Good Omens: e06 – The Very Last Day of the Rest of their Lives


good omens

And so it ends.

Much as I like Good Omens, and much as I enjoy watching it, and much as the acting throughout is superb, even down to the youngsters playing the youngsters, on a critical level I’m still concerned about how Neil Gaiman structured the adaptation. Clearly, in part because it was his book and in honour of his friend and co-author, the late Terry Pratchett, he has stayed as faithful to the book, and has put in as much of it as was humanly possible, but this has led to his losing sight of that age-old stricture, that a book and a tv series are two entirely different things demanding different approaches. In giving us so much of the one Gaiman has, I regret saying, given us so much less of the other.

Take this final episode. It’s the crunch, its Armageddon, the world is about to be destroyed by all-out, all-country nuclear war. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are gathered. The Antichrist has only to say the word. Four children aged eleven, an ineffectual angel and a sneaky but equally ineffectual devil, a mad Witchfinder and an ageing lady of discipline and fake medium, one professional descendent and one absolute nerd are gathered against them. As dear old much much-missed Terry would have pointed out, million to one chances come up nine times out of ten.

Of course they’re going to win. Not only would we not have a book, or series, if they didn’t, we wouldn’t have anyone to read it afterwards. The fun is in the unlikelihood of how, most especially the notion of absolute power NOT going to the head of William Brown, I’m sorry, Adam Young.

But it’s over and done with so quickly, not even a full third of the way into the episode. Even Satan, an effects-laden cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch that’s waaay too short, doesn’t hold things up for long. And then we have the aftermaths.

In the book, these are nicely balanced. Pratchett and Gaiman wrote these not too short nor too long: Agnes Nutter’s sequel book of prophecies arrives with Anathema and Newton, who have settled into being a couple with no demonstrations and Newton persuades his girlfriend to burn it, Sergeant Shadwell and Madame Tracey settle into being a pair with admirable economy (and the best joke functions perfectly by being implied in print instead of having to be blunted by being spoken out loud on air), Crowley and Aziraphale find themselves back where they were, and the book ends in a literally poetic, and poignant moment, on Adam Young, former Antichrist, now an enigma, slouching towards… Tadfield. To be born as, what?

On screen these feel stretched out. And the episode is certainly stretched out as Gaiman chooses to import a lost scene, written but excluded from the book (or perhaps for its mooted but never written sequel, ‘668: The Neighbour of the Beast’, another one to check out of Lucien’s Library). This deals with Crowley and Aziraphale’s aftermath with their respective sides, unhappy about having their respective intentions thwarted, and seeking to effect consequences. No, I’m not going to reveal how our faithful central pair escape their fateful destructions, with the aid of Agnes’ last prophecy, and yes, the scene is wonderful, bright, intelligent and with that close connection to reality and logic that is the hallmark of the best fantastic schemes: not only could it happen but it would, given the premises on which the book is anchored.

I just question adding it to the series and extending the aftermath sequence to positively Lord of the Rings proportions. And I regret it switching the focus of these final sequences. This, ironically, is an example of Gaiman being only too television oriented: you have to feed the stars. So instead of the poetic and enigmatic, and let’s not forget poignant ending on Adam Young, we end on Aziraphale and Crowley, the superb Michael Sheen and David Tennant, and Gaiman’s pal Tori Amos singing ‘A Nightingale sang in Berkeley Square’, to concretize a nice little footnote-aside that is better as the brevity of a footnote, for its precision and conciseness.

imdb has references to a potential sequel series being put into abeyance by the COVID crisis and I’d watch that but I wonder what Gaiman would have to do to top this, and how he’d have to wriggle out of a final ending next time. The trouble with a sequel to this story is that I cannot imagine it happening without going down one of two disturbing routes, either to play for comedy and a more trivial storyline, which would be flatly unequal, or else accept the inevitable darkening of the drama and squeeze the comedy out.

But there’s a reason why Gaiman is a world famous best-selling author and I’m a blogger: he could make it work. If he can, I’d love to see it. The book is still better though.

Good Omens: s05 – The Doomsday Option


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Now all roads were running together to the East to meet the coming of the War, wrote Tolkien in The Return of the King and, save for the fact that Oxfordshire lies west of London, it goes for the penultimate episode of Good Omens as well. Though Neil Gaiman took a lot of trouble to keep all the narrative strands spinning in as many disparate corners as he could, there was no question about it: everything was now leading to one place only, and that was Armageddon.

Considering how much of this section of the book had to be left out to prevent it flying apart under its own centripetal force – I really did regret the excision of the Four Other Bikers of the Apocalypse – there was still a lot of territory to cover. There’s Aziraphale, unexpectedly discorporated anf having to improvise by possessing the body of Madame Tracey, albeit on a purely co-operative basis, of course, and Crowly going hel-for-leather in a car on fire, the only instance of weak CGI in the series, let alone the episode, there’s Anathema and Newton, having hung ut between episodes and now concentrating on the urgent matter at hand, and there’s Adam Young, Antichrist, doing the one thing unexpected of him, the one thing you thought was beyond even his red-flashing-eyed power: being human.

So the Four Bikers ride to Tadfield Airbase and kickstart the end of the World – now a mere 17 minutes hence – whilst the opposing forces gather. Adam’s supposed to meet his friends here, his new friends. But instead he brings his old friends with him, his real friends. I’m here, he calls. And we go into the credit sequence in disbelief that already 52 minutes have passed, because we sure didn’t notice them going by…

Good Omens: e04 – Saturday Morning Funtime


good omens

Adapting any book for film or television automatically requires simplification. Themes are altered, characters reduced, emphasis shifted towards those things that visual representation does better. Sometimes, though, a television series offers the opportunity to expand. Sometimes it demands it, requiring transitional scenes that can be sped through on the page. What Neil Gaiman has done, on many occasions, is to concretize parts of the book that existed merely as comic asides: footnotes a la Pratchett.

There’s a perfect example in the open to episode 4, as Gaiman and Amazon go to a lot of time and trouble and expense, not to mention the CGI, to animate the near throwaway paragraph where Atlantis rises from the ocean depths. It’s a direct transition from the previous episode. which ended with Adam Young – the Antichrist, you may recall – under the influence of Anathema Device’s New Age concerns, dreaming away an entire Nuclear Power Plant, and this is his raising Atlantis.

It’s fun, and very well-made, but I think he and Pratchett got it right first time, since the joke works well as a quick, clipped, absurdist sting, setting up and smacking you with its punchline and clearing out of the way for the next gag. Here, it’s spectacular, but inevitably slow. The camera has to linger to make it worthwhile.

There are other examples that are more important in that they directly impinge on the story: the UFO landing and the message of Cosmic Peace delivered to Newton Pulsifer that blows it thanks to some very poor acting by the Alien Leader, and the Tibetan pair digging a secret tunnel and causing Pulsifer’s Reliant Robin to crash outside Anathema’s cottage. They have to be done but in each case, the concretization doesn’t completely work because the book version is more compact and the series has to convert things into real-time, not reading-time.

On the other hand, since time is now at a bit of a premium, our Delivery Driver has to summon the two remaining Horsemen, Pollution and Death. And you can guess just how he has to attract the latter’s intention. So before this happens, Gaiman throws in a scene early on Saturday morning, in his bedroom. The Driver’s wife, Maud, an ordinary middle-aged woman in a garish orange nightie, doesn’t want him to go. She’d rather he came back to bed, It’s nothing sexy. It’s just an understated scene demonstarting the love and commitment between two people, who you wouldn’t look at twice in the streets, but who together make up a pair, committed to one another, for whom love-making is every bit as vital as it is for the handsome and the virile, yet is just one of many ways in which they share their lives together. And which is about to stop dead.

This concretization expands wonderfully on the implications in the book. Death describes the Driver’s demise as ‘leaving early to avoid the rush’, but it’s a foreshadowing of what’s actually at stake here, an understable and touching microcosm represzenting the macrocosm that is at the end of this story but which is simply too much to imagine or take seriously. This we can, and do, take seriously.

We’re now in the back half of the series and, more importantly, it’s Saturday, the day of Armageddon, so not much time left. Crowley and Aziraphale are still not working together, a combination of the Angel’s genuine concerns about the propriety of working with the Demon and the total contrast between their attitudes to where they are. Crowley has given up hope, it’s all useless, Armageddon is going to happen and nothing, least of all the pair of them, will stop it. Aziraphale, on the other hand, is still blessed with the belief that everything can be resolved without all this nasty destroy-the-Earth-and-everybody-upon-it business, if only everybody would just sit down and discuss it sensibly, over a nice cup of tea and some thinly-sliced sandwiches. Cut diagonally.

It’s just not going to hapen. Things are coming to a head. Wars have been stigmatised as merely the end product of economic competition, which is basically blinding yourself to the truth: that often they are just what happens when people reach the point of not being able to tolerate the sight of each other. All the Angels in Heaven and Devils in Hell, except one on each side, are set upon War. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing if we weren’t stuck in the bloody middle. And it’s going to be bloody alright.

Because the focus of it all is an 11 year old boy who happens to be the Son of the Devil, the Antichrist, etc. Adam Young, leader of the Them, a Just William mischief-maker for no better reason than that he’s 11, and his friends Pepper, Wensleydale and Brian are 11, and they live in an idyllic land that Adam has, subconsciously, made into the perfect children’s book playground, and he’s the World Champion at filling up the endless hours with the best games, to keep boredom at a distance.

And Adam Young has just stared at an image of the Devil in Anathema Device’s cottage. He may not have had the least instruction or inkling as to who he is and what he can do but he’s still the trigger for Armageddon and, matephorically he’s started ticking. Adam is taking control of the world, starting with the rest of the Them, and he’s terrifying them. With an 11 year old’s zeal he’s going to wipe the world clean and re-start it with all the games that an 11 year old mind can conceive, free from anything constraining him or them from doing whatever they want whenever they want it. Adam’s so lost in himself he can’t see that he’s doing the exact oposite to his friends, who are left with no option but to do whatever Adam wants whenever Adam wants it. When he removes their mouths so that they cannot even say they disagree it’s a moment of utter horror, all the more forceful for its relevance to a world in which one political party is doing everything it can to stifle even the most inefectual opposition to its actions.

It’s also a moment in which trust is irrevocably breached. This is a story, and things will change, but I for one could never again give the remotest amount of trust to a ‘friend’ who forced that on me.

So it’s begun. Not only are Crowley and Aziraphale out on their own, without support, but their respective sides have begun to suspect them of collaboration with the enemy. Which is, to be fair, true. Aziraphale finsally reaches as high as he’s going to get, the Matatron, the Word of God, Derek Jacobi’s floating and talking head. The rot goes all the way to the top. He’s going to have to ally himself with Crowley, because there is no-one else on his side. Which is when the misunderstanding Witchfinder-Sergeant Shadwell intervenes, performing an on-the-fly exorcism that results in Aizraphale stepping over a line he shouldn’t have, and discorporating. And his bookshop catching fire.

Things aren’t looking very hopeful, are they?

Good Omens: e03 – Hard Times


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It was once again noticeable that the third part of Good Omens began by diverting away from the mechanics of the plot, the onwards progression to the end of everything, or tomorrow as the episode’s final image firmly indicated. But you can hardly call it a tangent when the pre-credits sequence actually lasted slightly longer than half the show. An obtuse angle?

Either way, what we got was a ton of material only a tiny bit of which – the Voice of God asking the Angel Aziraphale where his flaming sword is, last seen as a footnote about an unusual edition of the Bible – actually came from the book, whilst all the rest was about the slowly developing relationship between the Angel and the Demon throughout many different historical settings and producing the ‘Arrangement’ that prevails today. It was astonishingly long but, unlikle episode 2, didn’t feel as if it was delaying out getting back into the swing of things because, firstly, it was incredibly entertaining and I just love seeing Michael Sheen playing Aziraphale, and secondly because it all went to buttressing and building.

Atr the end of the day, you’re asking us to accept that an Angel and a Demon – once but no longer identical creatures of God’s devising – are working together and any residual doubts as to the credibility of that notion were well and truly dispelled.

The other half of the episode, called the plot, sees Aziraphale try to divert the War only to discover his side wants it to happen come what may, fall out with Crowley over working together when they so obviously have nothing in common but a like for the Earth where it is and the desire to keep it that way, both call in their private army of secret operatives, namely Sergeant Shadwell and Private Pulsifer, and Adam Young (an Antichrist) meet Anathema Device and become overwhelmed by New Age philosophy, resulting in something extremely odd happening to a Nuclear Power Station.

This is a hard series to write about, principally because it’s very good.

Good Omens: e02 – The Book


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Good Omens is very much a discursive book. It builds slowly, it follows diverse paths, it has multiple criss-cross elements that havbe no seming relation to one another but which we know are tributaries that will eventually come together into one major river of story. You can do that in books. It’s a lot harder in television, especially when you’re dealing with an exaggerated reality that exceeds normal expectations. There’s a a lot of it about in episode 2.

Last week’s opening episode was mainly linear, keeping everything going in a straight line so that the audience knew what they were getting: Armageddon and an Antichrist who comes over as a less sullen Just William. With the train on the tracks, episode 2 decided to devote large parts of its running time to the branch lines, and a whole horde of new characters we didn’t get to in the opening episode.

First up was a plot reminder. The Angels Gabriel and Sandalphon visit Aziraphale’s Soho bookshop to check all is well, and make a holy show of themselves in ‘fooling’ the simple humans into accepting them as material beings, whilst Hastur and Ligur (I do so relish Ned Dennehy’s performance and look as Hastur!) replace a Breakfast Show hosting pair to demand the same of Crowley: neither angel nor demon admit they’ve absolutely no bloody idea where the Antichrist is.

So the narative drive this week is set upon finding him, except that it’s not being done with any urgency and without any great plan, and in the meantime, enter the following: Agnes Nutter, a Lancashire Witch (Josie Lawrence) to be burned by Witchfinder General Thou-Shalt-Not-Commit-Adultery Pulsifer (Jack Whitehall): the first of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, War, aka National Weekly News War Correspondent Carmine Zuigiber (Mireille Enos), and an outsourced summoner, a delivery driver (Simon Merrells): profesional descendent Anathema Device (Adria Arjona), carrying the only copy of the #nice and Accurate Propheies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, dressed from head to toe to wrist in heavy, faintly archaic, form-concealing clothes, the way Melanie Safka always did: professional failure Newton Pulsifer, who’s ‘not good with computers’ (Jack Whitehall again, of course): Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell (Michael McKean with a Scottish accent that keeps nipping back up to the Highlands, leaving him floundering) and his landlady, Madame Tracey (Miranda Richardson, still looking pretty good). That’s a lot of characters to take care of in one go, and they need time which detracts from Aziraphale and Crowley’s presence and kee[ps us from getting to the Them, the Antichrist’s little gang, until well down the running time.

And Gaiman does insist on keeping as much of his and Pratchett’s amusing little asides as he possibly can, like the wyt Crowley talks to his plants.

These are all well and good in the book: in the book they’re more than good, they’re hilarious. But this is the difference between books and television/film. In any kind of decent television series I’m eager for this kind of multiple strand approach, setting up theaudience to guess, and red herrings are fair game. But I didn’t think it worked here. That’s because, after setting things up, and that reminder of what this story is all about, the episode went all over the place, at some length, to avoid taking the next step. When are we going to get on with it was the prevailing response.

Which leads us to the matter of the writing. Thgis is very much Neil Gaiman’s project. It adapts a book of which he is the co-author and it is driven by the desire to do seriously right by his co-author and his very dear friend, the late Terry Pratchett – is it really six years? On the one hand, the teleplay writer knows and understands the material and can be alert to it and its nuances in a way no-one else can. On the other, how detached can he become? How distanced can he be to carry out the essential task of the adapter, which is to reconstruct the book in a medium alien to the original work?

Episode 2 shows Gaiman to be perhaps a bit too determined to get in as much of Good Omens as he can, which isn’t necessarily the best thing to do.

Mind you, I had fun with it. And we’ve four more episodes in which to draw things together even tighter.

Good Omens: e01 – In the Beginning


Sometimes, a bit of fun is what you want, without necessarily the scope for too much serious thinking. You can have a bit too much serious thinking, and not always enough fun. Not that Good Omens is necessarily a case for leaving out serious thinking, nothing that comes from the word processor of Terry Pratchett can be entirely free from that, and this Neil Gaiman bloke isn’t exactly behind the door for that kind of business, what with his ‘There is room for things to mean more than they literally mean.’

I got ‘Good Omens’ the book as soon as it went into paperback. My battered old paperback, much read, in fact as recently as the week before last, is signed by both authors. I love it to bits. Well, not every bit of it. There’s this line, early on, where the demon Crowley, listing his demonic feats in causing horror and confusion on Earth, states that ‘he was particularly proud of Manchester’. I’m bound to resent that.

Adaptations of any of Terry Pratchett’s work, and I’m not slighting Gaiman here by putting Pratchett in the frame, are exceedingly difficult to make successfully. Partly that’s because the worlds he writes in are fantasies, impossible to reproduce as live action, or indeed visually at all, without an extremely expensive special effects budget, but primarily because the humour in the books is skewed to the narrative, not to mention the footnotes. The characters don’t say the funny lines, the author does. Getting those lines on screen, in any kind of convincing form, is the real difficulty, because putting them into someone’s mouth to say onscreen is next to impossible to do without it sounding like the character is reading the narrative.

Fortunately for all concerned, the adaptation, and the screenplay, is being done by Neil Gaiman himself, and more than authorial pride is involved here because Neil was doing this in tribute to Terry, his friend, his much-missed friend, with a ferocious determination to do right by him. Gaiman knows the book. What’s more, he knows what wasn’t in the book, and how much of that to fold in. And he is key to visualising what happens on the page and putting it on the screen, backed with a very expensive special effects budget where necessary, in a way that both dazles and satisfies every reader’s internal vision of what’s going on.

The mini-series is by far and away the most recent tv series I’ve blogged other than live. It appeared in 2019, when I watched it weekly, and I watched it again when I bought the DVD. I would expect most readers of this blog to be familiar with book or series or both but for those who are not aware of it, a short background is necessary. Good Omens is about Armageddon, the coming of the Antichrist and the final bettle betwen Heaven and Hell. It is also a comedy. This is brought about primarily by the principals, Aziraphale (Michael Sheen), an Angel, and Crowley (David Tennant), a Demon.

Aziraphale was originally the Angel with a Flaming Sword who guarded the gates to the Garden of Eden, who gave his flaming sword to Adam and Eve when they were expelled because, well, there are beasts out there, it’s going to rain and she’s already expecting. And Crowley was the Snake who tempted Eve because he was told to get up there and cause some trouble, but who’s a bit worried about why God made it so easy.

The point is that this pair of opposites have been on Earth ever since, some 6,000 years of tempting and thwarting. They’ve been the only consistent face either sees and they’ve become sort-of friends, each having been among humans for so long that they’ve more in common with each other than with either respective Head Office.

These are the pair who get involved when the Plan unfolds. Satan’s child, the Antichrist, is brought to Earth eleven years ago. Crowley delivers it to the Nuns’ Hospital where it will be switched for the American Ambassador’s new baby.  He would rather not get involved, and his wish to distance himself as fast as he can combines with the unfortunate coincidence of another, this time English and utterly ordinary couple turning up with her contractions every four minutes and a Chattering Satanic Nun who’s a bit of an airhead. The baby switch ends up being a threeway, and you can guess who gets the Adversary (hint: it’s not the Ambassador).

The big problem is that, in their entirely separate ways, Crowley and Aziraphale like the Earth. Neither wishes to see it end in eleven year’s time. So they work together to frustrate Armageddon…

As the title indicates, this episode is about setting all of this up, as well as our two principal characters. Gaiman makes a superb job of parcelling out information sensibly and intelligently, and he gets round the problem of animating narrative by limiting the use of dialogue, keeping these bits brief and as natural as they can be (not everywhere but at this sort of thing a 90% success rate is damned good) but mainly by hiving the job over to a voiceover narrative (by Frances McDormand) as the voice of God.

She’s good. The whole cast are good. Jon Hamm as the Angel Gabriel and Nick Offerman as the Ambassador, appearing by iPad, are perfect in cameo roles. And in his brief appearance at the end as Adam Young, the Antichrist, Sam Taylor Buck gives a brief but wonderfuly naturalistic show.

But the series stands and falls on Aziraphale and Crowley. David Tennant as Crowley is a given. I mean, David Tennant, demon, you’re wrapped up. It’s Michael Sheen who has the infinitely harder job, playing an Angel who’s basically, just, well, Good. How do you play that? Good and innocence – or as much as is left after 6,000 years of human beings – we’re just talking bland aren’t we? Nothing to work with. And he’s brilliant, bringing to the role a degree of effeteness that comes over as otherworldly as opposed to faintly gay, coupled to an underlying worry. Aziraphale is in earnest, but under everything he does he’s not entirely certain he’s doing the right thing. It’s a brilliant performance.

I look forward to more. Next wek, the story really starts. It’s Wednesday afternoon. The World Ends on Saturday.

Uncollected Thoughts: Good Omens – part 1


I’m not used to this Netflix all-at-once bit yet (and yes, I do know this isn’t Netflix but Amazon Prime and the BBC, but it’s the same idea), and I don’t have another five lots of fifty minutes stretching out in front of me right now, but I have just watched  the first episode of Good Omens, the TV series of the brilliant book by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, by Neil Gaiman, and I am here to tell you that it’s ok, you can watch it without thinking it’s vastly inferior to the book, and in fact you can enjoy it, and you can laugh at it. No, make that: you will laugh at it.

This was only to be expected, though I was going more along the linesof hoped for, because it’s adapted by Gaiman himself, wanting to do the very best by his friend, it has an all-star cast starting with David Tennant and Crowley and Michael Sheen as Aziraphale, andit’s  had enough money thrown at it to fill up a whole chain of gravel pits, but even so you have to wait and see for yourself.

Teennant is all wonderfully laid-back and with-it, but it’s Sheen who has the harder task because Aziraphale is supposed to be an angel, also somewhat unwordly, definitely unrealistic, and it’s so much easier to do bad because then you have positive traits to work with, whereas good is ethereal and altogether bland, especially when you’re tying to be funny with it, but Sheen is as good as can be, rather like Ryan Giggs running at a packed Arsenal defence.

As for the adaptation, given how much of the book’s humour is in its narration (and its footnotes), it’s awe-inspiring just how closely Gaiman manages to adhere to the exact plot, keeping scenes focused and brief without the sense of anything being rushed or pared down or letting you start to drift off and remember what’s been left out.

No, take it from me, this is one that works, at least up to End of Part 1, and I’m confident it won’t all fall apart, despite the lukewarm reviews that have appeared this week. And I speak as one of the ones who’s owned Good Omens since it came out, who’s read it a dozen times, who’s inordinately pleased that they left out that line about Manchester, and who can safely and defiantly say that for this series the Omens are decidedly Good.

Film 2018: Coraline


There’s an imbalance of animation in the steadily dwindling pile of Film 2018 DVDs and the first of these is Henry Selick’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s short horror novel for children, Coraline, made in 2008. In a much more angular fashion than the Aardman studio films, this was made in stop-go animation, using puppetry and individually crafted objects, many of which were produced by 3D printing.

Like Stardust, this isn’t a pure representation of the original novel, in which the titla character, eleven year old Coraline Jones, acts independently. To give Coraline someone to talk to, Selick introduced a boy character, Wybie, who shares some of the limelight with her and who, in a much-criticised move, saves the day at the last.

The film is set in and around Pink Palace Apartments, an old and dilapidated wooden-frame building in Oregon. Coraline and her parents are newly-arrived from Michigan. She’s a bright, mentally-energetic girl, with an abundance of curiosity, and they are both writers, jointly producing a Garden catalogue, meaning that they have no time for Coraline or keeping up with her need for attention.

This isn’t any kind of over-developed or narcissistic need, just the average, healthy child’s need to be secure in their place. Coraline explores the building thoroughly but uninspiredly – everything is boring and that’s not because she’s an eleven year old but because it is – and meets its eccentric other boarders, the acrobatic Russian the Amazing Bobinsky (Ian McShane) and the ex-burlesque dancers Miriam Forcible and April Spink (French and Saunders). They, like Wybie, assume her name is Caroline, instead of listening to her properly. That’s Coraline’s problem; no-one listens to her.

But there’s a door in a wall that’s been wallpapered over and locked which, when Coraline’s mother finally unlocks it, turns out to be bricked up too. Except in Coraline’s dreams, when it leads to a tunnel to another world. This world is identical to Pink Palace and its gardens except that everything’s brighter, fresher, newer, cleaner, happier, more vivid. It’s more exciting, more fantastic, it’s everything an eleven year old girl could want.

It’s even got a Mother and Father in it, who are more traditional, more fun, more devoted to Coraline. These are her Other Mother and her Other Father. They love her, they’d do anything for her. It’s an ideal world. Except for the fact that everybody has sewn-in buttons instead of eyes. There’s even another Wybie, and this one’s mute because the real world one talks too much.

Coraline revels in it, and is frustrated to keep waking up in her own bed, in her own Pink Palace. Her eccentric neighbours offer cryptic warnings that she’s in danger, whilst her Other neighbours put on wonderful shows: Bobinsky’s Jumping Mice Circus is a hoot and a magical display. Everything’s wonderful. Even the cat, who is the same creature in both worlds, passing by his own means, talks in the Other World, though he warns Coraline.

Because it’s all a construct. Coraline can stay forever, she just has to agree to have buttons sewn over her eyes, which, she being far too smart and level-headed to ever be taken in permanently, immediately treats as a deal-breaker. But the Beldam, the witch-like, spider-like being at the centre of this, the love-craving Other Mother, won’t let her go. Coraline is not the first child, summoned by dolls sewn to look exactly like them, brought into an idyllic world to love and be loved and when not loved any more, have their life eaten out of them.

Coraline escapes, but finds that her real parents have been stolen and imprisoned in the Other World. With the cat for an ally, she returns to challenge the Beldam to a game, in which she must find a ghost eye for each of the three ghost children, and her parents.

As Coraline makes her way through each of the three wonders, she finds an eye, which causes bits and pieces of this Other World to die, turn grey and splinter off into nothingness. She finds her parents trapped in her real Mother’s favourite snow globe. She wins home, but there is still a catch. Tje Beldam’s severed hand, a thing of sewing needles, has followed her. To prevent the Beldam ever returning, the key must be removed beyond reach. Coraline intends to chuck it down the deep, disused well outside the garden.

Here is where the controversy sits. Selick invented Wybie for someone to talk to, a device to keep the film from ending in under fifty minutes. Now it takes an intervention by the real Wybie, deus ex machina, to destroy the hand, and the two of them to weight everything down with a rock to drop down the well.

In a way, it’s an heroic convention, not quite a cliche, but a subtle trope: the hero carries the burden but, at the last, needs the help of the ineffectual sidekick to complete the task: think Frodo and Sam or, more aptly in the last instance, Frodo and Gollum in the Mountain, in the book if not the film.

But think of it a different way, and it’s a chauvinistic ending. The film’s about a girl, an independent, enterprising girl, who acts alone, who fights and defeats a superior enemy. But it takes a boy to pull her fat out of the fire or it would have all gone for nothing. Girls: can’t do anything right.

All it needed was a slight twist: Wybie intervenes, finds himself in danger, Coraline recovers her breath, finishes it off. Maybe thirty seconds extra footage and you don’t revert to cliche.

That caveat aside, I love the film. It’s visually inventive, it takes its time, it’s creepy and wierd. There are angles and parallels to the story that I haven’t mentioned, making the Other Mother more closely aligned with the real one (Teri Hatcher), oodles of visual detail that treat the eye. And the voices are also excellent, with sixteen year old Dakota Fanning playing the lead role.

Though the Wybie rescue is an intrusion, the film has the wit to end on a charming note, suggesting Coraline’s future in the real world will be a bit more balanced. The Garden Catalogue is a success and Coraline organises a planting party, with plentiful lemonade, at which the utilitarian garden is, at her suggestion, planted with colourful tulips, and the guests get her name right.

I doubt we’ll ever get a pure Neil Gaiman adaptation, not one that captures his severe, almost austere tones, but what Coraline brings to the story is a mostly delightful substitute, just like Stardust. Sometimes, a little more light in victory is a necessary thing.

Film 2018: Stardust


Stardust wasn’t my first choice for this week’s film, rather a last minute replacement when I decided that bright sun on an early Sunday morning wasn’t the best conditions for my original choice.

It’s a film that comes shrouded in memories that will always affect me. When it was first released, we went to see it twice in as many weeks, we being my wife and I  in the first instance and two of her children in the second. We chose the film for one of our rare nights out: a meal in Stockport followed by a visit to the now defunct Grand Central Cinema. The meal overran and we missed the start of the film. But we both loved it, and we knew the boys would like it too so, to give them the treat, and allow ourselves to see what we’d missed, we took them next week. It turned out we’d only missed about thirty seconds, which made us both laugh but so what? It was a joy to watch again, even so soon.

Stardust is adapted from Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name, originally published in four installments, illustrated beautifully by Charles Vess, by DC Comics. The film follows the substance of the story in its narrative, although Captain Shakespeare and the Lightning catching Pirates is a complete invention, but takes a completely different approach to what was intended as an adult fairy-tale. Director Matthew Vaughan, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jane Goodman, turns the story – with Gaiman’s blessing – into a whimsical comedy, filling it with a modern, sceptical comedy that has one foot firmly entrenched in cynicism but which leaves the other foot free to dance. Like The Princess Bride it can successfully poke fun at the tropes of which it is made precisely because it is made by people who love and respect what they are playing off.

The story glories in its fairy-tale elements, even though it attracted a wider demographic who, instead of seeing it as fantasy, enjoyed it as a romantic adventure with magical elements. Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox, then unknown) lives in the village of Wall, so named for the Wall that separates it from the magical kingdom of Stormhold. Tristan, the product of a brief affair between his father, Dunstan, and a then-nameless slave girl in Stormhold, eighteen years before at the start of the film.

Tristran loves the beautiful but spoilt Victoria (Sienna Miller), who is more interested in the more upmarket Humphrey (Henry Cavill, though his is only a bit part). Humphrey’s going to go all the way to Ipswich for a ring for Victoria, but Tristran will go through the wall to bring back a fallen star for her, to prove his love.

The star (Claire Danes), whose name is Yvaine, has been knocked from the sky by a diamond hurled there by the dying King of Stormhold (an impressive cameo from Peter O’Toole). Whichever of his sons can find it – there were seven, but they’ve been whittled down to three: poor show, really, the Stormhold tradition is for only one surviving brother when the King dies – will be King.

Meanwhile, three incredibly aged witches are also after the star, since to cut out and eat the still-beating heart of a fallen star grants youth and near-immortality. The eldest sister, Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer, still decidedly woo hoo, once the aged make-up comes off), goes to get the heart.

So: Yvaine’s got three different forces after her, that’s if you call Tristran a force, which he isn’t to begin with but becomes, in a very likeable manner, during the course of the film.

There’s some conventional structures in there: two sources for a chase thriller, one with elements of a Quest, combined with the picaresque journey during which two initially hostile enforced companions gradually start to like and then love each other, which goes back at least as far as the Alfred Hitchcock version of The Thirty-Nine Steps. It’s highly entertaining in itself, thanks to the lightness Vaughan and Goodman bring to everything, no matter how serious it may be – one strand involves mass-fratricide and it’s even funnier than Kind Hearts and Coronets – and that’s amplified by the fantastic setting, which combines some very effective CGI with location filming in the kind of scenery that made me want to climb through the screen and go climbing mountains in the background. Much of the outdoor scenes were filmed in Scotland, with other parts in Iceland. The contrast is obvious, but not distracting.

There’s a primarily English cast: Rupert Everett, David Walliams and Julian Rhind-Tutt are among the bit parts, Melanie Hill, Joanna Scanlan and Sarah Alexander are witches, and Mark Wiliams is brilliantly loopy as a goat turned into an innkeeper. The two big American stars make the most of their parts: Pfeiffer is a major protagonist, but de Niro’s role is a primarily comic one. He’s supposed to be a rough, tough, notoriously evil pirate but he’s actually a softie who’s had to keep his father’s business going.

Captain Shakespeare is there to given Tristran and Yvaine safe haven for a time, to transform Tristran from provincial boy operating on dumb luck to sophisticated and capable man who can handle problems. It’s only a supporting role, and de Niro combines flamboyance and underplaying with the confidence of a  great actor enjoying himself. Apparently, the other possible star for the role was Jack Nicholson, who I doubt could have played this role anything like as effectively.

Ultimately, though, the film belongs to Cox and Daines. He’s innocent in the best sense throughout, an overgrown boy taking on manhood before our eyes, whilst retaining a boyish delight throughout. He has to undergo this adventure to become worthy of his role, because his mother, slave to a caravan witch, Ditchwater Sal (Hill) is really Una, daughter to the King, and after the last son, Septimus (Mark Strong) is killed by Lamia, Tristran becomes the Heir to Stormhold. But he also has to undergo this adventure to discover his real true love and to become worthy – both in person and in the heart – of the love of Yvaine the star.

And Daines is simply wonderful, not to mention unconventionally beautiful. Her face is always mobile, initially in a hunted, indeed neurotic manner, and her anxieties never wholly disappear until she saves the day by Shining, but the longer the film goes on, and the closer she comes to falling in love with Tristran, the more that mobility is just evidence of an underlying energy, the force of love unable to be contained yet unable to be expressed.

I’ve left so much out, so many little details that demonstrate the comprehensive vision that Vaughan had for this film. It’s another of those where the casting is ideal – Olivia Grant was cast in the minor role of the female version of Bernard (don’t ask) literally weeks out of Acting School and, without any lines, makes a wonderfully comic cameo – and whilst there are those who regret that the tone was not more faithful to the original story, they don’t include Gaiman, who was happier with an artistically satisfactory comedy than a serious film that would have failed: like me with so many other versions, he thinks of this as the Earth-2 Stardust.

That’s not to say the film’s perfect. It was released in 2007 and includes a minor role for Ricky Gervaise as Ferdy the Fence (behind a door marked ‘Ferdy’s Office’). It hasn’t worn well, rather like Gervaise’s star since those halcyon days. Gervaise isn’t convincing in his acting, but then he’s playing against Robert de Niro soo that’s a more than adequate excuse. It’s just that it’s David Brent, with an Andy Millman catch-phrase, out of context and in 2018 it no longer works.

But I’ve no other complaints about Stardust, not even the Take That song, ‘Rule the World’ in the credits. My wife was a major league Take That fan, but even I loved this song from the first moment I heard it, then and now.

I love Stardust. Like Gregory’s Girl, last week, it’s one of my ten favourite films, for itself and without the memories I have attached to it. Other adaptations of Neil Gaiman’s work have been far more faithful to the source than this, and I am very glad of it.

The Infinite Jukebox: Take That’s ‘Rule the World’


Some songs get a place on The Infinite Jukebox for reasons that are personal.

And sometimes those reasons are personal also to someone else, whose privacy deserves to be respected.

This is, however, also a gorgeous song, with a superb arrangement and brilliant singing, and comes from one of my favourite films of all time.