*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge -My 40 Favourite Movies: 21 – The Day The Earth Caught Fire


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21: THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE: 1961. Director: Val Guest. UK. Science fiction. Edward Judd. Janet Munro. Leo McKern. Arthur Christiansen.
The INCREDIBLE becomes Real! The IMPOSSIBLE becomes Fact! The UNBELIEVABLE becomes True! So said at least one poster.
Screenplay by Val Guest (Valmond Maurice Grossman, 1911-2006, director, screenwriter) and Wolf Mankowitz (1924-1996, writer, playwright and screenwriter), for which they received the 1962 BAFTA award for Best Film Screenplay. The editor was Will Lenny. It was made in black and white, with certain scenes tinted orange-yellow. Cinematography was by Harry Waxman. Running time was 98 minutes. The budget was £190,000. It made a profit of £22,500. It was originally released as ‘X’-rated, only over-16s allowed. In the UK the distributor was British Lion Films Ltd., and in the USA by Universal Pictures. Typically, the US version had church bells dubbed at the end, implying the world was saved. The original Guest/Mankowitz ending was deliberately open-ended and ambiguous. Val Guest had difficulties trying to persuade British Lion to finance the project, eventually offering to put his profits from his 1959 movie Expresso Bongo as collateral.
At the end of the 1950s, beginning of the 1960s, UK film and television saw another upsurge in science fiction. The BBC ran Fred Hoyle and John Elliott’s A For Andromeda and its sequel The Andromeda Breakthrough in 1961-62, the former still believable in its subtle remix of a potential alien takeover from within, exploiting our petty thirst for power, prestige and knowledge. Several other serials followed (all, of course, still in black and white), almost all the examples being earthbound and UK-centric, with intelligent, character-driven scripts. I would argue this was a difference between much of the UK and US science fiction films from the 1950s onward. The British stories put the emphasis on the depth of characters. The Day the Earth Caught Fire might be the usual hyped title, but, not only is the newspaper office setting interesting and rather unusual (if not unique) for this genre, but the three main characters are believable, especially Edward Judd’s character, Express journalist Peter Stenning, made bitter and rather cynical by his divorce and separation from his son, teetering on becoming an alcoholic. He has a past, he has emotional baggage, whereas in so many American movies (not just in the sci-fi genre, notably in crime dramas also) the characters appear to be without any back-history or past – they just seem to exist in limbo for the duration of the movie. For me, a classic example of this is the murder mystery Laura (1944), where the 35-year-old New York detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), apparently just falls in love with the Gene Tierney title character – totally unbelievable! More modern movies have what, again for me, is another flaw – often the so-called ‘hero’ characters are simply unlikeable. British science fiction writer and sci-fi ‘New Wave’ advocate Brian Aldiss preferred the apocalyptic novels of J.G. Ballard and Sam Youd (pen name: John Christopher, not to be confused with the movie director), to that of John Wyndham, but I found the Christopher and Ballard characters utterly unlikeable. I found myself having no interest in them, whether they lived or died. Again, the three central characters of The Day the Earth Caught Fire are such that we can relate to them; we, the audience, can care about them, wish them to survive – even Stenning, who starts to discover new hope, a new purpose to his life. Edward (‘Eddie’) Judd (1932-2009) was born of an English father and Russian mother in Shanghai, China (so just two years younger than Ballard, whose childhood was also associated with that city), and his filmography was from 1948 to 1988. In 1964 he played the character Bedford in the UK adaption of H.G. Wells’ novel The First Men in the Moon. He also featured in the oddball UK sci-fi movie Invasion (1966), as Dr Mike Vernon, where the ‘invading aliens’ were apparently two, rather attractive, Japanese females in tight rubber body-suits. He also appeared in the 1973 Lyndsay Anderson movie O Lucky Man! However, it would seem that off-screen he had certain elements of the Stenning character, as he was described by others as “a pain the ass”, “self-opinionated” and “his own worst enemy”.
Australian-born actor Reginald ‘Leo’ McKern (1920-2002), played the equally cynical Express science editor Bill Maguire, perfect casting, and who has the immoral line about politicians – “The stupid, crazy, irresponsible bastards!” Born in Sydney, NSW, he lost his left eye at age 15 whilst training to be an engineering apprentice. He moved to the UK in 1946 when he married fellow Australian actress Jane Holland. One of their daughters, Abigail, later played ‘Liz Probert’ in the Rumpole stories. His acting career was from 1944 to 1999, moving from Shakespeare to movies and television. He appeared in the British television series The Adventures of Robin Hood in the 1950s, and The Prisoner in 1967, but his most famous, best-loved role was that of Old Bailey barrister and QC Horace Rumpole, in John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey – originally a BBC Play For Today in 1975, then over another 44 episodes for Thames Television: season 1 (1978), season 2 (1979), season 3 (1985), season 4 (1987), season 5 (1988), season 6 (1991), and season 7 (1992). John Mortimer (1923-2009), was himself a barrister, as well as playwright, dramatists and author. He had originally wanted Alistair Sim for the part, but unfortunately “he was already dead”, and afterwards he admitted eventually McKern made the part his own. Apparently, McKern was frightened of flying, so travelled to and from the UK to Australia by cargo-ships, giving him time and peace to read scripts!
Janet Munro (1934-1972), was born Janet Neilson Horsburgh, but took her acting surname from her Scottish comedian father’s stage-name of Alex Munro. Her acting career was from 1957 until 1972. Her early filmography was with Disney in 1958, and she played opposite Tommy Steele in 1959. Her first marriage was to actor Paul Anthony (‘Tony’) Wright, from 1956 to 1959. In 1963 she married actor Ian Hendry (1931-1984), who played Dr David Keel in the original, first season television series The Avengers – his part, playing opposite Patrick Macnee, was later taken by Honor Blackman. Janet and Ian had two daughters, Sally and Corrie, and Janet took a break from acting 1964-68 to be with her family. She and Hendry divorced in 1971. She died a year later of a heart attack. Val Guest remarked “Janet’s life was a disaster. She didn’t became an alcoholic until she met Ian. She tried too hard to keep up with him.” The Day the Earth Caught Fire is perhaps her best remembered film, playing Jeanne Craig, typist/temporary telephonist at the British Met Office, who Stenning meets there whilst trying to obtain temperature data, and who eventually helps him reveal the real cause for the freak climate conditions. Their relationship begins rather brittle, eventually developing into affection and love. Out of several memorable episodes together (for instance, having a picnic in Battersea Park just as the fog rolls in over London), probably the best is her in the bath, rescued by Stenning from the apartment invasion by crazed pre-hippie beatnik types. Janet is big-eyed and sexy, seen alternatively in striped two-piece top and shorts; in a towel only; in a clinging sweat-soaked dress; and several internet film stills (claiming to be deleted footage) showing her naked breasts (in shadow).
Playing the Express editor – named as ‘Jeff’ Jefferson in the movie (was that a nod to Hitchcock’s photographer hero in Rear Window, or just coincidence?) – was Arthur Christiansen (1904-1963), who was the real-life Express editor from 1933 to 1957. He also starred in another Val Guest movie 80,000 Suspects, in 1963. Also featured was a young Michael Caine – all 30-odd seconds of him – playing a London policeman trying to direct traffic away from rioters – but uncredited. As I remarked when I watched it again in the 1980s, I wonder how much he got paid for that?
I personally think it is one of the two best UK early 1960s sci-fi movies – the other being The Village of the Damned (1960), directed by Anglo-German Wolf Rilla, from the 1957 John Wyndham novel The Midwich Cuckoos. However, there is still a critic’s snobbery towards such movies. Steven Jay Schneider’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die doesn’t include either, but does include such mind-numbing ‘gems’ as The Nutty Professor (1963), A Hard Day’s Night (1964), and the Muppet Movie (1979). Val Guest wanted the movie to be as “documentary[-like] as possible. I wanted it to be authentic.” To that end he apparently recreated the Express office interiors in precise detail at Shepperton Studios (Christiansen was adviser on authenticity), while the scenes actually filmed outside the Express Building in Fleet Street (depicting a semi-derelict London teetering on breakdown), necessitated the police closing the street for periods of two to three minutes at a time, meaning “scenes had to be rehearsed and shot with military precision”.
One website remarks it is the “most accomplished of all British science fiction films [and] one of the great London films.” And, indeed, both on location, and hinted at in studio mock-ups, we get delightful, tantalising glimpses of 1961 London. The Express Building, at 120-129 Fleet Street, between Shoe Lane and Poppin’s Court, was – and still is – one of the most distinctive in the locality. It was built in 1932, by Herbert O. Ellis and W.L. Clarke, in the Art Deco/Streamline Moderne style, comprising a black vitrolite and clear glass street exterior. The Express eventually left in 1989, and later Goldman Sachs were there until 2019. It contrasts in style and mood with its near-neighbour the Telegraph Building (formerly known as Peterborough Court), at 135-141 Fleet Street, which dates from 1927-28, but built in a heavier, monumental Art Deco/Classical style, looking much more old fashioned. While some of the matte images might seem rather fake and unsatisfactory to today’s audience, used as they are to computer graphic imagery, some of the location sequences are still masterful – the wrecked cars, broken or boarded-up windows, DANGER signs on the pavement, barriers blocking the side-street outside the Express office, are still impressive achievements. The film footage of Battersea Park funfair (opened in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain, but closed in 1974), are now a wonderful visual record of what was once a major London attraction. Filmed between May and July 1961, ironically – given that in the story by then (with the earth tilted 11º off its axis by the two simultaneous American and Soviet H-bombs at the two poles) the thermometer already supposed to be up in the 90s Fahrenheit, on the day of filming temperatures suddenly became unseasonably colder, so cast and crew were freezing, not sweltering! There followed the fog scene, with batteries of fog-machines around the park – then cut to views of the Thames, Battersea Power Station, and an ariel shot of the Houses of Parliament, shrouded in thick ground mist. Another scene is Trafalgar Square during a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) rally. Guest combined then-recent news reels with a staged demo featuring Judd present. The then Broad of Trade building in Horse Guards Avenue stood in for the Metrological Office, but other views included the BBC Broadcasting House; people praying in the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral; Chelsea Bridge; the Cenotaph in Whitehall; Piccadilly Circus; Hampstead Heath Underground station; Richmond Park and Epping Forest (with clever genuine black and white footage of forest fires and fire-engines). The water queues, supposedly at a parched Hyde Park, was filmed in the studio. Some of the matte backgrounds worked better than others – the view along Fleet Street towards Ludgate at the beginning works quite well. The view of the River Thames reduced to a trickle was perhaps less successful. But, given the limitations of special effects at the time and – more important – the budget (this wasn’t Hollywood), the movie still delivers its punch. One interesting location sequence features Stenning and Bill Maguire walking along an alleyway which leads out into Fleet Street, immediately opposite Shoe Lane and the Express Building. In the film this is the location of ‘Harry’s Bar’, the journalists’ favourite ‘watering hole’. This was in the rather grandly named St. Bride’s Avenue, actually a short pedestrian-only thoroughfare leading to St. Bride’s Church. On some maps this second alleyway, running eastward, but parallel to Fleet Street, is known as St. Bride’s Passage, a much more logical name, given its narrowness. Guest said that they did interior shots actually in Harry’s Bar, which seems to imply it really existed. The more famous El Vino, another Fleet Street watering hole, is further west, opposite Fetter Lane. It would be interesting to try and access a street directory for the 1960s. If Harry’s did exist, it’s long since gone.
60 years on, it’s not just the “cracking dialogue and believable characters” that makes this film still so watchable, but just how topical it still is. In the Guest/Mankowitz story it is the foolish consequences of Cold War nuclear rivalry that causes the earth to tilt on its axis, and generate a world-wide climate catastrophe. With our own man-made climate change, we may yet see London sweltering in endless Sahara-like temperatures and Royal Parks going the way of Australian and Californian forest fires, but one thing the movie seemingly got wrong was the increased temperature would have melted the ice at the North and South Poles and Greenland (even if the H-Bombs hadn’t already done so), so Fleet Street would actually be vanishing under a fast-rising sea level – the Thames, far from drying out, would be swallowing up the low ground from Essex to Heathrow. The science, then, was a bit iffy, but the idea was good. The orange-yellow tint to the views of desolate London at the beginning and end serve to remind what the title said – we were doomed to die in fire.
One excellent assessment is from Joel Blackledge, on the website Little White Lies, date August 2016. He remarks how, over half a century later, the film still stuns today. “Once deemed too strong for general consumption, this apocalyptic sci-fi is as relevant and powerful as ever.”
He continues: “Though 21st century science fiction cinema has shown us many imaginative and terrifying possibilities for how the world will end, one of the most compelling apocalyptic visions ever arrived in British cinemas 55 years ago. At first, the premise of The Day the Earth Caught Fire sounds as schlocky as its title: simultaneous nuclear weapons tests have sent the Earth spinning towards the sun. However, veteran genre director Val Guest tells the story with authenticity that is striking even today. The film explores Atomic Age cynicism about the consequences of the Cold War, which was typical of disaster movies of the time. But instead of worried scientists or noble fire fighters, we see things from the perspective of Peter Stenning…a jaded journalist stumbling between a failed marriage, an alcoholic addiction and his exasperated bosses at the Daily Express. This choice of protagonist speaks to the films cynical sideways glance at the end of the world.
“When Stenning starts investigating strange meteorological events he uncovers the scoop of the year, along with a renewed sense of purpose – just as London starts getting very hot very quickly. At first the capital’s response is the same as it is any summer: slap on sun cream and fill every last patch of green space with boozy picnics. But when the water starts to run out and mist covers the city, panic sets in. Anyone who has experienced a British heat wave will recognise the trajectory: celebration turns to exhaustion and we are reminded that there is only so much hot weather than this island can tolerate. The [film] remains a fascinating and frighteningly believable depiction of London caught in a climatic and bureaucratic nightmare. Miserable queues for water rations line a dried-up Thames, while impassioned CND protests descend into violence. A mixed use of real locations and matte painting track a swift and slippery descent from bustling metropolis to hopeless wasteland.
“The business of journalism is told with authentic verve, from the perfectly recreated Daily Express offices to the smoky Fleet Street bar where the hacks spend most of their time. Real-life Express editor Arthur Christiansen even plays a version of himself, and while his acting ability brings to mind David Lerner more than anyone else, he certainly lends an urgent credibility to the newsroom briefings. In 1961 London had not quite settled into its ‘swinging’ identity, and the film evidences anxiety about the decade ahead. The city’s hip youth are dangerously unpredictable; their reckless abandon is so fierce that they have water fights in the middle of a draught. Yet there is a similar scepticism towards politicians, denounced by one character as ‘stupid, crazy, irresponsible bastards’. Pig-headed in their militarism and reductive in the euphemistic platitudes they use to calm the populace, the off-screen establishment are disdained in a manner that undoes the patriotic trajectory of British cinema of the 1950s. In general, Britain is depicted as a fragmented place where threads of togetherness are fragile, and the lie of nationhood can come apart in the face of disaster. Heroism is in small supply, but it does quietly persist in some cultural traditions: keep your cool, maintain perspective, and hold your drink despite insurmountable forces of catastrophe. It is a smaller, snarkier, and more British take on disaster than film audiences have become accustomed to.
“Perhaps understandably given its age, certain aspects of the film have not dated well – namely the gender politics – but a warming world still has much to learn from it. It is grimly appropriate that the film’s 55th anniversary should fall in 2016, a year when madness, crisis and intolerable heat have returned to Britain with aplomb. It’s also the year that the British parliament decided to renew the controversial nuclear programme, Trident, and though their decision may not throw us spinning towards the sun, the consequences of nuclear war are no less terrifying than they were half a century ago. In its final scenes, The Day the Earth Caught Fire turns from monochrome to a scorched yellow tint, as if the sun is burning up the film itself. A chilling ambiguous climax ends unusually without a single credit or title card. Instead there is just a fade to black, ushering in a future that could spell deliverance or destruction for the entire planet.”
Another six years on, in 2022, and the chaotic political madness is even greater, the pompous nationalistic flag-waving more prevalent, the effects of climate change more obvious (yet still being denied or ignored by so many of our so-called decision-makers), and even the nuclear issue is back – the British government – despite facing an economic crisis – wants to double our nuclear weapon capacity. Blackledge is right: this was a film ahead of its time, intelligent and grown-up, a complete contrast, not just to its contemporaries, but actually to so many, much-praised movies before and since.
Time Out magazine, by contrast – perhaps because of their aversion to the more right-wing Daily Express connection – were rather sniffy in their review: “Thoroughly old-fashioned disaster film about a Daily Express reporter who learns that the earth has been tilted off its axis by the impact of two simultaneous H-bomb tests. Its ‘authentic’ newspaper setting looks quaint now, but there’s some effective atmospheric build-up to the big one as London swelters in fog and heat. Perhaps inevitably, given the period and the film’s medium budget, the ending is a cop-out.”
One would hardly expect a 1960s newsroom to look anything other than old-fashioned now – even pre-electric manual typewriters were still in regular use ten or fifteen years later in many offices – so the “quaint” comment is rather silly – one could make the same remark about any period drama – Jane Austen or Dickens – but I would question the ending being a ‘cop-out’. The Americans always liked a ‘happy’ ending – even in the 1950s movie adaption of George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four, and tacked on the ringing church bells – which George Pal had used in his awful adaption of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1953) – was probably par for the course, another example of that American fantasy that the USA will always triumph – send Bruce Willis up with a few H-bombs to drop on the sun! Better the ambiguous ending.
Given a great piece of marketing potential, I do vaguely remember the Express actually serialised a novelised version at the time. Even with the British movie version “World Saved/World Doomed” ambiguous ending, it must have a sold a few extra copies!
My comments dated 15/11/1987.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) was actually one of the better science fiction films, British made, of course, and I wonder how much they paid The Daily Express to use their name and even their [former] editor! That was in the days when The Express was still a half-good newspaper with readership! In fact I can remember when this first came out, the serialisation in the Express with illustrations by their resident artist, whose name I forget. A younger, pre-Rumpole Leo McKern (with his Aussie accent more pronounced) plays the science editor and Janet Munro doing her 1961 near-nudity bit. Impressive special effects for the time, even if in the final shots of London the wreckage was confined only to the streets it seemed – and a true cliff-hanger of an ending – world saved or world doomed? Rather like The Italian Job, we have to guess what happens next. Of course you can shoot holes in it – the earth is crashing towards the sun, but what happened to all the ice at the Poles? Wouldn’t London have been flooded rather the Thames bone dry? If it had all vaporised into cloud, that in itself would have speeded up the ‘greenhouse effect’. Also when water is rationed, can people still have a tub full in their bath? Well, Janet Munro does. In Tudor times a bath once a month was sufficient. It must have been a Tory government. One final goodie – young Michael Caine in a pre-Zulu/Alfie bit-part as a London policeman gets about 30 seconds and two lines. I wonder how much they paid him?

The Man with the Golden Hand: RIP Yarolav Horak


I was on my way out (which was a disaster in itself) when I heard the news via John Freeman’s Down the Tubes comics news site that comics and newspaper strip artist Yaroslav Horak had died on November 24th, at his home in Sydney, Australia, aged 93. This is my first chance to salute his life.

Horak, of Czech-Russian stock, was born in China in 1927 but spent most of his life in Australia, following his family’s migration there when he was aged twelve. He had a successful post-war career there as a newspaper strip artist, under the name ‘Larry’ Horak, which he hated but was unable to shake unti trying his hand in the UK in 1962. Horak drew serials for both the Victor and the Hornet – the latter being ‘The Bent Copper’, one of the few actual stories I remembered from my childhood but which, to my shame, I failed to recognise the style when going over my Hornet DVD collection – and contributing stories to the Commando War Library.

But what secures Horak’s place in both history and my grateful memories was the ‘James Bond’ strip in the Daily Express. Horak took this over in 1966 from original artist John McLuskey, apparently on the recommendation of Peter O’Donnell,and he formed a partnership with writer Jim Lawrence that lasted until the strip’s cancellation in 1977, by which time he and Lawrence had produced no less than twenty-five original stories. Apparently, it was Horak’s art on ‘the Man with the Golden Gun that persuaded Ian Fleming’s trustees to authorise the pair to produce original work.

The thing about Golden Ages is that you very rarely realise you are living throuigh one at the time, especially if you were in your teens. The Express had by far and away the best set of action strips in Fleet Street between about 1965-75: Harry Bishop’s ‘Gun Law’ (a variation of the long-running Western TV show Gunsmoke, starring Marshall Matt Dillon), Bond by Lawrence and Horak, and holding up the block, Sydney Jordan’s Jeff Hawke, written by Willie Patterson. Imagine getting to read those three, six days a week? There is nothing to compare to it, nor has there been for decades.

Of the three, it was Horak who least impressed me then. Bishop and Jordan were clean, clear artists, with smooth lines and defined characters. Horak was not: he was angular, dynamic, almost ugly, and yes, that went for Bond too, who he drew with a look that was very familiar when Timothy Dlton took over the role. Horak’s panels were full of edges and contrasts. There was no letradots, nor cross-hatching, and a minimum of spot-blacks. Horak turned the world a bit sideways for the strip. It was a more sophisticated approach than his counterparts, and it took years of growing to understand it and learn to properly appreciate it.

Horak returned to Australia in 1975, but continued to work with Lawrence on james Bomd until the final end in 1984, on stories that ran in the Sunday Express and the Daily Star. In Australia he developed the TV shop ‘Cop Shop’ as a successful strip before ending his career in that field with his own, original,’Andea’, an SF strip. After that, Horak focussed on painting. His death comes after a decade of alzheimers.

Yaroslav Horak never got the public recognition he deserved for making the James Bond strip what it was. In an era where the films were getting steadily more comic, overblown and crass, he and Jim Lawrence produced a Bond who was much more like Fleming’s real character, and yes, Fleming’s Bond may have been a sadistic, lecherous brute but he was a damn site more real than the post-Connery fim one, and Horak was key to that, and I’ll remember him forever for it.

A touch of gold

Some Books: Ian Fleming’s ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’


This is an occasional series, about books I read many years ago, usually but not always from Didsbury Library, that I seek out to re-experience, to see if the things that appealed still affect me the same way, and to measure the change in myself between then and now.
Back in the days when I had first been allowed to cross into the Adult Library, I read all the James Bond books, give or take the odd short story here or there. I don’t remember much about them now. I presume I enjoyed them, then, but more importantly, I read James Bond because he was one of the keys to adulthood, almost as much as smoking, and probably just as bad for your health.
I never touched the first of these: I had already learned to dislike the atmosphere in a household in which both parents smoked but more importantly a father dying of cancer when I was in my early teens was an impenetrable barrier to starting that.
Down the years, the James Bond book that I remembered most was the odd-one-out, the penultimate novel, the experiment that nobody liked and that Fleming came to hate, demanding it neither be reprinted nor appear in paperback in his lifetime. This was The Spy Who Loved Me. I’ve just re-read it, curious to see what I think of it a lifetime later.
I didn’t remember all that much about it from long ago, but I did remember enjoying the book, and being intrigued by it as an experiment. The Spy Who Loved Me is about, and is ‘written’ by Vivienne Michel, a French-Canadian woman in her mid-twenties, escaping from a couple of failed love affairs in London, to which she was sent to Finishing School. Vivienne winds up looking after the Dreamy Pines Motel in the Adirondacks which is closing down, but it’s a scam in which she is to be killed as cover for an insurance claim, but not before she’s treated sadistically by the two hired thugs.
Fortunately for Vivienne, a stranger stops at the Motel, refusing to accept that it is closed. This is Bond, travelling between missions. He recognises the situation, intervenes to rescue Vivienne and dispose of the thugs, fucks her to a peak of ecstacy and goes on his way, leaving her behind.
That’s the story. It’s not necessarily much of a story, but I enjoyed the unusual angle of it. I thought it daring to write a series book in which the main character is a minor figure, passing through, seen from a purely external viewpoint by an unconnected stranger. Off the top of my head, the only other book I can think of which uses a similar technique is Arthur Ransome’s Winter Holiday, in which the newly-introduced Callums show us the Walkers and the Blacketts from outside, not necessarily to their credit.
Does the book hold up in any way? It is broken into three unequal sections, Me, Them and Him. The first section sets up Vivienne’s situation, left alone at the Motel with a storm raging, before back-tracking over her life’s history in London. This is Fleming writing as Vivienne and it doesn’t quite work.
The autobiography is, in thriller terms, complete filler. It occupies roughly half the book and the amount of action in it is minimal. There’s an opening chapter to set-up the situation and implant the notion that something fishy is going on, followed by chapters of Viv’s life-story, with the emphasis first upon her being out-of-step because she’s French-Canadian at an English Finishing School, and secondly upon her sex-life.
This comes in two phases. The first is Derek, a public school boy in a summer between finishing school and going up to Oxford. He and Viv meet at a party, they wind up snogging (or might it have still been spooning back then?), with Viv allowing him to put his hand on her breast because every time she moves it away, he puts it back, so clearly she’s in the wrong.
This leads to an end of summer cinema visit where he persuades her to let him fuck her in a private cinema box, only for them to be interrupted by the manager with a torch whilst Viv is on her back with his skirt round her waist, showing her pussy (hey, it’s Fleming who’s insisting on these details, not me), and they’re thrown out in no uncertain and public terms, but it’s alright because they nip down to a nearby riverbank where everyone does it, Derek sticks it in, Viv’s no longer a virgin, and he promptly disappears into the sunset, never to be seen again, as if we hadn’t all but Viv seen that coming from Quebec.
Two years later, working a job at which she is very competent and is earning good money, Viv ends up counselling her boss, the German Klaus about his plans for marriage and a happy sexual life, only to wind up his mistress when his fiancee marries someone else. This time it’s good, satisfying sex with Teutonic efficiency, but no love, until Viv makes the mistake of getting pregnant.
For this, she gets two things from Klaus: a Swiss abortion, and a month’s wages in lieu of notice. So Viv buys a scooter, returns to Canada and sets off on a pre-Easy Rider tour, until she winds up at the Dreamy Pines, just as someone’s knocking at the door.
There is a point to setting out these brief details of Viv’s life, and I’ll return to it.
The second phase, just three chapters, is the two new arrivals, Sol ‘Horror’ Horowitz and ‘Sluggsy’ Moran. They’re supposed to be insurance adjustors for the owner, before the Motel closes down tomorrow, except it’s going to close down in a fire caused by the hopeless receptionist. After, that is, she has been thoroughly beaten, and comprehensively raped by Sluggsy.
The beating she gets from Horror: vicious, professional, brutal, expert enough not to leave a mark, especially after Viv has caused problems, first by resisting then trying to escape. She winds up stripped naked in the shower, preserving that essential association between sadism and sex that is the mark of a James Bond novel, but as yet unraped. But not for long.
Ah, I just mentioned James Bond, and this is a James Bond book, is it not? Phase two ends with the front door buzzer going, and guess who it is? Viv signals him to come in, desperate for help and unaware she couldn’t have done better. She alerts him to what’s going on far too easily for complete plausibility, Fleming relying on Horror and Sluggsy’s ultimate confidence that they have guns and know better how to use them.
In turn, Bond briefly explains why he’s here: he’s been out west preventing a Russian defector from being killed but failing to capture SPECTRE’s chief assassin alive for questioning, so he’s taking a few days breather driving east to his debrief. He’s here because his car has blown a tyre.
There’s no reason to be more than perfunctory about the action from here. Fleming spins it out by having Bond make mistake after mistake but in the end the expected occurs. Horror and Sluggsy are shot and killed, Bond fucks Vivianne roughly half the night and is gone in the morning, sending the authorities to clean up, look after Viv and, in the case of Police Captain Stonor, an unofficial piece of very good advice, father-daughter style, not to fall in love with someone like Bond.
Of course that’s wasted breath. Viv already has, even as she knows he doesn’t, won’t and can’t love her back, that she’s already accepted she will never see him again, but she’s going to wilfully reject the idea of someone else telling her to do that, because Bond is so magnetic a man that’s she’s never going to forget, and will always love The Spy Who Loved Her.
As I’ve already said, The Spy Who Loved Me is a very thin book as far as a thriller is concerned, and it’s subject, the saving of one woman’s life is a very low-key matter for Bond. I’ve read it in a 1967 paperback, full of newspaper blurbs that praise the book, and the character of Vivienne, in extravagant terms. Yet Fleming issued instructions to supress the book during his lifetime.
Overall, The Spy Who Loved Me reminds me very much of the late Dennis Wheatley novel, The Strange Story of Linda Lee. That too is a first person novel, purporting to be in the voice of a woman considerably younger than an author who is arrogantly Conservative, writing someone of an age that they were completely out of touch with.
The idea that Fleming can successfully represent the thoughts and opinions of a twenty-five year old woman is implausible, and I put the significance of her being French-Canadian, with no national characteristics of either blood, to be an attempt to account for any incapacity to make her realistic.
The sex side is ludicrous, but not more so than when Viv gets to drop them for James. Of course he gives her her first orgasm – you don’t think a bloody Jerry is going to be allowed to do that? And given that Fleming is evidently hot for sadism, we should try to avoid being shocked when Viv proclaims that “All women love semi-rape” (at least he put the ‘semi’ in there). He takes her brutally, what is it, five hours maximum after she’s been worked over by Horror. That’s bullshit, and should be called out as such.
But the thing about this book, and what’s the real reason Fleming wanted it suppressed, is that it’s too transparent. Fleming isn’t putting on the voice of Vivienne Michel, he is playing at being her because he wants the experience of being fucked by James Bond. That’s who the spy is supposed to love, not some unworthy tart.
Though it’s not part of the brief for this series, I’m in the unique position of having another version of this novel to compare. This is the Jim Lawrence/Yaroslav ‘Larry’ Horak adaptation serialised in the Daily Express between December 1967 and October 1968.
The strip version removes the experimentalism of the novel, making Bond himself the focus of the story throughout. Vivienne’s viewpoint disappears and she doesn’t even enter the story until midway through.
Lawrence constructs a new sequence for the first half of the story. It’s essentially the brief account Bond gives Vivienne in the book to explain, adapted to a story of SPECTRE blackmailing a pilot into giving details of a new radar-invisible jetplane (a ‘stealth-bomber’ two decades early), instead of merely protecting a defector. The action part of this account is followed very faithfully in the new context.
Bond then sets off cross-country in his car and the story switches to Vivienne at the Dreamy Pines motel. From hereon, Lawrence follows the novel very faithfully, whilst eliminating Vivienne’s internal monologue.
Of course there are changes. Horror’s sadistic beating of Vivienne takes place between two strips and when she’s dumped in the shower to be revived, the thugs observe the moralities by leaving her her (completely intact) frilly bra and knickers instead of stripping her naked. After they’re both killed, the sex with Bond is implied rather than depicted (and the words ‘semi-rape’ appear nowhere in the strip).
Lastly, Lawrence cuts the coda commendably short, removing Vivienne’s emotional turmoil and intercutting Bond for one last frame, as the two drive in opposite directions.
It’s a very skilful adaptation, and a much more commercial approach than Fleming himself took. It uses a surprisingly large amount of the book, and by focussing on that, it turns it into a conventional James Bond adventure. I think I prefer that.
Fleming’s idea for The Spy who Loved Me is an interesting experiment, and I’d enjoy seeing other authors tackle it in their series, but ultimately his failings as a writer and a man make it a noble, but a failed experiment. I shalln’t retain his version of the story.

‘Spare Ribs’ strip 182


182

The last appearance, published on Saturday 13 March 1977. Back at the office, Suzi is grumpy at Debbie and Maisie getting back late from lunch. Debbie’s initially dismissive, just a temporary mood, but then the phone rings. It’s the invisible John, Suzi’s never-seen husband, and they’re having an argument which Suzi is clearly winning by ordering him to do what he wanted to do in the first place that she didn’t want him to do. It’s the intrusive size of the balloon and the shape of the lettering that carries the gag, and Debbie’s despairing ‘Oh God, aggro all afternoon’ is just a tail-piece.

On Monday 15th March, Spare Ribs had vanished, to be replaced by tEmPS, by Dickens alone. The difference between the two was shocking, less in the art but in the writing. This was the same man! The same writer. And in the space of two days he had gone from some form of the sublime, light through it may have been, to the incomprehensibly unfunny – about the same subject.

Only 182 strips, but still a little gem, carefully polished and glinting in every facet.

‘Spare Ribs’ strip 181


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Still in the park, as Debbie strikes back, itemising all the opportunities for romance that she and Maisie have passed up. These details go into the massive word balloon in the centre of the strip: I said that Dickens used Roberts’ ability to define things with such elegant style to take a wordy approach at times and this is a prime example. Maisie’s response is to shout ‘Big Deal!’, which is only fair as Debbie is reaching for it here – especially with the tramps (this may be an in-joke: Spare Ribs usually appeared directly under Iain ‘Fiddy’ Reid’s daily strip Tramps about -if you couldn’t guess – two tramps). But I see this as Debbie being slightly more self-aware than usual, knowing that she’s admitting it was a waste of time but sticking up for herself. One flaw: Maisie’s head position in the first image is uncharacteristically awkward, and only the perspective keeps her from being taller than Debbie, which she certainly is not!

‘Spare Ribs’ strip 180


180

We’re in the park now and Maisie’s still a bit frustrated at having her lunch hour taken up by one of Debbie’s pursuits that will get her exactly nowhere – then there’s the first eligible male they meet! Not the best strip of this sequence, but note Roberts’ art in this, especially in the middle image where he conjures up the sense of the park with minimal line-work. My personal favourite part of this strip is Maisie’s expression in the first image.

‘Spare Ribs’ strip 179


179

Enter Maisie. Debbie’s still harping on about her romantic magazines but the only response she gets from the down-to-earth Maisie is ‘Sounds a bit sloppy to me’. Maisie’s got her eyes on the practicalties, like where they’re going for lunch, which is the cue for Debbie, still absorbed in her story of love beginning with a meeting in the Park, to suggest – where else? – the Park. Again, Roberts kills it in the last image: Debbie is already leaning away, shyly aware of the response her less-than-innocent remark will get, whilst Maisie’s slightly condescending but amused ‘Silly Devil’ is accompanied by an ambiguous swat to the head: is it an exasperated smack or a patronising pat-down of a silly child? Note too Maisie’s preference for a grey top, to distinguish her from Debbie and Suzi.

‘Spare Ribs’ strip 178


178

A continuation of yesterday’s gag, still playing on the theme of the age-based disparity between Debbie and Suzi’s interests, and returning to the occasional hint that, a few years ago, the pre-marriage Suzi was a lot like Debbie. It’s a superb example of Roberts’ non-panel approach, as the images flow into each other, concentrating solely upon the two girls. Again, look at the expressiveness of the faces: even without the blush lines, Suzi knows she’s been caught out, whilst Debbie’s smile combines glee and superiority without any trace of malice.

‘Spare Ribs’ strip 177


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A simple gag today, a gentle play on the difference in age (and marital status) between Suzi and Debbie. The two-step nature of the gag allows Roberts to insert a wealth of detail in the left hand image. Note that, even in their winter coats, Suzi and Debbie are distinguished by the same black/white contrast. This also works to distract attention away from the slouching guy at panel left, giving an admiring glance to Suzi: her black coat lands the eye in mid-image, progressing naturally rightwards from there and leaving him to smirk almost unnoticed. Beautiful staging.

‘Spare Ribs’ strip 176


After two long and wordy posts about the Frank Dickens and Don Roberts newspaper strip, Spare Ribs, you would probably like to see an example of the strip. So, here we are.

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This strip was published on Saturday 27 February 1977, and features Debbie and Suzi. It’s Debbie who answers the pone, taking a call meant for Suzi, but opting to keep the (male) caller on the line since he likes her voice. Neither the dialogue, nor the situation, are funny in their own right, though the reader of the strip to date is well aware that Debbie is looking for Mr Right and treats any expresson of interest in her charms as potentially The Moment.

What makes this strip is Roberts’ art, and in particular his staging of Suzi’s progressively frustrated reaction. It’s a perfect progression, from the concentrating-on-my-typing unconcern, to the sidelong glance, the half-lowered eye, and culminating in the unveiled threat that has Debbie protectively shielding the phone. Roberts’ deftness of expression, with minimal linework, is a joy to watch.