Great British crime movies of the 1970s

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer

 

If you’d lived in the United Kingdom in the 1970s but your only contact with the outside world had been through the medium of television, you may well have believed you were surrounded by a dystopian society.  One where every bank and security van was in constant danger of being attacked by beefy men with sawn-off shotguns and stockings pulled down over their heads.  One where every street was the potential scene of a violent punch-up and every road was the potential scene of a destructive car chase.  One where the only bulwark against the tide of lawlessness and anarchy was a police-force composed entirely of hard-boozing, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed thugs who wore kipper ties with their shirt-collar buttons undone.  Really, you’d have been too afraid to leave your house.

 

This is because 1970s British television was awash with crime and cop shows – often violent and often populated by revolting low-life criminals and heroes who weren’t much better in their morality: for example, Special Branch (1969-74), Villains (1972), New Scotland Yard (1972-74), The Sweeney (1975-78), Gangsters (1975-78), The XYY Man (1976-77), Target (1977-78), Out (1978), Hazell (1978-79) and Strangers (1978-82).

 

Needless to say, these shows had a big impact on impressible kids like me.  My school playground at breaktimes reverberated with the sound of me and my mates acting out things we’d seen on TV the night before, shouting, “You’re nicked, sunshine!” and “You grassed me off, you slag!” and “No bastard copper’s gonna take me alive!” and “We’re the Sweeney, son, and we haven’t had any dinner!”  My parents were happy to let me watch such programmes – as long as I wasn’t watching that horror rubbish, which had been scientifically proven to be bad for you.

 

Admittedly, 1970s American television was riddled with cop shows too, and British TV producers were probably just working on the supposition that what worked for American audiences would work for British ones.  But the Yank shows just didn’t seem to compare with their Limey counterparts in terms of bad attitude and grubby, sweaty, bad-breathed and greasy-haired authenticity.

 

I suspect a prime reason for this was because the 1970s saw the British film industry die on its arse and British directors, writers and actors who might have expected to ply their trade on the big screen found themselves plying it on the small screen instead.  This helped inject some uncompromising cinematic rawness into the domestic telly crime genre.  Meanwhile, alas, the cinematic counterpart of that genre seemed non-existent.

 

Well, it was almost non-existent.  A few crime movies got made in 1970s Britain too and, though they’re as rare as hen’s teeth, these exert a fascination for me today.  Only two of them ever achieved a degree of fame and the rest are virtually forgotten – but I find all of them cherish-able.  Here are my favourites.

 

© MGM EMI

 

Get Carter (1970)

This is one 1970s British crime film that everyone knows, although I don’t recall it getting much attention until the mid-1990s, when thanks to Britpop, Damien Hirst, etc., the ‘cool Britannia’ scene took off and Get Carter’s star Michael Caine suddenly became a retro-style icon.  Ironically, Caine’s nattily dressed Jack Carter and Roy Budd’s edgy jazz score aside, there isn’t much in Get Carter that feels stylish.  The drab, monochrome terraced streets of Newcastle-upon-Tyne – if the film’s premise is that Michael Caine has returned to his hometown to sort out trouble, whatever happened to Caine’s Geordie accent? – the shabby pubs, the seedy racecourses, the shit clothes and haircuts, the Neanderthal attitudes…  It’s bloody depressing, actually.  If 1970s Britain really had been like this, I can almost understand why when Maggie Thatcher came to power, she bulldozered the place and cleared the way for the 1980s.

 

One thing about Get Carter that’s often overlooked is the performance of the late, great Ian Hendry as the film’s scuzzball villain, Eric Paice.  “Do you know,” Carter tells him at Newcastle Racecourse in High Gosforth Park, “I’d almost forgotten what your eyes look like.  They’re still the same.  Piss-holes in the snow.”  Hendry was originally meant to play the virile Carter, but by 1970 heavy drinking had taken its toll and instead he was given the supporting role of the memorably weasley Paice.  Hendry resented losing the lead role to Caine and things didn’t go well the night before the filming of the racecourse scene when director Mike Hodges and his cast attempted to give it a read-through – Hendry, supposedly, was three-sheets-to-the-wind.  Despite Hendry’s drunken provocations, Caine is said to have kept his professional cool, although he may have enjoyed the irony of the film’s climax, which sees Carter force-feed Paice a bottle of whisky before clubbing him to death with a shotgun.

 

Villain (1971)

Inspired by the real-life exploits of 1960s London crime-lords Reggie and Ronnie Kray, Villain has Richard Burton, no less, in the role of a gay, mother-fixated and paranoidly violent gang-boss who, against the counsel of wiser heads, gets himself involved in a raid on a factory’s wages van that ultimately causes his downfall.  Meanwhile, trying to stay in one piece through all of this is Ian McShane, playing a smooth but unimportant pimp who has the unenviable job of being both the object of Burton’s affections and the victim of his sadistic rages.

 

© MGM EMI

 

Villain has a wonderful supporting cast – T.P. McKenna and Joss Ackland as fellow gang-bosses, Del Henney and Tony Selby as henchmen, and Nigel Davenport and Colin Welland as the coppers doggedly trying to bring Burton to justice.  (Interestingly, McKenna, Henney and Welland all turned up in the cast of Sam Peckinpah’s troubling Straw Dogs, made the following year.)  The film suffers from having too many sub-plots, though the one where McShane helps Burton escape the law by getting a sleazy Member of Parliament who’s been using his pimping services to testify for him is memorably believable and nauseating.  Played by Donald Sinden, you never hear which political party the MP belongs to.  But you can guess.

 

Sitting Target (1972)

Ian McShane had to suffer some dysfunctional relationships in early 1970s British crime movies.  No sooner had he finished being Richard Burton’s lover / punchbag in Villain than he had to cope with being best friend to a psychotic Oliver Reed in Sitting Target, directed by the underrated Douglas Hickox.  With McShane in tow, Reed escapes from prison early in the film, determined to catch up with his wife Jill St John and give her what’s coming to her.  Reed doesn’t want revenge on St John, as you might expect, for her terrible performance as Tiffany Case in Diamonds are Forever (1971).  No, it’s because he’s discovered she’s betrayed him for another man.  The film’s big twist, when we find out who that other man is, isn’t altogether a surprise.

 

Sitting Target has many pleasures, including Edward Woodward playing a policeman assigned to protect St John against the marauding Ollie.  But nothing quite matches the thrilling early sequence where our two anti-heroes, plus a third convict played by the wonderful (and recently departed) character actor Freddie Jones, bust out of prison in desperate, skin-of-the-teeth fashion.

 

© American International Pictures

 

Hennessy (1975)

I wasn’t going to include Don Sharpe’s Hennessy on this list because it’s about terrorism rather than crime.  Indeed, its story of a former IRA explosive expert (Rod Steiger) who decides to destroy the British government and the Queen by blowing up the state opening of parliament after his wife and child are killed by the British Army, makes it the first movie to tackle the issue of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.  However, as the final film on the list is choc-a-bloc with IRA men, and as Richard Johnson gives a lovely performance as the weary, dishevelled, cynical copper – is there any other type in British crime movies? – trying to thwart Steiger’s plan, I thought I’d give it a mention.

 

The film is admittedly patchy but it has a top-notch cast that also includes Lee Remick, Trevor Howard, Eric Porter, Patrick Stewart (bald as a coot even then) and a super-young Patsy Kensit playing Steiger’s ill-fated daughter.  The climactic scenes set in the House of Commons, involving the Queen, landed the filmmakers in hot water because they used real footage that Buckingham Palace had approved without knowing it was going to end up in a film.  Also, the film’s subject, an incredibly touchy one at the time, meant that Hennessy scarcely saw the light of day in British cinemas.

 

Brannigan (1975)

Okay, Brannigan – also directed by Douglas Hickox – is the joker in this pack.  It features John Wayne as a tough American cop who arrives in a London of bowler hats, brollies and historic landmarks that exists only in the imagination of Hollywood scriptwriters, and who then causes mayhem as he behaves like a Wild West sheriff dealing with an unruly frontier town.  This involves such memorable sequences as Wayne doing an Evel Knievel-style car stunt where he hops across Tower Bridge while it parts to let  a ship pass below.  And Wayne triggering a cowboy-style brawl in a pub near Leadenhall Market.  And Wayne roughing up a minor villain played by the cinema’s greatest Yorkshireman, Brian Glover.  (“Now would you like to try for England’s free dental care or answer my question?”)  If you’re in the wrong mood, Brannigan is the worst film ever made.  If you’re in the right mood, it’s the best one.

 

© United Artists

 

The Squeeze (1977)

Barely had John Wayne swaggered through the London underworld than another Hollywood star did the same in Michael Apted’s The Squeeze – Stacy Keach, playing a London private eye with an industrial-strength drink problem. During occasional moments of sobriety, Keach investigates the kidnapping of his ex-wife (Carol White, who played the title role in Ken Loach’s ground-breaking 1966 drama Cathy Come Home).  She’s remarried a posh security officer (Edward Fox) tasked with overseeing the delivery of large sums of money.  Keach finds himself tangling with a kidnap gang who intend to enlist Fox’s unwilling help in mounting an armed robbery.

 

The Squeeze suffers from being overlong, with too much time spent wallowing in Keach’s booze-soaked misery. But this is outweighed by its good points.  I like its depiction of late 1970s multicultural London and its sympathetic portrayal of Keach’s Jamaican neighbours.  Also, Stephen Boyd (who died soon after the film’s completion aged just 45) and David Hemmings give good turns as the villains.  Allowed to use his native Northern Irish accent in a movie for a change, Boyd disturbingly plays a well-heeled crime-lord who dotes over his own family whilst having zero empathy for the family he’s threatening to destroy with his kidnapping scheme.  Meanwhile, Hemmings is a delight as a pragmatic career criminal who doesn’t share his boss’s sunny optimism about things and gets increasingly disgruntled as Keach closes in.

 

© Warner Bros. Pictures

 

And connoisseurs of 1970s British popular culture will be fascinated to see anarchic comedian Freddie Starr in the cast too.  Starr is endearing as Keach’s best mate, a reformed petty criminal trying to make a living as a taxi driver. Indeed, such is Starr’s loyalty to Keach that he saves his neck three times towards and during the film’s climax, most memorably by running the villains off the road in his taxi.  Starr, who died in May this year, was from all accounts an unreconstructed arsehole in real life.  So remember him this way.

 

Sweeney II (1978)

The greatest of all 1970s British cop shows, The Sweeney got two movie spin-offs, Sweeney! In 1977 and Sweeney II a year later.  I don’t think Sweeney!, which attempted to involve Flying Squad heroes Jack Regan (John Thaw) and George Carter (Dennis Waterman) in an espionage plot, is much cop, but Sweeney II captures the spirit of the TV series.  With Regan and Carter on the trail of a gang who spend most of their time living it up in Malta as wealthy British ex-pats but who return to Britain from time to time to stage vicious, take-no-prisoners bank robberies, the films marries bloody, sawn-off-shotgun-powered violence with some off-the-wall humour.  As one of Regan’s sidekicks, Derek O’Connor gets the funniest lines: “It’s a combination of nerves and smoking too much,” he says when explaining his libido.  “I get a hard-on like a milk bottle.”

 

© Euston Films / EMI

 

Sweeney II is good, loutish fun, then, but it manages to be topical too.  London’s real Metropolitan Police force was investigated for corruption in the late 1970s and the film reflects this with the character of Regan’s commanding officer, played by the excellent Denholm Elliott, who’s facing a long stretch in prison on account of being “so bent it’s been impossible to hang his pictures straight on the office wall for the past twelve months.”

 

The Long Good Friday (1980)

Although it was released at the start of the 1980s, John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday was made in 1979, so I’m classifying it as a 1970s film.  And it definitely feels like it’s drawing the curtain on a particular era with its tale of an old school London gangster (Bob Hoskins) convinced he’s about to make a mint in the brave new world of Thatcherite London, where everything is up for sale to the corporations and developers – until one day when he suddenly finds himself tangling with a ruthless foe, the IRA, that makes him look hopelessly out of his depth.

 

The final scene sees Hoskins become a prisoner in his own, hijacked car and get driven to his doom – an IRA man played by a youthful Pierce Brosnan snakes up from behind the front passenger seat to hold him at gunpoint.  Although Hoskins doesn’t speak, the succession of emotions that flit across his face as it dawns on him that he had it all, but now he’s blown it all, make this the most powerful moment in British crime-movie history.

 

© Black Lion Films / Handmade Films / Paramount British Pictures

 

The Rock

 

 

In a recent blogpost I namechecked the Rock, aka wrestler-turned-movie-star Dwayne Johnson.  Well, here’s a post about an altogether bigger, mightier and more spectacular rock.  I’m talking about Sigiriya Rock, an imposing lump of solidified volcanic magma that rises 200 metres above the plains of north-central Sri Lanka.

 

As a natural feature Sigiriya Rock would be impressive enough.  However, what’s made it one of the greatest tourist attractions on the island are the remarkable man-made embellishments added to it in the 5th century AD.  This was when King Kashyapa I turned the rock into both an impregnable fortress and a luxurious palace, putting on top of it structures and gardens that were supposedly inspired by the fabled city of Alaka, opulent home of Kubera, god of wealth in Hindu mythology.  Kashyapa had a decade-and-a-half to enjoy the security and comfort of this rock-top residence.  He reigned from 473 to 495 AD and it took the first seven years of his kingship to build it.

 

Meanwhile, Kashyapa’s family background had been dysfunctional, to say the least.  He slew his own father, King Dhatusena of Anuradhapura, and declared war on his brother, the future King Moggallana, who fled to India.  Later, Moggallana launched an invasion of Sri Lanka, although his forces never got to test the effectiveness of Kashyapa’s stronghold at Sigiriya.  Instead, Kashyapa chose to venture down from the rock and take on his brother in battle on the plains.  This decision ended badly for Kashyapa, who was defeated and ended up killing himself rather than be captured.  His brother and usurper restored Anuradhapura as the capital and for some eight or nine centuries thereafter Sigiriya was home to a Buddhist monastery complex.

 

As a science fiction nerd, I’d known of Sigiriya Rock for a long time before moving to Sri Lanka because it’d been an inspiration for the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel The Fountains of Paradise (1979) by Arthur C. Clarke, himself a long-term resident of Sri Lanka.  The novel is about the construction in the 22nd century of a ‘space elevator’, leaving the earth from a terminal on the island of Taprobane – which is a lightly-disguised version of Sri Lanka, though for practical reasons it’s repositioned so that it sits on the equator – and connecting with a space station some 22,300 miles up in orbit.  The novel is peppered with flashbacks to the reign of the visionary but demented King Kalidasa, who’s building an extraordinary palace atop a huge rock called Yakkagala.  Kalidasa and Yakkagala are obviously fictional counterparts of Kashyapa and Sigiriya and they provide an ironic parallel with the epic story of the space elevator’s creation many centuries later.

 

© Victor Gollancz

 

Anyway, recently, my better half and I realised we’d been living in Sri Lanka for four-and-a-half years and still hadn’t visited Sigiriya Rock, so it was surely time we did.  At the suggestion of the owner of the hotel we were staying in, at the nearby town of Habarana, we set out in a tuk-tuk at the crack of dawn – good advice, as it turned out.  En route, we passed through the local wildlife sanctuary, which is famous for its elephants, although the only evidence of them we saw was a mess of pulverised vegetation strewn across the road that, our driver assured us, had been caused by their passing; and later on the same road, some hefty deposits of elephant dung.

 

Finally, we were dropped off at the edge of the Sigiriya complex.  We walked a little and entered a building housing the ticket counters and a museum, where already queues were forming even though it was barely seven o’clock.  Tickets purchased, we crossed an area of gardens at the bottom of the rock.  Our plan was to ascend the rock before it became congested with tourists and then explore the gardens after we’d come down.

 

Rising above belts of trees at the gardens’ far end, the rock was a huge, long slab, slightly crenelated and fissured, its dark-grey surface streaked and grooved with vertical lines of brown.  The sun scoured over the centre-point of its flat summit, which meant that in our early-morning photographs a large part of the upper rock was obscured by a circular haze of light.  Meanwhile, its massive shadow divided the gardens into two parts, a sunlit area of radiant green outside the shadow and a dull, twilit area inside it.

 

We climbed the first steps, our surroundings pleasantly wooded and grassy as they sloped upwards to meet the side of Sigiriya Rock proper: a landscape of stone walls, iron railings, terraces, trees, boulders and occasional monkeys.  At one point, the steps threaded through a queasily small triangle of space between two huge, propped-together rocks.  We also saw the first sign warning us about the presence of stinging insects.  In Sinhala, Tamil and English, the sign intoned: BE SILENT – WASPS.

 

 

Then we encountered the rock itself and the steps gave way to a horizontal, wooden walkway that veered to the left.  The walkway ended at more steps ascending to a small enclosed kiosk where you handed over part of your ticket to see the most famous feature on the rock’s side (as opposed to on its summit).  These are the Sigiriya Rock frescoes, paintings of female figures that once were supposed to number some 500 and covered its western face, making it a gigantic gallery.  But just a handful of them survive, in fragmented form.  We climbed a narrow, mesh-enclosed staircase that spirals up the rockface like a turning drill-bit and emerged into the surviving section of gallery, where I counted 17 figures.  Painted onto the sand-coloured canvas of the rock, they fade in and out of view like ghosts flitting in and out of the ether.  But the parts of them that remain visible, golden-skinned and clad in colourful costumes and jewellery, are still iconic.

 

You aren’t allowed to take photographs on the gallery, so instead here’s a modern and rather saucy Sigiriya Rock fresco-themed painting from the wall of our hotel room.

 

 

After descending from the gallery and returning to the main walkway, we passed an area of rock known as ‘the Mirror Wall’ because of its smoothness and shininess.  According to Wikipedia, it’s thus named because back in the day it was “so highly polished that the king could see himself while he walked alongside it.”  It hardly has that quality now but, humped over the walkway, its surface veined, gleaming and strangely soft-looking, this part of the rock seems almost organic.

 

Around a corner and past more walkways, stairs, railings and scaffolding, we emerged onto a plateau halfway up the rock’s northern side called the Lion’s Paws Terrace.  Located here is the bottom of the final series of steps and stairs leading to the summit.  This is flanked by a pair of giant, talon-ed, three-fingered paws – hence the plateau’s name – protruding out of a mound of ancient brown brickwork.  These might once have been attached to a sphinx-like statue with a lion’s shoulders and head but now just the oddly disembodied paws remain.

 

The terrace contained many visitors taking a breather before tackling the final part of the ascent – or in a few cases staying put, because they’d decided that the final ascent was beyond them and this was as high as they were going.  There was another sign about stinging insects, this one saying: WASP ATTACK AREA – BE SILENT.  However, it was offset by a gentler sign giving information about the local bee population: “Bambaras or the Giant Honeybees migrate here; build a social nest on the rock or in a nearby trees (sic), and perform their valuable pollination service when plants in flower require there (sic) service.”

 

We went up the stairs between the Lion’s Paws.  After we’d passed the top of the ruined brickwork, we had to transfer to a series of rickety-looking metal staircases, veering off in one direction for a minute, then veering off in another, and then in another.  In fact, the staircases resembled a crazily positioned fire escape on a very high building.

 

At one point, a lady announced to the other members of her party in front of us, “No, I can’t do this’ and turned and headed down again.  However, what we found daunting about this final part of the ascent wasn’t so much the height, which admittedly was dizzying, but our own tiredness.  By then we’d already traversed a lot of steps and stairs.

 

 

And after all that…  The summit of the rock looked surprisingly civilised when we finally arrived.  It was a patchwork of tracts of grass and tracts of sandy-coloured paving stones, the patches delineated by low remnants of stone walls; terraces whose sides were contained within braces of smoothed, eroded brown bricks; yet more staircases navigating the various levels that’d been carved into the summit; smallish trees; and in one place what looked like an ancient, square swimming pool, now full of brownish water, although I assume it was actually a reservoir that’d given the palace its water supply.  When we descended towards the pool, we saw a couple of dogs mooching there, prompting the inevitable thought: reservoir dogs!

 

In fact, the maze of terraces, flights of steps, walls and flag-stoned pathways made me think of a structure in an M.C. Escher picture, though a less surreal and baffling one.

 

Predictably, the views were beautiful.  It was like being at the centre of a vast bowl – distant mountains forming the bowl’s sides, an expanse of treetops and occasional lakes and rivers forming the bowl’s verdant and glinting base.  Standing on the eastern side of the rock, you got to look across a gorgeous silvery-blue lake that was rimmed and flecked with green, although it was impossible to tell from this distance if the green was caused by lilies, reeds, algae or waterweed.

 

 

Some edges of the summit looked over a sheer drop.  These were screened off by not-terribly-sturdy-looking metal railings.  Not the kindest of employers, King Kashyapa was said to have positioned sentries right on the brink of these precipices, reasoning that their fear of falling asleep and toppling to their dooms would give them the impetus to stay awake, alert and watchful.

 

When we ventured down again, we had to struggle through increasing numbers of visitors who were now trying to make their way upwards.  A few of these visitors deserves fates similar to what Kashyapa’s sleepier sentries would have suffered.  One vain and stupid woman caused a serious traffic jam at the bottom steps between the Lion’s Paws because she insisted on posing at length while a friend took pictures of her.  Further down, another ignorant woman caused a blockage while she attempted to photograph herself in the middle of a narrow section of steps with a camera-phone and an unfeasibly long selfie-stick.

 

And when we arrived down in the gardens again, many people were advancing up the central paths towards the rock-steps.  Some of the female tourists belonged to Chinese tour parties, were clad in Laura Ashley-style floral-patterned dresses and floppy sunhats, and looked like they’d dressed for a shopping expedition rather than an ascent up a huge brute of a volcanic rock.

 

So we were glad we’d heeded our hotel manager’s advice.  Certainly, go to Sigiriya Rock because it’s a brilliant experience.  But go early.

 

 

Time and tide wait for no man and no replicant

 

© Warner Bros / The Ladd Company / Shaw Brothers

 

July 2019 has been a cursed month for my favourite actors.  On this blog I occasionally post instalments in a series with the self-explanatory title Cinematic Heroes and in the past few weeks two people whom I’ve featured in the series have gone to meet their maker.  On July 9th veteran English actor Freddie Jones (Cinematic Heroes 12) passed away.  And it was recently announced that on July 19th the great Dutch actor Rutger Hauer (Cinematic Heroes 6) died after a short illness.

 

Shit.  I’m almost afraid to write any more Cinematic Heroes posts about living actors, in case I jinx them and they die too.  Maybe I should just stick to writing about actors who are already dead.

 

Freddie Jones was a marvellously eccentric and sonorous actor who seemed to exist on several different planes of cinematic reality at once.  He was simultaneously a regular in David Lynch movies (1980’s The Elephant Man, 1984’s Dune, 1989’s Wild at Heart); a star of Hammer horror films (1969’s Frankenstein must be Destroyed, 1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula); a fixture of kids’ teatime TV programmes in the 1970s (1976-78’s The Ghosts of Motley Hall, 1976’s Children of the Stones); and a familiar face in dumb Hollywood blockbusters with one-word titles in the 1980s (1982’s Firefox, 1983’s Krull, 1984’s Firestarter).

 

He also showed up in a trio of great but overlooked British movies that are close to my heart: Basil Deardon’s The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970), in which he’s a hoot as the wonky Scottish psychiatrist giving advice to a troubled Roger Moore; Douglas Hickox’s Sitting Target (1972), in which he, Oliver Reed and Ian McShane are three convicts staging a memorably nail-biting prison breakout; and Richard Lester’s Juggernaut (1974), in which he’s a retired bomb disposal expert suspected by Anthony Hopkins of planting six explosive devices on board a luxury liner.  (Figuring out if the mad bomber really is Freddie Jones is not the most difficult conundrum in cinematic history.)

 

He was also, latterly, a soap opera star, which meant when news came of his passing, social media was gummed up with soap-opera fans lamenting that the lovely old guy who’d played Sandy Thomas in Emmerdale from 2005 to 2018 was no more – which did scant justice to Jones’s tremendous acting CV.  Still, I like the fact that he was in Emmerdale because it kept him on our screens until last year, by which time he was in his nineties.

 

We can also draw comfort from the fact that Freddie Jones’s son Toby, who’s every bit as versatile and quirky as his old man, is nowadays ubiquitous in films and television.  This means that the Jones character-acting DNA should continue to entertain us well into the 21st century.  Indeed, my dream movie would be a remake of Juggernaut with Toby Jones in it, along with Jared Harris and Rory Kinnear, whose dads Richard and Roy starred alongside Freddie in the original.

 

© Brooksfilms / Paramount Pictures

 

Freddie Jones was 91 when he died, so his passing wasn’t a huge surprise.  However, Rutger Hauer’s death definitely was a surprise.  He was 75 and so had passed the allotted three-score-and-ten.  But as he’d specialised in playing Nietzschean supermen, such as in Blade Runner (1982) and The Hitcher (1986), it was easy to assume he wouldn’t die.

 

Mind you, at 75, Hauer’s lifespan was almost 19 times longer than that of Roy Batty, the artificially-created humanoid ‘replicant’ he played in Blade Runner, who was programmed to expire after four years.  And by a spooky coincidence, Hauer has died in 2019 – the year in which the events of Blade Runner, including Batty’s death, took place.

 

Conventional wisdom has it that Hauer reached iconic status in Hollywood in the early-to-mid-1980s with Blade Runner and The Hitcher but thereafter suffered a decline as he made increasing numbers of straight-to-video exploitation movies.  But even if you buy into this theory, you can’t deny that Hauer appeared in a large number of truly enjoyable films.  Although some of the later ones are in the so-bad-they’re-good category and / or are mainly enjoyable because he’s in them.

 

On one side of the quality divide, there’s Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka (1983), Richard Donner’s elegiac and criminally underrated Ladyhawke (1985) and Paul Verhoeven’s delicious medieval gore-and-tits epic Flesh + Blood (1985).  He also turned up in Sam Peckinpah’s final movie The Osterman Weekend (1983) which, while a mishmash of themes and styles, is still a blast because it features Peckinpah’s much-loved scenes of slo-mo carnage, and Rutger Hauer, and John Hurt, and Dennis Hopper.

 

Among the later entries in Hauer’s filmography, I defy anyone to say a seriously bad word against Philip Noyce’s Blind Fury (1989), which has Hauer as a blind Vietnam veteran who’s still capable of slicing flying apples in half with his samurai sword.  Or Lewis Teague’s Wedlock (1991), which has Hauer escaping from a futuristic prison with an explosive collar around his neck and grappling with the splendidly villainous Joan Chen and Stephen Tobolowsky (who as the prison governor gets to utter the movie’s best line: “You nonconformists are all alike!”).

 

Or Tony Maylam’s barking-mad Split Second (1992), which has Hauer investigating a serial-killing alien predator in a globally warmed London alongside Alun Armstrong, Pete Postlethwaite, Ian Dury, Michael J. Pollard and – ahem – Kim Cattrall.  Or Ernest Dickerson’s Surviving the Game (1994), which has Hauer as a late-era capitalism scumbag who organises adventure holidays in the mountains for rich bastards who get to hunt homeless people, and which has another sublime cast including Ice-T, Charles Dutton, F. Murray Abraham and Gary Busey.

 

And let’s not forget Jason Eisner’s fascinatingly terrible / brilliant Hobo with a Shotgun (2011).  Here, Hauer is a kindly but tough old vagrant who arrives in a city wanting to buy a second-hand lawnmower and start a grass-cutting business, but ends up, amid welters of extreme violence, taking on the family of murderous psychotic gangsters who run and terrorise the place.  Well, if you get between Rutger Hauer and his dreams of a lawnmower, you deserve to die.

 

One other reason I have for loving Hauer is that in the early 1990s he was the face of the advertising campaign for my favourite alcoholic brew, Guinness.   (Dressed in black, and sporting a shock of fair hair, Hauer did subliminally resemble a pint of Guinness.)  Unfortunately, Guinness is well-nigh impossible to obtain in Sri Lanka, where I live now, so I can’t down a glass of the black stuff to the great man’s memory.  But as soon as I arrive in a Guinness-friendly country, my first pint will have Rutger Hauer’s name on it.

 

© Guinness

 

Du Maurier, du merrier

 

© Penguin

 

One nice thing that’s happened to me in the past year or so has been my discovery of how good a writer Daphne du Maurier was.  I’d long been aware of her novels like Jamaica Inn (1936) and Rebecca (1938) and short stories like The Birds (1952) and Don’t Look Now (1971), but before 2018 The Birds had been the only thing by her that I’d read.

 

Then, two Christmases ago, my partner gave me a collection of her short fiction that had Don’t Look Now as its title story and I really enjoyed it.  Admittedly, I didn’t think the fictional Don’t Look Now was quite as good as the famous film that it inspired in 1973 – by a sad coincidence, the film’s director, the brilliant Nicolas Roeg, died soon after I finished the story – but I thought some of the other things in the collection, like A Border Line Case and The Way of the Cross, were crackers.  Now I’ve just completed another book of her short stories called The Blue Lenses and Other Stories, which was originally published in 1959 as The Breaking Point.  I’m happy to report that the tales in it are every bit as satisfying.

 

Much of the Don’t Look Now collection had a common theme, that of English people travelling abroad and having problems – by turns humorous, serious and horrible – as they leave their comfort zones and encounter the new and the strange.  This theme reappears in a couple of stories in The Blue LensesGanymede even uses the basic scenario of Don’t Look Now itself, i.e. an English visitor coming unstuck in Venice.  However, the tale isn’t a macabre one but a painful comedy of errors.  An older gay Englishman lusts after a teenage Venetian waiter and gets his comeuppance from the lad’s shady relatives, who happily lead him on whilst milking him of his money.  Ganymede has a few uncomfortable moments where you wonder if it’s being anti-gay or, alternatively, anti-Italian.  But du Maurier – herself believed to have had a lesbian relationship with Gertrude Lawrence – gets away with it, balancing our sympathy for the pathetically naïve Englishman with our satisfaction at him getting his just deserts from the Italians.  (For all his pitifulness, he is still a predator.)

 

The Chamois has an English couple travelling to some far-flung Greek mountains because the man, obsessed with hunting the goat-antelopes of the title, has been tipped off about the sighting of a notable and shootable specimen there.  To get to the peaks that are its territory, they entrust themselves to the care of a goatherd-cum-mountain-guide with a primordial appearance.  The woman, narrating the story, describes him as “wrapped in his hooded burnous, leaning upon his crook…” with “the strangest eyes…  Golden brown in colour…”  There follows a series of psychological revelations about the couple – the man hunts to make up for inadequacies in his psyche and the woman, shall we say, is simultaneously turned off and turned on by his hobby.  And a weird, almost mythical narrative unfolds wherein they find it harder and harder to distinguish between the beast they’re seeking and the man-beast who’s escorting them.

 

Similar weirdness occurs in the stories The Pool and The Lordly Ones – the former about a pubescent girl staying at her grandparents’ country house and experiencing strange dreams involving a pond in the woods beyond the garden, the latter about a misunderstood mute child who runs off with some unidentified ‘beings’ who come in the night while he and his family are holidaying on a remote moor.  Both contain dashes of W.B Yeats-style mysticism and Arthur Machen-style folk horror and are among the best stories in the book, even if in The Lordly Ones I saw the ending coming a mile away.

 

From famousauthors.org

 

The remaining stories are admirably varied.  The Menace is a comedy with a slight science-fictional element, about a movie star called Barry Jeans who sets hearts aflutter by communicating as few words and expressing as little emotion as possible onscreen.  Offscreen he’s not much more vocal or expressive and listlessly leaves all decisions to his bossy wife and his sizeable entourage of hangers-on.  Then some new technology ushers in ‘the feelies’, which promise to be as game-changing for the film industry as the arrival of ‘the talkies’.  In the feelies, film stars are wired to a machine that transmits their sexual energy – what Austen Powers would call their ‘mojo’ – to the audiences watching them in the cinemas.  Barry’s entourage are horrified when preliminary tests suggest that the inscrutable star’s mojo is almost non-existent and so they embark on a drastic campaign to pep that mojo up.  The Menace sees du Maurier taking the mickey out of Hollywood and I suspect it might have been inspired by some less-than-edifying experiences with the place – for example, she was sued for breach of copyright after Rebecca was made into a film in 1939.

 

The Alibi is the collection’s most twisted tale, about a well-to-do and respectable man who one day seemingly flips: “He was aware of a sense of power within.  He was in control.  He was the master-hand that set the puppets jiggling.”  He walks away from the routines, conventions and obligations of his upper-middle-class existence, invents a new identity for himself and secretly rents a room in a seedy part of London.  Initially, he plans to commit murder – but his Nietzschean madness subsides somewhat and instead he starts living a parallel life as an aspiring artist, using the room as his studio.  But his project gets knocked for six when the story reaches an unexpected and nasty conclusion.

 

Different again is The Archduchess, an exercise in magical realism.  It describes the final days of a ruling dynasty in a Ruritanian microstate called Ronda, somewhere in southern Europe, which has discovered the secret of immortality.  It’s difficult to know where du Maurier’s sympathies lie here.  Is she writing in favour of the dynasty and, by extension, of aristocracies and the status quo everywhere?  Or is she satirising it?  One thing I will say – her account of a devious revolutionary named Markoi, who edits Ronda’s main newspaper and uses it to seed the minds of the population with doubts, suspicions and eventual paranoia, so as to engineer the downfall of the ruling order, strikes a chord today.  Markoi seems all too familiar in a modern world of fake news, where Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News helped propel Donald Trump into the American presidency and, in Britain, the Barclay Brothers’ Daily Telegraph has just achieved a similar feat with Boris Johnson.

 

Finally there’s the title story, The Blue Lenses, which I found rather terrifying.  Its set-up is a familiar one, about a woman in a hospital recovering from an eye operation who discovers that things suddenly aren’t as they’re supposed to be.  But unlike the hero in John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids (1951), who removes the bandages from his eyes and finds that the world really has gone to hell, the nightmare experienced by the heroine of The Blue Lenses is ambiguous.  The surreal, if not grotesque things that she sees have a subjective quality and you wonder about her sanity.  What makes the story more effective is her decision to pretend to the hospital staff around her that nothing is amiss, while she tries to figure out what’s happening.  Her desperate efforts to stay composed heighten the horror of the situation.

 

As a collection, The Blue Lenses and Other Stories ticks off the checklist of things I want to find in a book of short fiction: clear, lucid prose; plenty of incident; a variety of tones and genres; and an obvious commitment at all times to telling an entertaining yarn.  It’s another package of du Maurier marvelousness.

 

From the moon to the loon

 

From pixabay.com

© BBC

 

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the historic day when humanity, in the form of Neil Armstrong, set foot on another world.  For yes, although in astronomical terms the moon is a small, insignificant and boring piece of rock skulking in the earth’s immediate neighbourhood, it’s still not of this world and so qualifies as another world.

 

To be honest, considering everything that’s happened since, I don’t particularly want to write about it.  This resulting blogpost will be at best be a nostalgic wallow and at worst an exercise in despair.  But anyway.  Here goes.

 

Even I am slightly too young to remember seeing Armstrong plant his spacesuit-encased foot on the lunar turf on July 20th, 1969.  But I do recall live TV pictures of a subsequent Apollo mission to the moon in the early 1970s.  Admittedly, I wasn’t altogether sure what I was watching.  At the time my family and I were huddled around a small black-and-white television set in Northern Ireland, which picked up a single channel, BBC1.  (Well, it showed a second channel, Raidio Teilifis Eireann from the Republic of Ireland, if my Dad poked a screwdriver into a hole at the side of the set and did some hazardous, electrocution-risking fiddling with it.)  All I could discern on the screen were some fuzzy pale blobs floating against a blurry dark-grey background.  However, my parents assured me that these were men walking about on the moon, high above us, at that very moment, so I took their word for it.

 

One thing I remember from the Apollo coverage was that the BBC used Richard Strauss’s fanfare Also Sprach Zarathustra as the theme music for their broadcasts.  This had already featured memorably on the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the greatest science fiction film ever made, and I assume the BBC used the same recording, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic and conducted by Herbert von Karajan, that appeared on the film.  It was disconcerting when I saw 2001 later, as a teenager, and heard Also Sprach Zarathustra again.  Instead of making me look ahead to the future, to 2001, it stirred associations with the past, with the early 1970s and that grainy old moon-landing footage.

 

It must have been in 1973 that my imagination took a leap almost as giant as the ‘leap for mankind’ that Armstrong spoke of when he descended from the lunar landing module.  This was caused by the arrival of two sets of newly-published encyclopaedias that my parents had seen advertised somewhere and ordered.  They consisted of a 15-volume set with lemony-coloured covers called the Childcraft books that, accordingly, were for children; and a 24-volume set called the World Book series that were for adults and came in sombre, mossy-green covers.  Together, all 39 encyclopaedias just about fitted along the biggest horizontal surface on the sideboard in our living room.  They made an imposing sight because until then I hadn’t suspected that there were enough books in the world to fill the top of our sideboard.

 

I immediately set about reading these encyclopaedias, both the juvenile and adult ones, and my horizons were swiftly widened.  Not all the consequences of this were positive, however.  My parents had neglected to read the small print in the advertisement.  If they had, they would have discovered that the encyclopaedias had been printed in America, by Americans, for Americans, and their contents were duly biased towards America.  As a result, I wasted a lot of time searching in the fields of our farm for evidence that woodchucks, porcupines, prairie dogs and Gila monsters had been foraging there.  Also, some unusual words started to appear in my vocabulary – diaper, candy store, soda fountain, rest room – which at school created much hilarity for my classmates and much misery for me.

 

From ebth.com

 

One feature of these encyclopaedias that rubbed off on me was that, because they were American and because they’d been published just after the moon landings, they were dripping with optimism.  This was a scientific as well as an American optimism.  Yes, there was a time not so long ago when America took science seriously and saw it as one of the key tools for converting the rest of the world to the glories of the American way.  At the age of eight or nine, I lapped all this up.  Unfortunately, with hindsight, I realise that some of the assertions in the encyclopaedias were over-optimistic to say the least.

 

For example, the encyclopaedias predicted that, having reached the moon, it would only be a short time – the 1980s, at the latest – before human beings were tramping around the surface of Mars too.  The ‘S’ volume of the World Book encyclopaedias had a lengthy entry about ‘space travel’ and on one page I found a multi-pictured diagram showing how astronauts were going to get to Mars.  Admittedly, the Mars spaceship in that diagram, as well as having a long, sleek fuselage and a beak-like nose, had wings, which seemed suspicious because by then I knew that in outer space there wasn’t any air and wings were thus superfluous.  (I suspect the artist behind those pictures had been unconsciously influenced by a non-space vehicle that was making a stir at the time, Concorde.)  Elsewhere, there were pictures of what a moonbase – only a few decades away in the future, I was told – would look like, although it was an unprepossessing cylindrical structure that resembled a giant tin-can left as litter in a lunar crater.

 

(Incidentally, it was surely no coincidence that the equally lengthy entry on ‘motion pictures’ in the ‘M’ volume was headed by a handsome colour photograph from Kubrick’s 2001.)

 

Anyway, I assumed this was what my life would be like by the time I’d reached my thirties.  I’d be living on a moonbase, watching Concorde-like spaceships streak past on their way to Mars.

 

Needless to say, as the 1970s wore on, I began to get uneasy about the fact that very little futuristic stuff was happening anymore.  As far as manned spaceflight was concerned, there was just the Skylab project and the space shuttle.  Skylab came to an ignominious end when the by-then empty space station crashed back to earth on July 11th, 1979.  By this time my family had moved to near the town of Peebles in southern Scotland, and on that date I was attending a scout camp outside the neighbouring town of Hawick.  I remember feeling slightly worried that Skylab might fall on top of the field we were camping in and take out the entire 1st Tweeddale Scout Troop.  As for the space shuttle, it received a lot of publicity and hype when it first took off, but it didn’t venture beyond earth’s orbit and, frankly, seemed a bit shit to me.

 

And what had happened to that you-can-do-anything-if-you-put-your-mind-to-it American optimism?  It seemed to fizzle out as the 1970s became one long litany of American trauma: the Vietnam War, the 1973 oil crisis, Watergate, the Iran hostage saga.  I suppose as far as those encyclopaedias were concerned, the writing had already been on the wall because their coverage of modern American history ended with the presidency of Richard Nixon, shortly before Nixon fell spectacularly from grace.  (Though anyone familiar with Nixon’s character would point out that, in the grace stakes, he never had far to fall.)

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

 

Still, even Nixon seems a model of intellect and restraint (if not integrity) compared with the specimen we have inhabiting the White House on July 20th, 2019.  Trump’s entire being seems to loudly and violently rebuke that clear-minded scientific positivism that embodied America in 1969, at least as those encyclopaedias portrayed it.  Science?  What’s that?  Trump has tried to slash funding for science and remove it from policy areas in crucial need of it, like the environment and public health.  He’s tried to stop NASA doing research into climate change and tried to censor US Geological Survey press releases so that they don’t mention it.  More generally, he’s made a point of proudly proclaiming his ignorance at every twist and turn of his presidency.  The oaf doesn’t even read books.  Give him a set of encyclopaedias and ten years later he wouldn’t have got past ‘A for aardvark’.

 

Of course this doesn’t matter one whit – indeed, it boosts his popularity – among his core support, who themselves are a ragtag army of anti-science ignoramuses: climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, crackpot conspiracy theorists and religious fruitcakes who maintain that the universe was created in six days 6000 years ago.

 

It’s particularly depressing at the moment to see Trump slandering non-white female politicians – knowing fine well this will energise his racist support base in the run-up to the 2020 presidential elections – when it’s documented how black female mathematicians helped keep NASA’s show on the road in the 1960s.  Today, some of Trump’s supporters would probably want to ‘send them back’ to Africa.

 

Yet it’s too easy to scapegoat Trump for all the world’s ills.  Humanity generally hasn’t distinguished itself during the fifty years since NASA and the Apollo astronauts gave our species its finest hour.  Our collective greed, laziness, materialism and indifference are taking a devastating toll on the earth’s environment and resources and unless we pay heed to the warnings of the majority of climate and environmental scientists – if, indeed, it’s not already too late – I don’t see much of a future, or any sort of future, for us.  Maybe, just as Ernest Hemingway spent the late 1920s knocking out classics of 20th century American literature like The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), but three decades later had become a sad, unpleasant, paranoid pisshead who ended up blowing off his head with a shotgun, humanity has already peaked, is now in decline and is heading for a graceless and suicidal end.

 

Fifty years ago, the tune that defined humanity seemed to be Also Sprach Zarathustra.  Today, I’m more inclined to think our theme tune is Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ People Ain’t No Good.

 

From pixabay.com

 

Great unappreciated films: Licence to Kill

 

© Eon Productions

 

Few events depress me more than when a film critic like the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw or Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers, who knows nothing about James Bond and whose general opinions I don’t think much of either, decides it’s time to pen a feature ranking the Bond films from ‘best’ to ‘worst’.  That invariably means that the 1989 movie Licence to Kill with Timothy Dalton playing Bond ends up near the bottom, held off the ‘worst’ spot only by 1985’s A View to a Kill.  (For the record, I think the worst movie is 1979’s Moonraker, followed closely by 1982’s Octopussy and 2002’s Die Another Day.)  Bradshaw, Travers or whoever the know-nothing critic is will invariably damn Licence to Kill with such adjectives as ‘humourless’, ‘dour’, ‘violent’ and ‘misjudged’.

 

This was the film where Timothy Dalton and the Bond production team decided it was time to shake up the tried-and-tested formula of fantasy plots, over-the-top villains and unlikely action set-pieces by trying something more authentic.  In fact, Licence to Kill is a trailblazer for the Bond films of the 21st century, when the series was rebooted into a darker, grittier (and critically acclaimed) form with Daniel Craig.  But it rarely gets any credit for that.

 

Well, today, the thirtieth anniversary of when Licence to Kill was released in cinemas, it’s time for Blood and Porridge to stand up and be counted.  I think Licence to Kill is a great Bond movie.  When it appeared, I believed it was the best instalment in the series since the 1960s and I still regard it as being among the best half-dozen in the series’ 57-year history.  That its critical reputation is tarnished is down to bad luck.  It was unlucky in the reaction it got from fickle film critics who’d spent the previous two decades complaining that the Bond movies, during the tenure of Roger Moore, had become ‘too silly’ and had lost the ‘serious’ tone of the Ian Fleming books on which they were based.  But the moment that Licence to Kill appeared, they wailed that it was ‘too serious’ and lamented the loss of the glorious silliness of good old Roger Moore.

 

Licence to Kill was unlucky too because, although it made a respectable profit outside the USA, the American takings were the lowest ever for a Bond movie.  Despite what many think, this wasn’t a reflection of its quality, but the result of it being released at an inopportune time when cinemas were already crowded with Lethal Weapon 2, Batman and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (a film that coincidentally was choc-a-bloc with Bond alumni like John Rhys-Davies, Alison Doody, Julian Glover and the original 007 himself Sean Connery).

 

And it was unlucky to be the last movie before the great Bond hiatus of 1989 to 1995, during which no new Bond films were made due to a legal dispute between Danjaq, the franchise’s holding company, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / United Artists.  This gave people the false impression that Licence to Kill, and Timothy Dalton, had crocked the series for half-a-dozen years.

 

When I saw Licence to Kill 30 years ago, what impressed me first was that it had a plot.  Not a jungle-like mesh of subplots and tangents created because producer Cubby Broccoli and his writers wanted to fit in action and special-effects set-pieces involving Viennese gondolas that turn into speedboats, and Amazonian speedboats that turn into hang-gliders, and crashing cable cars, and Bond falling out of a plane without a parachute, and laser-gun shootouts in outer space, but a plot that moves smoothly from A to B and to C.

 

© Eon Productions

 

Licence to Kill begins with Bond being best man at the wedding of his CIA buddy Felix Leiter (David Hedison, who’d already played Leiter in 1974’s Live and Let Die).  Leiter’s big day proves even more eventful than expected because he has to interrupt his nuptials to seize Latin American drug baron Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi).  Sanchez has suddenly turned up on American soil in pursuit of his errant mistress Lupe (Talisa Soto) and her boyfriend – whose heart Sanchez cuts out before Leiter and the Feds clamp the cuffs on him.

 

Felix gets married as planned, but things take a dark turn indeed when Sanchez escapes from captivity, with the aid of crooked DEA agent Ed Killifer (Everett McGill).  Like the monster on Victor and Elizabeth Frankenstein’s wedding night, he and his henchmen turn up at the Leiters’ home to get revenge.  Leiter’s new wife Della (Priscilla Barnes) is murdered – Sanchez’s number-one scumbag minion Dario, played by a very young Benicio Del Toro, crows at Leiter, “Don’t worry, we gave her a nice honeymoo-oon!”  Leiter is dunked in a shark tank in a marine research centre in Key West, which is one of the fronts for Sanchez’s US drugs-smuggling operation.  Later, Bond discovers Della’s dead body and Leiter’s just-about-alive one (minus a couple of limbs) and vows his own revenge.

 

He picks up the trail in Key West, first investigating the marine research centre and then Sanchez’s yacht / research vessel the Wavekrest – by this time Sanchez himself has returned to his home turf, which is a fictitious Latin American country called Isthmus.  Bond tangles violently with Dario and Sanchez’s sleazy American lieutenant Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe) and, gratifyingly, he drops Killifer and his suitcase of blood money into the shark tank where Leiter was maimed.  (“You earned it!  You keep it!”)  Along the way, he finds an unexpected ally in the form of Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), an airplane pilot who’s been working for Leiter in some mysterious capacity.  And he incurs the wrath of his boss M (Robert Brown), who thinks he’s getting involved in matters that don’t concern him (“We’re not a country club, 007!”) and revokes his licence to kill.  This was why the film had provisionally been titled Licence Revoked until, the story goes, research in the USA suggested that many Americans didn’t know what the word ‘revoked’ meant.

 

© Eon Productions

 

Now a rogue agent, Bond steals a fortune in drugs money from the Wavekrest and uses it to fund a trip to Isthmus for him and Bouvier.  There, he tries to assassinate Sanchez but fails and, in the process, unwittingly exposes a secret operation being run against Sanchez by narcotics officers from Hong Kong.  This leaves Sanchez with the impression that the Hong Kong officers were the ones trying to assassinate him and Bond, by exposing them, is actually on his side.  An unlikely bromance ensues and Sanchez, enamoured with Bond, tries to recruit him into his organisation.

 

Aware that Sanchez is obsessed with loyalty, Bond starts planting doubts in Sanchez’s mind about the fidelity of his many henchmen who, in addition to those already mentioned, include his head of security Heller (Don Stroud) and his whizz-kid accountant Truman-Lodge (Anthony Starke).  Time, though, is running short for Bond because the two members of Sanchez’s organisation who know his true identity are returning to Isthmus: Krest, on board the Wavekrest, and Dario, who’s coming by way of El Salvador, where he’s managed to procure some stinger missiles.  Sanchez intends to use these to shoot down American aircraft in revenge for his recent incarceration.

 

What follows involves much mayhem and gruesome death – death by being doused in gasoline and set alight, death by being blown apart in a decompression chamber, death by being impaled on forklift blades, death by being fed into a cocaine-grinding machine – a lot of it inflicted by a now-paranoid Sanchez on the people who work for him.  Yes, Licence to Kill seems a million miles removed from the Roger Moore Bonds, where the most gruesome things were the innuendo-laden jokes cracked while Moore got intimate with ladies about half his age.  (“He’s attempting re-entry!” someone remarks as Moore gets it on with Lois Chiles on board an earthbound space shuttle in Moonraker.)  But while the brutality here may shock someone accustomed to the escapist fantasises of the 1970s and 1980s Bond movies, I loved it.

 

This was the sort of Bond imagined by Ian Fleming, most of whose books I’d read before I saw any of the films.  Not, of course, that Fleming ever wrote about 1980s Latin American drug dealers – his gangsters were of the James Cagney variety, with names like ‘Jack Spang’, ‘Sluggsy Morant’, ‘Sol Horowitz’, ‘Sam Binion’ and ‘Louie Paradise’.  But Dalton nails it as the screen Bond who was closest to the character described by Fleming.  Smooth and confident on the surface, but subtly troubled underneath, he does some bad stuff in the line of duty and hates having to do it.  Though even more, he hates the evil deeds, like the atrocities perpetrated against Leiter, that necessitate him having to do it.

 

© Eon Productions

 

Not that the film is as dark as many have made out.  It has some amusing lines and likeable performances.  One thing that brings a smile to the face is the entry into the plot, halfway through, of Bond’s secret-service armourer Q, played by the venerable Desmond Llewellyn.  Q takes some leave and nips over to Isthmus to help Bond and Bouvier out, bringing with him a cache of his famous gadgets.  (“Everything for a man on holiday.  Explosive alarm clock…  Guaranteed never to wake up anyone who uses it.  Dentonite toothpaste…  To be used sparingly.  The latest in plastic explosive!”)  After the Moore films, where Q’s main function was to be the butt of Bond’s jokes, it’s nice to see him with an expanded role and enjoying a different dynamic with Bond.  In Licence to Kill, the two men actually respect, like and care about each other.

 

Llewellyn, though, is just one player in a generally delightful cast.  A 1980s / 1990s action-movie character actor, and nowadays a Sinatra-esque crooner, Robert Davi is excellent as Sanchez.  He tempers sufficient quantities of rottenness with some unexpected integrity – for instance, he insists on honouring the deal he’s made with Killifer, even though his sidekicks urge him to take the easier option of whacking the guy.  Similarly distinguished character actors play the other villains: Zerbe, Stroud, McGill and, of course, Del Toro.  Plus you get some familiar and welcome faces  in smaller roles, including Frank McRae from 48 Hrs (1982) and The Last Action Hero (1993) and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa from the Mortal Combat franchise.

 

Also deserving praise is Carey Lowell.  Just as Davi is the great overlooked Bond villain, Lowell is the great overlooked Bond girl.  From the very beginning, when she shuts up the odious Dario by shoving a pump-action shotgun into his crotch, her Pam Bouvier character means business.  Her gutsiness is immensely refreshing after so many Bond actresses in the 1970s and 1980s were given roles that were wooden (Carole Bouquet), insipid (Jane Seymour) or just plain dumb (Jill St John, Britt Ekland, Tanya Roberts).  It’s good too that she doesn’t merely follow Bond but has her own separate agenda – retrieving the stinger missiles before Sanchez does serious damage with them, a scheme for which she’s enlisted the help of the duplicitous Heller.

 

© Eon Productions

 

What else do I like about Licence to Kill?  I like its references to Ian Fleming’s fiction – Milton Krest, the Wavekrest and Sanchez’s fondness for whipping Lupe with a stingray’s tail come from the 1960 short story The Hildebrand Rarity, while Leiter’s encounter with the shark is lifted from the 1954 novel Live and Let Die.  I like how the secondary Bond girl, Talisa Soto’s Lupe, survives the film – in many films the secondary Bond girl, from Lana Wood’s Plenty O’Toole in Diamonds are Forever (1971) to Berenice Marlohe’s Severine in Skyfall (2012), ends up as a sacrificial lamb, killed to show how beastly the villains are.  And I like the theme song by Gladys Knight.  While it’s not in the premiere division of Bond themes, it has a stateliness that’s welcome after the filmmakers’ previous flirtations with pop groups and pop songs, i.e. Aha’s The Living Daylights (1987), a song that I hated at the time but quite like now, and Duran Duran’s A View to a Kill (1985), a song that I hated at the time and hate even more now.

 

And I like how the film is a spiritual sequel to perhaps the best-ever Bond movie, 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which ends with Bond getting married and then seeing his new wife Tracy murdered by his nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  This is referenced in Licence to Kill by a moment when Bond becomes melancholic during Leiter’s wedding – “He was married once,” Leiter tells Della, “but that was a long time ago.”  (When I saw the film in 1989 in a cinema in Aberdeen, someone in the row behind me declared: “Aye, an’ he looked like George Lazenby at the time!”)  This suggests that later in the film Bond isn’t just avenging Leiter and Della, but Tracy too.

 

And faults?  Well, Licence to Kill suffers from a couple of character inconsistencies.  For a man who’s recently lost  wife and limbs, David Hedison’s Leiter seems unfathomably cheerful when he reappears at the end – maybe it’s the drugs they were feeding him at the hospital.   Meanwhile, Carey Lowell’s Bouvier is ill-served by a scene where she encounters Lupe, finds out that she’s spent the night with Bond and reacts like a sulky, jealous schoolgirl.  (“Bullshit!” she exclaims when Q diplomatically suggests that Bond only did it for the sake of the mission.)  She’s entitled to be upset, but being upset like this is out-of-character for her.

 

Licence to Kill, alas, marked Timothy Dalton’s last appearance as Bond.  When the franchise finally got going again with 1995’s Goldeneye, it was with the cuddlier Pierce Brosnan in the role.  (I like Brosnan, but always found his attempts to combine the physicality of Sean Connery with the smoothness of Roger Moore a little unconvincing.)  As I’ve said, Dalton strikes me as the actor who came closest to portraying Bond in the way Fleming had envisioned him and, for me, there’s no higher accolade.  He’s the connoisseur’s Bond.

 

© Eon Productions

 

Jim Mountfield gets arty

 

© Aphelion Magazine

 

My horror fiction-writing alter ego Jim Mountfield has just had a new story called They Draw You In  published in the July 2019 issue of the webzine Aphelion.

 

They Draw You In came about through a desire to write a scary story set in an art gallery.  Not in a world-famous gallery, like the Louvre or the George Pompidou Centre in Paris, or the National Gallery or Tate Modern in London, or the Guggenheims in New York or Bilbao – all of which I’ve been lucky enough to visit over the years – but in a small provincial one.  A gallery where the artists whose work is on display are less well known or not known at all, where the artwork itself is probably variable in quality, and where the overall vibe is unglamorous and unassuming… but also unpredictable, because you just don’t know what you’re going to find there.  One place that inspired the story was an art gallery I explored in the Romanian town of Brasov a few years ago.  The premises were cramped and the visit was brief, but some of the things I saw were memorable – because they were slightly eccentric and odd.

 

 

Because I wanted to make the setting drab and ordinary, but also disorientating and disturbing, I suppose I tried with They Draw You In to emulate the work of the Liverpudlian writer Ramsey Campbell, who’s made a career of taking drab, ordinary settings and characters and doing disorientating and disturbing things with them.  However, while I wrote it, I found myself borrowing ideas too from the life of notorious occultist Aleister Crowley who, as well as being a magician, theologian, drug addict, mountaineer, poet, novelist and self-styled ‘wickedest man in the world’, was – yes! – an artist.

 

I was slightly dismayed after I finished the story to sit down one evening with my better half and watch a new movie on Netflix called Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) – and discover that it too told a horror story set in the world of artists, paintings and galleries.  Would it cover exactly the same ground as They Draw You In?  Well, I don’t think so.  I enjoyed Velvet Buzzsaw and particularly enjoyed its savage ridiculing of pretentious art dealers and art critics, but I found it all over the place in terms of its horror elements.  Things happened in it without rhyme or reason: one character was dismembered by a machine in a modern art installation, another was murdered by a creepy figure from a modern art installation, and another again was swallowed by paint that magically flowed out of a wall mural.  Hopefully, the idea at the heart of They Draw You In is more consistent and coherent.

 

Incidentally, the half-dozen paintings that appear in the story are inspired by real-life ones.  Those real paintings are Fix Your Eyes by Fiona Michie, Journey in a Carriage by Alfred Wierusz Kowalski, The Little Street by Johannes Vermeer, Fishers in the Snow by John Bellany, The Lark by George Henry and (obliquely) The Spell by Sir William Fettes Douglas.  With the exception of Kowalski, who was Polish, and Vermeer, who was Dutch, all those painters were or are Scottish.  So although the Caledonian art scene isn’t usually the first thing that springs to mind in connection with Scotland, it’s clearly had a big influence on the humble horror scribe Jim Mountfield.

 

For the next few weeks at least, They Draw You In can be accessed here and the edition of Aphelion in which it appears can be accessed here.

 

Grab a Pugh

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Film 4

 

When I hear the term ‘feel-good British comedy movie’, I usually want to hide inside a coal bin.  This is especially so when the film credits contain the words ‘Richard’ and ‘Curtis’.  Curtis’s cinematic oeuvre doesn’t leave me feeling good, but leaves me feeling sick: for example, Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1998), the first two Bridget Jones films (2001 and 2004) and the absolutely vomit-inducing Love Actually (2003).

 

I have no intention of ever watching the new Curtis-scripted, Beatles-themed movie Yesterday (2019), even though it’s directed by Danny Boyle.  I suspect exposure to it would cause me to develop spewing, frothing, screaming, running-around symptoms similar to those of the people infected by the virus in Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002).

 

That said, I did enjoy the recent British comedy-drama Fighting with my Family, which tells the story of Norwich-born World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) female wrestler Saraya ‘Paige’ Bevis, played by the currently ubiquitous Florence Pugh.  Curtis has no connection with the film but it’s written and directed by another long-term member of Britain’s comedy establishment, Stephen Merchant, the former writing partner of Ricky Gervais.

 

Now Fighting with my Family is no masterpiece and its rags-to-riches tale is a very familiar one.  At the start, when Paige isn’t hurtling, bouncing and thudding around the ring in her family’s wrestling gym / independent wrestling-circuit venue, she’s mooching about the streets of Norwich in black eyeliner, facial piercings and unsunny goth-metal gear.  Then she gets a once-in-a-lifetime break at a WWE try-out at the O2 Arena, is selected and flown to the USA by wrestling promoter / coach Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughan), is trained in the flashy and razzmatazz-y ways of the WWE and finally wins the WWE Divas Championship.  During the process she encounters hardships: like having to withstand the tough-love training of Morgan, who forces his charges to upend monster-truck tyres all the way along a beach; and the bitchiness of her fellow lady wrestler-trainees, who are ex-models, ex-dancers and ex-cheerleaders, are glammed up to 11 even at moments when they should be shedding sweat like garden sprinklers, and regard poor Paige as a refugee from a Halloween party.

 

The positive, life-affirming ending is never in doubt, though.  It couldn’t be – for Paige is a real wrestler, her remarkable story is well known and it’s already been chronicled in a 2012 Channel 4 documentary.

 

From www.j4jacket.com

 

But Fighting with My Family has some good things going for it, especially when you compare it with the lame British movies I ranted about in the opening paragraph.  For a start, it isn’t populated by poshos who, though they’re disgustingly wealthy – Hugh Grant’s character in Four Weddings hangs out with ‘the eighth richest man in England’ while Bridget Jones owns a massive studio flat in London while flitting off at weekends to her parents’ mansion in the Home Counties – we’re expected to feel sorry for because they can’t get laid and can’t get hitched.  Paige’s wrestling-fixated family – rumbustious multi-tattooed dad Patrick / Rowdy Richard (Nick Frost), rumbustious crimson-haired mum Julia / Sweet Saraya (Lena Headey), and more reflective brother Zac / Zodiac (Jack Lowther) – are a million miles removed from that.  They’re hardly what you’d call ordinary, but they’re definitely non-privileged.  They also interact and behave as a believable family unit.  Compare them with the characters in Four Weddings, who seem to have been thrown together purely for comic effect.  I’m sure that in real life the Hugh Grant character would have run a hundred miles rather than associate with a grizzled old ham like the one played by Simon Callow.

 

It’s nice too to have the British part of the film set outside London and the Home Counties, and set in a provincial centre like Norwich – where, incidentally, I lived in 2008 and 2009.  There’s some scenic shots of the town from Mousehold Heath and Norwich Market is shown in all its variegated glory.  Indeed, while I was watching the film with my better half and during a scene set in the market, I pointed excitedly at a particular market stall and exclaimed: “Look!  That’s where I bought my George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead T-shirt!”

 

And I like the fact that even by the end of the film, when Paige enjoys her moment of triumph, she doesn’t renounce her outsider status – she still embraces it.  Admittedly, there was a part earlier on where, in response to the jibes of her more glamorous American wrestling compadres, she dyes her hair blonde and tries to lighten her wardrobe.  I was worried that she was going to be like Ally Sheedy at the end of The Breakfast Club (1985), but thankfully this makeover is only temporary.  Paige’s cultural inclinations also mean that we get some decent music on the film’s soundtrack, including Motorhead’s Born to Raise Hell and Iron Maiden’s Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter.  (If there’s anything I hate more than a Richard Curtis movie, it’s a Richard Curtis movie musical soundtrack, which consists of artists whom the filmmakers calculatingly consider ‘cool’ and ‘cutting edge’ at the time, like, er, Wet Wet Wet, Robbie Williams and Geri Halliwell, doing cover versions of famous songs by the Troggs, Frank Sinatra and the Weather Girls.  And even though Yesterday is about the Beatles, they’ve somehow managed to shoehorn Ed Sheerin into it.)

 

For all its feel-good fuzziness, there’s also some genuine emotional heft in Fighting with the Family’s storyline.  Paige’s brother Zac wrestles at the O2 Arena try-out too but, unlike her, fails to make the grade, returns to Norwich with his dreams of WWE stardom in flitters and faces an unplanned-for life of fatherhood, domesticity and drudgery.  This will strike a cord with anyone who has a talent and longs to make it big with that talent – but through not having enough talent, or just being unlucky, has to eventually resign themselves to a life of ordinariness.  What makes Zac’s dejection worse is the fact (obvious to everyone but himself) that he’s achieving as much, if not more than Paige, just by being his day-to-day self.  He runs his parents’ gym and gives wrestling lessons to a bunch of local kids who’d otherwise be getting mixed up with drugs and getting into trouble with the law.

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Film 4

 

One thing that stopped me being too cynical whilst watching Fighting with the Family is my inability to resist – try as I might – the crazed showmanship of the professional wrestling world.  When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the old British pro-wrestlers like Giant Haystacks, Mick McManus and Kendo Nagasaki.  Later, when I worked as a teacher in Japan, I discovered that all the Japanese kids were obsessed with Japanese pro-wrestlers – and it didn’t surprise me in the noughties that my nephews, when they were wee lads, were totally into the WWE.  Even today, when I’m in a pub and someone puts the WWE channel on the big TV screen, I try to ignore it but after a few minutes find myself watching it avidly.  It might seem a bombastic, over-the-top joke, but you can understand how Paige and her family are so infatuated by it and why her participation in the WWE is such a big deal for them.

 

Inevitably, Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson (who also co-produced the movie) gets a walk-on part playing himself.  I have no objection to pro-wrestlers like the Rock turning up in films and acting, though I have to say that when it comes to wrestler-actors he (and indeed, Dave Bautista, Hulk Hogan, Jesse Ventura and the rest) isn’t fit to kiss the laced-up boots of the mighty Pat Roach or, indeed, Blood and Porridge-favourite Brian Glover.

 

One other thing – as far as I can determine, this is the second British comedy-sports movie that has featured Vince Vaughan as a hardnosed American promoter who comes to Britain and shakes up a cosy little sporting cottage industry.  He’s already played this type in the forgotten Mel Smith-directed Blackball (2003), also starring Paul Kaye, James Cromwell, Johnny Vegas and Bernard Cribbins, in which he tries to turn the sleepy British sport of lawn bowls into one of WWE-style loudness and brashness whilst repackaging Kaye’s character as ‘the bad boy of bowls’.

 

What next?  Will Vaughan make one more film in this vein and complete the trilogy?  I’d like to see him in a film where he travels to Scotland and tries to turn curling into a brutal and combative sport along the lines of rollerball.

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Film 4

 

The horror, the horror

 

© RTE

 

My apologies for writing another post about the contest to be the next British Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader so soon after the last post I wrote about it.  There may be regular readers of this blog who are still trying to rinse their eyeballs with bleach after reading about the ultra-sexy Michael Gove and his fondness for slurping a certain type of powder up his nostrils.

 

But I feel I have to write something about it, since the bloody thing seems to have been going on forever.  It feels like the contest started back in the Jurassic period when no fewer than ten candidates existed – when stomping around the Tory political earth were such cold-blooded, slow-witted reptilian monsters as Ester McVey (gobshiteosaurus) and Dominic Raab (bawbagosaurus max).  Now it’s been narrowed down to two candidates, Alexander Boris de Piffle, sorry, de Pfeffel Johnson and the rhyming-slang-friendly Jeremy Hunt, which doesn’t say a lot for the quality of the earlier contenders.  Yet it won’t be until July 22nd that the result of the final vote by Conservative Party members is announced.  Which means we have to endure several more weeks of this torture, of hearing Johnson and Hunt slagging each other off, singing their own praises and beating their chests.  Maybe by the time the final vote takes place climate change will have rendered humanity extinct and there won’t be a Britain for Johnson or Hunt to take control of.

 

Anyway, for what they’re worth, here are my predictions.  Firstly, I think Johnson is going to win despite his campaign being overshadowed by controversy.  The main controversy was the incident earlier this month when concerned neighbours summoned police to investigate what sounded like a ‘domestic dispute’ in the flat he shares with his current partner Carrie Symonds.  Actually, I don’t think what happened that night should have a bearing on the final verdict on Johnson and Hunt because couples do have rows and do end up shouting at each other, no arrests were made after the police arrived and checked things out, and ‘the benefit of the doubt’ is a concept worth upholding in a fair society.

 

If Johnson is to be judged an absolutely hideous excuse for a human being – which I think he deserves to be – it should be for deeds that are a matter of record.  These include his antics while he was a member of the notorious Bullingdon Club, Oxford University’s dining society for posh hooligans.  And agreeing to provide his old school chum (and future jailbird) Darius Guppy with the home address of News of the World journalist Stuart Collier, so that Guppy could have Collier beaten up.  And being sacked from the Times for fabricating a quotation.  And describing black African people as ‘piccaninnies’.  And describing gay men as ‘tank-topped bumboys’ and likening gay marriage to bestiality.  And publishing an editorial that insulted the city of Liverpool and publishing a poem choc-a-bloc with racist sentiments about Scottish people (“The Scots – what a verminous race! / Canny, pushy, chippy, they’re all over the place… / I would go further.  The nation / Deserves not merely isolation / But complete extermination”) whilst editing the Spectator.  And his dealings with American right-wing über-knobhead Steve Bannon.  And his lies during the run-up to the 2016 referendum on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.  And his utter ineptness as Foreign Secretary, one consequence of which was the continued incarceration of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran.

 

From paxonbothhouses.blogspot.com

 

However, all of the above, including the unseemly shouting match between Johnson and Symonds, are likely to matter not one whit with the 160,000 people who make up the Conservative Party membership and who’ll be casting their votes in July.  According to profiles of them, they have an average age of 57, are obsessed with Brexit and believe that bringing back hanging will cure all of Britain’s ills, presumably including low achievement levels in schools.  They’re generally untethered from reality and no doubt see all media coverage critical of Johnson as lefty fake news (which is ironic considering how right-wing most of Britain’s media is).

 

It’s like Donald Trump’s supporters in the USA who refuse to believe the mountain of evidence that their president is a corrupt, misogynist, racist sleazeball.  Trump could come round to their house, steal all their money, grab them by the genitalia and scream racist abuse into their faces and they’d still be going: “No, no, I refuse to believe this, this isn’t real, it’s fake news, FAKE NEWS do you hear?!”  So it is with the Tory Party faithful and their dismissal of negative coverage of their beloved Boris.  (Carrie Symonds’ neighbours probably didn’t help their cause by making a recording of the dispute and later sending it to the Guardian, which in Tory minds is a newspaper akin to Soviet-era Pravda.)

 

Therefore, it’s going to be Prime Minister Johnson come late July.  My second prediction is that a no-deal Brexit will happen sooner or later.  I know many political commentators have confidently predicted that despite their Brexiting bluster just now, both Johnston and Hunt, whoever becomes PM, will have a reality check once they’re in office and will try to appease the EU with another Theresa May-style deal.  But this will require time and I’m not convinced that the EU will give Britain another extension to the current Brexit deadline of October 31st.

 

Also, I suspect that Johnson, at least, would hold a general election soon after becoming Prime Minister if he thought he could win it.  And having won it, he’d then go hell-for-leather for a no-deal departure from Europe – even if the British economy was wrecked in the process, he’d have his majority and he’d be ensconced in power.  To stand any chance of winning such an election, he’d have to do a deal with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, who in the recent European Parliament elections stole the right-wing vote from the Tories.  But since both Johnson and Farage are in Steve Bannon’s address book, I reckon a deal is entirely feasible.

 

Third prediction: British people cringing at how their country’s reputation has gone down the pan internationally have seen nothing yet.  Wait until Prime Minister Johnson goes to Washington DC and starts acting as Trump’s comedy English butler.

 

© The National

 

And my fourth and final prediction, which comes from a Scottish perspective: it will be hilarious, if somewhat nauseating, to see how the slippier-than-a-greased-eel Ruth Davidson, branch manager of the Conservative Party in Scotland, changes her tune and becomes accommodating to all things Boris the moment Johnson arrives in Number 10 Downing Street.  Davidson once opposed Brexit, once accused the Leave campaign of lying and once took on Johnson in a public debate on the topic; but at different times since she has backed the UK staying in the Single Market, has opposed the UK staying in the Single Market, has backed a hard Brexit and has also backed an ‘open’ Brexit, whatever that is.  Her wriggliness is a sight to behold.

 

With Johnson, Davidson has criticised him for his ‘bumble-bluster, kitten-smirk, tangent-bombast routine’ and even banned him from appearing at the recent Scottish Tory Party conference in Aberdeen, presumably fearful that the spectacle of him on the podium would damage the party’s cause in Scotland.  But come the coronation of PM Boris, I’m sure that Davidson, ever mindful of the direction in which the wind is blowing, will be first in line to slap him on the back and congratulate him with her famous chuckle-some bonhomie.

 

Incidentally, when Johnson becomes PM, I expect him to dump the woeful David Mundell as Scottish Secretary of State and replace him with Ross Thomson, the dingbat right-wing MP for Aberdeen South.  Thomson’s sycophancy towards Johnson has been epic.  When I see pictures of them together, Thomson reminds me of the deranged, bug-eating minion Milo Renfield in the presence of his master, Count Dracula.

 

From twitter.com

 

Though I’ve gone on about what a horror Johnson will be as Prime Minister, I certainly don’t want to imply that Jeremy Hunt would be any better.  Hunt has claimed that even in the event of a no-deal Brexit, Britain would ‘flourish and prosper’, so in that respect he’s no better than his rival.  He also co-wrote, once upon a time, a book calling for Britain’s National Health Service ‘to be replaced by a new system of health provision in which people pay money into personal healthcare accounts, which they could then use to shop around for care from public and private providers.’  I’m sure those words would come back to haunt him if, as PM, he had to go to Washington DC to beg Trump for a post-Brexit UK-US trade deal.  As Trump has emphatically stated, in negotiations for any such deal, the NHS is ‘on the table’.

 

So to use rhyming slang – whoever finally wins this torturously protracted contest, we’re going to end up with a right Jeremy Hunt as Prime Minister.

 

© The Daily Record

 

A guy called Gerald

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

A few years ago, I wrote a piece on this blog about how the popularity, fame and acclaim won by many writers during their lifetimes seem to evaporate with, or soon after, their deaths.  Once they’re gone, they’re usually forgotten too.  I was inspired to write this after taking a wander in Dalry Cemetery in Edinburgh and discovering a tombstone for the novelist George Cupples, who died in 1891.  When I did some online research into Cupples, I found out that he’d written ‘dozens of nautical novels’ and his 1856 novel The Green Hand: A Sea Story (1856) was reckoned to be ‘one of the best sea stories ever written.’  But does anyone apart from a tiny handful of specialists know of Cupples and his work today?  I doubt it.

 

In the same entry I discussed the posthumous reputations of writers from the 1920s, 30s and 40s like Edgar Wallace, Hervey Allen, James Hilton and Dennis Wheatley – all massively popular in their day, but again, practically forgotten in the 21st century.  Indeed, names that were ubiquitous on the bestseller racks in bookshops and newsagents when I was a kid, like Harold Robbins, Morris West, Leon Uris and Alistair MacLean, seem to have disappeared into the mists too.  Everyone was reading their books in the 1970s but I can’t imagine many people reading them now.

 

To this list of forgotten writers we must add the British (later American) author Gerald Kersh, who was once prolific and popular – his Wikipedia entry credits him with 20 novels and 20 collections of short stories, plus ‘thousands of articles in different publications’, published between 1934 and his death in 1968 – but who seemed to drop off the radar the moment he died.  A few years ago I began to hear his name because a number of writers I admire, like Anthony Burgess, Angela Carter, Michael Moorcock, Ian Fleming and Harlan Ellison, thought highly of him.  But his work had apparently vanished without trace.  When I asked about him in bookshops, my inquiries would draw a blank.  Even in bookshops run by clearly knowledgeable people, like Whitie’s in my hometown of Peebles and Transreal Fiction in the Grassmarket area of Edinburgh, nobody had heard of him.

 

However, several of his works have now been republished by Valancourt Books, who’ve won praise from the Times Literary Supplement for their efforts to “resurrect some neglected works of literature… and make them available to a new readership”, and I was able to order copies of his 1958 novel Fowlers End and his 1968 collection Nightshade and Damnations while I was in the UK a few months ago.  I couldn’t find, though, a reasonably priced copy of his 1938 crime thriller Night and the City, the book that’s probably come closest to ensuring a legacy for Kersh – it was filmed in 1950 with Richard Widmark and again in 1992 with Robert De Niro.

 

It doesn’t surprise me that Anthony Burgess rated Fowlers End one of the great comic novels of the 20th century because it’s the sort of sprawling, baggy, rumbustious and verbose book that Burgess himself liked to write.  Set during the Great Depression and in the fictional and un-salubrious London district of the title – “Fowler’s End is a special kind of tundra that supports nothing gracious in the way of flora and fauna.  Plant a cabbage here in this soured, embitter, dyspeptic, ulcerated soil, and up comes a kind of bleached shillelagh with spikes on its knob.  Plant a family, a respectable working-class family, and in two generations it will turn out wolves” – it’s prefaced by a five-page glossary of Cockney slang to help readers decipher the dialogue.  Some of the terms I was familiar with, but others, like ‘flob your gob’ (vomit) and ‘north-and-south’ (mouth), were new to me.  The prominence given to the London vernacular was probably another reason why the language-loving Burgess enjoyed the book so much.

 

© Valancourt Books

 

It begins with a down-on-his-luck young man called Daniel Laverock being hired as the new manager of the Pantheon Cinema in Fowlers End.  Its owner is the alleged businessman and obvious fraudster Sam Yudenow.  Laverock then gets a tour of the premises from Yudenow, which hardly bodes well for his new career.  The Pantheon’s staff include a mutinous orchestra and an alcoholic pianist called Miss Noel (employed because the cinema persists in showing silent movies and has to treat its patrons to live music); a pair of Greek anarchists who run the adjoining café; a local juvenile delinquent called Tommy whom Yudenow employs to throw decaying animal carcasses into the properties of rival businesses; and the cinema’s handyman Copper Baldwin, who makes no effort to conceal his hatred for Yudenow.

 

What follows doesn’t involve much of a storyline.  Yudenow does something that proves he’s not a larger-than-life, loveable rogue but an out-and-out shit, and such is Laverock’s disgust that he joins forces with Baldwin to give Yudenow his comeuppance.  But that comeuppance doesn’t really materialise and by the book’s end Yudenow remains unbowed.  Instead, the plot takes an unexpected swerve and climaxes with Laverock having to defend Yudenow’s fleapit against a gang of thugs led by a villain who was only briefly mentioned in the book’s opening pages.  I have to say, though, that the climactic confrontation is hilariously written.

 

Clearly, Kersh isn’t that interested in constructing a balanced, joined-up plot.  He’s far more interested in, firstly, conveying the glorious grottiness and squalor of Fowler’s End and, secondly, conveying the riotous grotesqueness of Sam Yudenow, who’s presented as a Cockney-Jewish cross between Sir John Falstaff and one of those expansive, exuberant eccentrics Charles Dickens was so fond of.  Yudenow’s initial advice to Laverock ranges from how to follow the Pantheon’s fire regulations, which keep the number of customers allowed in at a very precise 629 – “Six hundred twenty-nine audience is okay.  Six hundred thirty is suicide.  Six hundred twenty-eight I die o’ starvation an’ you’re out of a job” – to how to handle the miscreant local schoolkids who frequent the place – “…they get a great big potato and stick it all over miv old razor blades; a bit of string they tie it onto, and right in the face they let you ’ave it.  Discourage ‘em.  Threaten to tell their teacher.  Lay one finger on ’em and the N.S.P.C.C. is after us for cruelty to children…”

 

I suppose Kersh’s depiction of Yudenow lays him open to accusations of anti-Semitism, for peddling a negative stereotype of a grasping and dishonest Jewish businessman.  But Kersh was Jewish himself, his very first book published was an autobiographical one called Jews without Jehovah (1934), and he lost a number of French relatives in the concentration camps during World War II.  Incidentally, readers from the UK of my age and older may find it hard to read Kersh’s descriptions of Yudenow without imagining the features, voice and mannerisms of the late, great Cockney-Jewish character actor Alfie Bass.  If Fowlers End had been filmed a few decades ago, Bass would surely have been first pick for the role.

 

For my part, while I found Yudenow an amusing character, I would have preferred smaller doses of him than the hefty doses that Kersh serves up.  Happily, the book features a host of other entertaining characters.  As the book’s hero, Daniel Laverock might have been a little dull, but Kersh gives him a funny if unfortunate backstory – in his childhood he tried and catastrophically failed to fly off his family’s roof in a homemade airplane (fashioned from planks, perambulator wheels and a biscuit-tin lid), with the result that he ended up with a face “not unlike that ancient pugilist Buckhorse who, in his old age, having no face left to spoil, let anyone knock him down for a shilling.”  His facial disfigurements giving him a villainous look, he has recently been adopted by a young woman called June Whistler, from a well-to-do and sheltered background and with aspirations to be a novelist, who believes he will show her the shady underbelly of society and give her writing some much-needed authenticity.  “The depths!  I want to explore the depths…!” she exclaims.  “Would you like to crush me in your arms and bite me?”  To which the fearsome-looking but gentlemanly Laverock replies: “Madam, you are good enough to eat but you look so much better in one piece.”

 

Incidentally, Kersh spent time working as a cinema manager – as a young man he had a colourful, Jack London-esque CV that also included stints as a debt collector, fish-and-chip-shop cook, bodyguard and professional wrestler – so Fowlers End obviously draws on his personal experiences.  And the book is a hell of a lot funnier than a more celebrated English comic novel from the 1950s that I read not so long ago, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954).

 

© Valancourt Books

 

Nightshades and Damnations, which appeared in 1968 shortly before Kersh’s death, contains eleven of his short stories chosen and introduced by the American science fiction and fantasy writer Harlan Ellison.  Some of the items in this volume are brilliant – they show Kersh at his best as a storyteller, pushing his imagination to the limit and writing with both precision and style.  Among them are horror stories like Voices in the Dust of Annan and The Brighton Monster, which end with science-fictional twists – a tragic and chillingly contemporary (despite most of the story being set in the 18th century) twist in the case of The Brighton Monster.  Another horror story is Men Without Bones, wherein Kersh depicts the nightmarish creatures of the title with impressively icky gusto.

 

Bone for Debunkers is a tale of forgery that’s worthy of Roald Dahl, while The Ape and the Mystery and The King Who Collected Clocks are elegant historical fantasies incorporating Leonardo Da Vinci and clockwork automata respectively.  And The Queen of Pig Island is a surreal and ultimately tragic tale of what happens to the human exhibits of a carnival sideshow when they survive a shipwreck and try to establish their own society on a desert island.

 

Perhaps best of all is Whatever Happened to Corporal Cuckoo, which is about immortality and its potential pitfalls.  It explores the unhappy and grisly consequences when the person who’s immortal doesn’t have the intelligence or imagination to make the most of his situation; and also has a body that doesn’t fully regenerate from all the physical damage it inevitably suffers during the centuries.  The same bleak approach to the subject was later used in Robert Zemeckis’s 1992 movie Death Becomes Her.

 

While many other writers have vanished from popular consciousness because their writing, frankly, wasn’t very good and wasn’t designed to stand the test of time, Kersh’s prose remains admirably sharp and his stories, though obviously of their time, don’t feel that dated.  He seems to have been forgotten for the sad and simple reason that his books fell out of print for a long period.  Let’s hope that the good work done by Valancourt Books helps bring Gerald Kersh’s artistry back into the limelight.