Good or Bad Omens?

Alan Moore’s position on adaptations of his comics stories/series has developed down the years into a simple, unbending refusal to get involved with them. Similarly, Dave Sim has discarded any attempts to convert Cerebus or any part thereof into films. Both operate from the fundamental position that their work was conceived as, by and for comics, and that the mere attempt to translate them into an entirely different medium immediately destroys the work, by shaping it into a form that does not share the characteristics of the comic book form.

Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman do not share that reservation. The latest demonstration of this is the BBC Radio 4 six-part adaptation of their jointly-written novel, Good Omens, originally published in 1990. The series is being broadcast nightly throughout this week, at 11.30pm, though it began with a double-episode last night, the two episodes being available here and here on the BBC i-Player for those who are late tuning in.

The book is brilliantly funny and, as is usually the case with anything written by either of this pair, is also brilliantly wise and level-headed. I must have read it at least a dozen times since it first hit paperback and it’s still as fresh as new each time I delve into it again. It’s one of my favourite books.

The radio series falls flat on its arse.

I’m sorry to have to say that. I’d love to spend the week enjoying hearing the story take wings, and getting thrillingly involved in the absurdity and the terror of the tale: which, for the uninitiated, is about the End of Times, an eleven-year-old Antichrist and an Angel and a Demon who find themselves in peculiar agreement about not actually destroying anything at all, when it comes down to it. But two episodes in, I can tell that it just doesn’t work: actually, I didn’t need as many as two.

This is not due to any lack of talent or inspiration in the adaptation, nor to any real failing among the actors (though I’m not convinced by either Mark Heap as the Angel Aziraphale or Peter Serafinowicz as the Demon Crowley), but simply down to Moore’s stricture. This is a 300 page novel, featuring more two dozen characters in substantial roles, virtually none of whom can be subtracted from the plot without leaving it unworkable, set against a background of supernatural dealings and the machinations of a plan developed over millennia. It is an information and character dense story that the novel can explain its its own time, at satisfactory length, whilst entertaining the reader immensely. Very little of which can be left out.

And adaptor/director Dirk Maggs is required to represent all of this in six thirty-minute episodes. Three hours, in effect.

Now that may actually be longer by far than The Battle of the Five Armies but it’s still far from enough. There is too much book, and too much for the characters to have to explain to each other (for the benefit of the listener). For instance, episode 2 introduces Famine, currently going under the name of Raven Sable, promoter of foods that actually contain no foodstuffs whatsoever. Where Pratchett/Gaiman can present this as background information, as an insight into something the man as not yet officially identified as Famine is doing, secretively, in order to get the gag in and present us with Raven Sable, Maggs has to have him boast all these things to a subordinate, dramatically changing the scene and the character, to the detriment of both.

That’s just an example of the overt problems of having to get your actors to spell out the narrative background, but the greater problem, overall, is that you are then weighing down the characters’ actions and interactions by clogging up the air with explanations and sucking up minutes of air that would be far better be put to advancing the story.

With so much exposition to squeeze in, everything has to be done faster. Lines bat back and forth, volleyed at speed by a cast that would be a dozen times more effective if they were able to slow down.

If this were television, or film, there would be a better chance of giving the story room to breathe. With visuals, with sight, so much information can simply be displayed, seen and absorbed. There are so many more tale-telling devices open. Radio demands words. It needs voices. The baby-shuffling scene, where Satan’s son gets mixed up with that of an accountant instead of the American cultural attache, works beautifully on paper, and can simply be watched on screen: on radio, it doesn’t work for even one minute.

In short, it doesn’t work because it can’t work, because the book’s qualities are, in this instance, not capable of translation into a radio play, and because we are here short of the kind of interpretive genius who might be able to pull this off (always hedge your bets when it comes to geniuses, since they can do things that ordinary mortals can’t).

I might stick with it, in part for want of better alternatives, but I was already not really listening to about half of episode two, so I might just decide not to bother and stick something on that better uses the possibilities of Radio instead. Such a shame.


Travelling with Tinniswood: Uncle Mort’s South Country

The dreams of an old man.
Northern city rife with frost and haltered horses in station yard. Being poorly. Two weeks in bed. Coal fire flickering the black skirts of night. Saturday roar of distant, clinkered football terraces. Calf’s-foot jelly and junket. Mother’s anxious face. Creak of mangle. Smell of sour, spent ale on father’s breath. Deep nicotine of thumbs.Doctor’s whisper on ice-breathed landing.
The dreams of a young man.
Morecambe Bay. Ponies plodding for prawns. The tumble off the wall.Stone jag on bridge of nose. Swab of steel-rimmed chemist. Grass-tufted shore. Dunlin wheeling. Dizziness. Oozing pus from wound. Darkness of stranger’s bedroom. Mother’s anxious face. Slow car ride home.No jolting. Urgent – no jolting. Jolting verboten. Home. The bedroom with its soothing walls. Tight coil of purring cat. Calf’s-foot jelly and junket. Pepperminted breath of father fighting back the smell of sour, spent ale. Shy, stubby fingers stroking at his brow. I love you, lad. I love you. But don’t tell your mam.
Northern dreams fighting back the South.
They awoke simultaneously.
As you might have guessed from the title, Uncle Mort’s South Country is a sequel. To the earlier North Country book, to the earlier North Country radio series. It’s the same idea: Carter Brandon is given a fortnight off work and decides to go on a touring holiday down South. Pat won’t accompany him, so Uncle Mort does.
It’s the last appearance of the Brandons in print. There is no Mrs Brandon, whose final words lie back in North Country. Mr Brandon has passed on, his original words quoted by Uncle Mort, gone to join the late, great John Comer, who incarnated him so perfectly on television.
There’s still Pat, swooping in in the final chapter to drag Carter and Uncle Mort back north. And then it’s over. They’re all gone (though Tinniswood would write another sequel for Radio 4, Uncle Mort’s Celtic Fringe, which, for reasons unknown was never converted to prose). It’s a simultaneously sad and unhappy ending.
I have very mixed feelings about this book.To be frank, I don’t enjoy it. It’s thin, it’s insubstantial. Tinniswood has ‘refined’ his style to the extent where the most important aspect is the radio-oriented use of language. The situation is perfunctory, there are no events, the wordage is lush but ineffectual. Uncle Mort waxes locquacious in ever-expanding monologues. His TV catch-phrase, ‘I served all through the First World War’ makes a belated appearance, and repeats and repeats. The flow is continually being interrupted by paragraphs of verbless statements, bedizened with adjectives, as the extract quoted above demonstrates. This is not Uncle Mort and Carter Brandon as far as I am concerned. The thread of continuity that ran through A Touch of Daniel, I Didn’t Know You Cared, Except You’re a Bird and even the weaker Call it a Canary is here snapped, as is the connection to reality. Tinniswood has become a parody of a parody and there is nothing but eccentricity and grotesquerie left. The years of the Brigadier have, to me, destroyed his ability to focus upon a humour whose strength lies in its proximity to the mundane and real instead of its ever-widening distance from it.
And yet.
And yet you look at the quote above. Both tell stories, both tell the same story of illness of a child, fear of parents, the encompassing world that binds and eventually heals the boys. They’re told in compressed language, mundane poetry that removes any inessential word, strips down the experience to a series of snapshots that, in turn, reflect the memories of ailing boys.
It’s extraordinarily deep writing, and you can’t dismiss out of hand a book that contains a passage like this, a writer who can come out with that.
Perhaps if this wasn’t Carter Brandon and Uncle Mort, if it were two other characters without the baggage of those wonderfully funny early books, I might enjoy this book more?
Maybe, and maybe not. Tinniswood paints so many quasi-poetic pictures, employing startling and vivid adjectives, but the effect tires, and the adjectives frequently come across less as startling, head-turning moments that shed new lights than as random, unconnected images pulled out of a dictionary. There are so many, at such regular intervals, that they become much of a muchness, sandbars breaking up the tide, something to be gotten across whilst not really paying attention. Just another landscape.
And in between, the conversations are not really conversations. Carter’s pithyness is little more than an excuse to break up Uncle Mort’s endless rambling into bite-sized pieces. Indeed, his entire presence is primarily to be the mover, the activist, continually moving the pair on from scene to scene, to counteract Uncle Mort’s natural tendency to stop at home and do nothing.
Which is to take Carter himself out of character, a character most firmly established as avoiding change, avoiding decisions, preferring to be left to himself, where he is. In truth, were this taking place in the novels, it would be Pat who wanted to visit the South, climb it socially, bask in its refinement and cleanliness and young-executive friendliness, and Carter who would not want to budge.
And that leads to another question that I cannot avoid asking myself, seeing the Brandons as part of a continuum: the novels were set in the Sixties, but the North and South Country stories are very clearly contemporary. That would make Carter and Pat, who were in their late twenties in Call it a Canary, close to fifty years old: enough time for their basic characters to have crossed over, but given that Uncle Mort was sixty-bloody-six in I Didn’t Know You Cared, he’s now got to be about bloody-ninety.
Reading the final chapter, I can’t help but think that Tinniswood was saying goodbye to his oldest and best characters. Mr Brandon’s gone. Mrs Brandon isn’t there and may very well have followed her husband to his grave. Carter’s lost a lot of his fire: the woman he’s sniffing around is not an Erika, an Alison Shirtliffe, a Hazel Huskisson, not even a Linda Preston, but instead a small girl with rimless spectacles, hair in a pony tail, given to long cotton frocks, with bare, spindly arms, who’s part of a Methodist convention from Selby, Humberside. And Pat’s smart enough to suss him out over the phone and sweep him off before he seduces the flat-chested, freckle-nosed, insignificant thing.
And Uncle Mort? Uncle Mort has lost his cloth cap, blown off his head after fifty-three years. And he’s ill and convinced his time is up, though it turns out only to be mild heat-stroke.
It’s over. It’s all over, and the worst of it is that it’s all for the best. I couldn’t have stood another Brandon story that wasn’t worthy of them. Not long before his death in 2002, Tinniswood was rumoured to be writing another Brandon novel, but nothing ever came of it. I’m sorry to say that I’m probably glad of that.

Travelling with Tinniswood: More Tales from a Long Room

There facing each other across the square are those twin bastions of village life, the pub and the church.
Sitting on a bench outside the Baxter Arms supping scrumpy and linseed oil shandies and drowsing in the sunshine are the venerable village elders Messrs. Arlott, Mosey, Frindall and Alston, endlessly yarning about old campaigns in India, Australia, South Africa and the deathless, arid prose plains of British South West Dexterland.
They raise their forelocks to us as we leave them to their dreams and cross the square to the church.
What an exquisite Saxon edifice.
Clean and pure of line like a cover drive by Peter May.
Sturdy and honest like an over bowled by David Brown.
Chaste and virginal like an anecdote told by Barry Wood.
And inside the church displayed in a place of honour by the statuette of St Kevin de Keegan, the patron saint of endorsements, is one of our village’s most cherished possessions.
It is, of course, a relic of the Blessed St Tony Greig of the Sorrows – a fragment of his money belt torn from his person during the Exodus from Surrey and lovingly restored by the master craftsman, Sebastian Coe, for a fee of £97,000, that being the cost of his second-class train fare from Sheffield.
This is exactly what it appears to be: eleven more monologues by the Brigadier on the theme of ‘the summer game’, from his own unique perspective, each adapted lightly from a second series of monologues delivered on Radio 4 by the late Robin Bailey.
More Tales from a Long Room does move onwards a little. Where the first series was mainly centred upon fantastic and improbable cricketing tales that, at root, were surreal extensions of the real cricket tales told in pavilions the length and breadth of the land, this second set is considerably more directed to the Brigadier himself, his life, prejudices and eccentricities, and to his somewhat bizarre take on issues – not always cricketing, well, not at first – current to the very early Eighties.
Tinniswood, who finds himself beimg mentioned in scathing terms (‘that emaciated vileness’) in a couple of the stories, starts out by introducing us to the seemingly idyllic Somerset Village where the Brigadier lives, Witney Scrotum. We meet various local characters, like the Village Blacksmith, Gooch, Old Squire Brearley and Prodger the Poacher, and learn of such landmarks as the lush water meadows leading to the Coppice at Cowdrey’s Bottom, and how the village is overshadowed by the massive earthworks of Botham’s Gut.
I trust you do not need telling that each of those names, be it personage or georgraphical feature, is of a cricketer of some reknown and appertainance to their namesake.
Otherwise the book is a mass of puns on the names of cricketers, capering slights of the interviews of Mr. Michael Parkinson, a tendency to suggest that Old Trafford Tests are played in a state of perpetual gloom, rain and darkness, misrepresentation of all sorts of people’s names and relationships, and some gleefully libellous comments, such as the mouth of Mr Ritchie Benaud bearing a remarkable resemblance to a hamster’s arsehole.
We learn the cricketing significance of the wedding of Lady Diana Spencer to that bald-headed booby, and the identity of the Mole in the M.C.C. We are treated to a cricketing re-write of one of 1981’s biggest television hits as ‘Blofeld Revisited’.  And we learn the Brigadier’s thoughts upon apartheid. He is in favour. He heaps up the arguments, for all the world like a National Front poster, except with the words spelled correctly. He points out how the two should not meet.
Good God, they are women. And we are men.
Tinniswood writes with relish and ingenuity. He seems to have an endless number of jokes on a cricketing theme and his imagination takes him into areas hitherto untouched by a connection with ‘the summer game’
And it’s still completely incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t know a thing about cricket, and anyone not around to remember the major events of 1981 is going to struggle with large parts of this book.
And Ritchie Benaud wasn’t too keen on it either.
The two Long Room books were lated republished in a hardback Collected volume, from which I’ve been re-reading. In cricketing circles, they were a phenomenon. The Brigadier was hot, so Tinniswood’s next book didn’t really come as any surprise.

Travelling with Tinniswood: Introduction

I only ever saw him once.
It was at Lords, in the early Nineties. I was there with Lancashire CCC: we were there often that decade, getting to a helluva lot of One-Day Finals, NatWest Trophies, Benson & Hedges. It was the lunch interval, and I’d gone across to the Souvenir Shop, and was returning to my seat when I saw him, deep in conversation.
I recognised him immediately, from television, from pictures. The greying pudding-bowl hair, the dark glasses, the beard and goatee, the inevitable pipe, the cravat. He was a devoted cricket fan, and a Lancashire member, but I’d never made the connection to the possibility of his turning up to watch his beloved County.
I had nothing for him to sign so I didn’t interrupt him and his friend.But, like I said, we got to Lords pretty often after that, and each time I poppedone of his books in my bag, to be ready in the event of seeing him again. Of course, that sighting was never repeated.
I’d first discovered Peter Tinniswood’s novels in the early mid-Seventies, and I’d loved his work and followed him devotedly ever since. He was in the midst of his Brandon Family novels then, and the BBC sitcom version, I Didn’t Know You Cared was about to start. He’d been a journalist, a satirical sketch writer. He’d go on to create fantastic, surreal cricket stories. He’d later write extensively for Radio 4, plays and serials: these latter dominated the last ten years of his life.
He died in 2003 and it was the ubiquitous pipe that did for him. Throat cancer, and, despite an  operation to remove of his voicebox, he passed away in early January, days after his 66th birthday.
I’d love to have gotten his signature on one of those wierdly stylised books of his. Not for any presumed value that a signature adds, but for the record of a moment of personal contact with someone whose mind has fascinated me, and for the chance to express my thanks for the hours of occupation someone’s imagination has forged for me.
What kind of writer was Peter Tinniswood? He was surreal. He was funny, black of humour to the point that it shaded into ultra-violet. He relished words, the sound, the rhythm, the sensation of them. He wrote in short paragraphs, and his early novels were decorated with titles for every page, knowing, ironic, bizarre summations of what was going on on that page.
Because of that relish for words, he was far more suited to books and radio than TV, though that was where his career began, on The Frost Report, with his early writing partner David Nobbs. He was unique, and he shouldn’t be forgotten. Most of all, he was a Northerner: born in Liverpool, brought up in Sale, just outside Manchester, a journalist in Sheffield. Though he lived for many years down South, the North never left him, and he used his words to shape it into a living, breathing, comic force.
I don’t have all his books, though I have read them all. I certainly haven’t heard anything like all his Radio 4 work. I’ve seen most of his TV series, one of which still stands out in my mind as an incredible piece of work that would still be ahead of its time even now.
For many years, I thought he was one of the funniest writers I have ever read, and although the later years of his career did considerable damage to that opinion, as I will later describe, and though I heard little or nothing of his output for Radio 4, those books from his early career are still as bizarre, hilarious and surreal as I found them when I first plunged into these deep waters.
So for the next few months I’m going to delve into those books, and take you with me into what animates this most unusual of writers, and just what dark and despairing comic glooms the northerner’s mind can encompass.