns her to her mother, the story has the cheek to have Penny warn Mrs Cliveden against letting her daughter join Equal Rights for Women organisations because “We girls should be dominated some of the time by the men.” The reason? “They feel more important that way.”
Ok, I know this was 1966 (I was there at the time), and coming from Lady Penelope it’s a two-edged comment. The trouble is, I’m not confident that it is meant ironically…
Once I reached issue 21 (11 June), I was breaking new ground. The file was not far short of only half the size of issue 20 but was nevertheless complete, suggesting my fears were baseless. And the first big moment came in issue 23 (25 June) when the adventures of Marina finally explained what Stingray had never done, which was why she couldn’t speak whereas she’d been chatting her way through the first twenty-two episodes. The answer was a curse, Titan’s curse. It was an ingenious notion: to silence a great orator for peace such as Aphony, Marina’s father, provide it that one word from either him or Marina will kill the. Pretty sophisticated for the audience that Gerry Anderson’s creations reached, but circumvented within a week by both spontaneously developing telepathy: minus 5 for that.
The Man from UNCLE changed artists in issue 24 (2 July), still maintaining a careful of level of photorealistic detail and the same brightly coloured inks. The new artist maintained good likenesses, without the same profusion of close-ups and a less pointillistic technique when inking faces. As his confidence developed, the stories once again started going in for photorealistic close-ups.
And in issue 35 (17 September), we were treated to the sight of Lady Penelope sunning herself on the deck of FAB2 in a rather brief bikini: face-down only, sadly.
The same issue featured a preview of The Monkees, an interview with the supposedly struggling band, three months in advance of their TV series hitting the British screens. Yes, we were being introduced to Davey, Mickey, Peter and Woolhat. No, I am not joking: at this point, Mike Nesmith was being presented under the name Woolhat, in both the interview and in the new Monkees’ strip that started the following week. What on Earth brought that on?
The new Monkees strip went in on pages 2-3 and was quite clearly another effort by Tom Kerr (did he get around, or what?). Frnk Langford was restored to Lady P’s own strip whilst the Girl’s Adventures from the Creighton-Ward files was replaced by adventures from Penny’s family tree: Ancestresses through the Ages.
There was another new artist on the UNCLE series with issue 40 (22 October) as the familiar style of Ron Embleton checked in, whilst Lady Penelope made only her second connection with International Rescue, as Thunderbird 1 was sent out to rescue her from her latest plight. And with five episodes now seen, it’s a safe moment to conclude that The Monkees suffer from far too much self-conscious wackiness to be any good, or even readable.
With Paul Trevillion no longer drawing the increasingly stupid The Beverley Hillbillies, or at least not signing it (you can see why he would be ashamed), these two strips were the only blot on the generally high standard of Lady Penelope as it worked towards the end of its first year in print.
The release of Thunderbirds are Go! in the cinema was celebrated as much here as in TV21, with a prose serialisation of the story from Lady Penelope’s point of view and a couple of photo-features, including a cover feature on ‘Cliff Richard Jr. and The Shadows’. The Monkees TV show received a countdown that had Micky Dolenz as Mike and Mike Nesmith still as Woolhat. Boy, were they going to get a surprise in January 1967.
And that landmark was celebrated in issue 50 (31 December) with a disappointing artistic downgrade on The Man from UNCLE, as Ron Embleton departed for pastures new, leaving behind the worst art of the entire series to date. Not bad in itself, but drab and perfunctory in comparison with the extremely high standards of what had gone before.
Issue 51 (7 January 1967) featured a new masthead for the title, and issue 52 marked the end of Lady Penelope‘s first year. Just like TV21, a revamp was heralded for the next issue, promoting five new series. Clearly, a radical shake-up was planned.
In fact, six new series began in issue 53, with Lady Penelope’s own series, Perils of Parker, The Monkees, Marina and Bewitched keeping their spots. The Man from UNCLE was superseded by its own TV spin-off, The Girl from UNCLE, in black and white. Daktari, the popular TV series about a vet in Africa arrived with one page of colour, and another b&w series with a Lady P input also had a medical theme: Creighton Ward was about a children’s ward, endowed by the titled lady, centred upon student nurse Pat Langdon. Jenny Ware was an unpromising one pager about a girl who, in science class, accidentally creates a potion whose fumes enable her to go back in time. Marina was bumped inside and into black and white to accommodate a new colour back page, The Angels, which began the story of how five girl pilots were recruited for Spectrum. The Monkees were upgraded to colour, without Tom Kerr but with an artist who had finally been given, or allowed to use likenesses: Woolhat was still Woolhat, which I loathe with a passion. Last but not least, Cathy Thompson, the star of the second prose story, What Did That Dog Say? was back as a comics series, two more pages per week for Bill Tilcombe, though without an explanation for how she’d recovered the mysterious ring that gave her that strange ability. This time round, it was definitely going to be a comedy.
The phase 2 comic was steady fare but no match for the first year’s work. Daktari was unimpressive and the Girl, as in real life, no match for the Man from UNCLE, even despite some strong art from John Cooper. Jenny Ware was silly at best and The Monkees no better story-wise. Lady Penelope gained a new artist with issue 60 (11 March), with John Burns taking over from Frank Langford. Surprisingly, this rapidly became a disappointment, with Burns going for a quasi-cartoon approach that looked artificial, though his run only lasted until issue 65.
Creighton Ward was an odd little thing, probably very much representative of the standard girl’s comic story, but somehow feeling shallow. Pat Langdon’s struggles with the children, and with Sir Marcus Debenham, the Chief Surgeon, have her stumbling through, making mistake after mistake, only to come through at the end for reasons that have nothing to do with any competency on the nurse’s part. It makes her look and feel very feeble.
The Monkees were very much the order of the day, with the first of four weeks of four page pull-outs of each member appearing in issue 64 (8 April), and so many covers that you start to wonder if the point of the original comic is being lost, or rather deliberately forgotten. Still, after many weeks of not being referred to by any name, in issue 73 (10 June), Mike Nesmith was finally referred to as Mike – or rather Michael.
Unfortunately, the very next week he was W*****t again. Gah!
As for the covers, each week featured a selection of mini-shots of the comic’s readers, complete with their names. I bet they would be so thrilled, their friends dead jealous… and their brothers reading TV21 calling them pathetic!
There was one for the Supermarionation fans in Lady P’s series in issue 76 (1 July). Penny has to go to the Moon to prevent it being blown up, which means a trip in an unidentified XL ship of the World Space Patrol. And which XL ship is it? No numbers, but it’s unnamed Captain is our old friend, Steve Zodiac.
Something I do find intriguing about Lady Penelope is a letters page feature called Star Query in which readers write in to ask questions of pop stars and bands. These include the well-known and famous of 1967, such as Lulu, The Tremeloes and The Herd, but there are as many directed to bands of which I’ve never heard, such as The £oot (formed by an ex-Trogg), The Richard Kent Style (from Manchester) and The Breakaways (from Liverpool). I must spend sometime on YouTube to listen to them.
Monkee-mania was still accelerating, but issue 81 (5 August) at least allowed artist Harry F. Lindfield to sign the strip for the first time, even though his workload had been reduced a few weeks earlier by pasting in a couple of photos of Monkees speaking the lines for the ‘panel’. But neither the signature nor the photos lasted long. And they were still using that god awful name, W*****t! Won’t somebody stop them? Think of the children!
The following issue, without warning or explanation, Daktari was cut back to one page, and in black and white, to make way from a new colour pop star pin-up page (surprise surprise, guess which band featured in issue 85?). The reduction in artist Jon Davies’ workload (he was also responsible for The Angels) didn’t help his story-telling anyway, as Paula Tracy (no relation) was promptly winged in the right shoulder and put her sling on the left one.
But from issue 84, Daktari was taken over by former Eagle alumnus Eric Kinkaid, who brought a much smoother line to the feature.
Sadly, with the pin-up page arriving there was no longer any room for Perils of Parker, but public demand led to his reinstatement in issue 89 (30 September)
The Angels had been labouring on all year as a flying team ordered about by a mysterious voice, and their (and our) patience was finally rewarded in issue 84 (26 August) when their latest training mission took them to a remote desert location and a ‘trainer’ who promised them a more strenuous programme than ever before, and gave his name as… Colonel White. John Cooper dropped off The Girl from UNCLE, which also lost about a third of a page and in issue 86, Marina, captured yet again by Titan, found herself set-up to meet Troy Tempest and Phones in Stingray.
With both series now on a collision course with the TV show continuities, I sense a change is gonna come. And when Perils of Parker returned, it was to replace Marina, who had gone off to Marineville to fight the good fight with the World Aquanaut Security Patrol, and get up Atlanta Shore’s pretty little nose for good measure!
John Cooper returned to April Dancer and Mark Slate and the strip recovered its natural proportions. And The Angels formally moved up to Spectrum and Cloudbase in the aforementioned issue 89.
There was a reminder of the comic’s roots on the cover of issue 93 (28 October). With Captain Scarlet now revealed on television, he and Destiny Angel shared a split cover. And Lady Penelope herself took the next cover, meaning that for the first time in months, we had gone two whole covers without a Monkee in sight. Ironic then that this was also the issue in which the four lads bumped Penny out of the centre-spread of her own title, into a two separate page format, and with a change of artist again. And issue 95, reverting to the girl’s fashion theme, made it three. Was the phenomenon wavering? With them in the centrefold, what do you think?
And no, it wasn’t four in a row.
One other thing that’s only become slowly noticeable is the shortening of the stories. Whereas in its first year you could rely on seven to eight week serials, with a bit of depth of them, now everything was being resolved in four episodes, as if the audience could not be trusted to concentrate for so long. This was yet another instance of Lady Penelope diverging from its origins. Its concerns were getting more ephemeral, its adventures less adventurous. From being a girl’s comic oriented to exciting and fun television series, it was transitioning into a girl’s comic, without its unique aspects.
On 16 December, Lady Penelope celebrated its hundredth issue. That left only four issues to the second anniversary, but instead the new facelift was premiered in issue 103 (6 January 1968). It was to prove fateful.
There was a new masthead with a decidedly psychedelic design, though we still had to have a Monkee on board. Out went The Girl from UNCLE, Daktari, Jenny Ware, Creighton Ward and Perils of Parker (again!), with John Cooper switching to the new one pager, Class Six-Sterndorf, about a spy school for girls. The Monkees strip was joined by a new one-pager featuring The Spectrum, the five-piece London hopefuls whose biggest success was recording the theme song to Captain Scarlet. The art on this looked familiar but it was not until the second episode that I was certain it was Tom Kerr again.
The Angels moved inside and onto two pages, though the second page was only black and white, fitting really since Captain Black was introduced, which the local dog’s plan to seemingly get Cathy Thompson’s magic ring that let her talk to them turned out to be a plot to buy her a similar ring from a local antique shop… that let her talk to cats as well!
But the other new story was another TV adaptation, this time of the Midlands-set soap, Crossroads. This one I just refuse to read at all, and there’s nothing about the art that would make me change my mind.
I was a little premature in waving Perils of Parker off as this returned after a one-issue gap, but transformed into a one-page prose story. And issue 105 (20 January) saw Cathy Thomson’s series re-named, awkwardly, as ‘What Did That Dog (And Cat) Say? And revert to just the bit about the Dog two issues later. Soon, it became clear that it could be either in any issue.
With a four page fashion and pop pull-out, the comic was still drifting towards the mainstream, but there was also a drift towards the cheap in issue 110 (24 February) as Penny’s second page was reduced to black & white and so was The Angel’s first page. From issue 119 (27 April), Penny herself dropped into black and white, meaning that the only colour left in the comic was The Monkees,in the centre pages.
By now, reading the comic is becoming tedious. Weak art, skimpy, black and white, stories over and done with almost immediately, plus the new emphasis on pop (interesting in its own way as a reference to bands and records that never made it) make this more like a girl’s magazine that has comic strips in it. And of those strips, only Class Six – Sterndorf, inelegant though its premise was, remained interesting.
There was another step away from Gerry Anderson’s world in issue 121 (11 May), when The Angels were replaced by To Win a Gold, about a girl trying to get to the ’68 Olympic Games to win an ancestor’s challenge in her will. It was drably drawn and stereotypical girls comic fodder and that was just the first episode.
Class Six’s popularity was demonstrated the following week when it was awarded a second page, although without John Cooper to draw either of them.
But bigger changes were in the offing as, with issue 123, (25 May), the comic was retitled simply Penelope. A further step was taken away from the title’s TV roots with the cancellation of Crossroads (we should have been so lucky) and its replacement by My Pony Blaze, about a girl trying to get her pony back from gypsies that have stolen him (so, no stereotyping there).
By this point, I was grateful to be almost at the end of the expanded run on the new DVD. This ends at no 125, but continues briefly with three of the next five issues. Penelope’s series changed irrevocably in issue 127 (22 June), when it was reset to Penny as a nine-year old girl, returned from India due to illness and rebelling against a boring governess. And My Pony Blaze clearly went down like the traditional brick pigeon because it was replaced in issue 130 (13 July) by Return of the Osprey.
And that’s where this account must end. Three random issues also appear on the DVD, so let me mention these briefly. Firstly, issue 147 (9 November) has little Penny befriending gypsies and having to deal with tinkers. Bewitched, Class Six-Sterndorf and What did the Dog (and Cat) Say? are still going, and have been joined by Challenge of the Blades, about an orphan girl learning how to ice-skate, Up Up and Away, a colour centrespread about a girl in a balloon race and Flying’s for the Birds, a pop group serial about, of all talentless Sixties bands, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich. The comic is a proper girl’s comic now.
Issue 174 (17 May 1969) has Penny at school now. Challenge of the Blades is still running, as are Class Six-Sterndorf, Bewitched and Cathy Thomson’s strips, though Bill Tilcombe has left both of these latter (Peter Ford is signing Cathy’s strip). Everything else has been replaced.
Which leaves only issue 197 (25 October). There are only seven issues left before the comic’s cancellation. Having outlived TV21, Penny’s now in her late teens and run away from home (all trace of the Twenty-First Century gone). Bewitched is still going, set fair to be the only feature to last from start to finish in its original form. Everything else is just ‘girls’ comics, with all the cliches to be expected under that term. Everything that formed Lady Penelope when it was launched has been excised and Century 21 Magazines no longer owns the comic. There’s still a contemporaneous 1969 Penelope annual, but so many cancelled comics lived on in Annuals for years later…
What began as an exciting venture, with strong stories, a taste for adventure and some exceptionally good art has died a death in cheapness and cliché. How much of that was the preference of the audience? I mean, the comic was cancelled after exactly four years. How much of it was the fading of the Gerry Anderson empire as the Sixties wound down? And how much was it nervous management, deciding that when in doubt, play incredibly safe and be like everybody else?
I have no answers and I don’t actually want them. It was enough to know that a comic I’d have despised and run a mile from when I was its age was as good as it was, but in order from me to find out then I would have had to have a twin sister with whom I swapped everything.
If another, even fuller DVD appears, I shalln’t be trading up. I’m not interested in reading any further.
My Dad was too young to serve in World War 2, unlike his older brother, who served in the Navy in the Pacific. When it was his time to do National Service, Dad entered the Navy himself, and was stationed at Portsmouth for at least some of his Service. I don’t know where he went or what he did: he fell ill and died before I was of an age to have intelligent conversations with him. All I have is an old photo of him in his uniform. Nor is there anyone left who could tell me things he had told them about these times.
For a couple of years, I’ve been considering a trip to Portsmouth, to see the Naval Dockyard, to see what Dad saw, even if filtered through the prism of seventy years, to make one more attempt to gain even a degree more insight into what he thought and felt. I usually take off to the Lakes for a day each November, as part off the week I take off for my birthday, but this time I decided it was right for a more complicated and longer-lasting expedition.
And now two legs have been put in place. Firstly, I booked two nights in Portsmouth, Tuesday and Wednesday, for a very low price. That came out of last month’s salary. Today, I have booked my train travel, Stockport to Portsmouth Harbour Tuesday lunchtime, returning to Stockport Thursday morning, paid for out of this month’s salary. I am going to Portsmouth, I am going to see the Harbour, I will be visiting Hampshire for the first time, reducing to four the number of English counties I have never yet visited or at least traversed.
All that remains is to choose, and book, the one or more tours etc. available at the Naval Dockyard. I am going to Portsmouth, I’m following in Father’s footsteps, I’m following the Dear old Dad.
It’s been a rough couple of days at work and I’ve been feeling a bit mind-numb, so it came as both a relief and a refreshment to watch a very focused and purposeful episode of Lou Grant, one that has given me a great deal of cheer.
The Marathon of the title was the experience had by everyone at the L.A. Tribune on an exceptional day. The story chose to deal in inconsequentialities at first: a ‘human fly’ climbing a 60 storey building, an intern interested in using the Trib as a stepping stone into TV (played by Michael Warren, three years before catching a starring role in Hill Street Blues), Donovan considering leaving the Trib to become the Governor’s Press Secretary in Sacramennto, a wandering group of Norwegian businessmen, Rossi and Billie snarking at each other as they usually do.
But the show then quickly swung into action, with a road tunnel under construction collpsing, trapping workers underground, and not just workers but archaeology students who were also in there, hunting for Indian relics. It was chaos and the absorption of the episode was showing everyone piling in from every direction, to give the fullest possible coverage of a crisis that absorbed practically the whole day (a recurring digital clock was superimposed to toll off a timescale from 9.00am to 2.00am).
The atmosphere was tense, amplified by the continuing intrusion of the ordinary day into the extraordinary day. Lou’s insensitivity to and constant criticism of Donovan’s choices to his rising frustration, the decision to report on a secret meeting with three column inchs of white space, the repeated intrusions of Hnry Dreyfus, UFO nut, and a return appearance from Driscoll (Peter Hobbs), he veteran reporter from the cop beat who was at the heart of the first episode.
The gift was in the naturalness of these unimportant things happening alongside the tunnel story, and in how they added shading rather than detracted from the tension of watching the big story unfold through a day of insufficient information.
Inevitably, the rescue succeeded (this is Lou Grant and the leopard can’t change its shorts that quickly), though we learned that there were at least two dead, and there were going to be consequences. But that was to tie down the day, to end the frantic activity, and allow people to depart in pace. Andrew Turner, the intern, might not commit himself so much to TV, Donovan isn’t going to Sacramento. Morning is less than seven hours away, and there’s a paper to put out.
I needed something as tight and determined as that this morning, somewhere outside my head to be for forty-five minutes. A damn good episode, and a very useful one.
When first I discovered R.A.Lafferty, in Fourth Mansions, my thought was to read as much of his other works as I could get my hands on, and the first place to which I turned was the library. In this, I was in a time of fortune, for there was a British publisher of science fiction books, Dobson Books, who had great belief in Lafferty, and there were books to borrow, and re-read, and relish for a good while longer in the Seventies.
Looking at the other authors listed on the back of the dustjacket, one has to ask why? Dobsons billed themselves as publishing fantasy and SF, but The Devil is Dead was neither, or if it was it was some amalgam whose proportions had hitherto never been mixed in this degree, but the names we read are Anderson, Campbell, Laumer, Pohl, Harrison, Vance, Asimov, and these are not writers whose works sit easily on the same shelf as Ray Lafferty.
Of those I could borrow in that first glorious period, The Devil is Dead is second only to Fourth Mansions in terms of ease of reading. It is of structure a thriller, a thriller constructed around a conspiracy and the planned thwarting thereof, in which respect it is more conventional than other of Lafferty’s works. But it is only a thriller as to half its length, after which it drifts, it eddies, it meanders, deliberately so, and ends in a dramatic manner, on a half-finished line, with nothing resolved yet everything satisfactory.
How else could it end? It begins with a Prologue, or Promantia, forewarning of what things lie within in terms that mystify as much as they intrigue and yet which are no more that an accurate depiction of its contents, with a reference to Richard Burton (the explorer, not the Welsh actor), and with some strange suggestions. It describes the story as a do-it-yourself thriller or nightmare, to be arranged as you will. It cautions that, having put the nightmare together, if you do not wake up screaming, you have not put it together well.
And it admits: Is that not an odd introduction? I don’t understand it at all. We are not even on the third page by now.
It begins with Finnegan, who is bugle-nosed and not necessarily of human beings, who is sometimes called Count Finnegan, and whose real name is John (Giovanni) Solli. He has an upper life with other friends but this is Finnegan in his lower life. He wakes to find himself drinking with an eccentric millionaire, Saxon X. Seaworthy. He cannot remember, not yet, how they have met or what they have done together, though it comes to him later that they have buried a dead body together, and that the body of Papadiabolus, who is the Devil, and who walks along the street the morning after his burial. It is not always serious to die, the first time it happens.
(If you have not, by this point, begun craving to read this book, turn away: it is not for you. If you have, start saving your pennies: it may be had for as little as £39.37, but not in many places.)
Seaworthy is setting out on a cruise, in his yacht, and Finnegan, who is also an artist, is to go aboard as one of his seamen, though really it is his double or fetch, Dopey the Seaman, Doppio del Pinne, who is to go aboard and Finnegan be killed but in some manner about which no-one is certain something slips, and it is Dopey who disappears, or dies, or doesn’t.
But by being aboard, Finnegan becomes part of a band himself, opponents to Seaworthy and those he surrounds himself with. The voyage is long and winding, calling at all ports and shore-towns and moving on, and all such ports and shore-towns erupt in riots and murder two to three days later. There is the echo of the Red Revolution in the Coscuin Chronicles, transplanted a century forward in time (the period is given only as some years ago, but the inference is of the early Fifties).
There are games being played, and not all who die remain dead, so much so that Finnegan will complain of it as tiresome. Something is being implanted that is set to overturn the world, and its proponents are Seaworthy and other, including his captain, Orestes Gonof. This should number Papa D, but this is not the real Papadiabolus. Finnegan ‘sees’ his real face and paints it into a mural, but no-one recognises the face until the man is dead.
For the raid that is coming, that attempts to end this voyage of the damned, is a failure, and all die, including Anastasia Demetriades, who is cousin to Finnegan in a manner older than he thinks, and love and solace. There is a scene in this book, that I had read times before in other works but did not recognise for what it is until reading The Devil is Dead, which inspired me to write an equivalent in my own, then, first novel. I call it One Last Golden Afternoon, that final time that two people have to simply enjoy being two people in their world, with no cares other than the afternoon, before it all goes wrong for ever.
The failed raid, the deaths of Anastasia, of the second Papadiabolus and the loose and louche raiding party mark the end of the thriller, the end of the plot-driven story. Finnegan survives, but from then on he is hunted, he and Mr X, who is known to all as Mr X, and also Dolores ‘Doll’ Delancey, a human girl who comes into the middle of this with no seeming part, but who becomes one of the three journeyers, as Lafferty consciously denies his story any further momentum without yet rendering it tedious or static.
They separate, for a year, during which time Finnegan spends a considerable period in the Terrestrial Paradise, of which Lafferty gives the exact co-ordinates, in latitude and longitude.
The final scene is the meeting of these three, in a graveyard. Here is explained the relationship of Papadiabolus to Papadiabolus and how one cannot die three times. Here we learn the name under which the Devil is buried, a name that we recognise from The Flame is Green, but not I, twenty years before I read the latter. And here Doll speaks doggerel, reciting of the events we have read and ending abruptly.
I would have read The Devil is Dead in or about 1974, and had my own copy later that decade. It would be almost another decade before I learned that it was not a stand-alone book, but rather a part of the ‘Devil is Dead’ Trilogy, and not even the first part but the second. And it would be nearly thirty years after that that I would learn that the book is not complete. That there is a final chapter, in which Finnegan is called out by Seaworthy, which was excluded from the book because it apparently arrived too late at the printers (I find this explanation must suspicious and difficult to believe except that this is Lafferty, in which everything is believable, especially if outlandish).
This final piece, titled ‘Apochryphal Passage of the Last Night of Count Finnegan On Galveston Island (Unaccountably Omitted from the Standard Version of The Devil is Dead‘) saw print in the 1990 United Mythologies chapbook Episodes of the Argo (335 copies, of which mine is numbered 73.) This is the first time I have read it as part of the text, but it is a physically severed part of the text, as well as a late interloper. A non-standard version is required.
We shall encounter the other two books in this once-unsuspected Trilogy, but they too are distant in time and space. We will need to be patient.
Two stories. Three, if you read between the lines, the lines of coded data that flicker very briefly across each image from the Machine’s surveillance feed, for a subliminally longer time each time.
The first story is a Number, Doctor Richard Nelson (Dennis Boutsikaris), brilliant, passionate, life-saver. Not perfect, but a good man. And a dead man. At a ceremony to honour his elevation to Professor Emeritus, under John Reese’s nose, he is poisoned with polonium, which destroys the body from within, very painfully. Why was he poisoned? Because the Doctor let slip some insider information to the trader who’s wormed his way into friendship and racketball opponent. A hedge fund firm made $9 billion on that piece of information, $9 billion and an SEC investigation that goes away if Richardnelson goes away.
Nothing can be done to save Nelson. But Reese guides him along the trail to confront thebillionaire who, without the least concern, not even when face to face with his victim, ordered him murdered. Vincent Cochran doesn’t care. Until his nose also begins to bleed, after being served with a scotch. By John Reese.
The second story is an ally. Cal Beecher receives a Police funeral, at which Simmons in present. A furious Fusco confronts him, threatens to take HR down. But HR intend to take Fusco down. From Rykers, the former Detective Azzarello sells Fusco to IAD for the murder of Detective Stills. Lionel didn’t do it, but he’ll go down for it. There are flashbacks showing how Lionel was pulled into the web by his ‘buddy’, Jimmy Stills. He refuses to give IAD anything, no matter what Detective Soriano (Ned Eisenberg) throws at him. Carter’s concerned, until Fusco admits to having been a dirty cop, before her, before their friends. She’s a good cop, to whom the word is, once a dirty cop, always a dirty cop. Fusco’s going down. Come daylight, they’re digging at Oyster Point with corpse dogs. They’ll find Stills’ body, that’s all they need.
But the grave is empty. Someone’s removed the body. Fusco shows no reaction, just calls from his badge, shield and gun back. Elsewhere, at Rykers, someone’s chess-partner ensures former Detective Azzarello recants his accusations. Carter asks his restored partner to look at a case she’s pursuing for fresh leads: it’s Cal Beecher. Then she leaves, with Bear on a lead, leaving muddy footprints.
The code has grown more noticable throughout. Reese and Finch were too late to save Richard Nelson, just like they were too late with Bill Szymansky and Cal Beecher. The storm is here, the virus is moving, the data is corrupted and so is the system. The feed breaks down, the code turns red.
The system shuts down. There are more than Numbers at stake now.