My Take On…

There’s a piece in the Guardian today slagging off the Kevin Costner vehicle, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

I remember watching it one Xmas Day, somewhere in the mid-Nineties, having been invited by a then close friend to join her and her family, instead of spending the day on my own, as had become my custom after my mother’s death just after Xmas 1991. It was a good day that I remember mainly for two things. The first was a post-dinner game of Risk or some other world-domination strategy game. Never having played this before, I was the first to be eliminated. Rather than just sit around, I started advising their younger son, then not much more than eight. Don’t ask me to explain how, but before too much longer we were on an unstoppable roll that ended up with our steam-rollering everybody until we had everything. It was great and glorious fun, and he had a whale of a time, but I most remember his Dad’s grumble that this was the first time he’d ever lost at Risk or whatever-it-was – and he was ex-Army!

The other memory was settling down to watch Robin Hood. I used to watch the ATV series starring Richard Greene, I remember that, no more than a month before my Dad died, they showed the Errol Flynn version that he’d longed to see again for so long, I’d read all the legends when I was a kid, in short I was a receptive audience for a Robin Hood film.

And it was perfect late-Xmas Day afternoon viewing, when everyone was warm and full and comfortable and several drinks along, and ready to jump on anything risible, and o my god, the entire film was risible. It started with the bit that nearly everyone picks out in the comments under this Guardian piece. Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman get landed at the White Cliffs of Dover at dawn, set out to walk to Nottingham, and at sunset stop off to camp at Hadrian’s Wall. I can’t remember who of the three of us laughed the loudest at that but it was probably me, my incredibly well-developed sense of the absurd triggered.

At that point, the film was done up like a kipper. Nobody could take any part of it seriously. Alan Rickman’s completely OTT performance as the Sheriff was perfect – prior to this viewing, my only experience of the film was at some Awards show where Rickman got Best Supporting Actor and gave an acceptance speech consisting of his discovery that acting is not always about subtlety…

So I agree whole-heartedly with every word of the review, my only reservation coming in relation to the attempted rape of Maid Marion sequence, and that only because I don’t remember the slightest thing about it. The film genuinely is a ripe hunk of old ham from start to finish, and I seriously recommend that if you are ever tempted to watch it, have a minimum of three alcoholic drinks first: this is not a film to be taken in soberness.

And then again, I also agree one hundred percent with those in the comments who love the film. I can’t agree, but good on you. Don’t let anybody’s disdain for the film stop you enjoying it: the only opinion that matters is always yours.

But I bet you watch it half-pissed too, don’t you?

Why 2016 is so shitty and how it’s only going to get worse

Another death. The loss of Johann Cruyff, to a not wholly unexpected cancer, adds another name to the toll of losses we have already had in 2016.

I didn’t comment upon Keith Emerson the other week because, although I was intimately familiar with ELP’s work in the Seventies, it was through the enthusiasms of others. My mate Alan, with whom I was at school, my mate Steve, who is my oldest and longest friend, were both ELP fans and played all the albums to me, over and again. Steve has taken Emerson’s death, and in particular the fact that it was suicide, very hard,

I have been lucky so far. With the exception of Alan Rickman – and his fame dates from a much later period than the others – I have yet to suffer the lost of one of my old favourites. Or rather I have, much much earlier, when Alan Hull, the leading light in Lindisfarne, died back in the Nineties. What I see around me is the winking out of lights that illuminate various periods of my life, without the central core, my personal pantheon, being affected.

But in trying to console Steve, in his confusion about Emerson taking his own life, I did understand something about why 2016 has been such a shitty year so far, and how it is only going to get worse.

I was born in November, 1955, but my first memories of the world around me begin to coalesce in about 1968 when it came to sport, and 1970 in the case of music. I was fifteen in 1970, a few months after my father died. The people who caught my attention, in whatever frame, were, on average, about a decade older than me. That puts them, collectively, at and around the age of 70.

People, our heroes when we were young, when I and my generation were young, are pushing three score and ten. It’s going to happen increasingly frequently. Time’s a passing. It’s fifty years since the World Cup Final, since England’s win in 1966, and nine of the Boys of 1966 are still with us. That’s an incredibly good average, but the longer the survivors last, the more frequent will be the times when the limits of their lives are reached.

The bands we were into, perpetually youthful and innovative in our memories, are as old, and older than our grandfathers were when they held our attention, and the last of my grandparents passed away in 1982.

We need to steel ourselves, we need to harden our hearts. We are going to be going through this regularly. Remind yourself of your heroes, quick and often, celebrate them whilst they are to be celebrated. Because the time is is now here  when they’re all going to start going ahead.

Bingeathon: The Barchester Chronicles -in memoriam Alan Rickman

Back in 1995, playwright, novelist and television dramatist Alan Plater gave a big interview to the Guardian on the Saturday that his new series, Oliver’s Travels, based on his fifth and final novel, began a five-part adaptation on BBC. He slated the production, detailing the many ways in which the producers and director had undermined, ignored or just mistreated the story. He made particular reference to the casting. The title part had been written for Tom Courtney but he hadn’t even been approached, the role instead being played by Alan Bate. The female lead was played by Sinead Cusack in her native Irish accent, although the point of the character was that she came from Northumberland, and her similarly Northumbrian son’s role was given to an actor with a pronounced Cockney accent.

Despite all that, I still watched the series, because it was Plater, because I enjoyed the novel. He was right, though. The series simply did nt work because – and I watched this pile up with fascinated horror as the weeks accumulated – not just the principal actors, but everybody, down to the shortest walk-on, line-saying role, was wrong.

It was stunning in its own way. How can you cast a prestigious Saturday night series and miscast absolutely everyone? Not a single actor fit their role.

And whilst I watched Oliver’s Travels drown in this fashion, I thought back to Plater’s own Beiderbecke Trilogy, and I realised for the first time that part of its beauty and charm was that it was one of the most perfectly cast series I’d ever seen. And it still is: there’s not a role on the series, down to the smallest, that isn’t played by someone who is the slightest bit out of step.

Which is by way of a lengthy prelude to today’s bingeathon, which I promised to myself last week, when the dreadful news of Alan Rickman’s death broke on us. Rickman’s first major role on screen was as the Reverend Obadiah Slope, in the BBC’s seven-part adaptation of the first two of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels, under the title, The Barchester Chronicles. Fittingly, the dramatisation was by Alan Plater, and it is the equal of The Beiderbecke Trilogy in being the most perfectly cast series I have ever seen.

The Barchester Chronicles was first broadcast in 1982. I remember hearing it being described as a story set amongst a feuding religious community, and deciding that was not for me. In 1989 or 1990, I can’t remember which, it was repeated on BBC2 on Tuesday nights at 9.00pm. I was newly in my first house and had taken a week off to decorate my lounge, starting with the back wall, which was the simplest – no wondows, doors or chimney breasts – but longest. After a day of videotapes, I had gotten surfeited with Last of the Summer Wine and was grimly pasting up the last sheet to something on BBC2. I was in mid-sheet when that finished and I overran into the next programme.

When I got to the screen, I immediately recognised the lovely Barbara Flynn and stopped to watch. Fifty minutes later I was hooked, and looking for the paper to check just what it was I’d been watching.

Plater’s dramatisation adapts The Warden and Barchester Towers. The first is a short novel, a ‘one-decker’ as it would have been termed on publication, taking as its theme a series of Church scandals exposed in the Press, of clergymen being paid excessive income for minimal duties administering charities, whilst the poor beneficiaries get almost nothing.

The Reverend Septimus Harding is the Warden of a Hospital caring for twelve old men. He has a lovely home for himself and his daughter Eleanor and a more than ample income. He was appointed by his lifelong friend, Bishop Grantley, whose son Theophilus, is both Archdeacon, and Harding’s son-in-law. Local Doctor John Bold, a reformist campaigner (and aspirant to Eleanor’s hand) uses the Law and the Press, in the shape of the Jupiter (i.e., the Times) to challenge the situation. Ultimately, by legal technicality, the Esatablished Church prevails, but Mr Harding, a simple and good man, resigns his Wardenship, having come to the moral belief that he is not entitled to riches from the Charity when the stipend for his old charges and friends has remained unchanged for 400 years.

The Warden takes up the first two episodes. The series stars Donald Pleasance as Mr Harding – playing against type as a gentle, somewhat unworldly, round-faced, cherubic old man, Pleasance being mainly known for playing villains – and Nigel Hawthorne as The Archdeacon. Pleasance is delightful throughout, the only true clergyman in the whole series, retreating, accepting, but still having enough of a will of his own to do what he sees as the right thing in the face of everybody else’s opinions, but Hawthorne (then still staring in Yes Minister) steals the shows, with his overdramatic gestures, his rages and furies, exasperations and desperations, and his oily, briliantly comic smoothness.

Hawthorne is in his element, overplaying his part to the finest degree. I find myself snorting with glee at nearly his every line and movement. It’s a theatrical performance – indeed, the whole series eschews naturalism – but it’s judged to be heightened theatricality, without ever once toppling over into self-parody, ridicule or camp.

There’s a fine array of second-line characters to support this pair over these first two episodes: David Gwillim as John Bold, realising the personal consequences of his principals, the lovely Janet Maw as Eleanor, overwrought at the attack on her beloved father from the man she loves, the aforementioned Barbara Flynn as John’s sister Mary, George Costigan as the Jupiter journalist, Tom Towers, and the blithely lisping Angela Pleasance (Donald’s daughter) as his other daughter Susan, Mrs Grantley.

Still and all, it’s when the adaptation moves on to Barchester Towers that the fun starts to soar. John Sutherland has argued that there is textual evidence that the book was originally planned as a direct sequel, of similar brevity, again focusing on Mr Hardin’s Wardenship, but instead the book expanded in length and cast, to great delight.

Bishop Grantley is dying, but unfortunately for his conflicted son, he outlasts the current Government, ending the Archdeacon’s chances of being appointed his successor. Instead, the new Prime Minister instals Bishop Proudie (Clive Swift). The Bishop is a weak-willed, temporising man, under the thumb of his very determined wife, Mrs Proudie (Geraldine McEwan) and preferring to delegate as much as he can to his private Chaplain, the Reverend Obadiah Slope (originally Slop), an ambitious young man under the patronage of Mrs Proudie. This is, of course, Alan Rickman.

Though this is not emphasised in book or series, the Proudies are Low Church, seeking to establish themselves and their doctrines in a City and Diocese that has thus far been very High Church. Indeed, Mrs Proudie and Mr Slope are very quickly seen as enemies, and it is the interweaving schemes, oppositions and manoeuvres of the opposing factions, and their sheer energy for each other’s destruction that plays out for the rest of the story.

And that’s not all. At his wife’s insistence, Bishop Proudie summons the Canon-in-Residence, Doctor Vesey Stanhope, and family, back from Lake Como, Italy, which has been his actual residence for the last twelve tears (he originally left for his health: a persistent sore throat). This brings back the Stanhope children: the forever laughing, amoral Charlotte, the irresponsible, impecunious, hopeless Bertie (played with great gusto by Peter Blythe, otherwise best known for his ‘Soapy’ Sam Ballard, the new – and preaching – Head of Chambers in Rumpole) and the beautiful but crippled Signora Madeleine Vesey Neroni (played as a manipulative schemer by the still decidedly beautiful Susan Hampshire).

At a stroke, the cast trebles, and the number of heavyweights doubles, or at least so you’d think. McEwan and Hampshire, added to Pleasance and Hawthorne? But that is to fail to reckon with Rickman, a young actor in comparison, an unknown to the television public, but he effortlessly holds his own, and frequently does so much more that his seniors, stealing scenes with no effort, even scenes when he has three or four other actors, playing to the hilt around him.

McEwan is monstrously good. She, like Hawthorne, adopts an entirely theatrical approach, but instead of his extravagant gestures and expostulations, McEwan adopts a gravelly monotone, rising in intensity but not pitch. She’s a monster, and it’s her own husband who is her victim, but she is at all times convinced in the absolute rectitude of her every thought, word and deed. Her scenes opposite Hawthorne are awesome.

As Mcewan’s foil, Clive Swift puts in a masterclass of subjugation. Compared with McEwan or Rickman, he gets the worst of it for lines, especially in scenes featuring these three alone, but he is epic in his expressions as the camera passes him, or catches him in the background. He may be the stooge, but you feel every moment of his despair at never getting any peace.

The plot is incredibly complex, and incorporates separate but simultaneous attempts to get the widowed and wealthy Mrs Bold (Eleanor is deprived of her husband in between episodes, and gets a bouncing big baby as an exchange, plus a heavy dose of unflattering widow’s weeds, which also do their best to make Barbara Flynn look unattractive). The dissolute Bertie cannot do anything to pretend that his intentions are other than purely mercenary, but it is the importunate Mr Slope who presses his suit so far as to prompt Eleanor to slap him round the ear.

Rickman is just so good at Slope that whenever he is onscreen, you expect to find pools of slime leaking out of the DVD Player. His casting was certainly against the character’s appearance in the novel, where he is red-headed and physically unprepossessing: Rickman is allowed to be his real self, tall, dark-haired, handsome, a very clever decision that justifies his being able to persuade the ladies he pursues – the Signora after he sees her, Mrs Bold after he learns she is wealthy – to tolerate him long enough for him to worm his way into their lives.

Rickman, like McEwan, restricts his range. He is slow and deliberate, with little bursts of urgent progress, a strutting walk. He reacts carefully to things, often moving only his eyes until he has absorbed the new information. He is an out-and-out slimeball, but Rickman makes him both obvious and plausible in this trait. He can’t take the audience in, and he isn’t trying to, but you can see him, in the more stratified and socially hidebound society of the mid-Nineteenth Century, taking other people in.

There’s just so much to enjoy throughout this series. We see another side of the Archdeacon once he becomes an ally of Mr Harding, as opposed to an adversary, and Pleasance is kept busy with responsive lines to Hawthorne’s outbursts which are sitcom funny but which he delivers without a trace of laughter (I am still unable to decide if he is making pointed jokes or innocent replies, which is another facet to Pleasance’s performance that  delights).

To someone attuned to the wit of this adaptation, without it ever once trying to be funny, The Barchester Chronicles is incredibly funny, and the performances throughout are magnificent. The casting is perfect, but it is Alan Rickman who steals the show, every bit as good and better than star actors, theatrical legends, who ought to blow him out of the water, but instead accept him as an equal. He already was their equal. And he became himself a legend.

And I’ve loved every minute of the seven hours today I’ve spent remembering and mourning Alan Rickman.

Sentenced to Life

There’s already been too much death this year, both public and private. On Thursday, I will be attending the funeral of the mother of one of my closest friends. He came to my mother’s funeral, twenty-four years ago, at this same time of year, and I will be the only one of this little circle of friends who can stand with him.

Unless there’s going to be more luck in this year than I dream possible, there’s going to be more deaths, more mournings. Not among the people I know, nor their loved ones, that much may be hoped for, but there will be people out there, in the wider world who, like Bowie and Rickman, aye and Lemmy, though I was never into his music, will leave the world less palatable than it’s sometimes been.

One of those names I expect will be Clive James. I remember him from as far back as Granada’s Cinema, back in 1973. I remember him from the lyrics to Pete Atkin’s songs, from the collections of television criticism, from the novels, the essays, the memoirs, the wit, the wisdom, the overt cleverness and the sentence that glitters and dances, over and over again.

Today, courtesy of e-Bay, a copy of his most recent poetry collection, Sentenced to Life, has arrived through my door, and I’ve wrestled the package open and I’ve begun to read, and I’ve stopped reading after only a handful of pages, because these poems have the same thing at the heart of them, because James is looking back and into himself with every line. Loss and regret and yet the determination still to say things, say things in a way no-one else has or ever could. How the memory of the Sydney sun on the bay still burns in his mind, rendering it unnecessary to rue that he will never see it again with his eyes.

I’ve had to stop because I don’t dare hope that Clive James may yet prove to be quasi-immortal, and that there might still be more, that the loneliness of losing the people you respect, you admire, that you take knowledge from might still be postponed throughout the entirety of 2016. It’s already got too many good ones, is there any chance it will hold back and we’ll get to hang on to this one a time longer.

It’s going to take me all week to read a slim book, because I can’t read it all at once, or more than just short fragments that lead me into too much empathy, too quickly. I have a real funeral, for someone I know, to attend. I donn’t think I can afford to be too prepared.


Not again…

Oh, but this is becoming the very bastard of a year.

I’ve hardly begun to process the death of David Bowie, the news of which broke on Monday and it’s only Thursday and now Alan Rickman has died, and it’s cancer, fucking fucking cancer, yet again. It’s not even halfway through the first month of the year and that’s three already, what with Lemmy.

Everybody’s got their own favourite memory of Alan Rickman. A great many people, younger people especially, will immediately think of Snape in the Harry Potter films (and it was only two days ago that I was told that, before the filming of the first of them, when Rickman had been cast, J.K. Rowling took him into a private room and told him Snape’s fate and his schemes – long before any of this was written – so that he would know what lay behind the character).

Others will think of Hans Gruber in Die Hard, or the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves, about which I remember him commenting, after winning an award, that he now understood that subtlety wasn’t necessarily important. Or Jamie, coming back from the dead for Juliet Stephenson in Truly, Madly, Deeply, and that glorious, silly, heart-rendering scene where they sing ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’ over piano and a bass.

But for me, I will always go back to the beginning, to the 1982 adaptation of Trollope’s first two Barchester novels as The Barchester Chronicles (which I didn’t see until a repeat in 1990 or thereabouts). In one of the most perfectly cast series I have ever seen, Rickman was the newcomer, playing the Reverend Obadiah Slope in episodes 3-7.

Oh, and how brilliant he was, how perfectly he incarnated the part, to the extent that every time he was on screen, you expected to find pools of slime dripping out of the television set onto the carpet.

He was so bloody good. We cannot bear this, we cannot have so many good and great artists being taken from us so repeatedly. Not again. Fucking cancer, not again, please.

Pursuing Christopher Priest: The Extremes

Christopher Priest’s next novel, The Extremes, was published in 1998, a decade after the event that inspired it, the massacre at Hungerford, in Berkshire, when Michael Ryan shot and killed sixteen people using an extensive, and legal gun collection, before killing himself.
The incident led directly to changes in the gun laws in the UK, massively restricting the right to private ownership.
By a curious coincidence, Priest himself was in Hungerford that day, though not at the time of the shooting nor in its area. However, if a novelist, who is driven by the creative part of his consciousness gets so close to such a matter, its realisation for him in fiction is almost inevitable.
The Extremes is a very powerful book, filtering the experience, and more pertinently the aftermath of such a life-distorting event through other, equally pertinent contemporary concerns, such as video games and virtual reality, which are combined to provide an unexpected angle upon something so pregnant with violence.
Naturally, Priest does not begin by telling us what the story is about. And at first he teases his way into the story via a number of viewpoints, principally that of Theresa Simons, the central character, but also, to begin with, the perspectives of Amy Colwyn and Nick Surtees, an uncertain couple with a personal history and a shared bond in the tragedy that precedes the opening of the book.
We are also teased with a single chapter from the viewpoint of Dave Hartland, a minor character who rises momentarily to the surface of the narrative, on a couple of occasions, most notably near the end as Amy and Nick abruptly walk out of their roles in the story, but whose usefulness begins and ends in his sole viewpoint chapter.
Amy and Nick run a relatively modern but decaying hotel in Bulverton, a South Coast resort town whose past is much brighter than its present, and which is sliding irrevocably downhill, a process accelerated by the massacre that took place on its streets the previous summer, when a cheap, aggressive gun nut called Gerry Groves went on a killing spree, killing, amongst others, Nick’s parents and Amy’s husband.
They were once close, and the shared tragedy, which leaves them both in a suspension, has brought them together again to run the White Horse, which Nick has taken over.
But it is Theresa Simons with whom the book is concerned. She’s introduced (in the present tense) as a seven year old girl, born to an American father and a British mother, living on an American Army Base in England that she rarely and her father never leaves. Theresa has an imaginary friend, a ‘twin’ called Megan, whose reality, or lack of it, is left obscure until Theresa gets her hands on one of her father’s guns, and shoots and ‘kills’ Megan.
But that was almost forty years ago. Theresa has spent most of the rest of her life in America, where she works for the FBI, as does her husband Andy, or rather Theresa does and Andy did for he is dead, shot in an incident the previous year. Theresa, devastated by his loss, has come to England, to Bulverton, on a wild, irrational expedition, to study its massacre, and the effect on those who’ve survived.
Priest conceals for a long time the ‘rationale’ behind Theresa’s investigation: that Andy was killed the same day, at the same time, as Gerry Groves, thousands of miles away, was conducting his massacre at Bulverton.
Save for the coincidence of dates and times, and the bloody outcome of both, there is nothing to link the two. But somewhere in her head, Theresa, who cannot let her husband go any more than Bulverton can return to proper life, every moment of its existence, of its survivors lives distorted by the undoability of what happened, Theresa is seeking some connection, some kind of explanation.
And the explanation, or rather the gap in which the explanation fits, is discovered at a relatively early stage as Theresa, having very professionally – perhaps more professionally than the British police – mapped out a timeline, discovers an unexplained gap in Groves’ day.
Whilst we wait to learn its significance, Priest explores the other theme of the book, and its overt concession to SF, namely ExEx.
ExtremeExperience, to give it its full name, is a new form of entertainment, combining video games and virtual reality. A commercially available service, with a fortuitous branch in Bulverton that Theresa regularly accesses, it enables a person to project themselves into, and play a role in an experience, letting them feel the reality from inside and take their own steps to change it.
Naturally, as the full title indicates, the experiences are almost overwhelmingly violent (or pornographic, of course). And the scenario Dave Hartland experiences is supposedly that of Gerry Groves (Amy’s husband was Dave’s brother and Dave is trying to understand what happened, rather than being morbid and gratuitous, though otherwise he is drawn as the latter kind of person). Groves’ sequence is, however, cheap and nasty, a cliched representation rather than a properly researched and accurate job.
Theresa is very familiar with ExEx: in a non-commercial capacity, it has long been part of her FBI training and she is used to being projected into real-life scenarios of death and horror, in which she is expected to work out how to (have) resolve(d) the scenario without it reaching its real-life ending.
Amusingly, amongst the many cases Priest explores is the quasi-legendary Texas Tower shooter, though no scenario for ending that in a positive manner is ever given!
Whilst she builds up her picture of Bulverton (and comes close to becoming a lush out of evening boredom), Theresa joins the local ExEx and experiences its wares. She begins to test their boundaries, literally, trying to drive away from scenarios and see how far she can physically get in the simulation.
Meanwhile, the lack of a responsible, researched Gerry Groves scenario is being put right. Four slick, smooth, utterly alien Americans from the GunHo Corporation (who own ExEx) have moved in to do the real research. They don’t want Theresa about: her own, private enquiries can influence recollections, pollute the purity of the memories they are collecting.
Nick and Amy are beneficiaries: offered unimaginable sums for their memories, they take the money and run, though not before surprising themselves (and us) with the discovery of a genuine wish to be together, and not merely the inertia of the aftermath.
With time becoming limited, and her boundary pushing in simulations beginning to suggest that it is possible to travel between contiguous scenarios, Theresa finally projects herself into Gerry Groves. It is here that reality begins to crumble.
Groves himself is a mess, a stupid, unthinking ball of hatred and self-pity, with no capability for empathy, a violent thug who isn’t even competent with the guns that he obsesses over. But Theresa can interact with him. What’s worse, her training with firearms gets the better of him, and to her horror he actually learns how to fire his weapon, and kill is first two victims, out of her head.
Things begin to spiral. Is Theresa actually influencing Groves’ actions from the present, although they took place eight months earlier? Is she involved? And how? Can she move him away from doing what he has done? Can she save Andy?
And then the gap in Groves’ movements is closed: in the simulation, he goes to ExEx, as he did on the day, enters a simulation inside the simulation. Theresa withdraws from the simulation, unable to bear things, but it is not her simulation she leaves, it is Groves’. In a manner reminiscent of the closing scenes of A Dream of Wessex, we are lost between layers of reality. What is simulation and what is real? Connections, hyperlinks, between Groves and Theresa multiply exponentially until she can finally link to San Antonio, to Andy’s death. His shooter is Groves.
Only this time Andy doesn’t die. Theresa has him back. Love has achieved a reuniting, even if its only within a simulation on some level of reality that we no longer can relate. Theresa draws Andy way, drives off with him into the literal sunset, into the margins of the simulation, away from all death and horror, into the extremes of the Extremes.
As I said, it’s an immensely powerful book, and in its closing sequences, like those of Wessex, it introduces a multiplicity of levels, transitioning so rapidly that it is impossible to conceive where the story ends. Cold logic insists that, in exactly the same manner, there is a reality in which the GunHo corporation have taken over Bulverton and Theresa Simons is, well, what? Alive? Dead? Caught in an ExEx scenario? Still without Andy, that’s all we can say, if we can say anything for sure at all.
In a way, it reminds me of Anthony Minghella’s superb film, Truly, Madly, Deeply, in which Juliet Stevenson’s Nina is so wildly grief-stricken at the loss of her lover Jamie (Alan Rickman), that she brings him back: the film never explains how, or whether Jamie returns for real or in her mind, and is all the stronger for it. Priest, in contrast, chooses to end his story on the impossible, the reuniting of lovers, the overturning of death, an emotion that few among us cannot recognise and, inside us, long for. Where and how, and even if it happens are immaterial beyond the affirmation that love can mean that much that it transcends.
The Extremes is not merely powerful but seductive. Priest brilliantly anatomises the varying types of grief and despair that hold everyone, and looks unflinchingly at our urge to immerse ourselves in violence. ExEx is a fantasy entertainment, but a frightening one, revealing how deep into violence and death we want to go without ever sullying ourselves with its reality: life with a reset button.
It’s not too hard to see the parallels with Nick and Amy. As the only other characters with any substantial autonomy in the story, they, like Theresa, are rewarded with a happy ending: love returns in the face of all the indications that it never existed, and they abruptly vanish, to somewhere not even the author knows.
The superficial implication is that they’ll survive, be happy, and thus we are meant to believe that Theresa will also be happy, even as she rushes out of the story too fast for us to even start asking questions. But Teresa is no longer real, and will Nick and Amy’s happiness be any more solid?
A good novel leaves you wanting to ask questions about its characters and their afterwards. A good author never answers them. Christopher Priest is a good author, who writes good novels.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: a Research Nightmare

Sometimes, writing a novel involves some fairly bizarre forms of research.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a comic institution. It was originally conceived and performed as a radio serial, since when it’s developed into LPs, novels, a TV show, three different stage shows, a comic book, a computer game and a Hollywood film. Oh yes, and two towels. It’s outlived its maker: Douglas Adams died unfairly young, in 2001, since when three further radio series, one novel, and the afore-mentioned film, have been added to the body of work.
One of the fascinating things about it is that HHGTTG, as it is conveniently abbreviated, doesn’t have a settled form. There’s an almost consensus core to the essential part, the story as originally developed in the radio series, but this exists in different forms depending on which format the story’s in at any one time.
The radio series was first broadcast on Radio 4 starting in March 1978. Despite a lack of promotion it went down well enough to be repeated that year, and indeed several times over in the next few years. I remember seeing the series’ name in the radio listings in the paper and being intrigued by it never getting round to actually listening to it until August 1979.
As part of my training to quality as a Solicitor, I had one final exam to pass, Solicitors Accounts. This was a short and intensive course, for which my Nottingham firm paid. It involved two weeks in class, a week of home revision and completing past papers, leading to a two hour exam on the Monday three weeks after starting the course.
The reason I mention this was that the course involved five days on Accounts, three days on Solicitors  Accounts and two days of In-Class Revision, on the first of which our lecturer began by referring to HHGTTG. Apart from recommending the series, and reminding us that it was currently being repeated on Sunday afternoons at 5.30pm, he explained that the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a book that had on its cover, in large, friendly letters, the words “Don’t Panic”.
I’d done well enough on the course not to panic (the eventual exam is the only one in my life that I came out of knowing that I’d passed), but this reference to the book was the catalyst that made me determined to listen to it myself. So on the following Sunday, I tuned in to ‘Fit the Fifth’ (of Six).
Coming in that late to such a short series might have been a disadvantage, but then again, in such a short series, there is much less risk of the characters having been so established that they are portrayed in elemental fashion, depriving you of knowledge essential to understanding. I simply howled with laughter, that week and the next, and determined to listen to the rest.
But before I managed to listen to Fits the First through Fourth (which I didn’t manage to do until the first double LP came out and I bought it through mail order), I got to hear the Xmas Special at, appropriately enough, Xmas, and in February 1980, the five part series two, stripped over a single week at 10.30pm on Radio 4. (And apparently finished so late that the tapes for broadcast of the final episode were not pulled off the machines in the studio until about 8.30pm on the night of its broadcast).
I loved it. It made me laugh over and again. I got the LPs, I bought the first two books, I eventually assembled tapes of the entire broadcasting series, although these were not wholly original because parts of the series had been improved and upgraded after that very first broadcast. Douglas Adams has clearly had an influence on my own sense of humour, as a fellow-author friend identified a lot of Adams-esque lines in the opening chapter of my first completed novel, Even in Peoria (insert link).
I even enjoyed the TV adaptation (which was more than Douglas Adams did, apparently) though it was very stiff, and reliant upon special effects which were a long way from being effective. Moreover, it did demonstrate that the story was not all that well-geared to video, there being insufficient things for the cast to do, in support of speaking those gem-like lines.
All this was until the third book.
The excitement surrounding Life, the Universe and Everything was immense. When it appeared in 1982, it was the first new material since the second radio series. There were no plans for another radio series, the TV series wasn’t going to return, everybody fell on this book, to the extent that, in Manchester if nowhere else, the book sold out of all the major bookshops immediately, and I was lucky to find a new copy in a fairly scruffy collectors emporium.
I wanted so desperately to like it, to find it funny, but the story meandered (as had the radio series, to be honest) and the comic settings didn’t quite gel. I still think that it would have been immeasurably better as a radio series first: both the two novels to date were thin, as books, but were sustained by our memories of the series, the unconscious projection of the voices, the aural effects. Without that background, without voices for new characters, the novel couldn’t hold itself together.
Then there was the most truly Unfathomable Thing.
Let me go back to the first series, to Fit the Third, when Arthur Dent’s unconsidered use of the Infinite Improbability Drive converts two thermonuclear missiles into a very surprised sperm whale and a bowl of petunias.
There follows a brief but utterly wonderful soliloquy by the said surprised sperm whale as it comes to terms with its sudden existence in the short time it lasts. There then follows a line of utter comics genius: funnily enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell to the ground was, “Oh no, not again.” Scientists have speculated that if we knew why the bowl of petunias thought that, we would know that much more about the Universe in which we live.
I mean, imagine that. That is perfect. That is unbelievably brilliant. It is utterly complete. It is weird, dissonant, eye-popping and hilarious. A moment of True Comic Genius, I worship at its feet. The one thing you don’t do, ever, is explain it. How can you explain it? How can you give an answer to why the bowl of petunias thought that which doesn’t immediately destroy that infinity of possibilities that are the real heart of the line: no explanation can ever be more satisfying than the answer beyond our reach.
No-one with any appreciation of comedy would explain it.
In Life, the Universe and Everything, Douglas Adams explained it. I couldn’t believe that he did that. It’s the worst, most egregious mistake I’ve ever seen a major writer of humour make. And his explanation was every bit as stupid and rotten and unfunny as it was going to be

Ford, Zaphod and Trillian on TV

The rot set in from there. So Long and Thanks for all the Fish was even worse. It was a non-event that, had it not been another HHGTTG book, would have been rejected for publication. And Mostly Harmless was, from start to finish, the work of a writer whose head was in a bad place. Like Spike Milligan’s unbroadcast scripts for a potential eleventh Goon Show series, the book was the work of a writer who, underneath, really did not want to be writing this again, a writer whose subconscious was determined to pull the whole house of cards down on himself, in a way that meant he could never be asked to do this again.
I didn’t even buy Mostly Harmless, I just waited until it was available in the library. I might have done the same with So Long and Thanks for all the Fish, I can’t remember. The truth is, Adams’ colossal blunder in Life, the Universe and Everything had destroyed my faith in him. And with this at heart, slowly I drifted away from those parts of his creation that had been good, that were good.
It was like the third and final series of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. Not only had that series been painfully unfunny, having attempted to use what was essentially negative and destructive humour in a positive, optimistic story, the failure of what had been reliable comic tropes to raise a laugh exposed too much of the mechanics of the series overall, with the unfortunate result that series 3’s lack of comedy spread backwards in time, polluting the series at its best.
So too did the Unfathomable Thing, and the two deadly dull novels spread backwards, exposing rather too bleakly the comic tropes upon which Adams relied, to the extent that I ended up losing interest in HHGTTG as a whole, going off it in fact, and disposing of everything.
What is strange is that, despite my decided indifference to the whole thing, so many years later, I have probably quoted from it far more often than from any single source. It’s lines are vivid, they’re instantly recognisable and they seem to have some sort of universal application in any kind of situation. If I had a quid for every time I’ve used some variation or other of Arthur’s line, “This is obviously some esoteric meaning of the word ‘safe’ with which I was previously unacquainted”, I could buy at least one of the seriously expensive R. A. Lafferty’s that I’m still seeking.
Which brings me, by a very roundabout method, to the demands of research.
I was writing a stretch of dialogue, of no particular significance save in how it highlighted the growing relationship between Main Lead and Second Lead. At a certain point, Second Lead used the HHGTTG line, “I can see this relationship is something we’re going to have to work on”. Perfect for the scene, and ideal to bring out a little something in Main Lead’s character by having her identify it.
But Second Lead is somewhat younger than Main Lead: is it believable that she should know the line in the first place? A quick check reveals that the HHGTTG film came out in April 2005, and as the book is set in May 2005: ideal. Except: was that line in the film?
In the absence of a handy source comparing every version of the story and itemising which lines appear in which, I had to download and watch the film (and no, the line isn’t in it, so we end up with an unexpected wrinkle in Second Lead’s background too, though the shared knowledge will support the gradual relaxation in their attitudes to one another).
I hadn’t seen the film before, except perhaps for the last forty minutes or so, on TV one time. It really is as bad as they all said at the time, isn’t it?

The film Trillian, without the t(r)acky bottoms

Ok, it’s a Hollywood Production, so we can’t expect all our four main characters to be English, even though the story’s earth-scenes are very specifically, not to mention stereo-typically English, and the humour is quintessentially Cambridge southern middle-class whimsy, but to have three of them be American was just not on.
As for the individuals, Zooey Deschanel as Trillian is the least offensive. Her performance is fairly undistinguished throughout, and whilst it was too much to expect her to spend the whole film in blue shorts and knee-socks with a horribly clashing pattern, I think it was decidedly stupid to dress her in baggy white tracksuit bottoms that flared manically: I’ve seen photos, she really isn’t twice as big from the waist down as she is in the opposite direction in real life.
As for Ford Prefect, Mos Def underplays his part so much that it’s necessary to use expensive earth-digging equipment to get him noticed, but that’s nothing compared to Sam Rockwell as Zaphod Beeblebrox. Now Rockwell was up against the fact that Mark Wing-Davey nailed, I mean absolutely nailed the part of Zaphod from line one, so Rockwell’s stoner antics had no chance of convincing, but it’s an even bigger disappointment that the film – twenty-five years of advancing special effects and CGI on from the TV series – completely bottles the second head and the third arm bit.
Ok, that’s not entirely true: the second head bit is one that pops up out of Zaphod’s throat half a dozen times, and then gets cut out and basically forgotten, no doubt with a sigh of relief from the special effects department, who really aren’t putting themselves out on this, whilst the third arm CGIs out in the middle three or four times before retiring to Napoleonic rest underneath Zaphod’s shirt.
The artificial second head and clearly false extra right arm of the TV series were completely primitive but at least the TV series gave it a go.
Apparently, Adams once said that of the main cast, only Arthur Dent really needed to be English. Far be it from me to contradict the creator, but he’s talking bollocks there, and completely misunderstanding the form of his writing and his own comedy, which is quintessentially English. However, we are at least on stronger ground with Arthur in the film, except that we’re not that much better off.
I think Martin Freeman is superb as an actor. Quite apart from Tim in The Office, especially in his relationship with Dawn (there is one moment in the second Xmas Special where he completely incarnated me, and I very rarely find any kind of art getting that deeply into my psyche), and he is absolutely perfect as Watson in Sherlock and the only possible Bilbo in The Hobbit, but whilst he’s quite the best out of the principal cast, even he isn’t quite right in the film.
Because again, good as he is, Freeman is competing against Simon Jones who, almost as thoroughly as Mark Wing-Davey, nailed his part first out. Freeman’s voice is a little too northern, a little too downscale to match Jones’s somewhat fruitier tones, which were a perfect match for Arthur from the beginning.
Plus, partly because the increased romantic element to the plot requires it, and partly because Martin Freeman just is that kind of actor, this Arthur is more of a hero than in any other version. Jones’s Dent was a bedraggled last Earthman, alone in the Galaxy, forced to wander round in dressing gown and pyjamas, as out of his depth as he would be at the base of the Marianas Trench, and completely dependant upon Ford and even Zaphod for survival. It’s significant that, instead of having gone to sleep in a pyjama jacket, Freeman’s Dent sleeps in a t-shirt. He’s that much more dynamic, and vocally that much more forceful.
In fact, a lot of the problem with the earliest part of the film is the voices. It’s one of the things about a radio series: the voices are all important. Freeman’s good, but he just doesn’t sound like Arthur Dent, because he doesn’t sound like Simon Jones, and he’s also trying to say his familiar lines in a way different from his Jones read them.
It’s the same with Alan Rickman as the voice of Marvin, the Paranoid Android. Rickman’s good, he’s very good as he always is but, even more than with Freeman, he’s reading someone else’s lines. His voice isn’t altered by any sound-effects so it’s even more recognisably him, which makes it glaringly more obvious that it is not Stephen Moore who, you guessed it, absolutely nailed Marvin first time out.
There are many more points I could make about the film, such as the utterly superfluous Anna Chancellor as Vice President Silly Name, the cleverness of the Point of View Gun being rendered ineffectual by forgetting the sub-plot about getting it for Humma Whatshisname, you know, the guy who’s ransoming Zaphod’s other head, and I’m just not going to go anywhere near the ‘So Long and Thanks for all the Fish’ song and I really wish the film hadn’t either (that was an opening credits nose-dive that Citizen Kane would have struggled to get to get out from).
On the other hand, Bill Nighy was very good as Slartibartfast (many years ago I read the first novel as bed-time reading for my then girlfriend’s ten year old son: he collapsed in hysterics every time that name came up, and later complained that the radio show wasn’t as good, because it didn’t sound like me reading it), but just like everyone else, he’s just that little bit off through not being Richard Vernon. And there’s a nice touch as the TV version of Marvin appears in the Vogsphere office.
Oh, and I did laugh once, at one of the new lines, when everyone turns up on Vogsphere intent on rescuing Trillian, only to have to face Vogon bureaucracy, and Arthur sets himself up as the leader, because he’s British: “We’re experts at queuing”.
But overall, it was awful, and although the film made a profit, I am not in the least surprised that there was no suggestion of proceeding with the flagged sequel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.
And, like I said, the bloody line wasn’t in there. A shame I couldn’t have found that out without having to watch the film, but when you’re writing a book, you have to go where the necessity for research takes you.
I wonder if I can work in a reference to Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge somewhere…

Cheating, I know…