Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: e01 – The Friends of English Magic


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Where do I begin?

That’s the first question anybody engaged in adapting a long and mysterious book into a visual form must ask themselves, and how they ask it and what is the selected answer goes a long way towards determining the success of the translation. The book of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, written by Susannah Clarke, is a lengthy volume, one that took me years to read, devoured in long chunks on train journeys where there was nothing easier to distract me.

The same thing goes for Peter Harness’s adaptation for the BBC, in seven hour-long episodes. Compression, visualisation and atmospherics. The first two of these belong to the tv series but the last is the key note of the novel, and it is the thing that musy be most carefully and accurately transferred, in order for things to work.

What we have here is a story about Magic, set during and influencing the Napoleonic Wars, most particularly that part of which was being conducted in Spain. The War is real, but this is not our England, as seen out of our (Nineteenth Century) windows, but another England, an England in which Magic exists, always has existed, was openly practiced and celebrated until about three hundred years ago, when it all seemed to vanish. Nevertheless, Magic remains a natural part of life, if not entirely Respectable. That is, Theoretical Magic, the study of the same, its History and its practitioners of old, is Respectable. A Practical Magician is beyond the pale, no better that a street conjurer, a charlatan and a vagabond.

Susannah Clarke can establish a world like this beautifully, by writing in an archaic, formal style that conjures up atmosphere by itself, but which is bonded to an absolute conviction about the fantastic world she is creating and makes it not just believable but completely natural. She’s got the infinite power of words and 800 plus pages of them. Unless he wants to regurgitate great chunks of the novel to spoonfeed the audience, Harness has to find a way to convey all that, literally in front of our very eyes.

So he sets about building this by some abslutely masterful set design, which flawlessly creates both look and feel of Georgian England, by intelligent use of the correct dialogue from the book, by a brilliant cast who are encouraged to centre their characters by means of their inherent energy of character and purpose, but most of all by trusting the audience to survive on Inference, not Implication, and working out what is going on for themselves without a Powerpoint presentation.

Like all first episodes, this is all about set-up. It has been long-prophecied, in one of the few Magic books not collected and hoarded by the reclusive Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan) at his home near York, where he is directed by his servant Childermass (Emzo Cilenti), that two Magicians will arise in England, that they will be enemies, but that they shall both fail. Mr Norrell is one such. He is a small, withdrawn man, with a strong streak of stubborn arrogance, who is determined to make Magic respectable in England, through the person of himself, rather than by its actual performance. Norrell can perform Magic. He induces the Society of Friends of Magic in York to cease to profess or name themselves as Magicians by causing half a hundred statues in York Minster to come to life, move and talk, all save Mr John Segundus, who believes in Norrell and will not commit himself.

Yet this feat is misrepresented in London, made a foolish lie by the leech-like Drawlight, who seeks reflected glory by introducing Norrell to Society and the performaance of tricks. Norrell has come to London for one purpose only, to assist his Government at War, but he is turned away, unkindly, by Minister of Defence Sir Walter Pole (Samuel West) and proposes to leave. He is accosted by the street-conjurer – and frequent drunk – Vinculus (Paul Kaye, splendidly OTT), who tells him there are two, not one Magicians.

And when Sir Walter’s fiancee, Charlotte (Alice Englert) dies of comsumption, Mr Morrell executes a dangerous bargain with The Gentleman with Thistledown Hair (Marc Warren) to restore her to life, although she loses a ginger in the process. It is a miracle, and we all know that miracles are not necessaril;y unalloyed blessings.

But this is only one of our two Magicians, even if he is the First, and has the lion’s share of screentime in this episode. Mr Norrell is an existing Magician, a man of middle years, a student of decades. Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) is a younger man, heir-in-waiting to a stern, bleak father, a man in love with Vicar’s sister Arabella (Charlotte Riley), who loves him back but won’t even listen to a marriage proposal because Jonathan is a man without occupation, veering dangerously close to being a wastrel, even after his father dies of an apoplexy.

But Jonathan, bright, cheerful, entertaining and almost silly, is the Second Magician, identified as such by Vinculus, sold penny spells that come from Norrell, and performing the one that sows him what his enemy is doing. That enemy is Norrell.

So certain building blocks are put in place, time is spent carefully and a structure of conviction and atmosphere is created before our very eyes. We know it’s all trickery but do we Know it? The next six weeks will tell us how long the spell can be maintained. And the damage it may do.

Preston Front: s02 e06 – Lloydy’s Ark


Preston

Without being a minute longer than the standard 48, the last episode of Preston Front‘s second series managed to fit in enough stories to suggest something three times as long whilst leaving most of them so far up in the air that for a third series to do with them as it chooses. And whilst the comedy kept coming, it was rising from a bedrock of near universal pain, commonplace, everyday, garden-level pain that is the condition of people’s lives and which the comedy serves to disguise, but not alleviate.

Wow, that was a heavy sentence, wasn’t it?

When I first started writing about All Quiet on the Preston Front, I mentioned that I had watched about twenty minutes of the first episode and then switched off, not finding it funny. For some reason, having come to that conclusion, I ended up watching the last episode of this series and became hooked without really understanding the people involved, but recognising the depth from which the comedy arose.

It’s not very promising as an introductory episode, but then that’s not the ideal role for a series finale, in which developing threads are tied together in a practical knot, which is an ironic note as the only involvement of the RA this week was a session learning how to tie knots. This gives us our chance to mention the only minor and disconnected strand of the episode, as Rundle is still struggling over his attraction to Ally, Ally is losing the battle to keep things on an it-was-nothing keel and Polson, in pursuit of his ambition to get that Sergeant’s stripe, let’s it be known that he is aware of a certain person of higher rank stroking the hair of another person of lower rank. The last person I saw who looked that stunned was Kim Hughes after Edgbaston 1981 so kudos to Kieran Flynn.

But everything else was wrapped up into the spinal story, which was about Lloydy, that great, hulking clown of a figure, the human funny bone. Adrian Hood is perfect in the role, but this episode, without disturbing the surface an inch, showed him as human underneath, and every bit as screwed up as the rest of us. Anthony Lloyd is the only son of two market traders, busy and popular in their own right, whose customers are less customers than friends who buy things off them, who still feel looked down upon and wanted more for their son, like all good parents.

But Anthony wasn’t made of that stuff to be more. He hasn’t got it up there (points to head), but his parents paid 10% of their income to send him to a private school where he stands out so far that a coat of orange fluorescent paint would only serve as camouflage. Lloydy is, in objective terms, a wash-out, a failure, a son with no aim in life. Not even his riches from ‘Ghurka Tank Battle’ (at which, in another strand not a million miles away, little Kirsty wipes the floor with Hodge and her Mum) impress them, because he’s used the money to buy cars instead of putting himself through business school, or buying somewhere nice to live.

Stung, through even that thick skin, the product of being a laughing-stock to everyone, Lloydy sells the cars and buys what will impress his Mum and Dad, who loved their long ago holiday so much, namely a canal boat. To live on. Everybody takes the usual piss out of him (even Eric and Dawn, who have ‘broken their duck’ and are all over each other to the near total exclusion of every other sensory input), everybody has something better to do than take a trip with him on Saturday morning, and everyone turns up, though Hodge is late through trying not to attend at all.

Yes, Hodge. Hodge has lost his girlfriend to Greg Scarry, but he’s content, because he can see Kirsty whenever he wants. Yes, only he and Jeanetta (and Eric. And Dawn) know he’s her father, and though it must forever remain a mystery to the whole world, and especially Kirsty, it’s enough for him to know. Which he says, and means, then. But there’s a brick wall looming in the very immediate future, once he’s promoted to Staying for Tea and Reading a Bedtime Story. Hodge is reading The Wind in the Willows but Kirsty breaks his heart. He can’t marry her Mum and become her Dad because she’s already got a Dad, he’s in Australia raising lots of sheep (last week he was a pilot, because she’d been on a school trip to Manchester Airport). Thsat’s bad enough for Hodge, whose face is getting slowly more frozen, but there’s worse. A hiding place in a closet. A box. An old magazine with a photo of a successful couple. ‘Dad’ has a face. He has a name. And they’re both Greg Scarry.

Who is entertaining Laue Delooze, poor dumb Laura, w ho still thinks these are business meetings, even if the latest one is a Friday night on a yacht. Not a big yacht, but bigger than any Hodge has got. Greg Scarry may be a millionaire with a yacht and choice of big cars but he’s still in a pissing contest with scruffy nobody Hodge, a fact Laura points out when all her dumb delusions about why Greg is interested in her are exploded by his kissing her. She’s the last to realise what’s going on, to hear the cynicism in his willingness to set her up in business, but for the first time since we saw her singing at Mr Wang’s Laura becomes a likeable person. Because whatever Hodge is, or rather isn’t in comparison, he doesn’t lead people on. He’s emotionally honest, and Laura wants to go back to him.

Typical of Laura, that last insight isn’t her own but Jeanetta’s, although she recognises, welcomes and finds comfort in the fact of it. By which we can foresee the absolute disaster is yet to come. Everyone’s on the canal boat, off for an idyllic tripo through fields of waving corn or, as is the case, Dawn and Ally being det\ailed to open the lockgates. And Ally’s foregone a trip to London with Frasier, and sitting in a hotel jacuzzi, to do something they used donkeys for.

And there’s Lloydy, only Lloydy’s depressed. That’s why he’s brought 48 cans of Guinness and a ridiciulous change of clothing (I refuse to repeat the slogan on the t-shirt), one to get drunk with and the other to change into when he falls in the canal being drunk. Even Laura’s there, waiting for Hodge: she’s his girlfriend.

As for Hodge, he’s being picked up by Eric in the Noodle Van, thirty miles away, heading for Rochdale. Hodge is depressed too, but Hodge’s depression takes the form of anger and the desire to run away. He’d gone straight downstairs, out of the door, not a word of goodbye, not to Jeanetta, which doesn’t matter so much but not to Kirsty, which does. Jeanetta’s in Roker Bridge, trying to find him. And Lloydy’s navigation has liked the canal boat into an abandoned mill-basin where everybody converges, like the library scene, except that more than just the identity of the murderer is going to be revealed.

Because Laura wants to find Hodge. Because he means more to her that pretentious liar Greg Scarry and she wants his honesty and is prepared to meet it with his own. And Jeanetta doesn’t want Hodge walking out, on her almost as much as Kirsty, despite that insuperable issue between them. But knowing it himself is no longer enough for Hodge. It’s bloody Greg Scarry. He’s the other Hodge, the one that became the success, he’s Hodge’s rival for both his girls and he’s taken both of them away. He’s heard all Jeanetta has to say, and his head might understand but his heart is screaming too loud for his thoughts to be heard, and it’s all or nothing, even as he knows that the ultimatum is impossible.

The scene is familiar. Laura accused Greg of being in a pissing match with Hodge, and Jeanetta identifies that Hodge is in a pissing match with Greg, except that it’s one he has no chance of winning because, sure, yeah, Hodge is the failed Greg, on whose alimony Jeanetta lives so that Kirsty can have a decent life, until Jeanetta cannot stand it any more and all but screams at him that if Greg was more like Hodge, she would never have divorced him in the first place.

It isn’t fair. But whoever said that life is supposed to be fair in the first place, or that it can’t knee you in the balls whilst you’re doubled up from it kicking you in the stomach, because despite Eric’s attempts to run interference, Laura finally finds Hodge. With his arms round Jeanetta, holding her very tight. She can see that, very clearly, though she can’t see that it’s because Jeanetta is crying her eyes out. The scales fall from Laura’s eyes, though they only reveal another set of scales beneath: if both the men fighting over her are liars she might as well be with the one who doesn’t pretend he’s not lying.

And Lloydy. His Mum and Dad have folowed them all the way. He might not be the son of their aspirations, but he’s the son they still love, and they’re ashamed and upset that they have railed at him, especially as they didn’t know Anthony had only bought the boat so that they could retire onto it and he’s take over their sweet stall and become a businessman after all: they are over the moon with him. Yes, Spock explained it so well to them, whilst Lloydy showed his intelligence by standing there and keeping his mouth shut about how he didn’t know a word of this…

This is the kind of thing you can do with a series when you know you’ve got anotrher series in the bag. Tim Firth had the luxury of breaking things into pieces and throwing them in the air so they can be put back together in different shapes next time. And the wit to end on the gang, sprawled on a hillside, with tons of sweets, having gentle friendly fun in the moment, Eric and Dawn chasing each other around like mad kids having fun.

No wonder I fell for this series, belatedly. We shall return to series 3 in the future but let’s leave them like that for now, they deserve it.

Preston Front: s02 e05 – Deisel’s Out-of-Body Experience


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For one reason or another, I found it difficult to get too invested in this week’s penultimate episode. It followed the pattern the series has used successfully so far, of a central story featuring one of our gang – in this instance Tony Marshall getting a rare chance to step out of the background – whilst interweaving ongoing plot strands developing the various issues of everybody else, but something about it failed to grab.

Part of it was that Deisel’s story was not only too thin to hold up but also too easy to explode. It began in the open, when the Church spire popped on the roof of the garage suddenly lurched left and basically brought the whole shebang down, demolishing said garage and, not unincidentally, Deisel himself. It’s alright, it’s nowt but concussion, but Deisel returns from the dead, in his own mind at least, with a vision. A vision of a dark tunnel, with a bright light at the end of it, in which forms the image of a white figure, his arms outstretched, smiling, welcoming. But Deisel has come back, awed by his experience.

In fact, he’s gone a bit doolally about it. Spock, the arch-sceptic, is anxious to get his mate’s feet back down on the ground, whilst Lloydy is only concerned with the fact that Deisel is happy, and in Lloydy-world that’s the one thing that matters. Don’t die with fun in the bank, he proclaims. Unfortunately, Spock’s idea of defusing things involves getting a vicar to talk Deisel out of it is not best executed because the Vicar is Deisel’s Vicar, at the Methodist Church where Deisel’s late parents were stalwarts, and he falls upon Deisel’s shoulders as proof, not just faith, but proof of miracles and afterlifes, and pretty soon Deisy-boy is doing a tour of elderly people, recounting his experiences to their greater comfort, delight and relief.

But that’s where the problem lies, and it’s two-fold. One is that Deisel’s account, which is entirely honest, can’t go anywhere. He can’t expand upon it. He can only increase his audience, and the element of drama in how he tells it, but he can’t go anywhere else. And behind it all is the certainty, which is never good for a comedy-drama, that it’s all going to be exploded in his face. Deizsel might be 100% honest in his belief but we know the speedbump is coming. Personally, I expected the vision to have been an ambulanceman or something similiar, but it took Lloydy (of course), practicing the spookiness of lying where a dead man was lying, to point out that it was the garage’s Hot Food machine and it’s drawing of a chef with welcoming arms…

So that undermined the central story. The fact that this was the penultimate episode had the effect of making the evolving storylines feel, well, a bit schematic, as if they were holding patterns, unable to land because that has to be reserved for the finale. There’s Dawn, frustrated that she’s now living with Eric, who she loves, but because of the overlapping schedules of their two jobs, never seeing him. There’s Polson being Polson about his wife walking out on him, acting all casual and impervious male when she calls to talk. He’s pased Senior Brecon but has to wait for Rundle’s decision on which of him and Degsy to promote to ergeant. In the meantime, out of non-male-bonding with Eric after last week, he’s promoted Eric to acting Lance-Corporal for the weekend exercise, only for Eric to drop the, again totally expected, bollock because he’s distracted by Dawn, who really really does want to get him in betwen her… sheets.

Then there’s Ally and Rundle and that kiss. Ally’s being all dismissive of it, it meantt nothing – though it clearly gave her a kick – and insisting that it mean nothing to Rundle, and he should forget it, not scupper a good friendship, and stop acting like an awkward schoolboy around her. Except it didn’t mean nothing to Rundle, he can’t get it out of his head, especially as he wants to do it again. All very personal, with echoes of memories I’d rather not retain, and it would be all that. Except that a brooding Polson, checking the long-range night-scope on his rifle, sees two fellow TA members, one a Captain and the other a non-com, standing very close to one another in the dark, he with his hand carressing the side of her face. Oops.

But the most substantial secondary story was Hodge and Laura, their relationship on a clear and obvious downwards path. Hodge is jealous of the time Laura’s spending with Greg Scarry. His real problem is that he’s an angry and insecure jealous, and his aggressive reacyions are pushing Laura away in a manner that’s completely understandable, Hodge is digging the ground out from under his feet in his reverse-snob resentment of Greg, polished, urbane, rich and capable, and his overt treatment of Laura as a stupid, naive, idiot who can’t see that Greg isn’t interested in her opening her catering business to him, only her legs.

Lord knows, Laura is a foolish, self-centred, self-deceiving person, but when Hodge tries to force her to walk home from Mr Wang’s like they usually do, instead of accepting a lift in Greg’s chauffeur-driven Bentley, he leaves her no option but to assert her independence, refused to be told what to do, and open up a fault-line the size of the San Andreus Fault.

Mix’n’match. The lack of endings, of completions, was for once too schematic, and I was sadly too aware of it. Next week wil;l see where everything leads to…

Preston Front: s02 e04 – Polson’s Lilo


Preston

I was going to start by going on about how I’m already nearing the end of this series and it hardly feels as if I’ve started to watch it but such trivialities paled in the face of an episode that, whilst not ignoring its comedic twists, spent most of its time dealing with the real pain of human lives.

For once, the focus of an episode was not one of our happy little gang of friends but rather their macho Geordie shortarse doom-goblin of a Corporal, Pete Polson. So far, across a series and a half, he’s been an external, a figure of fun, a caricature performed splendidly by David McReedy. Polson is ex-Army, now strutting his stuff in the TA, sneering down at everyone else because they’re playtime soldiers, not real ones like him. He’s operating on an internal rage, totally pissed off at everything around him, because it’s not Army, not the Regulars. Polson is a squaddie, a born squaddie, good on his own level but thick as mince when it comes to everything else. This week, Tim Firth stripped him down, playing with that uncertain and often dangerous line between comedy and tragedy.

I was taught at school, in some long ago English class, that tragedy is properly defined as the fall of a great person from a great place. We were studying Death of a Salesman then, Willie Loman, and how his story in the play is not classical tragedy but yet is a form of tragedy in itself, though he has no great level to fall from. That’s the case with Polson. Last week, Firth introduced his wife, Sarah, and we all thought how different she was from him. Now we had the whole thing opened out for us.

There’s a classic joke in the open. Hodge is looking for a present for Kirsty’s forthcoming birthday party. He’s taken Eric along with him, and Eric, in Eric-fashion, has brought Lloydy. The trio spot Polson playing with a toy rifle. The talk about his forthcoming two week Sergeant’s training course in the Brecon Beacons, in the middle of nowhere, remote country, rough living, mountains, the lot. Then Polson picks up an inflatable pink lilo. “And apparently not far from a paddling pool,” says Lloydy.

Then we switch to Polson and Sarah meeting friends to go to see a performance of Corialanus. There’s a subtle note there in that they pronounce her name as Sara, setting out the social class aspect, of which Polson is decidedly on the wrong level. He produces Anniversary plans, a Meditarranean holiday, in a luxury tent, which she later describes as embarrassing. It is, on account of the disparity betwee the pair’s separate wants in life, but I’m already not really laughing, because I’m not that eager to side with an obviously bright, refined, attractive blonde who treats her husband like shit because she’s ashamed of him.

So Polson goes off to Brecon. He’s in his element there, this is the life he knows and understands and is actually pretty good at, beneath the smouldering resentment. his reasons for leaving the Regulars were domestic: his wife didn’t want him in the Army. He’s making the effort to understand. She’s smart, she’s the youngest ever Area Manager the Hotel chain have ever had, the life of an Army wife, in barracks in Germany, was no good for her. But Polson, though he’d never understand the notion and wouldreact in violent resentment at the physical aspect, has been emasculated by Sarah.

And he drives all the way back to Roker Bridge on the middle Saturday to deliver a this-time-truly-inappropriate Anniversary present only to find Sarah moving out, leaving him, and it’s all his fault for coming here when he shouldn’t have and spoiling her best-for-everyone plans to leave him behind his back, just not be there when he comes home. What a bastard Polson is, putting her through having to say it to his face when she hasn’t planned what to say to him.

We have to digress. There are other things swirling in this episode. Hodge we will treat separately, but there’s Eric. Eric has moved out, taking with him a childhood that he clings to. He’s moved in with Dawn. At the housewarming party for the gang, on the terrace (lovely flat, two bedrooms, bathroom and shower and ninety square miles of moorland), Laura is a bit bemused to learn that the second bedroom is for Eric, even thi=ough they’re going out together, whilst Ally is big on personal space.

It’s all upwards for Eric. Mr Wang, eternally grateful for Eric chucking the Dragon suit into the river, gives him a job driving the Noodle Van, his new home deliveries service. He’s out on his first night. Dawn’s prepared a romantic dinner for when he gets back, only for Hodge to arrive, needing to talk to Eric. About what we’ll get back to, but this is the cue for Eric, out on the moors, happily driving the noodle van, glossing over certain failings in his actual service, when he’s suddenly confronting a car on the wrong side of the road. Eric swerves into a drystone wall, the other car goes off the road and overturns. A trepidatious Eric approaches in horror only slightlky alleviated by the discovery that the driver is Polson, and that he’s drunk.

What followed was extraordinary. Polson’s in grief. The poor sod, he still loves his wife, and he still can’t understand why what has happened has happened. He’s in pain, the horrible pain of understanding that because of what you are you are a misfit, out of place in the world, but not understanding why. He intends to react by doing what Polson does, going back to Brecon, undergoing the pain that entails, because that kind of pain he does understand and can manage. Because he’s left with nothing. Because Polson exists on hate and he has nothing and no-one to hate in all this.

It’s not totally a monolgue. Eric isn’t just there to provide an audience, he’s genuinely concerned for Polson and trying to get him to see he’s in no fit state to go anywhere, least of all Brecon, and he’s the one who ends up on the lilo, when he nearly falls off a sixty foot cliff trying to stop Polson jumping off it. This enables Polson to feel goodabut himself, to ease off, understand that men don’t have to maintain their macho air at all times. Of course, if Eric ever mentions any of this down the drillhall, he’ll kill him. But that was obvious.

At last it’s time for Hodge. Laura’s gor her dinner appointent with Greg Scarry that Hodge can see through but that she, the poor, naive airhead can only see like Dr Mid-Nite without his special lenses. Despite their enthusiastic espousal of the idea of giving each other space, Hodge is jealous, a contradiction that Dawn has to point out. But Hodge has Kirsty’s birthday party to attend, with his wigwam present, only it was actually the day before. Jeanetta gave him the wrong date, unable to face the explanations for the other mothers if just who he is, and the ever-present threat of Kirsty finding out he’s her father.

One day, yes. Hodge’s efforts to entertain and fit in, converting the wigwam into a too-heavy-to-fly kite, flying it on the beach with all of Kirsty’s helium number balloons to provide a lift, and runthe risk of losingthe lot if she gets startled and lets go of the stick, these are all well meant but ineffectual. But Jeanetta is thinking of her mother’s funeral, of her life with a woman abandoned by her husband, for whom she became an “emotional zimmer-frame”, and she’s looking at Kirsty and herself and thinking that her little girl needs the other ‘f’ word: family.

Which sends Hodge tearing off to find Eric, oblivious to the obviously romantic intentions of Dawn who, without knowing any of the facts, has worked out from Hodge’s reactions and his contradictory explanations of just who Kirsty is that she is his kid. But she’ll keep the secret for him.

And so it was, still funny, but very much about the things that cause people pain, and so not funny but serious, yet still so absolutely of the world according to these mates in Roker Bridge.

Sunday Watch: Open All Hours – 7 of 1 e01/s01 e01 – Full of Mysterious Promise


Open

I don’t know if you’re aware of it but in recent years there’s been this prostitution of a TV sitcom called Still Open All Hours or, as it’s better known around here, ‘David-Jason-is-so-bloody-desperate-to-be-a-srar-again-he’s-robbing-Ronnie-Barker’s-grave’. Yesterday, I paid an impromptu visit to Machester City Centre to look for something that wasn’t there, but, looking round the big Oxfam shop on Oldham Street, I saw and opted to buy the first two series of the real thing, at 99p each. And here we are.

To explain the slightly confusing header of this piece, Open All Hours debuted as the opening episode of a series called 7 of 1. This, in its turn, was a variation on the regular BBC series, Comedy Playhouse, which put out six or seven potential sitcoms, different writers and cast every week: in short, a series of pilots, though back then we hadn’t yet heard, let alone absorbed that term from American TV. What qualified 7 of 1 for an individual title was that all seven episodes starred Ronnie Barker.

Of course, this was the series that spawned the magnificent Porridge (which pilot, ‘Prisoner and Escort’, was the second episode), written by Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais, and that was the one that got the nod straightaway, for which we are all thankful. The third episode, ‘My Old Man’, was also turned into a series, albeit short-lived, on ITV, with Clive Dunn playing the lead: if it had had Ronnie Barker in the part it could have worked, by making its lead character real instead of just another Clive Dunn old bloke, but…

‘Open All Hours’ was overlooked, probably because Ronnie Barker could only do so much, but three and a half years later it was resurrected for a series of six episodes, leading to four series over the following decade, albeit with only the final series attracting massive audiences. By then, writer Roy Clarke was big at the Beeb, thanks to the ever-growing success of what would go on to be the world’s longest lasting sitcom, Last of the Summer Wine.

Changes were made. Though set in Yorkshire, the pilot episode was filmed in London, with London-based actors like Yootha Joyce putting on northern accents. The episode starred Ronnie Barker as Arkwright, the stuttering, mean, grasping owner of a small back-street general store, money-grubbing, peny-pinching and consumed with lust for buxom District Midwife Nurse Gladys Emmanuel, who lives opposite, and a still-not fully-established David Jason (a stalwart of Barker for the past three years) as his nephew Granville, product of an alleged fling between Arkwright’s late unwed sister and a Hungarian seaman, aged 25, wistful, desperate and tied to his shop pinny and shop bike, not the greatest weapons in his desire to meet and attract any girls.

Nurse Gladys Emmanuel, whose clearly amused and sceptical view of her would-be husband was an essentisal component of the show’s humour, was played in the pilot by Sheila Brennan, with a distinct throaty Weksh accent – well, what would you expect with a name like that? – but the part for the series was taken by Lynda Baron, who played a natural northern accent with Yorkshire down-to-earthedness that allowed for a plausible degree of underlying sympathy for her suitor beneath the perpetual embarrassment at his unsuble importuning.

When I first put the DVD in, I misunderstood its contents and ended up watching the first 1976 episode before going back to the pilot. This was salutory for analytical reasons – as a general rule I can recommend occasionally reading series back to front as a means of identifying more cleaely the introduction of ideas – in two respects, in terms of immediately recognising by just how much the series toned down and smoothed out some of the elements of the pilot, and by identifying some aspects of the comedy that the series substituted and which Ireally rather wish they hadn’t.

Looking at them in the right order, the pilot’s underlying theme was much harsher. The comedic ingredients are there immediately, but there’s a more realistic and indeed aggressive tone to them. Clarke’s writing hasn’t yet adopted the shape that Last of the Summer Wine had taken and which would formalise his approach to writing ever after. Arkwright has a slightly meaner edge, whilst Granville’s plight as a young(ish) man (Jason was nearly a decade older than the character and it showed) was more serious, a supposedly mid-twenties man who was trapped by poverty and a job that had him working from 6.00am to 9.00pm six days a week, effectively only for his keep.

It was also noticeable that the pilot featured a smoking scene of a kind wholly eliminated by 1976. A works bus stops outside, half a dozen labourers come in simultaneously, but cigarettes, light up, the air fills with smoke, a hideous fug that I grew up amongst and have thankfully not experienced in nearly fifty years, and everyone starts up with smokers’ cough, hacking and grinding, Granville’s put the covers over the fresh produce in readiness, and it’s all a joke along the lines that this is supposed to be a pleasurable activity. Urghh.

On the other hand, the pilot did feature a cameo by a fresh-faced young lad who I instantly recognised as a then unknown (and wish he’d stayed that way) Keith Chegwin.

When the series was commissioned, production moved to Doncaster, and the exteriors, of which there were plenty, were filmed there. Lynda Baron showed greater comedic potential as the Nurse but the greatest difference between pilot and series was in Clarke’s writing. He was now well-established, thanks to Last of the Summer Wine, and that programme’s deployment of gentle surreality to a natural and downhome Yorkshire working class reality was now his default option.

Arkwright’s still crass, but he’s tuned down to where he can be seen in sitcom terms as loveable. Granville’s wistfulness at the enforced absence of opportunities in his life is somehow pain-free: we are encouraged to only laugh at him, and ignore the underlying black reality. The underlying ‘plot’ of Arkwright’s efforts to sell tinned food without labels, biught dirt cheap at a fire sale, is purely comedic without any element of the riskiness of such a thing: the sole nod to this comes where Arkwright’s belief he can tell what’s inside just by shaking the contents is exploded when the tin of beefy cunks in gravy he’s having for his tea turns out to be pineapple chunks in juice, to which his response is that it’s a good job he opened a tin of sliced carrots before, upending custard all over them.

What shook me, and frankly is why I’ve only watched two instead of the usual three episodes, was the introduction of racist humour on the series. It’s not vicious, just the common or garden low-level stuff that was a feature of the mid-Seventies, but it shook me to hear shite like that again. Gossiping about a lady who appears to not be keeping herself to herself, which has caught Granville’s ear, Arkwright warns him that he’s seen Negroes going in there and coming out looking quite pale, whilst shortly after he reminisces about hard times in the district causing men from Bradford to go off to open a corner shop in Pakistan.

Not good. Not good at all. So the funny lines, the comic juxtapositions, rang just a bit hollow for me., and it didn’t help that, after defending the series’ decision to position Arkwright as a stutterer way back then, I’m now finding that aspect rather more offensive.

Nothing, however, can take away from the fact that this was an original creation, led by a masterful comedy actor who brought his character to fully-composed life, and any subsequent revival as a vampire sucking in the blood of the original and aping it in the most cowardly, disgusting and mishandled fashion. That it is apparently popular is one more sad indication of how decadent our entertainment has become.

Apologies for that bit of late pompousness, though I don’t withdraw it. This last bit is to let those of you who check for my thoughts and opinions every Sunday know that ‘Sunday Watch’ is going on a summer break. A few more DVD films have been spirited in to my pokey little homestead so there will be a summer season of ‘Film 2021’ of at least two months duration, before I go back to the boxsets in the autumn. A change is as good as a change, eh?

Preston Front: s02 e03 – Spock’s Leg


Preston

Preston Front is a howling delight to watch, but it can be a bugger to blog, I can tell you, especially with an episode like this, based around a clearly-defined, one-off story yet full of little threads and tangles that have nothing to do with the plot but which just happen to be taking place at the same time, three of them involving relationships headng in disparate directions.

But first, the story. It’s all about the week of Spock’s Leg. Nothing to do with one of those long, hairy things and proceed in a downwards direction from the, ahem, waist, but rather a leg of a journey. Or in this case a Foreign Exchange Student trip. You see, in that first series, the one with the longer title, when the TA were in Germany, Spock – an intellectual, placid, artistically-minded history teacher who is so far out of place in Roker Bridge as would be a twenty-foot tall orange fluorescent statue of Mao Zedong – made the acquaintance of Dieter, of the German TA. Actually, he stuck his rifle in Dieter’s ear when the latter was flat on his face in the mud, wearing camo, but it’s the thought that counts. Spock being Spock, learning that Dieter was also a history teacher, assumed he was identical of character and set up this Exchange thing for their respective schools, full of local history, art, culture.

Unfortunately, when Dieter (Kim Romer) turns up at the airport, where Spock’s gang is waiting with all manner of transport, up to and and including Lloydy’s latest Waste-of-moneymobile, he turns out to have turned into an arsehole. Dieter wears his peroxided hair in a flashy gelled-back style and goes for short-sleeves and very-cut-off shorts. Dieter is a Warrior, a hard body (with its usual concomitant, a soft mind), out for fun, i.e., pubs and rock gigs. He also has the habit of descriving things of which he approves as ‘Opposite the Hotel!’ This is a meaningless phrase that his fellow teacher has conned him into thinking is cool slang for cool. His fellow teacher is Ingrid (Angela Pearson). Ingrid is tall, with long blonde hair and considerably beautiful. He is a chain smoker, though the cigarettes she smokes turn out to be cannabis, not tobacco, a personal recreation choice that becomes much more understandable when you see how much of an arsehole Dieter is, with his insistence on going for six mile runs, to Deisel’s garage and back, wearing a bin-liner.

It also appears that Ingrid is attracted to, of all people, Spock. His intelligence, his artistic appreciation – they both love Klimt – and his ability to lay food out in an interesting fashion. Typically, Spock is slow to realise this, though thid is based not in obtuseness but the basic inability to believe that a woman as flat out gorgeous as Ingrid could want to get anywhere near him (I know, Spock, mate, I know).

Sadly, it takrs Hodge and Spock to learn from the increasingly morose Ingrid that it is not Spock himself that she is attracted to, but the person he so much reminds her of, namely the pre-German TA Dieter, who was indeed a total and utter Spock. Spock doesn’t realise this, Dieter doesn’t realise this, and ultimately it’s the poor bugger who has to brwak it to his German colleague. So Dieter gets the happy ending and Spock the familiar one. Of course it wasn’t real. It never is. That’s the other side of Tim Firth’s writing, the ability to naturally bring unforced humour out of a situation that’s tragic on a personal level without letting you escape from the real emotions.

So that was the story of Spock’s Leg but of course there’s much more to the episode than that. For all of series 1. Lieutenant Rundle found himself working under Corporal Polson in the Leisure Centre at the Hotel, and Polson exploited that with all the poisonous malice squatting in his short-arsed form. But the great day has arrived. Rundle has completed his training. Not only is he escaping from the Leisure Centre but he’s being invested as Manager of the entire Hotel. Now he’s Pete Polson’s boss in both areas of their acquaintance. Rundle’s so relieved at it that he’s being incautiously open abut the little ‘doom-goblin’ to tha Area Manager, the bright, blonde and beautiful Sarah (Beth Goddard). She loves the phrase, thinks it so perfect, but she does know Pete: after all, she got him his job after he got out of the Regulars. And he’s her husband.

Which leads to an incredibly funny sequence. Ally’s feeling bored. She’s told Dawn that she’s going to apply for a Commission. But at the local Law Society Dinner Dance, held at guess-which-Hotel, Ally’s youth makes her as much out of place as her younger brother is anywhere. She’s bored out of her skull and, spotting a familiar face behind the Reception desk, commandeers Rundle to ostensibly show her a change of rooms for her and husband Frasier, but really to get ten minutes of intelligent, interesting not-small-talk. Which leads to R|undle telling her about Sarah Polson and hysteria about why in God’s name she ever married him? Rundle speculates that it must be that Polson is a sex machine, a splutteringly funny but also mind-curdling thought that leads to Ally’s own speculations about the attraction of a diferent kind of life and their joint wondering about what happens when the spell wears off, which is followed by a long and passionate kiss, which is rather more rapidly followed by the hasty coming-to-their-senses, disengagement and separation. Ally’s left worrying about the implications of what she’s done, whilst Rundle is smiling over all parts that can smile. Hmm.

The best bit though is that this scene is intercut with Polson driving home, to this great, plush, stately Hotel where he lives with Sarah, arriving to find her curled up on the couch watching TV, silently, especially towards him. When he tries to start a conversation about the TA, she chops him off with a question about something he was supposed to bring back, which he hasn’t. Polson sits there, humbled and wanting, the sex machine theory having hopefully been exploded for once and for all.

Better things are happening between Dawn and Eric. She’s still not pressuring him to move out of home, where he’s waited on hand and foot and all is rosy except for his seriously depressed father, who’s as much a dead weight on the easy-to-anchor Eric as Old Man Steptoe. But she wants the flat, and she wants Eric to move in with her, and she needs Eric to afford the rent. And there he is, bumbling to her about all the problems at home, and how it’s not the right time, and the light is running out of Dawn’s eyes at Eric being as Eric as he posibly can, until he tells her it’s never going to be the right time and produces an envelope with his part of the deposit… Good lad.

One up, one down. We need a tie-breaker and we have it in Hodge and Laura. Both have had invitations next week. Laura’s is the infamous ‘business lunch’ with Greg Scarry, and she can’t talk about anything else. That and her professional catering business. Every time Hodge tries to speak, no matter what it’s about, Laura is cutting through the sentence like the classic knife through hot butter (I have been there too, oh have I been there too). It’s running downhill like the Rivers Esk, Irt and Mite at Ravenglass. So Hodge can’t get to tell anyone but Eric about the invitation he’s received, to Kirsty’s birthday party, complete with smiling giraffe. Eric refuses to believe it, insists Hodge must have forged it. But the envelope has been addressed by Jeanetta.

Next week is going to be fun.

Preston Front: s02 e02 – Laura’s Mousse


Preston

There was much more of a serious narrative element to the second episode of Preston Front, as in amongst the comedy – which crackled like wildfire when the story was in its surreal mode – Tim Firth started to weave together a number of more serious strands. The central element of the episode was Laura’s first job as a caterer, producing all manner of those little nibbly things that people end up eating at conferences like the Small Business Conference at Roker Hall, misleadingly represented as the Small Businessman Conference, allowing Jeanetta Scarry to gently reprimand the Hall for creating the impression that they were expecting a crowd of people two foot tall with briefcases.

That’s the kind of writing of which makes Preston Front, how people react to life’s little viccisitudes by spiralling into gently comic and fantastic notions expressed in verbal pointedness.

But I digress. Laura’s got her first job, extended by Jeanetta as a back-handed thank you to Hodge, anfd it’s all she can think of. It does Hodge no good when his tender love-making, in the moonlight dark, is interrupted by his girl-friend’s urgent need to make a note to provide prawn mousses. And even less to be told that at this moment he takes second place to prawns.

It all builds up to the Conference at which a lot of things will collide. We know that Laura, via Hodge, is going to have to rely on the gang to make it work. Eric does it because he’s Hodge’s mate. Dawn does it because she’s getting £30 for four hours work and despite preferring to eat soil than work for Laura she’s fallen in love with this flat and has to raise the money for the rent that would be so much easier to pay if she was sharing – on a purely student-like basis so as not to frighten off Eric – with someone who really could do with moving out from his parents before he’s thirty. Spock’s doing it because he’s good-natured and besides it means he can organise everyone. And Lloydy’s doing it because… well, because he’s Lloydy and it makes him laugh.

Before everything comes together in a beautifully controlled low-key farce, there’s a diversion. The TA’s hosting an Executive Stress Weekend for assistant project planners, systems managers and special operations advisors or, as Ally and Rundle out it, office workers. Despite Rundle’s firm instructions that these people are not to be dicked around, our friends – minus Lloydy but plus Deisel – dick them around, none more so than Dave, a cameo from Keith Allen, who’s all for equality unless it means his losuing out, and who’s cynically and gratuitously offensive to Ally over the fact she’s got breasts, which means she gets the kind of easy ride he, as a feller, doesn’t.

That spectacularly hilarious dicking around, which will have a longer term effect, is on Ally’s orders. Rundle’s set to bawl out the gang until Ally takes responsibility, in which case he won’t bawl her out. That alone proves Dave’s point in Ally’s eyes, a state of frustration brought on by approaching 30, being married to a much older man, having no job and no purpose. But Rundle treats the case differently (quite apart from the fact, only just starting to become potentially visible, that he has a major thing for Ally). He argues that its about pride, pride in Ally’s two stripes, and that in her shoes he’d have left the tomatoes in the cans. That inspires Ally to consider going for a commission, in which Rundle will back her up.

In the meantime there’s the matter of Kirsty’s babysitter for Saturday. Dawn can’t get a job as a childminder because they all want male ones now (this one expressed in a secene with her and Ally sunbathing: Caroline Catz and Kate Garside stretched out on sunloungers in msatching one-piece swimsuits and great legs both: makes me… well, not laugh). And Jeanetta’s hiring Ross (Julian Kerridge) whose other job is doing accents for local radio commercials. Kirsty wants to go to the ‘party’. Ross says she can’t. Kirsty asks if it’s alright to tell her Mummy about how he made her promise to keep their trip to the boring recording studio a secret. And she’s only just turning eight, too.

So everybody’s going to be there. Hodge, Eric and a mutinous Dawn as waiters. Spock managing supplies. Lloydy using cocktail sticks and their last melon to look like Pinhead. Kirsty with Ross. Dave’s unfortunate expereience of the previous weekend has caused him to withdraw as a speaker but, not to worry, they’ve got in a replacement, one of the most dynamic fortyish businessmen in the North-West, Greg Scarry. Yes, that Greg Scarry. Who spots Laura in her off-practically-everything dress and invites her to lunch.

All of which arouses Hodge’s jealousy and easy-to-access temper. All that’s needed is for him to see Kirsty, which of course he does (not to would be like having a French farce with nobody hiding in a wardrobe). This leads to him trying to drown Ross in the ornanental pond before being told he’s the babysitter, anticipating another bawling-out by Jeanetta and instead, after a brief but pointed take-down of her ex-husband and his shallow propitiation of his male ego by seducing and dropping younger women, being told that she’s not used to a man who will resort to violence to protect his daughter and she hasn’t the heart.

So. I’m not sure whether to use the metaphor of a spider weaving its web, because that cliche always has sinister connotations, or rthe much less practiced one about candy-floss being spun around its stick, but Firth is doing at least one of them. The candy floss images – I have never ever even imagined being able to eat something like that – is truer to the series’ lightness of spirit, but the point of Preston Front is that, behind its air of absurdity and daffiness, the things that happen to Hodge and the gang are deadly serious, even though they’re not important. The series is psainted in several shades of bright colour, but it has depth and human despair beneath it, and Firth’s real magic is putting the two together in perfect synchronisation. As we will continue to see.

Sunday Watch: The Office – s01 e03/04 – Quiz Night/Training


office

Oh God! Is it any wonder I cannot watch this series at all often? Between the bleeding-edge sharpness of the writing and the pitch-perfect acting from everyone, not in the least Ricky Gervaise as David Brent, the series as a whole is a masterpiece of comedy of embarrassment, but episode 3, ‘The Quiz’ has to be some sort of masterpiece, a thirty minute encapsulation of everything Gervaise and Stephen Merchant wanted to do, and it will be hours yet before my toes have uncurled themselves sufficiently for me to walk further than the kitchen for coffee.

The episode is built around the twin themes of Tim’s thirtieth birthday and Werneth Hogg’s seventh annual Quiz Night. It starts with a miracle of miniaturism: it’s Tim’s birthday, his Mum’s woken him early (Tim lives at home with his parents), so he’s come to work early, when no-one’s around (except the mockumentary camera crew), and the first person he speaks to is the cleaning lady. Martin Freeman’s brilliantly-judged air of artifcial brightness about everything throughout the episode, from Dawn’s genuine friendliness and sympathy, to Brent’s compulsive need to thrust himself into every scene that is about someone else, to Lee (Dawn’s chauvinistic boyfriend from the warehouse) and his gift of a giant inflatable erect cock and conversation about marying Dawn on the cheap, living with his Mum and Dawn popping them out), Tim starts from a position of lack of expectation and, except in one moment of rapidly-spoiled triumph, is resigned to having a completelky unsatisfying day among people who don’t understand him.

Tim’s the ‘good guy’ in the series, the sane one, though I’ve seen him described as the overlooked villain. He’s basically the square peg in the round hole, more intelligent than he needs to be for his job, which occupies too little of his time, with more complex tastes than those around him. Yet he’s also ineffectual, lacking the will to change his circumstances and, as his best friend in the office, Dawn, who he secretly loves but cannot admit his feelings to (that’s another reason I can’t watch too often, because in many respects and that one of them, Tim is me to a frightening degree), Dawn observes that he’s thirty but he (still) gets his kicks pretending Gareth is gay: the scene is killingly funny even so.

Dawn likes Tim. Their relationship is mildly flirty, underpinned less by the bedrock of sexual attraction than by the way he is both clearly the sane one, and he takes her seriously. Lee is a lout, with horizons so limited that they don’t extend past the next bus stop. Lee doesn’t just expect the drabbest of lives, a dead-end job,m no proper home, his wife popping out babies non-stop, maybe a part-time job as a cleaner in the future, he positively ses it as fulfillment. As long as he can go out on the bevvy with his mates whenever he wants, get his end away without having to try (though you know he will, endlessly) and have his Mum as a built-in babysitter, life is going to be pretty rosy for Lee, and the idea that Dawn may want something slightly different is her getting her way all the time. There’s one eay, and it’s Lee’s, and he can’t imagine anyone wanting anything else. It’s easy to see why Dawn feels this attraction for Tim – easier than seeing how she sticks with her fiance.

But it’s not all about Tim’s birthday. At the heart of everything, because he cannot stand the thought that he s not central to everything, is Brent. It’s Quiz Night. Hang the fact it’s Tim’s birthday and Dawn is trying to organise after-work drinks for him, it’s Quiz Night and nothing else counts. He and |Finchy are the undisputed kings of Quiz Night. Finchy – Chris Finch, played with extraordinary strength by Ralph Ineson – is Wernham Hogg’s chief salesman. He’s Brent’s best mate, and instantly we know that Brent is the hanger-on, clinging leech-like to the stronger personality that he recognises he cannot equal. Finchy is the uber-Brent, vile to the core, filthy, racist (even before he comes on stage he tells a horribly racist joke that even disturbs Brent, and not just because Brent doesn’t understand it until it’s explained to him).

Finchy is unrepentant, genuinely smart, and very competitive. He and Brent are a team, but he’s clearly carrying Brent. But the Quiz ends in a dead-heat between them and the Tits, Tim and young Ricky, the college graduate whose previous appearance on Blockbusters and casual reference to Dostoevsky winds Brent up into an increasingly pathetic attempt to upstage him.

But it’s the ending that strikes home. Ricky wins the tiebreak against Finchy. Finchy gets in Gareth’s face about the rules of the tie-break even though he didn’t get the right answer. Burned by his defeat he starts having a go at Ricky then claims that he and Brent win and win the prize if he can throw Tim’s shoe over the building, which he does. It’s insane, but with that peculiar plausibility that the series maintains. Tim, on his birthday, has a shoe forcibly pulled off, thrown over the building and is left to go looking for it, in the dark, on his own.

After that, how could any succeeding episode match it. It’s no slur on ‘Training’ that it doesn’t. It sensibly doesn’t try to and so it’s another gem in its own right. It’s Training Day with a professional trainer, Rowan,a sterling guest star appearance by Vincent Franklin, who underplays his role with incredible skill, focusing his performance onto trying to get things to go according to plan, and increasing frustration leading to utter resignation as David Brent insists on trying to run things himdself. He is the Leader.

Mixed into this is some unspecified argument between Lee and Dawn involving postponing the marriage. Everyone assumes he’s dumped her, or she’s dumped him. Even Tim, though at first he’s trying to be helpful, being empathetic and understanding and exactly what Dawn needs to help calm her, unlike Gareth.

It’s an interesting question. Is Tim being a friend because someone he likes is upset and he wants to help, or is it all and only some machiavellian plan to ultimate win her for himself? Of course Tim likes Dawn and doesn’t to see her upset. Of course he wants her for his girlfriend. Between those two poles the question lies. Having been there myself, I know how fraught it can get. I lost a very good friend because of it: I was being supportive with no intention of trying to get involved until she was back on track but she thought I was only doing it because I ‘had an agenda’. So naturally I’m sympathetic with Tim and see only the best in him.

Of course it’s all going to blow up in his face, especially when Lee and Dawn reconcile without Tim knowing. Both strands come together. Brent ruins the training session, turning it into an acoustic guitar concert (he goes home to get his guitar). Tim loses patience, stands up, says he’s quitting, leaves the room. Comes back and asks Dawn, in front of everybody, now that she’s broken up with Lee, if she’ll go out for a drink with him after work. Dawn says she’s not broken up with Lee. Has to backtrack, day it was meant as a friend, leaves the room again. I felt every second of that exchange, though I would never have exposed myself that openly, not even to the woman in question.

So, as I said last time, The Office is too intense for more than two episodes at a time. I’ll rest up for a few weeks before tackling the end of series 1. This is too much.

The Monocled Mutineer: e04 – A Dead Man on Leave


mm

I’ve tended to focus on structure in reviewing this short series, and I shall maintain that approach to the end. Alan Bleasedale’s story has broken itself down into four episodes or acts, three of 75 minute duration and this last of ninety minutes. We’ve had establishing Percy Toplis, the Monocled Mutineer of the title, establishing Etaples Training camp, the flashpoint of the Mutiny, and now we have the aftermath.

To my considerable surprise, on finishing watching the final episode, I discovered that John Freeman’s excellent downthetubes site, a fount of up to the minute news about all things British comics related, had linked to this series, comparing it to the appearance of the Etaples Mutiny in Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun’s brilliant ‘Charley’s War’. Though I have some of the hardback collections, I haven’t got that far yet. I must repair that omission. The odd thing was that I was already thinking of the structural similarity between The Monocled Mutineer and a completely different comic series: Dave Sim’s Cerebus.

Cerebus is about a lot of things, not all of them marred by its creator’s eccentric beliefs. Sim chose a structure that meant that Cerebus’s story is, effectively, ended by issue 200, echoing Sim’s recognition that some people’s lives work that way, leaving them to live a long and, effectively, purposeless afterwards. So too does Bleasedale choose to make the climax of the story, it’s reason for existing, the third part, leaving a final episode to take a fatalistic form. Percy Toplis, who didn’t give a bugger about anything, is not yet 21. He’s the whole of his life ahead of him. He’s affected by what he’s seen in the Great War – who who took part in that as a soldier in the field was not, or could not have been? – yet outwardly he’s unchanged. Nevertheless, because of his recklessness in the Mutiny, his couldn’t-care-less-ness, he’s a wanted man: Edwin Woodhall, of the Secret Service, remains fanatically determined to arrest him.

And we see how determined Woodhall is early on. Percy’s socialist friend, Charles Strange, is standing in Southwark as a Labour MP, likely to be elected after a post-War year of ‘a land fit for heroes’ (have there been many more sickening lies from a Tory Government? Including the present one). Percy’s there to blackmail him for £100, to pay his adoptive parents back for all his stealing, to make them safe now his ‘father’s lungs have filled up and he cannot work. But Woodhall’s there, with his men, two of whom are on Strange’s staff: Strange is arrested at gunpoint, told to step down or else he will be publicly exposed for his desertion. Woodhall thinks his ‘masters’ are very ‘very decent’ in allowing that.

As a result, Strange throws himself off a sea cliff to his death. And Woodhall’s ‘masters’ congratulate him for helping to preserve ‘the fabric of decent society’, whilst making cruel jokes about his lack of stature.

Watching all this made my blood boil. All they ever wanted, those men who went to war and came back, was a decent life. After what they did, after the way the ordinary folk of this country have been treated all along, it was the only decent thing to do. It still is, no matter how much it’s sneered upon now, how much Labour have abandoned the merest thought of it. Back then, though, as we saw in Etaples through Thomson and Strachan and the rest, the idea of treating these people as human was unthinkable.

Sorry, bit political, not apologising for it. It’s woven into the series though, inescapably.

Percy Toplis doesn’t want to get involved. He’s seing his rich widow love, Dorothy, once every five weeks or so. He won’t say what he’s doing at other times and neither does Bleasedale, because to get too close to what the real Percy Toplis is doing in these times, including a year in prison for fraud, is to present a version pf the character that not all Paul McGann’s charm could obscure. But Dorothy – and Cherie Lunghi is as superb in this episode as McGann has been throughout – wants more. She’s in love. She will end up carrying Percy’s baby. Thjey both evewntually admit their secrets to each other: Dorothy is as much of a conwoman as Percy. Like him, she comes from a dirty, drab, despairing village. She accepts him for what he really is (though we never see exactly how much truth he tells her and how much he conceals). The only thing that shocks her is to discover that her lover is only 21 (Lunghi was 34 the year of the series: mind you, McGann was actually 27).

But Percy’s life is one long drift, from this to that, the pursuit of money without working for it or caring about anyone he robs or cheats, or himself that much for that matter. But what he did at Etaples marked the end of his life: the effects will follow him to his death.

The episode starts to pick up momentum in its second half. Percy re-enlists in the Army as ‘Johnnie Walker’ – cue much jokes about whisky – the name Dorothy has known him by. He’s recognised by anothe Etaples Mutineer, Tommy Turner, now a racketeer with a petrol scam. Percy joins the business as its front man, its negotiator. Unfortunately for him, he’s dogged by Harry Fallows (Aran Bell), too young for the actual war, a naive, talkative, hero-worshipping idiot. You know he’s a disaster in human form, a stupid bomb waiting to go off. When the taxi driver representative Sydney Spencer (Jim Carter) weasels down the price by threatening to dob them in to the cops, Harry puts a gun to the back of Spencer’s head. Then the stupid git shoots him. With realistic effects that he is completely unprepared for.

And naturally he shops Percy to the Police as the killer, the utter scrote. So begins the endgame. Percy goes on the run, despite Dorothy’s loyalty, to save her from her association with him. He’s chased all over the country, to Scotland and back. He gets wilder and wilder, more violent and threatening. On a lonely country road in Cumberland, on a Sunday afternoon, he is cornered, and shot dead.

There’s a final touch of Establishment cruelty. Percy’s funeral is secret, not even his family allowed to attend, they diverted by a disgusting trick. Only the minister insists of a proper service, pointing out that at his death Percy Toplis had been connvicted of no capital crimes and thus the only judgement he has to face is not here on Earth.

So it ended. I’m reminded of another line from another comic, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s superlative From Hell, the exploration of the myth of Jack the Ripper. I made it up and it all came true anyway. It’s pretty clear that there’s not that much of absolute truth in The Monocled Mutineer. The Etaples Mutiny remains one of the biggest mysteries in British Military history. All records have been destroyed, the series was attacked as unBritish, unpatriotic, as all such things will be. Alan Bleasedale has had to make an awful lot of it up. He never pretended it was anything but a fictional drama. I made it up and it all came true anyway.

Because even if none of it happened the way it was shown, I believe it all to be true. I believe in the underlying truth of everything in the series. I believe this because I have read histories of the period, because I have read writings by J.B. Priestley about that era. I believe because of my entire life and the things I believe in. The Monocled Mutineer was written as a condemnation, and it is a condemnation. And I stand by what it says.

Sunday Watch: The Office – s01 e01&02 – Downsize/Work Experience


Where do I start?

It’s twenty years since Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant brought The Office into the world and I, like millions of others, watched it with my mouth hanging open in an unpredictable mixture of shock, embarrassment and horrified laughter. I was instantly convinced that I was in the presence of greatness, that just as everyone regarded Fawlty Towers with awe as one of the greatest comedies of our times, so too would The Office be seen as one of the undisturbable greats. Given the way Ricky Gervais has conducted his career since, it’s not quite worked out like that, but you should always be ready to draw a line between the work and the creator, and The Office is still a work of genius. Not just because of Gervais and Merchant, but because of everybody, to the least important background figure: sometimes people just get it right.

When it comes to sitcoms on a Sunday morning, my usual aim is three episodes at a go. The Office is so intense that that’s just not on. When the series has your toes curling and your eyes fervently wishing to look somewhere else after the opening scene, you can’t manage more than two at a time.

As everyone ought to already know, the show takes the form of a mockumentary. It’s supposed to be a BBC documentary, a fly-on-the-wall look at life in a medium-sized office. The company is Wernham Hogg, the branch is situated on the Slough Trading Estate, the company manufactures and sells paper, and the theme music was the inspired resurrection of Mike d’Abo’s unforgivably overlooked Sixties song, ‘Handbags and Gladrags’.

The form is followed immaculately. We simply watch the men and women of Slough Branch going about their daily business, intercut with headshot interviews in which they explain themselves. Four figures stand out. In ascending order these are the receptionist, Dawn Tinsley, played by Lucy Davis, Sales rep Tim Martin, a first starring role for Martin Freeman, team leader Gareth Keenan, a similar debut for MacKenzie Crook, and Branch Manager David Brent, Ricky Gervais himself.

David Brent is one of those utterly perfect creations. Basil Fawlty is an obvious example. So too is Alf Garnett. We believe in them completely, no matter how little we want to. They are monsters, monsters from whom we would run, as far and fast as our little legs can carry us if we met them in real life but whom, safe by means of the glass screen between us and them, we watch. Ricky Gervais was born to be David Brent. After twenty years I’m still not sure if that really is a compliment.

The first series introduced its underlying theme, its narrative purpose, quite quickly. Jennifer Taylor-Clark (the lovely, dark-haired Stirling Gallagher) drops in from Head Office for a meeting for which Brent has conspicuously failed to prepare. The company can no longer justify keeping open branches in Slough and Swindon. One will have to take over the other. There will be redundancies. Brent here, and Neil at Swindon, are effectively thrown into competition to see which branch will live to absorb the other.

We already know which manager will be best, even though we haven’t met Neil, and won’t in series 1. It’s enough to see David Brent to know all we need to know. We don’t even need to get to episode 2, in which he lies to Jennifer about firing a non-existent worker, can’t bring himself to apologise for a wholly unjustified accusation made against Tim and pretends to fire his best mate, Finchy, over the phone by dialling the Speaking Clock. We don’t even need to get to episode 1’s hideous final scene when, to impress new temp Ricky Howard (Oliver Chris) with a practical joke, he ‘fires’ Dawn for stealing (post-it notes, of all things). We only need the opening scene to paint a picture of a monster, an empty, hollow man, with qualities or abilities, without the ability to understand a single thing about other people, desperate to stand out because he is a total absence, determined to come over as fun, clever, with-it, intelligent, cool, popular but revealing in every word his complete inaptnress for everything.

David Brent is pathetic. And a monster. He is horrifically embarrassing. You laugh at him in nervousness, you cannot believe what he says and does and you wait in terror for what he will say and do next because you know that whatever it is it will be worse, that it will dig ever deeper the pit into which he has not so much fallen as flung himself into, dioing a triple-salko on the way down, under the impression that he is rising skyward as a beacon in the darkness.

Of course you can’t make David Brent the sole focus of a sitcom: the paper on which the script is printed out would start to crisp at the edges and burn is shame before anyone could read a line. You have to build a world round him and that world has to be simultaneously the absurd exaggeration Brent is and recognisable and realistic. Brent is a real figure, we’ve all met David Brents, he’s just an overload of all their characteristics and no relieving factors. But by making his environment mundane and straightforward, carefully measuring the degrees by which its characters mix eccentricity with human dimensions, Brent is anchored and thus more convincing.

There’s Gareth. Gareth is Brent junior in that he’s equally detached from reality, and convinced of a superiority over those around him that is laughable as the aims at glory that mark his little life. With his pudding bowl haircut, his semi-whining pretence at authority, his complete lack of any sense of humour, Gareth is in his way a monster, except that he will never possess the capacity to harm anyone.

Besides, he has to sit next to Tim. Tim is, of all things, sane. Or as sane as anyone can be, working under Brent and alongside Gareth, whose ‘authority’ he refuses to acknowledge exists in the same Universe. In his own way, Tim is every bit as off balance as anyone else but that’s because he’s been driven to it by the combination of his boredom with his job, his lack of drive to find anything better and the need to torment Gareth that stems from just knowing him. His habit of putting Gareth’s stapler into a jelly is a magnificantly surreal touch.

And then there’s Dawn. Dawn has the dificult role, the straight role. Dawn’s underworked. She clearly hasn’t been at Wernham Hogg anything like long enough to go mental in any way. She expects the office to function like an office, and Brent to function like a manager and tends to wander round with this look of disappointment and disbelief in her eyes at the way it and they don’t. Dawn’s at her best when she’s flirting with Tim, in the most mild manner there can be. You see,

And then there’s Dawn. Dawn has the dificult role, the straight role. Dawn’s underworked. She clearly hasn’t been at Wernham Hogg anything like long enough to go mental in any way. She expects the office to function like an office, and Brent to function like a manager and tends to wander round with this look of disappointment and disbelief in her eyes at the way it and they don’t. Dawn’s at her best when she’s flirting with Tim, in the most mild manner there can be. You see, Dawn’s engaged, to Lee in the warehouse. Lee’s a monster in his own right, we will see in later episodes, but he’s a much more real monster, not an eccentric.

Tim likes Dawn and is attracted to her. Dawn likes Tim, enjoys his gentle company. There’s more to it than that, but not yet in this first two episodes. But without words, indeed inarticulately in an episode 2 scene where Lee is waiting for Dawn, Martin Freeman nails it by his inability to thoink of anything to say to Lee. Tim’s in love. Tin’s a loser. And Martin Freeman is for my money the most real actor I’ve seen in the last twenty years. He is solid and believable no matter who or what he is. And that started here, as Tim. There’s a scene, not in either of today’s episodes but much later, where he is so believable that he will become me in a moment of recognition.

But that’s not for today. I’ll be back at Wernham Hogg from time to time. David Brent will be waiting, a monster preserved in aspic. A bit like Gareth’s stapler, really.