Not a British pub argument, but I’ve settled it anyway

 

© Oxford University Press

 

Previously on this blog I discussed two arguments that I’ve often heard flare up in British pubs.  Well, they’ve often flared up in pubs where I’ve been drinking with my mates.  One of these arguments concerns the question, “Who is the best James Bond?”  (My answer: Sean Connery.)  The other concerns the question, “Who is the best Doctor Who?”  (My answer: Tom Baker.)

 

I’ve never, though, been in a pub when an argument has broken out about which actor has been most successful at portraying a third icon of British popular culture: Sherlock Holmes, the pipe-smoking, cocaine-and-morphine-sampling, deductive-reasoning (though actually it was abductive reasoning) Victorian detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Still, I thought I’d devote a blog-post to the topic and list my seven best cinematic and TV Sherlock Holmes-es.

 

Incidentally, I’ve been thinking about Sherlock Holmes a lot lately.  Last year I bought a weighty volume containing all of Conan Doyle’s writings about him and I’ve been gradually working my way through it.  I’ve read the novels A Study in Scarlet (1887), The Sign of the Four (1890) and The Valley of Fear (1915) and the short-story collections The Adventures (1892), The Memoirs (1893) and The Return (1905) of Sherlock Holmes.  I just have to read His Last Bow (1917) and The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (1927) and I’ll have finished the lot.  (1902’s The Hound of the Baskervilles was sorted out long ago because I read it twice when I was a kid.)

 

© Compton-Tekli Film Productions / Colombia Pictures

 

Anyway, seventh in my list is a lesser-known Sherlock Holmes.  John Neville, who’s perhaps best known for two roles he played later in his career, as the title character in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and as the ‘elegantly manicured man’ in eight episodes and a movie version of The X-Files (1995-98), played Holmes in a 1965 movie called A Study in Terror.  The terror of the title comes from the film’s premise that Holmes investigated the most gruesome real-life crimes of the 19th century, the murders committed by Jack the Ripper in Whitechapel in 1888.

 

Given the subject matter and the fact that A Study in Terror’s producers included Tony Tenser and Herman Cohen, two men better known for their horror movies, it’s unsurprising that as the movie progresses, the plot fills with macabre and sensational incidents and Neville’s Holmes becomes less a cerebral problem-solver and more a man of action.  Not that that’s bad, because in the original stories Holmes was a skilled boxer and a practitioner of the 19th-century martial art of bartitsu; but it’s a little surprising to see the thin, slightly fragile-looking Neville explode into fisticuffs when a gang of toughs attack him in Whitechapel’s backstreets.  Still, I find his performance in this film agreeably good-natured and sparky.  There’s also strong support from the Welsh actor Donald Houston as a doughty (if slightly slow-on-the-uptake) Doctor Watson and the delightful Robert Morley as Holmes’ older and supposedly smarter brother Mycroft.

 

© BBC

 

Occupying number six is the actor who’s most famously played Holmes in the modern era – yes, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch from the Steven Moffat / Mark Gatiss-masterminded BBC TV show Sherlock (2010-present).  I respect Cumberbatch for taking risks and making Holmes an aloof, awkward and oddball character, possibly lodged on the milder end of the autism scale.  Nonetheless, I think Cumberbatch is lucky to have such a likeable supporting cast, including Martin Freeman as Watson, Rupert Graves as Inspector Lestrade, Una Stubbs as Mrs Hudson and Gatiss as Mycroft, who help to soften his sharp edges.  Without them around, giving the show some humanity, I suspect the Cumberbatch Holmes would be hard work.

 

At number five is an actor who played Holmes in another movie involving Jack the Ripper.  This is the great Canadian performer Christopher Plummer, who donned the deerstalker for 1979’s Murder by Decree (and who’d already played him in a 1977 TV film called Silver Blaze).  Murder by Decree has no connection with A Study in Terror, save for the curious coincidence that in both movies Inspector Lestrade is played by Frank Finlay.  Inspiring the film is Stephen Knight’s book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1976), which postulated that the Ripper killings were the result of a conspiracy involving the Freemasons and the Royal Family – a theory also informing Alan Moore’s celebrated graphic novel From Hell (1989-98) and its subsequent 2001 movie adaptation.

 

© AVCO Embassy Pictures

 

Murder by Decree is a classy movie with handsome production values and a big-name cast and Plummer essays a correspondingly classy and cultivated Sherlock Holmes.  Also deserving praise is James Mason as Doctor Watson.  Despite a jarring disparity in their ages – Plummer was around 50 at the time, Mason around 70 – the pair make a charming double-act.  They’re clearly bound by great affection and loyalty for one another, even if there are occasional moments of irritation and sulkiness, and they go about their business like a long-term and mostly-loving married couple.

 

There’s a similar married-couple vibe in the film featuring my fourth-favourite Sherlock Holmes.  The movie is The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and it’s possibly the first to suggest that something homoerotic is going on between Holmes and Watson, who are respectively and splendidly played by Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely.  Incidentally, this is an idea that Sherlock-the-TV-show has had a lot of fun playing with and its makers have freely admitted that The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes has been a big influence on them.  (Mark Gatiss has said of the movie’s director Billy Wilder and scriptwriter I.A.L. Diamond that they “gently take the mickey out of Sherlock Holmes in the way that you can only do with something that you really adore.”)

 

© The Mirisch Corporation / United Artists / MGM

 

Despite the are-they-or-aren’t-they jokes about Holmes and Watson and some gloriously far-fetched steampunk nonsense about a Victorian submarine disguised as the Loch Ness Monster, there’s a melancholic aspect to the film and to Stephens’ performance.  It shows him falling in love with a woman called Gabrielle Valladon, played by Geneviève Page, who turns out to be a German spy, and it ends on a mournful note when Holmes receives a letter from Mycroft (Christopher Lee) informing him that Gabrielle has been executed by a firing squad.

 

Third in my list is Peter Cushing, who played Holmes on three occasions in three different decades: in a celluloid version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, filmed in a typically gothic fashion by horror-movie specialists Hammer Films in 1959 (in fact, I think of it as Holmes Under the Hammer); in a 16-episode BBC TV series in 1968; and in a rather lame but amiable TV film in 1984.  His Watsons were, respectively, André Morell, Nigel Stock and Sir John Mills – all of whom gave solid performances.  The gentlemanly Cushing misses some of the arrogance of the literary character, but he invests him with a dynamism and intensity true to Conan Doyle’s stories.  (When Watson first meets him in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes is running around with a test tube exclaiming, “I’ve found it!  I’ve found it!”)  Cushing’s sharp, angular features also match Conan Doyle’s description of Holmes as having a ‘thin, hawk-like nose’ that ‘gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision’.  Incidentally, Cushing once played Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, in a 1976 TV film called The Great Houdini.

 

© Hammer Films

 

Second place goes to an actor who, like Cushing, was often known for villainous and macabre roles – Basil Rathbone, who played Holmes in 14 films between 1939 and 1946.  The first two were big-budget affairs made by 20th Century Fox and set in Victorian times.  The remaining dozen were cheaper ones made by Universal Pictures and they cheekily updated Holmes to the then-present-day (so that he could devote a lot of time to fighting Nazis).

 

Rathbone’s appearance, bearing and voice are perfect for the role, but for me his films are slightly tarnished by Nigel Bruce’s performance as Dr Watson, which reduces the sensible and dependable narrator of the original stories to a bumbling comedy side-kick.  Yes, Bruce’s ineptitude generates some entertaining moments, but it’s unlikely that someone as smart as Holmes would tolerate having someone as slow-witted as Bruce’s Watson around him all the time.  I particularly cringe at the climax of The Spider Woman (1944), which has Holmes tied up by the villains behind a moving target in a fairground shooting gallery – and Watson at the front of the gallery, obliviously blasting at the target with a rifle.  (To be fair, the not-much-brighter Inspector Lestrade, played by Dennis Hoey, is shooting at it too.)

 

© Universal Pictures

 

And in first place is Jeremy Brett, who played Holmes from 1984 to 1994 in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a series of dramas made by Granada Television that adapted 42 of Conan Doyle’s 60 Holmes stories.  It’s a tragedy that Brett’s declining health prevented him from completing the full set.  Brett was a perfectionist and went to the extent of compiling a dossier on Holmes, nearly 80 pages long, about all the characteristics, mannerisms and habits attributed to him in the stories and he’d constantly refer to this on the set.  The production team displayed a similar, exacting attention to detail, with the result that most Sherlockians – Holmes fans – regard both Brett as the apogee of Sherlock Holmes portrayals and the series as the apogee of Sherlock Holmes adaptations.

 

A great many other actors have played Holmes over the years, of course.  Among those deserving mention are: William Gillette (who played him on stage, radio and the silent screen), Christopher Lee (who also played Mycroft Holmes and Sir Henry Baskerville), Douglas Wilmer, Stewart Granger, Nicol Williamson, Ian Richardson, Nicholas Rowe, Charlton Heston, Matt Frewer, Rupert Everett and Ian McKellen.  And let’s not forget the Russian actor Vasily Livanov, who played Holmes for seven years in a Soviet-era TV series and now has a statue of him as the character standing outside the UK embassy in Moscow.  By the way, I haven’t seen two Holmes performances that have attracted much attention in recent years – those of Jonny Lee Miller in the US TV show Elementary (2012-present) and Robert Downey Jr in two films in 2009 and 2011 directed by Guy Ritchie (which to be honest, not being a Guy Ritchie fan, I don’t really want to see).

 

Finally, has there been any overlap with the two other British cultural icons mentioned at the start of this post?   Yes, there has.  The fourth Doctor Who, Tom Baker, played Sherlock Holmes in a 1982 BBC TV adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles.  His performance has its admirers, though Baker himself wasn’t too happy about it.  Also, the above-mentioned Holmes Peter Cushing played the Doctor in two non-canonical movies Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (1966).  And in 1976, in between his appearances in the James Bond franchise, Roger Moore swapped his safari suit for a deerstalker and played the title role in an American TV movie called Sherlock Holmes in New York.  It’s on Youtube here.  Watch it if you dare.

 

Anyway, that’s settled it.  Best Sherlock Holmes?  Jeremy Brett, surely.

 

© Granada Television

 

Enter the dragon

 

© Dino de Laurentiis Company / NBC

 

I lately read Red Dragon, the 1981 thriller by Thomas Harris.   It’s the first of Harris’s novels to feature the super-intelligent, polylingual, opera-loving, gourmet-cooking, serial-killing psychiatrist and cannibal Dr Hannibal Lecter.

 

Harris’s second Lecter novel Silence of the Lambs (1988) was the one that turned Lecter into a flesh-munching cultural icon – especially when movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis had it filmed in 1991 with Jonathan Demme directing and Anthony Hopkins giving an Oscar-winning performance as the hungry psychiatrist.  However, though Silence is the best-known of Harris’s titles thanks to the popular and critical success of the 1991 movie version, that’s the only time it’s been filmed.  Red Dragon, on the other hand, has been adapted for the cinema and TV three times.

 

Firstly, in 1986, before Hopkins’ portrayal of Lecter caught the public imagination, Michael Mann directed a movie version of Red Dragon for De Laurentiis.  Retitled Manhunter, it didn’t do well at the box office and received mixed reviews, though it’s been reappraised and is regarded now as a 1980s classic.

 

In 2002, De Laurentiis unveiled a new cinematic version of Red Dragon, called Red Dragon this time, directed by the now-disgraced Brett Ratner and with Hopkins again in the role of Lecter.  This came just one year after the indefatigable De Laurentiis had brought Hopkins back for a movie adaptation of Harris’s third Lecter novel Hannibal (1999).  Presumably the haste to film Hannibal and refilm Red Dragon was because by this time Hopkins was in his mid-sixties and De Laurentiis knew that if he wanted to get any more mileage out of him as a credible, non-geriatric cannibal, it was now or never.

 

After 2002, with Hopkins retired from the role, all was quiet on the Lecter front for a while.  Well, apart from a crappy ‘origins’ movie called Hannibal Rising, starring Gaspard Ulliel in the title role, released in 2007 and based on a fourth Lecter novel Harris had published the previous year.

 

Then, from 2013 to 2015, NBC aired three seasons and 39 episodes of a TV show called Hannibal, which was produced in part by De Laurentiis’ production company.  By now old Dino himself had departed for the great studio in the sky, but his wife Martha was still around to act as executive producer.  The show was supposedly based on Red Dragon, though it didn’t cover the main plot of the novel until late in its third and final season.

 

But enough of the movie and TV adaptations.  What did I make of the original 36-year-old novel that started the whole Hannibal hoo-ha in the first place?

 

© Arrow Books

 

Admittedly, Harris’s prose will never win awards for literary stylishness, but it’s impressively terse and efficient and it expertly tells the story.  In fact, I found Red Dragon compelling and finished it in three days – and that’s despite me knowing the plot inside-out, having been exposed to it already in the films and TV show.

 

First, a quick recap of that plot – be warned that from here on there are many spoilers.  Former FBI profiler Will Graham is coaxed out of retirement by his former boss Jack Crawford and sent to investigate a serial killer called the Tooth Fairy, who butchers well-to-do suburban families on nights of the full moon and does unspeakable, ritualistic things with their corpses.

 

Graham is understandably reluctant to return to his old job.  For one thing, he has unnaturally-acute powers of empathy – one symptom being a habit whereby “in intense conversations Graham took on the other person’s speech patterns.”   Such empathy has practical applications in that Graham is very good at projecting himself into the minds of psychopaths: “…you have to take whatever evidence you have and extrapolate,” he explains.  “You try to reconstruct his thinking.  You try to find patterns.”  This helps him to track down serial killers, but the disadvantage is that it seriously f**ks his head.

 

For another thing, the last serial killer he caught was one Dr Hannibal Lecter, who nearly gutted him ‘with a linoleum knife’ before going down.

 

Eleven pages in, Graham sets to work and the rest of the novel details his hunt for the Tooth Fairy.  We’re treated to several sub-plots.  We meet the Tooth Fairy himself, the tormented Francis Dolarhyde, who suffered a brutal and miserable childhood partly on account of his having a cleft lip and palate.  These were later repaired but Dolarhyde still believes himself to be disfigured.  Thanks to an unhealthy obsession with the William Blake painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun, Dolarhyde also believes himself to be in the process of ‘becoming’, i.e. metamorphosising from his weak, imperfect human self into a powerful being called the Red Dragon, tattooed images of which he has slathered over his body.  Dolarhyde sees his murders as a way of facilitating this transformation.  Then, however, he unwittingly befriends a blind woman called Reba McClane at his workplace.  He falls in love with Reba, which poses an obstacle to the transformation process and brings the human and dragon sides of his personality into conflict.

 

Another sub-plot involves a scheme by Graham and Crawford to spring a trap for the Tooth Fairy, using Graham as bait.  They get sleazy scumbag tabloid journalist Freddy Lounds to write a newspaper feature about the murders that quotes Graham saying some derogatory things about the Tooth Fairy’s sexuality.  The plan backfires – horribly, as far as Lounds is concerned.

 

And finally, there’s a sub-plot wherein Graham consults an old acquaintance for some insight into the Tooth Fairy’s personality.  He visits Lecter, now incarcerated in a hospital for the criminally insane under the supervision of the amusingly vain and incompetent Dr Frederick Chilton.  Lecter is all too happy to play mind games when he meets his old nemesis (“Do you dream much, Will?”) but agrees to look over the case files.  (“This is a very shy boy, Will.  I’d love to meet him…”)  Later, the resourceful Lecter manages to establish a line of communication with the Tooth Fairy and thoughtfully passes on the address of Graham’s family.

 

One thing that impresses is the detail Harris puts into his accounts of police, FBI and forensic procedures while Graham and Crawford conduct their manhunt.  No wonder there was a six-year gap between Red Dragon and Harris’s previous novel, the terrorist thriller Black Sunday (1975) – the amount of research he did must have been massive.  What makes Red Dragon interesting from a historical point of view is that the forensic science described here doesn’t mention DNA – for DNA profiling only became a thing in 1984, thanks to the work of Sir Alec Jeffreys.  Could you write Red Dragon today and realistically incorporate the same incidents, twists and dynamics into its plot?  I doubt it.

 

© De Laurentiis Entertainment Group / Red Dragon Productions

© De Laurentiis Entertainment Group / Red Dragon Productions

© De Laurentiis Entertainment Group / Red Dragon Productions

 

It’s fascinating to compare the book, its two cinematic incarnations and its one TV incarnation.  Seen now, Manhunter is strikingly different from the full-bloodedly gothic adaptations of Harris’s novels that came later.  Clearly, Michael Mann doesn’t think he’s making a horror film – which is fair enough, considering that in 1986 Hannibal Lecter had yet to find fame as a bite-your-face-off horror icon.  Instead, the story is treated as a police-procedural thriller, albeit a very grim one.

 

Manhunter is also highly stylised and has an icy visual and aural glaze.  The distinctive lighting / colour palette includes blues for Graham (William Petersen) and his family, greens and purples for Dolarhyde (Tom Noonan), and stark, sterile whites for Lecter (Brian Cox) in his cell – which is far from the dark, dungeon-like place it’s depicted as in later movies.  There’s also a synth-dominated soundtrack that depending on your view of 1980s music you’ll either find amazing or deeply annoying.

 

Mann omits a few parts of the novel that, presumably, he found too hokey.  These include a sequence where Dolarhyde bluffs his way into the archives of the Brooklyn Museum, finds the original The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun and eats it – the painting is only 44 x 35 centimetres so yes, eating it is just about possible.  Mann also eschews the novel’s twist ending (which won’t fool anyone who’s ever seen more than three horror films) and finishes things with a straightforward shootout.

 

Fans of the Anthony Hopkins movies may be disappointed to discover that Lecter isn’t in Manhunter that much.  His only scene with Graham is when the latter visits his cell, though there’s a later sequence where they converse by phone.  Mind you, that’s more direct contact than they get in the book, for after their initial meeting Harris restricts Lecter’s communications with Graham to a couple of mocking letters.  Their face-to-face encounter in Manhunter is very effective.  It uses much of Harris’s original dialogue, although it leaves out one amusing line where Lecter describes Chilton’s attempts to psycho-analyse him as fumbling “at your head like a freshman pulling at a panty girdle.”

 

The Dundonian actor Brian Cox makes a down-to-earth but creepily intense Lecter.  There’s little of the knowing, playing-to-the-gallery relish that Hopkins brought later.  Cox is said to have based his portrayal on the Scottish serial killer Peter Manuel, who had such a conceit of himself that he conducted his own defence during his trial in 1958.

 

© Universal Productions / Imagine Corporation

© Universal Productions / Imagine Corporation

 

The makers of the 2002 Red Dragon claimed they’d filmed a more faithful version of Harris’s novel than Mann had.  Accordingly, the scene where Dolarhyde eats the painting and the twist ending are re-instated.  But this Red Dragon actually differs from the book in that – surprise! – we get a lot more of Lecter.  There are additional scenes between him and Graham (Edward Norton), plus ones where he puts the wind up the hapless Chilton (Anthony Heald).  By 2002, Hopkins’ Lecter had become such a fixture of popular culture that all the Welsh actor could do was portray him as a loveable bogeyman – which he does entertainingly enough.  Still, the film’s prologue, another extra scene that shows how Graham caught Lecter in the first place, carries a genuine chill.

 

I recently watched Red Dragon and found it better than I’d expected.  But compared to Manhunter it’s something of a dud.  Certain details annoy me, like how it’s set in 1980 but uses some anachronistic DNA testing to facilitate a sudden plot twist; or how the role of Graham’s wife (Mary-Louise Parker) is reduced during the climax.  In the book, she saves the day.  More importantly, sequences that looked impressively cinematic in Manhunter, such as when Dolarhyde returns Freddie Lounds to the authorities in a grisly fashion or when he treats the blind Reba to a zoo-visit so that she can feel the body of a sedated tiger, are done flatly and disappointingly.  I particularly disliked how director Ratner depicted Graham’s unsettling powers.  We see him contemplating some photos from a crime scene and suddenly – zap! – there’s a cheap horror-movie jump-cut of some creepy dolls.  The first episode of the TV show Hannibal shows how Graham’s mind works in a much more imaginative and disturbing way.

 

Red Dragon has the most prestigious cast of any Lecter movie – Hopkins, Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Emily Watson – but some performances are problematic.  As Dolarhyde, Fiennes captures the sad, human side of the monster, but despite being a six-footer he doesn’t have the physicality that made the towering Tom Noonan so frightening in the previous adaptation.  Meanwhile, Ed Norton makes a very drab Will Graham.  Beyond the fact that he looks tired all the time, there’s little suggestion of the pressure his empathetic ability / curse puts on his sanity.  William Petersen conveyed this much better in Manhunter.

 

© Dino de Laurentiis Company / NBC

© Dino de Laurentiis Company / NBC

 

Downplaying the fragility of Will Graham is something that the flamboyant and daring TV show Hannibal can’t be accused of.  Indeed, viewers spend its three seasons wondering if the rumpled, tortured Graham (Hugh Dancy) is going to flip and become as evil as the human monsters he’s been tracking.  Pushing him along this road to ruin is his relationship with the suave, sardonic Lecter (Danish heartthrob Mads Mikkelsen), which goes well beyond the adversarial one depicted in the book and movies.  It’s a relationship of dark fascination, crossing over into the homo-erotic.

 

During Hannibal’s run, showrunner Bryan Fuller had great fun tampering with the conventions established by the books and films.  For instance, though in Harris’s chronology the 1999 novel Hannibal comes two books after Red Dragon, by the time the TV show tackled Red Dragon it’d already dramatised most of the events in Hannibal-the-novel.  (For copyright reasons, Fuller was unable to use anything from Silence of the Lambs.)  Still, when it comes, a surprising amount of Red Dragon remains intact in the show – including Dolarhyde’s eating of the painting, his unlikely courtship of Reba McClane (Rutina Wesley) and the failed attempt by Graham and Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) to taunt him into a trap.  This time Dolarhyde’s boots are filled by Richard Armitage, who despite being best-known for playing a dwarf in The Hobbit movies (2012-14) makes an imposing killer.

 

Given the gleefully overwrought nature of the show, though, it’s no surprise that Fuller veers away from the novel for the story’s climax, which also serves as the climax of Hannibal’s last-ever episode.  Here, Lecter’s wish is granted and he gets to meet this ‘very shy boy’.  Fuller has the urbane cannibal escape from captivity and join forces with Graham at a storm-lashed clifftop mansion, where they take on Dolarhyde in a bloody, slow-motion and, yes, homo-erotic battle to the death.  All this while Siouxsie Sioux sings a song called Love Crime on the soundtrack…

 

I don’t know if Thomas Harris ever saw this episode.  I’d like to think that, if he did, he was rolling his eyes and shaking his head – but at the same time grinning with admiration at Bryan Fuller’s audacity.

 

From fineartamerica.com

 

A threadbare future

 

© BBC / Nine Network / Western-World Television Inc

 

It’s said that everyone remembered where they were and what they were doing on November 22nd, 1963, when they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot.  Likewise, I remember where I was and what I was doing on the evening of September 23rd, 1984, when BBC2 broadcast the gut-wrenching apocalyptic drama Threads.

 

I was staying in the youth hostel in Aberdeen, with my second year as an undergraduate at Aberdeen University due to begin in a fortnight’s time.  Having worked abroad for the summer, I was now back in the city trying desperately to arrange accommodation for myself for the year ahead.  I’d spent the past few days trudging around flat-hunting without any luck and, to make matters worse, I’d just been informed that I wouldn’t be eligible for a student grant for the next year either.  So I was feeling pretty low about my residential and financial situation that evening when I wandered into the youth hostel’s lounge and sat down among a crowd of hostellers who were about to watch something on television called Threads, a much-anticipated documentary-drama showing what would happen if a nuclear conflict broke out between America and Russia and the UK was struck by 210 megatons of nuclear weaponry.

 

It’s fair to say that by the time Threads ended 112 minutes later, my mood had not improved any.  Mind you, nobody else in the lounge looked like they were bursting with joie de vivre.  Bill Dick, who was the hostel’s usually easy-going and affable head-warden and who’d been in the audience, couldn’t have looked more down in the dumps if he’d been buried to his neck in garbage.  (I got to know Bill four years later when I spent a summer working at the hostel as a warden and had him as my boss.)

 

A few days ago, something compelled me to view Threads again – possibly the fact that we have a US President currently braying on twitter about his ‘nice and new and smart’ missiles and goading Russia to ‘get ready’.  Though it might also be because a remastered version of Threads has recently been released on Blu-ray.  Here are my thoughts on it having re-watched it 34 years later.  I should warn you that the remainder of this blog-entry will contain spoilers, though you’ve probably gathered already that in Threads absolutely nothing good happens.

 

Threads is directed by Mick Jackson and written by the late Barry Hines, author of the 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave that a year later established Ken Loach as a cinematic force when he filmed it as Kes.  It consists of three sections: an initial 45 minutes showing life during the build-up to the cataclysmic nuclear strike; then another 45 minutes showing the strike and its immediate aftermath; and then a 25-minute epilogue chronicling Britain a year, a decade, finally thirteen years into the future when, with its natural environment, economy and social infrastructure pulverised, the country reverts to the Middle Ages.  That’s the Middle Ages minus the chivalry, balladry and pageantry, but with plenty of fallout, nuclear winters, depleted ozone, ultraviolent radiation, cataracts, skin cancer and genetic damage.

 

The gruelling central section imprinted itself on my 19-year-old memory.  I’ve carried its images around in my head ever since: milk bottles melting on doorsteps in the heat of a nuclear detonation, a charred cyclist (still on his bike) lodged amid the branches of a burning tree, cats igniting, dolls melting, a crazed woman squatting amid the rubble cradling her baby’s burnt corpse, a traffic warden with a bandage-swathed face holding off a starving mob with a rifle, doctors in an overrun hospital sawing away a leg while the un-anaesthetised patient screams through a gag, and several dozen other things involving flames, rubble, cadavers, rats, blood, wounds, excrement, vomit and general mayhem and horror.  In particular, I’ve never forgotten the moment when a mushroom cloud rises terrifyingly above the skyline, causing one poor woman to wet herself in the middle of a street – something that led to the actress Anne Sellors having the briefest and most poignant entry ever on IMDb.

 

© BBC / Nine Network / Western-World Television Inc

 

But having seen Threads again, I now appreciate the queasy effectiveness of the opening section too.  Here, Hines and Jackson establish the focus of their story, two families in the Yorkshire city of Sheffield.  These are the working-class Kemps and the middle-class Becketts.  The Kemps’ eldest boy Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale) has been courting the Becketts’ daughter Ruth (Karen Meagher) and Ruth has just realised she’s pregnant.  Jimmy and Ruth resolve to get married and start renovating a flat to live in while their families uneasily make each other’s acquaintance.  Interestingly, this reflects the uneasy working relationship between Hines and Jackson themselves.  According to ThreadsWikipedia entry, the working-class Hines saw Jackson as something of a middle-class prat.

 

Meanwhile, ominously, news reports chatter in the background about escalating superpower tensions in the Middle East.  The characters are initially oblivious to what’s brewing.  Early on, we see Jimmy fiddling with his radio, wanting to get away from some boring news bulletin about the crisis and find the latest football results.  Apathy gradually changes to shoulder-shrugging helplessness, something summed up by Jimmy’s workmate Bob (Ashley Barker).  In the pub, he declares that they might as well enjoy themselves while they can, because there’s bugger-all else they can do.  Plus, if things do kick off, he hopes he’ll be ‘pissed out of my mind and straight underneath it.’  Ironically, Bob survives after nearly everyone else has perished and we last see him tucking into the raw and probably irradiated flesh of a dead sheep.

 

By the time the characters try to respond to what’s coming, it’s too late.  The bomb goes off while the hapless Kemps are still assembling a fallout shelter comprised of a couple of doors propped against a living-room wall.  The Becketts, being posher, have a cellar to retreat into.  Not that they fare any better in the long run.

 

For me, it’s this opening section that brings home what Threads is about.  A preliminary narration talks about the economic threads necessary for a society to function: “…everything connects.  Each person’s needs are fed by the skills of many others.  Our lives are woven together in a fabric.  But the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable.”  However, my impression is that the truly important threads – which are obliterated once the missiles hit their targets – are the ones between people, of feeling and compassion, which have been refined by centuries of civilisation and, today, are the essence of what it means to be human.

 

Thus, we see Jimmy (whom we know has been cheating on Ruth and is a bit of a tosser) standing in the aviary in his family’s back garden and doting over the birds kept there.  We see Mr and Mrs Beckett (Henry Moxon and June Broughton) trying to look after an ailing elderly relative discharged from hospital after the NHS is ordered to clear its wards in anticipation of a flood of war casualties.  We see Clive Sutton (Harry Beety), the local government official put in charge of an emergency team that will run things from a bunker underneath Sheffield City Council, attempting to reassure his nervous wife.  But empathy for our fellow creatures rapidly disappears as, in the war’s aftermath, humanity degenerates into a shell-shocked, zombie-like rabble fixated only on its own, scrabbling-in-the-dirt survival.

 

© BBC / Nine Network / Western-World Television Inc

 

This is made explicit in Threads’ final stages when, years later, we’re introduced to Jane (Victoria O’Keefe), the daughter of Ruth and Jimmy.  When Ruth dies, sick, exhausted, blinded by cataracts and looking decades older than her true age, an impassive Jane reacts by stealing a few items from her mother’s corpse and then clearing off.  The few kids born post-holocaust are a scary bunch, incidentally.  Their language is limited to phrases like “Gizzit!” and “C’mon!” and they generally act like feral mini-Neanderthals.

 

Threads came in the wake of the bleak 1983 American TV movie The Day After, directed by Nicholas Meyer, which depicted the effects of a nuclear strike on Kansas City and caused a considerable stir on both sides of the Atlantic.  But while I like The Day After, I think the altogether more graphic and relentless Threads beats it to a bloody pulp.  For one thing, Meyer’s film is disadvantaged by its cast of familiar actors like Jason Robards and John Lithgow, which means you can’t ever forget you’re watching a dramatic fabrication.  In Threads, the cast is comprised of unknown performers, which adds to its worrisome sense of authenticity.

 

That said, saddoes like myself might recognise David Brierley, who plays Ruth’s father, as the voice of K9 in the 1979-80 series of Doctor Who; and a couple of voices heard from the early blizzard of news reports are familiar, like Ed Bishop, star of the Gerry Anderson sci-fi show UFO (1970), and Lesley Judd from the BBC’s flagship kids’ magazine programme Blue Peter (1958-present).  I’m glad Jackson decided not to go with his original casting idea, which was to use actors from the venerable north-of-England TV soap opera Coronation Street – disturbing though the sight of Jack and Vera Duckworth puking their guts up in a makeshift fallout shelter would have been.

 

From wikipedia.org

 

Threads also contains the sonorous tones of the great voice-over actor Patrick Allen, whom the UK government had hired to narrate its Protect and Survive public information films that would be broadcast if nuclear war looked imminent.  By 1984, the media had got hold of these films and discussed them at length and they’d been much derided for their epic uselessness in the face of actual, atomic Armageddon.  (At one point in Threads we hear Allen crisply and matter-of-factly advising the public on how to deal with corpses: “…move the body to another room in the house.  Label the body with name and address and cover it as tightly as possible in polythene, paper, sheets or blankets.”)  Earlier in 1984, Allen’s Protect and Survive voice-work had been sampled in Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s hit single Two Tribes – for which he sportingly added the lines: “Mine is the last voice you will ever hear.  Do not be alarmed.”

 

The futility of Protect and Survive and officialdom’s attempts to deal with the holocaust generally are embodied in Threads by Sutton and his team, who utterly fail to provide leadership and control once the bombs have gone off.  Trapped in their bunker under the rubble of the flattened council building, with insufficient training, malfunctioning equipment and limited supplies of food, water and air, they succumb to bickering, despondency, hysteria and – finally – asphyxiation.  Predictably, when order is re-established in Sheffield, it’s pretty brutal in nature.

 

Brutal too is the narrative as it moves forward in time, with Telex-type captions flashing up on the screen giving statistics about fallout levels, the nuclear winter, the ozone layer, epidemics and an ever-rising death-toll.  Things conclude with the now-teenaged Jane giving birth after she’s been raped by another of the feral kids.  The baby is stillborn and deformed, and Threads’ last image is a freeze-frame of Jane’s face as she recoils in horror from it.  Early on, Jimmy’s kid brother Michael (Nicholas Lane) had embarrassed his parents by asking, “What’s an abortion?”  Threads ends with the implication that humanity has unwittingly aborted itself.

 

It isn’t perfect.  Thanks to budgetary restrictions, there’s a reliance on stock footage and stills from previous wars and conflicts, which don’t necessarily look like they’re occurring in Sheffield in 1984.   And despite valiant efforts by the make-up department, the actors playing the long-term survivors are a bit too firm and healthy-looking – by then they should have resembled death-camp inmates.  Additionally, the fact that Threads takes place in a pre-Internet, pre-social media world gives it a quaint distance now.  (Imagine the reaction if the equivalent events happened today.  While the first warheads exploded over Britain, Katie Hopkins would be on twitter blaming it all on immigrants.)  Nonetheless, as a harrowing account of what might engulf us if our political leaders are seized by a moment of trigger-happy madness, it’s unbeatable.

 

And in 2018, with the world’s nuclear arsenal largely concentrated in the hands of a couple of narcissistic thugs, Threads seems no less relevant than it did 34 years ago.  That’s a sentence I take no pleasure in writing.

 

© BBC / Nine Network / Western-World Television Inc

 

TV comic genius 7: Saxondale

 

© BBC / Baby Cow Productions

 

Actor, comedian, writer and producer Steve Coogan has played the fictional TV and radio presenter Alan Partridge for 27 years now.  He’s essayed the cringe-inducing, incognizant, sociopathic, preening, Daily Mail-loving and utterly hapless Partridge not only on television – in sitcoms, chat-shows, mockumentaries, telethons and awards shows – but also on radio and stage and in YouTube shorts and a movie.  So ubiquitous is Partridge that it’s easy to forget that during his career Coogan has created other comic characters.

 

These include the drunken, philosophical and student-hating Paul Calf (“Is it a crime to want to live in a world of peace and harmony…?  Is it a crime to hit a student across the back of a head with a snooker ball in a sock?”) and his brassy and gagging-for-it sister Pauline; Portuguese singing sensation Tony Ferrino, winner of the Eurovision Song Contest and “also widely adored across Brazil and Iraq”; and the disquietingly exaggerated version of himself that Coogan played in Michael Winterbottom’s fly-on-the-wall travelogue-cum-sitcom The Trip (2010-16).

 

Then there’s Tommy Saxondale, eponymous hero of the BBC sitcom Saxondale that ran for two seasons in 2006 and 2007.  This show may not have produced as many belly-laughs as Alan Partridge in his countless permutations, but for my money it’s possibly Coogan’s finest hour.

 

© BBC / Baby Cow Productions

 

Tommy Saxondale’s backstory is that in the 1970s he served as a roadie to some top rock bands and engaged in the free-thinking and wild-living that were the spirit of the era: “I was sinking yards of ale with John Bonham,” he reminisces, “and hoovering up furlongs of the Devil’s dandruff with Lucifer Reed, as I used to call him.”  Now in his grizzled, paunchy middle-age, life is less giddy and glamorous.  He runs a small pest-control business in Stevenage, but likes to think he still talks the talk and walks the walk when it comes to turning on, tuning in and dropping out and generally giving the middle finger to The Man.  “Same old, same old, eh?” he sighs at one point.  “The global corporate bully sticking the jackboot into the defenceless ginger-haired boy of humanity.”  Unfortunately, the modern world surrounding Tommy doesn’t quite share his ideals.  And as he ages, he has increasing difficulty living up to those ideals himself.

 

In other words, Saxondale deals with the tension between youth and experience that’s familiar to everyone who manages to avoid an early death.  For Tommy, though, that tension’s particularly acute.  When the tectonic plates of Tommy’s youth and middle-age grind together, the results can be seismic – particularly since Tommy has a temper.  Each episode begins with him taking part in anger-management sessions run by mild-mannered therapist Alastair (James Bachmann).  Thanks to Tommy, Alastair has his work cut out.  “The notion that anger per se is a bad thing, “Tommy tells him, “I would say, respectfully, is horseshit.   If General MacArthur’s reaction to Pearl Harbour had been to go and find a quiet place and do some deep breathing, you’d be goose-stepping into this meeting today.  And there’d be a great big eagle on the wall.”

 

© BBC / Baby Cow Productions

 

Besides Alastair, people in Tommy’s life include his buxom Welsh girlfriend Magz (Ruth Jones), part Goth goddess and part earth-mother, who runs a shop called Smash the System and sells her own self-designed posters, pictures and T-shirts that offer unusual takes on religious, cultural and feminist figures like Joan of Arc (i.e. they’re naked, having sex and / or taking drugs); the youthful Raymond (played with wonderful somnolence by Rasmus Hardiker), Tommy’s lodger and apprentice in the pest-control trade who endures his boss’s endless philosophising and grumbling with a mixture of polite incomprehension and dazed indifference; and Vicky (Morwenna Banks), his contact at the agency that provides his firm with assignments.

 

The bubbly, airheaded but vicious Vicky – a sort of Spice Girl with rabies – takes huge pleasure in tormenting Tommy.  For instance, chiding him about his unkempt hair, she says: “Tommy-hobbit…  I wasn’t going to say anything, but somebody reckoned they saw you the other week outside Woolies, mumbling and having a tinkle in the bin by the escalators.”

 

© BBC / Baby Cow Productions

 

In addition to Tommy, Coogan plays a second, semi-regular character: Keanu Reeves, a zonked-out gay druggie who’s changed his name by deed-poll to that of “the cassock-wearing flying man from The Matrix”.  Tommy usually encounters Keanu when he’s de-lousing some squalid premises and finds him and his mates squatting there.  A conglomeration of childishness, petulance, pathos, facial tics and Mancunian vocal inflections, Keanu is a hilarious character, though an exhausting one.  It’s probably just as well that we only get a few short doses of him during Saxondale’s two series.

 

The comic injustices inflicted on Tommy are not far removed from those experienced by Alan Partridge.  When Tommy learns that a favourite pub has installed a karaoke machine, he rails against karaoke as “the last refuge of the creatively bereft.  A night when the suits can convince themselves that hooting along to Angels in the wrong key means they don’t have a sucking void where their souls are supposed to be.”  We just know that a few hours later, drunk out of his skull, he’ll be onstage with the karaoke mic, warbling Jeffrey Osborne’s On the Wings of Love – which is what happens.  And it’s entirely predictable that after boring a class of schoolkids with a lecture about life on the road with Pink Floyd, he discovers that the little shits have superglued him to his chair.

 

The difference between the two characters is that while Partridge has zero self-awareness, Tommy is at least partly conscious of his own ridiculousness.  This self-knowledge allows him to make amends for his failings, show some empathy for his fellow characters and even, occasionally, enjoy a few victories.

 

I found Saxondale’s first series very agreeable, but I thought the second series was wonderful.  Perhaps it’s because Coogan and series co-writer Neil Maclennan realised that Tommy’s funniest moments in season one were the most confrontational ones, for example, with Vicky; so for season two they brought in some new characters to antagonise him further.

 

© BBC / Baby Cow Productions

 

These were Penny (Rosie Cavaliero), a trendy-lefty friend of Magz whose middle-class Guardian-esque virtue signalling gets on Tommy’s wick; and Jonathon (Darren Boyd), an executive at the Carphone Warehouse and Tommy’s neighbour.  Jonathon’s gormless attempts to ingratiate himself (“Hey, Tommy… I was wondering if you saw that Motley Crue documentary on VH1 last night?”) are usually a prelude to his conveying a complaint from the local Residents’ Association about him mis-parking his yellow Mustang.  Jonathon’s wife Bethany (Catherine Kanter) is a member of the association and, in one episode, Tommy confronts them and accuses them of being “small-minded little Englanders who are worried about illegal immigrant stealing your James Blunt CDs.”  Bethany shoots back, “What’s wrong with James Blunt?”

 

Another second-season episode sees Tommy finally taking on the establishment, the system, The Man.  Inevitably, though, the situation is less dramatic than he believes – he has to defend himself in court after being caught on a platform at Stevenage railway station without a ticket.  (He makes life hard for himself by summoning Keanu Reeves as a witness for the defence.  Keanu reacts to being in the courtroom with a discombobulated, “Why’s everything so woody…?  Why’s everyone speaking like it’s the olden days?”)  When the judge dismisses the case, Tommy gives a triumphant speech to a couple of bemused local journalists: “We have smashed the system.  With this victory, the British rail network’s fare policy lies in tatters…  And we send a message out to all who would seek to oppress the weak and the powerless: you are arseholes and just pack it in, basically.”

 

© BBC / Baby Cow Productions

 

One nice thing about Saxondale is its depiction of Tommy and Magz’s relationship.  They might be middle-aged and a little out-of-shape, but they still have a great passion for one another, physical as well as emotional.  “That sex last night was fantastic,” marvels Tommy at one point.  “I went off like Krakatoa.”  However, their amour occasionally leads to embarrassment – for instance, when Tommy forgets to remove Magz’s make-up following a kinky sex game and comes down to eat breakfast in front of a perplexed Raymond; or when Vicky accidentally gets her brightly-coloured claws on a homemade porn video showing Tommy being spanked with a table-tennis paddle.

 

It’s been over a decade since the final episode of Saxondale was aired and I suppose the chances of it ever returning are nil, seeing as many of the cast have gone on to bigger things.  Ruth Jones has enjoyed great success as the joint writer and star (with James Corden) of Gavin and Stacey (2007-2010), Morwenna Banks is now known internationally as the voice of the mother in Peppa Pig (2004-present) and Rasmus Hardiker has become a prolific voice-actor too.  Plus Steve Coogan seems busier than ever, both with ongoing Alan Partridge projects and as a general actor, writer and producer, most notably with the Oscar-nominated Philomena (2013).  Still, Saxondale should be cherished as evidence that Coogan is fully capable of doing an affectionate, character-driven type of comedy, as well as the more grotesque, heightened type epitomised by Partridge.

 

In the Guardian, Alexis Pretridis once wrote of Partridge that “one of the reasons audiences find him funny is that they recognise at least a bit of themselves in him.”  By that reckoning, if – like me – you’re on the wrong side of 40, and feel a nostalgic pang for 20th century rock ‘n’ roll, and as a youth had a hankering for what used to be called the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, and feel adrift in a modern world of spam emails, online cat videos, automated phone systems, self-service checkouts, Twitter trolls, chuggers, selfies, Strictly Come Dancing, Simon Cowell and the Kardashian family, you should find Tommy Saxondale hilarious.  Because there’s a lot of him in you.

 

© BBC / Baby Cow Productions

 

Deathlog 2017 – Part 2

 

© Paramount Classics

 

American Renaissance man Sam Shepard died on July 27th.  As a playwright he was responsible for Buried Child (1978), True West (1980), Fool for Love (1983), A Lie of the Mind (1985) and others; he acted in movies as varied as Days of Heaven (1978), The Right Stuff (1983), Black Hawk Down (2001) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007); he authored two novels and directed two films; and his screenwriting credits included Zabriskie Point (1970), Renaldo and Clara (1978) and of course Paris, Texas (1984), a movie I can’t think of now without hearing Ry Cooder’s elegiac slide-guitar score in my head.

 

Other casualties of July 2017 included the masterly horror-movie auteur George A. Romero, who died on July 16th; Welsh actor Hywel Bennett, one-time boyish-faced star of movies like The Family Way (1966), Twisted Nerve (1968) and Loot (1970), who died on July 25th; and Chester Bennington, singer with popular nu-metal band Linkin Park, who died on July 20th – I had little time for nu-metal music generally, but I thought Linkin Park were among the sub-genre’s least offensive practitioners.  Meanwhile, departing on July 15th was distinguished movie and TV actor Martin Landau, who first gained attention as a villain in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest back in 1959.  I’ll always remember Landau for playing Commander Koenig in the TV sci-fi show Space 1999 (1975-77) and playing a washed-up, drug-addled Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s delightful Ed Wood (1994).

 

© Toho

 

Where to start in August 2017?  Old Western movie-star Ty Hardin died on August 3rd, as did hard-working British TV and film actor Robert Hardy, who was still going strong in his eighties thanks to the Harry Potter franchise.  August 7th saw the passing of Japanese actor and stuntman Haruo Nakajima, who filled a rubber suit to play Godzilla in many a giant-monster movie for Japan’s Toho Company in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  Having played Godzilla in 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, Nakajima changed sides, donned an ape-suit and played King Kong in 1967’s King Kong Escapes.  Passing one day later was American country-and-western singer Glen Campbell, whom I’ll remember best for one of his occasional acting roles – as La Boeuf, the Texas Ranger who joins forces with Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) and Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 western True Grit.  The last day of August saw the demise of American TV actor Richard Anderson, fondly remembered by 1970s youngsters as Oscar Goldman in The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-78).

 

Another horror-movie auteur, Tobe Hooper – of Texas Chainsaw Massacre infamy – passed away on August 26th.  The great English science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss died on August 19th; while Gordon Williams, Scottish author of The Siege of Trencher’s Farm (1969), the basis for Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film Straw Dogs, died on August 20th.  And legendary Hollywood funny-man Jerry Lewis left us on August 20th.  To be honest, I found his comedy movies about as amusing as toothache, but I can’t deny an older Lewis was excellent as the cynical comedian / chat-show host Jerry Langford in Martin Scorsese’s twisted showbiz satire The King of Comedy (1982).

 

Bruce Forsyth, English TV gameshow host, entertainer and comedian – and supposedly the last person working on British television who’d first appeared on it prior to World War II – died on August 18th.  I found Forsyth’s all-singing, all-dancing, all-joking showbiz schtick hard to take, but I liked him for the guest appearance he made on The Muppet Show in 1976, when he helped Fozzie Bear stand up to those wizened, mean-spirited hecklers Statler and Waldorf.  That was definitely Bruce’s finest hour.

 

© ITC Entertainment

 

Len Wein, the great comic-book writer whose many achievements included creating the squishy half-man, half-plant Swamp Thing with the late Bernie Wrightson back in 1971, died on September 9th.  The following day saw the death of Irish-American author J.P. Donleavy.  I loved Donleavy’s 1955 novel The Ginger Man as a teenager, though I wonder if I would find it a bit juvenile if I read it again today.  Grant Hart, who manned the drumkit for the brilliant 1980s alterative-punk band Hüsker Dü, died on September 14th, and one day later yet another Twin Peaks (and Paris, Texas) alumni, the marvellous American character actor Harry Dean Stanton, passed away.  Another American actor, Bernie Casey, died on September 19th.  Casey’s roles included that of Felix Leiter in the ‘rogue’ Sean Connery / James Bond movie Never Say Never Again (1982), which made him the cinema’s first black Felix Leiter a quarter-century before Jeffrey Wright landed the part in the Daniel Craig Bond films.

 

Boxer Jake LaMotta, whose chequered career formed the basis for the classic Martin Scorsese / Robert De Niro collaboration Raging Bull (1980), died on September 20th.  A week later saw the death of Hugh Hefner, millionaire founder of Playboy magazine.  With his playmate-filled mansion and penchant for pyjamas, pipes and ship’s-captain hats, Hefner struck me as a sleazy and infantile old letch.  But I can’t belittle his literary taste – in between the nudie pictures, Playboy published work by Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Ian Fleming, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Joseph Heller, Shirley Jackson, Ursula Le Guin, Norman Mailer, Haruki Murakami, Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut and many more.

 

September 25th marked the death of English actor Tony Booth, best-known as a cast-member in the controversial but influential BBC sitcom Till Death Us Do Part (1965-75) and for being the real-life father of Cherie Booth, i.e. Mrs Tony Blair.  Here’s a fascinating fact: Booth claimed his great-great-great-uncle’s son was John Wilkes Booth, who was both an actor and the assassin of Abraham Lincoln.  I wonder if the staunchly socialist Booth felt tempted to emulate his ancestor once his son-in-law had been in office for a few years and shown his true colours.

 

The music world suffered another blow on October 3rd with the death of the agreeable American musician, singer and songwriter Tom Petty, while the comedy world said goodbye to the ground-breaking Irish comedian Sean Hughes on October 16th.  The same day saw the passing of venerable Guernsey actor Roy Dotrice, whose career stretched from The Heroes of Telemark (1965) to Hellboy II (2008), via 1984’s Amadeus where he played the title character’s father.  Like many a veteran British character actor, Doctrice got a late-career boost when he was cast in Game of Thrones (2011-present).  Other actors to die in October included Robert Guillaume – wonderful as Benson, droll butler to the chaotic Tate family in the American TV comedy Soap (1977-81) – and on October 9th the distinguished French actor Jean Rochefort.  Ironically, Rochefort may be best-known to English-speaking audiences for a role he didn’t play.  He was lined up to be Don Quixote in Terry Gilliam’s monumentally ill-fated and eventually-cancelled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.  In anticipation, Rochefort even learned to speak English.  The 2002 documentary Lost in La Manca tells the story of this epic that never happened.

 

From goseelivemusic.co

 

October 22nd saw the death of Daisy Berkowitz, one-time guitarist to Goth-metaller / shock-rocker Marilyn Manson, and on October 19th the Italian movie director Umberto Lenzi passed away.  Lenzi was prolific in several genres, but I’ll remember him chiefly for his 1974 thriller Spasmo, an elegant if not terribly sensible example of the Italian giallo genre.

 

November brought a rash of music-related deaths – Chuck Mosely, the 1980s frontman for the great American alternative / funk-metal band Faith No More, on November 9th; Michael Davis (nicknamed ‘Dik Mik’), who in the 1970s operated the appropriately futuristic-sounding ‘audio-generator’ for the legendary ‘space-rock’ band Hawkwind, on November 16th; and Australian-born TV composer Dudley Simpson, who died on November 4th.   Simpson’s career-highlights include the incidental music for Doctor Who during its creepiest phase in the 1970s and the unsettling and pulsating theme tune for The Tomorrow People (1973-79).  Saddest of all for me, however, was the passing on November 18th of Australian guitarist Malcolm Young, co-founder of AC / DC and mastermind behind that band’s mightiest guitar riffs.

 

November was also a bad month for British TV sitcom actors, witnessing the deaths of Keith Barron on November 15th and Rodney Bewes on November 21st.  In between television work, both men appeared occasionally in films – I particularly remember Barron in 1974’s movie adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot and Bewes (playing James Mason’s son) in the 1970 adaptation of Bill Naughton’s Spring and Port Wine.  Meanwhile, actor John Hillerman died on November 9th.  Hillerman played Higgins, the snotty English concierge of Tom Selleck’s building in Magnum P.I. (1980-88).  So convincing was he in the role that following his death I was surprised to learn he’d actually hailed from Texas.

 

© Universal Television

 

Finally, German actress Karin Dor died on November 9th.  In 1967’s You Only Live Twice, the villainous Dor tried unsuccessfully to kill Sean Connery’s James Bond by trapping him in a plummeting airplane.  Then her boss Ernst Stavros Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) punished her for her failure by dropping her through a trapdoor into a pool of hungry piranha fish – and lo, a cinematic cliché was born.

 

On December 6th, France mourned the death of its very own Elvis Presley, the Gallic rock-and-roller Johnny Hallyday.  I’m unfamiliar with Hallyday’s music, but fondly remember his acting performance in the 2002 movie L’Homme du Train.  In this, he starred alongside Jean Rochefort, who’d died just two months previously.  Indeed, the film’s ending, where both men die simultaneously and wind up standing together in ghost form on an ethereal railway platform, seems sadly and eerily prophetic now.  Five days later saw the death of English entertainer Keith Chegwin, whose relentlessly cheery presence was a staple of British children’s TV during the 1970s and 1980s, especially in Swap Shop (1976-82) and Cheggers Plays Pop (1978-86).  Later, self-deprecatingly and post-modernly, Chegwin played himself in Ricky Gervais’s TV comedy Life’s Too Short (2011-13) and the movie Kill Keith (2011); but I liked him best for his appearance, at the age of 14, as Fleance in Roman Polanski’s ultra-violent version of Macbeth (1971).

 

Bob Givens, the veteran American animator who designed the world’s coolest cartoon rabbit, Bugs Bunny, died on December 14th; while Christmas Eve saw the death of American actress Heather Menzies.  She was best-known for playing one of the Von Trapp children in wholesome musical blockbuster The Sound of Music (1965) but I preferred her for playing the heroine of a less wholesome movie, the Joe Dante-directed / John Sayles-scripted Piranha (1978).  Following her death, Dante called her a“lovely person who was immensely helpful and supportive as the star of Piranha, my first solo directing job.”

 

Finally, December 2017 saw the departures of two men who, in different ways, were excellent ambassadors for the world of science.  Heinz Wolff, the German-born scientist who appeared on British TV shows like Young Scientist of the Year (1966-81) and The Great Egg Race (1979-86) and who, with his bald, domed head and bowtie, looked splendidly like how you’d imagine a scientist to look, died on December 15th.  Meanwhile, space-shuttle astronaut Bruce McCandless, who in 1984 became the first human being to make an untethered flight in space, died on December 21st.  It seems dishearteningly symbolic that their deaths came at the end of a year when the most powerful man on earth was a nincompoop who didn’t just seem ignorant of science, but actively seemed to despise it.

 

From theinquirer.net

© NASA

 

Deathlog 2017 – Part 1

 

© Eon Productions

 

The Grim Reaper seemed to cull a record number of big-name celebrities in 2016: David Bowie, Prince, Umberto Eco, Muhammed Ali, George Michael, Carrie Fisher.  2017 has seen less carnage, but nonetheless some people I admired have passed away.  Here’s a post about them.  Links are provided to those people whom I’ve already written about on Blood and Porridge.

 

January 19th and 21st saw the deaths of British writers Hilary Bailey and Emma Tennant, who by a sad coincidence were friends and occasional collaborators.  I read some of Bailey’s work in the New Worlds Quarterly paperback series that she’d edited in the 1970s – the series was a reincarnation of the famous science-fiction magazine New Worlds that her one-time husband Michael Moorcock had edited during the previous decade.  I’m unfamiliar with Tennant’s work but have a tenuous link with her.  She belonged to the aristocratic Glenconner family who owned the Glen, a mansion in the hills a few miles southeast of my Scottish hometown of Peebles.  I’ve hiked past the Glen many a time and, according to Tennant’s Wikipedia entry, she lived there as a child and remembered it as “the strangest place possible.”

 

January 27th saw a further literary demise, of novelist and filmmaker William Peter Blatty.  He authored The Exorcist (1971), which was made into the ground-breaking and massively successful horror movie of the same name two years later.  In 1990 Blatty directed the film’s second sequel, Exorcist III, which has its admirers; and in 1980 The Ninth Configuration, a movie ignored on its release but now viewed as an offbeat classic.   Film critic Mark Kermode described Configuration as “a breathtaking cocktail of philosophy, eye-popping visuals, jaw-dropping pretentiousness, rib-tickling humour and heart-stopping action.”

 

© Warner Brothers

 

Also checking out in January were American character actor Miguel Ferrer – Albert Rosenfield in Twin Peaks (1990-91, 2017) – on February 19th; acclaimed English actor John Hurt on January 25th; Scottish politician Tam Dalyell on January 26th; and, on January 25th, the American film and TV actress Mary Tyler Moore.  Through her sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77), she was instrumental in getting American television to portray women in a more proactive and empowered fashion.

 

January 26th saw the death of a more conventional American TV performer, Mike Connors, who played tough-guy private investigator Mannix from 1967 to 1975.  Mannix fans presumably included a young Quentin Tarantino, who named a character after the P.I. in 2015’s The Hateful Eight.  Two days later saw the passing of keyboardist and guitarist Geoff Nicholls, who played in legendary Brum heavy-metal band Black Sabbath from 1980 to 2004.

 

February was had a relatively low death toll, although on February 17th we said goodbye to another Twin Peaks alumni, Warren Frost, who played the kindly Doc Hayward in its first two series in 1990-91 and briefly in its 2017 revival series.  And the much-loved movie character actor Bill Paxton died on February 26th.

 

March 14th saw the death of veteran American film producer Jack H. Harris, who’ll surely be remembered as ‘Father of the Blob’.  Not only did he produce hoary sci-fi monster movie The Blob in 1958 (starring Steve McQueen as an unfeasibly old teenager) but he masterminded its 1972 sequel Beware! the Blob, which was directed by none other than J.R. Ewing himself Larry Hagman and thus became known as ‘the movie that J.R. shot.’  Furthermore, Harris produced the 1988 remake, directed by Chuck Russell, and at the time of his death was trying to get a second remake off the ground.  On March 18th seminal rock-and-roller Chuck Berry passed away, and the following day the masterly American illustrator and comic-book artist Bernie Wrightson died too.  Checking out on March 26th was actress Darlene Cates, splendid as Johnny Depp and Leonardo Di Caprio’s mother in the 1993 movie What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?

 

© MGM / United Artists

 

American funny man Don Rickles died on April 6th.  I wasn’t a fan of Rickles’ humour (“Who picks your clothes?  Stevie Wonder?”) but as an actor he was memorably nasty in Roger Corman’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) and memorably pathetic in John Landis’s Innocent Blood (1992).  One day later, the English stage, film, TV and radio actor Tim Pigott-Smith passed away.  My juvenile self will always remember Pigott-Smith for playing: (1) Hotspur (to Jon Finch’s Henry IV, David Gwillim’s Hal and Anthony Quayle’s Falstaff) in the 1979 BBC production of Henry IV Part 1, which I was made to watch at school; and (2) Thallo in 1981’s Clash of the Titans.  Meanwhile, bowing out on April 12th was Charlie Murphy, elder brother to Eddie Murphy and a distinguished comic performer in his own right.  His Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories turn on Comedy Central’s Chapelle’s Show (2003-2006) was hilarious, perhaps most of all when he described an alleged encounter with Prince, where the diminutive funky singer-musician showed an unexpected flair for basketball.

 

We also saw the departures of American blues singer and guitarist Lonnie Brooks on April 3rd; hugely influential British comics artist Leo Baxendale on April 23rd; and American guitarist John Warren Geils Jnr, mainspring of the J. Geils Band on April 11th – how I loved the Geils song Centerfold when I was a fifteen-year-old.  American director Jonathan Demme, whose CV included Caged Heat (1974), Crazy Mama (1975), Melvin and Howard (1980), Stop Making Sense (1984), Swimming to Cambodia (1987), The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Philadelphia (1993), died on April 26th.

 

And American character actor Clifton James died on April 15th.  James was best-known for playing redneck police officer Sheriff Pepper in two Roger Moore James Bond movies, 1974’s Live and Let Die and 1975’s The Man with the Golden Gun.  (In the latter film, Sheriff Pepper turns out to be less of a redneck than expected.  Holidaying with his wife in East Asia, he refuses to have his photo taken with an elephant: “Elephants!  We’re Demy-crats, Maybelle!”)  For a more nuanced Clifton James performance, however, check out his supporting role in Richard Lester’s Juggernaut (1975).

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

Another notable movie policeman passed away the following month, on May 10th: Michael Parks, who played Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in Robert Rodriguez’s From Dawn to Dust (1996), Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) and the Rodriguez / Tarantino collaboration Grindhouse (2007).   Parks also played the villainous Jean Renault in the first two series of Twin Peaks (1990-91) – so yes, he was another Twin Peaks casualty of 2017.  Another man who was no stranger to violent action-thrillers, character actor Powers Boothe, died on May 14th.  Boothe’s career saw him perform in such gritty movies as Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort (1981) and Extreme Prejudice (1987), Oliver Stone’s U-Turn (1997) and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005).

 

Other notable actors departing in May included the cinema’s longest-serving James Bond, Sir Roger Moore, who died on May 23rd; and English character actor Geoffrey Bayldon, who passed away on May 10th.  Bayldon appeared in British horror films like The House That Dripped Blood (1970), Tales from the Crypt and Asylum (both 1972) but will be remembered by British TV viewers my age for playing a medieval wizard transported by magic to the present day in the children’s fantasy show Catweazle (1970-71).  Meanwhile, the musical world took a hit on May 18th with the death of yet another grunge-band frontman, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell.

 

From Wikipedia

 

Before taking leave of May, we should raise a glass of vodka to the memory of Soviet Air Defence Forces officer Stanislav Petrov, who died on May 19th.  Petrov is credited with saving the world from nuclear destruction in 1983.  Suspicious of an early-warning report about an American missile approaching the USSR, he disobeyed an order to launch a retaliatory strike.  The initial report turned out to be false, the result of a malfunction in the satellite tracking system.  Phew.  Looking at the shitty state of international politics in the early 21st century, I suspect we’ll need a few more people of Stanislav Petrov’s calibre in the years ahead.

 

June 2017 wreaked havoc in the world of children’s TV entertainment.  On June 9th it claimed Adam West, square-jawed star of the campy old Batman TV show (1966-68); on June 19th Brian Cant, narrator of the revered British stop-motion-animation shows Camberwick Green (1966), Trumpton (1967) and Chigley (1969); and on June 5th, the venerable Peter Sallis, who provided the voice for Gromit in Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit quintet.  Sallis also played Norman Clegg in all 295 episodes of the BBC’s seemingly never-ending sitcom Last of the Summer Wine (1973-2010) and appeared in a couple of Hammer horror movies.  I love the fact that he was in both the Hammer film Curse of the Werewolf (1961) and the Wallace and Gromit epic Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005).

 

© Aardman Animations

 

Anita Pallenberg, 1960s icon, actress and muse to the Rolling Stones died on June 13th and Dave Rosser, guitarist with the reformed American alternative-rock band the Afghan Whigs, died on June 27th.  Finally, June 30th saw the passing of Barry Norman, English movie critic and host of the BBC’s long-running Film… review show from 1972 to 1998.  I disagreed with many of Norman’s opinions – he could be annoyingly conservative and prissy in his tastes – but he performed his duties with undeniable wit, charm and aplomb.  And a long time before the Internet, when the UK media didn’t seem particularly interested in films as an artform, his weekly show was an invaluable lifeline for cinephiles like myself.

 

To be continued…  Alas.

 

© BBC

 

TV comic genius 6: Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?

 

© BBC

 

I’ve always wanted to write about the BBC TV sitcom Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads (1973-74) but never got around to it.  However, after the death the other day of Likely Lads star Rodney Bewes, this seemed an appropriate moment to sit down at my computer and ruminate about the show.

 

The work of the excellent screenwriting partnership Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads was not only one of the funniest things broadcast by the BBC during the 1970s, but also one of the most wistful and socially observant.  It was a rarity too in that it was a sequel that was better than the original – for there’d been a previous incarnation of the show, simply entitled The Likely Lads, which ran for twenty episodes and three series from 1964 to 1966.  (Thanks to some idiotic wiping of tapes done in the BBC’s archives, twelve of those twenty episodes have been lost.  But the surviving eight can now be watched on Youtube.)

 

© BBC

 

Filmed in black and white and mostly on studio sets, the original 1960s Likely Lads looks primitive by today’s standards but remains amusing and interesting.  Its first episode begins with two working-class lads from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Bob Ferris (Bewes) and Terry Collier (James Bolam) returning from a holiday in Spain that’s been their first-ever taste of life abroad.  Bob is rhapsodising about the wine, cuisine, stylish clothes and – being a horny lad in his early 20s – exotic ladies he’s encountered.  Terry, though, has spent the holiday guzzling English beer and fish and chips and pursuing ‘English birds’ at the resort.  (He struck it lucky with one ‘Rita from Barrow-on-Furness’.)  Indeed, the first five minutes of the original Likely Lads set the tone of everything that follows.  Both Bob and Terry are working class, but Bob yearns for something more sophisticated than the factory (Ellison’s Electrical) that employs them and the pubs and dancehalls that constitute their social life.  The unreconstructed Terry has no such ambition.  He enjoys life as it is, thank you very much.  Somehow, you get the impression that Terry is going to be the happier one in the long term.

 

By the end of the Likely Lads’ third series, in 1966, Bob is so frustrated with his life in Newcastle that he joins the army, hoping to see more of the world (and, no doubt, to hook up with a few more exotic foreign ladies).  Terry pours scorn on his decision but soon realises he can’t face life at home without his old mate and he enlists too.  In the show’s last minutes, Terry discovers that Bob has just been discharged on account of having flat feet, which means he’ll have to spend the next few years in uniform alone.  It ends with a shot of Terry being whisked off into the distance in the back of an army truck while Bob watches apologetically.  And that’s it until 1973 and the advent of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads.

 

Whatever… begins with Terry finally out of the army and back in Newcastle, where Bob is about to get married to his long-term girlfriend, Thelma.  A character even more socially driven than Bob, Thelma is excellently played by Brigit Forsythe – she portrays her as a hard taskmaster, yes, but not an unlikeable shrew and even gives her a certain sassiness.  Bob has also left the factory and gone on to a better job in a building firm and he’s about to start living in a new, upmarket housing estate where, snorts Terry, “the only thing that tells you apart from your neighbours is the colour of your curtains.”

 

Thus, Bob – now sporting collar-length hair, a kipper tie and a big-lapelled pinstripe suit and looking worryingly like Laurence and Tony in Mike Leigh’s 1977 TV adaptation of Abigail’s Party – seems to have finally achieved his dream.  He’s gone up in the world.

 

© BBC

 

I’ve seen modern-day commentators describe Bob as a symbol of Thatcherism, but that theory doesn’t hold water because Whatever… aired years before Margaret Thatcher came to power.  Rather, Bob has simply been able to take advantage of the social mobility that was accessible to some working-class people at that time.  How long ago that seems now.

 

Predictably, what follows is a comedy of manners as Terry, more boorishly set-in-his-ways than ever, goes crashing about the comfortable middle-class world that Bob and Thelma are trying to build for themselves.  The night before Bob and Thelma’s wedding, for example, Terry’s antics inadvertently land him and his old mate in a police cell.  But things are more complex than that.  Despite Bob’s constant carping about Terry’s old-school attitudes and lack of finesse, he’s obviously not that happy with his new, improved situation.  He often finds middle-class life suffocating and envies Terry’s devil-may-care freedom.  And he doesn’t put up much of a fight whenever Terry tempts him to let his hair down for old times’ sake.

 

Whatever… is also imbued with poignant nostalgia.  By now Bob and Terry are in their thirties, and not only is their youth slipping away – as the world changes, so too are the things and places associated with their youth.  This inspires episodes like Storm in a Tea Chest, where the space-conscious Thelma forces Bob to chuck out all his prized childhood possessions like his scout cap and Rupert the Bear annuals, or The Great Race, where Bob and Terry try to re-enact a boyhood bicycle race from Newcastle to Berwick-on-Tweed near the Scottish Border.  (Both of them end up cheating like hell.)

 

© BBC

 

The show feels special too because it’s set in Newcastle.  Unlike most BBC sitcoms of the 1970s, it doesn’t take place in London or the Home Counties and isn’t full of characters rattling away in posh Received Pronunciation or watered-down TV-Cockney accents.  That said, while Newcastle is visually prominent in the show – which features some location filming, unlikely the studio-bound 1964-66 Likely Lads – it’s not exactly aurally prominent.  Most of the characters don’t speak with genuine Newcastle accents, but with rather generic ‘north-of-England’ ones.  This suggests 1970s British TV executives feared their viewing public weren’t ready to hear the Geordie accent in all its full-on, Viz-comic-style glory.  At least Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais rectified the situation later with their much-loved show Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (1983-84 and 2002-4).

 

Incidentally, Bewes was from the West Riding of Yorkshire, while Bolam was born in Sunderland.  And as any Makem will tell you, Sunderland might be close to Newcastle, but they definitely aren’t the same place.

 

In 1976, two years after Whatever… ended on television, a movie version was released.  The film is a hit-and-miss affair, although by the standards of cinematic spinoffs from British TV sitcoms, which are usually terrible, it’s not bad.  One memorable sequence sees Bob and Terry go for a final pint in their favourite boozer before it gets torn down by the developers.  The whole neighbourhood around it is being flattened too and they have to trudge across a near-apocalyptic wasteland to get to the pub.  The movie also contains the great lines: “In the chocolate box of life, the top layer’s already gone… And someone’s pinched the orange cream from the bottom”; and “I’d offer you a beer, but I’ve only got six cans.”  Guess which line was said by Bob and which by Terry.

 

© BBC

 

In subsequent decades, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais talked about reviving the series again with Bob and Terry now middle-aged.  They’d even worked out a scenario for a new show whereby Terry, through a lottery-win or a big compensation pay-out, has become stinking rich; whereas poor old Bob has gone bankrupt and is on the breadline.  However, James Bolam was unwilling to play Terry again and the idea never came to fruition.  (Since the 1970s, rumours have abounded about Bolam and Bewes being locked in a bitter feud.  However, in the wake of Bewes’ death, Bolam has denied that this was ever the case.)

 

Post-Likely Lads, Rodney Bewes concentrated on theatrical work and during the 1990s performed one-man stage versions of George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody (1892) and Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (1889), both of which he brought to the Edinburgh Festival.  In the late 1990s I was living in Edinburgh and during one festival I got into the habit of having lunch in a bar-restaurant downstairs from a venue where Bewes performed every morning.  A couple of times he materialised on a bar-stool a yard or two along the counter from me, where he’d sign autographs for and chat to people who’d just been to his show.  I couldn’t believe the number of people who asked him how Terry and Thelma were getting on – who seemingly didn’t grasp that this was Rodney Bewes, not Bob Ferris, sitting in front of them.

 

Then again, The Likely Lads and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads addressed themes that are significant for all of us: the frustrations of trying and failing to have fun when you’re young and, when you’re older, the frustrations of feeling stuck in a rut while the world changes mercilessly around you.  No wonder some folk confused the onscreen illusion with reality.

 

© BBC

 

Lynch mob

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

I’ve now spent a week trying to digest the third season of Twin Peaks, which ended its eighteen-episode run on September 3rd.

 

It would be an understatement to call this third season long-awaited.  Fans of Twin Peaks, the always oddball, sometimes barmy, occasionally confounding TV crime series (when it wasn’t being a soap opera, or comedy, or horror story, or science-fiction drama) have spent a quarter-century desperately waiting for it.  Twin Peaks originally aired in 1990 and 1991, created by David Lynch and Mark Frost and sporadically directed by Lynch.  For this 2017 revival, Lynch directed all the episodes himself.

 

One phrase that’s appeared in many reviews of Twin Peaks 3 has been “like nothing else on television.”  And for once I find myself in agreement with the critics.  This new season has been different from anything else you’ve seen on your TV or are likely to see on it – except, perhaps, when that TV is showing a movie by David Lynch.

 

Here is a list of reasons why Twin Peaks 3 has been so remarkable.  If you haven’t seen the show, I should warn you that many spoilers lie ahead.  Mind you, if you haven’t seen it, you also won’t understand a word I’m talking about.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

The Evolution of the Arm

Part of the weird flora and fauna of the Black Lodge – the Twin Peaks netherworld – the Evolution of the Arm is a tree that crackles with electricity, has a talking brain-like bulb at the top and barks unilluminating things like “253, time and time again!” and “Non-existent!” at Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), who’s trapped in the Lodge.  Later, after Coop returns to the human world, the Arm sprouts up from a pavement to help him fight off diminutive assassin Ike the Spike (Christophe Zajac-Denek) and gives more coherent advice: “Squeeze his hand off!  Squeeze his hand off!”

 

The thing in the glass box

In an early indication that Twin Peaks 3 was going to be less cosy than the original TV series – and closer to the visceral tone of the movie-cum-prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) – the first two episodes feature a strange experiment involving a big glass box and a mass of surveillance equipment that eventually conjures up a phantom thing.  Unfortunately for the guy monitoring the experiment – who’s inopportunely chosen this moment to have it off with his girlfriend – the thing is apparently equipped with kitchen-blender fingers.  It proceeds to reduce their heads to bloody confetti.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

The giant tin can in space

Episode three sees Coop out of the Black Lodge and in pursuit of his evil doppelganger, Bad Coop, who’s back on earth.  But it begins with a phantasmagorical, dialogue-free twenty-minute sequence where he ends up in what appears to be a giant tin can floating through space.  Crewing the tin can is a strange Asian lady who doesn’t have any eyes; and later someone called the American Girl, played by Phoebe Augustine, who was Ronette Pulanski in the original series.  The Girl holds up her watch to show it’s 2:53, which sheds light – not a lot of light, admittedly – on that statement by the Evolution of the Arm.

 

Mr Jackpots

It transpires that there’s a third version of Coop on the go, Dougie Jones, who’s a replica created by Bad Coop (presumably as a decoy to throw people off his scent).  Good Coop replaces Dougie when he arrives back on earth and the replacement process is so traumatic that Coop / Dougie subsequently spends several episodes with his brain practically wiped clean.  The scene where he shambles into a casino and, thanks to some lingering Black Lodge voodoo, wins jackpot after jackpot on the fruit machines whilst shouting the one word of human language he’s retained – “Hellooo!” – is hilarious.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

Deputy Hawk and the Log Lady

In a season where most of the old Twin Peaks cast seem embittered, enfeebled or unhinged, the still wise and resolute Deputy Hawk (Michael Horse) is a reassuring presence.  It’s fitting that Lynch and Frost use him in the scenes featuring actress Catherine Coulson, who passed away early in the season’s production.  As the ailing Margaret Lanterman, aka the Log Lady, she phones him several times to relay some last messages from her trusty log.  Hawk’s words at the end of their final conversation – a simple “Goodbye, Margaret” – are quietly heart-breaking.

 

Dr Jacoby’s shovels

Dr Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn) is now a shock jock broadcasting nightly rants from his caravan to an audience of, well, two – crazy one-eyed Nadine Hurley (Wendy Robey) and permanently-stoned Jerry Horne (David Patrick Kelly).  When not ranting, Jacoby advertises gold-painted shovels which can be yours for $29.99 and are ideal for shovelling yourself “out of the shit and into the truth.”

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

Janey-E

Janey-E is the wife of Dougie Jones.  Amusingly, when Good Coop replaces Dougie and becomes catatonic, Janey-E – played by the marvellous Naomi Watts – seems not to notice anything wrong with her husband.  Or she simply turns a blind to eye to it, since the almost-magical aura of goodness surrounding Coop and the powers of the Black Lodge cause money to pour into her household for the first time ever.  And unlike virtually everyone else, she gets closure at the end of Twin Peaks 3 because Good Coop thoughtfully makes another copy of himself and sends him to be Janey-E’s beau for good.

 

The Mitchum Brothers and Candie, Mandie and Sandie

Good Coop’s superhuman decency also manages to rub off on brutal / comical mobsters Bradley and Rodney Mitchum (Robert Knepper and Jim Belushi).  The casino-owning pair start off wanting to murder his ass – see ‘Mr Jackpots’ above – but end up totally enamoured with him, treating him like their long-lost third brother.  Further hilarity is provided by their trio of pink-clad molls Candie, Mandie and Sandie, who are always on hand – even after a holocaustic face-off between good and evil – to serve up platters of expensive finger-food.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

The Nine Inch Nails

As a diversion from the narrative weirdness, Lynch and Frost have the Roadhouse, the bar / concert venue in the town of Twin Peaks, host a musical act late in every episode.  Given its remote location, the place attracts some unfeasibly big names: Julee Cruise, the Cactus Blossoms, Rebekah Del Rio (who has Moby on guitar) and one Edward Louis Severson – Eddie Vedder to you and me.  Best of all is the performance in Episode 8 by fearsome electro-metal juggernaut Nine Inch Nails, who are introduced by the MC as the Nine Inch Nails, no less.

 

The puking zombie car-passenger

Deputy Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) tries to calm a hysterical woman at the wheel of a stalled car and a convulsing, vomiting zombie-like creature slowly rises out of the seat beside her.  This is never explained and never referred to again.  A perfect Lynchian moment in other words.

 

Harry Dean Stanton sings

Well, he does.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

David Bowie is now a teapot

Yes.  David Bowie is now a teapot.  Those are six words I never thought I’d find myself writing.

 

Wally Brando

Modelling himself on Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953), the motorbiking, leather-clad and free-spirited Wally Brando (Michael Cera) is the offspring of lovable dolts Andy and Lucy Brennan (Harry Goaz and Kimmy Robertson).  Wally’s utterances about life on the road are not as profound as he thinks they are.  “My shadow is always with me.  Sometimes ahead.  Sometimes behind.  Sometimes to the left.  Sometimes to the right.  Except on cloudy days.  And at night.”

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

Audrey’s dance

Once young and sultry, now middle-aged and deeply unhappy, Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) is glimpsed in several episodes pleading with her strange husband to be taken to the Roadhouse.  When they finally get there, in Episode 16, there’s a sublimely eerie scene where the crowd clears from the floor, an orchestra break into the spooky Audrey’s Dance from the original series and Audrey, appropriately, starts dancing to it…  What happens next is, shall we say, mysterious.

 

Freddie versus Bob

Only in Twin Peaks could you see a cataclysmic battle between good and evil where a Cockney ragamuffin called Freddie (Jake Wardle), wearing a strength-enhancing green gardening glove, has a slugfest with a giant bubble containing the demonic spirit of Killer Bob (Frank Silva).  It’s not exactly Thor versus Loki or Superman versus General Zod.  But that’s probably the point.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

The long bits where nothing much happens

Whole minutes pass while Good Coop / Dougie does nothing but draw ladders and zigzags on a sheet of paper…  Or while a Roadhouse staff-member does nothing but sweep the floor…  Or while Dr Jacoby does nothing but spray-paint his shovels.  In this modern era where everything on film and TV has to move fast, where narratives have to be urgent, where audiences’ attention spans are assumed to be tiny, this seems like heresy.  But in fact, it feels oddly soothing.

 

The final episode

I had a suspicion that Twin Peaks 3 was going to end on a downer and, yip, Lynch and Frost rose – or descended – to the occasion.  I didn’t massively enjoy the way it finished, with Coop going back in time to right the original terrible wrong at the heart of the Twin Peaks universe and prevent the killing of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), only to find himself trapped with an older, careworn and apparently murderous version of Laura in some chilly alternative universe where people aren’t who they’re supposed to be.  But with its air of existential sadness and clammy menace, I certainly won’t forget it for a long time.  Another result for David Lynch, then.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

No call to get snippy with Fargo

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

If I had one problem with Fargo (1996), the crime / thriller / comedy / drama movie written, produced and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, it was that it was over too soon.  Fargo creates a strange, mesmerizing world that’s set amid the white winter wastes of North Dakota and Minnesota and that rings with the music of the inhabitants’ whimsical speech patterns (“Yah, you betcha!”).  It’s a bleak and cruel world where a hapless shmuck with no aptitude for criminality (William H. Macy) tries his hand at criminality anyway and gets mercilessly punished for it, with bad luck and his own incompetence landing him in an ever-deepening morass of violence and bloodshed.  But it’s simultaneously a cozy and life-affirming world where the whole vicious mess is sorted out by a resourceful and heavily pregnant policewoman (Francis McDormand) whose most aggressive line is a schoolmarm-ish “You’ve no call to get snippy with me!”

 

I found Fargo’s world so captivating that I felt disappointed when after 98 minutes it ended – though admittedly it ended spectacularly, with Steve Buscemi being force-fed into a wood-chipping machine.

 

When it was announced a few years ago that author, screenwriter and producer Noah Hawley was masterminding a ten-episode, ten-hour TV version of Fargo, I should’ve been pleased at the prospect of getting six times the dose of Fargo-the-movie.  But I felt wary.  For one thing, I thought, surely even the best TV programme-maker in the world would struggle to capture the peculiar spirit of a Coen Brothers movie.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

And I had mixed feelings when I watched the first episodes of the first season of Fargo in 2014.  It was enjoyable, yes, but I was dissatisfied at how it took key character-types from the movie – the bungling loser becoming a criminal (Martin Freeman instead of Macy), the shrewd but gentle-natured police-lady (Allison Tolman instead of McDormand) – and simply tweaked their situations a bit.  Hence, Freeman goes through the same vortex of panic and misery that Macy goes through, but unlike his movie counterpart he apparently emerges from it stronger and richer; while Tolman isn’t pregnant, but the wife of one of her police colleagues is.  The show wasn’t a carbon-copy of the original, then, but it felt like a considerable imitation.

 

However, what makes a difference in season one of Fargo, from the off, is Billy Bob Thornton’s performance as Lorne Malvo.  A fearsome hitman, Malvo doesn’t just kill folk.  He also enjoys manipulating and corrupting people whom he comes across, as he does early on with Lester Nygaard, Freeman’s character.  It’s no surprise when at one point he mentions himself being in the Garden of Eden.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

In fact, after a few episodes Fargo season one seemed to escape from the shadow of its cinematic predecessor.  It became unafraid to take risks and do its own thing and generally grew more confident and rewarding.  I particularly liked how in episode 8 it suddenly hopped forward a year or so from its original setting of 2006 and the characters and their circumstances were suddenly transformed – Tolman’s character, Molly, becoming a wife and expectant mother, Lester Nygaard ceasing to be a sniveling weasel and morphing into a successful salesman who seems to have it made.  Though inevitably, fate intervenes when Nygaard pops off to a Las Vegas awards ceremony to pick up a prize and inadvertently crosses paths with Malvo again.

 

Fargo season one became pretty good, then, but it was never perfect.  As the cringing Nygaard, Freeman met the bill physically but faltered somewhat with the Minnesota accent.  Also, the script’s fondness for introducing character duos – not only a pair of other hitmen called Mr Wrench and Mr Numbers, but also a pair of bumbling FBI agents called Agent Pepper and Agent Budge – made me wonder what other duos might appear before the show was over.  Maybe Mr Kidd and Mr Wint from Diamonds are Forever (1971)?

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

Season one was boosted by the presence of Keith Carradine in the role of Lou, Molly’s dad and a former policeman.  In one scene, he describes a violent case he experienced in 1979 where there were dead bodies “one after another… probably if you stacked ’em high, you could’ve climbed to the second floor.”  Fargo season two, shown in 2015, tells the story of that case with Patrick Wilson playing a younger version of Lou.  The reason for the multitude of corpses is that 1979 sees gang warfare break out in North Dakota, triggered when the Kansas City syndicate decides to muscle in on a gangster family who’ve been running Fargo city’s underworld for generations.  In a typical twist, these gangsters aren’t Italian in origin but German.  They’re the Gerhardts, fond of eating schnitzel and reminiscing about their forefathers’ exploits on the losing side in World War I.

 

The Gerhardts contain wise heads (Jean Smart, Angus Sampson) and less wise heads (Jeffrey Donovan, Kieran Culkan), though predictably it’s the less wise heads who have the biggest influence on events and bullets are soon flying.  Complicating the situation is a giddy beautician called Peggy, played by Kirsten Dunst – this season’s variation on the hapless-schmuck-getting-mired-in-criminality-and-chaos.  She accidentally smashes her car into a key member of the Gerhardt family one night and instead of driving to the nearest hospital drives home with his bloodied body still sprawled across the bonnet.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

While the first season poked fun at the American Dream, thanks to Lester Nygaard going from zero to hero in his profession after he’s murdered one person and been an accomplice in the murder of a couple of others, season two is explicit in its satirical target.  It’s set at the dawn of the Reagan era, when big corporate businesses got carte blanche to stomp the life out of their smaller competitors, something symbolized by the unequal battle between the Kansas City syndicate and Fargo’s Gerhardts.  Underlining the satire is an appearance in episode 5 by the soon-to-be president Ronald Reagan (played by Bruce Campbell – yay!) who’s campaigning in the neighbourhood.  Lou, who’s a Vietnam veteran, is assigned to Reagan’s security detail and the pair of them start chatting and swapping war memories, though Lou soon realizes that his befuddled charge is talking about the war movies he made as an actor.

 

While the ruthless, corporate way the world is heading sounds the death-knell for the Gerhardts, Fargo season two is not without optimism.  Hope for the future is embodied in Lou’s family unit – his ailing but loving wife (Cristin Milioti), his kindly father-in-law (Ted Danson) and his little daughter, whom we know will grow up to be the heroine of season one.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

Fargo’s second season is splendid television – as good as Hannibal (2013-15), True Detective (2014-15) or anything else I’ve seen in recent years.  It’s not, I should say, a straightforward gangster thriller because it’s peppered with strange Coen-esque moments.  Along the way we’re treated to black-and-white clips from fictional Ronald Reagan movies and – in a nod to that late-1970s blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – a giant UFO that appears at crucial moments in the plot.  If you love the whacked-out whimsy of the Coen-verse, as I do, you’ll find the visitations of this UFO delightful.  If you don’t, you may feel like putting your foot through your TV set.

 

Season three of Fargo aired earlier this year and I’ve just finished watching a box-set of it.  Obviously, it had a lot to live up to.  Noah Hawley bravely doesn’t try to emulate the slap-bang action of the previous season and dials things down – even when mass bloodshed occurs in season three, it largely does so offscreen.  The result is a lower-key variation on the Fargo formula, with more bleakness and ambiguity and a suggestion that even the very best characters may not be living happily ever after.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

Set in 2010, the third season starts with two business partners, Emmit (Ewan McGregor, whose Minnesota accent is more convincing than Martin Freeman’s) and Sy (Michael Stuhlbarg), discovering that the contract they signed with a shady company that lent them money and bailed them out during the economic crisis two years earlier has some troubling small-print.  One day, an emissary from the shady company called V.M. Varga (David Thewlis) turns up out of the blue and informs them that he’s their new partner.  He’ll be making changes to their operations and expanding them into some new and unorthodox areas.

 

Emmit also has to deal with his brother Ray, who’s played too by McGregor.  Jacob-and-Esau-style, Ray blames Emmit for cheating him out of his birthright (a collection of valuable stamps) and dooming him to a deadbeat existence as a parole officer.   Ray is urged on in this sibling quarrel by his girlfriend Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an ex-felon who’s actually one of his parolees.  When the embittered Ray blackmails another of his parolees into burgling Emmit’s house for him, we enter that now-familiar Fargo territory where Things Start to Go Wrong.

 

There are some hilarious early scenes where Emmit and Sy watch helplessly while their company is taken over by the mysterious but clearly criminal Varga – whom Thewlis basically plays as the devil, though a devil with the manner of a world-weary, disheveled schoolmaster who’s constantly having to explain things in very simple terms to very stupid schoolchildren.  But the humour rapidly sours.  Although they’re a pair of self-satisfied and not-very-bright shysters, neither Emmit nor Sy are that bad and neither of them deserve the tribulations that are soon visited upon them, Job-like.  Sy, a Coen-esque character with the demeanor (and effectiveness) of an angry chihuahua, is touchingly loyal to Emmit and you feel quite upset at his eventual fate.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

Similar ambiguity exists elsewhere.  Ray is an oaf whose petulant actions result in misery and death, but he at least shows genuine love for Nikki.  Meanwhile, Nikki is capable of resorting to murder to have her way, but when Varga gets forcefully involved in the Ray-Emmit feud and she declares war against him – she even enlists the help of the hitman Mr Wrench from season one – we find ourselves cheering her on.

 

Representing the forces of goodness this time is Carrie Coon as police chief Gloria Burgle.  Compared with Alison Tolman and Patrick Wilson in the previous seasons, she has a smaller support base – a 13-year-old son and a policewoman buddy (Olivia Sandoval) and that’s about it.  Her husband has left her and her stepfather is dead before the end of episode one.  And what she’s up against is frightening.  While the Kansas City syndicate in season two represented big business, Thewlis’s Varga, a man apparently without identity or history but able to commandeer computers and the Internet to do whatever he wants, is symbolic of the vast, practically-omnipotent multinationals that exist today and are richer and more powerful than most countries.

 

Hawley pushes the envelope with season three.  One episode contains animated segments involving a wandering robot – Gloria discovers that her late stepfather once wrote science-fiction stories under another name, belatedly reads one of his novels and visualises its plot in cartoon form.  At other points, the show approaches the supernatural weirdness of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990-91, 2017) with Ray Wise (who was in Twin Peaks) turning up as a character who might be God to David Thewlis’s devil.  In this morally-unstable universe, however, God’s appearances are less frequent and consistent than those of his adversary.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

The early episodes of Fargo season three suffer from pacing problems, when more could be happening and happening more quickly.  But it does build to a suspenseful climax and the scene where Gloria and Varga finally come face to face is quietly brilliant.  It’s not as great as season two, but it’s great in parts.

 

And near the end of the final episode, after so many hours of Fargo-related TV, when Jeff Russo’s melancholic but majestic theme music swirled up on the soundtrack, do you know what?  I thought, shit.  It’s still over too soon.

 

Britain’s number-two pub argument settled

 

From camannwordsmith.com

 

Tom Baker.

 

There.  That’s conclusively settled an argument that flares up regularly in pubs the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, especially after the participants have sunk a few pints.  And after they’ve had their first big argument, about who is the best James Bond.  (I sorted that one out a few months ago.  It’s Sean Connery.  See here: http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6620.)

 

The argument this time, of course, is: who is the best Doctor Who?  Incidentally, I suspect it’s been raging a lot lately, stoked up by news that the most recent incumbent in the role, Peter Capaldi, has decided to call it a day and the BBC have started looking for a replacement to play the much-loved TV Time Lord.

 

It’s a tricky question.  There are essentially three types of Doctor: the crazy, eccentric ones (Patrick Troughton, Tom Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Matt Smith), the stern, grumpy ones (William Hartnell, Jon Pertwee, Colin Baker, Christopher Eccleston, John Hurt, Capaldi) and the swoon-some pretty-boy ones (Peter Davison, Paul McGann, David Tennant).  And as people are naturally inclined towards one of the three groups, the crazy, the stern or the swoon-some, it’s difficult to judge all 13 contenders without bias.

 

Anyway, here’s my ranking of the actors who’ve played Doctor Who, from best to worst.  This is strictly an official list and I’ve avoided folk who’ve played the Doctor in projects outside the TV-show canon like Peter Cushing, Trevor Martin, Richard E. Grant, David Warner, Geoffrey Bayldon and Rowan Atkinson.

 

In descending order, we have:

 

Tom Baker

Matt Smith

Jon Pertwee

Patrick Troughton

Peter Capaldi

John Hurt

Christopher Eccleston

William Hartnell

Colin Baker

Paul McGann

Sylvester McCoy

David Tennant

Peter Davison

 

© BBC

 

To be honest, in my opinion, anyone who doesn’t think that Tom Baker is the best Doctor Who needs his or her head examined.  He came crashing into the series in 1975, with his mellifluous voice, wide eyes, curly hair, toothy grin, wide-brimmed hat and super-long scarf, and made the role his own.  When The Simpsons do a Doctor Who gag these days, it invariably features Baker’s fourth Doctor.  And when the show celebrated its 50th anniversary in November 2013 with a feature-length episode called Day of the Doctor, it was Baker who appeared as the show’s sole representative from the old days.  Actually, there was no way they could not have got the mighty Tom involved in the show’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

 

© BBC

 

Number two in my list is the second-most-recent Doctor, Matt Smith.  I have to say that back in 2009, when it was announced that Matt Smith would take the role over from David Tennant, my expectations weren’t high.  Largely this was because Smith was only 26 years old at the time, which seemed ridiculously young for any actor attempting to play the Doctor.  However, I was pleasantly surprised because I thought Matt Smith’s Doctor was delightful.  He managed to be endearingly clumsy and child-like, yet also serene and wise; compassionate and yet plausibly alien.  Smith’s unusual physique, with a face that looked like it’d been chiselled by an Easter Island stonemason, helped greatly.

 

The third actor in the list is also the third actor to play the Doctor chronologically, Jon Pertwee.  Among Who fans today Pertwee is a divisive figure.  His detractors accuse him of turning the cerebral and pacifistic Doctor into a swanky action hero.  He attired himself flamboyantly in a velvet smoking jacket, frilly shirt and cape.  He had a Jeremy Clarkson-like predilection for driving fast, if vintage, motor cars.  And he had no qualms about thumping anyone who antagonised him – which was Jeremy Clarkson-like too, come to think of it.

 

To those allegations I can only reply, who cares?  When I was a kid during Pertwee’s tenure in the early 1970s, his impact was immense.  For me and my school-mates and probably everyone else in Britain under the age of the twelve at the time, he was the Greatest Bloke in the Universe.  Not only was he unafraid of alien monsters, but he karate-chopped the bastards – wow!  (Though technically speaking, the martial art he was adept in was really an alien one called Vensuvian Aikido.)

 

He was also equipped with marvellous eyebrows that became prominent at the point in each serial when the latest, hideous alien monster revealed itself.  Pertwee would customarily respond to it with a splendid reaction shot, eyebrows climbing off the top of his forehead.  Like so:

 

© BBC

 

Next comes Patrick Troughton, who as well as being the much-admired second Doctor was also a long-serving character actor, often in British horror films like The Curse of Frankenstein (1956), The Phantom of the Opera (1963), The Black Torment (1964), Scars of Dracula (1970), Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973) and The Omen (1976).  In that last one he played a priest who got skewered by a lightning rod falling off a church, a moment that still chills me.  Movies where Doctor Who gets killed I always find hard-core.

 

Troughton’s Doctor was impish and dishevelled, part hobo and part hippy, with a fleeting resemblance to Mo in the Three Stooges.  His influence on subsequent doctors (especially Matt Smith) has been considerable and it’s just a pity that many of the episodes featuring him have been lost.  Before 1978 the BBC had no policy about archiving the tapes of its old shows and as a result they wiped much of the early Doctor Who.  Stupid sods.

 

Then we have the current but soon-to-depart Doctor, Glaswegian Peter Capaldi.  At first I struggled to accept Capaldi in the role.  His abrasively Scottish take on it put me in mind of Malcolm Tucker, the ferocious and spectacularly foul-mouthed spin doctor he played in the satirical comedy show The Thick of It (2005-2012).  Indeed, it was difficult to think of him as anyone other than Tucker.  However, in 2015, I saw him give a tour-de-force performance in an episode called Heaven Sent.  It was so good it finally purged me of all memories of psychotic profanity-spewing Caledonian spin doctors.  And on the strength of that I’ve bumped him up to number five in the list.

 

© BBC

 

Long-term fans of the show often grump about how the modern, revived version of it has cast younger actors in the title role.  But Nu-Who, as it’s nicknamed, has actually featured two older Doctors: the 58-year-old Capaldi and my sixth-favourite Doctor, John Hurt, who alas passed away last month at the age of 77.  In 2013 he turned up as a surprise version of the character called the War Doctor whom nobody had known about.  Until then, the Doctor had kept this incarnation of himself secret because the War Doctor had done something very un-Doctorly.  He’d saved the universe by ending the most cataclysmic war it’d ever known, between the Daleks and Time Lords – but in doing so he’d had to commit genocide and wipe both the Daleks and Time Lords out.  As well as being a bad-ass Doctor, Hurt, who appeared in 2013’s Day of the Doctor alongside Matt Smith and David Tenant, was amusingly curmudgeonly and he kept berating the modern Doctors Smith and Tenant for being young, silly, flirty and frivolous.  In other words, writer / showrunner Stephen Moffat made Hurt the mouthpiece of all those grumpy long-term Doctor Who fans.

 

© BBC

 

The next-best Doctors, in my view, are the two who kick-started the show in its modern and original forms: Christopher Eccleston, who took on the role when the series was revived in 2005; and the venerable William Hartnell, who played the Doctor when it debuted in 1963.  Dour, northern, working class, basically the Ken Loach Doctor, Eccleston gave the character some much-needed street cred and it’s a pity he didn’t remain with the show for more than one season.  That said, he never looked comfortable with the comedic elements of his scripts.

 

Hartnell’s Doctor was starchy, cranky, patriarchal and hard to like.  Yet there are moments from his grainy black-and-white tenure, such as the farewell speech he gives to his granddaughter Susan – “Yes, I shall come back.  Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties.  Just go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine” – that still raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

 

© BBC

 

And now it’s time to take a deep breath.  For I’ve put Colin Baker at number nine in the list, and not last at number thirteen as most people would – just as George Lazenby regularly finishes last in lists of favourite James Bonds.  I’ve always felt the second Baker, and sixth Doctor, had an unfair rap.  When he arrived in the mid-1980s he had some dire scripts to contend with, but those weren’t his fault; and he deserved credit for trying to steer the character back to the irascible one played by William Hartnell.  Unfortunately, for many fans, Colin Baker’s Doctor was a non-starter because of his costume.  For some unfathomable reason the then-producer, John Nathan-Turner, decided to tog him out in an awesomely repulsive multi-coloured coat – probably the worst decision in the show’s history.  Adding insult to injury, poor old Baker then had to suffer the fallout of the second-worst decision in its history, again made by Nathan-Turner, which was casting the ghastly Bonnie Langford as his travelling companion.

 

© BBC

 

Next comes Paul McGann, who played an agreeably Byronic Doctor.  Alas, with only two appearances in the official show – the lame 1996 TV movie that tried to relaunch the series for an American audience, and the 2013 ‘minisode’ Night of the Doctor, a taster for Day of the Doctor, which showed how McGann’s eighth Doctor turned into Hurt’s War Doctor – he didn’t get much chance to make an impression.

 

After McGann comes his predecessor in the role, Sylvester McCoy.  I like McCoy as an actor, but his efforts with Doctor Who in the late 1980s were scuppered by the scripts he got, which were the show’s worst ever.  Indeed, it was around then that I gave up hope and stopped watching it.

 

And now many female Doctor Who fans will shriek in horror because at a lowly twelfth place in my list I’ve put… the gorgeous David Tennant!  Yes, I know that when Tennant played the Doctor the show reached levels of popularity it’d never reached before (and probably won’t ever reach again).  Not only did he have every teenaged girl in Britain tuning in to watch, but he probably had all their mums tuning in too.  But I found much of Tennant’s portrayal annoying – not just the lovey-dovey stuff that he indulged in with his travelling companion Billie Piper (and seemingly with the main female guest star in every other episode), but also the self-pitying whininess that increased the longer he was in the role.  No wonder cynical fans started referring to him as ‘Doctor Emo’.  It’s telling how the episodes of the show that got most acclaim during his reign were the ones he was hardly in (Blink) or the ones where he played the Doctor out of his usual character (Human Nature and The Waters of Mars).

 

© BBC

 

In bottom place I have Peter Davison, the fifth, early-1980s Doctor, whom I just found young, bland and ineffectual.  At the time he was best known for playing Tristan Farnon, one of the vets in the wholesome Sunday-evening drama All Creatures Great and Small, and once he stepped into the Doctor’s shoes he sneeringly became known as ‘the Vet in Space’.   No offence to Davison – I’ve seen him, middle-aged, in more recent shows like The Last Detective (2003-2007) and Matt Berry’s hilarious Toast of London (2012-present), and thought he was good.  Back then, though, Davison was simply too young to give the role much gravity.

 

And there ends my ranking of the 13 Doctors, which has been scrupulously fair and unbiased.  Even if I did stick all the pretty-boy ones at the bottom.