Deep in the heart of Texas: the Alamo

 

 

Originally a Roman Catholic mission, later a military fort and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Alamo is found in the Texan city of San Antonio.  Today much of the site is parkland where long-trunked deciduous trees cast dappled shadows and provide shelter from the unrelenting Texan sun.  The atmosphere there is infinitely pleasanter than it was between February 23rd and March 6th, 1836, when, amid a ruckus of cannonballs, rifle-shot, bayonets, flames, smoke and blood, a hundred Texan defenders held out against a besieging Mexican force of 1500.  The siege ended with the deaths of the Texans – who were then known as ‘Texians’ and whose number included such personages as Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Travis – but it had an important legacy, inspiring many to join the Texian army and hasten the success of the Texas Revolution and the formation of the Republic of Texas.    

 

 

The few buildings there, such as the chapel and barracks, seem to be kept in pristine condition.  But I have to admit that on the day I was there, I made a mistake common among many visitors.

 

What happened was, I wandered into the Alamo gift shop, housed in a historical-looking building that, according to www.thealamo.org, was “built in 1937 as one of nine Texas Centennial Museums honouring the hundredth anniversary of Texas independence.  Dedicated in 1938 the Alamo Museum held historical artefacts until the Daughters of the Republic of Texas decided to also use the space to sell souvenirs in order to raise money for care of the mission.”  And as the website notes, this building is “often mistaken as part of the original Alamo compound.”  That’s certainly what I thought.  I went into the eighty-year-old gift-shop building and assumed I was somewhere that’d seen heavy-duty action back in 1836.

 

 

Confronting me at the entrance was a sign that urged me to “shop and support”, in order to “preserve the Alamo and its legacy for future generations”.  Fair enough, I thought, but it seemed a bit tough that such stout-hearted defenders of Texan, or Texian, liberty as Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Travis had to depend on hard-core capitalist retailing for the memory of their sacrifice, and the scene of it, to survive into the 21st century.

 

As I wandered among the wares on sale inside – flags, T-shirts, Davy Crockett-style raccoonskin hats, cuddly-toy eagles, lots of things emblazoned with the defiant old Texian slogan ‘Come and take it’ (which, when you think about it, is actually what the Mexicans did) – I still mistakenly believed that the building containing this shop had existed during the 1836 siege and Texians and Mexicans had really died here.  I got a bit cynical about it.  I found myself thinking sourly: “Here’s where William Travis went down, bravely battling to prevent the Mexicans from taking the Alamo’s supplies of fried-egg shapers…  And here’s where Davy Crockett heroically gave his life whilst holding off the Mexicans from the Alamo’s stock of hoodies…  And over here is where Jim Bowie was bayonetted to death as he tried and failed to stop the Mexicans from getting their hands on those boxes of delicious Alamo fudge.”

 

 

Anyway, I later discovered I was wrong.  So while you’re spending money in the Alamo gift shop, don’t feel you’re desecrating a site of the fallen.  The only thing that fell there was the occasional Alamo souvenir, falling off a rack.

 

 

In the centre of the shop is big glass case containing a model of the 1836 Alamo and a depiction of the siege with toy soldiers, horses and cannons.  Mind you, the siege is much better represented by a diorama that’s featured in San Antonio’s Briscoe Western Art Museum.  There’s also a selection of Alamo-related DVDs on sale, including films like 2004’s The Alamo with Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric and Patrick Wilson, and 1964’s The Alamo with John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Laurence Harvey and Frankie Avalon, and the mid-1950s Disney TV mini-series Davy Crockett with Fess Parker as the raccoonskin-wearing frontiersman.  No sign, though, of the 1969 comedy Viva Max!, in which a rogue Mexican general played by Peter Ustinov leads a small company of Mexican soldiers into present-day Texas and retakes the Alamo.  The original plan was to shoot some of Viva Max! in the real Alamo but the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, its then caretakers, were so outraged that instead it had to be filmed at a replica Alamo elsewhere.

 

 

Outside, the most interesting feature for me – being something of a Japan-o-phile – was an inscribed stone from Japan that commemorated the medieval soldier Suneemon Torii.  He’s sometimes known as the ‘Bonham of Japan’, after James Bonham, an Alamo defender who was sent out to get military aid for the garrison, only to have his requests for help turned down.  Bonham finally returned to the Alamo three days before the culmination of the siege, even though in doing so he doomed himself to the same fate as his comrades.  Suneemon Torii performed a similar feat of heroism / martyrdom at the siege of Nagashino Castle in 1575, which has been dubbed ‘the Alamo of Japan’.

 

I also saw the name ‘Bonham’ sculpted into one side of a square, stone fountain.  As I walked around the fountain, I saw that three more names were sculpted into its three other sides: “Travis… Crockett… Bowie.”  I have to confess that, as a Led Zeppelin lover, I would have been pleasantly surprised if instead the names had read: “Bonham… Page… Plant… Jones.”

 

From www.musiclipse.com

 

Coming up for Orwell

 

© Penguin Books

 

A couple of years ago something piqued my curiosity about George Orwell’s lesser known novels and since then I’ve been working my way through them.  I’ve read Burmese Days (1934), Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) and most recently Coming Up for Air (1939).  I’ve found them surprisingly good.  The worlds they depict may not be as iconic as those of Orwell’s two post-war triumphs, Manor Farm in Animal Farm (1945) and Airstrip One in 1984 (1949).  But they ooze with as much vivid and sordid detail as the non-fiction books he wrote during the 1930s, which are better remembered today – Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) and Homage to Catalonia (1938).  Also, they convey similar frustration and despair, their imaginary characters being as much victims of circumstances as the real characters Orwell encountered whilst travelling and researching his non-fiction.

 

Coming Up for Air, written on the cusp of World War II, maintains the high standard.  Its narrator is George Bowling, a 45-year-old insurance salesman whose exterior is at odds with his interior.  Superficially, he’s “an active, hearty kind of fat man, the athletic bouncing type that’s nicknamed Fatty or Tubby and is always the life and soul of the party”.  Inside, though, he’s suffering what in modern parlance would be called a mid-life crisis – one coinciding with his acquisition of a new set of dentures, which informs the novel’s opening line: “The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth.”

 

But Bowling’s discontent is fuelled by more than his sense of physical decay.  He’s stuck in a little house in one of the countless streets that “fester all over the inner-outer suburbs”, mortgaged to the hilt by something called the Cheerful Credit Building Society.  “Building societies are probably the cleverest racket of modern times,” he broods.  “My own line, insurance, is a swindle I admit, but it’s an open swindle with the cards on the table.”  He shares the house with two noisy offspring – “Two kids in a home the size of ours is like a quart of beer in a pint mug” – and a shrewish wife called Hilda.  “Butter is going up, and the gas-bill is enormous, and the kids’ boots are wearing out and there’s another instalment due on the radio – that’s Hilda’s litany.”

 

To escape from this, Bowling immerses himself in the past and the book’s central section has him recounting his life-story, especially his boyhood in an Oxfordshire market town called Lower Binfield, “in a bit of a valley, with a low ripple of hills between itself and the Thames, and higher hills behind.”  Thus, he grew up within a stone’s throw of the countryside and it’s his antics there with his young mates – cycling, swimming, ferreting, stealing birds’ eggs, ice-skating in winter – that he recalls most fondly.

 

But fishing was his main passion as a boy.  “It’s queer, the feeling I had for fishing – and still have, really.  I can’t call myself a fisherman.  I’ve never in my life caught a fish two feet long, and it’s thirty years now since I had a rod in my hands.  And yet when I look back the whole of my boyhood from eight to fifteen seems to have revolved round the days when we went fishing.”  And the memory that haunts him most of all is of visiting Binfield Manor, an estate overlooking the town, and discovering a pool hidden away behind a dense screen of bushes and tree-boughs.  Populating this pool were some huge carp.  “A pool gets forgotten somehow, nobody fishes in it for years and decades and the fish grow to monstrous sizes.”

 

The idea Bowling has at the book’s start is to sneak away for a few days – pretending to his unsympathetic wife that he’s making a work-trip.  He’ll return to Lower Binfield for the first time in decades, buy a fishing rod and fish in the secret pool.  The final third of the book describes what Bowling finds when he gets there.  Predictably, things have changed and not for the better.

 

Orwell’s account of Bowling’s early life in Lower Binfield is engrossing.  By a coincidence, a few months earlier, I’d read Cider with Rosie (1959), Laurie Lee’s memoir of growing up in a Cotswolds village in the 1920s.  It’s fun to compare Lee’s famously lyrical and nostalgic work with Coming Up for Air and the more hard-headed approach Orwell takes in it.  “It’s not like I’m trying to put across any of that poetry of childhood stuff.  I know that’s all baloney…  The truth is that kids aren’t in any way poetic, they’re merely savage little animals, except that no animal is as a quarter as selfish.”  Orwell illustrates this with a few examples, most graphically: “We used to catch toads, ram the nozzle of a bicycle pump up their backsides and blow them up till they burst.  That’s what boys are like.  I don’t know why.”  (To be fair to Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie is darker than it usually gets credit for.  At one point it has the villagers closing ranks and hiding the identity of a murderer.  At another it has a gang of boys plotting to rape a girl in the woods.)

 

But it’s not just the past that’s on Bowling’s mind.  He’s conscious of the future too, a future that’s ominously symbolised at the beginning of the book by a low-flying bomber he notices from his train-window.  A cataclysmic new war is on its way.  “I can hear the air-raid sirens blowing and the loudspeakers bellowing that our glorious troops have taken a hundred thousand prisoners…” he ruminates.  “I can see it all.  I see the posters and the food-queues, and the castor oil and the rubber truncheons and the machine guns squirting out of bedroom windows.”

 

Later, he wonders, “what’ll happen to chaps like me when we get Fascism in England? The truth is it probably won’t make the slightest difference… the ordinary middling chaps like me will be carrying on just as usual.  And yet it frightens me – I tell you it frightens me.”  Bowling sees not just war ahead but, riding on its coat-tails, the nightmare of totalitarianism.  Indeed, Coming Up for Air feels at times like a precursor to 1984.  Possibly, in the alternative historical timeline of 1984, Bowling survived to the 1960s, after the atomic wars and Britain’s absorption into the super-state of Oceania.  Though I suspect that he’d have been sensible enough to discard his lower middle-class trappings and disappear into the ranks of the Proles.

 

Unfortunately, this theme causes Coming Up for Air’s one misstep.  Near the end, Orwell describes a traumatic incident in the new, not-necessarily-improved Lower Binfield, which serves both to highlight again the inevitability of war and to convince Bowling that it’s time to abandon the past and return home.  But the incident feels unlikely and contrived.  For me, it makes the book fall a little short of perfection.

 

But generally it’s an excellent read.  What’s striking about it today are Orwell’s rueful observations about the injustices of the economic system in pre-World War II Britain.  For instance, Bowling is a prisoner of his mortgage (“we don’t own our houses, even when we’ve finished paying for them.  They’re not freehold, only leasehold”); and he recalls how his father’s seed-shop in Lower Binfield was gradually squeezed out of existence by a bigger, better-resourced rival called Sarazins’ (“the big retail seedsmen who had branches all over the home county”).  Such details sound depressingly familiar.  They’re reminders that cutthroat, laissez-faire capitalism didn’t just begin at the end of the 1970s when neoliberals like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan came to power.  In this respect, Coming Up for Air feels uncomfortably closer to 2016 than it does to 1984.

 

And now for A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935)…

 

© Ralph Steadman / New Statesman 

 

The view from the bridge

 

 

The Bandra-Worli Sea Link – the Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link, to give it its official title – is a bridge five-and-a-half kilometres long that connects the busy office district of Worli in southern Mumbai with the more residential district of Bandra in western Mumbai.  I have to say that for much of its length it doesn’t feel like a bridge.

 

When you go onto it at Worli, you speed straight out across Mahim Bay and it seems bridge-like enough.  But then the thing bends around and the next thing you know, Worli is no longer behind you – it’s actually passing alongside you, on the right.  Thus, the Sea Link feels less like a bridge between Place A and Place B and more like a bypass that helps you avoid the congestion of Place A.  Albeit a bypass that rises out of the sea on giant concrete piles, pillars and pylons.

 

 

Four lanes of traffic shuttle in either direction along it, between pairs of huge concrete frames that are wishbone-shaped at one point and look like gymnastics high-bars at another, and between myriad cables that fan down at the sides.  Meanwhile, scrolling past inland from the bridge is the burgeoning cityscape of Mumbai – many of its tallest buildings still under construction so that crane-jibs stick up from their summits like lopsided antennae.

 

 

It’s only when you arrive at the toll-booths up at the bridge’s Bandra end that you’re reminded of being in India – a country famous for its overabundance of workers.  When drivers stop beside a booth, they don’t hand the bridge-fare to a guy in the booth.  They hand the fare to a guy next to the booth, who then hands it to the guy in the booth.

 

Now from a link across the sea to a forest in the sky.  In central Mumbai – where my work had sent me for a three-day training course – I often found myself looking out of the window of the office I was in and looking into the concrete-and-steel skeleton of a new monster-building that was taking shape next door.  This structure, an Indian colleague told me, had already been given a name: the Sky Forest.  For the time being, its wall-less floors were desolate and filthy, strewn with construction-rubble and awash with grey pools of monsoon-water.  But according to my colleague, it was envisioned that one day the Sky Forest would have 18 lower floors housing ‘service staff’ and then, on top of those, many more floors of luxury apartment buildings for Mumbai’s best off.

 

 

My response to this information?  “Have you ever read a book,” I asked, “or seen a film, called…  High Rise?”

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6499

 

Jim Mountfield – 35 years late

 

From youtube.com 

 

Many people who have an idea for a story, painting or song find that the process of turning the idea into reality takes a long time.  But I suspect that the process took longer than most with my short story The Malevolent Aged Grin, which was written under my horror-fiction pseudonym Jim Mountfield and has just appeared in a new hard-copy anthology from the mainly online publication The Horror Zine.

 

In fact, the moment when the original idea came to me and the moment when I finally saw the finished item in print were separated by 35 years.  That’s right.  The notion of The Malevolent Aged Grin first entered my head in 1981, when I was a plooky high-school teenager, during an era when the world seemed a very different place from now.  Back then, the bellicose but befuddled Ronald Reagan had just been elected US president and I was seriously worried that he was going to start a nuclear war and blow everything up.  In 2016, the bellicose and badly-haired Donald Trump stands a good chance of being elected US president and I’m seriously worried that he’s going to start a nuclear war and blow everything up.  So thank heavens that’s all changed.

 

Come to think of it, I could have begun writing the 4500-word story in 1981, composed it at the rate of 130 words every year and still got it finished in 2016.

 

© The Daily Telegraph

 

I remember the first time I thought of writing The Malevolent Grin.  It was during a school English class, under the tutelage of English teacher Iain Jenkins – who later would enter politics and become our constituency’s first representative in the reconvened-after-nearly-300-years Scottish Parliament.  He’d just read to us the poem Pike by the famous Yorkshire poet Ted Hughes.  As well as containing the phrase ‘the malevolent aged grin’, which I decided there and then to pinch and use as the title of a story, the poem had such unforgettable lines as “…silhouette / Of submarine delicacy and horror / A hundred feet long in their world” and “Logged on last year’s black leaves, watching upwards / Or hung in an amber cavern of weeds.”

 

Yes, I know the poem reflected the theme of much of Hughes’ nature poetry, about how the natural world – here embodied in the pike, Britain’s most predatory freshwater fish – has its own scale, perspectives and levels of savagery; totally different from how we, as romanticising, sentimentalising, anthropomorphising human beings, view it.  But for me, the poem just seemed wonderfully macabre and suddenly I wanted to write a story about a pike – a big pike.  A monster pike.  I should say that by this time I’d started writing horror stories and I saw no reason why I shouldn’t become southern Scotland’s answer to Stephen King.

 

For a long time I envisioned the story as being about a pike that’s the size of a rowing boat, has somehow managed to escape being noticed by the human world and lurks in the depths of a remote river or pool.  Somehow, it’s also managed to keep itself fed, on livestock that wander too close to the water’s edge, without the world noticing either.  I even started writing it in a jotter.  The main character was an author – how very Stephen King – who takes his family and pet cat to live in an old converted mill-house next to a river.  He intends to make the most of his quiet, rural surroundings and start work on a new novel.  Needless to say, the pike soon makes its presence felt, beginning by eating the family cat.  I conceived the story as ending with torrential rain, the river flooding and the big bad pike substantially expanding its feeding grounds.

 

© Hamlyn Publishers

 

However, that version of the story never got beyond its first few pages.  Partly I abandoned it because I realised that, even by the standards of adolescent-penned pulp horror, its premise was absurd; but also because one day I discovered in a bookshop that someone had already written a story about a monster pike terrorising the British countryside.  This was the 160-page novel The Pike (1982) by the late Cliff Twemlow, a colourful character who made a living not only as a horror novelist but as a nightclub bouncer in Manchester, as a movie / TV actor and extra and as a composer – one of his country-and-western compositions ended up, briefly, in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978).

 

Twemlow had his pike cruising the waters of Lake Windermere in Cumbria and at one point during the 1980s it looked like the novel was going to be made into a film, with Joan Collins as the star.  I have to say that my resentment about Twemlow getting his pike story into print before I did was lessened by the tantalising prospect of seeing a giant hungry pike take a few bites at the diva-esque Ms Collins.  A 12-foot-long robotic pike was actually built for the project and Joan Collins posed with it in some pre-production publicity photos.  (Cue cruel jokes like “The pike is the one on the left”, or “A terrifying monster – and a pike.”)  But ultimately, alas, this cinematic Pike never came to fruition.

 

https://horrorpedia.com/2014/04/08/the-pike-novel-and-unfinished-feature-film/

http://io9.gizmodo.com/joan-collins-nearly-starred-in-this-movie-about-a-kille-1744451146

 

From io9.gizmodo.com 

 

When I was older and more sensible, it dawned on me that the monster pike in the story didn’t have to be a physical entity.  Hughes’ image of a fanged, grinning and primordially hideous face lurking in the mud, rotted leaves and darkness below the surface of a pool could easily be a metaphor for all the horrible things that lurk deep in the human psyche.  So I began to envision The Malevolent Aged Grin as a psychological horror story.  But I couldn’t figure out how to fit this into a plot.

 

Then a few years ago, I hit on the idea of making the pike supernatural.  It’s an evil, water-dwelling spirit that takes possession of someone when he falls into a pool during a fishing trip.  But still I had to determine where this evil spirit came from, what it was doing there and what it planned to do once it’d possessed its victim.  Gradually, though, I got inspiration from different sources – for example, a quote by William S. Burroughs about how magicians summon up and use demons like mafia dons hiring hitmen; and a story about two feuding magicians in a collection of Sri Lankan horror tales called Water in my Grave (2013).  And I managed to put together a back-story for the pike, or evil spirit as it was now.

 

After I’d written The Malevolent Aged Grin, submitted it and had it accepted for publication by The Horror Zine’s editor, Jeani Rector, my travails weren’t over yet.  I was asked to make revisions.  In the original version, the pike’s back-story is explained when the main character uses the Internet and visits www.themodernantiquarian.com, a website chronicling sites of ancient, mythological and folkloric interest in the British Isles, which in real life was set up by the rock musician and author Julian Cope.  Jeani suggested that I scrap this and have one of the secondary characters recount the back-story as a supposed local legend.  Changing this helped, in that it gave the secondary character much more of a presence (and a function) than he had in the original.  Probably it was also a good thing that I dropped several references I’d made to the Harry Potter stories.  With hindsight, I was being too ironic for my own good.

 

© Jeani Rector / The Horror Zine

 

The anthology containing The Malevolent Aged Grin, three-and-a-half decades in the making, is available at the link below.  I’d like to conclude with a joke about the story being a big fish in a small pool, but it’s a big anthology with a lot of stories.  And they’re all really good.

 

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Horror-Zine-Magazine-Fall-2016-ebook/dp/B01JKUM6X4

 

God save the Queen

 

© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

Scene: The living room of the Parochial House on Craggy Island during a 1996 episode of Father Ted.  The elderly and infirm Bishop Jordan, one of a visiting trio of church dignitaries, has just been explaining how he had a heart attack last year and needs to avoid having sudden surprises and shocks.

Father Dougal (bellowing at the top of his voice): AAAAAHHHHH!

Bishop Jordan nearly suffers another heart attack on the living room sofa.

Father Ted (seeing Bishop Jordan’s distress): Dougal!  What are you doing?!

Father Dougal: Sorry, Ted – I just remembered.  Aliens is on after the news!

Father Ted: Dougal, for God’s sake!  (To the stricken Bishop Jordan, who has almost collapsed off the sofa.)  I’m sorry, Bishop Jordan!  (To Dougal.)  Did you not hear what he’s saying about his heart?

Father Dougal: I know, but it’s just that it’s the Director’s Cut!  Come on everyone, let’s all have a lads’ night in!

Father Ted: Dougal, just shut up!  (To Bishop Jordan.)  Ha-ha.  A heart attack?  That’s rare enough these days.

Bishop O’Neill (trying to help Father Jordan back onto the sofa): There were certainly a lot of prayers said for Bishop Jordan –

Father Dougal: I don’t know why we can’t look at Aliens

Father Ted: Dougal!  Bishop O’Neill is speaking.

Father Dougal: But…  They’d love it, Ted!

Father Ted: No, they wouldn’t!

Father Dougal: But bishops love sci-fi –

Father Ted: DOUGAL!  WE ARE NOT WATCHING ALIENS!

 

* * * * *

 

Here’s yet another anniversary that makes me feel ancient.  It’s now exactly thirty years since the James Cameron-directed sci-fi / horror / action movie Aliens was released in the United Kingdom.  A few days from now, it’ll be exactly thirty years since I first laid eyes on it in a crowded cinema in Aberdeen.  And like Dougal in that old episode of Father Ted, I still get irrationally excited when I discover that it’s due to have another airing on TV.  And during the first occasion I watched it, there were a few moments when, like the beleaguered Bishop Jordan, I thought my heart was about to pop.  Yes, Aliens is a film that gets the adrenaline sluicing through you like no other.

 

It’s remarkable that the film achieves this when it’s a sequel.  One of the Great Laws of the Cinema is that, compared to the original films, sequels are almost always rubbish.  Certainly, that law seemed to hold true in the 1980s, when cinema audiences were subjected to such puddings as Halloween II (1981), Grease 2 (1982), Rocky III (1982) and Rocky IV (1985), Jaws 3-D (1983), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Rambo III (1988), Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) and Beverley Hills Cop II (1987).  Oh, and Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981), which was directed by a certain James Cameron…

 

Aliens’ task was particularly daunting.  It was to be the follow-up to Ridley Scott’s magnificent haunted-house-in-space movie, 1979’s Alien.

 

© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

It’s unsurprising that while Cameron was shooting the sequel at Buckinghamshire’s Pinewood Studios in the mid-1980s, he had to put up with a sceptical British crew who were of the opinion that this bearded thirty-something Canadian wasn’t fit to kiss the boots of the mighty Ridley Scott.  Mind you, the contempt was reciprocated by Cameron.  A man used to pursuing his vision with the single-minded determination of The Terminator (1984) – the film that he’d directed between the Piranha sequel and the Alien sequel – Cameron was not impressed by his crew’s Great British working practices like stopping every couple of minutes to have a tea-break.

 

The resulting movie shows no disrespect to Ridley Scott or the original Alien.  It simply takes a very different approach to the hideous, slimy, fanged, multi-jawed, acid-blooded title creatures.  Whereas Alien set one of them loose in a giant spaceship and Scott milked the scenario for all the clammy, claustrophobic horror it was worth, Cameron unleashes a whole army of them in and around a base on a distant planet and declares out-and-out war on the bastards, courtesy of a well-armed platoon of space marines who’ve journeyed there in the company of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, heroine and sole survivor of the first film.   Yes, there’s clamminess, claustrophobia and horror to be found in Cameron’s creation too, but that doesn’t prevent Aliens from also being one of the best action films ever made.

 

That’s not to say that Aliens is a non-stop rollercoaster from start to finish.  Cameron actually takes his time getting his characters to the base (after contact with the 160-strong space colony there is suddenly and mysteriously lost).  Wisely, and unlike a lot of directors of scary movies who’ve come since, he gives the audience a chance to get to know, and get to like, his characters.  So that when all hell does break loose, halfway through the film, we’re genuinely on the edge of our seats because we’re rooting for those characters to survive.

 

© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

Cameron does such a good job of it that, thirty years on, I still know those characters like they’re dear old friends.  There’s Michael Biehn’s reliable Corporal Hicks, who packs a vintage pump-action shotgun alongside his space-age weaponry (“I like to keep this handy… for close encounters”) and who finds himself in the unexpected position of platoon leader after the aliens’ first onslaught wipes most of it out.  There’s Lance Henriksen’s Bishop, the regulation android whom Ripley – mindful of what happened in the first movie – is extremely wary of; though after he’s saved her and saved the other surviving humans three or four times (even after he gets ripped in half), she accepts that he’s a good, if synthetic, bloke.

 

And there’s the motor-mouthed Private Hudson, played by the great Bill Paxton, who gets the film’s best lines.  This is both before the aliens show up, when he’s a swaggering, show-offy git – “Hey Ripley, don’t worry.  Me and my squad of ultimate badasses will protect you…  We got nukes, we got knives, we got sharp sticks!” – and after they show up, when he’s a quivering, whiny git – “Hey, maybe you haven’t been keeping up on current events but we just got our asses kicked, pal!”

 

But Aliens is hardly a testosterone-fest.  Dougal in Father Ted might have earmarked it for a ‘lads’ night in’ but it’s also, subversively, a chick-flick.  At its heart are no fewer than four powerful female characters.  There’s the splendid Sigourney Weaver, of course, back in the role of Ripley – though it’s in Aliens that both Weaver and Ripley properly achieve the status of cinematic icons.  There’s Carrie Henn as Newt, the waif-like little girl who’s the colony’s only survivor and who, gradually, awakens Ripley’s maternal instincts.  While Ripley spends the original movie reacting to and mainly running away from the horrors around her, it’s thanks to Newt that in Aliens she becomes increasingly proactive and ends up running at them.  Admittedly, that’s when she’s armed with a M41A Pulse Rifle / M240 Flamethrower.

 

© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

And let’s not forget the impressive Private Vasquez, played by Jenette Goldstein, who’s more than a match for any man in her platoon.  “All right,” she snarls at one point, “we got seven canisters of CM-20.  I say we roll them in there and nerve-gas the whole f***in’ nest.”  And when she’s not shooting down aliens, she’s shooting down Hudson’s bullshit, as happens in the following exchange: “Hey Vasquez.  Have you ever been mistaken for a man?”  “No.  Have you?”

 

The film’s final trump card also takes female form: the Alien Queen.  Here, Cameron combines the design of the original alien, by the Swiss artist H.R. Giger, with the concepts of an egg-laying queen termite and of a tyrannosaurus rex.  He creates a twenty-foot foe of terrifying savagery, strength and tenacity.  And when she comes bearing down on Ripley at the movie’s climax, Aliens turns into the Battle of the Big Bad Mamas.  By this time, the Queen has seen her whole hellish brood destroyed and wants revenge.  Meanwhile, Ripley is determined to defend what’s left of her family – Newt and the now-incapacitated Hicks and Bishop – to the death.

 

What more can I say?  Three decades later Aliens is still riveting and I envy anyone sitting down to watch it for the first time – especially on a big screen with a big sound-system.  In the words of Private Hudson: “We’re on an express elevator to hell, going down!”

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-Xj24Gdxds

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tjhkhi0Ye6s

 

© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

Bandstand rules OK

 

 

A few weeks ago, my work sent me to Mumbai for a training course.  Frustratingly, most of what I saw of Mumbai was limited to three confined spaces – the office where I did the course during the day, the hotel-room where I spent the nights, and the car that shuttled me between the two every morning and evening.

 

Still, when I learned beforehand that my hotel was in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra and it overlooked the sea, I did some Googling.  I read how the promenade there – ‘Bandstand’ – was worth seeing, “especially liked by young couples who like to sneak out onto the rocks below and spend some time alone.”  So although I hadn’t time to do much in Mumbai, I thought I could at least take a walk along Bandstand one evening before it got dark.

 

The Internet had mentioned rocks, but I didn’t expect the Bandstand shoreline to contain so many of them.  In fact, it consisted of nothing but black slabs of stone, mired amid tracts of gravel and pools of rainwater.  (I was there during the monsoon season and a slate-grey sky spat down on the city continually.)  But as promised, there were plenty of young couples in evidence – seated on the presumably cold and wet rocks and huddling and canoodling under gaudily-coloured umbrellas.

 

 

Many of the people walking along the seafront seemed more interested in looking at what stood inland than in looking at the rocks and waves.  For the neighbourhood was a prestigious one and some very big and costly-looking residences loomed among the buildings lining the inside of the shore-road.  One in particular, its compound wall bearing the title ‘Land’s End’, attracted a lot of sightseers who were eagerly snapping photos and selfies at its front gates.  This, it transpired, was the home of superstar Shahrukh Khan, veteran of some 80 Indian movies and Baadshah (‘master-king’) of Bollywood.  He’s also a philanthropist, the co-owner of the cricket club the Kolkata Knight Riders and, according to Newsweek in 2008, one of the 50 most influential people on the planet.

 

 

Presumably because that road was packed with so much money, respectability and, dare I say it, snobbishness, the atmosphere on the promenade on the coastal side of it was a bit authoritarian.  A lot of rules had been drawn up to keep the promenade and the rocky beach as decent and decorous as possible, worthy of the privileged folk whose houses looked over it.  And they weren’t hesitant about displaying those rules.  Every couple of yards, it seemed, yet another sign shoved yet another rule about how to behave into my face.

 

Hardly had I started along the promenade when I was confronted by these:

 

 

And then by these:

 

 

It made me wonder how angry the local residents would get if a film crew, consisting entirely of beggars, suddenly showed up on bicycles and started filming (whilst gobbing onto the paving stones).  Wow, I thought, that would really piss them off.  However, although saliva, bicycles, beggars and film crews were strictly verboten, there at least seemed to be no ban on dogs, which was good news for his dozy soul:

 

 

Neither was there any ban on crows.  This was just as well since such a rule would have been unenforceable.  The place was overrun with the wily cawing birds, their black feathers glistening in the rain.  At one point I looked up and noticed a great flock of them, surrounding the top of one of those fancy seafront buildings like a cloud of iron filings being pulled towards the head of a magnet.

 

 

Oh well, I thought, I at least hadn’t seen a sign telling me I wasn’t allowed to imbibe while I strolled along the seafront.  I had the freedom to swig liquor out of a hip-flask, if I so wished.  But then I saw this:

 

 

Which was reinforced by this:

 

 

No food, drink or tobacco?  The atmosphere was fast becoming oppressive.  Even the one sign that tried to cheer people up with some wry philosophical advice couldn’t resist sticking a warning on at the bottom, telling them where they ought to be walking.

 

 

You were also warned to keep away from ‘baggers’, whoever they were.

 

 

So, to paraphrase Adam Ant, you can’t drink, can’t smoke – what can you do?  Well, you’re permitted to jog along the promenade.  That is, going by this sign, if you’re a particularly well-endowed female.

 

 

I have to admit, though, that there were a few rules I was glad to see posted up.  I just hoped the ‘no latrine’ one was strictly enforced.

 

 

After that barrage of tyrannous rules and regulations, it was a relief to arrive at the far end of Bandstand and then, a little way past there, to wander into the grounds of St Andrew’s Church.  Founded as a Christian site in 1575, it boasted a venerable, if damp-stained, church-building and a crowded graveyard whose crosses displayed an agreeable colour scheme of black, white and orange.

 

 

Keeping with the spirit of Bandstand, it also had a sign – though one expressing a religious rather than a social imperative.  At least the St Andrew’s Church people managed to wrap their message up in a joke.

 

 

This week’s favourite song of all time

 

From www.dinosaurrockguitar.com

 

Great news!  I’ve found a brand new Favourite Song of All Time.  For this week anyway.

 

Actually, I find a brand new Favourite Song of All Time practically every week of my life.  In the past this title of Favourite Song of All Time has been held by everything from Jubilee Street by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds to Duality by Slipknot, from The Man Comes Around by Johnny Cash to Bikini Girls with Machine Guns by the Cramps, from Welcome to the Terrordome by Public Enemy to Touch Too Much by AC/DC, from Dayvan Cowboy by Boards of Canada to John Carpenter’s theme for Assault on Precinct 13.  (All right, those last two are ‘tunes’ rather than ‘songs’.)  A very long time ago, when I was very young, I remember the title being held by such epics as Benny Hill’s Ernie (“And he drove the fastest milk-cart in the west”) and David Bowie’s The Laughing Gnome (“Ha-ha-ha, hee-hee-hee, I’m a laughing gnome and you can’t catch me!”)  See?  Poor David Bowie is dead now but I still can’t shut up about The Laughing Gnome.

 

I discovered this week’s Favourite Song of All Time when recently I visited a second-hand CD, vinyl and DVD fair held near where my family live in Scotland.  While I scoured a rack of old rock-and-pop CDs, a sudden and inexplicable impulse compelled me to fork over four pounds for a compilation called The Very Best of Rainbow.

 

Rainbow were formed by guitarist Ritchie Blackmore after he quit the seminal heavy metal band Deep Purple in the mid-1970s.  Actually, lots of people were quitting Deep Purple and starting new groups in those days.  Another was former Purple vocalist David Coverdale, who formed the band Whitesnake.  I became aware of Blackmore and Coverdale’s post-Purple projects when I noticed at school how the heavy metal kids had split into two antagonistic factions, those who had the Rainbow logo stitched onto the backs of their denim jackets and were always slagging off Whitesnake, and those with the Whitesnake logo on their jackets who were always slagging off Rainbow.  It resembled a head-banging version of the rivalry that broke out in the Soviet Union between Stalin and Trotsky after Lenin was incapacitated.

 

There was actually a third musical splinter from Deep Purple – the band Gillan, run by Ian Gillan, who’d been the Purple vocalist prior to Coverdale.  However, the one thing that seemed to unite the Rainbow and Whitesnake factions at my school was the belief that Gillan’s outfit were a pile of old bollocks.

 

Rainbow found fame in the late 1970s and early 1980s when they reached the UK singles top ten with rocked-up power ballads like Since You Been Gone and I Surrender, the former with vocals by Australian Graham Bonnet and the latter sung by Bonnet’s replacement, American Joe Lynn Turner.  These songs gave me the impression that, for a supposed heavy metal band, Rainbow were a bit lame and soppy.  This was an era, after all, when Mötorhead were blowing the roofs off teenage parties and giving parents ear-bleed with Ace of Spades.  However, a listen to The Very Best of Rainbow has reminded me that in the years before Bonnet and Turner, the band had a very different type of vocalist: Ronnie James Dio.

 

From wikipedia.org

 

Dio, at five feet, four inches tall, wasn’t the biggest physical presence in heavy metal.  But he had a big voice – an Italian-American, he was heavily influenced by opera, especially by the 1950s tenor Mario Lanza.  He also had a big vision, for he was into all things medieval and particularly into Lord of the Rings-style medieval fantasy.  No wonder that he was fronting a band called Elf when he hooked up with Blackmore.  And his obsessions inform the highlight of his collaboration with Blackmore: the stomping anthem Stargazer, originally found on the 1976 Rainbow album, Rising.  When I listened to Stargazer the other day, I immediately thought: “Wow!  That’s my favourite song of all time!”

 

Stargazer begins with a madcap cacophony of drums courtesy of Rainbow’s then drummer, the late Cozy Powell.  (By the time of his death in 1998 Powell seemed to have belonged to every heavy metal band that’d ever existed, including Whitesnake, the Michael Schenker Group, Black Sabbath and Yngwie Malmsteen.  For a while he was even in Emerson, Lake and Palmer, who renamed themselves Emerson, Lake and Powell during his tenure.)  Then we get into the song proper: an unstoppably slugging riff and Dio hollering ominously about a wizard who glides ‘lighter than air.’  When the song rises towards the first of many crescendos, so the hairs rise too on the back of your neck as Dio wails: “Oh, I see his fa-a-ace!”

 

So what’s going on?  As the song progresses, it transpires that a powerful wizard – one of the Saruman rather than the Gandalf variety – has enslaved an army of people and set them to work constructing an impossibly-high tower, as in the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel.  But his purpose is not to reach heaven.  When the thing is finished, he intends to jump off the top of it and fly.  I like how Dio gives the tale a proletarian tone by telling it from the point of view of one of the wizard’s slaves.  Thus the chorus goes: “In the heat and the rain / With whips and chains / Just to see him fly / So many die! / We build a tower of stone / With our flesh and bone / Just to see him fly / Don’t know why!”

 

Right on, Ronnie.  Up the workers!

 

Much of the music is splendid, flavoured with a delicious Middle Eastern sound that accords with lyrics like “Hot wind moving fast across the desert.”  Supposedly, Blackmore used an unidentified Turkish instrument during the recording and I assume it contributes a lot to Stargazer.

 

© Polydor Records

 

Incidentally, if the song sounds heavy even by the standards of 1970s heavy metal, it’s because you’re not just listening to Rainbow.  For the recording, Blackmore managed to recruit the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, so you can hear them clunking around in there too.  Yes, if you’re going to go over the top, you might as well do so in style.

 

Also going over the top, two-thirds of the way through, is the wizard, who climbs the completed tower in preparation for flying.  And guess what happens next?  “No sound as he falls instead of rising / Time standing still, now there’s blood on the sand”.  With the vainglorious wizard reduced to a sticky red smear back on terra firma, the slave-narrator finds himself unexpectedly free.  The song ends with Dio singing, “I’m coming home, coming home, I’m coming home!”

 

The song isn’t perfect.  Around the five-minute stage, Blackmore’s guitar doodlings reach barely-acceptable levels of wankiness.  But overall, those eight minutes and 26 seconds of Stargazer are a great deal of fun.  Its crunching riffage would, for instance, sound brilliant played in a cheesy giant monster movie, during a scene where two Godzilla-type behemoths slug it out in the middle of a city and flatten everything around them.  Actually, Guillermo Del Toro could do worse than buy the rights to Stargazer when he finally gets around to filming Pacific Rim II.

 

Rainbow initially folded in 1984, but returned for four years in the 1990s with Scotsman Doogie White as their fourth vocalist.  And I’ve heard that during the summer of 2016 the band has been playing concerts again, though apart from Blackmore the line-up is a completely new one.

 

Meanwhile, Ronnie James Dio formed his own band, Dio, in 1982.  He also managed, over the years, to be a member of Black Sabbath – his albums with them, Heaven and Hell (1980), Mob Rules (1981) and Dehumanizer (1992), are the only Sabbath ones without Ozzy Osbourne on vocals that are worth listening to.  An endearing and witty character who clearly didn’t take himself too seriously – check out his cameo appearance in the Jack Black comedy Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny (2006) or his interview in the 2005 documentary Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey – he sadly died from stomach cancer in 2010.

 

By the way, it’s said that Dio invented the ‘devil’s horns’ salute that’s ubiquitous at heavy metal concerts today.  He allegedly got the idea for it from a superstitious Italian grandmother who’d raise her index finger and little finger as a way of warding off the evil eye.  If this is true, then heavy metal fans owe a lot not just to Dio, but also to Dio’s granny.

 

From www.geeksofdoom.com

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ble0pQHUb8c

 

The magnificent seven dwarves

 

© The Birmingham Mail

 

Last weekend saw the passing of Kenny Baker, an actor whose face wasn’t famous but whose most prominent film-role certainly was.  The three-foot, eight-inch-tall Baker was the man inside the bodywork of the diminutive Star Wars robot R2D2, part dodgem car and part coffee percolator.  He steered the trundling, beeping droid through six instalments of George Lucas’s lucrative space-fantasy saga.  He would have returned in a seventh, last year’s The Force Awakens, but declining health prevented this.

 

In the movies R2D2 was partnered with the jabbering humanoid robot C-3PO, whom I always thought was a bit of a knob-head.  R2D2, though, was the star.  Indeed, according to R2D2’s Wikipedia entry, George Lucas made a point of having the resourceful little droid save the day on at least one occasion in every film.

 

That said, I think Baker’s finest hour wasn’t as R2D2 but as Fidget, one of the six time-travelling dwarves in Terry Gilliam’s superlative fantasy film, The Time Bandits (1981).  The kindly Fidget gets killed near the end, squashed beneath a falling pillar; but fortunately God, played by Sir Ralph Richardson, pops up in the nick of time to restore him to life.  I’ve heard claims that Gilliam based the dwarves’ characters on the six members of the outfit he’d formerly belonged to, the Monty Python team; and Fidget, the nice-guy dwarf, was modelled on Michael Palin.

 

Kenny Baker’s death got me thinking.  I’ve seen a lot of short actors in my time – especially as they appear in many horror, fantasy and science-fiction movies, three genres I’m a fan of.  So who are my favourite ones?

 

Firstly, I’d pick Skip Martin.  By the time of his death in 1984 Martin had appeared in several British horror movies that, because I watched them at a formative age, are now seared on my memory.  As well as playing big-top dwarves in John Llewellyn Moxley / Werner Jacobs’ Circus of Fear (1966) and Robert Young’s atmospheric Vampire Circus (1972), Skip Martin appeared in Corridors of Blood (1958), The Hellfire Club (1961), Son of Dracula (1974) and the absolutely barking-mad-insane Horror Hospital (1973).

 

© Alta Vista Productions / AIP

 

But he’s at his best in Roger Corman’s majestic 1964 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death.  Writers Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell stitch a second Poe story, Hop Frog, into the plot and Martin takes the title role in this.  Well, almost the title role – Beaumont and Campbell rename him ‘Hop Toad’ for some reason.  Hop Toad is one of two little people employed as entertainers by rottenly-evil Prince Prospero (Vincent Price), who’s holed up in his castle and living a life of drink / drugs / sex / party / diabolism-fuelled decadence while a plague, the Red Death, decimates the countryside outside.  One of Prospero’s loathsome guests, Alfredo (Patrick Magee), insults Hop Toad’s dainty, doll-like partner Esmerelda and he vows revenge.

 

This comes when Alfredo decides to don fancy dress at Prospero’s next big social event, the masque.  Hop Toad persuades him to wear a hairy (and inflammable) ape costume.  Then on the night, with the help of some chains and a giant hanging candelabrum, he suspends Alfredo above the revellers on the dance floor, sets his costume alight and burns him to a crisp.  This delights Price’s Prospero, who purrs, “Look…  I believe Hop Toad is playing some sort of a joke on Alfredo!”  Gratifyingly, when the inevitable happens and the Red Death gets into the castle and poops the party, Hop Toad and Esmerelda are among the few who escape.

 

Less prolific in British horror movies, but still memorable, was American actor Michael Dunn.  A man with an intriguing back story – he reputedly had an IQ of 178 and a non-acting CV that included stints as a singer, a journalist, a hotel detective and a monk – he made his name during the 1960s with appearances in countless American TV shows, most famously as Dr Miguelito Loveless, the main villain in The Wild, Wild West (1965-1968).  He was also nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in Edward Albee’s stage adaptation of Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café and for an Oscar for his role as narrator in Ship of Fools (1965).

 

From www.nctc.net

 

Near the end of his life he appeared in another British-made Poe adaptation, Gordon Hessler’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971); and another British horror film of the barking-mad-insane variety, Jack Cardiff’s The Mutations (1973), in which he was a member of a carnival sideshow that’s a front for some horrific gene-splicing experiments carried out by mad scientist Donald Pleasence.  In the year The Mutations was made, Dunn – by then frustrated about the roles he was getting – died of pulmonary heart disease.  His health wasn’t helped by his fondness for Jack Daniel’s, which despite his size he could put away a lot of.

 

When I’m in the right mood, I quite like The Mutations.  But I can see how appearing in a sleazy British horror movie where Donald Pleasence surgically turns people into plant monsters must have convinced Dunn his career was on the skids.

 

One short actor whose career is unlikely to be on the skids anytime soon is British actor Warwick Davis.  After his appearances in three Star Wars films, eight Harry Potter films, plus the Ricky Gervais situation comedy Life’s Too Short (2011-2013), he’s now regarded in Britain as a national treasure.  Incidentally, when he was less famous, Davis played the title character in six instalments of the dopey Leprechaun horror-comedy franchise.  He was in Leprechaun (1992), Leprechaun II (1993), Leprechaun III (1994), Leprechaun IV: In Space (1996), Leprechaun: In the Hood (2000) and Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood (2003).  About the last film, Entertainment Weekly mused, “If a movie could spark a race riot, this is it.”

 

From wikipedia.org

 

I like Warwick Davis a lot.  However, having seen clips of those Leprechaun movies – I’ve never watched any in their entirety because, er, life’s too short – I’d advise him to do a bit of work on his Irish accent.

 

Another modern actor of short stature who seems to be doing well is Canadian actor Jordan Prentice.  Like Kenny Baker and Warwick Davis, Prentice found early employment with George Lucas; but while Baker and Davis were lucky enough to be involved in the box-office-busting Star Wars series, Prentice was involved in a less illustrious item in the Lucas canon.  He was one of the actors operating the title character in the atrocious 1986 sci-fi comedy Howard the Duck.

 

In the noughties Prentice appeared in two of my favourite comic-noir movies.  Michael McDonagh’s In Bruges (2008) sees him playing Jimmy, an obnoxious ketamine-abusing, prostitute-chasing dwarf actor who’s doing some filming in the Belgian city of the title.  Jimmy has to put up with dim-witted interloper Ray (Colin Farrell), who insists on babbling about the existentialist misery of being a dwarf: “People go around calling you a midget when you want to be called a dwarf.  Of course you’re going to blow your head off.”

 

© Film4 Productions / Focus Films

 

The previous year he’d appeared in Allan Moyle’s Weirdsville, an amusing shaggy-dog story set in Ontario and involving druggies, Satanists and, yes, dwarves.  The latter seem to belong to a historical re-enactment society for vertically-challenged people and they’re led by Prentice’s character, Martin.  When late in the film Martin and his buddies turn up to save the day dressed in medieval garb, they provide an obvious visual reference to The Time Bandits.

 

That brings me back to The Time Bandits and my next favourite short actor.  Englishman David Rappaport seemed ubiquitous on UK television when I was a youth.  He appeared alongside the anarchic likes of Spike Milligan, Sylvester McCoy, Rik Mayall and Kenny Everett in various madcap kids’ and adult TV shows that I enjoyed, including Q9 (1980), Jigsaw (1980-1981), The Goodies (1981), Tiswas (1981-1982), The Young Ones (1982-1983) and The Kenny Everett Television Show (1985).  He was also in movies like Cuba (1979) and The Bride (1985).  But his cinematic break came when another anarchic talent, Terry Gilliam, cast him in The Time Bandits as Randall, the dwarves’ cocky but essentially good-hearted leader.  If you believe the Monty Python theory, Gilliam based this character on John Cleese.

 

© HandMade Films / Janus Films

 

Tragically, Rappaport suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1990.  Three years later, another short actor, Frenchman Hervé Villechaize, star of the schmaltzy 1980s American TV show Fantasy Island, took his own life – though Villechaize was driven to this not because of mental anguish but because of chronic pain caused by his physical condition.  (In In Bruges, Colin Farrell’s character alludes to both Rapport and Villechaize during his babblings about dwarves.)

 

I’m not a Fantasy Island fan but I admired Villechaize for his performance as Nick Nack, henchman of the villainous Scaramanga (Christopher Lee) in the 1974 James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun.  The film’s lame but it has one thing going for it – its baddies, Lee and Villechaize.  While Lee invests Scaramanga with his usual imperious wickedness, Villechaize is more sinisterly ambiguous.  He seems affable.  He’s dutiful and obedient.  Because of his size, he’s almost elf-like.  So is he dangerous?  And if so, how dangerous?  Even Bond himself, Roger Moore, can’t make up his mind.  At the film’s end, rather than liquidating Nick Nack, he settles for trapping him inside a suitcase.

 

© Eon Productions

 

Incidentally, I’ve read that the American short actor Peter Dinklage – famous for his performances in the 2003 arthouse hit The Station Agent and the tits-blood-and-dragons TV fantasy show Game of Thrones – is currently trying to make a film about Villechaize called My Dinner with Hervé.  If the project comes to fruition, let’s hope it’s a worthy epitaph for James Bond’s littlest adversary.

 

© HandMade Films / Janus Films

 

The Cricket Club gets bowled out

 

 

As I get older and become more of a creature of habit, one thing I increasingly dislike is change.  So the other evening in Colombo I got a shock.  I finished work and made my way to the Cricket Club, a well-known eating and drinking establishment close to my workplace, to unwind with a beer.  This is something I do regularly.

 

I walked along the street beside the Cricket Club and turned around a corner to where its entrance was… and discovered that its big green gates were fastened shut across the entrance.  Then, peering over the top of its perimeter wall, I saw that the charming old colonial-type bungalow that contains the Cricket Club was in darkness.

 

It was closed.  And a newly hung-up banner told me that the Cricket Club, in this neighbourhood at least, was closed for good.

 

Change had come.  “Eeeek!” I went.

 

I’ll be honest.  The Cricket Club wasn’t my all-time favourite place in Colombo to hang out in and have a meal or drink.  I sometimes found the food a bit stodgy.  It could get uncomfortably busy with crowds of holiday makers who were shuttled there on tour-coaches.  I didn’t think the bar area was particularly cosy or atmospheric, although it was definitely an improvement on the phoney, sanitised faux-old-style-British pubs that you get in the city’s upmarket hotels like the Cinnamon Grand.  And the music played there was very often ghastly.  I’m sorry, Cricket Club, but if I want to chill out with a beer and a bite to eat, the very last thing I want to hear is a loud Hi NRG version of The Final Countdown by Europe.

 

 

And the place’s big gimmick left me cold.  Yes, the Cricket Club was a place dedicated to the sport of cricket.  The walls were covered with cricketing memorabilia – with pictures of players, teams and matches, with bats, balls and stumps, with sweaters, banners and flags.  And the dishes on the menu were named after famous cricket players.  Thus, you could order Imran Khan pumpkin soup, Graham Gooch fish and chips, Mike Gatting garlic prawns, a Viv Richards veggie bake, an Allan Lamb stir-fry, a Dickie Bird burger and inevitably a ‘David Shepherd’ pie.  Now this is great if you’re a fan of cricket.  Unfortunately, I’m somebody who considers cricket to be the most tedious sport ever devised by humankind.  It doesn’t surprise me that only about ten countries on the planet are deluded enough to play it.  (Though admittedly one of those ten, India, does contain 17% of the world’s population.)

 

But the Cricket Club had its positive features too.  For one thing, the waiting staff seemed a welcoming and decent bunch of blokes.  And there was one part of it that I found heavenly – its veranda.

 

Ah, how I loved that veranda!  I’d struggle onto it following a hectic and wearying day’s work and sit at one of its tables, and order a beer, and spend my time under a creaking ceiling fan watching the light outside affect a series of ever-darkening shades as evening gave way to night.  Cats would prowl and crows would hop across the open area in front of the veranda.  And at a certain point a big gecko would appear on the wall next to me and entertain me for hours as he scurried to and fro searching for bugs to pounce on.  After a few evenings I’d christened him – not very originally – ‘Gordon’.

 

Me, a beer and Gordon the Gecko on the Cricket Club veranda.  How could I possibly spend a more blissful evening?

 

Incidentally, that area before the veranda included the Cricket Club’s most photographed feature.  This was a tall white signpost with a curious-looking figure on top, half-cricketer and half-Old Father Time.  It also had eight or so signs pointing off in different directions, towards different famous cricket-grounds in different cricket-playing countries, and it displayed the distances from Colombo to each one.  It was 15,829 km to Queen’s Park Oval in Trinidad, 10,910 km to Basin Reserve in New Zealand and so on.

 

 

With hindsight, I suppose it was no surprise that the Cricket Club, housed in that old bungalow, was living on borrowed time.  The structure was showing its age and maintaining it must have been a drain on resources.  Back in May, when unusually violent rain pounded Sri Lanka, its roof couldn’t cope.  At the time I went there for a meal with my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, and I soon discovered that water was dribbling through the ceiling in the main men’s toilet.  Later, as we were finishing our meal in the place’s lobby area, the lobby-roof started leaking too.  By bad luck, Mrs Blood and Porridge was sitting directly under the leak and huge cold drops of water came smacking down onto the crown of her head.

 

It seems sadly inevitable that rumours are already circulating about the site where the Cricket Club operated – old bungalow and all – being cleared to make way for a new, costly apartment block.  Several of these have sprouted up in the district in recent years.  Indeed, at the other end of the street, an architecturally handsome outlet of the boutique / gift-shop Paradise Road was levelled a short time ago, presumably to allow the construction of yet another apartment block.

 

However, the Cricket Club itself isn’t dead – for the banner above the gates announces that in the near future it will be reopening at a new address on Flower Road.  I’ve heard that its staff are busy transferring everything (including, no doubt, all the cricketing memorabilia) to Flower Road at this very moment.  It’s probably too much to hope for, but it would be nice if they could dismantle the veranda and then reassemble it, brick-by-brick and plank-by-plank, at the new premises.  Oh, and they’d better bring Gordon the Gecko with them.

 

Oh, and guys – while you’re at it, get some f***ing decent music in.  Please!

 

 

TV comic genius 5: Steptoe and Son

 

(c) BBC

 

In the UK in the early 1970s, all young kids – like me – loved the BBC sitcom Steptoe and Son.  We particularly loved the irascible and wily old rag-and-bone man Albert Steptoe, played by Wilfred Brambell, who seemed so grotesque that he could have been created by Roald Dahl.  With his skull-like head, contorted features, mangled dentures, slobbering voice, spiteful cackle, stick-thin limbs, revolting habits and total disregard for personal hygiene, how could kids not have found him fascinating?

 

Those youngsters in the playground unlucky enough to be a bit sallow or thin-faced or to have a propensity for scratching themselves were doomed to live out their schooldays branded with the unglamorous nickname ‘Steptoe’.  And when we weren’t tormenting other kids for looking like Albert Steptoe, we tried our best to impersonate him: backs hunched, eyes leering, noses screwed up, teeth bared, voices gargling, “’Aaa-rold!  ’Aaa-rold!”

 

Harold Steptoe – Albert’s son and reluctant partner in the rag-and-bone trade, played by Harry H. Corbett – seemed a more conventional character to us young ’uns and was therefore less interesting.  But we did impersonations of him too, from the moment that frequently arose in the show when Harold would glare at Albert, his expression suggesting someone who’d just had a rhinoceros fart into his face, and contemptuously intone, “You dir-ty old man!”

 

We loved watching Steptoe and Son, which we managed somehow to do despite it being shown past our official bedtimes – after the Nine O’Clock News if I remember correctly.  We loved the yelling matches between Albert and Harold and the occasional slapstick: Harold pouring a bottle of surgical spirit over Albert’s bare arse in the 1974 episode Upstairs, Downstairs, Upstairs, Downstairs, or Albert trying to take a bath in the kitchen sink in the 1972 movie spin-off, only to have the curtains collapse and his emaciated nakedness revealed to a neighbour-lady outside.  We loved the ramshackle squalor of the Steptoe living room, as junk-filled as their front yard, with its anatomical skeleton, stuffed bear, gramophone, non-working grandfather clock and dusty old boxes containing Albert’s long-lost false teeth.  And we loved the sight-gags about the dung that regularly tumbled out of the Steptoes’ carthorse.

 

(c) BBC

 

For years my favourite Steptoe episode was 1974’s The Seven Steptoerai, which saw Harold and Albert’s livelihood under threat from a protection racket run by loathsome local gangster Frankie Barrow (deliciously played by character actor Henry Woolf).  Improbably, Albert assembles a ‘team’ consisting of his pension-age cronies who take on Barrow’s goons in the Steptoe yard and defeat them in vicious hand-to-hand combat.  The old fellows have somehow become adept at kung-fu fighting through watching lots of Bruce Lee movies at the local fleapit.  In the supporting cast for this episode is the legendary stuntman Vic Armstrong, whom I assume played one of the gangsters.  I love the idea that Harrison Ford’s stunt double in the Indiana Jones movies once had the crap beaten out of him by Old Man Steptoe and his mates.

 

It’s a shock, then, to watch the show on Youtube forty years later and realise how bleak it is.  There’s a tragedy to it that sailed over my head when I was nine years old.  It’s still hilarious at times, but there are also moments when it definitely feels not funny because the depiction of Albert and Harold, and the relationship between them, is so painful.  (The Seven Steptoerai is actually a rare thing in the Steptoe world, a crowd-pleaser.)

 

Tellingly, my better half – who’s American – finds Steptoe and Son difficult to watch.  She admires the writing and acting, but to her the show just seems too depressing to be enjoyable.  It probably didn’t help that the episode with which I tried to introduce her to Steptoe and Son was 1972’s The Desperate Hours.  This has a pair of escaped convicts – a young one played by Leonard Rossiter and an old one played by J.G. Devlin – invade the Steptoe residence and demand food, warmth and shelter.  “First of all,” says Rossiter, “we want some grub.  We’re starving!”  “So are we,” stammers Harold.  It transpires that financially the Steptoes have been going through a bad patch, with the result that their electricity keeps getting cut off, the house is freezing and the only sustenance in the kitchen is some cold lumpy porridge, a rock-hard piece of bread and some ancient cheese.  “You can scrape the green bits off,” says Albert helpfully.

 

Rossiter and Devlin soon realise they were better off in prison – which, predictably, is where they are again at the episode’s end, though not before the Steptoes have cadged off them some cigarettes and some money to stick in the electricity coin-meter.  Meanwhile, it’s clear that Harold and Albert are equally imprisoned, in poverty.

 

(c) BBC

 

The Desperate Hours also highlights a different type of imprisonment – a spiritual type – that’s a strong theme throughout Steptoe and Son.  Harold befriends Rossiter’s convict after hearing how his career in crime was hobbled by his partnership with the elderly Devlin.  It was Devlin whose geriatric incompetence got the pair of them caught in the first place.  And it’s likely that his slowness and frailty will get them caught again following their escape.  The convicts’ relationship, Harold realises, parallels his own relationship with his dad; because Harold has spent years trying to better himself and escape from the lowly life of a rag-and-bone man, only to have every attempt thwarted by the exasperating but crafty and manipulative Albert.

 

It’s more complicated than that, though.  Harold’s aspirations for better things aren’t always noble.  Sometimes they’re fueled by pure snobbery.  In another 1972 episode, Porn Yesterday, Harold finds an antique What the Butler Saw machine during his rounds and is horrified to learn that one of the naked performers cavorting on the naughty film-reel inside is his own father – during hard times in the 1920s, Albert was forced to eke a living acting in vintage porn movies.  One of Harold’s first thoughts is that if this revelation gets out in the local community, it’ll scupper his chances of joining the golf club.

 

And Harold can be callous.  In an earlier episode, 1964’s Home Fit for Heroes, he joins a yacht-crew who intend to voyage around the world for two years and he has no qualms about abandoning Albert to a miserable existence in an old folks’ home.  The plan falls through eventually, but not because Harold suffers a crisis-of-conscience about his father.  It’s because the bright young things crewing the yacht change their mind about having Harold on board.  They decide – irony! – he’s too old to travel with them.

 

Meanwhile, the reason for Albert’s deviousness towards Harold isn’t that he’s a bastard who wants to keep his son in a life of penury.  It’s that he knows, deep down, that if Harold leaves him he’ll die a sad and lonely old man.  In Home Fit for Heroes there’s a scene where Harold bids Albert farewell at the old folks’ home.  Then the camera lingers on Albert, sitting silently and alone on the bed of his bare new room.  And it lingers… and lingers… and lingers.  That’s another disconcerting example of Steptoe and Son ceasing to be funny.

 

(c) BBC

 

Steptoe and Son was the brainchild of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, the writing partnership who’d previously penned radio and TV scripts for the celebrated Tony Hancock.  It was born out of an episode called The Offer that Galton and Simpson wrote for the anthology series Comedy Playhouse and, subsequently, it ran for eight seasons: four black-and-white ones broadcast from 1962 to 1965 and four colour ones broadcast from 1970 to 1974, with Galton and Simpson providing all the scripts.  There were also two movie versions, Steptoe and Son in 1972 and Steptoe and Son Ride Again in 1975, but they weren’t up to much (though the second one at least featured the welcome return of the delightfully scummy Frankie Barrow).  Meanwhile, American TV producer Norman Lear borrowed the premise for the African-American sitcom Sanford and Son, which ran from 1972 to 1977 and was set in the Watts district of Los Angeles.  Among the writers contributing scripts to Sanford and Son, incidentally, was the late, lamented Gary Shandling.

 

In recent years, the comic excellence of Steptoe and Son has been overshadowed by speculation about what went on behind the scenes.  It’s been claimed that the relationship between stars Wilfred Brambell and Harry H. Corbett was as antagonistic as the relationship between their characters.  Brambell was a gay man at a time in Britain when being a practising homosexual could land you in prison and, supposedly, his paranoia about this led to him drinking too much and regularly fluffing his lines – much to the anger of Corbett, a serious method-actor who’d once been touted as Britain’s answer to Marlon Brando.  That Corbett’s career as the British Brando never materialised, due to him being typecast as Harold Steptoe, allegedly embittered him further about the show and about Brambell.  In 2008, this unhappy narrative became the basis for a BBC Four play called The Curse of Steptoe, starring Jason Isaacs as Corbett, Phil Davis as Brambell, Burn Gorman as Galton and Rory Kinnear as Simpson.

 

By 2008, both Corbett and Brambell were long dead and couldn’t give their side of the story.  But Galton and Simpson were still around – and are still around – and made no bones about how they thought The Curse of Steptoe’s version of events was rubbish.  The two actors, they argued, had “worked beautifully together.”  My own suspicion is that the stuff about Corbett and Brambell being at each other’s throats was indeed a myth.  Partly it was fuelled by people’s tendency to confuse what they see onscreen with what they assume is the case off it.  And partly it was because Galton and Simpson’s careers were already associated with one tragedy – after breaking with them in 1961, Tony Hancock lost his comedic magic touch, saw his career decline, succumbed to alcoholism and died of an overdose in 1968 – which I suppose made it tempting to cook up another tragedy to associate with them.  Hence, The Curse of Steptoe.

 

Steptoe and Son is for my money the best situation comedy that British telly ever produced.  As I said, Galton and Simpson are still with us – both now a venerable 86 – and in May this year they were awarded a Fellowship by the British Academy of Film and Television Awards, which was long overdue.  Harold and Albert, meanwhile, bowed out with a 1974 Christmas special wherein Harold, for once, manages to rid himself of Albert.  Temporarily, at least – tricking the old codger into going off on holiday so that he can spend some quality time at home with a (hitherto-unmentioned) girlfriend.  And I think that was an appropriate time to bid adios to the duo.

 

I’d really prefer not to know what happened to Albert, Harold and their rag-and-bone business during the cutthroat Thatcherite 1980s.

 

(c) BBC